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System Sundays: Three Minor Stocks Rising

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A few minor league players who have made good early impressions this spring.

Atlanta Braves v St Louis Cardinals Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images

Author’s Note: It was originally my intention to continue on with my draft history posts this morning, and simply write those straight on through until complete. However, as you’ve no doubt guessed by the length of those posts, they are quite time consuming. There’s a decent amount of research involved, and then simply the volume of writing required leads to some very time intensive posts. Unfortunately, I was unable to find time to work on the third installment of the series since Wednesday, and so am resorting to writing a much shorter, more impromptu post this morning, and will hopefully return to the ongoing history series this week. -A

Spring training is, by pretty much any measure, a mixed bag. On the one hand, it’s incredibly exciting when spring training first starts, because suddenly you have real live pictures of real live baseball players doing real live baseball drills and throwing real live bullpen sessions wearing real live shorts and tee shirts. And after that initial rush, there are a couple more big landmark moments, with the first box score and first televised games being two of the more notable.

There is also, however, the undeniable fact that much of spring training is, to put it bluntly, boring. The games don’t really count, ties are called after nine, maybe ten innings, and while it’s fun initially to see your team back in action, there are only so many three inning starter outings one person can really care about when there’s nothing on the line. At some point, you settle into, “Just no one get hurt until camp is over, please,” mode, and that’s not exactly the most enjoyable frame of mind in which to watch your favourite sport.

But then, even as we settle into simply watching and waiting for spring training to be over, there is an extra little interesting wrinkle. I speak, of course, of the presence of minor leaguers in camp. You may not watch a whole lot of minor league baseball during the season, but spring training is an opportunity to get a look at what kind of depth the organisation might have, and perhaps what the future might look like as well. So sure, you might stop caring about a spring training game once the fourth inning rolls around and the starters are replaced by their bench equivalents and Quad A roster depth, but then suddenly when you get to the seventh inning and the kid with the triple digit fastball and very little idea of where it’s going comes into the game, things get intriguing again.

All of which is just a long-winded way of saying that, for me at least, the really fun part of spring training is when all the players we expect to watch for the next six months are out of the game and the kids come in. I don’t need to watch Matt Carpenter work a walk; I have seen that shit before, and will see it about a hundred times more between now and October. Don’t get me wrong; watching Matt Carpenter work a walk in June is awesome. But that’s when the games count. In March, not so much. In March, I’m way into novelty. And that means minor leaguers.

Now, it’s not quite the middle of March yet, and still far too early to draw any firm conclusions based on what we’ve seen so far. It’s also too early to go back and declare our spring surprises game in one direction or another, no matter how big a lead Jose Martinez may appear to have on the pack. But we’ve seen a fair bit of the minor leaguers so far, and at this midwayish point in spring training, I feel it’s time to highlight a few players (three, to be exact, since baseball tends to work in groups of three), who have made an impression on me to date.

Actually, as soon as I say three players I immediately turn around and undermine myself, since I can’t help but hand out a couple honourable mentions as well. Sam Tuivailala has looked very good, having apparently decided Mike Matheny doesn’t know any more about pitcher development than he does bullpen deployment. Magneuris Sierra has also looked good. I still have all the concerns I had previously about his long-term ceiling, given the lack of real strength to his game, and he hasn’t really shown any power this spring to make me think much has changed on that front. However, it’s easy to see the good things in his game, and the ways in which he could contribute; the speed and defense jump out immediately upon seeing him play.

And finally, just going by yesterday’s appearance, I have to call out Daniel Poncedeleon as looking very good. I watched his two innings yesterday three times thanks to the magic of DVR, and was as impressed the third time through as I was initially. He showed multiple solid pitches, but for me I can’t help but watch him and think just how good he could be in a relief role just relying on that wicked cutting fastball he deploys. It’s been my favourite of his offerings since pretty much the first time I saw him pitch, but it jumps out every time he’s on the mound, so I feel the need to keep calling attention to it.

Anyway, with those three pats on respective backs out of the way, let’s get to the three players I’m most impressed with this spring. (Non-Jose Martinez division.)

Jack Flaherty

I was higher on Flaherty than many outlets were this offseason, with Baseball America in particular knocking the righthander well down their list for a perceived lack of development. I won’t go too deeply into how and why I think they got it wrong on Flaherty, because for the most part I respect the work BA does and don’t want to come off as derogatory. Suffice it to say, I think they missed on Flaherty this year, and I think the reasons for that miss were misguided.

But enough of that. As I said, I was still quite high on Jack Flaherty this offseason, but having watched him so far this spring I think he is primed to take a huge step forward this coming season. The reason for my belief is based almost entirely on what appears to me to be a markedly improved curveball in camp.

The scouting report on Flaherty up until now has basically been this: average velocity on the fastball but spots it well, really good changeup (60 grade), solid, sharp slider (55 grade), and a curveball that will flash good depth but isn’t generally sharp and just sort of rolls up there (40-45 grade).

Well, so far this spring, I’ve seen a curveball from Flaherty that looks to have taken a very big step forward, and now looks like a second potentially above-average breaking ball. Now, to pump the brakes for a moment, it seems he’s been focusing on the curve over the slider this spring (which I don’t mind, necessarily), and so we’ve seen less of what has been to this point considered his better breaking ball. Hopefully the increased focus on the curveball doesn’t affect the slider, but if he’s able to maintain the slider he’s thrown in years past, incorporate this new, much sharper curve, and keep the two pitches separate, we are going to see Flaherty step up to a new level of performance, I believe. Admittedly, there are still some definite ifs in that scenario, but it certainly appears to me that he’s made some real strides with what was formerly his weakest pitch.

Harrison Bader

Not super tough to see this coming, really, considering Bader is currently riding an OPS close to 1.200, but it’s still tough not to take note of just how good the Cards’ young slugger has looked in camp, and it would be a huge oversight (or just willfully contrarian behaviour), to leave him off a list of this sort.

And really, it’s not even the huge numbers that get Bader onto my list; sure, he’s hitting .375 and slugging over .600, but a batting average on balls in play of .350 can go a long way toward those numbers, as well as a couple homers popping up in a small sample. Those kinds of things can happen, even if watching Harrison Bader produce big numbers is a reminder of the fact he has those physical tools to do so.

Rather, what I’ve been impressed with this spring from Bader has been his plate approach, which has been quite good so far. Now, admittedly, he still doesn’t look like what I would consider a patient hitter, by any means -- he’s walked only twice in 26 trips to the plate this spring — but he’s also struck out in just about 15% of his plate appearances, compared to the one-quarter K rates he was running last season, and has been more disciplined in general even beyond the raw numbers. He’s still taking mostly aggressive at-bats, but he isn’t chasing out of the zone and, for the most part, has been attacking the pitches he should be attacking.

If I had my druthers, I would still like to see Harrison Bader take a different approach at the plate than he often does; I’m a sucker for the patient, grinder types, the Dexter Fowlers and Matt Carpenters of the world. But that’s just not his game, in all likelihood. So the best we can really hope for is a hitter who attacks the right pitches, and lets the others go by. And so far this spring, that’s basically exactly what we’ve seen from Bader. They may not be realistic numbers, but what we’re seeing is sort of the best version of what the former Florida star could be.

And it’s very hard not to be excited by that.

John Gant

It seems a little unfair to be writing about a minor league jump being taken by Gant, who feels very much to be in that in-between realm of players who don’t necessarily feel like minor leaguers, in spite of still being technically prospects. However, given how impressed I’ve been with Gant this spring, I feel compelled to highlight him here, given he is still a developing player.

Of the three players the Cardinals received when they dealt Jaime Garcia to the Braves this offseason, Gant was really the only player I was actually excited about. Chris Ellis I could see a decent setup reliever somewhere, given his slider is an above average pitch, and Luke Dykstra could maybe make it as a utility infielder down the road. But if you asked if any of the players the Cards picked up from Atlanta had a chance to be real contributors at the major league level, Gant is the only one of the three I would have viewed as a relevant long term piece. I liked the fact he seemed to have one of those fastballs that generates more pop-ups than usual, and the changeup was a very intriguing pitch as well.

Well, having viewed Gant so far in spring training, I feel like I underestimated the quality of his stuff, even being relatively optimistic compared to many other people. His changeup isn’t just an intriguing pitch; it’s positively filthy at times. I feel like the fastball is essentially what I believed it to be; it’s roughly average in terms of velocity, but seems to be difficult to square up when he works toward the top of the zone. The changeup, though, is even better than I thought.

As for Gant’s third pitch, his curveball, there have been a handful this spring he’s thrown where I felt like I could see an above-average or even plus grade trying to peek out, but the pitch ends up high and to the arm side too often even so. That’s usually a sign of a pitcher casting the curve, rather than getting out front and pulling down with conviction, so perhaps there’s more development there still to come. I also wonder if he’s considered an alternate grip, perhaps a knuckle curve or something, but there aren’t a whole lot of pitchers who seem able to control a knuckle curve well enough to throw it for a strike when they need to. So maybe it wouldn’t help at all.

For my money, though, just the fastball/change combo this spring has impressed me enough I’ve revised my opinion of Gant’s potential future role upward a fair bit. Three months ago, I thought relief work was by far the best choice for Gant, as the fastball could maybe play up into the mid-90s, helping the changeup be even more effective. Now, though, I think there’s a chance even just that two-pitch combo could be good enough for him to be successful at the back end of a rotation, and if he could bring the curveball into focus a little more consistently, he might be even better than that.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is where I stand this morning, after just about two weeks of spring training games. Anyone stood out to you?

Again, non-Jose Martinez division. Because yeah, I know.