April 1, 2015
Spring Training Notebook: Cactus League
April 1, 2015
Throughout March, the BP Prospect Team is invading both Arizona and Florida to get some fresh looks at players as they prepare for their 2015 assignments. Between now and the start of the minor league season, they’ll be providing updates (and videos) on the prospects you know and love—and quite a few that you may not.
Notes From the Field:
The 2014 first-round pick already looks like a grown man. There isn’t much projection left in his body but it’s a strong frame that already has plenty of strength. It’s a bit of a catcher’s build, which makes sense since he was a catcher until about eight months ago. Jackson was moved to the outfield in hopes of allowing his bat to progress quicker and despite his size, he still moves well in the outfield. His reads are deliberate in right field and will take an extra split second to decide his route to make sure he’s not taking a bad first step. However, his play in the outfield should smooth out over time. Jackson has a big-time arm but never had the chance to cut one loose in game action.
His move to the outfield was predicated on his bat. Prior to the drafts scouts were putting plus grades on the power and the hit tool was projected to be at least a 5. One game worth of at-bats with a very pitcher friendly strike zone didn’t yield enough info to throw grades on his bat, but for a first look I generally liked what I saw.
Jackson hits from a slightly wide stance and bobs his hands prior to the pitch to prevent him from getting too stiff in his set up. I like the athletic components of his swing: He’s got balance, strength, and bat speed. Everything flows nicely in his swing, but there are some mechanical components he will have to clean up.
Most of the flaws in Jackson’s swing are because of his aggressive setup. His load has a noticeable sway and as his bat goes forward he coils his hips beyond what you will see in most hitters. As he cocks his bat the knob goes from pointing straight down to pointing towards the umpire’s chest. This puts his bat at a very steep angle from which to launch.
He launches the bat smoothly, but because of his setup he’s not moving as efficiently as he could be. Everybody can learn better mechanics, so it isn’t a major concern yet. He doesn’t need to “simplify” his swing. Jackson is a legitimate athlete and athletes like to move. He just needs to find a pattern that allows his aggressive moves to be positive moves rather than mechanical roadblocks.
Jackson’s approach to each pitch is a clear strength. He tracks very well, never losing balance, and gets the bat moving on every pitch, only stopping it when he determines the pitch is something not worth a swing. It’s an aggressive take rather than a passive take. He didn’t get flustered by a bad strike zone and even though the results were unremarkable the at-bats themselves were quality.
The physical tools are obvious, the swing has a good foundation, and he knows how to handle at-bats. It’s a good set of characteristics for the young Mariners outfielder. –Ryan Parker
My favorite thing about going to the backfields is the possibility you'll see something that you have never seen before. That happened last week while watching Jose LeClerc throw. I had heard rumblings the Rangers were going to make him a starter for this season, so I looked up his numbers. I saw a walk rate over five per nine innings, and couldn't help but notice that his listed height of 6-foot-0 typically means 5-foot-10. Plus, he only threw from the stretch. He worked both sides of the plate with a 93-95 mph fastball, then with two strikes, used an offering at 83-85 that broke away from right handed batters, giving them fits. Everyone was uncomfortable up there. “Oh, nice slider,” I said to a certain sandwich aficionado to my right, “is that new? I didn't hear about that.” Then, he threw a couple more offerings in that same velocity range, but they were just breaking straight down, or even toward a right-handed hitter’s front knee. Is that a slider or a changeup? It was like the ball was repelling away from the bats. I hadn't quite seen a pitch like that before.
So I've named this offering The Deathball. After talking to some people familiar with LeClerc, he's actually using a changeup grip, but the pitch somehow cuts most of the time. Sometimes it drops straight down like a forkball, while others it moves slightly in on same-side hitters. He also offers a big-breaking, sharp curveball in the low 70s, which changes hitters’ eye level and gives him a third pitch. It's a rarity that small right-handers become successful starters at 21 years old, but with a plus fastball, a solid-average curveball, and The Deathball, LeClerc could be an the exception to the rule. –Jordan Gorosh
Spring training marked my fourth time seeing Baker in the past year, including once before his leg injury, his first start after returning from the disabled list, and the AFL. The transformation from the beginning of last season to now is astounding, as Baker looks completely healthy and in “the best shape of his life.” He has a sturdy frame with a power bottom, which he uses for heavy drive towards home. In this outing, Baker was pumping his fastball 95-98 mph, steamrolling through the Reds’ lineup. The fastball was a tick higher than in the past, displaying explosion and coming off a good plane. The curveball was also improved since my last viewing, displaying hard bite and depth at 81-84 mph.
The release points were more consistent this time around, which was a concern of mine in the past. While I still lean towards Baker ending up in the back end of a bullpen, the refinements of the curveball will help his chances of starting, even if the changeup cannot become better than just a fringe offering. –Tucker Blair
Luke Jackson, RHP, Texas Rangers
Jackson is an underrated prospect, likely buried beneath the embarrassment of riches in the Texas system. Though he's a perennial top ten guy in the organization, he might stand out a bit more if he were surrounded by weaker counterparts. Standing at a strong 6-foot-2, the right-hander offers a 92-95 mph fastball with average life, but good plane. The pitch is hittable when up, and the fastball command needs plenty of work to flip lineups at the big-league level. He was loose in and out of the zone with the pitch, struggling to find his release point. The former first-rounder also has a changeup at 81-83 which he'll throw to right-handers, along with a low-80s hammer-type curveball in his arsenal. Each of those two offerings could be solid average, along with a fastball in the same class, or potentially a tick above on the right day. In all, it's not an exhilarating profile, but with some command refinement, Jackson could take the ball 30-plus times a year as a No. 4 starter. –Jordan Gorosh
Jairo Beras, OF, Texas Rangers
I’m a sucker for his power and he’s starting to find some coordination in his long frame. When he times up his swing, the ball explodes. When he loses timing, his hands lag behind him and he gets very long. If he moves his hands and feet at the same time to start his swing, he can do something special. I still think there is something in Beras. It might take time and it might not be the crazy profile the Rangers hoped, but I’m still holding out for Beras. –Ryan Parker
Nellie Rodriguez, 1B, Cleveland Indians
Power is the main tool in the shed for Rodriguez, which he implements using pure strength and a thick frame. His plus raw power was displayed with a barrage of balls over the left-field fence in batting practice. While the power is intriguing, my concerns come from the hit tool and ability to tap into the raw power on a consistent basis. The swing is very short and he lacks ability to extend the hands outward and reach pitches low and away. Rodriguez displays average bat speed and a slight hitch that delays the swing regardless of its shortness. The hands move pre-pitch and never settle down before the hitch begins. The lower half is mostly quiet, with a mild load and minimal hip torque. Rodriguez was mostly relying on his brute strength to hit, and I have a hard time envisioning there being enough solid contact down the road for the power to be efficiently used. –Tucker Blair
Bradley Zimmer, OF, Cleveland Indians
The tall and lanky outfielder displays a plethora of tools on the field, including plus raw power and arm. Zimmer has all the ingredients to become a steady major leaguer, but his swing is not conducive to power. Zimmer stands tall at the plate with a spread stance, which causes him to lose some ability to generate power in his bottom half. He also displays a small load and minimal hip torque. Zimmer’s swing is electric, bolting through the zone with plus speed, and the ball jumps off his bat. However, the swing is more line-drive oriented rather than using leverage and generating backspin on the ball. He is going to run into long balls during his career, but the game power might be more average than plus. The overall swing has the potential to provide above-average hit-tool value, and his long limbs allow him to reach practically everything. –Tucker Blair
Travieso improved both his body and his stuff in 2014, inspiring hope that his secondaries could develop enough for him to achieve his role-6 OFP. Development isn’t linear and spring training pitching assignments can be a bumpy ride for risky prospects like Travieso. He pitched in a Double-A game against the White Sox and had difficulty commanding his fastball and changeup, while not bothering to throw his slider all that much. The soft-bodied righty uses a full wind up with a high leg kick and a true three-quarters arm slot. Travieso struggled finding the release point on his fastball, which was working in the low 90s, and didn’t display much feel for his change. He was also missing both in and out of the zone with his stuff, and when he wasn’t issuing walks, he was leaving the fastball over the heart of the plate where the White Sox hitters weren’t missing it. Last year was a major step forward for Travieso, but from this one viewing it appears that he still has some mechanical adjustments to make if he wants to hold those gains in 2015. –Mauricio Rubio
Miguel Almonte has two plus pitches and a third that is making strides. His low- to mid-90s fastball comes with tons of life and his change borders on unfair when he throws it correctly. The breaking ball has tightened up since last viewing and has gone from a weird, slurvy pitch to a hard downer breaking ball. With Almonte, it’s all about repetition. When he keeps his tempo in his delivery and holds his three-quarters arm slot, everything comes out with life from the same window as his fastball. The problem is it seemed very easy for Almonte to lose his rhythm over the course of the game. Anytime the game slowed down, Almonte got in trouble for the next several pitches.
A long foul ball, a missed call by the umpire, a groundball that forced Almonte to move off the mound, a baserunner dancing off the bag; these are the type of things that throw Almonte off his game. He will slow down his delivery and become very deliberate. His arm slot gets noticeably higher for his breaking and off-speed pitches, an obvious telegraph to hitters.
His best inning (the second) was strange. Still facing hitters for the first time, a younger pitcher like Almonte typically will throw lots of fastballs. Instead, Almonte essentially pitched backwards. Facing a righty, he went cambio, cambio, breaking ball, fastball. The rest of the inning Almonte didn’t throw back to back fastballs. Everything was easy and free and batters looked uncomfortable.
The following innings Almonte went back to a more typical sequence. He was still very good, but reverted back to telegraphing the breaking stuff and really lost feel with runners on base.
Almonte still has seasoning to do down in the minors. He has two pitches that could get big-league hitters out and a third that is improving combined with decent command and the ability to hold his stuff through starts. Almonte really needs to dial in his repetition and learn how to keep his rhythm even when the game isn’t cooperating, but certainly remains an interesting arm in the Royals system. –Ryan Parker