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You Can Learn A Lot By Watching – Down on the Farm

May 15, 2011

May 8, 2011 – Lake County Captains @ Lansing Lugnuts (Low A, Midwest League)

It’s all fun and games until the pitcher gets nailed in the arm with a comebacker.

Last Sunday, for the first time ever, I went to see a Minor League baseball game. Attending a family function about an hour east of Lansing on Saturday, my wife agreed to accompany me to Cooley Law School Stadium (formerly known as Oldsmobile Park) to watch the youngest Blue Jays full season affiliate play host to the Indians’ franchise at the same developmental level. Studying my trusty Baseball America Prospect Handbook and conferring with Baseball Prospectus’ prospect guru, Kevin Goldstein, I was set to follow the game with viewpoint (if not the skill) of a scout and as much inside knowledge as I could find.

But first came the disappointment. Two of the top position player prospects on each team, Lake County third baseman Giovany Urshela and Lansing catcher Carlos Perez, were both given the afternoon off. That left me looking at Lake County starting pitcher, Michael Goodnight, who Kevin Goldstein had described to me as “Not a stud, but lanky command guy who keeps hitters guessing.” In a recent email exchange. I was also interested in seeing their catcher, young Alex Lavisky, known more for being highly touted Nationals’ prospect Stetson Allie’s catcher last year in high school than much else, although he was given a healthy $1 million signing bonus to forego a university scholarship to sign on with the Indians as an 8th round pick last year. Also of note on the Lake County roster was LeVon Washington, who could not come to terms when drafted at the tail end of the first round by the Rays in 2009, failed to qualify academically to play for the University of Florida, and had to prove himself at Chipola Junior College. His talent was evident enough to be drafted again in the 2nd round this time and forced the Indians to dish out $1.2 million, the slot figure for the 26th pick of the first round.

The Lugnuts are a team that I, as a Jays’ watcher, follow rather closely. While disappointed that Perez would not be playing, and that Jake Marisnick would be DH’ing, not allowing me to view his leather work, I had a question or two about each prospect on the roster and, in as much as one game can provide answers, I believe I am closer to them now than I was before.

***

In general, there are certain things you can’t see in scouting videos that only actual attendance can illustrate. For example, much like the men’s leagues I used to belong to, only two umpires work games at the Low A level. The upper levels add the third ump to the proceedings. The umps in attendance are, like the players they are arbitrating, not yet ready for the show. With dedication and perseverance, maybe home plate ump Mike Patterson or infield (on first base when the bases were empty, and in front and to the left of second base when runners were aboard) ump Dustin Klinghagen will move up the rankings and we can lambast them like new Joe Wests one day. Until then, it bears mentioning that balls and strikes at the Low A level are not called with the same consistency as we are used to in the big time. As much as we can whine and moan when borderline pitches are poorly called, down at Low A, at least for this game, the border is a blurrier concept. If this game was at all representative of the level, we should all be somewhat more cognizant of control pitchers and less quick to judge great K-BB ratios compiled in the early pros. As Jason Parks is wont to say, we are better off judging these young athletes not by the numbers in the box score, but by the way the opposing hitters react. The umpiring might skew the count one way or another, but the quality of swing against, and the type of contact made are far more telling.

The Captains’ starter, the aforementioned Michael Goodnight, had, only five days prior, held the same Lugnuts to one hit across six innings, striking out 10. Not quite as lanky as Kevin Goldstein made him out to be, the 6’-4” righty attacked hitters with a low ¾ delivery. Maybe it’s because they had seen him so recently, on this day, Goodnight’s stuff wasn’t fooling anyone. He threw his fastball between 89-92MpH, touching 96 on the stadium’s unrealiable gun, mixing in a changeup and a curveball, both in the mid to high 70’s. As the Lugnuts weren’t swinging much in the first inning, I could see decent location from Goodnight, with a slight tendency to miss his spots on the arm-side. By the second inning, I could no longer tell about his command as so few pitches actually reached the catcher. The Lugnuts batted around in the inning, scoring 7 runs through 11 batters.  This was not a case of death by a thousand cuts, rather the Lugnuts were hitting goodnight hard, with a number of balls punched through to the outfield. This was compounded by a dropped catch on a fielder’s choice, a muffed pickup in the outfield that allowed three Lugnuts an extra base and a passed ball on a strike-out (Goodnight’s only of the game). As the Lugnut batters were jumping on Goodnight early in their at bats and he was not adjusting, Captains’ captain (err..manager) Ted Kubiak pulled his starter before the second was through, leaving the game in the hands of a succession of non-prospect arms.

Sticking for the moment with the Captains, LeVon Washington also failed to impress, getting only one ball out of the infield in five trips to the plate. He walked once, getting stranded at third base, and singles once to left field, finding himself erased as the next batter lined out to shortstop with Washington on the move, easily getting doubled off first base. Lavisky walked twice, but never hit the ball beyond the infield dirt.

All told, there were two members of the Captains who stood out in this game. First, the appropriately named Tyler Cannon. Old for Low A, the shortstop was positioned at third-base, where he made two fine defensive plays ranging to his right. He snagged two hard hit ground ball on his backhand close to the foul line, pivoting and firing a strong throw to beat the runner to first-base. In addition to showing off his fine arm, Cannon was also responsible for taking the Lugnuts’ starting pitcher out of the game. Egon Smith was cruising along with two outs in the top of the third inning, when Cannon smashed a ball right back at the mound, striking Smith’s upper (pitching) arm on one bounce. After a mound conference with the Lansing manager, trainer and others, the tall Ute stayed in the game for four more batters, but it was apparent that his effectiveness was over, as he was hit hard in allowing three runs to the Captains before mercy in the form of an infield pop-up ended the inning and the game for Egan Smith. More on Smith in a moment. Cannon, as a 23-year-old in Low A, is absolutely a non-prospect. But as of this writing, he leads the MWL in batting average, sitting at .366 through 93 at bats, showing both pop and patience. He has since been promoted to High A, where he debuted on Friday reaching base three times in four trips to the dish. Again, not really a prospect, but I will keep an eye on him.

The other Captain worth noting was DH Alex Monsalve. Normally a catcher, Monsalve just turned 19 and is in his first full season baseball experience. Still raw (6-26 BB/K ratio in 141 PA), Monsalve reached base in both of his first two at bats in this game (both before Smith left the game), singling and doubling. Originally signed for $715,000 out of Venezuela, he has received plaudits in the past for his athleticism. A good full season for Lake County could see Monsalve shoot up prospect charts next year.

***

Egan Smith is not viewed as a serious prospect by anyone. A 6’-5” lefty, drafted in the 7th round of the 2009 draft out the College of Southern Nevada (ie. Bryce Harper U), Smith put up very nondescript numbers in his first taste of full-season ball last year. Allowing 100 hits over 81.1 innings, striking out 65. To his benefit, he kept the ball in the park, surrendering only 4 home runs. Hits allowed at that low level can be tricky, as defenses are not so great and many balls that would be caught or turned into outs at the major league level, become base hits (if not extra base hits) in Low A. I don’t have handy balls-in-play data to compare the differences between leagues, but it is a sad fact of life in the low minors that hit totals are not as useful as they might be in The Show. So what does Smith throw? Using Jason Parks’ scale for pitching grades, Smith’s velocity is below average – a 40. If the stadium gun was trust-worthy, he sat 87-89. Some pitchers in attendance charting informed me that the stadium gun was actually a bit hot, as Smith was more regularly sitting in the mid-80’s. Smith also looked like he was throwing in the mid-80’s, as his delivery was extremely smooth, with little, to no obvious effort expended. He threw from straight over the top, getting good downhill plane on his throws. Before taking a ball to his triceps, he was very adept at using his height to his advantage, getting four swinging strikeouts in the first two innings. He also fiddles with a changeup (81), slider (83) and curve (67). To these eyes, the slider was the most effective of the three secondary offerings, but nothing special. I think Smith is good enough to rise in the organization, but even as a LOOGY, I would need to see him dominate against lefty batters. The Captains had only two lefties in their lineup (the top two hitters), and they had one single in four at bats against Smith, with one strikeout. His absolute ceiling is as a Brian Tallett type, with a similar arsenal, height and handedness. As much as Jays’ fans maligned Tallett in his last year on the roster, that type of player has some uses. Unfortunately, that is Smith’s ceiling. His floor is High A, and I think he may pitch there later this summer.

While Smith was held to three innings, the other Lugnut pitchers were unable to leave any sort of impression as anything other than organizational arms. None of Marcus Walden, Steven Turnbull or Scott Gracey showed more than low-90’s heat and only Walden showed good command of his. Alex Pepe is a sidearmer, but lacks the modicum of control necessary to make that approach succeed. And he’s 24. Now, no one saw Jesse Carlson coming, and is these guys come around, no one will have seen it, either.

Even without Carlos Perez on the field, the Lugnuts put together a starting lineup with many names of interest for Blue Jay prospect hounds.

Marcus Brisker (CF) – In the leadoff slot, Brisker looks much like he did in his scouting video posted on MLB.com prior to being drafted four years ago. Tall and rangy at 6’-3”, 210, Brisker would not look out-of-place as a wide receiver, although his second sport in high school was actually basketball. This is Brisker’s third attempt at Low A, and one must believe it is his last chance. He looks the part and his athleticism is fairly evident in his deceptively fast loping stride, but his instincts are lacking. Brisker has struck out in nearly one-third of his professional at-bats and struck out on a chase pitch to Goodnight in the 2nd, the only Lugnut to whiff against the Captain’s starter. The ball scooted far away from the catcher and Brisker just stared at it for about two beats before the cries from the dugout reminded him that he had to sprint to first base. He then stole second (one of two steals for Brisker in the game), and scored from second on a force play that just took far too long to be executed by the Captains’ infield. Brisker singled twice more, once beating out a grounder to third base. He made a few plays in centre field, but nothing beyond routine. Considering the lack of progress making contact across the past three years, I can’t see Brisker making a career for himself in the game of baseball.

Marcus Knecht (LF) – A rare Toronto-area bred prospect, this slugger bears little actual resemblance to Joey Votto. Hitting with a closed stance, feet parallel to the pitching rubber, Knecht had a bland game, singling in his first at bat, driving in a run on a flyball to right field in his next plate appearance, and that’s about all. Not notable, but interesting, he did not record a single put out in left field, but had three flyballs drop in front of him for base hits, all in the third inning. From my vantage point, I could not tell whether he should have got to any one of those balls on the fly, but baseball is a funny game that way. That said, the very next day, Knecht went 4-4 and earned himself a write-up on Kevin Goldstein’s Minor League Update, where his “good hitting skills and plus raw power” were noted.

Jake Marisnick (DH) – While I would have preferred to see him in the field as well, this was better than nothing. Marisnick bats from a pronounced crouch, which, I feel, left him out in front on some of the sharper breaking balls that were thrown in his direction. Marisnick had a poor game, hitting into two double plays in addition to the always-exciting infield pop-up. He has been very successful thus far on the season, mentioned by Kevin Goldstein as one who seems to be breaking out, his stance is the kind the is kept the way it is as long as the results are there. When the results leave, its lack of orthodoxy tends to invite tinkering. Seeing him flail at breaking pitches down and away, in this game, this seemed to be a product of his stance. I’d like to hear how he has performed in general against breaking balls this year, to be sure that this game was not simply an anomaly. In any case, I’d like to get another viewing of Marisnick.

*photos courtesy of my lovely wife, Maya

K.C. Hobson (1B) – A bat only prospect, good bloodline (father Butch was a long-time pro), Hobson has not been hitting enough to improve his prospect status. While he reached base each time up, once was through a fielder’s choice, and a second one was via an infield error. He also walked and singled to right field. He also contributed additional excitement to the game by throwing a run-down toss off the back of the base-runner and away for an error. That was his sixth error in less than thirty games at first base. Not good. Only twenty years old and in his first extended taste of full season ball, I wouldn’t write him off just yet – after all, David Cooper was promoted off of a few good weeks in AAA after two poor years at AA. Any contributions from Hobson will be far into the future, if at all.

Michael Crouse (RF) – Like Brisker and Marisnick, Crouse is a physical specimen. In his two previous professional seasons Crouse showed little other than speed on the base paths with 40 steals in 118 games. This season, his first one fully in full season ball, he has added an additional 15 steals (caught stealing only once), including one in this game. His hitting is also showing marked improvement on is early professional experiences, as his strikeout rate, which stood at a hair under 33% entering this season, currently stands at a much more manageable 22%. For good measure, he also has five outfield assists on the young season. In the eighth inning, Crouse took hold of a pitch left up and took the ball for a long ride, up and out to the hill beyond the fence in left-centre field. A powerful stroke from a very wide batting stance, the homer was hit off of a pitcher named Clayton Ehlert, an over-aged right-hander, signed by the Indians as a non-drafted free agent after four years at Texas A&M. Does the home run have less merit off of a non-prospect like Ehlert? Maybe, but I can’t say how to judge that. The quality of the hurler is not under Crouse’s control – he still has to reach out and touch the ball. If the improvements in his control over the strike zone are real, in conjunction with his plus running and seemingly strong right field arm, he looks like a good candidate to move up prospect lists.

Oliver Dominguez (2B) – Just a guy making a little bit of money playing baseball. Did not show any average or better tools on either side of the ball.

Bryson Namba (3B) – Recently returned from a suspension for his role in an on-field altercation, Namba lacks in offensive tools, but made a few pretty plays with the leather. Namba showed excellent range to both left and right, as well as a strong throwing arm. He committed a throwing error when he tried to do too much, getting fancy in the process. In the fourth inning, the Hawaiian ranged far to his right to pick up a ground ball in front of Gustavo Pierre. Namba then pirouetted and fired a strong throw to first base, or at least in the vicinity of first base, his throw sailing wide for an error. It takes time for a person to learn their own limitations, and I would expect that type of play to be chewed up and left for the shortstop in the future. Unfortunately, the lack of bat is a problem. While his strikeout rate has declined in his first taste of the Midwest League, his is simply not making hard enough contact for it to matter much.

Gustavo Pierre (SS) – Highly touted as a rare Latin American signee, Pierre is absolutely not a shortstop. Before this season, he committed 43 error in 106 professional games. This year, he is already up to 21 misplays in his first 30 games. In this game, he dropped a ball due to simply sloppy mechanics on a 3rd inning grounder. He`s only 19, but he often looked overmatched, in all facets of the game.

Joseph Bowen (C) – even Low A needs backup catchers.

Though not germane to my intentions at this game, I would be at least somewhat remiss if I did not mention that the Lugnuts defeated the Captains by a final score of 9-6. Even though the Captains outhit the Lugnuts (10-9), and walked much more (7-2), they managed to strand 11 baserunners, while the Lugnuts plated all but two of theirs.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. @NorthYorkJays permalink
    May 15, 2011 5:36 pm

    I really enjoy these. Keep up the good work.

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  1. Down on the Farm – Jays milb Thoughts – July 17, 2011 « section203

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