Welcome back “Under the Radar” readers to the 5th season of our endeavor to unearth those players who are hustling in the low minors to reach the ultimate goal of being named MLBDC “UTR of the Week” er, I mean reaching the 25-man roster. While I was compiling my notes for the off-season, I realized that I would soon be preparing for our 5th season with MLBDC. Just like any milestone, one usually reflects about the past, and this was no different as I found myself looking back at past UTR choices and lists. At the end of every season, I always review to see how my pre-season picks fared throughout the season and the outcome was not what I had hoped. Going back further, the results were somewhat balanced, but I was shocked of the number pitchers on my earlier lists that have yet cracked MLB rosters. I know the prediction business isn’t an exact science, just ask a meteorologist, but there has to be a better way.
A lot has happened at MLBDC since the last pitch of the 2012 season, the partnership with Baseball Prospectus looms the largest to me. To make improvements in the business of tracking minor league pitchers, I knew that I needed to make a major change in the mindset of choosing my breakouts for the 2013 season. Also knowing that a whole new set of savvy baseball readers from BP could be critiquing my picks, I set out to create a complex stat formula to enhance my current “Total Performance Score” ranking system. I was shocked with the initial results after completing a few NL teams and then stunned of the ease of making the breakout picks for this season. My “new” system has possibly taken the guesswork out of the equation and I am standing firm on the fact that my picks rose to the top, based on my formula. Granted, it’s a work in progress and the odds are that I’ll be writing a few years about instituting further improvements to the process. But I do feel more confident and energized of the pitchers that I selected for this season will have success this season. As not to wish the season away, but I can’t wait to see the final results in October.
If your new to the Under the Radar feature, Marc Hefferan and I look for those minors below AAA level, with a criteria of being drafted below the 5th round and ranked lower than 15th with Baseball America and Baseball Prospectus. In reality, we really like looking much deeper in an attempt to bring those players into the forefront before anybody begins to take notice. For example, Marc locked onto Brandon Belt (Hi-A 2010) and Adam Eaton (Hi-A 2011) and I hit on Wily Peralta (Lo-A 2009) and Tony Cingrani (Pioneer League 2011), to name a few. Check out the archives of our past choices.
This season I selected two breakouts for each team, one that projects as a starter and another that could carve out a career in bullpen. I also included each pitchers TPS ranking score. The lower the score indicates a high ranking. Tops on my list of starters were Nathan Karns (WASH), who had a TPS of .061 and relief pitcher Michael Wacha (STL) rated out with a .044. This gives you a benchmark for comparison.
Ross Heffley 2B – Atlanta Braves
Sometimes in baseball people are occasionally asked if they can describe players in just a few short words. Well, those around Atlanta Braves camp have no trouble finding words to describe second baseman Ross Heffley: great bat. Heffley came to the Braves toting a laundry list of collegiate achievements including Louisville Slugger All-American (’09 – ’11); and is the all-time leader in hits (354) for the Western Carolina University Catamounts. The Braves fell in love with his gritty style play and drafted him in the 18th round in 2012. Because of his skill with the bat the (generously speaking) 5’8 – 170 lb Snellville, GA native was challenged to an assignment to Lo-A Rome. And much to his two word scouting report, all he did was display a great bat. In his debut, he batted .296 with 4 home runs, 13 doubles, scored 42 runs with stole 10 bases. The Braves were not only pleased with his bat though. Heffley can play solid defense too. His double play dexterity and footwork at second base along with his hustle and makeup give the Braves a player that they feel played leagues above his draft position. Atlanta chose a great bat in Heffley. But what they may have gotten was more of a pesky, toolsy, bat-first second baseman that could easily rise through the system and become an ample major league regular.
Brent Keys OF- Miami Marlins
In one quick crack of the proverbial baseball whip, Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria has taken his free spending ways of the 2012 off-season to the extreme opposite end of the spectrum. Frugality is the new modus operandi in 2013. A fire sale of big names took center stage and, through trades, an influx of several new names now sits atop Miami’s prospect heap. With fan morale for the major league club at a depressing low, the health of one of its outfielders seems to be turning around. Brent Keys was drafted out of Simi Valley HS (CA) in the 17th round of the 2009 draft. The Marlins were excited as Keys brought athleticism and a compact line drive stroke with ability to spray balls all over the diamond. When fully healthy the 6’1 – 210lb lefty bat has shown the skills to become a solid regular. He won the South Atlantic League batting title with a .335 average with Lo-A Greensboro in 2012. His previous three seasons were curtailed by leg injuries, yet combined to bat .284, average 12 stolen bases and drew 71 walks to 79 strikeouts. He’s a smart hitter, carries a calm approach to each at-bat and adapts well to a pitchers game. Keys is stolen base threat with plus speed and defensively is an above average fielder who gets good reads and covers ground well. The 22 year old doesn’t have much power, but a full season of healthy ball in 2013, Keys has the opportunity to easily become a top OF prospect in the organization.
Vicente Lupo OF – New York Mets
Simply known as “the Beast,” the 19 year old came to the Mets as a highly touted international free agent out of Venezuela in July of 2010. He made his professional debut in the Dominican Summer League in 2011 and batted only .197 in 49 games. The organization considered Lupo’s debut a lost season due to a severe bout of malignant hypothermia. The 6’0 180lb Lupo’s game is pure raw power along with polished plate discipline; and even with his debut considered a mulligan if you will, he still showed promise as 13 of his 26 hits came as extra-bases. Lupo entered 2012 with a vengeance, a full bill of health and cleanly dominated the DSL2 by posting the highest OPS in league history (1.108); lead the league in runs (58), on-base percentage (.500) while ranking second in home runs (10) and drawing 46 walks to only 45 strikeouts. When you look at Lupo’s scouting report, one could say that it’s hard to place a gauge on how successful he can be. Defensively, the combination of his speed, arm strength and thick frame clearly limits him to left field. But it’s his bat that will vault him through a Mets system that has lacked a pure power hitting prospect for quite some time. Yes, he lost a full year of healthy development in 2011 while posting monster numbers the following season, however Lupo showed a sample size glimpse of something that leaves Mets fans extremely hopeful heading into 2013; and beyond.
Andrew Pullin 2B/OF – Philadelphia Phillies
It has always fascinated me when baseball people talk about the value of a pitcher. How much more valuable Pitcher A would be as a reliever than starter based on his particular arsenal of pitches. The same can be said about hitters; what type of value their bat can bring to the defensive position that they play. I believe this is the case with Phillies prospect Andrew Pullin. Drafted out of Centralia HS (WA) in 2012, Pullin was a PG All-American outfielder with above average tools in every facet of his game. He had a solid pro debut in the Gulf Coast League batting .321 with 10 doubles in 41 games. The Phillies praised his defensive fundamentals and fell even more in love with his bat. Yet, the Phillies wondered how much more potent is his bat could be as a second baseman. The organization felt Pullin’s offense and 6’0 – 185 lb frame matched well at second and are unsure yet where his game will play out. His unconventional stance produces a swing that contains very few moving parts. He unloads with a fluid, powerful swing that stays in the strike zone for a long time. I’m not going out on a limb predicting boom or bust with Pullin. Again, he doesn’t possess any stand out tool, but does everything well. If Pullin is able to provide enough projectable defense to stay at second base, I think the Phillies could have a potential major league regular on their hands.
Shawn Pleffner 1B – Washington Nationals
Having the best of both worlds. That’s how best to describe the Washington Nationals: Vegas odds to win the 2013 World Series and a minor league system filled to the brim with top position prospects. Heading into 2013, one National slugger I’m placing my bets on is 1B Shawn Pleffner. The 23 year old started off his collegiate career (as a two-way star) with two solid seasons at Tallahassee (FL) CC. He transferred to Division II powerhouse University of Tampa for 2011 and posted a .366/.454/.559 slash line. After only one season with the Spartans, the Nationals liked what they saw and drafted Pleffner in the 26th round of the 2011 draft. He was immediately moved from the crowded outfield to first base. But before his 2011 assignment, he suffered a sports hernia and missed the entire season. He made his long awaited debut with Class-A Auburn in 2012 and batted .329 with 3 home runs, 34 RBI’s; and even stole 6 bases with below average speed. The early returns defensively were also positive as Pleffner posted a .988 fielding percentage with good hands and promising footwork at his new position However, what will move the 6’5 – 225lb lefty through the system quickly is his bat. He has a quiet plate approach and shows advanced control of the strike zone. The Nationals would like Pleffner to more aggressively use his huge frame to tap into his natural power. With an advanced bat, polished defense and health on his side, Pleffner could soon become the top 1B option in a loaded Nationals farm system.
Gioskar Amaya 2B – Chicago Cubs
This off-season, Houston’s move to the American League became a running joke for us UTR folk. Not because the major league club moved to the tough AL West, but because after years of struggling, the Astros minor league system was finally blossoming into one of immediate relevance; and now we no longer track their system. Yet, a near mirror image of Houston’s system is the Chicago Cubs. Front office shakeups, a multitude of trades and dedication to the draft have seen a once downtrodden organization turn into a near top 10 system in the majors. Albert Almora, Dan Vogelbach and Javier Baez are as exciting a trio of prospects in the minors. Another kid I think will grab more attention sooner than later is Gioskar Amaya. In a system absolutely loaded with middle infield prospects, Amaya may have one of the more complete bats of them all. After signing in 2009, the young Venezuelan held his own playing in the DSL and in 2011 lead the Arizona League in hits (77) while batting .377 and ranking fourth in total bases (104). Amaya received a well-deserved promotion to SS Boise in 2012 where he topped the Northwest League in runs scored (61), triples (12) and ranked third in total bases (135). Although he’s a considered a 2B, the Cubs love Amaya due to his defensive, Martin Prado-like versatility. He’s hit the ball at every level and is praised for his makeup and supreme focus during games. Don’t be surprised to see Amaya emerge from the shadows to claim his rightful spot as another top Cub prospect.
Seth Mejias-Brean 3B – Cincinnati Reds
Looking back through history you might be left scratching your head trying to list past greats outside of Tony Perez and Rochester, New York’s own Heinie Groh that have manned the hot corner for the Cincinnati Reds. Could third base prospect Seth Mejias-Brean be the next? The Vail, AZ native was taken in the 8th round of the 2012 draft soon after helping the University of Arizona Wildcats capture baseball’s National Championship. Mejias-Brean brought supreme defense, a .329 batting average and little power with him to Rookie League Billings. The 6’1 – 210 pounder seamlessly provided solid defense and a .313 batting in his pro debut. Yet after coaches made minor adjustments to his swing, the power arrived. And in 46 games he hit 8 home runs; four times as many as he did during his entire collegiate career. Now in no way am I comparing the 22 year old to a Hall-of-Famer and member of the Big Red Machine; or to a man who entrenched himself at the position for nine seasons (1913-‘21.) What I am saying is that Mejias-Brean possesses solid plate approach, plus-plus defense and enough athleticism that the Reds feel even if projects less home run power, he will hit enough to stay at third. I expect a 2013 assignment to Lo-A Dayton and Mejias-Bream to shoot up prospect boards. He should eventually do enough to make a big name for both himself and for a Reds team currently made for immediate success.
Jose Sermo INF – Milwaukee Brewers
One of the simple joys Jim Brown and I get out of tracking players is seeing where kids are assigned for the new season. It helps us get a good understanding of what organizations are trying to do with both top prospects as well as kids in need of breakthrough. One team we agree could be destined for instant success is Lo-A’s Wisconsin Timber Rattlers. This year’s lineup boasts some of Milwaukee’s premium hitting prospects like C Clint Coulter and OF’s Mitch Haniger and Tyrone Taylor. Another prospect nestled within the roster that deserves attention is infielder Jose Sermo. Originally drafted in 2009 by the Washington Nationals out of Ileana De Gracia HS (Vega Alta, PR), Sermo went on to play for Yakima Community College (WA) in 2011. He soon transferred to NAIA’s Bethany College (KS) and in 2012 posted a .363 batting average with four home runs and 34 RBI’s. The Brewers loved his 6’0 – 190 lb athletic frame and chose him in the 35th round of the 2012 draft. Sermo is a switch-hitter that displays a good swing from each side of the plate. In his pro debut in the AZL, he batted .284 with some promising extra-base power, but struck out 41 times to only 11 walks. With the Timber Rattlers, he’ll be a very intriguing follow, though, mainly because of his defense. He’s an erratic defender, yet possesses an absolute canon for an arm. A move to RF, 3B, or even the pitcher’s mound could be imminent. For now, the Brewers will give Sermo every chance to succeed as a hitter.
Jose Osuna 1B – Pittsburgh
Back in 2007, had fellow UTR writer Jim Brown been writing about young pitching prospects out of Venezuela, it’s a good possibility that Jose Osuna would have been near the top of his list. Osuna was once a 15 year-old fire balling righty that held plenty of promise, but abruptly started losing velocity on his fastball. Organizations walked away in droves. However, like most young kids, he also swung a bat; and swung it with authority. The Pirates were captivated and signed Osuna as an international free agent in late 2009. Osuna’s game is built for one thing: power. He hit 10 home runs in his 2010 debut in the Venezuelan Summer League while batting a suitable .251 along with a respectable 19 walks and 35 strikeouts. He earned a move state side in 2011 to the GCL increasing his batting average to .331 but only four home runs. The Pirates remained encouraged by Osuna’s growth. As a former outfielder, Osuna has above average arm strength, but his thick frame and glove work left a lot to be desired so a move a first base was in order. The 6’3 – 210lb slugger spent all of 2012 at Lo-A West Virginia and hit .280 with 16 home runs and 72 runs batted in yet struck out 82 times. Osuna needs to let his power work for him by putting the bat on the ball as he occasionally sells out for power sake. At only 20 years old, a strong 2013 season could see Osuna catch Alex Dickerson as the organizations top first base prospect.
Mike O’Neill OF – St Louis Cardinals
In looking at the Cardinal’s list of top minor league hitters, outfielders like #1 prospect Oscar Tavares and 2012 draftees Stephen Piscotty and James Ramsey stick out as future top shelf stars. But in true UTR fashion, we’re designed to look beyond that; which is cause for me to look no further than Mike O’Neill. Since being drafted in the 31st round in 2010 out of the University of Southern California, O’Neill has not only carved a name for himself as the organizations quintessential on-base machine; but in the entire minors with a .458 clip along with a .359 batting average which ranked him second overall in 2012. O’Neill’s supreme level of focus at the plate (derived from a decorated karate background) and unwillingness to give into pitchers are major factors in his eye popping 131:62 walks-to-strikeout total so far in his young career. While most hitters are trying to find themselves at the plate, O’Neill is a smart hitter, knows exactly who he is and what he wants to do in every at-bat. He is no threat with the long ball, however, the left handed hitter has a thorough understanding of his strengths and doesn’t try going above and beyond them as a hitter. At only 5’9 170 lbs, O’Neill’s future may be as a 4th outfielder, but even at 25 year old, he could find himself in the throngs of Cardinal fans and teammates, play above his skills and eventually work his way into the major league lineup.
Alex Glenn OF – Arizona Diamondbacks
The Diamondbacks were one of the busiest organizations in the off-season. Roster overhauls to both the infield and bullpen meant outfielders Chris Young and superstar Justin Upton were left packing their bags. Notable superstars saying goodbye created a serious shift toward a younger more cost effective outfield. With homegrown Gerardo Parra and AJ Pollack (playing for injured UTR favorite Adam Eaton) manning the outfield, suddenly the Diamondbacks have employed talents of the top of their farm system. Well, one more homegrown outfielder could be on his way. McDonough, GA native Alex Glenn was drafted out of Arizona Christian University in the 12th round of the 2012 draft. As a high school senior, Glenn was recruited by the Marlins in 2009, but honored a commitment to the University of Southern California. Glenn brought with him a huge left handed power bat, plus speed and a big arm, but saw limited action in his first two seasons and batted only .190. He transferred to Arizona Christian for the 2012 season and his game took off batting .351 with 36 RBI’s and 23 stolen bases in 50 games. Arizona designated Glenn to the AZL where he posted a pedestrian .244/.360./.433 slash line along with four home runs and eight stolen bases. He received a surprising promotion to Missoula and went on a tear batting .300 with 6 home runs and 17 RBI’s in only 60 at-bats. Glenn’s approach at the plate and projectable right field defense gives the organization plenty to room to be excited about his future.
Wilfredo Rodriguez C – Colorado Rockies
One of the great pleasures I’ve experienced over the last six years is sharing a spot in an NL only fantasy baseball league with fellow writer Jim Brown. In fact the origin of the UTR feature stems from being in such a league; and as difficult as winning may seem at times, the pure enjoyment Mr. Brown and I get out of grooming the underbelly of our rosters is indescribable. So, when Jim finds a pitching staff stacked to the hilt with young arms he can’t help but feel a sense of euphoria. Well, this is how I feel about the current corp. of catchers sitting in the Rockies farm system. University of Buffalo grad Tom Murphy and 2010 15th round high school star Will Swanner lead the way. However, Puerto Rico star Wilfredo Rodriguez isn’t too far a distant third. The Rockies drafted Rodriguez in the 7th round out of the Puerto Rican Baseball Academy in 2012. Rodriguez skipped over the Dominican Summer league and headed straight to Pioneer League Grand Junction. He had a solid debut batting .319 with 14 doubles and 27 runs batted in 43 games. Rodriguez is a great athlete with exceptional makeup and coaches praise his willingness to learn. He can be a free swinger, but has the innate ability to make good contact. Defensively, he has solid arm strength, but threw out only 21% of would-be base stealers. The 19 year old carries a promising bat and needs to work on the nuances of catching in order to leap frog those ahead of him in the system.
Eric Smith C – Los Angeles Dodgers
With a catching core void of any top tier prospects, some may ask why prospect Eric Smith wasn’t ranked higher within the Dodgers own depth chart. Some may not be ready to jump on the bandwagon of a kid who’s fairly new to the catching position. But I am. Smith was primarily a shortstop for La Canada High School (CA) and after committing to the University of Stanford, he served as a backup infielder posting a .268 batting average in only 50 games his first two seasons. As Smith entered his junior year, the Cardinals had a hole at catcher after the Diamondbacks drafted three-year starter Zach Jones. The Cardinals looked to Smith to be his successor; and his bat took off. As a starter, the 6’0 – 200lb lefty posted a .321/.373/.422 slash line which prompted enough attention for the Dodgers (his childhood favorite) to take him in the 18th round of the 2012 draft. He was assigned to Ogden of the Pioneer League and surpassed even the organizations expectations with a .336 batting average. Smith displayed plus plate discipline with 33 walks to 32 strikeouts and also showed gap pop with three homeruns and seven triples. Smith possesses an advanced feel at the plate, but after gunning down only 22% of would-be base stealers, his defense is a work-in-progress. Smith’s bat will keep him on the Dodgers radar, but if he continues to grow his athleticism, soft hands and strong arm into the catching position, the organization could see a true behind-the-plate prospect emerge in 2013.
Jeremy Baltz OF – San Diego
The Padres minor league system has been lauded as having one of the deepest talent pools in the game. The 2012 draft helped sustain that title with highly regarded draft picks such as pure-hitting Travis Jankowski (1s) and speedster Mallex Smith (5). These two future outfield stars will certainly help pave the way to the top of the organization. But don’t stop there. Allow me to add Jeremy Baltz to the mix. The Vestal, NY native was drafted by the New York Yankees in 2009, but chose to attend St. Johns University. As a 19 year old true freshman he made an immediate impact leading the Red Storm in each triple-crown category with a .396 batting average, 24 home runs and 85 runs batted in. He received an invite to the 2011 Cape Cod League and proceeded to lead the league in doubles (13) while ranking fourth in walks (25). The Padres selected him in the 2nd round of the 2012 draft and he was challenged with an assignment to Lo-A Eugene. There, he batted .281 and lead the Emeralds in hits (74), runs (44), RBI’s (43) and even stole 12 bases. An offensive minded outfielder, the 6’3 – 215lb righty has good balance, generates great bat speed and has the potential to hit for high average with raw power. With the injured Rymer Liriano on the shelf for all of 2013 and continued struggles of Jaff Decker, I believe Baltz could catapult his way through the ranks and position himself in the discussion of the Padres future in Petco Park.
Shawn Payne OF – San Francisco Giants
In an organization slightly void of many young outfield prospects outside of Gary Brown, Payne profiles as another leadoff specialist whose skills are loosely compared to current Giants centerfielder Andres Torres. The highly reputed hitter was drafted in 2011 and signed quickly; which allowed the Giants to move the 35th rounder immediately to Short Season Salem-Keizer. He didn’t disappoint batting .306 while collecting 21 stolen bases in 57 games. Stealing bases was the name of Payne’s game while staring at the University of Georgia Southern. He stole 76 bases in 81 attempts and has easily translated his speed to the pros ranking second (53) only to Houston’s Delinio DeShields (83) in the South Atlantic League in 2012. However more impressive was Payne was caught stealing only three times. Payne possesses good size, obvious speed and can pop an occasional home run. He has the ability to make solid contact with above average plate discipline; apparent by 90 professional walks to only 105 strikeouts. Payne needs to develop better defensive skills to profile as a future regular. He’s a below average defender displaying both a below average arm and glove. This limits Payne to left field, but his obvious calling card is his offense. With a good eye at the plate, a stolen base threat every time he reaches base and plenty of speed to spare, a healthy 2013 could see Payne vault his way to AA Richmond and into the talk of Giants top hitting prospects.