MiLB Roundtable: March ’10

Jay Yencich · March 5, 2010 at 9:02 am · Filed Under Mariners, Minor Leagues 

We’re bringing it back for another go, seeing as how it was good fun last time and a way of getting our thoughts out in a different setting. The idea is that we’ll be doing this more often during the regular season this year, maybe even monthly.

Prompt (Jay):
One of the things that surprised me a bit as I was writing the prospect piece for the Mariners Annual (which everybody should buy for their own benefit, as we’re not getting royalties on it) is that the top ten seemed fairly easy to construct. The top three were set for me in the months before I wrote it and the next seven, Cliff Lee hullaballoo aside, I had a pretty strong idea on. No, the difficulty arose when I was trying to suss out another ten mentionables and realized that there were a number of players that I found I really liked, but had to snub for one reason or another. In my case, Hensley, Cleto, and Kasparek were all omissions that some people might want to argue about, and appeared high on lists elsewhere. Outside of that top tier or two of players, who do you like to break through in the ’10 minor league season?

Hmm, always a fun question. There are really two different groups – one comprised of that 10-20 group that everybody knows and who may move up and elbow into the top 5 next year (the Alex Liddis) and one comprised of guys that aren’t really in the discussion now but could pop up and show that they’re able to contribute in some way (the Doug Fisters). In that first group, I think I’d go with Mauricio Robles. The stocky lefty got some raves recently regarding his change-up. That’s big, as his secondary stuff was something of a question mark (good curve, but not a lot of consistency with it), and because a decent change is a hell of a thing to pair with low-to-mid 90s velocity from the left side. I think we’re all excited to see what Robles can do outside of that bandbox in Adelanto – Robles most of all, no doubt.

Representing the other group I might go with Kasparek. He had Tommy John surgery in college a few years back, and it’s always interesting to see if he’s able to add a bit of velocity as his recovery progresses. Yes, it’s been a long time now, but with improved training (thanks Dr. Elliott!), I’m guessing he may improve in 2010. Even setting the surgery aside, I’m really curious to see what the new regimen can do with a 6’8″ pitcher who’s already got very good command. On the down side, he was fairly lucky in 2009, and if he’s at High Desert this year, his numbers will probably look a lot worse.

And Marc is so bold as to pick the guy who finished with the top ERA in the Midwest League last season. Just funning with you, Marc. Kenn with two Ns would be an interesting pick. He lost a couple of Ks late in the season, but otherwise his momentum stayed about the same. No increase in walks, or line drives, or anything that would otherwise suggest fatigue. Mavericks Stadium might prove to be a test though, as he’s a fairly solid flyball pitcher. Robles is another interesting guy to put a stake on. I hadn’t been hearing people talk up his change-up until recently, when he got the surprise invite to camp and is seeming to make good use of it. Probably the only thing keeping him from being an absolute beast out there now is consistent mechanics and his stature, and to bring the P3 stuff back in for a moment, if Elliott is mostly focused on rotation, they may be able to help him with the mechanical end of things. No word yet on whether the miracle work includes making a guy two inches taller.

I’m going to throw my hat in the corner of the surviving college starter from the first few picks of the ’08 draft and say that Hensley will also benefit from a change of climate. His K-rate is less than one off of what Robles was doing (8.6 to 9.5) and he walked at the second lowest rate on the team among starters, behind Pineda who is clearly in his own little world. Hensley suffered from a rather nasty case of gopheritis in August, but I’m willing to chalk that up to his surroundings more than any one thing he was doing wrong, as he logged 83.7 innings at home to just 43.1 on the road. Plus, the last month of play, he ran a 24/2 K/BB in 22.2 innings. Yowza. The Baseball America folks also rate him as having the system’s best slider, which may just be to say that his is more polished than Pineda’s. I’ll take it, whatever the case. He seems like he could develop into a mid-to-back-end starter if he gets a good third pitch.

I feel obligated to look at some hitters too, so I think that I’ll say the two prep guys taken in the first round, Franklin and Baron, will do better than the early expectations of them. I know, a lot of us wanted a pitcher in there, someone like a Paxton or a Brothers or even a Skaggs, but the desire for something else has often led some to overlook the good qualities in what we did end up with, which is a couple of guys who have developed tremendous skills because the only way you can drag them off the field is kicking and screaming.

I don’t know how far back the Elliott negotiations go, but it would be eerily prescient of them if they opted to take hard workers with the knowledge that they could rebuild them, better than before. Still, I wouldn’t put it past them to be thinking several months ahead in that way. Right now, we know Franklin was involved in the earlier camp, and Baron is impressing everyone that comes in contact with him, even if he is still in that wide-eyed “yes sir/no sir” phase at the moment. So those two I think might have their timetables pushed forward a little bit depending on how they respond to start the year.

Mind you, one of the people ‘talking up’ Robles’ change was Mike Sweeney, who I imagine talks up everybody’s everything. Still, it was encouraging all the same. And it’s nice to see everyone from Adair on down seem to agree with Sweeney’s assessment. All of this talk about his ‘plus’ change-up makes me wonder if the scouting report we had on the guy was flat-out wrong (good curve, change-up was a work in progress). And since we started this, Robles is everywhere – a story from Geoff Baker (with video!), a nice inning in an intrasquad game, and a great write-up from ProBallNW. Kasparek’s stock is probably low after his performance in Wednesday’s Cactus League game, so yay!

Part of the issue is figuring out who’s in that first group of “notables” so as to avoid redundancy. As Marc already mentioned, everybody knows names of guys I’d consider in the 15-25 range of Ms prospects. As far as true “breakout” guys who could vault themselves into top-100 prospect discussions, James Jones is my top pick, but everybody already pretty much knows about him. That said, I’ll try to dig deep and find a few guys who I’m pretty certain are completely off most of our readers’ radars who at least interest me.

On the pitching side, I’m probably a bigger fan than most of Ricky Orta. Most people were pretty shocked/disappointed when the Ms used a 4th-round pick on a college reliever coming off of a 6.18 ERA season. Orta doesn’t have the repertoire to make it as a starter, and scuffled in the rotation for Everett and Wisconsin, but was still able to use his low-90s fastball to strike out over a batter per inning. Moved to relief for West Tennessee last year, Orta was stellar, striking out 41 and walking 18 in 41.2 innings. He followed it up with 8 dominant frames in the Venezuelan Winter League. Orta is a righty who gives up a lot of fly balls, but I think he has a very good chance to become a quality reliever. I’m also interested to see the minor league debut of 2009 5th-round pick Tyler Blandford, who has very good raw stuff and could turn into a quality innings eater or a power reliever if the development people can clean his delivery up.

On the offensive side, I’m a moderate believer in the potential of 2008 7th-rounder Nate Tenbrink. He’s a left-handed hitter with a natural uppercut swing that doesn’t have too many holes and the tools to play a quality third base, but he overswings and makes far too many errant throws across the diamond. As a minor leaguer, he piqued my interest by running a .149 ISO in the very pitcher-friendly Midwest League. If he can’t figure out how to make consistent accurate throws across the diamond the Mariners will have to move him to the outfield, but he’s athletic enough to be solid in an outfield corner and the bat still has some potential. If nothing else, I see Tenbrink as a guy with a decent chance to carve out a Greg Dobbs-type career as a sub who can handle 1B, both corner outfields, and 3B in a pinch, and there’s potential for more. Like Joe Dunigan before him, Tenbrink will probably put up big power numbers this coming year, but as a 23-year-old in High Desert, they won’t mean very much.

“Like to break out” is far too strong a description of my take on Denny Almonte, but he’s fun to keep tabs on. He’s a poor man’s Greg Halman, with the exact same flaws and a similarly exciting (though less so) package of physical tools. The only positive thing we can say about Almonte’s performance so far is that he knows how to put a charge into the ball. Not many 20-year-olds are capable of running an ISO of .176 in the Midwest League. Like Halman, his approach is absolutely awful, and if the team sends him to High Desert there is a good chance that his negative habits will be reinforced by a hitting environment where his warning track shots are leaving the park on a regular basis. I’ll keep checking in on him, because every once in awhile one of these guys can correct their approach issues enough to become something special, but I won’t be holding my breath.

Prompt (Jay):
Okay, question number two, which is a bit less direct. When we were used to writing about bad teams and their methodology, it was easier to come up with topics because you can offer alternative approaches. Those articles can come together easily because all you need is one thing to hone in on and then run it through its analytical course. The past year or so has been rather different for all of us. We’ve all spent a lot of time talking about the various moves that the organization has made so far and how they’re positives, and while it’s nice to be praising the organization for doing things right (it certainly makes for better viewing), the way we look at it doesn’t often go much deeper than that. So, without dragging any names through the mud to start out the season or pegging any players to collapse, what are some issues that you think may develop over the course of the year with regard to player development?

You mean, what are they doing wrong? I don’t know yet. If you mean, what are some areas of concern, it’s still really, really early. Last year I wondered if the team hadn’t gotten too conservative with promotions; that the pendulum swung too far the opposite way after the Bavasi years. But looking at it more closely, I’m not sure what they really could’ve done with someone like Joe Dunigan at the midpoint of 2009.

As far as issues that may develop, I think they’ll be quite similar to the issues that arose last year. We all thought Josh Fields would move quickly, but poor command and nagging injuries marred his 2009. Anthony Varvaro’s velocity seems like it’s back to where it was prior to his TJ surgery, but while the increased K rate is nice, a walk rate approaching 20% is scary stuff. This may be part of the reason the organization promoted pitching coach Lance Painter from Clinton (who tied for the league low in team BB/9 in 2009) to West Tennessee (who were awful using the same metric). This isn’t to blame the situation on the pitching coach in WT, but it shows that the organization is pretty quick to make a move if they see an opportunity to improve their coaches. Also, as the team’s stockpiled ground-balling minor league arms (Levale Speigner, Pat Bresnehan, etc.), I’d imagine that improving their infield defense would be a priority. The org hired Mike Brumley to help with this, and Jack’s been effusive in his praise of the ex-Mariner.

Finally, the organization’s put a lot of emphasis on the mental side of the game – everything from sending Roger Hansen to the Netherlands to talk to Greg Halman’s parents to trying to instill a ‘Mariner Way’ throughout the minors. What does that mean, exactly? In Halman’s case, we can judge his results (particularly when he goes into his first slump of 2010). But what sorts of measures are Grifol and Zduriencik looking for? How do they know that it’s working, whatever ‘it’ is?

It’s tough to point to any real flaws on the developmental side. A lot of my frustrations with the system are just on a pure talent level. From top to bottom, there just aren’t enough quality arms to make this a good system.

The one concern I have with the system developmentally has nothing to do with the front office: The Mariners desperately need to get out of the lunar gravity of High Desert. I don’t place much stock in the value of armchair psychology, but I have to believe playing in that park creates bad habits for hitters and maybe even potential confidence issues for pitchers. This is a problem that may fix itself, as the negotiations between the High Desert Mavericks and Stater Bros. Stadium have been pretty contentious (the lease runs out at the end of this season) and the Mavericks may be looking for a new place to play next year. Switching affiliations can be tough, and the team got stuck with High Desert as the option of last resort after the Dodgers poached the Inland Empire 66ers away from us, but I’m really hoping Zduriencik and crew can work something out.


JH is hitting on some notes that are concerning for me as well. The High Desert issue remains, and even with funding for a new or revamped stadium looking like it’s going to come through now (thanks to the Mavs winning the division in both halves), the climate issue is not going to go away with a change in dimensions.

What I found striking about it was that you’d generally assume that pitching in that kind of environment, the natural course would be for guys to avoid the plate, resulting in more walks and likely fewer Ks, but the reality turned out to be a little more strange. Taking the four major starters in ’09 of Hume, Ramirez, Hensley and Wild last season (putting aside Adcock in part because he pitched more frequently on the road, 73.0 innings to 32.3), you’ll see that Hume was pretty much on an even-keel, walking a little more on the road, while Hensley walked a little more at home and struck out a few more. The differences in splits between those two guys were negligible. Ramirez, however, is an enigma. He lost three Ks per nine innings on the road, even while suffering extreme HR/F ratios at home, and Wild did the opposite of what everyone would expect, doubling his walks and home run rate while losing three Ks when pitching in away games. It’s just strange.

Going back to the ’08 team, you’ll see basically what you would expect from Varvaro, 7.24 BB/9 at home to 4.84 on the road, a 6.42 K/9 at home to 9.30 on the road, but the rest are all over the map. Venegas gained a K at home and otherwise saw no change, Nick Hill had an extra walk at home and no other change, and Parker had an extra two Ks on the road, but also half a walk. This is just a sampling of eight pitchers with more than 80 innings pitched. There’s likely to be variance elsewhere, factoring for stuff and everything else. The idea that pitching in High Desert is directly detrimental to these guys, however, is proving harder to make than I thought it would be. We can expect that it’s affecting them, but it’s not really doing it in the ways that we would be able to anticipate and point to a single source on. Nevertheless, I’d expect that Zduriencik would probably be likely to make a move to get the affiliate elsewhere fairly soon, as he likes to reduce the number of variables he needs to account for.

It’s tough to pin High Desert on anyone in this organization (not that either of you have), so I don’t think it’s a reflection on the player development team at all. It was a crappy situation that got handed to Bill Bavasi, and then he passed it along to his successor. On the plus side, I’m just not sure it’s really hurt anyone. We were all worried about Chris Tillman after his stint in High Desert (what about his confidence?), but the next year he went out and basically dominated the minor leagues. For another organization, of course, but there didn’t seem to be any lingering post-Adelanto stress disorder affecting him. Pineda can’t complain about his results, and like most people reading this, I care a whole lot less about JC Ramirez’s development going forward. After that though, you’re out of examples not because of High Desert, but because it’s been a while since the M’s have developed a pitching prospect.

Right, which feeds into JH’s point about pitching dearth. This isn’t something that I’m outright alarmed about, but the arms we acquired last year through the draft are nothing too exciting, outside of Blandford who has some serious questions of his own, what with his command going in the wrong direction. Gilheeney and Carraway both have stuff that might be called average, while Moran and Hesketh are both slightly below in their offerings. The strongest thing to the credit of all four is that they seem to be able to attack the zone and at times show good pitching acumen. Hesketh, in particular, I like for that. Being realistic about it though, Hesketh’s career trajectory might be that of Craig Anderson, and he may run into a point where he’s just not fooling anyone anymore.

We’re not adding a great deal on the international front other, and as JH has been wont to point out elsewhere, some of the high dollar signings like Chia-an Huang, Miguel Marquez, and Douglas Salinas never did much of anything for us. I like what Nolan Diaz and Jean Tome did in Pulaski last year, but they’re about it as recent newcomers have gone, and I don’t view either of them as being much more than middle-to-back end starters at the moment. The other guy who got a lot of hype last summer, Erasmo Ramirez, doesn’t really have the stuff to headline prospect lists even though he pitches well. Not much else from the summer leagues jumps out at me as making an impact, though it’s worth saying that Pineda wasn’t on my list of guys to watch until he opened the season bombing on the Midwest League.

We can probably go through each individual short-season team with the fine-tooth comb and pick out various others and say “well, there’s this guy who could do something next year”. We all have done that in the past. But looking at these rosters, aside from the two guys I mentioned from Pulaski, there isn’t anyone I’m excited to see starting the year, fine organizational types though there may be.

One of the things I remember hearing from McNamara was that they knew the draft to be pitching strong, but opted to go with hitters more often for the difference between picking up the tenth best position player versus the thirtieth best pitcher. There’s some merit in that certainly, and that he was targeting primarily left-handers and switch-hitters in that case was certainly a bonus. Mac also seems to like players who are self-motivated and seems to prefer skills over raw talent (which means no more 6’6+ throwers). We know that much. But as to whether or not he’s going to continually show preference to hitters, as Zduriencik did when he was a draft guy, I don’t know yet. It will be something I’m interested in seeing come June.


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