Tackling Some Questions In The Minor Leagues

Stephen Kohlscheen (Wikipedia)

Jeff's note: you know JY. Here is a post from JY, on the minors!

In my notoriously long-winded minor-league previews, I'm known for trying to cover as many bases as I can like some kind of crazy baseball octopus. Usually this just makes it too long for anyone to want to read. Even so, that doesn't really cover the matters that are actually of interest to me in any given minor-league season. Here are six things I'm looking at, because they've been begging me to write an article here for a few years now.

1) Cerberus or Hydra?

The word is out at this point regarding the Jackson rotation and the Jackson club in general. It's easily the most interesting team the organization has fielded since the 2003 San Antonio Missions which is either awesome or depressing depending on how you think about it (I listened to a LOT of Missions games that year, so I'm on Team Awesome). Regardless, I think that we can say that from a stuff standpoint, Walker/Hultzen/Paxton is a lot more exciting than Blackley/Nageotte/Madritsch. Especially since only one of the latter group is still pitching. Miss you guys :(

Sure, the Missions also had a partial season from Rett Johnson just before he flamed out, but the Generals have Brandon Maurer and Andrew Carraway to fill out the rotation. Maurer is only a skosh behind the Walker/Paxton duo where velocity is concerned, but his issues are two-fold. The bigger one is health. Look at his inning totals for the past four years. You'll see 23.1, 67.1 (both passable for short-season ball), and then 15.1 and 79.1. A lot of press has been given to how the Cerberus trio was "rushed," but Maurer is right with them, logging only 83.2 innings in full-season ball before making the leap to double-A. The second issue, as with any young hurler, is command. He's walked a lot of guys to start the year and has issues keeping the ball down. If he stays healthy, you could see him in the big leagues in some capacity eventually. I know, health is perhaps the biggest issue to be concerned by, but Paxton was thought of as an injury risk entering the draft and talk of that sure has died down.

Carraway is the less sexy one from a stuff standpoint, but after his first three starts he had a 1.73 tRA which is most definitely sexy. He has enough velocity to work with (read as: much more than Anthony Vasquez) and throws a good array of pitches, keeping hitters off balance while he works off his fastball and curve. The strikeouts are right around passable and the walks low enough to make that work, and that profile can sop up some innings in a pinch.

This doesn't even account for the bullpen. After the first week and a half, you had both Capps and Pryor, guys who throw in the mid-90s with sharp sliders, striking out 10+ per nine. They're trading off closing duties in Jackson and I figure that one of them could eventually land the same job with the Mariners, while the other sets up. Or maybe we do away with roles entirely and they could both close. Nah.

I realize now that I'm sitting here trying to convince you guys that our pitching prospects, very risky commodities, could be joined on the prospect radar by other riskier commodities. Already, this exercise is dumb.

2) Desert Mirages

High Desert is the kind of hitting environment that can trick people into thinking that Johermyn Chavez is some kind of prospect when his actual skills don't yet back it up. Oh, I could go on about how the player development contract is up this year and we really could be heading somewhere else, but who am I kidding, I've said that every two years since 2008. Last year, we were somewhat fortunate in that Franklin and Catricala got to bail early and carry it over to double-A, but this year has a good share of both prospects and guys who are working to establish themselves as such. Hitting-wise, it's probably the best team they've fielded since 2009, which is great for now and could give me some headaches later as I try to explain park factors to people who don't want to listen.

Since I'll be touching on catching a little later, let's open up with the infield, where we have Brad Miller and Stefen Romero as the double play duo of the moment. Miller got on the radar pretty quickly by hitting four home runs in his first week and a half, but one has to be aware that all of those games were at home. And on the road? Through his first five he was hitting .227/.370/.318. The walks are as present as they've ever been, though the power is... not good. His double play partner has suffered less. Mind you Romero hit really, really well at home (.464/.483/.750), but on the road, it's not like he's been making a fool of himself, since he went 4-for-12 in the Inland Empire series and that's not an easy park to hit in. Another guy in the mix who is at least worth keeping tabs on is Steven Proscia, who is splitting time at third and first. He killed it last year in limited time, thanks to the inflation of the home park, and this year looks to be continuing the trend as there was a split of eight hundred OPS points going into Thursday night's game. Already, we have our first hitter getting one raised eyebrow.

The two main guys I'm looking at in the outfield are Julio Morban and James Jones. Morban is to position players as Maurer is to pitchers: lots of talent, lots of injuries, limited playing time, no major surgeries. Through his first five games, he's actually been a better road hitter, though two of those games have been at Lancaster, so mound of salt there. Jones is trying to rebound after hitting worse in High Desert than he did in Clinton. I don't even know how that's possible. He's a notorious second-half hitter and unless he fixes that, his next move could be back to the mound.

3) The Mess at the Hot Corner

Seager's done his darnedest to make us forget that we have a cluster of prospects here. Still, if you polled someone about the top ten hitting prospects in the organization right now, their answer would probably include three guys labeled as third basemen coming into the season. At various points, it's looked like one of them might be pulling ahead of the pack, and then they all either catch up or start flopping around the same time. It's really awkward, but the shame is diffused either way.

In the big leagues, in very limited time, we have Liddi. Listening to the broadcasts sometimes, I hear the broadcasters hold forth on how much work he's putting in on the side and how much better he's looked in repeated trials. None of us have seen that yet. The words don't mean much of anything. What we know about Liddi is that he has improved his defense a bit in the last year, but was slated to play first in Tacoma with the logjam, and he may end up there as Guti and Carp come off the DL. We know that he has a lot of power and we know that he strikes out a bit much to use that power well. We're in the same position we were in before until we see otherwise.

Currently with the Rainiers, we have Catricala. Catricala has not hit to start the season. At all. After Wednesday's day game, he had a .425 OPS. His BABIP was .213. I expect those numbers to come up and things start to even out, it's just really disappointing after the spring training that we saw from him. At least his defense hasn't garnered bad reports yet.

Jackson features Francisco Martinez, of whom I am on the record as being deeply suspicious. Everyone was saying how great he looked after the trade last year, and then he didn't hit in the winter leagues. Everyone was going on and on about how good he looked in spring training on the minor league fields, and then he's been OPSing around .600. Martinez for me is suspect until proven otherwise. Physical tools aren't everything if you can't put them to good use.

Further on down we have more distant considerations like Proscia, whom I've already talked about, and Morla, who is in his second go at the Midwest League. Both have their own talents and flaws, but since they're a few years out, I won't try to convince you to care about them until they do something.

4) Pitching in Clinton

While most of the attention is going to be on the rotation in the Southern League, in the Midwest League, the rotation is interesting in its own right with a few guys who were previously on sleeper lists. They may be waking up. Do they just doze off forever otherwise? The terms we use to discuss baseball, while drawing from a limited linguistic pool, are nuanced.

Going over the younger, domestic guys, we have Jordan Shipers and Stephen Landazuri. Shipers was whisked away from a Missouri commitment two years ago with the help of a whole lot of money. As prep prospects are concerned, he's an oddity for his region in that he's only played so much since his high school didn't have a baseball team. He's also an undersized lefty who can throw pretty hard. Through his first three starts, he's done nothing to embarrass himself (2.91 tRA!). Landazuri is different because he's from California and was probably overlooked due to better prospects in the area, much like Maurer was. He still throws well and has a good array of pitches, in addition to being somewhat fresh to pitching since he was a two-way guy in high school. He's struck out dudes at around the same rate as Shipers, but has walked a lot more.

The numeric ace of the rotation is Cameron Hobson, who was drafted out of Dayton where he set a lot of records pertaining to strikeouts. He has better velocity regularly than Shipers, it's just that his consistency is terrible. He was Great last year when he had a 51/8 K/BB in 43.2 innings for Everett, and he's been Awful this year with a 10/8 K/BB in 13.0 innings. My guess is that he'll be streaky. I know I'm going out on a limb here.

One fourth member of the rotation who is kind of interesting is Ambioris Hidalgo, but I'll admit that I have a weakness for prospects named after warlords that fought the Romans. Some months, he's had groundball rates of around 60%, or he's struck out a quarter of the batters he's faced, or he's walked fewer than 7%. He has never done more than one of these at the same time for a full month. A man can dream though.

5) Mount Backstop

In another system, with different kinds of depth, this issue might rank higher, but then we traded for Jaso and Montero and hindsight is weird. The Mariners drafted and signed six catchers last year after several years of drafting between zero and three. Then they pushed Marcus Littlewood, a former shortstop and second-round pick, to pick up the gear and head behind the plate. Then Baron suddenly looked like he could do something with the bat. Then Moore went down with yet another meniscus surgery.

At any rate, in the post-season rankings, a lot of people were stepping over each other to make a claim over which one was the best while I decided to step back and wait to see what happened. Spring training shook out with Jack Marder and John Hicks in High Desert. Neither guy is a lock there, Hicks having some defensive and tools limitations (and a bat that only plays one place) and Marder having enough ability to more than hold the position down, but limited experience, erratic hitting, and the added variable of the diabetes. So far, Hicks has hit well, and Marder, better and with less dramatic splits, while they've committed to a 50/50 timeshare behind the plate.

Baron's a little harder to figure out because he's been around a while and prep catchers are notorious for both busting and developing slowly. You might as well use tea leaves or split bones in a fire to figure out how most of them will pan out. What we know right now is that if Baron only maintained his current level of production, this would be his best offensive season by a wide margin, and that may be enough considering that behind the plate, he has a career caught stealing rate of 45%. A backup career still isn't outside the realm of possibility.

As we get to the short-season squads, there's more offense and less polish. People have pegged Tyler Marlette as the best power bat we signed from the last draft on account of him homering in a showcase at Petco. He's not the most disciplined hitter in the world, however, and may not hit for much average. The skills behind the plate could use some fine-tuning too. Luke Guarnaccia is in a similar position, less power, sketchy defensive profile, but has the added bonus of being a switch-hitter. And then there's Littlewood, who hasn't hit yet, and is now expected to hit and catch. I'm not a fan. The peripherals aren't bad though, if you can get past the fact that he's yet to hit for average.

All that said, they could still totally render this conversation irrelevant by drafting Zunino in June. Whatever. I refuse to write up predictions this time.

6) Who is the Center Fielder of the Future?

If you have one of this year's Baseball America Prospect Handbooks, you can open it up and look at the depth chart and find no numbered prospects manning center field. None. That's because our depth at the position blows.

In the high minors there are three guys who draw some interest. Trayvon Robinson got a lot of press for hitting twenty-six dingers in triple-A last year, but considering that he has major strikeout issues, his walks were down, and his doubles total and home run total effectively traded places, I treat him with caution. The other two are in Jackson in Denny Almonte and Daniel Carroll. Almonte has great tools and at no point in time has demonstrated the slightest inkling that his plate discipline might improve. He struck out seventeen times this year through his first fifty plate appearances. Carroll also strikes out a lot and doesn't have quite the same power, but that's mitigated somewhat by him walking nearly ninety times last year. His main issue is staying healthy, since he'd never topped ninety games played before last season and is already on the DL this year.

Down lower into the full-season ball, we have Julio Morban and Jamal Austin playing for High Desert and Clinton respectively. Morban may be fringy in center. They're playing him there because what can it hurt? Austin is basically Jamal Strong with less polish. Think speed and on-base ability with limited power and you're about as close as you need to be to "getting" him.

Further into the abyss that is extended spring training, there are other options, like the 6th round pick last year James Zamarippa, who is a good bet to defend well and hit a long home run every now and then, though not consistently. Basically, I'm of the opinion that the "Center Fielder of the Future" is not yet in the organization. There are options in the draft that could go a long ways towards answering that question for us if we decide to go that route, or have the players available to us to go that route.

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