AL West Prospects Part I: 2011 Impact
The AL West has a clear pecking order, but without a runaway favorite (a projected 95 win team), each team has to balance developing prospects with running out the side that maximizes their playoff odds. The Angels and M’s need a lot of help, which actually makes things easier – they’re going to play their prospects, because they don’t have better options. The A’s and Rangers need less help, but will still rely on rookies for depth and replacing injured starters. In this post, we’re going to focus on prospects who’ll make an impact in the upcoming season – I’m not denying that Mike Trout, Nick Franklin or Michael Choice are great prospects, I’m just going to address them in another post.
For 2011, the big names are:
Angels: Peter Bourjos, Hank Conger, Mark Trumbo
A’s: Chris Carter, Adrian Cardenas, Tyson Ross
Rangers: Tanner Scheppers, Michael Kirkman, Eric Hurley
Mariners: Justin Smoak, Michael Pineda, Dustin Ackley
Angels – PECOTA WAR: 0.7*
Peter Bourjos was essentially named LA’s starting center fielder last summer, despite the presence of Torii Hunter on the roster. The Angels brought in another CF this offseason, but Bourjos’ glove makes the decision about where to play Hunter and Wells an easy one; Bourjos is an elite defender. While he’s neither patient nor all that powerful, he’s a good contact guy, and – with his defense and position – can ride that skill to a league average WAR. After hitting 25 HRs in four pro seasons, he hit 19 last year between AAA and Anaheim, which further complicated his projections (go to Fangraphs and check it out – Rotochamp has him as a low average, above average power guy, while Bill James has him as a classic lead-off slap-hitter). If he adds some power, the comparisons to Franklin Gutierrez get more legitimate. If not, he could be something between Marlon Byrd and Rajai Davis. In short, Bourjos could be anything from Franklin Gutierrez 2009 to Franklin Gutierrez 2010; the M’s aren’t alone in having an enigmatic CF as one of the keys to their offense. While I saw Bourjos several times in Tacoma, I’m not sure what I saw was representative: those games included a rehab start by Cliff Lee and Michael Pineda’s AAA debut.
Hank Conger’s a switch-hitting catcher with a plus bat. On most teams, that’d make him a shoo-in to start, particularly when the incumbent is Jeff Mathis and his lifetime -0.8 WAR. This is not most teams, however – this is the team that sent Mike Napoli packing. Conger is a bit more patient, makes a bit more contact and hits for more power than Bourjos. Coupled with his position, he’s projected for better rate stats than Bourjos. The wildcard is his manager. Conger may simply not get enough PAs to get the WAR total he’s capable of. He could also force the issue and upgrade what looks like one of the worst starting positions in all of baseball.
Mark Trumbo was drafted in 2004 and spent 2005-2009 as organizational depth, but exploded in the hitter-friendly PCL last year with 36 HRs and 122 RBIs. The big righty’s power and RBI total should make M’s fans think of Rich Poythress, but another comp might be less charitable: a right-handed Bryan LaHair. It seems odd to be talking about Trumbo and not, say, Jordan Walden, but after piling up the counting stats in 2010, he’s getting national attention this spring. Like Poythress in the Cal League, Trumbo benefited from his home park and league context – if you plug his stats into the MLE calculator here, you get something a bit more pedestrian – something that looks nearly identical to LaHair’s 2010 for Iowa. He clearly makes more contact than guys like Dallas McPherson, so we’re not dealing with the IF version of Greg Halman. But he’s going to have issues against MLB righties, and it’s still not clear if he’s going to make enough contact for his power to matter. Projection systems have been pretty rough on Trumbo, but he’ll get a shot early in 2011 thanks to Kendrys Morales’ injured leg.
Others: RP Jordan Walden, IF Alexi Amarista.
Summary: The Angels need help to catch Oakland, and their prospects should get a lot of playing time, but Bourjos and Conger are tough to project.
Group Rank: 2
* – The Angels PECOTA WAR seems awfully low to me thanks to PECOTA projecting Bourjos as a below average CF. That simply doesn’t square to any report I’ve heard. He may not hit (and PECOTA’s bearish on that), but I think he’ll be an above average defender.
Athletics – PECOTA WAR: 0.3
Chris Carter came to the A’s from the White Sox in the Nick Swisher deal and hit 39 HRs in his first year in the organization. The massive 1B struggled to make contact at times, but when he did, he punished the ball. A call-up to the PCL in 2009 allowed him to essentially end the Rainiers season single-handedly, as he homered in each game of the 2009 PCL playoff series. His 2010 was a bit less spectacular, and it ended with a rather embarrassing call-up in which Carter went 0 for his first 33 ABs. Still, he’s got a much better PECOTA forecast than Justin Smoak (though CAIRO gives the edge to the M’s 1B prospect) and with his raw power, he’s got a chance to give the A’s the power threat they lack with Daric Barton at 1B and Jack Cust in Seattle. The problem is how to get him ABs. Barton’s the starter and clearly a better hitter. Carter’s defense is not going to be enough to win him the job, so the A’s have trotted him out in LF this spring. Imagine Ryan Howard in LF, or hell, just remember watching Jack Cust out there for an idea of how that might work. DH is the best option, but the A’s signed Hideki Matsui for that role.
Adrian Cardenas was once a top 100 prospect in baseball and the centerpiece of the Joe Blanton trade. But he’s stalled out in AAA, where his walk rate’s dropped and his power’s been non-existent. Thankfully for Oakland, they don’t really need a second baseman at the moment with Mark Ellis and Adam Rosales around. If he’s able to improve, they’ve got great middle infield depth at virtually no cost. If not, it doesn’t really matter; the A’s are playing with house money. With Rosales recuperating from foot surgery, the A’s may need to use Cardenas early in 2011, but this is hardly a prospect who’ll turn the division race upside down.
Tyson Ross actually began 2010 in the A’s bullpen and saw action against the M’s in April. He was sent down to AAA to stretch him out as a starter, and he faced Tacoma the day Mauricio Robles made his AAA debut. Ross gets his FB into the mid-90s with an absurdly short stride and whippy delivery. He impressed that day, and seemed to be adjusting well to the rotation (despite an ugly BABIP). Like Robles though, he struggled to maintain his velocity (and effectiveness) into the 5th/6th innings. If Ross can do so in 2011, he’ll have a good shot to make it back to Oakland as the 5th man in a formidable rotation. If not, the A’s can always call on him as a bullpen arm. While Ross has the best projection of the A’s group, he’s also going to have to pitch quite well to get many innings.
Others: SS Eric Sogard, OF Michael Taylor
Summary: With so many good young pitchers, Daric Barton’s emergence and the acquisition of Willingham, Matsui and DeJesus, the A’s don’t really need these guys. If Carter and Ross play, their top-end projections would add a ton of value, but if they play due to injury/ineffectiveness of the starters, then they may not be enough, on their own, to reel in the Rangers.
Group Rank: 4
Rangers – PECOTA WAR: 2.3
Tanner Scheppers is the classic high risk/high reward prospect. The RHP (ding!) injured his shoulder in college (dingdingdingdingding!), which led to him falling into the supplementary round of the draft. His high 90s fb and plus-plus curve provide the reward portion of the equation. Used initially as a reliever, he tore through AA and AAA with ease – with Neftali Feliz and Alexi Ogando ahead of him as Rangers bullpen arms (and to maximize the value of his power arsenal), the Rangers shifted him to starting midway through 2010. I saw him before that shift in a rain-soaked 7 inning make-up game in Tacoma, and it was simply one of the most overpowering performances of the year. I will stipulate that the 2010 Rainiers were pretty adept at swinging and missing, but the R’s could not touch his fastball. The curve was a gorgeous afterthought. In 3IP, he struck out 7 and didn’t give up a hit. After moving to the rotation though, Scheppers struggled. The Rangers finally moved him back to the ‘pen late in the year to minimize his innings, but something still wasn’t quite right. This spring, he was expected to contend for a spot in the rotation, but he was shut down in early March with a back injury. Rangers fans are probably pretty happy it’s not a shoulder injury, but they may also wonder exactly what they have in Scheppers. By PECOTA, he’s got the best projection of anyone in this post save one, but no one’s counting on him due to his injury history and continual role changes. A great goal for 2011 might just be figuring out Scheppers’ role going forward.
Michael Kirkman was abysmal his first few years in pro baseball before changing his delivery after studying video of Cliff Lee. Now, his low-90s heat and slider have made him a rotation candidate for the Rangers. The lefty went into spring training looking for the 5th starter job, but Dave Bush, Tommy Hunter and Derek Holland may have the inside track for that spot. He could conceivably make the roster as a bullpen lefty (a role he played in a late-season call-up in 2010), but with Brandon Webb, Omar Beltre and Scheppers all ailing, the Rangers may want to have a SP ready to go in AAA. As you might expect for a lefty FB/SL pitcher, Kirkman will struggle against right-handed batters, and his command’s not great in any event. This explains the awful PECOTA projection. Still, most teams would like a near-ready starter waiting in AAA.
Eric Hurley was the crown jewel of the Rangers system in 2008 before he blew out his arm. The Rangers didn’t much mind after they found several larger, better jewels elsewhere. Shortly after making his MLB debut, Hurley tore his rotator cuff and his been working his way back ever since. He impressed this spring, but it looks like he’ll start the year in AAA. There’s simply not as much to go on with Hurley; he K’d fewer hitters in the Arizona Fall League, but that doesn’t mean much. He sat 91-93 or so in the AFL and also throws a slider and a change. Like Kirkman, he provides the Rangers with formidable depth in AAA – while his PECOTA projection isn’t stellar, he gives the Rangers and a righty starter to pair with the lefty Kirkman, both of whom figure to be better than replacement level. Given he’s missed a year and a half with shoulder issues, he’s also essentially impossible to forecast.
Others: RHP Pedro Strop, CF Engel Beltre
Summary: INJURIES. The Rangers aren’t counting on contributions from these guys, which is a good thing considering their injury risk. Scheppers and Hurley are both coming back from injury and Kirkman’s best shot to contribute is another DL trip for the previously injured Matt Harrison and Derek Holland. The Rangers impact prospects in 2011 aren’t quite up to par with the rest of the division’s, but that’s largely a timing issue: the Rangers best young talent is already with the big club (or with the M’s), and they’ve got plenty of talent in the low minors.
Group rank: 3
Mariners – PECOTA WAR: 1.7
Justin Smoak’s PECOTA forecast has him as a replacement level 1B. His CAIRO forecast is essentially the same. This is the player the M’s are counting on to stabilize/resuscitate their line-up. Oh boy. Clearly, if anyone in the division NEEDS a player to blow his forecast out of the water, it’s the M’s with Justin Smoak. The switch-hitting 1B was a top 20 prospect in all of baseball before 2010, but struggled mightily in call-ups with Texas and Seattle. While he improved significantly after another stint in AAA, he’s not shown tremendous power in his MLB/MiLB career. Many observers expect it’ll come naturally with experience, but it may also come with contact issues. If Justin Smoak can’t become a league average player fairly quickly, then the PECOTA/CAIRO forecasts of the M’s (70 wins!) seem pretty realistic. There are plenty of folks (especially around here) that think the M’s are more like a 78-80 win team. These people are almost certainly (implicitly) forecasting Smoak for 2-4 wins. That’s great, and he’s got a solid MiLB track record to point to, but it’s worth pointing out just how far beyond his saber projections they’re going. Please be good, Justin Smoak.
Michael Pineda looks set to begin 2011 as the M’s 5th starter. With a PECOTA forecast of about 2 wins, it’s somewhat understandable why the M’s seem willing to risk a year of club control to get him into a rotation that would feature Luke French/David Pauley. The gigantic righty’s shown good but inconsistent offspeed pitches during the spring, but primarily uses a mid 90s fastball that he can keep in the zone. A lot’s been said about his struggles against lefties, but I’m not sure it’s a huge issue. His slider’s not a big breaking pitch, so while he’ll have platoon splits, I don’t think they’ll be historic. He struggles when he doesn’t locate his FB; RHB/LHB – either will hit him if he’s in the middle of the plate (Rickie Weeks demonstrated this nicely a week ago). As he’s still learning to pitch with his new, much larger body, he could struggle at times. But he also gives the M’s a legitimate weapon in the back of their rotation. We haven’t seen a homegrown talent like this since Felix, and while he’s not exactly the King, he’s easily the best SP prospect who’ll hit the division this season.
Dustin Ackley’s coming off an evisceration of the Arizona Fall League and a Spring Training that saw him run an OBP of .441. Why’s he a slightly polarizing prospect? Because some worry that he can’t do much more than take bad pitches and hit mistakes. His rate stats in 2010 don’t help, as a poor start pull his averages down. Still, I have to admit that I didn’t see a monster prospect in Tacoma. On the other hand, I saw a guy who will almost certainly improve the MLB team, and it’s been too long since the M’s have had a guy like that. There are plenty of observers who are ready to pencil him in for .300/.400/.450 with decent 2B defense, and that’s a perennial all-star. If he’s more of a .280/.350/.440 guy, or something in that range, well, this team’s suffered enough that it should embrace a line like that. While I’m worried we may be expecting too much (especially in 2011-2012), I love that we’ve got a prospect whose volatility is all on the upside. I’m especially pleased that his defense apparently improved a bit this spring and that he was able to drive the ball for a prodigious HR in a B game. It’s Arizona, and it’s a B game, but it’s something many of his detractors never thought he’d be able to do. I’ll admit it: I was one of them.
Others: RP Tom Wilhelmsen/Josh Lueke, 3B Alex Liddi/Matt Mangini
Summary: This group has the best odds to put up a decent WAR total, but much of that has to do with playing time. Two of the above are on the opening day roster, and the third may be up in June. This team needs these guys to be good. After the unwatchable mess that was 2010, the M’s can’t afford another year of historically inept offense. They may call on Ackley quicker than they’d want if they’re scoring near a 2010 pace in April/May, and with Brendan Ryan/Jack Wilson/Miguel Olivo in the line-up, that’s not exactly far-fetched. When I started this, I expected the M’s trio to be the class of the division by far. While I think they’re good, the gap isn’t quite as large as I’d want it, especially given the gap in MLB talent the teams start with. The M’s need their system to close the chasm between themselves and the Rangers. This group helps, but they’ve still got a long way to go. The M’s are going to get a lot more watchable soon, but I’m not sure the Rangers are getting a lot more beatable.
Group Rank: 1