This is part two of a series focusing on the 2011 Oz MLB Players to watch. Today is a focus on some young up-and-comers in the lower levels of minor league ball.
MATT KENNELLY - C - PERTH HEAT/ATLANTA BRAVES
Matt Kennelly is coming off a red hot season for the Perth Heat. He appeared in all 40 regular season games and hit for an average of .306, with nine doubles, two homeruns and 24 RBIs. At the age of 22, Matt has played four seasons of minor league baseball with the Atlanta Braves organisation, culminating in a solid 2010 season for the Myrtle Beach Pelicans, in which he hit seven home runs. He has been rewarded for his success over the past year, and started the season at the Double-A Mississippi Braves.
Bank in 2009, Baseball America rated Kennelly in the top 30 Braves prospects. His 2009 and 2010 seasons were solid, but not stellar. At just 22 years of age, he is still young enough to develop further. Expect him to hit the ground running at Double-A, and continue to improve his game. He has had a chance to play a couple of games in AAA already, and has not disgraced himself (.286 avg with a double and RBI), and will look to get some more time in AAA this year.
JOSH SPENCE - LHP - MELBOURNE ACES/SAN DIEGO PADRES
In June 2010, Geelong-born Josh Spence was picked up as a 9th round draft pick by the San Diego Padres. He battled some issues with an inflamed nerve in his elbow through 2010, and while he didn't require surgery, he did spend some time away from the mound.
Spence has won quite a few accolades through the College system, after originally learning about the Arizone State University program on the internet and successfully trying out for the team. He started out playing ball in junior college, and he dominated. Through 2007 and 2008, Spence posted an ERA of 1.40, and struck out 327 hitters over 270 innings, with a remarkable WHIP of 0.88.
In 2009, Spence moved to Arizona State, and again put up some serious numbers - although not without overcoming a few obstacles. He was struck in the face by a line drive, and also suffered a finger injury. In the end he compiled a 10-1 record over 18 appearances, with an ERA of 2.37. He went on to pick up a win in the College World Series, striking out 16 hitters over 14 innings of work.
Spence earned a lot of respect in Arizona, with Arizona coach Pat Murphy remarking that 'the most important thing about Spence is that in my 22 years in Division 1 baseball, he's possibly the most special kid I've ever been around...he's delightful, sensitive, caring, an extraordinary teammate and he comes over and plays with my son. It just seems like sometimes this kid is too good to be true. He's the type of guy I'm going to get emotional about when he finally leaves campus'.
After signing with the Padres in mid-2010, Spence appeared in 10 games through Rookie ball up to Class A. He compiled a record of 2-2, with an ERA of 3.00, and 42 strikeouts in 24 innings.
Spence proved himself good enough to kick off the season in double-A with the San Antonio Missions, and he is off to a solid start - he has given up two home runs, but has also picked up ten strikeouts over eight innings, allowing just three earned runs. Spence has shown that he has real quality stuff through his college career, and is well placed to have a big year.
STEFAN WELCH - 1B - ADELAIDE BITE/NEW YORK METS
Stefan Welch has played four seasons in the Mets minor league organisation, and played high-A ball through the end of 2009 and through 2010 at the St Lucie Mets.
Running off the back of a strong end to the ABL season - he went 4-for-11 (.363) in the ABL Championship series, with two doubles and a home run - Welch will be keen to carry some momentum into the US summer.
Welch has predominantly played first base in his time in the US, but showed some versatility in the ABL - spending most of his time at third base. He will be looking to expand his power hitting and earn a spot at the double-A Binghamton Mets.
Welch is off to a flyer through the first couple of weeks of the season - having started with the high-A St Lucie Mets. He has whacked six doubles, a triple and a home run through his first 20 games, and is hitting .284 with 13 RBIs.
RORY RHODES - 3B/1B - BRISBANE BANDITS/MINNESOTA TWINS
He's a 19-year old kid from Narangba, Queensland, and he has one of the most American-sounding names going around, but Rory Rhodes is a fair dinkum Aussie prospect with the Minnesota Twins.
Signed at the age of 17 in 2008, Rhodes is yet another Aussie following the path to the bigs through the Twins organisation. In his first season of Rookie ball he found it a little tough, hitting just .198 with 28 strikeouts in 116 at bats, but he improved significantly in 2010. In his second year, Rhodes hit .319 and improved his strikeout numbers.
He is yet to hit a homerun, but at the age of 19 he has plenty of growing to do, and plenty of time to find some power - he did find some more power in the ABL - cracking five homeruns while hitting .279. A recent poll conducted by the Twinkie Town blog found Rhodes as Minnesota's number 50 prospect, and predicted a breakout year in 2011.
BOSS MOANAROA - 1B - SYDNEY BLUE SOX/BOSTON RED SOX
In 2008 Boss Moanaroa had seriously thought about quitting the game of baseball. 'I lost interest in playing baseball and wanted to focus on BMX racing. I was a state champion, national champion and went to the world titles' he said. He didn't quit though, he decided to continue working hard, and it paid dividends when he signed a contract with the Boston Red Sox.
Boss Moanaroa in 2008
At the time he was signed, Red Sox scout and Australian coach Jon Deeble noted that Boss was big and strong, but had 'never lifted a weight in his life'.
Nearly three years on, and Boss has two seasons of Rookie ball, and a strong half-season in the ABL, under his belt. And it seems Moanaroa is getting bigger and stronger.
Boss is an exciting hitter to watch - he has a strong plate presence and is the sort of hitter that always seems on the edge of making something happen. He was a strong performer for the Sydney Blue Sox early in the season, and they missed his bat later in the year.
In two years of Rookie ball, Boss is hitting .281/.367/.366, and he picked up a couple of homeruns in 2010. He will be looking to develop some stronger power numbers, both in terms of extra base hits and RBIs over the next year.
ESPN says Boss is 'essentially a raw athlete with a lottery-ticket chance of developing into an impact major leaguer'. While these are not exactly encouraging words, Boss is someone who shows a lot of potential. He is expected to start the season at the class A Lowell Spinners.