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June 20, 2013

The Minors

First Half Recap

by Jason Parks

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With the first half of the minor league season in the books (or at least near the books), it’s appropriate to review some of the material we have been presented with along the way. The nature of the developmental system is the tug of war between progression and regression, both at the individual level and with the farms themselves, and it’s important to recognize and review such trends without losing context of the sample or the process in general. We take snapshots of a fixed point in time, pictures of arbitrary beginnings and endings that we inflate in order to compartmentalize and classify. This is our nature and our beast, but we are not on the hunt for binary conclusions or reports chiseled into the cement. The pleasing bloom of a prospect in June could spoil and wilt by July, and the possibility of that decay is not lost on anybody reading this article. The schizophrenia of the season is one of the many reasons we adore this particular aspect of the sport; the conclusions formed in the first half aren’t predetermined as conclusions that will be formed in the second.

For this article, let’s take a look at some of the more interesting events of the first half, including prospects with significant developmental shifts, farms on the climb and the descent, and some of the statistical oddities, curiosities, and peculiarities of the first three months of the minor league season.

Five prospects who took a step forward (just to name a few)

OF Byron Buxton (Twins): The 19-year-old outfielder has blossomed into the top prospect in the game, destroying the Midwest League at the plate, flashing high-end upside in the field, and showing off his elite speed on the bases. He was ranked high coming into the year (no. 8 on the BP 101) and the tools were always loud and exciting, but the on-the-field translation has been better than expected and faster than expected—and the expectations were very high to begin with.

RHP Archie Bradley (Diamondbacks): Bradley shoved it in 2012 but suffered through long stretches of poor command that hurt the complexion of his statistical line and pushed him down prospect lists. So far in 2013, he’s pitched his way to Double-A and emerged as the top arm in the minors, showing off two major-league-plus pitches and much improved command.

RHP Tyler Glasnow (Pirates): The stuff was there when the Pirates popped the tall righty in the fifth round in 2011, and the results were there when he missed 44 bats in 38.1 short-season innings in 2012. But the 19-year-old has exploded as a prospect in 2013, missing 85 bats in 57.1 first-half innings in the Sally League, mostly on the back of an easy plus fastball arriving with velo and plane, and an improving secondary arsenal. Coming into the season, Glasnow was on the radar and was ranked eighth in a very strong system, but his progression in 2013 has pushed him into the top 50 prospects in the game.

RHP Eddie Butler (Rockies): We ranked Butler—a supplemental-first-round pick in 2011—as an “On the Rise” prospect coming into the season, mostly on the back of his fastball/slider combo. Butler has been better than advertised across two levels (so far) in 2013, with a potential 7 fastball, showing both velocity (92-96; T 97) and well-above-average movement, a sharp, plus slider, and a sinking upper-80s changeup. The 22-year-old is now one of the top prospects in the Rockies system and has a chance to reach the Double-A level in his first full season of work.

3B Garin Cecchini (Red Sox): Cecchini was always a good stick, but he was only ranked no. 6 in the Red Sox system and failed to crack the BP 101 coming into the season. The 22-year-old is now firmly in the top 50 prospects in the game, hitting a robust .350/.469/.547 in the first half in the Carolina League. It remains to be seen if he can stick at the hot corner, but the bat-to-ball ability is legit, and he hasn’t even tapped into his power potential yet.

Five prospects who took a step back (just to name a few)

OF Bubba Starling (Royals): A $7.5M bonus buys a lot of expectations, and the 20-year-old has not lived up to the tremendous hype. In his full-season debut, the toolsy prospect has struggled to make contact at the plate, looking overwhelmed at times, especially against quality off-speed stuff. Ranked 49th in the game coming into the season, Starling’s struggles might speak to larger issues with pitch recognition and reaction, and as of this snapshot, he wouldn’t be considered a realistic candidate for the top 101 prospects in the game, much less the top 50.

RHP Dylan Bundy (Orioles): This is a cutthroat game, and prospects who can’t get on the field are prospects who disappear from our minds. Because of the soreness in his throwing arm—an issue that required a visit to Dr. James Andrews—Bundy hasn’t thrown a pitch in his second professional season, after a four-level journey in 2012 that included a stop in the majors. He was the no. 4 prospect in the game coming into the season, but the specter of injury and the lack of game action has pushed Bundy down the list.

SS Trevor Story (Rockies): I was extremely high on Story coming into the season, ranking him as the top prospect in the Rockies system and no. 34 overall in the minors. A left-side infielder with offensive potential will always tickle my fancy, but so far in 2013, Story hasn’t been doing much tickling. Many sources expected the 20-year-old shortstop to explode at the plate in the California League, but he only managed a .205/.268/.328 line in the first half, with 92 whiffs in 63 games.

3B Kaleb Cowart (Angels): Cowart just turned 21 years old and has already reached the Double-A level, so perspective is important. But lofty talent creates lofty expectations, and Cowart has fallen short of the mark so far in 2013. We had him ranked as the top prospect in the Angels system and no. 42 overall in the minors, but a first-half OPS of .565 and serious concerns about his ability to hit right-handed pitching have depressed his prospect stock.

OF Mason Williams (Yankees): I wasn’t as high on Williams as some, but we still ranked him as the no. 51 prospect in the game coming into the season. An April DUI arrest and an empty bat on the field haven’t propelled the 21-year-old forward, and several scout sources have mentioned that he doesn’t look like the same player in 2013 as he did in 2012.

Prospects likely to rise and fall in the second half of 2013: Staff Picks

Jason Parks

Jason Cole

Nick Faleris

Mark Anderson

Chris Rodriguez

Five Farms on the Rise

Minnesota Twins: A top-five system coming into the season, the Twins farm has really blossomed into the best in the game, with two superstar level talents in Buxton and Sano, promising first-division futures on sticks like Rosario and Arcia, and major-league-quality arms like Berrios, Meyer, May, and now Stewart. When it comes to potential impact talent, it’s hard to find a farm that can stand up to the Twins.

Houston Astros: The Astros have the biggest advantage in baseball (as far as talent procurement is concerned) because they have the most money to spend on talent in the amateur markets, so it’s not a shock to see their farm gaining steam and strength. Last year’s no. 1 pick, Carlos Correa, is quite a talent and a top 20 player in the minors, and with Appel soon joining the prospect ranks—not to mention the continued development of impact players like Lance McCullers, Mike Foltynewicz, George Springer, and Jonathan Singleton—the Astros farm is now among the top five in the game.

Chicago Cubs: Not a balanced system as far as talent is concerned, but the Cubs can stand shoulder to shoulder with any team in the game when it comes to positional talent in the minors. With Albert Almora, Javier Baez, Jorge Soler, and Kris Bryant (when he signs), the team can boast four prospects among the top 30 in the game, and when you add guys like Arismendy Alcantara and Dan Vogelbach—not to mention an arm like Pierce Johnson—the Cubs could have seven players on next season’s top 101. This could end up being a scary system.

Boston Red Sox: We had the Red Sox system ranked 16th coming into the season, and thanks to strong first-half performances from Xander Bogaerts, Garin Cecchini, Allen Webster, and Henry Owens, the org would easily slide into the top 10 farms in the game. Factor in other talents like Blake Swihart and first-rounder Trey Ball, and the Red Sox farm has the depth and impact potential to not only remain in the top 10, but climb into the top tier if the talent develops.

Oakland Athletics: I wasn’t a big fan of their system coming into the season, despite some impact potential in the top tier and a very nice talent haul in the 2012 draft. Fast-forward a few months, and the opinion has changed. Addison Russell continues to flash the potential of a special player, Sonny Gray has returned to form and status, and Renato Nunez has been impressive at the plate in his full-season debut. Add to the mix another healthy draft, and the A’s are a farm on the rise.

Five Farms on the Fall

Texas Rangers: We ranked the Rangers’ farm no. 2 coming into the season thanks to six players in the BP 101 and some of the best lower-level depth in the minors. Major-league promotion has removed the game’s top prospect (Jurickson Profar) from consideration, and the high-ceiling depth found in Hickory has been hit and miss (literally). The talent is still there, especially with prospects found on the aforementioned Hickory roster (Jorge Alfaro, Lewis Brinson ,Nick Williams, Joey Gallo, Nomar Mazara, Ronald Guzman), but the Rangers farm will have only one representative in the midseason top 50 (Martin Perez), and he should be back up at the major league level any day now. Not to fear: the Rangers have the talent to remain in the top 10 in the game, and perhaps rank even higher depending on the rate of development of that stacked Low-A lineup.

Baltimore Orioles: With questions about Bundy’s health, the big one-two punch that helped elevate the system to no. 20 coming into the year is more of a solo show. The Orioles aren’t without talent, but the depth isn’t overly impressive, and if you remove Kevin Gausman from the equation, the queue of prospects with major-league-impact potential is very thin.

Washington Nationals: They weren’t a very good system coming into the season, and thanks to the promotion of Anthony Rendon and Nate Karns, the farm is pretty bare. I still like A.J. Cole, and Lucas Giolito (when healthy) could develop into a monster. But the depth is woefully thin, and when a top 101 prospect like Brian Goodwin fails to take a step forward, the system as a whole takes a step back.

Seattle Mariners: This is still a good system and they have the talent to stay in the discussion for the top 10 in the game, but several factors have hurt their stock, like losing Nick Franklin and Mike Zunino to the majors, mixed reviews on former no. 2 pick in the draft Danny Hultzen, and the inconsistencies of James Paxton. They still have a lot of talent at the lower levels of the minors, and the addition of D.J. Peterson in the draft only adds to the depth, but until that talent steps forward on the field, the system as a whole is down in the rankings.

Tampa Bay Rays: Like the Mariners, this is still a very healthy system. I loved the selection of catcher Nick Ciuffo in the draft, and rising arm Taylor Guerrieri will be a featured player on the upcoming top 50 list. But with Wil Myers and Chris Archer now in the majors, Top 101 prospect Hak-Ju Lee out with a knee injury, and unremarkable first-half production from bats like Drew Vettleson and Richie Shaffer, the system as a whole isn’t as strong as it was a few months ago, at least on paper.

Five Statistical Oddities, Curiosities, and Peculiarities, by Jason Cole

Kevin Quackenbush, RHP, Padres (Triple-A Tucson)

0.27 ERA in 33 innings

Quackenbush and his career 0.68 ERA have been a mystery to scouts for three years. The 24-year-old reliever earned a much-deserved promotion to Triple-A earlier this week. He has yet to post an ERA above 1.00 at any level, and the numbers actually improved in Double-A this year. In 31 innings at San Antonio, Quackenbush allowed one earned run on 16 hits, walking 10 and striking out 46. He, of course, tossed two scoreless innings in his Triple-A debut on Tuesday. As I wrote in the June 10 Monday Morning Ten Pack, the righty features a 90-93 mph fastball and average slider. He’s highly deceptive, however, and the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League will do all it can to test his absurd ERA.

Hickory Crawdads Offense

106 home runs, 736 strikeouts in 70 games

As the above numbers show, the Rangers’ Low-A affiliate is both very young and supremely talented. The Hickory lineup, which features five of Texas’ top 10 prospects entering this season, averages 1.5 home runs and 10.5 strikeouts per game. For comparison’s sake, five clubs in the South Atlantic League have fewer than 30 total round-trippers (Hickory has 106). Third baseman Joey Gallo and second baseman Ryan Rua currently top the minors with 22 long balls apiece. They’re both on pace to challenge the Sally League home-run record of 40, which was set by Russell Branyan in 1996. On the flip side, center fielder Lewis Brinson (who has 13 homers) and Gallo have struck out more than any other minor-league hitter. Brinson has 109 whiffs through 65 games, while Gallo is at 108 through 68 contests.

Mike O’Neill, LF, Cardinals (Double-A Springfield)

48 walks, 17 strikeouts in 66 games

A 5-foot-9 outfielder who lacks a plus tool, O’Neill is generally considered by scouts to be more solid organizational player than prospect. But he has perhaps the game’s best plate discipline, and that may carry him to a cup of coffee someday. The USC product turned heads last season when he drew 78 walks and whiffed only 26 times while hitting .359/.458/.440 between the High- and Double-A levels. After O’Neill got out to another strong start this season, Baseball Prospectus’ Ben Lindbergh took a closer look into the numbers. Although the 25-year-old has little power, he’s producing once again in Double-A, hitting .324 with a .436 on-base percentage, drawing 48 free passes and whiffing only 17 times.

Rafael De Paula, RHP, Yankees (High-A Tampa)

96 strikeouts in 64.1 innings

The 22-year-old De Paula was recently promoted to High-A Tampa but has yet to pitch at the level; all of his punchouts came in the Low-A South Atlantic League. At the season’s midway point, he ranks third in the minors with 96 strikeouts. The two pitchers above him—Modesto’s Daniel Winkler and Stockton’s Drew Granier—have 98 and 97, respectively, and they’ve both thrown 19 more innings than De Paula. Although the right-hander had never pitched stateside prior to 2013, he entered this year as the Yankees’ 10th-ranked prospect. He’s primed to fly up that list next offseason, as his mature three-pitch arsenal—which includes a big fastball and curve/changeup that flash plus—is overpowering the lower minors.

Carson Smith, RHP, Mariners (Double-A Jackson)

6-to-1 ground ball-to-fly ball ratio

A 6-foot-6, 215-pound reliever, Smith attacks hitters with a low arm slot and two 60-grade pitches. His ultra-lively 91-93 mph fastball and 82-88 mph slider induce lots of ground balls and whiffs. While his delivery isn’t pretty and his command can be erratic, the stuff gives him big-league bullpen potential. I wrote detailed scouting notes on Smith (with video) after watching a Jackson vs. Mississippi series earlier this season.

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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