2015 Bakersfield Blaze Preview

Jay Yencich · April 8, 2015 at 8:00 am · Filed Under Minor Leagues 

This marks the first year since 2007 that the Mariners have had an affiliation outside of High Desert. Okay, let’s think about that for a moment. Eight years we were there. Whaaat. But shifting up north to Bakersfield leads me to think of things in new and unfamiliar ways. Park factors, for one. I don’t have any handy at the moment (sorry), but I remember from experience that the offensive environment is slightly inflated and that the quality of the infield is notoriously poor. It’s something that we may not have to consider for very long as there have been discussions of moving the team to Salinas, roughly 200 miles to the northwest, and the Mariners likely bought in early with that in mind. A new park there may figure to be pitcher-friendly.

In the larger scheme, I wonder about other things. While we are nominally leaving the Desert, these have been a hard few years for the state of California and the dry conditions are only spreading. This leaves the team name, Blaze, a little uncomfortable at times. Will it be long before, over concerns of water usage, baseball stadiums in the league switch over to field turf or some equivalent? I say this as someone long suspicious of lawns and their use of resources purely for aesthetic purposes. Long-term droughts and baseball. Someone think of this as a potential thesis topic. Theses have been written about chairs, this is hardly worse.

So, the Blaze. Actually, the whole rotation has something going for each member and the back end of the bullpen looks to be pretty special, I just worry about the guys in between. Catching will present some interesting choices as to who to play and when, as both guys need their defensive time but could pass as DHs, particularly with an emergency catcher already on the roster. The infield is in one of those, “the less said, the better” realms, but the outfield doesn’t have any real liabilities and for prospect watching, is probably the best group we’ll be running out at any level this season. I could be into it. I could see myself listening to Bakersfield broadcasts during the year.

Over the course of this preview, I also manage to keep on subject pretty often. Nevertheless, one of the rotation members is still sort of an enigma, there’s an important hyphenated reliever, in lieu of writing about one pitcher I instead flipped out and went off on a few vaguely connected tangents, mentioned one of the maybe two stock car drivers whose names I know, failed to comprehend an infielder’s transition to High Desert but did get to type “Panamanian” again, talked about favorite injured prospects, favorite gritty types, favorite inside jokes, and a guy whose slugging with High Desert at home was equal to his road OPS who also happens to be named after a famous actor with a famous mustache.

Rotation: RHP Dan Altavilla, RHP Edwin Diaz, RHP Carlos Misell, LHP Ryan Yarbrough, LHP Jake Zokan

This is another speculative rotation that makes a fair amount of sense to me, surreal as it is after so many years to see actual pitching prospects assigned to the Cal League. Diaz is the likely ace of the staff, which isn’t going to really surprise anyone. The components were a little off from his 4.39 K:BB ratio in 2013, but 2:64 in his first full season isn’t bad, per se. Most importantly, he was healthy and topped a hundred innings, only missing a start or two here and there, and got better in the second half. The various graduations leave Diaz as the best pitching prospect in the system and the stuff supports that with a low-to-mid-90s heater, slider, and change. We’re hoping that as he continues to grow, there are diminished concerns about the slightness of his frame translating to a future relief role, and so far talk of that has died down.

The supporting cast is pretty rad too, though. Take Yarbrough, for example. He was only supposed to be a senior draft signing on the cheap out of Old Dominion, but then he ran an insane 53/4 K/BB in 38.2 innings and had just a .180/.214/.237 line against. The results were especially stunning against left-handers, who failed to draw a walk and struck out in nearly half of their appearances. Yarbrough saw his heater rise up to the low-90s as a pro and gets by with the typical southpaw mix of a change, a curve, and good command, except that he also excels at keeping the ball low enough to get high groundball rates. I’m effectively hitching my car to a train that’s already leaving the station for many, but his size makes me think that the velocity jump could be legit and if added to his existing pitching smarts, that could be a neat combination.

Altavilla was one of the other early arms in that draft and was an interesting little D-II find. Given that he’s short and stocky and fairly high effort in how he throws the ball, a lot of people picked him to relieve long-term, all the more because the Mariners have had a reputation of doing such things. For now though, he’s continued to start in the pros and I figure him to at least give it a go for Bako. The stuff reports have him in the low-to-mid-90s, touching the high end of the mid-range sometimes, and slinging off a slider that predictably exceeds the strength of his change at present. Last year’s results as a pro were just passable, with a .288 average against, some home runs allowed, and a control ratio approaching that dread 2:1 mark, so it should be regarded as a test to have him skip the Midwest League entirely.

It might take me a while to get Misell’s name down (keep wanting to type missile or missel), but he’s similar in profile and numbers to Altavilla while being a couple inches taller and four+ months older. Misell has been in pro ball for a surprisingly short time, having turned up in Pulaski two years ago as a 21-year-old and having no prior track record. The olden days would have had us speculating about age and falsified documents, but those days are perhaps behind us. He was a bit worse in the second half for the Lumberkings despite coming in second in innings pitched. In the Cal League, he might not be able to afford to do that, particularly with his existing home run tendencies.

Zokan had 57.0 innings scattered over four stops last season, but mostly split between Clinton and High Desert. He had only 8.1 more innings with the Mavericks despite seeing three more starts, which should tell you something about something. The command numbers aren’t terrible and he’s long been pretty good at avoiding walks, but with home runs being a warning flag from his first season, it’s perhaps not too surprising to see him struggle. He follows the basic left-hander blueprint save for the fact that his curve may at present be better than his change.

Bullpen: RHP Brett Ash, RHP Trey Cochran-Gill, LHP Paul Fry, LHP Will Mathis, RHP Emilio Pagan, RHP Rafael Pineda, LHP Nick Valenza

Continuing our pitching staff cognitive dissonance, we have a bullpen that you can look at and claim seems to be all right. It may even be hard to know who the highlight is. Pagan might have a case as an arm with good, but not elite stuff who is appreciated by conventional and advanced metrics alike. He notched sixteen saves for the Lumberkings last year, which led the system, has kept hit totals low, has never had a BB/9 above 2.2 nor a K/9 below 10. If there are complaints about him, it’s perhaps that he’s been old for the levels he’s pitched at and his velocity and his breaking balls are, again, not at the highest tier, though still above-average.

Then again, he has a fair amount of competition from the likes of Cochran-Gill, whom BA at least seems to be a fan of (recognizing that the back end of the top 30, you could probably put forty names in a hat and rationalize whomever you drew out in whatever order). The Hyphenated One is a two-pitch, fastball/slider guy with slightly better velocity than Pagan on average. Through two stops last year, he allowed a lone run and ran a 44/7 K/BB accompanied by a .172 average against.

The three southpaws present will allow the bullpen to play match-up as they need to, or if that’s even a thing one does in the minor leagues. Fry was with Clinton last year and had a lot of walks, even more Ks (ratio 7:3 overall) and a lot of wild pitches. Fortunately, not many hits, nor did the hits go very far, and he was pretty solidly a groundball pitcher. He’s a community college product and at 22, may not be through refining his craft.

Mathis transfers over from High Desert having treaded water there. Curiously, his home run and walk rates were higher on the road, which doesn’t seem to make a whole lot of sense. He’s a former teammate of D.J. Peterson at New Mexico, doesn’t have good command of his pitches, but he’s hung around somehow? In past years, a return trip to the Cal League was almost always career-fatal for a pitcher. Now, this may not be the case.

Valenza has been a reliever most of the way with the Mariners, which is a shame in that I kind of find it interesting when the shorter guys can stick it out as starters. Despite pitching in full-season ball for the first time last year, his IP totals just barely exceeded what he did over a half-season in Everett in 2013. He’s had okay strikeout numbers for the most part, but seems to miss the zone a lot and get hit when he does make it in there. There’s not really the expected home/road split rationalizing his poor performance in High Desert, so I’m left without easy answers, or explanations for how he manages to stick around, aside from that always valuable combination of “left-handed” and “alive.”

The detour into left-hander talk was in part due to lack of information on the rest of the guys. Pineda was born in Salem, Oregon and was drafted out of Texas A&M, leaving him with probably nothing to do with Michael Pineda. He got a few appearances with the Mavs last year, including a couple of spot starts, but on the whole made his mark with Clinton where he was successful with a contact-heavy approach. This was strange, insofar as he had a 32.8 K% with Pulaski in 2013 and was down to less than half that over the course of his 2014 season. The batting average increased too, by about fifty points, with the walks remaining stable. Oh, baseball.

Brett Ash is a name that doesn’t really look all that familiar to me, which might be a given considering that he’s 23 already and had less than thirty innings with Everett last year with results not worth writing home about. He’s a graduate of Washburn University, which may or may not even have the slightest connection to Jarrod Washburn. For example, their mascot is not a bus which you throw things beneath, but instead, a… what? Ichabod? Ichabod Washburn. Okay. I suppose their rivals aren’t Headless Horsemen? I’m sure some D-II school ought to at least have a dullahan for a mascot. YOU ARE IN TOPEKA NOT RURAL NEW YORK, DON’T CONFUSE ME WITH MISLEADING REFERENCES THAT HAVE NOTHING TO DO WITH WASHINGTON IRVING. Here’s a Wikipedia paragraph:

On June 8, 1966, only a few days after classes were dismissed for the summer, much of the campus was demolished by a tornado, and completely denuded of trees. Three months before the tornado struck, the Washburn Board of Trustees had reinsured every building on campus for the maximum amount. A week after the tornado struck, summer classes began at Topeka West High School. By the fall of 1966, Stoffer Hall was repaired and trailers were in place. It took years to reconstruct the campus, with students attending classes in trailers well into the early 1970s.

Of course, weird as this all is, the eye caught on “denuded.”

Catchers: Marcus Littlewood, Tyler Marlette, Kyle Petty

It’s peculiar to have a three nominal catchers on a roster where at least two of them need all the time behind the plate they can get. I dig on Marlette’s bat, and feel as if his .255/.306/.465 road line in High Desert last year was passable given that he was .348/.396/.574 at home, but then by counting stats, namely errors and passed balls, he was the worst defensive catcher in the league and a 33% CS% isn’t that impressive either. Combining his offensive abilities with the defensive abilities of Hicks would produce one of the more intriguing catching prospects in the minors, but they sadly have opposite strengths and deficiencies.

Instead, he’s paired with Littlewood, who is entering his fourth year of catching. He’s gotten 100+ games at both Everett and Clinton now, but the bat, while okay, has never been a big plus for him, in large part due to his struggles to hit for average. The walks and plate displine aren’t holding him back and the power numbers, roughly a .150 ISO at various stops, aren’t bad either. Nor is his defense, considering. I suppose he’s always going to be battling in my mind the early hype and draft perception versus the results, but that average is legit bad, so whatever.

The Mariners’ Kyle Petty doesn’t drive a stock car, but he is a utility guy who can catch off and on despite playing most of his games at first and some at third. The profile would be interesting, if he were good enough at hitting, or younger, but I would say that if you’re interested in the utility catcher profile, Wayne Taylor’s the better bet. Petty hit .251/.319/.368 in Everett last year. That’s not very good.

Infielders:3B Jay Baum, SS/3B Luis Caballero, IF Brock Hebert, 2B Tim Lopes, 1B/3B Justin Seager

I don’t know where to start with this infield because it’s easily the weakest aspect of the team. Name recognition would point us to a Seager on the infield, the least prospect-y of the brothers. Last year for the Lumberkings, he had a higher OBP than SLG, which would be interesting, except that he had 17.4% of his hits go for extras and struck out over a hundred times. I can’t even say he got better as the weather heated up because his second half OPS was nearly a hundred points of his first-half OPS. He’s around though, just like Burt Reynolds and Moises Hernandez and Joselito Cano…

Lopes was good enough at one point to garner a sixth-round pick. Most recently, he played a full season in High Desert and, while young for the level, SOMEHOW managed to have a worse slash line in all three categories than he had in Clinton. This, is new to me. He did walk more and steal more bases and hit more doubles and triples and home runs, but every time the baseball analytic portion of my brain tries to compare OPSs, I get the whole better isolated and %s stats thing while the rest of my mind just goes “NOPE. NOPE NOPE NOPE.”

Caballero grants me two rare and annual opportunities: Use of the word “Panamanian” and reference to the trade of beloved infield gremlin, Jack Wilson. This remains the best of what I have to say about him. In fact, it seems a bit puzzling to find him in the Cal League. He’s still young-ish, but last year, between Everett, Clinton, and High Desert (but mostly Clinton), he had a .509 OPS. This, after he had an okay Peoria debut with a .710 OPS and a rather good OBP for a Latin hitter.

As with other somewhat annual opportunities, Hebert is Cajun, so it’s pronounced “AY-bear.” He was touted for his speed on draft day, but then, last year he only swiped twelve bags after nabbing thirty-three the year before. His plate discipline and batting lines were generally worse as well, though a lot of that was a pretty poor 40-game showing in Jackson, which meant back to the Cal League with him. He’s gotten an inning of pitching in the past couple of years, so expect that in a blowout. It’s fun.

Baum vaults over Everett and Clinton thanks to being somewhat older than his competition, or something. He had three walks for every four Ks in Pulaski and not much in the way of slugging percentage. I don’t know who might be injured that would later replace him, nor do I know whether he’s expected to start or just sop up innings here and there as a versatile infield sponge.

Outfielders:: CF Aaron Barbosa, CF Ian Miller, LF Tyler O’Neill, RF Burt Reynolds, RF Austin Wilson

Now this is The Stuff. Wilson hit nearly .300, slugged over .500, and had an OBP that rounded up to .400, and I think that’s probably one of the best seasons I’ve seen from a MWL hitter in some time, better in slash line at least than even Nick Franklin’s famed bombing of Clinton in 2010. We figured he’d be scampering up the minor league ladder to the Cal League, but then he had an Achilles tendon strain and a forearm strain, and so overall, despite starting out in a full-season league, he only played in nineteen more games than he had in Everett. I don’t need another Julio Morban-type awesome talent, poor health combination in my life, so here’s hoping that Wilson gets it together this season.

O’Neill’s health problems last year were self-induced with the old fist meets wall routine. Classic. Despite that, TO’N had 41.4% of his hits go for extras and led his team in home runs while playing a grand total of fifty-seven games with them. The K%, which is presently around 30% cumulative and over that for his Clinton tenure, is worrisome, and so I’m hoping that somewhere along the way here, he learns how to make contact on better pitches and learn when to lay off them otherwise. He’s a monstrous physical talent, just a little short on the skill side of things at the moment.

My favorite thing about Barbosa is probably that his profile in BA’s Prospect Handbook opens with “Barbosa has absolutely zero power.” He’s still fun though, stealing fifty-two bases (and getting caught twelve times) which put him in the top ten for the minor leagues. The 74/71 K/BB qualifies as a certain kind of fun too. Basically, he’s a high-energy grinder type who can bunt for hits and slaps the ball around a lot, rendering him really annoying to opposing teams. His xbhs are all legs and his arm is below what you’d like from an elite defender, but man, you gotta root for him a little bit, right? Root for him and hope he doesn’t lose the walks as he’s exposed to tougher competition.

Thanks to a friend’s self-naming conventions, Ian Miller is now Man Iller in my mind. Man Iller was drafted in the 14th-round back in 2013, but saw fewer games in full-season ball last year than he did in short-season the year he was drafted. A lower back strain that was giving him grief. He’s similar to Barbosa in some ways, LH bat, not particularly big, but he has a skosh more power, less speed (but better success rates), and not quite the same extreme walking tendencies. I’d peg him as a fourth OF on this roster who might nonetheless see some semi-regular playing time depending on how they use the DH spot. One could do a lot worse.

Regrettably, in the last calendar year, I have neither seen more Burt Reynolds movies nor picked up on more Burt Reynolds references although I caught a rerun of his guest stint on Archer. Reynolds is 26 now and aged out of prospect range, but he still has certain utilities, and is good for an extra-base knock here and there as his High Desert ISO was .200+ last season. Would you like some bad news? Let’s have some bad news. He hit .319/.391/.600 at home. That’s good! He hit .201/.258/.342 on the road. That’s bad. How bad is it? His home slugging equaled his road OPS. That’s how bad it was. Still, he’s in that Moises Hernandez “Mariner for Life” camp and it’s not like he’s blocking anyone.


2 Responses to “2015 Bakersfield Blaze Preview”

  1. Jay Yencich on April 9th, 2015 9:03 pm

    I missed you, minor league baseball.

    Bakersfield Bottom of the 5th
    Austin Wilson called out on strikes.
    Jay Baum walks.
    Tyler Marlette singles on a ground ball to right fielder Joey Curletta. Jay Baum scores. Tyler Marlette scores. Throwing error by third baseman Paul Hoenecke.

  2. calim on April 9th, 2015 11:24 pm

    Funny that you mentioned stock-car drivers. NASCAR champ Kevin Harvick is from … Bakersfield! (As is former Indy 500 winner Casey Mears).

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