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Prospects In Action: Zack Wheeler, RHP, Augusta GreenJackets – May 12, 2010

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If you’re a first round pick or a budding superstar, chances are you don’t want me in the stands when it’s your turn to take the bump.

A few weeks ago, I coaxed a bad start out of the Rome Brave’s Arodys Vizcaino.

And last Wednesday, I hexed the Augusta GreenJacket’s flamethrowing righty Zack Wheeler. In just 2.2 miserable innings, Wheeler gave up six hits, six earned runs, three bases on balls, two wild pitches, and a hit by pitch.

How’s that for a line?

I wanted Wheeler to do well last night. I mean, I really did. About six months ago, I wrote this post about Wheeler. It basically put me behind the wheel (no pun intended) of the Wheeler bandwagon, before there even really was one. There’s just something about a 6’4″ righthander that touches 95 miles per hour that intrigues me like nothing else but maybe a pizza with a donut topping.

But as is the course of the last couple weeks, another big prospect left town a beaten man, leaving me wondering how much longer I can continue this bad luck streak of awful starts by good pitchers.

When the night started, it looked like Wheeler was ready to deal. His bullpen session left the family next to me confounded; they hadn’t seen anyone with the velocity of Wheeler and they weren’t afraid to repeatedly admit it, noticing my notebook and hoping I was someone who could quote them in something worthwhile.

And even the catcher, Tommy Joseph, was feeling good about their chances: “Ah, it’s just an 88 mile per hour changeup. No big deal!”

And, like clockwork, Wheeler’s first inning went well.

His fastball sat at 95-96 according to the stadium gun, a pretty big bump from the 93 he had been previously reported at. One pitch caused a buzz amidst the Charleston fans when it registered at 99 miles per hour on the big board. It was an obvious glitch in electronics, an outlier of the purest sense, but a cool glitch, nonetheless.

The first thing I noticed about Wheeler was his delivery. It features an odd hesitation with his lead foot; instead of using the weight of his right leg to propel his arm and body weight forward, he basically takes it out of the mix, dangling it over the forward part of the mound until his snake-like right arm reaches its pinnacle and begins its downward movement. Only then does he finally drop the foot. The hesitation, once spotted, seems very out of place for a power pitcher. In person, it’s much more pronounced than in any of the video I’d previously seen.

You can clearly see that he is not consistently repeating the movement in this video. On the first pitch, the hesitation is apparent, but by the third pitch, there’s almost no delay.

That being said, Wheeler generates tremendously easy velocity from his tall, broad, and lanky frame.

His changeup had good running movement, coming in at 87-89 miles per hour. He didn’t throw many curveballs, which was a major disappointment since I’ve heard it’s a good looking pitch. When he did throw it, it spun in almost exclusively at 78 miles per hour. It has a tight rotation and looks like it could be a true power curve. My only notes are: “78, 78, 78, small break.”

In the first, Wheeler gave up just a run on a bloop single to left field.

But that’s just about all the positives I have to report. Check out this recap of Wheeler’s second inning:

  • Deangelo Mack grounds out, second baseman Ryan Cavan to first baseman Luke Anders.
  • Garrison Lassiter strikes out swinging.
  • Kelvin Castro singles on a fly ball to right fielder Ryan Lollis.
  • With Raymond Kruml batting, passed ball by Thomas Joseph, Kelvin Castro to 2nd.
  • Raymond Kruml singles on a ground ball to center fielder Evan Crawford. Kelvin Castro scores.
  • Jimmy Paredes doubles (5) on a fly ball to center fielder Evan Crawford. Raymond Kruml scores.
  • Justin Milo singles on a ground ball to left fielder Dan Cook. Jimmy Paredes scores.
  • Luke Murton walks. Justin Milo to 2nd.
  • With Robert Lyerly batting, wild pitch by Zack Wheeler, Justin Milo scores. Luke Murton to 3rd.
  • With Robert Lyerly batting, wild pitch by Zack Wheeler, Luke Murton scores.
  • Robert Lyerly grounds out, second baseman Ryan Cavan to first baseman Luke Anders.

It was ugly. When Joseph allowed the passed ball, it looked like there was a breakdown in communication between the battery mates. However, that wasn’t my biggest concern.

In the second inning, Wheeler’s velocity dropped almost four miles per hour. Instead of the 94-96 he was tossing in the first, his first five pitches in the second were 90, 91, 90, 92, and 90. And it remained there for much of the inning. He got back up to 94 during the Luke Murton at-bat, but the results were just not there.

Was he pitching with adrenaline in the first? Did he over-exert himself? Or had he just lost control?

I don’t know. But I do know that to the semi-trained eye, each time an abbreviated velocity reading popped on the board during the second, I put a mini red flag up. And when he lost all control during the second half of the second inning, I was reminded of something I saw during the bullpen session.

While working in the bullpen, Wheeler would start his windup, then look down to see where that lagging lead foot was, and then continue on.

I do not know if the pause I saw was present when he pitched in high school. But to me, it certainly looked more pronounced and intentional. It did not look like he was quite comfortable with it yet and it looked like something he was thinking about. And when you pitch, you don’t want to think.

Strangely enough, Augusta’s manager sent him back out there for the third. His velocity returned, but after a hit-by-pitch and a nasty walk, Wheeler’s night was over.

So, there it is. I wish I could send San Francisco fans revelatory information about the ace potential of Zack Wheeler, but I simply can’t. I’m still confused by what I saw.

For one inning, Zack Wheeler looked every bit the $3.3 million San Francisco thinks he is worth. But for the next 1.2 innings, he looked every bit Jason Grilli, the last pitcher the Giants picked up in the first round.

We’ll just have to wait.

Note: That obnoxious high-pitched voice isn’t me. That little rat ruined made my night a living hell.

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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.

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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