The weekly notes column returns after a 2 week break, and I’m actually going to change things up a bit in terms of the way I attack this weekly writeup. I’m going to try and make the piece a bit more uniform every week, adding distinct sections that make it easy for me to write this in chunks and then publish it on Sunday night/Monday morning every week. All of the formatting should make sense as we progress through. So let’s just get right to it.
I’m going to use this section every week to write a general piece on something that I’ve been reading/studying/thinking about. This week’s topic is something that has come up here on the site a lot over the last few seasons; player development. When I’ve talked in the past about how I go about valuing prospects, one thing I always mention is age related to level. Some of you understand this concept, but for some it might still be unclear, so I wanted to discuss it more in depth, why I think its very important, but why its also not a blanket to cover every prospect with.
Age related to level, or ARL, is where you look at a prospect’s age and determine how old/young he is relative to the league he is currently playing in. It shouldn’t be too crazy of a concept; younger guys playing against older competition are at a disadvantage, while older college guys playing against recently graduated high school seniors have an advantage. This is the general template that I work off of when making a quick, back of the envelope calculation based on a player’s age, and this is the basic roadmap that SONAR considers.
Age given is the average prospect age for each level
RK (GCL, AZL, PIO, APP) – 18 years old
A- (NYPL, NWL) – 19 years old
A (SAL, MWL) – 20 years old
A+ (FSL, CAR, CAL) – 21 years old
2A (EAS, SOU, TEX) – 22 years old
3A (INT, PCL) – 23 years old
This is essentially the guide. A high school senior is normally 18 years old when drafted. Some guys will have turned 19 before June 1, some guys are still 17, but 18 is average. Its assumed that most high school seniors, if they sign in time, will go to their respective rookie league. You can look up the league acronyms if you aren’t familiar with them. The following season, or S2 for a newly drafted prep player, some guys will go to the more advanced rookie league, and some guys will be promoted directly to A ball. Those guys should be considered the more advanced prospects, and its ultimately telling in how an organization views a player’s readiness. There are exceptions, as sometimes teams want to keep an elite prospect out of cold weather for the first month of the year, but an assignment to a full season affiliate after your debut is normally a good sign. The rest of the map is self explanatory. If a prospect was drafted out of HS at age 18 and moved one level per season, he’d be in the big leagues in his age 24 season. The more advanced, elite prospects move quicker, often times tackling two affiliates in one year or skipping a league all together.
For college players, the path is often times different. Most college players will begin in the advanced rookie league, for the Phillies that is the New York Penn League. In this case, his debut year, he’s still playing against plenty of less experienced players, ie, the 19 year old guys who were deemed not quite ready for full season ball. That 2 year age difference (most college draftees are 21/22) is significant, and that makes college players’ numbers from the NYPL a bit suspect. As with the high school drafted prospect, the second season for college guys is also critical. The more advanced guys will be jumped to A+, and some teams (like the Phillies with Worley) will send some guys straight to AA. The area to really watch are the teams that send polished college prospects to Low A to start their first full season. While this isn’t some kind of kiss of death for a prospect, it does place them in a situation where they are 22 or 23 years old, playing against a crop of players who are more in the 19-20-21 range. College guys generally will move faster than high school prospects, and its very common for college players to play at 2, sometimes even 3 affiliates per year.
So what does all of this mean? Well, its pretty simple, yet at the same time, I feel like maybe some people either don’t understand the effect, or grossly underestimate it. Baseball is a game of learning. You can understand the mechanics of the game, of the swing, or how to throw a pitch, but you have to learn how to apply those skills within a game. You have to know how to make adjustments, both from a strategy perspective and from a management perspective. Most high school pitching prospects, for example, are pitching once a week. Even college starting pitchers, depending on how competitive the team is, are pitching only once a week. In pro baseball, you pitch every 5 days. Its a completely different regimen, a completely different approach. Its not uncommon to see guys struggle early, and sometimes this adjustment can even lead to arm soreness, as the Tigers discovered with their uber prospect Jacob Turner. He was came down with some arm soreness, which of course sounds all of the alarms. He was examined, and the team basically determined that his arm was sore because he’d never had experience pitching every 5 days, and that he just needed to adjust his preparation. These types of adjustments impact how you perform on the field, and while college guys have these adjustments to make as well as the prepsters, from an experience standpoint, college guys are well ahead.
I like to make the analogy to basketball, but you can really use any sport, and the NFL example might be even more appropriate. If you decided to play a game of pickup football and you had 11 college juniors and 11 high school seniors, which team would you favor? What if I told you the high school seniors were All Americans, and the college guys are just average college players? Everyone would still take the college players. They are bigger, their bodies are more mature, they are stronger, and they’ve experienced playing quality level college football for 3 seasons. Baseball is no different. If you take a quality college arm, say Austin Hyatt, who is 23, who has pitched a bunch of innings in college against advanced competition, and then you drop him in to a league with 19/20/21 year old kids who haven’t seen advanced competition for 3 years, how would you expect the inexperienced guys to fare? On the other side of the game, if you take a college slugger who has been facing college pitching for 3 years, and you drop him into a league with 18/19/20 year old pitchers who don’t have experience pitching against quality hitters, how would you expect the slugger to do? In the lower levels of the minors, the playing field is not thinned out. Teams are drafting tons of guys each year and signing guys from Latin America, Europe and Asia. These guys have to play, and they are going to start at the bottom rungs. Advancing to AA and AAA is where you begin to thin the herd, and where your true talent level starts to match up with the talent/experience level of those around you.
The roadmaps above are good guides to use, but they don’t apply in all situations. For a number of reasons, some guys get sidetracked on the developmental path and have to be looked at on an individual basis. A good example is Visa/work related issues. This issue become prominent this past winter when two Rangers prospects, Alexi Ogando and Omar Beltre, were finally allowed back in the United States after being banned for 5 years due to their involvement in a human trafficking ring. Missing 5 years is a bit extreme, but its not uncommon for a player to have visa related issues and miss a season, or a huge chunk of a season, and it sets back his development and where he is on the curve. Sometimes players are suspended for a season or a chunk of it for disciplinary reasons or for performance enhancing drugs. The latter obviously casts a light on the player’s prospect status, but in the case of the former, it might not be a reflection of the player’s on the field talent, it could just be an indication that the player has off the field issues. In these types of situations, the age related to level argument needs to be examined closer on a more case by case basis.
The big takeaway from this is simple. When you look at a player’s stat line, the first thing you should be asking is “how old is this player now, what league is he in, and what is the average prospect age in this league”. This gives you a great starting point. Some players who are much older than their competition are still legitimate prospects, it just means they have a lot more to prove when they advance, and people will be skeptical of their results at their current level. On the other side, a guy who performs in a league where he is younger than the average prospect has to be viewed as a bit more promising, because he’s showing advanced skills for his age/competition. Like I said in the intro, this is something that makes logical sense, but I figured it might help if I wrote it out in a bit of detail for those who aren’t familiar with the concept or why it is important. In baseball, everything is relative, and context is vital when evaluating any player or stat line. Some guys will thrive from day 1, forcing a promotion at every step, and make a quick and speedy ascent up the minor league ladder. Other guys will get out of the gate strong, hit the wall, and then take a few steps back before moving forward. Other guys will come out slow, spend 3-4 years in the low minors, then emerge. And then you have guys like Garrett Jones of the Pirates who spend 6 or 7 years in the minors, completely off the radar, and then emerge to hit ridiculous amounts of home runs out of nowhere. Baseball is a funny game. We deal in generalities, and in general, age related to level is vitally important, but as is the case in most areas of life, there are always exceptions.
Around the Horn
In this section, I’m going to just briefly look at the bigger name prospects at each affiliate on a weekly basis and try and pick out a few interesting tidbits to share. Unlike the affiliate reports that our contributors churn out every week, I won’t be going until detail about the teams as a whole, just highlighting a few guys with numbers that jump out at me, both good and bad.
Lakewood: If you’ve followed my commentary over the last year or so, you know I’ve been somewhat skeptical of Sebastian Valle. I ranked him 10th in my Top 30, lower than BA (7th) and BP (5th), and noted that I was worried about his approach at the plate. As of Sunday morning, he’s played 31 games this year and logged 118 AB; .203/.256/.271. In 131 PA, he has 9 BB (6.9%) and 31 K (23.7%) to go with only 6 extra base hits. Valle’s BABIP is .293, which is a touch low, but not wildly so that we could assume he’s been terribly unlucky. Hes hitting about 90 points better against RHP and he’s been better on the road, but the numbers are very worrying on Valle. He doesn’t turn 20 until the end of July, so he’s still young for the SAL, but this is his second attempt at the league, and starting back there next year would really take some of the shine off his prospect star for me. The other guy at the Lakewood roster who I’ve been focused on is Brody Colvin. I was extremely high on Colvin heading into this year, ranking him 7th on my top 10. Prep pitchers are the biggest wildcards, as some guys are more advanced than others, and some guys are ready for the quick jump. In the case of Colvin, it appears he might not have been ready for the jump. In 30 IP, he’s logged 22 strikeouts against 15 walks, neither ratio in the range you want to see. More concerning is that he’s allowed 39 hits in 30 IP. Guys with big power arms are often prone to wildness and lots of walks, but to be this hittable is somewhat of a concern. A .357 BABIP is very high, though his 10% line drive rate is a few ticks below average. More importantly for me is the lack of strikeouts. Some guys are going to take longer to develop. Colvin is only 19, and would have been age appropriate for the NYPL this season. Another high profile prep guy, Jarred Cosart, is in his 3rd pro season, for example, and is at the same level. Colvin may have been aggressively pushed, but at least at this point he should know what it is he needs to work on and improve.
Clearwater: I won’t lie, I’d basically forgotten about Cody Overbeck. As a senior sign in the 2008 draft, he put up a modest line of .272/.305/.459 in 311 PA. The Phillies did the smart thing by jumping him to A+ ball, where he was still old for the league, but it was better than leaving him in Lakewood. He struggled all season, posting a disappointing .681 OPS. But then just the other day we find out that he was basically nursing an injury all season in 2009, which he had corrected in the offseason. He’s come out gangbusters this year, putting up a line of .336/.396/.664 in 144 PA. The 9% BB rate is passable, and though the 20.8% K rate is on the highish side, its in line for a guy with an ISO of .328. Overbeck has socked 24 extra base hits already this season, including 9 home runs. While a .991 OPS v RHP is obviously great, Overbeck has destroyed lefties, hitting .447/.533/.842 in 38 AB. The key now is going to be his jump to AA. At 23, he turns 24 in early June, and will then be pressing the boundaries of the acceptable prospect age line in A+. A promotion to AA and a strong finish to 2010 will put him firmly back on the prospect radar at a position completely devoid of prospects in the Phillies system. The big question then becomes his ability to stay at 3B defensively. That said, a Greg Dobbs-esque career could still be in his cards, and after two very slow seasons to get his pro career started, that’s nothing to sneeze at.
Reading: Reading has essentially been the Domonic Brown show this season, and when he leaves, there are going to be a lot of disappointed Reading Phillies fans. All of the numbers are fantastic. A .402 OB%, a .653 slugging %, 5 stolen bases, 17 extra base hits, and a .337 batting average for good measure. He is striking out a modestly high clip, but this shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. There was an article written this past spring about Charlie Manuel working with Brown to try and tap into his raw power. Most scouts had been split on where Brown’s power potential would end up, some thinking maybe only 15-20 HR and others thinking 30-35 was possible. It appears Manuel may have unlocked that power, and though he will strike out more, as a middle of the order hitter in the future, you’re willing to trade more strikeouts for 10 more HR a year. Brown has shown plenty of willingness to work the count and draw walks, and the power has fully emerged this year. Another big key this season has been his continued solid approach against LHP, as he’s posted a line of .292/.379/.667 against lefties in 2010. Brown will play the entire 2010 season at age 22, and there are no real weaknesses in his game, at least offensively, so its just going to be a matter of him logging AB’s and gaining experience against better pitching.
Lehigh Valley: If you listen to Giants GM Brian Sabean, AAA baseball sucks. I think this might be going a bit far, but its clear that from a developmental standpoint, the Phillies have decided that AAA will be used in the traditional sense, keeping guys here who are ready to help in the major leagues. The roster is filled with journeyman on the position player side of the ledger with the exception of maybe John Mayberry, and on the pitching side its a mix of filler guys and legit arms, mainly in the bullpen. Antonio Bastardo is apparently going to be on the Sergio Escalona plan this year, and you have to wonder if maybe Scott Mathieson will get the call should another guy go down. Speaking of Mayberry, he’s putting up decent enough numbers; .274/.354/.496. That reverse split I mentioned early in the season, when he was hitting righties better than lefties, predictably reversed itself, and he’s now hitting .321/.406/.536 v LHP, compared to an .819 OPS v RHP. The problem for Mayberry is his age, and the big league team one level up. At 26 now, he’s basically at the end of the developmental road. The bigger issue is he has Ben Francisco ahead of him on the depth chart, and Ben Francisco himself could end up on the side of a milk carton any day now. With 3 starting OF that play 155 games a year, the only chance Mayberry has of seeing big league time this year is probably with an injury, though he would have definite use during interleague play, if the Phillies were willing to re-configure the roster a bit. On the pitching side, it would be nice to see Bastardo really pitch well now, which might prompt the team to use him from Day 1 next season.
In a note unrelated to any of the affiliates, I hope the Phillies are able to keep David Herndon all season. As I tweeted a few days ago, he’s been ridiculously unlucky this year on balls in play, with a BABIP of .479, and absurdly high rate. He’s given up 23 hits (see the BABIP), but has issued only 1 unintentional walk. Herndon’s FIP is 3.02, his xFIP is 4.12, yet his actual ERA is 5.11. I hope the Phillies are looking at this and they understand the same thing I do. He’s been blooped and dinked to death, with broken bat shots falling in left and right, and he’s shown good control, not unnecessarily getting himself into jams with free passes. On the season, his fastball has an average velocity of almost 93mph, with hard sink and movement, and I’ve seen his fastball get up to 95 this year. His secondary pitches are still a work in progress, though I think his slider has shown some improvement. The bottom line is, he’s been really unlucky on balls in play, and over time, a .479 BABIP is not sustainable. He has a really live arm, and if the Phillies can get him through this season, they have full control over him beyond this year, including the ability to use him at AAA next year to refine his secondary stuff. Its not too difficult for me to envision him as a solid 7th/8th inning guy, at a fraction of the price we’d have to pay for one of those guys on the open market. I really hope they’re able to keep him around. Charlie Manuel has mainly done a good job of using him in the right spots, he should be pitching in blow outs either way, and eventually he might be able to develop into a guy who you can trust in more high leverage spots. But for now, he’s just been very unlucky, I really like the raw stuff.
On the draft
I’ll use this section to talk about all things draft in my weekly piece, but as we get closer to the draft and then after the picks are made, I’ll try and write a few dedicated pieces that are separate from the weekly column. I’m actually working on a piece now about draft spending, but I won’t promise when it will be ready, because its quite in depth. As I outlined a few weeks ago, the Phillies generally have two preferences in the draft; tall, projectable righthanded pitchers and raw, athletic position players. So I’ve been looking at draft videos, reading scouting reports, and trying to check out different sites that offer good draft insight. A few guys are jumping out at me, in addition to the guys I previously mentioned in Cam Bedrosian, Aaron Sanchez, and Jacoby Jones.
Anthony Ranaudo, RHP (LSU) – Back in February, Ranaudo was a sure fire top 5 pick in this year’s draft. Then his elbow started barking, he came back (probably too quickly), and he’s been knocked around since his return. Lots of scouts are now talking about him tumbling down draft boards, possibly even out of the first round. But here is one thing that never made sense to me. Ranaudo was one of the best prospects in college baseball in 2009. Did he forget how to pitch? Is his elbow issue something that is going to derail his chances of playing at the next level? Last year his pitching line, in the best baseball conference in the country; 124 IP – 3.04 ERA – 93 H – 50 BB – 159 K. Really outstanding stuff. He was pitching fine this season before the elbow issue. So here is my question. Did he rush back because he was worried about his draft stock? Was he pressing, trying to be too fine in front of scouts, only to do himself more harm? What was once a top 5 pick in the draft now looks like a guy who might slide all the way down the board and possibly out of the first round. He is advised by Scott Boras, which clouds things even more. The Phillies might not take the risk, and he could never return to form. But I know that he’s a beast of man, he throws a big fastball, a power curveball, and had all the makings of the first college pitcher to go this year, with #1/2 starter upside. There was no way the Phillies could have had him prior to his struggles. Would they still want him now? Does the Joe Savery pick (guy coming off injury, projected to rebound) scare them away from a potentially similar pick? I think they are two different circumstances, but I can see where some would connect the dots. At #27, in what looks like a down draft, the Phillies will be rolling the dice either way. I’d love to see them take a chance on Ranaudo if he’s there for them to take.
Stetson Allie, RHP (prepster) – Allie appears to be moving up draft boards, and probably won’t be there at 27, but he’s a guy I like quite a bit, and fits the Phillies profile of power righthander with a big arm.
Yordy Cabrera, SS/3B (Prep) – I’m not going to campaign for Cabrera, but I’m pointing him out because his profile screams “Phillies draft pick”. I mean, read this summary
Summary: Cabrera certainly looks the part of a ballplayer in terms of his build and how he carries himself on the baseball field. He’s got the raw tools as well — it’s just a question of whether he’ll learn to use them consistently. He’s got plenty of power, but there is some concern about his ability to recognize pitches well enough to tap into that power. His days as a shortstop are likely numbered, with a move to third or an outfield corner in his future. His athleticism and upside will have many teams interested, and the team who believes it can tap into that will be the one to take him.
Matt Harvey, RHP (UNC) – I remember campaigning for Harvey in 2007 as he fell down draft boards, ultimately being taken by the Angels and then deciding on college instead of pro ball. He’s back, but he’s really still the same guy, as he has big time arm strength and not a whole lot else. He’s still a project, but his fastball alone should get him drafted in the first round, and the consensus seems to have him in the 15-25 range, so we likely won’t get a shot at him. The ball really does explode out of his hand though, and its not that tough to envision him consistently hitting 94-95 as a starter at his peak.
Brandon Workman, RHP (Texas) – Another guy from the 2007 draft, this one a guy the Phillies intimately know. The story surrounding his bonus demands will always remain a mystery (unless both sides spill the beans), but needless to say, the Phillies thought they had a deal, and then they didn’t. Workman is back, and looks like he’ll go in the first round, anywhere from the 13 range to the back of the first round. Would the Phillies take another shot at him? Who knows.
And finally, we’ll wrap things up with a mailbag, where I try and answer the questions you’ve submitted.
Based on preseason expectations what position player and pitcher have really jumped up in the early part of this season and which have stepped back some? – Dennis
Thanks for the email Dennis. I think for a big step forward, I’ll go with Jonathan Villar, SS for the Lakewood team. Despite being one of the younger guys in the league, he’s fit in quite well, hitting .305 in 150 PA, and has chipped in with 8 SB. His approach at the plate is still a tad raw, but he didn’t turn 19 until a few weeks ago, so he’s well ahead of the curve. I had him ranked 18th (4 spots ahead of BA, who had him 22nd), but if I was doing a mid-season update, I’d move him up at least 4-5 spots. As for the guys going in the other direction, I think I might move Jiwan James, Freddy Galvis and Anthony Gose down a few notches. I’m not overly worried about anyone just yet, but those guys (along with Seb Valle) have gotten off to slowish starts.
Since the phils draft so many “projects,” one would think they’d put a lot of emphasis on baseball skill instruction. Do you get the impression the phils emphasize this compared to other teams? In your opinion, does the player development team show any particular proficiency at instruction? Or do they just get lucky when projects develop? – Tom
Thanks for the email Tom. This is something that I think about quite a bit, but its something that is really impossible to gauge or compare across organizations, because we don’t have first hand experience from other orgs. The best way to understand how the instruction varies is to talk to guys who have played in multiple organizations at similar levels. The Phillies obviously aren’t neglecting development and haven’t, but its tough to tell who is better than who, and in most cases, it comes down to the player being willing to receive instruction, give feedback on what is working or not working for him, and then tailor a plan to make improvements. The Phillies have shown some ability to help smooth out the kinks with some of their young arms, as they’ve quieted down Jarred Cosart’s delivery and successfully converted Jesus Sanchez from a catcher into a pitcher. I think its really a mixed bag, and probably similar across all teams.
Which of the ‘old for their level’ college guys (Hyatt, Way, Overbeck, or others) do you think have a chance to contribute in the majors? – Jonesman
Good question Jonesman. The three guys you listed all strike me as potential big leaguers, but as backups/relievers. Hyatt and Way might have enough to start, but I think both are likely going to make it as relievers. Overbeck right now reminds me a bit of a RH version of Greg Dobbs. He’s not going to win a gold glove at 3B, is probably better suited to 1B, but could probably also handle LF and RF on occasion. His emergence this year kind of came out of nowhere, but the injury last year does answer a lot of questions I had about his sub par 2009. All 3 guys still have a number of hurdles to climb over before they are threatening the 25 man roster.
Hi, I like the progress of some of Philly’s major prospects this year. I was just wondering when you saw Domonic Brown getting the call to AAA? I know he is putting up decent numbers but I did not know if they were taking the Michael Taylor route with him or what you thought the plans would be? Thank you. – bulldog
Well bulldog, I view Domonic Brown as well down the depth chart right now, which means the Phillies really have no reason to rush him to AAA. Could he handle it right now? Sure. But he’s facing quality pitching in AA, and that’s what they’ll want him to face at AAA. If anything, he might actually be seeing better pitching in AA, because AAA is normally filled with career minor leaguers and guys without the stuff to survive in the big leagues. AA might have a few more legitimate potential big leaguers in the mix. I still don’t think Brown is with the team next year, as I believe Werth is coming back, so along those lines, he’d spend all of 2011 in AAA, meaning they could keep him in Reading almost all season.
Post game handshake
This is where I wrap things up and give my final thoughts. Right now, there are a number of guys who’ve gotten off to slow starts, and I’ve mentioned some of them above. Tyson Gillies is another guy who has been slow out of the gate and has had to deal with injury concerns. Phillippe Aumont is working on his mechanics and trying to get straightened out, and there are others. Its still early, we’re not even to June yet, so its not time to panic or overreact. Times like these always remind me that the minor leagues are all about development, and some guys will take longer to develop than others. Prospect status is fluid, you can go from off the radar to legit guy in a few weeks, and if we’re not careful, from legit guy to fringe guy in a few weeks. After the draft, when we sort out the short season affiliates, will be the time to start to really drill down on these statistics and figure out who is off to maybe more than a slow start, and who has maybe vaulted themselves up a few rungs on the prospect ladder. For now, lets just follow the day to day box score grind and hope for the best.
Until next week…