March 2012

Spring Training: Minor league game with Esposito, Sano and more

Sometimes, the timing just works out. Not always, maybe not often, but when it does, it can be very nice.

Case in point: On Tuesday, I was going to drive from Fort Myers to Sarasota bright and early to talk to the Orioles’ Jason Esposito (No. 5 on the O’s Top 20). I had to drive north anyway, what with an assignment to cover the Twins against the Tigers in Lakeland on Wednesday, so it was no big deal.

As it turned out, Esposito was coming with the A-level Orioles down to Fort Myers for a Minor League game, so I was able to stick around and wait for him there. The interview we did resulted in this story about the third baseman, including some of the video interview we did.

If that’s not enough Espo for you (I hope it’s OK to call him that — you can ask him on Twitter @JasonEsposito), here’s the interview in it’s entirety, uncut.

Pretty well-spoken, mature young man, don’t you think? Those Vandy products do tend to come out with a pretty good head on their shoulders.

The added bonus of being able to stay in Fort Myers is that I got to watch the Twins’ A-level team play (actually, 2 of them, but the game I focused on was the low-A one). Esposito was playing in that game (so was Glynn Davis, No. 8 on that O’s list). But the real fun was that they were playing a Twins team that included Twins’ No. 1 prospect Miguel Sano, No. 4 Eddie Rosario and No. 9 Adrian Salcedo, not to mention first-round pick Levi Michael. Sano and Rosario should make for a very exciting combination in Beloit this year and Salcedo could start the year in Fort Myers.

Salcedo is typically around 93 mph, maybe touching a 94 and he was right around that area in this start, mostly 91-92 mph, from what I saw. He showed some good ability with his breaking ball and his changeup. The outing overall was up-and-down. Salcedo cruised through the first inning and did a fantastic job keeping the ball down in the zone. In his second inning of work, he was up and he got hit as a result. Things unraveled a bit for him and he had a hard time stopping the bleeding — “damage control” as one Twins executive put it at the game.

Now here’s where the luck of the day kind of ran out. I was so excited to see Sano hit — it was fun watching him take BP (he’s the type people are going to stop what they’re doing to watch hit). The previous day stalwart baseball writer LaVelle E. Neal III was excitedly telling me about seeing Sano triple twice and homer in a Minor League game he had just watched.

I had no such luck. Facing lefty Tim Berry, Sano was lost in both of his at-bats, striking out swinging wildly both times. The second at-bat, he swung and missed badly at soft stuff then whiffed on a fastball. I tell you this not because I think it’s some warning sign, that he’s overrated. Hardly. Maybe just take it as a reminder that he probably has a long way to go. Or, as that Twins exec mentioned above, said, “It will take time.”

Spring Training: Red Sox camp

The Red Sox’s new digs at JetBlue Park are very nice indeed. For someone who loves spending time on the back fields, the best part is having the Minor League side right alongside where the big league action takes place. In years past, you had to drive a couple of miles down the road to get to Boston’s minor league camp, so the facility gets props just for that.

This was my first opportunity to get some real prospecting stuff done (I did write a feature on Matt Hague while I was covering the Pirates yesterday). It was a great day indeed, getting to see hitters like Will Middlebrooks, Bryce Brentz and Juan Carlos Linares in action. All of course are firmly on the Red Sox’ Top 20 list. I also had the chance to chat with Brentz, the supplemental first rounder from 2010 who hit 30 homers last year. The story from that (as well as an interview with farm director Ben Crockett) will be up on redsox.com tomorrow. For now, though, here’s the complete video interview with Brentz.

 

 

It wasn’t just a day for bats, mind you. Anthony Ranaudo started the Double-A game and was pretty much lights out. He went three innings and touched 97 mph. He was leaving his breaking ball up in the zone a bit, not uncommon given where we are in spring, but he was throwing it for strikes. He also threw his changeup in the zone, leading one Red Sox official on hand to comment that they thought it was the best they’d seen him. After a good learning experience following his promotion to Salem last year, Ranaudo could take off in 2012.

While my main focus with Crockett was on Brentz, I did ask him about a number of other prospects in the system. Here’s what he had to say:

Blake Swihart: “He’s a tremendous worker. He has  a really professional approach for an 18-year old kid coming out of high school. Clearly, he’s played at some of the higher levels within the high school [ranks]. His approach to the game is pretty impressive. He did a great job in the offseason with the strength and conditioning program, put on some strength and some good weight. On the field, we’ve been really happy with the progress so far. He’s still learning the position. He hasn’t caught a ton, but he’s a really quick learner and has picked up things rapidly. It’s been exciting. Obviously, with the bat, that’s the calling card. It’s been good. We’re trying not to preach the final result, but more the approach and how we get to the end of the at-bat.” (meaning making hard contact or working the count to get the pitch you want to hit).

As a pretty advanced bat, Swihart has the chance to make the Greenville club, as the Red Sox do have a history of doing that (Sean Coyle comes to mind). The one thing that could hold him back would be the defense, just to give him some more time to work on the nuances of catching.

Matt Barnes:“He’s been really impressive. He’s shown the stuff that got him to where he was last year. He’s adapted well to the program (strength and conditioning, preparing for the five-day routine). He’s worked hard, gone about his business very well. We’re looking forward to seeing him in a game later this week for the first time. We haven’t gotten the chance to see him yet in games. The live BPs and bullpens have been really good.”

Barnes will, in all likelihood, start with either Greenville or Salem.

Xander Bogaerts: “He’s had a really good camp. He hit a home run the other day against Tommy Hunter, then later in the game had a line drive to right field. That approach, those are the exciting things to see that adjustment within a game, especially for a young player who came into his power last year. He came into camp in great shape. Lost a couple of pounds of fat from last year, gained some strength. He’s definitely still a shortstop for us. The athleticism really continues to play. It’s more a matter of refining the fundamentals, the routine types of plays. He has the ability to make some of those highlight type plays.”

Look for him in Salem this year.

Brandon Jacobs: “We’re continuing to push him to make improvements. He made huge strides last year as he got more time in the outfield. The arm strength increased with the programs we had (shoulder strengthening) and improving some of the footwork. Keeping him aggressive out there has been huge and we’ve seen the strides there this Spring Training. I think the impressive thing about him, kind of like Will Middlebrooks did up in the big leagues this spring… despite the power and the lack of overall experience, he really does stay in the middle of the field pretty well. He does a nice job of taking what’s given to him and isn’t always trying to get to that power, which is something that plagues young players sometimes.”

Jacobs should provide a nice 1-2 punch in the Salem lineup with Bogaerts.

Finally, I asked Crockett about any players who have really stood out, maybe who are poised to make a nice jump forward in 2012. He mentioned two: Drake Britton and Kolbrin Vitek. Britton had a pretty awful 2011 season, kind of forcing him off the radar. Vitek had a ho-hum first full season, but as Crockett points out, fared much better as the season wore on (he hit .300 in the second half).

“Drake Britton had a really good camp up there (on the big league side). I know he was greatly on the radar last year and now suddenly [is off] the radar. The stuff in big league camp was really good. He was using his changeup effectively which is a hard thing to do when you’re in that limelight. He really stayed under control a lot better than what he did last year. I think he could step up.”

“Kolbrin Vitek is someone that flew under the radar in part because we pushed him to Salem, in a tough hitter’s park, in his first full season. He’s an advanced college hitter… you look at his second half numbers compared to his first-half numbers, there’s a pretty big difference there. He’s someone who could jump off from where he was in the second half last year and pick up from there and produce a little more than what he did on the whole, and garner a little more attention from the industry.”

Spring Training, Day 2: Rays camp – pitching everywhere you see

If you went to the back fields of Port Charlotte today, you could have watched 3/5 of the Triple-A Durham rotation in action, obviously a rarity.

Two of them were going at the same time, with Alex Torres starting in the Double-A game and Alex Cobb starting the Triple-A contest against the Orioles (Don’t read into Torres starting down a level. The Rays wanted to make sure everyone got the innings they needed.). Chris Archer pitched in the Triple-A game after Torres. It was a whole lot of fun to station myself between the two games and track all that pitching depth (not to mention seeing Orioles’ prospect Manny Machado playing shortstop and singling off of Torres).

Cobb was pretty sharp throughout his outing. Torres scuffled a bit in his first inning — fastball command was the culprit — but settled down. Archer had some command issues in his first inning. He was supposed to go three, but because of the length of that first frame, his day was done after two innings. For all three, it was just one step in getting ready for the start of the Triple-A season on April 5.

Archer, of course, was in the Matt Garza trade and he was at the Rookie Career Development Program in 2011 when the news broke. He came across as a very thoughtful and well-spoken prospect and that clearly hasn’t changed, even with the struggles he had in the first part of the 2011 season.

There will be a story on Archer on the site in a while, along with some of the video interview I did with him. Here is the entire interview with the right-hander, who hopes to help out in Tampa at some point in the near future.

I also got to have a nice chat with Rays farm director Mitch Lukevics about some of the other players in the system, especially some from the bountiful 2011 Draft.

In general about the crop: “It is early. All have come in great shape. You never know in a young player because they don’t know exactly what to expect even though you tell them what to expect. They have offseason programs they have to do in preparation, but you still don’t know. All have come in great shape. There’s plenty of room for everyone to get at-bats and innings pitched.”

On Mikie Mahtook: “He came in here ready to go day one. He’s taking full advantage of our camp. I wouldn’t think he’ll break with double-A. We want to see him here. Keep in mind, he’s only been with us a little bit. We saw him a little bit in instructional league, some have seen him a little bit in the fall league. We don’t have a lot of history with Mikie. So there’s no rash decision on Mikie Mahtook. He’s a good player now, he’ll be a better player later. We want to assess and see and put him where we think he fits best.”

On Taylor Guerrieri: “Taylor is really doing great. He has so much upside. Historically, we are slow with young pitchers and young players. That’s our philosophy, our overall development philosophy. He shows great stuff. Now it’s a matter of tying everything together and it takes time. There’s a process they all have to go through. We all know the physical and mental process. As that all comes together, we expect these kids to do great things.”

On how Guerrieri fits into that overall philosophy: “What’s the rush? Historically, we’re slow with our youngest players. But our players tell us when they need to be moved or when they can be moved. Despite our overall philosophy, they make our decisions for us. But it’s a long-distance race. If there’s doubt, why rush? We have players in place at the Major League level and at the upper Minor Leagues, so what’s the rush? We’d rather make sure that when a player gets to the big leagues, there’s impact and longevity. We don’t have to force-feed players to get there. That has been from day one, since we started in 2006, that’s been the philosophy from ownership on down.”

(As an aside, I really like that line about ensuring impact and longevity. I think it speaks to why the Rays have had so much success in developing successful big leaguers.)

Finally, on others who have made an early impression: “Jake Hager. He’s a good looking infielder who’s done a nice job (also from the 2011 Draft). It’s going to take time to grow. You have young guys like Brandon Martin and James Harris, two young up and comers. We have some Dominicans, one in particular, Roberto Gomez, he’s on the radar. Those are just a few kids to mention.”

I’ve got big league game coverage the next couple of days, but will do my best to throw up some prospecty info on here along the way. Oh, and in case you missed it, here’s my story on the Dominican Prospect League tour in Florida.

Spring Training, Day 1: Twins camp and the DPL

Now that I’m down here in Florida, my hope is to blog a bit more consistently on what I’m seeing and hearing and who I’m talking to. Today was my first full day and I took advantage of a fine day in Ft. Myers

I’ve been saying for quite some time that one of the gaping holes in my coverage of prospects has been on the international front. Luckily this year, Jesse Sanchez (follow him on Twitter at @JesseSanchezMLB) is helping out a ton on that front. But I wanted to pick up the slack, too. And today proved to be a perfect remedy.

First, it started with a trip to the Twins’ Minor League facility. There, I got to chat with long-time Twins farm director Jim Rantz and interview Twins’ top prospect Miguel Sano, who is ranked No. 23 on the overall Top 100 list. It resulted in this story about the teenaged phenom. You’ll see a snipped of the video interview I did with Sano (and translator Rafael Yanez). As I’ve done in the past, I’m posting the entire interview, without editing, here for your viewing pleasure. Watch until the end to see Sano using some English as he continues to work on learning the language.

Rantz and I also discussed some of the other players in the Twins’ system, focusing on some of the question marks. Here’s what he had to say about a few of them:

Kyle Gibson: (Gibson is currently rehabbing from Tommy John surgery.) “He’s worked hard, he’s very dedicated. He’s in our rehab program. He’s throwing now. We don’t think he’ll hit the mound until about August. Everything is good to go. If work has anything to do with it, he’ll make it.”

Alex Wimmers: (Wimmers was shut down following one of the most bizzarely afwful full-season debuts in 2011. You probably read about it. He couldn’t throw a strike and didn’t retire a batter. He did, however, make it back and threw seven no-hit innings to close out the year). “It was a strange thing that we’ve never seen before. We shut him down, brought him back here, threw him on the back fields where there were no people, no fans. Eric Rasmussen, our pitching coordinator, worked very hard with him. This kid never gave up. He didn’t hang his head, he had a lot of pride. He worked hard and inched his way back by the end of the season to the point where his last game was a seven-inning no-hitter, after everything he’d been through. We had him in the instructional league and he was fine and he’s been fine here. He’ll probably start here, get him going and then move him up.”

Aaron Hicks: (Hicks, the former first-rounder, has plentiful raw tools, but hasn’t been able to consistently turn them into performance as of yet). “Last year, he started out so-so, then he got hot. We thought we were going to move him last year, but then he hit a wall and slid back and finished alright at High-A. Then we sent him to the Fall League and he did alright. He’s going to go to Double-A. This is a big year. I and the staff, individually, said to Aaron, ‘This is has to be your year. You need to break out and do what you can.’ He has all the tools and skills you’re looking for. I’m anxious to see what he’s going to do. He can do so many things. What the answer is is consistency. All the things you want to see in a five-tool player. This is a big year and I think he understands that. I think he sees people, because it was their protection year, passing him by a little bit. Hopefully, he has a little in him that says, ‘It’s my turn, I’m better than this guy or that guy.’ I think he’s going to have a good year. Rod Carew has taken him under his wing a little bit. Not only with his hitting, but with his bunting because he has that kind of speed. They’ve gotten together during the offseason. You have to stay positive with these guys and not let them think we forgot about tthem. Just go out and relax and let your skills play.”

***

My day was not yet done. I went over to JetBlue Park, the new home of the Red Sox (my first time there — very nice digs). The Dominican Prospect League was playing a game in its tour of Florida and Arizona Spring Training sites, giving teams the opportunity to see some of the better Dominican amateur talent eligible to be signed this summer. Look for a story on that tomorrow. The only down side of the whole vent was seeing infielder Wendell Rijo go down with a knee injury when he got caught in  a run down. It looked awful at first, but word is he should be just fine. One of the better prospects in this year’s crop, I’ll be sure to update with any news on the injury. Another infielder, Richard Urena, plays a good shortstop and used his legs to manufacture a run with a pair of stolen bases. Other top Dominican prospects on hand were OFers Gustavo CabreraLuis Barrera and Jose Pujols, infielder Amaurys Minier, 3B Nathaniel Javier and many  more intriguing players. There were many scouts on hand to watch the action and the teenagers were given the tough task of facing Red Sox minor league pitchers for much of the game. While many put on a huge show during BP, there weren’t as many fireworks during the game against the advanced pitching.

One fun little bonus came as a result of the Red Sox chipping in with pitching, though. Right-hander Francellis Montas pitched for the Red Sox. Montas is making his United States debut this year after spending time in the Dominican Summer League the past two years. He has a mature body and throws pure heat, cranking it up  to 98 mph on Tuesday. Have to give the DPL kids credit. Some got their hacks in and did not seem overwhelmed. Montas is all power right now, but a guy that bumps up to triple digits in mid-March is a guy worth watching.

Sometimes you get lucky and get to see something additional like that. I hope that continues as my time here wears on.

More in the near future… Wednesday I head to Rays camp.

 

 

What the Lucas Giolito injury means

Lucas Giolito, the top-rated high school pitcher in the 2012 Draft class is now out for his high school season with what has been reported as a sprained ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow. The UCL doesn’t need surgery, but will keep him out for up to 10 weeks. Then there’d be rehab, etc., so he very likely will not throw another pitch for Harvard-Westlake High School.

So, what does this mean? In the short-term, it makes USA Baseball’s National High School Invitational, which Harvard-Westlake is playing in,  a little less exciting. In terms of the Draft, it certainly changes things at the top of the board, doesn’t it?

Giolito was thought of as the top prep arm in the class as the season began and when he hit 100 mph early on, it created quite a stir. There were even those who thought perhaps he could become the first high school right-handed pitcher to go No. 1 overall. That, clearly, will not happen now with this injury.

The question remains just where Giolito will go in the June Draft. He’ll have to show his elbow is sound to any teams interested in taking him. In the past, it would be possible for a player like Giolito to slide a bit because of the injury, with a team taking him later in the Draft (either in the first round or much, much later) then going over slot to get him to sign.

With the new rules, however, that might not be possible. Remember, every team has a pool to draw from in the first 10 rounds and they run the risk of penalties if they go too far over that pool. Let’s give an example. I’m sorry for always picking on the Red Sox as a team that picks deep in the first round and/or takes over-slot guys later in the Draft. But they often do and they work as a good example here.

Boston picks No. 24 and No. 31. In the past, that may have been a good spot to take a chance and see if they could get Giolito signed. But it’s more complicated now. If Giolito had gone, say, No. 2 overall (we’ll go with Stanford’s Mark Appel as the No. 1 pick), he could have received $6.2 million, according to the CBA’s guidelines. If he’s able to show teams he’s healthy, it could stand to reason that he could tell a team like the Red Sox he’s worth what he would have received as the No. 2 selection. But the Red Sox’s pool for the first 10 rounds in total is just over $6.8 million. They wouldn’t be able to meet the asking price, unless they only want $600,000 for the rest of their picks, an unlikely scenario.

Obviously, we’ll have to wait and see what happens, both with Giolito’s health and his expectations. Perhaps he’ll be willing to take less because of the injury. Or maybe he’ll end up spending three years at UCLA as a result of all this.

It certainly adds an interesting twist to the Draft now. And it makes his Harvard-Westlake teammate, Max Fried, the guy to watch at USA Baseball’s event and the top prep pitcher in the class.

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