Rainiers Opening Day/PCL Preview
Now that JY has helpfully gone over the entire roster, as well as those of the other full season affiliates, let’s focus on Tacoma. The Rainiers begin their season in El Paso, taking on the mighty Chihuahuas, the San Diego club that’s starting its second season. The pitching match-up pits Seattle’s 2014 co-minor league pitcher of the year in Jordan Pries against aging two-way threat Jason Lane, who started a game against the M’s in spring training this year. As I mentioned in that game preview, Lane, now 38, spent years in pro ball as an OF, peaking in 2005, when he was a starting corner OF for the Houston Astros, hitting 26 HRs. He’s been kicking around the PCL for years now, and got called in to pitch in blowout games about once or twice a year. In 2013, the Pads decided to have him concentrate on pitching, and he ended up making 24 starts for El Paso last year (as an NL affiliate, Lane got a handful of at bats, too – and he put up an OPS over 1.000 in 69 at bats, including 3 HRs. Even at 38, I still dream of him getting at least one year as a Brooks Kieshnick-style reliever/pinch-hitter).* He even got a call-up to San Diego, throwing 10 pretty good innings, giving up only 1 run. Lane’s “fastball” averages 86-87, and while he doesn’t have the command to keep it down or on the black, he has remarkable good control for a guy who converted to pitching in his mid-30s. His best pitch is a change-up that runs 79-80, and has some armside run. Lane throws it to righties and lefties alike, and seems to be able to keep it away from RHBs.
Jordan Pries opened a lot of eyes in camp, including the pair that matter – those of Lloyd McClendon. The Rainiers rotation also includes Roenis Elias, but Pries may get a shot later in the year in case of injuries or when rosters expand. Pries relies on a sinker at 90-92, a slider and a change. His stuff looks fairly pedestrian from the stands, which is why he fell to the 30th round out of Stanford and hasn’t appeared on M’s prospect lists – it doesn’t help that he’s a bit undersized, either. But the righty took advantage of an opportunity and put together a solid PCL season in 2014, and followed it up with an even better spring. Some improvements this year could have him as a 5th-starter option down the road, particularly if he hones the sinker to be a true ground-ball weapon. The movement on the pitch looks good, but he’s never actually got many ground balls compared to his league. In a league like the PCL, grounders would be nice.
Tonight’s Rainiers line-up looks like this, and game time is 6:05pm. It’s on MiLB.tv, and 850am radio in the south sound.
1: Marte, SS
2: Jones, CF
3: Romero, RF
4: Montero, 1B
5: Gutierrez, LF
6: Hicks, C
7: Blash, DH
8: Rivero, 3B
9: O’Malley, 2B
SP: Pries (RHP)
If you’d like a run-down on the other PCL clubs, there are many words on the subject after the jump.
So perhaps you’d like to come to a game at Cheney and would like to time your appearance to coincide with some of the league’s top prospects. How will you know who’s who? Through the magic of reading, friends.
The Rainiers open on the road against El Paso (San Diego) and then Albuquerque (Colorado) – the opening homestand, beginning April 17th, also features El Paso and Albuquerque. El Paso includes a few of the Padres top prospects, though as we’ve discussed, that honor means a bit less than it did a few months ago, before the Padres traded prospect after prospect to bring in the likes of Craig Kimbrel, Matt Kemp, Wil Myers and multiple Uptons. As it stands, the Chihuahuas roster includes lefty Robbie Erlin, who got hit fairly hard in his Pads debut last year, but still has some of the prospect sheen he acquired coming up in the Texas system, Casey Kelly, a righty who retains nearly none of the prospect sheen he had when he was part of the first great Adrian Gonzalez trade. Because they’ve acquired so many talented relievers, the El Paso bullpen has some premium arms in it, including the delightfully named Kevin Quackenbush, who’s got MLB experience and a *career* minor league ERA of 1.15, helped by a full season in the California League with an ERA under 1.00. They’ve also got ex-Rainiers Steve Kohlscheen and Brandon Maurer. Maurer and Quackenbush are better than many, many big league relievers and you could argue would be on the big league roster of at least 20-25 teams.
They’re a bit lighter on the position player prospects, but Austin Hedges is still in the top 5 on Pads list thanks to elite defensive skills at catcher. That he is still a prospect after a full year at AA with an OBP of .268 tells you something about just HOW elite scouts rate his defense, and he could carve out a solid Rene Rivera-like career, and in the meantime give plenty of hope to Steve Baron. Rymer Liriano was the Padres best hitting prospect a few years ago, but he lost his 2013 to TJ surgery, and the power that looks like it should be there simply hasn’t ever manifested itself in games and box scores. He got a cup of coffee last year coming back from injury, but a .266 slugging percentage from a COF shows he’s still got plenty of rust to shake off. Other PCL mainstays include Brett Wallace, who I wrote about yesterday, and Abe Almonte who…well, he had a great finish to his 2013, and you can’t take that away from him.
The Albuquerque Isotopes come to town beginning 4/21. As one of many teams who’ve changed affiliation, it’s going to take a bit of time to adjust to them as the Rockies’ affiliate – the Rockies had been in Colorado Springs for years. Anyway, the big name to look for is big RHP Jon Gray. Gray went #3 overall in 2013 after a dominant season at Oklahoma, which saw him sustain FB velocities of around 98 deep into games. A good-but-not-great season in AA and good but not sustaining-98mph-velo has seen him tread water on the top prospect lists, generally coming in around #20 or so in all of baseball. When the ‘Topes come back through Tacoma in June, Gray may be joined by fellow righty starter Eddie Butler, another guy with plus velo and great-looking stuff but without AA results that scream “elite prospect.” OF Tim Wheeler may still be the best prospect on the team, but he’s 27 now, and four years removed from a dominant season in AA that saw the speedster knock 33 HRs while stealing 21 bags. He’s been in the PCL ever since, playing in Colorado Springs, no less, and he’s hit 18 HRs – in total – since.
Fresno comes to town on April 30th, and for the first time in many years, they’re no longer a Giants affiliate. The Grizzlies have amped up the orange in their color palette and are now an Astros club. As of right now, the Grizzlies feature prospects who’ve already had MLB trials – guys like 1B Jon Singleton, C Max Stassi** and OF LJ Hoes. Their pitching staff includes some solid arms, from Brad Peacock to Dan Straily, but no one that screams top-of-the-rotation-starter in the bigs. The key is is their big-time prospects, SS Carlos Correa and RHP Mark Appel, get promoted from AA – that’s probably not going to happen in April, but the next time through, check the line-ups.
In may, the Rainiers host the Salt Lake Bees, still the Angels AAA club. The big names to see are pitchers Andrew Heaney, whom the Angels got for Howie Kendrick, and Cam Bedrosian, who’s had an injury plagued career but still has good stuff out of the bullpen. They’ve also got Nick Tropeano, the ex-Astros starter who pitched very effectively in the PCL last year, and earned a late call-up in which he shut down the Mariners. The Bees also have ex-Braves 3B prospect Kevin Kubitza, who could spend some time in Anaheim this year, along with the loser of the Angels 2B competition, Josh Rutledge. I’d expect Rutledge to swap places with Johnnie Giavotella at some point in 2015. One-time #1 pick of the A’s Grant Green is kicking around the Bees’ OF, but he’s more of a prospect emeritus at this stage.
Las Vegas comes to town starting on May 16th, and you’re going to want to try and catch RHP Noah Syndergaard again. Syndergaard has dominating stuff, and though the results haven’t always been there, he’s still an elite (one of the better SP prospects in baseball) talent. He faced the R’s several times last year, but he should be heading to the Mets at some point this spring. Behind him is RHP Steven Matz, a starter out of New York who’s racked up tons of K’s and great results. Syndergaard and Matz are 1/2 on Mets prospects lists this year, and their numbers 4 and 5 are also on the 51s – IF Dilson Herrera and C Kevin Plawecki.
The Round Rock Express are the Rangers’ affiliate, and they’re led by two SP prospects in Chi Chi Rodriguez, the Rangers #1 pick in 2013, and ex-Boston draftee Anthony Ranaudo. Neither has overwhelming stuff, but Rodriguez’s pitchability and results have him on the doorstep of the big league team, and given the wasteland that is the Rangers’ rotation, he’ll probably make his debut there before too long. Beyond that, their roster is more of a “so THAT’s where he is” mix of failed prospects (Michael Choice), ex-big leaguers (Wandy Rodriguez, Chris Gimenez, Kyle Blanks) and promotional stunts (Russell Wilson, who won’t actually play for them). The Rangers top prospect Joey Gallo, a slugger who went toe to toe for the minor league HR crown with Kris Bryant, starts the year in AA, but figures to move up at some point.
Reno’s still with the Arizona Diamondbacks, and they head to Cheney in mid-late June. As Dave’s mentioned, Dave Stewart’s had a curious off season, and many of the misfit toys he’s acquired can be found on the Aces roster. That list starts wtih Cuban OF/3B? Yasmany Tomas, who got big money to sign, tried some 3B, and was then quietly sent down. There’s also Peter O’Brien, the C with poor defensive skills that the D-Backs got from the Yankees. After insisting all spring the power-hitting O’Brien was a catcher, the Aces now list O’Brien as an OF. The staff includes former Dodger and Red Sox prospect (part of the SECOND giant Adrian Gonzalez trade) Alan Webster, and LHP Robbie Ray, the guy the Tigers flipped straight up for Doug Fister, and who’s now on his third organization.
The Sacramento Rivercats are now the Giants’ affiliate after years with Oakland. Their roster’s anchored by RHP Hunter Strickland, who made the Giants post-season roster last year and throws extremely hard. He’ll be throwing to ex-Oregon State C Andrew Susac, who’s got enough bat and catch-and-throw to be a decent back-up in the bigs (it must suck to be stuck behind Buster Posey). Carlos Triunfel is now with Sacramento, leaving the Dodger org and a thoroughly messed up Albuquerque club last year.
The final homestand of the year, in late August, brings the Memphis Cardinals and Nashville Sounds to Tacoma. Memphis is paced by three of the top 10 Cardinals prospects, including Gonzaga product Marco Gonzalez, a starter with a plus change-up who may not last until August. They’ve also got hard-throwing (touching 100) reliever Sam Tuivailala, who had a brief and painful stint with the big league club last year (1 IP, 4R, 2HR, 2BB, 1K) and OF prospect Stephen Piscotty, who will either add some power to his game or try to carve out a role as a useful 4th OF. Memphis also has former Giants CF prospect Gary Brown on the roster (the Giants waived him at the end of spring training) along with ex-Rainiers 3B/2B Ty Kelly, who the M’s flipped for SP Sam Gaviglio. Finally, they’ve got reliever and US Navy Lieutenant Mitch Harris, who was drafted out of the US Naval Academy, then served five years on active duty before returning to baseball in 2013.
The R’s close out their home schedule with Nashville, now the Oakland A’s PCL club. After a flurry of prospect trades last year, and after acquiring lower-level prospects this year, the club’s a little light on emerging talents, though they do have notable players including Barry Zito, who graciously accepted an assignment to AAA, speedy CF Billy Burns who can’t hit but nearly earned a Terrance Gore-style roster spot in Oakland anyway, and ex-Yankee ambidextrous pitcher Pat Venditte. The one prospect on the roster is Joey Wendle, a 2B the A’s got from Cleveland in exchange for Brandon Moss. There aren’t a whole lot of notable reinforcements stashed at AA Midland either, so, uh…a switch pitcher! So nutty.
You’ll notice I haven’t mentioned the Iowa Cubs, home to perhaps the most notable prospects in AAA. That’s because Kris Bryant’s club isn’t making the trip to Tacoma last year, though as we all know, Kris Bryant wouldn’t be with them even if they did. Javier Baez will continue trying to figure out the strike zone, and you can check in on that through MiLB.tv, but he won’t be coming to Tacoma. For those of you who went last August, you’ll remember that Jorge Soler played one game and Bryant three in that series at Cheney.
* Matthew Trueblood has an interesting article today at BP about the demise of players like Carlos Quentin – guys with solid bats but without a position to play and/or something that prevents them from contributing every day. In the past, these guys could be useful bench bats – poor men’s Ken Phelpses. But as bullpens have grown, and pinch hitting has become more about countering a specialist reliever and less about “this is a critical at-bat, I need a bat-first player in there right now,” managers don’t have a Carlos Quentin to turn to. I bring this up because the shift from bench to bullpen is essentially the exact thing that doomed Jason Lane’s position-player career, and because the need for ever more specialized reserves (a back-up C, someone who can play SS, someone who can play every OF position or every corner spot without making a fool of himself, and that’s all you get), I keep thinking Lane’s *current* skillset may become even more important. I’m not saying carrying 13 relievers necessitates a two-way player, but I’d think someone who could get lefties out and also hit decently against righties is the ultimate kind of specialized reserve. A guy with no defensive ability and serious platoon splits could add value if and only if he can also get the occasional out. I know this skillset is rare, but it is exceedingly entertaining, and now that you’ve taken Micah Owings from me, treacherous baseball, I demand that you find me suitable replacements.
** I’ve always thought Stassi had one of the better names. As there aren’t any prospects with names that match other secret police forces (“Kayjibi” “Ennissay”), we may need to wait for more hyphenated-surname folks to come in with cool initials. Until then, Stassi needs a fanclub with a name like “Ze Informänts” or Volkzpolizei. A little odd, a little socialist-chic, but it’d probably be a hit with hipsters born after the fall of the Berlin Wall.