The Prospector

Catching On PDF Print E-mail
The Prospector
Written by Rob Leibowitz   
Tuesday, 29 July 2014 00:00

After spending a few weeks looking at top producers in certain stat categories, it was time we “caught” up with the progress of some of the top backstop prospects in the minor leagues.

Blake Swihart is passing the Double-A test with flying colors, translating his approach nearly flawlessly while starting to tap into the power projected of him. Swihart has hit for average at each level of play thus far thanks in part to his contact making skills and now in part to his emerging power. So many catchers projected to hit for average at the MLB level have failed to do so because of their speed with Matt Wieters perhaps being the most recent/high-profile example. Swihart actually has a decent motor and has at least average speed. While this will decline the longer he remains behind the plate, the switch-hitter has a good chance to be a .270 to .280s hitter given his broader range of tools.

2011 second-round pick Austin Hedges struggled in a brief Double-A promotion last year and has not been able to get beyond the level. In fact, Hedges has had even greater difficulty making contact and has become more aggressive at the plate, producing a .237/.280/.347 slash. As I mentioned this spring, Hedges never profiled as an impact bat or as a pick for fantasy players, but far better for real baseball and strat/sim-league purposes, enough of a bat to potentially hit .260 to .270 with 10 to 15 HRs. Hedges' elite defense will get him to the Majors and will give him an opportunity to have a long career as a back-up at the very least, but next season could be make or break.

The Rangers' Jorge Alfaro draws quite a bit of interest as a legitimate catcher with 30-plus home run and possibly double-digit steal potential. Like Swihart, Alfaro has translated his game to the next level, showing power (12 HRs) and running well (four triples) in A+ ball. However, the righty also brought along his aggressive approach and strikeout rates (24%) and has not exactly dominated with a .252/.311/.421 line. Alfaro has more offensive upside potential and fantasy baseball potential than just about any catcher in the Minors, but how he adjusts and improves his game at Double-A next season will be critical in determining whether we have a potential star or perhaps the next John Buck.

If you are looking for a catcher who has truly improved his game as he has matured, look no further than Gary Sanchez. Since making his first big splash in 2011 in which he hit 17 HRs and struck out 27% of the time, Sanchez has continued to hit the ball with authority, though not quite as much as in 2011, while at the same time improving his approach and dramatically cutting his strikeout rate by 10%. In fact, he has successfully cut it below the 20% mark each of the past two seasons. The question is will he ever play for the Yankees with Brian McCann locked into a long-term deal. The odds are he’ll end up trade bait. Unlike some of the other catchers on this list, Sanchez is a more traditional backstop in that he is not at all a runner, so even if the righty continues to make consistent contact, he is not a threat to hit for high average and could indeed end up a .250s hitter at the MLB level.

Kevin Plawecki was a supplemental first-round pick of the Mets in 2012 and he has lived up to most of his billing as a highly disciplined/contact oriented hitter with average at best defensive skills. Early on, more power was expected from him and this season it has started to show up with eight home runs between Double-A and Triple-A. The 23-year-old dominated Double-A with a .326/.378/.487 mark and is following up well in terms of plate approach at Triple-A, but he has yet to get truly on track over his small 53 plate appearance sample. Plawecki has demonstrated his ability to hit at every level, and given his excellent feel for the strike zone, he should be competent enough to hit in the Majors too. Much depends on how comfortable teams are with his mobility behind the plate. He will likely reach the Majors this year and could also end up trade bait with Travis d’Arnaud starting to come into his own.

If you are looking for longer term projects, Reese McGuire is your guy. The 2013 first rounder is not dominating full season A-ball with a .265/.310/.313 line, but the way he has absolutely mastered the strike zone at each level of pro-ball has been fascinating. This year, he has made contact 90% of the time while walking 6%. At 19, McGuire is primarily focusing on his catching game which is already very strong. Given his contact making skills, bat speed, and actually slightly above average foot speed, there is .280-plus, 10-plus HR potential here. His ETA is late 2017 to mid 2018.

Finally, we finish with another long-term option in 19-year-old Chance Sisco. The lefty is enjoying his first full season of professional ball, batting .344/.407/.455 for the Orioles A-ball squad. A former middle infielder, Sisco is a good athlete who has taken to catching fairly well. Sisco combines an already solid plate approach with emerging power and average speed, which could make him, like McGuire, a solid but not star offensive player in the Majors.

Last Updated on Tuesday, 29 July 2014 07:37
The Need for Speed PDF Print E-mail
The Prospector
Written by Rob Leibowitz   
Thursday, 24 July 2014 00:00

We continue our quest this week with a look at the minor league's top base stealers. I’ve been writing and analyzing prospects for a long time now and have definitely noticed some trends when it comes to analyzing which speedsters have what it takes to be a MLB regular. Speed-only hitters, and by that I really mean those with little to no power whatsoever, have the toughest row to hoe. In order to be a MLB regular without any pop, one should consider the likes of Juan Pierre. While Pierre’s approach was not the ideal leadoff hitter approach, he made contact just around 95% of the time over his career while walking nearly the same amount and putting the ball on the ground 56% of the time which resulted in a career .295/.343/.361 line and 614 steals. Pierre was an aggressive hitter, but he had a good batting eye, a quick bat, and understood his game. Make contact and run like hell. Hitters with similar tools need to make that high level of contact to succeed. Consider the failures of players like Emmanuel Burriss. He and so many other similar players were unable to translate their contact skills to the Majors, ending up overpowered at the MLB level. In order to have a greater margin for error, more power needs to be added to the equation. For example, no one has ever accused Michael Bourn of being a good contact hitter or a power hitter for that matter either, but the lefty A) focused on his speed game and keeping the ball on the ground when he does make contact, B) has a history of patience, and C) has some gap power and regularly topped out over 20 doubles and 10 or more triples during his prime. Just a bit of pop can forgive a high-teens strikeout rate.

Given all this, who should we be watching?

Mookie Betts – Getting the obvious out of the way quickly. Still a rookie and might actually still have that status when the season ends, depending on whether the Red Sox move any of their veteran outfielders in deals. Betts combines very advanced plate discipline, a quick bat, low-teens home run power and legitimate 30-plus stolen base potential. Better off at second base, but some Pedroia person is there.

Billy Burns came over to the A’s from the Nationals last off-season and was the target of many keeper leaguers on draft day already after he stole 74 bases between two levels in 2013. A former 32nd round draft pick, the short right-handed hitter continues to blaze with 45 steals while repeating Double-A ball. Burns has a pretty good approach at the plate and draws walks, making contact 85% of the time, but he has hit just .254. Burns falls into that group of underpowered speedsters, and I am worried that he will be overpowered at Triple-A, let alone the Majors.

Gabriel Mejia may be on quite a few people’s radars after his pro debut. The 18-year-old switch-hitter has stolen 48 bags in 194 plate appearances while walking and striking out 14.9% of the time. He does have eight extra-base hits and is quite raw, as one would expect of an 18-year-old, but this is an interesting start to a career.

Like father, like son, Delino DeShields Jr. knows how to swipe a bag with 41 after stealing 59 a year ago and 101 the year before that. Also like his dad, Jr. can draw a walk (11.3%) and has demonstrated doubles and mid to high single-digit home run potential. Where Junior continues to differ is in his ability to make contact. The 21-year-old continues to make contact less than 80% of the time, which is a major no-no for speed-oriented players, and that issue has caught up with him at Double-A with a .239/.346/.332 slash. His father owned a career 84% contact rate and the years he struggled the most were directly related to being the years in which his strikeout rate was closer to where his son’s is now. At 21 years of age, Deshields Jr. could turn things around like his dad and should not be written off because of his struggles, but he should be treated with some caution.

Padres farmhand Mallex Smith currently leads all minor leaguers in steals with 65 after stealing 64 in 507 plate appearances last year. This year, he has done it in 404 plate appearances. The former fifth-round pick has handled his promotion to A+ ball well (.300/.370/.444) and has a good history for drawing walks, but he does tend to swing and miss close to 20% of the time. Despite being listed at 5’9”, Smith does have a bit of gap power and has a shot at a MLB career. I’ll get more excited if he replicates his success at Double-A.

The Nationals' Rafael Bautista is second in all of minor league ball to Mallex Smith in total steals with 53. The 21-year-old is having some success in his first full season of professional ball at low-A ball where he has made contact 85% of the time and more importantly, developing some gap power with 14 doubles, four triples and four home runs in 334 plate appearances. Defensively, he has the range and arm to be solid in centerfield and should move up the Nationals' prospect rankings nicely after this season, but there is still a good chance he could end up an organizational player or fourth outfielder if the power and plate discipline do not continue to improve. He’ll likely spend most of 2015 in A+ ball.

The Braves are hoping Jose Peraza is their long-term shortstop. His plus defense will at least get him to the Majors. At 20 years of age, he is not just handling, but dominating both A+ and Double-A ball, batting .342 and .368 at each level respectively. If anything, the young righty’s plate discipline has improved, as he is making contact 93% of the time since his promotion to Double-A. On the downside, Peraza has been overly aggressive this season, walking 3% and 4% of the time at each level, though who needs to walk when you’re hitting as often as he has? The righty also is not a power threat, with just two homers alongside his 48 steals. Given his history, the strikeout rate is likely to increase over time, so while he could make the Majors as soon as next season, his success as a starter is far from guaranteed.

Last Updated on Friday, 25 July 2014 01:46
Power Up PDF Print E-mail
The Prospector
Written by Rob Leibowitz   
Tuesday, 15 July 2014 00:00

Keeper lists are all about value. What is the ratio of cost to projected value? On draft day, the focus shifts from value to stats. How are you going to fill that speed, power, or saves void? Well, long-term obviously through your league's minor league draft.

Generally, one focuses on the best overall prospect available. However, it still pays to keep in mind the categories you're drafting, particularly if the focus is strictly on who can help the quickest. With that in mind, let’s focus on sources of power.

Texas’ Joey Gallo was the recent hero of the Futures Game, hitting the game-winning homer, and is far from a sleeper. At just 20 years of age, the lefty is more than holding his own and has in fact dominated A+ ball while continuing to slug the ball with authority in Double-A. Encouragingly, while in A+ ball, Gallo kept his strikeout rates in check at a 26% clip while walking an astonishing 21% of the time and producing an overall .323/.463/.735 line. Double-A Frisco is one of the better hitter’s parks around and Gallo has hit 10 more homers for 31 total on the season while continuing to walk and post an OBP nearly 100 points higher than his batting average. Unfortunately, the alarmingly high strikeout rates of his previous campaigns have returned (42%). Gallo is expected to move off of third base long-term and could be limited to first base duties. Gallo is the epitome of high-risk/high-reward with a possible 80 score on the power scouting scale, but with strikeout rates that could make him the next Dallas McPherson. Most hitters his age would still be receiving their first taste of full-season A-ball and that is an encouraging thought. He showed improvement earlier this season and has plenty of time to make the necessary adjustments.

Former first-round pick Kris Bryant comes with many of the same caveats as Joey Gallo. Like Gallo, Bryant has 31 homers on the season and has shown an all or nothing approach with high walk rates and 26 to 30% strikeout rates at the two levels he’s played. The differences between the players are age. Bryant is a college veteran, and his glove and range gives him more defensive options long-term. Bryant’s strikeout rates are more typically lower than he has shown in his brief stay in Triple-A and while he has hit over .300 at every minor league level, he’s probably more of a .260s to .280s hitter in the Majors. Keep in mind that Bryant is not fool-proof. As a right-handed hitter who strikes out as often as he does, the slide to becoming a wrong side of the platoon split player can be a sharp one.

If one talks about Kris Bryant, one cannot leave out Javier Baez, who many, if not all, rated as the better long-term prospect earlier in the season. As big a high-risk/high-reward play Gallo is, Baez tops it. The righty drove 34 balls over the fence last season and has followed up with another 14 so far in Triple-A. Like Gallo, Baez is about two years younger than where one would normally find him at this stage in his career. The 21-year-old is holding his own, but far from dominating with a .240/.305/.449 line. While he may have even greater power potential than either Gallo or Bryant and even greater bat speed, Baez is by far the least refined at the plate and though he may have the skills to stay at shortstop, he can be raw and has shown his lack of polish there too. Baez’s 8% walk rate this year marks a career high measured against a career high 32% strikeout rate. The 2011 first-rounder should be up for a cup of coffee in September but would probably be best suited for spending at least half of 2015 in Triple-A too.

The Mariners selected D.J. Peterson in the first round of the 2013 draft as the consensus top college hitting prospect in the draft. The 22-year-old had an impressive debut in short-season ball and has gone from A+ to Double-A in his first full season of professional ball. Peterson’s approach has been a bit more aggressive than originally expected, but he has started to make better adjustments in terms of making contact while still hitting for power. Through the All-Star break, Peterson had hit 21 homers and projects as a possible 25-plus home run threat in the Majors. He’ll probably close out 2014 in Double-A with an outside shot at a September call-up followed by spending at least half of 2015 in the Minors before challenging for a starting job. The righty, if he keeps making good hard contact, is a possible .280 to .290 hitter to go along with his power.

Steven Souza received a brief call-up earlier this season while the Nationals were battling injuries but was sent down after only nine plate appearances. The 25-year-old does not rank as highly as some of the bats I’ve already mentioned, but I mention him as someone who may not have been drafted in your local league and as a player with both legitimate 20-plus HR power and some advanced skills that might make him a slightly lesser risk than his above compatriots. Souza moved off third to right field where he has the range and arm to handle the position, not to mention pretty good speed that has allowed him to steal 20-plus bags in multiple minor league seasons. The former third-round pick has a fairly advanced approach, walking frequently and this season cutting down on his strikeouts significantly, though that may be an anomaly compared against the context of his career. His .371/.449/.615 slash and 20-20 potential make him hard to ignore.

Next week, we look at the minor league speed merchants.

Last Updated on Tuesday, 15 July 2014 08:15
Young Guns for 2015 PDF Print E-mail
The Prospector
Written by Rob Leibowitz   
Tuesday, 08 July 2014 00:00

This week, we conclude our look at the 2014 amateur draft with a scan of some of the starting pitchers you should consider as targets for your 2015 minor league drafts.

The College Ranks
If you are looking for a pitcher who may be up in the Majors by late 2015 or 2016, this is where you should be looking. While college pitchers come with the caveat of generally having lower ceilings than some of their high school brethren and a heavier workload placed on their arm which puts them at high risk for injury, you are generally getting a more polished product with a greater likelihood of even reaching the Majors.

Probably the pitcher who best emulates what I’ve discussed is seventh overall pick Aaron Nola. The LSU ace is an extremely polished product with above average command of three pitches, including a plus fastball, plus change and improving slider. Barring injury, the righty should cruise through the Phillies system.

Getting back to upside, the White Sox selected Carlos Rodon out of NC State with the third overall pick. He’s a three-pitch guy with a plus fastball, plus-plus slider and average changeup. Rodon is a big lefty who can pitch in the mid-nineties and reach the upper nineties and looks like a potential #2 starter. While he has upside, he’s shown some inconsistencies with his command during his college career. The White Sox had yet to sign him as of the writing of this article, so that could put him on a slightly slower path to the Majors than some of the quicker signings.

Like Nola, Kyle Freeland is probably more of a #3 than a #2 starter, but the lefty is a pitcher with tremendous command of a quality sinking fastball which he has added mph to over the past year and plus slider which both have been swing and miss pitches for him in college. At the very least, Freeland could be a very effective left-handed specialist reliever at the MLB level. To the Rockies credit, they did go after someone with some ability to keep the ball on the ground.

Jeff Hoffman will be one of the exceptions to the rule of being quick to the Majors as a college pitcher. It is possible that the righty could have been the first college pitcher drafted, but he suffered a torn elbow ligament and underwent TJS back in May and probably will not make his pro debut until sometime in mid to late 2015, essentially landing him a year behind his draft class. When healthy, Hoffman is an extremely hard thrower with three potential plus pitches that could make him a #2 starter if all goes well. He’s probably more of a 2016 minor league draft target than a 2015 one for most fantasy players.

Nick Howard is a name to note as someone likely to move quickly. The 19th overall draft pick by the Reds has been both a starter and a reliever during his college career. Technically, Howard is a four-pitch pitcher, but when in relief he adds quite a bit of horsepower to his fastball, and with that, his slider makes him an impact weapon out of the pen. Potential setup man or better in the right circumstance.

Prep Picks
Heading back to high school, we come to number one overall selection Brady Aiken. The Astros drafted the left-hander, who gets high grades not only because of his stuff, but because of his excellent pitchability. Aiken already has at least two average, if not close to plus pitches in his arsenal and most importantly for any pitcher his age, actually has a changeup with average or better potential. The 6’4” pitcher will begin his career in short season ball, and at just 17 years of age, he likely has an ETA of 2019 at the very earliest.

Tyler Kolek was selected right behind Aiken by the Marlins with the number two overall pick. Kolek is rather huge and imposing at 6’5” and 260 pounds. Not surprisingly, the 18-year-old, given that frame, hits the upper nineties with regularity, but he is not simply a hard thrower, already having a good curve. It is easy to see Kolek as a potential top end of the rotation candidate given a good frame for pitches, but it will depend on the development of his change and his ability to throw his great stuff for strikes. The righty also fits the mold of late-inning reliever too if starting does not work out for him.

The 12th overall pick, by the Brewers, was Kodi Medeiros. The lefty has some of the most intriguing stuff as a high school pitcher, armed already with two to three potential plus pitches including his stuff. The reason that he slipped lower than his prep brethren, however, is his polish of said stuff. Medeiros now needs to learn how to command and throw those pitches for strikes.

So this has been just a small sampling of the pitchers taken in the 2014 amateur draft. It is likely some of the names mentioned will get injured while others from later rounds will emerge as possibly better prospects. As you can see, it will be very tempting to select the likes of Aiken and Kolek, but it will be your own patience and your league’s style of play that will determine whether or not pitchers with such long ETA times are viable options, particularly since many keeper leagues operate on a one-year on/off again go for broke/rebuild rotation.

Next week, back to the prospects who are closer to helping us out in 2014!

Last Updated on Tuesday, 08 July 2014 07:47
Shortstops and Outfielders PDF Print E-mail
The Prospector
Written by Rob Leibowitz   
Tuesday, 01 July 2014 00:00

Last week, I discussed the importance of determining the top targets for minor league drafts in 2015 by looking at some of the hitters selected in this year’s amateur draft and taking that information to determine where one needs to finish in their league to ensure landing a targeted player. This season’s amateur draft crop, particularly in the middle infield and the college ranks, is not all that deep, so to even consider getting one of the few impact hitting talents available, you’ll have to get one of the first picks to acquire them.

This week, we follow up by examining the rest of the amateur draft’s hitting crop.

Two Gordon’s have made it to the Majors, so why not Nick? Nick Gordon has an interesting pedigree with Tom Gordon and Dee Gordon as father and brother respectively that warrants your attention, especially now that older brother Dee was able to translate his minor league skills to the Majors and fulfill his potential as a solid shortstop and serious speed threat. Nick is a larger version of his brother at 6’2” compared to 5’11”, but he still has above average speed (though not as good as Dee and how big a SB threat he’ll be is up in the air) and the glove to stay at shortstop. Like his brother, Nick is a good contact hitter and has good bat speed, but he provides a bit more punch at the plate. From a fantasy perspective, given Dee’s speed, the older of the siblings is likely to be the more valuable long-term, but Nick could be a .280-plus, 15 HR/15 SB threat in his own right. Given the long time that it will take him to make the Majors, Nick Gordon may be a more viable second round or later pick in many AL-only leagues. The key here I think is the development of his speed game. The more he leans towards being like Dee in that area, the more first round worthy he’ll be for fantasy players.

A more likely first round pick for fantasy leaguers will be the Padres’ Trea Turner. The NC State star is already a potential 40-plus stolen base threat and has good enough power that like many speedsters, he won’t simply have the bat knocked out of his hands when he’s at the plate. The knock on Turner all around seems to be a desire to tap into his low to mid-teens power and try to knock the tar out of the ball rather than concentrate more on having a quicker to the plate, line-drive or more ground-ball oriented swing to take advantage of his near 80-scale speed. Turner plays good enough defense to stay at short and actually has fairly good enough plate discipline to the point where some consider him leadoff material, but that depends highly on the improvement of his swing.

I’m skipping a few of the prep players here to talk about Alex Blandino. The Stanford product is a steady defender, but he's best suited to second base where his mid-teens power potential best fits. Blandino also earns pretty good marks as a disciplined hitter who may be able to hit towards the upper part of the batting order. The righty has no standout tool that makes him a first round pick, but he is someone to watch in the later rounds of your NL-only draft.

For those who like raw tools, I’ll go back to the Pirates' first round selection of Cole Tucker. The righty is a legitimate shortstop with 30-plus stolen base potential and a very quick bat that should allow him to hit for average too. His likely ETA, however, is 2019 or 2020.

Let’s start with the college guys. The Mets selected Michael Conforto with the 10th pick overall. Conforto was the consensus top college hitter in the draft and that alone will make him a first round pick in most NL-only keeper leagues. Conforto projects as a power hitter with 25-plus home run potential but that is really his only standout tool. Otherwise, the lefty is more of a DH type, limited to left field. As a power hitter, Conforto has a history of fairly high strikeout rates and an all or nothing approach, which limits his upside for standard 5x5 leaguers in the batting average department but may be more attractive to OBP leaguers. The lefty should move through the Mets system fairly quickly, but as of right now, he is sounding rather comparable to former seventh round pick Lucas Duda.

While Conforto has a single standout tool, Bradley Zimmer has none, but the 21st overall pick is a far better athlete, though not quite good enough to perhaps be an everyday starter in centerfield. This is a shame as Zimmer’s bat would play well there as a mid-teens home run threat with 20-plus stolen base potential and a line-drive oriented approach. In order to play him in right field, the Indians would have to find power elsewhere in their lineup. Again, he’ll probably be a first round pick in many AL-only leagues, but his profile is not necessarily the one of an impact player long term.

The Mariners selected Alex Jackson with the first pick overall and as the top outfielder selected in the draft, and despite whatever the wait time will be, Jackson warrants careful consideration. He offers a polished approach and at least a 70, if not an 80 on the projectable power scale and excellent bat speed to catch up to just about any fastball. Jackson was actually a catcher in high school, but given his offensive ceiling and an arm suited for right field, that is where the Mariners have already placed him.

Next week, we turn our focus to pitching.

Last Updated on Tuesday, 01 July 2014 08:28
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