Basic Questions: Potentially Useful, If Marginal, Prospects

In the 1991 edition of his Baseball Book — a sort of sequel to the earlier Abstracts — the very famous Bill James includes a long section called Basic Questions. Here’s how he introduces it:

What I’ve tried to do… is talk about, write about, as many of the things which are on the minds of the average baseball fan as I can. For each player, I tried to find the basic questions about each major league player. The basic questions about Darryl Strawberry: How’s he going to do in Los Angeles? How will he hit in Dodger Stadium? How much will his loss hurt the Mets? How much will he help LA? What are his career totals going to be? Is he going to hit 500 home runs in his career? 600? How many?

What James then does is proceed — for 180 giant, three-columned pages — to do that very thing.

He writes this, for example, about Baltimore’s Jose Mesa:

Can he pitch in the major leagues?
Can a bear perform heart surgery? I guess you never know unless you give him a scalpel and stand back.

And also this about Philadelphia’s Chuck Malone:

Who is he?
Six-foot-seven right-hander; wilder than M.C. Hammer with a bee in his pants. Don’t draft him for at least a couple of years.

In what follows, I’ve stolen James’s Basic Questions format to consider 15 players who (a) remain rookie-eligible entering the season and yet (b) are absent from Canadian prospect analyst Marc Hulet’s list of the top-50 impact rookies for 2013 — which document I’ve been led to believe is also available to readers of FanGraphs Plus.

Will all the players below experience wild success in the majors this year? “Almost definitely not,” is the very succinct and precise answer to that question. Indeed, it hasn’t been my intention to predict what fringe prospects will have the best major-league seasons. Rather, my concern has been to survey an assortment of players with whom the reader, for one reason or another, might find some benefit in becoming acquainted. Generally speaking, these players have demonstrated traits that correlate to future major-league success, while perhaps lacking certain qualities that would attract attention from prospect analysts.

In a bow to the roto-minded, I’ve organized the players according to one standard fantasy roster format, as follows: C, 1B, 2B, 3B, SS, OF, OF, OF, SP, SP, RP, RP, P, P, P. A team full of questions.

Here are the results:

C: Roberto Perez, Cleveland (Profile)
Who is he?
A recently turned 24-year-old catcher in the Cleveland organization with a reputation as an above-average defender.

Can he hit?
Hitting, per se, has not been a thing that Perez has done a lot of. He has, for example, only a .234 cumulative batting average in 1398 minor-league plate appearances and just 12 home runs, as well.

What’s notable about him?
Apart from the positive reports on his defense, Perez has shown the ability to control the strike zone, posting career walk and strikeout rates of 15.5% and 20.4%, respectively.

Is that enough?
Catchers with above-average defensive skills need to do very little offensively to produce even average overall numbers. If he develops even a little power alongside decent walk numbers, he could be of some value to the Indians.

1B: Chris Nowak, Arizona (Profile)
Who is he?
The best hitter of the last two seasons in the Atlantic League, itself the best of baseball’s independent leagues. Also, the fifth-best hitter by a regressed measure in the 2012-13 Venezuelan Winter League — the only member of that league’s offensive leaderboard not affiliated with a major-league club in 2012.

But he plays for Arizona now?
The Diamondbacks signed him in January.

How does he project as a major leaguer, theoretically?
Nowak enters his age-30 season in 2013. He played affiliated ball within the Tampa Bay and Milwaukee organizations from 2004 to -11, but only demonstrated power commensurate with his size (he’s listed at 6-5, 225) after joining indy ball. By his own account, he changed his approach with a view to taking advantage of his natural leverage. Of course, one can’t discount the level of competition, either.

Will he play in Arizona?
Paul Goldschmidt and Martin Prado are pretty well established as starters at the infield corners. So, probably not — or, if so, then not a lot. If he retains some of his improvement from the Atlantic League, however, he could certainly remain in affiliated baseball.

2B: Corban Joseph, New York AL (Profile)
Who is he?
The best hitter from 2012 among Triple-A International League players aged 23 years or younger.

And yet he’s not even on Baseball America’s top-10 prospect list for the Yankees. Why?
He has shortcomings, certainly. Reports on his second-base play aren’t encouraging and his offensive ceiling is probably limited.

What’s his future, then?
Players who hit well at Triple-A as 23-year-olds aren’t common. Even if his defense isn’t great and he develops little else offensively, he could likely be of some use as a player. Just maybe not with the Yankees, is what — especially, on account of Robinson Cano‘s presence. It wouldn’t be particularly surprising to see him get traded to a second-division team, like the Astros or Marlins.

3B: Wilmer Flores, New York NL (Profile)
What’s his status?
Owing to how he was signed so young (on his 16th birthday, shortly after which he made his stateside professional debut), Flores has the rare distinction of being a post-hype sleeper entering just his age-21 season. He was among the regressed offensive leaders at both High- and Double-A this season, at age 20. ZiPS projects him as something better than replacement level for 2013, as well.

What’s his future defensive home?
Flores was signed as a shortstop but played second and third base almost exclusively in 2012. It’s likely that his journey down the defensive spectrum isn’t over. Baseball America projects him as the left fielder of a hypothetical 2016 version of the Mets.

When will he debut?
Given the paucity of talent on the Mets’ 2013 roster, it’s not really to their advantage to begin Flores’ arbitration clock — especially if they think he can develop into an above-average player. He’s on the 40-man roster, however, so an appearance at some during the end of the season is possible.

SS: Greg Garcia, St. Louis (Profile)
Who is he?
A defensively-limited shortstop in the Cardinals organization, who, despite constantly being ranked behind organizational (and former college) teammate Kolten Wong on prospect lists (where he’s generally not ranked at all), has also out-hit Wong.

Is he better than Kolten Wong?
No, probably not. People smarter than the present author certainly don’t seem to think so.

What’s his upside?
Starting shortstop for the Cardinals — or, at least, an competent injury replacement for the starter. Not this year, probably, but not very far in the future, either. Garcia has walked nearly as much as he’s struck out as a minor leaguer. Demonstrating some kind of power alongside that could make him an average major-leaguer for a few seasons.

OF: Evan Gattis, Atlanta (Profile)
Who is he?
A sorta-catcher, sorta-outfielder who didn’t turn pro until his age-23 season but has hit well everywhere — for example, posting a 172 wRC+ (.304 BABIP) in 314 plate appearances last season, about two-thirds of those at Double-A. His regressed offensive numbers in the Venezuelan Winter League were the best among batters aged 25 or younger.

What does “sorta-catcher” mean?
He’s played a lot of catcher in the minors — 114 games, about three times more than any other position — but reports of his defense there haven’t been excellent. Plus, Atlanta has Brian McCann.

So he’ll play outfield?
Maybe. But he could maybe also — in light of the club’s talented outfield — could maybe also play catcher occasionally and pinch-hit.

OF: Mike O’Neill, St. Louis (Profile)
Who is he?
A corner outfielder entering his age-25 season who has 42 plate appearances at Double-A or higher.

That’s neither a ringing endorsement, nor any other kind of endorsement. What makes him notable at all?
In 520 plate appearances between High- and Double-A last season, O’Neill posted a 78:26 walk-to-strikeout ratio — which is to say, he walked at precisely three times the rate at which he struck out. Ultimately, he recorded a 158 wRC+ (.385 BABIP) in 600 plate appearances (including the Arizona Fall League).

How many other batters posted a walk-to-strikeout ratio like that?
Zero, at any level.

What are his chances of becoming a competent major leaguer?
Poor, probably. But he has such an unusual skill set, that it’s more difficult to say for sure.

OF: Matt Szczur, Chicago NL (Profile)
Who is he?
Statistically, an approximation of young Diamondbacks outfielder Adam Eaton, insofar as he plays center field, steals bases at a reasonably high rate, has demonstrated little power, and has walked with some frequency in the minors. He also posted the best regressed offensive line among Arizona Fall League batters aged 22 or younger.

What’s his prospect status?
Rather optimistic before 2012, when he ranked third among Cubs prospects on both Marc Hulet’s and Baseball America’s preseason lists. Less so now, however, it seems. Szczur enters 2013 ranked eighth and below 10th somewhere on those same lists now. Of course, that might merely be a symptom of improvement within the organization.

How does he compare to other Cubs center-field prospect Brett Jackson?
Szczur has the higher floor, it appears. Brett Jackson‘s power upside is higher, certainly, but his contact issues are of some concern — nor did his (i.e. Jackson’s) first 142 major-league plate appearances (during which he struck out at a rate of 41.5%) do anything to dispel those concerns.

SP: Chase Anderson, Arizona (Profile)
Who is he?
Right-hander entering his age-25 season. Finished fifth among Southern League starters in regressed pitching, and fifth among Arizona Fall League starters by the same measure. Reports suggest he has a plus changeup. Video supports those reports.

How soon will he pitch in the majors?
Sooner, probably, than before when Arizona traded Trevor Bauer to Cleveland this offseason. Even still, the Diamondbacks have a number of notable young pitchers besides Anderson who are all candidates to fill a rotation spot, including Patrick Corbin, Randall Delgado, Tyler Skaggs, Zeke Spruill — the second and fourth of whom were acquired by Arizona in the Justin Upton trade. Anderson, though, probably has the greatest talent relative to the attention he’s received.

SP: Dan Straily, Oakland (Profile)
Who is he?
The minor leagues’ strikeout leader for 2012. Also, the leader by Major League Equivalent kwERA (that is, estimated ERA calculated with solely walks and strikeouts) for 2012 among pitchers with more than 100 batters faced.

How do the numbers compare to his actual repertoire?
Despite his modest pedigree (he was a 24th-round pick out of Marshall in 2009) Straily has added velocity in the meantime. His fastball sat at 91 mph during his seven major-league starts, which is at least fast enough to not be the reason he fails.

He pitched poorly in the majors. Will that happen again?
It might, of course, but the best practice is probably to weight the ca. 150 minor-league innings more strongly than the ca. 40 major-league ones.

What’s his role in 2013?
Unlike almost every other player on the present list, Straily appears likely to begin the season with a starting role — probably as Oakland’s fifth starter.

RP: Maikel Cleto, St. Louis (Profile)
What does he throw?
A fastball at 95-99 mph and a hard slider — which slider had a better than 20% swinging-strike rate over a small major-league sample in 2012.

Does he have the requisite command to pitch in the majors?
He appears to. In reality, Cleto has only ever walked more than 10% of batters once since 2008, when he walked 13.8% of opponents at Triple-A in 13 starts and 71.1 innings. Otherwise, he’s been nearly average by that measure.

Is there room in the Cardinals bullpen for him?
Not immediately. The Cardinals have a lot of depth, and the emergence of Trevor Rosenthal, for example — provided he’s used in relief — creates even less room in the bullpen.

RP: Michael Olmsted, Milwaukee (Profile)
Who is he?
Giant (6-6, 245) right-hander who sits in the mid-90s with his fastball and throws a plus slider. Struck out 92 of 235 opposing batters (39.1%) as a 25-year-old last year between High- and Double-A in the Boston system. Became a free agent when the Red Sox were unable to add him to 40-man roster.

How is he (presumably) that good, but also that old for his level?
Olmsted’s path has been rather circuitous and includes Tommy John surgery, a stint in the Japanese minor leagues, the death of his mother, and a tryout for the independent Golden League.

Will he pitch in the majors this season?
Probably. The Brewers have acquired some decent talent for the bullpen this offseason, but there’s probably not much actual difference between Olmsted and either John Axford or Jim Henderson — and ZiPS has projected Olmstead to produce per-inning numbers on part with the former.

P: Wilmer Font, Texas (Profile)
Who is he?
A Venezuelan right-hander entering his age-23 season. Missed all of 2011 with Tommy John surgery, but returned to post excellent numbers in 2012. Sat at 95 mph with his fastball over three late-season major-league appearances.

How excellent were the numbers?
Font struck out over a third of batters faced between High- and Double-A. He placed among the leading starters in regressed pitching at High-A, and, despite throwing just 15 innings there, among all pitchers by regressed pitching in the Double-A Texas League.

What’s his role?
Font made 19 of his 23 appearances at High-A Myrtle Beach as a starter, but then pitched exclusively in relief both (a) over 10 appearances at Double-A Frisco and (b) at the major-league level in September. Given the questions regarding his secondary pitches (a slider and changeup), his most likely role is as a reliever — at least for the moment.

P: Johnny Hellweg, Milwaukee (Profile)
Who is he?
The very enormous (6-9, 210) right-hander acquired by Milwaukee in the Zack Greinke trade. Sits at 95 mph with his fastball. Has had impressive stretches as a minor leaguer, but control remains a definite issue.

Why’s he on this list?
Given his raw stuff, even a minor epiphany could produce major improvements for Hellweg. Moreover, there’s a lot of uncertainty both within the Brewers rotation and bullpen.

What’s his future?
Received wisdom suggests that taller pitches develop more slowly. Does actual wisdom suggest that? A person who doesn’t know the answer to that is the present author.

P: Phil Irwin, Pittsburgh (Profile)
Who is he?
Right-hander entering his age-26 season. Former 21st-round pick (in 2009) out of Mississippi. Throws only about 90 mph, but has a slow A.J. Griffin-type curveball and walked just 4.2% of batters faced in five seasons and 400-plus innings.

What distinguishes him?
Following a mid-August promotion to Triple-A Indianapolis, he dominated opposing batters for four starts, striking out about a third of them. Added a seven-inning, 11-strikeout performance in the International League playoffs.

What’s his future?
A.J. Griffin as a comparable pitcher is reasonable, probably — as is Mets right-handed prospect Collin McHugh, although McHugh walks more batters. In any case, those five Triple-A starts don’t guarantee a new talent level, but suggest that Irwin merits attention entering 2013.

Print This Post

Carson Cistulli has just published a book of aphorisms called Spirited Ejaculations of a New Enthusiast.

Comments are closed.