Questions for a New Minor League Season
Marc posted his own minor league introduction last week while I was busily filling out paperwork that had nothing to do with baseball, but that certainly doesn’t mean that I can’t also post something of my own that I will actively tell myself won’t go on for too long, but then will totally go on for way too long, you guys. Editor’s note: oh it went on all right
Here are some narratives that I’m looking at in the upcoming minor league season, translated as three questions for each team. Some of the questions are related to the development of actual prospects, but some are just things of general minor league interest. I’ve tried throughout to avoid certain things like “If Zunino wants to continue catching then he should improve on the things that the catching job entails”-type analyses, but in some cases it seemed pertinent to address some specifics. I write a lot, but prefer not to be wasteful, or to fail at being somewhat thorough. Here come nearly five thousand words written mostly yesterday.
1) Will Hultzen and Paxton learn how to pitch before arriving in the big leagues and how can we tell?
Brandon Maurer made his debut recently and as a long-time Maurer fan, this made me happy. We like it when prospects come up and produce for us. Still, it usually takes a while for the kinks to be worked out. For a while we thought Felix pitched kind of dumb and he needed some time to figure out what he was doing out there. Likewise, Maurer, who has pitched with confidence concerning his offerings, is going to need to pick up things like how to get hitters to chase pitches because sticking around in the strike zone is only going to work in so many instances. Tonight, for one.
Danny Hultzen manhandled double-A. There were some walks early on, but they tapered off and he was only giving up a hit every other inning. Then the triple-A promotion came and Hultzen was suddenly vulnerable to being hit. As many young pitchers instinctively do, he started trying to throw harder and put more effort into blowing by whoever was at the plate. Why shouldn’t you try harder when circumstances become trying? Because raw force doesn’t always work! Then came the walks and it was all rather baffling for everyone involved.
Ideally, it was a good learning experience for him and he starts to figure out how to pitch effectively, whether more force is involved or less. If he shows that he has picked up something, he’ll end up on the major league roster sooner, but even when he does arrive he might still slip into old tendencies and respond to trying circumstances again by throwing harder. Learning is difficult. The brain likes habits.
Paxton is a trickier question because, for one thing, I thought I had some splits I could throw in here for discursive purposes and now I’m just biding my time hoping that no one calls me on it. Why do MiLB.com splits have to disappear from one season to the next? Anyway, Paxton can be harder to figure out because of his own odd injury history. Last year, we were initially worried that his command was in a long-term downward trend only to discover that he was battling knee tendinitis and was less than mechanically sound as a result. With him, there seems to be a greater chance that any seeming backward step is only representative of some ailment. But if I said here that he would also presumably have to learn some of the finer points of pitching and that we should watch and see how that comes together over the course of the season, no one would disagree. There’s always room for improvement!
2) Will Rich Poythress hit for power and if he does, will we care?
Poythress at one point was the most interesting first base prospect we’d had in system since Bryan LaHair, who himself was the most interesting first base prospect in system since, I don’t know, Peanut Williams? There had to have been something between him and Tino Martinez. The point is that Poythress could hit for power to all fields and seemed like a reasonable investment. He even talked himself into getting assigned to West Tenn for his debut, where he hit .230/.337/.287. This isn’t convincing anyone is it?
Poythress was demoted to High Desert where he hit thirty-one dingers and posted a .960 OPS on the way to becoming sort of interesting again. Off to West Tenn he went, where he followed up with eleven dingers and a .763 OPS. Whoops. And then last year in the return tour, he had a .843 OPS, but only six dingers, five of them in August. Wait, what?
Look at Poythress’ K/BBs over the years and you’ll see a downward trend in Ks, and possibly an upward one for walks. In High Desert, he had a 100/52 K/BB, which looks like what you’d expect of a first baseman. Then it was 82/50 the next year, improvement while being promoted, and somehow 33/50 last season, which is to say that Poythress walked seventeen more times than he struck out. Those were also numbers generated with only three-quarters of a season since he was dealing with an ankle sprain part of the time. Over a full season, it might be more like 50/70 K/BB?
I wouldn’t say it’s predictive or anything, but there’s some precedent of hitters who show unusually good plate discipline a few years in a row who later go bonkers in their home run output. Most of them don’t go from power and Ks to no power and no Ks back to power with no Ks though, so that would be a first if he manages it. However, if he does start hitting, and they’re just PCL bombs in Albuquerque or what have you, then I don’t know, maybe that’s only so much interest to trade for a fourth or fifth outfielder on the cusp. I hear Casper Wells is available.
3) Will Nick Franklin stop getting into the right-handed batter’s box, because it’s making the children cry?
Inevitably, there are two questions about Nick Franklin, but for now I’ll tackle the one we’re a little more familiar with. Here are some numbers!
2010: .149/.208/.246 vs. .319/.393/.551
2011: .238/.298/.333 vs. .300/.374/.453
2012: .195/.271/.288 vs. .304/.370/.509
This is the part of the article where I pretend there’s any kind of suspense in not revealing what should already be obvious to everyone. Now that part is over. Left column is what Franklin does as against left-handed pitchers, as a right-handed bat, and the right column is what he does against right-handers, as a left-handed bat. I could have switched those around, but so long as you know how to read it you can understand that Nick Franklin’s pretty amazing from one side of the plate and awful on the other. I refuse to believe that his lefty swing, which was mechanically different from his righty swing going back to his days with the Aquasox (as an Aquasox? that sounds awful), is going to produce worse results against southpaws than his right-handed swing already has. They may as well try it.
Second question: how and why did he gain thirty pounds in a single offseason? I would probably die of organ failure if I even tried to do that! I would not attempt to play baseball, I would just lie there like some cold-blooded creature of slow digestion that may or may not have entered diabetic shock.
Other notes of interest: Healthy Stefen Romero, Zunino and defense, possibly healthy Nate Tenbrink, Bonderman, whatever not-yet-expired interest you still have in Triunfel
1) What do we look for in Taijuan Walker’s development?
I’m going to take some time aside now to be the worst downer there is.
Just about every minor league prospect ranking article you’re going to read right now is going to tell you the same thing about Taijuan Walker, which is to ignore the 2012 stats because really, the stuff that he’s shown on occasion really indicates top-drawer ability the likes of which not every prospect can demonstrate. Certainly. One hears this logic a lot with pitchers or hitters that haven’t put it together. Some people thought Mario Martinez and Jharmidy deJesus were amazing at some point and now both of those guys have been released from the Mariners organization and I never have to talk about them again.
“But that’s just mean-spirited and bad analysis to compare washout minor league hitters to someone who has proven things against tough competition in the high minors,” you might say. Remind me of how many all-star appearances are shared between Homer Bailey, Phil Hughes, and Derek Holland these days. Franklin Morales was once one of the top pitching prospects in all of the minor leagues. As was Andrew Miller. Even when pitching prospects survive long enough to make it to the majors leagues, there’s often a gulf between what we thought they were going to be and what ended up happening.
Look at some more numbers:
April: 30.2% Ks, 7.0% BBs, 6.3% HR/OFB
May: 18.8% Ks, 8.3% BBs, 0.0% HR/OFB
June: 22.1% Ks, 15.4% BBs, 10.7% HR/OFB
July: 20.7% Ks, 8.6% BBs, 8.0% HR/OFB
August: 15.5% Ks, 7.0% BBs, 12.9% HR/OFB
Our brains like to make little narratives of things based off the information given to us. We like trajectories because trajectories tell us what to expect. This isn’t really a trajectory. Even if you say, June is an outlier with regard to walks, then you still are contending with a decent range of strikeout ability, some of which is dominant, some of which is less so.
Taijuan came to spring training with some sort of new fangled grip on the curveball. My immediate thoughts drifted to blisters and split finger nails because that’s what happens sometimes when these changes occur. He was also in Peoria, working throughout the offseason at Prospect House, which is totally my idea for a sitcom/reality show and you can’t take it. These are all well and good but until we see the results trending comfortably in a positive direction and we see that the curve and change-up are both commanded regularly, we ought to be suspicious. We should always be suspicious of everything. It might break our hearts otherwise.
2) What’s going on in that outfield?
Seeing all these name collected here, it’s sort of a who’s who of confusing and frustrating and perpetually also-rans on deep prospect lists. And there’s sort of an alliterative thing going on with the names, Abraham Almonte, James Jones, Leon Landry… I digress.
Landry is a name that a lot of people will gravitate to, him being one of the few viable CF prospects we have, or probably the only, but beyond demonstrating that he can hit for a high average in the Cal League and sometimes hit some triples, there’s not a lot one feels comfortable saying about him. It’s probably not entirely a function of home park because Rancho Cucamonga, where he was for much of the year, is close to neutral, but when a hitter is known for a Cal League breakout, we are rightfully cautious.
Jones is a more localized enigma and I don’t think people would think of putting him on prospect lists, though I have. Grumbles. Consistency is a trouble spot for him. The past two years, he’s posted a combined .468 OPS in April, then the calendar turns over, he starts to pick it up, and really hits his stride sometime around July, if he manages to get that far without being injured.
Speaking of injuries, poster boy Julio Morban, who lost most of 2010 to hamstring stuff, had two groins strains and an oblique strain last year, and was recently pulled as a precautionary thing in game after the old groin strain started to act up again. The big fuss we made about him last year is that he hit .295./329/.519 at home and then .317/.371/.540 on the road, which High Desert is not supposed to allow you to do, but then also one should consider that two doubles and three of the home runs came in Lancaster, noted participant in the Battleship Baseball phenomenon, but Morban still seems interesting even without those helping him, given that it was only two-thirds of a season in which he was putting up those numbers. Oh right.
There’s also Abraham Almonte and Francisco Martinez fighting for time in center. I imagine that will look something like this.
3) Will Chance Ruffin and Hector Noesi re-invent themselves, or are we just lying to ourselves?
Something about the way recent trades have gone has left me hoping to get any kind of good news. Chance Ruffin was assumed to be part of the bullpen future after he came over, since he was quick to the majors and had an impressive relief record in college with positions on strikeout, ERA, and saves leaderboards and various other nice things. He had good stuff too, low-to-mid-90s heat, big slider, show curve. That sounds like a closer to a lot of people.
Let us now pause to reflect on how bad Chance Ruffin was last season. In Tacoma, he was walking 10.8% of the batters he faced, striking out just 16.7% as a closer with all that stuff, and he had a 10.5% HR/OFB. None of those aligned with expectations, and it wasn’t a BABIP issue either. It all went sideways and I don’t think anyone quite knows why.
Given that he has Cerberus and Erasmo Ramirez holding down spots ahead of him on the depth chart, I won’t pretend that this is a move that makes sense on the level of organizational depth. But one should also consider that Capps and Wilhelmsen both had their starting stints in the minor leagues and then were suddenly always thought of as relievers by the Mariners. Starting will give Ruffin more experience mixing up his pitches and holding down hitters for longer outings. If he stays there, great. If not, the lessons are transferable.
Noesi we’re all familiar with in that he was likely the first pitcher we’ve ever encountered that instilled fear in us in a two-strike count. A .598 SLG and six dingers when starting out batters 0-2? Mercy. But he too can presumably improve and if he’s trying to do it far enough away, then we don’t have to care as much if it fails nor be so invested in the outcome if it succeeds. I would like to think of Hector Noesi next for positive reasons, but will settle for not thinking of him at all.
The moves are also interesting on a basic conceptual level. The Mariners had two promising pitching prospects on their hands who were outright terrible last season. They demoted both to reduce the pressure and moved one of them into a role he hadn’t been in for years. Maybe it’s just my own perception, but I feel like we’ve usually seen the Mariners more stubborn about keeping guys around to have them figure it out at the major league level, which hasn’t been working as well. This could be a step into a direction that could even get some of these hitters their needed help.
Other notes of interest: Future bullpen contributors (Smith notably, Burgoon also, Snow and Arias less so), Nick Hill being healthy or not, John Hicks as possible starting catcher, Brad Miller’s defense, Jack Marder’s health, Catricala’s demotion, the possibility of Leury Bonilla playing all nine positions in a game again (always)
HIGH DESERT MAVERICKS
1) Will we be able to figure out what happened at the end of Dan Paolini’s first full season?
Timing is everything in our perception, in that we latch on to compelling beginnings and endings and the middle is somewhat supportive in its role. Carlos Peguero captured some people’s imaginations in 2010 because he hit nine home runs in April and was batting nearly .400 at the end of that month. People thought he was going to be something. Peguero ended the season with fourteen more home runs in the remaining months and an average of .254. That narrative didn’t collapse immediately, but we got diminishing returns on it as the season went on.
But Paolini had to go and hit eleven home runs in August, which was 61% of his total home run output for the year, and I’ve had to spend the better part of an offseason thinking about that. His K rate was ranging from about 9.3% to 16.7% for the year and landed at 14.7% in August, so that wasn’t out of the ordinary. August was actually his worst full month for walks at 8.8% when he was usually above 10%. There was a steady increase in his BABIP over the course of the year, but the ISO was up and down. It was just steady improvement and then, bam, Paolini slugs .705 over 136 PAs. .344 ISO. What gives?
Breaking down the month, I see one home run in Cedar Rapids (148 factor), one in Peoria (96), one in Kane County (75), one in Burlington (115), and seven at home (77 factor). Aside from Cedar Rapids (and the passing, but worthy consideration that all park factors will be suppressed by the early months of bat-deadening weather), there aren’t any major red flags there, though it should be noted that Clinton historically has played closer to neutral and has trended towards pitcher friendliness for the past few years. I expected park to be more of a factor than it ended up being when I began investigating, but that doesn’t mean that park won’t be a factor in Adelanto, or in Lancaster, or Bakersfield, or Stockton, in which case we might not learn as much as we’d like, or like the things that we learn about, as is the case with the heat death of the universe.
2) Where does Chris Taylor fall on the shortstop depth chart?
If you feel like doing some preliminary draft research on your own, look at SEC and ACC colleges and see if there’s anyone vaguely interesting who is eligible. The Mariners have signed six players out of Virginia in recent years and Taylor was one of the most recent ones, as a fifth-rounder last June. The book on him at the time was that he’s got a great glove, enough footspeed to answer any range questions, and he was seen as a limited bat with few home runs, but doubles and walks as close to a given.
Suffice to say, not much offense anticipated, but then he managed a .382/.534/.564 line in June and I think that piqued some level of interest throughout the minor league fandom. It tapered off for him from there, both in terms of walks and his power numbers, but both were still present and he could steal a base now and then, which was nice.
I mention all this because shortstop always manages to be a position of need in some way, sometimes for less usual reasons such as the heftier Nick Franklin and the fact that Brad Miller, up until spring training this year, couldn’t seem to throw with much accuracy despite the fact that he’d always been a shortstop so far as I know. Taylor, if you believe in him, you can probably see as a competent regular shortstop in the major league who makes up for some of his bat deficiencies with defense. If you don’t like him as much, he still seems to have enough going for him to get a look as a utility guy.
3) Should I be interested in the starting rotation or merely worried?
A tour of High Desert is usually what tends to separate the men from the humiliated and demoralized men. The best prospects in recent memory have skipped the trip entirely, but there are a few who have survived it and gone on to be pitching prospects we think about now and then, such as Andrew Carraway, Anthony Fernandez, and Roenis Elias.
There are pieces on the pitching staff that I am interested in right now. Trevor Miller for one. Miller’s a late bloomer with average to slightly better fastball velocity. He went overlooked for a long time because he was pitching at JuCos in California and it’s an easy way to make oneself invisible, but the ability is there and his secondary offerings are at least passable. Thus far his minor league career has been characterized by low walk totals and passable K-rates, so one could see him mentioned as a back-end starter as he moves up.
Hobson and Shipers are both left-handers with better than average stuff and various issues. Hobson put the ball in play a lot when he was with the Mavs last season, not good, and saw his K totals plummet from where they were previously. He did show some improvement though, as he dropped his walk rate to about 5% over the last two months where previously it was more like 7 or 7.5%, and there was also a noticeable K bump in August. Shipers is probably best known for his no-hitter last year. He puts the ball in play even more than Hobson which… ngh. He only had a double-digit K% in two months. He needs to develop better command and learn how to pitch with his stuff, but this definitely isn’t the right environment to pick up such things, so I can’t recommend getting too attached unless you have various good luck rituals in which case, go nuts I guess, or more nuts.
Other notes of interest: Ji-man Choi’s hitting acumen, Ramon Morla’s hitting resemblance to certain current Mariners, Jamal Austin as possible CF depth, Jabari Blash because he is Jabari Blash, Matt Brazis and George Mieses in the bullpen
1) How long can they keep Ard and Kivlehan down?
Taylor Ard, college hitter, led the Northwest League in doubles, RBI, total bases, and was tied for the home run lead. Patrick Kivelehan, one-year college hitter after being a defensive back for a long time, led the league in slugging, tied for home runs, ranked third in runs and hits, and was the league’s MVP. Neither of them skipped the Midwest League.
In both cases, this is actually semi-defensible. For Kivlehan, age tempts one to rush him as much as his experience says one ought not to. He did, after all, also lead the league in Ks, and additionally there’s a possibility of him being an outfielder over a third baseman down the line. But Ard? Seems less intuitive, but he did find Everett Memorial a bit too friendly (.232 OPS differential, 2/3rds of his HR) and showed an unusual weakness against southpaws (.644 OPS).
You see, we all loved their performances last year, but once you get a little bit beneath the surface with both, cracks start to appear and you begin to see performance issues, the likes of which we should target in any future analysis. Both might take a little longer to develop than we previously suspected. Both could also use their innate talents to power through the competition, even at this level, and then enter a whole slew of new questions and methodologies once we get to the Cal League. Set your attentions to “selective.”
2) Is this the next wave of Mariners pitching prospects?
What Clinton had two years ago with two guys who were basically aces, that was uncommon. Jackson getting four guys last year who were amazingly talented pitchers, that happens even less. I say this all as preface to not making false comparisons. The guys down in Clinton are not at the talent level necessary to become those types of guys in prospect status. They are, however, the most interesting staff outside of Tacoma’s and that’s a point that will only get underscored as Sanchez recovers from appendicitis or whatever and Gohara potentially pitches his way into the discussion (I’m not banking on that, for the record).
Pike managed to post low, low hit and earned run numbers while touring a league that is not kind to young pitchers, and his components got better over the course of his time there. Being that he was two-way guy in high school, he also stands to benefit from focusing exclusively on pitching. He has probably the fourth-best stuff among our southpaw starter prospects.
Landazuri was a guy that I had previously made some Maurer comps with in that he was a late-rounder with good stuff who may have been overlooked. I also got some accuracy points in that comparison because he missed most of last year with bicep tendinitis. Score. Landazuri doesn’t have the same large build as Maurer did, but there’ some similar stuff there in that he’s shown a good curve and has sat low-90s with the heater, which was about what Maurer had at the same stage. If the injury stuff is behind him, he’s kind of a sleeper prospect.
Ditto Anderson, who was signed as a NDFA out of Long Beach State by John Ramey, who also signed Landazuri, Taijuan Walker, and various other significant prospects for the M’s and previously the Royals. Anderson sits a little higher with the fastball velocity than Landazuri and was hitting mid-90s later in the year. He looks to be a late bloomer and has enough going for him to be able to stick it out in the rotation long-term.
And the starters are hardly all that’s of interest. Think of Dominic Leone, who was called into the big camp a few times and has struck out ten in just four innings so far this season. Not all of the pitchers on the staff are prospects, but about half of them are worth tracking at least casually.
3) Will the Mariners succeed in teaching some of our Latin American hitters to take pitches or will we continue to weep and possibly squander money?
Mar Mar and deJesus are gone now, but that doesn’t mean we’ve gotten rid of all of our once-top-10-prospects-on-talent-not-factoring-in-plate-discipline hitters. Oh no. Not by a long shot.
Guillermo Pimentel is on his second tour of the MWL and one that we hope will be more fruitful than the last (.245/.289/.366 with a 115/19 K/BB, as a not-so-refreshing refresher). Even Carlos Peguero got out after one year and managed better numbers across the board. But like Peguero, Pimentel gets chances and will likely continue to get them because left-handed bats with his kind of power potential are extraordinarily rare. It makes people want to work with him and thereby turn a blind eye to his numbers against southpaws being wretched or the fact that it was difficult to gauge any kind of improvement in his plate discipline or pitch recognition, though he did close the year with a little walk spike (9.3% in August, which was an eight-point improvement over July and 2.8% better than May). The Mariners have issued a sort of challenge to Pimentel by keeping him down instead of trying him out in the Cal League. Perhaps he responds to it? He’s running a 4/7 K/BB so far.
It was a different sort of challenge issued to Gabriel Guerrero, who was the talk of the minor league camp for a while there. Vlad’s nephew impressed enough to skip over Pulaski and Everett after just eighteen games in the AZL. Throw out the plate discipline numbers in the DSL, because they’re utterly meaningless: Gabriel has the same basic tendencies as his uncle and a similar profile. Big power, good arm strength, swings at everything he can catch up to which is pretty much everything. He’s probably never had to deal with real velocity though, and the swing adjustments that they’ve been making with him to get good use of his power and bat speed aren’t going to mean a whole lot if pitchers don’t need to throw him strikes. My fears are somewhat validated by the 8/1 K/BB in the early goings.
As a trip off the radar, there’s also Jordy Lara as a consideration. Lara was a high-dollar signing himself back in the day and has a quality swing and predictably bad plate discipline. Despite posting a .217 ISO his first year stateside in Pulaski, he was held back last year and only improved insofar as he got a few more RBI, drew a couple more walks, and evened up his splits a bit. Oh, and there was that .330/.389/.557 tear he went on in August while posting his lowest K% (16%) of the season. Lara is not so much the litmus that the other two are and who’s to say how much playing time he gets with Kivlehan at third and Ard at first, but he’s drawn three walks in three games and that, coupled with him skipping Everett, leaves me at least a little intrigued.
Other notes of interest: The potential backstop rotation of Marlette and Littlewood, the Columbia guy (Dario Pizzano) in the outfield , having a second Jabari in system, Timmy Lopes doing gritty things, Keith Werman as the closest thing we have to a Jose Altuve height-wise, Ketel Marte as a high-ceiling shortstop prospect named after a brand of vodka