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...


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