On Scouts, Budgets and a Flawed Business Plan

In reading Bob Nightengale’s USA Today piece from Friday regarding the changing landscape of the scouting industry I was struck by the ideal baseball is no different than any other business.

I was laid off from a Fortune 50 Company in 2014 for the simple reason I was older and higher paid than the median departmental employee. No one with a reasonable mind will flat out tell you it’s because of age or gender or race, they’ll just make up something they think sounds good; “the economy has forced us to look at the business model differently.”  In 2013 our CEO, between salary and stock options, had cleared more than $40 million dollars, if he had kicked ten percent of that amount back to the company, there would have been no layoffs.

Baseball started to change its views around 2004, right after the book “Moneyball” had been released. They weren’t exempt from buying into a “fad” trend, I remember when the Atkins diet came out and six months later you’d walk into a Barnes and Noble and the shelves would be lined with copycats; The Caveman Diet, The Paleo Diet, and so on.

They all had two things in common, they were written to take advantage of a trend and to make money.

They were all scams.

Just like Moneyball.

Moneyball wasn’t about shifting to analytics; it was about finding and taking advantage of market inefficiencies necessitated by financial limitations. Teams responded by firing scouts and development staff and replacing them with young kids with brilliant mathematical minds but clueless about the subject they were hired to analyze.

What ended up happening was five years later, by about 2010 or so the quality of play throughout the game had suffered, especially in the farm systems. Teams figured out they had mis-understood the premise of Moneyball and started re-building their development staffs to pre-fad levels.

What Nightengale is talking about in his article isn’t about baseball re-shifting back to an analytic dominant industry because it’s not. Teams learned their lesson, WAR doesn’t win baseball games, players do. Analytics have been part of the game since it was invented 150 years ago, the difference between then and now is there is more information available and more ways to find and use it.

I’m one of those older dudes who can’t get back into the game; I’m not Jeff Wren, who’s spent half his life in scouting, but I’ve been there. I have a good resume’, I have a nice list of references, I have the experience, but it doesn’t mean a thing.

In his interview with Wren, Nightengale quotes him as saying, “I look at teams now, and they’re hiring guys who aren’t really scouts. They’re sabermetric guys from the office, and they put them in the field like they’re scouts, just to give them a consensus of opinion.”

I recently applied for a pro scouting job with the Houston Astros. I never heard back from them. Not even the courtesy of a Dear John, nothing. The job ended up going to a blogger who most recently worked at Baseball Prospectus. The Astros Pro Scouting Director is Kevin Goldstein, who was with BP before joining Houston. I have no problem with a person of authority taking care of a protégé’, but to not even receive a “no, thanks” is pretty damn disrespectful if you ask me.

I had a former player (who will remain anonymous) email me a while back asking for a job reference. We’re good friends so I wasn’t surprised about the message, but when I read it figured he intended it to go to someone else. So I picked up the phone and called him, he said he had just come back from a job interview with a team to be a minor league coach. I asked why he would need a reference from me; he said when he got off the plane he was picked up and driven to a hotel nearby for the interview. He walked into a conference room and there were “ten guys sitting at the table, six of whom couldn’t shave.” He gave me a list of names and asked if I knew anyone (I didn’t) to send them a note for him. He said what was more disturbing is some of the people in the room hadn’t heard of him. (I’ve heard this before, too). We both found this inexcusable; you don’t respect your candidate enough to do research beforehand?

If baseball is cutting a $60K a year scout to hire the guys sitting at the table, then we have the right to feel like the door is being closed on our foot.

Have you ever gone to the department store the day after Christmas? The discounts are ridiculous, buy two ugly sweaters get one free.

Baseball is like that.

Raise your hand if you think Billy Beane is the A’s General Manager. How about Theo Epstein in Chicago or Walt Jocketty in Cincinnati? The Atlanta Braves talked John Hart out of retirement, the Phillies did the same with Hall of Famer Pat Gillick. The Milwaukee Brewers hired 30 year old David Stearns as GM, but kept former GM Doug Melvin on as a “transitional advisor.”

At a higher salary.

Why do teams do this? Because their Ivy League General Manager doesn’t know what the hell he’s doing.

In the old days there was a General Manager, one or two Assistant General Managers, a Scouting Director and a Player Personnel Director. Nowadays, you have several assistant GM’s, a Director of Quantative Analysis and an assortment of who knows what. The money to pay these people has to come from somewhere.

As the great Roland Hemond said in his Hall of Fame speech, “80% of the people make 20% of the money.” As a man who has spent over 60 years in the game and who has seen the structure change more than once, he should know. Once you get past the overpaid players and wasted front office money you have to make money somewhere, hacking off a scout or two won’t hurt, right?

We’ll just go shopping at the Bargain Bin and replace them with a few ugly sweaters.

Chuck Johnson

@prospect_pulse

The Enigmatic Joey Gallo

I can’t recall there ever being a more polarizing prospect than Joey Gallo of the Texas Rangers. (Not to be confused with the Joey Gallo of the New York Columbo’s).

Everyone knew Gallo’s childhood friend Bryce Harper would be a star. Some evaluators, myself included, never thought he’d hit .300 but the power was undeniable. Most also felt Harper’s Washington teammate Stephen Strasburg would dominate and even predicted the likelihood of an arm injury.

Gallo is just different.

Harper’s raw power was a top of the scout scale 80, Gallo has received the same rating since being drafted in 2012. It’s been said Harper’s bat speed is amongst the tops in the game; Gallo’s makes his look like he’s a Punch and Judy.

While Gallo’s power, both raw and game, is legit, he strikes out a clip unlike we’ve seen before. Harper, who was thought to have high strikeout tendencies, posted a K% of 18.6% in his brief minor league career and 20.6% in the majors. Gallo, on the other hand, has a career minor league rate of 36.9% and an alarming 46.3% in his small major league sample.

Despite what the math majors try and make you believe, there is nothing worse a hitter can do than walk up to the plate, turn around and walk right back. Why even take a bat with you?

Strikeouts have been on the rise over the past three decades or so, and two of the most prominent violators of the contact rule are the recently retired Adam Dunn and the somehow still employed Mark Reynolds.

Dunn currently ranks third on the all-time strikeout list with 2379. The two players ahead of him, Reggie Jackson and Jim Thome, played 21 and 22 respectively. Dunn’s career K rate? 28.6%.

Reynolds, on the other hand, is the only player to strikeout 200 or more times in a season more than once, accomplishing the feat three times in his nine year career. Reynolds, who has K’d 1519 times, has a career rate higher than Dunn at 31.6%. Dunn played 14 seasons because he carried other offensive attributes; he posted six 40 homer seasons and 462 for his career and also drew 1317 walks, good for a career 15.8% walk rate. Reynolds has a career walk rate of 11.8% and with a HR rate which has steadily declined it’s easy to see why he is no longer a regular player.

Back to Gallo.

In skimming through some minor league themed blogs the player Gallo is most often compared is Russell Branyan in terms of size, handedness, position….and strikeouts.

Branyan, like Dunn, played 14 major league seasons but unlike Dunn only played one qualifying season. Part of the reason for Branyan’s infrequent playing time was a bad back, but the primary culprit was his 32.9% strikeout rate. Like Gallo and Reynolds, Branyan was primarily a third baseman during his career and while he was no Gold Glover he wasn’t Ryan Braun either. Branyan played parts of 15 minor league seasons and posted a career K rate of 31.7%, just 1.2% lower than his major league percentage. As one would expect, Branyan’s minor league walk rate of 12.9% was higher than his major league rate of 11.8%, but, as was the case with his K rate, not significantly more.

As a frequent reader and sometimes contributor to published Prospect Rankings I can say with reasonable confidence power is the tool which gets the most attention; chicks aren’t the only ones who dig the long ball. At the same time, power is also the tool which projects less as a player moves up the ladder towards the major leagues. Unlike speed, defense and throwing which are constant no matter where you play, the ability to make consistent contact and contact with power can change from year to year and even from league to league.

Gallo was the Rangers’ first rounder (comp pick) in 2012 from Bishop Gorman HS in Henderson, NV. He began his pro career with a bang, breaking the Arizona Rookie League homerun record with 18 in just 43 games. He followed up with 40 homer seasons (two stops each) in 2013 and 2014.

Listed at 6’5”, 205 when he signed, Gallo is now listed at 230 pounds. On the 2/8 scouting scale, Gallo was a 4 runner, posting a career best 7.24 in the 60 at a Perfect Game event in January, 2010. With five years passing and 25 pounds added since then, it would be safe to assume he’s dropped to a 3 or even a bottom of the scale 2 which would be a 7.5 time or higher.

Arm strength can improve with age and size just by tweaks to technique or gaining lower body strength, which Gallo has. Clocked as high as 95 off the mound, he would get a 7 score based just on velocity. Gallo has also been consistently graded as a below average defender and while technique can add a bit of improvement it could be lost by the increased size and loss of mobility.

By definition, the “hit” tool is the most difficult to scout because you’re trying to project what you see currently to what he “may” become as a major leaguer. The most important attribute to being a plus hitter is having a good approach, having a plan before leaving the on-deck circle based on the pitcher, situation, score and several other factors. Being able to recognize pitches while having supreme confidence in your ability to make pitch by pitch adjustments also ranks high on the list of skills scouts look for. These things used in harmony allow a hitter to use the whole field; adjust to pitch type and location without sacrificing the ability to consistently hit the ball hard. Gallo’s increasing strikeout rate, decreasing walk rate and an almost accidental use of the opposite field makes him, currently, a below average hitter.

Power is a tool amongst itself; you can be a great hitter without power (Tony Gwynn) or a great power hitter (Dave Kingman) without being even a good hitter. The true greats, Aaron, Cobb, Mays, Williams, are both. Even Babe Ruth, who spent 35 seasons as the career strikeout leader before being passed by Mickey Mantle, never struck out 100 times in a season and posted a career K rate of 12.4%.

The most difficult aspect of power is trying to determine if or when raw power will become game power. Gallo, at least up to now, has translated his power well, although I do believe his raw power has been to have been over-stated. Raw power is graded during batting practice, a neutral environment in which each hitter is facing the same pitcher throwing the same meatballs right down the middle. A player who hits 20 homers in a 50 pitch session using the entire field will get a higher raw power grade than a player who hits 25 to his pull side. I’ve seen Gallo in both situations and in his raw sessions the vast majority of his homers were to the pull side. The opposite field game power, to me anyway, seems to be accidental, meaning he’s been beaten on good pitches but his strength and bat speed have been enough to produce a positive result.

Projected to 162 games, Gallo has a minor league average of 240 strikeouts per season, a total which jumps to 257 when you push out his small major league sample. It’s difficult, if not impossible, to come up with a comparable season for him due to his historic K rate. The closest I could find would be Chris Carter’s 2015 season; everything matches almost exactly except Gallo would have 100 more strikeouts.

Digest that.

Gallo’s major league career will be determined solely on his strikeout rate. If he can bring it down to a consistent 30% range then a Russell Branyan type career is possible. If not, then he’ll spend the next 15 years chasing Mike Hessman or Hector Espino.

Chuck Johnson
@prospect_pulse

Of Prospects and Retreads

With the calendar winding down on an eventful 2015 season it’s time to turn our attention towards the possibilities next year will bring, starting with the January 6th announcement of the Hall of Fame Class of 2016. I’m a well known “small Hall” guy and when you combine that with a solid anti-steriod stance it’s pretty easy to eliminate most of the ballot. As a matter of fact, my recently submitted IBWAA ballot contains just three names.

There is no more pointless argument among the masses than the Hall of Fame election process and the subsequent electees. None of us have a vote, none of us will ever have a vote, and very few really understand the hows and whys of how the process works, so it’s best just to stay out of it altogether.

When it comes to our passion, prospects and rookies, it’s going to be almost impossible to surpass the accomplishments of the Class of 2015. From Rookies of the Year Kris Bryant and Carlos Correa to their respective supporting casts led by Noah Syndergaard and Francisco Lindor, first year players performed at a historic rate. Every postseason team received contributions from at least one rookie, without which their playoff appearance would have been in question. Syndergaard and Kansas City outfielder Paulo Orlando played significant and at times starring roles in leading their respective teams into the World Series.

The story of Orlando in particular is why minor league fans and evaluators should never write off a player. A ten year minor league veteran who took six years just to reach Triple A, was called upon to spell injured veterans Alex Gordon and Alex Rios and played surprisingly well considering.

The opposite of this phenomenon is, of course, a lack of potentially impact rookies for 2016, a fact born out of the noticeably weak group sent to the Arizona Fall League this past October.

There are a number of highly thought of prospects remaining; some, like Byron Buxton and Joey Gallo, were rushed to the majors late in the season and proved by performance they weren’t ready. Some others, like Trea Turner, Corey Seager and Stephen Matz, showed enough to land regular jobs for 2016 barring anything unforeseen. The rest, like Lucas Giolito and Julio Urias and Brendan Rodgers, are two, maybe three years away from being counted on as major league contributors.

Another factor pointing to the lack of immediately available talent was the record sixteen players chosen in the major league phase of the Rule V draft held during the Winter Meetings in early December. Some teams were of the opinion spending $50,000 on a four year minor league veteran who was unprotected on their 40 man roster to be a better short term investment than promoting a player from their own system. Players chosen in the Rule V must remain in the majors for the entire season or offered back to their original team at a fifty percent discount before being sent to the minors.

In looking at the updated Top 100 list here on MLB.com trying to forecast 2016 Rookie of the Year winners is a challenge. The National League, with Seager, Turner and Matz appears easier; throw in perhaps Aaron Blair and Orlando Arcia there could be a number of candidates. The American League is much more difficult. Byron Buxton is, to me, one of the more overrated prospects in recent memory, a product of blog commenter’s who have never seen him play (the comparisons to Mike Trout are laughable). The polarizing Joey Gallo fits into the same mold; being infatuated by Class A homer totals while simultaneously ignoring an alarmingly increasing strikeout rate which as it stands will prevent him from ever playing regularly in the majors.

After these two, the list seems incredibly thin; it’s possible the Red Sox find a spot for Yoan Moncada, but with his best (only) position being held down by Dustin Pedroia for the next five years that would seem difficult at best. Lewis Brinson (Texas), Franklin Baretto (Oakland) and Raul Adelberto Mondesi (Kansas City) lead the list of potential candidates at present but all would need something unforeseen in order for the opportunity.

Baseball players are the same as doctors, lawyers and Indian chiefs….they are human. Just because someone holds a high profile profession or leads a high profile life doesn’t mean they are any different or hold some magical exemption to the pitfalls of life.

By now everyone knows of the road Josh Hamilton has traveled. If you were to ask him, winning the 2010 American League Most Valuable Player Award wasn’t a goal; being alive in 2010 was the goal. Between being the first overall draft pick by Tampa Bay in 1999 to making his major league debut with Cincinnati in 2007 Hamilton lived a life fraught with drugs and alcohol. There have been a number of slip-ups in recent years but one thing has been a constant through-out, the support of Major League Baseball and in particular the Texas Rangers.

Immediately upon being traded by the Reds to the Rangers in December, 2007, the Texas front office put in place a lifestyle management program for Hamilton to live by. He was free to live his life but behind the scenes was a support system for him to use whenever he felt the need.

As any recovering addict can tell you change, especially sudden change, is not a good thing. Change has to be slow and in stages, to let the mind and body adjust to a new way of doing things, a new system under which to live. When Hamilton left Texas for the free agent riches of Southern California, his support system stayed behind. His family didn’t immediately move to California, his teammates were different, his environment was different, and, as could be expected, his demons tried to force themselves back into his life. After some trials and tribulations early in 2015 Hamilton found himself back home with the Rangers and while it’s too early to tell how this will have an effect, just being back in his comfort zone certainly can’t hurt.

On December 18th the Rangers reached out to another troubled top pick with the hopes the same support will turn his career, and life, around.

In June, 2004, the Padres chose a hometown boy, high school shortstop Matt Bush, with the first overall pick in the draft. After signing and being sent to start his professional career in the Arizona Rookie League, Bush found himself in the center of a fight at a local bar before ever appearing in a game.

After five unproductive seasons in the Padres system (including two as a pitcher) Bush was traded to the Blue Jays but was suspended a month later after an altercation with a fan and missed the entire season. Bush signed with the Rays in early 2010 and spent two seasons in their minor league system before his world crashed in March, 2012.

Unable to possess a driver’s license because of his previous DUI’s, Bush borrowed roommate Brandon Guyer’s truck to run a few errands on a spring training off-day. After making several stops along the way to purchase alcohol, a now intoxicated Bush collided with and critically injured a motorcyclist, leading to yet another arrest and ultimately a jail sentence.

Bush was released six months early in December and was signed by the Rangers. Bush still cannot hold a license and under the terms of his contract must live with his father throughout the season starting in spring training. If everything works out he’s projected to be the closer for the Rangers’ Double A team in Frisco, but if history repeats itself he could find his way in the major league bullpen at some point down the road.

I’m looking forward to stopping by the Rangers’ spring training facility with the hope of seeing Bush throw, but more importantly seeing how he feels being back on the field and leading a productive life.

 

 

Chuck Johnson

@prospect_pulse

Draft Do-Overs, Pretending to be a Scout, NBA Bloodlines in the Minors

As I’m sitting here putting this together news is breaking that Pirates’ pitching prospect Jameson Taillon will miss up to two months recovering from hernia surgery. The first reaction I saw on Twitter is how the Pirates must regret their decision to select him in the draft and pass on Manny Machado.

Everyone’s a genius in retrospect, but, remember, Pirates’ General Manager Neal Huntington is on record as stating the decision to take Taillon over Machado was a “gut-wrenching one” and if they had the first pick that year their choice would still have been Taillon and not Bryce Harper.

Now that decision would look bad today for sure but at the same time none of us know what goes into the Pirates’ development process or who they felt could help them in the long run, so we need to not be so critical of a process we don’t truly understand.

Sure, every team has regrets; Dodgers 1965 first rounder John Wyatt (ninth overall) spent almost as much time in a prison uniform as he did in a baseball uniform. The eleventh overall pick, the Angels’ Jim Spencer would play 1553 major league games, so to say a team should have taken Player B instead of Player A is not a good way to perceive the process, even if it involves Matt Bush.

I’ve seen Taillon twice, both times in Phoenix as a member of Canada’s World Baseball Classic squad in 2013. He was as dominant a young pitcher as I’ve seen, much more so than his Pittsburgh teammate Gerritt Cole was during his 2011 Arizona Fall League stint.

Early reports are Taillon will miss about eight weeks, which would get him back ready for game action around September first. He could help Triple A Indianapolis in the postseason if they qualify, if not then he’ll probably head to Bradenton and Instructional League to build up arm strength and stamina then head to the Arizona Fall League. If things go well there, I predict he begins the 2016 season in Pittsburgh’s rotation, which, at age 24, would give him plenty of time to have the career most thought he would back in 2010.

I mentioned last time about the rash of top prospects called up so far this season, since then the Twins recalled their #2 guy, third baseman Miguel Sano, who joins organizational #1 Byron Buxton in the majors. Some guys, like Kris Bryant and Carlos Correa, were obviously ready, others, like Buxton and Sano, probably could use more minor league time, but if the Twins feel they are a better team with these two in the lineup, who are we to say otherwise?

Let’s just sit back and watch them develop.

I’ve written in the past about how amateur bloggers and writers using the scout scale in their posts and with the Rookie Leagues playing now the Minor League season really is in full swing, which brings this annoyance once again to light.

Do you see professional evaluators like Jonathan Mayo, or scouts turned writers like Bernie Pleskoff using the scale in their writings?

No.

Why? Because the nuances of what goes into a grade are something can only be learned only by doing the job, putting an “80” grade on a runner’s speed you’ve seen run hard once using only your eye doesn’t make you sound knowlegeable.

It does the opposite.

One of the star players on the NBA Champion Golden State Warriors is forward Klay Thompson. Klay is the middle of fifteen year NBA vet Mychal Thompson’s three sons; older brother Mychel played briefly with the Cleveland Cavaliers, younger brother Trayce (Tracy) took a different career path. He’s an outfielder in the Chicago White Sox organization, taken in the second round in 2009. An outfielder, Trayce was named to the International League All-Star team this week.

Trayce goes about 6’3, which is a couple of inches shorter than his brother and seven shorter than his dad, but he’s got the same athleticism and he should reach the majors this year, even if it’s just for a September cup.

Thompson played in the Fall League in 2012 and his rawness was evident, as was his long swing and hesitation on routes. With his background I’d venture he played more basketball than baseball as a youth, and even in high school when he decided on baseball as a career he likely would have been a bit behind developmentally. But, no question, the tools are there, just need the skills to catch up.
Til next time,

Chuck Johnson
@prospect_pulse, @IBWAA, @FlameDelhiSABR

Prospect Watching and “Discovering” Hall of Famers

One of the advantages of working in the Arizona Rookie League is seeing the most recently signed draftees or members of the 2014 International free agent class making their stateside professional debuts. Most of the players assigned here are high schoolers, college players usually skip Rookie ball altogether because of their college experience, but there are exceptions. Royals second rounder Josh Staumont from Azusa Pacific University and Rangers 20th rounder Xavier Turner out of Vanderbilt are two examples.

Indians outfielder Gabriel Mejia is an International player who turned heads this past week, going 4-5 in a game against the Rangers in Surprise and being clocked to first at 3.4 from the left side and 3.6 from the right side. That’s fast.

Players will sometimes repeat the league although at this level it means next to nothing. An 18 year old from Minnesota will have less game experience than a similar aged player from Florida. Even at that, though, the Florida kid could have moved, could have been injured, so reading into a repeat shouldn’t be cause for concern. Especially considering the number one reason for a repeat, organizational development, is something virtually no one understands or even knows about.

Over the past year or so, several prominent minor league slanted blogs and websites, including industry leader Baseball America, have undergone significant changes at the top. Long time guru Jim Callis left to join Jonathan Mayo and Bernie Pleskoff at MLB.com’s Prospect Pipeline, and while holdover John Manuel does a great job in his own right, the site and magazine has taken a noticeable turn towards sabermetrics. I still read and subscribe because despite their selling out, they still are the industry leader in both professional and amateur prospect coverage, but I can see the day coming where my money will go elsewhere.

The moral of the story is this; most of the prospect “writers” on some of these blogs don’t go to games, the stories they tell you come from watching on TV or repeating what Callis and Keith Law write in their columns. My advice? Pick one or two guys you know go to the ballpark and whose visionary field matches your own….and leave everyone else alone. Reading a “scouting report” written by a 20 year old college kid who has been following the game for six months seems like a defeatist way to gather information.

As most who know and follow me are aware, I’ve been a Yankee fan for almost fifty years. My first memories are of a broken down Mickey Mantle and a closer by the name of Dooley Womack. It bothers me when sports fans use the word “we” when talking about their teams and it’s a word most often used, unfortunately, by Yankee fans. None of us have ever had an impact on a personnel decision or anything that’s happened on the field, but success often breeds jealousy and increased membership on the bandwagon.

One of the biggest black marks on the history of the franchise, at least in my lifetime, took place, ironically just as the team started winning again, in the mid seventies and involved owner George Steinbrenner’s bizarre obsession with Billy Martin. Maybe it’s because Martin stood up to the Boss and George respected that, maybe it was just because of the fact the constant headlines sold tickets, who knows, but years later, it’s an embarrassing time despite the wins and losses.

There’s another black hole we, as fans, are living through now, the Alex Rodriguez saga. From the initial trade, to the ripping up of his awful contract only for it to be replaced by a worse one to the PED scandal, this has been a twelve year disaster and I feel the worst is yet to come.

The call-up of top prospects this year by their parent franchises is unprecedented; only two of Baseball America’s top ten prospects are currently playing minor league baseball and one of the remaining duo, the Dodgers’ Corey Seager, is a virtual lock to be in Los Angeles by the trade deadline. This has caused two phenomenons, one, the increased attention they’ve received since reached the major leagues. One day it’s Kris Bryant in the headlines, the next it’s Carlos Correa, and so on. The second is now the minor league cupboard is barren, there are guys in Triple A who should be in Double A, and so on all the way down the line. With four or five below average draft classes consecutively and most of the better players receiving their major league diplomas, the future of prospect watching, at least for the foreseeable future won’t be what we’re used to.

With that said, though, there’s nothing like the minor league experience. When I first joined the Eastern League in August of 1978, among the players I got to see were Bristol’s Wade Boggs and an 18 year old outfielder with Jersey City who stole everything but the key to the city, Rickey Henderson.

Did I know they would be Hall of Famers then? Not a chance. Does it make it that much better now that they are? You betcha.

So, head out to the ballpark. What are you waiting for?
Thanks for reading,

Chuck Johnson
@prospect_pulse @IBWAA @FlameDelhiSABR

Alumni Giving Back and Prospecting for Prospects

This past Monday, February 16th, I was fortunate enough once again to spend the day with some very important friends, the Arizona Major League Alumni (AZMLA) as they held their 29th annual fundraising event. In the past, it was a weekend event, with a dinner, old-timers game and card show which culminated with a Monday golf tournament and auction. As some of the guys have gotten older and the economy impacted participation only the Monday event remains, and it’s a day I know every participant looks forward to as the old year turns to the new.

Held at the prestigious Troon Country Club in Scottsdale, the event raises money for the numerous charitable endeavors the Alumni are involved in throughout the year. The primary benefactors of their efforts are Arizona Youth Baseball, the Baseball Assistance Team (BAT) and the Association of Professional Ballplayers of America. The last two are non-profit organizations whose fundamental existence is built on helping former players, scouts, executives, umpires and even immediate family members who have fallen on hard times for any reason.

Arizona Youth Baseball is their designated charity however, and as the title says is an organization that revolves around the youth of Arizona. The primary function is to teach baseball the major league way through clinics, but it’s not just about learning the game, it’s also about being successful in the classroom and in life; learning teamwork and respect is something they will need to be successful as adults.

Among the past participants are Hall of Famers Bob Feller, Harmon Killebrew, Brooks Robinson, Ferguson Jenkins, Phil Niekro and Gaylord Perry. There have been appearances as well by Cy Young winners (Vern Law) ERA champions (Joel Horlen), stolen base champs (Vince Coleman) and HR kings (Dave Kingman). Even Hall of Fame announcer Bob Uecker has stopped by from time to time.

An almost yearly participant is Hall of Famer Robin Yount, who lives in Arizona year round. The best part of his appearance is he just doesn’t show up for the free golf and dinner and take off, he stays for the entire event and makes sure everyone who wants a picture or autograph or just a hello is accommodated. He also donates items for the auction, signed bats, balls, Brewers hats, etc, so if you’re looking for something other than just a card signed, there are other options.

Over the years I’ve played with Bob Owchinko, the late Ed Bouchee, Jim Walewander, Leon Brown, Mike Colbern, and this year Rich Chiles. The guys are great to be around, and the stories are priceless; listening to Bouchee recount his days with Casey Stengel and the 1962 Mets won’t soon be forgotten.

I won’t lie, the day can be expensive, but that’s point of a charity. I know most people budget donation money throughout the year, and if you’re looking for a different option, then I can’t think of any better than the last Monday in February in Scottsdale, Arizona.

Baseball America came out with their Top 100 Prospect list this past week, the last of what has turned into an everybody has an opinion event. BA started the Top 100 in 1990 and for a time were the only publication to do so; over the years they built a solid network of scouts who they relied on for information.

Nowadays it seems everybody has an opinion, although I’ll venture to say it’s more about selling website hits and subscriptions than it is the legitimacy of their work.

At the end of the day, everyone knows who the top prospects are regardless of whose list you favor, the trick is figuring out which guys at the back end or who missed altogether will end up being regular major league players.

For me, that’s the beauty of spring training. I’m fortunate to not only live in Arizona but to work part-time for MLB, which gives me access to backfield workouts and extended spring training games at 8 am where the future of baseball really lies. For every Kris Bryant there are a hundred guys drafted in the 40th round or free agents signed out of some mid-west Independent League trying to play his way into a Class A lineup.

Everyone starts at the bottom, over the past few years Alumni of the Arizona Rookie League include Mat Latos, Starlin Castro, Elvis Andrus and Mike Trout. Pablo Sandoval never made a top prospect list, but he came through the AZL as a 17 year old in 2004, beginning a journey which has led him to All-Star status and three World Series rings as a major leaguer.

Yes, it’s fun to watch Joey Gallo take batting practice or Francisco Lindor field ground balls, but the real fun of spring training backfield action is trying to spot the next Pablo Sandoval and following his career.

Wherever it may go.
Chuck Johnson
@prospect_pulse

Please Respect Greg Bird

Like Rodney Dangerfield, Greg Bird can’t seem to get any respect. His 2014 season may not have been what was expected coming off a solid 2013, but you’d think dominating the talent laden Arizona Fall League would have reinforced the opinion of some prospect prognosticators.

Such appears not be the case.

Even our own group of experts here at ProspectPipeline have Bird outside the Top 100 prospects and rank him third at first base behind two players with just as many questions on their respective skill sets.

Look, no one knows better than I that  AFL stats are pretty meaningless overall in a player’s resume’ and winning the MVP doesn’t carry much weight either. The Fall League is a short season, seven weeks at the most, and anything can, and usually does happen over such a small sample size, but we’re not talking Chip Cannon here.

Those who know prospects are aware of Chip Cannon, for the rest of you Cannon was a 6’5″ outfielder drafted by the Toronto Blue Jays in the eighth round of the 2004 amateur draft. In 2005, his first full season as a pro, Cannon, playing in three classifications, hit 32 homers with 98 runs batted in while compiling a .289 average with a .942 OPS. The next season, 2006, he led the Eastern League in homers and runs scored (and strikeouts) and was sent to the AFL where he led the league in homers and runs batted in and was named league MVP.

Cannon would play two more seasons in the Jays system then found himself with Tampa and after eight games with AA Montgomery in 2009 was out of baseball.

He never played in the major leagues.

I understand it’s difficult profiling a first baseman, especially a guy with with a strict positional limit and no dominant carrying tool. He doesn’t have Matt Olson’s power or Josh Bell’s versatility and these are the things that catch the attention of some evaluators, but from a scouting standpoint Bird carries a complete package.

The old adage corner players requiring a higher power profile than their middle counterparts is true, but it’s only because they can’t contribute equally on defense, a shortstop or centerfielder has many more defensive responsibilities than a first baseman or left fielder. That doesn’t mean Bird can’t have a long productive career averaging “just” sixteen homers a season, which was Wally Joyner’s number over his sixteen year career. Mark Grace also played sixteen seasons and his season average was less than that, an even dozen. Whether Bird can match Joyner’s career .362 on base percentage or Grace’s .303 batting average remains to be seen, but discounting him because he likely won’t hit thirty homers in a season seems to be a shortsighted view.

Another thing about Bird is until he signed with the Yankees he was a catcher, the high school battery-mate of Baltimore’s Kevin Gausman, so he’s well behind the learning curve of his counterparts Olson and Bell. I had heard of Bird’s struggles defensively in 2013 and they weren’t just his error totals. People I trust told me he was a good athlete and his problems stemmed from inexperience; being a half step behind a play could be the difference between an out or a run, and as the season wore on and even into 2014 these sources were steadfast in their beliefs Bird would eventually become a solid defender.

I remember seeing Paul Goldschmidt at the 2011 Futures Game and workout and thinking he may be the worst defender I’d seen in awhile, but he worked his behind off and is now considered a Gold Glove candidate and I think Bird is on a similar path. He’s a good athlete for a big guy and while he won’t win any spring training gasser contests he’ll eventually become an above average defensive player.

The thing I like best about Bird though is his swing. My friend Joe DelGrippo, a former college player who follows Yankee prospects as they come through the Sally League has been on Bird almost from the get go, saying his swing was short and clean for a big man. I won’t get into the mechanics of a swing here because I’d like to keep this under 2000 words, but in a nut shell a short, repeating swing means fewer slumps and the ability to put the barrel on a higher percentage of pitches, even when you’re fooled. In 2014, for example, the longest stretch of hitless games for Bird was three, and that was during the last week of the season when fatigue may have played just as much of a factor as the opposing pitcher.

I’ll take that profile any day.

The immediate future for Bird has him picking up where he left off in 2014, returning to Double A Trenton where he should spend at least half the season. Come the All-Star break he could move up to AAA Scranton-Wilkes-Barre; if he’s struggling in AA then leave him be. There’s no other first base prospect in the system anywhere close to challenging Bird as the eventual replacement for Mark Teixeira following the 2016 season, so if 2017 is the earliest we’ll see him in New York then no reason to panic.

(When Teixeira leaves, McCann will not be the everyday first baseman, let’s kill that idea once and for all)

Bird doesn’t have the shiny power of Joey Gallo, who is ranked close to or in the top ten of most prospect lists and who quite possibly will join Chip Cannon in the never played in the majors club.

Greg Bird won’t be a member of that club. He may not have Teixeira’s glove or Albert Pujol’s bat or Prince Fielder’s power, but if the best he can become is Wally Joyner or Mark Grace, I’ll take it.

Then I’ll invite all the non-believing prospect evaluators over to my house for a barbeque, where I’ll be serving crow.

Now that we’re getting into prospect season, I’ll be sharing some websites and Twitter handles of some people I know and respect, and since we’re talking Yankees today I’ll keep it in the family.

The first is Yankees Unscripted, founded by Chris Carelli. Chris is a fellow member of the Internet Baseball Writers Association of America and outside of his site contributes Yankee related material to MLBTradeRumors.

The second is Pinstriped Prospects with Jed Weisberger. Jed is also an IBWAA member and is a contributing writer to MLB.com.

Living in Arizona I can’t keep up with the goings on with the Yankees as I’d like, and other players as well. Having guys like Chris and Jed (and Joe) who I can bounce things off makes it much easier when Greg Bird or Gerritt Cole come out to the Fall League, I feel like I’m more prepared.

Til next time

Chuck Johnson
@prospect_pulse, @IBWAA

On Opening Day, Jeff Kent, Ernie Banks and Cheapskates

With the Super Bowl now safely in our rear view mirrors, it’s clear sailing ahead as equipment trucks are leaving the frozen north for the humidity of Florida and the Valley of the Sun. The trucks will begin arriving as early as Tuesday with pitchers and catchers a few days behind them and by February 25th camps will be in full swing preparing for the upcoming Major League season.

The last off-season was almost unbearable what with the Alex Rodriguez drama surrounding his dealings with Tony Bosch and Biogenesis and the eventual length of his suspension. Thankfully, this off-season was a bit more normal, although the flurry of transactions leading up to and through the Winter Meetings was dizzying to say the least.

And I don’t think we’ve seen the last, either. The Diamondbacks don’t have a catcher, James Shields doesn’t even have a job, and the Phillies are still trying to shed $100 million off their payroll. I believe there will be another big deal or two happening between now and Opening Day, with either Cliff Lee or Cole Hamels likely changing their address.

In the aftermath of the recent announcement of the Hall of Fame Class of 2015 the one thing that didn’t surprise me at all was the whopping fifteen percent racked up by Jeff Kent. The Hall of Fame is about all-round greatness over an extended length of time, it’s about winning games with your legs and glove when your bat takes the day off, and vice versa. The fact Kent is the all-time leading homerun hitter amongst second baseman is meaningless when compared to some of the other greats who played the position and who actually did contribute in other areas like Robbie Alomar, Ryne Sandberg and Joe Morgan.

The fact some people are upset at Kent’s showing, or that guys like Jeff Bagwell and Tim Raines aren’t in yet makes me scratch my head wondering what they’ve actually been watching all these years.

In the aftermath of Ernie Banks’s passing, I spent a quiet afternoon thumbing through old scrapbooks I put together as a kid and some other publications and videos, just reminiscing on his career as a player. Banks played an important role in my early life as part of the foundation for being a fan of the game and as an adult in a more personal and private way.

In reading through some articles, I came across a “Where are They Now” piece written by Herb Scharfman in the July 7, 2014 issue of Sports Illustrated. There is a passage in the article that made me stop and read it again because while I’d heard similar stories before about this, I’d never heard Banks say it.

Before the Cubs headed to New York for an important series against the Mets the first week of September, 1969, Banks said he made a point to talk to different players on the team regarding the increased media presence that would be in the clubhouse and to watch what was said.

“So we get to New York, and lose the first game. Don Young dropped a fly ball, and that was it. We came into the locker room. I was next to Santo and he just went crazy (blaming Young). Young was so upset, he ran out. (Coach) Pete Reiser had to bring him back. I had never seen anything so hurtful.”

The incident made the papers, and according to Banks, the team fell apart because of factions in the locker room, with players at “cross-purposes” after that.

(The next day, September second, was the infamous “black cat” game, to which Banks said was orchestrated by the Mets right up to intentionally releasing the cat onto the field).

That teammates blamed Ron Santo for dividing the clubhouse and not being a good teammate isn’t news, but when a guy who could have won the Governor’s election at any time during his career comes out and says it, well, that’s justification. And it kind of makes you wonder why Santo only gained Hall of Fame status after he himself passed away…..doesn’t it?

Speaking of the Cubs, would they really that cheap to start Kris Bryant in the minor leagues? I mean, worrying more about a few extra dollars five years from now over the possibility of the postseason this year seems somewhat short sighted and ignorant.

Can we just stop assigning arbitrary win shares to players and dollar values to wins and just put the best product on the field?

On a side note, if you are looking for another website to follow (and who isn’t?) then check out the newly re-designed 27outsbaseball.com. Chris Phillips and the gang over there are kicking it up for this year with the new site design and twice weekly podcasts featuring interviews with minor league players including Cody Decker of the Padres and San Francisco Giants minor league POY Mitch Delfino.

I follow some other sites as well, more during the season as the opinion of those who actually get to the ballpark and watch games is invaluable and I’ll be mentioning them as we get closer to the start of the season.

Baseball’s Back!!
Chuck Johnson
@prospect_pulse

Gil Hodges, Billy Beane and Top 100 Ranking Lists

Living in Arizona means I’m among the fortunate whose season runs just a bit longer than most everyone else but even ours comes to a close eventually. The Arizona Fall League Championship Game signals the igniting of The Hot Stove season which runs until pitchers and catchers report in February.

The Winter Meetings concluded this past week and while it’s still nothing more than a glorified happy hour, there were more trades made than in the past three combined and the foundations were set for more after the holidays. As I predicted, the Veteran’s Committed failed to elect anyone, although the underrated Tony Oliva made a surprising run, missing by one vote, as did Dick Allen. If one thing should be obvious at this point with the VC it’s time to put an end to the Gil Hodges love-fest. He was never a good candidate to begin with, either traditionally or sabermetrically and is even less so now forty-two years after his passing.

Growing up in the frozen Northeast I’d always be desperate for off-season news. There was no ESPN or internet or sports talk radio, so whatever was in the local sports page was welcomed no matter how small or infrequent the information was. Nowadays information is everywhere either through blogs or social media sites trying to be the next big thing. We even have teenagers on Twitter claiming to be “insiders” which pushes the envelope to the limit if you ask me.

Billy Beane has taken more than his share of negative feedback on some of his most recent transactions and while most of it is deserved, it’s also defensible. As the A’s General Manager, Beane’s job is the same as any other businessman, put out the best product as possible while staying under budget. Beginning in 2005 however, Beane began wearing two hats; one his manager of operations lid he’d been wearing since 1997, the other as part-owner, which meant he now reports to himself to some degree.

I’m currently reading the biography of a former major league executive and in one passage he speaks about going through the same things Beane has been, working for a lame duck franchise and intentionally ‘devaluing the product” so as to make the transition to new ownership smoother. The A’s gave up on Josh Donaldson two years before arbitration because they didn’t want to price themselves out of a decent return. They traded a potential All-Star shortstop to rent Jeff Samardzija for two months. They traded their top lefthanded power bat for a scrub infielder who may never play major league ball regularly. We’ve seen examples of “devaluing” in the past, Montreal, Texas, Arizona and San Diego come to mind, and even the current Mets situation qualifies. Teams aren’t going to lay out financial committments they can’t keep or someone else doesn’t want.

The myth of Moneyball aside, Beane understands the process better than most of his peers because he played the game, which gave him the ability to see unseen skills in a player that don’t show up on a spreadsheet. I used to be anti-Beane myself, but I’ve come to learn over the years he’s trying to balance the budget of a business without hurting his own bottom line.

Time to give the guy a break.

The close of the Winter Meetings signals the beginning of the off-season “dead zone”, as most team offices close until after the first of the year, which means there are few conversations and even fewer transactions. What we start to see is the various blogs and websites publishing their own top prospect lists. For a minor league junkie like myself I like reading about players I haven’t seen yet, but I also have to take that information with a grain of salt because in all likelihood the person doing the writing hasn’t seen him either.

Baseball America started the list process in 1992 and over the years built up a long list of respected baseball people (myself included) that did see players and could offer legitmate information above batting average and strikeout rates. Since then other reputable sites including our parent site have hired their own group of former scouts and personnel to write about what their experienced eyes tell them.

“I think Player X is a top 20 prospect”

“Why”

“Because he had a X stat in a pitcher’s park in a hitter’s league”

Next.

“Why is Player Y not on your list?”

“Because my formula says he’s not as good as others think”

“What is your formula”

“Can’t tell you”

OK, then.

Word to the wise. Find someone you like and who thinks like you do; Jonathan Mayo, Bernie Pleskoff, John Sickels, whoever, and stick with one or two.

Too much information really does cloud the waters because it’s hard to swim through.
Chuck Johnson
@prospect_pulse, @IBWAA

Twitter Silliness, the Genius of Billy Beane, and the Trimming of Alex Rodriguez

This past Wednesday evening the ugly side of social media and the internet played itself out once again, and once again the only people who were affected did nothing but read it.

I think it was Jayson Stark who said; “The best thing about the internet is it gives people a voice who otherwise wouldn’t have one, the worst thing about the internet is it gives people a voice who shouldn’t have one,” and that statement yet again has been proven to have some truth to it.

I won’t mention any names here because the last thing I want to do is give any more time to people who’ve already exhausted their fifteen minutes. It started simple enough, a re-tweet from a follower written by an individual with “MLB” as part of his handle. Look at my Twitter friends and followers (@prospect_pulse), most of them are associated with baseball in some capacity and that accounts for probably 80% of my interactions, so I thought nothing of it. As time passed and the tweet continued to be moved around, I received another re-tweet, this time from an account that had “ESPN” as part of its tag, so I figured there was some legitimacy to the story.

Well, I found out maybe twenty seconds later, it wasn’t. The ESPN account was a fake, and the initial “tweeter” was a high school kid who, according to his profile, is a “major league insider.”

So, we all got taken, and badly.

Now, stuff like this has happened before; just a few weeks ago ESPN Baseball writer Jerry Crasnick was the victim of a fake Twitter account, and with the Winter Meetings taking place next week, I’m sure we will see situations like this again. These things happen so frequently that I’ve gotten into the habit of looking at unfamiliar users account profiles and follow lists as a way to check their credibility even if I trust who sent it to me. I didn’t this time for reasons I can’t explain, and I got burned.

What really ticked me off though was after the story turned out to be false, our intrepid “reporter” placed the blame on his source. Now, anyone who is in this media/reporting/evaluation field has been burned before, it’s the nature of the beast. Some details, especially those involving baseball trades or signings can change at the last minute and even immediately after the fact, as was the case years ago with the deal that sent Johan Santana to the Mets.

I can’t blame a source because they didn’t write the story or post the tweet, I did. It came from my account or my email address, to turn around and throw someone I trust under the bus just because I’m embarrassed to have egg dripping from my face is not only unprofessional, it’s flat-out disrespectful. Here’s another thing, most team connected personnel have a small list of outsiders they consider trustworthy enough to share information with, so if something does end up public, they’ll know pretty quickly, or at least have a good idea of who sprung the leak, at which time you’ll no longer be on their list.

Trust and respect is a two way street.

Now on to some other things.

*I’m concerned that authorities in the Dominican Republic will charge Texas Rangers prospect Ronald Guzman with the death of a motorcyclist who died after colliding with Guzman’s SUV this week.

*I believe the Veterans Committee will once again pitch a shut-out next week, selecting no one for induction off their ten man ballot.

*I was on Twitter last night when the news of the Josh Donaldson trade broke and it’s mind-boggling to me how anyone can think the Blue Jays won the deal. First, it’s way to early to make the suggestion, and second, using sabermetrics to defend your position isn’t going to win any arguments. To suggest Donaldson is “the second most valuable player in the American League over the past two years” just shows how poor a stat WAR really is. After some thought, though, this is my takeaway; Donaldson turns 29 next Friday and has played two major league seasons. As an evaluator, I don’t buy into someone being a late bloomer, Donaldson is clearly a guy who’s taken advantage of regular playing time, but for Billy Beane to trade him still a year away from arbitration and four years away from free agency tells me far more about his future than his stat sheet does.

It goes further than that, Beane is one of three General Managers (Jerry DiPoto, Ruben Amaro Jr) with major league playing experience. I said on Twitter last night what Beane does with his trades is “like taking candy from a baby” because while his other twenty-seven counterparts were in college studying things useless in running a franchise, Beane was studying baseball. He knows things which can only be learned from his experiences on the field, and the myth of Moneyball aside, he’s managed to stay competitive despite playing his home games in a sewage facility and having a budget slightly higher than my daughter’s allowance.

*I still believe the Yankees will find a way to get rid of Alex Rodriguez before Spring Training. I know if I was a player there is no way I’d want him back in our clubhouse after the things he said last off-season, and I’d feel the same way if I had Brian Cashman’s job. The Yankees over the past ten years or so have made some monumentally stupid financial decisions, eating $61 million dollars will be a drop in the bucket to some of them.

As a trained chef, I know the best way to save money on meat is to trim the fat, I think the best thing the Yankees can do to improve their quality is to “trim the fat” from their roster.
Chuck Johnson
@prospect_pulse, @IBWAA

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