Prospect Watch: Short-Season Standouts by Nathaniel Stoltz June 24, 2014 Each weekday during the minor-league season, FanGraphs is providing a status update on multiple rookie-eligible players. Note that Age denotes the relevant prospect’s baseball age (i.e. as of July 1st of the current year); Top-15, the prospect’s place on Marc Hulet’s preseason organizational list; and Top-100, that same prospect’s rank on Hulet’s overall top-100 list. In this installment of the Prospect Watch, I’m checking in on three players who impressed me last year and are off to big starts this year in the short-season New York-Penn League. ***Rowan Wick, OF, St. Louis Cardinals (Profile) Level: SS-A Age: 21 Top-15: N/A Top-100: N/A Line: 43 PA, .361/.465/.972, 7 HR, 7 BB, 9 K Summary Wick has two plus tools and he’s laying waste to the NYPL early on. Notes Seven home runs in forty-three plate appearances is pretty special, regardless of the level of competition, and that’s exactly what Rowan Wick, a 2012 ninth-round pick, is doing this year. While his power surge is certainly raising his prospect stock, this sort of output from Wick shouldn’t arrive totally out of the blue. Last year in the Advanced-Rookie Appalachian League, he tied for the circuit’s lead with ten big flies. I happened to witness a couple, and they sure weren’t cheap homers: With a prototypical power hitter’s body at 6’3″ and a well-built 220 pounds, Wick easily generates plus pop without having to sell out for it, giving him the potential to be a 50-grade hitter with 65 power at maturity. Note the absence of a large loading mechanism in the videos above, giving Wick time to let the ball get deep in the hitting zone. The same trait also helps with his selectivity at the plate–he walked 12.4% of the time last year and is at 16.7% in the young 2014 season. While he struck out 29.5% of the time last year, he’s cut the K’s to a much more palatable 21.4% in 2014–a small sample, but a number that Wick’s swing should allow him to maintain reasonably well. The other big attribute that the Canadian slugger brings to the table is a plus arm. Now, in my looks last year, I saw the arm from behind the plate–he may have had the best arm among Appy League backstops in 2013 (including Tampa Bay’s Armando Araiza, of whom I’m a staunch proponent). This year, though, the Cardinals have uprooted Wick from the catching position and shifted him to right field, where the arm should continue to be an asset. Wick’s reasonably athletic for his size and thus has a chance to make that position work in the long term, though he has committed six errors in 32 pro games in right for an unsightly .914 fielding percentage. I’m not sure he’d be entirely incapable of going back behind the plate at some point–he made big strides in cutting down his passed balls in 2013 (12 in 12 games in 2012, eight in 25 in 2013), and he has the aforementioned arm and athleticism–but he comes with the usual mobility issues of larger catchers and would never have been more than a fringy defender at the position. Of course, the move to right puts a lot more pressure on his bat, but it also puts him in a position where he’s not taking a beating on the side of the ball he doesn’t excel on. Given how much I liked Wick last year, I was quite surprised when he didn’t receive a full-season assignment to open the 2014 season, and the early returns on his NYPL performance seem to indicate that he really does belong in the full-season Midwest League. He’s a talented batsman who could evolve into a good platoon contributor at the big league level, or perhaps even a starter. I wouldn’t be shocked if he replicates Chris Duncan’s 2007 season in a Cardinals uniform (or another MLB one) someday. ***Hunter Wood, RHP, Tampa Bay Rays (Profile) Level: SS-A Age: 20 Top-15: N/A Top-100: N/A Line: 15.2 IP, 9 H, 1 R, 13/4 K/BB, 0.57 ERA, 3.05 FIP Summary How did this guy fall to the 29th round? Notes If you’ll permit me a quick tangent…the Appalachian League is a weird league to evaluate. Few of its players enter the season with meaningful statistical track records, so without seeing a player in the league, all one really can go on to determine if he’s interesting or not is his draft status, youth, and (for foreign-born players) signing bonus. Invariably, the majority of the circuit is made up of players that were drafted low or signed relatively cheaply. That’s the case with almost any minor league, but what makes the short-season leagues different is that there aren’t significant statistical barometers that allow for easy shorthand categorization of the players whose prospect status doesn’t precede them. Even if you call Appalachian League statistics meaningful in some fashion, they often bear little reflection on a prospect’s actual talent. Plenty of pitchers who boast little stuff can carve up Appy hitters if they can throw strikes and mix up their pitches. Last year, guys like Jared Dettmann, D.J. Slaton, Blake McKnight, Hein Robb, and Brady Dragmire posted sub-3.00 ERAs as Appy starters while throwing mostly upper-80s heat and collections of offspeed pitches that featured no plus offerings. When you’re in my position trying to evaluate as many players as possible, you always want to see guys like that in case they’re legitimate, but you always have to keep those examples in the front of your brain–get your excitement up for guys like that and you’re often headed for a letdown. So when I went to see Rays prospect Hunter Wood throw last August, I kept expectations low. Sure, he entered the game with a 25/5 K/BB in 22 1/3 innings, but he had just been selected in the 29th round two months earlier–the mark of a player who likely didn’t have much stuff. And then he came out and did this: If Hunter Wood’s pitching near you, go see him throw. That curveball’s worth the price of admission on its own. It’s a gorgeous offering at 74-77 mph, and I graded it as a plus pitch last season–when Wood was a week shy of his twentieth birthday. You probably don’t need me to tell you that consistently plus offspeed pitches are quite rare to find in teenage arms–Wood’s curve should be a consistently effective offering for him at every level. It would be one thing if the curve was Wood’s only legitimate pitch, but you can see Wood throws consistently in the low 90s in the video above, including plenty of 93s. He has a bit of projection left and could slide in comfortably at 90-94 mph, making his fastball an average to solid-average offering. While he’s only 6’1″, he gets decent plane on the pitch due to solid lower half use and a fairly high release point. His delivery is fairly sound and should enable him to have at least average command. While the Rays assigned Wood to Low-A Bowling Green to open the 2014 season and he pitched decently there in six starts (21/12 K/BB in 24 1/3 IP, 4.07 ERA), he was sent back to extended spring and then moved to the NYPL, where he’s allowed just one run in 15 2/3 innings. Still just 20, Wood needs to work extensively on his changeup if he’s to be a major league starting pitcher, but the fastball-curve combination is very real and legitimate and could make him a solid relief pitcher even if starting doesn’t work out. Don’t be fooled by the draft status–Wood is a very real prospect. The real mystery is how a pitcher with clearly solid stuff slipped so far last June. *** Andy Beltre, RHP, Miami Marlins (Profile) Level: SS-A Age: 20 Top-15: N/A Top-100: N/A Line: 10 IP, 8 H, 4 R, 13/2 K/BB, 3.60 ERA, 2.10 FIP Summary The early returns on this flamethrower are good as he works his way back from Tommy John. Notes I saw Andy Beltre pitch in a minor league baseball game on April 6, 2013 in Hickory, the second day of the Low-A South Atlantic League season. That might make my commentary on him seem quite outdated, but he’s actually only made three appearances since–he went under the knife later that month for Tommy John surgery and just got back on a pro mound this month when the NYPL began. Before the injury, Beltre–then just 19–showed off a plus fastball and solid-average slider: His heater resided in the 94-96 range with a lot of armside life, touching 97 once, and the 83-84 mph breaker boasted sharp bite. Beltre also tossed in some diving 88-89 mph changeups that came in a touch too hard but had some potential. Again, seeing that sort of stuff in a pitcher who has yet to turn 20 is rare, and it would have assuredly put Beltre on the prospect map in short order had he remained healthy. Of course, having that grade of stuff so young means that Beltre, if healthy, can afford the lost fourteen months a lot more than most players, and if the early returns on his 2014 performance are any indication, he’s back to something of his old form, striking out thirteen of the forty batters he’s faced so far across two starts. He’s also only walked two, so it’s not like he’s returned from the injury with the bouts of wildness that sometimes plague post-TJ hurlers. Beltre worked as a reliever when I saw him last year, but he’s back to starting–a role he intermittently occupied from 2010-12–so far in 2014. Given the quality of his stuff, it’s probably smart to give him a chance to develop his changeup and work in a starting role for now, because the payoff could be significant if he can figure that out. Even if he can’t, as long as that fastball and slider are around, Beltre will always be easy to project as a late-game relief asset. His post-TJ progress merits close watching.