Tuesday, 21 October 2008

Farm Report: Starters

As much as I get tempted to wander off topic and get into other things that are on my mind, I do have a goal of wrapping this up before the end of the Series because we have some specials we need to get to here once play is finished.

This particular post is going to violate something I'm a bit compulsive about. I like my lists to be multiples of five... I have a bit of an obsession about not making a list of 17, or 8, or 4, or... eleven. It is true that the last two lists have been seven, but I felt I could not in good conscious either cut two I wanted to mention, or add three that I felt were non-prospects.

But this particular list is going to be eleven. When I started this exercise I promised 70 players, but since that time some have been traded, some have been cut, some have turned out to be free agents . . . and a few finished so poorly that their tenuous claim to a mention evaporated. So I've thinned the list to 50. There may be a few guys lurking around that don't get mentioned who turn out to be something special - particularly in the very low minors, but I just happen to be compulsive enough to want it to be 50 instead of, for instance, 53. The implication of that is that I have 16 to go. And since I'm going to have one odd player anyway, I like the 11th starter on my list better than I did the guy who would have been my sixth reliever.

So, now that what would have been a nifty one paragraph introduction has run on to a three paragraph digression, I'll get started.

1. Brett Cecil - 22, 6'3" 220, 2007 1st round supplemental

Coming out of Maryland, Cecil had spent most of his college career as a reliever and it was said his slider was major league ready to the point that he probably could have stepped into a major league pen and done adequate work right out of school. But the Jays saw him as a starter and have been using him in that role from day one. It looks like a helluva choice. Besides the great slider, he has a plus fastball and a developing curve, and he's said to have a super pick-off move. Fourteen months into his pro career, Cecil arrived at AAA having faced no real adversity at all. In 35 starts from Auburn to New Hampshire, Cecil posted an ERA of 2.03 and a K:BB rate of 4.27 and struck out more than one batter an inning.

Want to see something interesting? Check these minor league totals:

Brett Cecil - 118 1/3 IP, 2.41 ERA, 1.12 WHIP, 9.90 K:9
David Price - 109 2/3 IP, 2.31 ERA, 1.14 WHIP, 8.98 K:9

If you've been living in a cave, Price is, of course, the much ballyhooed #1 overall pick of the Rays in the same 2007 draft in which Cecil went #38 overall. He's also over 10 months older, if that matters to you. Now, you can quote me scouting reports and talk about stuff all you want, but the results are there. The caveat about Cecil is workload. The rule of thumb is that you don't want to increase a young pitcher's innings by more than 30 over his previous high. Cecil's high before this year was 112 and the Jays were super cautious and in the process only pushed him to 118. I still felt like they erred by not sending him to Arizona, but perhaps they are getting him some more work in the Instructional League of which I am unaware.

As it appears now, though, you are looking at only getting about 150 IP out of him next season, which limits how much he could be a stretch run boost for the Jays if needed. One assumes they will continue to hold him to five or six innings at AAA as they did this year. If you ballpark a guess of 15 starts averaging 5 IP and he comes up around mid-season, then you could only expect to get maybe 12 starts (at an average of 6 IP per) in the majors. He'd be out of gas by Labor Day. Those missing 20 innings from this season could be important. It will be interesting to see how the Jays handle that situation next year, to stretch him as far as they dare and still not risk injury later.

ETA: 2009

2. Ricky Romero - 24, 6'1" 200, 2005 1st round

Romero, like David Purcey before him, is engaged in the arduous process of proving nay-saying Jays fans wrong. Romero was always a controversial choice to some degree, but one that was considered arguable at the time. Considered by many to be the best lefty in the draft, and by some to be the best available pitcher who didn't have signability issues, Romero was still scorned by some as a bit of a reach and a poor choice as opposed to shortstop Troy Tulowitzki, who went to the Rockies on the very next pick.

At the time, one of the selling points of Ricky-Ro was that he was one of the most complete and close to major-league-ready players in the draft. Witness these reviews from various sources as quoted by Batters Box:

MLB.com: Fluid, easy delivery. Has two kinds of fastball: a slider-like cutter and a nasty sinker that drops late. Can change speeds on 12-6 curveball. Features a sharp slider. Very intense on the mound, keeps hitters off-balance. Potential front-end starter.

BA: Romero has three solid, major league-ready pitches that he can throw for strikes almost at will, including a fastball that sits at 90-91 mph and touches 93-94. He also has an excellent curveball and a better feel for a changeup this year after he reduced his reliance on his curve. But Romero gets his highest grades for his makeup, temperament and competitive zeal. He is an excellent student of the game who understands the science of pitching, and is a master at controlling the tempo of a game.

So what went wrong? Why did Jays fans so easily lose faith and why isn't Romero already in the majors winning even more praise? Well, part of it was the combination of the collapse of Russ Adams and the ascendancy of Tulowitzki. Observers ignored the fact that Tulo's 2007 numbers were greatly aided by his home park and dreamed of what he might do for the Jays in their infield. Part of it was the growing discontent with JP's drafting, but part of it lies with the fact that Romero did the one thing no one expected from a guy with such a highly praised make-up:

He lost his confidence.

Ricky-Ro started his minor league career with flair, he finished 2005 strong and started 2006 with an aggressive promotion to Dunedin where he breezed through 10 starts in dominating fashion. But then he was promoted to AA and tasted his first setback and, according to reports, began to doubt his abilities. A series of nagging minor injuries didn't help, but it was mostly a matter of maddening inconsistency. Romero would run off 2 or 3 good starts and seem to have found the handle and then get shelled and it would all seemingly fall apart for him. Back at AA in 2007, Romero continued in the same pattern. He managed to lift his strikeout rate, but his control slipped along with it, and again the pattern of 3 steps forward 2 steps back continued.

By this point, the rush for the exits of the Romero bandwagon was in full panic mode and many were already writing him off as a bust. In 2008, early in the season, Romero seemed to be in for more of the same. But as May was giving way to June something clicked with Romero. Suddenly he found some consistency and with it, his confidence grew with every start. He finished the year with seven starts in AAA with mixed results. He seemed to pitch better when his strikeouts were down and that's not a recipe for long-term success, but he was dominating in some starts as well. Brian Jeroloman, who was his main catcher for most of the last two seasons, probably said it best:

He wants to win more than anyone else on the field, he will do whatever he can to win the game. Catching him is very easy, it is easy to get on the same page as him, he doesn't realize how good he is, I wish he could face himself and that could make him understand how tough it is to hit against him. He has such dynamite pitches that sometimes he tries to do too much, sometimes he gets in his own way. I love catching him, he is a bulldog, catchers love that....Once he realizes how good he is, that's when things are going to start falling for him.

2009 is crucial for Romero though. No one stands to be more negatively impacted by the Jays now having a PCL affiliate than Romero. He MUST be able to mentally endure the rigors of pitching in that notorious hitter's league and still make progress.

ETA: late 2009/early 2010

3. Brad Mills - 24, 6'0" 185, 2007 4th round

There's something to be said for your top three pitching prospects (legitimate prospects at that) being left-handed. Mills is a guy who might have gotten little notice in the loaded 2007 draft (which may yet be the single best draft in franchise history - eight of the top 10 picks in that draft will be found in most rankings of top 20 Jays prospects), but in the minors he has announced his presence with authority. His minor league ERA? 1.96; K/9 IP? 9.81; WHIP? 1.13. The only real difference between him and Cecil, in terms of results, is that Mills didn't quite make it to AAA.

Of course, Mills is 16 months older than Cecil, and he's a more "typical lefty" in that it's his off-speed pitches that are more refined and his fastball is only said to be average, but his control has been greatly refined as a pro and neither have yet faced a setback since leaving college. Mills will probably get a running start at AA this year, but as soon as there's an opening in Las Vegas he would stand, at this point, to be the first man promoted.

ETA: 2010

4. Marc Rzepczynski - 23, 6'3" 205, 2007 5th round

Did I say top three? Make that the top FOUR pitching prospects are left-handers. Zep is 5 months younger than Mills, but was crowded off the rapid promotion train. After a short impressive stint in rookie ball in 2007, he spent the whole 2008 season in Lansing where he was as impressive as Mills or Cecil all year. A four-pitch pitcher with a solid average fastball and a standard curve/slider/change repertoire, Rzepzynski turned the corner when he gained the command to throw all his pitches for strikes.

Like Mills, he projects as a middle of the rotation starter at best (as opposed to Romero and Cecil who have perhaps #2 starter stuff), but both are the sort of "plug them in and forget about them" consistent pitchers that any team would covet. I expect Zep will get on that promotion train in 2009, starting the year in Dunedin and could very easily reach AAA before season's end.

ETA: late 2010, early 2011

5. Kyle Ginley - 22, 6'2" 225, 2006 17th round

The right-handed Ginley probably has more physical ability than the two men above him. He boasts a mid 90s fastball and the potential for other good pitches but he is considerably more raw and has a lot to learn. He will develop and fulfill his potential to the extent he can develop secondary pitches that set up his plus fastball. In 2007 he showed improved control but gave up way too many hits at Lansing. Starting off there again this year he dominated early and earned a promotion to Dunedin where he encountered the same difficulties he experienced in 2007.
Ginley will repeat Dunedin next season and will be promoted if he demonstrates progress. Still, he may be the sort of pitcher who'll encounter a setback upon his first promotion to each new level as he learns to adjust to higher-quality hitters. Look for him to be on a slower track than the pitchers ranked above him.

ETA: 2012

6. Robert Ray - 25, 6'5" 190, 2005 7th round

Considered by some to be a steal when he was drafted in the seventh round (some mentioned him as a sleeper candidate for the first round) Ray had impressed in the Cape Cod league and in his final year at Auburn. He showed a plus curve and a solid change and had good velocity on his pitches. He roared through rookie ball in 2005 and seemed to be well set for rapid promotion. But that was followed by two seasons hampered by minor injuries, inconsistencies, and struggles getting LH hitters out. He had probably slipped to the fringes of the radar, at least from a fan's point of view, as a legitimate prospect.

But in 2008 things clicked for Ray. His WHIP improved noticeably and, upon his promotion to AA New Hampshire the overall line reflected the improvement. He posted a 3.16 ERA at AA (as opposed to pushing 5.00 in the two previous seasons at Dunedin). This seems to be primarily due to figuring out how to deal with lefties. He came into the season with LH hitters batting .358 off of him in 2007. At New Hampshire they hit a paltry .233 against Ray. His WHIP was still higher than you would like, but he's now back in the mix. He projects as a back of the rotation starter or a quality reliever, depending largely on how well he handles left-handers as he moves up.

ETA: Late 2010

7. Davis Romero - 26, 5'10", 160, undrafted free agent.

Little D-Ro was signed by the Jays almost 10 years ago as a 16-year-old out of Panama. Injuries have always been an issue for the slightly built lefty. He missed all of 2004, but he came back and pitched so well in 2005 and 2006 that he came all the way from Dunedin to make 7 appearances in the majors. But then he suffered a torn labrum in his left shoulder which cost him all of 2007. For those of you concerned about the recovery of Casey Janssen or Dustin McGowan, you need look no further than D-Ro for encouragement.

In 2008 Romero started 25 games in AAA and went long stretches putting up dominating numbers (game by game breakdowns are difficult to find, but his overall line is marred by just a few very bad starts scattered among quite a few outstanding ones). Some might question putting a 26-year-old pitcher ahead of some of those who come lower on the list, but Romero has the look of a quality major league pitcher. He has a solid change and a plus curve and enough velocity to present a credible moving fastball. He may not have the physical build to hold up long-term as a starter (though look for him to make a strong case in Spring Training), but he has the stuff to be more than a situational bullpen lefty too. He should be in the mix (along with Janssen and Scott Richmond) to fill out the Jays rotation in April depending on who comes in from outside the organization.

ETA: 2009

8. Kenny Rodriguez - 24, 6'3" 200, signed as an international free agent.

This may be the only prospect list on which you will see Rodriguez's name appear. I admit the Cuban defector is a bit of a hunch play for me because the scouting reports are so inconsistent on him. Rodriguez has a major-league change and his other pitches are said to be average or a tic below. He seems to have effective control and a good idea how to pitch. He was excellent at Dunedin this year, but when rewarded with a promotion to AA in July the wheels completely fell off.

After six starts in New Hampshire, only one of which was any good at all, he went back to A ball in August where he was even better than he had been before (batters hit .214 off him in August). I'm going out on a bit of a limb without having seen extensive scouting on his 2008 performance but my gut reaction is that having done that well in his first turn at pro-ball in a relatively high league, the man has some potential. His future is probably in the bullpen, and he'll have to prove himself all over again when he moves up, but he's not to be overlooked.

ETA: mid-to-late 2011 as a reliever, later as a starter.

9. Trystan Magnuson - 23, 6'7" 210, 2007 1st round supplemental

Keith Law loved this guy, saying he might have been the best value out of all the great prospects the Jays took in 2007. But his first year as a pro was a rough one. The big right-hander saw his greatest success as a reliever in college but, as is their custom, the Jays tried him first as a starting pitcher (a strategy that worked successfully with Shaun Marcum and David Bush and seems to be working with Brett Cecil). But what Law and some scouts see in Magnuson is physical potential, more than polished results. For instance, one of the first thing the Jays did was adjust his mechanics to get more velocity on his fastball.

Like all tall pitchers, he has some difficulty accomplishing smooth mechanics and thus his location suffers. In 2008, his walks were too high, his K's far too low, and his stuff still raw in most every respect. Still, there are signs of progress. In his first 41 innings at Lansing, his ERA was 6.80 with 23 walks. In the 40.2 innings which followed, his ERA was 3.98 and his walks totaled only 12. At this point you have to be skeptical that Magnuson can succeed long term as a starter but he's going to have to start missing more bats to make the majors in any capacity.

ETA: uncertain. Not before 2012 unless he makes a major breakthrough.

10. Andrew Liebel - 23, 6'1" 195, 2008 3rd round

This is probably the guy on the low end of this list who is most likely to take a big step towards the top next season. Like Magnuson, Liebel was considered in some quarters a "signability" pick, with solid average stuff across the board. But one of the consistent themes in the Jays drafting under Ricciardi has been the pursuit of guys with outstanding makeup. Having a high "baseball IQ" and a highly competitive nature is something that the team considers of real value and Liebel is such a player.

Liebel turned it up a notch in his senior year after having gone undrafted as a junior. His best pitch is a tailing change and he compliments it with a low 90's fastball and a solider curve and slider and he found himself at the front of a talented rotation. After the draft, the Jays let him finish his year in relief because he was nearing the safe limit on number of pitches. But the overall impression you get from reading about Liebel is that he's a guy with good mid-range stuff, but who has the makeup to get the best from what he has. If you are thinking that this is vaguely reminiscent of David Bush or Shaun Marcum at this point, well, I am too.

ETA: Difficult to say this early, he could be a fast riser. I'll call it 2012.

11. Scott Richmond - 29, 6'5" 225, signed as an undrafted free agent.

The story goes that when the Jays were sending scouts to the farm team to check out David Purcey and assess his readiness for the majors, the minor league coaches kept insisting that the scouts take the time to have a look at Richmond. By now you know the other stories about Richmond, how he took a long and curious route to the major leagues, and how he acquitted himself very well in 27 major league innings.

It's very difficult to find specifics about Richmond's abilities, and few are the pitchers who make their initial impact at 29 or later (it does happen), but I'm not prepared to argue against the feel-good Canadian story. He could step in and have a long career in the back of a major league rotation (think Woody Williams) or he could be a decent but unspectacular reliever (Pete Walker for example) or he could disappear by this time next year as nothing more than an interesting footnote in Jays history.


Next time, last list, Relief pitchers.


Anonymous said...

Nicely done. Scott Richmond isn't a prospect, but a journeyman. Jose Vargas needs some props. His age-16 and age-17 seasons in the DSL have been nice.

The Southpaw said...

There are several guys at the lower levels who are intruiging and I should have listed them in the original post. Although none as young as Vargas (I'd love a link to info on that kid, btw).

Luis Perez, Catillo Perez, and Joel Cerrano are all somewhat interesting players.


CdnDuck said...

Great blog and terrific breakdown. In regards to your Cecil write up, I really wonder about the inning limitations on developing pitchers. While I agree that over work is a major concern, shouldn't pitches thrown not IP be the most important total? I'm a big believer in pitch counts, and holding Cecil (for example) to a strict 70 pitch, pitch count makes more sense than 5 or 6 innigns per start. Thoughts?

The Southpaw said...


I can't speak for Will, but you're right that pitch counts should be taken into account. If you use Halladay as an example, his 30 innings based on his low pitch counts might be 35-40 for other pitchers. By the same token, a guy who doesn't have much control and throws a lot of pitchers per inning shouldn't be pushed to 30 because of the high pitch counts.

Their needs to be some recognition of the pitch counts, but I think 30 innings is still a very safe number.


The Southpaw said...

I assume it's not pitch count only because they don't have such easy access to college and high school pitch counts and they get into a habit of thought.

Still, every description of Cecil's careful management DID refer to pitch counts but it seems that the pitch limit was not so much about how many he was capable of throwing in an outing as opposed to how many innings he'd end up with.

I'm NOT entirely convinced you can go to pitch count with no regard to innings though, because each seperate start is a distinct event with it's own preparation cycle. it seems to me that going through that whole cycle of preparation, warming up, pitching, the wait between innings, and etc is a set of stressors which go beyond the number of pitches you throw.

I do think pitch count has to be factored in, but not be the only factor.

Anonymous said...

I remember people calling MacGowan a bust too. It seems silly because you will still have that player under team control for x years as soon as their arb clock starts. If they take an extra year to make it, someone else will probably take a step up (like Snider). It is totally unpredictable.
-brent in Korea

Ian H. said...

Very great post guys, do you think that we might see any of these guys in the majors next year?

eyebleaf said...

hey guys, great post.

you have cecil's innings listed at 168, and then at 118. I'm guessing the 168 is a typo, but can you confirm that for me?

Navin aka eyebleaf

fantasybaseballmacbookpro said...

I like the post.

I also like the breakdown of having Cecil come up for the Jays and when he would theoretically be shut down.

It seems in major league baseball that pitchers are coming in and being babied, which I do agree with to a certain degree, but how about bringing Cecil in for some mid-relief so he can experience the big leagues while not over loading his arm.

Did this technique not work for Mr. Johan? :)

I like the blog...thanks goes to eyebleaf for forwarding me to it.

The Southpaw said...

Cecil should be 118.

Jan h, I think there is a great chance Brett Cecil and Davis Romero pitch in the majors in 2009, a decent chance Ricky Romero gets at least a look, and an outside chance Mills makes it that far. Richmond could start the year in the majors or not make it at all, he's largely a victim of those around him.