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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.

Defense: Incomplete

Offense: Incomplete

Development: Incomplete

Stock: Holding

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.

Why?

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.

Defense: C+

Offense: C

Development: B

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.

Defense: Incomplete

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.

Defense: D

Offense: B

Development: B-

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.

Command/Control: C-

Pitch Development: C+

Overall Development: C

Stock: Down

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

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18 Responses to “Farm Report Card – Part I”

  1. Jerry said

    I don’t mean to jump the gun here, but it seems to me that the organization isn’t doing well at all:

    -the top prospect is hurt

    -young guys with potential (Michael Saunders, Luis Valbuena, Ryan Feierabend, Sabastain Boucher, Jeff Flaig) aren’t playing well

    -Choo, the one guy who looked really good early on, has cooled off considerably

    -many of the guys who are impressive (Fruto, Kahn, Lowe, O’Flaherty) are bullpen arms

    -the two guys who seem to be doing really well (LaHair and Cruceta) have major issues they need to sort out before moving up a level (hitting lefties and minimizing walks, respectively)

    -even the guys whose status are holding (Tui, Snelling, Jones) aren’t exactly going off this year

    At this point, things are not looking too good for the M’s farm system. I am hoping that the M’s do well in the draft, and that some of the players who will be starting off in Everett turn out to be pleasant suprises. Wisconsin is about as brutal of a team as you can get, so any additions to the lower levels of the system are much needed.

    It is still early, but things are not going well. Lets hope that a few players can break out, and a few others can establish themselves as legit prospects. And some good veteran-for-prospect trades wouldn’t hurt, either.

  2. The status hasn't changed much overall since the start of the year.

    Clement's injury is levelled off by the performance of some of the arms – both starter (Thomas, Rohrbaugh, Livingston, Santiago, Escalona, Nottingham) and reliever (Kahn, Fruto, Lowe, O'Flaherty)- and the surprising resurgence of Blackley.

    It's unfair of anyone, particularly someone who hasn't seen much – if any – of Snelling this year, to suggest he hasn't played well enough…

    Cabrera has been a nice surprise overall, even considering he's 7 for his last 34.

    All in all, the top guys haven't lit it up, due to an injury to Clement and Jones' .242 average, but stats mean less than everything. Far less.

    The farm system has done fine this season and their overall status has not changed one single bit.

    They were in the 18-23 range in baseball when the year started and they still sit in that vicinity. No higher, no lower.

    To say things are not going well is a sign that you are looking at statistics and taking them as the end-all.

    Fact is, two of the club's top 5 prospects are 20-year-olds holding their own in AAA and they both play premium defensive spots.

    BTW, re: LaHair

    While he certainly has to figure out lefties, let's not act like he's not a prospect, or so much less of one because he has struggled versus LHP.

    Did you know that Ian Stewart (COL), one of the very top offensive prospects in all of baseball is hitting .205 versus LHP in the same exact league, facing the same exact pitching as LaHair?

    Erick Aybar (LAA) is hitting .206 against left-handers and he still got a call-up to the bigs.

    LaHair's .200 average is a small sample size (35AB), and he could go 3 for his next 5 against LHP and be at .250, which is more than respectable, considering he already gets on base at a +117 clip off LHP.

    Stats are just ONE way to evaluate how players are performing.

    Like I said with Jones, ignore his .242 average. Seriously, ignore it altogether. He's hitting .226 at home, and we all know Cheney is a pitcher's park, a severe pitcher's park in April and May.

    He's at .266/.319/.547 on the road. And he's 20.

  3. Willmore said

    “We’re not trying to teach Tui to take walks”

    Is this a natural thing, or is the organization not trying to develop on-base skills as much as other areas ? I would prefer the prospects to start learning to get on base more as much as developing for power, so that we don’t have shortstops with sub-.300 OBP in the future.

  4. No, they just don’t want 20-year-olds worrying about drawing walks at that stage of development.

    If they walk, they walk, but they need to perfect their swing first.

  5. Knuckles said

    How is Tui’s swing? Does he project to have power at all?

  6. MacMariner said

    What’s the scoop on Mike Wilson. He’s having himself a nice year down at IE. He likely to break the top 20 on Mariners prospect lists before the year’s out?

  7. Jon said

    What happened to Jesse Foppert? Has he regressed all the way out of the top 20 already?

  8. Salty Dog said

    Foppert lost his prospect status already, I believe.. he was up in the majors with the Giants before the trade (2004, maybe?)

  9. Tui’s swing is getting better as they tilt the angle on certain pitches. His swing resembled Morse’s inside-out swing in his first year.

    He has a lot of raw power but he hasnt started turning it into production yet.

    Mike Wilson is kind of interesting, but he’s a fringe, fringe, guys at best. I don’t see him breaking into the top 20, not with all these young arms performing.

    Foppert, technically, is not a prospect, but since he began the year as a certain minor leaguer and was under 28 years old (my new criteria) he counts. He’s just been hurt – and awful.

  10. Allen said

    The interesting thing about Wilson is that he may finally be turning atheleticism into production. If he can continue his development displayed last yr and so far in 2006 he may provide an interesting combination of tools.

  11. He’s not all that athletic anymore.

    And he’s 23, still in A ball, and that’s after nearly four years of pro ball.

    I don’t see any reason to have any faith in him to turn out to be anything.

  12. Jerry said

    Jason,

    I don’t know how you can argue that the state of the farm system is unchanged with so few players doing well.

    I agree that you have to look past stats with some players, particularly guys like Jones, Clement, Johnson, and Cabrera who have been promoted aggressively. The M’s have challenged a lot of guys with suprising promotions, and obviously that has to be considered.

    But there is simply more players who are struggling than there are guys who are doing really well. I don’t think that you can argue otherwise.

    Nobody is arguing that the organization should give up on guys like Boucher, Craig, Saunders, Nageotte, Foppert, Feierabend, Balentien, etc. But at some point, you would like to see some of those guys put things together and perform. Right now, there are a lot of guys treading water, and a lot of whose stock is going down.

    Wisconsin in particular looks aweful. The only guy who is really doing well, Thomas, should be in IE.

    There is still plenty of time. I am sure that some of these guys will turn things around. Wisconsin is tough of hitter early on, so that is not totally unexpected. Plus, we will be getting some shiny new prospects in two weeks. But if you are going to recap the year thus far, I don’t see how you can say that it has been good.

  13. JH said

    Have you heard anything from the organization about the Miguel Marquez demotion, Jason?

    Through his first 3 starts he’s definitely overmatching the VSL, but with Visa caps it’s very difficult to bring him back to the states this year, which is too bad.

  14. kva15 said

    Jason,

    What about the guys who are certainly not prospects, but are the most likely candidates to get at least some of their mail in Seattle this year? I’m talking about guys like Jeff Harris, who has proven that he can pitch at the major league level. I have to believe that if he wasn’t hurt he would be helping the team in Seattle. Who are the guys who might give the FO the confidence to pull the trigger on a halfway decent deal — say, like Meche and Pineiro for a large bag of nuts and a chipmunk to be named later?

  15. I don’t know how you can argue that the state of the farm system is unchanged with so few players doing well.

    A few reasons…

    1. Your assessment that so few players are doing well is as far off base as you can get.

    Yes, the numbers aren’t impressive. But like I said before, two of their top half dozen spects are 20 year olds in Triple-A… and holding their own.

    The starting pitching looks a step better today than it appeared in March. Blackley is further along, much further than anyone expected…

    Justin Thomas and Robert Rohrbaugh have been better than anticipated, though you do have to take into consideration that Thomas is in Low A and RR has only thrown in three games…

    Shawn Nottingham’s stuff is back to where it was two years ago – he’s a nice No. 4 starter to sit on…

    Feierabend, sans the hiccup the other day, impresses all in attendance with his development and his overall numbers don’t tell the story. Another kid at 20 pitching against a league far his senior…

    And the younger arms such as Santiago, Escalona… very solid starts, much more than expected…

    The power relief arms have been very good and while that doesn’t excite anyone – and it shouldn’t all that much – it’s still a plus for the system…

    Navarro is handling AA at 21 after skipping IE…

    Rob Johnson is developing in AAA after skipping AA. He’s not hitting much for power and he’s had bad stints defensively, but even opposing managers rave about his game behind the plate and how they are careful when running against Tacoma…

    2. The system was a C-/D+ system when the year started… it remains in that range today. It would have taken a step up to a C if Clement had been healthy all year and continued his offensive start.

    But there is simply more players who are struggling than there are guys who are doing really well. I don’t think that you can argue otherwise.

    MOST organizations experience the exact same thing every year. Only a few of the deeper systems have a top 10 where most of them are doing WELL.

    And there is a difference, a big difference, between “not doing well” and guys struggling.

    Jones isn’t struggling. Johnson isn’t struggling. With any of the talents that are playing at a level ahead of their natural developmental curve, which is most of the top 20, you have to more than just “consider” that fact.

    The M’s knew going into this that the numbers weren’t likely to be very pretty.

    But at some point, you would like to see some of those guys put things together and perform. Right now, there are a lot of guys treading water, and a lot of whose stock is going down.

    Not versus where their status was 60 days ago…

    Overall, Nageotte’s stock is down versus the past few years… Choo’s is higher today than a year ago, but slightly down versus 2004… Same with Blackley, obviously…

    But not when you put them up against their status from before the year began.

    And yeah, Wisconsin looks awful… mostly because the club has a hole in their system and that’s “high school talent.”

    They haven’t been drafting a lot of it the past two years and the one guy they did draft, TUI, has progressed to IE.

    Imagine if the club had those lost picks… half of them would be in Wisconsin, if not all.

    But Thomas isn’t the only player doing well. Dominguez is showing a lot of plate skills and his defense is pretty good at SS. Ron Garth is hitting just .273, but it’s a bigtime pitcher’s circuit and he’s got 11 extra-base hits and he’s only playing 3/4 time.

    IE is the club that really sucks. The entire Cal League is down and according to a scout I talk to on a regular basis, it’s “the worst I’ve seen in years.”

    Tui is the only positional prospect worth talking about down there, though Chen could clean up his K rates and become a real prospect… big if.

    The system is just full of middle of the run types. That’s the reason they are ranked so low to begin with.

    I think there are 20 system’s better right now. Maybe 22.

    But if you are going to recap the year thus far, I don’t see how you can say that it has been good.

    And I haven’t.

    Re: Marquez

    I haven’t, but I’ll ask around. He may have had a family issue and asked to go back for the year. He’s nasty, though. Tough move.

    Re: Harris

    He’s pretty useless to the M’s these days because he’s a spot starter/long relief type in which they have billions of, starting with Mateo and continuing through Green, Fruto, etc.

    If Harris wasn’t hurt, he’d be in Tacoma, helping them. The org is going young whenever possible. Harris was in Tacoma BEFORE he got hurt. He’s on the minor league DL.

    Who are the guys who might give the FO the confidence to pull the trigger on a halfway decent deal — say, like Meche and Pineiro for a large bag of nuts and a chipmunk to be named later?

    I don’t understand the question. Explain who the “guys” are.

  16. Jerry said

    Jason,

    Do you know why the M’s have been so aggressive with some of their prospects?

    I was suprised that Johnson started in AAA and Clement went to AA. With Johjima signed for the next three seasons, I figured that they would move these guys slowly. I expected to see Clement in IE and Johnson at SA, with a mid-season promotion likely.

    I was also suprised that Jones and Cabrera started the year in AAA. I figured that both would be near locks to start in SA. They are a little less of a suprise than the catchers, but both are very young, and Jones is switching positions.

    I understand what you are saying about stats not meaning everything. If the organization would have been conservative with the promotions I just mentioned, those players would likely be putting up gaudy numbers against inferior competition.

    Has the organization made an explicit decision to promote players aggressively? It definitely isn’t based on need, as CF, SS, and C are not places where the ML club needs immediate help.

    I also agree with you about the lack of highschool players. I am really hoping that the M’s pick up a few high ceiling guys in this draft. Going with college players makes sense for the M’s first pick this year. And last year, I could understand why they needed to bring in polished pitchers to make up for all the prospects that crapped out the previous year. But now, it would be nice to see the club take some chances and bring in some guys who could be impact players.

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