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Rated Rookies: Late April

Declarative baseball statements on April 24 surely don’t have much of a track record, but let me be clear: this is not, and will not be, the Year of the Rookie. To pretend as though 2013 will hold a candle to 2012 in terms of on-field rookie impact would be a lie. But, our series forges on regardless, and in even in down rookie seasons like this one, there are still phenoms (Jose Fernandez) and there are still great stories (Jim Henderson). Though neither of those solid April performers cracked today’s list.

One thing we have noticed is very strange: the American League offers nothing to chew on. This list contains four names and all are National Leaguers, and frankly, the NL would offer at least 8 rookies before we’d be forced to consider a player from the AL. So, it’s a promise, this list is not biased in favor of the Senior Circuit. It’s just that we’re not yet too excited about Pedro Florimon or T.J. McFarland (your current AL ROY race). Onto this week’s edition…

1. Matt Adams, 1B/PH, St. Louis Cardinals

The key I see from Adams this season is the ability to make adjustments in the middle of an at-bat. Adams has a SwStr% more than five percent above league average, but the bulk of these are occurring early in an at-bat, and oftentimes we’ll see Adams adjust against the same pitch a few pitches later. Let’s track three great examples with the help of the Brooks Baseball Pitch F/X tool.
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Rated Rookies: Week One

One of the great subplots of every Major League season is the rookies that come up and show a glimpse of baseball’s future. It’s what had us enthralled by Jackie Bradley Jr. all spring, what has us dutifully analyzing Julio Teheran appearances, and what has us so eagerly waiting for Jurickson Profar and Wil Myers. This season, we will track rookies, both the prospects and suspects, as they make adjustments to playing in the bigs. This bi-weekly list will highlight rookies who have accomplished the most in 2013, regardless of future projection (though that will always be discussed). These are the players whose week one performances deserve recognition.

1. Dan Straily, RH SP, Athletics

If we’ve learned anything from Yu Darvish this season, it’s that success pitching against the Astros is not exactly analogous to pitching against baseball’s other 29 teams. The Athletics know this, why is probably why just one day after an 11 strikeout, 0 walk performance (a start worth an unofficial 0.6 WAR by our metrics), the A’s were comfortable sending Straily back to Triple-A. As sixth starters go, Straily is an excellent one, with a fastball at 90-93 mph, 83-86 mph slider, and 82-85 mph change (let’s agree to ignore that low 70s curveball, please). He showed great command against the Astros, the best he’s had in all 8 starts at the Major League level.

But, I don’t want to get too wrapped up in Straily’s success. The Astros, as we’re finding out, are a historically swing-and-miss team. All 11 of Straily’s strikeouts were of the swinging variety, and amazingly, nine were against left-handed hitters. Brett Wallace and Rick Ankiel struck out a combined 6 times, all on Straily fastballs. While Baseball America’s scouting report of him, as the A’s #6 prospect, reads “[His] slider and change up are his two best offerings and account for the bulk of his strikeouts,” that wasn’t true against Houston. Eight of the 11 strikeouts were from the fastball, and a remarkable number of them looked like this to Jason Castro — right down the heart of the plate. If you want to see why we simply can’t get too excited about Straily yet, consider the caliber of competition:

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Florida Marlins Farm System Discussion

It’s no secret that success for an organization like the Florida Marlins must begin with a healthy scouting department. This has long been a team that has either used prospects (or homegrown regulars) to acquire greater talent, and filled their 25-man roster with Marlins draftees. Even with the team’s busy November — acquiring Omar Infante, John Buck, Javier Vazquez — this payroll will always be one that demands a foundation of youthful stars.

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San Diego Padres Farm System

The two homegrown members of this year’s stable San Diego Padres rotation, Mat Latos and Wade LeBlanc, are a perfect illustration for the organization’s domestic scouting strategy. No team seems so dogmatic in the belief system that a team should build its farm system by spending big on boom-or-bust high school talent, and create organizational depth with slot-signing collegiate talent. In the 2006 draft, LeBlanc was chosen 272 places ahead of Latos in the draft. But when push came to shove, Latos’ bonus of $1.25 million more than doubled LeBlanc’s (590K), and in this instance, the Padres hit with both. Latos is the star for which they invested, and LeBlanc the dependable asset they believed he was. When scouting strategies reap their rewards, they do so in a big way.

LeBlanc and Latos also make for happier examples than using, say, the team’s first pick in 2004. Or 2007. Or 2008. You see how dangerous a trap negativity can be? Ultimately, this is a farm system that is decidedly mediocre, certainly salvaged by the last regime’s (impressive) insistence on establishing the Padres as players in the international scouting market. While Latos and LeBlanc might leave San Diego to say its method is tried and true, it also feels a bit aged and stubborn. Modernization is necessary, while proper development of the team’s in-house talent could leave this new front office with plenty of talent.

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New York Mets Prospects: Top Tier

One inevitability of a newer, smarter front office is that the June Amateur Draft becomes a more valued commodity. The assumption bodes well for the Mets, who recently have either given draft picks away or spent them on relievers. With Sandy Alderson and company moving in to run things, I have a feeling this team will retain its draft picks, look to add more where they can, and draft a good blend of upside, cost and ready-made talent. And if Alderson can merely maintain the dedication to scouting and development internationally of his predecessor, things will improve here.

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Detroit Tigers Prospects: System Depth

This is an article providing detail on the prospects in the Detroit farm system that were not ranked among the top 10 by Marc Hulet.

We are seeing some consistency with the organizations at the back end of Marc Hulet’s farm system rankings: prospect depth is a problem for this group. However, the reason it’s clear that Detroit is the best organization we’ve written up yet — and, in my opinion, perhaps better than a few in front of it — is that I see three players that had good arguments for the top 10, and a couple others that are solid prospects.

While David Chadd’s early-round strategy leaves his team strong in the top tier, the team needs influences (like Eddie Bane) to help change the reliever-heavy strategy that Chadd has employed in the middle rounds. There are a lot of pitchers in this system that did well enough at big-time college programs, but just seem like longshots to ever contribute beyond a fifth starter role in a big league rotation. Depth in the middle relief department is nice, but it should play a smaller part in roster construction than it seems to in Detroit.

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Detroit Tigers Prospects: Top Tier

This is an article providing detail on the top tiered Detroit Tigers prospects. It is meant as an introductory to fans that don’t follow the farm system, and focuses on the potential WAR they could ultimately contribute as Major Leaguers.

One staple of the David Chadd era as Tigers scouting director has been big, hard-throwing pitchers. It’s no secret in the industry that Chadd uses every chance he can — and almost every dollar — to get guys like Scott Green, Casey Crosby, Jacob Turner, guys with big traditional pitching frames with already-present big league velocity. In many cases, like with Rick Porcello or Andrew Miller, it was Chadd paying top dollar for talent when other teams were scared off by bonus demands. So, in one sense, the guy loves big pitchers.

But, as he proved this year, the trend isn’t refined to hurlers, though he hasn’t had an elite offensive prospect in his system since Cameron Maybin. Chadd believes that first rounders are a bargain at any price, so if he has to break a record to get forty-fourth overall pick Nick Castellanos signed for top five money, he’ll do it if the talent is there. In 2009, he didn’t have a hitter in the first round that appealed like Castellanos, but the team went big dollars on sixth rounder Daniel Fields. And because of it, for the first time since a time I can’t remember, the Tigers have two must-follow offensive prospects. Trust that Chadd has the top-end pitchers, too, and you see an organization healthy at the top.

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Houston Astros Farm System Depth

Depth is still a developing concept for this Houston Astros farm system. It’s hard to have a failure at the top of the 2006 draft and a calculated decision to pass on the 2007 draft (costing them Derek Dietrich, Brett Eibner and Chad Bettis) and maintain organizational depth. But it’s coming, and after one more Bobby Heck draft in 2011, they should be able to make their way up Hulet’s farm system rankings next season. I have faith in Heck, though he needs to exhibit better drafting from rounds 3 to eight or so.

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Houston Astros Must-Follow Prospects

Going to alter the format of this a little bit. Since I have argued that prospects should be evaluated in the context of the WAR they might produce, my Must-Follow Prospect articles for each team will evaluate those players in that context. I think this will help blend the statistical coverage into the scouting opinion that has me choose which players to focus on.

Cynically, it’s hard for me to see more than one must-follow prospect in the Astros farm system. This is an organization that didn’t value the draft prior to 2010, failing to sign numerous players that went on to be drafted highly elsewhere, and then put together a 2010 draft that I don’t think valued upside properly. The team is starting to build a nice bit of pitching depth, and should one day be able to field an above-average rotation. But for spots on a down-the-line depth chart to be depended on acquired talent from outside the organization is damning.

Jordan Lyles, the team’s top prospect by a country mile, is the only prospect in the organization who Astros fans can have reasonable expectations that he’ll exceed four wins above replacement. It was a benefit to the fan base that Lyles struggled by traditional numbers in a six-start trial at Triple-A, because before then, his manager was talking about a potential September call-up. The team correctly resisted that urge, and they must do the same out of Spring Training to ensure the pitcher is around in 2017. It might only be until then, said without snark, that the team is contending again.

After the jump, a look at Lyles in the context of the statistics that will be used to determine his worth.

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Chicago White Sox Farm System Depth

You have seen a detailed report on the must-follow prospects in the White Sox system, and Marc Hulet’s ranking of the top 10 guys in the system. This is a list of the other guys, who you haven’t read about today, that the die-hard fans will know and want mentioned.

Given the White Sox International Scouting Department problems, and the issues they had with bad drafting for a few years, the lack of depth in this system should not be a huge surprise. The farm system hasn’t been a commodity as valued in a Kenny Williams-run organization as his competitors. It’s a tool to use in trades, and at some point, that philosophy is going to thin things out until your scouting director can replenish them. We are, at least, a year away from this happening for the White Sox.

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Chicago White Sox Must-Watch Prospects

Today begins the offseason prospect coverage at FanGraphs. This winter, we decided to take a two-pronged approach to the coverage, since we have two writers covering this stuff. You’ll be happy to know we will again have Marc Hulet rank the top 10 prospects for all 30 organizations (this time presenting them in power ranking format). The rankings are Marc’s own, because he’s the only one of the two brave enough to tackle them. Bryan Smith will flank the rankings with a pair of articles on each team: one a micro view at the top prospects (for the fan whose minor league interest is only centered on the top couple players) and a macro view on the system (for the farm-obsessives). Marc or Bryan will sporadically have chats to discuss recently written-about organizations. The order will not be revealed in advance.

Chicago White Sox
: Charlotte (Triple-A), Birmingham (Double-A), Winston-Salem (High-A), Kannapolis (Low-A), Bristol (Appy) and Great Falls (Pioneer).

The White Sox have a hole at third base, and a prospect is likely to fill the position. If Paul Konerko or A.J. Pierzynski were to bolt the South Side, the team hase enough youth to compete for the jobs. And when Bobby Jenks and Matt Thornton were hurt in September, a guy that still qualifies for prospect status dominated and racked up four saves. For the casual follower of the White Sox farm system, things are looking pretty healthy in the player development department.

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Prospects Chat – 11/2/10

AFL Notebook: Pitchers

I’m back in chilly Chicago after a warm week in Arizona. My final games were on Wednesday and Thursday, but I’m just now able to get to publishing my notes. As far as my experience in the AFL goes, it’s something that I think all minor league fans should make an effort to experience. The atmosphere is as pure as professional baseball gets, with a level of competition higher than you’ll get at your local minor league park. The league is chock full of future middle relievers and tweener outfielders, but Major League talent nonetheless. This is the rest of what’s found from the pitchers in my notebook. Notes on hitters will be found the rest of the week, as I have more extensive thoughts on them.

Tucked in my thoughts last week on Bryce Harper was a mention about his at-bat against Cubs pitching prospect Chris Carpenter. If you were astute, you’d notice that I mentioned Carpenter touched 98 mph during that at-bat, and if you were really astute, you’d pair that with Jason Grey’s recent profile of the reliever. My favorite quote from that piece came from Carpenter himself:

“If they tell you that you have one or two innings to throw, you hold nothing back,” Carpenter said. “I’m going out trying to throw as hard as I can.”

The quote is something you aren’t going to find a pitcher often admit, and, frankly, probably not something you want to hear from a guy with a long medical injury. But I can’t help but kind of like the bulldog nature that quote suggests, and if you read his other quotes from Grey’s article, he’s not bereft of self-awareness. If the Cubs tab him a reliever, he knows it will be on the heels of his high velocity. If the Cubs return him to the starting rotation, he realizes that he’ll have to develop consistency with his breaking ball and change-up. But it seems clear to me that reliever is the only route that makes sense, and it seems clear that Carpenter is destined for success in that role.

There are plenty of negatives on Carpenter’s scouting report. His fastball command is a bit of a mess, easily blamed on a delivery ripe with flaws and inconsistency. Carpenter has a long delivery in which he turns his back to the plate, and his arm slot and landing point can be different each time. His change up, as you might guess, is a mess more often than it isn’t. But, then again, I saw him hit 96-98 mph, with one radar gun having him touch 100 mph. His 85 mph power curveball was a plus pitch against Scottsdale, and certainly projects to be that at the Major League level. It’s elite closer stuff, and it’s not that far away. As if my belief that the Cubs need to trade Carlos Marmol needed to get any stronger…

The other high talent that I saw in the Arizona Fall League was Manny Banuelos, in his not excellent last start in the AFL: October 28, allowing 7 hits and three earned runs in three innings against Peoria. Clearly, he didn’t live up to expectations, and it shouldn’t surprise that neither did his velocity. After those summer reports of the 5-foot-11 lefty hitting 97 mph, my hopes were high driving into Peoria that day. But Banuelos looks worn out, pitching 90-92 mph, touching 93 a couple times. I agree with what Keith Law wrote in his report, saying: “the only concern I’d have off this look was that hitters did square up his fastball when he came toward the middle of the zone, as the pitch has some downhill plane but not much lateral movement.”

Other than the straight, somewhat mediocre fastball, there really is a lot to like about Banuelos. Despite the results, his curveball is actually really good, better than advertised. It had good, hard break, and that day was even better than his highly acclaimed change, which was good, mind you, but more average-to-plus than the 65 pitch that has been hyped elsewhere. He also is a really strong southpaw given his slight build, and should have no problem handling big innings jumps each of the next two seasons. I’m not sure the velocity reports are true, or at least sustainable, but it doesn’t mean he’s not still the best of the Yankees pitching prospects.

Quick Notes: I wasn’t sitting in the right section to get updated velocities on Justin De Fratus, but he looked like the best of the middle relievers that I saw in Arizona. It won’t be long before he’s ready to contribute in Philadelphia; in fact, he might already be ready … Carson Cistulli favorite Daryl Thompson isn’t going to be his next Colby Lewis, as he doesn’t have a third pitch, and he tries to throw four. He’s got a small build, but he’s an aggressive 91-94 mph, with a slider that currently resides between 82-84 mph. If he’s anything, it’s a middle reliever …. I remember when Jason Stoffel was the best member of a University of Arizona bullpen that included Ryan Perry and Daniel Schlereth. He no longer is close. Stoffel is heavier than he was back then, and his velocity is a little less, at 91-93 mph. But the worst news is that his slider is below average now, 79-81 mph, and he’s prone to hanging it. At this point, he certainly doesn’t look likely to make it 3-for-3 from that Wildcats bullpen to make the Major Leagues.

My Bryce Harper Experience

Spending this week at the Arizona Fall League has been a great opportunity to check an item off my Baseball Bucket List, but from a practical standpoint, an equally great opportunity to try and match reputation to reality with many of the players I write about. No player in this league comes in with a reputation larger than Bryce Harper, so to see him play one game and take two batting practices has been a good chance to decide how much of what I’ve read is hyperbole. Turns out, not much. I didn’t get to see Harper at this best — he was 0-for-4 with 2 Ks in the game — but the process is worth writing about. I realize that at this point Bryce Harper stories are a dime-a-dozen, but until you all have had a chance to see him, you should pain yourself to read another.

To me, one of the most amazing parts of seeing Bryce is seeing the amount of attention he draws from his opponents. When I saw him take batting practice in Scottsdale on Tuesday, the other team was stretching on the third base side when Harper entered the cage. Each time he was up, a number of players stopped what they were doing to watch him take batting practice. You can’t help it. And, during the game on Wednesday, his approach on the opposing pitchers is palpable. Starting pitcher Robert Carson hit 94 mph only twice during the game, both during his lone shot at retiring Harper. In his next at-bat, this time against Chris Carpenter, we saw the Cubs prospect pull back and hit 98 on the fourth pitch of his at-bat.

The other thing worth pointing out, that has nothing to do with his physical tools or swing, is that it’s clear that Harper is a baseball rat. What Jason Grey wrote on Twitter Monday is absolutely true: “You can tell Bryce Harper not used to sitting – for multiple games constantly on front step of dugout fidgeting with a glove & ball or a bat.” When the Scottsdale offense registered the third out, Harper was always the first out of the dugout. When he was not up at the plate, he was always on the top step, and the most vocal of any player. Normally, make-up stories don’t do it for me, but I think Harper being a baseball rat is going to be a massive help in marrying his potential with his ultimate results.

Because, in case you haven’t been told this when things get hyperbolic with Harper hype, there is work to be done. The most glaring is the new position, right field, which Harper is clearly still learning. His reads of balls off the bat are still slow, as they are going to be while he learns to judge angles and distance from a new place on the field. The physical tools are more than enough to succeed at the position, however, and my belief in his work ethic gives me confidence the move will work. We saw Harper’s arm on a couple occasions, the most impressive of which is when he threw out Kirk Nieuwenhuis at home plate when the Met prospect tried to tag from third base. It’s either a 60 or 65 grade on the 20-80 scale, which means that it’s more than enough to be an asset in right.

The other thing that needs development is Harper’s approach, which will be hard to help much with two games a week in the Arizona Fall League. Harper swings too often: the last seven pitches he saw on Wednesday were all swings. He flied out in the last pitch of the Carpenter at-bat, then three straight swings (two of which were misses) in a strikeout against Brian Leach, and three straight swings in a groundout against Chris Kissock. Harper will find that his great power is much easier to use when he gets in good hitter’s counts. It will be interesting to see how often he walks in a full season league next year.

The weakness you’ve probably read about, which is true, is that Bryce Harper is going to strike out. Probably a lot. Power hitters often do, and Harper is no exception — he swings incredibly hard at the baseball, and sometimes goes after pitches that he shouldn’t. What I will point out, though, is that we should not be worried about his strikeout rate. Because Harper swings so hard, and is so strong, what was clear in batting practice is that he is going to hit a ton of line drives. Like he will with home runs, he will be among the top of the Major League leaderboards in that category one day. All this leads me to say that we safely project Harper to have BABIPs above league average, which will help mitigate a strikeout rate north of 20%.

I saw Bryce Harper go 0-for-4 with two strikeouts. I saw him take a batting practice where he failed to hit a single home run. And I can say, unequivocally, that Harper is the best player I saw in Arizona, and one of the two best prospects in baseball. Swings this mature, with the balance, the extension, the load and the transfer, don’t find themselves with teenagers often. But there I go, telling you something you’ve already read again.

AFL Thoughts: Tuesday BP

This is my week at the Arizona Fall League. I went to one game and two batting practices (from three teams: Phoenix, Scottsdale, Javelinas) on Tuesday. I previously wrote about the pitchers from the day. Here is my thoughts on the hitters. Note that if you follow me on Twitter, you’ll know I saw Bryce Harper, but will see he’s not in this piece. Bryce will be getting his own post after I see another BP and his third game in the AFL today.

First, I want to start this piece with some thoughts on the utility of scouting batting practices. I have received this question from a couple readers, and I think it’s ground worth returning to. Yes, I think there is value to be learned from watching hitters take BP, especially in environments where they know scouts are watching, be it high school showcases or the AFL. Yes, scouts would rather see a player in 12 games than they would 4 batting practices — I’m guessing the number of swings you’d see in each of those scenarios would be close to equal — to see the adjustments and approaches that a player takes to meaningful at-bats. But when faced with time constraints, like you’re just in Arizona for four days, batting practice works. It lets you see a player do his best to square up a baseball, and it lets you see his best hack at doing so. I try not to be results-based in my batting practice “scouting” analysis, but it’s a lot more art than science, and I’m no expert.

Which brings me to an interesting scouting conundrum that popped up today, seeing the Phoenix Desert Dogs take batting practice for the second consecutive day. If you used just those two days, and those 40 swings, to make completely definitive judgments about players, there’s no question you would arrive at the fact that Austin Romine has more power (be it raw or present power) than Jerry Sands. The person who saw just 40 swings would, trust me, be shocked to learn that Romine hit just ten home runs this year where Sands hit 35.

You would be shocked because they have taken totally different approaches to the batting cage over the two days. For Sands, the focus has been hitting the ball the other way. At first, I thought maybe Sands was primarily an opposite field hitter, but given the sheer number of balls he’s hit towards right field in two days, I’m convinced it’s the orders he was given by the Dodgers. This is a guy not out there to show that he can hit the ball 400 feet, but working on improving his game by spraying balls around the park. Romine, on the other hand, has been fun for the home run fans for two days, showing something from the Jim Leyritz skillset: pulling balls to left field with the sole goal of clearing the fence.

But I’m not convinced he’s showing off either. I went back and reviewed the play-by-play logs of each of Romine’s 44 extra-bases from this year (AFL included), and he hasn’t quite been the dead pull hitter he’s shown to be in BP:

Left Field Extra-Base Hits: 13
Left-Center Extra-Base Hits: 4
Center Field Extra-Base Hits: 17
Right Field Extra-Base Hits: 10

Not a huge discrepancy, and we actually saw him hitting more extra-base hits to right field near the end of the season. What I wonder is if, in Romine’s case, the focus has been working with him to begin to turn his raw power into game power — to actually make him more proactive in pulling balls when given the opportunity. After all, the Yankees just had to look to their division rivals to the north to see how a hitter can blossom by utilizing that change in approach. I suppose what all this is coming to is a refutation of my earlier point, to make the hindrances of taking too much from batting practice obvious to you. I believe Austin Romine has some untapped power, and I think Jerry Sands looks, as I said yesterday, more like a .300 hitter than a 30 home run slugger, but I’ve seen them each swing 50 times in a developmental league cage. There’s value in this scouting trip, in seeing players builds and their swings and their actions, but each reaction is to be taken with some salt. And that’s before emphasizing that I am not a scout.

Caveats Be Damned, Thoughts From Today

I want to be sure to dampen my criticisms from yesterday about Brandon Laird. The guy has a funky swing, and his position is in question out here, but I’m not writing off the possibility that he will hit. I like what I saw much more on day two, where his great weight and hip transfers really stuck out. He drops the barrel of the bat well in the zone, and has good bat speed to generate line drive power. I think there are reasons to believe big league pitchers will be able to take advantage of him, but I also think he could be a second division slugger at some point.

If we were going to give a worst batting practice award for the day, there would be three candidates: Matt Wallach (Dodgers), Xavier Avery (Orioles) and Marc Krauss (Diamondbacks). Considering that Krauss had the best season of the three, .302/.371/.509 in the Cal League, he was certainly the biggest disappointment. Quite simply, the left-handed hitter has terrible bat speed, so I doubt he can catch up to many good fastballs. That’s hard to profile at the big league level. I’m not sure Wallach ever profiled there, but his level swing with questionable bat speed produces a lot of ground balls. Finally, Xavier Avery has pretty good hip rotation, but he doesn’t use his upper body well, failing to load his hands at all.

Today was my only day to check on the Javelinas, and I saw some things I liked. I worry about the “I told you” so e-mails coming from Dave Cameron and John Manuel as I write about Dustin Ackley’s developing power, but he’s noticeably stronger since college. I would have conceded this possibility long ago, but the more encouraging development is a change in approach. When I saw him in college, Ackley was constantly hitting balls to left-center field, relegating himself to a singles hitter. This approach came back later in BP, but early on, he was pulling the ball with authority, hitting two balls over the wall into the bullpen. He’s not showing huge power, but an adapted approach would give me some confidence in projecting some 15-20 home run seasons at some point.

Ackley is inevitably being compared a lot to Jason Kipnis, the fellow second base convert that just happens to be on the same AFL team. Kipnis definitely has more power than Ackley, but there are some noticeable holes in his swing as well. Where Ackley can at least use the whole field, Kipnis is more limited, and he’ll never be able to post the same high batting averages. It’s still definitely Ackley ahead of Kipnis in that race.

To return the discussion to where it began — this is what the great writers do, I’m told — seeing Eric Thames (Blue Jays) in Scottsdale is why I believe that writing about batting practices has value. I went to Scottsdale with some subconscious knowledge of his 2010 good season (.288/.370/.526 in the Eastern League), but seeing him in person helps me answer those, “Should I believe or shouldn’t I?” questions that pop up in my chats’ queues. In this case, you should believe: he is really strong, and seems to have a nice understanding and usage of backspin. He also hit the longest home run I saw today, but there I go getting results-based again.

AFL Thoughts: Phoenix, Surprise Pitchers

This is my week at the Arizona Fall League. I went to one game and two batting practices on Tuesday. These are my thoughts on the pitchers I saw. Hitter thoughts to come in 30 minutes.

While Monday’s starting pitching match-up here in Phoenix (Travis Banwart vs. Jake Muyco) featured a pair of arms destined to top out in Triple-A, today’s (Surprise vs. Phoenix) was a pair of pitchers headed to the middle of big league bullpens. For unknown reasons, the visiting Surprise ballclub decided to substitute one Brewer farmhand for another, opting to start lefty Dan Merklinger rather than Michael Fiers. Both are fringe Brewers prospects, so it didn’t make much difference to me, and I would argue that Merklinger has the better shot at cracking the big leagues. The reason, quite simply, is that he is left-handed, and throws a good breaking ball.

The key for Merklinger is to command his 85-88 mph fastball, which he didn’t do fantastically on Tuesday. This is essentially the make-or-break element to his career, and it’s pretty iffy: he walked three or more in six of 21 starts this year, but then finished his year with five walks in 35 August innings.

On the Desert Dogs side, It appears as though the Dodgers are using the AFL to stretch out Jon Link, traded with John Ely for Juan Pierre, who has been relieving for four years. In fact, Link’s six-inning start yesterday was his longest outing since August 8, 2005. After four innings, I said to those around me, “Well, that’s the best you’re going to see Jon Link.” Up to that point, he had allowed just a single hit, subsequently retiring that baserunner via a double play. He was pitching around 90 mph, in the low 80’s with a hard slider, and showing an occasional change-up to a lefty. He was getting good tailing movement on his fastball, reflected by a 7-1 GO/AO ratio up to that point.

I was proven correct in the fifth inning, as the wheels came off a bit for Link. He allowed a first-pitch home run to Hunter Morris on an elevated fastball. After retiring Davis Stoneburner via groundout, Link then gave up three singles and a walk to the next four hitters, giving up two runs in the process. The home run and two of the singles were to left-handed hitters, and in that comment alone, Link’s weakness as a pitcher is exposed. He just can’t buy a swing-and-miss against a lefty, and for that reason, this fall experiment to return Link to the rotation will ultimately fail. Leties hit .299/.402/.483 in Albuquerque this season, and you can see why: his 3/4 release point is easier for them to see, and his fastball moves inside toward them.

Ultimately, all this is building towards a middle relief career for Link, who is proving that he can pitch multiple innings, and the AFL serves as a place for him to work on his approach to lefties. He did locate the change up low-and-away to lefties, but it’s a fringe pitch. He’s a tough match-up to righties with good command of a slightly above-average slider, and just like the opposite version of Merklinger, he will be a competent relief option until he reaches his arbitration-eligible seasons.

The better performances came in relief, and while I won’t talk about each pitcher in detail, I will reflect upon the three with the pedigree and stuff to deserve it: Jeremy Jeffress (Brewers), Jordan Swagerty (Cardinals) and Danny Duffy (Royals). You’ll note that two of these three were covered by Keith Law in an article that went up yesterday, after Keith saw Jeffress and Duffy in their previous outings.

Jeffress is the only one of the three pitchers I had seen before today, thanks to a September call-up that went okay. So, I can be sure that the version of Jeffress I saw on Tuesday is not the best he’s capable of pitching. In his two-inning appearance, Jeffress sat around 94 mph, touching 96 as often as he did 92. Jeffress has that exaggerated over-the-top delivery, and his trademark effortless arm action — few in baseball look easier throwing 95. But when you’re walking multiple batters, with inconsistent mechanics and differing release points, things don’t look as easy.

The other problem for Jeffress is that he had no feel for his curve on Tuesday. He couldn’t get on top of the pitch at all, as we saw a couple curves fail to break much at all. His change-up was featured sparingly, though it looked good on one occasion, but it’s the curve that needs to be his out pitch to sustain late-inning bullpen success. Hitters can hit 95 mph when they know it’s coming, no matter how easy it looks, so Jeffress must show that he can get hitters utilizing two-strike approaches with a curve out of the zone.

Next came Jordan Swagerty, the second-round pick by the Cardinals in the most recent draft, making his pro debut in the AFL, close to where he went to school in Tempe. It’s hard to believe Swagerty caught for the Sun Devils in addition to his closing duties, because he lacks the build of a traditional catcher — he’s lanky, with skinny, long legs. He’s aggressive on the mound, going after hitters and trusting his stuff that isn’t by any means elite. His fastball was 91-92, touching 93 on a couple occasions. While his athleticism would bode well to an eventual move to the rotation, he’s slight of build with plenty of effort in his delivery (especially after seeing Jeffress), so it’s hard to see that multiple innings would serve him well.

Swagerty showed control of his tight 82-83 mph slider, registering his lone strikeout of the inning by getting called strikes two and three with the offering. I would need to see him on subsequent outings to show proof of command of the pitch, too, as he only threw the pitch in the zone. It becomes a much deadlier option if he can spot in the zone as well as out of the zone, burying the pitch with two strikes. The other problem is the pitch doesn’t have the two-plane movement that a great slider needs to succeed in that way. As it stands, I struggle to see the role that makes the most sense for Swagerty. He couldn’t support a move to the rotation, but his stuff is not elite enough to be a late-inning option. I’d like to see more of Swagerty, as I can’t imagine the Cardinals drafted a guy in the second round to become a seventh-inning option down the road.

Our final pitcher of the game, preserving a lead in the bottom of the tenth inning, was Royals southpaw prospect Danny Duffy. Working the closer role, Duffy threw mostly fastballs, working 90-93 mph. I see a little bit of effort in his delivery, but he’s consistent, and showed good arm speed on a change-up, and got on top of his curveball. Law in his article called it a “well below-average vertical curveball at 73-74 mph,” but the lone curve we saw in Phoenix was a 75 mph offering with bite that froze Kyle Skipworth. Obviously Duffy needs to make sure his stuff is more consistent, but there are the outlines of three solid pitches that should mold into a solid big league starter.

Thoughts on the hitters from one game and two batting practices coming soon.

AFL Thoughts: Mesa at Phoenix

Today I flew into Phoenix, Arizona to spend four days watching Arizona Fall League games. It’s my first experience with the league, filled with offensive prospects, future replacement-level relievers, and stadiums where you could hear a pin drop. The intimacy and inexpensiveness make it a must-see for prospect fans. Today’s game between the Mesa Solar Sox and the Phoenix Desert Dogs did not meet that standard. It wasn’t the best baseball, but it was prospect laden nonetheless. As I’ll do this week, I will run through some notes I made during batting practice, about the pitchers, and then about the position players during the game. Next week, I’ll write more specific reports on these players as I see them more than once.

Batting Practice Thoughts

The best batting practice award goes to Kyle Skipworth, the former sixth-overall pick by the Florida Marlins. Built like a truck (6-foot-4, 205 lbs), Skipworth showed easy plus power, with a slight uppercut swing. It’s not without its holes, and his upright stance probably exposes the low-and-away section of the zone, but when he makes contact the ball goes far. He was the only hitter on both teams to hit an opposite field home run during BP.

The honorable mentions in batting practice are Andrew Lambo and Austin Romine. While they stand at different sides of the plate, both came off as dead pull hitters in BP, but with power. Romine has better bat speed, Lambo has a prettier and smoother swing, both did a nice job.

I wasn’t as impressed with Michael Taylor, the member of the Roy Halladay trade that was subsequently traded to the Oakland A’s. Listed at 6-foot-6, 260 pounds, Taylor’s path to big-league success is with a power bat. But this season, he hit just six home runs. His batting practice revealed why: despite great strength in his legs, Taylor doesn’t use them at all. He barely has a weight transfer, and only uses his upper body to produce power. That’s not going to work.

The other disappointing performance came from Brandon Laird, the Yankees prospect moving from third base to left field in the AFL as the Yankees try to add versatility to his resume. Laird had a good season at the plate, and he has aggressive plus bat speed, but he’s going to have problems with big-league pitching. His swing is the funky kind that big-league pitchers can often take advantage of, specifically a timing mechanism with his front leg. He struggled squaring up balls throughout each round of batting practice.

Quick hits: Brett Jackson and Tony Sanchez hit line drives all over the place, but their level swings should keep power expectations low … Matt Rizzotti has a build unlike any offensive prospect I’ve ever seen, and his swing isn’t good enough to make up for the bad body … Kirk Nieuwenhuis has a great right field body, but his swing has some holes that are easily exposed … Jerry Sands was going opposite field throughout batting practice, and hit a lot of balls with topspin. I believe the .300 batting average more than the 35 home runs. Teammate Trayvon Robinson didn’t have very good bat speed, but showed more power than his ISO from this year would have you believe.

Pitching Thoughts

This will be short. It wasn’t good. Neither starter, Travis Banwart or Jake Muyco, profiles as a Major League pitcher. Both were throwing in the high 80s, and neither had a breaking ball that was even fringe-average. Muyco touched 90, which I didn’t see Banwart do, but they are organizational players. Cory Gearrin was the first out of the pen for Phoenix, and he’s funky enough to stumble into Major League success. A true sidearmer, Gearrin has a plus frisbee slider that should be enough to get big league right-handed hitters out. But he needs better command with his 85-88 mph fastball than he showed today.

Both Ryan Brasier (Angels) and B.J. Rosenberg (Phillies) pitched in the low 90s, maybe touching 94 mph. Rosenberg was probably a little more impressive, with a big over-the-top delivery and a slider that he spots low and away to righties. He’s been injured for much of his career, and is still a long shot, but even that was noteworthy today.

Position Player Game Thoughts

If anything stands out from today, it’s that Austin Romine is not the polished defender that Yankees fans hope. Romine is actually a bit of a mess defensively, allowing three balls to the backstop that shouldn’t have been throughout the day. On one occasion, the ball went back because Romine was more worried about showing off his plus arm to the scouts, with the runner on first stealing second. Maybe it was Romine’s incompetence, but I liked Tony Sanchez’ defense on the other side. He’s slighter and more athletic than I was led to believe, and he stopped a couple sliders in the dirt.

Tyler Pastornicky showed good actions and enough arm at shortstop during infield practice before the game, but had a rough day at shortstop. He probably is indeed a second baseman. Jerry Sands is a tough read defensively, but he looks adept at scooping balls out of the dirt, just maybe not at going into the hole well. He could be a good first baseman, but I struggle to believe he could work in the outfield.

Offensively, the ball jumped off the bats of Austin Romine, Brett Jackson and Trayvon Robinson especially, though the latter was the only one who actually homered. Romine’s power grades out the best, as he hit a ball that he didn’t square up perfectly off the top of the wall in right center, about 400 feet in all. I also saw Josh Vitters walk today. A unique day, indeed.

Prospects Chat – 10/25/10

ALCS Game 5 Chat

Game 4 ALCS Review: Derek Holland

The fourth game of the ALCS was, as we might have predicted, the least watchable game of this series. A.J. Burnett was better than Tommy Hunter early, but both pitchers were getting hit hard by the end of their outings, and it didn’t make for captivating television. While the Texas offense is its own story, I believe the only real compelling storyline was the performance of the game’s winning pitcher, Derek Holland. After entering the game in an impossible position — to quote Joe Sheehan’s Twitter account, “100 minutes late, the Rangers get their fourth-best starter into the game” — Holland continued to state his case for the Rangers rotation next season.

Last year, after a season where his xFIP was better than his FIP which was better than his ERA, Holland entered the 2010 season as a popular breakout pick. But Ron Washington wasn’t as forgivable of Holland’s 2009 HR/FB ratio as the sabermetric crowd, and the lefty entered Spring Training in a competition for a rotation spot. After a knee injury shortened his camp, Holland had little chance at winning the job, earning a ticket to Triple-A, where he’d made just one start in his career. The reason is the Rangers player development staff decided his talents were advanced enough to render the league unnecessary, and given the six starts that led to his big league call-up in May, they were right: 0.93 ERA, 38.2 IP, 7 BB, 1 HR, 37 K.

Lest I waste too much space on a review of his season, we’ll hit the highlights: a great season debut against Oakland; a shoulder injury on May 30; a knee injury during his rehab; a mediocre return to Triple-A; a spot in the big league rotation on September 3; and prep for his forthcoming playoff middle relief role near the end of the season. Considering the bugaboo during his 2009 campaign was the longball, it’s worth pointing out that Holland didn’t give up a long ball in 11 of his 14 appearances this season, but he gave up two in each of the other three. In September, Holland showed the best groundball abilities of any month in his career: 1.46 GB/FB, 47.7 GB%, 0.0 HR/FB%.

I point this out because against the New York Yankees prolific offense, Holland did a nice job of mixing in the two end results you want to see from your pitcher: strikeouts and groundballs. He had three and seven, respectively, facing 13 batters during his middle innings stint. Holland had good command in the outing; I expect his 3.77 BB/9 from 2010 will regress closer to the 2009 number (3.06) going forward. He was generally using a strategy you don’t see often from young pitchers: living on the inside corner to right-handed hitters, and the outside corner to left-handed hitters. By consistently pounding the inside half of the strike zone, he induced a couple ground balls by finally giving in and spotting a good low-and-outside fastball late in at-bats.

The now 24-year-old lefty threw 55 pitches in all, going fastball on 71% of his pitches. Holland, who has averaged 92.4 miles per hour with his fastball during his big league career, averaged 93.81 vs. the Yankees, touching 95 mph on numerous occasions (data courtesy of Brooks Baseball). His fastball has more movement this year, and when added to the increased velocity of pitching in relief, you saw how dangerous the pitch can be. But his weapon is the slider, as Robinson Cano can attest after three straight strikes against it to lead off the bottom of the sixth. Holland was unafraid to use the pitch against right-handed hitters, but it’s no surprise to me that he’s shown a marked and traditional platoon split in his short big league career: 3.49 FIP vs. LHH, 5.16 FIP vs. RHH.

We saw only one of his third offering, the change up, and it didn’t go well: he left it middle-middle to Derek Jeter, who started off the fifth inning with a line drive double. What remains to be seen is if the pitch can be the third dependable pitch he’ll need for rotation success (barring the addition of a cutter). In his five September starts, Holland went with the change 13.6% of the time, according to the Texas Leaguers Pitch F/X database. The pitch had the highest strike, swing, and whiff rates of any pitch during that time, but I’d also argue it had the worst command. If you see the Pitch Locations by Type graph, you’ll notice how often he leaves it middle-middle. I found just 14 instances, in 58 total pitches, where Holland threw the change-up where you’re generally supposed to: low and away to a right-hander.

Between the likelihood that Cliff Lee leaves Texas for richer pastures this winter, and the hopefully-growing realization that Tommy Hunter is not the team’s fourth-best starting option, it’s hard to imagine Derek Holland loses a chance at starting again next spring. Assuming that’s true, it is advised the left-hander spends the winter working on the command of his change-up, and to continue the work done at becoming a groundball pitcher. Given a couple looks at him this October, I think we can expect the walk rate to come down next season, the groundball rate to be somewhere between his September rate and his career 41.7 mark, and continued great performances against left-handed hitters. The key for Holland is how his approach against right-handed hitters will mature — whether he can hit the inside corner with his fastball consistently (like he did last night against the Yankees), and whether he can depend on his change (like he did not).