Saturday, February 20, 2016

Road to the Show: Top Draft-Elgible College Catchers

Catcher offense has never been too high at the major league level, as the position is commonly associated with being the brains of the operation, doing subtle things to help win ballgames such as calling pitches and framing them. Defense is the first priority for catchers, and any hitting is a plus that is very much appreciated. Most draft classes do not offer much in the way of offensive-minded catchers anymore, but this year is a little different. As with most other years, there is not a huge abundance of high upside catchers available in the first round, but two college catchers stand out from the rest: Chris Okey and Zack Collins.

Chris Okey, Clemson University
Okey is a very special catcher as he does not possess the typical stocky build that catchers have, and he has an above average speed tool that most others don't. His athleticism could also allow him to play second base or left field, which is very valuable for all teams to have, as a catcher who can play multiple positions widens the options off the bench. While Okey does not have a big cannon of an arm, he combines a quick transfer and strong release to have a very fast pop time, helping him be well above average at throwing runners out. He also rates above average at blocking and framing, making him one of the most sound and complete defensive catchers in college baseball. His defense sets him apart from other catching prospects, but the bat is what really pulls him away from the competition. After hitting a decent but underwhelming .248/.311/.350 in his freshman year, Okey broke out last season, bashing 12 HRs and slashing .315/.389/.545 in all 61 of team games. The crouched stance at the plate and average bat speed likely limits his power, but his ceiling could be 10-15 HRs annually in the majors. He does have good bat-to-ball skills though, so he should be able to hit for a high average. Something like .280/.340/.430 is a reasonable ceiling for the durable Chris Okey, who has played in all 122 games of his college career. A big league comparison for an absolute best case scenario would be Milwaukee's Jonathan Lucroy, whose package of solid offense and outstanding defense make him one of the best catchers in baseball. Chris Okey should be a mid-to-late first rounder in June, but a big spring and some team in need of some catching talent in their farm system could reach for him earlier.

Zack Collins, University of Miami
Collins can straight up mash. One of the best hitters in college baseball the last two years, he posted a very strong .983 OPS in his freshman year before following it up with an even more insane 1.032 OPS in 2015. He has a very strong lower body that generates lots of power, making him a potential threat for 25-30 HRs perenially in the major leagues. He gets good loft in his swing that will produce hard flyballs, and he can really pull the ball with authority. He could use a little work with exploding his hips a little more and the swing can get long at times, but usually he can keep his hands in and drive inside pitches out to right field. Collins will definitely be a capable bat at the next level even if he strikes out a bit too much, but he is patient enough to draw some walks too so it should balance out. His issues are mostly on the defensive side, as many scouts don't think his big body will be able to stick behind the plate. He has a slow pop time and is below average at blocking and receiving, so his defensive chops will need a lot more work. If not, he should transition seamlessly to first base, and his bat will probably play there, but his offensive production would be very welcome behind the plate. Zack Collins reminds me a lot of Kyle Schwarber, and if a team falls in love with his bat the way the Cubs fell for Schwarber, he could go much higher in the draft than expected, but for right now Collins looks like a mid-to-late first rounder as well.

Friday, February 19, 2016

The Cuban Fearsome Foursome: Lazarito, Morejon, Ona, Gurriel Jr.

Cuba has long been a pipeline for major league talent, starting from the days of Orlando Hernandez to Yoenis Cespedes and Jose Abreu. While teams are intrigued by professional members of the Serie Nacional, Cuba's top pro league, such as Yulieski Gurriel and Luis Yander La O, four young Cubans, all July 2 prospects, have some of the highest upsides out of any free agents on the market today.

Any international player who is under the age of 23 or has less than 5 years of experience in a foreign league are subject to the international bonus pool, which means teams are only allowed to spend a certain amount on a young player, as to avoid the complications of making 16 year olds too rich, too quick. These are called July 2 prospects, where each team is allowed to spend a certain amount of money each year after July 2, and exceeding these limits will face penalties. The four prospects covered in this article all fall under this category, and like many young players scouts love to dream on, the sky is the limit for each of them.

Lazaro Armenteros, OF (16 years old)
Given the one-named moniker "Lazarito", Armenteros has been hyped as a Cuban Bryce Harper, a 16 year old baseball prodigy who has great physical tools and a can't miss prospect in the big leagues. While there was much anticipation for his first workout, scouts came away with mixed feelings about Armenteros. He is very built, at 6'2'' 205 lbs, and with good foot speed as well, a 65 grade run tool. According to various sources, some scouts were very impressed with his arm yet some felt it was "fringy-average". Some scouts loved the power and bat speed yet some were concerned with his swing and bat path. Some scouts loved the muscular body size yet others were concerned with him filling out several years down the road. Yet he doesn't have much of a track record in Cuba either, except for the tournament in the video; he did not play on the 12U team that competed in Taiwan that starred Adrian Morejon, covered below, and fellow defectee Jonatan Machado. He was a relative unknown until his recent boom and media coverage. While Baseball America notes that he is one of the top prospects in his age group in Cuba, which is obvious, there is not much info on Armenteros at all, save for his .462 batting average at the above tournament. His swing looks choppy, with a weird stride and load, and if he really is "the Cuban Bryce Harper", I would a expect a lot more than what he does in the video against inferior baseball teams, where the outfielders ran terrible routes to his fly balls, and he seemed slightly overmatched in his swing against Venezuela, Chinese Taipei, and even Panama. He is a polarizing prospect, with some scouts, including a Japanese team willing to offer him $15 million to play in the NPB right now, loving his tools, to some seeing an underwhelming yet athletic body. While he is just 16 and there is plenty of time to iron out the kinks, someone will eventually bite the bullet and pay a premium price for what seems to be just an athletic, raw kid who oozes potential but has problems to fix.

Adrian Morejon, LHP (16 years old) (video)
Unlike Armenteros, Morejon is a known commodity to scouts. Named the Tournament MVP in the same tournament Armenteros starred in, Morejon has pitched in the 15U league, 15U national team, 18U league, Sub-23 league (development for players under 23), and even six starts as a 16 year old in the Serie Nacional against players 10-20 years older. The first exposure to scouts was in the 12U tournament held in 2011 in Taiwan, which I got to watch on a summer trip. He stood out from all the competition, not because of his size (he was pretty small back then, but is around 6 feet tall now) or velocity, but because of his advanced pitchability that was head and shoulders above all the other 12 year olds. I remember the way he mixed his pitches to near perfection, and I remember thinking, what a shame he is Cuban, he could be a sure-fire major leaguer if he was American. Sure enough, he has defected, and major league teams are chasing hard after Morejon, especially the Padres, who are rumored to be the favorites to sign him and Jorge Ona. Morejon throws a fastball in the high-80's, low 90's, capable of reaching 94, and he is just 16 with room to grow. His curveball has great depth, and his feel for it is well beyond his years. His arm action and mechanics are very clean and repeatable, which should help maintain his health and development of all his pitches. Expect him to gain velocity throughout the years, and while it may be an irrational prospect crush, I think that given time Adrian Morejon will become one of the top pitchers in all of baseball.

Jorge Ona, OF (19 years old)
Ona is favored to sign with the Padres with Morejon, and if he does, San Diego should have a powerful 5-tool outfielder on their hands. The 19 year old has power to all fields as well as a compact swing and cannon of an arm in right field. He was ranked by Baseball America as the #6 prospect in all of Cuba, even though he is so young and barely has any experience in the Serie Nacional. His swing is balanced, without any extra movements or quirky twitches like Armenteros, and in the video above it seems that he taps into his power more often. He is facing weaker competition (Ecuador, Guatemala), but Ona does exactly what you are supposed to do against weaker pitching: wait, sit on the right pitch, and drive it. At 19 years old, he is a bit better developed, so I wouldn't be surprised to see him start in A-ball once he comes stateside, and with his advanced hitting approach, quick swing and plus power, it wouldn't be surprising to see him climb quickly through a farm system.

Lourdes Gurriel Jr., UTIL (22 years old)
The oldest and most experienced of the bunch, Gurriel Jr. is the younger brother and defected with Cuban star Yulieski Gurriel, who will certainly sign a big major league contract. Lourdes, however, is just 22 and will be subject to bonus pool rules unless he waits until October to sign, when he turns 23, but by then he'd miss an entire season of development. Gurriel has an explosive swing, one that could eventually produce a .270/.330/.450 line in the majors. He has power to all fields, has progressed with the bat year by year, and shows a bit of patience as well. He is a fluid athlete with good speed, and he should be able to handle shortstop in the major leagues, although some scouts doubt it due to his size. He also has experience at every position other than pitcher and catcher, so an athlete who can play each position well and hit at the level Gurriel Jr. is capable of is quite rare. Throw in the fact the Lourdes can steal some bags as well, he is as close to being a complete package as any player in baseball. While the Ben Zobrist comparison gets thrown out to any utility guy who can hit/draw walks, Gurriel could provide defensive and offensive value that surpass what Zobrist could do in his prime. With his professional experience and age, especially if he waits until after his 23rd birthday to sign, expect Gurriel to initiate a huge bidding war, but for right now, like many other prospects, he is just a projectable dream of the future.

Monday, February 15, 2016

The Kenta Maeda Comparison

Los Angeles Dodgers/CBS Sports
Kenta Maeda, the Japanese ace who was posted by the Hiroshima Toyo Carp, recently signed an 8-year contract with the Dodgers in hopes of taking his talents to the States. While many Dodger fans are hoping he becomes the second coming of Yu Darvish or Masahiro Tanaka, the small right-hander does not come with same kind of hype, pure stuff, or gaudy numbers that the other two posted in the NPB, the highest level of pro ball in Japan. Maeda throws a low-90's fastball, to go with a cutter, sinker, slider, curve and changeup, and according to this article by Fangraphs, his off-speed stuff could very well be some of the best in baseball. It compares the movement on his slider to Giants reliever Sergio Romo, who relies on the slider as his bread and butter for getting K's, and the changeup to Phillies starter Aaron Nola, a young up-and-comer whose changeup is his best pitch. While many other sources will continue throwing out big name comps for the unknown commodity of Kenta Maeda, we will focus on another small right-handed starter as the ultimate comparison: Cardinals right hander Mike Leake.

Standing in at 6'0'', 154 lbs, Maeda's size does not exactly strike fear in opposing batters, neither does he tower over his teammates on the mound. But as the game of baseball shows, you don't need to be a certain height or weight to succeed, and a prime example is the undersized Mike Leake, who is just 5'10'' 190 lbs himself. Without very much height, it is difficult to generate elite velocity, and many of the shorter right handed pitchers succeed off of their wide pitch arsenal, as Leake and Maeda both throw 6 different pitches. Leake's repertoire consists of a low 90's fastball that sits around 88-92, faster on the four-seamer and a touch slower on the cutter, which he threw much more often in 2015, as well as a two-seam sinker that he threw the most, which was somehow faster than the four-seam. His two breaking balls are the curveball and the slider, both of which are above-average pitches, with his changeup as the only offering that was rated below-average in 2015. None of these 6 pitches generate too many swings and misses, but Leake is a ground ball machine, with a career 1.74 GB/FB ratio but just a 6.1 K/9 that was as low as 5.6 last season. 

Maeda's contact profile is similar, with just a 7.4 K/9 in Japan that likely will not translate against better competition. His fastball sits in a similar range as Leake, in the high 80's, low 90's and scraping 94 at times, and he can make it sink or cut as well, all within the same range. His primary breaking ball is the slider, which he throws around 81 mph, which is also the same velocity that Leake throws his slider. Maeda also throws another variation of his slider that many call a slow curve since he throws it much slower (around 72 mph) but it really is just a looser version of the same pitch. However, his best offspeed pitch might be the changeup, which he recently developed. It sits in the low-to-mid 80's and has very good tail and drop on his arm-side. (Click on the square below, if it doesn't work it comes from this link to a tweet from Baseball America's Ben Badler.)
The two right-handers also show very similar deliveries. Even though Maeda has the traditional Asian delivery where he pauses in his balance point, both of them share a pretty good stride length, with Maeda's being a bit farther simply because of his height. Leake does a sort of semi-circle with his stride while Maeda is more of a direct kick, but they end up with the same result. Their arm angles are similar as well, as shown below.
Both pitchers commanded big contracts in the off season, with Leake signing for 5 years, $75 million with the Cardinals and Maeda an incentive-laden 8 year deal with the Dodgers. Leake is obviously the more known commodity, with the Cards paying for his durability, consistency, and his ability to post an ERA under 4 while eating up 180 quality innings. While Maeda does have injury concerns, he should profile similarly to Leake, being a solid #3/4 starter who can throw strikes and induce weak contact, and that is what Los Angeles will be hoping from their new Japanese sensation.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

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

As we near the beginning of the 2016 college baseball season, fans will be treated to the rises of some surprise players that will jump onto the national scene. Some will be freshman, the next crop of college baseball heroes and superstars. Who will be this year's J.J. Schwarz? The next Alex Lange? Others will be draft-eligible juniors who will shoot up draft boards, much like Andrew Benintendi last season. While we will eventually discover these breakout talents and cover them in future posts, today we will discuss the top two college arms in this year's draft, right-hander Alec Hansen of Oklahoma and University of Florida's A.J. Puk. This will be the second piece in Baseball MTJAG's draft coverage, the first of which covered the top two high school arms, which can be found here.

RHP Alec Hansen, University of Oklahoma
The first thing that stands out about Hansen is his size. He towers on the mound at 6'7'', and his over-the-top delivery gives his fastball a good downward plane. The overpowering fastball is his primary pitch, sitting in the 95-97 mph range and can reach triple digits, he blows the pitch by many college hitters, as evidenced by his 10.32 K/9 in 2015. The fastball is a true plus pitch, with scouts putting a 70, or even a 75 grade on it, and with that arm angle it is a very difficult pitch to catch up to. Scouts also like his slider, thrown at 85-87 with a nice tight break, as well as a 75-80 mph curveball that has good downward movement. As shown in his start against Texas this season (video below), even if those two breaking pitches are graded as plus, he doesn't throw them very often and prefers to live on his hard, four-seam fastball. The reliance on his big fastball has worked in college, but if he does not sharpen them up, pro hitters will eventually find a way to hit that pitch, especially with his below average command/control. While his fastball has gotten him high strikeout numbers in college, his inability to locate has held him back from being a great college pitcher and may stunt his development as a pro. His numbers have been short of stellar, as evidenced by the 3.95 ERA, 1.45 WHIP, and 4.83 BB/9. One reason for his command troubles may be his mechanics, which by being so tall he doesn't repeat very well. Often times the upper body moves forward before his lower body, leading to bad posture and occasionally moments where he looks like this:
As you may have guessed, it is quite difficult to throw strikes like that. He could use a bit more work on cleaning up his delivery and focusing on the follow through and bringing his back leg off the ground, as well as finishing more straight towards the plate instead of off to the left. Another way to have more effective pitch tunneling and spike strikeout numbers would be to use the 12-6 curve more often than the slider. With his delivery, it would make more sense to have a power curve that plays off the fastball than a slider, which would be an easier read out of the hand for the batter. An up-and-down moving pitch would be harder to react to than a side-to-side from an over-the-top guy like Hansen, so that could be a change of pitch selection he'd like to make since both breaking pitches are ranked as plus by scouts anyway. With his size, stuff, control issues, and lack of a defined follow through leg kick, Hansen reminds me of Ubaldo Jimenez, who given all his issues still became a solid starter in the big leagues and even had a couple ace-like seasons. If Hansen could make the proper adjustments with his command, mechanics, and pitch selection, he could be primed for a big year with Oklahoma, and have a shot at being taken first overall this June. 
Here is a video of his start against Texas, a program known for being scrappy and disciplined, in the spring of 2015. He would go on to throw 5.1 innings, walk 5, and strike out 5 while giving up 4 runs, all earned.

LHP A.J. Puk, University of Florida
A two-way player out of high school, Puk offers a strong left arm that can run a fastball up to the high-90's with a plus slurve and solid changeup. Like Hansen, he is 6'7'', and like Hansen, he also has command wobbles. However, Puk has had more success and a better track record against advanced competition, as he has thrown for Team USA and started for two years in the SEC whereas Hansen threw just 11 innings his freshman year at Oklahoma. Puk's fastball has very good velocity and some good movement as well, sitting 93-97 and can reach 98. His curveball is more like a slurve, it doesn't have great definition or sharp break/tilt, but it has good 2-8 movement and some depth to its curve. It plays off well from his fastball, and coming from the same pitch tunnel. He also throws a changeup that has the making of a plus pitch, and he's not afraid to throw any pitch in any count. By mixing and matching all three pitches effectively, Puk has dominated college competition to a 12.0 K/9 and 1.21 WHIP. While the 3.81 ERA is a tad high, it certainly isn't terrible, and his stuff bodes well for a transition to pro ball. His mechanics are pretty clean and he seems comfortable throwing with his big frame and all body parts in sync. He gets very good drive and explosion from his hips and lower body, which contributes to his high velocity. However, sometimes he overdoes it and flies open, yanking the ball into the dirt glove-side. He had a bit of trouble with this at Florida early on, but as he was pitching for Team USA and he was exposed to higher competition and more advanced coaching, he has controlled that a bit better and was able to dominate in his start against Cuba. Once the college season is underway, we will get to see if he has sharpened his command, and if he has, the rest of the SEC better watch out. Puk reminds me of Braves prospect Sean Newcomb, another big lefty with good velo, offspeed, and clean mechanics but still has command issues. Newcomb went off the board at 15th overall back in 2014, and Puk has a better track record and experience against higher competition, so watch for Puk to come off the draft board early on Day 1.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Potential Free Agent Bargains Part 3: The Madsons

Before Ryan Madson signed a three-year $22 million dollar deal with the Oakland A's, he was one of the biggest free agent bargain signings in the 2014-2015 offseason. Having not thrown a major league pitch in 4 years, the Royals took a chance at rejuvenating the career of this power reliever coming off multiple arm injuries, and it paid off, with Madson being an integral part of a dominant Kansas City bullpen, and Madson parlayed the minor league deal into the biggest contract of his career. This article will be Part 3 in our attempt to scour the free agent market for bargain players (click here for Part 1 and Part 2), breaking down talented ballplayers who, because of injuries, are several years removed from prime production.

Bobby Parnell, RHP
What a rough recovery he's had coming back from Tommy John. After going under the knife in April of 2015, the hard-throwing right hander returned in the second half of 2015, only to struggle to a 6.38 ERA and walk more batters than he struck out. At the end of August, he went through a stretch of a 14.14 ERA in 10 games, he landed back on the DL with shoulder tendonitis, although it was more of a roster move necessity than an actual injury. Back in his prime, Parnell was able to blow 95 mph+ heat past hitters to go with his knuckle-curve that generated swings and misses as well. While he was down to averaging 93 mph last summer, he should be able to regain some of that old velocity being further removed from surgery and given a long offseason to rest. Under the right rehab and coaching circumstances, it would not be impossible to see Parnell return to his prior dominance as a righty set-up man who can strike out 8 per 9 and keep the walks down to a 2 BB/9 as well. The video below is a young Bobby Parnell throwing consistently in the upper 90's while also hitting 102. It may be unreasonable for him to return to that form, but the potential in that powerful right arm should be tempting chance for any team to take.

Jeff Beliveau, LHP (video)
Before he suffered a torn labrum in 2015, Jeff Beliveau had a breakout 2014 for the Tampa Bay Rays, posting a 2.63 ERA and 2.47 FIP with a 10.5 K/9 against a 2.6 BB/9. He was absolutely dominant against lefties, holding them to a .146 batting average. His fastball doesn't wow anyone at 89-91 mph, but he commands it very well and it complements his big curveball. His fastball can cut, sink, or tail, and he mixes in a changeup once in a while as well. The Orioles, who signed him to a minor league deal, will control him through the 2021 season, so it is a low-risk investment that may pay out big in the long run. Shoulder injuries are definitely a big red flag, but if he can make a full recovery, look for him to repeat his dominance from 2014 and maybe even get better with more experience. The Orioles already have Britton and Matusz as lefty relievers, but Beliveau may still emerge as a valuable left-handed relief option in their pen.

Cliff Lee, LHP
Lee, the 37-year-old former ace, has repeatedly stated that he would only sign given a "perfect fit". That would likely mean a team that has an open rotation spot and a chance to compete for the World Series this season. Coming off of a serious elbow injury that has caused him to miss some of 2014 and all of 2015, it is doubtful that he can make a full recovery and be the ace he once was, but Lee is one of the most respected and smart pitchers in the game. Far more than just a soft-tossing lefty, Lee can masterfully command a six-pitch mix, and even though his fastball will likely top out at just 90 mph now, with his knowledge, guile, and command he should still have several productive seasons left in the tank. Look for him to latch on to a contending team that needs rotation help, either now or maybe later in the season, but don't be surprised if he has called it quits and has already thrown the last pitch of a storybook career.

Cory Luebke, LHP
Andy Hayt/San Diego Padres

After a terrific rookie season back in 2011, where the 6'4'' left-hander posted 3.29 ERA, 2.92 FIP, and 9.9 K/9, Luebke, like many before him, succumbed to the long recovery from not one, but two Tommy John surgeries. He has not pitched in the big leagues since 2012, or thrown any professional pitches until tossing 7 rehab innings in 2015 that did not amount to anything. He will turn 31 in March, so he still has some upside remaining, but it will be a long shot. We will have to wait and see if he still has that low 90's fastball and sweeping slider, and whoever picks him up will have an intriguing project in their hands.

Carlos Quentin, OF (video)
Quentin, a former perennial 20 HR force in the heart of the White Sox order, called it quits after a rough 2014 and a short AAA stint with the Mariners early in 2015. Yet the Stanford alum is making a comeback, and at just 33 years old, is out to prove that he still has plenty of pop left in him. The Twins took a chance on his power, and for some very good reasons too. He has been productive since his debut in 2006 to 2013, where he slashed .275/.363/.495 and hit 13 HRs in just 85 games. But injuries hit him hard in 2014, and knee problems have plagued him for the last two years. When he announced his retirement, it seemed as if the knee injuries were career-ending, but he is now attempting a comeback and should be fully recovered. If so, he will add to the glut of Twins DH types, but his power would be very welcome in the Minnesota lineup in 2016.