Sunday, January 31, 2016

Random Former Prospect Sunday - J.R. Graham

During the season, Sundays are set aside to take a look at a prospect at random, but with the minor league season over, I wasn't sure what to do for my Sunday article until this nugget of an idea came my way. How about we look at players who ranked in Baseball America's Top 100 while part of the Braves' organization, yet never appeared for the Braves? Over the next few months, I'll take a look at the prospects that were traded or simply faded away and just to keep up with my theme, I randomized the players.

Bruce Hemmelgarn/Getty
There was a time where Braves fans penciled J.R. Graham's name into future rotations. A right-hander with three quality pitches including a mid-90's fastball, Graham reached Mississippi just a year after the Braves grabbed him in the 4th round of the 2011 draft. He was a big asset in a system with a dwindling amount of pitching prospects once the Big Four of Mike Minor, Julio Teheran, Randall Delgado, and Arodys Vizcaino either made it to the bigs or were traded. But...that's how far the story goes. Well, with the Braves at least.

Originally selected in the 46th round of the '08 draft by the A's, the California-born Graham decided to attend Santa Clara University instead. The Broncos have produced a lot of draftees (160 total), but only three have gone on to have a 10 WAR or better career according to Baseball-Reference with Randy Winn their most notable player. The last time the Braves selected a player from Santa Clara was back in 1990 when they selected generic infielder Ed Giovanola. But in 2011, Graham was still available for the Braves in the 4th round. The #146th overall pick was ranked by Baseball America as the 120th best prospect heading into the draft so that was good value for Frank Wren's team.

After signing, Graham blitzed the APPY League over nearly 60 innings. He carried an impressive 4 K/BB ratio and gave up no homers in that time frame. His maturity and quick success prompted the Braves to push Graham past Rome so that he could start 2012 with the Lynchburg Hillcats. It worked rather well. In 17 starts, he duplicated his 4 K/BB rate in a bigger sample size (102.1 ING). His K's fell, but so did his walks. He pitched well beyond his years and it almost seemed like he had yet to be challenged. Atlanta sought to solve that by promoting him to Mississippi to finish the year. The Braves under Wren often attached accelerated timetables to the college pitchers they selected and Graham was no different. With about 205 innings under his belt, he was just a step away from the majors.

At that time, Graham had an impressive collection of pitches with a mid-90's fastball that had heavy sink on it. He kept hitters off balanced with a nice change-of-pace plus a swing-and-miss slider. If he could only stay healthy, he was going to remain a big part of the picture for the Braves.

Ah, but there's the rub. 2013 was an eight-start shortened season where he dealt with shoulder issues, which caused his velocity to tail off. Going through adversity is not uncommon for Graham. He was born three months prematurely at just 2 pounds. He even stopped breathing in his father's hands before being revived. Graham fights for every little thing he achieves and plays with a chip on his shoulders. An aggressive hurler, he earns the reputation as a bulldog. Now that he had control of his stuff, he wasn't going to let an injury keep him down for long.

Unfortunately, his body disagreed. While theoretically healthy during much of 2014, shoulder problems are a very difficult thing for a pitcher to shake. The Braves tried to baby him, giving him a strict pitch limit to keep his innings down. He didn't reached 70 pitches until his tenth start and after a good start to his season, his numbers began to decline. Graham would miss nearly a month of baseball before a late July return. After four brief starts, he moved to the bullpen and didn't have much success there either. All told, he had a 5.58 ERA in 71 innings with a 1.9 K/BB rate.

After the season, the Braves and their new front office had some Rule 5 decisions to make. They chose to protect Yean Carlos Gil and Williams Perez over Graham and Cody Martin, another successful ex-college pitcher. While Gil would later be designated for assignment, keeping Perez turned out to be the right move as he would start 20 games for the Braves in 2015. Martin would pass through the Rule 5 draft and briefly looked good in the majors before being shipped out in a trade. Graham didn't last nearly as long. The Twins selected him in the Rule 5.

A full-time move to the pen and a good offseason returned a lot of the velocity Graham had been missing. He was back in the mid-90's with max speeds of 98 mph. A lot of people were upset with the Braves for letting him go for nothing. His early success with the Twins gave their disappointment more validity. After 1.1 innings with a K against the Reds on July 1, Graham had a 2.92 ERA over his first 22 games and 37 innings. The walks (11) were a bit high and homers (6) stood out, but he was showing some good things. He even made a spot start against the Brewers on June 6, going 4 innings and allowing a run on a homerun. However, things got ugly after July 1. Over his final 17 games, he gave up 23 runs in 26.2 ING. Relegated to only low-leverage innings, he pitched sparingly over the final weeks especially with the Twins trying to stay alive in the Wild Card race. He also missed a little time toward the end of August with shoulder troubles.

Much was made about the Braves' decision to not protect Graham. Most of this is attached to fans overvaluing their team's prospects. The Braves had a pitcher who, while clearly talented, was being sidetracked by shoulder issues. In today's modern medicine world, it's just a reality that it's easier to fix ligament damage than shoulder trouble. The Braves made that point clear by picking Daniel Winkler in the same Rule 5 draft where Graham went to the Twins. Winkler, who was recovering from Tommy John surgery, was viewed as an asset to bet on versus Graham.

The Twins now don't have to feel the need to keep Graham in the majors to satisfy the Rule 5 rules so we might see Graham back in the minors when 2016 opens. Always the fighter, it's easy to root for Graham. But the chances that the Braves will regret losing him are pretty slim.

Previous Random Former Prospects...
Elvis Andrus
Bobby Smith
Bubba Nelson
Neftali Feliz
Gorkys Hernandez
Matt Belisle
Matt McClendon

Saturday, January 30, 2016

2016 Top 50 Prospects - First Half Revealed!

Spring Training is just around the corner so it's a good time to revisit the top prospects list here at Walkoffwalk.net. Some new changes for this year include an expansion of the list from a Top 30 to a Top 50. Also, the top 5 prospects will be revealed in February at my other blog, AtlantaBraves.About.com. In the meantime, let's look at the bottom of the list.

A couple of notes. My list does not include Derian Cruz or Christian Pache, the top prospects from last year's international class. Other blogs will include them, but unless the player has actually suited up, they don't make my list. If they did, Cruz would have been in the #10-#20 range with Pache likely in the Top 25 as well. Further, Hector Olivera and Dian Toscano are also not on my list. Even if they were young enough, so many years spent in Cuba's premier league would have kept them off. Finally, I am not a scout so take my rankings and grading system with the largest grain of salt. I believe in them, but acknowledge that other experts could disagree.

Players just missing my Top 50 - Pitchers Brandon Barker, Matt Custred, Steve Janas, Wes Parsons, Jorge Zavala, catcher Willians Astudillo, and infielders Anthony Concepcion, Carlos Franco, and Omar Obregon.

Top 50
50. OF Leudys Baez
49. LHP Kyle Kinman
48. LHP Brady Feigl
47. C Tanner Murphy
46. 3B Jordan Edgerton
45. 2B Luke Dykstra
44. OF Stephen Gaylor
43. C Jonathan Morales
42. RHP Chad Sobotka
41. RHP Caleb Beech
40. OF Joseph Daris
39. LHP Matt Marksberry
38. OF Keith Curcio
37. LHP Dilmer Mejia
36. RHP Ryan Clark

Some observations:...there is still some interesting talent near the bottom of my list....Sobotka has some believers, but I've soured on him. Could be a riser by midseason....Still like Mejia's future; just looking for a bounceback effort....Morales the most interesting bat from this collection for me....lot of left-hand relievers who have a good chance to see action for the Braves this year.

Hursh (Elsa/Getty)
35. Jason Hursh, RHP, Grade: C 
- The "safe" drafting of college arms produced Mike Minor, Sean Gilmartin, and Hursh out of first round picks. I don't hate on Frank Wren like others, but that's damning. Hursh had to be disappointed with a return to Mississippi, but his results were awful. A late season move to the pen produced a promotion, but sinkerball pitchers who lack pinpoint control, nor the ability to strikeout batters rarely make for good relievers. If he has a good spring, hopefully the Braves trade him.

34. Ronald Acuna, OF, Grade: C 
- The Braves thought so much of Acuna's maturity to let him begin his professional career in the Gulf Coast League as a 17 year-old. He rewarded their faith and they gave him three-to-four weeks in Danville to end the year. A triple slash of .269/.380/.438 from a player who logged one plate appearance all year against a pitcher younger than him? Wow. It's going to be interesting to see if Atlanta remains aggressive with Acuna into 2016 with a Rome assignment or if they let him start later with Danville. Either way, he's got x-factor potential if he can continue to progress and stay in center field, where he played all but six games last year.

33. Ricardo Rodriguez, C, Grade: C
- Picked up in the Christian Bethancourt trade, Rodriguez just turned 18 a month ago. He's raw at the plate, but has high potential as an excellent backstop with power. Baseball America named him the 21st best prospect in the 2014 international signing period so there is some higher ceiling for his game than others. Also have to love that he's already made his debut in the states, even if it was just two games with in the Arizona Summer League. Likely ticketed for a prime role with one of the rookie teams in 2016, Rodriguez will be brought along slowly.

32. Connor Lien, OF, Grade: C 
- I feel I'm late to the Lien fanclub. The nearly 22 year-old will be entering his fifth season after an eye-opening 2015. His numbers were improvements across the board and his defense drew great praise. He's plenty capable of playing a major-league quality center field and has some pop in his bat. I'd like to see him cut down his strikeouts and take more walks, though. His stolen base total saw a big climb from 16-to-34, but he was caught 12 times. Outfield is going to be a tough place to break through in Atlanta with long-term assets like Hector Olivera, Nick Markakis, Ender Inciarte, and Mallex Smith in the way. A continued boost to his OPS for the fourth straight season would help Lien.

31. Isranel Wilson, OF, Grade: C 
- The new scouting-and-development team took over last winter and have already added a lot of talent to the system. One of those players was Wilson, who was signed late in the 2014-15 signing period. Another aggressive push by the Braves, the 17 year-old skipped the Dominican Summer League and OPS'd .828 with the GCL Braves. He belted ten homeruns as well, giving the organization one of their few exciting power threats. There are problems, of course. His average of .222 looks bad, though he walked at an excellent rate. You'd like to see the strikeouts come down, too, but if the power is real, that's something you can deal with. Likely set for a Danville assignment, Wilson could join Acuna in Rome if both continued to be aggressively pushed.

Winkler (Joe Skipper/Getty)
30. Daniel Winkler, RHP, Grade: C 
- In Winkler, the Braves have a lottery ticket. Now, the prize isn't Powerball level, but it's a nice scratcher. You can get a guy who could rack up strikeouts with good control. On the other hand, you might have nothing. Winkler, a Rule 5 pick last year, has an advantage on other Rule 5 picks in that he has had entire year with his organization, despite pitching just 1.2 innings in 2015 before a seven game run in the Arizona Fall League. That was a result of Tommy John surgery that ended his 2014 prematurely. To keep Winkler, the Braves will still have to roster him for most of the first couple of months of 2016 so he's still going to have to show something. The good thing is that at his best, he was damn good (1.41 ERA, 0.71 WHIP, 4.2 K/BB with Tulsa before the injury). He'll probably get an extended look to make the team and while he has plenty of starting experience, the best bet is that Winkler has a foot in to make the roster as a bullpen player.

Weber (S. Cunningham/Getty)
29. Ryan Weber, RHP, Grade: C 
- Raise your hand if you knew Ryan Weber would make his major league debut in 2015. You're a liar if your arm moved at all. Weber had been an A-ball fixture for four years before finally having one ugly year with Mississippi in 2014. Then...magic happened. He continued to bounce back-and-forth between the rotation and bullpen, but over nearly 100 minor league innings, he walked a scant ten batters. I hate to Greg Maddux any poor young pitcher because God knows Kris Medlen heard the comparison enough, but nothing says Madduxian more than a 0.9 BB/9. By the end of the year, he became starter #10 to get his shot with the Braves. He had one really bad game, but was pretty good otherwise and gave the team at least six innings in 4-of-5 starts, including a 7-inning, 1-R, 10-K outing on October 1 against the Nats. His xFIP (3.42) and SIERA (3.29) make me want to be a believer (or beweber?), but his 109 cFIP makes me skeptical. Plus, his 66% GB% rate will likely decline to a degree. I like him from a plucky underdog standpoint, but I have my concerns.

28. Johan Camargo, SS, Grade: C 
- I was surprised that Baseball Prospectus, when they did the Top 10 list for the Braves, mentioned five interesting players including Camargo since talents that missed their Top 10 include Braxton Davidson, Tyrell Jenkins, Chris Ellis, and Juan Yepez. Camargo is a fun prospect, don't get me wrong. While he lacks some of the instincts at this point to play a smooth shortstop, he has a plus arm. A switch-hitter who has often played young for his level, Camargo has held his own and shows some plate discipline. There's potential here to be a utility bench player with a chance to be a second-division starter. I just want to see more offense first.
Cabrera (Elsa/Getty)

27. Mauricio Cabrera, RHP, Grade: C 
- In a system with some great pitching prospects, few match Cabrera's high-end combination of stuff and velocity. Unfortunately, he doesn't always know where it's going. He has a closer-worthy fastball and slider combination that could easily bring him to the majors in a hurry if only he can handle them. Until then, we'll simply be in awe over the triple-digit velocity and the isolated moments where he seems to put it all together only to fall apart the next outing.

26. Lucas Herbert, C, Grade: C 
- His selection was one of the most interesting picks of the 2015 draft. Kolby Allard's battery mate at San Clemente High School, many thought he was drafted at least somewhat for that reason. That's a bit unfair as Herbert, who was drafted #54th overall, was tabbed as the #52nd overall prospect entering the draft by Baseball America. He signed well before his more famous teammate and was ready to be the primary catcher for the GCL Braves before meniscus tear ended his season after just three games. He returned for the fall instructional league and will be on target for a bigger role in 2016. He's already a superb defensive catcher, but will he hit? He's expected to have power, but he has a bit of an odd swing where he doesn't really utilize his lower torso. But if he hits, he'll be a Top 10 prospect within a year or two - even in this system.

I'm actually a couple of days late with this so I hope to get the next issue with prospects #16-#25 on Thursday. Thanks for reading and remember to share in your Braves facebook groups and on Twitter!

Saturday, January 23, 2016

More Minor League Free Agent Analysis

With the snow bearing down on the mid-Atlantic states, I have some extra time to take a look at some of the minor league free agents that have joined Atlanta's organization since the end of 2015. Today's subject focuses specifically on guys who have already appeared in the major leagues. For a fairly comprehensive list of players who have joined the Braves on a minor league deal this offseason, click here. Links to further analysis are also included there.

Brignac - Kirk Irwin/Getty
Reid Brignac

From 2007-2010, Brignac was a fixture in the Top 100 rankings produced by multiple outlets, but has never been able to turn that hype into success in the majors. At his height, he was a middle infielder capable of a .321/.376/.549 slash in his Age-20 season while playing in A+ and AA. But his numbers since have largely been underwhelming as he's a .256/.326/.389 hitter over 480 AAA games. He's also never hit at the major league level outside of a 2010 season when he hit 8 homers in 326 PA, but still only OPS'd .692. A shortstop by trade, he has experience all over the infield and a little time in LF. His chances to make the roster were much higher when he signed in November than now considering the signings of Gordon Beckham, Emilio Bonifacio, and Kelly Johnson. Brignac is part of the group who might not be praying for an injury, but could definitely benefit from one (or three) affecting those in front of him on the depth chart.

David Carpenter

The Braves keep cycling through Carp like a fish market. The original will seek to make his return to the Braves bullpen after a year spent struggling with the Yankees and Nationals. He, like Atlanta, are hoping that by coming back to the Braves, Carpenter will get closer to his 2013-14 numbers where he had a 2.63 ERA and 2.88 FIP in 126.2 innings with 141 strikeouts. He also didn't hurt himself with walks (just 33 unintentional free passes). His velocity was down a tick last year, but the bigger issue was his slider. With the Braves, it was a pitch he could target at will and had a tight spin and fall to it. Last year, he lost control of it. If that is just a question of fixing some mechanical problems, Carpenter could be a great asset for the Braves bullpen this season. If not, the Braves will probably track down the other David Carpenter.

Chase D'Arnaud

I saw Chase when he was a quick moving Pepperdine product who played for the Lynchburg Hillcats in the second half of their Carolina League title-winning 2009 season. At that time, he looked like a pretty impressive prospect. But his power numbers quickly trailed off and bat stopped hitting for average. Similar to Brignac, though D'Arnaud started as a shortstop, he has since moved around with games at second, third, left field, and even center field. Also similar to Brignac, his chances of competing for a spot worsened as the offseason progressed. Likely ticketed for his sixth consecutive year in AAA where he hopes to earn a promotion to improve his .205/.231/.277 major league slash.

Freiman - Noah Graham/Getty
Nate Freiman

He's definitely tall enough to play first at 6'8", but the former 8th rounder out of Duke has simply not hit enough. Sure, his numbers don't look too bad in the minors, but those stats are probably aided by some notorious hitting leagues. Twice, he's made it to the majors and while he's flashed some power (9 HR in 301 PA), he doesn't get on base enough. Despite his height and presumably large strikezone, he doesn't actually strikeout that much. Limited to first base, he'll likely perform that role for Gwinnett in 2016 as there are few other options. He didn't receive an invitation to spring training. As an aside, looking at his size, I'm surprised he wasn't with the Duke basketball team as a last guy off the bench guy. I'm way more surprised that he was listed as a catcher/infielder for Duke. Can you imagine his giant frame trying to block balls in the dirt?

David Holmberg

Once traded for Edwin Jackson, Holmberg was a 2nd rounder by the White Sox in 2009 who made it to the majors for a start with the Diamondbacks in 2013. He spent the last two years with the Reds organization and the results were...let's say...awful. Of pitchers who have thrown at least 50 innings the last two seasons, only four have a FIP over 6.00. Only David Holmberg has a FIP over 6.60. For that matter, only Holmberg has a FIP over 8.00. To be exact, it's 8.07!!! It's actually really hard to earn a -1.7 fWAR in just 58.1 ING. It took Ross Detwiler 121.1 ING to get to -1.1. Unsurprisingly, Holmberg didn't get an invite to spring training. He throws five pitches and none of them are particularly good. If he pitches for the Braves in 2016, something went very wrong.

Ethan Martin

A decent prospect after the Dodgers took him with the 15th overall selection of 2008, Martin's career appeared to take off after he was dealt to the Phillies in 2012. He would appear in 15 games the following season in the majors, though the results were not pretty. The Phillies moved him to the pen and he got back to the majors, but only briefly in 2014. Last year, he spent most of the season at AA after injuries kept him out until June. He relies heavily on a hard sinker that's actually a pretty good pitch as far as whiffs go, but it doesn't sink enough and produces a lot of flyballs. His slider is his next choice and he can sprinkle in a change and curve as needed. He could at 26, develop into a half-decent reliever, but the Toccoa, GA product needs to refine his pitches and quickly to catch the eye of anyone.

Ogando - Mitchell Layton|Getty
Alexi Ogando

Probably the most intriguing player on today's list. The 32 year-old became a big name back in 2010-11 as first, a great setup reliever, and then a fairly impressive starter, earning him All-Star honors. He was moved back to the bullpen in 2012 and again was very good (if not homer prone) before injuries and struggles with his control finally led to Texas cutting him after the 2014 season. He spent 2015 for a bad Red Sox bullpen and though his ERA wasn't terrible at 3.99, his FIP of 5.32 and 1.7 HR/9 were less noteworthy. A big part of that was a nearly 17% HR/FB ratio (8% higher than his career norm), but he also benefited from a 83.3% LOB% so it's impossible to say he was unlucky. His velocity is still very good at 95 mph and though he can't hit triple digits anymore, he still had 98 mph heat in October of last year. The effort to re-work Ogando's delivery has taken away some of the bite of his pitches, specifically his slider, as the Rangers and Red Sox have looked to limit the violence in his delivery to the plate that led to his slim body breaking down. He's essentially coming from a higher delivery point. It's smart as it should keep him healthier, but to be effective, he's going to have to adjust his game. It's a good piece to bet on because he can still bring the heat and come after hitters. If tweaked just right, he might even become a solid asset that can be moved for a prospect later.

Matt Tuiasosopo

This guy. Should we talk about his brother, Marquis? Or should we talk about his cousin, Ronaiah (a.k.a Manti Te'o's dead girlfriend)? Neither because this is a Braves blog. A third rounder all the way back in 2004, Tuiasosopo has played 12 years in the minors with a few callups to the majors mixed in - most recently in 2013 when a good Tigers team called on him 81 times. He didn't suck (.351 OBP, .171 ISO), though the Tigers still waived him as soon as the season was over. He's mostly limited to 1B and the corner outfield spots, but has played a little second base and third base in recent years. A career .255/.355/.401 hitter in the minors, Tuiasosopo will be spring training fodder before heading to Gwinnett to help out there.

Chris Volstad

It's easy to forget about Volstad because he was the first signing of the offseason. The 16th overall pick of the 2005 draft, Volstad has thrown 10.1 major league innings since the end of the 2012 season. It's a quick fall from the 2008 rookie with a 2.88 ERA in 84.1 ING. He played three more years for the Marlins after that and was consistently bad. Volstad's basic issue is that he's a sinker ball pitcher who lacks an out pitch. When the ball elevates at all, hitters murder it. He basically has no margin for error. At his best, he's the 2010-11 Volstad - 6 K/9, 2.75 BB/9, 1 HR/9, 50% GB%, 4.30 FIP. Now, he was very good in AAA last year for the Pirates and his 3.16 FIP there was his best since he posted a 3.09 FIP with the Marlins' AA club before being promoted in '08. Pitching wise, you're going to get a lot of 91-92 mph sinkers, some curveballs, and a fairly hard changeup. He's also been known to throw fourseamers and sliders. Volstad is kind of lost in the minor league free agent starter battle since the additions of Jhoulys Chacin and Kyle Kendrick, but he probably has as good of a shot as anyone if he has a nice spring.

Wooten - Mike McGinnis/Getty
Rob Wooten

A 13th rounder in 2008 by the Brewers, Wooten has been a reliever from day one. Probably considered a closer-of-the-future guy by Milwaukee, Wooten put up some sick stats before getting hurt and missing 2010. Since then, he's been mostly good in the minors but hasn't stood out. It should be noted that his best success came when he was dominating sub-AA hitters who he was older than. In 71 games over the last three years with Milwaukee, Wooten has been pretty medicore. A strikeout artist before his injury, he's a sinkerball pitcher who mixes in a slider, curve, splitter, and even a fourseamer. Max velocity is about 92-93 mph. Wooten is minor league filler that bad Brewers pitching staffs have given chances to in hopes he somehow reaches his pre-2010 numbers again. It's probably not happening. He didn't receive a spring training invite and presumably will be part of what is likely to be a veteran bullpen for Gwinnett.

Out of these guys, I'd keep an eye on Carpenter and Ogando over any others. Carpenter has the familiarity angle and if he's able to be successful this spring, I'd give him a great chance to open the season with the team. Ogando's a bit of an x-factor. He could, theoretically, even be involved in the starter competition. While that's very unlikely, both Carpenter and Ogando have a good fighting chance to make the roster depending on how they perform this spring.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Scouting Report - Manny Banuelos

Player: Manny Banuelos
Date of Scouting Report: 1/21/16

Age: 25 in 2016
How acquired: Trade with Yankees for David Carpenter/Chasen Shreve
Salary: TBD (likely prorated major league minimum)
Years Before Free Agency: 6

Mike McGinnis | Getty
Brief Bio:
Former top prospect in the Yankees system is looking to capitalize on momentum that brought him to the majors the previous year. Injuries have always been a concern for Banuelos, who has only eclipsed the 100 inning plateau three times in his career (including last year). In 16 starts with Gwinnett in 2015, he maintained a 2.33 ERA with a 3.46 FIP, 7.3 K/9, 4.3 BB/9, and 0.21 HR/9. His efforts earned a promotion and while he started strong, he ended the year struggling and hurt. Had surgery to deal with some bone spurs that ended his 2015 season.

For more on Banuelos, here's my profile on Banuelos from About.com.

Offensive Observations and Grades
Very little information. 20 career plate appearances with 7 in the majors. Was highly successful in sacrifice bunt opportunities (4-for-4). Swinging Strike and Strike Looking percentages were slightly higher than the league norm, but certainly not awful. Hitless in the majors, he was 2-for-12 in the minors with 8 K's. One extra base, a double, and he only had one successful sacrifice bunt there.
Grades from a 20-80 Scale...Ungraded

Pitching Observations and Grades
(*sample size issues inherent in the following paragraphs) Once capable of 98 mph heat  before Tommy John, Banuelos now comfortably sits in the 89 mph range with a max in 2015 of 92.3 mph. There were reports he was hitting 94 mph with Gwinnett, but minor league guns are notoriously unreliable. He's basically scrapped his sinker and instead uses an 80 mph changeup a little less than a quarter of the time. Also utilizes a 83 mph slider that he can change speeds on depending on the circumstance. His fourth pitch is a 75 mph curveball that too often doesn't have much drop to it, but when it's on, it flashes out pitch potential.

Overall, he works best when he change speeds and out-thinks the hitter versus depending on stuff to get hitters out. His changeup was his best pitch to prompt a swinging strike last season, but his fastball is really the only pitch he spotted in the strikezone with any regularity. Changeup also is a double edge sword as it led to whiffs and an ungodly amount (48%) of line drives. As line drives turn into hits at a high rate, hitters teed off his change when it didn't flutter out of the zone. His mechanics are pretty smooth despite all of the injuries.
Grades from a 20-80 Scale...Velocity (45), Movement (50), Control (45)
Potential Grades...Velocity (50), Movement (60), Control (55)

Individual Pitch Grades...Fastball (50), Changeup (55), Curveball (50), Slider (45)
Potential Individual Pitch Grades...Fastball (55), Changeup (65), Curveball (60), Slider (55)

Other Grades...Holding Runners (65), Speed to the Plate (50)

Defensive Observations and Grades
Impossible to grade right now.

Future Projection:
PECOTA has not been updated and probably won't be until March. With that in mind, their long-term forecasts have trended away from actual results as they still expect him to be a strikeout pitcher. In fact, their 2016 projection included this unrealistic number - 207 strikeouts. I imagine when they re-run the model this spring, the numbers will see a significant decline toward something closer to Marcel (1.39 WHIP, 1.1 HR/9, 3.2 BB/9, 7.7 K/9). I'd argue that's still very optimistic considering the last time Banuelos posted a 2.4 K/BB rate or better was 2010. Steamer projects similar rates, though a more reasonable 1.9 K/BB. I think that's closer to the pitcher Banuelos is. There remains upside here and if Roger McDowell and company can get him to spot his pitches with a higher degree of frequency, he could develop into a decent #4 who might not embarrass you if pressed to start a playoff game, but will likely still maintain a FIP trending over 4.00. A reasonable baseline might be Ryan Vogelsong's 2015 - 3.9 BB/9, 7.2 K/9, 1.13 HR/9, 4.53 FIP. In his prime, if healthy, Banuelos could certainly progress beyond that, but probably not very far.

Banuelos might benefit from a move to the bullpen. Like many lefthanders, he has shown a platoon advantage historically against lefthanders. Fringe lefties are often converted into LOOGYs. He doesn't fit the typical hard-throwing relief pitcher profile that's all the rage, but neither did Eric O'Flaherty. But he'll need to show more consistency with a breaking pitch (likely his curve) to do so.

I want to know your opinion/scouting report. Add it below and I might altar mine and give credit to you.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Random Former Prospect Sunday - Elvis Andrus

During the season, Sundays are set aside to take a look at a prospect at random, but with the minor league season over, I wasn't sure what to do for my Sunday article until this nugget of an idea came my way. How about we look at players who ranked in Baseball America's Top 100 while part of the Braves' organization, yet never appeared for the Braves? Over the next few months, I'll take a look at the prospects that were traded or simply faded away and just to keep up with my theme, I randomized the players.

Tom Szczerbowski | Getty
Much like the case was with Neftali Feliz, the Braves faithful never really had a chance to get excited about Elvis Andrus. Sure, by July of 2007, Andrus had already appeared in Baseball America's Top 100 twice, but he was still just in A-ball. Also, it wasn't like the Braves needed to worry about the shortstop position. Yunel Escobar had just arrived in the majors and was playing behind Kelly Johnson and the just-30 year-old Edgar Renteria. Andrus was nice, but the Braves were pretty set for the next few years.

Except...well, you know that story.

Andrus was just 18 years-old when he was dealt to the Rangers. Even so, he was considered so advanced and mature that he began his career, at 16, in the Gulf Coast League. Signed out of Venezuela, the standard assignment would have seen Andrus spend a year at the Braves' Dominican Academy, get some game action the next year in the Dominican Summer League, and head to the states for more rookie ball in his Age-18 year. But that was not for Andrus, who began the season hitting .295 in the Gulf Coast League. He even got a week with Danville to end the season. A .380 OBP at two rookie league stops? Where do I sign up?

2006 wasn't impressive on the surface - he only slashed .265/.324/.362 - but he was just 17 years-old when the season began. Ozhaino Albies was a full year older this year and was the youngest player in the South Atlantic League. With Andrus, his age and placement would have been enough to garner attention, but the fact that he was such a gifted gloveman was the icing on the cake. Sure, he committed a lot of errors (32 to be exact), but that's part of the learning experience for a young shortstop. Minor league infields are not nearly as maintained (especially in the low minors) and having Kala Ka'aihue at first base certainly won't help your errors numbers. Wow, Kala...how I had unreasonable hopes for you.

The next season, 2007, saw more of the same for Andrus. He flashed more speed, but his OPS was sitting around .665 when John Schuerholz got antsy. The Braves were 55-51 and 4.5 games back in the NL East. Scott Thorman had been a failure at first base while Julio Franco, who was at the end of his rope, was brought back to help out. But the problem for Schuerholz is that he felt by making the offense better, it might hide the deficiencies of a pitching staff that was abysmal. It was not a good plan. Tim Hudson and John Smoltz had no support in the rotation and were flanked by Chuck James, Buddy Carlyle, Kyle Davies, Jo-Jo Reyes, Lance Cormier, Mark Redman, Jeff Bennett, and Anthony Lerew during the 2007 season. The quantity did little to assist the quality. The bullpen was hardly shutdown, either. Bob Wickman's luck ran out, Oscar Villarreal wasn't vulturing wins, Tyler Yates's fastball had no movement, and Mike Gonzalez was hurt (shocker). The Braves had a clear issue, but Schuerholz still tried to make a good offense a great one, dealing Andrus with a cadre of excellent prospects for Mark Teixeira.

Atlanta would finish 28-27 over the final two months. Their offense was better (4.8 R/G to 5.5 R/G), but their pitching staff was just as awful (4.5 R/G). Some of Atlanta's problems after the move was just bad luck (they had a better pythW-L% with Teix than before), but the trade had done nothing to resolve their bigger issues.

For Andrus, the trade would benefit his offensive numbers. Playing in leagues easier to hit in, Andrus OPS'd .742 in 27 games with Bakersfield. After ascending to the Top 20 in Baseball America's mind, Andrus slashed .295/.350/.367 in his Age-19 season at AA. He added 54 steals as well. The next season, 2009, Andrus jumped from AA to the majors and finsihed second in the AL in the Rookie of the Year ballot.

The six years that followed have been pretty consistent. He has a .270/.331/.347 triple slash in the majors, though his numbers have declined over the last three years. He hits a few homers, gets 20+ steals, and has been a good defender (though not elite). His declining offensive numbers have led to pretty ugly WARs over the last couple of seasons, though. Signed to an 8-year, $120M contract that runs through the 2022 season, Andrus is one of those few players that are overpaid by Fangraphs' standards. They have a formula for estimating how much in dollars a player is worth based on his WAR. While being paid $15M in 2015, Andrus was worth $12.5M according to that website.

Ultimately, Andrus has yet to become the superstar many felt he could be. When his defense was graded as excellent while his offense was close to league average (2011-13), he maxed out as a 4 WAR player. Now that both have come down, he's rapidly entered the overpaid baseball players club. Still just 27, Andrus could conceivably get back to his higher WAR totals, but the chances that he becomes the superstar people dreamed about him when he was a 17 year-old at Rome. He's just not that guy.

Still...would have loved to been able to trade him for a pitcher.

Previous Random Former Prospects...
Bobby Smith

Bubba Nelson
Neftali Feliz
Gorkys Hernandez
Matt Belisle
Matt McClendon

Saturday, January 16, 2016

This Week at AtlantaBraves.About.com

Here's a list of articles I wrote this week at my other blog, AtlantaBraves.About.Com. All article links open to a new tab/window.

5 for Monday: Spring Training, 2017 catchers, and more

My weekly look at some stories that may have been missed during the previous week. Some of this week's topics include hot prospects like Aaron Blair, Sean Newcomb, and Dansby Swanson receiving invitations to spring training; how ex-Braves like Fred McGriff and Billy Wagner did in the Hall of Fame vote; Mike Piazza's "Hall of Fame" moment against the Braves; and a look at who might be a target for 2017 to catch for the Braves. There's also a trivia question that has yet to be answered.

Atlanta Braves Look Toward the Future with Albies & Swanson

In another look at Swanson, I look at how the shortstop might join with Ozhaino Albies to form a long-term double play combination for the Braves. That's something that hasn't really happened since the 90's with Mark Lemke and Jeff Blauser (with Rafael Belliard). If the Braves strike gold with Swanson and Albies, they will bring some stability to both positions and give the two a chance to build the kind of chemistry that only comes from years of playing together.

Braves Cut # of Arbitration-Eligible Pitchers in Half; Sign Withrow

As arbitration neared, you may have been surprised to see Chris Withrow sign. After all, with 56 career innings, he's essentially had just one season in the majors. However, those DL'd days still count. If you need a refresher on Withrow, I touched on his history and gave a brief scouting report.

Braves' GM John Coppolella Does Q&A with Fans

Last Thursday afternoon, the hashtag #AskCoppy lit up Twitter as the Braves general manager took about 30 minutes worth of questions. I analyzed some of the interesting ones that touch on things like the offense, the fluid rotation, the draft, and the international market. As for specifics, Coppy didn't provide many, but did answer a question posed by my friends at Outfield Fly Rule on Matt Wisler.

Atlanta Braves and Arodys Vizcaino Re-Up for Another Season

After Withrow signed, the Braves only had Arodys Vizcaino to settle with as they tried to avoid a second year with an arbitration hearing. Vizzy, who like Withrow only has 56 career innings, got less than what was projected. Again, I provided a brief history and scouting report on Vizzy.

As always, feel free to add atlantabraves.about.com to your favorites list and/or follow me @WalkOffWalk1 for all updates.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Thursday Throwback - Marquis Grissom

(This column used to be called Random Ex-Brave.)

"Mark gets the sign. The wind and pitch, here it is."...It's a fastball on the outside corner that Carlos Baerga hits off the end of the bat.

Matthew Stockman | Getty
He was born in Atlanta in 1967. He attended Lakeshore High School in College Park. He continued his education and playing career with Florida Agriculture and Mechanical University, four hours away from Atlanta in Tallahassee. The fact was that Marquis Grissom was meant to be a Brave. It was in his DNA. After it finally happened for Grissom in 1995, it would be just more than six months later that Grissom would be involved in one of the biggest moments of Atlanta sports history.

He was born for this.

"Swung! Flyball deep left-center."...The flash of old cameras as fans try to capture the moment. The ball travels through the air toward the gap. Those lucky thousands at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium grow louder in anticipation.

In the 1988 amateur draft, the Braves passed on Grissom five times. Instead, they drafted Steve Avery, Jimmy Kremers, Matt Murray, John Kupsey, and Preston Watson. The latter two failed in their effort to get to the major leagues and only Avery really had much of a career otherwise. Instead, the Expos took Grissom in the third round and #76 overall. He would turn into the best player of the third round that year, though Darren Oliver certainly had a long career.

Grissom would need little time to make his presence felt in the Expos system. He played in just 201 minor league games before arriving in Montreal on August 22, 1989. A year later, he would be limited by injuries, but still swiped 22 bases in 98 games. He was part of a brilliant rookie class for the Expos that year, which also welcomed Mel Rojas, Larry Walker, and Delino DeShields to the majors. All three would receive at least a vote for Rookie of the Year, won by Atlanta's David Justice with 23-of-24 first place votes (DeShields got the other). Starting to think it was a Montreal writer who accounts for the one vote for both Walker and Grissom, along with the only first place vote DeShields received.

In 1991, Grissom had a mini-breakout season while settling into the everyday center fielder. He led the National League in steals with 76, but only on-based .310. It would be a year later that Grissom began to show what he was truly capable of. He again led the NL in stolen bases, this time stealing 78, but showed increased muscle with a .418 SLG, an improvement 45 points. The rest of his game would need one more year to come together and that takes us to 1993. An All-Star and Gold Glove winner for the first time, Grissom slashed .298/.361/.438 for the Expos. The steals were down (and this would become a theme), but his overall game was higher. The .789 OPS was the highest OPS of his career until he eclipsed that in 1996.

Grissom was part of one of the best teams to not go to the playoffs since the creation of divisions. In 1994, the Expos were stacked with talent across the board and bonus - it seemed like all were still young. Moises Alou had settled into an MVP contender next to Grissom in left and Walker was one of the league's finest hitters. So good was the outfield that Cliff Floyd had to move to first while Rondell White was stuck in the minors. Also on the infield with Floyd was Wil Cordero, one of the league's best hitting shortstops. The staff was fronted by Ken Hill and Pedro Martinez while John Wetteland and Rojas were lethal in the later innings.

The Expos were just 28-22 through May, which left them 3.5 games behind the Braves in the new NL East. However, they would get hot in June and even took 2-of-3 against the Braves June 27-29, getting them within a half-game of first place for the first time since May. A 14-0 hammering of the Padres on July 8 brought them even with the Braves. They would take over the division for good on July 22, including taking two more from the Braves - this time in Atlanta - in July's final days. On August 11, they lost 4-0 to Zane Smith and the Pirates. That evening, with the Expos up by six games in the division, baseball players went on strike. The season was over. As was Expos' best chance to stick in Montreal. They averaged 24,000 fans in 1994, their best total in a decade. In their final home series before the Strike, the Expos drew no fewer than 30,359 fans for a series against the Cardinals. Their home series in late June against Atlanta had this attendance: 45,291 - 40,623 - 45,960. For those of us that watched Braves games on TBS after 1994, visits to Montreal often saw Skip Carey poke fun at how quiet the Stade Olympique was. In 1994, the it wasn't so quiet.

Grissom hit .288 that season with a .771 OPS. He went to another All-Star Game and won another Gold Glove.

"Grissom on the run." The center fielder tracks the ball toward the alley as fans stand waiting to witness history.

With their players making more and more money because they were so ridiculously talented, the Expos simply didn't have the funds to keep them all. In fact, they would drop their estimated payroll by nearly $7M in 1995. Some of that came as the Braves prepared for the 1995 season. The previous year, they had dealt Deion Sanders and his immense baggage to the Reds in exchange for Roberto Kelly, who OPS'd .784 with the Braves in 63 games before the strike. Not known for his defense in center field, nor the ability to leadoff, Kelly was still a fit for the Braves - but not a particularly good one. Seeing the Expos situation, John Schuerholz pounced and brought Grissom home to Atlanta in exchange for Kelly, decent outfield prospect Tony Tarasco, and Macon righty Esteban Yan. It probably looks worse now than it did then, but I imagine a lot of major league GMs questioned why the Expos would give up Grissom for so little. This was a decision based on budget realities, rather than baseball.

Most people forget, but Grissom had a letdown first season with the Braves. He put a lot of pressure on himself to be that missing piece that would finally take the two-time NL Champion over the hump. Slashing just .258/.317/.376 with 29 steals, Grissom was a letdown in '95. But maybe he was simply saving his best for October. They don't hand out NLDS MVP's, but if they did, it would have gone to Grissom. He was responsible for the first run of the NLDS with a homer off Kevin Ritz in the third inning. He would double four innings later, but foolishly got thrown out at third on a Mark Lemke grounder. It'd be probably his only goof of the playoffs. The next night, Grissom took Lance Painter's first pitch of Game 2 over the wall. Not done, he would homer off Painter again in the 4th. In Game 4, Grissom was perfect. He singled four times, doubled in his other at-bat, and stole a base. The Braves would cruise to a 10-4 series-clinching win. While his follow-up in the NLCS wasn't nearly as eye-opening, Grissom rebounded in the World Series for a 9-for-25 series with a double and three steals.

Oh...and he caught a ball.

"YES! (YES!) YES! (YES!) YES! The Atlanta Braves have given you a championship! Listen to this crowd! A mobscene on the field!" Grissom catches the flyball and runs toward the infield to join his teammates that have made a human pile in the center of the infield.

In 1996, Grissom got a do-over and responded with his best single season in the majors. The 29 year-old slashed .308/.349/.489 with over 200 hits, 32 doubles, 10 triples, 23 homers, and 28 steals. It was the kind of big year that keeps you around with a team for years.

Except, for the second time in his career, Grissom's salary became a problem. While the Braves weren't handed down a demand to blow up the team and save money, they did have a tough choice to make. Grissom and Justice both had long-term contracts and lots of money promised to them. Meanwhile, Tom Glavine and Greg Maddux were a year away from free agency. There was not enough in Ted Turner's deep wallets to keep all four. Frankly, there was only enough to keep two. The Braves sided with the future Hall of Famers and traded 2/3's of their projected outfield days before the opening of the 1997 season for Kenny Lofton, Alan Embree, and much needed financial flexibility. The deal remains hated by Braves fans, though a critical look at the time makes it difficult to hate. For a deeper look, check out my Thursday Throwback column on Lofton.

Grissom lasted one disappointing season in Cleveland before a trade to Milwaukee. He OPS'd just .687 there over three seasons and the Brewers traded Grissom to the Dodgers. He flatlined in 2001, on-basing just .250 before an excellent bounceback season in 2002 where he slashed .277/.321/.410 with 17 HR. The big contract year prompted the Giants to bring him up the coast. For two years, he was a productive center fielder, belting 42 homers. But even the best of us eventually can't continue. 2005 saw Grissom hit a measly .212 before being unceremoniously kicked to the curb.

After a failed attempt to make the 2006 Cubs roster, Grissom would retire and head home to open the Marquis Grissom Baseball Association. According to the Alumni page, they have produced quite a few draftees, but Grissom might be even more proud of the lasting impact the academy he started has had on the young men that have gone through the doors.

One final note...Grissom received four votes in his only year on the Hall of Fame ballot in 2011. It was four more votes than Baerga had that year.

More Thursday Throwbacks...
Terrell Wade (1995-97)
Tommy Gregg (1989-1992, 1997)
Jerome Walton (1996)
...or view ALL of them.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

TOT: Braves Add Lowe and Kawakami. Braves Fans shudder.

Transactions of Today...January 13, 2009 - The Atlanta Braves signed Derek Lowe and Kenshin Kawakami as free agents.

Oh, this day. If any one day led to Frank Wren's firing, it was this one - even if it took years to happen.

Dilip Vishwanat | Getty Images
First, let's go with a history refresher. The Atlanta Braves lose 90 games with Bobby Cox at the helm in 2008. It was Wren's first season after taking over from John Schuerholz. He inherited a roster with promise in the field, but weaknesses on the mound. Jair Jurrjens, who just 22 years old, led the team in starts and innings pitched after Tim Hudson went down with injury. The rest of the staff? Jorge Campillo, Jo-Jo Reyes, Mike Hampton, and a not-ready-for-primetime Charlie Morton. The Braves finished with a 4.46 ERA - the third consecutive year the team had an ERA over 4 (hadn't happened since the 70's). There was little hope on the farm outside of Tommy Hanson. The Braves needed pitching and they needed it bad.

But that wasn't the only reason Wren went kind of crazy on the free agent market. After adding Javier Vazquez to the rotation, the Braves were hopeful that would be the start of a big and booming offseason. However, they struck out on acquiring Jake Peavy, who would ultimately be kept and traded at the 2009 deadline by the Padres. They also struck out on Rafael Furcal, who was all but certain to return to Atlanta. They were trying to hammer out a deal for Ken Griffey Jr., who had reached out to them, but were getting nowhere and Junior would ultimately sign with the Mariners. Wren, who was far more gifted at trading for players than signing them, felt the pressure to return Atlanta to prominence with an improved rotation. He targeted Lowe and went for broke on Kawakami.

In his defense, Lowe was coming off a 3.26 FIP in his final year with the Dodgers that included a sweet 3.27 K/BB ratio. The only problem was that he was entering his upper 30's. Kawakami had a spent a decade honing his craft with Chunichi in the Central League from Japan's Nippon Profressional League. He did have some good seasons - especially in 2006, but was also also 33 years-old.

One other thing to remember was the defection of John Smoltz. Many thought he would retire as a Brave, but Wren was not anxious to resign him for 2009. Smoltz had thrown just 28 innings in 2008, ending a streak of three consecutive 200+ inning seasons since his return to the rotation. Just months before his 42nd birthday, Atlanta waffled on a competitive offer for Smoltz. Wren seemed to access the "I want to save face, but I don't want to sign you" philosophy John Schuerholz used on Tom Glavine. Smoltz would sign with the Red Sox one day before the deals for Lowe and Kawakami were made official.

Another thing to remember was how in demand Lowe was, especially by the New York Mets. The sticking point boiled down to a fourth year. The Mets were willing to include it as an option, but they would not guarantee it. The Braves paniked and gave it to Lowe on the condition he quickly sign. He jumped at it.

All told, the Braves agreed to a $60M contract with Lowe and a 3-year, $23M contract with Kawakami. Lowe started strong, but was prone to complete crapfests (6 R or more in 5 starts). As the season progressed, his ERA ballooned to 4.67. Durable as usual, he was basically a worse Russ Ortiz in 2009. Kawakami was...okay. 4.21 FIP, 1.34 WHIP, 156.1 ING. He could have been worse. We'd find out how worse.

Lowe was better in in 2010. People have a misconception about Lowe's time with Atlanta. it wasn't great, but his 3.89 FIP in Atlanta was just 0.12 worse than his time with the Dodgers. It was just that when he was bad, he got really bad. When he was good, it never seemed like $60M good enough. One problem for Lowe was his sinker was losing sink and his control - so pinpoint with the Dodgers - was only very good rather than excellent. For a pitcher reliant on a limited skillset not eroding, age was getting to him. Still, Lowe finished strong in 2010 and even started two postseason games. He pitched well, but not good enough as the Braves depleted roster just lacked the firepower to beat the Giants.

No matter what we might say about Lowe, he was still better than Kawakami. In 2010, things just got ugly for the Japanese import. Win-loss record should be killed, but you have to suck to get to 1-10 usually. The Braves jettisoned Kawakami to the minors in July. He would make two appearances in September and finished the year with a 5.15 ERA in less than 90 innings. In 2011, injured and ineffective, Kawakami never pitched above AA ball. Mississippi fans wished he hadn't been there all the same.

Lowe's 2011 was bad - though again his other peripherals weren't terrible. He was declining at a steady rate and at a rate that wasn't hard to imagine considering his age. After 2011's 5.05 ERA, the Braves paid $10M or the remaining $15M just to trade him to the Indians.

In the end, Wren's free agent decisions in the winter of 2008-09 overshadowed pickups like Vazquez and Eric O'Flaherty, also acquired that winter. The 2009 Braves finished short of the playoffs, while the 2010 team - infused with Jason Heyward, Jonny Venters, and Kris Medlen - were good enough to go to the playoffs. 2011 would see the Braves collapse down the stretch and miss the playoffs completely. Lowe lost his last five starts, including 7-1 in the season's penultimate game against the Phillies. He gave up five runs in four innings that night. His last pitch was on a single by Jimmy Rollins to open the 5th. A batter later, Hunter Pence homered off Arodys Vizcaino to put the Braves down 6-0.

Lowe would be out of baseball by the end of 2013 and Kawakami returned to Japan in 2012, pitching three more brief years for Chunichi. Expected to be a strong middle-of-the-rotation arm for three years, he finished with just 243.2 ING in the majors.

As for Wren, the signings of Lowe and Kawakami, along with Melvin Upton Jr. and the extension for Dan Uggla would lead to his dismissal near the end of the 2014 season. The 2008-09 offseason, especially, was particularly damning. The near signing of Furcal, not being able to add Peavy, settling for Garret Anderson after Griffey went back to Seattle, Smoltz leaving...all of these things were PR nightmares, but their lasting effects were minimal. Nobody could say the same about Lowe and Kawakami.