Minor League Roundtable #1
This year, we’re debuting a new feature here on USSM to go with the Future Forty updates. In the past, I’ve put together a few paragraphs about a couple of prospects in the post accompanying the update, but I wanted to make the posts more interesting and provide some other perspectives. So, this year, Jay Yencich, Marc W, and myself will be discussing a few different topics every month, and I’ll post our roundtable discussion as content when the FF gets updated.
Here’s the first one. Hope you enjoy.
Greg Halman’s Abilities
When BA rated Greg Halman as the team’s top prospect, I chuckled a bit. Yes, the upside is tantalizing – a power/speed guy who can play the outfield and oozes tools. And, he did have a pretty nice year last year while reaching Double-A at age 20. However, his complete inability to recognize a breaking ball, or hit anything that’s not just straight and down the middle, makes him something like the most flawed “top prospect” in recent history. He’s already racked up 30 strikeouts in his first 78 plate appearances of 2009, and is showing no improvement in his ability to discern pitch types. My feeling is that Halman’s downside (a career like Reggie Abercrombie or Charlton Jimerson) has been mostly overlooked, while it’s probably his most likely outcome. How bullish are you on Halman’s ability to improve on what is currently a fatal flaw in his approach at the plate?
Moderately bullish. People actually CAN learn – I think we forget that. I’m not saying that Halman can become a low-K, high-BB guy – that’s never going to happen. But you’ve seen a guy like Wlad improve his BB rate significantly, which really helped him stay on the prospect map. Now I know talking up Wlad’s improvement may not be ‘selling’ this well – I know you and many others still don’t think he’s a major league contributor. But I still think he can be (maybe somewhere else), and I think the same is true of Halman.
Halman’s talent is undeniable. That his approach is currently atrocious is also undeniable.
This is now a challenge and a priority for the M’s player development folks. I worry that Halman had his confidence shattered in the World Baseball Classic. He looked hopeless against some good pitchers and some so-so ones, and was eventually benched in favor of guys he dominated in the Dutch league. After a successful 2008, he faced tougher pitchers in the AFL (where he K’d in 45% of his ABs) and then went on to post his abysmal 1-for-11 with 9 Ks and no walks line in the WBC. Given his struggle in Wisconsin a few years ago, I think he may just be a guy who doesn’t deal with failure all that well. This is where the player development staff can really make an impact: given his approach, he BETTER get used to spells like he’s in. He can improve that approach AND he can avoid ‘pressing’ when he’s in a slump.
As awful as his start’s been, we should keep it in perspective: it was an awful sample, but it was still a small one. He’s done better this week (he’s still K’ing, but he’s driving the ball and picking up the odd walk), so who knows. He was the #1 prospect both for BA *and* Baseball prospectus (so this isn’t just BA taking a flyer on a toolsy kid) for a reason – we can all debate that placement, but we can’t debate the fact that his ceiling is pretty darn high.
As for overlooking the down side, eh, I don’t know. At some level, this just goes with the territory in prospecting. I agree that he’s more likely to flame out than many, but these lists are always a balance between upside and likelihood-of-making-the-majors, and I understand why some people rate the guys with unbelievable ceilings so high. This is getting rambly, so we’ll move on…
I have to admit, I was considering Halman as one of the highlights of the 20-26th week up until I double-checked the stats and realized that he hadnâ€™t done as well as I expected. Through 25 at-bats, he hit .240/~.321/.640 with an 11/3 K/BB ratio, plainly displaying the rollercoaster effect that he is so known for. With such extremes, it was hard to justify keeping him there, so I had to consider why I had thought of mentioning him in the first place.
I had been listening to the Diamond Jaxx game over the internet on Friday, the night when he hit two homers to lift himself out of a possible dishonorable mention for the week. It would be easy to say that this skewed my judgment of him temporarily, but that wasnâ€™t actually what caught my ear. Instead, the most compelling at-bat for me was the one in which he ended up striking out. The D-Jaxx radio man was making sure that everyone on the other side of the airwaves knew that a battle was going on. While Halman ultimately struck out, failing to check his swing on the final 3-2 pitch, it made an impression on me.
When I first saw Halman in Everett, he was nothing short of hacktastic. Every pitch that Halman saw, in his own mind, was going over the fence in Everett Memorial, whether it wanted to or not. When I came to see him again the following year, after his demotion from Wisconsin, I found myself commenting to the others in the booth no less than three times that he had held up on a low or outside pitch that he would have spun himself into the ground trying to swing at the previous year.
As we look at Halman, we should all bear in mind that weâ€™re looking at a guy whose eye numbers are far worse than the oft-maligned Wladimir Balentienâ€™s were at the same stage. But when I look at Halman, I donâ€™t see some lummox whose sole raison dâ€™Ãªtre is to club the white thing until it goes bye-bye and makes the people cheer, but a young man in the midst of a long battle against his own hubris in which he may or may not come out on top. Halman thinks he can hit anything, and until heâ€™s proven wrong, he continues to think that, but as his demotion to Everett proved, he is not incapable of adjustment. The problem lies more in getting him to recognize heâ€™s going up there with the wrong approach much of the time.
Iâ€™d say Iâ€™m more bullish on him than most people, just not so much as to rank him number one in this system. I tend to hold to the middle ground, I think heâ€™ll turn out to be something, but itâ€™s likely going to take all of his option years and maybe then some to get there.
Since I wrote the first part, Halman went 4-9 and launched three home runs, so apparently he used this as bulletin board material…
As for the comparison to Balentien… that’s kinda my point. Lights out power doesn’t make a major league player unless the rest of the package is at least adequate. Wlad made some pretty big strides to improve his approach at the plate, and he’s still basically a platoon outfielder with +2 win upside. Halman is a better runner and defender than Wlad, so he doesn’t have to hit quite as much, but he has to hit some. How quickly can he make the necessary adjustments? The team won’t be able to keep him in the minors forever.
That’s what I was going for Jay, but without the use of the word lummox (kudos to you for avoiding the more obvious ‘galoot’).
Wlad’s approach was universally decried by observers and M’s officials alike, and yet he never really ‘failed’ at a level the way Halman did. Maybe that’s because Balentien’s a better natural hitter (while Halman’s a better natural athlete), but it’s the main reason I’ve always been a fan. If 1/10th of what scouts and others said is true (zero pitch recognition, not getting better, etc.), it’s absolutely remarkable that he’s done as well as he has. The K’s are now acceptably low, and while his recognition could use some work, uh, so could every Mariner.
But this is about Halman – I think his last week should go a long ways towards getting his head right, and I think J’s got it – he’s been battling himself after getting shown up in the WBC, but it looks like he’s coming out of it. And can I just reiterate that he’s *still* one of the youngest players in the Southern League? I think we’d all love it if he was walking twice for every ugly K, but he’s not…. and he’s still a good prospect (I don’t know about #1 in the system, but I *understand* where that’s coming from).
As for Balentien, you probably knew I’d write that, just as I considered that my comment was basically Cameron-baiting. Has this feature become predictable already? Seriously, I still think people underestimate Wlad (whose K rate continues to drop and whose D continues to improve), and thus the comp sort of defines what you think of Halman. Halman is simply not as good a natural hitter, but as you note, he doesn’t have to be as good.
Grant Green, USC shortstop, at #2 in the draft
Remember a few years ago when the Mariners had so many shortstop prospects that they didn’t know what to do with them all? That was fun, wasn’t it? Now, if we look at the minor league depth chart for middle infielders, it’s as ugly as I’ve ever seen it. Triunfel wasn’t likely to stick at short even before the injury, and I have to imagine that the missed year and rehab will probably accelerate his shift to either second or third base. The regular shortstops for the full-season minor league clubs are all non-prospects (Woodward, Navarro, Juan Diaz, Serrano), which means that the best SS prospect in the system is probably Gabriel Noriega, and hardly anyone thinks he’s going to hit. Given the dearth of shortstop prospects in the system, plus the awful regression Yuni has taken, how much is your interest in Grant Green with the 2nd pick in the draft elevated?
Gah, don’t remind me. I miss you Asdrubal Cabrera. Call me sometime.
Seriously, this is a great question, because it’s just so tempting to give the stock answer of any level-headed analyst and say that current depth doesn’t change my opinion of Green in the slightest. Yet, I have to confess that coming into the year, I had Green as the guy I wanted most. I’m not sure how much of this was due to the system’s dearth of middle infielders (though I remember when Tug Hulett went to KC I had the shocking realization that we’d just traded our best SS prospect), but probably some of it was.
The Yuni saga contributed to this as well, as I thought it might send a message. Now, the org has sent a ton of messages, from the Cedeno pick-up to Wak’s tough talk in the spring, to Beltre and Ibanez apparently talking to him last year – none of it worked. So I’m not really optimistic that it would have any effect on Betancourt. Which means it’s all about Green and how well he’d fit in the org. Well, Green isn’t my preferred option anymore. All things being equal, I think I’d take him, but as 2009’s gone on, it’s pretty clear that all things aren’t equal. I may *still* be overvaluing him a bit, but he’s not who I’d go for at #2 overall.
When you look at what this team needs, Asdrubal Cabrera fits so perfectly, it’s maddening. He’s probably a +3 win upgrade over Yuni right now, and he is exactly the kind of player the Mariners could use – a middle infielder who can hit RHPs, draws walks, plays good defense, and fits the profile of a #2 hitter to a tee. No one thought he’d hit this well, not even the guys in Cleveland, but holy crap does that trade look like one of the worst in franchise history.
It seems like the #2 pick is going to come down to Ackley, Green, White, Gibson, and Crow. Ackley’s clearly the safest bet, while all three pitchers come with some extra risk that is tough to justify given their respective upsides. So, for me, it’s Ackley or Green, with Green having a bit more top end potential and Ackley having a bit less risk. I’m okay either way, honestly, and I go back and forth on whether the M’s are in a position where minimizing risk should take precedence to trying to squeek out that extra win at a position they have no depth at. It’s a tough call.
Going through the organization, I could dig down even to the summer leagues and not find a single player that I felt confident about starting at short. Even there, theyâ€™ve just been cycling through seventeen-year-olds for years, knowing that theyâ€™ll move off. Fontaine also developed a thing for bigger shortstops, despite there being no chance theyâ€™d last there, and the result has been a bunch of would-be utility men who handle the bat well enough, but are far from ideal wherever you decide to put them.
As draft options go, weâ€™ve all said probably a few hundred times now that we really have Strasburg and then anywhere from five to seven guys who are ranked more or less equivalently. Since around the time of the Bedard trade, Iâ€™ve been quite alarmed by our potential pitching situation come 2010, and the moves of Aumont and Morrow certainly didnâ€™t help things. The temptation to draft an Alex White, if only to fill that hole, is really quite great.
However, as Jakubauskas and RR-S have proven, along with large portions of our bullpen, you can find spare starters if you know where to look. I have it on good faith that Zduriencik would have the ability to find such bargains if pressed to. The 2010 season could end up a bit awkward, but thereâ€™s a slim hope that a current Mav could bust through for 2011.
As Dave initially pointed out, thatâ€™s just not likely to happen at short, which makes Green all the more enticing. Heâ€™s likely to be more consistent than most of what the Mâ€™s have stocked for hitters, so you can see him being part of a new team core. My main concern with him is that he doesnâ€™t walk all that much, though the rates have improved recently. Then again, comparing him to Betancourt, who takes the â€œyou canâ€™t walk your way off the islandâ€ trope to a whole new level, Iâ€™m willing to accept that about him.
And with regard to the Drubie comments Dave and Marc made, you know who I missed the minute we traded him away? Luis Valbuena. That would have cleared up that whole â€œno LH IF on the benchâ€ issue.
We all did, J, we all did. He actually wouldn’t be quite as good a fit as Cabrera, but I really need to get off that particular hobby horse.
As for the draft, any thoughts on the HS arms – like Matzek?
If you’re going to take a high school player in the top five, that guy has to be an exceptional talent. The stathead community over-hyped the risks of drafting high school pitchers, but that doesn’t mean the risks aren’t actually larger with HS players, especially pitchers. If there’s not a really big difference in legitimate reward (and I’m not talking about the pipe-dream where every 18-year-old kid becomes an ace if you wish hard enough), the safety of a college player is the way to go. Matzek and Purke just aren’t Josh Beckett type of arms, and that’s the kind of prospect you need to be in order to make it worth taking a HS pitcher this high.
The prospects down in Clinton
Which strong start to the season from a Clinton player are you most encouraged by? Denny Almonte, Brett Lorin, Aaron Pribanic, or Steven Hensley?
Another good question…
Almonte may be the easiest answer, given that I’d just about given up on him. But I’m going with Pribanic for now. Given his stuff, command problems and results, he was rather likely to wash out quickly. The Nolan Gallagher redux scenario was in my mind (yes, the book isn’t closed on Gallagher yet, but…). But so far, he’s gone out and done everything we could’ve wanted. Yes, yes, it’s the midwest league, and he’s a college pitcher, etc. But I figured we’d know fairly quickly whether he’d be a legitimate MiLB starting pitcher or fodder for the waiver wire. Well, he’s getting a decent number of Ks, he’s got truly amazing GB rates, and his command’s coming around. You couldn’t ask for more right now, and it gives me hope that we added an actual starting pitching prospect, given that we seem to have lost two this year.
Lorin’s stats are better so far (particularly the Ks), but I think more was expected of him. In addition, Pribanic has the better FIP, though again, the sample sizes are ridiculously small. I like Lorin a lot too, but I’m giving the edge to Pribanic because I just had no idea what to expect.
Hensley’s done well – I just worry about his health or ability to handle 120-140 innings. His velo has been all over the map, and while it’s great to see that it’s ‘back,’ I just don’t know what to make of that, or how to handicap his odds of maintaining it. Any thoughts?
I’d probably with Pribanic too. I’ve been touting Lorin since the draft last summer, and all the stuff I said about Halman goes triple for Almonte, and Pribanic has been more impressive than Hensley. The groundballs and strikeouts combination is always fun to see, and while he won’t keep missing bats at higher levels with his stuff, it at least gives us hope that he could be a solid back-end rotation guy if he develops. That’s more than I thought he was headed into the year.
I think Almonteâ€™s an interesting athlete, but while his strikeout rates have decreased, weâ€™ve yet to see any notable improvement in his walks from last season. Hensley is fun to follow because as of yet, heâ€™s still yet to allow a walk, but the elbow issues to end last season still have me shying away from him, even though I know the last skipped start was just him getting sick.
For me, it comes down to either Pribanic or Lorin. Lorin, from what I saw up in Everett, has nights when he has a tremendous feel for his fastball, and heâ€™s able to spot it pretty much wherever he pleases. In addition to that, when I saw him, he was mixing his pitches up a fair amount and when he missed, he missed low and away. As gameplans go, you canâ€™t ask for a great deal more out of him, but he has off nights with his command now and then. Since the heat he has on his fastball is a lot better than the average pitcher who shares his approach, heâ€™ll probably survive that, and it seems reasonable to project him in the back-end.
Pribanic remains more of a mystery to me. We knew that the returns in his debut last season werenâ€™t all that great, but this year he really seems to have turned it around with that deadly GB/K combo, and he gets extra marks for the additional velocity he has over Lorin.
Iâ€™m leaning Lorin now, but I could come around to Pribanic if he has a few more solid starts. I just wish we got to see Lorin in the series against the Fort Wayne Tincaps, because that would have been a real test.
The LH bats in Tacoma
Mike Carp is killing the ball in Tacoma as he attempts to erase the “not enough power for a 1B/DH type” stigma. Jeff Clement is taking good swings and getting good results as of late. If Russ Branyan or Ken Griffey Jr were to land on the DL, which one would you call-up?
Uh, Clement? I love Mike Carp, and even in his ‘cold’ spell a week or so ago, he was stinging the ball a few times a night. Talk about a guy who seems to have taken a big step forward. Still, Clement is more MLB ready, and he should get the call. Seriously, if he didn’t get it, that would essentially mean his M’s career was over. It’s not enough that he’s now behind Johnson, Johjima (when healthy) and Burke at C – if he’s behind Branyan, Griffey, Carp (I don’t know, maybe Shelton and Sweeney?) at DH, what’s the point? It’s no longer about wanting to improve his defense – we’re talking about the DH spot.
Clement *should* hit. I think his ceiling is a bit lower than some of his biggest fans, but he’d clearly be the most likely to add a bit of value at the DH spot *right now*.
I think Clement’s M’s career might be over, honestly. Wakamatsu clearly puts a premium on catcher defense, and everyone has heard how much the organization loves Adam Moore. Clement had 2009 to establish himself behind the plate before Moore demanded a look in the bigs, and a bad spring pretty much ended that chance. So now, he’s a guy caught in the middle, a man without a position, in an organization that isn’t actively working to give him another shot. It’d be pretty stunning to me if he wasn’t traded at some point pretty soon.
I think Iâ€™d go with Clement, just because, honestly, I want to see whether or not he can hack it behind the plate. This week marked the first time heâ€™s played at first in his pro career, which doesnâ€™t bode well for him, but he did have a strike-out, throw-out double play he helped turn recently. Either way, I recognize that Moore is eagerly gunning for his job, so Clement may not be able to hold it down very long before heâ€™s fighting for it again.
Carpâ€™s recent on-field displays have made me seriously think of him as a potential starting first baseman rather than an upgraded, slightly younger version of LaHair (who should be DFAâ€™d any time now). Still, I do have to wonder whether or not Clement would be able to completely outdo that production if he wasnâ€™t having to carry that gear with him every time he stepped up to the plate. Something to consider, although the situation at first has gotten so loaded for the Rainiers that you have LaHair and Carp playing left and Shelton playing third, which is bad news all around.
Okay, so, yea, we’re all still in agreement that Clement is ahead of Carp on the LH bat depth chart for the big league squad. If I had to bet on the next major league uniform Clement put on, though, it wouldn’t be Seattle.