Sunday Notes: A Change Will Do You Good: Brewers, Yanks, Cards, Astros, DBacks

Clint Coulter is no longer a catcher. The 21-year-old Milwaukee Brewers prospect is currently playing right field in the Arizona Fall League, and it’s not a temporary assignment. According to farm director Reid Nichols, “The plan is for him to stay in the outfield.”

Based on this summer’s performance, his bat will play anywhere. Playing for the low-A Wisconsin Timber Rattlers, the Camas, Washington native hit a husky .287/.410/.520, with 22 home runs. It was a breakout season for the 2012 first-round pick, but only on the offensive side of the ball. In 61 games behind the plate, Coulter was plagued by passed balls (17) and errors (10). He was in the lineup 64 times as a designated hitter.

One year ago, in his first full professional season, Coulter looked like a bust in the batter’s box. A sculpted 6-3. 225, he was solid in an Arizona-rookie-league cameo but failed to hit his weight in the Pioneer and Midwest leagues. His power numbers and walk-strikeout rate were sub par.

I asked Coulter about his 2013 struggles at the tail end of the current campaign – specifically, did the challenge of simultaneously developing as a hitter and as a catcher take its toll?

“Absolutely,” Coulter admitted. “And not only physically. You can have a great day at the plate, but also clank a few balls [behind the plate] and affect the game that way. Both mentally and physically, I’d never experienced that kind of rigor, day in day out. It was a lot, but it was a great experience. You learn the most from failure, so I’m glad it happened.”

There was less failure this year, but the Brewers clearly feel Coulter’s future will play out best at a position less burdensome on the bat. The former high school wrestling champion can certainly impact a baseball, and he did a better job of it this year by reining himself in.

“Before, I was so anxious to hit that I was swinging at pitches I couldn’t really do much with,” explained Coulter. “This year I was better at being patient and hitting the pitches I wanted to hit.” Milwaukee’s player development staff saw the improvement, but also saw a work in progress. After saying, “Clint has done a good job converting to the outfield,” Nichols added that Coulter’s AFL objectives include “working on pitch recognition and slowing down at the plate.“

One thing Coulter doesn’t need work on is an already-impressive appreciation for good quotes. His Twitter page includes the following from 19th century French novelist Gustave Flaubert:

“Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work.”

What do those words mean to the heady youngster?

“To me, it means be humble in your lifestyle, but when it comes to competing – or whatever your true passion is – you have to be confident,” said Coulter. “Don’t be afraid to be different. Just go out there and get after it.”

——

Greg Bird caught Kevin Gausman as a teenager, but his backstop days ended shortly after he was drafted by the Yankees out of an Aurora, Colorado high school. The 2011 fifth-round pick played only a smattering of professional games behind the dish before becoming a first baseman.

His early-career positional switch has been widely attributed to back issues, but the 22-year-old as of today – Happy Birthday Greg Bird – downplays the health angle.

“We just agreed it was going to be the best thing going forward,” Bird told me earlier this week. “I think it was more about my tools than anything. It was basically, ‘Why spend time catching when we could progress forward faster playing first base?’

Bird has unarguably progressed playing first base. Two years ago, the left-handed hitter put up a .938 OPS at low-A Charleston. This year he had a .937 OPS at Double-A Trenton following an early-August promotion from the Florida State League. He’s emerged as one of the top hitting prospects in the organization.

For Bird, the comparative difficulty of hitting as a catcher or as a first baseman can’t be accurately defined. He acknowledges the difference, but points out he’s never had to handle the rigors of pro ball wearing the tools of ignorance. “My high school season was only 18 or 19 games, and that’s three weeks here,’ he told me.

Bird had an 18.7 walk-rate in 2013 and while it dipped slightly this year – 13.8 in high-A and 15.5 in Double-A – it was still solid. He’s also had a K-rate north of 22 the past two campaigns. There’s swing-and-miss to his game, but he’s a smart hitter. How much of that has to do with his catching experience is relative.

“People ask that a lot – does it help me as a hitter? – and I think maybe it does, but I’m more of a cerebral hitter anyway,” said Bird. “As far as, ‘Is he going to throw this or is he going to throw that,’ I was that way growing up, so I’ve kind of always had that mindset. I don’t really sit on pitches, but if you’re not thinking along with what’s going on, you’re not playing the game.”

What did Bird learn playing high school ball with, and catching, Orioles flamethrower Kevin Gausman? Did the two spend much time breaking down the nuances of their crafts?

“In high school, we were younger and kind of naïve,” admitted Bird. “We talked about things like that, but it would be a lot different if we did it now. We’re a lot more advanced than we were at 17-18 years old. He’s come a long way, and I’ve come a long way too. It would be fun to go back there and catch him one more time, but I don’t think that will happen.”

Bird is right in that regard, but there’s a good chance he’ll be hitting against his high-school battery mate in the not-too-distant future. It promises to be a good match-up. Gausman has a power arsenal, and the converted catcher has some of the best raw power in the Yankees system.

——

Sam Tuivailala used to be an infielder. He’s now a pure-power reliever. Two years after being converted, the 22-year-old righthander put up an eye-popping 14.6 K/9 between three levels in the St. Louis Cardinals organization.

St. Louis selected Tuivailala in the third round of the 2010 draft and stationed him at third base. He didn’t stay there long. The San Mateo, California native hit .220.332/.306 in a pair of Gulf Coast seasons, committing 28 errors in 86 games along the way. As Tuivialala put it, “We all have a time clock here, and my time ran out.’

Fortunately, there was a backup plan. Tuivailala had pitched in high school and was drafted into an organization with a recent history of turning position prospects into power arms.

“He was an infielder when he came into the system, but like we do with all players, we kept evaluating where his best fit is, “ said Cardinals farm director Gary LaRocque. “The one thing that always stood out was his arm strength, so we felt a conversion was in his best interest. We’ve had players like that before, like Jason Motte and Trevor Rosenthal,”

Motte was a catcher for three professional seasons before being moved to the bullpen. His fastball flirted with triple digits after the conversion. Rosenthal was primarily a shortstop at Cowley County Community College, but St. Louis drafted him as a pitcher. His fastball has been clocked at 100 mph.

Tuivailala’s fastball also reaches 100 mph, so why wasn’t he drafted as a pitcher?

“I had a pretty good arm, but I was sitting maybe low 90s,” Tuivailala told me. “I didn’t expect to be one day sitting high 90s and touching triple digits. A lot of teams saw me as a pitcher, and others liked me as a position player. I was willing to do whatever the team who wanted me wanted me to do.”

Respecting an organization’s opinion on that matter is standard fare for most two-way players. I asked him what he really wanted.

“In the back of my head, I knew there was a good chance I’d become a pitcher,” answered Tuivailala. “I just had that feeling. My first year, I’d make these inside jokes. I’d tell my coaches that if we were losing by a lot, I could throw them an inning.”

That eventually happened in 2012, when the Cardinals – in Tuivailala’s words – “told me I’d be on the bump.” It was a move he welcomed, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it was easy.

“When I first transitioned, I kind of felt like a third baseman on the mound,” said Tuivailala. “I had to get that rhythm back. I had to get back in touch with my mechanics and get the feel for everything again.”

The hard-throwing righty’s mechanics are better than they were in high school, with improved tilt and more extension. His secondary pitches, both of which need polish, are a spike curveball and a circle changeup. Ultimately, how well he commands his high-90s heat is what will determine whether he becomes the next Motte or Rosenthal.

I asked LaRocque if he sees similarities between Tuivailala and the Cardinals’ current closer.

“The first thing you see is they both have pure arm strength,” said LaRocque. “The paths are a little different in some respects, but the similarities are clear. Both have great work ethic and are focused young men. If you ask Tui, I’m sure he’ll tell you he feeds off seeing guys like Rosie doing what they’re doing.”

——

Mike Foltynewicz is another member of the 100-mph club. The righthander debuted with the Houston Astros this summer at the unpolished age of 22 and put up a 5.30 ERA in 16 relief outings. He didn’t look ready for prime time – his transition from thrower to pitcher isn’t yet complete – but there’s no disputing the potential.

Drafted 19th overall in 2010 out of a Minooka, Illinois high school, Foltynewicz has been groomed as a starter in the minor league. It’s the role he aspires to, but he’ll need to do a better job of commanding his pitches in order to earn a spot in the rotation. To his credit, he recognizes that.

“It’s not just about throwing hard,” Foltynewicz told me late this season. “It’s about location, so I can’t go out there trying to throw 99-100 every pitch. I don’t have great control when I do that. But if I’m toning it down to 94-95 and hitting my spots, I’m going to get guys out. I definitely haven’t lost the power package, though. I can dial it when I need to.”

I asked Astros catcher Jason Castro to describe Foltynewicz’s fastball.

“In one word, I’d say explosive,”said Castro. “He’s got a little variation to it, too. He’s got one that’s straighter and then he’s got one with a little bit of movement to it. The straighter one is upper 90s and has touched 100. The one with a little movement is more mid 90s.”

Like most high-velocity hurlers, Foltynewicz is especially effective when he’s throwing his secondary pitches for strikes. He has three in his repertoire, including a changeup he threw 10.7% of the time in his 18-and-two-third big-league innings. He also throws a curveball and a slider, which wasn’t the case from 2010-2012.

“I had both when I was drafted, but they told me I had to pick one,” explained Foltynewicz. “They said we’d start there, and I could bring the other one back later if I needed it. Last year, in Corpus Christi, I brought the slider back. It works well with my curveball, because they’re different speeds and shapes. I throw hard, and if I can use my off-speed pitches effectively, my fastball is going to be even better.”

——

Peter O’Brien went from the Yankees to the Diamondbacks at this summer’s trade deadline in exchange for Martin Prado. It was the latest of several moves that have shaped his life.

The first of those moves came before the 24-year-old, power-hitting catcher was born. His father, who had pitched at Western Michigan University, moved to Miami, Florida. So did O’Brien’s mother and grandmother, from Cuba in 1986. Also coming over was his mother’s brother, who O’Brien describes as “a huge student of the game of baseball.”

Another meaningful change came in his teenage years. An undersized shortstop as a high school freshman, he played third base as a sophomore and junior while undergoing a growth spurt. He started catching his senior year – “I’d always thought putting on the gear was pretty cool,” he explained – and that’s where he’s remained.

There are questions as to whether the 6-foot-3, 215-lb slugger will stay behind the plate. He’d prefer to stay there, and the D-Backs have told him that’s the plan, but right now his offense is well ahead of his defense. O’Brien hit 34 home runs this year between high-A and Double-A, and many were tape-measure shots. His raw power is matched by only a handful of minor-league prospects.

O’Brien has seen time in the outfield and at the infield corners, which gives the D-Backs options if his receiving ability ultimately falls short of big-league quality. If he does remain a catcher, his greatest asset might be his communication skills. He’s well-spoken in not one, but two languages.

“My grandma – my mom’s mom – has always lived with us, and I actually spoke Spanish before I spoke English,” O’Brien explained. “To this day, it’s been a huge help, not only in my everyday life, but also in baseball. In the heat of a game, you can get your point across a lot clearer if you’re speaking the same language and using the same terminology. That’s big when an adjustment needs to be made in a hurry.”

As for the possibility of O’Brien one day having to adjust to a new position, he’ll cross that bridge when, and if, he comes to it.

“I see my mentality as a baseball mentality,” O’Brien told me. “I’m a baseball guy and love being on the field. I’m a catcher, and I want to be a catcher, but at the end of the day, wherever the big club wants my bat to play, that’s where I’m going to be. Right now I’m behind the plate.”

——

A number of notable players were once seen as backstops, only to move to other positions. In 2002, the Reds used the 44th overall pick of the draft to take catcher Joey Votto. In 2003, the Pirates took catcher Neil Walker with the 11th overall pick. Josh Donaldson, Paul Konerko and Jayson Werth were all drafted as catchers.

That is by no means a complete list of converted catchers, but it is sufficient to show how challenging it can be to assess a young amateur’s best position on draft day. Equally challenging is predicting a player’s future success once he enters a minor-league system. Baseball America has long done that as well as anyone, and their 2005 Prospect Handbook includes an extreme example.

In 2005, the Red Sox minor league system was ranked 21st among the 30 teams. Their top six prospects that year were: 1. Hanley Ramirez, 2. Brandon Moss, 3. Jonathan Papelbon, 4. Jon Lester, 5. Anibal Sanchez, 6. Dustin Pedroia. They’ve since gone on to accumulate 164.4 WAR. The Chicago Cubs were ranked 11 spots ahead of the Red Sox, at No. 10. Their top prospects were; 1. Brian Dopirak, 2. Felix Pie, 3. Ryan Harvey, 4. Angel Guzman, 5. Billy Petrick, 6. Renyel Pinto. They ended up being worth minus 1.1 WAR.





David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.

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Avattoir

This edition of Sunday [prospect] Notes seems to have a musical theme …

The scrubs are abuzz
With the sound of speed guns;
Yet most are unwilling
To catch the big ones.