Shelton and Howard - 2 emerging stars

Shelton is impressing many in Arizona

Chris Shelton and Ryan Howard are taking different paths, but they're hoping for similar results. The two are the big stars of the Arizona Fall League and shared the Player of the Week honors for the first week of the AFL season. Both had abbreviated chances in the majors in 2004 and are looking for more time and to make a bigger impact in 2005.

Chris Shelton and Ryan Howard were looked at very differently on draft day of 2001. When the fifth round had ended, the Phillies snapped up the slugging Howard and started dreaming of what he could do for them. For Shelton, the call didn't come until day two – the 33rd round – when the Pirates grabbed him.

For Howard, the real start to his notoriety came in 2004. After strong seasons in rookie ball and both high and low A ball, Howard continued to move up the ladder in 2004, landing at AA Reading. Many times, AA separates the men from the boys so to speak and Howard showed that he was up to the challenge.

Ryan Howard had a huge year down on the farm for the Phillies.
Not only did Howard put up impressive numbers, he shattered homerun records. Greg Luzinski's record for home runs in a season by a Reading Phillie fell by the wayside. Howard wasn't just hitting home runs, he was hitting monster home runs. One of his shots cleared the scoreboard in left-center field at Reading's FirstEnergy Stadium. Pretty impressive for a left-handed hitter; So impressive, that it had never been done before. Even most right-handed hitters failed in their attempts to clear the huge scoreboard, but Howard did it with no problem. The Eastern League single season home run record would have fallen too, had Howard not been moved along to AAA.

Shelton doesn't have quite the power that Howard possesses, but he's got enough. In his second professional season, Shelton hit 17 home runs at Class A Hickory and hit an impressive .340 for the Craw Dads. He followed that with stops at Class A Lynchburg and AA Altoona in 2003, hitting a combined .336 with 21 homeruns and 83 RBI. It seemed for all the world, that Shelton was well on his way to becoming a mainstay in the Pirates lineup for a long time. All of that changed last December.

Blessed with an impressive minor league system and a major league roster that didn't have much room, somehow, Shelton fell through the cracks. The Rule 5 Draft came around and the Tigers wasted no time in grabbing the budding superstar from the University of Utah.

Making the jump from AA to the majors proved to be a little too much for Shelton. He struggled to say the least, hitting just .196 in 27 games with the Tigers. Part of the problem was the lack of playing time. When Shelton got to play in a stretch of games in late May, he went 4-for-11 (.364) with a home run and three RBI. An injury put him on the DL and needless to say, his season wasn't what he or the Tigers had hoped for.

Meanwhile, Howard went to AAA Scranton Wilkes-Barre and continued his assault of pitching. He added another nine homeruns and hit .270. In 131 minor league games, Howard drove in 131 runs, hitting 46 home runs and a combined .291 at AA and AAA. When rosters expanded, the Phillies added Howard to their club, not sure how much playing time he would be able to get. Finding pinch-hitting spots and taking over for an aching Jim Thome, Howard saw more action than originally planned and added another couple of home runs to his season total. In 19 games, he hit .282 and drove in five runs with two home runs to his credit. The only problem now is finding a place for Howard to play with Thome taking up Howard's natural position at first base. The Phillies have Howard working on some outfield drills in the AFL, but aren't convinced that he can make the change. Even if he does, a permanent spot is still not available with Pat Burrell and Bobby Abreu in Philadelphia.

Shelton found ways to get into the lineup for Detroit. He played at four different spots, including DH, first base, right field and catching. His ability to play different positions gives him a bit of an advantage over Howard and the fact that the Tigers may be a little more flexible in their lineup also gives Shelton an advantage.

The two players are helping their respective teams in the AFL. In the first week of the season, Shelton hit three home runs, drove in eight runs and hit .474 for the Grand Canyon Rafters. Howard had a home run, five RBI and hit an even .500 for Phoenix. The two players shared the Player of the Week award for the week ended October 17. Both players are continuing to impress, with Shelton hitting .442 with four home runs and 17 RBI, while Howard is hitting .275 with three home runs and 14 RBI. When you look at AFL leaders, the two dot the rankings and show up strong in most categories.

The paths have been different and the situations are very different, but both Shelton and Howard are showing that they deserve major league opportunities. For Shelton, those opportunities are likely to come in Detroit. For Howard, he may find himself switching teams like Shelton did almost a year ago. He won't be lost in the Rule 5 Draft, but the Phillies admit that he could be trade bait for a front line starting pitcher.

Only time will tell for both players.

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