This Week's Scouting Tip: Let Me See the Double-A Report Card
Unlike most sports, baseball has a structure of multi-level training grounds where young professional players experience different aspects of the game as they hopefully make their way to the major leagues where they can contribute to their organization's (and some fantasy team's) future success. Player performances at these different levels are how a team's management, and you, can formulate expectations of what to expect when they do arrive at the pinnacle of the sport. The problem is, the grading scale varies and the expectations of progress, both how far he progresses and in what types of skills change at the various levels. Sometimes, what might look like a step backwards is actually progress, while an apparent step forward could be nothing more than the player acclimating to the his current level. It can be confusing. Let's take a look ...
Learning basic skills, the big test, and preparing for that last step ...
For most, the first full season exposure to professional baseball typically occurs at the Low-A or occasionally the High-A level. These tend to be the destination for very young players, often teenagers, and it's designed to be both a learning experience with regard to the mental and physical adjustment to professional ball, and it serves as a place to evaluate raw talent. Low-A is just that, the beginners level, while advancement to the High-A level generally follows when the player has shown the ability to handle the grind while showing progress in developing the skills needed to eventually be a major leaguer. More mature players will move up more quickly while the others are given more time.
The most talented players naturally gravitate to the Double-A level. As hitters show better pitch recognition and knowledge of the strike zone, pitchers display their readiness by developing a consistently reliable assortment of pitchers, and they begin to become "pitchers" rather than "throwers" - that is they show the ability to understand the finer points of pitching rather than relying on pure velocity or stuff as they have often been able to do against lesser competition. That's why many consider Double-A to be the true test of a young player. They come together at this level with all of the other players who have proven they are true prospects. Here they will develop those raw skills to their maximum potential. Therefore, you want to pay very close attention to the performance of players at Double-A who are now facing the most talented of the young professionals with a clear path to the major leagues.
You might think that Triple-A is the top of the minor league food chain, and in some ways it is. The players at that level are older and have more professional experience. Many of them have considerable time at the major league level, however most are not really high ceiling talents. They are typically insurance policies for the parent club - organizational depth to cover for injuries, etc. That makes them "wily veterans" and facing them while at Triple-A is a useful learning experience, but they are not likely to have the actual ability of either those honing their skills at Double-A or the top-flight major league players the advancing youngster will face when he reaches the final objective. After all, if they were at that skill level, they would be in the major leagues themselves. At this level, the focus is on fine-tuning skills, and preparing the prospect for the ultimate challenge.
Here are things to keep in mind for pitchers at each minor league level:
Low-A: Generally very young and inexperienced, the players at this level often have considerable raw ability, but they need to learn how to transform that ability into productivity. This is a transition time where they learn to deal with grueling schedules, and even cultural differences or language barriers in the case of players participating in the United States for the first time.
High-A: When the young player shows the ability to handle his new environment, and displays an aptitude for learning and adapting, the next step is High-A where those more mature players can begin to develop their skills specific to baseball. It's the equivalent to enriched classes in high school, if you can handle them. Think of it as separating the men from the boys.
Double-A: Now your guy is off to college. The classes are full of high school all-stars who all made a big name for themselves when they were younger. The competition is keen, and only the elite will make the cut. In essence, this is where the true prospect will earn that cover photo on fantasy magazines. Some will jump straight to the major leagues from here, but typically only the very best.
Triple-A: He has his degree, his skills are well-developed, and he has proven his ability to adjust as he moves up the ladder. Now it's time for an internship with the opportunity to hone those skills to a fine edge while facing players who have been there. There may be a few tastes of the major leagues, just to fairly judge readiness, but chances are it's all about waiting for the opportunity now.
Now, let's check this week's Scouting Notebook ...
This continues our weekly feature scouting pitchers of interest. We won't normally cover the elite guys in this column; rather this forum is dedicated to finding pitchers who might help, and more importantly, might be obtainable (as well as pitchers to avoid). All right, let's get started with this week's featured arms:
Jhoulys Chacin (COL)vs. SD - Chacin is a good example of progression through the minor league system. He started in short season ball, moved to Low-A where he dominated and was promoted to High-A later in the season. He again showed the progress teams are looking for and made the jump to Double-A before getting his first test at the major league level. He was roughed up a bit in his first taste of the major leagues, went down to Triple-A where he refined his repertoire, learned the value of pitching to contact, and soon was back in the big leagues, probably to stay. It's not easy to pitch half your games in Colorado, but even at age 23, Chacin has displayed the ability and maturity to handle the challenge. It is very encouraging to see him adjust to the most effective style of pitching to succeed in a hitter-friendly environment.
He has an average fastball with decent movement that clocks in at about 89-92 and occasionally touches 93 or 94, while his breaking pitches, which fall somewhere between a slider and a hard curve are currently his out pitches. His change-up, something he used quite a bit in the minor leagues, is still a bit too hard (more speed differential would help) and is somewhat inconsistent. He does get some strikeouts with that harder breaking pitch that has more vertical than lateral movement, and generates a good percentage of missed bats. Because he keeps everything down, he keeps the ball on the ground and minimizes the damage that can be the bane of Coors Field pitchers.
In our target game against San Diego - not a real offensive powerhouse - Chacin did what he does best. He used his fastball, moving it in and out to get ahead, and then finished off hitters with the breaking stuff, ringing up eight strikeouts in the process. Of some concern, his pitch count rose as he nibbled and got rather deep in counts, so he lasted only six innings, but very few balls were hit hard and when he wasn't getting the punch outs, he was getting soft swings and quite a few groundballs.
With Jorge De La Rosa out for the season and power-pitcher Ubaldo Jimenez struggling so far this season, Chacin has been the Rockies go to guy and he has responded to that challenge. There is always danger in pitching in his home ballpark, however he is evolving into a pitcher who could enjoy long-term success there. He won't typically run up huge strikeout totals - that's not his game now - but he will probably keep the hits down while limiting the walks enough to provide an excellent WHIP. Because he keeps the ball on the infield, his ERA should be respectable, making him a useful fantasy starter. Being so young, and already mature beyond those years, he could get even better.
Dillon Gee (NYM)@ ATL - He was effective in a brief trial late last season, but the Mets chose not to include him in the rotation out of spring training. They were obliged to add him shortly after the season began, and he has run off a 7-0 record (the Mets have actually won all 10 of his starts), and should be firmly entrenched at this point. Like Chacin, Gee is more of a finesse pitcher with a fastball that sits in the 91-93 range and can touch 94 at times, a straight change (his bread & butter pitch), a slider in the mid 80's, a decent curveball, and a recently added cutter that, when combined with the excellent change-up, has allowed him to be very effective against left-handed swingers. When you put it all together, he throws strikes and generates a lot of groundballs (about 70% of the balls in play) while still throwing in a few strikeouts.
In the game against Atlanta, Gee settled in quickly (after a one hour and 20 minute rain delay) and was never really threatened by anything but the rain clouds that ended his night after four innings. He was leading 3-0 when the rains began again. He's not overpowering, he isn't especially deceptive - in fact he has a very simple and easy delivery with very few moving parts, and he doesn't have any eye-popping breaking pitches. What he does, is command the zone, setting up his change-up with fastballs that he will move up and down in the strike zone while keeping the lefty swingers tied up with the cutter he likes to run in on their hands before dropping the change up over the outside corner. It's been a pretty effective recipe. He adds to that a lot of poise for his age and experience level, and a "go after them" attitude that makes it difficult to guess what's coming - he'll throw any pitch at any time.
You have to like Gee at least a little bit. He was a 21st round draft choice, and certainly wasn't heaped with high expectations, but he did what he needed to do to make it. He breezed through High-A and Double-A, was sidetracked with some shoulder issues, came back to Triple-A, and scuffled a bit before his promotion last September. That is something of a concern. His track record suggests he could be a bit too hittable once he circulates through the league and hitters become more familiar with his repertoire. The cutter and the improved change-up have helped and should soften that blow as he now has more weapons at his disposal, but he will need to continue to avoid the middle of the zone while using that change to keep hitters off-balance. I would have liked to see a few more innings just to see how he looked as he faced the order for the third time around.
Zach Stewart (TOR)vs. BAL - I generally don't like to evaluate a pitcher making his major league debut, but the promotion of Stewart from Double-A where he had enjoyed only mixed results was worth a look. The Blue Jays do like his upside, but they are still working on getting him comfortable in a starting role after being bounced back and forth between the rotation and the bullpen before they acquired him from the Reds in 2009. Adding to the possible jitters of making his first start in the major leagues, Stewart is a sinkerball pitcher who has to avoid overthrowing, and he was pitching on an extra day's rest, all of which can speed things up and take the edge off of a sinking fastball. Despite all those distractions and drawbacks, he actually pitched pretty well. One thing is for certain, he doesn't waste any time. He had three pitches in to the first hitter of the game before the network returned from a commercial break.
When he pitched out of the bullpen, he could get it up there in the low to mid 90's topping out about 95-96, but he now routinely throws in the 88-92 range. Perhaps more importantly, when he takes a little off he creates quite a bit of sink, which serves him well in erasing base runners via the double play. Against the Orioles, he breezed through the early innings with a low pitch count and more than a couple three-minute innings. That's not terribly surprising as the Baltimore hitters got their first look at him, but it was interesting that they were swinging a lot more than looking, so he was able to make it through the order a couple of times without showing them his entire arsenal. That was a very encouraging aspect to his start. He held something back for later in the game. Early on, he worked with his fastball and sinker, and began to mix in more breaking pitches after they had seen him a couple of times.
To be successful, he will need to remain a sinkerball pitcher. His slider is more slurvy, and he only threw a few change-ups before the later innings (he went seven innings, allowing just two runs on seven hits). Both of those offerings probably need more work, and he will probably be back down before long to do that. Overall, he displayed some nice things while also tipping us off that he is still a work in progress. This had all the components of a "we need a spot starter, so lets give Stewart a taste so we can better measure where he's at now in his development" call-up. That said, the Jays staff is banged up right now so he could get a handful of starts if he can remain effective.
Some short takes:
Tommy Hanson (ATL)- Scratched from his last start with shoulder tenderness, the Braves really can't afford to lose him - and neither can his fantasy owners. They will be cautious with their ace so monitor his status. He is on the disabled list and if he misses much time, the Braves have kids to fill in, but they will be hoping that's not necessary.
Clay Buchholz (BOS)- Back problems he has been dealing with since last year have flared up again. Hopefully it's not too serious, but backs can be annoyingly persistent so you need to keep track of this one. Andrew Miller might slip into his slot in the immediate future and has suddenly found the plate - hard to say if that's the real deal.
Phil Hughes (NYY) - Something of a forgotten man after his early struggles, but he is reportedly making significant strides (he has been in the 92-93 range and touches 95 which is more like what you would expect from him). The Yankees need him in a big way and he might be back in the spotlight later this month or in early July.
Brad Hand (FLA)- He is probably ahead of his time. Hand has a decent repertoire but he lacks command. His stuff isn't good enough to pitch behind in the count and he doesn't locate his pitches well enough to consistently get ahead. He's a risky play and will likely be back down for more seasoning before too long.
Randall Delgado (ATL)- There were some good signs in his major league debut but he isn't there yet either. With other more advanced options (Mike Minor and Julio Teheran in particular) it wouldn't be surprising to see the Braves limit his exposure at the major league level. They got a chance to see where he's at.
Brandon Beachy (ATL)- He is scheduled for another rehab start but the Braves could bypass that and have him slip into Hanson's rotation spot. He's a better option than Delgado or Teheran at this point so it would make sense as long as they're convinced he's healthy and his most recent outing suggests he is ready to go.
Jake Peavy (CWS)- Actually he was hoping to avoid making any rehab start but the Sox insisted and he mowed through the opposition. It's a good bet he will be back in the rotation this week, and as long as he is between injuries, you need to get him out there. It's almost impossible to guess when the next bang or bruise will pop up.
Shaun Marcum (MIL)- A hip flexor injury might net him a stint on the disabled list. It's too bad because he was locked in and pitching extremely well. Hopefully this will be a short term thing and he can come back without missing a beat.
Leo Nunez (FLA) -He was considered something of a risky play as the incumbent closer to begin the season, but he got off to strong start. However, he has been pretty shaky of late and if the Marlins had many options - they really don't - they might be looking for an alternative should his struggles continue.
Mark Melancon (HOU)- Brandon Lyon went back on the DL with tendonitis or poor performance, or both and it looks like this trip could be for an extended period of time. That should solidify Melancon's hold on the closer's gig. He was a much better option anyway, but his fantasy owners can breathe a little easier now.
Francisco Rodriguez (NYM)- He has been living on the edge while converting every save opportunity since opening day before blowing one last week against Atlanta. His WHIP suggests he will be vulnerable so don't be surprised if he gets touched up now and then. In fact, if you have roster space, Jason Isringhausen might be a wise add.
Kid's Corner ...
Yu Darvish (JAPAN)- He's not really a kid - he'll be 25 later this year and has seven seasons of experience in Japan - but when he arrives in the States he is likely to have a huge impact. Arguably the best player in Japanese baseball history, it will cost some team a fortune just to acquire the rights to talk to him, but you might be lucky enough to land him for far less. He says he'll be here in 2012 ... so plan accordingly.
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