2012 Jackson Generals Preview
I’ll say it publically because the rest of you are thinking it anyway: there are going to be many, many days where I would rather watch this team than watch the Mariners. Good lord, it’s like all of our best prospects landed here. This will be either the stuff of legends or the most depressing footnotes you will ever read.
Rotation: RHP Andrew Carraway, LHP Steve Garrison, LHP Danny Hultzen, RHP Brandon Maurer, LHP James Paxton, RHP Taijuan Walker
I’m listing six guys here because I get the impression that six guys are being stretched out. Edit: Lies. If you’re like anyone that’s been paying attention lately, you probably only care about three of those guys. I have even recently seen some referring to the group as Cerberus, after the three-headed dog that guarded the underworld in Greek mythology. I won’t claim to have invented the moniker, but being a classical mythology nerd, I have no issues in promoting it: the three really are that fierce. I refer of course to Carraway, Garrison, and Maurer. Just kidding, it’s the other three. Edit: Garrison isn’t actually part of the rotation, I found out later, but the joke doesn’t work without him. ARRRGGGH
I suppose one of the weirdest things to come out of having three of the top pitching prospects in baseball right now is that they all have bonded and tend to hang out together. Paxton and Walker, it made some sense because they both moved up to Clinton around the same time last year, but Hultzen has found his way in pretty easily and it makes you daydream for a while about the possibility of all of them being healthy and good and staying with the team for a long time at a reasonable rate and then maybe you win the lottery too, with the money you previously won betting on the Mariners to win the World Series. Congratulations to all of you who recently won the lottery: I always knew you had it in you.
Walker is the one that people usually claim is the most talented, regardless of whether or not he actually ends up being the numeric ace of the rotation. One comparison that’s been thrown around recently is “Doc Gooden without all the sad things that happened,” which is a comparison with some legs, except Walker is taller (ha! legs!). His fastball tops out at 98 and he has a much improved curve so it makes sense in a way. The big things for him this year will be improving his secondary offerings and fixing up the control/command aspects of his games. Otherwise, the sky is the limit. Skywalker! I’ll stop now.
The next in line is Hultzen, who has a couple of times followed him on top 100 prospects lists as well. Marc and I didn’t talk about him for whatever reason in the preview, but there’s good odds on him actually being the first one to be called up of the group. Hultzen recently got a game in against what will be the San Antonio squad down in Arizona. He allowed one run on five hits in five innings, which isn’t especially inspiring, but that one run was a solo dinger (we know what Arizona is like) and two-thirds of his outs were strikeouts. That’s right, ten Ks. Hultzen didn’t end up competing for a job like they said he would, but the command is there to make the stuff really pop. There isn’t a great deal he needs to improve on, and his ceiling is ace-like dominance, albeit not of the 98 mph variety.
Paxton rounds out the group, which isn’t really fair as there are a number of systems where he’d be the best pitching prospect they had. Consider that as you will. Pax has the same range on his heater as Walker does and his curveballs is one of the best in the system right now. The change-up was one area that was lacking and he’s reportedly improved on that some to start this year. The reason why I and some others might still have him third in this group is that his walk rates have been a little high throughout and we’re still trying to figure out exactly how far behind him the injury concerns are. It’s not that the stuff is any worse, so much as the risk seems higher.
The rest of the rotation has good levels of interest depending on what you’re into. If you’re into high-stakes boom or bust prospects, Maurer’s your guy. The heater is a mile below most of these guys, but the slider is a great offering and some other pitch will find its way into the mix as well. Health is the foremost worry for him, since he’s had four seasons to work with now and has yet to top eighty innings in any one of them, nor has he officially gone under the knife. His upside is such that he could be in conversation with the trio, but the downside is that he’s never healthy enough to do anything but relieve, if he makes it at all. On the plus side, he won the pitcher equivalent of the Control the Zone award which is exciting, I think.
Carraway would be more interesting in a system more starved for pitching. He ran a 2.95 tRA in Jackson last year and combines decent stuff with low walk numbers and a passable strikeout rate (above seven for his career). Of course, he’s also twenty-five. I could see him being a throw-in for some deal, but there are just too many guys ahead of him to think of him being used outside of an emergency, which is a shame, because he is neat.
Garrison, who was born eight days after Carraway (I kid you not), is in a slightly different boat because he’s left-hander with average velocity, was drafted out of high school (Brewers!), and lacks the low walks, but he does have a strikeout rate of nearly seven per nine in the high minors and that’s something. He’s also seen the majors. Against the Mariners no less. Good for him.
Bullpen: RHP Carter Capps, RHP Steven Hensley, LHP Bobby LaFromboise, RHP Yoervis Medina, LHP Brian Moran, RHP Stephen Pryor
As the minor league box scores started coming out this spring, the question of “is Capps going to start?” was answered with a “no,” and whether that turns into a “not now,” I don’t know. Arguments for both sides exist. Those that think he can’t start are going to cite the weird mechanics and the lack of a third pitch, or just mention the near 100 mph heater he gets in relief. Those that think he can start will tell you that he’s a recent convert to pitching, so he has a fresh arm in his favor and shouldn’t be expected to have everything immediately, and besides, it’s not as though his starting velocity was bad. So that’s the basic outline: get furious as you deem it necessary. It feels a little weird to relegate him to the ‘pen so quickly, but he’s not a first-round pick, so….
The other arm I’m watching here is Pryor, whom we know as another big dude who throws the ball quite hard. I would have thought he’d have stood a chance to fight for a job in spring training, but then he bailed for a while to attend to a personal matter. Pryor doesn’t have quite the heat that Capps does and offers a curveball instead of a slider, but he does have a cutter which was supposedly a contributing factor in his awesome second half. It’s easy to imagine one of these two guys closing for us at some point.
When looking up Hensley, I was surprised to be reminded that he was a starter for most of last season, and really his whole minor league career. Only five relief appearances, some of which may have been piggyback starts anyway! The past couple of years, his strikeouts haven’t supported what his stuff says, and his command is getting worse, leading to some suspicions that his elbow is giving him issues. That’s one possible explanation of the fall league tour where he had a 15/16 K/BB in 14.1 innings. This in turn ended his candidacy for a 40-man spot. So it goes.
A teammate of Hensley’s, both last year and in the fall league, is Moran. Moran ran an 11/4 K/BB in 13.2 innings in the AFL and had a 1.32 ERA. Decimal places! Anyway, he did nothing to hurt his case down there. The returns from the regular season were a little less inspiring as he saw his rate of handing out free passes jump by two and he started giving up home runs when he hadn’t previously in his career. At all. Look it up. His tRA was half a run better than his ERA, which speaks well for him, and while I wish he was in Tacoma, I can see a rationale here.
LaFromboise and Medina are two former starters now in the ‘pen. LaFromboise was there, in the pen, all of last season for the Generals and I haven’t determined whether my nickname for him is Spuds (From Boise, though he’s really from California) or Raspberry (French: framboise). He walked too many last season and ran a deceptively-low ERA, so even while the Ks went up a bit and he handled himself well, I’m not as big of a fan as I used to be.
Yoervis Medina has been described as a poor man’s Felix Hernandez, by me, just now, and by others before me I guess. The org was previously committed to him as a starter in spite of the weak command because, gosh, he struck out a lot of guys in his stateside debut [after four seasons in the VSL]. He’s built for endurance but lacks the skills for it and what is presently good stuff could become a bit better in the bullpen. In quizzes regarding the composition of the Mariners’ 40-man roster, he’s the guy everyone misses. Except me.
Catchers: Ralph Henriquez, Jesus Sucre
They were invited to spring training. Perhaps you already know these men? Henriquez is a switch hitter, former top prep prospect, yadda, yadda. He’s been in the system for the past two years and never really got anywhere because he’s never posted an OPS above .700 in a full season. He’s gotten better behind the plate over the years and doesn’t let nearly as many balls get away from him as he used to, but he only catches about a quarter or runners trying to go on him.
Sucre’s plate appearances got “Sugar, Oh Honey Honey” repeatedly stuck in my head this spring and now it might be in yours. His career line in the minor leagues is only a little bit better, but if the opposing team is planning on running a lot, Sucre is a lot more likely to be the guy who shuts them down. Do managers set up playing time by these kinds of things, I wonder? He’ll be 24 at the end of April and hasn’t played higher than double-A with six seasons under his belt. He started out in the DSL though, and things are different with those guys.
Infielders: IF Leury Bonilla, IF Eric Campbell, SS/2B Nick Franklin, 3B Francisco Martinez, SS/2B Gabriel Noriega, 1B Rich Poythress
A number of these names should be somewhat familiar already. Franklin is coming back to Jackson having spent less than a month on the field there last year. Then concussion. Then food poisoning. Then mono. Or maybe the order of the last two was reversed. When he got back in action in the AFL, he hit just .258/.333/.393 in a place typically friendly to hitting. The early spring training reports on him were not super positive either. I’m hoping it’s all lingering and temporary effects. To cover the abilities, Franklin’s a good enough defensive shortstop whom some would like to move due to a lack of arm strength. He’s a switch hitter now, may not stay that way, and has an exciting amount of pop for a middle infielder and maybe strikes out too much. That’s a woefully bland scouting report for the top position prospect in the system outside of Montero, but I admit to being slightly spooked.
Martinez is the other big prospect on the infield and a guy that’s garnered more positive press lately. Post trade, he hit .310/.326/.481 for the Generals and that’s an improvement of .083 points in his OPS, largely tied up in power. After stumbling around in the LVBP during the offseason (end line: .274/.315/.321 in 84 at-bats), he hit well in very limited time during spring training and got some good reviews from people on the ground there. Carlos Triunfel has made me a severe skeptic of this player type, but if he is going to produce, I’ll jump on the bandwagon as soon as I deem it sufficiently sturdy.
Franklin’s double play partner will either be Campbell or Noriega. Campbell was a former top prospect with the Braves that didn’t amount to a whole lot thanks to various issues and a few level repeats. He’s only played three games at second in his career, so it seems more likely that he’s a reserve/utility infielder, but he did see some games at second in the box scores I saw which makes me at least a bit curious. Versatility makes the bat more interesting, and he had a career minor league line of .275/.352/.484. I saw some concerns in the old scouting reports about how the power translates since he was more strength than bat speed oriented, much like another guy on the infield. He did well last season though, so I don’t expect him to be a liability.
Noriega has been a liability with the bat, since he only ever hit in Pulaski and if you’re tired of reading variations on that phrase, I can guarantee you that I am more tired of typing it and seeing it every year. Outside of those confines, he’s never exceeded a .650 OPS in any season. He can pick it though. He like to pick it. He excels at picking it. The M’s have slotted him as Franklin’s double play partner the past two years and if it gives Franklin more confidence to improve as he has been defensively, so be it.
Poythress is the other guy whom I was referring to as possibly having strength without bat speed. Fresh out of college, he hit .230/.337/.287 in West Tenn over about a hundred PAs before spending the next season in High Desert. There, he had 30+ doubles, 30+ home runs, and led the minor leagues in RBI. Then he got to Jackson again and hit .267/.347/.416. It’s an odd thing, really it is, to go from thirty-one home runs to eleven, from 130 RBI to 64. In the course of things, he’s fallen down the depth chart but remains perhaps our best option at first outside of Liddi. Everyone hopes for more power out of him this season. He can already go to the opposite field, which is better than most can do.
Last, but certainly not least, is Bonilla, who was the most recent guy in the system to play all nine positions in a single game. He did not do so last season and we were all the worse for it. I don’t care that his offense in Jackson was middling (.662 OPS) and his tenure in Tacoma, far worse than that (.432 OPS): I like the guy. I think he’s cool. I want to keep him around as long as he wants to stay.
Outfielders: CF Denny Almonte, CF Daniel Carroll, RF Johermyn Chavez, LF Chih-Hsien Chiang, RF Joe Dunigan
An alphabetically front-loaded group if I’ve ever seen one. The first two are your likely starting center and left fielder, though they could trade roles easily. Almonte hit .284/.362/.517 in Adelaide this winter through 176 at-bats, a better follow-up to his .268/.298/.490 campaign in High Desert. Plate discipline has always been an issue for him, and he’s sometimes had strikeouts of nearly eight times what he’s walked. This makes the 20+ HR power less enticing. Thinking of him as a lesser Greg Halman makes me a lot more sad now than it used to.
Carroll did not find a home in the winter leagues, bouncing around three different countries, but needed to prove less after having completed his first healthy season in the minor leagues. He walked eighty-eight times, which put him at second in the league, though like Almonte, he has a strikeout problem and K’d in over a quarter of his plate appearances. The on-base skills give him something to work with even if he doesn’t’ top out at much more than ten to fifteen home runs and twenty doubles. He’s among the best of a very thin crop of center field candidates for us, though he lost playing time there to Almonte last year.
Chavez is one of two cautionary High Desert tales on the roster. He hit very few of his home runs in away games in 2010 and last year, he saw his slugging drop more than two hundred points off of what it was previously and the average dropped a hundred points. The plate discipline was more or less the same. I’m not a big Chavez fan, but the power is a compelling enough reason to get him in the lineup as often as possible and if he’s not the right fielder, he would be the DH, though it would pain the team to lose such a fine arm out there.
The player I understand the least is probably Chiang, who was less than half the batter with Jackson as he was with Portland pre-trade, no joke. He followed that up by scuffling in the AFL, ending with a line of .263/.337/.368. There are various possible reasonings for all this, among them, diabetes issues and general post-trade existential malaise, which sometimes plagues prospects, but since the diabetes thing was supposed to be fixed by his dietary changes, that’s not a satisfactory answer. He might resume hitting well, he might not. I have no particular read on which direction that’s leaning at the moment.
The other warning about High Desert stats is Dunigan, who didn’t really follow through on the .925 OPS he posted while with the Mavs and is now back for a third tour of the Southern League. He ran a .690 OPS the first time around and improved somewhat in 200 PAs last year, but he didn’t play a whole season and I seem to remember a long DL stint somewhere. If he wasn’t healthy, that would be some justification for the lack of performance and we would like to see him rebound. Same with the other two guys I just finished talking about.
That’s the Generals roster as she currently stands. There are a few pockets of “meh” around the catching situation and maybe the right side of the infield to an extent, but otherwise it’s top to bottom excitement. Come for the pitching, stay for whatever crazy things the offense does, enjoy the fine defensive play up the middle and on the left side as it happens. I can’t remember the last time I was this excited about a minor league team as a whole, but it’s been a while. If things break right, they could really wreak some havoc.