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Nick Williams’ Big Bat Overshadows K/BB Issues

The 2013 Hickory Crawdads were undoubtedly one of the most star-studded low-minors teams of the past decade. The Rangers’ Low-A affiliate, they had Joey Gallo, who became the first teenager in half a century to hit 40 homers in a season…and did it in just 113 games. For much of the season, though, Gallo trailed teammate Ryan Rua in the minor league home run chase (Rua finished with 32, 29 of them coming in 104 games with Hickory). They had Jorge Alfaro, who many consider one of baseball’s top catching prospects. They had Nomar Mazara, who holds the record for the highest signing bonus by a Latin American amateur, at $4.95 million. They had 2012 first-rounder Lewis Brinson, second Dominican bonus baby Ronald Guzman, and for much of the year, had pitcher C.J. Edwards, the headline prospect in July’s Matt Garza trade.

While all of those players (and relievers Alex Claudio and Jose Leclerc) hold considerable intrigue on their own, there was no 2013 Crawdad who left a stronger positive impression on me than outfielder Nick Williams.

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Contextualizing Adam Lopez’s Low-Minors Dominance

Every year, there are always several prospects who emerge from obscurity to post majestic statlines in the lower levels of the minor leagues. As such a player strings together an extended period of statistical superiority, questions of his legitimacy as a potential impact player arise–do the numbers merely reflect hollow dominance of fatally flawed, cupcake opponents, or are they a sign of a player emerging as a prospect to watch?

In the immediate aftermath of such a statistical rise, there is always a need for firsthand observation of the player to contextualize both his present excellence and future potential. One player very much in this mold is White Sox pitching prospect Adam Lopez.

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Bubba Starling: Future Star, Bust, or In Between?

A player can’t be drafted fifth overall, sign for $7.5 million, and not retain extremely high visibility for his minor league career. This is especially true of a player drafted into a franchise with a recent history of struggles that has sent its fanbase constantly scouring the farm system for signs of hope. Add in the prospect in question being a local high school multi-sport hero, and you have a player who will constantly be under the microscope.

That is the situation Royals outfield prospect Bubba Starling has constantly found himself in in his professional career. He was the fifth overall pick in 2011 and passed up a football scholarship at Nebraska for the massive bonus. Many reported that he had five tools, but like many multi-sport high school hitters, he combined impressive athleticism with rawness.

Two years into his career, Starling has had mixed results that have led many to question whether it’s time to jump off the bandwagon, while others point to his relative youth (he’s still just 21) and hold out hope for stardom. I did get to see Starling three times in the 2013 season, and today I’m going to take my shot at projecting him.

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Projecting Rafael De Paula

Yankees pitching prospect Rafael De Paula entered the season cloaked in mystery. There were three basic things known about him to the general prospecting community. First, despite being a coveted international free agent, he didn’t sign a contract until he was almost 21 due to maintaining a false identity, being suspended, and taking a long time to acquire a visa in the aftermath of the incident. Second, once he finally was officially a professional, he went out and tore up the Dominican Summer League in 2012, with a 1.46 ERA and 85/18 K/BB in 61 2/3 innings. Of course, his advanced age made those statistics even less relevant than typical DSL numbers, which mean little on the prospecting scene to begin with. What was more important was the third fact, which was that he supposedly had good stuff.

I saw De Paula show that stuff on April 21 against Hickory, where he threw five hitless innings with ten strikeouts. Today, I’m going to examine what allowed him to roll through South Atlantic League lineups with ruthless efficiency in the first half of the year, but also look at some of the rough edges that contributed to a drop in production following De Paula’s promotion to High-A at midseason.

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Joey Gallo’s HR/K Paradox: An Exhaustive Analysis

The most polarizing prospects are often those who juxtapose areas of tremendous skill with pervasive, troubling weaknesses. Supporters of such prospects will claim that the strengths will render the weaknesses irrelevant as the player progresses and faces tougher competition, while doubters will claim the opposite. Few players inspire this sort of phenomenon more strongly than Rangers third base prospect Joey Gallo, who launched 38 homers in just 106 games as a 19-year-old with Low-A Hickory…but also struck out a whopping 165 times in that span, good for an astronomical 37% strikeout rate.

It seems absurd to dismiss a teenager who swatted 38 homers in full-season ball while missing 33 games–that sort of accomplishment basically never happens. Had he stayed healthy for the whole season, Gallo almost certainly would have eclipsed the South Atlantic League record of 40 homers in a season, and probably would’ve broken the Low-A record of 42. He already holds the Arizona League homer record, with 18, set in 2012…despite being promoted early and missing 13 games. He has remarkable power. On the other hand, there’s only one player who has ever struck out more than Gallo did in Low-A and done anything in the majors: Russell Branyan, who struck out 38.7% of the time in 1995, then repeated the level in 1996 and set the aforementioned SAL record with 40 bombs.

So, Gallo combines monumental power with a very troubling inability to make contact. Today, I’m going to take a detailed look at what is going on to provide such extreme statistics and see how his skillset needs to evolve for him to attain major league success.

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Chris Beck’s Quick Ascent: Can He Overcome His Low K-Rate?

On August 6, the White Sox promoted starting pitcher Chris Beck from High-A Winston-Salem to Double-A Birmingham. A common question I heard when that news broke was “Isn’t that rushing him, since his strikeout rate is low?”

My response to that line of questioning was always “No, he’ll be fine.” And indeed he was, making five great starts in Birmingham down the stretch (28 IP, 22/3 K/BB, 0 HR, 2.89 ERA, 2.16 FIP). Ending his first full professional season by overmatching Double-A hitters is a great sign, but what of the low strikeout rate? How does the 76th overall pick of the 2012 draft project?

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Jose Campos: What’s Left?

At this point, it’s fairly well-accepted that the vaunted Jesus Montero/Michael Pineda trade has not worked out especially well for either the Yankees or the Mariners. Montero has hit all of .252/.293/.377 while playing poor defense and amassing -1.0 WAR; meanwhile, Hector Noesi has gone 2-13 with a 5.79 ERA, 5.36 FIP, and -0.7 WAR. Montero’s been the second-worst catcher of the past two seasons according to WAR, whereas Noesi has been the third-worst pitcher (min. 100 IP). Meanwhile, Pineda has yet to throw an inning for the Yankees due to injury problems.

Indeed, the only player of the four in that deal who was healthy and remotely effective for the duration of the 2013 season was the throw-in on the other side, Jose Campos. Of course, the level he was effective at was Low-A, and Campos has endured his own post-trade misfortune, making five starts in 2012 before being shut down with elbow problems and missing the rest of the season. But he once was considered arguably the top pitching prospect in short-season ball, and he did have a fine season this year, with a 3.41 ERA, 2.87 FIP, and 77/16 K/BB in 87 2/3 innings (The low innings total was due to an extremely short leash–with the exception of one outing, he was only allowed to work 2-4 innings each time out–not an abbreviated season). So what exactly do the Yankees have here?

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Dilson Herrera: A Sleeper Prospect Rises

One of the most common South Atlantic League prospects mentioned as a big sleeper this year was (now-former) West Virginia second baseman Dilson Herrera. The 19-year-old middle infielder combined a wide variety of skills and was producing well across the board in his first full minor league season.

This week, Herrera entered a more generalized baseball consciousness, as he was the key piece sent from the Pirates to the Mets in the John Buck/Marlon Byrd deal. There’s been some debate since the trade regarding exactly where Herrera stands as a prospect–some really like him, while others are more hesitant to fully get on board the hype train. I’m probably more in the former camp.

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Miguel Almonte: Complete Pitching Prospect

Royals pitching prospect Miguel Almonte entered the year as the #10 prospect in the Kansas City system according to Baseball America, and it’s hard to argue that he deserves to fall from that perch in the coming ranking season. As a 20-year-old in his first full-season campaign, the Dominican righthander has posted a 3.16 ERA and 2.97 FIP with a 117/36 K/BB in 119 2/3 innings. As with any young arm in the low minors, there’s still a significant amount of mystery and uncertainty surrounding Almonte. He held up quite well in my viewing earlier this season, though, showing a good combination of potential and polish.

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Eddie Butler: A Pitching Gem in Colorado?

Most prospect hounds are beginning to take notice of Rockies pitching prospect Eddie Butler. He entered the 2013 season with significant pedigree–he was selected 46th overall in last year’s draft–and has pulled off the rare feat of advancing two levels in his first full professional season. Butler made nine starts with Low-A Asheville and thirteen with High-A Modesto before the team deemed him done with the lower minors; he’s thrown ten scoreless, walkless innings with 12 strikeouts across his first two Double-A outings. That’s some serious prospect helium over the past four months.

Of course, this is a fantasy website. The notion of betting on a pitching prospect in fantasy can be terrifying in its own right, but betting on one destined for Coors Field is certainly unappetizing. Unfortunate environmental situation aside, Butler is definitely an arm to keep track of.

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