AL West Prospects Part II: Long Term Impact
The M’s start 2011 as the odds on favorite to finish last in the AL West. That the M’s are not in Texas’ class is a judgment that unites the columnists, sabermetric projection systems and probably most Mariner fans. Fangraphs assessment of the M’s current talent is brutal (27th!) but understandable. While the M’s had an edge over many teams financially, they’re clearly not the Yankees – and with the new television deal negotiated by the Rangers, the M’s are a step behind Anaheim and Texas.
Regression to the mean will help the M’s avoid 100 losses, but how can this team compete in the next 3-5 years in this division? While Jack Zduriencik was able to address a few of the black holes in the 2010 line-up with low-key trades and free agent pick-ups, he’s still got work to do. Essentially, the M’s need their prospects to narrow the (considerable) gap between themselves and the rest of the division.
As you know, the cupboard was pretty bare when Zduriencik became GM, and he’s won plaudits from people like us for restocking the system with guys like Nick Franklin, Ji-Man Choi, Rich Poythress, etc. But how do these guys – the guys a year or two from the majors – stack up with the prospects of the A’s, Angels and Rangers?
Beyond the guys I mentioned in the first post, the big three in each system are:
Angels: Mike Trout, Jean Segura, Garrett Richards
A’s: Grant Green, Michael Choice, Ian Krol
Rangers: Martin Perez, Jurickson Profar, Robbie Erlin
Mariners: Nick Franklin, Johermyn Chavez, Taijuan Walker
Angels – Division Rank: 1
Mike Trout went from a late first round flyer to the best (or second best) prospect in baseball in less than a year. JY and I have been trying to figure out exactly how he dropped as far as he did, and the whole ‘northern state’ thing only goes so far. Pretty much everyone missed how special he is. A CF with plus plus speed, he stole over 50 bases, had a good walk rate, made solid contact and could develop power down the line. He’s a long way from the big leagues, having just cracked the California League last year, but this is clearly the best prospect in the division. By far.
Jean Segura was Trout’s teammate for much of 2010 in the Midwest league. Like Trout, he also stole 50+ bases, but unlike Trout, he’s a tiny middle infielder. He’s not a patient hitter, but he’s got great contact ability. The M’s equivalent now would be someone like Kyle Seager, though Segura’s much younger and may have more defensive flexibility. All in all, he’s much more similar to Howie Kendrick – another 2B who didn’t need to worry about walk rates in the minors.
Garrett Richards was an enigma at Oklahoma – great stuff, horrific results. Bob Fontaine drafted similar pitchers when he was with the M’s – Aaron Pribanic and Nolan Gallagher come to mind. Unlike most of Fontaine’s flyers, Richards figured some things out in pro ball. He’s a righty with a low-90s fastball and good sink, enabling him to get both K’s and ground balls. That said, a lot can go wrong with someone like this. A college pitcher with good sink really should be able to succeed in the low minors, so AA will test him – but his skill set certainly is intriguing.
Others: Tyler Chatwood, Fabio Martinez-Mesa, Randal Grichuk
Athletics – Division Rank: 4
Grant Green is basically Nick Franklin with college experience. The A’s first round pick out of USC, Green demonstrated solid power, but struck out quite a bit in the Cal League last year. Like Franklin, many scouts think he’s destined to move off of SS to 2B. Green made a touch more contact, but Franklin was younger and played in a much, much less friendly offensive environment (Stockton’s surprisingly close to legendary High Desert in HR park factor). I’m pretty bullish on Green, but next year’s a crucial step.
Michael Choice is an athletic CF in the mold of current UCONN CF George Springer. Some thought he was the best college hitter in last year’s draft, which reflects more on last year’s college crop than it does on Choice. An athlete with a lot of power, he struggled mightily in a short Northwest League stint last year. The sample size is so small, you’d be tempted to ignore it, but contact is a stat that stabilizes quickly and…43 Ks in 121 PAs? Greg Halman, is that you? Halman of course never cracked the 35% K rate barrier in the NWL, and he was 17-18 years old. The power and speed combo’s great – I know, I’ve been following Halman for years – but Choice has to improve this year. His M’s equivalent is, well, who else? In a perfect world, he’s Jay Bruce. High risk/high reward, power+speed – contact ability… he just sounds like a Mariners outfield prospect.
Ian Krol‘s a sneaky lefthander who posted great numbers in the pitcher-friendly Midwest League last year. A great control pitcher who also gets some GBs, Krol was something of a surprise in his first full pro season, as he was suspended for his senior year of high school. He’s not physically imposing or possessed of lights out stuff, but given the year layoff, Krol had a stunning 2010. Krol’s ceiling isn’t exactly high, but a lefty with command and a good change-up isn’t a terrible thing to have. Full disclosure: though Dave probably thinks this is my favorite pitcher type in the world, I may underrate guys like this after having my heart broken by a string of Livingstons, Blackleys and Oldhams.
Others: Fautino De Los Santos, Max Stassi, Jemile Weeks, Steve Parker*
Rangers – Division Rank: 2
Martin Perez hit AA at age 18 after laying waste to the Sally League in 2009. He entered 2010 as one of the top 20 prospects in baseball and perhaps the top lefthanded pitching prospect in baseball. In 2010, he had his first sub-par season – his command left him, he got hit hard, and his HR rate spiked. It’s a testament to his stuff that he enters 2011 with most of his prospect sheen intact. A plus curve, a FB in the 93-94 range, and good sink producing lots of GBs. Despite his small stature, the Rangers (and most prospect folks) think he can put up a monster year, especially as he’s not going to start the year in AAA. I wish the M’s had a prospect like this; pre-injury Mauricio Robles is another short Venezuelan throwing in the low-mid 90s from the left side, but Robles is much older and still doesn’t have Perez’s command. A better comp would be Jon Lester (though Lester’s much larger).
Jurickson Profar played a key defensive position (SS) and flashed good plate discipline in the NWL at the ripe old age of 17. Some expect him to add power down the line, though he’s not big; he wouldn’t need power to be a decent regular. There’s some disagreement about the quality of his defense, though I don’t think anyone thinks he needs to move off of short. Elvis Andrus had advanced plate discipline at 16-17, though he was obviously much better defensively. On the other hand, Profar has a better swing. This isn’t an all-star, but a club-controlled starter like Asdrubal Cabrera sounds pretty good to anyone who’s suffered through the Betancourt-Cedeno-Wilson-Wilson era.
Robbie Erlin is a young lefty starter with exceptional control; sort of a right-handed Erasmo Ramirez. A bit less pure stuff/velocity than Ian Krol, Erlin had better results at 19 in the Sally League. As a starter, his walk rate was under 5%. While he may struggle to maintain his stellar strikeout rate at higher levels, and while his HR rate will creep up as he moves up the ladder, his walk rate could regress significantly and still be exceptional. Again, the M’s used to have a lot of guys like this in the system, though now (with the exception of Ramirez), they’ve mostly been replaced with high-ceiling/high-risk guys. How you view Erlin/Krol depends a great deal on how you balance risk/reward.
Others: Jake Skole, Engel Beltre, Mike Olt, Miguel de los Santos.
Mariners – Division Rank: 3
I don’t want to say too much as the new Future 40 will be out soon, but Nick Franklin is a clear top 100 prospect as a switch-hitting SS coming off a remarkable season in the Midwest league. Sure, he had issues from the left side, and sure, he struck out a bit much, and yes, some insist he’s a 2B down the road. But a guy with a reputation as a hard worker just hit 23 HRs in a pitcher’s league as a teenager. He was reported to have decent skills but no one true weapon when he was drafted – he’s got one now.
Acquired in the Morrow deal, Johermyn Chavez is another high-risk/high-reward guy with plus power and contact problems. He’ll face a real rest this year in AA, but scouts like his tools and his ceiling’s high, especially if he can continue to improve his contact skils. Of the divisional prospects I’ve touched on, he’s most similar to Michael Choice.
Taijuan Walker was seen as a raw athlete, but twitter lit up this fall/winter when he was touching 98 MPH in instructs. I know very little about him, but the combination of velocity and reports of a solid breaking ball so early (he was a standout basketball player in HS) sound pretty good to me. He shot into the top 5 in many prospect lists and while some think that’s premature, he’s got the highest ceiling of any SP in the system now that Pineda’s in the bigs (which, admittedly, isn’t saying much).
Others: Guillermo Pimentel, Kyle Seager, Marcus Littlewood, James Jones, Mauricio Robles
So what’s the point of all this? Well, we typically think about changes in a team’s system, or how many representatives each org has in a top 100 or top 150 list. But improvement against some baseline may not tell us enough; the M’s have clearly improved their system at every level, and yet it’s still not clear that their system gives them an advantage over their divisional rivals. Second, a key part of the M’s marketing involves patience until the current prospects become the core of the team. But while that’s sensible (I couldn’t wait until we had someone other than Casey Kotchman playing 1B either), it’s not like the other teams aren’t developing players to fill holes as well. Finally, I’m hoping we can zero in on areas of disagreement; if someone thinks the team’s going to challenge in 2012, is that because they’re really high on the 2011 guys (Smoak/Pineda), or because they think that someone like Chavez or Robles will make an impact in a year or two? Or, having watched Oakland throw the ball around like an over-30 softball team after a few dozen beers, do they think the gap in present talent is overstated?
To expand on that last point, I hope we can start to focus on the ways the team can get back into the hunt in the AL West. If the M’s have noticeably worse current talent, finances and their future talent doesn’t look like it’s head and shoulders above the rest of the division, what do they do? First, they can leverage their front office and narrow the gap through trade and FA acquisitions. Take a look at Dave’s post on the 2011 M’s from June of 2010. The M’s haven’t addressed every hole in the 2010 line-up, but Zduriencik was able to improve several positions without spending a lot of money. The M’s made low-key upgrades like Ryan over Wilson, and moving Figgins over to replace whatever that was in a Lopez jersey last year. The Rangers added Adrian Beltre. Is Zduriencik THAT much better than his AL West peers? At this point, that’s a tough argument to make.
The other option is player development. If their raw talent can’t close the gap, they could be more efficient/productive with it. If Pedro Grifol and the gang develop a few of the high risk/high reward guys in the system (Johermyn Chavez, I’m looking at you). This is promising, given the stories last year about the new training approach and the surprising power that many M’s prospects showed – most notably Nick Franklin. But given the uncertainty about how to apportion credit/blame in player development, it’s difficult to expect a massive advantage in this area, and it’s difficult to say, in any event, what a massive advantage in player development would translate to in MLB wins. It’s also going to be tough to compete with the Rangers, who’ve done a great job taking unheralded players like Mitch Moreland and getting them to the majors.
Finally, while the M’s have more depth than a lot of people think (there’s not much of a gap between them and the Texas group), running neck and neck with Texas in the low-minors isn’t good enough. This really highlights how important this year is – not in terms of wins and losses, but in terms of the present-talent gap. As Dave mentioned, this season’s about developing Pineda, Ackley and Smoak. On paper, this is as impressive a group of prospects to hit the majors for the M’s in a long time. As we all know, they cannot simply improve upon the play of the guys they’re replacing; given the holes elsewhere, they need to be better than the starters in Oakland/Texas/Anaheim fairly quickly. This is a major challenge for Wedge, and I’m sure this challenge dominated the interview process when the M’s hired him. So: do you think the M’s are underdogs for the foreseeable future? Will Z use trades to replenish the system and will Grifol improve the signal to noise ratio?