Two Double-A starting pitchers with volatile prospect values faced each other on May 1. Noel Arguelles of the Kansas City Royals and Seth Blair of the St. Louis Cardinals are in the midst of make-or-break seasons.
Cuban native Arguelles signed a massive five-year, big-league contract as an international amateur free agent in January of 2010. It will pay him $7 million over the life of the contract. The southpaw injured his shoulder before getting into an official game, underwent surgery and later made his debut in High-A ball in 2011. His stuff never fully rebounded, though, and his fastball went from averaging 89-93 mph to working more in the 87-90 mph range.
Now 23, Arguelles was granted a rare fourth minor league option (Players usually get three once they’re added to the 40-man roster). At the conclusion of this season, the Royals will face a huge decision: With Arguelles out of options, he will have to be passed through waivers — exposed to the other 29 clubs — if Kansas City tries to send him to the minors. After investing so much time and money in the lefty it would be a huge loss.
Blair, on the other hand, was the 46th overall pick during the 2010 amateur draft after flashing above-average potential as a starting pitcher. Selected out of Arizona State University, the right-hander struggled early in his career with command/control issues, inconsistencies and injuries. He appeared in only seven games while dealing with injuries in 2012.
Blair flashed above-average stuff and excellent results during a six-start stint in last off-season’s Arizona Fall League. In 20 innings, the 24-year-old hurler struck out 22 batters , allowed 17 hits and posted a 2.25 ERA. On the downside, control was still an issue and he walked 14 batters. Now in Double-A, Blair got off to a slow start to the 2013 season and the clock is ticking on his time in the Cardinals’ organization. He’s in his fourth pro season, meaning that he’ll be exposed to the other 29 MLB clubs during the annual Rule 5 draft in December if he’s not added to St. Louis’ 40-man roster by the November deadline. If he’s added, he’ll earn an additional three option years to further his development in the minors.
Below are scouting reports on both players from the May 1 game, as well as comments on two other interesting prospects from the game: Kansas City’s shortstop prospect Orlando Calixte, and St. Louis’ outfield prospect Mike O’Neill.
Noel Arguelles, LHP, Kansas City Royals
Arguelles looks like a workhorse pitcher on the mound with a strong frame. Continued command and control issues continue to hamper the Cuban, though, in his second attempt at the Double-A level. He got off on the wrong foot immediately in this game by walking the lead-off batter. His inability to command the fastball and get ahead of the batters haunted him throughout the game.
Arguelles’ changeup was his best pitch on the night. It showed 55-60 potential but he was unable to get ahead in the count to set up the pitch. His breaking ball was inconsistent and featured both a big, loopy 11-to-5 break and a tighter left-to-right break. I’d place a future 45-50 grade on it. Arguelles looked far more comfortable against left-handed hitters than those standing in the right side of the batter’s box. He was more aggressive and came right after them.
When his delivery is working, it has fluidity to it and his fastball comes out of his hand well, making it look faster than it really is. He utilizes a high three-quarter arm slot and has a quick arm. Unfortunately, his delivery and mechanics were off on this night. Arguelles was rushing through his mechanics and getting his plant foot down too early, which caused his arm to drag behind him. As a result, his release point was off and he left too many balls up in the zone.
Overall, I’d have a hard type placing more than a 40-45 future grade on Arguelles’ command/control unless he makes some adjustments to his delivery and mechanics. It’s definitely a stretch to think he’ll be ready for a permanent big league role in 2014 — although he could perhaps be hidden in the bullpen as a multiple-inning, mop-up reliever.
Orlando Calixte, SS, Kansas City Royals
Calixte was a disappointment. A natural shortstop, he was seeing time at third base in this game as the organization looks at different options for eventually fitting him onto the big league roster. He made just two plays in the field during the game and the outcomes for each could not have been more different.
In the first play, the batter hit a quick grounder to the hot corner and Calixte vacuumed it up with his smooth hands. With plenty of time, the young prospect triple-clutched the ball before letting loose with his usually-strong arm. He bounced the ball in the dirt about three feet out front of the bag and the first baseman was unable to cleanly dig the ball out of the dirt.
It was a careless play during a long half inning that had already seen three runs scored against Arguelles. The error led to an extended half inning and another (unearned) run. His second fielding opportunity was much better when he cleanly handled the ball, and showed good feet, hands and a strong arm on a feed to second base that started a double-play. Calixte clearly has the tools to be an above-average fielder at either shortstop or third base but he needs better focus and consistency.
At the plate, the Dominican native’s overly-aggressive approach completely undermines his potential. In two of his four at-bats, Calixte made contact on the first pitch and grounded harmlessly to shortstop both times. In his first at-bat of the game, the infield prospect took the first pitch — a fastball almost in the dirt — and then swung and missed on a changeup and a curveball before making contact on a fastball and popping it up to shallow right field. He also had a single in the game.
Despite his live body and above-average athleticism, Calixte was more or less invisible at the plate. Opposing pitchers clearly know to throw him a ton of off-speed pitches and breaking balls. He’s a dead-red fastball hitter, but will swing at about anything. He has solid raw power but that was not on display in this game.
In his fourth pro season, Calixte will have to be added to the 40-man roster after the 2014 season if he’s going to be shielded from the Rule 5 draft. If he’s added, that will buy the 21-year-old another three option years to establish himself at the big league level as either a defense-first starting shortstop or a utility player. I don’t think he’ll offer enough consistent offense to stick at third base.
Seth Blair, RHP, St. Louis Cardinals
Contrary to earlier scouting reports, Blair came out throwing strikes with his fastball in what may have been his best start of the year. He showed a nice break on his curveball but it was mainly a ‘chase pitch’ and he struggled to throw it for strikes. Blair’s changeup showed more potential than I’ve seen in the past and got a couple excellent swings-and-misses in the early going. I’d give both his curveball and changeup future 50-55 grades.
The Illinois native looked unhittable in the first inning and made use of all three of his pitches. He struck out three of the first five batters he faced, but retired them all despite average-at-best control. His low three-quarter arm slot gives him some deception but his arm action exacerbates his command issues. By the third inning, he was losing his effectiveness, further leading to my belief that he may be better-suited to shorter stints as a high-leverage reliever.
Personally, I think he offers enough potential to warrant a 40-man roster spot but I would shifted him to the bullpen at this point in an effort to speed up his MLB ETA. It’s understandable why the Cardinals would want to get him extra innings working out of the starting rotation and the potential three option years would offer him a lot of time to iron out the wrinkles in his game.
Mike O’Neill, OF, St. Louis Cardinals
O’Neill is known for his 80 eye at the plate and crazy-high on-base percentages. In 25 Double-A games in 2013, he currently has 24 walks and just four strikeouts. A left-fielder, the USC alum is short; he’s listed at 5’9” but that might be generous. Power will never be a part of his game, both because of his size and because of his swing, which is geared to making contact and use the whole field.
In this game, O’Neill didn’t even take his bat off his shoulder while leading off the game. He took the free pass on five pitches (one of which was a very questionable strike). In five plate appearances, he got on base four times with three walks and a single.
O’Neill, 25, is a fun player to watch but the singles-hitter’s lack of a standout tool and permanent home in left field means he’ll likely top out as a fifth outfielder/pinch hitter. His plus eye probably won’t play as well in the Majors because big league pitchers will have no fear in challenging him with strikes, taking away his greatest asset. With that said, I definitely think he’ll spend time in the big leagues. If he’s not added to the 40-man roster before the November deadline, O’Neill will be exposed to the Rule 5 draft this December.
Marc Hulet has been writing at FanGraphs since 2008. His work focuses on prospects and fantasy. Follow him on Twitter @marchulet.