March 4, 2014
Notes from the Field
Spring Training: March 2-3, 2014
Cubs/Royals (Jason Parks)
Albert Almora (Cubs): Almora carries himself in a manner that stands out only because of the context of his surroundings. On the backfields, in a batting practice grouping with other prospects, Almora arrived at the cage with the confident gait and overall familiarity of a major leaguer coming to his 10th spring camp. His approach to the workout seemed casual—almost blasé—but when he stepped into the cage, he took off his nonchalant mask and went to work, besting some of the brightest bats on the farm with his impressive rounds of batting practice.
The 19-year-old looked bigger and stronger than I recall, standing every bit of 6-foot-2—if not slightly taller—with a lean but not lanky physique. He showed quick hands at the plate, tapping into his pull-side power and launching several bombs into the grassy disappearance behind the left-field fence. He showed an explosive hip rotation that was impressive for its fluidity and speed and not its violence; that allowed him to throw the bat head out and really turn on the baseball without losing his balance, hitting with authority and making hard/loud contact. After his rips, he returned to his comfortable swagger, which is probably an acceptable mixture of extremely cocky and extremely confident, both of which are characteristics I expect to see in top talents.
Kris Bryant (Cubs): He starts with a very wide stance at the plate, his legs forming a wider base than his shoulders, almost like he’s straddling a large rock while he’s trying to hit. Because of his length and the width of his setup, I assumed that he would struggle with balance when he shifted his weight and triggered his swing, but the entire process is fluid and functional and I was impressed with his overall balance. The raw power is easy to see and not news to anybody reading this. He uses his hands more than most bombers, but he also uses his lower half very well, and when he shifts his weight and fires his hips, he doesn’t open up too much and he can stay on the baseball. This puts him in a good position to track the ball from release and cover all quadrants of the zone with his swing. The bat speed is very good, and the leverage he creates with his long body doesn’t make the swing long to a fault.
Bryant comes into the hitting zone clean and with a direct path, and when he extends he can really knock the living hell out of a baseball, with enough natural plane to hit home runs but not exaggerated to the point where his bat only sweeps through the zone. Because of his eye, he’s going to put himself in favorable hitting conditions, and even though his length can work against him in certain locations and he will swing and miss, he’s going to make enough contact for his raw power to play.
In game action, he went down on strikes after a good at-bat, and despite the outcome, I thought it was very promising. It was nearing the end of the game, rain was approaching, and Bryant was called out looking on a fastball that was on the outside of the outside corner. It’s the kind of call a veteran hitter with a pedigree is likely to get, but Bryant got the hook despite falling behind early in the count (on good sequence; started off with off-speed) and working himself back in it by laying off several good off-speed pitches. Most young hitters—playing in the main stadium against quality arms—will come up to the plate hacking, looking to drive the ball and make the most of the playing time, but Bryant came to the plate with a plan and executed that plan, even if he did go down on strikes. It was a good at-bat from a very good young hitter, and if that is the way he’s going to approach the game, Cubs fans could be in for a real treat as early as this season. This kid is going to hit and he’s going to hit very soon.
Javier Baez (Cubs): Baez has the best bat speed I’ve seen since I started evaluating talent at the minor-league level, and it might be some of the best bat speed I’ve seen period. It’s violent—no doubt—and I’m not always sold that he can control the bat after he triggers. But when he unsheathes that weapon and it finds the ball, the cowhide screams in what I believe to both ecstasy and agony. Baez appears shorter than his listed height, and his body is a bit like Jean Segura's, with a thick and muscular lower half, particularly the thighs. However, it doesn’t appear to be a high-maintenance body on any level, though you can project him to become more robust up top as he ages, filling out to the point where shortstop would no longer be a possibility.
But just to soothe some of the present concerns about his defensive skill set, Baez can absolutely play shortstop. Long term is more nebulous because of the body/range, but his actions are fine (better than fine, actually), he controls his body and is coordinated, he has on-the-field instincts and moves to the ball well, and his arm is very strong. He struggles with some fundamentals at times, and he doesn’t play the position with the same confidence that he brings to the plate, but all of these things can improve through repetition and experience. His issues at the position (at present) are fixable through instruction and wrench work.
At the plate, Baez has a lot of pre-swing noise and he wraps the bat like a champ, which means he has to gain control of the stick before executing his swing, very similar to the way Gary Sheffield would wiggle and wrap before triggering. It’s not something you would teach, and unless you are special it’s not something that will work. But Baez is special. It’s a beautiful stroke once he lets it loose, and despite the noise and the wrap, the hands are elite and he sends the bat through the zone on an elevated line-drive plane. You can fool him with off-speed stuff because the violence comes at the expense of control, but he’s a very dangerous fastball hitter, and he can beat good pitches as well as mistakes.
It’s not so much that Baez's approach is overly aggressive. I think that comes off as a pejorative statement at times, and being aggressive isn’t always a bad thing. You want to see hitters take advantage of opportunities and drive the baseball with authority. I think Baez’s biggest problem at the plate is that his confidence with the bat/swing creates an environment where everything thrown in his general direction is considered an opportunity for him to drive the ball out of the park. It’s often hard to distinguish between being aggressive and being overly confident, but in Baez’s case, he’s not a grip-it-and-rip-it hitter; rather, he’s a guy who thinks he can turn around whatever a pitcher has to offer and send it out of the park. This isn’t a guy looking for singles or going the other way on off-speed pitches in order to dink a ball into shallow right. This is a guy who is going for the gold on most swings, and the rationale is that he can make it happen so why not try.
The violence in the swing and the confidence at the plate (almost sanguine at times) are both positive and negative qualities for Baez. You don’t want to change the hitter but you want him to refine a bit, and if he does, this is a superstar and a potential role 8 player at the major-league level. This is what elite looks like when it's young. But learning to find his game and make adjustments will be vital if he is to come close to that lofty, spectacular ceiling. It’s anything but a sure thing, but of all the players in the minors—and this includes Buxton, Taveras, Bogaerts, et al.—Baez has a higher all-around ceiling.
Yordano Ventura (Royals): In two brief innings of work, he sat 98-100 and touched 101 on at least one gun. That’s good, right? Snapped a few good breaking balls that looked like future 7 pitches when he released out front; lost a few that he seemed to cast from a deeper release; flashed a few changeups with late action. He’s going to be a monster if he can stay healthy and log innings/experience. I’m a huge believer. —Jason Parks
Mets (Jeff Moore)
In batting practice, he showed good bat control and a short swing for someone with such long limbs. He was able to stay inside the ball, and during the opposite-field portion of his round of batting practice, he did not settle for just going the other way. He drive the ball to right field with authority. He has strong wrists that allow him to hit the ball with some authority despite his skinny frame. Could easily have plus power as he fills out.
Dilson Herrera: At second base, Herrera showed solid actions but struggled with consistency even in a simple infield drill, dropping a few routine groundballs and feeds to second base. He was comfortable with his footwork around the base on double play turns.
In BP, Herrera showed above-average bat speed and decent pop for a shorter player, but again was inconsistent. This stemmed from wrapping the bat at the outset of his swing, causing his swing path to loop underneath the ball. Even in BP, he was getting too much of the bottom half of the ball and, simply put, hit far too many infield pop-ups and lazy fly balls than a player of his caliber should in practice.
Dominic Smith: Even when standing around listening to instructions, Smith stands out. Even among older college draftees, the 18-year-old Smith is physically developed, and when surrounded with fellow 18-year-olds, he looks like their chaperone on a class trip. This is both good and bad for Smith. It's an advantage now that gives him a leg up on low minor-league competition, but at six foot even, there's not a ton of projection left in his body. He's not physically imposing so much as he's just solidly built.
With the bat, everything Smith does is smooth. He has a fluid left-handed stroke that stems from a quiet set-up and stance. He may struggle at first with quality breaking stuff (when he eventually faces some) due to an elongated weight-transfer that is as much lunge as it is a stride, but it's a simple fix. He doesn't need as dramatic of a weight transfer to generate power.
Smith's power comes free and easy from the natural loft in his swing. He generates backspin without forcing it and the ball carries. Because he doesn't have to swing hard to generate power, he is able to control the bat within the strike zone.
Luis Guillorme: I didn't get to see Guillorme hit because he was on a different field than the Smith/Herrera/Rosario group I was fixated on, but watching him take groundballs in infield practice was enough to get me excited about seeing him again.
The actions at shortstop were as smooth as they come, and he had a real knack for fielding the ball on the easiest hop every time. His transfer and release were incredibly quick, both to first and second. Guillorme is a natural infielder who could probably excel at any position and has enough arm to do so if called upon.
Gavin Cecchini: Cecchini is currently out of position as a shortstop. This was painfully obvious watching him take groundballs in a group with Rosario and Guillorne, whose smooth actions made Cecchini look robotic by comparison. He has the athleticism and hand-eye coordination to get away with awkward actions and mechanical movements at the position in practice, but he doesn't look natural or comfortable. His hands are stiff and have no give, instead jabbing at the ball, especially on the backhand. Right now he's getting by with athleticism at the position and will need to greatly refine his movements to stay there.
At the plate, I liked Cecchini's short, line-drive swing. He doesn't generate much backspin, which will limit his power, but he controlled the bat well and should have decent doubles power in time. —Jeff Moore
Phillies (Steffan Segui)
Jesse Biddle: Curve was exceptionally sharp for early spring and he threw it for strikes. Didn't have good fastball command at all and was rushing mechanics a bit at first due to some upper/lower-half disconnect.
Ken Giles: He throws baseballs fast; was mid-upper-90s the other day and I have seen him at 101. Delivery looked noticeably cleaner from the fall league. He wasn't falling off to the first-base side as much, which allowed his slider to be in full effect. His slider at 89-92 has to be one of the better ones in the minors when he can repeat and command it, especially when he can bury it back foot to left-handed hitters. The split is usable too. —Steffan Segui
Jason Parks is an author of Baseball Prospectus. Follow @ProfessorParks