Farm Report Card – Part I
Posted by Jason A. Churchill on May 26, 2006
The big club has had its struggles in 2006, but has shown some life over the past week. After beginning the season ranked in the bottom third in the league, how is the M's farm system ranking after one-third of the minor league season?
Unfortunately, about the same, though some of the young arms in Class A have peaked there way onto the scene, which is a welcomed notion since the organization's weakest link the past two seasons is the lack of pitching depth.
The four active affiliates have done their thing for about seven weeks now with mixed results from the top prospects.
To analyze the progress of the top two dozen talents, it's report card time.
Part of the reason for the lack of progress for the system as a whole is the injury to top prospect Jeff Clement. The M's top pick last June will miss about six more weeks following two surgeries; one to repair a torn meniscus in his left knee and another to clean out bone chips in his left elbow.
Clement (top, right) was hitting .288 with a .525 slugging percentage before going under the knife, showing his skills as a hitter. He has fanned just eight times in 59 ABs and hit .333/.353/.600 versus left-handed pitching.
The 22-year-old was struggling to control the running game, but part of that is due to the pitchers' lack of holding runners adequately. According to M's catching coordinator Roger Hansen, Clement was making fine progress with his footwork and balance, and was showing much better hands behind the dish.
"For Jeff it's just a process for him to perfect his technique to get the most of his throwing arm," said Hansen. "He's got the arm strength, the ability to make a clean transfer and has better balance than he did when spring started."
Clement is expected to miss 6-8 weeks in total, but may not don the tools of ignorance for another two after that.
Adam Jones is many things. He's a fantastic athlete. He's a former pitcher with a 90+ mph fastball. He's a 6-foot-2, 205-pound former first-round draft pick that is making the transition from playing a solid shortstop to being an even better center fielder.
One thing Adam Jones is not, is overwhelmed in Triple-A.
Ignore the .242 average the San Diego native sports through games of May 25. Pretend his performance in May, .214/.267/.343, doesn't even exist.
Same goes for the five errors he's made in center field.
Simple. He's a 20-year-old playing in a league where the average player age is 25.8, and the average pitcher is 26.1.
When the typical PCL pitcher was in first grade, Adam Jones was born.
When those pitchers were starting their college careers, Jones was in the sixth grade learning about the Aztecs, Mayans and getting his first taste of geometry.
Jones has two years and 45 days of professional experience. The average PCL player has 5.89 years of pro service.
Jones is a baby, compared to the rest of the league.
And yet he leads the Tacoma Rainiers in home runs, and is hitting .325 with runners in scoring position.
Pitchers have made that first round of adjustments to Jones, which is to say they stopped throwing him fastballs, and furthermore, stopped throwing him strikes.
They are using Jones' aggressiveness against him, and it's starting to work. Many hitters fail to ever make this adjustment at the plate, including prospects that had the blue-chip tag.
Early in the year, Jones was trying to be patient.
"I started the year off trying to make sure I was swinging at strikes," said Jones. "But what happened was I was getting into a hole taking so many pitches. It's much tougher to hit when it's 0-2 and 1-2 all the time. You're always hitting his pitch when you're down in the count like that. So I had to start being aggressive early in the count."
It worked for awhile. Jones hit five homers in a week's time, but has just one since. And the imbalance of his K/BB ratio (34-6) looks awfully bad right now.
"Some hitters, younger hitters, tend to be in a hole a lot because they are incapable of hitting certain pitches," said M's hitting coordinator Glenn Adams. "They let the located fastball go by to wait for one they can reach. They lay off the breaking ball to wait for a better fastball to hit. But Jones isn't just any hitter. He can hit these pitches. He's done it.
"Look at what he did last year in AA. He was very good down there and was one of the youngest players in that league."
Jones does have trouble hitting the breaking ball, but if a pitcher hangs one, Jones will crush it. And fastballs left over the plate are belted, also. He's just not going to get any until he starts making pitchers pay for throwing too many sliders out of the zone.
Translation: Jones needs to draw some more walks.
Defensively, for every time Jones makes a mistake, he impresses five times more. There is no doubt in my mind that with the proper developmental time, Jones will be a plus defensive center fielder in any ballpark.
The progress he's made is easy to see when you see night, his play in the AFL, and day, where he is now.
Stock: Slightly Up
Chris Snelling is a major league bat. I won't waste much time talking about him as a prospect.
Snelling has started off somewhat slow, collecting his first extra-base hit last night, but still has the top drawer strikezone judgment, the perfect swing and the keenest eye this organization has seen since before The DH went blind.
Offense: Incomplete, eventual A.
Development: Snelling was finished developing during rehab in April, 2005. The only thing he's developing nowadays is a warn path to the DL.
In some observer's eyes, Matt Tuiasosopo has been a bit of a disappointment. Yeah, he's hitting .307, but the former 3rd rounder is slugging just .379 in 36 games.
But Tui just turned 20 two weeks ago and is certainly still on track to develop nicely.
"Tui is a very talented kid," said Adams. "He's very smart and is very adept and learns very quickly. Sure, he hasn't hit for a lot of power yet, but nobody is concerned. I'm not worried at all, there's no reason to be.
"He's becoming a good hitter first. Kids have to become good hitters, and then the power will come. Those who show the power first but have troubles making contact are very likely to become long-term projects and fewer of them pan out… unless the kid is hitting 35 or 40 homers to go with all of his 140 strikeouts."
Tui has one home run and seven doubles to couple with his 39-5 K/BB ratio. Much like Jones, Tuiasosopo's low walk rate is partly due to his aggresiveness early in the count. He drew 44 walks in 109 games a year ago, but is on pace for just 16 this season.
"Walks are another thing that will come to an extent," said Adams. "We're not trying to teach Tui to take walks, though. We want him to become a good hitter and he's definitely doing that. Hitting .300 in this league isn't easy when you are 20 and most of the other players are 23 or 24.
"He's playing in High A, too. This isn't the Midwest League we're talking about."
The Woodinville native is killing lefties like the Bizarro World Willie Bloomquist owns righties. Tui is hitting .432 against southpaws (16-37).
In the field, Tuiasosopo committed his 10th and 11th errors of the year on Thursday night, both fielding errors. He's stubbornly defying the idea that he can't stick at shortstop, but it's inevitable.
Whether he ends up at third base or in right field is yet to be determined, but he's likely to outgrow shortstop just as much as he is likely to play his way off the position.
Stock: Slightly Down
Clint Nageotte began the year as the most likely candidate to take over a rotation spot in the big leagues. His performance in the AFL was sensational and he rode into the '06 season with a lot of momentum and a new pitch.
But not even the split-finger fastball could save Nageotte from a control problem that prompted a yo-yo act by the big-league club in April.
Nags has battled control issues, and it's mostly with his two-seam fastball, which has quickly become his most important pitch. There have been times when his two-seamer had so much run and tail to it that he couldn't throw it for strikes.
Instead of a two-seam heater at 88-91 mph with sink and boring action, he's been forced to revert back to his four-seamer, which rarely pops 92 mph anymore and usually gets lit up like a sparkler at the Moyer's on the Fourth of July. It's straight and often rises up in the zone.
Nageotte's last three starts, however, have produced much better results. Nageotte has tossed 18 innings allowing just seven hits and four earned runs. He's walked nine and struck out 12 and posted a 2.0 G/F ratio.
He's still having trouble with the walk, twice issuing four walks in a single start, but he's getting the ground ball again. His 24 walks in 46 1/3 innings is a far cry from the command he displayed in the AFL and he'll need to regain that form to earn another shot with Seattle.
Nageotte's mechanics are consistent, but pitching coach Dwight Bernard is constantly looking for a tweak here and there that may unleash the velocity in the four-seam fastball and slider. In his seven innings versus Round Rock on May 12, Nageotte allowed just three hits and two runs, fanning six and walking just one batter.
Like Gil Meche, Nageotte has problems with pitch counts, especially when he's not getting his two-seamer over, so it's imperative that he's got enough command of the pitch that he's staying away from 3-ball counts.
His slider is far from the pitch he had two years ago, but as he develops the splitter, his slider, even at 60% of what it once was, will become more effective.
He expects his slider to gain velocity as he builds arm strength that was interrupted by the one-day, one-inning debacle in the majors last month.
Pitch Development: C+
Overall Development: C
Tomorrow: Nos 6-10 – Rob Johnson, Asdrubal Cabrera, Shin-soo Choo, Bobby Livingston, Travis Blackley.
Sunday: Nos 11-20 – Yorman Bazardo, Ryan Feierabend, Oswaldo Navarro, Stephen Kahn, Mark Lowe, Robert Rohrbaugh, Emiliano Fruto, Wladimir Balentien, Justin Thomas, Bryan LaHair.
Monday: The Next 10 – Michael Garciaparra, Jose Escalona, Eric O'Flaherty, Shawn Nottingham, Edgar Guaramato, Julio Santiago, Michael Saunders, Luis Valbuena, Jeffrey Dominguez, Ron Garth.
Tuesday: Organizational Grade
Photo: Post-Crescent/Kirk Wagner