2019 Arkansas Travelers Preview

Jay Yencich · April 3, 2019 at 2:00 pm · Filed Under Mariners 

Here we go for a third season in Arkansas with the Travelers. They have a possum and a horse for mascots. Big fan. More of the possum than the horse. Big on hissing at stuff and playing dead to avoid threats. What were we talking about?

This team is, like the West Virginia squad, a rather talented group and so I found myself with a bit to say. Sure, the catching is a repeat of last year, but that may bring with it some added polish with which to direct the pitchers. For the rotation we have two, two-and-a-half guys who could be strong contributors if things break right for them, though the others are nothing to dismiss. The bullpen has a few standouts and is certainly a diverse bunch of velocities, angles, and ways of getting results. The infield has Evan White plus some likely producers, but the outfield could feature three viable major leaguers in any given day and that’s exciting. Potential and aptitude make for some entertaining baseball.

RHP Justin Dunn, RHP Darren McCaughan, RHP Reggie McClain, LHP Anthony Misiewicz, LHP Ricardo Sanchez

It’s refreshing to be able to write about a high-minors rotation and not be “here are some dudes” about the whole process. The ace of the staff, we’d figure to be Mr. Dunn Deal, who struck out fifteen in twelve innings this spring while walking three. It’s a microcosm of his career, in that his Ks have always been substantial for a starter and his walks, slightly outside the comfort zone. Left-handers especially sit on him longer and wait for strikes. The repertoire is a power one reflective of a former reliever, reliant on the low-to-mid-90s fastball with a couple of breaking balls and a change-up that previously didn’t need to be thrown much. This is more hunch than anything else, but prior to Sheffield’s breakout spring, Dunn was the pitcher I was more intrigued by. It’s noted that the Mariners were on him before Kyle Lewis fell, so I’m curious what they envision for him or tweaks they might make that the Mets did not. Unless they suddenly decide they need him in the bullpen, because that’s made me go apoplectic every time it’s been rumored outside of Diaz, which I learned to live with.

It’s hard not to look at the handling of Sanchez’ career and think “hahaha WOW that’s what we used to do.” He’ll be twenty-two in a few days, and otherwise has been three years too young for every level he’s played at. People wonder why he isn’t better? The control improvements have corresponded with a decline in his strikeout rate, and he’s been at about a 2/1 K/BB for his career. The stuff is certainly there, low-90s fastball, change-up, curve, it all works in theory, but his mechanics and throwing motion have been inconsistent and last year, left-handed bats hit him up for a .813 OPS. Part of the novelty of spring is acquiring someone else’s fixer-upper and daydreaming about what could be done with them. Sanchez’ age and stuff makes it easier to fall for him, and the Mariners have had some success with shorter pitchers. Hope at your own peril.

McCaughan escapes the Cal League after tying for the team lead in innings pitched and being among the leaders in just about every other good category. BA marked him down as having the best control in the system (whither Newsome?) and that bodes well since he’s been repped as a pitchability right-hander with a full arsenal compensating for a slightly below-average heater. I don’t see much that indicates he shouldn’t keep starting outside of a couple mid-summer months of a .800+ OPS allowed in which he seemed to also lose that command and stop striking out as many as he had previously. The twelve hit batters are also a little odd for someone whose control is supposed to be that good.

McClain’s overall profile as a command-reliant right-hander is similar to McCaughan, so let’s parse through some of the major differences. One is that he’s a bit older, but this can be partially explained by him getting an age-23 year of NCAA eligibility on account of shoulder issues knocking out what would have been his freshman season. He’s a pretty good bet to give you five innings on any given day, but the Cal League wasn’t nice to him over the nearly 300 innings he pitched there, a surprising result for a guy that was a groundball and not a flyball pitcher. If he can’t keep it under a .800 OPS allowed in double-A, he’ll be in trouble.

Though he was drafted clear back in 2015, I can now comfortably type “Misiewicz” without needing to look at a reference. Like our pal Mallex Smith, he was also with the Rays briefly before coming back to us. He was not-so-hot in 98.0 innings with the Travs last year, allowing a .319 average against, but he arguably rebounded when he had a 2.76 ERA over 16.1 innings in the Arizona Fall League with a 13/4 K/BB. Since he has a plus curveball, some have speculated whether he might be better off as a reliever, but his lines have been better versus right-handers the last two seasons and that’s a less compelling profile.

RHP Jack Anderson, RHP Bryan Bonnell, RHP Jorgan Cavanerio, RHP Zac Grotz, RHP Parker Markel, RHP Wyatt Mills, RHP Matt Walker, RHP Art Warren

Mills is likely the top reliever of the group and one with good odds to close since he finished thirty-two of thirty-five appearances with the Nuts last year. His numbers in the Cal League were dumb overall, with a .191 average against and 49/9 K/BB in 42.1 innings. However, he did spend his final month in Arkansas with surprisingly bad, double-digit ERA results before taking on the AFL and looking good for ERA, but not great with the other counting numbers. Intriguingly, he was also back up to the mid-90s while playing for Peoria despite sitting around 90 mph otherwise since turning pro. It’s unusual for a sidewinder to get that much on the gun, but he should also be showing better secondaries just in case. Last season, he logged a stunning July and followed it up with an awful August, so like a lot of guys with quirky mechanics, consistency could be something to watch if he’s going to make it to Tacoma this year.

Warren is another candidate to close, though he was lost a bit in the shuffle of acquiring a bunch of top-flight prospects and losing most of his 2018 to a shoulder strain. Suddenly being able to throw close to 100 mph is a boon until the human body realizes maybe it shouldn’t. As such, he only tossed 15.2 innings last year with a 22/14 K/BB. He remained hard-to-hit and kept opposing batters below the Mendoza line, but the struggles with command are real and persistent. Since he can also spin off a few different breaking balls, Warren at the high end of his projections looks to be a setup or closing type, he just needs to get healthy and refine his command.

Anderson is known as “The Creature” and as such got a Creature Feature in camp this spring as the winner of the org award for commanding the zone in key counts. More extreme than even Mills, he’s affectionately known as a knuckle-scraper for how low his delivery gets. It’s especially hard on right-handers, but then it’s not easy for anyone as he’s gone two and a half pro seasons without giving up his first home run. Anderson was particularly on his game last July when he held batters to a .122/.140/.143 line, driven in part by a .158 BABIP. He’s a fun combination of “unusual approach” and “excellent results.”

If it were a comic book sound effect, what might “Grotz” indicate? In baseball terms, it’s a guy who’s only been a pro since 2015 but has already played for four affiliated organizations and three indy league teams. Those orgs are respectively, the Astros, the Dodgers, and the Mets. The Dodgers first snagged him after his K/9 approached double-digits and his ratio read 5.67 in his first indy league tour, but even dropping him into the Pioneer League, the Ks didn’t hold. It wasn’t until last year with the Mets, pitching at their class-A affiliate, that they started to. To skip him over Modesto entirely seems risky for a guy whose work ethic and demeanor is praised, but whom I can’t find really any scouting info on.

“Parker Markel” is a name you should try to say five times quickly. It’s not going to result in any lewd tongue twisters, but come on, do it, it’ll be fun. Markel was drafted clear back in 2010 and his basic rep then was that he could bring a good fastball, but the command wasn’t there. That’s been accurate for his career, as he’s never had a season walks per nine below 2.6. The Ks have been up and down, sometimes present, sometimes not. He spent last year in Sioux City after not pitching at all in 2017 and the Ks and walks were both unusually high. I root for the indy leaguers, even while skeptical.

Bonnell is back after pitching 48.1 innings with the club last year. We originally got him in 2017 for “Future Considerations,” which was a fancy way of saying international slot bonus money. Since joining the org, he’s had walk rates in the two per nine range and Ks in the seven plus, which is much more consistent than he had ever been with the Rays. All the same, he gives up more hits and home runs than you’d like from a reliever and the more advanced metrics such as tRA regard him skeptically.

Fun fact about Cavanerio is that you can type either his first or last names into B-R and hit enter and get his profile. He was formerly a top international prospect signed by the Marlins, but stateside he’s only seen his K/9 pass seven once (last year). Once he became a minor league free agent, we offered him a spring training invite and he took it. He had a bit of wildness, with a hit batter, two wild pitches, and two walks in 2.1 innings, but generally that isn’t him and he’ll both attack the strike zone and keep the ball in the yard. I don’t know what he brings in his repertoire, but experiencing an outburst of strikeouts in high- and double-A has me intrigued.

As the big right-hander, I wanted more data on Walker last season before passing judgment given how fast he moved for a 36th round pick. Whereas he had a K/9 of 10+ the previous three stops, at double-A it was just above one with a walks per nine in the threes, where we’ve seen him previously. Perhaps more alarming was his nine-inning stint in the AFL where everything went sideways for him and he had a 4/11 K/BB. Given that he was facing premium competition, that’s a little disconcerting and might lead me to read more into the fact that last year, his splits were worse against “younger batters” than they were against older ones.

Joe DeCarlo, Joe Odom

The Joe Battery is back. Hail! Since it’s one of the things we’re interested in, the conversion of Joey Deeks to backstop is going all right, actually. We’re still figuring out what his endurance back there is going to look like, and that’s always a question mark, but from 2017 and 2018, we got forty-nine games apiece behind the plate and much to compare within that sample. As a fresh backstop, DeCarlo passed eighteen balls and was down to seven last year. His caught rate also improved from 25% to 34.7%, which isn’t bad at all in the high minors. Where his offense was concerned, he remained steady, trading some OBP for slugging and otherwise performing well in secondary average. Obviously, passing a ball every seven games ain’t gonna cut it in the big leagues, but he’s much closer to making it work than he was before.

Odom got about half the playing time in Arkansas last year and could figure for something similar this year. It surprises to me to note this, but his caught stealing rate is rather bad? Just 19.3% last season over seventy-five games. I wonder if DeCarlo’s superior performance was the result of an attempted and failed hazing. I didn’t have much to report back on his hitting last year and neither do I this year, but at this level it’s more about being able to manage a pitching staff than strongly investing in development.

2B Jordan Cowan, IF Chris Mariscal, 3B/LF Logan Taylor, SS Donovan Walton, 1B Evan White

It’s more of a palliative than anything, but Evan White will start in double-A, making the challenging plays around the first base bag look like easy and foregone conclusions. I mention this after having watched Bruce / Encarnacion / Vogelbach around first and seen routine plays extend innings. So there you go. That particular crunch of roster configuration also meant that he got less time in the Cactus League than his peers, thus, we’ll skip over that. White is still an offensive work-in-progress, but in a good way. The concern has usually been power, and many have talked about how he slugged .703 last August. Those are incredible numbers, though less attention has gone to his July, when he slugged .284. During Spring Training, Dipoto and others spoke about how White’s exit velocity has always been elite, it’s merely that he was trained with the straight, level swing of the previous generation and didn’t hit the ball in the air often enough. I’d take that as an affirmation for his August, but we should also not lose sight of the fact that he’s making major changes to something that’s been otherwise habitual for years. Muscle memory can be hard to retrain.

Is he Donnie this year or Donovan? These names have very different connotations. So, Walton is the second-biggest prospect on the infield through he’s usually ranked somewhere mid-to-late 20s. He got half a year in Modesto as he recovered from a wrist injury, batting .309/.402/.433 before a midseason call-up to Arkansas, where he batted .236/.325/.327 for the Travs. While he’s regarded as being able to play anywhere on the infield since his arm grades out fine, he’s been at second about 60% of the time and shortstop the rest. When talking about him, everyone praises how efficient and polished his play is. He could still make the majors as a utility infielder, though perhaps his truest path to the major leagues is as an infield coach.

In 2018, Taylor had about a third of his time in Modesto, about two-thirds in Arkansas, and a cup of coffee in Tacoma. One might be able to project a little bit of a loss in moving out of the Cal League, but more than the thirty-seven-point dip in slugging–one that matches well enough with the drop in average–he lost almost seventy points of OBP, about fifty of which is purely the walking part. It was against his fellow right-handers where he seemed to lose the most, with a split of .182 points where there had been a twenty-six net positive before. This is a danger in that he’s a bat-first type whose defensive tools are fringy and has never knocked out more than ten annually. Perhaps he’ll benefit from some video.

Mariscal smashed up the AFL with a .381/.458/.476 line in eleven games, it just wasn’t enough to register him as a needed 40-man add after he previously hit .261/.343/.360 for the Travs with 131 Ks in 120 games. Bless his heart, he keeps trying though and can effectively play anywhere on the infield, he just has his ups-and-downs in the batter’s box. These downs had the tell (at least last year) of him walking less. Ten or more walks in a month? A .297/.377/.410 line. Fewer than ten? A .193/.253/.265 line. You see? I have solved the problem. Go forth and spread the word. Go forth and C the Z.

Cowan returns to action after having missed most of 2018 following surgery to repair the labrum in his throwing arm. He’s well-liked within the organization, being a Kentlake High School grad and a regular on base, but his minor league OPS is under .700 and the times he’s surpassed that were often smaller samples, like the 2016 season when he dislocated his shoulder. He’s been primarily used as a second baseman, but will play third and short if asked and has five pitching appearances under his belt, though I don’t know if labrum surgery will factor into that going forward.

CF Jake Fraley, OF Aaron Knapp, RF Kyle Lewis, CF Dom Thompson-Williams, RF Nick Zammarelli

A new and unfamiliar outfield core isn’t especially novel at a double-A affiliate, but having the newcomers be prospect-y and not free agents or waiver wire grabs is. Lewis is the mainstay here, returning to double-A after playing in what was improbably his first big league camp. He hit .393/.452/.857 though, so, NBD. Offseason video from (I think?) his Instagram account showed sped-up footage of him training and by the end of it there was a swagger where you felt as if he was confident after a tread-water 2018. So, things to track… One would be how often he plays center. I don’t think the outfield depth necessitates it, but the capacity to play there would lighten the load on his offense to carry him. Previous trials have had him knocking around scar tissue in the knee and we don’t actually know to what extent his speed will recover. Another micro thing would be how hard he hits RHP. What’s interesting in last year’s splits for him is that there’s little AVG or OBP variance, but he slugged almost a hundred points worse against right-handers. This too could be a noisy sample, as he was scouted as trying too hard to compensate for lost time. A third would be health. Dave Sims was right during a spring training broadcast to recoil when it seemed like Lewis jammed his hand sliding into a base. Any franchise that carries the legacy of Chris Snelling is bound to have some “here we go again.”

Fraley’s Cactus League go lacked some of the bombast of Lewis—hitting a meagre .256/.310/.487 in 39 PAs—but the coaching staff wasn’t lacking in praise for him. To boot, the features positioned him as a hitting nerd who would eagerly embrace the new organizational focus on analytics. He OPS’d .962 in the Florida State League and the combo of “high draft pick,” “swing change,” “somewhat older” led some to anoint him as the next Haniger. I’m a more cautious than that. The 15/3 K/BB in spring training makes me pause w/r/t his contact skills and I want more data against good competition. The other blip is that he was 1-for-4 on the basepaths, and 11-for-19 last season. He’s posted some impressive numbers in the past, but as a proud user of the Sullivan-era Lookout Landing “BAD BASERUNNING” .gif, I find giving away outs on the basepaths to be rather annoying.

The latest addition to the storied organization history of hyphenation is Thompson-Williams, whose name doesn’t really fit on a jersey. He was, uh, not a star of spring training. He did however post a 20-20 season in the minors last year after previously topping at three home runs, albeit in roughly a half season of healthy play. Like his fellow starters, the power-speed combo is the focal point, but there’s enough to improve on going forward. His first two seasons, DT-W has a 11.4% BB-rate and a 18.25% K-rate. Last year playing mostly in the Florida State League, it was 8% and 24.8%, respectively. That could make for an uglier transition to double-A ball than some project. Like the others, he could improve his baserunning, though he’s not nearly as bad as Fraley. In any case, he’s least under the spotlight of the projected outfield starters and could get away with slow, process-based improvement on an otherwise talented team.

Given that he played fifty-five games in right last year and only twenty-five at first, maybe Nick Zamma-blamma is an outfielder now? In being moved from the Midwest to California, Zammarelli’s OPS held in the mid-.700s range with some of that alluring slugging replacing the on-base percentage. I still find his discipline to be worrisome. He walked 8% of the time in Clinton and struck out almost a quarter, and then last year was down to 7.7% walks with 26.8% Ks. It’s been observed in past sluggers (Blash, Balentien) that some benefit simply from being in a league where pitchers can routinely throw strikes, but it will be something to keep tabs on. I’d also be happy if he established himself as capable of playing all the corners.

The Mariners were eager to snap up Knapp’s services last August after he was released by Miami. He’s a former 8th round pick, with plus speed parsing out to a 75% steal rate and solid outfield defense, but much has happened since. Fraley and Thompson-Williams might not match Knapp for ground covered, but they can surely outhit him, and thus his services are a poorer fit with us than they might have been before or elsewhere, West Coast affinities aside. They’d better have a plan for him that doesn’t demand he play center, otherwise we might see “KNAPP SACKED” headlines in the future (eerie rimshot)


2 Responses to “2019 Arkansas Travelers Preview”

  1. tame on April 3rd, 2019 3:41 pm

    Chris Snelling? Jesus. How long have you been doing this? Thought we’d agreed to keep those repressed memories repressed. Awesome previews though. Thanks for taking the time.

  2. Jay Yencich on April 3rd, 2019 3:45 pm

    It’s my role as the guy summons up the living memory to remind us of previous terrors and portends. Besides, I passed on making an Ishmael Castro comp to Joseph Rosa. I could’ve been a folklorist but I’m sure it would have paid even worse.

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