2014 High Desert Mavericks Preview
Hello and welcome back to the second installment of oh crap I’m only halfway finished. Among tangential meanderings in this round, games common to carnivals and fairs, pitchers of limited archetypes, forces of nature, Latin American magical realism, the Orestia, hipsters, people’s nicknames not making any danged sense, the Cartesian coordinate system, and bloodlines. What follows also contains reference to at least one Jabari. Go ahead and guess which. I’m sure you’ll be pleasantly surprised.
The Mavs look this year like a team that could threaten some serious offense, which seems like it could go without saying but between the core of the infield, the starting catcher, and the mish-mash of potential and results that you have in the outfield, I’m guessing some silly numbers are ahead of us. On both sides. I like two of the starters all right but can acknowledge that they themselves might have issues and the rest of the rotation may fare no better. Likewise, a few names to like into bullpen and a whole lot of question marks and repeaters. Battleship Baseball, set sail!
Rotation: RHP Matt Anderson, LHP Scott DeCecco, LHP Tyler Olson, LHP Tyler Pike, RHP Dylan Unsworth
I associate certain rounds with certain things and since I first started covering the minor leagues and we had Ryan Feierabend and Tony Butler, the third round, in spite of all contrary developments, is the round of slightly-above-average prep southpaws. Tyler Pike is that guy, even if he was a supplemental rounder that came after the third round. I can only care so much about specifics. Pike used his high-80s fastball and change-up combo to dice up the Midwest League last year to the tune of a 2.37 ERA over 110.1 innings, but you know what kind of blog you’re reading and you know that we don’t take kindly to ERA round these parts. Pike had a .237 BABIP last year, which feels neither normal nor sustainable. He also increased his flyball tendencies (GB% dropped by nearly ten), lost about eight points of his strikeouts (20.2%), and increased his walk rate by 2.5% to where he sat at 12.8%. The home runs rates and batting line against were still very much low, but I’m not inspired with much confidence right now and unless he gets a better breaking ball and approach, I don’t see how this is going to work.
I want Unsworth to succeed because I like the South African kids and because his nickname is Sharky. Here’s some other reasons to like him. Remember way back when, looking up Erasmo Ramirez’ numbers and drooling over what the command looked like, that 80/5 K/BB in 88.0 innings in the VSL? Unsworth ran a 46/2 K/BB in 66.0 innings for Clinton last year. That’s a 0.8% BB%, against a league average of 9.0. I bet he just owns skeeball, tickets all spilling out, oversized novelty bear for his darling. But his K-rate was only just below league-average and his stuff isn’t actually that good in any respect. He just spots it really, really well. Maybe he fills out a little and adds some velocity, but that’s probably not likely. In the meantime, he provides an interesting outlet for those of you who most prefer the Greg Maddux pitcher archetype, if there is more than one member of it.
Anderson split his 2013 between Clinton and High Desert in a 3:2 ratio. Initially, the Cal League was not unfriendly towards him, but it got mean in a hurry and his command and aptitude for not giving up dingers started losing ground rapidly. Curiously, he was also striking out a lot batters, which raises questions of approach like if he was trying to get more guys to chase and having some success, but generally lacking the skill to not make mistakes and…. anyway, I do a bit too much tea leaf reading from stat lines sometimes. Anderson is supposed to have good stuff, which made it surprising that he wasn’t drafted, but without him learning how to use it effectively and hit spots and all that jazz, he’s that one guy who keeps getting invited to spring training with a different organization every year.
DeCecco has gotten deeper into games than Pike or Anderson, generally, and has been a pretty stable rotation member as long as you care about the results. How he gets there is a different matter. His strikeout rate last year was about 2/3rds the average and his rate of getting guys swinging was about half of it. He doesn’t walk a lot of guys, which mitigates the potential for damage, but it’s a contact-heavy approach and not one that I expect to play well in this climate. The weird thing with him is that he has those starts of six to nine strikeouts, but he also has more outings of just one, or none. He had four starts total last year, spanning some twenty innings, in which no Ks happened. That’s… weird.
I’m slotting Olson in the last spot just because I figure he has a better chance to start than the other arms I was looking at. He’s a Zag, started a bit and relieved a bit in Everett last year, showed some good groundball rates, otherwise pretty much an average pitcher across the board. He’s supposed to be a crafty lefty so he probably has less stuff than Pike or DeCecco. Experience and age got him here, so now it’s just a question of whether that can overcome things like wind, and heat, and a dearth of humidity, and such forces as have been against Man since time immemorial.
Bullpen: RHP Matt Brazis, RHP Min-sih Chen, RHP Oliver Garcia, RHP Blake Hauser, RHP Seon Gi Kim, RHP Andrew Kittredge, LHP Will Mathis, RHP Jochi Ogando
And now for some… guys. Ogando might be the biggest name of the bunch because I’m pretty sure I’ve heard reports of him touching the mid-to-high 90s. In past years he was a starter and had K/BB ratios of close to one, or even below it sometimes. How do you do that. After starting in Pulaski long enough to catch people’s eyes, he was immediately slotted in relief last year where the only positive gains in the aforementioned K/BB matter were derived from an increase in strikeouts. The walks got worse. He could be interesting if he knew where the ball was going, but he doesn’t seem to. This does not preclude him from being entertaining.
Brazis seemed more interesting last year. What High Desert does to a man. That’s also in part because in his debut year he was kind of superhuman, with a 51/5 K/BB in 27.2 innings spread amongst Pulaski and Clinton. He had nineteen Ks in a little over eight innings in the Appalachian League and allowed just one hit to some kid who probably celebrated so hard he got thrown out between first and second. The draft reports however were so glib as to make the success hard to understand. ”Good fastball, okay slider” they said. These were not the results of that. So last year, he was a Maverick for the duration and had a good K/9, but added enough walks to drop him to the mean in overall K%. He didn’t allow home runs. That’s auspicious. He probably would rather be in Jackson.
I’m picking names in a random order from here out. Mathis was drafted because the M’s were already in New Mexico watching Peterson. Teammates. Themes. He spent most of his time after the draft in Arizona, where he gave up a lot of hits and had a 29/13 K/BB in 28.1 innings. Originally, he got a ticket to Pulaski, but was demoted after only one game. The stuff is good. The command is weak. If he’s making a leap from Arizona to California, that’s vaulting over three levels, so I hope there’s a good rationale behind that and that his command has also leapt a plateau or three.
Garcia was a three-year DSL vet before coming to the states, but he was eighteen when he started out there, not sixteen or seventeen like the rest. Like Ogando he’s been on the wrong side of some strikeout to walk ratios, but where Ogando’s career low BB% was 10.8%, Garcia’s is 12.8%. And he’s a flyball pitcher. Not looking good. Looking like he could be food for hitters.
Chen was formerly highly regarded after switching from outfielder to pitcher over in Taiwan. He had some elbow troubles initially, but lately he’s been healthy, if a bit old, has seen each of our short-season stops, and is skipping Clinton entirely this year. He was pretty good in Everett and appeared to be one of their safer relievers, but looking at how his numbers broke down, you get the impression that he was around the plate a lot. Some guys couldn’t hit it. some guys could and then it went really far. If the stuff and the location aren’t actually good enough to make hitters miss, Chen could be in a lot of trouble here.
Kim was signed at the same time as Choi, but Choi after getting over his injury issues has left Kim in the dust. There isn’t much positive that I can relate on what last year’s production was like. The Ks were average, the walks were worse than that, and he was having balls leave the park against him at about 150% the normal rate while struggling noticeably to keep the ball on the ground. Now he’s trapped in this dry, hot, and windy purgatory. Suddenly I have this urge to read Pedro Paramo again.
It only took 14.2 innings for Hauser to give up four dingers playing for the Mavericks last year. What’s odd about that is that otherwise he had really good command numbers and not a whole lot of hits. Maybe it was a similar problem as the one I speculated on with Chen. Or maybe that’s not so much the case. I went back and looked up the reports of him on draft day and he apparently has Clint Nageotte’s pitch selection, hopefully without the propensity towards sweating lest he shrivel up like a raisin by July. We only saw 28.0 innings from him total last year and 24.0 innings the year before, so we’re still learning things about him and how the stuff will play, because it is good stuff, supposedly.
A product of Ferris High School in Spokane, Kittredge has hit every level above Pulaski in his three years in the org, even if his time in the Aquasox was limited to two whole innings in which the opposing team probably wasn’t even the Indians. This will be the third yar in a row he spends some time in High Desert and he’s still working on that conundrum of how to not give up home runs without giving away at-bats. It’s a tough nut to crack it seems, but then the longball has dogged him throughout his career, in the Cal League, in the PCL, sometimes even in the Southern League. If he ever goes through the right channels of atonement to rid himself of those furies (call Athena up, maybe she can litigate), then he might actually be something.
Catchers: Steve Baron, Tyler Marlette
It was neat to see prospect lists come out in the offseason that listed Tyler Marlette in the top ten. I’ve liked Marlette for a while and thought he had the potential to be the second-best catcher in the organization back when people were talking about John Hicks more regularly. But now that he’s cool… and I liked him before he was cool… Prospect watching is really little more than hipsterdom for sports fans. Everyone wants to be in on the new cool thing, but if you’re really into it, once that new cool thing graduates you move on to other things or find ways to otherwise disparage it. Marlette deserves his rep in that he’s made big strides defensively and has crazy raw power. That’s what people are now talking about. What they aren’t talking about is that he has some ugly reverse splits for his career. Look last year’s up. That’s representative of what he’s been doing all along. While there are worse things than having a catcher who can utterly mash right-handed pitching, it’s a bit weird, don’t you think? It’s made me distance myself from the crowd a bit to where I am more comfortable, which is in the back of the room, arms folded, nodding quietly.
Baron is only in his second full season in the Cal League, but if you had said it was his third or fourth, I might have believed you even while knowing that he was drafted in ’09. Throughout his minor league tenure, he’s been as good as advertised at catching runners stealing. He’s lagged a bit on passed balls, or so it seems, but then low minors pitchers can be wild. He has not and possibly cannot hit. His overall OPS last year was below .600. On the road, it was .454. His slugging percentage on the road was .255 and overall he struck out in over a quarter of his plate appearances. That he’s paired with Marlette, whom evaluators seem to like a lot, would suggest that he’ll see less playing time this year.
Infielders: 2B Brock Hebert, 3B/LF Patrick Kivlehan, 3B/1B Jordy Lara, 2B Timmy Lopes, 3B/1B D.J. Peterson, SS Tyler Smith
For the first time in as long as I can really remember, we have a guy who could be a viable first base prospect that no one really asks questions about. Remember that month when Bryan LaHair was the Cubs’ best hitter? Sure, I’m a big fan of Choi, and Jesus Montero’s existence has been continually verified by multiple parties, but D.J. Peterson is probably the guy even if his first and middle names contain no Js whatsoever. WHERE DID IT COME FROM. Peterson just hits and hits and hits some more, but unlike a lot of your slugger types he has really good hand-eye coordination and pitch recognition, which means that he may not strike out to the same extreme and can generally be expected to hit for a good average. So that’s neat. Also he had thirteen home runs last year in only 230 plate appearances. Double sweet. The M’s only had him play one game at first last year, so I’m interested to see how they commit his playing time going forward. The bat’s enough to play anywhere, but it’s a question of how much of a hit they want to take at the hot corner in order to get that much more offense in the lineup. If he outhits all the competition at first, it may be a non-issue.
The past couple of seasons, or at least it feels like it, the Mariners have had one of their defense-first shortstops break out and go stomping around their league somewhat unexpectedly. If I had a prediction as to who might do it this year, I’d go with Tyler Smith. What the expectations are of him, I don’t know exactly. The reports coming in before the draft pegged him as a college senior who got bumped up mostly because the shortstop ranks were thin. He was a player with few flaws (lack of power, for one), but few real strengths, being mostly just a guy who made plays. That guy hit .320/.394/.460 for Pulaski, was said to have the best strikezone discipline in the system in BA’s annual rankings, and then appeared in camp during spring training a few times, hitting .571/.625/1.000 over fourteen at-bats. I’m still not sure about the strikezone thing (Choi? Kelly? Taylor? Pizzano?), I don’t really doubt that he earned his right to skip Everett and Clinton entirely. Now it’s just a matter of figuring how to hit without the aid of Mavericks Stadium, which is where guys usually tend to faceplant.
Kivlehan is back after spending the latter half of the summer in Adelanto. Earlier that same summer, he was in Clinton and his hitting performance was not at all special, which made his promotion a surprise unless you’re looking at age/level type stuff. But in the Cal League, he fell into that old trap that we’re all familiar with and I’m extraordinarily tired of having to write about, which is that he hit .369/.444/.623 in the overly-friendly-and-yet-weirdly-fascinating Mavericks Stadium and he hit .272/.325/.441 everywhere else, which is pretty close to the league average. That’s good enough reason for a lot of people to step back and he’ll need to overcome that before moving on to double-A. Sometime after, or maybe even before that, he’s also going to have to figure out a position play. Baseball will always demand that you learn how to do more things and better. Much like the rest of life.
I don’t know who’s playing second, but the odds seem good that it’s Lopes or Hebert because the other guys probably can’t so well and it’d be a waste of Smith’s talents. Lopes was a sixth-round pick a couple years ago and got more than half a million to sign, which is sort of crazy. Most things involving lots of money seem absolutely insane to me. While he’s actually from California, Lopes’ overall offensive game is reminiscent of what you’d see in Latin American guys in that he hits for a high average and is pretty contact-based in his approach, which has worked for him. He’s supposed to be a good defender at second and is better suited there in his abilities than at short, but I wonder if that’s enough to get him to the highest levels since he doesn’t have power, rarely walks, and is rather inefficient on the basepaths.
Hebert could also take the reins there, or he could just end up being the team’s utility guy since he played everywhere but first, right field, and catcher last year. Why yes, that does indicate that he pitched. What he can provide offensively is actually pretty similar to what Lopes does, but he’s a bit faster and a bit more amenable to the walk and the strikeout. Since he was considered to be one of the faster players we selected in that draft, I’m surprised that he hasn’t tried to do more with that on the field. His last name is pronounced in a sort of French-Cajun way if you were wondering.
However the rest of the infield shakes out, Lara is probably going to back up at the corners. Lara has a bit of power in his bat and is good for a home run now and then, which is his main offensive selling point. Otherwise, he’s a pretty average offensive player and if you charted plate discipline on graph with league average in the middle, extreme contact in one quadrant, and extreme walks and Ks in the opposite quadrant, Lara would probably plot to just outside the center in the contact part of the chart. Why I needed a Cartesian coordinate system to explain that, I’m not sure exactly. I used to think of him as something of a sleeper, but now I conclude that he’s overslept.
Outfielders: RF Gabriel Guerrero, CF Jabari Henry, LF Dario Pizzano, CF Travis Witherspoon
Guerrero is quite possibly the most famous hitting prospect to have played a full-season last year and only hit four home runs. I’m in the position right now where the hype on him seems disproportionate to the returns, so that snark is real enough. Sure you can dream on the tools. I’ll acknowledge his potential to play a plus right field, the untapped power, and the fact that he kept afloat as a teenager in the Midwest League. I get all that. But all his home runs came really late in the season, I’m not sure about his ability to handle offspeed stuff, and his plate discipline is about what you’d expect given Uncle Vlad: Lots of contact, few walks, more Ks than average. He’s the type of player that makes me really uncomfortable having our Cal League affiliate where we do because I don’t think he’s yet making clear progress in developing his approach and High Desert is a place that can encourage a lot of terrible habits. I don’t particularly want to be coming around this time next year waving my arms around frantically and screaming about how there’s something terribly wrong with his home/road splits.
Henry is our other Jabari and spent the last month and change with the Mavs. That was enough to net him four home runs when he’d had seven the rest of the year with Clinton, but what’s charming about his statlines is that he was actually hitting better on the road in his limited time, .276/.382/.517 versus .191/.278/.340 at home. How easy it is to inspire confidence by doing the opposite of the bad thing everyone expects you to do. But if you remember anything about Henry’s 2013, you probably remember that he was hitting .354/.466/.585 on May 8th, in the Midwest League, before taking a trip to the DL. That’s an awfully specific thing to remember though, so you must be good with numbers. He didn’t pick up where he left off on coming back, which would be too much to expect, but he overall has been a decent hitter with far better plate discipline than was expected of him. However, his speed isn’t really all that great and so I would expect that, if he continues to have success, there’s going to be talk of him as being a right or left fielder instead.
So, as I was trying to suss out player assignments I’ll admit to drifting from one player twitter account to the next to see if I could get anything before it was official, and through this I came to find out that Pizzano has completed his degree at our mutual alma mater. Congrats, dude. As Pizzano has kept hitting, people have started slowly to come around on him. Last year he was pretty consistently a well-above average hitter with the exception of the .640 OPS he had in July, and even that was washed away by him going .377/.430/.623 in August. Throughout, he was walking a lot and striking out hardly at all. The standard “but can he hit lefties well?” caveats aside, this would all be fairly encouraging for him except that he’s looking like a tweener. He’s not fast enough to cover all the ground he would need to in center (he’s grounded into a lot of double plays) and his power will get you doubles by the dozens, but not a lot of home runs. Given that he can wait on a pitch, it seems more likely that he’ll add power than suddenly become fast, but without that extra power, he’s not generally going to be admired in the prospecting community.
Witherspoon probably isn’t the only one wondering why he’s here. But somehow, he’s logged more games in double-A than in advanced-A and had a two hundred point drop in his OPS from the latter to the former, so perhaps that’s a distinction to be made. If you don’t recognize the name, well, he was a waiver wire pickup and was exiled from the Angels system, where I can’t imagine anyone cares about having viable CF prospects anymore. Witherspoon is fast. He’s easily going to be the outfielder with the most range on the roster. He’s hit over his career only erratically and strikes out a bunch. Good athlete, wonky approach. Buying into a player like Witherspoon is a bit like a lottery ticket. He’ll keep suitors around because there are definitely things that he can provide for a team, like covering ground in center, but if he’s hitting in the low-.200s and striking out a hundred times while only getting to the teens in home runs, that’s not going to be enough to get him a regular major league job.