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More Hardware, Minor League Style

Posted by Jason A. Churchill on September 6, 2006

Well, okay, I don’t have any hardware to actually give out to these players, and some of them have no idea what Prospect Insider even is, but I’m an egotistical jerk, so I’ll do this anyways. Someone must care what I think.

Breakthrough Prospects of the Year – Francisco Cruceta, RHP and Bryan LaHair, 1B

We’ve discussed Cruceta here quite a bit and it’s easy to see why he’s the breakthrough pitcher of the year after he led the PCL in strikeouts with an impressive 185.

The right-hander is 25 years old and after being sent out of dodge by Cleveland a year ago, he’s turned himself into a legit prospect. With his low-90s four-seamer and plus split-finger, Cruceta profiles well as a relief arm, but with improved command, he could be a tough matchup as a big-league starter as well.

Late in the year Cruceta grew more and more comfortable with his breaking ball, though he didn’t use it a whole lot more than he did earlier in the season. A quality third pitch could solidify Cruceta’s candidacy for the fifth spot in the rotation for 2007, but he’ll come to camp with other in-house competition, such as Cha Seung Baek.

Cruceta, barring an injury, trade or a total flop showing in spring games, should find himself on the 25-man roster to start next season.

LaHair was not going to win this up until his torrid streak in August where the 24-year-old first baseman smacked seven home runs in his final eight games with Triple-A Tacoma, including two 2-homer efforts in three days versus Portland. LaHair hit .357 with eight home runs in August after just two in his first 146 ABs with the Rainiers and six in 222 ABs with Double-A San Antonio.

LaHair combined to slug .474 between the two stops this season, but further than the numbers, he’s starting to recognize pitch types much better than he was earlier in the year and he’s getting out in front of fastballs – which means his natural power is taking over.

One scout called LaHair “the kind of guy that shows up and all of a sudden you have yourself a kid who can hit, and hit for some power in the big leagues. These guys come a long every once in awhile.”

The scout also added that Lahair has two shortcomings — left-handed pitching, which he did improve on with Tacoma, mildly, and sustained power production. He’ll start 2007 as Tacoma’s everyday first baseman with a chance to turn himself into a legit major-league option… but he’s not there yet.

Comeback Prospect of the Year – Travis Blackley, LHP

Need I even explain this one? Blackley had labrum surgery in February of 2005, missed the ensuing season – all of it – and came back to post a solid, if unspectacular, 4.05 ERA in 155 innings of work. Blackley wasn’t pitching with smoke and mirrors, or versus inferior competition, either.

While he did have the advantage of pitching in one of the top three pitcher’s parks in the minors, Blackley was facing some legit bats with very recognizable names.

Alex Gordon, Billy Butler, Chris Lubanski, Troy Tulowitzki, Chris Ianetta, Joseph Koshansky, Ian Stewart, Mitch Maier, Nate Gold, Hunter Pence and Brandon Wood… any of those names ring a bell?

Gordon is a blue-chip bat, true blue chip and will be an all-star in the bigs in no time. Butler isn’t far behind, either, at least offensively. There’s not much doubt Butler will hit and hit with some power in the show. Lubanski is probably a medium bat, but he slugged .475 in the Texas League. Tulowitzki posted 49extra-base hits in 104 games and is now in the majors with the Rockies – and hitting.

Koshansky hit 31 home runs and slugged .526, Stewart is a healthy season from becoming the left-handed hitting version of David Wright and Nate Gold led the league in homers with 34. There are about a dozen other names that will play in the bigs int he next year or so, and Blackley did well to stay in games past the fifth inning.

Blackley put up impressive K/BB rates, considering he started the year at about 75% of where he was pre-injury in 2004. His change was off and on, his curve ball was inconsistent and he was topping off at about 84 mph with his fastball. But he battled. Big surprise, eh?

As the season rolled on, Blackley’s stuff began to come back. His change started to bow a little bit more, at least at times, his curve ball started to bite a little bit more and his cutter, maybe his favorite pitch, developed into more of a slider.

He’s now a legit five-pitch pitcher. Four-seamer, cutter, slider, change-up, and a two-seamer with sinking action, a pitch yours truly wishes Travis threw a lot more, due to his fly ball rates.

But his G/F ratio is deceiving… he pitches to the ballpark. If he’s home at the Wolff, he’s looking for the flyball out, due to the size of the ballpark and the favorable pitching conditions. if he’s on the road in a fair park or hitter’s paradise, he’s more apt to use the two-seamer to get a ground ball and end an inning with a twin-killing.

The difference in approaches would help explain the large differential in home-road splits for Blackley, where the ballpark itself can’t possibly get full credit.

Blackley had a hell of a year, considering the circumstances. And now, the soon-to-be 24-year-old southpaw, can resume his baseball career. No more restrictions, no more excuses. Not that’d he ever offer up one of those.

I’m not even sure he knows what an excuse is.

Defensive Prospect of the Year – Oswaldo Navarro, SS

Navarro is a very solid defensive player, and he CAN play shortstop, even at the big-league level. He has that kind of defensive ability. But the 21-year-old wins this award because of two things.

1. Asdrubal Cabrera was traded to the Indians

2. Rob Johnson was so distracted by the fact that he was overmatched offensively, off-field issues and injury, that his true natural skills never really showed up consistently.

But Navarro is a worthy recipient with great hands, superb footwork and a capable throwing arm with better arm speed than Cabrera.

Offensively, skipper Dave Brundage actually likes Oswaldo’s bat a little better than Cabrera’s, citing discipline and pure bat speed as his advantages.

The Venezuelan’s future is likely as a reserve infielder, where Navarro could very well develop into a key role player. His bat has some catching up to do, however, and he’ll probably need another year and a half in Triple-A in order to get to where he needs to be.

Disappointing Prospect of the Year – Matt Tuiasosopo, 3B

This one was tough, for several reasons. For one, Tui didn’t ask to be graded so highly as a prospect. He’s out there giving everything he has ,every single day. He’s as intelligent and coachable as any prospect in the system and he’s blessed with physical tools that dozens of major league stars would die to have.

It’s also a bit unfair. He’s all of 20 years old and in his second full season in pro ball, after a prep career playing sports for whatever the season happened to be.

Overall, Tui is NOT A DISAPPOINTMENT, he simply had a very disappointing season based on what all of the unfounded expectations pointed to for his 2006 campaign – power, power and more power. Even I was expecting more pop.

Furthermore, the poor kid was prematurely promoted to Double-A San Antonio, where their ballpark is nicknamed “where hitters go to get humbled,” and was asked to change defensive positions on the fly. It’s almost as if he was set up to fail.

My guess is that Tui will rebound from hitting .185 with five extra-base hits in 64 games with the Missions and become a useful big-leaguer. But to be honest, I’m basing that on his physical tools and the word of the M’s coaching staff.

Not much else to go on right now. But remember, Tuiasosopo is still just 20. Lots of time to get things right, such as a switch to right field where he belongs.

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14 Responses to “More Hardware, Minor League Style”

  1. Edman said

    Can’t disagree, except that two players should get consideration for putting themselves back on the map.

    Michael Garciaparra has finally learned to hit, and I believe he’ll only get better. Good eye at the plate, too…..something the M’s could use. He’s not spectacular as a secondbaseman, but he’s pretty smooth and won’t embarrass you.

    Second one is Ishmael Castro. He, like Snelling, has finally had a healthy season. He wasn’t that close to Blackley and Garciaparra, but he has put himself in a position to return to the form he had when he tore up the NWL. When his bat is right, he has very good gap power…..and will pop a few out.

    Tui is young, still. I’m hoping a new start in the AFL will turn him around. He’s only 20….and even if he’s struggling in AA, he’s still there competing. I don’t know that sending him back to the Cal League would have helped. He’s a great athlete, and I have confidence he’ll turn it around.

    Michael Wilson was in contention, until he dropped like a rock, the last month of the season. I still think he could develop.

  2. Jerry said

    Good decisions Jason,

    Can’t really argue with any of them.

    The other guys who could be listed as disappointments – Mike Saunders and Luis Valbuena – also come with asterisks. I have to wonder if both will take the Adam Jones route, and have huge seasons after struggling in the Widwest League. I hope so, as both could end up being nice prospects. We need as many lefthanded power hitters who draw walks as we can get. Both are young, so it will be interesting to see what happens.

    If we limit disappointments to players who have totally fallen off the map, I would nominate Clint Nageotte. I had high hopes for Clint, and was hoping that he could build on a solid AFL performance and challenge for a spot in the rotation. Now, I think that the bullpen is the only shot he has to salvage his career.

    For the comeback player of the year, Baek at least deserves a honorable mention. Seriously, who saw that one coming. I thought that he was about as finished as a guy can be.

    Oh, and speaking of Mike Wilson, what the hell happened to him? He was just destroying the ball until August, then he just fell apart. Have you talked to any scouts about this? Hopefully, it was just a bad slump and not some fatal flaw that AA pitchers identified. Regardless, Wilson had a very good year. Hopefully, he can help us forget about August with a huge AFL.

  3. Jerry said

    Jason,

    Any idea about who the M’s will send to the AFL. I saw that they have O’Flaherty, Mike Wilson, Matt Tuiasosopo, Stephen Kahn, and Mike Garciaparra listed on the Javelinas roster.

    Is Garciaparra healthy enough to play?

    And I would be suprised to see O’Flaherty there, given the number of innings he is likely to pitch in Seattle for the rest of the year.

    Do you see the M’s sending other players in their place? Jeff Clement, Rob Johnson, Luis Valbuena, Wladimir Balentien, Bobby Livingston, ….?

    Also, any thought about doing a list of breakout candidates to your list of end-of-season awards? That would probably fit best late in the offseason, but it would be cool nonetheless. How about Mike Saunders, Luis Valbuena, Anthony Varvaro, Carlos Peguero, Chris Tillman, or Greg Halman?

  4. I do think O’Flaherty will be replaced, but they won’t make that decision until after the MLB season is over.

    And yeah, breakthrough for 2007… will be done… as will the hotseat prospects, put up or shut-up style.

  5. marc w. said

    Totally agree on all of ’em. I guess, just to quibble, LaHair was more of a breakout last year than this one, though his ability to keep raking at advanced levels qualifies him. Now if only he could do something about those platoon splits… nice to see he’s still doing well with the US national team, too!

    Garciaparra should be healthy, Jerry, he played in Tacoma for the last week or so. I’d love it if the M’s threw another hitter down to the AFL in place of O’Flaherty – Balentien would be my fave, but Johnson might not be a bad idea either.

  6. Ru said

    Your keyboard did eat the G in minor league in the title.
    I’m a fan from Italy and want to thank you for all your analysis , it make me feel closer to the teams and to the players giving me a lot of great informations.

  7. Willmore said

    No, Jason was just paying homage to Hawaii, where he is hoping to be, and where Joe Kaiser is right now, instead of in the miserable Northwest autumn. Except that Jason just misspelled Luau as Leaue.

    On a baseball note, I would not be surprised to see Tui break out next season with a performance that puts him in Safeco field by the all-star break. He has the tools, and the mentality to be a major-leaguer, and there’s a chance he develops enough in the off-season to get to the next level. Who knows, right ?

    On Travis Blackley, Jason, do you think that he will get a fair shot at competing for the 5th spot in the rotation next year ? Will it be Bavasi’s call or the new managers ?

  8. marc w. said

    #7 – wow. Just wow. I realize I’m probably freakishly pessimistic about Tui, and that i’m sort of an outlier. Now I know I’m the anti-Willmore.
    Hey, I hope you’re right, man. It would certainly change the look of the farm system if a bunch of these slugging types (actual sluggers like Halman, Balentien, Wilson, maybe Liddi as well as theoretical sluggers like Tui) put together awesome years. And Wilson finally put it together after a few sub-par years, but at least wilson had hit, y’know, 15 doubles in a year, or 19 HRs. I want Tui to put together a year like Wilson’s 04. That’s an extremely realistic goal, and something he could build on down the road. I think JAC’s probably right that even now expectations are ridiculously high. Let him consolidate with a .250/.330/.430 type year and THEN let’s talk about making the show or hitting 40 hrs or whatever.

  9. JH said

    Tools guys put it together quickly all the time, Marc. I don’t share Willmore’s extreme optimism, but discounting a 20 y/o on a purely statistical basis is way premature, especially when he’s been rushed.

    If he hasn’t produced at any level by the time he’s 23, then sure, the stats will be pretty damning. At this point, though, Tui’s still very much an interesting prospect.

    Jason’s take is the right one. This was a disappointing season, but in no way a dealbreaker.

    Also: only possibly significant but worth noting, 3 of Tui’s 5 XBHs in Double-A came in his last 10 games. Last year, he hit 2 hrs and 2 doubles in 10 games in the Midwest League playoffs after another season where he didn’t show much power. Right now, I see Tui as a player who can choose to either hit for average and not power, or power and not average. He’s got the time and the tools to figure out an approach that will let him do both at the same time. Give him at least another 2 full seasons to show us what he’s capable of.

  10. JH said

    Jerry,

    I don’t know why you’d consider Valbuena a disappointment this year. He walked as many times as he struck out in Wisconsin, then hit .331/.383/.471 over June/July to earn a call-up. He struggled for a couple weeks in July in Inland Empire, then hit .280/.347/.393 in August, in High A, as a 20 year old.

    Valbuena doesn’t have the physical ceiling to duplicate his VSL numbers in the states, so if you were expecting a guy with .300/.400/.500 potential, you were bound to be disappointed. He has the tools to eventually become a guy who can hit .280/.360/.420 or so in the major leagues if he pans out.

    Unfortunately, I think the Ms might see Valbuena as a prime candidate for the aggressive promotion program and start him in Double-A next year. If they do that, expect to see him slug under .400 again unless he makes the prospect jump this offseason.

  11. marc w. said

    I’d agree with that, Jon. Tools prospects DO suddenly put it together, and the list of all-stars who stunk up the MWL or SS ball is a long one. But many/most show some inkling of the tools that brought them to prominence. A slugging prospect might hit .185, but have a decent (though not earth-shattering) ISO. A speedster might struggle getting on base, but he’d be OK on defense and on the base paths.

    If Tui hasn’t produced by the time he’s 23, then he’d have 5 straight years of subpar statistical performances. I don’t think it’s overly generous to say that yes, we could consider him a failure then. But I thought he’d show us some hint of power this year, especially starting in the Cal league. Instead, we got a major regression – despite his age-relative-to-league, I think it’s pretty clearly a disappointing year.
    I think it was quite strange sending him up a league (especially given how they’ve handled Balentien), but what we’ve got now, in TWO YEARS, is a tools prospect whose tools haven’t really shown up on a field – they’re based on his body type and size. That’s all well and good, but I don’t think it’s too much to ask to see, I don’t know, TEN HRs a year from a supposed slugger. Again, I don’t care about the average, or the strikeouts (much), but it’s about time we see the one tool people seem to impute to him.
    In his defense, he started slowly from both a power and plate discipline standpoint (27:2 K/BB ratio in April), and I think he may have changed his approach slightly to avoid big swings – his walks went up and Ks down in subsequent months, but then, so did his XBHs (especially in SA). I hope his AFL coaches tell him to forget about Ks for a while and forget about rolling GBs to avoid them – he was the hitting equivalent of Chien-Ming Wang at SA, hitting 3 times as many grounders as flies.

    I’m with you on Valbuena; the M’s, realizing that they may have a problem instilling plate discipline in prospects, seem to be very good at locating Venezuelan prospects who come equipped with that skill already (Valbuena, Asdrubal). I was really impressed with how he handled his atrocious start in Wisconsin, and work his way up to a well-earned promotion.

  12. JH said

    It’s based on more than body type and size. It’s also based on raw power he displays in BP which hasn’t yet transferred into games. Nobody’s arguing that this year wasn’t a disappointment, but it’s also pretty clear that Tui can hit for power when he chooses to make that the focus of his game.

    Re: Valbuena/Cabrera, it’s pretty clear the Ms believe their best international scouts are in Venezuela. Almost every year, they funnel more money to guys dug up by Luis Fuenmayor and Emiliano Carrasquel than scouts in any other area in the world. For that reason I’m pretty interested to see what Mario Martinez (Venezuelan OF signed to a $600,000 bonus this year) is capable of.

  13. marc w. said

    Yes, Venezuela (along with Australia and, more recently, Taiwan, Holland and Canada) has been the signal strength of the team’s scouting. It’s sad that they’ve had to rely on it quite so much, but there you go.
    It’s sort of amazing that Venezuela still offers the level of risk/reward that it does. With all the hubbub about Moneyball and seeing opportunities that the baseball market hasn’t priced properly, how can you not talk about scouting Venezuela? Int’l scouting in general, sure, but everyone and their mother are in the DR (and they should be). How come every small market team isn’t down there, trying to buy carrasquel away – instead of offering Colt Griffin $x million.

    On Tui, and not to be too down on the kid (again, I hope he hits 40HR next year), but how many people are there who hit HRs in batting practice but not in games? Lots. It’s a very different skill, and at this point, he’s a bit closer to KC Herren (tools guy, no results) than Reid Brignac (Cal League MVP).

  14. Edman said

    Why is it sad? Who cares where you find the talent. The sad part would be if you didn’t look at all.

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