Luke Erickson

Luke Erickson is a season-ticket holder for the Potomac Nationals, but makes a point of seeing games in Hagerstown and Harrisburg at least once a summer. When the PNats are away on the weekend, Luke finds a minor-league game somewhere to watch, and generally attends 70-80 baseball games a year up across several states. A former sportswriter with newspapers in Massachusetts and Oregon, Luke lives in Western Fairfax County with his wife and two sons.

Jan 292012
 

For the longest time, the knock on the Nats system was that they could develop pitchers, but not position players. Since the relocation from Montreal, there have been two — Ryan Zimmerman and Danny Espinosa. Even if you want to count Ian Desmond (drafted in 2004), that’s three. And how much credit can be taken for Zimmerman is questionable, given he was able to play in MLB the September after he was drafted.

As mentioned yesterday, there are 20 position players listed in this year’s book. It was 17 in 2011, 14 in 2010. But to illustrate my point about spreading the risk, nine of those 20 are 23 or older, and just three of those nine have played a full season of AA (Marrero, Moore, Lombardozzi). Just two of the remaining seven are expected to play in Harrisburg this season; both Justin Bloxom and Jeff Kobernus turn 24 during the season. Just something to think about.

Like the pitchers, Sickels has some principles that I’d like summarize before we look at the list:

…Instead of the Five Tools, Sickels looks at what he calls the Seven Skills:
1. Controlling the strike zone
2. Hitting for power
3. Hitting for average
4. Offensive speed
5. Fielding range
6. Fielding reliability
7. Throwing utility

…Controlling the strike zone isn’t strictly not striking out (Sickels likes a batter to walk about 10% of his PAs) but also comparing BBs to Ks, which means a guy that doesn’t walk a lot is tolerable if he also doesn’t strike out much, and there are plenty of guys that both strike out a lot and walk a lot, but there are very few good hitters that don’t walk much and strike out a lot.

…Sickels likes to look at OPS and a variation of Bill James’ secondary average in relation to his batting average. His formula is basically doubles, plus twice the number of triples, plus three times the number of HRs, plus walks, plus the difference between SBs and CS, all divided by at-bats. The point? That a low-average guy that either hits for serious power or gets on base a lot is just as valuable if not more than a high-average batter with less power. That may sound obvious, but recall how many people have used “offensive woes” in conjunction with Derek Norris the past two years, when he batted .210 and 235 but had secondary averages of .534 and .480 — higher than his teammate Tyler Moore both years (.515 in ’10, .424 last season).

…Offensive speed is how well the player runs the bases, not how fast. The best baserunners are smart and fast, but as many of us have seen, they’re usually one or the other but rarely both.

…Defensively, Sickels freely admits that he has to rely on the scouts heavily because the more advanced defensive metrics (e.g. Zone Rating) simply aren’t available for the minors, noting that range (which ZR measures) is developmentally more important than reliability.

Here they are, listed from high-to-low letter grade first, alphabetically second:

Bryce Harper – A (A) Chris Marrero – C+ (C+) Jason Martinson – C (C)
Anthony Rendon – A- Michael Taylor – C+ Tyler Moore – C (C)
Brian Goodwin – B Justin Bloxom – C (C) Randolph Oduber – C (C)
Destin Hood – B- (C) Blake Kelso – C Eury Perez – C (C+)
Steve Lombardozzi – B- (C+) Kevin Keyes – C Matt Skole – C
David Freitas – C+ (C) Jeff Kobernus – C (C) Zach Walters – C (C)
Rick Hague – C+ (C+) Estarlin Martinez – C

Like yesterday, the bolded guys weren’t ranked by BA and all are on our watchlist. Sickels gave his “Sleeper” tag to David Freitas and Michael Taylor. This is significant because Sickels has a good track record for picking them. Brad Peacock, for example, was a “Sleeper” last year as was Danny Rosenbaum. For those wondering, Erik Komatsu was given a “C” grade and Sickels was not high on him: “Komatsu profiles as a reserve outfielder, with a line-drive bat, solid plate discipline, gap power, and slightly above-average speed.”

With the faster delivery, and one less book, that concludes the prospect book review this year — about 10 days sooner than last year. We can only hope that another trade is made that involves prospects, now that the Prince Fielder sweepstakes are over. I’m doubtful it will happen before Spring Training begins.

Unlike years past, it doesn’t appear that there will be a cattle call of 4A guys that might make the club. Absent a trade, the drama from the prospect angle might simply be whether or not Steve Lombardozzi and Corey Brown make the club as a reserves. Am I missing anyone else?

Naturally, I expect the uninformed and impatient fans (a redundancy, I know) to pound the drum for Bryce Harper. I’m sure there will be the “Davey Johnson and the kids” reminiscing from the 1984-85 era Mets, minus much discussion about his complicity in ruining the careers of Darryl Strawberry and Dwight Gooden. I’m not saying he hasn’t learned his lesson (though it’s telling that no other team has ever trusted Johnson with a young team since) but glossing over that part of the story is like reviewing “Mad Men” and not mentioning the misogyny.

Anyway, I’ll try my best to find the minors angles that I can glean from the beat guys’ coverage of what’s happening in Florida. No “This Afternoon In Viera” — it’s just not in the budget. Besides, the staff here doesn’t tolerate the heat very well.

Jan 282012
 

It’s a little less satisfying than getting that package in the mail — not to go off on a tangent, but when I lived there, the mail truck going by was easily the highlight of the day — but the Sickels e-book came to my inbox overnight.

As I did last year, I’m breaking this up by pitchers and position players. I’m starting with the pitchers, but believe it or not, there are more position players than pitchers this year (20 vs 13). I can’t remember when that was before, if ever.

I’m also breaking this in two because Sickels doesn’t rank the prospects like BA does. Instead, he gives letter grades… and he doesn’t grade on a curve — he is very, very tough. As he himself puts it, a C+ grade is good praise, but he is careful to note that the grade is relative, i.e. a rookie-ball Grade C prospect could still end up becoming a star while a AAA Grade C is more likely to end up as a backup or long reliever.

When it comes to pitchers, Sickels has some guiding principals…

…AA is the ultimate test for finesse pitchers

…K/BB ratio is a strong bellwether

…K/IP ratio can indicate “stuff” but not necessarily velocity

…H/IP ratio is a good complement to K/IP, but should be taken with a grain of salt given the variances in defense [and scorekeeping]

…HR rate — all things being equal, young pitchers that don’t give a lot of HRs are better than those that do

As you might have guessed, Sickels is a Bill James disciple in that he uses statistics to help identify trends and anomalies. But he most certainly believes in the value in scouting to identify the intangibles like effort, body language, kinetics, athleticism, etc.

Here’s a look at the 13 pitchers (2011 grade in parentheses)

Alex Meyer – B Brian Dupra – C Rafael Martin – C
Matt Purke – B- Wirkin Estevez – C Josh Smoker – C
Sammy Solis – B-(B) Taylor Hill – C Kylin Turnbull – C
Robbie Ray – B-(B-) Cole Kimball – C(C+)  
Danny Rosenbaum – C+(C) Pat Lehman – C  

The bolded names are those that weren’t ranked by BA, and all of them are on our 2012 Watchlist. Unlike last year, there are no sleeper alerts for the pitchers and Sickels didn’t do a cutting room floor this year (probably because of all the prospect trades in the offseason this year).

Now for the pre-emptive strikes…

…Tommy Milone was rated a B- and his writeup began: “At some point, you just have to put the radar guns away. Tom Milone is a pitcher.”

…Brad Peacock was rated a B with the following admonition: “I think he could have adjustment issues if he is pushed too quickly, and an apprenticeship in the major league bullpen, or another 15 starts in Triple-A, seems like a good idea to me. He can be a number three starter, perhaps something more, if he continues to progress with his changeup and command.”

…A.J. Cole was rated a B+ with this caveat: “His changeup still needs work and his command wobbles at times, but he held his peak velocities more consistently last year. If the change comes around and he builds his stamina and strength, he can develop into a number two starter… perhaps more.”

…Brad Meyers made the book and got rated a C, with the caveat: “You don’t see Meyers on many top prospect lists due to a marginal 87-91 MPH fastball, but his secondary stuff (curve, slider, change) is workable and his location within the strike zone is superior. At age 26 he isn’t a hot prospect, and I don’t see how he easily fits into the Yankees pitching staff, but for many teams he would deserve a look as a fifth starter or relief option.”

I’d give more detail (as I did two years ago, but that was *after* the printed run had sold out and before he began selling this as a PDF), but knowing that Sickels is basically a two-person operation (he and his wife Jeri), I’d strongly recommend folks purchase the book and support who I consider to be the best in the business.

A post on the hitters next, and I’ll be updating/finishing the Player Reports as well.

Jan 272012
 

Picking up where we left off, here are nos. 16 through 30 for the 2012 BA Prospect Handbook…

16. Tyler Moore, 1B
17. Robbie Ray, LHP
18. Kylin Turnbull, LHP
19. Zach Walters, SS
20. Jeff Kobernus, 2B
21. Matt Skole, 3B
22. Eury Perez, CF
23. Danny Rosenbaum, LHP
24. Sandy Leon, C
25. Jason Martinson, SS
26. Cole Kimball, RHP
27. David Freitas, C
28. Adrian Sanchez, 2B
29. Paul Demny, RHP
30. Kevin Keyes, OF

Of the 26 (minus the four traded), 14 are holdovers — Harper, Solis, Lombardozzi, Hood, Marrero, Taylor, Hague, Moore, Ray, Kobernus, Perez, Rosenbaum, Martinson, Kimball, and Sanchez — leaving us with 12 newcomers. Let’s take a look at how they were acquired:

2011 Draft — Rendon, Goodwin, Meyer, Purke, Turnbull, Skole

2011 Acquisition — Walters

2010 Draft — Freitas, Keyes

2008 Draft — Demny

2007 IFA — Leon

2006 Draft — Kimball

It would be nice to know who was the 32nd, 33rd, 34th, and 35th picks were (the “bonus” pick, a.k.a. #31 was Taylor Jordan), but we can probably surmise that at least three of those four are from the past two drafts. As mentioned previously, I still believe the time has come to start diversifying the portfolio and try to sign more HS and JuCo guys. Easy for me to say, I know, but when I go through the player reports and and see the bulge of 22-24 year-olds, it worries me.

As we did a year ago, let’s look at BA’s pie-in-the-sky 2015 Washington Lineup (edited to account for the GG trade, with Solis slotted in because he was the next rated pitcher after Purke):

C – Wilson Ramos
1B – Michael Morse
2B – Anthony Rendon
SS – Danny Espinosa
3B – Ryan Zimmerman
LF – Jayson Werth
CF – Brian Goodwin
RF – Bryce Harper
#1P – Stephen Strasburg
#2P – Jordan Zimmermann
#3P – Brad Peacock Gio Gonzalez
#4P – A.J. Cole Matt Purke
#5P – Matt Purke Sammy Solis
CL – Drew Storen

Let’s face it: The reason why these projected lineups are so famously wrong is that they build them from the pieces on hand that year. And it presumes that every prospect will work out. Hence, pie-in-the-sky, i.e. if everything falls into place.

This I can only fault them for so much; the fantasy baseball market demands this kind of projection, and you gotta do what pays the bills. I think of this as the equivalent to the advertorial “Business Review” articles I had to write for the newspapers back in the day.

Like I wrote last year, BA is a lot like the U.S. News & World Report’s “Best Colleges” list: you can complain about it, you can make fun of it, but you cannot ignore it. Not yet, at least.

Have at it in the comments. The Sickels e-book is coming soon!

Jan 262012
 

The good news is that my copy of the 2012 Baseball America Prospect Handbook came in the mail yesterday. The bad news is that the four prospects traded away for Gio Gonzalez were still there. I’d go all whiny-complainy on you, but I’m old enough to remember when cut&paste was done with an Xacto and a wax machine vs. Ctrl-X and Ctrl-V. It may be easier to get the words onto the galleys, but it still takes time to publish and bind on paper.

It’s also a slight surprise to see that the pre-trade ranking of the system was #1. That may be as meaningful as winning Dixville Notch in the big picture, but I suspect if GG wins 15 or so games, it’ll be forgotten everywhere but here.

As the headline suggests, I’m breaking up the list to have multiple posts and discussion fodder. But before I do that, let’s take a look at what happened to last year’s Top 28 (remember, Michael Burgess and A.J. Morris were also traded prior to the book release):

Graduated (3) — Danny Espinosa, Wilson Ramos, Yunesky Maya (exceeded IP limit).

Rule 5 Draft (2011), Taken (1) — Brad Meyers

Rule 5 Draft (2010), Returned (1) — Elvin Ramirez

Traded (4) — Derek Norris, A.J. Cole, Brad Peacock, Tommy Milone

Dropped Out (5) — J.P. Ramirez, Ryan Tatusko, Trevor Holder, Adam Carr, Hassan Pena

Like last year, roughly half the list is new. Also, like last year, BA is effusive in its praise for Washington spending big. Naturally, no mention was made that much of the impetus for the 2011 spree — unlike the expenditures on uber-prospects Bryce Harper in 2010 and Stephen Strasburg in 2009 — might possibly have been because of the new CBA or that a Top 10 pick in 2012 was highly unlikely. Time will tell how well Rizzo really did with his unique 2009-2011 window, but for now it’s 17 of these 26 were drafted then.

Tomorrow, we’ll take a look at Nos. 16-30, but I’ll leave you today with the Top 15 per the book:

1. Bryce Harper, OF
2. Anthony Rendon, 3B
3. Brad Peacock, RHP
4. A.J. Cole, RHP
5. Brian Goodwin, OF
6. Alex Meyer, RHP
7. Matt Purke, LHP
8. Sammy Solis, LHP
9. Derek Norris, C
10. Steve Lombardozzi, 2B
11. Destin Hood, OF
12. Chris Marrero, 1B
13. Tommy Milone, LHP
14. Michael Taylor, OF
15. Rick Hague, SS

Jan 252012
 


Leading up to his annual book, John Sickels has released his Top 50 batters and Top 50 pitchers to the folks that pre-ordered it.

For the second straight year, Bryce Harper ranked #1. Coming in at #2 was Mike Trout, who I would have not have been surprised or upset if he had ranked #1 (OK, maybe that second qualification is akin to my giving up skydiving for Lent). Sickels ranked just five batters with a Grade A, with four others getting the Grade of A-.

The last of those four, coming in at #9 overall, was Anthony Rendon. That’s mighty high praise when you consider that there are a few dozen more than 2,000 batters in the minors. For those wondering, Derek Norris still made the list, but dropped from #25 to #45 and in letter grade from B+ to B.

As you might have guessed, there are no Nationals pitchers in the Top 50. Former farmhands A.J. Cole (#23) and Brad Peacock (#39) made the list for Oakland, which was one of the top organizations in terms of total players making the two lists:
BATTERS

Zero Arizona, Chicago (A), Los Angeles (N), Milwaukee, Philadelphia,
One Atlanta, Cleveland, Detroit, Miami, New York (A), New York (N), San Francisco
Two Baltimore, Chicago (N), Cincinnati, Houston, Los Angeles (A), Oakland, Pittsburgh, Seattle, St. Louis, Tampa Bay, Texas, Washington
Three Boston, Colorado, Kansas City, Minnesota, Toronto
Four San Diego

PITCHERS

Zero Cleveland, Chicago (N), Cincinnati, Houston, Miami, Minnesota, San Francisco, Washington
One Baltimore, Boston, Detroit, Kansas City, Los Angeles (A), Texas
Two Chicago (A), Colorado, Los Angeles (N), Milwaukee, New York (A), Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Tampa Bay
Three Arizona, Atlanta, New York (N), San Diego, Seattle
Four Oakland, St. Louis
Five Toronto

Double-crunching it, the Toronto Blue Jays are this year’s “it” organization with eight players on the two lists, followed by San Diego with seven, and Oakland and St. Louis (six apiece). Unlike last year, no organization was shut out, but Cleveland, Miami, and San Francisco each had but one player on either list. Washington is one of nine organizations with two players on either list.

Jan 242012
 


Iconoclastic prospect guru Kevin Goldstein has weighed in on the Nationals system as part of his regular “Future Shock” series. In addition to ranking the Top 11, he breaks them down into the more aesthetic star system (two-star, three-star, etc.), then names nine more. In short, the four- and five-star guys are like Sickels’s Grade-B or better. Without further ado:

1. Harper *****
2. Rendon *****
3. Purke ****
4. Goodwin ***
5. Meyer ***
6. Hood ***
7. Taylor ***
8. Lombardozzi ***
9. Ray ***
10. Solis ***
11. T. Moore **
12. Marrero
13. E. Perez
14. Walters
15. Jordan+
16. Smoker
17. Martinson
18. Skole
19. Leon
20. Freitas
+I asked him via Twitter regarding Jordan and he replied that pre-surgery, Jordan might have been #11.

Like most of the prospect gurus, Goldstein points to the Gio Gonzalez trade as “thinning” to the system but believes the ’11 Draft could eventually replace the players lost. As many of you have noted in the comments, the GG trade has knocked the system back, but perhaps only to where it was a year ago.

Still, let’s not forget that as the parent club improves, the job of reloading becomes more difficult. The new CBA also will be a factor, though I think a lot of the early “Omigod, we’ll never get another Bubba Starling!” screeching analysis was overwrought.

Click through on the link above to read his quick takes on the “Nine More” and for you Harper fanboys, Goldstein included the writeup on him. The rest, alas, is for the paid subs (sorry).

Jan 242012
 

As mentioned in the comments, Sickels has done his first ranking of the farm systems and the Nationals came in at #14. This sounds about right to me, given how the system thins out considerably after the top-line talent.

First base, shortstop, and LHRPs are three areas of particular concern to me. Yes, there is Moore and Marrero, but it’s a chimera to think that both will make it to DC. Rick Hughes fans will shout me down, but he’s coming off a shoulder injury and has a lost a year of development time. Josh Smoker is the best LHRP candidate and has zero AA innings. Of course, any complaints about minor-league relievers is mostly academic anyway; roles and usage should be secondary to the primary concern of developing the arms themselves.

The low-level rumblings in Western Maryland and the Shenandoah Valley are becoming louder, as details and logistics start to come to light. I’ve already admitted that my bias is towards keeping things in place, but obviously keeping the affiliate within reasonable driving distance of DC is my second choice. I can’t promise to follow this story all season long (the focus is on the players first), but I can direct folks to the blog that is dedicated to that purpose.

As others have mentioned, this is par for the course in the minors. Ownership groups routinely play one city off another in hopes of a better deal, a better facility, etc. It’s their right because the team is, after all, a business. Municipalities also have the right to say no, because it’s their duty to decide what constitutes a fair use of public monies.

My only admonition is that it’s usually a downward trend. A double-A team leaves, a single-A team might replace them. An affiliated team goes, an indy team — which doesn’t have to follow territorial rules — might move in. An indy team leaves, a collegiate wood-bat league might come to town. But with each step down, there are fewer dates the ballpark is used, fewer opportunities for the public to enjoy the facility, and less revenue generated to maintain it.

Stay tuned for a look at the latest Nats Top Prospect list, as Kevin Goldstein from Baseball Prospectus has weighed in.

Jan 202012
 

Three days after releasing his initial Top 20 list, the Nationals traded four of their Top 10 to the A’s for Gio Gonzalez. Today, Sickels has revised the list.

Thankfully, this is in print, so I don’t have to channel my bad Casey Kasem impersonation (click for a better one), but with everybody moving up four spots on the countdown, here are the four new names on his Top 20:

20) Justin Bloxom — C

19) Jeff Kobernus — C

18) Eury Perez — C

17) Tyler Moore — C

Moore, of course, has gotten some attention lately with Byron Kerr’s profile that has him being tried in the OF during Spring Training. This is, of course, being tried to give the Nats options besides DH if/when both he and Chris Marrero are in the same lineup at Syracuse.

Kobernus and Perez could easily be flip-flopped, but I, too, would rate Perez ahead of Kobernus because he can hidden on a bench as a defensive replacement/pinch-runner, not to mention he’s two years younger. Both have the same impediment for the long haul: impatience at the plate (4.0 and 4.7% BB rates, respectively).

Bloxom was one of the overlooked that I listed when Sickels put the call out to the community (first comment), but it’s still a bit of a surprise to see him get the nod when you look at the list of “Others” — folks that most likely will make the book, which is due out next weekend.
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And for today’s copyeditor’s nightmare (and non-sequitur?)… the sole signing last week by the Nationals was for Austin Bibens-Dirkx, a candidate for the Syracuse staff. He turns 27 in April and another Venezuelan League signee. One might also think, given this article, that he’s a project for the coaches to make a mechanical adjustment.

Jan 182012
 

As referenced in our previous post, the authority when it comes to minor-league facilities has weighed in.

Here’s the key graf in that story (bolding mine):

Now, we’re not talking the world’s greatest market: its population in 2009 was 26,322, its median income is lower than the rest of Virginia, and it’s the county seat of a relatively small county (Frederick County’s population is only 78,305, but it is growing). Indeed, to reach a 100,000 population within a decent driving distance of any Winchester ballpark, you need to include the entire county and all of Martinsburg, W.V., some 25 miles up I-81, as well as rural residents in the Martinsburg area.

I’ve been reading Kevin Reichard for the better part of a decade, which is not to say I’m slavish devotee. We’ve actually butted heads via e-mail, particularly when he correctly predicted the demise of my former hometown team, the North Shore Spirit. But I will say that he knows his [stuff] and have come to respect him.

I don’t think you can overestimate the value of a suitor that has a ballpark in place vs. that one does not. Kinston is the contender that folks in Hagerstown should be fearing. And look more carefully at that last line, it echoes what my friend Shawn wrote nearly a month ago (also worth another look).

He’s spot-on in the assessment that most people will blame the ownership vs. elected officials if the Suns were to leave. Indeed, when the North Shore Spirit folded its tent, there were folks praising Mayor Chip Clancy for “standing up” to the team’s mercurial owner, Nick Lopardo. My bias is obvious: I don’t care who “wins” in that battle; I just want the team to stay in place.

I’m guessing most of you feel the same way.

Jan 162012
 

It’s that dreaded dead time again.

No, not in that annoying, overrated Jerry Garcia kind of way.

It’s the post-holiday malaise where it’s the waiting game. Last year, that empty space was filled with a trade (Gorzelanny). Well, we’ve already had that trade (G. Gonzalez) and the next one might simply be the unloading of spare parts, should a free-agent signing occur.

The takeaway I have from the GG extension is that the Nationals have locked down their Big Three in the DC rotation, so any excess is bound to be trade bait. That could be Lannan or Detwiler now, or Solis or Ray later (it does not escape me that those are all lefties).

Meanwhile, the low-level rumblings from the lower full-season affiliates are registering like last August’s earthquake.

A blog has been established to watch the goings-on from Winchester, a rumored relocation spot for Hagerstown. Kevin Reichard at ballparkdigest.com has yet to weigh in, but my take is that if privately funded efforts in more affluent counties (i.e. The Loudoun Hounds) are having trouble getting off the ground, how will a publicly funded effort possible do better (and faster)? Not to mention, the most likely destination (Bridgeforth Field) would need a massive renovation. I’ve seen it done before, but only at the indy level (Lynn, Nashua, Worcester), where the 1991 NAPBL stadium standards don’t apply.

Meanwhile, in Woodbridge the quest for a new stadium for the Potomac Nationals remains a windmill in the distance continues. The latest dispatch has a county official citing a nonspecific setback over a parking garage of undetermined size is delaying a future announcement for the building of a facility located somewhere along the I-95 or I-66 corridor. Apparently, I’m not the only writer desperate for a news peg.

Of course, now that I’ve done a post-to-keep-the-site-fresh, something else minors-oriented might happen today…