Minor League Roundtable #2
It’s been too long, but we’re finally ready to post our second minor league roundtable discussion between Jay Yencich, Marc W, and myself. We started off with a conversation about Joe Dunigan in early May, but then got side-tracked by the draft, so we finished it off last week talking about Aaron Pribanic, Doug Fister, and Tyson Gillies. Hope you enjoy.
Dave: So, we probably need to talk about Joseph Dunigan, huh. High Desert is the most ridiculous offensive environment in baseball, so we know that random mediocrities can look like all-stars by launching the ball into the wind, but it’s not like we didn’t know this kid had power. 48 of his 105 hits in Wisconsin went for extra bases last year. As I write this on May 7th, 24 of his 41 hits so far have gone for extra bases. The ballpark turns flyball outs into home runs, but it doesn’t turn worm burners into doubles. This kid can rip the crap out of a fastball. And, he’s actually showing some improvement in his previously horrific selection at the plate. K% down to 25% from 33% the past few years. He’s 23, though, and the league environment is so ridiculous that it’s hard to guage what’s real and what’s not. I say we get him to Double-A and him him behind Halman, just for the sheer comedy of it.
Jay: It’s probably worth noting that the wind was blowing 30 mph on May 6th, the night he hit the three home runs, but even putting that aside, scaling those numbers down a little bit, he remains impressive. His walk rate has also improved by a third, which basically just projects him to 40 walks this year over the 30 he had last year, but it’s still progress.
Marc: I’d agree with that Jay, but you can just toss his home numbers out entirely (for comedy: .464/.483/1.000 – he’s slugging 1.000, gentlemen) and he’s STILL having a decent season. He did hit 4 HRs in 2 games in what passes for a pitcher’s park down there a few weeks ago, and he’s slugging .694 away from Adelanto. Yes, his ARL isn’t amazing, and yes, the entire league context skews things and yes, he strikes out a lot. But of course we need to adjust how we view the guy at this point. This will be an interesting test case for the new player development folks. The previous group would’ve had Dunigan in AA a week or two ago, but Zduriencik seemed to be a little more cautious with promotions in Milwaukee (LaPorta would’ve been in AAA by the end of April ’08 if he’d been a Mariner farmhand). Say what you want about ‘pushing’ a prospect, but I think it’s important that Dunigan try something else right now lest he get a bit too comfortable in the Cal League.
Jay: Actually, what I would highlight right now is that on the road, he hasn’t been all that bad either. You take a look at Liddi’s stats from around the same time as Dunigan’s three-HR game and you’ll see a pretty sizable difference. Look at Liddi’s home OPS of 1.237 after May 6th and compare it to his road OPS of .832. Now, pull in Dunigan’s numbers. 1.483 at home verse 1.087 on the road, right? Not exactly. While Liddi’s been running out a batting average on balls in play of about .460 in both places, Dunigan got luckier at home, over 50% of his hits dropping in, and was closer to 35% on the road. Meaning even if you adjust for luck, he’s still posting a 1.000 OPS away from Mavericks Stadium. Do the same for Liddi and he turns into the same .600 OPS hitter we’ve known all along. So, yes, he’s definitely getting the HD bump, but it’s not as pronounced as it usually is with others, and he’s still killing the ball everywhere else.
Dave: He’s having a good year, even without High Desert. No doubt. As everyone probably noticed when Balentien was coming through the minors, I’m just not a big fan of this skillset, though. The success rate for grip-it-and-rip-it sluggers is just so low.
Marc: As everyone noticed when Balentien was coming up, I’m more of a fan of this skillset. Yes, the ‘hit’ rate is low, but it’s not like it’s impossible. And hell, we still like pitching prospects, right? Seriously, I think it makes sense for the team to figure out what it has in Dunigan, and that means pushing him to the Southern league. His line in the Cal League is intriguing for reasons beyond the eye-popping HR numbers – which are, of course, influenced by park/league context – and I think we need to figure out if he may be something more than a grip-it-and-rip-it slugger. Odds are, he IS just a fastball-killing slugger, but he’s probably not going to learn anything more in the Cal League and the sooner he deals with advanced pitching, the better it’ll be for him.
Dave: Moving on… Thanks to the flashy low ERA, Brett Lorin has received the most attention among the Clinton hurlers, but man, do we have to talk about Aaron Pribanic. Yes, he’s a college guy pitching in the Midwest League, so success should be expected, and the offensive environment of the MWL is the lowest of any in professional baseball, but a 68% groundball rate anywhere, against kind of hitters, automatically makes you interesting. Among pitchers with at least 50 innings, Trey Watten (another college arm in the MWL) is the only guy with a higher groundball rate in all of minor league baseball. There’s a few other guys at 68%, but make no mistake, Pribanic is establishing himself as one of the more dominant groundball pitchers in the minors. Groundball rate is one of those things that stabilizes very quickly, so even in a small sample, we can be pretty sure that Pribanic is going to be a significant GB pitcher. Toss in the solid command and the fact that he’s missing some bats… is he the best non-Ramirez/Pineda starting pitching prospect in the system now?
Marc: Yeah, absolutely. And what’s nice is that he’s NOT a guy with so-so stuff that just happens to sink. As we discussed in the first of these, he always had talent, and just lacked health and results. He’s already been sidelined once this year, so that’s still a major red flag going forward, but I’m extremely encouraged by his 2009. As far as command goes, yeah, I suppose it’s not a worry now, but I just don’t know that we can take a whole lot from it at this level/league context. You can throw it down the middle in the MWL (to some degree), and he wasn’t a real command guy at Nebraska, so I’m still going to wait-and-see. But as you say, if you throw 68% GBs, your command doesn’t need to be great. As far as best non-Ramirez/Pineda, I guess I don’t really know. I’d want to hear from scouts on who’s got the more advanced breaking stuff between Lorin/Pribanic, and I’d also want to hear about some of the top guys in the VSL (Erasmo Ramirez not only has the shiny ERA, but he’s even MORE of an extreme GB pitcher so far. Yes, yes, league context, but in his last three starts it’s 37 GBs to 6 FBs). What I will say is that he may be the safest out of Pineda/Ramirez/Lorin/Pribanic.
Jay: We got a VSL reference in and it wasn’t me? The other interesting thing about Erasmo is that it took him until this week to walk a batter, so he’s running a 39/1 K/BB. Anyway, back to Pribanic. Is he the best? I think the case can be made. Fontaine’s drafts from a philosophical standpoint often yielded some interesting results that were geared more towards future projection than present results. Pribanic, despite some decent baseball bloodlines (Jim Coates is his granddad), wasn’t really on anyone’s radar before last season, and those were the guys that old administration loved to gamble on. Transfer from a no-name CC? Check. Early redshirt? Check. Rather inconsistent due to limited playing time post-high school? Check and check. Tall? Not in the context of the Lumberkings’ roster, which has seven guys 6’6 or higher, but nevertheless, check. I just thought that due to his secondary offerings being a bit under par and the already noted command wonkiness, it would take him longer to get there. Right now, one thing that I’d point to as a source of concern is that while he has been killing enough worms of late to get on a PETA watch list, his average has been steadily climbing over the months and his K rate, which was nearly eight in April, has been a little over four and a half for May and June. It could be the injury that Marc already noted, but the trends should be monitored.
Dave: Yea, I don’t think we’re projecting Pribanic as a strikeouts-and-ground-balls guy at the major league level. I don’t want people getting the impression that we’re saying we’ve found Brandon Webb 2.0 down in Clinton. We’re probably hoping he turns into something like the current incarnation of Joel Pineiro – a 55-60% ground ball guy who throws enough strikes to let the defense do the necessary work. Given the inexperience that Jay talked about, it’s encouraging that he’s already this far along. Pitchers develop at wildly different rates, which is why the age-level thing isn’t as big a deal for them, but hopefully, what we’re seeing now is the start of the blossoming of a pretty decent pitching prospect.
Dave: Speaking of minor league pitchers having a good season, let’s go over Doug Fister. For fans looking over at the numbers from Tacoma, Fister’s ridiculous three walks in 53 innings are going to jump off the page. He’s always had pretty good command, but this year, he’s just taken it to another level. Despite standing 6’8, he doesn’t throw particularly hard and he doesn’t have an out pitch, but he’s got some sink on his fastball (48% GB%) and he pounds the strike zone. And, as a bonus, he doesn’t show a big platoon split (it’s actually reversed this year, but that’s just a small sample size fluke, most likely). I’ve called him a Tall Jakubauskas before, and I still think the comparison works, but this skillset also looks an awful lot like the Minnesota version of Carlos Silva. Do the M’s already have too many of these pitcher types for your tastes, or could you see Fister providing some useful innings out of the pen next year?
Marc: I’m on board with the ‘Tall Jakubauskas’ comparison. For what it’s worth, I think Jakubauskas’ off-speed pitches are better than Fister’s, while Fister’s younger and may have even better command. I don’t mind this ‘pitcher type’ as you probably know, though I think Fister really lacks the pure stuff to be more than a #5. Still, if he can pound the zone and if his downward plane can limit HRs, he’ll be serviceable. His ceiling is very low, but I think he could contribute a bit out of the pen. The key is surrounding him with a great defense. Lucky for him he plays in Zduriencik’s organization. I think he’d be a decent long-man or spot-starter; he lacks the pure stuff to miss a lot of bats. He’s going to get hit, but he may limit the damage. That’d play much better over 4 IP than 1 IP. I’ve seen him start mostly, so I’m not sure how much velocity he’d gain out of the pen – he’s always seemed to miss more bats in relief.
Jay: One thing that has spooked me a bit about Fister is that, while his command doesn’t change noticeably (34/3 versus 10/0? Who cares?), his average against starts to spike. The raw numbers have him giving up hits as a starter at twice the rate he did as a reliever. Granted, there’s also a pretty ridiculous difference in his BABIP (.393 vs. .211), so instead of a .160 difference in batting average, it might realistically be a little under half that. I think that the long-man/spot-starter projections aren’t off-base. I can see the average season for him stacking up there with the better ones Julio Mateo was able to provide us, if I can say that name and still be taken seriously. Plus, he would be a guy that you actually could call in for a groundball, although we’d likely have better candidates. I’d be comfortable with him as part of the bullpen starting next year, or late this one depending on how things shake out. I’d take him over the Sean Whites of the world.
Dave: That might be going a bit far. Yes, Sean White’s command is below average and he doesn’t strike anyone out, but his sinker is legitimately nasty and he’s doing a better job of throwing strikes since settling into a regular role as the setup guy to Aardsma. In his last 14 games, he’s thrown 65% strikes and only walked four batters while getting nine strikeouts and his usual batch of ground balls. I’ll take White’s 94 MPH two-seamer over Fister’s entire arsenal.
Jay: I was taking season numbers instead of recent performance into account, which I think is a sin of some kind. I’ll confess, and take the first step towards atonement by backing off the earlier claim.
Marc: That’s fine; I agree he doesn’t have a Sean White sinking 94-95 MPH pitch to really attack hitters. He’s a totally different kind of pitcher, and there’s no reason you can’t have a Sean White AND a Doug Fister. Hell, we’ve already got a Chris Jakubauskas and a Sean White. As Dave knows more than most, I think guys like this get lost in the shuffle. That’s fine; it’s understandable to a degree, given the lack of a pitch you can really point to as a true weapon. But when everyone says there’s nobody between JC Ramirez and the last righty on the M’s, it’s not QUITE true. Understanding and utilizing non-prospect talent is incredibly important, both in providing injury depth and in helping the team avoid ridiculous contracts to the Silvas and Lohses of the world. Fister’s not a prospect, but he could help in a pinch.
Dave: Finally, let’s talk about Tyson Gillies. Most of the attention he gets is for the human interest side of things, since he’s legally deaf, but he’s trying to make sure people start writing about him for baseball reasons. He’s the classic speedy center fielder with a leadoff hitter’s skillset, though contact had been a problem for him in the past. He’s doing a better job of getting the bat on the ball this year and making solid contact, though his extra base hit totals are certainly inflated by the Cal League’s environment. Still, though, a 20-year-old left-handed hitting CF with wheels who walks 10% of the time is interesting. Between he and Ezequiel Carrera, the M’s certainly have some options going forward if they want to fill the Endy Chavez role internally over the next few years.
Marc: I just don’t have a good sense of Gillies at this point. His fast start is quite encouraging, and the reports on his defense (or his arm, more accurately) are quite solid. He’s got a very high BABIP, which could be due to his speed, but I guess I just don’t know quite what he is as a hitter. Minor league batted-ball data isn’t reliable at all, but he really does seem to like to chop the ball into the ground. The improvement in walk rate is good to see, as the drop in K rate. But I’m just not certain how his swing will fare in the high minors. To be clear: this isn’t me questioning his ability, this is me saying I have no idea, so I’ll defer to those that have seen him.
Same story with Carrera. I love that we have another prospect with a good idea of the strike zone, but it’s just odd to see a guy double his walk rate upon moving from high A to AA. It’s not unprecedented or anything, and teams have player development staff solely to *improve* players. But it’s just tough to know what to make of someone who’s putting up a season that’s somewhat out of character (hey, like Dunigan!). All told, I’m really pleased that the team has two CF prospects who can work the strikezone and utilize their speed to add value at the plate. It’s been a while. I’d really love to hear what scouts have told you on these two.
Jay: I remember a guy who doubled his walk rate on being promoted from advanced to double-A. It was Wladimir Balentien. Proof that just about anything in this game is possible. Comparing the two, I think I’d take Gillies over Carrera without much hesitation. Developmentally, they’re about on the same level, Carrera being a year older and a level higher, but Gillies is bigger and has shown a greater acumen for stretching out those doubles into triples, even if his stolen base rate sucks, quite frankly (16 of 26). The Mariners put him in a somewhat difficult position to start the year, as he hasn’t had a great deal of experience as a pro or prep player, since he’s originally from the Vancouver B.C. area. While a guy jumping from Everett to High Desert would hardly be uncommon for Bavasi or even Gillick, Zduriencik has proven a lot more cautious and willing to hold players back. Gillies’ spring training obviously caught the eye of everyone in the front office, but he’s earned his place on the Mavericks roster and has improved every month. He went from a 19/11 K/BB in April to an 11/13 K/BB in May and has seen his slugging percentage climb as well. I think that he could be one of those rare hard-working guys who’s centered enough to be able to maximize results from tools that didn’t initially excite anyone. I’m eager to see what his hitting numbers will look like (particularly slugging) in less favorable climates.
Dave: Scouts are really mixed on these kinds of players. Most of them are usually not big fans – the minor leagues are littered with speedy non-hitters who succeed by bunting a lot and chopping the ball at bad defensive infielders and then find that doesn’t really work so well at higher levels. A total lack of power is a big no-no for a lot of scouts, but defense is making a bit of a comeback in coolness of late, and the reviews on both of these guys is that they can stick as legit center fielders long term. That gives them some latitude to not have to put up .400+ slugging numbers and still be useful. I think Mariners fans saw how useful this skillset can be with Endy Chavez this year, and with major league teams making the shift back towards valuing players with those kinds of skills, I think both of these guys could have decent major league careers.