Prospect Watch: The Burlington Royals, From Impact to Curiosity

For players in 28 of MLB’s 30 organizations, the lowest level of U.S.-based affiliated professional baseball is the complex leagues, the Arizona League and the Gulf Coast League. These leagues feature the rawest of the raw when it comes to professional baseball players, largely including players fresh out of high school or Latin America, with some low-rung college players mixed in.

Two organizations, however, do not have complex league teams. The Rockies haven’t had one since 2000, instead maintaining a Rookie-Advanced team in the Pioneer league and a short-season-A team in the Northwest League. From 2003 to 2013, the White Sox were the other team, but this year, the Pale Hose picked up an Arizona League team and their division rivals in Kansas City became the second club with a complex league vacuum.

The Royals thus lost an entire team’s worth of roster spots in their system in the offseason, and that created something of a backlog in their organization. All the high school draftees and Latin American kids who would normally (or at least often) be assigned to their old AZL team now jumped straight up to the club’s Rookie-Advanced affiliate in Burlington. The squad opened the year with a whopping 38 players on its roster as a result, including four 17-year-olds and six players picked in the top six rounds of the 2014 draft. As you’d expect, the raw Burlington squad resides in last place in the Appalachian League East Division, but also as you’d expect, they are largely considered the most talented team in the circuit. I sat in on seven of their contests this year, and in this piece, I’m going to touch on several intriguing players on this oversized roster.

I’ve already written about Foster Griffin (here) and Julio Pinto (here), so in the interest of space, they are excluded from this discussion. With Griffin, the 28th overall pick in the 2014 draft, already covered, the natural starting point for talking about Burlington’s studs is the player picked twelve selections later, catcher Chase Vallot.

Vallot is one of the aforementioned 17-year-olds on the roster, and in a league where the average age is a bit over 20, he hasn’t gotten off to the best of starts in pro ball. Through 32 games, he’s hitting .216/.331/.432, striking out at nearly a 35% clip. He’s managed to walk about 12% of the time and rip 14 extra-base hits, so he’s already shown clear secondary skills, but he has a lot of trouble with breaking pitches, chasing ones that move out of the zone and swinging through hangers. He does seem to recognize spin better than, say, Courtney Hawkins, but he’ll need to turn that recognition into actual discipline at some point–obviously, he’s way too young to be written off in this area. Vallot’s swing has some uppercut to it but is otherwise reasonably quick to the ball, so if he controls the strike zone, his stroke shouldn’t prevent him from hitting.

At 6’0″ and probably thicker than his listed 215 pounds, Vallot has a power hitter’s build–one that actually isn’t too far off of Billy Butler‘s. His raw strength and swing leverage give him a higher power ceiling than Butler, and he could hit 25+ homers someday if his hit tool lets the power play. You can see a Mike Napoli sort of offensive ceiling here.

Vallot’s future, however, is going to largely depend on where he ends up defensively, and Napoli and Butler are actually fairly good “ceiling” and “floor” comparables in this regard. Vallot’s lone defensive asset is his arm, which is well above-average, grading out around a 65 on the 20-80 scale. The rest of his game behind the plate is definitively subpar, even when you factor in his youth. He struggles badly with blocking and receiving due to his lack of flexibility and lateral quickness, and his footwork and release neutralize his arm enough that he’s caught just 22% of basestealers. His 28 steals allowed lead the league, even though he hasn’t even caught half his team’s games. That’s a red flag.

Unlike, say, 2013 Appy League standout “catcher” Rowan Wick, Vallot doesn’t have the foot speed to move to right field and let the arm work from there. Third base might be an experiment to try, a la Pirates prospect Wyatt Mathisen, but that could prove to be an adventure as well. That leaves the most likely outcome as that of the recently-traded Peter O’Brien–first base/DH. If Vallot can hang in at a .265/.340/.480 level or so over there, he’s well worth the 40th overall selection, and he’s got a shot to do that. Like anyone on the extreme right of the defensive spectrum, though, he’s the sort of prospect who needs to keep hitting to keep his place on prospect lists, because if any part of the offensive game falls short of expectations, his value craters quickly (see: Billy Butler, now).

***

So Vallot, like Griffin before him, grades out as something of a mixed (though intriguing) bag. Moving down the Royals draftees in Burlington, we next come to 56th overall selection Scott Blewett, a New York high school righthander. If you’re apprehensive about the two high schoolers picked above him, this is the kid to get excited about.

Scott Blewett doesn’t have much of a changeup. He threw four or five in the outing above, most of them in the 85-87 range without much movement; one came in at 83 and graded out as maybe a 35 pitch. Overall, the pitch probably isn’t a 30 yet. That concludes the negatives I have to say about Scott Blewett, which is pretty impressive because, well, he’s 18.

Blewett sure doesn’t look 18. He’s 6’6″ and 235 pounds, releasing the ball seemingly right on top of the hitter from a high arm slot. He throws a 91-94 mph fastball with an almost effortless delivery, and he has room to add some strength and maybe pick up another tick or two on the pitch. It sets up a power curveball at 76-81 that has impressive bite and plus potential. He’s got the frame to eat innings and the mechanics to throw strikes consistently, so the only major obstacle between him and the middle of a big-league rotation is that changeup. With his size and fastball/curveball combination, Blewett’s almost a lock to become at least a good reliever assuming he doesn’t backslide (injury-related or otherwise), and there’s something like a Pirates-era A.J. Burnett ceiling here, maybe more.

***

The other highly-drafted pitcher in the Royals’ rotation is fifth-rounder Corey Ray of Texas A&M, and like one might expect, the 21-year-old righty presents a more well-rounded and less exciting picture than Blewett.

Ray throws three solid pitches: a 90-93 mph fastball that touches 94, a hard slider that usually arrives at 82-85 (occasionally slower), and a fading changeup at 80-81. All three pitches have their moments. Obviously, touching 94 is noteworthy (if hardly exceptional), and Ray does it with relative ease in his delivery. The changeup plays well off the fastball, with good action and velocity separation, though Ray doesn’t seem to use it to righties much at all, making it his #3 pitch even though it might be his second-best offering.

That’s not to take anything away from Ray’s slider, which flashes plus with hard 11-to-5 wipeout snap when he’s got it working. However, it might be the most consistently inconsistent pitch I’ve ever seen. In his last outing, he threw a few sliders in that plus range with big bite, he threw others that were absolute bottom-of-the scale spinners with virtually no action at all, and a few of everything in between.

On the surface level, then, Ray’s the sort of high-floor, low-ceiling three-pitch college righty who tends to go in the fifth round, but below that, there’s just enough rawness (stiff landing in the delivery, straight trajectory on the fastball, inconsistency with the slider, low use of the changeup, command that wavers at times) to raise some concern about how safe of a prospect Ray is; conversely, Ray has some projection left, and the very fact that his skillset is not maxed out gives him more upward mobility than most of this type. The (unlikely) dream is Drew Hutchison, but even if some of his issues never quite go away, Ray has enough positives to be a good Triple-A pitcher at the worst and possibly a valuable back-of-the-rotation presence.

***

Let’s switch gears for a minute and talk about Jose Martinez. He’s emblematic of the sort of player whom it’s essentially impossible to discuss without seeing him, because sabermetric tools aren’t going to help at all. Like Vallot, he’s 17 and in the Appalachian League, which puts him way ahead of the age curve and essentially excuses any statistical inadequcies.

And there are statistical inadequacies with Martinez. He’s hitting all of .198/.239/.270 this year and fielding .917 at short (.976 in nine games at second, as well). So, is he just a bad baseball player who happens to be young, or is this only a temporary case of being overmatched?

As it usually does, the truth lies somewhere in between. Jose Martinez actually stands out on a baseball field for his polish. He’s only struck out twelve times in 31 games thanks to sound hand-eye coordination that allows him to consistently make contact. That contact is only occasionally hard at present, largely because a bat wrap lengthens the path of the barrel to the ball. The switch-hitter flashes some strength but needs to add more, though he has a fairly mature build for his age already.

That build likely will prevent Martinez from playing shortstop in the long run, but his soft hands, sound instincts, and average arm should play just fine at second. A solid contact hitter who can play a solid second has a good foundation to build on, but Martinez is going to need to find one other skill if he wants to jump from being a quality organizational player to a major league utility player or starter at second base. It’s very early on to give concrete odds on his chances in this regard, but he is an interesting player who bears monitoring.

***

So far, everyone I’ve discussed on this noteworthy squad (Griffin and Pinto included) is readily obvious as an interesting player just by looking at a roster, via either being drafted highly or being extremely young for the level.  But a player doesn’t have to be born in the second half of the 90s or drafted in the top five rounds to be intriguing in Appalachian League competition. Sometimes, there are guys you just can’t see coming.

You could’ve seen Evan Beal coming in 2011, when he was drafted in the eighth round as a 17-year-old as a Virginia high schooler. The Royals reportedly offered the righthander $600K to sign; he turned it down and went to South Carolina, where he did so well that…Kansas City drafted him in the 21st round three years later. Just to put that in perspective, in the 14th round they took a pitcher named Ian Tompkins, a lefty who subsists mostly on a steady diet of 82-87 mph fastballs. Since signing, the soon-to-be-21-year-old Beal has 5 2/3 pro innings to his name, in which he’s allowed five runs on eight hits, hardly the marker of greatness. But that can all be thrown out the window:

There’s nothing like easy plus arm speed to wake you up from your trance after watching three hours of Appalachian League baseball (except maybe baseballs traveling in excess of 400 feet). Almost instantaneously, Evan Beal is obviously not an ordinary 21st-round pick. He’s a man who whips baseballs in at 93-95 mph with a relatively clean delivery and plenty of projection left. He flashed an interesting slider at 84 mph, but there’s not much more I can say about him based on warmups and the above two-plus minutes of pitching. Guys like this are proof that not every late-round college arm is some sort of soft-tosser, though. Every now and then, there’s a gem in there. An unpolished one, to be sure, but an interesting find nonetheless.

***

Before I wrap this up, and while we’re on the subject of late-round college draftees in the Burlington bullpen, I have to share with you one of the wildest things I’ve ever seen.

My first visit to Burlington Athletic Stadium came in late June. One of the first things I noticed, even before the game started, was that there was a very large human being in the Burlington bullpen, wearing jersey number 61. The roster I had at the time didn’t even list a 61, but a few days later I found out the player’s name was Cole Way, he was listed at a very believable 6’11″ and 235 pounds, and he was the Royals 38th-round pick in June. That struck me as quite odd–how does a 6’11″ lefthander fall to the 38th round? I figured he probably was a complete mess mechanically or had no arm speed and was some sort of pure flier, but I was still curious to see him.

The Appalachian League roster limit is 35 players; Burlington started out with 38, and for whatever reason, Way seemed to always be one of the inactives. Every day I was in Burlington, he’d be in the bullpen with no obvious signs of injury, but he never got into any of the games I attended or any other contests in the first month-plus of the season. But on July 28, possibly the last Appalachian League game I’ll ever see (I just moved to Bowie, MD this week), Cole Way suddenly rose up from the bench in the seventh inning to warm up; the next frame, he threw his first professional pitches.

The moment Way started warming up, I thought to myself “Wait, this guy might actually be good.” The reason for my sudden optimism was that Cole Way, while fairly raw, isn’t really a mechanical mess. In particular, he gets good extension and incorporates his lower half well, which allows him to produce good velocity, working at 91-93 mph. Since he’s releasing the ball with such great plane from an overhand slot, the pitch plays up to a 60 grade, and there might be more in the tank. Like Beal, he only flashed a breaking ball, a slurve at 77 mph, but the one he threw had enough bite to be interesting.

As it turns out, the reason Cole Way went in the 38th round despite being a 6’11″ lefty with a plus fastball is that these are his college stats. Would you have thought to draft Tulsa’s punter?

I’m not sure which sport Way’s build is more unusual for, but he’s here now, and he might be more than just a fun story. He’s almost 23 and needs to start moving quickly, but lefties can hang around forever, especially when they throw hard. One might speculate that Way’s time away from the game (he did pitch in high school, for what it’s worth) means that his “baseball age” is younger than his actual one and that he might have more positive steps in front of him than most players his age. Tall pitchers can be late bloomers regardless, because it often takes them longer to sort out their mechanics (see: Dellin Betances, 2014).

Regardless of the ultimate outcome, Way will be fascinating to follow, and the same goes for a large portion of his Burlington teammates.




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Nathaniel Stoltz is a prospect writer for FanGraphs. A resident of Bowie, MD and University of Maryland graduate student, he frequently views prospects in the Carolina and South Atlantic Leagues. He can be followed on Twitter at @stoltz_baseball.


4 Responses to “Prospect Watch: The Burlington Royals, From Impact to Curiosity”

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  1. KCDaveInLA says:

    Thanks for that! One question unanswered in the article: does the Royals’ lack of a AZL/GCL team hinder development? Given KC’s issues in bringing certain players along (John Lamb and Bubba Starling, for example), maybe it’s worth thinking about.

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    • Nathaniel Stoltz says:

      They had an AZL team until this year, so you can’t blame the lack of one for any development issues prior to the current Burlington group.

      I don’t really think it’s too big of a deal. Not ideal, to be sure, but unless it starts a consistent pattern of rushing guys, nothing to get worked up about. The clear side effect of the roster arrangement is that the bottom half of the roster consists of guys who aren’t really APPY material, but most of those guys are mid-80s pitchers and tool-less hitters who don’t mean much for the organization regardless of their assignment.

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  2. John C says:

    His age doesn’t matter all that much with him being a pitcher. A hitter won’t develop any more beyond a certain age, and a 23-year-old position player in the Appy League isn’t much of a prospect. But if you’re a pitcher, and you can get people out, you’ll make it to the majors eventually. Look at Jason Lane. Stopped being able to hit at 30, launched a comeback in the minors as a pitcher at 35, and made it back to the majors at 37. He’s an extreme case, but you do hear about guys pushing 30 making a leap forward and landing in the majors every so often. Hitters don’t do that.

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