As is customary, I recently returned from a lengthy spring training odyssey and sat down for a lengthy online chat, where hours rolled into hours and the questions flowed forth in a never-ending supply. Aside from the backfield games in March, the post-spring training chat is my favorite part of the process, a detox of sorts from the grind of camp. My latest installment ran a robust eight hours and featured over 300 answers, although at least a quarter of the responses were sententious at best and esoteric to a fault at worst. But when it comes to the baseball opinions, I tried to answer with thought and honesty, and I stand by the statements on their merits, without a hedge or a statesman-like wiggle to avoid accountability in the face of ignorance or mistake.
It’s easy to let your fingers do the work of your lips, spouting off rhymes without much reason in an environment where failed prophecies hide in the shadows and successful prognostications get to live on the mantle in the family room for all guests to admire. If you are going to champion your scouting wins, it’s equally important to stand next to your scouting loses, and I’d rather present a responsible product that I take ownership of than play politician in order to maintain a high-gloss on an expert badge this particular platform pins to my chest. I don’t mind being wrong. I expect to be wrong. But I want to learn from those mistakes and misjudgments, and I don’t find much comfort in the binary outcomes of the process.
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It's a rare player indeed who could make the jump Jose Fernandez made. Jason asks front office executives which ones could handle it next year.
While it might seem silly to speculate about possible 2014 assignments, the unexpected promotion of 20-year-old Jose Fernandez to the major leagues took my mind down a curious path. It’s not every day that a prospect ascends to the highest level without first making a stop in the upper minors, especially when the prospect is only two years removed from high school. It has to start with the opportunity, as unexpected injuries and limited options put the Marlins in a personnel quandary, a situation so distressed that a pitcher with only 11 starts at the High-A level was a reasonable choice to secure a spot in the rotation. What I find more interesting is not the decision itself, but the individual characteristics of the pitcher who made such a decision plausible in the first place.
The jump from the High-A level to the Double-A level is considered the second-largest talent jump in the minors, second only to the jump from Triple-A to the majors, and Fernandez is being asked to make both jumps at the same time. This is a monumental challenge that few prospects in the game could manage, both on a physical level (talent) and an emotional level (makeup). Fernandez has both, with room to spare, which isn’t to suggest his refinement level is up to major-league standards or that the decision to promote him so aggressively should be shielded from criticism; rather, Fernandez possesses the necessary characteristics to make such a leap justifiable, at least from a scouting perspective, and that puts him in elite company in that regard.
First episode of Fringe Average: A Baseball Prospectus podcast with Jason Parks & Mike Ferrin. The two answer email questions, talk about Major and Minor League Baseball, and occassionaly comment on popular culture.
Closing out the spring with scouting reports from the minor-league camps.
What started on February 22nd just ended on April 1st, as I enjoyed the comforts of my own bed for the first time in five weeks and I ordered a pizza that didn’t come with the assembly-line accoutrements of crushed peppers in a package or a clever banana pepper with insignificant aromatic function. With workouts, day games on multiple fields, and the occasional night game, finding the time while camp is in session to properly document the day’s events is a futile challenge. With the luxury of time and energy back on my side, it's time to deliver the remaining backfield notes, limited in narrative but meaty with in-person scouting meat. Jason Cole and I not only put eyes on some of the top prospects in Arizona, we were also fortunate to have front row seats to several breakout performances from under-the-radar prospects, players on the fringe of ubiquitous prospect glory who no doubt will be household names when camp starts next year. Here we go:
Jose Fernandez makes the Marlins roster; will skip the high-minors in 2013
The situation: On Sunday morning, we all woke to the news that 20-year-old Jose Fernandez would be starting the season at the major-league level. With only 11 Advanced A-ball starts under his belt, most assumed Fernandez would be slated for a full dose of Double-A in 2013, with a potential call-up late in the season if things progressed as planned. The opportunity for aggressive promotion arose because of injuries to pitchers Nathan Eovaldi and Henderson Alvarez, as they will start the season on the shelf and the Marlins needed an arm capable of stepping up into the major-league rotation.
Background: After several failed attempts, Fernandez was finally able to escape Cuba in 2008 and set up residency in the United States in 2009. After blowing up on the showcase circuit, Fernandez was selected 14th overall in the 2011 draft by the Marlins and signed for a $2M bonus. Despite only two brief starts at the short-season level, Fernandez began his first full season in the Sally League, where the 19-year-old absolutely shoved it, making 14 starts and striking out 99 in only 79 innings, while allowing only 51 hits. Over the summer, he was promoted to the Florida State league, where he continued his dominance, logging 11 more starts and maintaining his strong peripherals against older competition. During the all-star weekend, Fernandez was selected to pitch in the Futures Game, where the big righty stood out as one of the top arms on either roster. Coming into the 2013 season, Fernandez was ranked number one in the Marlins farm system, and number six overall in baseball, according to Baseball Prospectus.
In the unexpected event of witnessing magic, please keep a tether to your breath and a shot of Fernet on the ready. It’s important to be alert when it happens. I think I saw it happen last fall; my mind is a mess from failures of the past and the sunshine, but I’d wager that I saw it happen last fall. I was freshly sad and sampled, covered in an emotional fur that resembled actual fur because my tears had long dried up and turned into hair and like Velcro I attracted debris and I bathed in a river to avoid humiliation. Sad eyes searching for a prize, and I found it on a field, with direct heat cooking me from the outside in. I turned to a friend and asked if he believed in enchantment. He said she was never coming back.
I think it happened on a numbered field in front of a small number of people, hats over all the heads to protect them from the seductive nature of prospect sorcery. I acquiesce to all charms and attentions, and I rarely wear hats because it can temper the effect, and when you are lost, it’s important not to temper the effect. He was playing shortstop--a precocious study—and I was playing the wishful thinker. The name on the jersey suggested we pay attention regardless of action and I did with ardent intent; although, names are just names and magic is best delivered by moves and not by patronymic means, or by other forms of surface heredity. But I was paying attention, and the son of Raul Mondesi started sawing a woman in half in between the left-side bases, much to the delight of this audience of one.
We got a look at the Rangers' prospect-heavy intrasquad game in Surprise.
After minor-league camp’s first pitcher/catcher salvo and before the legitimate backfield games commence in mid-March, teams often schedule prospect-heavy intrasquad games to put eyes on the talent and get the players back in the groove of live action. On the morning of March 10th, the Rangers occupied fields 5 and 6 on the backfields in Surprise; two lower-level minor-league squads on one field, and two upper-minors squads on the other. For a prospect lover, this was like a team-specific Futures Game, only stripped of all the fanfare and pageantry. This is a barebones scouting experience and the notes will reflect that. Jason Cole saddled up to field 5 while I took a seat behind the plate at field 6, where my radar gun almost melted onto my flesh and my phone got so hot that it decided to commit suicide when I asked it to function. Also, Jorge Alfaro hit a home rune and I giggled like a child.
Thanks to Randy Smith and the magic of the internet, I found out that the Padres were going to throw 10 of their youngest and brightest arms in a controlled backfield game against Indian Hills junior college at 11:30 a.m. Sunday. These are the scouting situations I dream about, and Jason Cole and I arrived eager and early to find we were the only non-team personnel on the scene, a duo of emotion soon resulted: Anxiety. Are we allowed to be here? Why are we the only ones here? Excitement: We are the only ones here!
Set-up: each prospect arm would get one inning of work. It was a controlled game, which just means the on-site team personnel could roll an inning if a pitcher exceeded his pitch count or if the bats were simply destroying the opponent, which would be the case on a few occasions during the 10-inning affair. I didn’t focus on the bats, although several promising sticks graced the field during the game, and I didn’t pay much attention to the Indian Hills team. These are the bare-bones scouting notes I took. Take them as snapshots of an early March afternoon and not the canvas that will one day hang in the majors. Normally, I would just keep these notes for personal use throughout the year, but I was so impressed with the young arms on the field that I needed to voice these thoughts at the earliest possible convenience. I’m not sure any org in baseball can brag on lower-level pitching like the Padres. Here are the notes: