2014 Jackson Generals Preview
Good morning, people still on a high after sweeping the Angels for the first time since 2006. I can’t think of a more deserving group. This will be the third installment in which I address the state of our double-A Jackson Generals of the Southern League, formerly the West Tenn Diamond Jaxx. I miss those Xs sometimes, it’s nostalgic in a 90s sort of way. The digression machine this round takes me to the unreliability of the written word properly conveying tone, unpopular music opinions (I have MANY), splicing of data that the mind refuses to process, my preferences in hard liquor, a Wilson Valdez name check, things that seem really Irish, someone I describe as being a professional enigma (and translate into how unpopular my music opinions can be), the depression that follows an encounter with the sublime knowing that day-to-day life is going to fail to live up to it later, and… I think that covers it.
There’s not a lot of high-end talent, we’re talking one top ten guy, one on the fringe of that, a guy in the late teens, a guy or two in the twenties, and various thirty/forty-somethings. It’s better than High Desert, probably not quite the ceiling that the top guys have in Clinton, but you know what? This rotation looks good. The bullpen has some solid contributors and few weak points. The catchers are reliable. The infield has some guys that can drive the ball and the outfield has some that can cover ground and all of the starters out there can hit. Some of these players, even at this level, are still improving, still somewhat unknown to me, and with some things breaking right, they could really be a force. Could be a middle of the road team, but there’s potential for a lot more. I like this team. I like where it’s going. Let’s get to it.
Rotation: LHP Cam Hobson, RHP Steve Landazuri, RHP Trevor Miller, RHP Jordan Pries, RHP Victor Sanchez
Victor Sanchez is a nineteen-year-old in double-A. Taijuan Walker was also recently a nineteen-year-old in double-A. Victor Sanchez is not Taijuan Walker. Taijuan Walker had a 113/39 K/BB in Clinton over 96.2 innings. Victor Sanchez had nearly twenty more innings and over thirty fewer strikeouts, but he also didn’t walk anyone. It’s as though I’m just spinning wheels over here. I’ve been bearish on Sanchez for a while because I saw him in Everett and while he pitched with bad intentions when he was cornered, it mostly seeded like he was dogging it the rest. That and his stuff took a step back last year according to the reports, losing velocity and action on the secondary offerings. Buuuuut… (read that as more of a protesting groan than an inflected lead-in to unbridled positivity) late in the season the anecdotal stuff started coming in as really encouraging and that stream did not let up in spring training. Sanchez can spot the ball well enough to avoid some trouble. He can pitch mean when he feels like it. He doesn’t like to give in and he doesn’t give up home runs and hell, he threw a no-hitter last year. The stuff and profile still feel too strongly of a mid-rotation starter, but I could eventually come around on that. It’s just always made me feel sour that the hype is disproportionate to what we’re getting, sort of like when I bought the first Arcade Fire album. I expect to take more flak for that statement than anything I’ve ever written about baseball.
One of the scariest thing that I think can happen to a Mariners pitching prospect is to be not quite good enough to escape the gravity of High Desert and falling to the fates of Jake Wild and Travis Mortimore. Those are names you didn’t expect to see here. Hobson did just well enough to escape, or maybe it was promotions and attrition, but who cares, he can run and play in the fields of the Southern League for a while. Hobson is also a guy who seems like he could catch on because 1) LH with above-average velocity and 2) groundballs. He could not catch on because 1) walks and 2) he hasn’t ever really struck out that many guys outside of Everett. The whole seems less than the sum of the parts, and then you look and see that he’s had five starts in the previous season where he gave up six or more runs and a couple of more where he gave up at least four. Pre-draft reports were that when he was on, he was on, and when not, not. That sounds right.
I’ve thought of Landazuri at times as the second coming of Brandon Maurer, a hopefully healthier incarnation, but then ’12 happened for Lando and, welp. He was recovered last year and spent most of his spring and summer in Adelanto, only missing one turn in the rotation by my reckoning. There were ups and downs in his walk rate and the K trends weren’t entirely positive (June was a contact month for him), but given the climate and his relative experience, having logged only half a season in Clinton, it seemed like we could stomach an extra couple of walks and some ball flying away into the distant desert night. Lando isn’t the same size/build as Maurer and doesn’t boast the same velocity or the breaking pitch snappiness, but he does have pretty good command of his offerings and doesn’t present much to complain about. I could see him as a back-end starter for someone in time, with mid-rotation potential.
Trevor Miller is a guy that people were asking me about coming into last season, and not so much coming into this season. He didn’t ever really seem to me like a McNamara pick either, he was more of a Fontaine pick because he was an overlooked, late-bloomer who had a transfer commitment out of junior college that we talked him away from. As time went on, the velocity became firmly above the norm and the secondaries improved and suddenly he’s walking so few batters that some people are saying he has the best command in the league. Not bad for a 40th rounder. That wasn’t the case last year. The Ks remained stable but walks went from 3.4% in Clinton to 7.8% in High Desert and 11.2% in Jackson. If Miller wants to get to get back into the hearts of the people making baseball decisions, that trend ought to be reversed but quick, and in the high minors, that’s something far easier said than executed.
Rounding out the group is the other Jordan from the one I expected to be writing about in this context. Pries is a switch-hitting pitcher. Whaat. He was also overlapping briefly at Stanford with Wilson and Mathis, which means the M’s were scouting both of those guys for a while longer than one expected. I’m vague on what he actually throws, something I seem to remember about a low-90s fastball, curve and change, but he has been decidedly good at using it and certainly good enough to keep doing it. He was the Mavericks most valuable starter last year outside of Landazuri and somehow was a better than average pitcher for the league despite working against all that he had to deal with. He’s probably not much of a prospect, but looking at what he brings and what everyone else brings, this looks like a good rotation. I like that.
Bullpen: RHP Jonathan Arias, RHP David Colvin, RHP Mayckol Guaipe, RHP Moises Hernandez, RHP Stephen Kohlscheen, RHP Stephen Shackleford, LHP Jordan Shipers, RHP Richard Vargas
Hey, this bullpen’s actually good, or doesn’t make me sad to write up. Hard to know where to start here, but I’ll go with Kohlscheen. I really thought he was going to depart in the Rule 5 over the offseason because his stuff’s good enough and he’s run K%s of around 30 or above the last two seasons. Not many people can do that, or do that and improve their walks too, which is what he did last year in Jackson. Given that he was their best reliever outside of Carson Smith, whom everyone knows about, I can’t say I know why he stuck around in double-A, but he may not be long for it as other things start to happen and pieces move around. Here’s hoping he’s in Tacoma before long, and Leone or Smith are in Seattle, and everything is amazing from here out.
Vargas is probably the most aggressive reliever assignment, but he’s I think approaching a deadline where he’ll need to be on the 40-man. He’s had elbow issues throughout his career, which have kept him from starting on a regular basis. It’s okay because the stuff only plays up better in the bullpen, but he’s never been great at putting it where he wants it, which makes the promotion seem like more of a doozy given that double-A hitters will wait on things. They’ll wait and strike when the time is right. The talent is there, the skill isn’t so much, and for a guy who has nearly half of his career innings in one DSL season, this is another spot where I’m hoping someone with more information has translated that information into better knowledge than what I can offer.
While he isn’t near Leone in stuff, Colvin was a bit more valuable over a longer stretch for the Mavs last year. That’s good. They need help where they can get it. He’s hit 55+ innings the past couple of years for Clinton and High Desert and been above-average at both stages, even improving both his command and his home run rate while moving from one to the next. I swear I’m staring at these numbers as hard as I can and that knowledge is just bumping against a rubbery barrier in my brain that is insisting “NOPE. DOES NOT MAKE SENSE.” I’m not overly familiar with what he’s throwing, but he may also be numbered as a new addition to Kohlscheen’s Camp for the Perpetually Competent and Underrated.
Guaipe was also one of the better relievers from the Mavericks which means he gets to leave that team suckersssss. On the whole, he seems to be doing well for himself considering he was a four-year VSL guy, but he also skipped Peoria and mostly skipped Everett. Last year he got three starts before getting pushed out of the rotation (and to the DL for a month), and the combined numbers on those three starts are 12.2 innings, nineteen hits (two dingers among them), sixteen runs, thirteen walks and ten Ks. So, yeah, drop all that rot and suddenly the ERA (who cares) is 3.69 and not 5.34, the BB% is 8.2% and not 11.1%, and the K% is 24.2% and not 21.8%. Who says I never use math, or only use other people’s maths?
Arias comes from that increasingly rare strain of pitchers that were not pitching their whole careers. I suppose he might still qualify as Jackson’s emergency catcher if Marder isn’t. So two out of the last three years he had one of the better strikeout% among the relievers in the system. But last year he also had a home run rate that seems more reflective of someone pitching in Adelanto or Lancaster than Jackson and Tacoma, and he’s always handed out free passes. While something in my brain is always saying he’s a fringe candidate for 40-man addition, it’s really those strikeouts that are keeping him around, since the other stuff is enough to send most guys packing.
After three years puttering around in rotations with weak peripherals, Shipers is now in the bullpen. I don’t know if that’s performance-based and permanent or if it’s because he missed parts of three months last year for the Mavs and they’re easing him back into things. If it’s permanent, then it’s probably because the command and the stuff didn’t develop and they figured that he’d had his chances. He can turn in dominant starts sure, but you can look over his historical game logs and they’re really the exception while the norm is sort of middling. I’m not sure if a bullpen move changes that much since the splits favor him starting, being a bit reversed of late.
Maybe it’s partly because I just don’t write daily or weekly recaps anymore, but some players elude my general recollection of things. Shackleford is one of those guys. He was with San Francisco originally and didn’t get further than the Northwest League, and he’s now been a Mariner for going on three years now, longer than he ever was a Giant. Last year was a deceptive one for him, in that he ran an ERA under 3.00 at two stops, including High Desert, but his tRAs were closer to five because he walks a lot of guys. He probably erases some of that by having better than average groundball rates and the capacity to strike a guy out. That’s a general overview of what he does.
Moises Hernandez is starting the year on the DL, but he’s basically a Mariner until he doesn’t want to be anymore. As we all have known. It makes it weird writing about him because here’s a pitcher with a contact-centered approach and a long-standing flirtation with the long ball, or who has had both of those things for a while, whom you have no expectations about one way or another save for that he’ll get fifty or more innings and be back for another fifty innings if he wants it. He didn’t give up so many hits last year. That was something, especially considering he was more contact-oriented than ever, but I don’t have to worry about it. It’s not my problem. Slides right off.
Catchers: Mike Dowd, John Hicks
Once we tire of hiring old, mercenary catchers who aren’t especially good at framing pitches (okay, some credit to Buck for working with Erasmo during spring training), Hicks might find his way in as our back-up catcher. He catches, he throws, he blocks about as well as Olivo, but he’s fine in the other respects. (sigh) All right, hitting was a challenge for him last year. He did fine in Clinton, maintained in High Desert, slumped through most of 2013. Three months of sub-.250 averages, three months of sub-.300 OBPs, and three months of sub-.350 slugging percentages. Overall, below average, roughly ~.300 wOBa for the duration. You have to hit some once you get up to this level, even as a catcher. Unless you Rene Rivera your way in a job, which as a catcher, you certainly can. Just look at Rene Rivera.
Dowd got ~seventy games last year between High Desert and Jackson as a once every few days catcher. High Desert was okay, .720 OPS, in line with his previous year in Clinton, but a lot of that was a function of his .844 OPS at home and once he hit Jackson he got what seemed to be coming in the form of a .509 OPS. Dowd is in that position where he’s good enough to get the annual invite to spring training as an extra backstop to help get work in, but Zunino’s ahead of him, Marlette is behind and Hicks is… adjacent? He’s a decent defender. He caught a lot of guys stealing his first couple of years. He’s probably not major league material, but catchers can last forever provided that their knees can as well. Yeah, about that…
Infielders: 2B Jack Marder, SS Ketel Marte, 3B/2B Nate Melendres, 3B Ramon Morla, 1B Dan Paolini, 1B Mickey Wiswall
After staring at the High Desert infield for much of an afternoon, I feel an enthusiasm gap in approaching what we get here in Jackson. Marte is probably the best prospect and was a guy who appeared on the odd top prospect list here and there. While being more of a whisky man myself, I can appreciate a prospect named after a vodka brand (who’s going to name their kid Laphroaig anyway?… Okay, I’ve met a few Jamesons…), but the love for Marte as a prospect isn’t something I buy into as much. He runs well and could probably play as a plus at either of the middle infield positions, but too much of his offensive value is tied up in his making contact. His walk rate is usually half of league average or less and his xBH% was only 17.4%, and that’s entirely doubles and triples. Wilson Valdez walked more and hit for better power than that. Don’t think I’m faking excitement over not-quite Wilson Valdez.
Morla’s return to double-A ball is probably not much surprise to anyone. Most of the silliness of his numbers last year was derived from Mavericks Stadium and his tenure in Jackson looked overall like his road numbers adjusted to the level. Weirdly, though The Ballpark at Jackson (no longer Pringles Park) plays slightly hitter and is friendlier to right-handers, Morla seemed to do worse at home. Right-handers were also giving him an unusual amount of grief after the promotion too, .200 point OPS differential and all that when I seem to recall his splits being pretty neutral before. He’s been walking a bit more too and that can help offset the fact that the Ks aren’t looking like they’ll drop any time soon. He’s got power, he’s got defense, probably straddling that awkward ground between prospect and non-prospect. I’m pretty happy for now with him at the hot corner.
There was a 3:1 split on Paolini’s time last year between Adelanto and Jackson. Like Morla, he made most of his hay in the desert through hitting or irrigation or something, but where Morla’s numbers roughly translated to Jackson in a disappointing way, Paolini lost most of his power and over a hundred points of average, OBP, wOBA… I had pegged him for a breakout last year, so it was a disappointing finish brought to us in part by disappointing process in California. Now that Poythress has been released and Proscia traded to the Dodgers system in exchange for whatever, Paolini maybe falls around fourth on the minor league first base depth chart behind Peterson, Choi, and Montero, however you may rank them. There’s enough power and inclination to walk to get him back on the charts. Sure, why not? I’m feeling positive and enough prospects have struggled in their first run at double-A.
Speaking of which, Marder’s another guy who has lost some of that prospect shine. He was good in High Desert and I seem to remember him ranking in the 20s on the prospect lists of yesteryear. He was not good last year. 92 wOBA+, wasn’t really squaring up the ball very well, finished the year with a .610 OPS. After the ASB, he was starting to come around a bit and had a .694 OPS in July and .755 in August. What’s interesting about that is that, while he somehow did not walk at all in July over nearly sixty plate appearances, those last two months his K% was around half of what it had been before. Hopefully he was turning a corner around then and can start building on that coming into this one.
If not him, Melendres? Melendres has done something in the minor leagues that I’ve only ever seen him do in all my years watching this stuff, which is transition from outfielder to infielder, and middle infielder at that. He’s now a minor league super utility dude. Neat. To praise him a bit more, he rarely strikes out (or walks, *grumble*) and has enough pop to set him at league average levels, despite being a littler guy and despite going pretty much from Everett to High Desert, learning a new position with a lost year in between. Like a lot of these guys, his splits aren’t encouraging, but he’s not really supposed to be a prospect anyway so whatever happens, however he adjusts to the new surroundings, I guess we’ll see. And secretly hope that he plays all nine before the year is over.
Maguire James Wiswall has as Massachusetts Irish a first name as you might find. Seriously, that first name. But he goes by Mickey. Which is still pretty Irish. He can play the infield and outfield corners and back in 2012, he was about as good at home as he was on the road in High Desert with only a little bit of difference (power mainly) between the two. He’s definitely better against right-handers than left-handers, but he still puts up a good fight because you know Fightin… nah, too easy. So what’s the deal? Why haven’t you or I thought about him recently? Why did I cite 2012? Because he missed all of 2013 with hamstring problems. I don’t know how bad that is or if it’s going to defensively limit him from here on out, but it’s happened and is the ground from which we’re moving forward. I could see him DHing a bit out of the gate, but they could also hand that to an outfielder I’ll remark on a bit later.
Outfielders: CF Jamal Austin, RF Jabari Blash, CF Leon Landry, LF Julio Morban, RF Kevin Rivers
Towards the end of spring training, Morban was optioned to the Southern League. This detail may not be significant in and of itself to most, but it marked the first time he had ever repeated a level in any significant way. Consider that he’s exceeded 350 plate appearances in a season once, ever. Consider that he was among the ten youngest players in his league and all but one of those guys ahead of him had more career plate appearances, sometimes hundreds more. This is all a roundabout way of saying that Morban is a cussedly hard player to evaluate. He’s treaded water despite being injured all the time and promoted aggressively. He hasn’t figured out how to hit southpaws but should we care? Should we mind his low power production from a corner knowing that power is the last tool to develop? Can he stay healthy? Will he ever play so many as a hundred games in a season without breaking something? Is he just Carlos Triunfel on the other side of the batter’s box, playing a different position? Julio Morban: professional enigma. I bet he’s the guy in the skull mask among The Residents, or failing that, one of the guys in the eyeball masks.
Blash was one of those guys brought in from the minor league camp that had people talking during the Cactus League season. I like that. Makes me happy. But when you hit home runs as far as Blash supposedly was hitting them, it’s easy to get noticed. The funny thing about all this is that people are talking it’s a clear disappointment that he’s back in double-A when he did what he did in double-A. He was only in Jackson for a month’s worth of games. Sure, compare what he did in that span to the league average and you get a +.066/+.122/+.256 differential, but his strikeouts were also a little high and you can’t really say that it was enough time for the league to adjust to him. The M’s have made a lot of moves exiting camp that are pretty aggressive. This is more reserved, and I can’t say I find anything wrong with it. No need to start rushing him right when things were beginning to click.
It’s somehow less rewarding to talk about players in terms of their speed now that Billy Hamilton has hit the century mark as well as the century-and-a-half mark. It’s not really a detail I can fully comprehend, in the same sense that someone might list of astronomical distances in miles or kilometers and all you can do is nod and think “yeah, that’s far.” Jamal Austin stole forty bases last year, which was good enough for fifth in the Cal League but that’s less than half of what Hamilton did last year. Which is a shame because speed is one of the better things he can provide. He hits for a decent average and puts the ball in play a lot, but his walk rate is subpar and the less we talk about the slugging the better. He’s more likely to hit an inside-the-parker than and outside, is what I’m getting at. He also lost a lot off his average in road games and since average is a sizable portion of his game, well… Jamal Strong was the prototype, but he was also kind of better at it.
I’ll admit to sort of dismissing Rivers back in the days following Everett. I think that if nothing else, the last year seemed to suggest that he can still hit all right. There’s only so much excitement you can generate around a guy who turns twenty-five and is still in advanced-A, but he hit .312/.387/.518 on the road versus .277/.371/.504 at home. Didn’t mix that up, better road hitter. May was a bit teak in average for him, but at no point did his OPS drop below .785 in any month and he was especially destructive during a .345/.446/.645 August. He could keep doing this and find his way onto a major league roster as a bench bat against right-handers, a platoon sort who can play the outfield corners and first. It’s not a high-end prospect, but it’s a living.
As for Landry… well, basically, I think that last year, a lot of us were thinking that he was our future CF if the worst came to it with Guti, and it did. Almonte happened and we can’t ignore that, but Landry brought some of that stuff on himself by having a wOBA+ of 81. His BABIP could be unlucky, because it seems like a speedy LH hitter shouldn’t be down so low as .245. Something more in line with the rest of the league might turn him into an okay player, or at least one that appears at all in the BA Prospect Handbook’s depth chart (he doesn’t). So this is a year that he’s seeking redemption, to either find it, not, or somehow do just enough to warrant asking this question again next year, by which time I would hope the CF situation is slightly more definitive anyway.