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.

Dec 262012
 

This afternoon John Sickels released his preliminary prospect list — the penultimate step before releasing the 2013 Top 20 list.

As you might imagine, there’s a lot of crossover between this list and my Watchlist. Like I did a year ago, it’s easier to list the omissions, of which there are much fewer, thanks in no small part to my decision to delineate the edges of the radar by separating the young, the old, and the hurt from the regular categories:

Joel Barrientos Diomedes Eusebio Kevin Keyes Will Piwinica-Worms
Justin Bloxom Matt Foat Bryan Lippincott Brian Rauh
Paul Demny Matt Grace Craig Manuel Adrian Sanchez
Wilmer Difo Neil Holland Mike McQuillan Pedro Severino
Pedro Encarnacion Will Hudgins Gilberto Mendez Daury Vasquez

Similar pattern as last year: Sickels passed on the players that are a little too old for the level or (now) Dominicans that haven’t made it to full-season ball yet. I can live with both of those because my list is necessarily larger than his — he’s covering roughly the top 15% of 30 organizations; my list is more like the upper third of one.

Stay tuned for a breakdown of the Top 20 when Sickels releases it.

UPDATE
Sickels has a quick follow-up post in which he reveals there will be 39 ranked players with five B- or better and eight at C+ — with the caveat that some of the C’s will get the C+ (and one can reasonably infer vice-versa, since Sickels is a tough grader).

Jan 302012
 

With the 2012 editions of the Baseball Ameria and John Sickels prospect books received, read, and reviewed, I’ve completed the player reports for the the 2012 NationalsProspects.com Watchlist.

For the newcomers, a reminder: It’s not a depth chart, it’s based on 2011 usage, and it’s not a prediction of 2012 placement. Players are ordered by the highest level they’ve played, with some educated guesses regarding the 2011 draft picks. With the deadline to sign moved up from mid-August to mid-July, we’re unlikely to see this many guys not play at all the same year as they were drafted anytime soon.

Don’t worry, I’ll take a swag at who might end up where with the position players for the Suns and the P-Nats like I did last February (and I’ll point out my mistakes). But I tried to make fewer predictions in the capsules than in last year’s watchlist, especially with the pitchers. Generally speaking, it’s a level a year until AA under the Rizzo FO, but there’s an always an outlier or two.

As always, have at it in the comments as we wait for the calendar to match the weather…

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.