Notes on prospects from lead prospect analyst Eric Longenhagen. Read previous installments here.
These daily notes are going to be different/sporadic this week, as I’ll be in Southern California for the Area Code Games in Long Beach and then PG All American in San Diego over the weekend. In today’s edition, I’ve got notes on some of the players I saw in Arizona over the weekend, and a reflection on a few specific aspects of our process as it relates to pitcher injuries.
First, a look at Dodgers lefty Julio Urias, who is rehabbing from surgery to repair a tear of his left shoulder’s anterior caspule. Urias threw 1.2 innings against the White Sox’ AZL team on Saturday in his second rehab appearance of the summer. He allowed just one hit and struck out four. His fastball sat 88-91 and topped out at 92, well below the velocity band he has displayed throughout his career, which was typically in the 92-95 range. A scout who was in attendance at Urias’s first rehab outing earlier in the week told me they also had Urias topping out at 92, which conflicts with what was reported just after that outing. Urias’s fastball command was much better in this brief look than it was in his often frustrating big-league appearances, and it has flat, bat-missing plane up in the zone. Overall. though, it’s a 45 fastball right now.
Urias’s secondaries were a bit less crisp than pre-surgery. I saw one slider and several curveballs (flashed plus, mostly average) which were also thrown with less velocity (71-74 mph) than Urias exhibited before injury (75-80). The pitch has good depth and tight snap when it’s down, perhaps not playing within the strike zone quite as well. Urias threw a few average changeups (including a first pitch cambio that Luis Robert foul-tipped) in the 80-83 mph range, but he lacked feel for keeping the pitch down and hung several of them in the top of the strike zone or above it.
Obviously, Urias is returning from a serious shoulder injury, and it’s possible his stuff will tick up with continued work. The Dodgers expect him to contribute to the bullpen in September and he need only wield a competent breaking ball remain left-handed for the next eight weeks to do that. Long term, it’s hard to say what’s going to happen here. Urias was once 6 fastball, 6 breaking ball, above-average changeup, plus command projection. Right now he’s a bunch of 45s and 50s.
Some Thoughts on Process
Before I start discussing some process-oriented stuff on our end, I want to give newer readers a crash course on how we assign FV grades to players and what they mean. A more detailed explanation can be found here.
We try to apply the 20-80 scale to overall player production via Wins Above Replacement. A grade of ’50’ for an individual tool or for a player’s overall projection represents major-league average, while each integer of 10 on either side of 50 is a standard deviation away from the mean. This applies to everything from objective measures like fastball velocity (93 mph is average) to [things] that are somewhat objective but subject to human error (evaluating speed with a stopwatch) to [things] that trend from entirely subjective toward more scientific means (breaking-ball quality). Average everyday big leaguers generate 2.0 to 2.5 annual WAR, and if we think a player, based on his physical ability and track record of performance, is a nearly ready, average everyday big leaguer and will produce like one over their first six years of team control, we put a 50 FV on that player.
Players who project as 50s but are several years away from yielding big-league value have their FV diluted to account for natural prospect attrition and the gap in value that must be accounted for when considering player timelines to the majors. We also adjust FVs downward accordingly — especially for pitchers who have had recurring arm trouble — for injury risk.
Because we base FV on expected WAR production, it’s rare for us to put a 50 FV or better on relief-only prospects since reliever WAR output is limited by usage. WAR is a counting stat and relievers don’t pitch enough to generate that kind of value unless they’re elite.
And this brings me to some other players I saw last week, who happen to be injured relievers, or at least project in relief. Opposing Urias on Saturday was rehabbing White Sox RHP Zack Burdi, who is making his way back from Tommy John. Burdi was the lone relief-only propsect to receive a 50 FV or better grade from us on our top overall list in the offseason (and each subsequent list) because he’s a three-pitch freak who was 97-101 with a plus slider and changeup the last time I saw him in person, which was during his 2016 pro debut. Saturday he was 93-95 over two-thirds of an inning. I also saw rehabbing Dodgers righty Jordan Sheffield on Thursday night. Sheffield is a 45 FV who projects as a reliever despite current development as a starter. At his best he’s 95-98 with a hammer breaking ball and erratic control, hence the relief projection. Thursday he was 92-93 with a plus curveball. A scout who saw him at High-A told me Sheffield was 92-95 before the injury.
Do I immediately alter our grades for either player based on their drops in velocity? As with Urias, there’s an argument for giving each player the benefit of the doubt and waiting on to re-evaluate them until they’ve returned from injury and regained their fastballs. I could feasibly find someone who has seen each of them in a few weeks to see if they’ve improved and, if not, then alter the grade. That seems reasonable.
On the other hand, if I were a special-assignment scout who was in attendance to see Sheffield in order to gather info for trade negotiations and he was only 92-93, we’re not trading for him. I could alter their grades on THE BOARD now and still check on them in a few weeks, then make a correction if they’re throwing harder again. Doing this means THE BOARD requires more maintenance, perhaps in a way that’s not sustainable. I don’t have an answer for how we’re going to handle this issue yet, this is just a glimpse into some of our internal discourse.
The trade deadline brought about another question like this. If we’ve docked a player’s FV because of his injury history and that player is traded, should we alter his FV because the trade implies that the player has passed a physical? Past injuries are predictors of future injury, and that aspect of the player’s history hasn’t changed. That was reason enough for me to resolve that we should not, say, move new Mets reliever Bobby Wahl (who has had multiple surgeries) from a 40 FV to a 45 FV just because he was traded. There are also instances of teams taking on players who don’t pass physicals because they’re part of a larger trade that the team doesn’t want to upend.
To close, I saw some Luis Robert rehab appearances in Arizona last week. Lou Bob was rehabbing a re-aggravated sprained thumb ligament that has cost him all but 21 games this year. Physically, he looks fine. He hit several balls very hard in my looks, indicating the power on contact has not been affected by his thumb. The time off hasn’t sapped away any of his other physical skills, as he was still casually posting above-average run times for me without ever really turning on the jets. He also continues to look very comfortable in center field.
The only issue I took with Robert’s rehab outings was his impatience. He swung at the first pitch in more than half of the at-bats I saw. That wasn’t a statistical issue for him in Cuba (where he ran an 11% walk rate) or when I saw him in-person during the Cuban Natonal Team’s CanAm tour in 2016 or in my looks at him against live pitching since he’s signed with Chicago. He’s been waiting weeks to swing a bat in live games and was probably just eager. He should be back with an affiliate this week.
Eric Longenhagen is from Catasauqua, PA and currently lives in Tempe, AZ. He spent four years working for the Phillies Triple-A affiliate, two with Baseball Info Solutions and two contributing to prospect coverage at ESPN.com. Previous work can also be found at Sports On Earth, CrashburnAlley and Prospect Insider.