Fall/Winter League Update
The Arizona Fall League’s about 10 days into its season, and the Caribbean Leagues have begun, so let’s check in on the progress of the M’s prospects. It’s so obvious I hesitate to even remind you, but the statistical lines are, at most, in the 25 at-bat range, and the levels of competition vary wildly. The results themselves don’t mean a whole lot, but *may* indicate areas of improvement and weakness. And if you’re sick of pieces detailing the collective character failings of another Yankee dynasty-that-wasn’t – analysis that is both zeitgeist-y and yet an annual tradition, looking at, say, Gabriel Noriega’s batting line can feel therapeutic.
If you’d just like a compilation of the stat lines of M’s prospects in the AFL, the Venezuelan League and the Dominican League, mlb.com has you covered, and this video report from Jonathan Mayo has video of Zunino/Paxton/Franklin. If you’d like to read more, there’s more analysis/extrapolation after the jump.
With apologies to James Paxton and Nick Franklin, Mike Zunino was always going to be the focus of the M’s winter leaguers. This has to do both with the quantity and quality of his professional at-bats to date – we’ve only seen the kid play a couple of months, but Zunino made an impact. So far, the catcher has 28 plate appearances, and five of his eight hits have gone for extra bases. That Zunino has power isn’t a huge surprise, but I think the effortless way his power translated from college to wood bats is somewhat surprising – it took quite a bit longer for Dustin Ackley to demonstrate gap power after hitting a bunch of HRs at UNC, and we don’t really need to dwell on Jeff Clement’s transition from college slugger to professional enigma. He’s shown power, speed and he’s only K’d five times against a pretty good assortment of high-minors arms (his HR on Wednesday came off of Ryan Perry, a Nats player who’s played portions of every year since 2009 in MLB).
The most puzzling aspect to his performance thus far has been his defense. Pretty much every article written about him after the draft called him an excellent defender. This News Tribune article includes quotes from Jack Zduriencik that focus squarely on his pitch-blocking, and note that it’s his defense that make him a candidate to move quickly in the M’s system. Zunino’s played one game at DH, leaving him with five starts at catcher in the AFL. In those five games, he’s allowed three passed-balls and five wild-pitches. After throwing out the first runner who tried to steal a base, baserunners now have been successful on their last five attempts (not including a steal of home). Again, the sample’s absolutely tiny, and we should expect more wild-pitches and passed-balls when catchers are dealing with pitchers they’ve never worked with before. But they’ve come on the heels of 9 passed-balls (and 4 errors) in 31 pro games, so it may be that Zunino has some work to do on this aspect of his game. As frustrating as Miguel Olivo (and every other M’s catcher of the past few years) was to watch, pitch-blocking isn’t the most important aspect of a catcher’s defense. It’s just odd that the M’s singled out for praise the one aspect of Zunino’s game that doesn’t quite look MLB ready. I’m hopeful that this gets cleared up and it’s yet another short-season and AFL statistical mirage, but for now, observers think his defense is more of a work-in-progress than MLB-ready.
Nick Franklin’s repeating the AFL, and working much more at 2B than SS. He had a brilliant season in AA in 2012, before scuffling in his first taste of AAA. Strikeouts were something he struggled with going back to his Midwest League debut, but he had his K% under 20% in 2011, then under 16% as a young-for-the-league middle infielder in AA. But the Pacific Coast League proved more challenging, and Franklin worked his K rate down to 23% after starting off in the 30%+ range. It was a testament to his unbelievable work ethic and intense competitive streak, but problems remained. He hit zero HRs from the right side, and struggled mightily against lefties, even at AA Jackson. His overall line at Tacoma was encouraging based on his age, but was a tad disappointing given what he’d done in the Southern League.
So far, Franklin’s been excellent in the AFL, showing signs that his pitch recognition’s improving – he’s got three extra-base hits to only two strikeouts in 16 at-bats thus far. He’s still not faced many lefties, so it’s way too early to see if he’s improved that aspect of his game, but for a guy whose upside depends on his ability to destroy RHPs, he’s doing a pretty good job of destroying RHPs. It’s not a whole lot to go on, but I think his performance helps his stock, and goes a little way towards removing some of the questions I had after seeing him in June/July.
James Paxton needed to show that his stuff, command and stamina weren’t affected by his mid-season disabled list stint for a sore knee. He’s pitched only twice, but I think the first two items aren’t questions any more. He touched 95+ in his first start, striking out 5 in 3 innings. He got into a jam in the first inning of his second start, but escaped allowing only a run after two strikeouts. He’s got 10 Ks and only 2 BBs in 6 innings, so at this point, he’s not been allowed to demonstrate much stamina, but it’s encouraging that his velocity didn’t dip between the 1st and 3rd IP in his first start. Paxton’s been dazzling, and I’d love to hear if any scouts would put him ahead of Hultzen at this point (I think I would).*
Vinnie Catricala and Stefen Romero have played somewhat sparingly, with Romero’s solid hit-tool in evidence in the handful of games he’s played and Catricala’s bizarre funk continuing. It’s less than 20 at-bats, so Voros’ Law applies, but a .059/.053/.059 line doesn’t inspire confidence. He’s got 7 Ks and no walks as well. Something seems wrong here. Romero’s plugging along, and we’ll see if he’s the pop-up guy who makes a run at a bench spot in the spring of 2013.
The M’s also sent a number of relief arms to Peoria, and, as you might expect, we’ve got almost no stats to go on. Bobby LaFromboise has gone 3 1/3 innings, and has been used primarily against lefties. Given his arm-slot and arsenal, he’s tough against left-handers, and he’s continued that in Arizona – 7 batters faced, 3 Ks, 3 GBs. Logan Bawcom had one horrible appearance punctuated by a long HR by A’s prospect Max Stassi, but he’s touched 93-94 with an interesting slider. He’s not missing a lot of bats, but the control problems that appeared when he moved to Jackson haven’t bothered him either. Carson Smith was perhaps the most eagerly anticipated of the M’s relief corps, but he’s been unremarkable thus far. A starter in college with above-average velocity, I was quite surprised to see his fastball at or maybe a tick below Bawcom’s. He’s touched 94 somewhat regularly, so it’s not like he’s a junkballer, but some had put him in the Carter Capps/Stephen Pryor class, whereas he appears to be more akin to Shawn Kelley.
The Venezuelan League hasn’t played as many games thus far, but then there’s a whole lot less to check in on. Luis Jimenez is the only player on the Cardinales to have played for Seattle, and even that needs an asterisk. The most interesting prospect on the team may be Danny Farquhar, which tells you all you need to know. The lefty picked up in the Ichiro deal was impressive down the stretch for Tacoma, and he’s been solid for Lara as well. The best prospect in the VWL as a whole is 3B/CF Francisco Martinez, at one time the big prize in the Doug Fister trade. Martinez suffered a rough 2012 which saw his slugging percentage dip below .300 in the Southern League. Athletic and quick, the M’s have toyed with moving him to CF, but he’s back at 3B in Venezuela (though most of his work has come as a pinch runner/substitute). It’s too soon to give up on Martinez, but the M’s saw a regression in his power this year instead of the assumed improvement. His stats in Venezuela won’t matter, so we can only hope that he’s able to come into 2013 more comfortable. Mauricio Robles pitched one forgettable inning in Lara’s opening game, and hasn’t pitched since. If the M’s need 40-man space, Robles is probably the guy to get DFA’d.
In the Dominican, the only notable player is Carlos Triunfel, who’s played a couple of games for Licey. Triunfel again got M’s fans hopes up early in 2012 only to go through a horrendous slump that he never quite recovered from. I’d expect he’ll be back in Tacoma in 2013; it’s still amazing to think that’s he’s just 22, and will turn 23 just before spring training.
* I’m aware that Hultzen pitched brilliantly in the AFL last year, and even-more-brilliantly in AA this year. It’s just hard for me to un-see, or just explain, what I saw in Tacoma.
** I mentioned Kevin Quackenbush, the Padres prospect who put up a great statistical line in the Cal League last year, in the AFL preview, but the deceptive righty is continuing his two-year long hot streak in Arizona. He’s the closer for Peoria and has 7 Ks in 4 innings, and he’s yet to allow a base hit. The M’s had two guys who made a run from AA to the majors last year, and I wouldn’t be shocked if Quackenbush did the same for San Diego next year.