Sunday, March 01, 2015

Prospecting on a Lazy Sunday: Intro and #30-26

Photo credit: Al Ciammaichella
It’s finally that time of year again. Spring training is underway in earnest, players are in the Best Shape of their Lives™, and my prospect countdown is finally ready for press. As always, it’s a massive labor of love that I’m going to remember much more fondly now that it’s done. I put a ton of work into this every year, and hopefully you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoy writing it. I’m publishing the countdown with a bit of a heavy heart this year, as 2015 is going to be the first year this decade that I’m not making my usual pilgrimage to Goodyear for spring training. A combination of work schedule and other factors outside of my control conspired against me this spring, and I’m hoping to restart the tradition in the spring of 2016. So I’m living vicariously through those of you who are headed for the sunny skies of Arizona, and anxiously planning my minor league schedule for this season. I’m going to get to see Lynchburg (the Indians new high-A Carolina League affiliate) for opening day as they take on Lucas Giolio and the Potomac Nationals, so that takes a little of the sting out of missing Arizona.

The Indians have a solid system with some high-end talent and nice depth. There are 20-25 players who have major league futures, and there are a couple of potential all-stars as well. Four 2014 draftees made the list, with another coming in on the “just missed” section. The 2014 draft was extremely well-regarded throughout the baseball community, as independent talent evaluators like ESPN’s Keith Law ranked the Indians as having the best draft in baseball last year. It was a nice influx of talent, and the Indians made the most of their two extra picks (one as compensation for losing Ubaldo Jimenez and one awarded through the competitive balance lottery). When you account for the recent graduations of players like Jose Ramirez, Trevor Bauer, Danny Salazar and T.J. House, it’s easy to be encouraged by the Indians collection of young talent across the entire organization.

As you’re going to see over the next week, the Indians are stocked with up the middle talent. The top four players (and six of the top ten) in the organization play in the center of the diamond, whether it’s at SS, CF or behind the plate. It’s a lot easier to move a player from an up the middle position to a corner than the other way around, so that’s an encouraging aspect of the system. The Indians are still short on impact SP talent, as only two of the top ten players on my list are starting pitchers. There are a slew of arms in the back-half of the list, guys who are either too young to project into the rotation or who’s stuff still leaves questions as to their future role.

One new rule for this year’s list; no one with major league experience is going to appear in my countdown. Usually, I’d include players who remain under the Rookie of the Year thresholds (50 IP/130 AB) here, but I decided not to spend my time writing up guys you’ve already seen for yourself. The way I see it, you don’t need me to tell you that Austin Adams is a potential impact bullpen arm, or that Roberto Perez is an incredible defender who can also stick a little. You’ve already seen those guys perform in Cleveland, and are likely to see them again very soon in 2015. I’d much rather spend time telling you about guys like Dylan Baker, Eric Haase and Tony Wolters. Players who you probably haven’t seen too much of, but that I’ve seen play several times and can hopefully offer some interesting and valuable insight into. If you really want to hear what I think about Roberto Perez, you can check out last year’s list, or read through my twitter feed (hint: I love him). There will be none of my ranting about how Jesus Aguilar still can’t hit (or lay off) sliders in the dirt, at least not in this countdown.

I kept the list to 30 this year, but there are plenty of other players in the Indians system that are worth watching. They’re going to run five at a time starting today, so we’ll wrap it up this Friday. But before we get into our first installment, here are some other guys in the org I like or are still worth keeping an eye on this year but didn’t write up. Call it the “just missed” list(in no particular order): Sam Hentges, Jordan Cooper, Jordan Smith, Dace Kime, Bryson Myles, Jeff Johnson, Joe Colon and Trey Haley.

Photo Credit: Al Ciammaichella
30. Kieran Lovegrove, RHP
DOB: 7/28/1994
Height/Weight: 6’4”, 185 lb.
Bats/Throws: Right/Right
Acquired: 3rd round pick in the 2012 MLB draft
2014 Stats: 2-2 with a 3.90 ERA, 14 K and 23 BB in 30 IP for the short-season Mahoning Valley Scrappers

Scouting Report: Lovegrove got off to a slow start last year, being held down in extended spring training after coming down with a case of the yips in March of 2014. Lovegrove went through a month or so where he simply had no idea where his fastball was going, a nightmare scenario for any pitcher. It was more of a mental issue than a physical one, and Lovegrove was able to work through it in Arizona and make his way to Mahoning Valley as a member of the Scrappers rotation. Once in the NYPL, Lovegrove’s season was a tale of two months. In June, he struggled again with his control and had a 10.38 ERA in his three starts, walking 10 batters in just 8 2/3’s innings. July was a different story, as Lovegrove posted a 1.27 ERA in 5 starts, walking “just” 13 in 21 1/3 innings with 12 strikeouts. It was a roller-coaster year for the young righty from South Africa, and Lovegrove is going to need to be much more consistent in 2015.

On the mound, Lovegrove throws a fastball, slider and changeup. The fastball sits in the 91-94 MPH range and can touch 97. Since signing with the Indians, Lovegrove has really worked to leverage his lower half better, and it’s helped him add several ticks on his fastball from where it was in high school. The mechanical tweaks could also be what’s holding back his command, as it generally takes some time to get used to alterations in a pitcher’s motion and build back the muscle memory needed to repeat his delivery consistently. The slider is Lovegrove’s best offspeed pitch, flashing plus and showing sharp, late life. Lovegrove has really concentrated on developing his changeup over the past two seasons, and the pitch has shown a great deal of development. Lovegrove was actually throwing his changeup and slider last season when his fastball command deserted him, which is the inverse of how young pitchers usually develop.

When he was still in high school, Lovegrove co-founded a charity, the Going to Bat Foundation. Through the foundation, Lovegrove helps provide balls, bats and other baseball equipment to disadvantaged youths throughout America and Africa. That’s an impressive thing for a high school kid to do, and shows advanced maturity for a teenager. He's also pitched internationally for Team South Africa in the preliminary rounds of the World Baseball Classic, getting a chance to play with and against guys much older and more experienced than him. Lovegrove has outstanding makeup and his attitude on and off the baseball field will help him maximize his tools and reach his ultimate potential on the mound. It’s part of why I’m still a believer in him even after a rough 2014 season, as I think he has both the mental and physical tools to bounce back and re-establish himself as a legitimate prospect in short order.

Lovegrove is coming off of a tough season, but I’m still a believer in his future potential. He’ll play most of the 2015 season as a 20-year old, and should start off in low-A Lake County. So he’s still on a normal developmental timetable, despite not pitching in full-season ball since he was drafted in 2012. He has a chance to have three legitimate major league offerings, and provided his issues with fastball command were an aberration and not a trend, he’s still a starter as far as I’m concerned. His mental toughness and makeup are off the charts, and I think he can bounce back with a successful 2015. I’m not ready to call this year make-or-break for Lovegrove, but I’m definitely going to look for improvement in the full-season Midwest League. There’s a big gap between Lovegrove’s performance and his potential right now, and this year needs to show that he’s narrowed that gap.

Glass half-full: A #3/4 starter in a major league rotation
Glass half-empty: A minor league washout

Photo Credit: Al Ciammaichella
29. Ronny Rodriguez, INF
DOB: 4/17/1991
Height/Weight: 6’0”, 170 lb.
Bats/Throws: Right/Right
Acquired: International free agent signed in 2011
2014 Stats: .228/.270/.324 with 5 HR and 34 RBI in 118 games with AA Akron

Scouting Report: Rodriguez has his worst professional season in 2014, posting just a .594 OPS while shuffling all over the diamond defensively for AA Akron. Heading into 2014, Rodriguez was primarily a shortstop, but in the crowded middle infield at AA Akron, he bounced around at all four infield positions. Rodriguez appeared in just 8 games at short last year, spending most of his time at 2B (45 games) and making his debut at 3B (40 games) and even 1B (23 games). Rodriguez had never fielded a chance at a corner infield spot before last season, so he was understandably uncomfortable while trying to adjust to the new positions.

At the plate, Rodriguez has surprising pop for his size, especially to the pull side. He has loose hands and a quick bat, but gets too pull-happy at times. He hit a career-high 19 HR in 2012 with high-A Carolina, but has combined to hit just 10 HR since in two seasons in AA Akron. Rodriguez can get caught lunging for balls on (or off) the outside part of the plate, and needs to do a better job sitting back and driving those pitches to the opposite field. His hit tool is below-average, and not improving with reps the way I’d hoped it would. He’s still very susceptible to breaking balls down and out of the strike zone, particularly sliders. He swings at too many bad pitches, and his K/BB rate has remained stagnant from year to year. Rodriguez struck out 92 times against just 25 BB last year while repeating AA after a 79 K/19 BB season in 2013. One thing I look for in evaluating players, regardless of age, is whether or not they can improve when repeating a level and Rodriguez had a worse 2014 in every way possible.

Defensively, Rodriguez is an average shortstop in a system with several really good defensive shortstops. He has an above-average arm and decent range, allowing him to make plays deep in the hole at short. But his defense lags behind that of Francisco Lindor, Erik Gonzalez and Jose Ramirez, so the Indians needed to find a home for him somewhere else on the infield. He’s a decent 2B, but blocked there as well. I haven’t seen him play 3B or 1B, but his arm and athleticism should work well at either position.

Rodriguez has been one of my favorite players in the organization for several years now. He’s a guy that loves to play the game of baseball, and he’s a lot of fun to watch. But he’s struggled to make the necessary adjustments at the plate these past two seasons, and sliders in the dirt have been the death of him. Rodriguez has a tantalizing package of raw tools, but his hit tool is holding him back behind several other middle infield prospects in the org right now. There’s still a chance that Rodriguez figures it out, but that chance gets slimmer and slimmer every season that he doesn’t show marked improvement at the plate. If Rodriguez has a 2015 similar to his 2014, he’ll be reduced to the ranks of the non-prospects.

Glass half-full: A utility infielder with some pop
Glass half-empty: His hit tool dooms him to a career in the minor leagues

Photo Credit: Al Ciammaichella
28. LeVon Washington, OF
DOB: 7/26/1991
Height/Weight: 5’11”, 170 lb.
Bats/Throws: Left/Right
Acquired: 2nd round pick in the 2010 MLB draft
2014 Stats: .294/.402/.393 with 4 HR and 28 RBI in 70 games for high-A Carolina

Scouting Report: Washington is on this list because of his tools and athleticism, not because of his on-field production. The man they call #WASHTIME has spent four full seasons in the Indians organization, but has appeared in just 223 games during that time. His career slash line is .286/.393/.407, and has hit 13 HR and stolen 40 bases during his professional career. It’s easy to lose track of how young Washington still is, because he was drafted out of a JuCo and feels like he’s been in the org forever. But Washington is still just 23 years old, and although it’s looking less and less likely with every injury, it’s still possible that he makes it to the major leagues and contributes for the Indians.

Washington’s calling card is his speed. He’s wiry and strong for his size, but has below-average power and doesn’t project to anything more than that. He should hit plenty of doubles and triples due to his speed, but will probably never hit double-digit HRs. He has an average hit tool and a solid approach, walking 45 times against 63 strikeouts last season. If he’s able to stay on the field, he could be a .290/.380/.425 guy at his peak, but that just hasn’t happened so far in his career.

In the field, Washington has the tools to play CF, but spent all of 2014 in LF. He’s up against guys like Clint Frazier, Tyler Naquin and Bradley Zimmer for playing time in CF, and all three of those guys have passed Washington on the organizational ladder. He doesn’t have the arm for RF, but should be able to be a Brantley-esque defender in LF. He still has above-average speed and an average arm. His arm got a lot of negative attention coming out of college, but Washington had surgery to repair a torn labrum and has worked hard to regain at least average arm strength in the OF.

Washington is going to be 24 at the end of July, and is starting to run out of chances in the Indians org. The raw tools and athleticism are there, but the on-field results need to match those tools at some point, and it simply hasn’t happened.  He’s such a frustrating talent, because when he’s good, he’s really good. I’ve seen him look like the best player on the field in spring training, spraying line drives all over the park, stretching doubles into triples, stealing bases and making outstanding defensive plays in CF. He’s a hard worker and clearly loves the game of baseball. But health is a skill too, and it’s a skill that Washington just doesn’t have for whatever reason. He’ll get a shot with AA Akron this year, but if he can’t at least crack that 100 game barrier, we could be looking at the end of WASHTIME in Cleveland.

Glass half-full: A 4th OF with speed
Glass half-empty: An injury-plagued minor league career

Photo Credit: Al Ciammaichella
27. Adam Plutko, RHP
DOB: 10/3/1991
Height/Weight: 6’3”, 195 lb.
Bats/Throws: Right/Right
Acquired: 11th round pick in the 2013 MLB draft
2014 Stats: 7-10 with a 4.03 ERA, 144 K and 30 BB in 149 2/3 IP between low-A Lake County and high-A Carolina

Scouting Report: Selected in the 11th round out of collegiate powerhouse UCLA, Plutko opened the 2014 season in the rotation for the Lake County Captains.  Considered an advanced arm coming out of college, Plutko pitched extremely well during his time in the Midwest League. He made 10 starts for the Captains, going 3-1 with a 3.93 ERA and striking out 66 hitters in just 52 2/3’s innings of work. His best start came on May 8, when he worked 8 innings shutout innings while allowing just 3 baserunners and striking out 13. Promoted to the high-A Carolina League just prior to Memorial Day, Plutko went on to make 28 starts for the Mudcats. He went 4-9 in Carolina with a 4.08 ERA, 78 K and 18 BB in 97 IP. It was a solid season all the way around for Plutko, and helped solidify his status as a legitimate back of the rotation SP prospect.

On the mound, Plutko has a deep arsenal, throwing a fastball, slider, curveball and changeup. The fastball is merely average, sitting in the 89-92 MPH range with a little bit of arm-side run. He spots the fastball early in the count and then uses his offspeed stuff to keep hitters off balance once he’s ahead of them. His changeup is consistently above-average and flashes plus, a nice offering with a lot of late fade. He does a really nice job with his arm speed to make the pitch more deceptive, and it’s usually 15 or so MPH slower than his fastball. He also throws a somewhat slurvy slider that’s slower than most sliders and doesn’t have the hard, late life you’d associate with a true swing and miss offering. His curveball is more of a show pitch that he uses to change the eye level on hitters, as it’s a big 12-6 breaker that’s not very deceptive. He works primarily off three pitch FB-CH-SL mix, and will throw all three at any point in the count.

Plutko is a good athlete and an intense competitor. He does a really nice job repeating his delivery and has impressive command and control in the strike zone. He has an excellent feel for pitching and does a nice job sequencing to keep hitters off balance and induce weak contact. He posted good strikeout numbers in 2014, but as he moves up the organizational ladder he’s going to be a guy who pitches to contact and lets his fielders do their thing. He has excellent makeup and work ethic, and is going to be a guy who gets the most out of his talent. He projects to be a classic innings-eating starter in the back-end of a major league rotation. He’s not a guy who’s going to be on any national top prospect countdowns, but he has a chance to be a valuable piece of a major league rotation. He reminds me of Josh Tomlin; a “crafty” righty without an overpowering fastball, but who will have excellent command and knows how to pitch. They’ll both give up their share of HR, but most will be solo shots and they’ll get plenty of flyball outs to go with them.

Glass half-full: A #4/5 starter in a major league rotation
Glass half-empty: Lack of a true strikeout pitch holds him back to middle relief

Photo Credit: Michael Hudson
26. Ryan Merritt, LHP
DOB: 2/21/1992
Height/Weight: 6’0”, 165 lb.
Bats/Throws: Left/Left
Acquired: 16th round pick in the 2011 MLB draft
2014 Stats: 13-3 with a 2.58 ERA, 127 K and 25 BB in 160 1/3 IP for high-A Carolina

Scouting Report: When it comes to on-field production, no pitcher in the Indians minor league system had a better season than Merritt. He led the Carolina League with 13 wins, and put up a sparkling 2.58 ERA. His 5.08 K/BB ratio was 2nd in the league among players with more than 15 starts. Merritt started the Carolina League All-Star Game, and was named the Indians Minor League Pitcher of the Year following the season. And to put a cherry on top of all that, he was added to the 40-man roster this winter to protect him from the Rule 5 Draft. All in all, it was about the best season the 23-year old southpaw could’ve hoped for, one that he’ll be looking to build on in 2015.

Merritt is a classic command and control lefty. He’s not overpowering by any means, but does a nice job spotting his fastball and inducing soft contact. The fastball sits in the high-80’s and is hittable when Merritt leaves it up in the zone. But that’s a rare occurrence, as he gave up just 1 HR every 13 1/3 IP last season, Merritt has an above-average changeup that flashes plus, and it’s that pitch that helped him find success in Carolina last season. He made real strides with the changeup last year, gaining consistency in both command and pitch performance. It has nice, late fade and really comes down and in hard on left handed hitters. He also throws a solid but unspectacular breaking ball, and refinement and development of that third pitch will help define Merritt’s future as a starter or reliever.

Merritt is a good athlete who repeats his delivery well, helping to keep his command sharp. He’s not going to overpower hitters, but does a nice job with his sequencing to keep hitters off balance. He’s a deceptive pitcher, changing the eye level, pitch speed, and location on hitters in every at bat. He’s not going to be ready to start in the major leagues anytime soon, but the Indians rostered him this offseason in case another team decided to take a flyer and turn him into a two-pitch reliever or swingman out of the bullpen. Lefties who can throw strikes are valuable assets who can have long and productive major league careers (see Orosco, Jesse), and Merritt could at least be a bullpen arm down the road. He held same-siders to a paltry .197/.236/.308 line last year, showing that he at least has that LOOGY potential. But he’ll start for as long as he can, and open the season in the AA Akron rotation. The hitter-friendly Eastern League will be a tougher test for Merritt, and hopefully he won’t scuffle in AA the way the 2013 Indians Minor League Pitcher of the Year (Cody Anderson) did.

Glass half-full: A soft-tossing back of the rotation starter

Glass half-empty: A soft-tossing lefty reliever 

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Looking forward to a long summer of lazy Sundays