Well hello hello! Greetings from the single-tiered stadiums! The minor league season is a month old, so let's take a moment to reflect on what we've learned (nothing, really), and what we've seen (lots, really).
First up: the 'Dads.
Hickory Crawdads (low-A)
Full-season ball is a bitch. Not for all, but for some, the first taste of midnight bus rides, hotels, heckling fans, apathetic fans, a GAME EVERYDAY, and the general daily grind is at best a surprise, at worst a shock. As usual, Texas was pretty aggressive with a couple of assignments, including Jairo Beras, and in a few high profile cases, the first month was a shock. 2013 1st rounder Travis Demeritte is showing some pop with 5 homers, but is still hitting around the Mendoza line. Also notable is that he's a second baseman these days. After playing shortstop and third base in the Rookie League last season, Travis appears ensconced at the keystone for the time being. The aforementioned Jairo Beras is hitting .185 and is still in search of his first homer, hence the .198 slugging percentage. Eduard Pinto (.172) and Isiah Kiner-Falefa (.070) have not been everyday players, but both have struggled out of the gate. David Ledbetter has allowed 19 earned runs in 20 innings and Akeem Bostick has 7 walks and 12 strike outs in 23 innings. Nomar Mazara, who is repeating at Hickory, has played in the most games of any Crawdad, and is batting a surprising .189. Phew! Well, what's gone right for the 'Dads? Cole Wiper- for one. Texas went way above slot to sign him last year and I spoke to a scout who said "he might be a bargain at twice the price." 10 walks and 27 strike outs through 26.2 innings over 6 starts along with some decent reports on his stuff, have supported these claims. Condor Guzman missed a team bus, and although he stayed in Hickory the whole time, he was essentially benched for a couple weeks. Since his return from time-out, he's hit well, which surprises no one. Yohander Mendez will have his innings limited like any other skinny 19 year-old lefty, but he's looked good; commanding his low-90s fastball and dealing a potentially very nasty changeup. Mendez had the best outing of a Crawdad this year when he struck out 10, walked none and allowed 2 hits over 6 shutout innings on April 18th, but he's on the DL now, so keep your fingers crossed he stays healthy. Lewis Brinson, who turns 20 this Thursday, has reportedly looked better at the plate at times, despite 5 walks and 27 strike outs while continuing to play an outstanding centerfield, but he too landed on the DL this week with a quad injury. And if I'm going to small-sample-size guys like Pinto and IKF, I need to include the red-hot start of speedy infield/outfield utility machine Evan Van Hoosier. Last year's 8th rounder will play the entire season at age 20 and might be the second fastest Texas farmhand, behind only Myrtle Beach's 80-grade Chris Garia. EVH is another Vegas-area kid because all they produce out there is baseball players and real estate bubbles and, of course, a really good time. The Crawdads are last in hitting in the 14-team South Atlantic League with a .234 average, but it's always darkest right before the dawn, right? C'mon Nomar, c'mon man--you got this.
Myrtle Beach Pelicans (high-A)
I know what you want me to say. I know who you want me to talk about. Rhymes with "shallow"? Shares a name with a notorious gangster? Another Vegas product? Shaped like David, swings like Goliath? Got it. Yeah, Joey's been awesome. You already know that. The homers have been there. The strike outs have been there too, but so have the walks. So that's cool. He's refining his approach, and most reports indicate his focus has been intense. Everybody calm down. He's the shit. The power isn't going anywhere. It's not going to diminish if he starts taking more pitches. Spending time learning to take pitches and go the other way and work the count isn't going to have any effect on the fact that he's 6'5" and 240lbs. This is the worst time for us; we're impatient. He's progressing, but there's still work to be done. I just keep splashing cold water on my face. Who leads the entire farm in hitting? ROYCE BOLINGER! I've long liked Royce because of his profile. Dude can play all 3 outfield positions, shows bat-to-ball skills, and even a little pop. Royce has been indicative of the Pelicans' prowess with the stick as a whole. They lead the Carolina League in hitting by more than 20 points. They're killers. Doobie Herrera (now an outfielder?), Christopher Bostick (not Chris!), and Preston Beck (gettin' ABs, but wasting his arm cannon at 1B?) have smacked the ball all over the yard. Alfaro has hit too, but needs to walk more and K less (not that I care much because I mostly just want him to become a world class catcher). Speaking of K-ing less, Nick Williams has K-ed A LOT. He's a pure hitter, but hasn't looked the part yet. He probably will though, so hang tight. Unfortunately, Zach Cone is hitting .191 and is 4 years older than Gallo. On the mound, the Birds are second in the league in strike outs, because Sam Wolff, Chi Chi Gonzalez, and Vic Payano can miss bats. Wolff and Chi Chi have looked really good with the exception of Wolff's command leaving him for brief moments and Chi Chi having a couple bogey-laden innings. Payano leads the universe in walks, but hey, Cody Buckel is getting guys out as a reliever. Speaking of relievers; Jose Leclerc is learning how to pitch. He know's how to throw, very hard actually, but he's learning how to pitch. Keone Kela was in the same boat as Jose, but with a little greater velocity, and as of Saturday, a new team- he was promoted to Frisco. Alex Claudio has been screwing with A-ball hitters' heads with his changeup and I see no reason for him to stay in Myrtle Beach all season. Andrew Faulkner is a name to remember. Big lefty has 5BB/25K in 24ip and thanks to a wonky landing spot for his front leg, he has some deception. Reports I've gotten are a little suspect on his breaking ball, but he has fastball command and he's shredding young hitters with something many have not seen yet- a splitter. The Birds are really good. They have top prospects developing quickly, they have developing starters and some premium velocity in the bullpen, they have table-setters at the top of the lineup and thumpers to drive them in, and most importantly, they have kick ass uniforms.
Frisco RoughRiders (AA)
The team expected to be one of the most exciting in the Texas League hasn't disappointed. A franchise record 10-game winning streak anchored April and in many respects, they've been what we hoped they would be. The vaunted rotation took the very best hit possible when it was able to provide the big league club with a servicable arm in Nick Martinez, but Luke Jackson has provided all the excitement you'd need. Luke is, according to roving Pitching Coordinator Danny Clark, "close". He's been going deeper in games, keeping his walks down, and still hitting 97mph in the 7th inning. Alec Asher has pitched well overall, but has suffered a crappy inning in a few of his starts, though he was nails on Saturday night and hopes to continue building his Colby Lewis-starter kit on that performance. Jerad Eickhoff has been wildly unpredictable with boner games and beauty games. When he's on, he's another good, big bodied dude. He's a low-mid 90's FB guy and although he's a starter now, sometimes I wonder about what his velocity would look like out of the pen. I know Jerad and he's a tough, level-headed dude, so I doubt high-leverage would faze him. Anyway, 40-man-er Matt West looked good with 91-94 (T95) velocity. He's been keeping the ball down and throwing a few good curveballs and changeups as well. I say "looked good" because he too was promoted on Saturday, jumping up to AAA Round Rock (had a rough first outing on Sunday, but we'll chalk it up to I-35 jet lag). Wilmer Font looks all kinds of confused. Though he's still getting results, gone is the hulking, nasty, flame throwing potential closer who went right after hitters. In his place is a 91-93mph set-up pitcher with a decent slider and a changeup. I miss the Fontster Monster. At the plate, the team momentarily lost it's leadoff hitter and best defender when Texas called up The Sardi Party. Recently reunited with his brother from another mother, Roogie Odor, the dynamic duo is once again sitting at the top of the lineup and turning magical double plays. Sardi had his 16-game hit streak come to an end on Sunday, and Roogie has scuffled a bit thus far and looks anxious. Everybody loves the spit and vigor with which he plays every game, but the trick will be getting him to maintain that, and yet slow the game down a bit. Unfortunately for him, there's no such thing as a 10-run homer. Otherwise, the story of the first month has been the outstanding play of Ryan Rua. He's leading the Texas League in a zillion offensive categories including, for most of the month, average. Not only that, but he's looked much more comfortable at 3B. I got a chance to catch up with him for a while last week and he said in addition to spending most of the winter really working on his hot-corner defense, he worked hard on being more relaxed. It shows. No one walks to or from the plate with a more casual, easy-going gait, and to this point no one has crushed more baseballs once there. Personally, I've noticed a marked improvement in his approach. He still likes to swing, but he's been letting outside pitches go, and really getting ahead in the count. The thing with Ryan is how freakin' strong he is. If a pitcher misses on the inner half or over the plate, he can make them feel like a scorned child. His progress has been so fun to watch, and I can't wait to see if he can make some of these changes a permanent part of his game. Ryan's always been a late bloomer, and if he keeps this up, he might be blooming into a third base prospect.
Round Rock Express (AAA)
Is it fair to call this the Nick Tepesch show? And is it fair to call Tep's show the sinker & slider show? The curveball has flashed and he can sometimes manage the whip and pull on the slider back into a cutter. He's looked good, no doubt about it. After a lousy spring, he went to AAA to work on his repertoire, and he's doing just that while getting results. That's sexy. Sometimes AAA ball isn't the most exciting, but Round Rock has been winning games and there's been some standout performances by guys you should know. Brett Nicholas had been plugging away splitting time between catcher and 1B and hitting well until putting up an ugly .132 average over his last 10 games. He'll get it together, and he's still a left handed guy who can catch, will take a walk, and can hit the ball over the fence from time-to-time. Jared Hoying has been playing a lot of centerfield and showing some pop, unfortunately, he's also been striking out a lot and not taking enough walks. Scott Baker has also pitched well, but when I saw him, the 86-88mph FB he was dealing didn't look good enough to retire many big leaguers. He does have some easy peasy mechanics though:
Scott Baker 4.27.14 (via Tepid Participation)
Scott's still working back to health, so a few more ticks up in velocity, and more comfort and bite from his slider and he'll be in the conversations later this season if need be. Neftali Feliz can't get on track this season, but should be throwing again in the next couple of weeks. Ben Rowen has returned from biceps tendinitis that kept him out of Spring Training and he picked up the Express' first save of the season a few nights ago. Ben's fellow 40-man member Lisalverto Bonilla has had good performances (1BB/14K in 10ip), but a couple of long-balls have hurt him a bit. His FB command is improving which might be the last key for him to become a big league bullpen piece. Gotta have that FB command to set up his dirty changup. He's still throwing the slider too, just to give hitters another look. Also, he has a ++ name. Randy Henry gave up a couple of runs, which is weird for him. Otherwise, his cutter has been sawing off bats and inducing lots of super-weak contact. I spoke with him in Round Rock last week and he said he feels great and has been throwing a lot of 91-92mph late sinking 2-seamers that he's been happy with. It's not actually sexy, but growing your own relievers is a good way to save some dough, and that's always sexy. Speaking of sexy, as we've been doing, Round Rock's park is sexy. I've been thinking about it a lot lately, and opening the program and seeing photos and bios of current Astros executives will make anyone wonder. Though I've heard good things, I've never been to Oklahoma City's park, but I can tell you I'd miss Round Rock's park...you know...if something were to change...you know...in the future. Anyway, get thee to Round Rock and say hello to the Express.
That's 'bout it from the first month on the farm. Hope you get a chance to get to a minor league park, visit your local heroes of tomorrow, and enjoy a game behind home plate with your crew.
As always, enjoy baseball! Love Ya!