AL West Prospects: April Update
A little over a month ago, we took a look at the rookies (and almost-rookies) that might influence the divisional race in 2011. With a month in the books, let’s see how they’re doing:
Peter Bourjos was a slap-hitting speedster with impressive defense but a terrible K:BB ratio throughout the minors, but a spike in power in 2010 (in both Salt Lake and in Anaheim) gave projection systems pause. Was this a sign of growth, or just small sample size abetted by a great hitting environment in AAA? In the first post, I put my money on the former, but as Dave’s mentioned at Fangraphs, Bourjos has displayed some pop so far in 2011. He still doesn’t walk, and he’s striking out at a dizzying 30% rate so far, but he’s been effective thanks to a very high BABIP and ISO. The BABIP will come down over time (despite his speed), but the ISO’s intriguing. The sample’s still pretty small, but it’s looking increasingly likely that I underestimated Bourjos’ power potential. His defense is pretty much as-advertised, with many fans saying he’s the best CF in baseball. He’s their Franklin Gutierrez, right down to the volatile hitting stats.
Hank Conger was initially the Angels’ third catcher behind Jeff Mathis and Bobby Wilson, but Conger quickly established himself as Mathis’ primary back-up, then usurped the light-hitting incumbent in late April. Like Bourjos, pretty much everything’s gone right for Conger in 2011. He’s limited his strike-outs, and he’s hit the ball hard. The sample size is tiny, but the Angels couldn’t have asked for more, and one of the big question marks for Angels fans – would Scioscia bench Mathis in favor of a more talented hitter (after running Mike Napoli out of town) – has been answered. Conger will probably see his ISO regress, but he promises to be incredibly valuable for the Angels. It’s been a month, but he’s in the running for best catcher in the division with Torrealba and Suzuki (after typing that out, it sounds like I’m damning him with faint praise).
Mark Trumbo just isn’t very good. He strikes out frequently and never walks, and while his power’s solid, a low average, low-OBP first baseman just doesn’t work. The comparable hitters to a guy like Trumbo include a lot of SS/CF types – Jose Hernandez, Preston Wilson, Juan Uribe, Alex Gonzalez. Given positional scarcity, you could be a league average player with this hitting profile…if you could play a bit of shortstop. He’s 24, so there’s definitely time to improve his selectivity, but the gap between where he is and where he needs to get is just massive. Fun fact: using the MLE calculator at Minor League Splits, Trumbo’s huge 2010 in hitter-friendly Salt Lake translates translates into a major league line of .230/.287/.423. Greg Halman’s 2010? .217/.264/.453. Forget BA – the isolated patience is virtually identical, and Halman’s isolated power is much better. Halman was younger, and played a premium defensive position.
Others – Jordan Walden quickly established himself as the Angels closer, and he’s been one of the most valuable relievers in the division. The hard-throwing righty’s benefited from a great strand rate, a low BABIP and a HR rate of 0, but part of that’s his own doing. A strike-out pitcher’s going to have a higher strand rate than league average, and his GB rate helps minimize home runs.
Michael Kirkman seemed like a decent bet as a Jason Vargas style back of the rotation starter. He debuted for the 2010 Rangers out of the pen, and was able to maintain a solid K rate in limited innings. His control wasn’t great, but it was an encouraging debut from a lefty who’d come from nowhere to become a solid prospect. With that debut, and a Rangers rotation that had some question marks, Kirkman was poised to make an impact. Maybe next year.
Kirkman’s been pounded in every appearance in 2011. He’s given up 35 hits in 17+ innings, and while the .500 BABIP will regress…he’s given up 35 hits in 17+ innings. He made a one-game appearance for the Rangers, and, as you’d expect, MLB hitters weren’t fooled either. 6 runs and 6 hits in 1 2/3 IP later, he was back to AAA Round Rock… where he yielded 9 hits and 4 BBs in 5 2/3 IP last week to Memphis. Something’s just not right here.
Tanner Scheppers possessed one of the most electric arms I saw in 2010, ranking right up with Michael Pineda’s. That’s never really been in doubt – the question’s always been: can he stay healthy? A shoulder injury caused him to drop in the draft, and it looked like Texas got a great bargain. He came into spring training gunning for a rotation spot, but a back injury shut him down. He came off the DL to make a start in the PCL, but after a couple of poor innings, he was back on the DL again. It’s not clear when he’ll pitch again, and how long he’ll be pain free when he does. This isn’t exactly shocking, but it’s a blow to the Rangers.
Eric Hurley may be the most unlucky of this hapless group. A former #1 prospect for the Rangers, he shot up the ladder and made his debut for Texas in 2008. Then, he blew out his arm (torn rotator cuff and a frayed labrum). Then, his hamstring started giving him problems. All in all, he missed two plus seasons. While his hamstring was an occasional issue this spring, he nearly made the opening day roster. Then, in his second start for Round Rock, he was struck in the head by a batted ball and suffered a skull fracture, forcing him to the 60 day DL. This injury obviously wasn’t related to his shoulder, but the Mark Prior vibes are pretty much inescapable at this point. I mentioned in the initial post that the Rangers’ prospects had a very high injury risk. We’re just waiting on some diagnosis for Kirkman, and it’ll be 3-3.
Others: Pedro Strop’s contributed in the Texas bullpen, but clearly, the guy we should’ve talked more about was Alexi Ogando, who’s transitioned to starting with ease. He doesn’t qualify as a rookie (neither do Smoak/Bourjos), but he’s been invaluable as the Rangers’ pitching depth is dealing with the biblical tribulations detailed above.
Chris Carter, while he continues to terrorize Tacoma, doesn’t appear to be the elite prospect that many thought he was. He’s currently sidelined with a thumb injury, but he’s struggled so far in 2011, with only 2 HRs (both against the Rainiers, of course) and a K rate over 30%. The A’s offense is anemic, and you’d figure the team could make a place for Carter by platooning him at DH/1B with Matsui and Barton, but not while he’s hitting like this. The hulking 1B played some LF in the spring, but I just can’t see that working out. He’s actually a bit smaller than Carlos Peguero, but Peguero’s a much better runner. At this point, it’s not clear what Chris Carter is – he’s had slow starts, and he’s had contact issues, but I think many expected more contact ability (particularly after his great 2009 season). He doesn’t walk as much as Josh Willingham or Carlos Quentin did, and he got less contact skill or defensive ability than either. The power’s legitimate, but it needs to be considering he’s not going to be bringing a whole lot more to the table. While it’s a bit early to deploy the Greg Pirkl comparisons, the clock’s really ticking now.
Michael Taylor looked to put a disappointing 2010 behind him and make a run at the Oakland roster. A wrist injury seems to be lingering, and he hasn’t played thus far; he’s still in extended spring training. The imposing RF saw his ISO fall precipitously last year, and his injury won’t help him recover in that department. Minor league vet Jai Miller (who’s only a year older than Taylor) is currently tearing up the Pacific Coast League, so Taylor’s not even missed right now. It’s been a rough year for the former Phillies prospect.
Adrian Cardenas is hitting well, but he doesn’t seem to have a set position anymore. Jemile Weeks forced Cardenas to DH/3B/LF, and even with Weeks out for a bit with an injury, Cardenas hasn’t played 2B once this season. Positional flexibility is nice and all, but this move looks eerily similar to what the M’s have done with Matt Tuiasosopo. If Cardenas isn’t a middle infielder, it’s not clear that his contact ability alone will make him a viable MLB player. With Weeks in AAA as well, the A’s may look to move Cardenas to a team that could use infield help or a bench bat.
Tyson Ross has been quite valuable thus far as a reliever and now as a starter (filling in for the injured Dallas Braden). He made his starting debut against the M’s and Michael Pineda and looked sharp before tiring in the 5th inning. As a converted reliever, that was always the knock on him, but he came back five days later and blanked the Angels in 7 innings. The hard-throwing right-hander has an above average GB rate, and attacks righties with an above average slider. He’s still struggling against lefties, however; his newish change-up holds the key to future success against southpaws. All in all, he sounds a lot like a very poor man’s Michael Pineda, right down to Ross’ 6’6″ height. It hasn’t been a perfect transition, but the A’s certainly look like they made the right call in sending Ross down last year to become a starter. At 0.4 fWAR in April, Ross has been as valuable to the A’s as Walden’s been to the Angels.
Others: Michael Choice was a toolsy pick in the 2010 draft, who mixed power/speed/defense – though he’d also strike out a bit. The A’s clearly hoped he was a bit more Drew Stubbs and a bit less Greg Halman. So far, he’s been more like Jack Cust. He’s struck out *more* than Halman did in the same league at the same age, but he’s also walked as much in one month as Halman did in 3. There are positives here, but the contact rate is officially scary, especially after Choice’s 43 Ks in 102 ABs in the Northwest League last year.
Michael Pineda is the story of 2011. He’s leading all rookies in WAR (with 1.1 so far), he’s blowing all of MLB out of the water in fastball velocity, he’s dominating good line-ups, and yet he’s still a work in progress. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen someone like him. He’s gone from lanky, pretty much normal-sized human with a good but unspectacular fastball to the behemoth we see today throwing faster than Verlander/Jimenez/Price. Despite the fact that his longer legs/arms must have changed his release point, he’s still pounding the zone. Even when he misses his spots, the ball seems to stay near the zone; you’ll see Olivo set up low and in, and Pineda will hit the black up and away.
This is basically the plot of a kid’s sports movie. Normal guy transformed into a baseball-hurling ogre when a scientist trips and injects him with some serum that would never have received grant money. Our hero still doesn’t know how to harness this gift, but dominates anyway (but will Jenny ask him to the prom?). He’s so unique, it makes projecting his development impossible. I’m just not used to seeing such obvious works-in-progress in major league baseball. Or rather, I’m not used to watching obvious works-in-progress succeed so effortlessly. His velocity/swinging strike rate/unintentional walk rate are all far better than average, but it seems insulting to insist on regressing him towards such a human, run-of-the-mill benchmark. His HR/FB will certainly regress in time and his BABIP may as well, but I’m not betting against him growing another 6-8″ and adding 5 MPH of velocity to compensate. Yes, yes, this is all hyperbolic and we should really be talking about his change-up. Let’s do that later. Right now, it’s too much fun watching a guy put up a tRA under 2.00 without a great off-speed pitch.
Justin Smoak has blown even his optimistic projections out of the water thus far, and he’s easily the M’s best hitter at the moment. Given the slow starts from Milton Bradley, Michael Saunders and Jack Cust, that’s not saying much – but Smoak’s .388 wOBA is better than any season in Ichiro’s career. Most heartening is that he’s excelling against left-handed pitchers; this was supposed to be his big weakness as a prospect. Sure, his tiny sample BABIP’s sky high against them, but that’s balanced by his absurdly low BABIP against righties. His walk rate is exceptional, and that’s something I didn’t really expect, at least in 2011. Given his underlying skillset (he’s still going to whiff more than the average hitter), we should probably regress that down – but what would YOU do if you were managing against the M’s: pitch to Smoak, or take your chances with Miguel Olivo/Michael Saunders? Smoak’s start has helped erase the memory of his initial month in Seattle, a stretch that generated so many questions about his ceiling (“Will he ever hit lefties?” “Can he improve his plate discipline?”).
Dustin Ackley’s gone from being the consensus #1 prospect to something of a forgotten man. The M’s could certainly use a league average (or better) bat in their infield, but Ackley’s mired in a slump right now. His plate discipline is still elite, and I’m more confident than ever that he could post an above average OBP, but his power’s not going to show up if he continues beating the ball into the ground so much. He started out 2010 in AA with a sky-high ground ball rate and that, coupled with a poor BABIP, hurt his rate stats. Upon moving to AAA, he hit fewer grounders and improved his slugging (albeit at a cost in walk rate). He hit for power in the Arizona Fall League, so I assumed he’d fixed whatever was hampering him in 2010, but thus far in 2011, the 55% returned – along with the accompanying hit to Ackley’s isolated power. Ackley’s incredibly selective and has very good bat control, two great skills to have. But it seems they get him in trouble: he will occasionally make contact with a great pitch and roll it to the 2nd baseman. Taking a strike isn’t generally a great idea, and increasing his whiff rate isn’t what I’m suggesting either. But just because he CAN make contact with certain pitches doesn’t mean he SHOULD. Ackley simply will not get himself out on a pitch off the plate. Now, he’s got to work on driving pitches in the zone – even if that means facing a few more pitcher’s counts. As I said a month ago, the great news is that even with a terrible average and slugging percentage, he’s within spitting distance of a league average hitter. His batting eye gives him a tremendous margin for error. I haven’t seen enough of his defense to say if it’s improved over last year, so for me, my biggest concern is his platoon splits. He was lost against lefties in 2010, and that’s carried over so far in April 2011.
Others: Alex Liddi looked utterly lost in the first few weeks of the season – he struck out 19 times in his first 11 games (he K’d twice in a game 8 times in that stretch), and had only 5 hits and no HRs. Since then, he’s hitting over .300, with 5 doubles and 5 HRs, and 9 walks and 16 Ks in 13 games. He’s not a contact hitter, but this is a remarkable improvement. The hitter I saw on opening day wasn’t capable of driving a pitch out of Cheney stadium in April. He’s done it twice recently, including one in the game last night. His swing looks much better, much shorter, than it did just a few weeks ago. I have no idea why. While no one thinks skills are immutable, they’re supposed to less volatile than simply looking at results. In this case, the two are moving hand in hand, from “non prospect” to “what the hell got into this guy?” I may be overrating his current swing and underrating his previous one, but at least I understand how this guy’s hit so many HRs in the minors so far. Maybe he just didn’t like the cold. The K rate’s still concerning, but right now, Liddi’s got a better wOBA than Ackley. Raise your hand if you saw that one coming.