Tuesday, December 29, 2015

The Bizarre Spray Chart of Bobby Wernes

Bobby Wernes, an unheralded third baseman from the University of Arkansas, was not considered much of a prospect at the start of the 2015 season. As the college season went along however, the relatively small Arkansas program was put on the map and started garnering scouting interest when centerfielder and eventual 1st rounder and Golden Spikes Award winner Andrew Benintendi heated up and took the baseball world by storm. Wernes, teammates Tyler Spoon and Trey Killian benefited from the extra exposure, and became drafted in the Amateur Draft held in June. Bobby Wernes was solid offensively, hitting .279 with 5 homers, but he stood out for his defensive prowess and ability to make plays like these:

His glove and cannon of an arm are most likely what the Astros were looking to benefit from when the picked him in the 30th round this season, but Wernes took fans by surprise by batting .351 in the NYPL and winning the batting title. He no doubt benefited from an unsustainable .410 BABIP and showed almost no power (.043 ISO and just 8 extra base hits, all doubles), but hitting for an average that high and showing good plate discipline as well (27/27 BB/K ratio, .440 OBP) just cannot be ignored. Thanks to websites such as mlbfarm.com, we can dig deeper into his batted ball numbers and spray charts. Click here for Bobby Wernes page, highly recommend this site with its interactive spray charts and graphs.

The first big take away from his numbers is his propensity for putting the ball on the ground or on a line, and his avoidance of hitting flyballs. His batted ball breakdown is as follows:
Grounders: 53.09%
Line Drives: 30.25%
Flyballs: 12.35%
GB/FB: 4.3
No player in the MLB (min. 150 PA's) in 2015 had a lower flyball percentage, beating groundball machines such as Christian Yelich, Dee Gordon, and Ben Revere, and his line drive rate would top everyone as well. So would his GB/FB ratio, as the MLB leader was the unorthodox Yelich at 4.16, then a big drop-off to Howie Kendrick at 3.52. With his penchant for hitting grounders and never putting the ball in the air, Bobby Wernes' batted ball profile is one of the most unusual you will ever see in all of baseball, yet it is not even the most surprising part of his profile.

This is his spray chart with the short-season Tri City ValleyCats, where he led the New York-Penn League in batting average and made the all star team. The spray of batted balls in the outfield is unbelievable, especially since Bobby Wernes is right-handed. He is a dead-slap hitter, with 22.84% of his batted ball location going to right field, more than any other part of the field, especially left field, where his balls were hit at just 4.94%, less than even his balls hit at the pitcher (5.56%). An astounding 45.5% of his batted balls (close approximation, exact value not available) went to opposite field, where the highest percentage of slapped balls at the MLB level among qualified hitters was DJ LeMahieu at "just" 39%. Billy Burns, the A's outfielder famous for slapping singles the other way, went oppo at a 33.5% clip, which pales in comparison to Wernes.

In college, his swing seemed to work, as he bopped 5 homers in college, including this clutch homer in the semifinals of the College World Series, along with 7 doubles and 6 triples, good for a .425 slugging percentage and .146 ISO. One may wonder why all the power disappeared. It is possible that the higher velocity and better off-speed of pro pitchers kept him late or off-balance, leading to all the batted balls the other way, but he managed to win the batting title regardless and struck out just 27 times in 53 games. While his .410 BABIP might be unsustainable, what is crazy is that his .424 xBABIP (predicted BABIP based on batted balls) suggested that he might have even been unlucky! Adjusted with xBABIP, his actual .351/.439/.394 slash line could have looked an even better and more unbelievable .367/.446/.409. It will be very interesting to see Wernes climb the organizational ladder and see if his power will make a return, and even more intriguing to see if his approach and profile will continue to play against advanced pitching. Below is some video of his swing, feel free to break it down and hypothesize why he hits like he does.

All charts and graphs are courtesy of MLBfarm.com, all videos are from YouTube and I do not own them.

Monday, December 28, 2015

Potential Free Agent Bargains Part 2: The Villanuevas

Carlos Villanueva, Billy Hurst/AP
This is Part 2 of a three-part series looking for free agent bargains in the 2015-2016 offseason. In Part 1, which was featured on MLBTR's Baseball Blogs Weigh In piece on Sundays, we looked at minor league free agents who could produce for major league teams, such as Yangervis Solarte did with the Yankees/Padres in 2014. Carlos Villanueva, himself a free agent, was an undervalued commodity in last year's offseason, not signing until February 4th and only for a minor league, incentive-based deal. He went on to post a 2.95 ERA, 3.74 FIP, and a 8.1 K/9 in 61 relief innings for the St. Louis Cardinals, a versatile and important cog in their bullpen that was solid into the playoffs. In this piece, we will look at other players like Villanueva, undervalued assets who, under the proper circumstances, could become contributing pieces to contending teams.


Ryan Webb, RHP (video)

Coming through the A's and Padres farm system, Webb was a hard-throwing righty who sat 95 mph with his fastball to go with a power slider. As he was traded to the Marlins back in 2011 in the Cameron Maybin deal, he dropped the big fastball, opting for a sinker/slider combo instead that has helped him generate big ground ball rates over the course of his career. The big right-hander (6'6'') has been as consistent as relief pitchers get, with a career FIP that has never topped 3.77 in a single season except his rookie year. Webb sits at 92 mph with his heavy sinker and mixes in a slider to get swings and misses and a changeup to neutralize lefties. He doesn't walk too many as evidenced by his 2.1 BB/9 last season, but he won't strike out too many either, with his 5.5 K/9 in 2015. What he does do is limit batted ball damage, get ground balls (59.2% in 2015) and keep the ball in the park (career 0.5 HR/9). He might not be a flashy flamethrower at the back end of a bullpen, but he should come very cheap and provide quality innings in middle relief.

Cesar Ramos, LHP (video)

Hidden behind the likes of hard-throwing lefties Antonio Bastardo and Oliver Perez, Ramos could be one of the best value pickups to help out a bullpen this season. Like Webb, Ramos isn't exactly a flame-thrower (averages 89.8 mph on his fastball), but he can get ground balls (1.64 GB/FB ratio) and get outs effectively (2.75 ERA/3.07 FIP). It is hard to understand why the Angels would non-tender him at an estimated price of $1.7 million, as he produced solid numbers as a bullpen piece for them last season. It may be because he lacks the traditional velocity, extreme ground ball rates, or ability to annihilate same-sided opponents that most teams want in their back of the bullpen relievers, but Ramos can effectively get righties and lefties out, fill the strike zone (2.6 BB/9), keep the ball in the park (0.3 HR/9), as well as pick up some K's (7.4 K/9), making him a pitcher where the whole is more than the sum of the parts. Ramos does not do one thing especially well, but he can do a little bit of everything, making him an attractive option, especially as a lefty to round out a bullpen.

Domonic Brown, OF
Dom Brown, at 28, still has so much upside, as much potential as he did when both Baseball America and Baseball Prospectus ranked him the #4 prospect in all of baseball. He is just two years removed from hitting .272/.324/.494 with 27 home runs, as shown in the video above, in a very strong 2013 campaign. Many believed that that was Brown's breakout season and would lead to even more greatness to come, but since then he has fell off a cliff. He OPS'd just .634 the past two seasons, spending the first half of 2015 on the disabled list and rehabbing in the minors. He came back in June and struggled initially, but a hot July, where he hit .293/.303/.427 with 3 HRs gave fans hope that Brown had finally rediscovered his potential, but he hit just .177 the rest of the way. As we dig into some of the more advanced numbers, it seems that Brown's plate discipline has remained generally the same the last three years, with his Contact% hovering around 80%. Batted ball numbers remain about the same as well, with grounders and flies holding generally steady, but the main difference between 2013 and '14/'15 was his hard hit rate and line drive%. In 2013, Brown had a 22.8% line-drive rate and a 33.5% hard-hit rate, compared to 15.7% and 25.5% in 2015, leading to a spike in HR/FB% in his big year, a 19.3% well above his career average of 12.1%. However, all three of these ratios fluctuate greatly from year to year, and it is hard to judge a player based on them. It is possible that if Brown were put on the right team playing the right matchups (career .230 hitter against lefties) that he could see a rebound in these ratios and rediscover past form as he is about to hit his physical prime at age 28. It wouldn't be unrealistic to see him provide solid offensive production against righties in a strict platoon and hit around .250/.315/.425 with 10 or so home runs, good production for possibly just a minor league contract. The downside of having him is he provides negative defensive value (oh god) and is not a great baserunner, but teams desperate for some outfield pop could take a flyer on his sweet swing and easy power and come away with something big.
Fun fact: the home runs he hit off this year came of 4 top-of-rotation arms: Zack Greinke, Jacob DeGromShelby Miller, and James Shields. His fifth came of Braves righty Williams Perez.

Justin Ruggiano, OF (video)
Ruggiano, who just signed with Texas for $1.65 million, is one of the best bargain signings of the offseason. He absolutely destroys left-handed pitching, with a 134 wRC+ and .272/.336/.520 slash line, which will fit in nicely in a platoon with the likes of left handed outfielders Josh Hamilton and Shin-Soo Choo, neither of whom were very good against lefties last year. Ruggiano can hold his own against righties as well, and although below average, a career 93 wRC+ against same sided pitching could be left in the lineup without cringing, although it would not be the ideal scenario for him to be in. He has a bit of speed too, stealing 5 bags last year in just 57 games, and stole 15 in his season as a full time player in Miami back in 2013. He can handle all 3 outfield positions reasonably well with a decent arm, and is a very valuable and cheap option for Texas to have on the bench and impact multiple aspects of the game. An interesting stat to note with the addition of the new StatCast info from this season: the average MLB hitter generates 0.43 mph of velocity on each pitch, but Ruggiano is way over with 5.4 mph generated, above Trout, Donaldson, Cespedes, Bautista, Cruz...

George Kottaras, C (video
The lone player on this list who did not play in the majors in 2015, Kottaras can be had for a minor league deal. He is a career 100 wRC+ hitter in the big leagues, above average production for a catcher, and the journeyman possesses one of the best plate discipline/power combos out of all backstops in pro ball. His career 14.1% walk rate deserves looks at for a shot to be a backup/platoon option somewhere, and it was an insane 20.8% in AAA Charlotte this season, where he hit .247/.403/.505 with 7 homers in just 31 games. He is a good defensive catcher as well, with a career 5.0 Def score on Fangraphs, a good pitch-blocker but a bit below average with his arm and pitch-framing. His main drawback is his penchant for striking out, as his career 23.7% k-rate shows, and in his last full season in the bigs, he K'd at a 33.3% clip. As a part time player at an offensively weak position like catcher though, striking out too much doesn't seem like too big a price to pay for a cheap option that hits left-handed who can provide some power, patience, and defense to a lineup, and catching-dire teams like the Mariners or Phillies could give Kottaras a shot at redemption in the MLB.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Rule 5 Wrapup

The Rule 5 Draft included several talented players that could play contributing roles this coming season. The biggest news, of course, is the Padres selecting four players to fill in their major league team. It is unlikely that all four will be kept, but there is no harm in giving these players chances at cracking the roster. Here is a rundown of all players drafted in the major league phase:

OF Tyler Goeddel, Philadelphia Phillies (from Rays)
Goeddel is an athletic outfielder who can also play third base well. He has a highly-regarded combination of speed, power, and plate discipline that made him a worthy first pick in the Rule 5 Draft. It has taken Goeddel several seasons to develop his raw tools, but he had a nice season in AA for the Montgomery Biscuits when he put the whole package together, slashing .279/.350/.433. He will likely provide the Phillies with an alternative option in the outfield in addition to starters Aaron Altherr and Odubel Herrera, and if given regular playing time, expect him to hit around .250/.310/.405 with 7 home runs and 15 stolen bases with potential for much more in the future.

OF Jake Cave, Cincinnati Reds (from Yankees)
A defense-first outfielder with some offensive potential, Cave reminds many Yankees fans of Brett Gardner when he was coming through the system. He hit well in AA/AAA in 2015, but it wasn't quite the breakout that Yankees fans were hoping for coming off a solid showing in 2014. He will likely never be a star in the big leagues with his lack of big-time power, but his solid, all-around approach ensures that he is MLB ready and will probably stick on the Reds roster all year, with a floor around what Sam Fuld has produced over the course of his career. Cave could slash something like .245/.310/.340 this season while providing plus defensive production, which is good value for both the present and the future, especially in the Rule 5 Draft.

LHP Evan Rutckyj, Atlanta Braves (from Yankees)
Another player taken out of the Yankees system, Rutckyj is nowhere near as heralded as Cave coming through the system. That doesn't mean he's a bad ballplayer though, as he has been a solid left handed reliever throughout the Yankees system. He generates a very good strikeout rate with his low 90's fastball that has been described as plus by Baseball America's J.J. Cooper, as well as a slider that is fringy. His command has been wobbly before this year but he has sharpened it up with a lower walk rate in 2015. He should be a decent LOOGY out of the Braves pen if given the chance to succeed. Interesting stat to note: he struck out 41% of all lefty hitters he faced this season.

RHP Luis Perdomo, San Diego Padres (from Cardinals, through Rockies)
A live-armed Dominican from the Cardinals system, Perdomo has been ranked highly on prospect lists the last few years with his 93-97 mph fastball. His secondary offerings are still in the making, but his slider has flashed serious potential before. He topped out at A-ball this season, so the Cardinals took a risk leaving him unprotected because he was so far away. If he sticks on the major league roster all season, it could end up as a hurting loss, but with his relative rawness it will be difficult for the Padres to keep him all year. In his prime, he could be a #2 or 3 starter who posts good K-rates, but he has quite a bit of work to get there whether it's with the Cardinals system or the Padres.

2B/OF Colin Walsh, Milwaukee Brewers (from A's)
Walsh, a 25 year old infielder, broke out in a big way this season for the AA Midland RockHounds. The Stanford alum has shown solid plate discipline throughout his career, which has taken him through two organizations (Cardinals and A's) and reached AAA, in 2014, in which he struggled. Sent back down to AA, he built off his strong plate discipline with a walk rate north of 20% as well as flashing some power he hadn't shown since 2012 when he homered 16 times for low-A Quad Cities. He hit .302/.447/.470 with 39 doubles, 13 home runs and an insane 124 walks that led the Texas League by far. Walsh does have some strikeout issues, but given the right role in the new direction that the Brewers are headed under David Stearns, he could thrive in a utility spot and hit in the neighborhood of .245/.350/.375.

OF Jabari Blash, San Diego Padres (from Mariners, through A's)
Blash, a native of the Virgin Islands, flashes one serious tool: power. A true 70-grade, Blash is the only Rule-5 eligible player with true potential to top 35 HRs this year, given the proper circumstances and adjustments made. He has a bit of speed and can draw a walk, and he is surprisingly mobile with a 6'6'' frame and can play average-above average defense in right field. His only major concern is swinging and missing, as he racks up very high strikeout numbers over the course of his career before bashing 36 bombs between AA/AAA this season. If he receives full playing time in San Diego, expect a line around .215/.280/.440 with 19 HRs.

RHP Josh Martin, San Diego Padres (from Indians)
A former 10th round pick by the Cleveland Indians, the 25-year-old Martin dominated AA this season with a 2.27 ERA and a 10.7 K/9 to go with a solid 2.5 BB/9. The 6'6'' righty throws in the low-to-mid nineties with a curveball and changeup. He has produced a lot of strikeouts over the course of his minor-league career, and it is not unreasonable to expect him to do the same in the bigs. Given the light bullpen depth of the Padres, Martin will receive a fair chance to prove himself in Spring Training. He should be at least an average middle reliever, and a realistic expectation is around a 4.00 ERA with 8.4 K/9 and 3.3 BB/9.

OF Joey Rickard, Baltimore Orioles (from Rays)
Rickard is a unique player, with a skill set that differs from your traditional corner outfielders. He lacks the conventional power, in fact he has barely any power at all (2 HRs this season), but he makes up for it with extreme plate discipline and good speed. He bats right-handed, unlike most slappy hitters who profile similarly, giving him a slight disadvantage getting out of the box. Interestingly, he throws with his left arm, which is decent but not a cannon. He does have good range, however, and his speed makes him an above average defender in both corner spots and could probably handle center field as well. He is very similar to teammate L.J. Hoes, who put up similar numbers but struggled in his brief time in the majors. Both players are very BABIP-reliant, and it is very likely that they will compete for the fourth/fifth outfielder job in Baltimore. Expect Rickard to hit around
.260/.330/.340 if given a spot on the Orioles roster. Here is a video of him making an incredible defensive play in the Venezuelan Winter League.

RHP Deolis Guerra, Los Angeles Angels (from Pirates)
The only player on this list with big-league experience, Guerra was a former top prospect in the Mets system, sent to Minnesota in the original Johan Santana trade. He scuffled, however, as he reached the upper levels in the minors, and the Twins eventually converted him to a relief role, where he still struggled, but posted better strikeout numbers. Before the 2015 season, the Pirates took a shot on Guerra's live arm and sent him to AAA Indianapolis, where he dominated to the tune of a 1.23 ERA and a 37/8 K/BB ratio. He was given a cup of coffee in the bigs but gave up 5 HRs in just 16.1 innings, leading to being DFA'd, clearing waivers, and picked in the Rule 5 Draft by the Angels. He will be given an opportunity to make a relatively weak bullpen and pick up some innings and strikeouts along the way.

RHP Joe Biagini, Toronto Blue Jays (from Giants)
Biagini, a 25-year-old right hander, had a nice season in AA Richmond in the Giants organization, posting a 2.42 ERA across 130.1 innings. He relies on a three-pitch mix, with a 87-92 mph fastball, a slurvy breaking ball, and a changeup. He doesn't strike out too many batters, as evidenced by his 5.8 K/9 ratio, but if the ERA is worth anything, he should be good at limiting batted ball damage, and the Blue Jays are hoping that skill will hold up in the major leagues. His best bet is to make it as the long man in the bullpen and hope his fastball ticks up in relief, but with his low strikeout rate and lack of success before 2015, it will be tough to crack a contending Blue Jays roster.

RHP Matt Bowman, St. Louis Cardinals (from Mets)
An alum of Princeton University, Bowman is a right-handed starter with a funky delivery. He has four pitches that he mixes well, a low-90s fastball, a slider, changeup, and curveball. Unlike Biagini, who had struggled over the course of his career before breaking out in 2015, Bowman had been a solid pitcher throughout the minors, posting good strikeout/walk rates at each level before struggling hard this year. His K/9 fell from 8.3 to 5.0, and his ERA rose from 3.32 to 5.53. But if there is any organization with a niche for finding hidden gem pitchers, its the Cardinals, and look for him to rebound this season in a long-relief role in the St. Louis bullpen.

LHP Daniel Stumpf, Philadelphia Phillies (from Royals)
In the second round of the Rule 5 Draft, the Phillies took a lefty from the Royals system, Stumpf, who can hit 94 mph with a good slider. In AA, left handed hitters managed to hit just .151 off of him and the Phillies are hoping he will be the LOOGY they are looking for to round out the bullpen.

LHP Chris O'Grady, Cincinnati Reds (from Angels)
Taken from an already thin Angels system, the pick of O'Grady will only hurt more. He profiles similarly to Daniel Stumpf, with the fastball-slider combo from the left side that has been effective against left handed hitters. He pitched well in AA and made it to AAA, striking out 8.9 per 9 innings across both levels. Expect him to compete for a LOOGY role in the shallow Reds bullpen as well.

RHP Zach Jones, Milwaukee Brewers (from Twins)
A righty relief prospect in the Twins system, Jones is a highly known commodity in baseball circles because of his ability to throw 100 mph. He also throws a power slider that plays well with his fastball and confounding for A-ball hitters to square up. However, his development has been slowed due to command/control issues and injuries. While he reached AA for the first time this season, he struggled with a 6.00 ERA and turned 25 years old already. Given proper coaching and refinement to his mechanics, Jones could become a valuable bullpen asset for the Brewers. His plus-plus stuff and potential to become a big-time set-up man was too much for Milwaukee to pass up, even for all the control problems. If he sticks, expect bouts of wildness every once in a while, but don't be surprised if he becomes a lockdown reliever.

RHP Blake Smith, San Diego Padres (from White Sox)
Yet another right handed reliever taken by the Padres, Smith is a converted outfielder with a big arm. He began his career as a second-round pick out of Cal, and he started hot, hitting lots of homers in the lower levels of the minors. What caused the switch was when he began to struggle against more advanced pitching in the higher levels of the system, and he has begun to harness his powerful right arm the last two seasons. He is already 27, but over the course of the past year he has improved his command and control, shaving his BB/9 from 8.7 his first year pitching in 2013 down to 4.6 in 2015, still high but a major improvement, especially considering the 10.9 K/9 and success at the AAA level. He will be a tough keep on the Padres roster all year, as hard-throwing righties with command issues are a dime a dozen, but the Padres obviously see something they like and will give him an opportunity to succeed and make the club in Spring Training.

1B/OF Ji-Man Choi, Los Angeles Angels (from Orioles)
When the Orioles signed Choi to a minor league contract early this winter, they certainly did not expect this coming. Choi was a minor league free agent, which made him Rule 5 eligible, and by signing him but not protecting him on the 40-man roster, the Orioles made a possible mistake. Choi, a former top prospect in the Mariners system, has missed most of the last two seasons due to PED suspension and multiple injuries. When healthy, he has produced power and solid defense in the minors, and the Angels are hoping he would do the same, filling their hole in left field and spelling an aging Albert Pujols at first. He is tough to project due to lost time, but it is possible for him to put ip a .240/.300/.390 slash this season with room to grow more.

Friday, December 4, 2015

Chih-Sheng Lin to the Padres?

Lamigo Monkeys Official Website
According to multiple reliable Taiwanese media outlets, (here and here, both are in Chinese) the San Diego Padres have checked in on Taiwanese free agent slugger, face of the franchise, media sensation, and 2015 CPBL MVP Chih-Sheng Lin. Lin, soon to be 34 years old, is an infielder who has been a top 5 player in the CPBL (the highest-level of pro ball in Taiwan, comparable to A+. AA leagues in the US) for the last 12 years. He can play all four infield positions, and is still a physical monster at his age. Coming off an MVP season in the CPBL, Lin is now a free agent due for either a major raise in Taiwan or a contract offer from the MLB, KBO, or NPB.

Lin was the first overall pick in the 2003 Amateur Draft held in December, and he made his CPBL debut the next June as the 4-hitter in the La New Bears lineup. He made an immediate impact, hitting .318/.380/.527 with 11 home runs in just 57 games for the startup team, becoming their face of the franchise along with former top Dodgers prospect Chin-Feng Chen. Over the course of 12 years in the league, he has collected Gold Gloves, Silver Sluggers, and many Best 10 Awards (given to the best player at each position), as well as multiple HR titles and an MVP. This season, the CPBL saw an offensive boom, and save for a few, all hitters had career years and all pitchers had career worsts. Numbers from this season should be taken with a grain of salt, but Lin took full advantage of it, slashing .380/.469/.689 with 31 home runs and 30 stolen bases en route to MVP honors and a batting title as well as MVP of the Taiwan Series, which I covered here. The biggest takeaway from this season is that he showed that, at 33 years old, he still had plenty of athleticism left in him, swiping 30 bags. Looking at prior seasons, where the CPBL was a more neutral hitting/pitching environment, he has been a consistent performer over the course of his career. Lin's batting average has dipped below .310 just 3 times, with a career low of .279 in 2014 before bouncing back in a big way. He is one of the biggest power bats the island of Taiwan has ever produced, batting in the heart of the order in all of Chinese Taipei's international tournaments like the Olympics, World Baseball Classic, and 2015's Premier12, where Lin was one of the best players in the entire tournament, batting .347/.375/.913 with 4 HRs in 4 straight games, including this tie-breaker against the mighty Cubans, an absolute bomb off a 74-mph breaking ball.

Lin, of course, is not without his faults. His career 9% walk rate in the CPBL isn't bad, but likely does not bode well for his plate discipline numbers in the MLB. He has an aggressive approach and is susceptible to breaking balls and off speed, and while it has not been exposed in the CPBL (career 18% K-rate), against more advanced pitching in the Premier12 tournament, there were hints of strikeout issues. He struck out 6 times in 23 plate appearances, all coming against top teams such as Canada, Cuba, and Puerto Rico, including once against big-leaguer Andrew Albers. His swing, which lowers his hands before taking a bit of an uppercut through the zone, may lead to trouble against high fastballs with better velocity at the big league level. His natural defensive position is shortstop, and while he was a top defender back in his prime, he has lost a step with age and is probably best suited for an infield corner. He definitely has the arm to handle third and could probably play second as well and shortstop in a pinch, making him a versatile piece that could appeal to National League teams such as the Padres.

In Taiwan, Lin is more than just a baseball player. On the baseball-crazed island, fans treat their superstars like idols (airports go crazy when Wei-Yin Chen returns for the winter). Lin, who has a big personality and a high-energy guy both on and off the field is a media sensation, a true celebrity that is all over TV shows and magazines, with dance moves like these. A transition stateside will surely be closely followed by Taiwanese media and come with lots of hype, being the first CPBL position player to make the switch (Fu-Te Ni made it as a Tigers LOOGY before succumbing to Tommy John surgery). He has drawn interest from MLB before: as an amateur by the Seattle Mariners, who cited his athleticism and power up the middle, and the Cleveland Indians, who supposedly gave him a private workout in early 2010. Rumor also has it that the A's once considered him a possibility up the middle around that time as well. This offseason, as a true free agent and requiring no posting fee, he has drawn interest from the Padres and another mystery team who have checked in and confirmed Lin's free agency status with the CPBL, which shows that they at least have some interest in his abilities. The Padres currently stand to have some combination of Cory SpangenbergJedd GyorkoYangervis Solarte, and Jose Pirela handle infield duties, and while all of them are solid players in their own right, none of them scream "big offensive threat" or, with Gyorko as the exception, profile as 20+ HR bats. The Padres have been agressive in the Asian market, being the winning bidder for Korean pitcher Kwang-hyun Kim and pursuing Japanese third baseman Nobuhiro Matsuda, who profiles similarly to Lin, this winter. While Lin, at 34 years old, is likely not the highest-upside solution to their problem, but he will probably provide some pop and versatility defensively at a reasonable price. At his age, he probably won't command much more than a 1 or 2 year deal worth somewhere around 2 million annually. It might even be smaller, depending on what teams are interested and if the KBO or NPB teams have legitimate interest as well. Expect Lin to hit around .230/.295/.390, and while that doesn't seem stunning right off the bat, it is right around what Ian Desmond and Wilmer Flores hit last year and certainly acceptable as a platoon option for someone like Spangenberg. At 34, Lin may be a bit past his prime, but with his high-energy game and ability to hit some homers and swipe a few bases, he should be an appealing piece to an infield-needy team like San Diego.

Here is a bonus video of Lin homering in Game 7 of the Taiwan Series, giving Lamigo a 2-0 lead in the bottom of the first.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Player Profile: Willians Astudillo

Photo: David M. Scholfield/Lakewood Blue Claws, Asbury Park Press
Willians Astudillo was born in the wrong decade. Back in the 70's or 80's, someone with his skill set would have been fast-tracked through the farm system and slotted into the big league lineup as a #2 hitter, useful in hit-and-run situations on a small ball team. However, in a generation that puts power at premium and walks as a valuable commodity, Astudillo does not stand out at either category and has been overlooked again and again in the Phillies system. His career .085 ISO, 3.9% walk rate, unideal body type, and his lack of a true defensive position have been huge turn-offs in the Phillies chain of minor league promotions. But if there is one thing that Astudillo can do, it is hit, and he has done it to an extreme rate. He has struck out just 51 times over 1,684 career minor league plate appearances, en route to a career .318 batting average. In this post, we will take a look how he has done it.

Taking a quick look at Astudillo's swing, it is evident why he doesn't have much power. He doesn't have tremendous bat speed and the swing isn't too explosive. His swing is mostly upper body and doesn't incorporate the lower half too well. On the other hand, it is very obvious why he makes so much contact. He has plus hand-eye coordination, and he is willing to adapt to each pitch by changing his swing. Sometimes it looks ugly, but it prevents strikeouts, and it has worked so far. This hyper-aggresive approach is also what makes his walk rate so low, but that has been effective thus far in his young career, and with his contact skills I doubt it will be exposed against more advanced pitching.

Defensively, Astudillo began his career as a catcher, with a career 30% caught stealing rate, but he was never too good behind the dish, so they experimented with him at different positions. He is probably best suited for first base, but at 5'9'' he is too small to play there at the big league level. He has played some corner outfield, but the speed limits him there and at third base, his range and athleticism in general is a bit of a problem. Interestingly enough, in the Venezuelan Summer League, he has played quite a bit of second base as well as 40 innings at shortstop. In the MLB, he will probably serve as a backup behind a durable catcher like Salvador Perez, but more of an emergency/third catcher and pinch hitter on most teams that employ a platoon or split playing time more evenly.

Astudillo is easily one of the most fun prospects to follow in all of baseball. In just his second season of full playing time, he hit .314/.348/.384 in 418 at bats with just 10 walks but only 10 strikeouts as well. He is truly the contact extremist, with a possible 60/65 hit tool. Unfortunately, his other tools grade out at 40 at best, with his arm maybe being a 45. He became a minor league free agent at the end of the season, and the Atlanta Braves gladly snatched him up to a minor league deal. Their eagerness may be for naught though, as by signing him to a minor league deal, he will be left exposed to the Rule 5 Draft and another team may take a shot on the bat-to-ball skills. Astudillo's absolute ceiling is something like Jose Altuve without the speed, which would be quite interesting since speed is Altuve's other elite tool and it plays well with the hit tool. Barring an insane occurrence, Astudillo will never be much defensively or on the basepaths, and his offensive ceiling is probably something like .290/.320/.350 which would be very useful as a backup/third catcher who could also play some other positions and be a very effective pinch hitter when you need the ball put in play late in the game with a National League team. This would likely be the best case scenario, but no matter the end result, it will be very fun tracking him throughout his journey through the minor leagues.

Bonus Video: Fittingly, I could not find a video of him hitting a home run, but there is one of him taking a protective swing and lining an RBI double down the left field line.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Road to the Show: Top End Prep Arms in the 2016 MLB Draft

While the 2016 MLB Draft is still 7 months away, it is never too early to take a look at some of the top talent available. Many other big names are sure to pop up between now and draft time, but as of right now, scouts already have a good feel for the high end talent of the upcoming draft. This year, the draft will be heavy on college pitchers and outfielders, but their are some high ceiling players at other positions as well. In this piece, we will take a look at two of the top high school arms in the class, left hander Jason Groome and righty Riley Pint.

LHP Jason Groome, IMG Academy (Florida)/Barnegat HS (New Jersey)
Groome, a native of New Jersey, is considered to be one of the premier talents of this class and very likely to go first overall to the Philadelphia Phillies. Groome stands in at 6'6'', with three plus pitches that he can command well. A Vanderbilt committ, he will likely pass on college to sign with a pro team. He stands out with his pitchability and plus stuff, and he has used it against hitters older than him as he is one of the youngest prospects in the draft class. His fastball has sat 90-94 and has touched 96 since he was 16 and there is room for even more. Groome also throws a two-seamer around 89-92 that has good armside run. His curveball is around 75-78 mph with good depth that is a 60/65 grade and is probably his best pitch. He mixes in a decent, developing changeup as well. He has been on the circuit for quite a while now, and most scouts are familiar with him and his experience playing against more advanced competition. The delivery and mechanics are clean and repeatable, although his arm does not seem to get maximum extension on his pitches. The upside on this kid reminds me of Jon Lester, whose fastball and curveball seem to be his bread and butter in getting strikeouts, and had decent command to go with it. Any high school arm is risky of course, but between his exposure to advanced competition and pitchability, Groome is one of the more advanced prep pitchers in this draft class.

RHP Riley Pint, St. Thomas Aquinas HS (Kansas)
Pint is the other top talent arm in this draft, drawing comps to other recent prep righties such as Lucas Giolito and Dylan Bundy, but he might as well be the polar opposite of Jason Groome. Not only is he right-handed, he throws consistently harder at 95-96, hitting 98 with good life, running and rising. His delivery is a lot higher effort, with his head jerking at the end of each pitch. He hasn't been on the travel circuit as long as Groome and doesn't have as much exposure as he plays basketball competitively in the winter as well, but he arguably has better pure stuff. He also throws a hard curveball at around 83-88 that flashes plus plus, but his inexperience causes it to waver and be inconsistent. His changeup has shown flashes if potential, like everything else he throws, but he doesn't throw it very often as so far he has lived on his fastball/curveball. He has a 3/4 delivery and throws mostly with his arm with a big whipping action, not taking full advantage of his big 6'4'' frame.  A raw project, whichever team that drafts him will be taking on a big risk, but if he eventually puts everything together, he could have three plus pitches and anchor the top of any rotation. At his peak, Pint can match Justin Verlander in his prime, but he has a lot of work to do before he reaches his potential.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Potential Free Agent Bargains Part 1: The Solartes

Yangervis Solarte, Rigoberto Cervantes-ABC de la Semana
Every year, we see players who sign minor league deals or 1-year deals worth very little come up big for a contending team. These players are not guaranteed much more than a Spring Training invitation, but they make the most out of their opportunities and play significant roles for their respective teams. Two relievers signed at the end of the last offseason, Ryan Madson and Carlos Villanueva, became top options in the back end of playoff bullpens. Yangervis Solarte, who the Yankees picked up as a relative unknown prior to 2014, took off in Spring Training and started strong before being dealt to San Diego for Chase Headley. Solarte is now a key cog in the Padres lineup, playing multiple infield positions with a potent bat, hitting .270 with 33 doubles and 14 home runs in 2015. Bargains in the free agent market can include anyone from former stars recovering from injury (The Madsons), undervalued assets (The Villanuevas), or complete unknowns (The Solartes) who, under the right direction, could flourish in a big way. This is the first piece in a three part series, covering the first category, The Solartes, or minor league free agents who have flown under the radar, yet could make an impact for a major league club in 2016.


Erik Cordier, RHP (video)
Cordier, a 6'4" native of Green Bay, Wisconsin, stands out for one thing: his fastball. He throws 96-98 and can consistently hit 100, and he has the numbers to back up his stuff. The 29-year-old right hander struck out 11.6 per 9 in 2014 in AAA before posting an 11.9 K/9 at the same level this season. He also throws an at least average, sometimes plus slider around 86-88. His main flaw, like most other hard throwers, is his control and command, but his pitching delivery is fairly simple and repeatable. A major league bullpen in need of a middle reliever with potential for more could take a flyer on Cordier, and his fastball-slider combo should pick up some K's at little to no risk.

Juan Gonzalez, RHP
Juan Gonzalez, Getty Images
Juan Gonzalez, a Venezuelan 25-year-old righty was a relative unknown in baseball circles until this season, where he surprised many by representing the Dodgers in the Futures Game for the World Team. Across 50 innings between AA and AAA, Gonzalez put up a 1.62 ERA, especially impressive considering the hitter-friendly confines of the PCL. There is no video available for him online, so we are limited to stat lines and quotes from the internet. Baseball America says his fastball sits in the mid-90s with good running action and a slider around 87 mph, and he challenges hitters and gets ground ball outs. This statement is backed up by farm director and Dodgers managerial candidate Gabe Kapler, who says "Juan has really opened some eyes with his consistency, his velocity, and some deceptiveness in his delivery." As a minor league free agent, he should receive an invite to Spring Training with a MLB team, and if he can build on his 2015 success he could be a big bullpen piece going forward.

Andrew Barbosa, LHP (promotional video from when he was in college at USF)
Barbosa is the oldest pitcher and the least-hyped player on this list, a power-armed 28 year old lefty who has undergone shoulder and elbow surgery before. Standing at 6'8'' 230 lbs, Barbosa throws a fastball, curveball, and changeup, the latter of which he claims is his best and most consistent pitch. He has posted good numbers in every step of the minors, yet has been moved along slowly due to injuries and setbacks. After being released by the Diamondbacks early on, Barbosa had a short stint with Long Island Ducks in which he dominated before the Braves picked him up. He pitched well in AA with a 56/22 K/BB ratio in 47.1 innings. The walk rate is a tad high, but he can limit batted-ball damage (6.8 H/9, just one HR hit off him this season), making him an attractive, low-risk target to be a LOOGY in a big league bullpen.

Robert Zarate, LHP
Zarate has had an intriguing career path that has took him everywhere. A native of Venezuela, he signed with the Canadian-based Blue Jays when he was 18, and pitched in the Dominican Summer League for them with solid results. He was released despite putting up strong numbers in 2009, and was off the radar for several years until 2012 in Japan with the Hanshin Tigers, although rumor has it he was in Japan for semi-pro ball with the independent Gunma Diamond Pegasus. It should also be noted that he spends most offseasons in his home country of Venezuela pitching in their Winter League. In 2015, the Rays brought him stateside to their AAA club, where he threw to the tune of a 2.90 ERA and 1.09 WHIP. His 10.9 K/9 was very impressive, and he showed the ability to limit walks and home runs as well. His ability to throw strikes and get whiffs from the left side should be appealing for teams in need of bullpen depth or help.

Position Players

Conner Crumbliss, 2B/OF (video)
Eye-popping. Those are the only words to describe his walk-rate, a true plus-plus tool of his. It is utterly insane, approaching nearly 20% in some of his seasons in the minor leagues. Crumbliss is athletic, has some speed and some pop to go with the tremendous approach. He is already 28, and it is hard to understand why the Athletics have had him repeat levels and stall his development. A college senior drafted in 2009, he has hit in every stop of the minors except a small 20-game sample of AAA in 2013, in which he even popped 3 home runs. He has hit at least 10 homers in each of the last three years and a solid career 77.6% stolen base success rate. His plus wRC+ numbers across his 6 years of minor league service (135, 148, 131, 112, 134, 142, 119) deserve at least a promotion to AAA, if not an outright shot at winning a big league bench spot in Spring Training. Bold prediction: if there is any no-name utility man who can step up and make an immediate impact in the major leagues, it is Crumbliss. Unfortunately, he missed most of 2015 with an injury, so a productive 2016 would require some rehab, making him an unlikely candidate for breakout. Still, a .250/.355/.365 line is not out of the question and would be a welcome addition for many major league teams. Of course, reasonable thinking leaves Crumbliss as an organizational filler, but even so he should be a decent piece in a Triple-A lineup with upside for more.

Tommy Field, INF (video)
Field is a defense-first shortstop with some pop in his bat. Also 28 years old, Tommy Field has exhibited power and patience throughout his minor league career. This past season, he posted a 12.2% walk rate to go with an 18.9% K-rate in AAA, and while a .192 ISO isn't extremely high, it is plenty of punch for a glove-minded middle infielder. He was rated the Best Defensive Infielder in the Rockies system before 2011, a testament to his plus glovework. He has bounced around quite a bit, with many teams taking a flyer on his profile, and there's no reason another team won't in Spring Training. He will be 29 come Opening Day, and if he does finally hit his stride and make a name for himself, look for a .230/.320/.410 batting line with about 10 homers and 5 stolen bases as a best case scenario, obviously with the always solid defense as well.

Destin Hood, OF (video)
If one had to pick just one word to describe Destin Hood, it would be 'explosive'. His tools are so loud, and that is why the Nationals took him in the second round out of high school in 2008. He went through his up and downs throughout the Nats system until he reached AAA in 2014, and he slashed .294/.344/.482 with 24 doubles and 10 homers. He became a minor league free agent at the end of that year, and it is puzzling why the Nationals didn't put the former top prospect, at just 24, on their 40-man roster. The Cleveland Indians picked him up and, in an even more inexplicable move, sent him to AA, where he hit well again before releasing him. The Phillies picked him up, and apparently they agreed with the Indians' evaluation, and they sent him to AA where, of course, he hit well again. Between these moves, it is very possible that there are some makeup or personality issues with Hood, but without any inside info, we will never know. From our standpoint, and maybe a few major league organizations, he is a toolshed oozing with potential who know has a track record of hitting high minors pitching well for two years now, and at just the age of 25, he has even more room to improve.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Player Profile: Byung-ho Park

The 2014 Nexen Heroes of the Korean Baseball Organization possessed a lineup envied by many around the league. Current Pirate shortstop and Rookie Of the Year finalist Jung-ho Kang bashed 40 home tuns, and MVP second baseman Geon-chang Seo batted .370 with 48 stolen bases. But the biggest threat in the lineup still lurked behind the two in the cleanup spot in the order: first baseman, Korean superstar and national sensation, and possible future Minnesota Twin, Byung-ho Park. He hit 52 home runs that year, and followed that up with 53 more in 2015, and he is now preparing for his next task, a transition to the MLB.

Byung-ho Park made his professional debut in 2005 at the age of 18 for the LG Twins in Korea, where he was seen by many as the next big thing. The year before, he led his high school team to a national championship, where he led the tournament in home runs with 10, and at one point hit 4 home runs in 4 consecutive plate appearances. A young hitter with prodigious power, Park was very much welcome on the power-starved team who finished with a disappointing 54-71 record, getting picked in the first round of the annual KBO Amateur Draft. However, at just 18 years old, Park struggled, hitting just .190/.265/.313 with 3 home runs. The LG Twins brought him back in '06, but he fared even worse, hitting a measly .162 before he went on military leave, a requirement for all Korean men of that age. Three years later, he resurfaced with the club, but the time off did not do him any good. In 2009, although he hit 9 home runs, he batted just .218, and did even worse in 2010, hitting an extremely disappointing .188. To the LG Twins, who so excitedly bought into the hype and power of the young slugger, he was beginning to seem like a major disappointment. After yet another disappointing start to the 2011 season, hitting .125 in his first 15 games, the LG Twins decided they had enough. They packaged him and swingman Soo-chang Shim to acquire dominant reliever Sin-young Song from the Nexen Heroes, who provided an immediate impact for the Twins. He pitched to the tune of a 1.99 ERA and became one of the bright spots in another struggle-filled season for LG. But Park and the Nexen Heroes got the last laugh. The change of scenery paid off, as Park fixed whatever problems he had and took off for the Heroes. He batted .265/.357/.535 with 12 home runs in 2011, before establishing himself as one of the premier KBO bats in 2012. He hit 31 home runs in 2012, 37 in '13, winning the league MVP both years in addition to the aforementioned combined 105 home runs in '14 and '15, leading him up to where he stands today, as a national celebrity in Korea and the possibility of coming stateside to the MLB.
This is a compilation of his home runs in his 5 years with Nexen, many of which were absolute moonshots:
At the conclusion of the 2015 KBO season, the Nexen Heroes have posted Byung-ho Park, and the Minnesota Twins put up the winning bid at $12.85 million. Rumor has it that, while not publicly available, his batted-ball exit velocities are right up there with the top talents in the MLB, ranking with the likes of Giancarlo Stanton, Randal Grichuk, and Paul Goldschmidt. His power has been said to be an 80-grade, and while that may be an exaggeration, there is no doubt that Park is one of the best power bats available on the open market, as evidenced by this 522 foot bomb (note the scouts reaction).
Of course, Park is not without his faults. Even in the KBO, whose equivalent is likely the Double-A level, he struck out 161 times in 140 games in 2015. His swing is simple with a bat plane that will generate lots of fly balls, leading to lots of home runs, but against more advanced pitching the uppercut may be exposed. The load in his swing is slightly unorthodox compared to most Americans, but his main components such as his weight transfer, hip rotation, and hands all look reasonably solid. As a first baseman, he is a solid defender with surprising athleticism and is not your typical lumbering, mashing first baseman. He has a 20 stolen base season under his belt and did take 10 bags this year compared to just 3 times caught stealing. However, unlike fellow country-mate Jung-Ho Kang, he will not have the same leash that some other players may have as he does not play a premium position like shortstop. His value is solely tied to his bat and power at first base, but expect him to produce. A good big league comparison would be Mike Napoli, another power right handed bat who plays decent defense at first. (Napoli, by the way, was a Gold Glove finalist at first base. While he likely isn't that good defensively, he certainly is no slouch with the glove.) If Minnesota gets the deal done, expect Park to hit around .235/.310/.440 with 25 home runs in his first big league year and being a contributor to an offensively sound Twins ball club. 

Here is a bonus video of Park hitting a 475 foot moonshot over the batter's eye to his own catchy theme song:

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Young and Controllable Talent: Breaking Down the Karns for Miller Trade

On Thursday, November 6th, the Tampa Bay Rays dealt Nate Karns, along with C.J. Riefenhauser and Boog Powell, to the Seattle Mariners for Brad Miller, Danny Farquhar, and Logan Morrison. Aside from being the first trade in what will sure be an exciting 2015-2016 offseason, this trade holds significance as an exchange of young, controllable talent. Karns is coming off his rookie season and will not be free agent eligible until 2021, and Miller, a shortstop/outfielder, is under contract through 2020. Rarely are two solid, young players who have yet to hit their peak dealt for each other, but this trade falls under special circumstances. As a right handed starting pitcher with above average stuff, Karns was an extra arm in a Tampa Bay rotation that features Chris ArcherJake Odorizzi, and Alex Cobb once he returns from Tommy John surgery on his elbow. Brad Miller is a solid player in his own right, although he has been passed on the depth chart and in favor of the Seattle front office by up-and-coming shortstop Ketel Marte, and would be an expendable piece in a fairly solid lineup. Both players were replaceable yet talented pieces that did not fit in future plans for their original organizations.

Brad Miller has long been considered a breakout candidate for both fans and front office personnel alike. He possesses tremendous bat speed that translates to very high exit velocities off the bat. The hard contact leads to 15-20 home run pop now, and as he hits his prime could become even more than that. His walk rate, at 9.5%, has improved in each of his years in the big leagues and was consistently over 11% in the minors. The combination of patience, power, and touch of speed (13 stolen bases in 2015) make him a potential offensive threat. While Seattle has seemingly given up on Miller at shortstop due to excess of errors, Tampa Bay is willing to give him another shot to play at a premium position, and advanced metrics like UZR still think of him as a slightly above average defender at short. The Mariners have also had him play outfield to increase versatility and usefulness, although he struggled mightily defensively. The Rays received a talented bat primed for breakout that they will need to figure out defensively, but as a lefty, offensively skilled middle infielder, the rewards could be huge. Even in 2014, his worst season so far in his young career, he has been able to change the game with his bat, speed, and glove with plays like these: 

Danny Farquhar and Logan Morrison are two other pieces that fell out of Seattle's favor following mediocre 2015 campaigns. Farquhar was brilliant in 2014, with 10.3 K/9 and just 2.8 BB/9 for a strong 2.66 ERA that solidified the back end of the Mariners bullpen. However, he struggled to replicate that success. His fastball velocity dropped, and along with it his strikeout rate and effectiveness. His walks rose and so did the fly balls, leading to a career high in home runs given up. His ERA and FIP both went up, at 5.12 and 4.60, respectively. However, if there is any team that can reinvent relievers and make them good again, it's the Tampa Bay Rays and renowned pitching coach Jim Hickey. Morrison, a former top Marlins prospect, has yet to fully tap into the potential he once had, but now at age 28 he has settled in as a decent hitter who can provide some left handed power. Against right-handers, he hit well, with a .244/.323/.444 slash line and all 17 of his home runs, but he was abysmal against lefties, hitting just .190 with nonexistent power. He struggled defensively as well, but will likely provide the Rays with some pop to replace or play alongside incumbent James Loney.

Nate Karns, a big right hander with top-notch stuff, should slot in nicely in the Seattle rotation behind the likes of Felix Hernandez and James Paxton. He has a hard, 92-96 mph fastball that has good movement as well as a filthy knucke-curve and usable changeup. A big part of his success this season was mixing in all three of his pitches effectively instead of relying on the hard fastball, and it showed with his 3.67 ERA and an 8.9 K/9 that, if qualified, would rank 7th in the American League behind David Price. He had injury issues as a prospect in the Nationals system, but has semingly moved past that and his 6'3'' 230 lbs. frame should be durable for the Mariners this season. Here is a video of his first start as a Ray, using his fastball effectively to the tune of eight strikeouts.

C.J. Riefenhauser and Boog Powell are two prospects that could make an impact in Seattle in 2016. Powell is an on-base machine, drawing walks and spraying hits all around the field. After putting up very impressive numbers in the A's system in 2014, they dealt him to Tampa Bay, and he hit well in AA and AAA combined. Powell slashed .295/.385/.392, putting his elite on-base skills on display adding on to his solid defense. His biggest weakness however, is that despite his speed, he is not a very successful base-stealer. In 2014, he had a success rate of just 51.6% before improving ever so slightly to a 56.3%. He must tighten up his efficiency to become a base-running threat that will be respected by pitchers and catchers in the major leagues, but at the very least his bat and glove will carry him there. Riefenhauser is a left handed reliever who has struggled in his brief big league trials, but is deserving of a larger role going into next season. He has consistently posted strong strikeout rates in the minors, a testament to his above average slider that can put hitters away. His fastball only sits in the high 80's however, so expect him to be a solid LOOGY at best.
Here is a video of Boog Powell taking batting practice, courtesy of FanGraphs:

Overall, this was a balanced deal that filled holes on both rosters with young talent that were blocked in their original organizations. Trades like these are rare but could pay giant dividends for both teams if these players reach their full potentials.