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Know Your Prospects: Asher Wojciechowski, RHP, Citadel Bulldogs

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It’s more difficult to spell than the longest name in baseball, Saltalamacchia. And its pronunciation is even more mind boggling than Duchscherer.

For baseball writers everywhere, there’s a new brain aneurysm causing name on the scene.

Wojciechowski. First name Asher.

Prounounced Woah-jeh-how-ski, I have the name copied so I can simply press Apple+V whenever it comes up. When I started this blog, I didn’t know I’d have to become proficient in the study of Polish linguistics.

But, it doesn’t look like I’m going to be able to avoid the name for any duration. Currently ranked 23rd in Baseball America‘s April Draft Preview, Wojciechowski has established himself as a first-round talent while pitching for the hometown Citadel Bulldogs.

I’ve had the opportunity to see Wojciechowski pitch on numerous occasions. Early in the season, it was easy to temper expectations for him. He was raw, his aggression unbridled, and maybe he was trying a little too hard to replicate his success from 2009. His fastball command was inconsistent, so hitters sat on his curveball and routinely laced it for hits. During more than one early season outing, Wojciechowski yelled “FUCK!” into his glove as hitters fed on his secondary pitches.

Wojciechowski has progressed steadily since then and has, by a large margin, become the Southern Conference’s best pitcher. As of April 30, Wojciechowski lead the league in earned run average (2.47), strikeouts (98 through 73 innings), batters struck out looking (68) and wins (8).

A 6’4″, 230 pound, righthander out of Beaufort, South Carolina, Wojciechowski is one of the more advanced pitchers I’ve seen at the college level, both physically and stuff-wise.

His tall, but stout body is perfect for his leg-driven motion. His frame is surprisingly compact and moves quickly when he drives off the rubber with his large quads, meaning he gets all of his weight behind every pitch.

As a result, Wojciechowski is a power pitcher in the purest sense. His fastball resides in the low-to-mid nineties. During the Citadel’s game against Appalachian State on March 26, he sat at 91-93 with the pitch. As the season has progressed, however, he’s actually sustained that velocity and his fastball now sits closer to 93-94, even late into games.

Wojciechowski also possesses a good slider. The action on the pitch looks more like a power curveball, but I’m assuming he’s told scouts that it’s a slider because on nearly every outside scouting report, they call it a slider. Still, I’m sticking with my guns and calling it a power curve. Whatever it really is, the pitch sits at 89-91 miles per hour and has also shown positive development as the year has worn on.

Even though it’s not his best pitch, Wojciechowski shows absolutely no hesitation throwing his breaking ball, no matter the count. In several outings, I’ve actually felt he was throwing it to a fault, like he refused to accept that it’s not an out-pitch. Now, however, the pitch isn’t a pitch you can really sit on. It’s got good, sharp lateral movement and when he can command it, he uses it to expand the plate well.

His changeup, like so many young pitchers, is almost non-existent. He’s only thrown it a handful of times in the three games I’ve seen. It needs work.

Wojciechowski has a lot working for him, though. His success in the Southern Conference has made him an imposing figure. When he toes the rubber, opposing batters feel like they can’t win, like they can’t hit, like they can’t do anything.

Wojciechowski begins his motion upright and holds his glove over his face so the batter can only see his glaring eyes. Looking in my notes, on more than one occasion, I’ve recorded something along the lines of: “Looks like he’ll rip your face off when he’s on the mound.” When he goes from the stretch, he begins by expanding his whole body, just showing the opposing team how physically dominant he is.

And when he’s at his best, he doesn’t let up and pounds the strikezone, over and over, with his boring fastball. With that coming at you at 95 miles per hour and a sharp breaking pitch, he’s been nearly unstoppable in the Southern Conference.

Some scouts say he’s a bonafide number two or number three starter at the major league level. Others say he’s a flamethrowing reliever.

Like that offspeed pitch, there’s some thrash over what Wojciechowski is, what he will be, or where he’ll end up.

Either way, his dominant 2010 has been a fun ride. And no matter what the future holds, I’ll be watching.

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?