tomorrow baseball america will unveil its list of the cardinals' top 10 prospects. the list is no secret --- most of you have already seen it posted here, and / or at derrick goold's Birdland blog. goold, BA's regular cardinal-organization correspondent, will be chatting live tomorrow at BA's website, beginning at 11 a.m. central time; excellent opportunity to get an informed opinion about your favorite farmhand.
derrick was kind enough to answer a few questions for me about writing for BA, the process of ranking prospects, and the cards' minor-league organization in general. before we get to that, a quick programming note: i'll be on the road tomorrow, on a very early flight, so look for a guest post from a community member.
and now, here's derrick --- good stuff in here about duncan, stavinoha, rasmus, ankiel, the two-seam fastball, and the cardinals' newfound emphasis on building from within. many thanks to derrick for making the time available.
How long have you been writing for BA? How did you hook up with those guys?
I've done it two off-seasons now; the fall of the '05 season is when I started. Dave Wilhelm of the Belleville News-Democrat was their correspondent for a long time, but he had other time commitments. I think he recommended me, and they called me and asked if I was interested. And I was thrilled. You grow up reading Baseball America, or at least I did, and I remember collecting the Baseball America handbooks; it was something you had to have at the start of the season. So they offered me a chance, and I leapt at it.
In every issue, I write an organization report that runs 350 words. Probably 8 out of 10 of those articles deal with an individual player. The other 2 might deal with a larger topic. The Dominican Republic program --- that happened while I was doing the stuff for BA, so that's a natural, doing one on that. Another one was the problems at Memphis --- that was an article unto itself. That was a horrible team, and the atmosphere there was sour. A lot of things were rank down there, and they had a lot of problems. The team president was saying, "Where are the prospects?" and the Cardinals were like, "Well, where's the performance?" It was just a rotten year for them, and that was an issue. Another one I wrote about was Dennis Martinez and the influx of players from the Dominican program who are coming to spring training this year; I did one on that. And then you do additional stories for BA depending on the assignment. Rick Ankiel was his own full-page feature last spring training. The changes in the Cardinals' front office was its own news story in Baseball America. They might hire you to do a feature story. I've done some feature stories for them, which is great.
You can get wrapped up in the major-league coverage, knowing the ins and outs of every single thing about the major leagues. Writing for BA forces me to also know what's going on at Palm Beach, or what's going on in Johnson City or the Quad Cities, which is a welcome change sometimes. It also makes you appreciate the draft every June a little bit more.
It's not always clear how the farm system impacts the major leagues, but it does. If you have a working knowledge of what their prospects are like, you have a leg up on everybody around the trade deadline. You understand what that Weaver trade really meant, because you know what Terry Evans is doing. I knew the name and I knew the stats, and I had see him play because I was doing the stuff for Baseball America.
Before the Internet came along, Baseball America was pretty much the only decent source of coverage about the minor leagues.
Baseball America offered a one-stop shop for all that stuff. As you know, I grew up in the time zone baseball forgot. [Goold is from Louisville, Colorado.] We had the Denver Bears and the Denver Zephyrs when I was growing up there, the Triple A teams, and they were with the Reds and the Brewers when I was a kid. The guys who won the World Series with the Reds [in 1990] played in Denver. Cal Eldred was a Denver Zephyr when he came up in the Brewers' system. You knew he was a star --- you knew his place in the organization because of Baseball America. I knew because of Baseball America that if Gary Sheffield swings a bat in Denver, I gotta be there. Baseball America was saying this guy is the best in their system. I knew who to watch because of that. Daryl Hamilton is another example. I think it was Baseball America where I learned about Joey Meyer.
The guy who hit the 600-foot home run?
Yeah. I knew the green seat, I'd been up to the green seat [at Mile High Stadium] and everything like that, but you knew the context because it was written about in Baseball America. I was in Milwaukee a few years ago with the Cardinals and I went to a card shop, just trying to kill time. For 25 cents I bought Joey Meyers' Donruss 1989 card. I have it here on my desk, right next to Gary Sheffield's Topps Future Stars card --- the one with the shiny teeth. There's an Opening Day Trevor Hoffman card here, there's a newspaper article from years ago about Robin Ventura being the active leader in career grand slams. And then a Curt Flood card from 1970 Topps.
Awesome. A Phillies card.
Yeah, it says "Phillies . . . Outfield . . . Curt Flood." That's why I have it. And also, St. Louis is spelled wrong on the back.
I have a ball here on my shelf that's signed by all of the Denver Zephyrs. This is from my birthday party. It's got Joey Meyer and Brad Komminsk and Billy Bates; Don August is on here, Charlie O'Brien --- he was my favorite. Skeeter Barnes --- I'm not sure you remember that name. Skeeter Barnes is the guy who got me this ball. He signed it in the biggest, boldest pen he could find. [The year in question must have been 1987; Skeeter split time between Denver and Louisville that season and got 4 at-bats for the pennant-winning Cardinals; and O'Brien, August, and Meyer were all on the Denver roster in 1987.]
Skeeter was the type of player we'd now refer to as a quadruple A player.
Exactly. Same with one of my favorites --- Billy Bates. I thought he was the coolest player ever. He played second base. I just thought this guy was awesome, but he was a 4-A player.
So just to tie this all together --- having grown up in an area where big-league baseball hadn't arrived yet, this is sort of a return to your roots to be covering the minor leagues. There's a fondness for the minors that you're bringing to this project.
I think there's an appreciation. But there wasn't a day that went by in my childhood that I didn't crave big-league baseball. My father can probably speak to that. I would pester him about driving me to Kansas City for a game, without any clue as to how far away that was. I just figured that was the nearest ballpark.
Ten hours away.
Yeah. And we had to get there, any way we could. It would be romantic if I had this long love affair with the minors that started when I was 8 years old, but I had more interest in seeing Spike Owen play, the Yankees' shortstop, than seeing anybody on the Zephyrs.
Is that who you grew up rooting for, the Yankees?
Yeah, my dad brought me up a Yankees fan. But I think I've always had an appreciation for the minor leagues, and maybe covering the major leagues has increased it. You see the direction the major leagues are going, and this year's a good testament to that. Free agents and the financial cost of acquiring players for your roster is skyrocketing. You look at how the Twins have stayed competitive and how the Indians have been built, and the Cardinals are heading in that direction by all accounts, if they can get there. And they're starting from behind; they're trying to replenish the farm system. I'm realizing that three, four years from now, these are the players who are going to be the Cardinals. What better way to learn, and what better way to be prepared for that, than to cover these minor-leaguers now. I think there's compelling stories there. There are intriguing things afoot with the Cardinals right now. [The interview continues after the jump.]
Yeah, not only the front-office changes which you alluded to, but also this overt change in philosophy to build from within as opposed to picking everything up off the free-agent market.
You're exactly right. This year, they're trying to rebuild their pitching staff from within. They're trying to populate their starting lineup with as many players as they can from within --- especially at the high-dollar positions. Do they need to develop second-base prospects? Probably not, because that position hasn't been one that has broke the bank. The pool is so plentiful there.
And the range from top to bottom is pretty flat there, too.
You have a few marquee guys who are gonna make a lot of money, but the mid-range is very thick.
Witness Ronnie Belliard --- still out there looking for a team. He's gonna have to sign for 6 figures at the rate things are going.
Yeah. Or a minor-league deal. So they obviously identify that spot in the market, and you see how their major-league practices spill into their minor-league operation. And I always thought it was fascinating how they built Memphis. For the last three years, looking at Memphis as this place to stockpile depth for the major leagues, I just thought was fascinating. It's gotta change. There's some griping in Memphis that they want some prospects, and there's certainly the need now to have somebody on the doorstep from within the organization. But the last 3 years, you can't argue with how it has worked.
Some of those depth-type guys came up and were actually good --- like John Rodriguez.
And they've been prepped for it in Memphis. Even John Gall, who in the end will probably be considered disappointing as a Cardinal --- which may not be fair, because he never really got that much of a shot, and when he did get a shot he played himself onto the postseason roster --- it still was important for him to be down there. Skip Schumaker has proven that he, at a moment's notice, can make an impact --- "impact" meaning he can fill a void without a serious reduction in talent terms.
But here's the thing. You're starting now to have a glut of outfielders in Triple A, because in addition to the "depth" guys like Schumaker and Marrero and Ryan Ludwick, now you've also got guys coming up from double A like Haerther and Stavinoha who are younger and maybe haven't reached their ceiling. Skip Schumaker has reached his ceiling; Cody Haerther still has a chance to get better than what he is now. Are we ever gonna see a shift where a guy like Haerther gets the playing time at Memphis over a guy like Skip Schumaker?
I think we're at that tipping-point year. I think we're gonna see a blend this coming year, because all these guys from these big drafts of the last two years, and the guys slightly ahead of them, are now reaching double and triple A. You look at Lambert, from a pitching point of view. Lambert's at that point where he has to be given a shot at a higher level, just to see if he can do it. I think this is that year.
You look at how they pooled their pitching prospects at double A last year and put them all together; I think that shows us something about what they're trying to do. They're not only trying to get them in a group together so they can maybe learn from each other, but man they're trying to get them to compete.
And hoping to get one or two out of that group to kick out and become contributors?
Exactly right. Of the five who were in the rotation in double A last year [Lambert, Hawksworth, Haberer, Parisi, Pomeranz], I would imagine they expect all of those guys to be triple A pitchers. And they would probably like to get two of those guys to the majors. Who those two are is now up to those guys. A lot of people would say it's Hawksworth and one other guy.
We can look at two different types of prospects. One is Colby Rasmus; he could go out and hit .460 in his first month at double A, but is he gonna be promoted to triple A? No, probably not, because there's a development curve they want to keep him on. Whereas a guy like Joe Mather, if he goes to double A and starts cranking, is there a chance that he could get challenged and jumped up to triple A? Sure, because his age maybe puts him there. Stavinoha as been fast-tracked for two reasons. One, because of his age. But he's also risen to the challenge. You look at how he finished last year; he struggled early on in double A --- he had an injury --- but you look at how he finished and you can't say that he's not ready for the challenge of triple A.
He's a guy I would like to see them give a job to at Memphis. Even though they've got 20 outfielders there, I'd rather see him getting at-bats than Ryan Ludwick.
Well, who would your outfield be in Memphis?
They have so many I have a hard time keeping them all straight. I would let Haerther and Stavinoha just move right up there. I know Haerther struggled like crazy at times last year, but he finished pretty strong too, and he's already had a year and a half at double A. I don't know that there's a lot to be gained by leaving him there. If you're gonna get the full value out of a guy, you have to move him up at a certain point and find out what you've got.
But did you watch Shaun Boyd last year? He was at an age and a draft position where they had to move him up. First-round pick. They moved him because it was time for him to get challenged and see if something clicked. [It didn't; Boyd hit .188 at Memphis.] Look, Chris Duncan --- it clicked. Chris Duncan got challenged, and he responded.
I'd like to see them do the same thing with some of these other guys. I've read that Travis Hanson is gonna be given another shot at triple A, and I think that's good --- what have you got to lose? If he hits .200 again, then you've answered the question you needed to answer. But let's get the answer to that question instead of having a guy like Rico Washington take those at-bats.
Where do you put Ankiel and Marti?
Um . . . . I'm over Rick Ankiel, personally. I know he's a fantastic athlete, but I have a huge amount of skepticism about anything he might have demonstrated as a hitter in the minor leagues, because he's so much older than the guys he's hitting against. I just don't take it seriously.
He had as many home runs as Duncan in far, far fewer at-bats.
But that was two years ago, at double A --- and he was 25, 26 years old. He's gonna turn 28 this year. It just seems like a huge longshot to me, and it seems like they're devoting a huge amount of resources to a guy who seems like a dead end. But I know a lot of scouts do think he's got bona fide power. You've seen him play; you've got a much better perspective on him than I do.
I mean, he's something to watch, that's for sure; I'll say that. He's got a tremendous arm, and he's got clear athleticism in the outfield. You watch the guy play and it's like: "Oh, my goodness." He's a talented player. But there's a difference between catching a flyball in the major leagues and hitting a fastball or a curve in the major leagues, and we haven't seen that from him. But Tony La Russa has seen a lot of guys, and there are very few guys where Tony says, "I don't doubt . . ." But he says, "I've learned not to doubt Rick Ankiel." That's pretty remarkable. I've spoken to people who've known him a long time and saw him goofing around as a hitter, and they said, "When you're around this guy, you just learn that he has tremendous talent, and if he sets his mind to something he can do it."
Are there prospects who you've changed your opinion about once you've seen them? I mean, it's one thing to read a scouting report; it's one thing to look at statistics. But you have to see a guy to judge his presence, his ability to make adjustments, that sort of thing. Has there been a case where that happened --- where your opinion changed dramatically after you got a chance to see a guy in person?
Without question, seeing a guy helps you take defense into account more than you can with stats. When I've seen a guy play, then I do look at that and I can take that into account. Reid Gorecki, who was the organization's Player of the Year last year, I saw the guy struggle mightily at the plate. He just looked lost. I've seen him play double A games, and I saw him play at major-league camp, and I saw him play back-field games. You watch him, and it's clear the talent he has, but it's also clear that he's a strong defensive player. His offensive struggles were such that his defensive ability couldn't balance it. But I saw enough of him to appreciate the fact that at least this guy's got a good glove and certainly could handle centerfield at a higher level. But the bat's just not there. If I hadn't seen him play, I might have looked at his numbers and just dismissed him out of hand.
But instead, you can say, "Well at least he's got half the game figured out," and there's always the chance that a guy will come around with the bat --- just as Duncan did. It took a long time before his numbers even remotely resembled a prospect's numbers.
Yeah, but Duncan has always had something that few guys have. Two years ago, when you asked people around the Cardinals organization, "Who has the best power in the organization?" you would get two answers: one was Chris Duncan, and the other one was Rick Ankiel. They said, "These guys don't just have gap power that develops into home-run power, or they don't have the type of power where they could hit 20 home runs. These guys have special power." That's just what I kept hearing over and over again; they have natural power. They can paper over a lot of failings if you have that kind of power.
You want to give that skill every chance to emerge.
That's right. That type of talent is just too important.
Do you place any stock in projection systems like PECOTA and ZIPS in evaluating prospects? I ask specifically because at this time last year, when neither Duncan or Wainwright was considered likely to be much of a factor in 2006, the projection systems were high on them. Heading into last season, PECOTA already considered Duncan a better major-league hitter than Bigbie and nearly as good as Encarnacion. I didn't hear anybody else predicting as much at the time. Likewise, PECOTA last spring projected Wainwright to be a more valuable pitcher in 2006 than either Ponson or Marquis. Is it of any value in assessing prospects?
I like PECOTA. I'm impressed and intrigued by PECOTA and the genius it took to come up with a formula that churns with such accuracy. But I'm not devoted to it. I see it as a tool, not a -- shall we say? -- "decider." Using PECOTA to determine rankings would be --- if you permit an analogical leap here --- like using it to determine the MVP or the Cy Young for the coming season. PECOTA can help shape a view of a prospect in the same way seeing a player take BP or seeing a week of a player's box scores can, but it shouldn't be weighted more than any tangible evidence you can get on a player. PECOTA's best use, to me, is as a guide. Cody Haerther's PECOTA is enough to catch your attention and make you investigate why it is so high, leads us to ask what characteristic, what trend are we missing if we don't share a similar opinion of said player? It's sort of the way that Trey Hearne arrived on the prospect map. His numbers piqued all of our interest. We all started to wonder what was the story behind this success. That led to more investigation, more inquiry, and ultimately more information -- which supported his ranking. Ditto with PECOTA. Knowing PECOTA, trusting in its theory and appreciating the ingredients it uses, it inspires a search for additional info that only adds dimension to the picture of a prospect. PECOTA didn't tell me anything about Adam Wainwright last year that my eyes didn't see during spring training, that my interviews with coaches and scouts didn't support during March . . . . but it did help clue everyone in that something was going to happen.
When you talk to people in the organization to get opinions about the prospects, do you ever have the sense that there's a sort of lobbying that goes on? Take Chris Lambert as an example. Maybe people in the organization feel that he needs to be propped up or something, and so they talk him up. Conversely, there might be a guy they talk down who they think needs a kick in the butt. Does that kind of thing go on?
It doesn't go on as black-and-white as you're describing. You have more shades of gray. Everybody brings their own personality to how they view a player. Some guys are more results driven. Some guys are more tools driven. You find when you talk to some people, they might dismiss the results and laud the tools. Other guys might kind of smirk at the tools if a guy's not putting up the results. So you do have that going on. That's been kind of oversimplified by being called "a Moneyball conflict."
Or "statheads versus scouts."
Right, but it's not like that at all. You have folks who would call themselves "scouts" who do dismiss some guys because they just don't put up the numbers that their tools say they should, and there's a backlash there. And there are guys who gorge on the stats and know so much about them, but they might like a guy who has the look and the tools of a guy who's going to amplify his stats. They're looking down the road at the projections of what he might do. This guy may not have the stats today, but man he cuts the figure of a guy who's going to take off.
I'll give you an example that I did run into. I was trying to put together a depth chart for the organization for the Baseball America handbook, and there was a player who I wanted to put at a different position from the one he is playing in the minors, because I thought that was the future for him. I've heard it brought up by people within the system --- there's not room at his natural position, or maybe he'd be a better fit at another position, maybe he's going to be forced to a new position. But I was asked by several people in the organization not to put him at this other position on the depth chart, because they didn't think he needed to read that. In the end, I listed him at his current position --- but not because of that request. That didn't change my mind. The argument was that they want him to stay at his current position. I felt that my job as a reporter is to reflect a true image. If the organization sees a guy at one position, I am doing a disservice in reporting that he's gonna end up at another position.
If you're reporting that as a fact, you mean.
Right. If I'm putting him on the depth chart at this other position, then I'm wrong. Yeah, there's a thought of him changing positions eventually, so I can report that --- that there's been discussion of having him move. But it would be premature to have him at that new position on the depth chart.
Because he's going to be staying in his current position in the minors for the time being?
Yeah --- and they hope he works out there.
Have you ever had a prospect (or his agent) complain about where he got ranked in the Top 30?
Not really. I have never heard from an agent. Some players bring up the rankings, but rarely and I've never received a complaint. Of course, my name has never been on the Top 30 before. I may have a better answer in a month or so. A few of the big leaguers have brought up the different organization reports and the various rankings, but only to ask about specific players. Moreso, you hear from the organization. And you hear from different voices in the organization, each of whom has a question about the rankings or about specific rankings. You can't please everyone. You're not out to please everyone. You're out to provide a snapshot of the organization's best.
Here's one last question, which you touched on in a post at Birdland when you were writing about Ottavino. You mentioned his embrace of the organization's two-seam approach. I interviewed him last year after he moved up to Quad Cities, and he talked about that. What's your opinion about the notion of teaching every prospect to make that conversion?
My own opinion is that if a guy can do it, it's an excellent weapon to have. But you shouldn't force a guy to do it, holding him hostage to it essentially. I don't think that's fair. You can't hold a talent hostage to it and ruin a guy because he's not accepting this organizational philosophy that a two-seamer is better than a four-seamer. Dyar Miller, in talking with him, he kind of accepts the point: "Look, you can throw a four-seamer all you want. Just throw it low in the strike zone. You get the same effect." You see guys who maybe could benefit from that and do benefit from that philosophy rather than the two-seamer. I think in some ways the media promotes this two-seamer idea a lot. Certainly last year we did because of [Anthony] Reyes, because of the struggles he was having with it. The idea is to throw strikes at the bottom of the strike zone, no matter how you do it. But if a guy has a two-seamer, and Ottavino does ---
He'd thrown the two-seamer in college?
Right, he just didn't have a game based around it. They asked him to throw it more and more and more. If you're at the college level, and you know the college defense that's playing behind you, and you're pitching to a guy who's swinging an aluminum bat so you know a guy can get a bloop hit --- are you gonna strike a guy out or are you gonna get a ground ball? And you know you're not gonna pitch again for 7 days. But now you're in the minors, you're in double A or triple A; the defense behind you is better --- at triple A, it better be a lot better --- and you're pitching every five days now. There's a lot of factors in there. I can understand why a guy like Reyes or Ottavino is in college pumping that four-seamer with movement. Well these guys now get to the minors, and they have a better defense behind them, they have more patient hitters, they've got wood bats --- and they've got to pitch every five days. So there's a mutually beneficial reason to develop a pitch that you can throw and get a ground ball. More often than not, that's a sinker or a cutter. If you have that, there's a proven theory here that the organization should nurture and improve and encourage that pitch.
I don't think they should dismiss a pitcher because he can't do it.
The stuff with Reyes last year was an eye-opener, because until then I think it was not necessarily known how emphatic the two-seamer philosophy was. It was well known that Cardinal pitchers were efficient, and they took advantage of their defense extremely well. We've all watched Carpenter pitch; he can miss bats, but he also throws 8 innings and he's at 98 pitches because he gets ground balls. That's how he can throw 220 innings every season without blowing his arm out. I think the fans recognize that and appreciate it, and it's a good thing as long as it's not a sine qua non --- as long as it's not a situation where you won't be treated equally if you do not embrace that philosophy.
I don't think either party was innocent in this, though. Reyes --- and maybe Ottavino's gonna go through this, it'll be interesting to talk to him as he climbs through the levels --- he had to get used to the fact that, "If I'm throwing the two-seamer as my dominant pitch, I'm gonna get hit." That was something that Reyes did not enjoy. He had a hard time with it, because he'd throw that and he'd think, "Man, this is a BP frickin' fastball, and it's getting hit." And you're taking a little bit off of his four-seamer when you focus on the two-seamer; you're taking a few miles per hour off. So that decreases the effectiveness of his changeup; there isn't that much of a gap in miles per hour. And the other part is, he wasn't getting the movement on the pitch that he was trying to. His four-seamer has good movement, and that's been the basis for the argument of, "Well, why don't you just throw the four-seamer low." That way, you get the best of both worlds. But that two-seamer, last year in spring training, he would throw it and throw it and throw it, and yeah it might get groundballs, but they were hit hard and they were hit up the middle or through the holes and everything like that, and he's thinking, "Man, I'm just giving up hits." One of the things Duncan said --- and he won this battle with Weaver in this regard --- was, "Don't pay attention to that. It'll work out."
Just do it and keep with it until it works for you.
Keep with it. Just keep with it, keep with it, keep with it. Weaver took some shellings there early on, and he could have crumbled underneath the results he got. But he didn't. He stuck with it, and he believed in Duncan and started to buy in to what Carpenter was showing him. And it all worked out.
Derrick, thanks a lot for the conversation. I really appreciate your time.
No problem. Any time.
* * * * * * * * *
goold has been busy on the interview circuit --- he also spoke with steve marantz of Sports Media Guide, and you can read that interview here. if you still haven't had your fill of cardinal prospect talk, i refer you to
- Future Redbirds' profiles of shortstop tommy pham and gary daley, both likely bound for quad cities this year
- danup's survey of not-top-20 prospects at palm beach and springfield
oh, one final item: usa today's list of "100 names you need to know", which is a roundup of minor-league players poised to make an impact at the big-league level in 2007, includes no cardinal farmhands.