Tuesday, April 01, 2008

2008 Rainiers Season Preview

I know, I know, we're all watching King Felix's 2008 debut, but since Opening Day at Cheney is fast approaching, it seems like a decent time to get to know the team this year.

As Mike Curto noted, the Rainiers (and new minor league director Greg Hunter) have signed a number of pretty solid minor league veterans in an effort to avoid 'rushing' prospects quite as much and to help the farm clubs actually win some games. This means that the Rainiers (and other teams) won't quite be the team that prospecters love (and everyone else hates); it means they're going to try and win a bit more.

Perhaps the best example is Kevin Witt, the long-time MiLB slugger who figures to split time at 1B with long-time Rainiers farmhand Bryan LaHair. Witt hit 36 HRs in back-to-back seasons in the Rays and Cards systems a few years ago, and made it up to Tampa for a cup of coffee in 2006. In 2007, he opted to try NPB and set out for Japan. Sadly for Witt, Japan kicked his ass. After 40 games of .174/.267/.348, it was back to the states to regroup. So: he's not exactly 'hot' right now, and he's got a lifetime .267 OBP in 146 MLB games. That said, he's a far sight better than the random MiLB first basemen the Rainiers have found in years past - Aaron Rifkin, Todd Sears, Andy Barkett, those guys. All in all, he's got a decent shot to equal AJ Zapp's production from 2004 and an outside shot to become the next Bucky Jacobsen-style quasi-prospect/folk hero.
Witt hits lefty, so he can't really platoon with LaHair. There's no doubt Witt is the more productive hitter, so either the R's want Witt to DH or they're starting to give up on LaHair and his brutal platoon splits.

The 2B slot should be manned by Yung-Chi Chen, the Taiwanese prospect who lost almost all of 2007 to injury. Given his performance in the Arizona Fall League, it's easy to be bullish about Chen's 2008. He's got gap power, makes contact and can play several positions on the infield. Many label him Willie Bloomquist's asian twin for his 'good at a few things, but not good enough to be, y'know, a GOOD player' style of game, but I think he could be poised to make a leap to MLB-quality hitter. Dave Cameron and others worry that his 2B defense won't be good enough to carry a so-so bat, and that's something to watch. Either he improves and becomes a .300/.340/.460 hitter in AAA, or Cameron's right and he's a future 24th-25th man on someone's bench.

The shortstop position was a killer for the Rainiers last year, and the step down from Asdrubal Cabrera to Oswaldo Navarro continues to be piss me off. Not only is Navarro's defense much worse than Cabrera's (I'm hoping it gets better this year, and some of his incompetence was bad luck. C'mon regression to the mean!), but he struggled to a .632 OPS at the plate. Not only that, but his OPS came UP to .632 thanks to a half-decent July and August. To push Navarro, the Rainiers went out and signed Mark Kiger who had been in the Mets org last year. Kiger isn't a big-time slugger, so don't expect an Andy Green-style breakout, but he's an extremely patient hitter whose ISO-patience is over .100 in 6 minor league seasons. That's key, as the Rainiers didn't figure to get too many walks from Chen/Navarro/LaHair or even Witt. Kiger also plays 3B, which leads us to the hot corner....

3B is a position in flux, as Matt Tuiasosopo figures to take over in the not-too-distant future. If Tui doesn't make the club to begin with, the Rainiers will go with a combination of Kiger and org vets Ronnie Prettyman and Brant Ust. The latter two have zero prospect value, but Ust is handy as a super-sub to play 1B, 2B or 3B as needed, and Prettyman has a funny name.

The outfield is where things get more interesting. Obviously, the big star and now one of the M's best prospects is Wladimir Balentien. The Curacao native figures to get some time at all three OF positions now that Adam Jones isn't patrolling CF, and since Charlton Jimerson is frozen in amber on the M's bench. Wlad's played CF before, and played some in spring training this season. This is obviously a huge year for Balentien professionally; most expect him to make the M's roster at some point this year, much like Jones last year. Balentien has cut his K rate dramatically thanks to improved pitch recognition. The days of 1K per 3ABs are long gone, and if Wlad's improvement continues, he make M's fans forget about losing Adam Jones.... a bit. Next to Wlad will be former Yankees prospect Bronson Sardinha. I've said it before, but Sardinha is what Matt Tuiasosopo sees in his nightmares - both were highly regarded prep shortstops, and both started out great in the low minors, flashing some power to balance out poor glove work. Sardinha moved to 3B in 2004, but promptly made 43 errors between A+ and AA, which necessitated a move to the outfield. While he's OK out there, the power that was so evident in the short-season NYPL never really translated to the high minors, at least not regularly. If I sound pessimistic about Tui, and I suppose I am compared to many, it's because I'm worried he may be a slightly larger Sardinha. Of course, Sardinha's only 25, so he's got time to get back on track. He clearly needed to get out of the Yankees org, where he's been bouncing between AA and AAA for 2 years.
Finally, there's the tragic figure of Jeremy Reed. We all know the story - lauded prospect, amazing plate discipline, sizzling MLB call-up in 2004.... and then a combination of meh batspeed, injuries and what have to be some confidence issues conspired to leave him as a potential bust struggling to revive his career at age 26-27. Reed played quite well in 2007, at least away from Cheney. If he's able to either improve his play at home or versus lefties, he'll still have a modicum of value. If not, well, welcome to the life of itinerant minor league free agent.

The catching spot is basically unchanged - uber-prospect Jeff Clement and org-fave Rob Johnson figure to split time behind the plate. Clement's down to work on his defense, but he's still got a bit to prove at the plate as well. Clement was very slow to start last year and had trouble with some pitchers, leading many scouts to doubt his batspeed. He appeared to assuage those concerns with his second half (and his away splits), but he'd make me a lot more comfortable if he can get his SLG comfortably over .500 and/or prove that his freakish reverse platoon splits weren't just a fluke. If he's really a dominant hitter versus lefties, and just got unlucky versus righties last year, look out. The entire M's fanbase is rooting for you, Jeff. Let's put ANY doubts about your hitting prowess to rest.

The pitching staff is a mix of old and new, but one thing the Rainiers *always* seem to have room for is the MLB vet who hasn't pitched in a while who's trying to make it back to the show. A few years ago, it was Kevin Appier. Last year, it was Jim Parque. Though the track record isn't any better for these guys than it was for Jesse Foppert, the Rainiers decided to make room for Denny Stark, who last pitched competitively in 2005 (and 'competitively' may be a bit generous, given his stats that year). Long-time Rainiers/M's fans may remember Stark from his 2001 season when he went 14-2 with a 2.37 ERA for the Rainiers (jeebus was that 2001 team good). The next season, he and Brian Fuentes were traded to Colorado for...Jeff Cirillo. Stark pitched quite well for the Rockies in 2002, going 11-4, though his poor command and lack of an out-pitch were clear red flags. Well, those peripherals matter, and Stark never really had success again, though injuries clearly did their part as well. We shall see.

The fan favorite will probably be R.A. Dickey, the rule 5 pick-up from the Twins. After trading Jair Fernandez for him to avoid losing Dickey when they couldn't find room on the MLB roster, the knuckleballer is back to the PCL, where he's the reigning pitcher of the year. He's been very good at this level and now moves to a severe pitcher's park. Clearly, he's someone the M's may look to if the big club suffers some injuries.

Ryan Feierabend is back again to try to learn an outpitch; he was solid for Tacoma last year, but was demolished in a major league call-up. He'll have to either reduce his BBs even more to try to have a Carlos Silva-style career or avoid the centered pitches and lower his HRs allowed. He'd be facing something of a make or break year if he wasn't so damned young (22).

Robert Rohrbaugh is another in a long line of soft-tossing control artists, but is slightly different in that he's a righty. Ergo, he's in the Jorge Campillo class of pitchers as opposed to the Moyer/Livingston/Feierabend group. The ex-Clemson tiger impressed in his half-season last year, though his BB/9 and K/9 are damned close to Feierabend, meaning the same sorts of caveats that apply to Ryan's arsenal apply to Rohrbaugh. Robert is also 2 years older than Feierabend, so...

The final spot in the rotation is most likely going to be filled by Philip Barzilla, the ex-Rice Owls closer who started 18 games for Round Rock last year. Barzilla's another guy who doesn't really get strike-outs, but walks a few more than Rohrbaugh and Feierabend, so... yeah. He's roster filler.

Still, he's somewhat valuable in that he'll allow Cesar Jimenez to move back to the bullpen, a role that he's had some success in both in the Venezuelan Winter League and in the low-minors. The M's tried him as a starter, but something about the longer outings didn't work so well for him. Not only were his strikeouts down significantly (along with his velocity), he was also much more of a fly ball pitcher. As a reliever, the lefty can increase his FB velo from 88 or so to 90, and hopefully use a moderately tricky delivery and a solid change-up to be a very poor man's George Sherrill for Tacoma. Despite being around for many years, he'll be 23 this season.

Sean White also pitched well in Venezuela, and figures to be a very solid right hander out of the bullpen. His velocity's a bit better than Jimenez's, and he's also a *severe* GB pitcher, so he's one to watch this year. If Sean Green ever goes down, the M's have his similarly-named twin in AAA. That said, White turns 27 this month, so if he wants to have an impact with the M's, he needs to take a step forward now - he can start by cutting down on the walks.

Thanks for reading this far. Watch as the M's shake up the minor league rosters and render this useless tomorrow....
I'll be at the game sitting right behind the plate, and my coblogger will be taking photos, so stay tuned!

[edited 4/2/08]
Churchill's got the official roster here, so I better add something about a couple of other players...

First, Andy Baldwin will move up from AA and pitch in the rotation for Tacoma. Baldwin was acquired in the Jamie Moyer deal from Philadelphia, and pitched at Oregon State back in 2004. He's not had the best success in either org, but his walk totals are so low that they constitute a real skill. Similar to Cha Seung Baek, Baldwin's the kind of pitcher who won't wow anyone with his stuff, and he's given up a ton of hits both in the Florida State League and Southern League. In this ballpark, with this team, look for his stats (ERA, W/L) to take a step forward. He'll still be the same pitcher, and he's not that young (this'll be his age 25 season), but given the park and defense, his numbers *should* be better.

Mark Kiger is apparently NOT on the roster, so forget about his delicious OBP and replace that with Tug Hulett (who I really should've talked about before). Acquired for Ben Broussard from Texas, Hulett is basically the exact same guy as Kiger. He's got great patience and thus he's got a career MiLB career OBP of .398, but has no power (thus his career MiLB SLG of .384). If he can man the SS position competently, he'll add the on-base skills that the line-up needs.

Roy Corcoran will be the closer, or one of them, once he returns from taking JJ Putz's roster spot while Putz recovers from Costochondritis.
Corcoran closed for Albuquerque last year in the PCL, and though he gets more Ks than most of the other Tacoma relievers, isn't that special. He's got poor command, as evidenced by his 1:1 K/BB ratio in the majors. The best thing about the guy is his extreme GB ratio, which results in his freakishly low HR/9 ratio despite pitching in the bandbox that is Albuquerque. At nearly 61% GBs last year, Corcoran is another Sean Green clone - and another GB pitcher that Bill Bavasi simply couldn't say no to.

There shall be no waiting period at 3B, as Matt Tuiasosopo will be the third baseman for Tacoma. Tui is a great athlete, and was only 21 last year, but his lack of contact and power bodes.... poorly as of right now. Who know, maybe the guy will take a leap forward and put it all together. It's also possible that his home park will obscure even moderate progress. The M's spent big on Tui in the draft, and scouts still love everything about him from his physical frame to his approach. We'll see.

One more notable player - Joe Woerman will try and figure out what the organization wants him to do. Woerman, originally from Everett, was a great (if old for his league) reliever in the midwest league with K rates over 14, and manageable walk rates. The M's shifted him to the rotation at AA last year, and while he limits hits and can miss a bat or two, the results weren't great. I'd guess the M's are shifting him back to the pen, which makes a lot more sense. His arsenal is suited more to closing, and he may get a chance to close a bit with Corcoran in Seattle for the near future.

That's it - see you at the ballpark tomorrow.


At 4/02/2008 3:06 PM, Blogger marc w. said...

Aaaand the ACTUAL roster is now out....great. I'll have to change this now, but it's perhaps marginally more interesting.

Stay tuned...

At 4/03/2008 10:23 AM, Blogger PositivePaul said...

Jeez, dude, you need to read Churchill more often. He had the roster posted three days ago ;-)

Baseball TONIGHT!!!!

I'll try not to hit you with my supertelephoto :)


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