May 022014
 

You can dismiss it as a byproduct of injuries, but the fact remains: More than half of the position players on the current Washington 25-man roster are homegrown. This time five years ago, you could fit the number of homegrown position players on a unicycle.

Sure, I’m being melodramatic, but the larger, implied point is that the Nats have come a long way in terms of player development in a very short time. The trick will be maintaining that ratio while still remaining a contender.

There are just 15 bats in the 2014 book by Sickels — the least it’s been since 2010 (hey, that rhymes). What’s probably more troubling, though, is that nine (9) of those are outfielders. There’s just one 3B, two SS, one C, and one 2B. The other guy? Matt Skole, who’s probably going to be a 1B after all.

Before we break down the 15, let me pass along Sickels’s principles on hitters:

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.
…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 (which fielding percentage measures).

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

Brian Goodwin – B (B+) Drew Ward – B- Osvaldo Abreu – C
Tony Renda – B- (C+) Rafael Bautista – C+ Isaac Ballou – C
Matt Skole – B- (B) Eury Perez – C+ (C+) Randy Encarnacion – C
Steve Souza – B- (C+) Drew Vettleson – C+ (B-) Destin Hood – C (C+)
Michael Taylor – B- (C) Zach Walters – C+ (C+) Pedro Severino – C


As you’ve probably already deduced, the three bolded players are the ones not listed in the BA Prospect Handbook. Kids from the D.R. rarely register until they make some noise in the GCL, which they did and got them put on the site watchlist.

Now, for some tidbits from the book…

…As hinted in the previous post, Osvaldo Abreu is another “SLEEPER ALERT!!” as Sickels cites his speed and strike-zone judgment, which is similar to what I wrote this past offseason, though I had the built-in bias of having previously selected him as a “DSL Guy” in 2013.

…The final “SLEEPER ALERT!!” is Rafael Bautista (also a 2013 “DSL Guy”) but a stronger emphasis on his speed and defensive skills, and a little less enthusiasm for his K rate, which has increased thus far in 2014 with Hagerstown.

…Like many of us, Sickels is of two minds when it comes to Brian Goodwin — could be an All-Star in the National League… or the Atlantic League, but gives him the benefit of the doubt (and reverts his letter grade to “B”).

…Sickels, who predicted Renda’s increase in doubles in 2013, shares the belief that Tony Renda can continue to exceed the expectations of scouts, though he cautions that the true test will be AA and warns that he must stay healthy (this was written after his most recent injury) to do so.

…Ward has 70-grade power and cautioned folks to not get too caught up in the one (1) HR that Ward hit last year in the GCL, projecting the 19-y.o. to eventually be a 25+ HR guy. Since the book went to press, Ward has hit three HRs and boasts a .500+ SLG%

And with that, we conclude the annual review of John Sickels’s prospect book, which you can purchase here. My recommendation is to buy the PDF, which you can search and annotate.

May 012014
 

As I feared when I first heard his book would be delayed, the arrival of John Sickels’s Prospect Book has been buried with the season in full swing, the Potomac homestand, and the recent flurry of player moves. The rain has already slowed things down, the P-Nats are on the road, but aside from a few points in the year, predicting when transactions will occur is next-to-impossible.

In other words, this is my chance and I’m taking it!

For the third straight year, I’ll do two posts, starting with this one for the pitchers.

For the first time in a few years, the Nats have more pitchers (18) ranked than position players (15), which I think can be attributed to the natural ebb and flow as well as trades. I think some folks will be more concerned about the number of ranked prospects falling from 39 to 33, but whenever I look back at previous editions of Sickels’s book, it’s usually been in that range.

Sickels has the following guiding principles when it comes to pitchers…

…AA is the ultimate test for finesse pitchers, a.k.a. the

…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

In some circles, there’s an acronym known as TINSTAAPP, which stands for There Is No Such Thing As A Pitching Prospect, which you’ll still hear every now and then (Jonah Keri includes it in this longform piece for Grantland in 2012 in which former National Edwin Jackson is the story peg). My personal belief is that it’s fallen out of favor because of the work of John Sickels and other baseball writers who have shown that TINSTAAP is a too-convenient excuse for “baseball men” to hide behind poor decisions (drafting or usage).

Without further ado, here’s a look at the 18 pitchers (2013 grade, if available, in parentheses):

Lucas Giolito – A- (B) Dakota Bacus – C (C) Nick Pivetta – C
A.J. Cole – B+ (B) Robert Benincasa – C (C) Matt Purke – C (C+)
Felipe Rivero – B- (B-) Christian Garcia – C (B-)
Jefry Rodriguez – C
Aaron Barrett – C+ (C) Neil Holland – C (C)
Blake Schwartz – C
Jake Johansen – C+ Richie Mirowski – C
Blake Treinen – C
Sammy Solis – C+ (B-) B. Mooneyham – C (C+)
Austin Voth – C

Names in bold are in Sickels’s book but not Baseball America. Not much of a shock that there are so few, given the 33 in one book vs. 30 in other. Now, for some tidbits…

…Giolito was ranked #12, Cole #33 in his Top 50 Pitching Prospects List.

…Sickels moved Cole up from a B and now puts his ceiling as a No. 3 starter

…Holland’s lack of plus velocity shouldn’t impede him from possibly becoming a ROOGY at the MLB level

…Add Sickels to the “haters” who think Johansen may eventually become a reliever

…Likewise for Solis and Mooneyham

…Purke is the analog to Giolito in terms of drafting and rehabbing a hurt pitcher

…Voth is one of three “SLEEPER ALERT!!” Nationals in 2014 which is a tag applied to Blake Treinen a year ago.

Up Next: The Batters.

Apr 162014
 

Late this morning, John Sickels released the last of his Top 20 lists, which was the Washington Nationals. As I’ve done the past couple of years, here’s a look at how it breaks down by letter grade:

A- Lucas Giolito
B A.J. Cole, Brian Goodwin
B- Matt Skole, Drew Ward, Michael Taylor, Steve Souza, Felipe Rivero, Tony Renda
C+ Drew Vettleson, Jake Johansen, Eury Perez, Zach Walters, Aaron Barrett, Rafael Bautista, Sammy Solis
C Blake Treinen, Jefry Rodriguez, Randy Encarnacion, Osvaldo Abreu


I realize some of you may be making a face like this when trying to decipher this, so let me try to do a better job than I did last year in explaining this…

The primary focus here is on letter grades, not numerical rank, which you can get by going top to bottom, then left in each row. Lucas Giolito is #1, A.J. Cole is #2, Brian Goodwin is #3… Randy Encarnacion is #19, Osvaldo Abreu is #20.

The secondary focus is on improvement by letter grade, which you can see by the color red. Because Sickels only ranks Grade C or better, that means becoming a C+ or better guy after being previously identified as a Grade C.

Top 20 guys (for the Nationals) from 2013 are in bold while guys that played their way onto the list are in italics. Because it would be specious, I chose to neither bold nor italicize Vettleson and Rivero, though I did indicate whether or not they improved.

Now that that’s out of the way, time for a few quick thoughts…

…The sea of red shows what most of us already know: there were several guys that truly improved in 2013.

…With only eight repeats, there were also quite a few guys that took a step back — most notably, RHP Christian Garcia and LHPs Sammy Solis and Matt Purke.

…After falling to seven players graded at B- or better (and none A or A-), the system has rebounded to nine, though that does include one acquired by trade and one drafted.

Rather than summarize Sickels any further, I highly recommend folks click through and read his thoughts on the system, which begins after the list of players outside of the Top 20.

Apr 152014
 

John Sickels released his preliminary prospect list for the Washington Nationals this morning, and yours truly made the first comment.

All of the names Sickels listed are on the 2014 Watchlist, so as I’ve done for the past two years, it’s easier to note the omissions from the primary categories:

Sandy Leon Raudy Read Matt Reistetter Jose Marmolejos-Diaz Shawn Pleffner
Ricky Hague Bryan Mejia Wilmer Difo David Masters Cutter Dykstra
J.C. Valdez Estarlin Martinez John Wooten Bryan Lippincott Greg Zebrack
Cody Davis Gilberto Mendez L.J. Hollins John Simms Wander Suero
Nick Lee R.C. Orlan David Napoli Jake Walsh  


Not too hard to spot the pattern here: Sickels is looking for the Top 30-something guys, regardless of position, role, or usage, whereas I’ve got some built-in biases based on the how the list is constructed (Top 5′s from each affiliate) as well as the inescapable prejudice of fanhood, which isn’t necessarily inclusive.

As I put it a year ago, it doesn’t concern me that there are so many omissions; it’s just math. Sickels is looking at/for the top 15 percent of 30 organizations, my list covers the about third of one.

Hopefully, I’ll get home before Sickels releases his Top 20 list.

Feb 182014
 

Having received word via e-mail from Jeri Sickels, wife of John, that his 2014 Baseball Prospect Book remains behind schedule due to a concussion he suffered this offseason, I decided to finish off the player reports rather than wait. The hope is that I can still revise some of the player reports on guys that I was hoping Sickels might write about that BA didn’t.

But my fear is that once spring training games begin, it’ll slide… not to mention get lost in the shuffle as all eyes (and some drones) are focused on Viera. The watchlist is conceived while doing the season reviews in October-November, set after the Rule 5 draft in December, with the writing begun in early January with a focus on the guys I’ve seen (and the ones I’m sure won’t be written up), and usually finished in late January after I’ve received and reviewed the major prospect books.

So if you’ve got some extra time — say, because you’re at home with your kids because schools have been delayed a couple hours by less than a centimeter of snow — take another gander and feel free to discuss in the comments here or on the player pages.

Feb 042013
 

With this year’s editions of both Baseball America and John Sickels’s prospect books received, read, and reviewed, I’ve finished the player reports for the 2013 NationalsProspects.com Watchlist.

For the newcomers, this is a list of the players that are on our radar for 2013. It’s built upon the guys that catch my eye in the course of doing the season reviews, and it’s something that I’ve been tweaking each year, making some major changes this year, which you can read about here and here.

I’m not big on prospect-ranking, but I do compile a pair of Top 10 lists, one each for the position players and the pitchers.

It’s not a depth chart or a prediction of how, when, and where guys will be used this year — though I’ll make some guesses like I did last year for the rosters of Hagerstown, Potomac, and Harrisburg. I may even take a swag at the pitchers again, especially since this upcoming spring training appears to be mostly an exercise of rounding out the bench and the bullpen, with very little prospect drama — much like last year when it was limited to whether or not Steve Lombardozzi and/or Corey Brown could make the bench (don’t make me ruin a future post!).

Ten days ’til pitchers and catchers report…

Feb 032013
 

It’s been a theme that the worm has turned when it comes to player development and the Washington Nationals. Once upon a time, it seemed like they could only develop pitchers and even then, it was back-of-the-rotation guys* and middle relievers. Before Ian Desmond and Roger Bernadina ascended in 2010, it was pretty sparse — basically Ryan Zimmerman, who spent a grand total of 67 games in the minors in 2005. *Let’s face it: John Lannan may have been an Opening Day starter, but only on a 100+ loss team.

Since then, it’s been more steady… Danny Espinosa in 2011, Tyler Moore and Steve Lombardozzi in 2012, not to mention a couple of catchers that are on the verge, albeit most likely as backups (Sandy Leon and Jhonatan Solano). I suppose some credit is due for that Bryce Harper kid, too.

This is not to say Washington has become the Cleveland of the 1990s, but to paraphrase Terry Byrom — the organization sure has come a long way since the days of Larry Broadway.

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.
…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:

Brian Goodwin – B+ (B) Steven Souza – C+ Chris Marrero – C (C+)
Anthony Rendon – B+ (A-) Zach Walters – C+ (C) Jason Martinson – C (C)
Matt Skole – B (C) Corey Brown – C Brandon Miller – C
Destin Hood – C+ (B-) Billy Burns – C Randolph Oduber – C (C)
Estarlin Martinez – C+ (C) Ricky Hague – C (C+) Wander Ramos – C
Eury Perez – C+ (C) Spencer Kieboom – C Caleb Ramsey – C
Tony Renda – C+ Sandy Leon – C Michael Taylor – C (C+)
Carlos Rivero – C+

The four guys that are bolded weren’t on the BA Top 31, but all are on the 2013 Watchlist (yes, I do take a small measure of pride in that). Blake Kelso, Kevin Keyes, and Justin Bloxom were dropped from this year’s while Harper, Lombardozzi and Moore graduated.

Of the nine guys that weren’t in the 2012 book, three were drafted last June (Renda, Kieboom, Miller). Two others (Burns and Ramsey) were drafted in 2011. For those wondering, David Freitas was graded a C+ while Jeff Kobernus was graded a C — both grades are the same as last year’s.

This year, the sole “sleeper” pick is Estarlin Martinez, a bat in search of a position, which seems to be LF after 30+ games at 2B, 3B, 1B, and RF. Martinez turns 21 in March and Sickels believes he’s primed for a breakout year, which will most likely begin in Hagerstown.

Most of the “bolded” guys are covered in the watchlist, which I’ll be finishing up soon, but I gotta give props for Sickels’s nickname of Spencer “Where’s The Earth Shattering?” Kieboom (link for those unfortunate enough to miss the reference), even though it’s pronounced Key-boom.

And with that, the annual review of the prospect books is complete. Two weeks to go until the full squad is due to report at Viera.

Feb 022013
 

It’s a week later than last year, but the PDF of the John Sickels prospect hit the inbox early this morning, affirming my decision to paperless since the recent ice storms in the midwest are delaying shipment of the books.

As I’ve done the past two years, I’m breaking this into two posts and starting with the pitchers. For the second straight year, there are more position players listed than pitchers (22 vs. 17), but there are also six more players overall listed (39 vs. 33). Not sure if the former is good, but I’m pleased with the latter because it gives me more material to work with, especially as I finish off the player reports on the 2013 Watchlist.

A reminder: Sickels gives letter grades for the players and is extremely tough. How tough? There are close to 1,000 players in the book. Sickels gave out eight (8) A’s and sixteen (16) A-’s. Among his Top 50 Batters and Top 50 Pitchers, there are twenty-four B’s.

Also, it’s important to remember that the grade is relative to the level — a C-grade guy in the Appy League could end up a superstar, but a C in the International League is probably going to ride the pine or pitch in blowouts if he ever makes it to The Show.

Let’s dig in. When it comes to pitchers, Sickels has some guiding principles…

…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

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

Here’s a look at the 17 pitchers (2012 grade in parentheses)

Lucas Giolito – B Aaron Barrett – C Ivan Pineyro – C
Christian Garcia – B- Robert Benincasa – C Robbie Ray – C (B-)
Nathan Karns – B- Erik Davis – C Derek Self – C
Sammy Solis – B- (B-) Neil Holland – C Kylin Turnbull – C (C)
Brett Mooneyham – C+ Pat Lehman – C (C)  
Matt Purke – C+ (B-) Christian Meza – C  

Those that are bolded are ranked by Sickels but not Baseball America. All but three (Benincasa, Self, Turnbull) are on the 2013 Watchlist, which I’ll modify by adding them to the “Notables.” Now, for some tidbits…

…Like everyone else outside the Natmosphere, Sickels believes Garcia will work in relief, perhaps even as a closer.

…Giolito’s Grade B is based purely on potential and he was excluded from the Top 50 because of the TJ surgery.

…Scouts aren’t convinced yet that Karns will stick as a starter at the higher levels, pointing to his control issues and an uneven changeup (before you jump to the comments, remember that one of the key differences between High-A and AA is hitters being able to lay off certain pitches).

…Sickels tabbed Lehman as a sleeper a few years back, but still has faith that he might have a shot as a middle reliever in MLB (unfortunately, he said much the same thing about Josh Wilkie).

…Unlike everyone else, Sickels is skeptical that Purke will regain the velocity he showed in 2010 as a freshman at TCU.

…Oddly enough, Sickels still believes in Sammy Solis’s chances coming off TJ surgery, perhaps because he has more of a track record than Purke.

For those wishing more detail, let me remind you that Sickels is a two-person operation (he and his wife Jeri) so you should buy the book (seriously, go for the PDF — you can search and annotate).

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

Jan 282013
 

no25John Sickels has released his second annual farm system rankings, and if you haven’t guessed where the Nats came in by now… have I got some real estate in Florida for you!

All kidding aside, you can tell from his lengthy intro that this is something he’s doing mostly to appease his readers, but also to make the point that things change rapidly — the James Shields trade for Kansas City and Justin Upton trade for Atlanta, for example, dropped them from Top 10 systems in 2012 to No. 21 and 27 respectively. It’s nice to have a top-ranked farm system, but it’s not as important as developing talent that can play for your major-league team — now and in the future.

From that perspective, the Nationals have obviously succeeded, which I’ve mentioned before.

Sickels ranked the Nationals #14 last year. They’re now ranked #25, right about where I would have guessed, even if the recent Baseball America book had them at #16. No sense paraphrasing his short comment, as this will sound awful familiar:

Strengths: Anthony Rendon and Brian Goodwin have star potential. Considerable raw material for a pitching staff. Weaknesses: They are banking a lot on injured pitchers recovering well. Many prospects are too old for their levels.

Rankings like these are by their very nature subjective — some folks put a premium on having multiple prospects with high ceilings, others prefer a system to have both depth and diversification. Never mind the philosophical differences about when and how to draft and/or develop pitchers vs. position players.

Take it for what it’s worth — something to talk about for a while in late January that most folks will forget by mid-February.

Dec 282012
 

Late yesterday afternoon, John Sickels released his Top 20 list for the Washington Nationals. Here’s a look at how it breaks down by grade:

B+ Anthony Rendon, Brian Goodwin
B Lucas Giolito, Matt Skole
B- Nathan Karns, Christian Garcia, Sammy Solis
C+ Matt Purke, Eury Perez, Tony Renda, Zach Walters, Destin Hood, Steven Souza, Brett Mooneyham, Estarlin Martinez, Carlos Rivero
C Sandy Leon, Michael Taylor, Brandon Miller, Corey Brown

Left to right is by number, i.e. Rendon is #1, Goodwin is #2… Miller is #19, Brown is #20. In bold are last year’s Top 20 guys, red = they ranked higher, blue = they ranked lower. Italics = played their way onto the list.

The good news and bad news are both two-fold. For the second straight year, eight guys played their way onto the list… and nine of the 20 are C+ guys, meaning they’re a notch above the average so-called prospect (remember Sickels is a tough grader). Unfortunately, after having a baker’s dozen guys rated B- or better last year it’s just seven this year… and five of the eight repeats fell in their letter grade.

I think it’s important to repeat what Sickels wrote about the Nationals system as a whole:

The system has thinned out massively, but that’s understandable: much of the major league roster is home-grown, and farm system products were important in key trades. So while the current list is not impressive, it should not be taken as an indictment of the farm system…

As I did a year ago, here are few of my thoughts on the list…

…While perhaps true, Sickels may have done Rendon no favors by suggesting he can play 2B because now the drumbeat for Rendon to replace Espinosa will only get louder.

…Like Baseball America, I’m intrigued as to why Solis gets a pass despite having had surgery and not mastering A+ yet. Sickels seems to talking out of both sides of his mouth (and I know how hard that is to do, because I’ve caught myself doing many a time) by dropping Giolito from an A grade to a B grade.

…Thankfully, Sickels is on board with the idea that Skole should be switched to 1B and the jump from a C to a B grade is quite the vote of confidence.

…Interesting to see Hood and Souza ranked back-to-back because Hood’s 2011 was much like Souza’s 2012. The difference, of course, is that they’re roughly a year apart in age (23 vs. 24) but Sickels seems to hinting that Souza could be a sleeper.

…Other sleepers: Erik Davis and Carlos Rivero, though the wording in his blurb (“Could be nice utility guy for someone.”) seems to suggest he’ll be back in Syracuse and groomed as trade bait.

…The list of “others,” akin to an honorable mention, effectively mirrors the 2013 Watchlist with the exceptions of Kylin Turnbull, Robert Benincasa, and Derek Self. But that also includes “old guys” like Davis and Pat Lehman, along with mostly-discussed-just-here guys like Neil Holland and Christian Meza.