Mariner Minors
Sunday, January 08, 2006
  M's Minor League Review, pt... 3? 4?

San Antonio. Movin' on up... Discussion still is partially here... And enjoy G's rant on the previous drafts (Edit: 10:13, and an extension of my own rant at Lookout Landing), because the 2001 class still leaves us with a bad taste four years later, especially considering the talent available.

Top Five Pitchers

Bobby Livingston: 9/3/1982, 6’3”, 195 lbs, LHP
8-4, 2.86 ERA in 116.1 IP, 103 hits (7 HR), 45 runs (37 ER), 78/27 K/BB
J: It’s another year gone by and another offseason where I don’t expect to see Bobby’s name on too many prospect lists. Such is the price you pay when you sacrifice a few MPH of velocity in favor of superior control, but if I’ve learned anything from years of watching this guy, it’s that it would be unwise to bet against him.

True, his velocity never jumped back to the 90 mph range it was in before they drafted him out of high school, and his low to mid-80s fastball isn’t going to earn him Best of Show honors any time soon, but it’s what he gets out of it that makes him standout. That “trick”, though near impossible to execute perfectly, is solid location and the ability to make a hitter hit his pitch. There’s another pitcher with the M’s who got by pretty well doing that, but the name escapes me now.

His secondary offerings are much the same as that guy as well, the best change-up in the system, which is quite effective in putting unwary hitters off-balance, and a curveball that has developed into a solid secondary offering in the past season. Such improvements in the face of adversity are part of what helped him to one of his best seasons to date in a league where more strikeout-reliant southpaws crumble under the pressure.

This was his biggest test to date, and he passed more than admirably. His lack of velocity will still allow him much less margin of error than some cannon-armed thrower who has no idea where it’s going, but he’s much more likely to continue to hone his craft and his knowledge and approach will be good to go almost immediately. What kind of pitcher he’ll turn out to be in the majors, be it in the back end of the rotation or something better, I don’t know, but I’ve learned over the years to not bet against him.

But G’s really the authority when it comes to B-Liv. He’ll tell you more…

G: I don’t know that I’d call myself an authority – just a really big fan. I just think there’s something special about this particular mid-80s throwing lefty. There are soft-tossers like Craig Anderson who burn brightly in the low minors and then fade out as they hit AA and beyond. There are ones like Ryan Franklin and John Halama, who have mastered the here-it-is, hit-it approach to pitching but can never make a player miss when it counts.

And then there’s the Bobby Livingston type.

He was Top 5 in the Cal League in ERA, WHIP, Wins, IP, and strikeouts in 2004, but this was The Year Bobby’s detractors were looking forward to. A-ball hitters and below have severe deficiencies when it comes to hitting the changeup, but AA hitters should start pounding any non-ML-quality offerings. Changeup artists who just dump the pitch over the plate are uncovered as frauds here, so this was the level Bobby was supposed to fail at.

His line from 5/16 to 6/16: 7 starts, 50.0 IP, 34 hits, 1.98 ERA, 41K/7BB

Looks pretty successful to me. The Ms even promoted him to AAA – something they had no intention of doing in April under almost any circumstances. Maybe he’s starting to win them over too.

Bobby is a freak when it comes to attention-to-detail – a la Moyer and Maddux – has a winner’s makeup, doesn’t let his veeeeery-occasional bad start get into his head and makes a hitter play his game. Have I mentioned he averages 13 HR per 200 IP? No Ryan Franklin here. If he threw 90 he’d be one of the top prospects in all of baseball. He throws 85 instead, because he likes the movement it gives his fastball, so he’s on nobody’s radar.

"He knows how to pitch, but his stuff is marginal and this shows up in the low strikeout rate. My guess is that he tops out in Triple-A." ---John Sickels

Actually, he’s getting better as a pitcher. Some people strike out MORE folks in the majors than they do in the minors, John. And it tends to be Bobby’s type that do it. Is it possible to pitch like Greg Maddux with Jamie Moyer’s velocity and without forgiveness from the umps? I dunno, but I definitely want to find out. You’ll never know if you have Halama or Maddux until you let him get to the bigs and find out just how good his command and control really are.

Bobby Livingston has made the All-Star Game at every level of the minors. He’ll do it again next year, and afterward should be a September callup and a possibility to replace Joel in 2007.

And then we’ll see if he’s destined for marginal success or greatness. But I already know where I’m placing my bets on the scale.
Emiliano Fruto, 6/6/1984, 6’3”, 225 lbs, RHP
2-3, 2.57 ERA in 66.2 IP, 56 hits (6 HR), 22 runs (19 ER), 63/22 K/BB
J: For years, we’d been hearing about how Fruto was a sure-fire candidate for a breakthrough and was going to be a key contributor in our rotation. Or bullpen. Or rotation. Or bullpen.

That was the thing. The two-year plan for Fruto generally involved him being penciled in for one spot to begin the year, struggling, being shifted to a different spot, thriving, then beginning the next year in the same spot and struggling again. Confused already? So am I, and so was just about everyone else in player development.

Eventually they decided to throw any ideas of him starting to the wind and shove him in the back end of the ‘pen until further notice, and in his first year at double-A, he struggled. As do most prospects in the game. But things seemed to change this year: he came to spring training in shape, he added a couple MPH to his fastball (now reaching the upper-90s, or so I hear), he took on a leadership position in the clubhouse, and he completely dominated the league.

Of course, by now, we had been so accustomed to this back and forth routine for years that most seemed to forget that he’s a 21-year-old who appears to have mastered double-A ball, a phrase that I do not get to use nearly often enough. He had his struggles in triple-A, but given his history, it might have been asking a wee bit too much to send him up there. In that respect, his maturity may still be working against him.

Fruto has a few pitches already to complement his fastball, including a sinker and a slider, and may have enough there to start. I’d expect him to be part of the ‘pen in another year or two, and rumors should be flying about a possible return to the rotation after he makes himself known.

G: Fruto’s a strange one. I’ve called him “Fruitcake” for several years now, partly because he’s got an off-the-wall personality like Jose Lima and partly because he has the talent – and occasionally the focus issues – of a Rick Ankiel.

No one – NO ONE – can deny the talent that Emiliano has. His pitches have so much life on them they just beg to be used and displayed at every opportunity. So Fruto displays them – too often, too carelessly, with too little thought. His walk rates were always bad, his hit rates were completely unacceptable for the dominant power pitcher he should be…his game just wasn’t up to snuff, and he was wasting his excess talent.

Then he dropped from a high of 260-270 lbs last year down to a much more svelte 225-230 and came into the season pitching like he meant it. I’m one of those guys JFrom mentioned, who forgets sometimes just how young Fruto still is. He’s not what you’d call a serious young man either, so maturity on the mound was bound to take time. Everything he did this year in AA was golden. He got his walks and hits down while getting just many swings-and-misses as always, and even notched a dozen saves after Sean Green was promoted.

If there’s a bullpen arm to keep a serious eye on in the upper minors it’s Fruto. I’ve heard him compared to Mateo, but that doesn’t do justice to Emiliano’s talent. He’s much closer to Brad Lidge stuff than Mateo or Guardado stuff. Brad didn’t figure out how to pitch like he does until he was 24 or so – which gives Fruitcake a few more years to dance in the dugout and hone his craft on the mound.
Cesar Jimenez, 11/12/1984, 5’11”, 190 lbs, LHP
3-5, 2.62 ERA in 68.2 IP, 64 hits (3 HR), 21 runs (20 ER), 54/24 K/BB
J: After Travis Blackley went under the knife last year, G and I had a short debate as to who currently had the best change-up in the system, Bobby Livingston or Cesar Jimenez? G’s already made his case for the guy who he thinks has the best change, so let me step in and make my argument for who I think has some of the best speed changing instincts in the org.

By most accounts you’ll hear, Jimenez was a two-pitch pitcher from when he was signed on through the end of last season. Most of the guys you’ll hear about who’ve pulled this trick off through the low minors are power pitchers, and their repertoire usually consists of a fastball and a wicked breaking pitch. In Jimenez’ case, he didn’t have that added velocity advantage, and instead sits in the high 80’s, about major league average, and had no breaking pitch to speak of, relying instead on a change-up thrown at the appropriate time. With just that, he was striking out 7.1 per nine since coming to the U.S.

While this is all good and fine for the lower levels of the minor leagues, around double-A, hitters start to recognize to recognize change-ups, and I feared that something terrible would happen once Cesar got to Texas. Then, all winter on the Lara Cardenales message board, I kept hearing about this curveball he’d started throwing… and by the time he got to Texas this year, it seemed to be at least a passable pitch, or at least the comments about him lacking a breaking ball have died down significantly.

His stuff is still screaming more starter than reliever, and he seems to survive—scratch that, dominate every LVBP season that he’s down there, so maybe he’ll head back at some point, but there’s no denying it: the kid knows how to pitch, even if he doesn’t have great velocity.

G: First allow me to say “damn you, JFrom, for reminding me of the devastation of the Blackley surgery.” Talk about a soft-tossing supreme talent…

But then the Ms seem to want to stockpile those. We’ve signed dozens trying to recapture the Moyer Magic, but it’s possible we finally found it in an undrafted free agent from Venezuela. If not, we may at least be on the right track to find us a Trevor Hoffman.

Cesar’s work as a starter in our system is not bad – merely undistinguished. We moved him to the pen full-time in 2004, whether to protect his teenage arm or to try to raise his mediocre strikeouts I couldn’t say, but his Ks jumped by 3 per 9 with the move and he’s never looked back.

For a changeup pitcher he does a good job of keeping the ball in the park (20 HR in 300+ IP) and with the curve JFrom mentioned he’s adding another pitch for batters to see and have to keep in the back of their minds. We just talked about how young Fruto is, but Cesar’s 6 months younger and has never been plagued with Fruitcake’s maddening inconsistencies.

He, too, has time to hone his craft, but even as-is he’s quite an interesting arm. With his one plus pitch – the changeup – and a passable FB and hook, he could do quite well for the Ms. I don’t think they’re going to let him try to start again, but as long as he keeps striking batters out I’m sure we can find a job for him somewhere…
Yorman Bazardo, 7/11/1984, 6’2, 200 lbs, RHP
3-1, 4.28 ERA in 33.2 IP, 38 hits (4 HR), 16 runs (16 ER), 26/11 K/BB
J: Last season at the deadline, the Marlins said he was one of their untouchables. He’s lost a bit of luster since then, and that’s why we snagged him, but he’s not a bad guy to have around.

Bazardo has good stuff, and there are few who would question it. He’s usually in the low to mid-90s, though it was more in the low-90s this season. Last year saw him the high-90s a few times, but he hasn’t gotten back there recently. That peak velocity is enough to make him pretty intriguing on its own, but he also has a sinker, a slider that’s still improving, and a solid change-up, which is usually the last weapon a power pitcher will add, and often, the most deadly. AND, he has the sense to not get cute with his stuff, choosing to just attack ‘em and chew through the lineup as quickly as he can. What more can you ask for?

Strikeouts, for one. You see, since he’s around the plate a lot, hitters will swing on him, and sometimes they’ll get lucky and put the ball into play, and he’s cool with that. This works with the M’s being so focused on defense, but if he could finish off batters of his own accord by painting the corners just a little more, he might see the Ks climb AND the hits drop.

Endurance for a full season might be another. It seems like he’s been lagging behind a bit since the end of 2004, and that has me worried about a couple of things. Can he handle a starter’s workload, or is he more of a setup guy? Could the prolonged loss of velocity indicate an injury on the horizon, or something else? There are a few solutions available, like limiting his winter innings or just getting his mechanics consistent, but he’s only made the transition to starter fairly recently, and he’s still a guy who’s trying to prove he can stick.

G: It’s not possible for a guy with Bazardo’s stuff to top out at giving up a hit an inning and struggling to strike out 6 per 9. It’s just not. Not with his walks as low as they have been.

So there are three possibilities. The first is that he’s still so young (third guy on the list born in ’84) that he hasn’t mastered the art of pitching yet and is just dumping his pitches over the plate to be hit far too often. The second is that he’s tipping his pitches. The third is that he’s injured.

With this being the Mariners, I am now knocking on every wooden doorframe, table, chair and entertainment center in my house in the hopes that it’s not the third option. I believe it’s just the first – that he’s liable to add an extra 2 or 3 strikeouts per 9 as soon as he figures out pitch sequences and how not to catch the heart of the plate. I have heard from two different people who watched him pitch quite a bit down in Florida that his motion could use more consistency and that a mechanical fix would do wonders. From the little bit of his time in the majors that I’ve seen he seems to pull off the mound to his left and show the ball way too early to hitters. Whatever the case he’s a special talent who should get every bit of attention that Tacoma’s new pitching coach can spare to fix whatever needs fixing.

Aaron Looper’s had his shot to figure it out. Help the 21 year old future stud hammer out the kinks in his game, please.
Thom Oldham, 5/18/1982, 6’2, 210 lbs, LHP
13-7, 3.67 ERA in 154.2 IP, 179 hits (15 HR), 79 runs (63 ER), 115/45 K/BB
J: Thom’s about the best we’ve done as far as college drafted pitchers go in recent years, and though he wasn’t added to the 40-man when the deadline came, I won’t hold it against him, too much.

The fact is, he just ran into the same kind of struggles most left-handed change-up artists will run into when they get to the double-A level, and being who was used to getting his Ks on that pitch, those issues were magnified. But because he has a decent curve to go with it, and a slider he’s been working on, things didn’t get too out of control and he seemed to adjust to certain things as the season went on.

He’s your prototypical southpaw pitcher. Average velocity, but with a solid knowledge of how to get hitters out that’s likely to improve with a bit more experience. He could probably be a back end starter or a long reliever in another year or two. Plus, he’s a great guy, and he puts up with the ITP guys always calling him “Texas” Oldham.

G: Oldham’s arsenal that includes a high-80s fastball and a curve in the 60s doesn’t scare anybody, but while I like scary pitchers, effective ones win more games. I expected him to struggle this year since he relied so heavily on the strikeout in A-ball, but it figured to be a good test and a learning experience for a guy with a large desire to prove he can pitch in the bigs.

As J said above, Oldham hit a wall when he got to AA, as most soft-tossers do. Some of them adjust, recover, and get back on the climb up the farm system and some never do. Halfway through the season, I started looking at the box scores and muttering, “c’mon, Tom, you’re tanking. Get it together…”

And halfway through the season, he did.

On June 11th: 3-5, 4.05 ERA in 66.2 IP, 5.40 runs/9, 10.60 hits per 9, 5.00 K/9, 1.76 K:BB
After June 11th: 10-2, 3.38 ERA in 88 IP, 3.99 runs/9, 10.33 hits per 9, 7.98 K/9, 3.25 K:BB

Thom Oldham in July: 4-0, 1.85 ERA in 34 IP, 35 hits (2 HR), 8 runs (7 ER), 25K/5BB, 1.18 WHIP

In A ball, I called Tom Oldham “Thom” whenever he did something utterly remarkable for a soft-tosser, which is why JFrom has him listed as such above. “Thom” as in “Thor.” He definitely earned that “h” in the second half of the season, and has got himself back on track for the bigs. I don’t like the hits, but fixing 2/3 of the problem in half a season has to be considered yeoman’s work regardless.

Congrats, Thom. Now go knock ‘em dead in ’06.

Will Get a Copy of the Home Version of Our Game:

Ryan Rowland-Smith, 1/26/1983, 6’3, 225 lbs, LHP
6-7, 4.35 in 122.0 IP, 133 hits (7 HR), 72 runs (59 ER), 102/51 K/BB

While putting this list together, I made a brief case to G regarding RRS vs. Oldham.

He’s a little younger, may have a little more velocity, gave up fewer hits and walks, struck out a little more, and his averages against were a bit better, so even though his ERA is a little worse, why not put him on? G listened patiently until I got to the end, at which point it dawned on me that RRS had been pitching in relief the past few months.

There goes the easy comparison.

Well, we still like him even if he did get hosed for much of the year.

G: I blame the Twins. They drafted him in the Rule 5 (V, whatever) and then proceeded to break him in Spring Training and ship him back to us. It was a plot, I tell you.

RRS was starting to pull himself out of it by the end, though.

To compare his first and second halves like we did Oldham’s:
Before 6/11: 2-4, 4.73 ERA in 59 IP, 5.19 runs/9, 10.07 H/9, 6.25 K/9, 1.78 K:BB
After 6/11: 4-3, 4.00 in 63 IP, 5.43 runs/9, 9.57 H/9, 8.71 K/9, 2.18 K/BB

Not quite the job Oldham did, and most of that was pen work, but Ryan’s still a viable prospect. Since we destroyed our last set of soft tossers (Ketchner, Bott and Cate) it’s nice to see some of these guys surviving. Now all we need is to get one or two of em contributing at the ML level.

Renee Cortez, 12/9/1982, 6’4, 180 lbs, RHP
5-3. 39.6 ERA in 63.2 IP, 61 hits (4 HR), 32 runs (28 ER), 62/23 K/BB

If Oldham’s presence is part of what shoves RRS off the list, then Fruto elbowed Cortez out.

Their lines aren’t too terribly different, if you look at how Cortez was giving up another hit and a quarter of a walk per nine, while striking out slightly more and keeping the ball in the park at a better clip. Cortez’ stuff isn’t too much of a drop either, he can sit in the low to mid-90s and hit the high-90s as recently as this season, which would’ve made him attractive in the Rule 5, had he been left off. His secondary offerings aren’t bad either.

But like Fruto, this is another case of a young guy who’s had his roles switched around a few times and is still figuring things out. If the club is patient and he can get his butt in gear, he could turn into a pretty nifty pitcher.

G: Ahh, a strikeout pitcher. All we’ve got right now are soft-tossing lefties and erratic-but-talented bullpenners, it seems. A strikeout starter is too much to ask for in AA, apparently, so we’ll go with what we’ve got. Renee’s another Venezuelan (like Cesar, Yorman and Felix) and is an “old-timer” for this list, having just turned 23.

His big weapon is the heater, but he’s got to work on his (decent) breaking stuff to have a legit shot in the bigs. His fastball is certainly fast, but it’s not the unhittable pitch that Rafael Soriano’s used to be.

He stumbled badly last year, giving up a ton of hits and dropping under a 2:1 K:BB ratio, but righted the ship nicely this year. He’s been in the minors with us for 4 years and last year looks to be the aberration, fortunatately.

He’s much like a JJ Putz, except he’s striking our more guys in his early 20s than JJ ever did in the minors. Which certainly makes him worth keeping an eye on.

Top Five Hitters:

Adam Jones: 8/1/1985, 6’2”, 180 lbs, RH “SS”
.298/.365/.461 in 228 AA ABs, 10 2B, 3 3B, 7 HR, 48K/22BB
J: NEWSFLASH: Mariners spend first pick on toolsy player, get results!

A flamethrower pitcher in high school, Jones crossed himself off of many teams’ short lists with his insistence that he be drafted as a position player. Never encountering a project pick they didn’t think they could take on, the M’s called out Jones’ name with their first pick of the 2003 draft.

After two seasons of potential, but mixed results, Jones finally said “here I am” and proceeded to rock the Cal League with a .295/.374/.494 line, which lost very little in the translation to a league which is not nearly as favorable to hitters. And check out his BB/K this year, which was 51/112, compared to 32/124 last season. That’s a pretty legitimate improvement, and it occurred while he was being “rushed” up a level.

Since the end of the season, the guys in player development have toyed around with the idea of moving him into center, going so far as to have him play a season in the AFL from that position. They say he may get to the bigs sooner from there, which is rather cryptic with regard to Jeremy Reed. Jones’ raw athleticism would play quite well there, as his speed and his arm strength work more to his benefit and the more technical issues, like reading hops and making a clean transfer and throw in the clutch, aren’t quite as prominent as they would be at short. Add to that some decent power potential in the area of 20+ home runs, and he looks like he could be an asset, whichever position he ultimately ends up at.

G: As I said on the Wlad Balentien write up, I came into this year expecting Wlad and Adam to push each other this year. Both were young, fairly raw talents who needed to improve in several areas to achieve their true potential.

Instead, Wlad ran in place most of the year, while Adam Jones just sprinted ahead.

He tore up High-A at 19 with a .868 OPS, and then barely blinked at the transfer to a tougher pitching league with a .826 mark in San Antonio. As J pointed out, the walks-to-strikeouts rate is much improved which was a huge key for him. His XBHs jumped from 41 to 53, and since he only turned 20 in August his power should only continue to improve.

With the burgeoning switch from SS to CF and Adam’s surprising (to me, anyway) learning curve, he’s gone from a decent prospect with issues to a top-of-the-system hitting talent. With the way he swings (doesn’t have Snelling’s batspeed but has good wrists, kinda long swing) he’s probably going to strike out frequently, but if he gets his walks and hits his 30 2B/30 HR I don’t care.

He really does seem to have Mike Cameron potential – solid average, high Ks, improving batting eye, fleet-of-foot and with an absolute cannon for an arm. He’s not the basestealer Cammie was and could still learn to walk more, but otherwise has as-good or better talent in all areas.

I’ll take that any day, especially as some swing work to reduce holes could bring even better results. Just don’t rush him to the bigs. He’s 20; he’s got time.
T.J. Bohn: 1/17/1980, 6’4”, 205 lbs, RH OF
.308/.365/.468/.833, 30 2B, 2 3B, 12 HR, 96K/35BB
J: Bohn was already 22 by the time the M’s drafted him, so he’s never really been on the short list for anyone’s “players to watch”, just an older guy with some interesting tools who happened to be beating up on some kids. I didn’t think he was that bad; he seemed to execute on certain fundamentals well enough to garner some notice, and I thought that would allow him to adapt as he moved up. Sure enough, he’s going into 2006 with about as good a chance as anyone to break camp as the fourth outfielder.

He’s always been a solid enough player defensively. Speed has always been a plus for him, though he’s just started using it aggressively. In past years, he was always a RF and he stole about 15 bases per season, but this year he ended up swiping twice as many bags and got tested in center field more than a few times. There have been few complaints about his play out there either, and a lot of people now think that he might be the best defensive OF the M’s have in the minors, and that factors in his arm, which is a classic right fielder’s cannon with both power and accuracy. A lot of opposing teams have had to learn the hard way that they just can’t run on him.

Glovework is all good and fine, particularly if you’re an M’s prospect, but his bat probably leaves him in the position of a role player. His power is extremely inconsistent, and he can give you three home runs a week and follow it up with a full month of nothing. To add insult to injury, he strikes out like a power hitter, and can’t go a full season without 100+ Ks. His average, too, can flake out from time to time, and while it didn’t so much this season, his VWL returns are seeing that exact thing happen. The good news is that he is more than capable of drawing a walk, and kicks it up a notch when he’s not finding anything to hit. This keeps his on-base percentage unusually stable, usually around .360+, regardless of whatever else he’s doing at the plate. I’d love to have that from a regular, but since his power doesn’t allow for that, I’ll take it from a role player without complaining.

G: Speaking of Mike Cameron…T.J. is what you get if you take Mike’s power away. Ks, walks, great OF defense, and steals. Just intermittent power. In other words, he’s Eric Byrnes with a few more strikeouts.

I like T.J. He adds 80+ points of OBP over his average, plays hard, etc etc - all the usual accolades you give to a scrappy white guy who just isn’t quite a starter in the major leagues.

It’s not his fault he’s a #6 hitter who has to hit much higher in our hitter-depleted farm system. As a 4th OFer he does everything I’d want, except for that strikeout problem. I don’t know that he can fix that, either – he’s about to turn 26, so now is the time for him, but his improvements in the strikeout area seem miniscule. That said, a few solid months in Tacoma should earn him the privilege of backing up Snelling and whomever else we get to play LF, but I don’t know that his star will rise much higher than that.

Still, I’d take Jeremy Reed’s performance in ‘05 from a bench player and be all right with that – and Bohn would give it, except with some far more spectacular throws and whiffs. With us signing Lawton and Everett, though, I expect him to be stuck in Tacoma this year and to take his 6-year-minor-league-free-agent status next season and move on to a club whose roster he can crack.
Ismael Castro: 8/14/1983, 5’9”, 190 lbs, SH 2B
.264/.286/.390/.676 in 421 ABs, 24 2B, 1 3B, 9 HR, 43K/12BB
J: It seems like 2002 is further in the past than it is… that being the last year the M’s were led by Lou Piniella, and one of the last years we had a respectable team. It was also the year when Ismael Castro had an MVP season in the Northwest League, hitting .313/.356/.507 and leading the Aquasox to the league’s championship.

Since then, the M’s have plummeted, and Castro’s stock has too, to an extent. He got through two-thirds of a mediocre season in the California League before suffering a foot injury in 2003, and the following year, he tore his ACL, his MCL, and his meniscus in one terrible collision only sixteen games into the season.

Slightly behind schedule in his development and needing to move up a level, the M’s decided to throw him into the Texas League after not seeing live competition for almost a year, and unsurprisingly, he had his worst full season on record.

The circumstances he was under breed this kind of thing, so I’m not going to give up on him immediately. He is, after all, only 22 (remaining so for most of 2006) and has some good power potential for a middle infielder… but he’s not the traditional sleek, aerodynamic model that you run out there to make all the flashy plays. I don’t know how the major knee injury is going to affect him either, but in a lot of ways, he’s similar to Luis Valbuena who took home some props in the Everett recap: plus bat for a middle infielder, but question marks as to whether he can stay, which lowers his overall value drastically.

I’d expect him back with the Missions to start next season.

G: You think of our poor pitchers when you think of injuries, but we’ve lost more than one promising hitting prospect to the injury bug. Snelling’s interminable delay is the most prominent of these, but Castro was a promising prospect in his own right before that brutal knee injury.

He put up that .863 OPS in Everett J mentioned at 18, but then his power absolutely evaporated in the Cal League – not a place known for its friendliness to pitchers. He dropped from 40% of his hits going for extra bases to just 27%. He started off very hot in ’04, got broken, and still hasn’t regained the flash of power he showed in Everett (31% XBH in ’05). He did have a quad injury at the start of this year that slowed him considerably, though, and his second half numbers are a vast improvement on his first half (.294/.319/.445/.764 in final 245 ABs vs .222/.246/.313/.559 in first 176 ABs), so he’s still showing promise.

Ismael strikes out very rarely (7.84 AB/K career) but walks even less (.37 BB:K, or a walk/AB rate of 4.7%). The base-on-balls is not part of his repertoire – as it isn’t for many Latin players – but that leaves him with average and power as his only plate tools. His swing is pretty and compact, but without some oomph behind it I don’t care how nice it might look.

With the severity of the knee injury he suffered I can’t imagine his range getting any better than it is right now – and it’s borderline as is. If he has to move over to 3B he HAS to find his power again or he’ll never get out of the minors. As J said, though, he’s 22 and in AA, so he’s not behind schedule – just unlucky.

He’s gonna have to make his own luck if he wants to get any higher in the system.
Rene Rivera: 7/13/1983, 5’10”, 190 lbs, RH C
.278/.305/.382/.687 in 212 ABs, 14 2B, 1 3B,2 HR, 35K/7BB
J: The 2002 Aquasox also featured a teenaged Rivera, in his debut year. At the time, he was viewed as having superior catch-and-throw abilities, able to call a good game, and a potential contributor if his bat ever came around.

Three years later, we’re pretty much saying the same things about him. The best OPS he ever posted came in Wisconsin the following year, when he hit .732, but every other season of his career, he’s been under the .700 mark (and yes, I’m discounting his contributions at the major league level for lack of sample size). Catchers, you usually worry about offense last, as their defense takes precedence most of the time, with a few exceptions (Clement!) who can hit right away… but Rivera has never been even a league average hitter at any level (came close in Wisconsin), and that’s worrisome.

He’s still pretty young and he doesn’t carry some of the off-field concerns that have kept Luis Oliveros off the lists for the past few years. I think that he could still carve out a decent career as a defensive back-up, since it’s been getting increasingly difficult to find good catching anyway, but overall, I’d have to take Rob Johnson over Rivera in the long term plans, because he might end up being better all around anyway (not just the bat talkin’).

G: I’ve never had a problem with the “Latin-style” of baseball – play fast, swing at everything, hit everything. But from a player not likely to develop much power any time soon, I’d like the occasional walk to boost his numbers. Rene is not going to give you that.

He WILL give you good D, however. There’s not much he does wrong as a backstop, except maybe show off with his arm a bit too much – though I still find that fun to watch. He picks off runners at first, guns them down at second and third, handles every pitch thrown his way with the greatest of ease and has the famous “calls a good game” moniker already. The Ms aren’t wrong about him being a good catcher.

I’m more concerned about his hitting at this point, since he seems to be stagnating (.658/.732/.646/.687 OPS the last 4 years). Pitchers seem to like throwing to him, but with the bat he doesn’t really have a plus skill. Of course, catchers as a rule do develop later – neither Dan Wilson nor Jason Varitek were much with a bat at 22 either. I think Dan Wilson with a plus arm is what the Ms are hoping to get out of Rene, and I’d be ecstatic with that result.

He’s gonna have to step up his results in the minors sooner or later though. Rob Johnson is the same sort of ballsy catcher that Rene is and his bat may have more power in it. Clement is doing everything he can to stay at catcher. Did I mention we signed Johjima for 3 years?

Catcher may be crowded for a while, something I’ve been praying to have happen for the last several years so trust me I’m not complaining.

But if Rivera doesn’t want to be the last guy standing without a chair he’s gonna have to knock off the weak DP grounders and lazy line drives and start doing some work with the bat.

A glove only goes so far.

There’s A Hole In the Bucket, Dear Liza

J: In our climb up the Mariners minor league ladder, you’ve probably noticed the normal level of attrition. At the bottom, there are always more guys to talk about because they’ve yet to hit any serious rough spots. As you move up, more of these guys fall off, so I suppose it’s more like a pyramid or a mountain than a ladder, but the closer we get to the top in this system, the more we have to deal with the draft decisions of previous regimes, which were terrible, to put it lightly.

A large part of this was what seemed to be a tendency on Gillick/Mattox’s part to shrug the draft off as being no big thing. Maybe this explains why they spent so many picks on toolsy hitters and pitchability guys who MIGHT add some more velocity, the draft being all but crapshoot anyway, but that’s using accurate information to come to the wrong conclusion. If anything, it makes the most sense to not punt your first-round picks and select known talents with quantifiable abilities because it’s going to prove quite difficult to get much return otherwise.

Fortunately, that seems to be the direction we’re going in. The recent drafts have been more about balance, and while 2005 saw an emphasis on college pitching to stop the bleeding on most of the staffs, I think that once the system is re-stocked and there’s more time to let guys develop, you might see them swing towards tools and youth again, but the choices will no longer be dictated by those two.

G: We’ve also had the Theme Draft problem, where we draft a half-dozen of the exact same type of player and hope one of them pans out. That makes more sense to me when you’re drafting the Power Pitcher Model and not the Left-Handed Finesse Model, but the Ms have thrown away more than one draft on Toolsy Infielders or the above-mentioned LH-finessers.

Maybe “thrown away” is a strong word. But since the Ms were voluntarily giving away the first several rounds of draftpicks on FA signings they cound not afford to then waste the rest of the draft on some pre-determined archetype.

And even when they didn’t give away their first 3 or 4 picks, they had trouble picking up even decent scrubs in the draft.

Take for example the 2001 draft, where we got Bobby Livingston hoping he’d turn into a power pitcher and otherwise drafted a boatload of high-school kids, most of whom were the Raw, Toolsy kind. Garciaparra, Rivera, Mike Wilson, another catcher Lazaro Abreu (who?), Tim Merritt, Livingston, John Cole (wha?), Ockerman, John Axford, Jeff Ellena – and that’s just the first 8 rounds.

We had draftpicks, but the number of them that – 4 years later – have topped out in A-ball, washed out, whatever is overwhelming. Go through the whole draft; it looks like “A-ball, washout, A-Ball, AA scrub, Independents, A-ball…” What’s left from that draft for us is Livingston (who has made it this far because he doesn’t actually throw like we wanted him to when we drafted him), Garciaparra (hoping to one day to follow in the footsteps of his idol Bloomquist as a utility IF), Rivera (who we just talked about and who still has a lot of work to do, though catchers are on notoriously longer learning curves) and maybe Wilson (if he can ever get out of A-Ball and start growing as a hitter). That’s pretty sad. Normally you can at least get AAA filler out of these things, but we have practically NOTHING else left from ’01.

Now part of that has been because we do throw a lot of money into international scouting, but having a good international scouting and signing apparatus shouldn’t preclude us from at least marginal success in the domestic draft as well. J’s right, it HAS been getting better the last couple of years.

Part of the “problem” in the upper minors right now is certainly a reflection on the number of players (Felix, Sherrill, Putz, Thornton, Lopez, YuBet, et al) recently promoted to the big club. Part of it is the SEVERE injuries many of our top prospects have suffered. But another part has been the punting of responsibility for drafting quality players – something that we will hopefully continue to move away from in coming drafts.

In a few more years we shouldn’t have to patch together AA and AAA lineups with bubblegum and sugarplum prayers any longer.

  Winter Leagues Stats Wrap (1/8/06)

Venezuelan Winter League (Semi-finals):
RHP Yorman Bazardo: 0-0, 0.00 ERA in 1.1 IP, 1 hit, 1/0 K/BB
RHP Renee Cortez: 0-0, 3.86 ERA in 2.1 IP, 1 run (1 ER), 1 hit (HR), 2/0 K/BB

Playoff time for all the leagues now. No position players have been active as of yet in Venezuela, but the pitchers have done rather well, save for the bad pitch by Cortez.

Dominican Winter League (Semi-finals):
RHP Julio Mateo: 0-0, 0.00 in 1.2 IP, 1 hit
RHP Rafael Soriano: 0-0, 1.69 ERA in 5.1 IP, 1 run (1 ER), 6 hits, 3/1 K/BB

I'm still a little concerned by the rate at which Soriano is giving up his hits, but limitations in sample size lead me to think this isn't too bad. Mateo got back in and has made two appearances after sitting out for a while.

Puerto Rican Winter League (Semi-finals):
3B (?) Rene Rivera: .667/.750/.667 in 3 at-bats, 2 runs

No, really, the stat line is listing Yadier Molina at catcher for Carolina and Rivera at third. Getting Rivera's normal level of production from third isn't appealing to me, but the move is kind of interesting. Nothing wrong with having a little versatility from that position.

A closer look at the minor league system of the Seattle Mariners baseball club.

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