2019 Modesto Nuts Preview

Jay Yencich · April 3, 2019 at 10:00 am · Filed Under Mariners 

This roster is… uh… familiar? Of the twenty-five players listed for opening day, fourteen of them had already played on the 2018 Modesto squad, which went 62-78. The Mariners have restocked parts of the system and look to be fairly talented throughout, but this one looks to be filled with miscellany.

The rotation appears to be a blend of “consistency” and “baffling inconsistency,” which I’d expect to lead to lots of ups and downs. The bullpen, when good, has a chance to be quite good, so leads if gained could be retained. Catching, or at least the starting catcher, is probably the biggest star on the roster. The outfield is full of guys who were formerly well-regarded. The infield is cool if you like Gritty Dudes with Dirty Uniforms and Intangibles and less so if you don’t.

LHP Danny Garcia, RHP Austin Hutchison, RHP Ljay Newsome, LHP Raymond Kerr, LHP Nick Wells

Newsome returns after learning some gross truths about being a flyball pitcher in the California League. It wasn’t that his walk rate changed, it actually dropped from 3% to 2.2% (Ed. Note: Real numbers). Nor were his Ks bad, as his rate lost a mere 0.2% in the shift from the Midwest. But his average crept up about thirty-five points and the home run rate took a 50% jump. Even with an absurdly consistent profile, that’ll get you burnt. Last year, Newsome was below the league average age by more than two years, so I’m not sure if I regard the assignment as inappropriate, I’m just curious what it is they would want him to work on outside of adding velo, limiting long balls, and maybe trying to get it on the ground a little more often. I still think Erasmo Ramirez as a flyball pitcher is a fun comp for him.

I was surprised to look at the roster and notice that Wells is only eight and a half months older than Newsome, because it feels as if he’s been around forever. Whereas I’m comparing two seasons with Newsome, one could easily look at two halves with Wells and note how little changed other than the average taking a hit from Clinton to Modesto (.264 to .293) and his K numbers going up a skosh (19.7% to 20.2%). The walk and home run rates remaining static isn’t what you’d expect from someone with his history of command issues. As a left-hander, he’ll keep getting opportunities, though you wonder how the push for Trackman and Rhapsodo and all that will affect him, if at all.

I said this last year, but “Ray Kerr” is a hitter name, not a pitcher name. But pitch he does and logged 111.innings with the Lumberkings last season. Despite having an ERA in the low-4.00 range, he struggled with run support and wound up with a 5-11 record in twenty-five starts. Consistency could be said to be what holds him back. Overall, the walks and the strikeouts both land in “I don’t like it” range for me (above 3.5/9, below 8/9), but if you’re into that sort of thing you can look at his game scores and find that he has seven appearances that got a 60 or greater and six that were 30 or below. That’s a considerable spread and would lead one to suggest that when he’s on, he’s on, and when not, very much not.

Hutchison was a guy whose placement on the roster as a repeat surprised me somewhat, since he had already logged 83.0 innings with them last season and was entirely competent during (3.47 ERA, 89/25 K/BB, .235 avg. against). What I noticed upon digging into the splits was that he runs unusually even. Left / right, relief / starting, home / away, bases empty / runners on… It’s not exactly the same, but within margin of error. Now, I discover that they’re starting him via a press release, and it all starts to make sense. Sure, why not? If I’m looking for improvement somewhere, I’d like to see him display better command although 3.56 Ks for every walk is hardly a bad spot to be in.

Garcia would be a presumptive third lefty in the rotation and another returner, though I can’t say how solid his grip on that spot would appear. I raised questions last year about the viability of a guy who had a .300+ average against in the MWL and how he might fare in the Cal League. Not well, as it turns out, but to his credit he saw positive improvements in walk (6.5% -> 5.4%) and strikeout rates (18.1% -> 20.7%). One weird note is that he hit seventeen dudes in 93.1 innings, which led the league and was tied for third in all of minor league baseball. Perhaps he was asked to pitch inside? In any case, he’s the oldest pitcher on the roster and one most looking to improve.

RHP Scott Boches, RHP Sam Delaplane, RHP David Ellingson, RHP Joey Gerber, RHP Jake Haberer, RHP Collin Kober, LHP Ian McKinney, RHP Kyle Wilcox

If I’m permitted to tout a reliever, I’m honestly more interested in Delaplane than anyone else on the pitching staff. Delaplane is an undersized right-hander who was drafted in the 23rd round two years ago as a senior out of Eastern Michigan. Facing much younger competition in the AZL, he struck out 34.7% of the batters he faced and then proved that wasn’t a fluke by striking out 38.8% in Clinton, or an even hundred in just 59.2 innings pitched. If that weren’t enough, he’s also a groundball pitcher, which you don’t usually see from guys under six feet. Followers of the system know that he has plus velocity and yet, no BA features, no prospect lists, nadda. Sure, age vs. level isn’t great, but the only thing that I don’t quite get is why he had so many more Ks at home (63) vs. on the road (37).

Gerber would be a close second in that ranking after splitting his debut year closing at Clinton and Everett. A three-year reliever at Illinois (which I’m more inclined to call UIU-C, but whatever), he’s very much the guy of last year’s draft who could hit the majors first, with a mid-90s fastball, a slider that can flash plus, and a strong-armed delivery, all adding up to a K% of 40+ last season. He’s not a sidearmer or submariner like Mills, Hoffman, et al, but he had some weird splits last season as he allowed a .246/.315/.368 line to right-handers and then held lefties to .083/.214/.083. Held? Throttled perhaps. These samplings are under a hundred plate appearance, far too small to make anything meaningful out of, but it will be something to track.

The early listing of Wilcox in the Modesto bullpen last year was misleading. Rather, he spent all of April getting slammed (a 1.202 OPS allowed) and then returned to the Midwest League where he regained basic functionality. I’ve been doing this for what feels like his entire career, but let’s play around with it again. Wilcox spent his 2016-2018 seasons in Clinton and during that span his BB% went from 18.6% (76.0 IP) to 14.3% (33.1 IP) to 11.7% (54.0). Playing around with the same sampling gets us a K% increase of 21.9% in 2016, spiking to 35.4% the following season and 40.1% last year. He’s gone from K/BB ratios of 1.18, to 2.48, to 3.42. I feel like I’ve seen similar top-round picks get handed their walking papers for repeating the same level three times, but Wilcox, who has flashed upper-90s heat, was unrefined from the get-go and has made distinct progress annually. You feel like he’s just a bit of consistency away from getting a 40-man spot, or one awful season at a higher level away from being released.

In his two years since being drafted in the 30th round, Boches has seen every level of competition except triple-A. However, the majority of his innings (82.1) were logged at Clinton this past season and Modesto is the next logical step. His role has been something of a swingman with ten starts and sixteen relief appearances with Clinton last year, but since most of his appearances from the end of June on were starts, it could be safe to put him there. That being said, his splits show that one role might be preferable to the other, as his opposing line was .244/.297/.283 as a reliever and .272/.315/.388 as a starter. He was better versus left-handers last year, which makes you think he might have a workable change.

Kober shifted to the Cal League at the end of July last year, so the routine shouldn’t be all that new. He got the call after running a 64/12 K/BB in 46.2 relief innings for the Lumberkings, where he figured into their “closer by committee” setup. Parsing through the stats, there are a few things I’ve noticed, like his BABIP and OPS against fluctuating somewhat wildly month to month even if it averages out to respectable. July, in particular, saw him hold 45 batters to a .226 OPS and you just don’t see that, nor do you expect a couple of months of around .800 mixed in there as well. If I’m picking at things, he’s far better against right-handers than left-handers and that’s a developmental thing I’m suddenly interested in as a batter minimum is in the works.

With some late-round picks, I feel like I have little more to say than “honestly, good for you, dude.” Ellingson was a 34th rounder out of Georgetown where he closed his junior year for the Hoyas. Before that, he went to high school in Texas at The Woodlands, known for producing baseball players. It’s been three professional years for him and we’re still waiting on him to log more than thirty innings, curious in that neither the media guide nor MiLB report an injury history, he was just kept down in extended spring otherwise. The stats suggest that his walks creep into uncomfortable territory and he gets by with a high number of strikeouts. Last year’s splits indicate he bears down well in pressure situations, with almost half the OPS than when the bases are empty.

Haberer didn’t get drafted last year, or any other year. What I do know is that he pitched at Eastern Illinois for four years with a redshirt in 2015. Throughout his college career he had pretty good strikeout rates and just awful, don’t-look-at-them walk-rates. Undaunted by the thought that he was not wanted, he jumped into independent league ball with the Florence Freedom and showed some decent command, or good enough for the Mariners to sign him to a contract on August 1st and send him to sop up some minor league innings in Everett and Modesto. You don’t expect such profiles to hang on, so cheers to tenacity.

McKinney holds on as the bullpen’s lone lefty. He also comes in as another indy leaguer (Sioux City, represent), but it wasn’t for long, and before that he had been a former fifth-round pick of the Cardinals. He was one of those pitchability lefties who scraped 90 and threw a good change, but his career has been injury-riddled and he had exactly one season where he topped a hundred innings starting. It’s one reason I assume he was switched to relief. With any other organization, I’d probably think “well, maybe there’s something in how we’re doing things now that they missed out on,” but the Cardinals are pretty reliable for pitching development, so I’m on the fence.

Cal Raleigh, Nick Thurman

As the starting backstop, Raleigh is easily the best prospect on the roster and could also have his hands full with this pitching staff. He signed over-slot at the deadline following a .326/.447/.583 line his junior year (.886 overall in the NCAA). What, immediately becoming the de facto top catcher in system wasn’t good enough? He then proceeded to wreck the Northwest League to the tune of a .288/.367/.534. Through his time at FSU, he was regarded as a bat-first catcher and his defense was regarded as average at best, but the Mariners liked what they saw from his blocking and framing once he turned pro and kept him around their Peoria complex through the fall to work on his arm strength and positioning. Both may be necessary, as The Baseball Cube leads me to believe that runners had a 75.8% success rate on him and that’s just not going to cut it. No one would have blinked if you had him lined up for West Virginia instead, but the presence of Anchia permitted a rather ambitious promotion

Thurman will play back-up, but it’s a role he’s accustomed to and for a NDFA to hang on for four seasons? Not bad at all. He split time almost evenly between Modesto and Clinton last season with results in the .550 OPS range. While in the past he’s spotted at first here and there, last season he did not at all. The lack of a true 1B on the roster suggests it’s possible he could do it again, but no viable third catcher makes it less likely. He only logged two passed balls last year and caught 21 of 73 attempts, so the defensive returns are competent but not glowing. Given how catching and the perception of catchers is, I don’t know, maybe he’s managing the Detroit Tigers ten years from now.

SS Johnny Adams, 3B Eugene Helder, SS Connor Kopach, 1B/3B Joe Rizzo, 2B Matt Sanders

Last year I led off with Rizzo and I might as well again. Much was made of his run as the MVP of the Championship Series in 2017 and it was believed that he was coming into his own, but I raised a flag with the .693 OPS he was coming off of in Clinton. Sure enough, this past season he hit .241/.303/.321 in 123 games in Modesto. Interestingly, he did this while shifting to a more contact-heavy approach and dropping his BB% from 12.8% to 7.9% and his K% from 24.15% to 21.26%. When adjusting for the average, little stands out from his line either. The Mariners are trying to keep him at defensively challenging positions, but no one seems to be quite sold that he has a home yet. I don’t know that a former second-round pick has a “make or break year” this early on, especially when he was so much younger than his competition, but Rizzo badly needs to show something.

Adams amuses me for having an incredibly Massachusetts profile (sorry about the Sawks series, buddy), but has the added distinction lately of being a former Boston College teammate of the newly acquired Justin Dunn. His scrappy play en route to a .316/.374/.445 line in Everett was surely endearing, and perhaps even viable given that he wasn’t a LHB, but then he hit .219/.288/.340 while striking out 134 times in Clinton last year. Its also unfortunate in that his offensive performance month to month was more representative of decline than progress. He still figures to be the starting shortstop and the emergency relief pitcher regardless.

Kopach would be another contender for one of the middle infield jobs though my own instincts say maybe he’s not a true starter but instead regularly rotated in. He’s getting the bigger bump moving from Everett to Modesto after hitting .274/.362/.401 with the Aquasox. His time there was about 3/4ths at short and 1/4th at second, but he was surehanded at the keystone and I don’t see much reason not to try him there. Among split curiosities, he was better away, which isn’t common, and he started off hot before slowing down a bit. His power gears more towards doubles than anything else so I expect middle infield to be a priority.

My hunch is that Sanders will get the starts at second instead, though that’s largely on draft status. If you’ll remember the general draft grocery list, Sanders is your undersized, four-year starting college shortstop who was selected in the top ten rounds, described as having modest tools with the whole being greater than the sum of the parts, and blew the doors off during his senior campaign. For you C the Z fans, he also steadily improved his K/BB ratios each year and was within nine of an even ratio for his college career. He’s also worked to add stolen base proficiency to his game. Neither particularly showed up in Everett, where he batted .216/.274/.279 overall.

Helder… holds? (gosh) the distinction of being the only Aruban presently in the system and that’s a shame. He’s an extreme contact-oriented hitter who hit .240/.305/.357 last year. I slot him as the third baseman because that’s where he took his reps in Clinton, but even two years ago in Everett, he played every defensive role outside of catcher and center fielder. Split curiosities include that he was absolutely on fire in June when he hit .329/.392/.586, hitting three of his seven home runs and striking out the least of any full month, but he also grounded into five double plays.

CF Anthony Jimenez, RF Jack Larsen, LF Luis Liberato, RF Gareth Morgan, RF Ariel Sandoval

This is a rag tag group and all roughly the same age, so I’ll take on what interests me most first. Larsen was a NDFA out of UC San Diego in 2017, a gaudy D-II performer who translated that into a gaudy AZL line. He spent much of 2018 in Clinton where he hit .266/.384/.472 and was an MWL All-Star before promotion to Modesto wore the sheen off and he fell below a .600 OPS. Potentially, he’s patient to a fault, as his strikeouts come out to over once a game and his walks to every two games. D-II hitters have a rougher time gaining respect than pitchers and 2019 could be when he proves himself to be legitimately of interest.

Sandoval was picked up for a song from the Dodgers just prior to the start of the 2018 season. He’s not on the level of Dollar Store Specials like Tony Zych or a David McKay, but with a .721 OPS, he did have one of his better seasons to date and now returns to a league where he had 111 games between 2016 and 2017. Two reasons for pause would be how he rapidly tapered off after crushing April with a .284/.385/.567 line and how his strikeouts led the league by seven. However, he can play in right or center and that level of versatility can only help a dude.

Jimenez lost much of his best season in 2017 to a right knee injury and was on the DL sporadically last year with hamstring issues. It’s not all of his game, but as a dude who has been reliable for 20+ stolen bases along with some regular play in center, those injuries are worrisome. Likewise, he has doubles power mostly and tries to hit for contact without the skills for it. His slugging likewise dropped in the more hitter-friendly league.

Liberato is the left-handed, more defensively-friendly and more injured version of a similar concept. It seemed like he was building to something with 100 games in Clinton in 2016 and 125 split between there and Modesto in 2017, but last year it was back to the old sub-100. Previous seasons have cited hamstrings as an issue, but the present version of the media guide wouldn’t commit to anything other than games played for this last tour. His 2018 wasn’t terrible, holding in the mid-.700s OPS range where he had been previously, but despite having enough speed to be considered a plus glove in the outfield, he’s still been more of a liability than an asset on the basepaths.

If you don’t know who Gareth Morgan is by now, I’d scarcely know where to start. He’s Canadian. He’s a former second-round pick. He was touted as having a 70 or greater power grade as a prep prospect. He had a .225 isolated slugging last year. It’s a good season if he can hit above a .220 average. He’s a candidate to strike out 200 times in a full season. He will have between three and four+ times as many Ks as hits. He can play any outfield position. His performances could be characterized as “monstrous” with both positive and negative connotations applying. Blessings be upon him. Long may he live.


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