M’s Add Ben Gamel, M’s Affiliates Dominate, AFL Rosters Released
Three quick items to talk about today, and none of them involve depressing post-mortems of a gruesome 1-8 road trip. The M’s made a minor trade yesterday, saw yet another affiliate punch their ticket to the postseason, and released the most exciting list of Arizona Fall League assignments in years.
1: One of things that’s made the Dipoto regime somewhat distinct is the flurry of small moves both during the off-season and throughout the summer. Some may quibble that by skirting the big questions like rebuild or add current wins, the M’s are essentially re-arranging deck chairs. Others may argue that these minor moves are common – a key part of operating several minor league affiliates as well as trying to cover for a rash of injuries. I think it’s fair to say that this latest move, like most, doesn’t fundamentally alter the M’s future, but it does illustrate Dipoto’s desire both for depth in the upper-minors as well as at positions of need.
The M’s acquired Ben Gamel from the Yankees yesterday in exchange for two rookie-level pitching prospects, Jio Orozco and Jorge DePaula. Of the two, Orozco’s the headliner, a 14th rounder out of an Arizona high school who opened some eyes in the Arizona League last year and again this year. He’s got a bit more upside than you’d think from a later-round draft pick, as his very solid K rates indicate. Fangraphs had him as the M’s #19 prospect coming into this year, but he’d be higher than that at the time of the trade.
Gamel caught my eye when the M’s were working out a deal with New York last year, the one that sent Dustin Ackley east in exchange for Gamel’s one-time teammate, Ramon Flores. Gamel didn’t quite have Flores’ batting eye, but everything else about him was perhaps a notch above. Gamel’s hit for a touch more pop over his minor league career, and is a better (though not a really good) fit for CF than the corner-OF-only Flores. While he didn’t have Flores’ nearly 1:1 K:BB ratio, Gamel’s consistently hit for a higher average, and kept his K rate under 20% in the high minors. It’s these characteristics that have him ranked in the top 100 prospects by Fangraphs’ KATOH system, a stats-only way of looking at minor league talent.
Scouts would take the under on that KATOH forecast, as Gamel’s a bit undersized and has the classic “tweener” profile without any one standout tool. They’re different players, but I kind of see Gamel as the replacement for another undersized, great-MiLB-OBP infielder that Dipoto acquired earlier: Boog Powell. Powell’s actually younger than Gamel, but he essentially lost his 2016 after his 2nd PED violation. Powell’s probably more of a CF, though neither are going to win gold gloves at the next level.
Gamel’s hit for a solid OBP in AAA for two straight years, but picked a bad time for a power outage this year. While he enjoyed a cup of coffee with the Yankees earlier, he’s been passed by Aaron Judge, a corner OF with much more power and a better prospect pedigree, and by Rob Refsnyder, another ex-teammate who saw time in the Yankees OF after moving from 2B. The Yankees are rebuilding, but still don’t really have a spot for him with Brett Gardner and Jacoby Ellsbury still around. That’s why it’s easy to like this move from the M’s point of view, especially given the level at which Orozco’s currently pitching. Gamel has more value to the M’s than the Yankees, and thus this swap seems fair all around. It clearly fills a need for the M’s, so it’s hard to complain.
2: Bakersfield made it official the other night, beating San Jose to clinch the Cal League 2nd half title. Jackson’s had a playoff berth sewn up for months, courtesy of their 1st half title in the Southern League, and Clinton clinched a spot in the Midwest League playoffs weeks ago too. Everett shook off an average 1st half to run away with the Northwest League’s 2nd half title. As I mentioned the other night, the Arizona League M’s made it into the playoffs as well, and they clobbered the AZL Reds to advance to the semi-finals against the Angels. We don’t talk about them much, but even the M’s Dominican Summer League team got in on the action, running away with the DSL South division.
That leaves one team that’s yet to clinch a spot in the postseason, the Tacoma Rainiers. That could change tonight, as the Rainiers magic number over Reno is down to 1. A Tacoma win or Reno loss would make it a clean sweep, 7 of 7 affiliates making the postseason. To say that this is a turnaround from last year is a massive understatement, and it’s come seemingly out of nowhere. This organization’s affiliates were in shambles last year, with every affiliate except Everett under .500, and Clinton suffering through one of the worst years in recent memory. That many of these same players are driving these playoff runs is both a testament to some remarkable player development work over very short timelines, and perhaps to the wisdom of some of those minor moves I mentioned above. While Dipoto brought in his fair share of minor league vets and minor trade guys, the vast majority of the improvement has come from the holdovers. If anything, Dipoto’s bullpen trades before the year *subtracted* from the overall talent level in the system, thanks to losing guys like Enyel de los Santos, Erick Mejia, Daniel Missaki, Trey Cochran-Gill, and eventually Chris Taylor. It didn’t matter, thanks to huge years from Tyler O’Neill (as expected, he was named the Southern League’s MVP yesterday), Stefen Romero, Nick Neidert, Art Wells, and Zack Littell.
It’s easy to get carried away with this; great minor league records does not mean that the M’s have the most minor league talent. What it DOES mean is that the M’s are getting more production out of what they had than in prior years. The M’s system isn’t some sort of league-destroying behemoth now, but it’s also evidently not as bereft of talent as it appeared a year ago. Development was a key, in my mind THE key, reason the M’s slipped behind their AL West rivals in recent years, and if these changes persist, the M’s will be in much better position to challenge for the division in a few years. That’s critical, given the gap in young big league talent the M’s need to make up vis a vis the Rangers and Astros.
3: The Arizona Fall League rosters came out, and the M’s contingent is one of their best ever. Tyler O’Neill will head back to the desert (he played a bit in 2015), and he’ll be joined by Luiz Gohara, the M’s #1 pitching prospect. I can’t remember a time in which both the M’s #1 position player and #1 pitcher both appeared in the AFL, but here we are. In addition, they’ll send some intriguing slow-moving prospects in catcher Tyler Marlette (a guy who I can’t quit, even as he’s repeated the Cal League for what feels like the 8th time) and South African command and control pitcher Dylan Unsworth.
The M’s will also send two guys currently on the big league roster: reliever Dan Altavilla, who’s opened some eyes of late with good command and 95mph velocity, and Guillermo Heredia, the speedy OF. Without an instructional league team, the M’s said they wanted to use the winter leagues more this year, and I think it’s great to get Heredia as many games as possible following the long layoff after he defected from Cuba. With Altavilla’s shift to the ‘pen, his workload isn’t as big of a concern, and they can work on things with him in a lower-pressure environment. Filling out the M’s contingent are RP Emilio Pagan, who could be the Dan Altavilla of 2017, and SS Drew Jackson, who had something of a disappointing 2016, but is still a top-10 prospect in the M’s system.
Yoan Moncada headlined the assignments, though it’s not clear that he’ll go, as he was called up by the Red Sox today. Screwballing Rays prospect Brent Honeywell’s probably the best overall pitching prospect on Peoria, but Red Sox fireballer Michael Kopech has the better upside thanks to 100mph velocity. Isan Diaz, a Brewers SS, will be there, along with OFs Eloy Jimenez and Bradley Zimmer, the Indians #1 prospect. The league kicks off on October 11th.