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May 1, 2013

Sobsequy

International Feel, Vol. 2

by Adam Sobsey

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Jonathan Schoop, Orioles
Schoop looks too big to be a shortstop, and that’s true even though he’s not as big as the big shortstops of yore like Cal Ripken. This may be because Schoop isn’t rangy. He’s a burly 6-foot-2, 210 (according to his Norfolk Tides roster entry), and he looks even bigger—like a third baseman. Schoop’s play at shortstop, at least what I’ve seen so far, has confirmed the widely held opinion that he belongs at the hot corner (switching places in the majors, perhaps, with Manny Machado). He has a very strong arm that will play at third. His footwork and general craft at shortstop aren’t convincing—not yet, anyway. It’s important to remember that Schoop is only 21 years old, the second-youngest player in the International League, and he’s playing one of the most demanding positions on the field.

On April 12 at Durham, he ranged up the middle for a grounder but didn’t quite have the fluidity to hang onto the ball; it went off his glove for a single. Not long after that play, he didn’t use his feet to go back on a soft liner over his head, and as a result couldn’t attempt a leaping catch of it—another single. In game one of a doubleheader on April 20, with a runner on first, he fielded a Rich Thompson grounder as he moved toward second base and tried to start an unassisted double play. But his footwork was a bit awkward; he got a little twisted approaching the second base bag as Tim Beckham bore down on him, and then he threw the ball way over his first baseman’s head and into the stands, advancing Thompson to second.

In the nightcap, the score was tied in the bottom of the sixth inning—these are seven-inning games in minor-league doubleheaders—and the Bulls had a runner on first with one out. Brandon Guyer hit a pretty workable double-play ball to second base. Schoop got a good throw at second from Niuman Romero, but Schoop’s relay to first was wide and Guyer was safe. The next batter, Vince Belnome, hit his first home run of the year, and the Bulls took a 5-3 lead and went on to win.

At the plate, Schoop has murderously fast hands, and he does not wear batting gloves. He hit a rocket homer off of J.D. Martin a couple of weeks ago, and in game two of last week’s doubleheader lashed a hanging changeup from Alex Torres for a game-tying, two out, two-run single to right field. Breaking pitches give him trouble, and probably will continue to do so for a while.

His manager, the extremely personable Ron Johnson (father of the Braves’ Chris), isn’t worried about Schoop’s youthful troubles:

He’s right where he needs to be. He got some good experience this Spring Training by playing for the Netherlands in the World Baseball Classic, and they went fairly deep [in the tournament]. He’s a very mature young man. [Schoop seems like one in this video.] He’s a sponge as far as constantly looking for knowledge of the game goes. He’s going to throw some balls away, but you should have seen some of the plays he made in Gwinnett. I like the way he approaches the game; I like the way he prepares.

And again: second-youngest player in the league, 21 years old.

Nick Castellanos, Tigers
He’s the youngest player in the International League—he just turned 21 less than two months ago—and for the first two weeks or so of the season he was hitting like it: .230/.280/.324. Then he came to Durham, where the cozy, righty-friendly ballpark can cure all kinds of hitting woes. Yet Castellanos didn’t need the attraction of the ballpark’s temptingly close “Blue Monster” (just 305 down the line and 30 feet high). In the first game of the series, he hit his first home run of the season off of Durham’s Steven Geltz, a high-fastball, fly-ball pitcher, just to the center-field side of the left field power alley. He was called out on strikes in both his first and his last plate appearances, and in both cases the called strike three was actually a ball. He jawed at the home plate umpire after the second strikeout, backed up from the dugout by his irate manager, Phil Nevin (who would later be ejected disputing an HBP call). The point is that Castellanos seems to have developed a good batting eye (which some had identified as a weakness) to go along with the good bat, and he will use all fields.

The next day, an afternoon game, Castellanos (the double-ells are pronounced as a “y,” by the way: “Cas-te-YA-nos”) busted out against the Durham Bulls’ Jake Odorizzi et al, going 3-for-3 with a pair of walks. He hit a first-inning home run, again just to the left of straightaway center field, singled to right field in the seventh inning, and went oppo again in the eighth, drilling a two-run double to the right-centerfield gap off of a curve ball, slow and fat as a larva, from Durham’s Will Inman.

Castellanos’s presence at the plate is tall, nearly upright, and imposing, as he waves the bat around up high near his ear. His balance is good, his swing strong, and he looks like he knows what he wants to do at the plate. He’ll take strike three if he knows it isn’t really a strike; he’ll swing hard at pitches he likes, even if he doesn’t always make contact—when he’s out, it’s on his terms, not the pitcher’s.

(This provided an illuminating contrast to the Bulls’ Wil Myers, essentially Castellanos’s counterpart on the other team. Now I don’t mean to imply that Myers isn’t doing well. His .286 TAv and .291/.382./.430 line, while not exactly world-beating, are just fine for a youngster (seventh-youngest player in the International League) less than a month into the season. But he has not looked quite as in charge of his at-bats as Castellanos did last week. Myers has sometimes mismanaged plate appearances, unsure of what’s coming or what he wants to swing at, and has shown a tendency to take strike three right down the middle, simply walking back toward the dugout without reaction or pause. His 27.5 percent strikeout rate was 12th-highest in the league through Monday.)

In the third game of the Toledo-Durham series, Castellanos was virtually the only Mud Hen not to get pecking at Chris Archer, who was tagged for six runs on seven hits and two walks in five innings, and Bulls reliever Jim Paduch. The two combined to allow five home runs, but Castellanos went 0-for-4 with a walk.

In the fourth and final game of the series, though, Castellanos showed his All-Star potential. In his first at-bat, against the Bulls’ Alex Torres, he swung through a pair of fastballs at 92 and 93 mph. But on 1-2 he hung with a Torres changeup—that’s Torres’s best pitch, although this one was not a great example—and reached out and gently yanked it into left field for a single. He was too aggressive in his next at-bat, striking out on four pitches, but then took a slider to right field for a single in the fifth inning.

That brought us to the eighth inning, in which Castellanos faced Durham’s closer, Josh Lueke, who had not allowed a run this season in 10 appearances, having given up only six hits and struck out 20 batters in 12 total innings. Lueke is throwing harder this season than he did in 2012, which was a dreadful year for him. His fastball velocity is now regularly 95-97 mph, up from last year’s 93-95, and it has more ride at that speed. He supplements the fastball with a decent slider and has started using more of his splitter, which he can throw for strikes or as an out pitch. Lueke seldom used the splitter last year. His catcher, Chris Gimenez, told me that Lueke had spent some time in spring training with the Rays’ Joel Peralta, who helped make him feel more confident with the pitch. Prior to spring training, Lueke had spent part of the offseason working out with teammate Brandon Gomes, who also throws a splitter.

That is all setup for this, then: On a 1-2 count, Lueke tried to blow Castellanos away with a 97-mph fastball up and in—a brute of a pitch, a devourer of men—and Castellanos turned on it and blasted it way, way over the left-center field wall for his third home run of the year, all of which he hit in the four-game set at Durham.

The postscript: Castellanos came up against Lueke again in the ninth inning. Toledo trailed, 5-4. There were two outs and the tying run was on second base. The count ran 2-2, and this time Lueke got Castellanos to swing and miss at a fastball for a game-ending strike three. But this heater was away, maybe a bit off the plate outside. Castellanos had earned his respect.

Hak-Ju Lee, Rays
He is (or perhaps I should say was) the fifth-youngest player in the International League. I did not intend to write about a Tampa Bay prospect again this week, but given what befell Lee 10 days ago, this could very well be a memorial, a eulogy rather than a scouting report, and I want to get it down while it’s all still fresh, especially if Lee never returns.

On Saturday, April 20 at Durham Bulls Athletic Park, the Norfolk Tides had the bases loaded with one out in the fourth inning. The Bulls were leading, 5-0, at the time. Simply minimizing damage rather than preventing any at all should have been the Bulls’ priority, especially given that minor-league doubleheader games are scheduled for only seven innings—the game was half over. So when Norfolk’s L. J. Hoes chopped a ground ball towards Durham second baseman Tim Beckham, the wisest play (as Bulls’ acting manager Dave Myers later confirmed) was to take the easy out at first base and allow a run to score. Hoes runs well, and the ball wasn’t hit that hard.

But a double play would have ended the inning. Trying aggressively to turn two, Beckham fielded the ball and made a backhand flip toward Lee at second base. Beckham—who, ironists will note, was the Rays’ top shortstop prospect (and no. 1 overall pick in the 2008 draft) until Lee supplanted him—was too far from Lee, about thirty feet, to pull this off, though. The fundamentally sound move would have been to plant his feet, quickly pivot, and make a sharp throw to his right. What Beckham did betrayed either style-over-substance or simple laziness, and his backhand toss floated high and errant, right into the basepath in front of second base. The agile, dexterous Lee leaped, almost altering his course in midair, and tried to catch the ball as Norfolk’s Travis Ishikawa bore down on him from first base. Lee couldn’t quite handle the throw, though, and as it bounced off his glove he lunged to his left and reached for it again.

At that moment, Ishikawa slid hard, his head plowing right into Lee’s turned, planted, straightened and locked left knee. Ishikawa’s nose was broken in the collision. Lee went down in a heap and immediately made a weak wave to the Bulls’ dugout, from where the team trainer came sprinting out. Meanwhile, two runs scored as Lee and Ishikawa lay in agony near second base, like a gory detail in a great war painting. Lee had to be helped off the field by the trainer and teammate Leslie Anderson. His left knee hung there, dead weight. (Video.)

At the time of the injury, Lee was third in the league in hitting, with a .422 AVG. His on-base percentage was .536—he was showing an ability and willingness to take a walk, and he was quickly adapting to Triple-A pitching (although his .514 BABIP was a little ridiculous). The only time I interviewed him, he kept invoking “get on base” as his watchword for his plan of attack in Triple-A. That’s partly because Lee’s English isn’t as good as I was led to believe, and relying on the crutch of a few sturdy one-liners helped protect him against further discourse. But it was also clear that he knew what his role was, and what it should be going forward.

Lee was also slugging a surprising .605. Thought of generally as a slap hitter, he’d shown an Ichiro-like ability to pounce on a fastball (especially the 89-mph kind thrown by White Sox farmhand Matt Zaleski) and hit it out of the park. He just missed another homer the day after taking Zaleski deep, when his drive to right hit high off the tall wall at Knights Stadium. As for his speed, its reputation preceded (aptly) his arrival in Durham by more than a year, as we heard tales of how fast he was from reports in the lower minors. Sure enough, he hit the ground running here. Lee got to balls on both sides of the shortstop range that most fielders can only dream of: way in the hole, from which he once completed, with his strong arm, the Jeter jump-throw (but from far deeper and farther than Jeter has ever gotten); and all the way up the middle, reaching for a ball skidding two feet in front of his shoe-tops, executing the pirouette agilely, and throwing out the runner.

Lee was dazzling on the basepaths, too, especially when advancing multiple bases on one play—he seemed to glide rather than run, so smooth and light was his stride. And he was aggressive, too. In an emblematic play on April 17, he was on first base with two outs and broke for second on a hit-and-run. Vince Belnome delivered a single up the middle, and Lee’s tremendous speed allowed him to coast into third base easily. Enough time and alertness were left to him that he was able to note Jared Mitchell overthrowing the cutoff man by a mile. Lee opportunistically dashed for home. Mitchell’s errant throw was fielded between the pitcher’s mound and the third base line, by first baseman Seth Loman, I think (the play-by-play report seems incorrect to me in retrospect). Loman had his back to Lee as Lee raced by him, then had to turn and make a hurried throw home. Catcher Josh Phegley couldn’t quite handle it as Lee bore down on him, and Lee scored as Phegley juggled the ball.

Lee was one of the only players I’ve seen, in more than four years of covering baseball here, who was a true impact player, in the fullest sense; his presence on the diamond changed the whole tone, energy level, and potential of the game, and he did things on a diamond that no other players did. He had the capacity to surprise you, jolt you out of the rhythmic dream that is a baseball game. He made plays, he stopped plays; he put pressure on pitchers, catchers and runners; he was fast and accurate and graceful and exciting to watch. He was even, at times, alarming to watch—as when he ran through a stop sign at third base and, spotting it at the last second, 10 feet beyond the bag, impulsively grabbed his third base coach to slow his lightning momentum home (he was called out for a rules violation).

Lee was a reminder that, in order to be a game-changer, you have to play a game-changing position. Shortstop has that heat-seeking energy about it, and one of the great things about the much maligned (but obviously great) Derek Jeter is that he wants, craves that heat. Even before his injury, Lee was unlikely ever to be anywhere near as good as a Hall of Fame player like Jeter, but he had that same sense of self-possession, poise, and steadiness at shortstop—those dependable, capable, firm qualities— enlivened by great speed, flash, and aggressiveness, which was where we were still seeing his youth and its occasional mistakes: rushed throwing errors, baserunning gaffes.

Lee has torn ligaments. The Rays aren’t disclosing more than that for now, although the extent of the damage is almost surely worse than just (just?) a torn ACL. He is likely to miss the entire season. When he comes back next year, it will be on a surgically rebuilt knee—that joint so vital to both a base stealer and a pivoting shortstop—and with hands and timing that have gone rusty and slow after missing an entire season of hitting, at a crucial age and stage of his development. Who knows whether he will ever be the same player? Is his career as we knew it over? And how does Lee’s injury cloud the Rays’ future? They took on two years of Yunel Escobar in the hopes, perhaps, that Lee would be ready to take over shortstop for good by 2015. If he can’t do it, and if Tim Beckham never pans out, will 20-year-old A-ball prospect Jake Hager be able to rise to the challenge? Or will the Rays have to go night-gigging again for unseen catch—take a chance on more image-damaged, circumstantially available goods like Escobar?

The worst thing about this, of course, is that Lee’s injury had nothing to do with his own play. It was his own athleticism—his leap-and-lunge—that got him hurt while he was trying to bail out a teammate. “Baseball is not the perfectly calibrated game that romantics like to say it is,” Sam Miller wrote on Monday, describing a hit that would have been an out had the batter (actually, pitcher Ross Detwiler) hit the ball harder. Had Lee played less hard on the play that injured him, he’d still be playing; instead, he played as hard as he could and paid for it. (No good deed…) “A perfectly calibrated sport wouldn't reward so arbitrarily,” Miller continues—or punish so arbitrarily. “An arbitrary sport would. Baseball's the best.” It’s also the worst, which is why it’s the truest, the most like life. Hak-Ju Lee misses the rest of the year, and perhaps much more time than that—his big-league prospects may have been permanently thwarted—while $6 million draft bust Tim Beckham moves back to the position he justly lost to a better player, the beneficiary of his own poor play.

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

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