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Know Your Prospects: Jose Ramirez, RHP, New York Yankees

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Jose Ramirez.

During my two-plus years of religious attendance at Charleston RiverDogs’ games, I don’t think I’ve seen a better product come through this system.

I wasn’t planning on going to tonight’s game against the Hickory Crawdads, the Ranger’s low-A affiliate, but when I saw Ramirez was the starter, I packed up the camera, the notebook, and my program and headed out to Joe P. Riley, Jr. Park. I was so intrigued by the sneaky-fast fastball and the it’ll-make-you-look-foolish changeup he displayed on April 26 that I had to find out if they were mere figments of my imagination or if this guy could possibly be the real deal.

And once again, Ramirez blew me away.

In six very, very strong innings, the 6’1″ righthander gave up just two hits. One of those hits, a first inning double by Hickory’s Cody Podraza, was all the Crawdad’s needed to secure the 1-0 victory.  Still, we all know wins and losses don’t mean everything.

Sitting at 80-83 miles per hour, Ramirez’s changeup is as advanced as any pitcher’s I’ve ever seen, at any minor league level. With his motion, you can’t tell the difference between his fastball, which ranges from from 89-93 and routinely touches 94, and his changeup. At this level, the batters are completely overpowered, overmatched, and overwhelmed.

He shows the ability to adeptly work both halves of the plate, popping fastballs in on hitter’s hands and stretching them out with changes on the lower half of the zone.

Ramirez’s curveball, which ranges from 79-84 and is an 1-to-7 offering, leaves a lot to be desired, but it has shown flashes of development. He threw it much more tonight than during Monday’s game against the Rome Braves, but he routinely left it up in the zone or down in the dirt. Still, it’s clear that it’s the pitch he’s working on. He never seemed to get a good feel for it tonight, but if he ever does, well…

What makes Ramirez so intriguing isn’t his great natural stuff, but the projection left in that stuff. He’s so tall (6’1″) and so thin (just 155 pounds), that it’s not improbable to believe he can add another 2-3 miles per hour to his heater as he ages.

Did I mention he’s not even 21 yet?

Ramirez’s free and easy motion makes me like him even more. There aren’t too many moving parts and it appears as though he’s made an unnatural movement as natural as possible. I’m no expert on pitching mechanics (that’s a direct shout out to you, Adam Foster, of Project Prospect), but if I had to wager a bet, I’d say his mechanics are as close to clean as you can get.

All of this means his stuff should play well at higher levels. And if I had to guess, I’d say he has two starts max, if they decide to promote him aggressively, at this level before he moves on to high-A Tampa. If he deals anywhere near as well as he has here in Charleston, he’ll be on the fast track to the upper levels of the minor leagues.

In 2009, Ramirez added the MLB.com Short-Season Pitcher of the Year award to his resume after going 6-0 with a 1.48 ERA and a paltry .159 batting average against. If they keep him with the RiverDogs for just a little bit more of the season, it’s easy to imagine him bolstering that resume.

This year, I’ve seen the Braves’ RHP Arodys Vizcaino in game action. Sure, it wasn’t the best game Vizcaino has ever pitched, but I didn’t see anything from him that would make me take him or rate him higher than Ramirez. When each pitcher develops and grows into their physique, I don’t think it’s at all preposterous to propose that Ramirez will have a better fastball, a better changeup, but a worse curve.

I really don’t think that Ramirez is having a good run or that he’s facing inferior competition; he’s just the latest of the Yankees’ international signees to breakout.

And that’s the true story of the game.

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Game Recap: Charleston RiverDogs vs. Rome Braves 4/26/10

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It was hard to harness my excitement for this one since Rome was trotting RHP Arodys Vizcaino to the mound, the most heralded prospect I’ve had the chance to see this year. Vizcaino was a pivotal facet of the deal that brought Javier Vazquez to the New York Yankees this offseason.

Vizcaino was also coming off his best outing of the short season, a seven inning, six hit, six K gem against the Kannapolis Intimidators. Building on that momentum seemed like a foregone conclusion before I got to the beautiful Joe P. Riley, Jr. Park.

I don’t know if he was tired or what, but Vizcaino’s outing was short and hardly sweet. He went just three innings, giving up three runs on three hits. The early lead Vizcaino gave up was all the ‘Dogs needed as they won the game 5-0.

Still, it looked like Vizcaino’s stuff was there. According to the stadium gun, his fastball sat at 94-95 miles per hour. His changeup lingered almost exclusively at 80. A velocity differential that large may be overwhelming any other night, but the seeing-eye singles kept dropping and his two walks came back to bite him.

Vizcaino struck out six in the abbreviated outing, so this was still an encouraging start. He could have used some help from his curveball, but the pitch refused to spin like usual and he ditched it midway through the second. Velocity-wise, the pitch ranged from 75-78 miles per hour.

His mound nemesis, Jose Ramirez of the RiverDogs, however, was nearly untouchable. The 6’1″ righthander out of the Dominican was dominant, pitching six very strong innings without allowing an earned run. He struck out nine in the process.

The lean and lanky righthander offers a lot of projection, so he could easily add a few miles per hour to his 91-92 mile per hour fastball. And that’s an intriguing thought because his changeup was outstanding, with a ton of downward movement. Rome hitters never got a good read on it and consistently swung well in front of it. It very well could be the best pitch I have seen all year.

I don’t know much about Ramirez, but he’s putting together a solid 2010 season, holding a 1.93 ERA through four starts, in which he has lasted at least five innings and struck out five in each.

Offensively, the game was just okay.

Christian Bethancourt, Rome’s young catcher, was still way too aggressive at the plate. Aggressive may not even be the word; stupid, well, that could work. In his first two at-bats, he saw a total of two pitches. His blind aggression worked in the first, as he picked up a single to left. In his second at-bat, he flew out on the first pitch if I remember correctly. And in his third, I thought someone may have told him, “Hey dude, calm down. Take a few,” but he still swung as soon as the ball left the pitcher’s hand. I don’t remember the result, but I was shocked at how poor his plate disciple truly was. He’s also got a lot of work to do against breaking balls.

Charleston’s batters, while they may have looked good in this game, still aren’t doing a whole lot for me.

Six foot-four inch first baseman Luke Murton has hit in 14 straight, so he looks alright. However, I don’t know if I have ever seen a batter more dependent on off-day pitchers in the stands. Before he steps into the box, he looks up to his teammates in the stands (you know, the guys with the gun or the pad meticulously recording every pitch) and asks if a pitcher is throwing a curve or a slider and whether or not his change is working. He may as well have a teammate sitting on second stealing signs.

And Deangelo Mack, a South Carolina grad and the RiverDogs’ pride and joy, knocked another roundtripper. He looks like he could be heating up. He’s easily one of the RiverDog’s more exciting players, so I’ll keep an eye on him as the season progresses.

The real story for me, however, was Rome’s bullpen. RHP Thomas Berryhill got in the game and did not live up to the bullpen session I saw on April 25. His fastball was around 89-93 with little-to-no control and little movement. His stride to the mound is real long and his arm tends to lag behind. As a result, he leaves a lot of stuff up in the zone. I was not impressed with his in-game action.

Another guy, who I know zero about, really impressed me. Julio Surinach, a 6’1″ skinny righthander from the Dominican, looked electric. Well, I should qualify that: wild, but electric. He hit two batters, but struck out two, too. He routinely and aggressively worked the inner-half of the plate, unafraid of hitting batters. His fastball ranged from 91-93 and had good pop and sweeping movement from a 3/4 arm slot. His changeup is a good offering, but needs refinement. It sits at 85. He’s also got a big curveball that spun in at 78-80 miles per hour.

Game Recap: Charleston RiverDogs vs. Rome Braves 4/25/10

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TANGENT ALERT!

I ravenously devoured Matt McCarthy’s Odd Man Out over the last two days. The Million Little Pieces-like book is a humorous and often painful look into the turbid and unforgiving world of Minor League Baseball. For any baseball fan, it’s a must-read. It will open your eyes as to what it’s like to be a minor league player and I promise you, you will never heckle a A-baller again. It’s an odd combination of Jim Bouton’s revealing Ball Four and the refreshingly honest and invigorating movie Sugar.

As soon as I finished the book, I knew it was time to take in a South Atlantic League game. The newfound respect I garnered from the book made me immediately more interested in and intrigued by the lives of minor leaguers. And for some, the South Atlantic is a step in the long and arduous ladder to the majors, but for others, it’s just a flash-in-the-pan story they’ll be able to tell their grandkids.

Either way, the South Atlantic League is full of Odd Man Out stories just waiting to be written.

There are plenty of sites out there that write about Sally League prospects, but most of them do it from a distance. However, there’s some that do it from behind home plate. Mike Newman’s Scouting the Sally is, by far, the most comprehensive and honest look into the league. His coverage of the Savannah Sand Gnats conveys an undying loyalty to the game and he’s not afraid to go against conventions. Check it out.

I, however, will be covering the Charleston RiverDogs, the New York Yankees’ low-A affiliate. When I go to the games, sure, I’ve got my 2010 Baseball America Prospect Handbook with me, but I never let it influence my evaluations. So if you see me rip someone who you’re sure is a huge star in the making, it could be a product of small sample size. And if I tout a guy who you think is a dud, well then, we’ll see who comes out right in a couple years.

Today’s game featured the Charleston RiverDogs and their anemic offense and the Rome Braves and their deep system of possible impact prospects (mostly pitchers). The pitching matchup was Charleston’s Sean Black versus Rome’s Brett Olberholtzer. Black has done nothing but get beat around lately, while Olberholtzer has looked good, with an ERA under 2.00.

The ‘Dogs won 3-2. Here are the notable players from the game.

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College of Charleston sweeps Radford in season’s opening series.

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It’s hard to believe it was snowing here in Charleston, South Carolina, just a week ago.

Because today it feels like spring. I’m finally wearing shorts (beware the glow!) and the anoles have emerged from their winter hiding places and are torturing my dog by running just fast enough to stay out of her reach.

And that means one thing, folks: it’s officially baseball season.

Major League Baseball’s pitchers and catchers reported on Thursday and the NCAA baseball season began nationwide on Friday.

The College of Charleston Cougars (hereby ordained “C of C”) opened with a non-conference series against the Radford Highlanders at nearby Patriot’s Point Park in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina.

In the Southern Conference coaches’ poll, the Cougars were chosen to finish fourth. The media, however, picked them to finish third. Baseball America, my favorite source for college baseball information, has ’em finishing second.

The consensus favorite to capture the SoCon league title is Elon, a team filled with dominant pitchers and an above-average group of hitters.

And while it will be hard to wrestle the title from Elon, C of C has all the trappings of an extremely competitive, even championship caliber, team. They’re arguably the best offensive team in the league, their defense is solid, and their pitchers have good upside.

Everything came together for the team during the opening weekend, as they swept Radford in dominating fashion to start the season 3-and-0. They won the first game 8-4, the second game 9-1, and the third 11-3.

The offense was explosive and the pitching was good. There were few scouts at the first game, at least three at the second (Texas, St. Louis, and San Diego) and one at the third (Atlanta).

That means it’s time for a rundown of the team’s top players thus far. For fun, I’ll throw one Radford player into the mix.

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Know Your Prospects: Daniel Mahoney, RHP, Florida Marlins

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When Daniel Mahoney took the mound for the New England Collegiate Baseball League’s Newport Gulls during the summer of 2008, the serious fans got out of the line for hotdogs and popcorn and cemented themselves as close to the field’s barrier fence as possible.

In a league full of jocular boys (the NECBL is often many young players’ first exposure to wooden bats), Mahoney exuded a captivating maturity and electricity withheld only for those with serious aspirations.

With his gloved hand tucked tightly against his chest, Mahoney would straightforward charge from the left field bullpen. He’d reach the mound, mutter a few words to himself, and tuck in his necklace. And then he’d warmup. But his warmups weren’t warmups; they were serious battles. Steely eyed and focused, he’d never take his eye off the catcher’s mitt, not even for a second.

Pop. Pop. Pop.

Buck O’Neil may have said it about hitters, but it’s true. You really can hear a difference.

It was the first time I saw this unfold when I thought to myself: This guy’s something special. He hadn’t even pitched to a single batter, but I felt some kind of instinctual revelation. And I was confused and puzzled and baffled. It shouldn’t be this easy to pick out a needle out of a haystack. But sometimes your gut is right.

Mahoney, a 6’4″ righthanded flamethrower, was named the NECBL’s top professional prospect at the end of the season. Originally groomed as a starter during his freshman year at the University of Connecticut in 2008, Mahoney was moved to the team’s bullpen in 2009, a direct product of the success he had in the NECBL. In 28 innings that year, he struck out 26, walked 10, and posted a modest ERA of 4.16.

During the 2009 MLB Amateur Draft, Mahoney was selected by the Florida Marlins in the fourth round, 128th overall.

Mahoney’s first season was, admittedly, not a success. He was converted back into a starter and during his first professional stint with the Jamestown Jammers of the short-season New York-Penn League, he posted a 1-6 record with an ERA a tick over 8.00. In early August, Mahoney hit the team’s 60-day disabled list to undergo Tommy John surgery.

Over the past six months, Blogging About Baseball has received a lot of hits from people looking for information on Mahoney. For a fourth round pick, there’s really not much known about him. Luckily, I had the opportunity to interview Mahoney earlier this week as he begins the long road to recovery…

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Sometimes all you need is a ‘lil shot in the arm…

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Or maybe, in this case, it should be shot in the ass.

I’ve spent a month away from blogging. In that time, I’ve started a new nine-to-five job and a brand, spanking new roommate moved in. Needless to say, it’s been hard to find the time to write. But that doesn’t mean I haven’t wanted to. So, with that said, pardon me if I’m a little rusty…

Mark McGwire. That’s who we’re here to talk about. Today, his admission to using steroids was the lightning bolt that came out of the sky, hit me right in the ass, and made me fire up Blogging About Baseball once again.

Maybe I’m ahead of the curve, but I believe I discovered Mark McGwire was juicing sometime in 1998. And if it wasn’t in ’98, then it was sure as hell in 2005 when, during his testimony in front of the House Government Reform Committee, he famously and repeatedly stated, “I’m not here to talk about the past.”

Still, I’m truly shocked about the upwelling of genuine emotion his heretofore inevitable admission has brought out of me.

I’m amazingly pissed. I mean really, really, really, f’ing pissed.

And there’s one reason: McGwire, along with fellow cheat, Sammy Sosa, broke Roger Maris’ decades old record for most homeruns (61) in a full season in 1998. And they didn’t just break it. They pulled their pants down and defecated on it. And then they set it on fire and put the fire out by urinating on it. In essence, they opened the door for Barry Bonds (who I will only dedicated this one sentence because I just might lose it) who put that crap in a flaming paper bag and put it on Roger Maris’ doorstep in 2001.

That’s disrespect. If you know you’re doing something questionable and that something could possibly ruin everything the very game you supposedly love and revere stands for, you just don’t do that.

The integrity of the game. Tarnished.

The legendary records of the game. Tarnished.

Now, I’ve come to the realization that the game I love has never been played perfectly. Through the centuries we’ve seen pitchers throw spitballs. We’ve seen signs getting stolen in the most ridiculous of ways. We’ve seen batters cork their bats. We’ve seen guys hopped up on greenies. If there’s been an avenue to exploit, baseball players have found it.

But this is my generation of baseball and I’m entitled to all the tunnel vision I want. Except that I don’t truly think this is tunnel vision.

I don’t think we will ever look at those cheating tactics with the same disdain as we do steroids. And I don’t think future fans will be able to turn the same blind eye as we did to amphetamines and corked bats and scuffed balls to steroids.

The gains that both pitchers and hitters earned from sticking needles in their ass was (and possibly is) so exponentially and quantifiably higher than any of those other means of one-upmanship.

Brady Anderson hit 50 homeruns in 1996. Before that season, his season high was 21. After that season, he never hit more than 24. He was the team’s leadoff batter. Just think about how f’ing mind boggling that is.

And then we can think about guys like Luis Gonzalez (57 homeruns in 2001) or Greg Vaughn (50 in 1998) who are a little less glaring.

Every statistic from the 1990’s is skewed…or is it screwed?

If Bonds, McGwire and Sosa had not set any records in the 1990’s or 2000’s, we would be able to forget this whole catastrophe. In 15 years, it would have been like none of this had happened, another greenie epidemic, another stolen sign debacle. If only Bonds, McGwire, and Sosa had done exceptionally well, given all of the records a spirited chase and fallen short.

If only…

Know Your Prospects: Melky Mesa, OF, New York Yankees

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If I had to describe New York Yankee’s prospect Melky Mesa in one word, it would be “polarizing.”

Those that scout him have routinely been blown away by his explosive raw power and simultaneously baffled by his superiorly under-developed and sophomoric plate discipline. To add to Mesa’s mystique, he looks like a ballplayer: at 6’1″, 165 pounds, his sinewy and lanky frame is fluid in the outfield and promising in the box.

Baseball America named him the No. 20 prospect in the South Atlantic League for 2009 and also included him in an August 2009 Helium Watch. On Pending Pinstripes, a Yankee’s minor league blog, however, Mesa didn’t even break the organization’s top 30 prospects.

But perhaps Mike Newman of Scouting the Sally said it best: Mesa is a “lottery ticket” with enough “red flags to fight back my adoration of his raw tools.”

Born Melquisedec Mesa, “Melky” was just 16-years-old when the Yankees signed him as a non-drafted free agent out of the Dominican Republic in 2003. He spent two years in the Dominican Summer League before joining the Gulf Coast League Yankees in 2006.

Initially, the Yankees suspected that they had a legitimate five tool player in Mesa: he could hit for average, he had great speed, a good power stroke, a cannon of an arm, and good defensive instincts. But how would these skills translate to a real game on American soil? Would the promising tools develop?

Mesa’s first professional season clearly and succinctly presented the answers to some of those questions: in just 40 games, Mesa struck out 45 times, batted just .201, and posted a subpar on-base percentage of .261. Despite his “world class speed,” Mesa stole just three bases and was caught three times.

He did, however, play great defense.

His 2007 stat line is peculiarly similar. Every positive improvement was hindered by an equally powerful negative. Improvements in on-base percentage, slugging percentage and batting average overshadowed a drastic upturn in strikeouts and a decreased walk rate.

With the New York-Penn League’s Staten Island Yankees in 2008, Mesa showed marked improvement in power. He finally flashed the pop that many thought he would develop, crushing seven homeruns in just 122 at-bats. His OPS jumped a notch over .700 for the first time in his career.

Mesa had found his calling card.

In his first full professional season with the Charleston RiverDogs in 2009, Mesa worked on harboring his game-changing, light tower power at the expense of plate discipline of any kind. He led the team with 20 homeruns, 74 RBI, and 24 doubles. He also, however, led the South Atlantic League with 168 strikeouts in 497 at-bats. He batted just .225.

Because of Mesa’s molasses-like offensive development, he has earned comparisons to Alfonso Soriano, another Dominican Yankee farmhand that didn’t wow anyone until he broke out at an advanced 25-years-old.

Having seen Mesa play a lot in 2009, I firmly believe the comparisons are premature.

At no point in his career has Mesa shown an ability to hit for average, posting measly batting averages of .201, .235, .221, and .225 from 2006-09.

Soriano, by comparison, never hit below .250 at any level he played more than 60 games at. One has to consider Soriano’s putrid playing in Japan a result of the conditions; he was so miserable overseas that he “retired” in order to get out of his contract with the Hiroshima Carp. Sure, it’s not an entirely fair conclusion to make, but clubs don’t usually offer $3.1 million to someone who really stunk it up in the Japanese Central League.

For a 22-year-old still toiling in the low A South Atlantic League, one would think Mesa would attempt to refine his hacking approach at the plate. Still, just once in his four-year professional career has he posted an on-base percentage over .300 (.309 in ’09). For someone who was pitched to “like [he’s ] Barry Bonds” this season, as RiverDogs’ manager Torre Tyson said, you’d think that number would be significantly, if not substantially, higher.

In 2009, the Yankees never promoted Mesa when it seemed most appropriate, when his numbers separated him so far from the rest of the league that it seemed imminent.

That’s a telling judgment of where the club thinks his development is. And it’s justified.

Mesa is Jekyll and Hyde act in the purest sense.

On May 9, 2009, Mesa crushed a game-trying homerun against the Asheville Tourists in the bottom of the ninth inning with two out. I remember the at-bat vividly. He patiently sat on a middle-in fastball and crushed it well beyond the wall in left field.

I also, however, remember a game against the Savannah Sand Gnats late in the same month where he struck out two times on consecutive breaking pitches. He reached into the left-hander’s batter’s box for both, something I’d seen him do multiple times before. He repeated the performance the next night.

Two different nights, two different players: one a five tool star, the other a lost cause.

One thing about Mesa is certain, however.

He is a premier defensive outfielder. His speed plays better in the outfield than on the basepaths and he has a natural knack for route running. His arm is well above-average and could be the best in the Yankee’s farm system (it was definitely the best on Charleston). His 19 outfield assists led the South Atlantic League in 2009.

Mesa is slated to begin 2010 with the Tampa Yankees of the high A Florida State League.

And the promotion should serve as a good barometer for Mesa’s future. Will he thrive in the pitcher friendly F.S.L.? Or will he regress?