Sunday, April 7, 2013

Frisco RoughRiders Preview

This should be quick as the  Frisco club is full of org guys this year.  Furthermore, at least for position players, there won't likely be a lot of mid-season promotions from the HighA side given the uber youth movement that has taken Myrtle Beach by storm coupled with the surprising (to me) promotion of Hanser Alberto, so, yeah, he's already there.  The only guy that looks primed for a promotion is Zach Cone and that is only if he does well enough to merit one, which is no sure thing.  So let's take a look at the position players.

Let's meet the org guys:   Buchholz, Zaneski, Telis, Strausborger, Hoying, Chiang, Guilder, Selen, Nicholas, Marquez Smith (likely on reserve list).  Some might make the argument that Hoying has a chance to be a 5th OF but most people don't seem to like him much in CF and even though he had a nice ST, he's unlikely to be anything more than an org guy.  Strausborger is a terrific defender who has even been tried at 2b to see if he might turn into some sort of 26th man but he can't hit and can't play short so, yeah.  The org, the pitchers and the coaches all love Zaneski as a backstop  by all accounts and all orgs love having decent organizational catchers make it to the upper minors who can both hit and catch, but, well, org guy. 

Telis, well, I thought Telis might be kept in the reserve/DL/extended purgatory in which he is the emergency catcher in the low minors  and short season/extended (of which there are always 3-4 by necessity), what with Deglan, Cantwell, Lyon, DiFazio, Zaneski, Maloney and Alfaro all crowding in around him.  He didn't  have a good year at the plate in HighA and he isn't a good catcher even though he's catchability improved last year.  Well here he is.  He gets pushed forward because there is no longer any room to get pushed backward in a deeply talented low minors system.  Guilder, what can you say about Guilder.  Texas loves this kid and will keep him in the upper minors and keep him in the JIC squad each ST as long as he can walk. He is the model org guy with the etched "model org guy" plaque to prove it. 

Selen is a masher with hands of stone.  I will be really interested to see if he can make consistent contact in AA because every minor league club needs a middle of the order bat that can keep a club competitive.  Those kinds of bats, even if they can't progress past highA or AA, are a necessary part of putting together positive, competitive, winning teams, and clubs are always looking for them.  Brett Nicholas could be another one of those guys.  He got a long look early in ST and as a JIC guy so he either did well or is a hard worker that the club likes. 

Before we move on to the actual prospects versus the org guys, please permit a slight digression to talk about the "process" (or a rhizome from it) by way of Brett Nicholas, a 2010 draftee.  Nicholas was one of the first non-Division I kids who I can recall Texas taking in the top 15 or so rounds.  I guess  this was a Preller-Welke-Fagg move as they are in love with their "process".  It was a strange shift in philosophy but it seems to have the following logic.  Rounds 6-15 are usually limited to finding org guys for depth, HS reaches who will sign for slot, and bullpen arms (outside of guys he fell).  The position players in that range are all decent college players but the seniors lack any projection so you pick up any signable juniors left on your board and then move on to the seniors. 

Texas seems to have reconfigured the landscape just a bit by trying to squeeze any last bit of projection out of it by keeping an eye on colleges outside of Division I sports.  As an organization who believes that is is only the ABSENCE of their own vaunted development process that stands in the way of turning a tool shed with no particular feel for baseball into a ML regular, you can understand why the private religious schools in the backwoods of Appalachia might have had some appeal for them.  Now given that we didn't see many of these types of kids selected in the 2012 draft, one might write the trend off as a passing fancy, written off by the Texas development staff upon review.  But the madness to their method might just have hit on something even if the payoff is only slight, or, at least, slightly different, and only with respect to finding productive run-producing org guys to anchor mid-level teams, or to put it a different way, to anchor winners.  

In 2011, Texas chose a number of these kids:  Maloney, Adams, Rua, Grayson.  None of them are prospects per say but the election by the club to choose these raw players of many seniors and some juniors has paid some dividends for the club.  If Nicholas can hit AA pitching, he might be the kind of run producing bat that full-season clubs love to have.  The same applies to Maloney and Adams and Rua and less so for Grayson, though he brings something different to the table with his atheticism (though he's instincts in the field are poor).  It is probably the case that the new 2012 draft rules put an end to any further mining of this strange little market inefficiency.  I guess we'll know more after the draft and after the season as we check in on our small school sample size.

Now let's meet the players with some projection.  Let's do Hanser last as he is a little bit of a puzzle to me, maybe only to me.  Let's start with two of the most underrated players in the system, David Herrera and Teo Martinez (T-mart).  Both former j2 signs hit for average and a little pop as 20 year olds in HighA but no one seemed to notice.  Both players are above average defenders at up-the-middle positions.  Hererra gets dinged as he flopped at shortstop last year.  That experiment ended at mid-season and likely negatively affected him at the plate but it might serve him well later if he gradually improves enough to be considered a UTINF candidate in a couple of years. 

Maybe he won't improve enough to man that role, and if not, he'll have to hit to be something more than a very good org guy.  Most pundits suggest that Herrera won't hit enough to become a fringe-average second basement, and that would be his ceiling.  I think it is too early to say whether his hit tool is maxed out or not.  I will say that he likely turns into the next Solarte, a 2b/LF type, or stated another way, the 26th man.   

As for T-Mart, he showed surprising pop in HighA for such a small kid and that pop may or may not show up in AA this year or next, assuming he gets stronger.  His ceiling would be a 5th OF on a NL club, another 26th man kind of kid.  So while T-Mart is less intriguing to me that Herrera, he's a kid to keep an eye on. 

The rule of thumb for me when it comes to j2 signs is this:  Any kid you sign for under 200k likely only has a ceiling as a fringe-average starter.  Most will never make it past AA while many more won't make it our of SS ball of event the DSL.  If you have a few kids like T-Mart, Dubel, Selen and T&T who make it to AA and still have some projection left then it was a wildly successful signing.  Scouting a 15yo and moving him through to AA is a mean feat.  After all, look at some of the other j2 kids who just missed this year (Yefrey Castillo, Jhonny Gomez, Santiago Chirino)  and you'll see how hard it is to make it out of HighA and just how good the post-2006 Rangers were at finding these sub-500k gems.   Only later did they become real players for prospect bling, the 7-figure cats.

Ok this is already much too long, but I have Hanser and pitching left to mine, so here goes:   Hanser Alberto.

 When Alberto first came into the system people marveled at his barrel awareness, quick hands and contact ability (.841 OPS, DSL, Instructs and ST wunderkind).  Though he swung at everything, he hit it too, and he was young, so he would learn.  Later, he got fat, and slow, and didn't look like a SS anymore and people, but especially opposing pitchers,  started to see some holes in his hit tool (.629 OPS, A-), as his poor approach, over-aggressiveness and lack of pitch recognition seemed much more vulnerable as the repertoires advanced against him.  More recently (Last year: .849 LowA, 62g), he looked like a shortstop again, though his squatty frame had never been ideal for the position, people believed he could stick there for now, and at the very least be able to lock down a spot as a 25th man some day.  Then he got promoted to HighA (.635 OPS, 66g; 2bb/27so).  He flopped.

 His approach didn't work there and his walk to strikeout ratio, in addition to his counting #s took a huge hit.  So count me as surprised that Hanser got promoted to AA.  Either he was another instructs/ST superstar, which may or may not translate into actual performance vs much better talent, or the club had to move him a long to make room for the high projection kids.  I thought he would stick in HighA for the first few months. 

Remember that HighA to AA is the hardest level jump in the minors and his #s suggest he is not ready and furthermore that he probably doesn't have the ceiling to start rather he is likely, like Herrera and Teo, a prospect with a reserve ceiling, but unlike Herrera, he might have the higher likelihood to snag a UTINF role down the line because of his ability to play short - unless he gets fat.  But more interesting to me is this:  Between 'Dubel and 'Berto, which could do you think will have the highest OPS by season's end?  I'm going to go out on a limb and say 'Dubel will do it, despite his SO rate in HighA.  There I said it.  But then, 'Berto is a bit of an enigma for me. 

OK so this will be relatively quick. Cody Buckel,  is the only starter prospect.  That is all. 

Despite the fact that the kid had an abysmal ST and a terrible first start, struggling to throw strikes in every appearance, it is still very uncharacteristic of him.  What is wrong with him?  I'm assuming he is mechanically out of wack and that is all but only time will tell.  This isn't Matt Thompson here, at least, not yet.

The other members of the roto are journeyman Pucetas and Feierabend with Pimentel and NeRa being the bullpen arms soon to be moved to the pen when Jackson and some other candidate get promoted from HighA (or from within).   So let's just group NeRa with the bullpen group and talk about that much more interesting group of kids.

So basically, this group of kids, is really, 'nowdays, the meat of the Texas pitching depth.  And that is kind of sad right?  I think so, but taking a glass half full approach, they have a lot of hard-throwing arms in the system right now.  Taking the half-empty approach, a lot of these arms are unlikely to become late inning arms - or at least closers - due to their command profiles.  

Command profiles change when moving from a 4 pitch pitcher to a 2 pitch pitcher (for one inning), I know, so you could argue there is still room to be hopeful.  But then, do you have confidence in Tanner Scheppers to become a closer?  I don't.  What about a setup arm?  I don't.  But that is just me and he has already be awarded a co-setup role by default already so you could say that I've already been proven wrong.  But I'll stick to my guns and say that his command profile will be erratic this season and that he is and will be best suite to a 7th inning role with 8th-inning mop-ups when he is "ON".  This is likely the same fate for many of the hard-throwing guys in the system (perhaps every system), but I guess I'll take the plus plus fastball in the 7th than not at all. 

So, my  presumption for NeRa, even before his erratic Spring (preceded by an erratic season, and before that by half of half a season of inefficient over-hyped flashes of brilliance in AAA) was that he would be in the AAA pen. I don't think he would be in the AA roto, if the team had the rotation depth to fill those spots with other pithers.  Basically, NeRa's fate will be the same as Font's and Brigham's.  Brigham has labored as starter and been poked and prodded and revised and recalibrated for a couple of years beyond his shelf value as a starter and NeRa is now at that point.  NeRa's breaking ball has regressed along with his mechanics but his velo is back and his changeup might just still be there.

  Whatever he is, he is a bullpen arm.  What kind of bullpen arm remains to be seen but the club should fast track him into a bullpen role so he can pitch out solely out of the stretch, get comfy with whatever secondary pitch works for him and start blowing heat by bewildered hitters.  Is it really that complicated?  The club's realization about Brigham came slowly and we'll finally get to see if Brigham can throw strikes with 97mph gas or not.  I only ask what took the org brain so long to tell the PROCESS to fuck off?  It didn't take it long to fast-track Roman Mendez, but maybe only chronic injury is enough to to reboot the PROCESS' big brain.  At least it listens on occasion but I'd sure like to have seen Brigham and NeRa trying to close out games the last couple of years rather than hoping the figure it out tin the roto.  But, hey, that's just me.  

Roman Mendez's chronic shoulder issues in both 2010 and 2012 necessitated a mechanical reboot last year after which he pitched out of the pen.  Coupled with his recent elbow fracture in October (similar to Strop I think) the reasons for moving Mendez into the pen full time may have become undeniable and that will prove to be a good thing.  With a plus plus FB out of the pen and a slider that flashes plus, I expect to see Mendez real soon, or at least in AAA, and then again, in September. 

Font is a little different story.  Font's success last year was both real and a bit of a mirage.  Font pitched most of the year as a 1 pitch pitcher.  Normally that would be disadvantageous but when you one pitch clicks in at 99mph, well, there are exceptions.  Font's manly fastball overpowered the kiddos, in this his second go 'round in HighA, so, despite the fact that he had no feel for his secondaries, and didn't throw them, he was promoted, and, yet still, no one could scarcely touch his one-pitch reperoire.  EXCITING.  And unnerving.  Would he get a feel for his secondaries?  Would his changeup reemerge as is second pitch?  Would he have to ditch his CB for a slurvy thingy?  The vedict is still out. 

However, it appears that, whatever the plans might have been for the Org's brain to stick the process and put Font back in the roto for another year or two, his poor spring (if not poor offseason) and his age, likely thwarted any inclination to linger on any FONT AS TORP fantasies and simple hope that he could command his FB and find some semblance of an off-speed pitch.  We are still waiting. Will Font flame out with that MANLY fastball, losing confidence to dominate folks even when he doesn't need to  command it well in he zone to do so as he continues to fail with his secs?  Time will tell but he started the Spring behind the hitters with bicep tendonitis so maybe the manchild will burst onto the scene in a couple of months take AAA by storm and pitch in the show by 8/1.  One can dream, as long as it is not of FONT THE TORP; FONT THE MANCHILD will suffice.

Texas scouts loved Randy Henry when they acquired him from Baltimore for Teagarden, what with his starter's repertoire and pitchability.  They gave him a shot at the roto and while he fared OK he didn't excel with his FB playing down in that role.  He's back in the pen and he should still be a prospect with some upside who has decent velo.  Of the remaining guys, Texas seems to love the submariner Rowen, with Jimmy Reyes likely being an LH org guy (who is, did I mention, LH), while Ryan Rodebaugh might be the man of mystery on the staff.  I expected him to make the AAA staff if not compete for a 7th-inning role on the ML staff after he dominated AA last year but I heard nary a peep about him during the Spring.  Maybe he was injured, was scuffling, or regressed unexpectedly. 


OK, thankfully, that is is all for AA folks. 


Saturday, April 6, 2013

Round Rock Express Preview

The Rangers' 5th starter Nick Tepesch opened the season  with 5 shutout innings for the Express on Thursday night, a prelude to his 4/9 ML start and extended audition until Colby Lewis returns (ideally, the end of May).   Tepesch won the 5th starter role after his steady if unspectacular ST performance overtook the motley competition but only after an injury sidelined our favorite prospect headcase Martin Perez, sending obsessive virtual prospectors into a tizzy after he (finally) pounded the strike zone over a mere 3 innings.  With Perez out of the mix, my preference would have been to let Ross continue to get stretched out and pitch for 7 weeks in the rotation and prove to some scouts (and writers) what he himself already believes to be true:  Ross can thrive as a ML starter.  It's funny.  The same kind of eyeballs who seem overly optimistic about the likelihood that a raw LowA starter has a starting future become the pessimists when thinking about that possibility for players such as Ross and Ogando.  Tepesch is likely a #4 with at least 4 average pitches but if his velo spike of last year (90-94) fails to rematerialize this year (he's been 88-92 so far) then he'll be a #5.

We also saw the ST rumblings proven true when Josh Linblom was stretched out over 3 innings in relief of Tepesch:  Linblom to the roto.  He has never started a game as a ML.  He debuted as a starter as a 2nd round pick in 2008 and continued in that role until mid-season 2009 at which time he was moved to the pen.  He was demolished in both roles in AAA during 2010, though he only started 10g.  So the last time he was a full time starter was mid-season 2009 and he was hit hard in that role except for his 2008 debut.  While he does have a 4-pitch repertoire, he doesn't have much of a successful track record as a starter in the minors.  Furthermore, given the lack of experience in the current bullpen, Lindblom's value would still seem to be as a possible setup man, which was the player Texas traded for in the Young trade.  Maybe that is still how Texas views him while taking advantage of the lack of depth in the AAA roto to get him to work on some things that he wouldn't otherwise be able to do as a 1-inning guy.  We'll see.

Justin Grimm, who combusted in ST (though less so than Buckel) after being foisted the favorite by many, started on Friday for the Express in respectable fashion.  Grimm has a lot of buzz as a sure-fire mid-roto arm even after fizzling out last year in AAA.  He will turn 26 by season's end so we'll have to see if he can put it all together this year.  His FB  (and mechanics) would seem to be the key to realizing a mid rather than back roto ceiling,  in addition to demonstrating that the average changeup and plus curveball (and streamlined mechanics) that he wielded in AA are the norm.  His zone command of the FB must improve and he must work lower in it or the plus velo of this relatively straight pitch will impress less often than it should in the ML.

Brad Mills, Randy Wells, and Collin Balester fill out the rest of the thin roto in the roles of 4A arm, Recupe project, and Temp starter.  With Chad Bell out with TJ surgery (~4/1) and Perez out with an elbow fracture (~5/1) (and the continued impact of Feliz's absence) and Grimm and Buckel having horrendous Spring trainings, the lack of depth could become a glaring problem should any further injuries hit the ML roto or complication arise in the recoveries of Lewis and Perez.  Kyle McClellan could get stretched out and moved into the roto, but he profiles a bullpen arm in the same way that Lindblom does even while have some starting experience in the ML (17gs in 2011 after moving to the pen in the minors after 2004).  Balester was last a full-time starter in 2008-2009 and has a relatively ugly 22gs in the Majors so he is likely a bullpen only arm who starts only in the minors. 

Furthermore the lack of depth in AA is even more depressing so it is unlikely that anyone will emerge from that group of journeyman in the first half of the season.  Lisalberto Bonilla was rumored to intrigue Texas as a roto arm but after getting an even closer look at his mechanics during ST, I imagine that this idea was quickly abandoned even though this type of profile hasn't dissuaded their development staff from pursuing such quixotic reliever-to-starter quests in the past.  Or keeping those types in the roto for far too long.  Years too long.

One of the mantras that issued forth from the Rangers' front office during the off-season after the failure to re/sign a big bat was the need to compensate by strengthening the bullpen and the rotation.  Neither of those things happened.  Hopefully it won't come back to haunt the club as it relies on its younger players to get them to the trade deadline.   As I type this, Jason Frasor continues show why he is a worse setup option that, gulp, Kirkman or Scheppers.

Should Colby Lewis return at the end of May (and is effective during those first few months back), the ML roto looks to be in good shape.  With his return,  the MiL depth improves with Tepesch moving back to the AAA roto while  Perez should be completely stretched out after  his return from injury by mid-May.   If Grimm rounds into shape the first couple of months of the season, that is a pretty good trio, though you could argue that none of those guys look like they have mid-roto ceilings.  An optimist might also look forward to Wells improving upon his ST performance as he gets lots of innings during his return from elbow problems over the last 2 years.  But really, he's a #5 with a fringy fastball that might not play that well in RBIA.  However, if he is 8 or 9 on your depth chart - should everyone get healthy and in a groove - your AAA depth is pretty good.  The wildcard here is Martin Perez.  Will he continue to look like he has during his entire history in the upper minors, hesitant, passive, nibbling around the strike zone, avoiding hits or will he finally pitch as agressively as his stuff warrants?  He could become a # 3 or a maddening #5.  Wildcards that probably won't matter much at all:   McClellan and and Lindblom could surprise, but likely will return to their bullpen origins when they get the call from Arlington.  McClellan's sinker/cutter repertoire is rather pedestrian back roto tool kit while Lindblom might have the stuff but migh not have the command or pitchability.

Profar is one of the top prospects in the game and provides Texas with a ML-ready position player should Kinsler or Elvis miss significant time due to injury.  I'm very much ok leaving him in the minors for another year.  How much could he have produced had he debuted on the club this year, say, at 2b?  Let's take a look at a couple of other players for some context.  Kinsler debuted at age 24 and produced 1.9 bWAR (2.2/0.0).  Andrus debuted at age 20 with 3.6 bWAR (2.1/2.3).  Michael Young debuted at 24 and produced 0 bWAR (0/0).  Given that Profar is a solid-average defender and average baserunner and would have been at 2b anyways, how would he have produced?  I would think something on the order of 1.5-2 bWAR.  However, given an additional year to face much more experienced pitching, it would seem reasonable to expect him to produce 3-3.5 bWAR if he debuted in 2014.  Would it have been fun to see if he could have put up a 3WAR debut at 20yo?  Yes, of course, but keeping Kinz at 2B and Profar in the minors is the right move for right now.

Mike Olt is a different story.  So far, he has looked helpless in limited looks  vs ML pitching so there is still a big question mark about his profile going forward. His struggles in ST this year were dismissed because he was pressing.  OK.  If anyone could use an extra year of seasoning it is Olt as more reps versus more experienced pitching can only be a good thing.  There is no doubt about his glove and that he is an above-average athlete for a 3B (which should play ok in a corner spot) but the contact rate is big unknown.  It is likely the case that the bat profiles best at 3B and LF and not so well at RF/1B. However, if a club has a whole at 1B/RF,  Olt is a better stopgap than most orgs have to plug in due to injury or FA.

I've never been much of a Engel Beltre fan after his HighA flop (and LowA hype sans a critical eye) and he is likely a 5th OF on an NL club as the bat will not play.  His plus defensive skill set might get him a starting nod on a rebuilding team or as an injury replacement (vs RH) for a few months and, yes, that has some value.  But as prospects go, a reserve ceiling is eminently fungible.

Chris McGuiness was returned to Texas after he struggled as a Rule-5 draftee in the Indians' camp.  He had a breakout 2012 with a solid AFL showing but didn't hit a lic' this Spring.  People like his glove, his patience and hard contact (in 2012)  but his low contact rate likely makes him a 4A perennial Rule-5 draftee and nothing more.

Once it was clear that Texas was a contending team,  the club has made a concerted and little-noticed effort ( a/o 2011 but maybe 2010 too) to sign an excellent group of young veterans for AAA with some (or quite a bit) of major league experience and a some projection remaining, or at least a projection that would allow them to be capable fill-ins as 25th men.  I think Texas was got sick of trading away all of their low ceiling upper-level minor leaguers for bench help during the 2010 season.  This year was no exception.

Jim Adduci excelled during the Spring and I think that the club wouldn't hesitate to call him up as a reserve OF if needed.  Once the club got a good look at the kid, he was given repsat 1B during ST to increase his value, and I would expect this to continue in AAA.  Aaron Cunningham also had a great spring and has ML experience.  Solarte and Greg Miclat were to excellent finds last year, with Miclat getting injured but stealing 50 bags in 2011 in AA.  There is no doubt the the club views Solarte as a legit bench bat with some position flexibility but not enough to play SS, one of the Springs' strangest experiments. Brandon Allen and Konrad Schmidt both fall into "good sign" category even though they were released.   Eli Whiteside is a legit 3rd catcher while Felix is an organizational favorite behind the dish, while at the same time reminding everyone that trading away Pina (with their eye on Felix) was a bad call specifically and, more generally, that Texas has abjectly failed to effectively evaluate and develop both professional and amateur catchers alike.  Tsk. Tsk.

Bianucci is likely on the reserve list.

Evan Meek, Jeff Beliveau, Cory Burns, Nate Roberston (and Coty Woods and Randy Wells) can all be marked down in the books as good signings for AAA depth with a decent chance of breaking through with the club.  Again, good scouting, which leads to some off-seasons signings/acquisitions that could meet a clubs needs during the season and forestall picking your upper minors clubs clean in order to trade for these same types at the trade deadline or in August.

The most intriguing arms are really only Bonilla and Justin Miller, who likely won't return from TJ until the end of May.  Bonilla was acquired along with Lindblom as part of the Young trade.  Bonilla's mechanics make him a sure-fire bullpen arm, which is likely why Philly converted him to the pen in 2012 and Texas is keeping him there.  He has a plus FB and CU with a fringe BB and inconsistent command.  He had a good ST so he's an intriguing kid.  Justin Miller is a flamethrower with a plus plus FB who broke out in HighA in 2010 and dominated AA in 2011 after struggling with comand and injuries in 08-09.


Ok so that  "preview" was late, very long and somewhat pedantic.  I should have started on the low minors.   I hope to write previews for the other clubs so we'll see how that goes...