D-backs’ Kevin Cron knows exactly what’ll get him to the big leagues

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SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — You don’t have to look hard to find Kevin Cron on the field.

Listed at 6-foot-5 and 245 pounds, he’s the Arizona Diamondbacks’ prospect towering over everybody else over at first base. Or, if you get to the ballpark during pre-game batting practice, he’ll be the massive guy hitting ball after ball out onto the left-center field berm 400 feet from home plate.

A couple of towering rainmakers will leave him etched in your mind, but it’s not just BP where he’s dropped bombs. Across Cron’s three-year career, he’s hit 65 long balls in 318 games, including 27 homers in 2015 with High-A Visalia, and 26 more in 2016 with Double-A Mobile.

That power has him planted in the Arizona Fall League this offseason, one of the D-backs’ charges sent to the prestigious offseason circuit to show off his talents among the best prospects in baseball, and it’s here, with the Salt River Rafters, that Cron has continued what he started the last couple years. In 16 games through Wednesday, he has three homers and two doubles in 63 at-bats, and is slugging .365 even though he’s been slow so far in the AFL, hitting just .190.

It’s rare for a minor leaguer to show off a plus power stroke in back-to-back seasons to the degree Cron did the last two years in the D-backs’ organization. And it’s Cron, then, that makes for an interesting case study in how to hit home runs in the minors; countless players all summer and into the fall have spoken at length about the importance of being patient and waiting for power to come, and yet for Cron, that power has always been here.

Is it just because he’s a big guy?

Cron warms up before an AFL game for Salt River last month. (Bobby DeMuro)

Cron warms up before an AFL game for Salt River last month. (Bobby DeMuro)

“Honestly, I don’t think hitting a home run has anything to do with your size,” Cron told FanRag Sportd before a Salt River game. “Obviously, it helps, I’m not going to lie. But I might get three or four cheap home runs based off my size alone, and the other 20 to 25, those need to come from putting good swings on good pitches to hit, you know? You’re not going to luck your way into hitting 25 home runs a year, whether you’re my size or you’re a smaller guy.”

“I mean, look, there are a lot of smaller guys in the big leagues like [Dustin] Pedroia that can put away 20 a year, so I don’t think size has much to do with it other than those five or so cheap ones you might get a year,” he continued. “It’s about getting your pitch and putting a good swing on it. And that’s why it seems like everybody in the big leagues nowadays can go get 15, 20 home runs. It’s not because they are suddenly getting bigger and taller, it’s because they understand how to take an approach, and they understand how to put good swings on good pitches. That’s the type of game we are living in now, and I’m sure for those guys just like for me, it comes down to staying with an approach and knowing what you do well.”

There’s quite a bit to unpack here; first, Cron’s assertion about everybody in the big leagues seemingly being able to hit ’15, 20 home runs’ is correct, at least in the broadest sense considering homers are up and we’re living something of an age of feast or famine at the plate. The takeaways from that are enormous, but most broadly, it’s easy to see the ability to reach back for power—regardless of position or spot in lineup—is becoming far more highly valued among organizations.

Second, it’s probably no coincidence that—unprompted—Cron called out Pedroia by name just as other minor leaguers have done weeks, and leagues, apart. To hear big, strong, physically-imposing hitters point out that little guys can drop bombs, too, should be a tip-off that size isn’t everything. It helps, sure, but swing mechanics, launch angle, bat speed… far more variables of far more importance can bring home runs than just being good ol’ country-boy strong.

It’s Cron’s final sentence (“…it comes down to staying with an approach and knowing what you do well”) that is probably the most important part of his success in hitting the long ball thus far in his career.

To look at Cron just once, you know he’s not a speedster, a hit-for-average talent, or a significant on-base threat (save the walks he’ll inevitably draw in pitch-around situations). It’s critical Cron himself knows that, and he does. Taken further, the light switch flipped on for him in recognizing that a line drive single on a decent pitch isn’t necessarily preferable to taking it, in the hopes of getting an even better pitch to drive out of the park later in an at-bat.

 

“I’m not a guy that is going to hit the ball on the ground and beat stuff out,” Cron said, laughing. “To that end, I think the biggest thing you continue to learn when you move up is who you are as a player. You need to know who you are and how you can help your team. My role on the team this year was to drive in runs, and while I didn’t have the other numbers there with the average and the on-base percentage, I did my job in that aspect. That’s what I needed to do on that team, and once you find out what you need to do, it makes things a little bit easier. I think I learned a lot about who I am as a player, and what my ceiling might be [after 2016].”

Knowing who you are in this game might be one of the most important, underrated aspects of finding success in pro ball. Not every player is destined to have the same career, and not every position is created equally; the quicker that utility infielders understand their ceiling, the better things go for them. The more honest fringe prospects can be with themselves, the better they can adjust their expectations and find success on their new path. The sooner players can atone for (big) one-off mistakes, and move past it, the sooner they can readjust to their newfound standing in an organization. And for guys like Cron, the sooner one can take honest, consistent stock of how they must approach their physical capabilities and role, the better off they’ll be.

To Cron, that comes down to one idea: consistency in approach. A power hitter like Cron isn’t going to be asked to bunt very often, or move a hitter over from second to third with a ground ball to the right side, but consistency in approach goes even beyond that: No matter the pitcher, no matter the situation, it’s Cron’s job to look for one pitch and focus on one thing—driving the ball hard, in the air, to the outfield. And in that approach, it’s also Cron’s job to sometimes sacrifice good pitches—ones that he could, say, hit for a line drive single—to wait for what he hopes will be better pitches that he can drive into a gap, or out of the ballpark.

“Having my approach and not straying from it, not swinging outside my zone, even being willing to sacrifice certain pitches that are strikes in order to get myself into position to get that one pitch I really want and not miss it, that’s been a learning curve for me,” he said. “That’s what those guys at the big league level do. They have one approach and they never stray from it, no matter what they are trying to do or how they are facing. Obviously, they know in the back of their head what pitchers are trying to do to them, and what the pitchers’ strengths are, but their approach doesn’t change.”

“I’ve had an approach my whole life, and obviously as you see different teams pitching you different ways you have to adjust, but as far as the overall scheme of your approach, you can’t back down on that,” Cron continued. “That’s all you have to hang your hat on. Approach is everything, and if you go into a game one day having one approach, and another game the next day having another approach, you’re not going to have much success. So the big thing for me was finding what approach worked for me, and not straying from that approach.”

Cron takes a throw from Rockies prospect Pat Valaika during AFL play. (Bobby DeMuro)

Cron takes a throw from Rockies prospect Pat Valaika during AFL play. (Bobby DeMuro)

With all this approach talk—especially for a slugger with plus power like Cron—will inevitably come strikeouts. It’s the Adam Dunn effect, in a way. Cron has work to do on walking at greater rates as he ages, but he’s thus far proven the beginning of at least two of those true outcomes between the home runs the last two years (27 in 2015, 26 in 2016) and the strikeouts in those same summers (131 and 134 whiffs, respectively, across 518 at-bats and 465 at-bats). Put simply, to do what Cron does, you have to put up with a lot of swing-and-miss in certain situations; and thus, it comes down to not necessarily minimizing strikeouts in total, but cutting down on them in specific, critical situations with runners on base.

“Obviously the game has evolved, and power is a big part of the game, and I’m lucky enough to be blessed with God-given power so I can overcome those numbers,” Cron acknowledged about the strikeouts. “Nobody likes to strike out, and nobody likes to have un-productive at-bats, but what I’ve learned is that I am going to strike out, and I am probably going to strike out more than most of my teammates. At that point, it becomes about minimizing the bad strikeouts. Even further, it means not swinging at pitches outside of what I am trying to do, especially early in the count, and not putting pitches into play for soft outs that I shouldn’t be swinging at in the first place.”

That takes remarkable patience, especially with a young hitter like Cron who hasn’t yet played higher than Double-A, and doubly so against pitchers that keep getting better and more refined at each successive level. But patience at the plate—and more pointedly, narrowing in on one specific approach and key to hit for power—can more or less be taught through repetition and experience, and Cron has the maturity necessary going for him there in addition to his unquestionable physical tools.

All this maturity and experience talk aside, though, it’s refreshing to hear Cron’s take on how to drive pitches and pick his spots, because it’s an incredibly simple testament to how easy one can make this game if they stick to their strengths.

“More than focusing on cutting back the strikeouts, it’s getting my pitch, no matter what count, and treating them all as counts where I can drive my pitch,” he said. “I like to go up there and almost treat every pitch like it’s a 3-0 count. Obviously, with two strikes, you’ve got to battle your butt off, but I try to step up there like every count is 3-0, and I’m looking for one pitch in one place.”

“And my plate discipline has taken a step up,” he admitted about his maturing approach. “It’s still not where it needs to be, but throughout the second half of the season and now the AFL, it has improved. I think it is because of being willing to only hit a pitch I can drive, and being willing to give up the pitches I can’t hit very well early in the count. That’s something that has helped me astronomically, and it’s something I think is going to carry me further in my career, and hopefully one day get me to the big leagues.”

That remains to be seen, though Cron is certainly on the right path, and armed with a high-value skill in that power bat. Above all, though, it’s an interesting look into what makes a power hitter tick. Should his approach continue to mature like he hopes it will, it would seem Cron is on track to be a true plus power hitter in the big leagues one day very soon.

The post D-backs’ Kevin Cron knows exactly what’ll get him to the big leagues appeared first on Todays Knuckleball.

Source: Knuckleball

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Toronto Blue Jays prospect profile: First baseman Ryan McBroom

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RYAN McBROOM

Organization: Toronto Blue Jays || 2016 club: Dunedin Blue Jays (A-Adv.), New Hampshire FisherCats (AA)
Position: 1B || Age: 24 || DOB: April 9, 1992 || Birthplace: Fredericksburg, VA
Acquired: 2014 MLB Draft (15th Rd., West Virginia Univ.) || 2016 prospect rank: TOR #28 (MLB.com)
2016 stats: 128 games, 497 AB, .266/.318/.455/.772, 26 2B, 22 HR, 37 BB, 118 K, 10 SB

 

After playing out a full season in the Blue Jays’ organization—his third—in 2016, the club sent McBroom to the Arizona Fall League and the Mesa Solar Sox. McBroom spent the first three weeks of the AFL season there, getting 28 at-bats over seven games, before being pulled off the roster in favor of the Blue Jays sending other prospects for some time in the league.

The scouting video (above) includes 20 of McBroom’s AFL at-bats. Last month in Mesa, I spoke to him at length about his power numbers in the Florida State League, too.

McBroom’s 2016

McBroom is a tale of three 2016s, in a way. The first, from early April to late July, saw the first baseman playing every day for the High-A Dunedin Blue Jays, and by his promotion date to Double-A—on July 21—he was slashing .262/.308/.438 with 14 home runs and 23 doubles over 93 games. That included a particularly hot June (.300/.360/.500 with nine doubles, three homers, eight walks and just 11 strikeouts in 90 at-bats), and a spot on the FSL’s mid-season All-Star Team. Evidently encouraged enough by McBroom’s development in a very difficult league for hitters, the Blue Jays sent him to the Double-A Eastern League—his first shot at the level—for a cameo in late July.

That part didn’t go as well—McBroom slashed just .138/.235/.241 with a homer in nine games (29 at-bats)—but the sample size was exceedingly small, and he was soon sent back to Dunedin, so those New Hampshire totals shouldn’t be taken too seriously. Back in Dunedin for the second half of the year,

McBroom got markedly better than he had been early on, though, and found himself on base more often while also seeing a power surge in August. Take away McBroom’s two September games (he went 0-for-9 to finish the year), he slashed .348/.412/.640/1.052 in August in High-A, complete with three doubles, seven home runs, 10 walks, and 21 strikeouts over 24 games (89 at-bats). For good measure, he hit another homer in the Florida State League playoffs, too.

That late surge helped earn him a spot on the FSL’s post-season All-Star team, as well, and likely played a role in the Blue Jays’ decision to ship him to Mesa for the AFL season this fall.

Ryan McBroom (R) and the Cubs' Victor Caratini work at first base before an AFL game. (Bobby DeMuro)

Ryan McBroom (R) and the Cubs’ Victor Caratini work at first base before an AFL game. (Bobby DeMuro)

McBroom was consistent to his tools in his seven-game cameo with Mesa, slashing .250/.276/.536/.812 with two doubles, two home runs, a walks, and six strikeouts in 28 at-bats. He hit the fourth-hardest ball at the AFL early on, by exit velocity (we’ve got the video below), and showed off an unquestionable power stroke in batting practice. Altogether, McBroom put up a nice 2016.

The Florida State League is an extremely difficult place to hit, and he ended up blasting 21 home runs and another 26 doubles there, and he finished fourth in the league in slugging percentage (.468), tied for fourth in doubles, and third in home runs. As a corner infielder who needs to get by on his bat, all those numbers point toward a bright future for the West Virginia University product.

Scouting McBroom

Like so many other corner infield prospects we’ve seen across the AFL season the last six weeks, McBroom’s biggest asset is his power bat. Those 21 homers in the Florida State League are impressive, and in a broader sense, he has the physical tools and natural strength to keep putting together special seasons from a power perspective as he moves forward.

With a swing that stays all the way through the zone, and a finish at the plate which gives some natural lift and backspin to his line drives, McBroom has the mechanics down to keep putting up big home run and double totals and hitting the ball in the air with authority, and there’s no reason he couldn’t continue to be a middle-of-the-lineup force.

There’s some swing-and-miss in his game, as you’d expect from any power hitter, but it’s not nearly enough to be concerned about right now. He’s also proven the ability to hit for average at various points in his career, and he gets the bat on the ball enough where this could continue to be a reality as he moves up the ladder. I think it’s more likely his above-average power tool that should carry him forward than his hit tool, but there is a case to be made that McBroom has enough barrel control to hit for some average at higher levels.

The most glaring shortcoming here, though, is his (lack of) patience at the plate. He doesn’t work as deep counts as you’d expect for somebody who should expect to be pitched around a fair amount, and his plate discipline, which was encouraging in 2015 at Low-A Lansing, dropped a good bit this summer and in the Arizona Fall League.

This year might be a one-off, and/or the product of him having to adjust to better pitching, but he’s only going to continue to face better and more consistent arms moving forward, and it’d be an asset to his game if he’s able to prove he can work deep counts and get on base more consistently than he did in 2016.

Ryan McBroom works at first base during an AFL game last month. (Bobby DeMuro)

Ryan McBroom works at first base during an AFL game last month. (Bobby DeMuro)

Physically, McBroom is an imposing specimen, and a decent athlete. He’s far from being blessed with average speed, but he has good enough body awareness that the Blue Jays have been experimenting with him in left field. That’s probably a stretch in the long run, though, and first base is by far the most natural fit for him in the field. To his credit, he’s a very smooth first baseman with a decent arm and what should turn into above-average fielding skills there, and after watching him play the position throughout October, the mechanics are there such that he could become an above-average defender at the position.

Above all, McBroom’s future will hinge on his bat. If he can continue to produce double and home run power as he has proven the past several summers, and if he can show a developed patience and plate discipline in the face of better pitching, he’ll continue to have a spot in the organizational chain, and then one day in the big leagues.

McBroom has generally been slightly older than every level at which he’s played, so the AFL represented a good showcase, and a graduation to the high minors in 2017 will be a nice test to see if he has what it takes to go from a borderline top-30 prospect to a factor in the Blue Jays’ future.

Going Forward

Truth be told, I’m bullish on McBroom—perhaps more so than most. Not to the point where I expect him to be an above-average everyday player in the big leagues, but there are some things working in his favor that should get him to Toronto, at which point his physical tools can survive if he proves he can adjust at the plate.

He doesn’t get cheated on his swings, and off the bat he drove pitches among the hardest of the slew of impressive power hitters that graced the AFL with their presence this month. True power-hitting first basemen—especially above-average defensive ones—have value, especially in the American League, and for that reason, there might be a window in which McBroom could find himself impacting the Blue Jays’ big league plans by 2018.

 

There’s a lot to accomplish before that point, of course, all while acknowledging his age is working against him (McBroom will be 25 years old right after Opening Day in 2017). The first baseman must prove his power can transition to the high minors as he inevitably sees fewer pitches to drive, and he’ll simultaneously need to show a more consistent approach in patience at the plate through an improved ability to get on base.

His strikeout rates are far from a non-starter, so an ability to put the bat on the ball will firmly work in McBroom’s favor, and could eventually transition into a decent hit-for-average tool. Also, he undoubtedly deserves credit for putting up impressive numbers in the pitcher-friendly Florida State League, something certainly not easy to do (one wonders how he would have fared on a California League affiliate).

In all likelihood, McBroom will live out his career as a fringe big leaguer, finding himself as a power bench bat, and more likely jumping between Triple-A and the big leagues as a power option depending on when and how teams use him. After all, one would imagine Rowdy Tellez is likely to be the Blue Jays’ first baseman of the future more so than McBroom. That said, for a $1,000 senior sign out of a four-year college, this isn’t too bad a path—and physical tools are there, especially in his power bat, to make things interesting.

Above all, McBroom will go as far as his notable power can take him. If he proves he can continue to develop his hit tool, too, and show the patience to become an on-base aficionado, it’ll push him further toward a more significant big league role.

The post Toronto Blue Jays prospect profile: First baseman Ryan McBroom appeared first on Todays Knuckleball.

Source: Knuckleball

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Against all odds, Marlins outfielder Dexter Kjerstad finds himself in AFL

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SURPRISE, Ariz. — Dexter Kjerstad shouldn’t be here.

The Miami Marlins’ outfielder himself admits he shouldn’t be here, that the odds are stacked against him and simply making an appearance in the Arizona Fall League is something of a coup. And yet here he is, playing for the Mesa Solar Sox, wearing the Marlins’ big league jersey, patrolling the outfield with some of the most exciting young prospects in all of baseball.

“Looking back where I came from in indy ball, man, I wouldn’t have imagined standing here in the Arizona Fall League,” he told Today’s Knuckleball before a recent game in Surprise. “It’s a really good feeling. But I just kept working hard, and I let the chips fall where they may, and I ended up here.”

Originally a 50th-round draft pick by the Cincinnati Reds out of high school—he didn’t sign, opting instead to attend college—Kjerstad’s road to professional baseball, and the Arizona Fall League, has been longer than most.

Freshman year at the University of Texas netted him defensive time in just five games, with no plate appearances, so he transferred to a junior college and crushed the ball in his sophomore year. Louisiana-Lafayette liked what they saw, and he spent the final years of his college career there, even hitting .388 with a 1.039 OPS in 2013. But big league organizations didn’t bite, and he went undrafted out of college after 2013.

Six weeks after missing out on that draft, the Kansas City Royals called, and eventually signed him as an undrafted free agent. In 2014, they assigned him to their Low-A affiliate in the South Atlantic League, where he succeeded (.275/.336/.428 in 80 games), and went into 2015 with a spot at High-A Wilmington in the Carolina League.

It all fell apart in Wilmington, though, and a .605 OPS through his first 51 games led the Royals to release Kjerstad in mid-July, almost two years to the day after they signed him. But luckily, during the long drive home to Texas, Kjerstad got a call from his hometown Amarillo ThunderHeads of the independent American Association, and worked out a deal to finish 2015 with them.

 

“There are some talented arms in that league, a lot of older guys who know how to pitch, and the entire objective there is to win, it’s not about developing guys and getting them back into affiliated ball,” Kjerstad said. “With me coming out of High-A in the Carolina League, guys in Texas were throwing a lot more off-speed and guys knew how to pitch, they weren’t just going to keep feeding me fastballs. It was kind of an eye-opener, but it was actually a breath of fresh air at the same time, because the stats at the end of the day actually meant something.”

“And hey, you have to be successful in your own hometown,” Kjerstad continued, laughing about the chances of being plucked by his hometown Amarillo ball club. “I had my family out there supporting me, and it was kind of a cool experience, in hindsight. I obviously didn’t know what it had in store for me, but I know that there are some guys that, once they get out of affiliated ball, they don’t give indy ball a shot. I had no second thoughts about giving indy ball a shot.”

That’s Kjerstad in a nutshell—a hard-nosed, intense outfielder who wants nothing more than to play ball. Countless times during our interview, he talked about playing the game “the right way,” a likable quality in him and undoubtedly a necessary self-preservation tool considering he’s always been on the fringes throughout his entire career. With guys like Kjerstad, the attitude, the likability, the work ethic—it all matters a little bit more. Then again, it helped that he crushed the ball in Amarillo, too; Kjerstad hit .300/.338/.584 with nine doubles, six triples, and eleven home runs in 45 games to finish out 2015.

“It just goes to show that you never know what lies ahead after your toughest days,” he said, thinking back to the moment the Royals released him and sent him home from High-A. “I remember driving back from Wilmington, Delaware, and three days later, I was back in the lineup in my hometown. I didn’t know, you know, I was released late in the year, and I was just hoping that somebody had a hole somewhere. And luckily Bobby Brown, the manager in Amarillo, he called me and we ended up getting a deal done over the phone. The next thing I knew, I was playing there. And hey, all’s well that ends well.”

Kjerstad goes through base running drills during the AFL season. (Bobby DeMuro)

Kjerstad goes through base running drills during the AFL season. (Bobby DeMuro)

The end isn’t here yet, of course, and Kjerstad still has some lofty goals as you’d expect of anyone at his station in life, but he’s already a world away from the low point of being released by the Royals last July. The Marlins scouted him in Amarillo, liked enough of what they saw, and in December, signed him as a minor league free agent.

After a successful spring training, they assigned him to their Florida State League affiliate in Jupiter. Kjerstad showed growing pains in adjusting to opposing pitchers, slashing .227/.291/.383 in 124 games (462 at-bats), but he also flashed some intriguing power, especially for the pitcher-friendly FSL, with 17 doubles, five triples, and fifteen home runs on the year.

“The power is something I’ve always kind of had, I just needed to tap into it a little bit more,” Kjerstad said about his impressive homer totals in Jupiter this summer. “I think the Marlins liked the speed-power combination, but they also knew that I was a hard-nosed guy, and I play the game the right way, and I didn’t burn any bridges. I really hope they saw how I represent the game the right way.”

You see Kjerstad play a few times and you start to understand that side of it; he plays hard, all the time. He doesn’t complain about strike calls at the plate. He hustles everywhere, and he’s quiet on the field, content to let his game do the talking. That’s what you have to do when you come from where he’s been, after all; show a bad attitude in Kjerstad’s role, and you’re not going to have a long leash from a parent organization.

He’s not a five-tool future All-Star. And yet now, he’s in the Arizona Fall League. The Marlins up and chose him as one of the men to represent them with the Mesa Solar Sox, an incredible honor for a guy who less than 12 months ago had wrapped a summer in indy ball with no affiliated prospects in his sights. From nothing, to something, to the AFL—that’s quite a big jump.

“Honestly, it almost makes me even hungrier to be here, because I’m getting rewarded for a number of things: my character, how I play the game when times are tough, the hard work I’ve been putting in every day,” Kjerstad said. “I’ve been careful not to get ahead of myself, but at the same time just being on this field, I have to believe that I am a big leaguer, and I’m good enough to be here, and that the Marlins see something that makes them think I am a big leaguer. It’s inspiring to know that someone believes in me, so I take it as a sign to keep working hard, knowing that I am doing the right thing.”

Kjerstad in a Marlins uniform. (Bobby DeMuro)

Kjerstad in a Marlins uniform. (Bobby DeMuro)

The journey is far from over for Kjerstad, and he has much left to do in professional baseball, as he’s finding out in Mesa. The outfielder is hitting just .158/.179/.289 through his first ten games (6-for-38) with a home run and two doubles, no doubt the product of a massive learning curve in facing some of the best prospects in baseball. Knowing even a little about Kjerstad, though, you can’t help but imagine he’ll figure things out here just as he has everywhere else. And come spring training, his hard-nosed play will have him on the hunt for a spot in Double-A even while knowing that, well, nothing is guaranteed.

“Some of the greatest stories I like to follow in the big leagues are the underdogs, and to know that I’m walking in those shoes right now is inspiring to me, knowing that other guys have taken the same path that I am,” Kjerstad admitted. “There are a lot of different ways to get there. I just have to keep working hard. Those were tough times in indy ball, and I didn’t know what would lie at the end of the road, but I got a call from the Marlins and I got an opportunity in spring training, and that’s all I can ask.”

And if he one day finds himself back in indy ball again, back fighting for an affiliated spot in another year or two?

“I will go as long as I can, because it’s my intention to just relentlessly keep chasing it,” he said. “At my age, I enjoy traveling the country, and meeting people, and playing this game. It’s in my blood, and I’m going to keep playing it until someone takes the jersey off my back.”

The post Against all odds, Marlins outfielder Dexter Kjerstad finds himself in AFL appeared first on Todays Knuckleball.

Source: Knuckleball

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Houston Astros prospect profile: Outfielder Ramon Laureano

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RAMON LAUREANO

Organization: Houston Astros || 2016 club: Lancaster JetHawks (A-Adv.), Corpus Christi Hooks (AA)
Position: OF || Age: 22 || DOB: July 15, 1994 || Birthplace: Santo Domingo, Dom. Rep.
Acquired: 2014 MLB Draft (16th Rd., NE Oklahoma A&M) || 2016 prospect rank: HOU #28 (MLB.com)
2016 stats: 116 games, 417 AB, .319/.428/.528/.955, 28 2B, 15 HR, 70 BB, 119 K, 43 SB

 

After Ramon Laureano’s monster summer split between the High-A California League and the Double-A Texas League, the Houston Astros shipped him off to Glendale last month for the Arizona Fall League. I observed Laureano multiple times during the summer (that videos can be seen below); the above video, and profile that follows, pull more from Laureano’s fall campaign with the Glendale Desert Dogs.

For more on Laureano, here’s our mid-summer scouting report on the outfielder from his time with the Lancaster JetHawks.

  • Laureano’s 2016

If you played against moderately good competition on a video game, you might not put up as good numbers in a season as did Laureano in 2016. Split between High-A Lancaster (OK, we get it, it’s a hitter’s haven) and Double-A Corpus Christi, Laureano filled the stat sheet in every single way. He did extremely well for the California League’s JetHawks (.945 OPS) and then did better after he left the second-most hitter-friendly park in pro ball, OPS’ing .981 when he got to Double-A for the season’s final seven weeks. He got 27 hits in his final 15 games at High-A, and then out-did himself in the Texas League after common sense would tell you he was ripe to fall off a bit.

Considering his first two summers in pro ball were so underwhelming (he hit just .189 in very limited action in 2014, and .265/.323/.415 in 287 at-bats at Low-A in 2015), it was truly a breakout summer for the prospect from Northeastern Oklahoma A&M. For his work, he earned a Player of the Week award in Lancaster (for the week that eventually landed him the promotion), as well as a post-season All-Star nod from the California League, and a mid-summer rise on to the Houston Astros’ top-30 prospect list, per MLB Pipeline.

Laureano runs the bases during pre-game BP this fall. (Bobby DeMuro)

Laureano runs the bases during pre-game BP this fall. (Bobby DeMuro)

No doubt encouraged by all of this, the Astros sent the toolsy outfielder to the Arizona Fall League, where Laureano promptly won a Player of the Week award in the prestigious offseason circuit while playing for the Glendale Desert Dogs. He wasn’t long for the AFL (the Astros opted to move him out to get at-bats for some other prospects, too) but in 12 games with Glendale, Laureano slashed .295/.340/.477 with four doubles, two triples, three walks, and five stolen bases across 44 at-bats.

  • Scouting Laureano

Ramon Laureano can hit.

That’s all. That’s the whole report. Thanks for reading.

Seriously—Ramon Laureano can hit. He gets the barrel on the ball, he sprays the whole field with line drives, and he can do it with authority that should produce a ton of doubles, a hit-for-average tool, and as many as (in the most optimistic reading) maybe 20 homers a year at the big league level. He’s a line drive machine, he’s aggressive—and yet smart—at the plate, and his balance and athleticism work in his favor with a compact stroke and good bat speed.

 

Just 22 years old and already having found success in Double-A (and now the AFL, in a short spurt), Laureano did it with a mature approach for his age and that has helped him adjust levels well this year. His strikeout numbers aren’t small (119 whiffs in 417 at-bats in 2016), but they’re well within a reasonable range, and he works deep enough counts to the point where he’s also drawing a lot of walks, too, with just below a 14 percent walk rate across both levels this summer. The combination of all that points to one major thing: He has a plan at the plate, and he knows what he wants to do in every at-bat.

His spray chart, as I joked about on Twitter, also looks like something of a video game, per MLBFarm.com:

If that’s not the sign of a developed, mature hitter with tools to burn, then I’m not sure what else one would need. Lancaster is an undoubtedly favorable hitting environment, and one-trick ponies (extreme pull hitters, for example) often get found out very quickly after they leave the JetHawks; Laureano is not a one-trick pony, and there’s a reason he got better after he left the High-A hitter’s heaven. The tools are there, and he’s far more than just simply the beneficiary of an extremely favorable environment in the California League.

For what it’s worth, here’s one way to get the ever-impressive Laureano out; below, Rangers pitching prospect Ariel Jurado got ahead of Laureano early in a July at-bat, fed him off-speed stuff (including a hanging breaking ball that Laureano just missed), and then went down to put the outfielder away late:

 

That’s but one anecdotal moment in a sea of at-bats, so don’t take too much away from this, but it’s a little clue into how you can get Laureano out, I think. Even with hitting the ball with authority to all fields, like so many, Laureano is susceptible to getting beat low and away with some swing-and-miss, and because of a tendency to roll over on breaking balls.

He may not be visibly off balance on those down-and-away breaking balls, because he keeps a good base and he’s measured in his stride, but his hips can fire off well before his barrel gets on the ball, resulting in a swing and miss (as above), or a harmless ground out to third or short. (All these words about how to get Laureano out, but here’s another thing that shouldn’t be overlooked: Jurado threw strike one, and then he threw strike two. When you do that, you’re going to get a lot of people out. Jurado also got away with a hanging two-strike breaking ball, and when breaks like that go your way as a pitcher too—especially at a place like High Desert—life’s good.)

In addition to his plus hit tool and budding power, Laureano has plus speed. He’s used it to rack up stolen bases—including 43 in 2016—but it also comes out in the outfield, where he has enough quickness, athleticism, and overall talent to play center field every day in the future. His arm is average, but his reads are good and he’s aggressive on defense, the combination of which makes him good enough to stick anywhere in the outfield. For that reason, he could be extremely valuable as a super-utility outfielder that can move across all three positions, rack up almost daily at-bats, and fill in as an outfield super sub or an everyday guy of some sort on a big league roster.

  • Going Forward

The greater prospect world is probably going to start focusing on Ramon Laureano pretty soon here, and they should, because he’s a hell of a ballplayer. The tools are there across the board, the athleticism is there, he’s an unbelievably hard-nosed, intense player, and he knows how to put the barrel of the bat on the ball.

He’s a little undersized for an everyday outfield role—especially if he were to play a corner spot—and he probably isn’t going to be a plus power hitter in the big leagues, so that may limit him to center field and/or a super utility type. His hit tool is legit, though, and it’s going to keep developing to the point where he has an impact in the big leagues, almost without question, by 2018. Whether he can eventually become an everyday guy, or remain an interesting fourth outfielder, remains to be seen, but quite frankly he’s one of my favorite players to watch because of how hard he plays the game and what he does at the plate, and there’s good reason to think that will continue well into the future.

 

Laureano crushed Double-A in 2016, and then he cruised in the AFL, but he was only at each spot for seven and three weeks, respectively; for that reason, perhaps the Astros will think a return to Corpus Christi to start the 2017 season is warranted. I think he’s probably done enough to fight for a Triple-A spot, but we’ll see.

Regardless, the level is unimportant so much as the simple fact that hitters will hit, and Laureano is a hitter. He was minor league baseball’s OBP champion in 2016, and it wouldn’t surprise me in the slightest if he takes a run at a batting average title in 2017. Through it all, he gets the barrel on the ball, and he’s well on the way to making a big impact on the Houston Astros.

Put simply: Ramon Laureano is a hell of a ballplayer, and he’s worthy of your attention moving forward.

The post Houston Astros prospect profile: Outfielder Ramon Laureano appeared first on Todays Knuckleball.

Source: Knuckleball

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Players rave about Mariners’ new player development strategy

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BAKERSFIELD, Calif. — The Seattle Mariners’ new front office has been most visibly and immediately felt in the big leagues, where an encouraging summer ended up falling just short of the promised land in the American League West. And while the future there is undoubtedly bright under general manager Jerry Dipoto and his now one-year-old regime at Safeco Field, so too are things becoming clear further down the minor league chain, though the results of the efforts in places like Bakersfield (and now Modesto) may not be felt up in Seattle for several seasons.

Our own Jesse Burkhart has smartly chronicled the Mariners’ new and unique player development strategy in two parts across the last several weeks, and that was the direct inspiration for the following deep dive into how that new front office has affected specific minor leaguers in the system. For those interested in what, exactly, the Mariners are doing—and how it departs from baseball’s previous common consensus—begin by reading Burkhart’s two pieces above.

Now, some vignettes into how the Mariners’ new regime has impacted the lives and careers of young talent in the organization—and how the Dipoto-led front office’s demand that every team win, and make winning a priority on par with player development, has made such an immediate impact on the Mariners’ minor leaguers.

**********

CHANTZ MACK, OF

A 29th-round draft pick in 2013 and already 25 years old by the time 2016 rolled around, Chantz Mack should have dominated High-A in Bakersfield—and he did. So much so, in fact, that he earned a midseason promotion to Double-A Jackson. While that promotion ended up being short-lived due to roster space issues, and Mack found himself back in Bakersfield to finish the summer, it was through no fault of his own. Being one of the elder statesmen on the Blaze, the outfielder took it on like a veteran, and finished the year as the club’s best hitter and an exceptional on-base threat who hit for both power and average.

To that same end, Mack approached the Mariners’ offseason regime change like a veteran, too—and was open to whatever was to come in spring training back in February. Entering his third spring training, you’d imagine there wasn’t much for Mack to learn or experience at the Mariners’ facility in Peoria, Arizona, but farm director Andy McKay and field coordinator Mike Micucci jarred that complacency out of Mack and the rest of the organization very, very quickly.

“Those two [Micucci and McKay] really, really got after it with us at spring training and I think that was a huge turnaround for me as far as actually being prepared for the season,” said Mack, who true to his assertion hit the ground running in 2016, hitting .282/.402/.423 by the end of April.

“It was the toughest spring training I’ve ever dealt with. It kind of reminded me of my days in college at the University of Miami. It was hard. At the end of the day, as soon a practice was over, you just wanted to go to sleep.”

Chantz Mack did all he could—and then some—in Bakersfield in 2016. (Bobby DeMuro)

Chantz Mack did all he could—and then some—in Bakersfield in 2016. (Bobby DeMuro)

It wasn’t just about a physically grueling introduction to a new front office and organizational philosophy, though; Mack, who has enjoyed some decent summers across his career, had the best overall offensive year of his life in 2016. Plainly, he credits that to a significantly simplified approach at the plate, no doubt directly impacted by the Mariners’ new strategy for developing hitting prospects.

“[Micucci and McKay] really helped me with an approach, especially to just work the middle of the plate and go from there,” Mack said. “The borderline pitches, just take them. If you swing at them, you’re probably not going to do much damage anyways, so you want the ball in the middle. Even the big leaguers, the balls they are hitting for home runs, almost every ball they are hitting is somewhere over the middle of the plate. That’s the common denominator, and that’s what we’ve been trying to stick with. So far, it’s been paying dividends for me.”

**********

ISAAC SANCHEZ, RHP

McKay was far from the only newcomer to the Mariners’ organization in 2016.

Reliever Isaac Sanchez was plucked out of the Pittsburgh Pirates’ system, and the extremely soft-spoken hurler overcame anonymity and middle relief to earn himself some serious innings down the stretch this summer, both in the Cal League, and after his promotion to Jackson in the Southern League. Though his natural stuff may be exceptional, Sanchez had to impress with it almost immediately in Mariners’ camp this spring, the stressful situation magnified by the new front office that had to learn not only him, but dozens of other organizational guys who were in Peoria well before Sanchez, too.

Almost immediately, though—and not just thanks to Justin Seager—Sanchez hit the ground running and loved the intensity and commitment to winning that he saw with Seattle. Considering his somewhat unique vantage point of coming over so recently from a separate organization, then, his words carry some weight in regards to direct comparisons.

“Coming here, spring training was a lot different, and the intensity and focus were probably a little more central here [than Pittsburgh],” Sanchez said. “They want players to win. I had heard how in past seasons, [the previous regime] weren’t focused that much on winning [in the minors], but with these guys, the main focus was winning. ‘Win, win, learn how to win. We need ballplayers that know how to win. No losing teams, we just want winners on our teams.’ That kind of thing.”

The new front office gave Isaac Sanchez the chance of his career in 2016. (Bobby DeMuro)

The new front office gave Isaac Sanchez the chance of his career in 2016. (Bobby DeMuro)

Guess what? Sanchez loved it.

“That was something that I really liked, because, why else would we be here,” he asked rhetorically. “Their work ethic and interactions were really cool with the players, too. Coaches, managers, everybody was always really nice with me since I was new. Everybody was friendly. But they always pushed us to our limit, and sometimes past our limit, so to come play a season where we are learning how to win, rather than just focusing on getting better while losing or whatever, it’s a welcome change.”

And what do you know, every single one of the Mariners’ minor league affiliates made the playoffs in their respective leagues in 2016. The Blaze, with whom Sanchez spent the majority of the summer, ended up nearly making it to the Cal League’s Championship Series. Jackson, where Sanchez finished the summer, won it all in the Southern League. Talk about a welcome change.

**********

DANIEL TORRES, C

Mack isn’t the only position player who felt more prepared entering this summer than previous ones; catcher Daniel Torres, as we have seen, took a far more calm, mature approach to the Cal League in 2016, his second chance at the circuit. There’s no doubt a maturity component here (a year older, a year wiser, and all that), but Torres credits that maturity—and the confidence that came from it—to the new front office, too.

“Honestly, with all the extra work we put in at spring training, I really felt prepared this season,” Torres admitted. “I felt like I was the most ready here for any season I’ve ever been a part of in my career. When we got to spring training, their first meeting with us was ‘we are going to get things done here, and we’re going to do it right, and we’re going to work hard doing it.’”

A new regime left Daniel Torres more relaxed at the plate this summer. (Bobby DeMuro)

A new regime left Daniel Torres more relaxed at the plate this summer. (Bobby DeMuro)

Torres pause and smiled after saying that, before he echoed Mack’s attitude about the physically taxing spring.

“Man, we got after it at spring training. But I think it’s paying off already.”

**********

JOE DECARLO, 3B

Joe DeCarlo had an up-and-down season—in many ways, he’s had an up-and-down career—and yet there’s more to like with the third baseman than not, as evidenced by his ability to find consistency in Bakersfield after a tough first couple months. That consistency comes from age, and yes, at 23 years old in High-A things haven’t quite turned out how one might hope for the former second-round (2012) draft pick. And yet DeCarlo’s ability to be consistent also came from a new front office that showed remarkable patience even while pushing him to develop in a difficult situation.

“The old regime, I can’t complain because they gave me my opportunity, but as far as this regime goes, I’ve been really pleased,” DeCarlo said, sharing a diplomatic sentiment found more broadly among many members of the Blaze. “I really like the changes they’ve made in our preparation and game planning. They have us preparing the right way, we get our mindset the right way, and then we just roll the balls and bats out and go get ‘em.”

It took a few weeks, but Joe DeCarlo figured it all out in 2016. (Bobby DeMuro)

It took a few weeks, but Joe DeCarlo figured it all out in 2016. (Bobby DeMuro)

DeCarlo is referencing things like the Mariners’ 16-for-16 attitude, and team plate appearances, but even beyond some of the fresh ways to think about developing hitters up and down the organization, the veteran of now five professional summers took notice of the same intensity as did Mack and Torres, and embraced the challenges that brought in March.

“Yeah, to touch on spring training, I think it was a little bit tougher this year just to put some guys through a little bit of a mental test,” he admitted about his introduction to the new way of doing things. “I think it was a way to separate the men from the boys, if you will. That’s just the way I felt about it. And that’s fine, if you’re a hard working guy and you can gameplan and prepare yourself the right way. That’s the name of the game.”

**********

TYLER PIKE, LHP

Maybe more than any one Mariner who came through Bakersfield in 2016, left-handed pitcher Tyler Pike best exemplifies the fact that player development doesn’t always take a linear path—and in curving, stopping, starting, and slowing, there is still value to be gleaned from that growth.

Pike enjoyed arguably the best summer of his career in 2016, and it was one he needed to have, not only to keep himself on track toward a potential big league impact in another season or two, but also to impress the new front office from the very first day of spring training. Understandably, there was a bit of anxiety there from the moment Dipoto and his staff took over.

“When I found out they were coming in with these new guys, I was talking to [his wife] Gina, and my dad, and my agent, and they all said the same thing, like, ‘look at it as a fresh start, these guys don’t know anything about you, and if they do, they can only look at stats, and stats can only tell you so much,’” Pike said. “I was really focused on getting into spring training, being in shape, and really showing them how I can throw the ball to give them a fresh look. So far, it’s been pretty good for me.”

For Pike, who, to his credit, has been very forthright about where he’s come up short in the past and what he needed to do in 2016 to actually push past the High-A hump, the plan turned out very well this summer, all things considered. Of course, he’s just as competitive as anybody in this piece, and like so many before him, he quickly transitioned from the anxiety of the new regime to what he saw as the benefits of what the regime had actually started to preach.

Tyler Pike got back on tack under the new regime. (Bobby DeMuro)

Tyler Pike got back on tack under the new regime. (Bobby DeMuro)

“Spring training for us pitchers wasn’t as hard,” Pike said, flashing a grin when hearing DeCarlo and Mack’s reactions to the grueling spring workout sessions. “But we would see position players going out there three or four times every single day to get stuff going, and honestly, I loved it. These guys came in and immediately, they wanted us to win. They said winning starts at the bottom. They want us to win, and they want us to win now, so we can learn how to win.”

“All the stuff they’ve been hitting us with, all this PTPA stuff, you can already tell,” Pike continued. “Going forward, I think that’s really going to start trickling down more and more every year and I think that’s going to be a real good thing for this organization. The way they are developing guys now, it’s going to help everybody out in the long run, especially these younger guys where there are certain things you have to figure out that you can’t figure out in high school or college.”

**********

So what is there to take away from these windows into specific players’ experiences with the new front office?

Well, for one, all are decidedly cheery; after all, what player is going to go on record bashing the new front office while still trying to find their footing within that organization’s depth chart? Furthermore, winning makes friends of us all—the Blaze, and every other ball club in the system, won pretty much wire to wire all year long, and so feelings are good and spirits are high whenever everybody is in relative cruise control. And considering the organization’s full-season affiliates all made the playoffs before the Dipoto regime even got a chance to go through their first amateur draft? OK, sure, perhaps there’s some good ol’ fashioned dumb luck involved here, at least as far as the first-year winning is concerned.

But look a little deeper; there’s an immediate and obvious takeaway here about spring training, and every position player in this piece and otherwise that spoke to me referenced how physically demanding the spring was for them.

That’s a wake-up call. It’s maybe, at least partially, a front office trying to assert their leadership over a new organization, and very quickly hoping to get everyone up to speed on the way the new Mariners are to do things. But it’s also a big culture change and a refreshing doubling down on intensity that clearly has at least one side benefit: Something tells me Mack, DeCarlo, Torres, and the rest of the position players will enter this coming spring in even better shape than before, knowing what they are about to be put through.

Image by Bobby DeMuro.

Image by Bobby DeMuro.

Beyond that, there are any number of takeaways on the Dipoto regime and its potential in player development, but I think the perspective that ought to be heard maybe above all is Sanchez, for he is the only player who spoke about the front office after having been in another organization for much of his career.

Sanchez’s perspective is much more worldly in this regard, at least, and probably ought to be weighed at least slightly more heavily. It’s not about bashing his former club, the Pirates, either; like DeCarlo with the old regime in Seattle, Sanchez obviously appreciated where Pittsburgh brought him right up to the point where he left the organization. More so, it’s an admiration for a new, different way of doing things in Seattle, which—at least for one year—was a welcome evolution to Sanchez and other players across the board.

Much must still be done by Dipoto, McKay, and the rest of the Mariners’ front office, and ultimately that group will be judged by the greater accomplishments they do, or do not, achieve at the Major League level alone. But you’d be right to be cautiously optimistic, at the very least, about the greater potential the Mariners now might have for creating something truly special top to bottom in another few years’ time. And who knows—maybe having every affiliate make the playoffs will become a yearly, expected occurrence at every level, right on up to Safeco Field.

The post Players rave about Mariners’ new player development strategy appeared first on Todays Knuckleball.

Source: Knuckleball

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Kansas City Royals prospect profile: First baseman Ryan O’Hearn

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RYAN O’HEARN

Organization: Kansas City Royals || 2016 club: Wilmington Blue Rocks (A-Adv.), Northwest Arkansas Naturals (AA)
Position: 1B || Age: 23 || DOB: July 26, 1993 || Birthplace: Frisco, Texas
Acquired: 2014 MLB Draft (8th Rd., Sam Houston St.) || 2016 prospect rank: KC #7 (MLB.com)
2016 stats: 134 games, 502 AB, .275/.351/.478/.829, 32 2B, 22 HR, 56 BB, 158 K, 3 SB

 

O’Hearn, still just 23 after spending most of 2016 in Double-A, was picked to join the Arizona Fall League’s Surprise Saguaros this winter after concluding the regular season in the Kansas City Royals’ organization. It was there that I took video (above) of 18 of his at-bats across the last several weeks of AFL play.

  • O’Hearn’s 2016

In the second full season (third overall) of his pro career, Ryan O’Hearn showed exactly why the Royals plucked him out of Sam Houston State with an eighth-round pick in 2014, and he weathered a big adjustment, starting the year in High-A and finishing it as a member of the AFL’s Fall Stars roster—and, oh yeah, holding his own in Double-A along the way. That’s a big series of jumps for any player, and in O’Hearn’s case, doing it while showing off consistent power is an encouraging sign for his future and a validating summer for the man right now tabbed as the seventh-best prospect in his parent organization.

O’Hearn killed everything he saw at High-A Wilmington for the first month of the summer, and left on a promotion after slashing .352/.408/.670 with seven doubles and seven homers across 88 at-bats. Jumping to Double-A is a big adjustment, and hitters don’t always figure it out so quickly—especially midseason—but O’Hearn did well enough to keep his head above water with Northwest Arkansas of the Texas League: a .258/.339/.437 slash line with 25 doubles, 15 homers, and 48 walks (against 131 strikeouts) in 112 games/414 at-bats.

To put the finishing touches on everything there, O’Hearn appeared in eight playoff games, too, and went 12-for-33 (.364) with three home runs, four walks, and eight runs scored in postseason play—no doubt a nice little bow to tie up on a successful summer.

Considering his age (he’ll be 24 next July) and his position (as a power-hitting first baseman, O’Hearn really just has to do one thing), the Royals might have figured it was the perfect time to test him against pro ball’s best, and even though he wound up with nearly 600 plate appearances in 2016, they sent him to the AFL for some more. Things have worked out here in Surprise; in his first 14 games for the Saguaros entering Saturday, O’Hearn is hitting .365/.450/.423 with three doubles, eight walks, and 17 strikeouts in 52 at-bats.

And yes, he did earn himself a spot on that Fall Stars team—not bad company in which to find oneself, I’d say.

  • Scouting O’Hearn

Here’s the thing about O’Hearn, if you didn’t already gather it from his stats, or the videos: He swings hard, and he hits the ball really hard. He’s not quite Eloy Jimenez when it comes to the best of the best in AFL exit velocities, but you know what? O’Hearn isn’t that far off, having slugged two of the 12 hardest hit balls in all of AFL play already. That should tell you something about where his value will come in the future.

O’Hearn’s best tool is that plus power, and it’s quickly developing into a consistent, known entity as he reaches the high minors with seasons of 13 (short-season), 27, and 22 homers (and 16, 21, and 32 doubles, respectively) already under his belt. His swing can be long at times, and that’s shown up as the strikeouts pile up in abundance, but he doesn’t get cheated in his hacks, he’s aggressive at the plate, and he knows exactly the type of pull-predominant approach that will get him to his ceiling where he can impact a big league roster as a power-hitting first baseman.

That said, he does show some intriguing opposite-field power too—no doubt a product of his good natural strength and strong, thick build—as you can see from his 2016 regular season spray chart, per MLBFarm.com:

With his power numbers, and raw power potential still to come, the ability to go to all fields for both singles and homers already ought to bode well as O’Hearn will now adjust to some of the best pitching in the world. He’s most likely not a guy who will ever hit for average even with that all-field ability, but he was being shifted on in the AFL, and so an ability to hit the ball the other way with authority is, at the very least, potentially a good sign of things to come. Mechanically, his bat stays in the zone a long time and he does a good job staying through the ball, the combination of which helps him create lift that, combined with his strength, results in long balls.

The strikeouts are an issue for O’Hearn, who is now flirting with 30 percent whiff rates in consecutive seasons through the mid- and high-minors, and they probably always will be. But to a degree, that is overcome by his ability to work deep counts and draw walks (double-digit walks rates have always been par for the course for him). And, again, if he hits 30+ home runs every year while walking at or greater than 10 percent of the time, a 30 percent strikeout rate might be of comparatively little concern in that role.

O'Hearn warming up before a recent AFL game. (Bobby DeMuro)

O’Hearn warming up before a recent AFL game. (Bobby DeMuro)

Defensively, O’Hearn is fine at first base. It’s his natural position, despite the Royals experimenting with sticking him out in the outfield corners in spurts, and he’s probably best served to stay there in the infield as a solid, consistent defender. He moves well and he has soft hands, and while he isn’t likely a future Gold Glove winner at the position, he’s far from a black hole and should provide enough defensive value to put depth concerns there at ease.

  • Going Forward

All of this puts O’Hearn in a position somewhat similar to a 2016 Cal Leaguer I just profiled: Padres outfielder Franmil Reyes. In O’Hearn, just as in Reyes, one tool (power) stands out head-and-shoulders above the rest. And while O’Hearn’s raw power and long-term ceiling to harness that power both have somewhat lower risk and a higher ceiling than does the same tool for the young Reyes, it all comes down to the one-tool question: Can O’Hearn hit for enough power to provide value that will off-set his average or slightly-below average skill sets in other areas?

Fortunately for him, O’Hearn is at the exact right position to do this; he’s proficient in the field and he’s not at a premium position, so check off those boxes, knowing he’ll be good enough at first base. Also fortunately for O’Hearn, his power isn’t a theoretical projection based on his body type or physical strength alone; he’s now shown that he has legitimate, actual pop in three straight summers, and if it keeps translating into the high minors, he’s going to get a (well-deserved) shot to show it off and stick at the big league level.

As far as the immediate future goes, then, O’Hearn might be pushing for a Triple-A spot come 2017 depending on how well he continues to show out in the AFL, and what he does in spring training. He’s more than held his own in Surprise against some of baseball’s best pitching prospects, despite showing little power here (small sample size acknowledged). There’s no question he’s going to hit the ball very hard, and he can hit the ball very far. Can he do it enough to warrant a big league spot knowing the swing-and-miss that exists in his approach, as well?

The post Kansas City Royals prospect profile: First baseman Ryan O’Hearn appeared first on Todays Knuckleball.

Source: Knuckleball

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San Diego Padres prospect profile: Outfielder Franmil Reyes

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FRANMIL REYES

Organization: San Diego Padres || 2016 club: Lake Elsinore Storm (A-Adv.)
Position: OF || Age: 21 || DOB: July 7, 1995 || Birthplace: Palenque, Dom. Rep.
Acquired: November 1, 2011 (undrafted free agent) || 2016 prospect rank: N/A
2016 stats: 130 games, 493 AB, .278/.340/.452/.792, 32 2B, 16 HR, 47 BB, 108 K, 2 SB

  • Reyes’ 2016

Franmil Reyes picked the best time to have the best year of his career in 2016, and even in the California League’s generally hitter-friendly ballparks, the tall, hulking outfielder put up numbers impressive for his age at High-A. In doing so, he may have just set himself up to rise into the fringes of the San Diego Padres’ organizational plans entering 2017.

A 21-year-old (he won’t be 22 until next July), Reyes spent 2016, his fifth year in pro ball, sitting in the middle of the lineup for the Lake Elsinore Storm, and he showed off power (32 doubles and 16 home runs, for a .452 slugging percentage) and the faintest budding of understanding of an advanced league’s strike zone (47 walks against 108 strikeouts with a .340 on-base percentage) in 130 games.

He only got better as the summer went on, and the Padres deserve credit for sticking with their development process and allowing him to work things out at the plate. A very, very difficult first half—Reyes was slashing a meager .198/.250/.284 on May 28—turned into a torrid stretch post-All-Star break, including Reyes’ unbelievable month of August, where he slashed .358/.414/.613/1.027 with nine doubles and six home runs in 106 at-bats.

The hot streak itself might have started a few days before August; in a four-game series at Inland Empire to end July, Reyes knocked seven hits, including two doubles, a triple, and a home run, and put up seven RBI, two walks, and scored three runs. From there, he was off to the races and, along with the front office of the Bakersfield Blaze, was probably one of the people least looking forward to the end of the season come early September.

Reyes leads off first base during a 2016 game on the road in Bakersfield. Image by Bobby DeMuro.

Reyes leads off first base during a 2016 game on the road in Bakersfield. Image by Bobby DeMuro.

Ironically, Reyes may have gotten recognized prematurely by the Cal League; he won the league’s Player of the Month award for June, where he slashed .307/.360/.584/.945 with eleven doubles, five home runs, eight walks, and just ten strikeouts in 101 at-bats. That’s all well and good, and there’s no question that was well-deserved, but considering how much better his August turned out to be… well, perhaps Reyes deserves another Player of the Month honor.

Nevertheless, as you’d expect from such a young player, wire-to-wire consistency eluded him across the season, and his overall strong numbers could have been better had it not been for such an ice-cold April and May.

I saw the outfielder both times the Storm came through Bakersfield, and while he was nearly invisible for much of their first road trip to Sam Lynn Ballpark in late April, he turned things on by mid-August when Lake Elsinore returned; it’s from this series (where Reyes was 8-for-15 with four doubles) that the above video is taken.

  • Scouting Reyes

Reyes is big, and strong, and very well-built at 6’5″ and 240 lbs.—so well-built, in fact, that he might be maxed out physically already at 21 years old with no real room to grow further. That said, he has enough strength to possibly produce plus power as he develops (and as his 16-homer summer in 2016 would hint towards), along with swing mechanics that stay through the ball to produce some loft and backspin.

Beyond the raw power, Reyes’ hit tool isn’t as well developed and may never flash plus-level ability, though he is extremely raw to this point and grew by leaps and bounds in 2016 alone. He’s done well to keep his strikeout rate relatively low even as he rose to High-A this year, which might be a good sign for his future contact skills and overall hit tool, but he’s not likely the kind of player who will ever hit for average, as he doesn’t consistently barrel up pitches well enough to do that.

He’s a good overall athlete, and even at his size he runs well and can survive in the outfield corners on defense. However, he’s not a burner on the base paths, nor does he have a plus arm that would make him an unquestionable fit in, say, right field.

In a way similar to Reyes’ teammate Josh Naylor, this is where things get interesting in the future: If only one tool exhibits the possibility of becoming above-average at the big league level, that tool better be really above-average to make up for the at- or below-average skills exhibited everywhere else.

In Reyes’ case, that means he better hit for a ton of power if he’s to survive in the outfield, on the bases, and with his hit tool. Now, considering I watched him crush the ball during his breakout summer, I’m likely higher on the chances of this happening than are most evaluators, but even I can acknowledge it’s a tall task to expect him to hit 30+ home runs every year to make up for the rest of his firmly average skill set.

All this said, at least in regards to 2016, Reyes deserves a bit of credit for being a more complete hitter with a maturing approach to all fields, as opposed to the dead-pull you might expect from a 20- and 21-year-old in High-A, per his MLBFarm.com spray chart:

After watching Reyes pull the ball to left and left-center field across two series over five months in 2016, it was a nice surprise to see a good spray and a decent power surge to right-center and right field. Obviously, his 2016 spray chart is but one season in the greater context of facing better pitchers every year in his career, and should be taken with something of a grain of salt considering he’ll have to start all over again in Double-A next summer, but it’s a pleasant graphic that suggests two things: (a) his approach as a whole is maturing and should adjust decently to Double-A pitching, and (b) his home run power to right-center is an encouraging development in regards to whether he can achieve his ultimate power ceiling.

For what it’s worth, though I never had the chance to interview him myself, Reyes seemed remarkably at ease among teammates and had a notably cheery, good-natured, and polite attitude on the field across both series I observed him with Lake Elsinore.

  • Going Forward

At the very least, after spending two straight summers at Low-A Fort Wayne in 2014 and 2015, Reyes ought to rest easy this offseason in knowing he should be one-and-done with Lake Elsinore and on to Double-A for 2017. There, he’ll be making a big jump, though it’s important to remember that with his July 7 birthdate, playing in the Texas League will actually be his age-21 season, despite being his sixth in pro ball. So if (or when) he scuffles next summer, just as he did to begin his time in Lake Elsinore, it’d behoove the Padres to again be patient with their hulking outfielder and let him adjust through the inevitable growing pains that are sure to come, regardless of degree.

 

Beyond that, if you’re following him from out of town and looking for the broadest, easiest level at which to analyze Franmil Reyes in Double-A, track three fairly obvious things: doubles, home runs, and slugging percentage. If he’s showing out in those statistical categories, he’s developing the power tool he’ll need to reach the big leagues and stick there one day.

At best, it’s his only path to the big leagues; at the very least, it’s his likeliest path. In either case, it’s his most exciting tool and represents one of the better power strokes I saw from any Padres farmhand all summer in 2016. Thus, its continued growth—or lack thereof—will dictate exactly how far Franmil Reyes can go in professional baseball.

The post San Diego Padres prospect profile: Outfielder Franmil Reyes appeared first on Todays Knuckleball.

Source: Knuckleball

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Marlins prospect Drew Steckenrider hoping routine turns into MLB shot

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MESA, Ariz. — It took five years, more than 200 professional innings, six affiliates, a major role change, and a career-threatening surgery—one that wiped out nearly two full seasons of his life—but the baseball gods are finally smiling down upon Drew Steckenrider.

The big right-handed reliever is one of seven men the Miami Marlins sent to the Arizona Fall League this offseason, and in his first six appearances for the Mesa Solar Sox, he’s done everything that could be asked of him and then some: eight innings, four hits, no runs, one walk, eleven strikeouts, two wins, two saves, and even a no-hitter to his name while wearing the Marlins’ big league uniform and facing the very best prospects pro ball has to offer.

Forgive him, then, if it seems like everything’s coming up Milhouse out in Mesa right now, because you know what? It’s about time.

In many ways, Steckenrider’s story epitomizes the path of so many relief pitchers in pro ball: begin as a starting pitcher, struggle through mediocrity and/or a serious injury (Tommy John surgery in 2013 lost him 18 months), live out the daily monotony of rehab and recovery, find yourself banished to the anonymity of the bullpen, and play out a few summers in the game before finding something else to do. Only the University of Tennessee product’s story doesn’t include that last part, because the elbow surgery—and subsequent move to the bullpen—awoke in Steckenrider a dominant late-inning bulldog that has fast become the envy of many a relief hopeful.

It all starts in 2015. Finally healthy after the long, arduous recovery from elbow ligament replacement surgery, Steckenrider split the summer between Low-A Greensboro and High-A Jupiter. He also split the year between the bullpen and the rotation, making 13 starts and another 12 relief appearances in what proved to be a decent, but not overwhelming, season (5-6, 3.00 ERA with 78 strikeouts across 96 innings).

Steckenrider prepares to throw an inning for the Mesa Solar Sox last month. (Bobby DeMuro)

Steckenrider prepares to throw an inning for the Mesa Solar Sox last month. (Bobby DeMuro)

Things really clicked this summer, though, when the Marlins stopped the swingman madness and stuck him in the ‘pen for good. Finally cemented in a late-inning role, and on firm footing a full year past the elbow rehab process, Steckenrider was lights out: 14 saves in 40 appearances with 71 strikeouts against just 19 walks in 52 innings and a paltry .141 opponents’ batting average across Jupiter, Double-A Jacksonville, and Triple-A New Orleans. Impressed, the Marlins handed him an MiLB.com Organizational All-Star nod and shipped him off to Mesa for the AFL season and, well, here we are.

“Honestly, my elbow always bothered me even before my surgery, so once I got it fixed, it was a night and day difference,” Steckenrider told Today’s Knuckleball before a recent game in Mesa, sharing how and when he finally started to get right. “That’s the biggest part. Nothing bothers me with it any more, which I’m thankful for. But I think the Marlins just put me in a role where I can have success, and I obviously did this year.”

Now, pitchers won’t always say it—they’re just thankful for the work, especially affable guys like Steckenrider—but being a swingman sucks.

You start a game on Monday, go through recovery for a few days and then, instead of a side session, find yourself coming back full-bore out of the bullpen by Wednesday or Thursday. Think of it this way: It’s what Jon Lester just did for the Chicago Cubs, but it’s every single week. That’s a tough double role to straddle, both physically and mentally, because every other outing is different when you take the ball like that, and different is bad when you’re desperate to find a routine—and the success that so often follows.

“I would start, and then I’d do my arm care stuff, but then I’d be out in the bullpen a few days later, which, I would never get the recovery, and I never got the rhythm and the bounce-back time,” Steckenrider admitted about his difficult role in 2015. “It was really hard to have success. But this year, I finally got into that consistent role in the back end of the bullpen, and I earned my spot back there early. It was nice because I stayed there all year, but I also got into a good routine with the trainers and strength coaches, and that kept me healthy and on the field.”

Steckenrider delivers a pitch on the road at Salt River. (Bobby DeMuro)

Steckenrider delivers a pitch on the road at Salt River. (Bobby DeMuro)

Don’t underestimate the importance of something as simple as being able to stay on the field, especially when, like Steckenrider, you suffer years of elbow pain only to finally reach the point where a surgery and the challenging, lonely rehab that follows become necessary to continue your career. It’s a victory in the first place for any pitcher to have returned to game action after that. It’s doubly a coup that the rehab eternity taught Steckenrider previously-overlooked off-field habits that so drastically inform his dominant success now two years later, here in 2016.

“Well, I never really had a routine before this, I didn’t even have a routine in college,” he admitted about his pre-game and between-outing workouts, strength training, and arm care. “So I had to do a lot of work with Ben Cates, our trainer in High-A this year, and I was really thankful to have him. He was really the one who got me on the routine that I still use to this day. It was actually kind of fun to find my own routine, and I’m really glad that I found one, and that I had him to help me find that one, because it worked.”

Different players get different things out of the Arizona Fall League. For some, it’s a bid to get much-needed playing time after injuries derail a regular season’s schedule. For others, it’s a way to put on the finishing touches here at the doorstep of The Show—a baseball graduate school, if you will. For others still, perhaps it’s a way for organizations to showcase their prospects in the hopes of creating the seeds of what could be a blockbuster move during the Winter Meetings.

For Steckenrider, regardless of how he or the Marlins may see it, it feels like there’s a victory lap component here. He had a breakout year, beat all the odds of the past several summers, and he earned this one, no longer an anonymous arm down in the ‘pen.

Enjoy Mesa, kid.

Steckenrider and Blue Jays catcher Danny Jansen meet during AFL play. (Bobby DeMuro)

Steckenrider and Blue Jays catcher Danny Jansen meet during AFL play. (Bobby DeMuro)

Then again, Steckenrider is a power reliever with plus velocity and swing-and-miss stuff. He reached Triple-A in 2016. He’s peaking at the right time. Maybe this is something of a baseball graduate school for him, too, because come next spring, he’ll be in the mix when the Marlins figure out bullpen depth to face down the NL East.

Steckenrider knows that.

“We’ve got guys on our team this fall who were in the big leagues this year, so it’s cool to play with them because you hear their stories, and see how thankful they are for the experience up there,” he said. “And from them, you learn that you have to keep showing up every day and working hard until you get to where you want to be. But I can’t control what happens to me next year, [the Marlins’ front office] is going to make decisions based on what’s best for the team, and at a certain time, maybe me being up there isn’t what is best for the team.

“I hope it is, obviously,” he continued, smiling. “But you never know. And that means I just have to focus on what I can control.”

After five tough years, Drew Steckenrider should navigate that just fine, even as the spotlight turns his way.

He’s got a routine now, after all.

The post Marlins prospect Drew Steckenrider hoping routine turns into MLB shot appeared first on Todays Knuckleball.

Source: Knuckleball

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Repeating Double-A a blessing in disguise for Pirates’ Eric Wood

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SURPRISE, Ariz. — “Getting any good pictures today?”

The first time I met Eric Wood, he walked up and started a conversation as I stood in the first base camera well at Surprise Stadium on the Arizona Fall League’s opening day of play last month. The Pittsburgh Pirates’ prospect had the game off that afternoon, and so he was coaching first base when a pitching change on the field found him looking my way during the break.

We joked about the unseasonably warm weather in Phoenix—Wood, I learned, was extremely pleased with the heat, considering his cold-weather Canadian roots—and after the reliever had warmed up, it was time for both of us to get back to our respective responsibilities.

A few days later, covering Surprise again, I found Wood hanging out in the dugout during pre-game, relaxing in turf shoes and joking with Rangers catching prospect Jose Trevino.

“Did they just give you the whole month off, or what?”

“Hey now,” Wood shot back at me, laughing, “they had me at first base the other day, I’ve been playing left field, I’ve been all over.”

A few days later I found myself covering Surprise again, and this time Wood was in the lineup and playing third base once again. Catching up with him right after the Saguaros took batting practice, and joking about the good fortune of finally catching him on a day in the lineup considering the AFL’s need to juggle a lot of good players on deep lineups and lengthy rosters, the infielder seemed considerably more focused on this day than in our earlier meetings, as you’d expect.

Wood works out at third base before a recent AFL game. (Bobby DeMuro)

Wood works out at third base before a recent AFL game. (Bobby DeMuro)

Now, unless you’re a Pirates die-hard, you ought not feel bad for never having heard of Eric Wood. He’s never graced a top-30 prospect list, and he just repeated at Double-A over the summer. A 23-year-old from Ontario, Wood was drafted by the Pirates in the sixth round back in 2012 out of a Texas junior college that claims NBA star Chris Andersen and NFL quarterback Cam Newton as its most famous charges.

An average first few summers in pro ball landed him in Double-A by his age-22 season in 2015, but a tough summer there (he slashed just .237/.303/.305 in 334 at-bats for the Altoona Curve) found him having to repeat the level in 2016.

The repeat didn’t weigh on Wood as you might expect, though, because a funny thing happened in 2016. The infielder, who had exactly 15 home runs to his name through his first four years of pro ball combined, crushed 16 long balls this summer. Re-living Double-A this summer did him well, really—this time around, he slashed .249/.339/.443 in 402 at-bats—and it all culminated in a spot on the Eastern League’s postseason All-Star team in September. And now, as it is for virtually every player, the AFL is both a big break for the third baseman and an opportunity for the Pirates to see exactly what they have in Wood as he faces down some of the best pitching prospects the league has to offer.

But as impressive as his summer power surge may be, Wood shrugged off the notion that he did anything too impressive in overcoming adversity and finally figuring out the Eastern League.

“To be honest, I didn’t really think about repeating Double-A a whole lot, I just looked at it as another opportunity,” he said in front of Surprise’s first base dugout as the visiting Mesa Solar Sox readied for their round of pre-game batting practice. “That’s kind of what the game is to me. As long as you’re playing, you have a shot. It doesn’t really matter where you are, because as long as you’re playing, and you continue to play, you have a chance, and I just wanted to prove that I could play after that rough year.”

 

We’ve heard this kind of talk before from players who have to repeat a level; common sense says that a second season in the same town might bring anxiety, or pressure, or at best an extra push to press harder and move up quickly. And yet whether it’s mental toughness, or sheer denial in the name of self preservation—or a combination of both—players don’t see it the same way as those of us armed with prospect lists and organizational stats and radar guns and stop watches and never-ending minds centered on constant evaluation.

We can measure a player’s growth in stats, and charts, and spreadsheets, and pop times, and exit velocities, and Lord knows we do. We ask what it means for the future, what it means for the organization, what it means for the player. They can only ship off to the city where they’re assigned, suit up in the uniform placed in their locker that day, and try to get better than the day before.

“Seriously, as long as you’re playing, you’re going to be learning about the game,” Wood continued. “I don’t know if I grew up or anything from having to repeat Double-A. I mean, I guess I did. But the more you play, the more experiences you have, and you learn things, you hold on to them, and you don’t forget them going forward. But that’s just baseball.”

Learning and growing in the game means learning when and how to pick the right spots to unleash power, and few minor leaguers saw a bigger statistical improvement in that area than did Wood in 2016. For a guy who hit two home runs in 2015, and three in 2014, putting up 16 this summer against Eastern League pitching is noteworthy.

That it came from something far more subtle than just getting physically stronger, or taking more batting practice, then, ought to be an eye-opener in regard to how development actually takes place in the minors. The physical tools are overwhelmingly there in virtually all players, for the most part, just as strength has always been there for Wood. Development is more subtle.

“I stopped giving away as many at-bats,” Wood mused when asked what changed at the plate in 2016. “That was the key for me, not missing pitches when I get them and not losing focus to the point where I was giving at-bats away. Pitchers at all levels will make mistakes, you even see it in the big leagues all the time, so it’s just about being ready to hit when you get that pitch. But to do that, you have to be ready to hit every pitch that comes. And that’s really been it for me, having consistent at-bats by being ready to hit every pitch.”

Wood runs to cover first during an AFL game last month. (Bobby DeMuro)

Wood runs to cover first during an AFL game last month. (Bobby DeMuro)

It sounds so simple, doesn’t it? And yet Wood has done precisely that in the AFL, small sample sizes be damned. Entering Thursday’s game, he’s slashing .362/.436/.596 with three home runs, two doubles, 11 RBI and seven walks in 13 games (47 at-bats) for the Saguaros, so it’s no wonder why they’re putting him in the outfield and at third base in a bid to get his bat in the lineup.

Another few strong weeks in Arizona, then, and perhaps the Canadian will have put himself back on the map with the Pirates? Maybe this is the beginning of a redemptive tale that will end in a flourish in spring training when he wows the Pittsburgh brass and solidifies a future role in the organization?

Wood laughed when I asked him about what all this meant for his future, his good-natured walk-back of future hopes and dreams both a surprise and a welcome reality check.

“I’m not even worried about that, I’m just trying to be able to give everything I’ve got today, and that’s all I’m really thinking about,” Wood admitted. “I think it’s been a little bit easier for me to take it one day at a time because, come on, I just repeated Double-A. It’s not like I’m on the fast track here. So I have to take it one at-bat at a time, and one play at a time, and there’s really no other way I can approach this.”

Fast track or not—and regardless of how he approaches it mentally—if Eric Wood keeps hitting the ball like he did in 2016, he won’t be anonymous for very long.

The post Repeating Double-A a blessing in disguise for Pirates’ Eric Wood appeared first on Todays Knuckleball.

Source: Knuckleball

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Toronto Blue Jays prospect profile: Outfielder Anthony Alford

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ANTHONY ALFORD

Organization: Toronto Blue Jays || 2016 club: Dunedin Blue Jays (A-Adv.)
Position: OF || Age: 22 || DOB: July 20, 1994 || Birthplace: Columbia, MS
Acquired: 2012 MLB Draft (3rd Rd., Ole Miss) || 2016 prospect rank: TOR #3, MLB #86 (MLB.com)
2016 stats: 92 games, 339 AB, .236/.344/.378/.722, 17 2B, 9 HR, 53 BB, 117 K, 18 SB

 

Alford’s 2016

If Anthony Alford had his way, he’d probably prefer to delete 2016 altogether. A knee injury early in the year knocked out a month of his summer and then hampered his athleticism when he did return to the Toronto Blue Jays’ Florida State League affiliate Dunedin in May. Then, when things finally got back on track for the former college football star, a nasty collision with a teammate led to a serious neck injury and a concussion that further removed Alford from play—and seriously jeopardized his future—in June.

Alford worked his way back from both those injuries, and eventually played 92 games for Dunedin this summer wrapped around the DL stints, but the results were far from what he expected as baseball’s 37th-best prospect entering the summer.

Athleticism and physical ability have never been in question for the outfielder, who had previously been a quarterback at Southern Miss and then a defensive back at Ole Miss before committing full time to baseball and the Jays. So it’s unsurprising he still managed to swipe 18 bases in 24 chances in 2016 (and now 56 steals in 69 attempts across his career) even despite the nagging injuries.

Alford posted career lows at the plate, though, including just a .236 batting average and a .722 OPS with 117 strikeouts in 339 at-bats this summer, and so he quickly became the perfect candidate to see some time in the Arizona Fall League after the season to try to get some at-bats and find some consistency.

Now, Alford has found new life in Arizona with the Mesa Solar Sox, hitting .292/.370/.500 across his first 13 games through Nov. 2, with two doubles, two home runs, six walks, and three stolen bases. Here’s one of his home runs, on a swing that’s just perfectly Alford which resulted in a center-right line drive shot against Salt River back in early October:

 

His athleticism has returned, it would seem, both at the plate and in the field, and he’s attacking pitches and slugging line drive after line drive in Arizona now that he’s finally healthy again. His knee doesn’t seem to be an issue any longer, and as far as the concussion goes, he’s adamant that he has returned to full strength and been just fine for several months. He won’t make up all he missed this summer with one good month in the AFL, but he is on the Fall Stars roster already, and he’s doing something right in a small sample.

Immediately before Alford’s AFL opener with Mesa last month, I spoke to him at length about overcoming all the injuries, and how he returned to finally find a rhythm with Mesa after a difficult summer; we’ll have that full feature up soon.

Scouting Alford

After I got done interviewing Alford before Mesa’s AFL opener against the Surprise Saguaros, Rangers outfield prospect Scott Heineman, playing for the Saguaros, walked up to me outside the first base dugout at Surprise Stadium.

“That dude looks massive, he looks like he’s 38,” Heineman, who is a strong kid himself, mused. “Who is that guy? Is he a player? Damn.”

That’s the reaction Alford gets in most corners from those unfamiliar, a testament to his physical build thanks to years of high-level college football. Despite now transitioning to baseball full-time, he’s never lost his overall strength and athleticism, and he’s really put it to good use during his adjustment process of becoming more sport-specific for baseball. No longer a two-sport athlete, Alford is here full time trying to break through with Toronto, and his physical tools, including his exceptional speed, are on full display.

In the outfield, Alford uses that speed to his benefit and is at ease in both getting good jumps on balls off the bat, and in taking efficient routes to the ball along the way. He’s predominantly a center fielder (208 of his 215 career minor league games have been spent in center), and yet in the AFL he’s been tasked with a corner role at times to accommodate Indians top prospect Bradley Zimmer in center. It’s all effectively the same for Alford, though, who shows off a strong and accurate arm and aggressiveness in the outfield that should no doubt keep him in center in the long run, as noted by our own Bernie Pleskoff.

 

At the plate, Alford is a sight to see with an approach more advanced than his football-dominated past might suggest, and a very athletic swing that finds him making hard, consistent line drive contact. Granted, a big leg kick and considerable hand movement at load leave some holes in his swing, and Alford is susceptible to getting beat with hard stuff on his inner half considering how many moving parts he must get in line along the way. Further, he often finds himself leaking out in front of off-speed offerings simply by virtue of the momentum from his elongated leg kick and load, and the challenge in consistently timing his swing mechanics to each pitch and pitcher. That all results in some swing-and-miss in his game, and he’ll likely always strike out at a decent rate.

All that said, Alford can make up for those issues simply by being such an exceptional athlete, and he clearly trusts his hands enough to overcome where his weight transfer and timing sometimes fall short. His pure athleticism, exceptional hand-eye coordination, and a mature understanding of how to react and hit the ball with authority to right-center field when needed are all firmly working in his favor.

As I noted above with the video of his first AFL home run on the road at Salt River, it’s exactly that type of right-center line drive lift that he will continue to show off on his best days leading toward the highest level. He probably won’t become a plus power option in a future big league lineup, but he’ll hit a few home runs here and there while slugging line drives and developing a proficient hit tool on the way to likely becoming an above-average everyday major leaguer.

Going Forward

Finally fully healthy, the sky is the limit for Alford, who should now continue unimpeded down his path toward what looks to be an exciting, dynamic career. He’s one of those guys you stop and watch every time he comes to the plate, because he swings hard, hits the ball hard, and has the speed to make things interesting on the bases. Beyond his exciting athleticism, he has a good base of physical tools down that should stand to turn him into a nice all-around ballplayer now that he’s focusing on the sport full time and getting closer to the big leagues.

 

It’ll be interesting to see what the Blue Jays decide to do with Alford in 2017. On the one hand, he certainly didn’t find success in Dunedin this past summer, but obviously there are extenuating circumstances there for which one must account. Further, a strong showing thus far in the AFL may be helping the Blue Jays forget their star outfielder’s tough, unforgiving summer. He’ll be 23 years old in the middle of next year, so perhaps a push to Double-A ought to be warranted as the club attempts to figure out what they have in him in what will hopefully be an injury-free year.

Above all, his baseball age is still young. He’s been playing the sport since he was three years old, and yet he only started focusing fully on it in 2015; considering all that, he still has ample time to develop and should continue to see rapid improvement of his technical skills now that he’s here full time.

There is still work to be done here, and yet Alford’s physical tools have never been in question, and his mature approach to the game is encouraging considering his relative lack of high level experience to this point. To me, there’s little question this equation will produce an exciting big league outfielder one day soon.

The post Toronto Blue Jays prospect profile: Outfielder Anthony Alford appeared first on Todays Knuckleball.

Source: Knuckleball

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