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July 19, 2011

Prospects Will Break Your Heart

Caught Up in the Complex League

by Jason Parks

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It’s hard to sell complex league baseball to the masses: The talent is immature, the names are merely names, the jerseys are often vague and free of personal identification, the environment is isolated and empty, and the theater of the event is off-off-off-off Broadway. But I’m going to give it a try.

What will it take to get you to walk away with a piece of Arizona League baseball in your hand? Financing is available for those who qualify, and if you wilt under the weight of my smile, I might be able to throw in a refrigerator magnet, or a flavored lolly for the little ones. Let me know if I can be of any assistance. I think you would look great with some AZL action in your life. It makes you attractive to the sex of your choosing. Don’t be shy. Here at Baseball Prospectus, we offer the best package. Don’t be fooled. You can’t match our guarantees. Look around, and let me know if you have any questions. My door is as open as my saccharine smile. Let’s make a deal.

I recently spent a week in the Arizona sun, under heat so oppressive and vengeful I swear it was personal; my skin went several rounds before collapsing, and my mental state devoured the sweet breath of air conditioning like Wade Boggs (supposedly) devoured beers on a cross-country flight. I mentioned the on-field talent, and I can’t stress enough how unrefined and immature it is, but there is something rewarding in watching prospects during the morning hour of their development. You get to stand on the construction site while the framework is built, while the foundation is poured. Over time, the design might prove to have flaws, or the assembly inadequate, but in the early stages of the process, you get to exist in a conceptual world, a world where the future is always brighter than reality. The promise plays games with your senses.

Complex league baseball has a sharp edge on both sides of the blade, with abstract projection running parallel to the projection pitfalls. It’s at once my favorite level of baseball to watch and the most difficult game to scout. Regardless of what happens, you can’t avoid direct contact with that knife. I’ve accepted this eventuality.

So what did I see during my eight-day adventure? I saw a full-spectrum of futures nightly; players with little to no chance of escaping the level shared a field with players who can successfully wear the pants of a prospect. In my notebook, I wrote “NP” [read: non-prospect] more than I wrote grades above 50, but I stumbled upon more dreams than I had anticipated, and that made the time in the heat more bearable, if not borderline enjoyable. Let’s take a look at a few of the highlights of the trip, presented as bullet points, with snapshot scouting observations of the on-field talent and some personal observations of the trip itself.

  • Who: Elvis Araujo, LHP, Cleveland Indians
    The case for: This 20-year-old lefty has a huge (Sabathia-like) body and a very promising fastball. The Venezuelan uses an overhand delivery and is very “arm-y” in his release, but the stuff looked very good. His fastball was in the 92-95 range during his five innings of work, touching 97 on one occasion. The plus pitch had some natural sink and run, and avoided the barrel most of the night. Araujo also delivered several good 11-to-5 curveballs, but they weren’t consistent; the pitch often featured a soft break and loose rotation. Araujo’s stuff is too advanced for the complex league, and if he can find an edge with his secondary stuff, he could develop into a very good prospect. After losing years of developmental time to Tommy John surgery/recovery, Araujo is playing catch-up, and like most players on this list, will need to prove his worth outside of Arizona before people will start to pay attention.
  • Who: Robel Garcia, 3B, Cleveland Indians
    TCF: Garcia is an 18-year-old third baseman from the Dominican Republic with an unexpectedly nice glove and a good feel for hitting. Garcia’s glove caught my eye after a few nice plays in the field, one of which saw him dive glove-side for a ball in the left-side hole, pocket the ball, find his feet, acquire a quick grip on the ball, and fire a strong, accurate throw to first to get a baserunner that clocked 4.3 seconds down the line. It was an advanced play from a prospect who appears to have some polish and projection. Garcia thrill at the plate—his performance was uneventful—but I liked his swing and overall approach to hitting. I would need to see more plate appearances to offer specifics, but I saw enough to know Garcia has the tools to hit.
  • You can buy Victoria (beer) in the Surprise, Arizona, Wal-Mart, which is really awesome except you have to first enter and then negotiate the environment of the Surprise, Arizona, Wal-Mart.
  • Who: Trey Haley, RHP, Cleveland Indians
    TCF: The 21-year-old Haley was getting in some work on a rehab assignment, so he’s not technically a complex league talent, but he was by far the best arm I saw the entire trip. I wasn’t expecting much; despite being a Texan, Haley hadn’t impressed me in the past, mostly due to his well below-average command. I figured him to be a bust. I can say this with all confidence: Trey Haley is a major-league pitcher. It’s just a matter of time before he explodes through the system. However, he belongs in the bullpen, and I think he can stick around pitching in a late-innings role. Let me explain.

    With a violent delivery from a three-quarters slot, Haley pumps fastballs in the 95-98 range with some deception in the release thanks to his high front side and late hand break. Seventy-grade velocity is 70-grade velocity; the level of competition doesn’t play a role in that specific piece of tangible evidence.

    After a heavy dose of the fastball in his first inning of work, Haley introduced two breaking balls in his second inning of work, both of which looked like major league-quality pitches. His curve clocked in the 80-83 range, with late vertical break off of an 11-to-5 shape, while his slider was a filthy monster at 86 mph, entering the zone with sharp tilt before escaping beyond the outside corner for a no-chance swinging strike. Haley’s stuff suggests major-league late-inning potential, but the command needs to allow the stuff to shine. If it comes together, he’s going to move fast; the stuff impressed me that much.
  • Who: Jochi Ogando, RHP, Seattle Mariners
    TCF: This 18-year-old Dominican righty has impressive size and fastball velocity and showed three pitches, though his command is well below average. Standing at 6-foot-5 with the arms of a promising shot blocker, Ogando uses an over-the-top delivery to pump 92-95 mph fastballs, showing a big waist bend and good full-body execution. His curve is in the low 70s with a bubble in the break, but you can see the promise the 12-to-6 pitch shows if he can add velocity and vertical bite.

    Ogando located a few changeups in the 81 mph range with a deliberate release, but he has some nice fading action on the pitch itself. As I said, his command is well below average, and his arsenal is very raw, but you have to like Ogando’s size, the way his arm works, and the raw materials he brings to the table.
  • When I’m in Arizona, I only know what day of the week it is based on Chick-fil-A’s Sunday closing schedule. I always order a chicken sammich (no pickles*), waffle fries, and a diet coke. *If you omit pickles, you get a fresh sammich, rather than a sammich already wilting under a sunlamp.
  • Who: Martin (Esteilon) Peguero, SS, Seattle Mariners
    TCF:
    Considered one of the top international free agents available in the 2010 J2 window, this Dominican infielder signed for $1.1 million after the original figure of $2.9 million was reduced. Lauded for his bat projection, Peguero didn’t disappoint in that arena, showing quick, strong hands at the plate, good bat speed, and the ability to use an all-field approach.

    As advanced as Peguero’s hitting appears to be, his skills at shortstop don’t impress; his hands aren’t exactly soft, his actions lack fluidity, his footwork around second is sloppy, and his arm (while strong enough from a straight-on position) lacks the strength to inspire confidence with all the throws. He is only 17 years old, so he’ll continue to develop up the middle, but I don’t see the tools necessary to develop into a quality major-league shortstop. If the bat matures as planned, he will have value at another position, like second base.
  • When charting the game(s) while in the company of the players, it becomes quite clear that I have very little in common with people born after 1992. “So, do you prefer ‘Surfer Rosa’ or ‘Doolittle,’ ‘cause I’m a Surfer Rosa man?” Crickets. “So, how about that fastball?” Better.
  • Who: Phillips Castillo, OF, Seattle Mariners
    TCF:
    One of the big names available in the 2010 J2 window, Dominican outfielder Castillo has quickly acclimated to stateside ball and really impressed me in the three games I saw in person. Castillo was born in 1994, which makes him 17, which makes me feel like old, which makes me feel like drinking heavily.

    In the field, Castillo is athletic, but not a freak. His arm doesn’t stand out, and his skill set better-suited for left field.

    Castillo shows good bat control and quick hands, allowing him to stay inside the ball and make contact. His power shows in flashes, and I can see it in the swing, but it will take time to mature. Castillo is aggressive at the plate, looking to swing early and often, but this is the complex league, so the approach isn’t a concern now. In fact, I want to see an aggressive hitter, especially from a 17-year-old making his debut at a stateside level. He is learning to hit, and you can’t learn to hit if you don’t swing. He could hit for average and power, with plus tool projections at the plate, and more polish and game awareness than I expected to see from such a young player.
  • On my return trip to NYC, my flight was overbooked and my name was called and a request was made: “Mr. Parks, would you mind getting screwed over?” I minded, but was open-minded to the perks associated with getting screwed over. A $400 voucher was mentioned as compensation. Instead, I was re-routed to Cincinnati, where I was upgraded to first-class and encouraged to get blackout drunk on the amenities. I did. Thanks, Delta.
  • Who: Alfredo Morales/ Seattle Mariners
    TCF:
    Signed as an international free agent in summer 2009, Morales struggled in his 2010 stateside debut but has exploded so far in 2011, repeating the AZL and showing all the signs of a legit offensive threat. At the plate, the 18-year-old Dominican has a smooth left-handed swing, conducive for both contact and power, with some natural loft (not too extreme) and the ability to use his raw strength to create bat speed. It’s a nice swing. As he continues to develop, I see plus power emerging, although his hit tool might not reach the same heights.

    In the field, Morales is athletic and agile, but will struggle to stick in center field as he continues to mature physically; his most likely destination is right field. I don’t see the same offensive ceiling as Castillo, but Morales has serious power potential and an easy swing. He’s another promising outfielder in the Mariners system.
  • If you drink two venti mocha coconut frappuccinos and then stand in the sun all day, bad things will happen to you. By the way, the VMCF tastes like a liquefied and chilled Girl Scout cookie.
  • Who: Jordan Akins, OF, Texas Rangers
    TCF:
    Do you want to see an OFP report I wrote on Akins? The gap between present and future is extreme, but the tool-based ceiling is ridiculous. Of all the players I saw in Arizona, Akins has the highest ceiling. Here it is:

    Name:
    Jordan Akins
    DOB: 04/19/1992
    Birthplace: Locust Grove, GA
    HT/WT: 6’4”/ 200 lbs.
    Bats/Throws: R/R
    Position: OF (CF)

Tools

Present

Future

Notes

Hitting

35

50*

Open stance allows for vision and timing step; path to ball is quick; can lose strength w/ upper-body approach; solid-average (and possibly more)

Plate Discipline

30

50*

Aggressive at present; looks to drive fastball, w/ good extension and taste for oppo gap.

Power

30

70

Monster raw; shows juice in the bat; swing plane (at present) lacks much loft/backspin

Speed

70

65

Clocks to 1B in the 4.24-4.45 range, but has elite second gear; fluid speed; ++ athlete

Baserunning

40

60

Loose at times. Aggressive. Should develop into above-average weapon in the running game

Glove

45

60

Natural skill with the glove; plus overall coordination at the position. Unrefined

Range

55

60

Reads the ball well off the bat; good jumps and makes quick decisions/good angles to ball

Arm

55

60

Excellent raw arm strength; improving mechanics; long release at present

Accuracy

40

50

Shows good feel for target; throwing mechanics/footwork are a work in progress

POP Time

 

 

 

OFP

44

59

Wide gap between present/future; five-tool ability; should be able to stick in CF, w/ plus bat and speed

AOFP

 

61

The ceiling is at the All-Star level, as Akins flashes all five tools and projects avg/plus across the board

Body type: He’s a physical specimen with the combination of mature size and additional room for strength. He’s muscular, but not bulky. Akins is a fast-twitch athlete with a proportioned body. He has plus-plus natural athleticism and coordination, and was a Division-I football recruit.

Intangibles: He works hard in drills, has good focus and present maturity, and no makeup concerns.

Abilities: Akins has near elite-level athleticism, with plus-plus speed and raw strength, as well as coordination and fluidity in all movements. Akins is raw at the plate, but he shows a natural relationship to the bat, including contact ability and some barrel awareness in the zone. Starting with an open stance, Akins generates bat speed and leverage properly through his hips, using his hands well and getting the bat into the zone without much effort or noise. His contact is more advanced than his in-game power, but he shows some developing pop to right-center, and excellent extension and strength in his swing. At his peak, I can see a solid-average hitter (hit tool) who can hit 30-plus bombs if the power translates.

Akins’s speed is improving out of the box, with clocks in the 4.4/4.5 range this spring and 4.24-4.4 range so far in the complex league. As a right-handed hitter with swing mechanics that keep him in the box through his second extension, Akins doesn’t exactly explode out of the box, but his second gear might be the most impressive in the system. Once Akins reaches top speed, his running tool is overwhelming.

In the field, Akins’ pure athleticism allows him to cover serious real estate in center, with excellent lateral movements. His glove is already solid, and will improve with repetition, as will his routes and angles to the ball. His arm is a plus weapon, with plenty of raw strength and the foundation for sound mechanics and accuracy. All five tools are present, though they’re immature and unrefined. The transition from athlete to baseball player is underway, but the gap between present and future is still extreme.

Weaknesses: Akins is raw and has more athleticism than baseball skills. At the plate, Akins can lose bat speed by getting too upright and upper body-heavy in his swing. His aggressive approach isn’t a concern considering his age and level, but he’ll need to mature his approach to maximize opportunities and exploit situations against better competition. Despite having long arms, Akins’ path to the ball is good. However, his swing plane is flat, leading to good line-drive contact, but not the loft necessary for over-the-fence power. He needs to use his lower body more. Akins struggles with breaking stuff, especially on balls with vertical depth, where his plane can be exploited.

His raw speed is plus-plus, but the long follow-through on Akins’ swing keeps him in the box after contact. He sometimes plays too fast—especially on base, where his elite athleticism and aggressiveness can play a bit out of control.

In the field, Akins is raw and has a foundation for good footwork and fundamentals, but he often plays the game as an athlete first and a baseball player second. His arm is very strong, but he needs to refine his long release.

 Conclusion: Akins is a plus-plus athlete and has the raw tools to stick in center field (depending on how the body develops), the speed to be a weapon on the bases, and the bat to develop into a 50-grade hitter with above-average power. There is a wide gap between Akins’ present and future abilities, and he often relies too heavily on natural athleticism. He’s still in the process of developing and utilizing his tools in game action. If everything breaks in his favor (which rarely occurs), Akins could be a perennial All-Star from a premium position; right now, he’s a lottery ticket with legit five-tool potential. He might require another season in short-season ball to add the necessary skills to his game to play at the full-season level. Tool-based grade: 61: That’s a first-division starter in the majors and an All-Star-level talent.  

Jason Parks is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Jason's other articles. You can contact Jason by clicking here

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