Sunday Notes: Reds Prospect Francisco Urbaez Is Schooling High-A Pitchers

Francisco Urbaez wasn’t sure what to expect when he reported to spring training. Signed by the Cincinnati Reds as a non-drafted free agent in June of last year, the 23-year-old infielder knew only that he was being given an opportunity. To say he’s made the most of it would be an understatement. In 275 plate appearances with the High-A Dayton Dragons, Urbaez is slashing an eyebrow-raising .332/420/.454.

A native of Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, Urbaez didn’t come to the United States solely to play baseball. The son of a mechanical engineer and a psychologist, he came to earn a degree.

“That was my family’s plan,” explained Urbaez, who spent two years at Chipola Junior College, and two more at Florida Atlantic University. “They were like, “Go to the States and play ball, and whatever happens happens, but you need an education first.”

Already fluent in English when he arrived in the U.S. at age 18, Urbaez was initially an Accounting major, but then changed to International Business, and ultimately to Business. And while baseball wasn’t the priority, it did serve as a catalyst. Former Toronto Blue Jays slugger Jose Bautista is involved with a foundation that helps Latin American student-athletes come to the U.S. via scholarships, and Urbaez was one of the beneficiaries.

Unlike many Dominicans currently playing professional baseball, Urbaez hadn’t attracted a lot of attention while on the island. He received only one offer from an MLB organization, and that was after he’d committed to come Stateside to begin his studies. Teams didn’t exactly knock down his door during his JC tenure, either. It wasn’t until his junior year at FAU that scouts began to take notice. Prominent among them was Andrew Fabian, whose familiarity with Urbaez dated back to his time as a coach at Hillsborough Community College. Now an area scout with the Reds, Fabian saw potential in the under-the-radar second baseman.

A .319/.389/.476 hitter over four collegiate seasons, Urbaez has subsequently upped his offensive profile thanks to an adjustment made with the help of his hitting coaches. Previously prone to being too quick to the ball and over-rotating, he introduced “a little leg kick” which has resulted in improved timing and a more direct swing-path. Line drives are his M.O. Urbaez has just four home runs, although he does count 15 doubles and a triple among his 78 base knocks.

Dayton Dragons development coach Darren Bragg is among those impressed with the strides Urbaez has made in his first professional season.

“Coming out of spring training, you didn’t know how he was going to fit in, or how many at bats he was going to get,” said the former big-league outfielder. “He’s a prime example of, ‘Look, if you play well, you hit well, and you do things well, you’re going to play, dude.’ That’s what’s going on with him. And he’s confident. I don’t know what makes him confident — you’ll have to ask him — but he’s a real confident player. That’s an obstacle he’s already overcome.”

When you debut in high-A as a non-drafted senior sign, then go on to hit .330-plus with a .420 OBP, confidence comes with the territory. Can it continue, or will Urbaez come back down to earth and ultimately fall short of his dream of playing in the big leagues? Only time will tell, but one thing is certain: Urbaez has an education to fall back on, which is what brought him to the United States in the first place.

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RANDOM HITTER-PITCHER MATCHUPS

Mark Grace went 8 for 10 against Andy Benes.

Ryne Sandberg went 8 for 20 against Bruce Sutter.

Billy Williams went 10 for 23 against Fergie Jenkins.

Ron Santo went 11 for 26 against Don McMahon.

Ernie Banks went 15 for 32 against Al Jackson.

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Reese Olson moved into the No. 8 slot on our revised Detroit Tigers prospect rankings after he was acquired from the Milwaukee Brewers at the trade-deadline in exchange for Daniel Norris. A 22-year-old right-hander (he celebrated a birthday on the final day of July), Olson was taken in the 13th-round of the 2018 draft out of a Gainesville, Georgia high school.

A new opportunity in front of him, Olson reported to the High-A West Michigan Whitecaps this past Tuesday. That same afternoon, I had an opportunity to sit down with the promising young pitcher and discuss his game.

Olson described himself as a guy who tries to command the strike zone, mix all of his pitches, and will typically rely on what the catcher sees, as well what he’s feeling that day. Asked if he views himself as being more power or finesse, Olson said that it’s a combination of the two. He shared that he’s confident in all three of his off-speed pitches — a changeup, a curveball, and a slider — as well as a four-seam fastball that sits 93-95, tops out at 96, and gets “a lot of arm-side run.”

In a July 1 writeup, our own Eric Longenhagen expressed trepidation regarding the righty’s delivery, opining that Olson has “more mechanical violence than is typical for a starter.” I asked the newest member of the Tigers organization if he has any such concerns.

“The only time I’ve seen that is from random people on Twitter,” replied Olson, who presumably hadn’t seen our 2021 Brewers Top Prospects list. “I’ve never heard anything from the Brewers about how my delivery needs to be changed. Anyone can clean up his delivery a little bit, but for the most part I don’t have any worries about it.”

Olson told me that his changeup — an offset two-seam circle that he throws in the 85-mph range — is his best secondary pitch. He settled on the grip shortly after coming to pro ball and “researching changeups” more than he had previously. He took to the pitch like a duck to water. Once he began focusing on it, “it just came naturally.”

The reserved-yet-personable hurler throws his changeup more than his slider, and his slider more than his curveball. The hardest of his secondaries is relatively new. He added the slider to his arsenal last summer while rehabbing a minor elbow issue at the Brewers’ Arizona complex, then began throwing it in games this season.

Olson met West Michigan pitching coach Willie Blair, and Detroit’s Director of Pitching Development and Strategies, Dan Hubbs, in the hours preceding my conversation with him. On Friday, he introduced himself to Whitecaps fans in fine fashion. Taking the mound with his new team for the first time, Olson allowed just two hits and one walk in six scoreless innings. He fanned four.

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A quiz:

The same pitcher holds the Red Sox franchise record for both games started and innings pitched. Who is it?

The answer can be found below.

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NEWS ITEMS

SABR’s Golden Celebration Series continues this coming week with virtual presentations on Tuesday, followed by more over the weekend. A conversation with Howard Bryant highlights the Tuesday session. Information can be found here.

Sticking with SABR, Dan Evans has been appointed to the society’s Board of Directors. Formerly the GM of the Los Angeles Dodgers, Evans has more recently served as Director of Pacific Rim Operations for the Toronto Blue Jays.

Rafael Carmona has reportedly died at age 48. A right-hander from Rio Piedras, Puerto Rico, Carmona appeared in 81 games for the Seattle Mariners from 1995-1999.

J.R. Richard passed away earlier this week at age 71. According to Richard’s friend, and former Houston Astros teammate, Enos Cabell — as reported by Bradford William Davis — the once-dominant right-hander was unvaccinated and died of COVID. Tyler Kepner wrote about Richard’s life and career at The New York Times.

The 2021 RBI finals were held at the Jackie Robinson Training Complex in Vero Beach, Florida yesterday, with Atlanta winning the Junior Division Championship by beating Roberto Clemente RBI of Jersey City, and Cincinnati winning the Senior Division title by defeating RBI Austin. Information on RBI (Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities youth baseball) can be found here.

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The answer to the quiz is Tim Wakefield. The knuckleballer made 430 starts and pitched 3,006 innings with the Red Sox. Roger Clemens ranks second in both categories.

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Left on the cutting-room floor from my recent conversation with Eric Haase — the Detroit Tigers catcher led last Sunday’s column — were his thoughts on MLB’s crackdown on the use of pitch-enhancement substances.

“It’s hard to tell how much the sticky stuff has to do with a guy’s pure stuff,” Haase told me. “We live in an age where everything can be measured, so I’m sure we’ll see some flareups here and there with guys not adjusting. But I think Major League Baseball is going to do a better job going forward of creating a product that everyone is happy with, whether that’s a ball that’s pretreated with something, or a substance that’s allowed going forward. I think once the baseline becomes standard, both sides are going to be pretty happy.”

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Will Wilson has faced several highly-regarded pitchers since being promoted to Double-A Richmond. I recently asked the San Francisco Giants shortstop prospect which of them had the nastiest stuff.

“I would probably say Grayson Rodriguez, so far,” said Wilson, who was drafted 15th overall in 2019 by the Los Angeles Angels before being traded to his current organization. “He kind of had everything when we faced him. He’s the full package. He’s got really good off-speed, a really good changeup, and a really good fastball.”

Rodriguez — No. 2 on our Baltimore Orioles Top Prospects list — has 114 strikeouts in 71-and -a-third innings this season. He’s allowed just 39 hits.

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FARM REPORT

Spencer Torkelson is slashing .267/.398/.523 with 15 home runs in 327 plate appearances between High-A West Michigan and Double-A Erie. The 21-year-old infielder was drafted first overall by the Detroit Tigers out of Arizona State University in 2020.

Bobby Witt Jr. is slashing .295/.365/.584 with 23 home runs in 364 plate appearances between Double-A Northwest Arkansas and High-A Omaha. The 21-year-old infielder was drafted second overall by the Kansas City Royals out of a Colleyville, Texas high school in 2019.

Owen Caissie is slashing .351/.485/.675 with six home runs in 97 plate appearances with the Cubs’ Arizona Complex League affiliate. The 19-year-old outfielder from Burlington, Ontario was drafted by the Padres in the second round last year and subsequently traded to Chicago as part of the Yu Darvish deal.

Blaze Jordan is slashing .362/.408/.667 with four home runs in 76 plate appearances with Boston’s Florida Complex League affiliate. The 18-year-old infielder was drafted by the Red Sox out of a Southaven, Mississippi high school in the third round last year.

Aeverson Arteaga is slashing .343/.410/.627 with seven home runs in 117 plate appearances with San Francisco’s Arizona Complex League affiliate. The 18-year-old infielder was signed by the Giants out of Venezuela in 2019.

What may well be the craziest game of the year took place on Friday when the Greensboro Grasshoppers (High-A Pirates) beat the Hickory Crawdads (Rangers) by a count of 15-14 in 12 innings. Greensboro outfielder Will Matthiessen took the mound in the top of the 12th and allowed six runs, then proceeded to hit a walk-off grand slam to cap a seven-run rally in the bottom half. Matthiessen was credited with the win.

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The Pirates have played 19 different teams so far this season. Yesterday, I asked Pittsburgh manager Derek Shelton which of them has impressed him the most.

“It would have to be the Brewers,” replied Shelton, whose team has gone 4-12 against their NL Central rivals. “Their starting pitching is really good — they pitch deep into games — and I personally think they’re a different club since Willy Adames was added. There’s a different energy about them. They’ve stabilized their defense. So I would say the Brewers. Obviously, we’ve played them the most and they’ve played well against us, but they’re extremely impressive.”

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EIGHT EARLY RETURNS

Rowdy Tellez has slashed .323/.411/.613 with five home runs in 73 plate appearances since being traded from the Toronto Blue Jays to the Milwaukee Brewers on July 6.

Adam Frazier is slashing .229/.289/.257 with no home runs in 39 plate appearances since being traded from the Pittsburgh Pirates to the San Diego Padres on July 26.

Abraham Toro has slashed .425/.489/.750 with three home runs in 45 plate appearances since being traded from the Houston Astros to the Seattle Mariners on July 27.

Starling Marte is slashing .371/.421/.600 with two home runs in 38 plate appearances since being traded from the Miami Marlins to the Oakland Athletics on July 28.

Cesar Hernandez is slashing .345/.457/.552 with two home runs in 35 plate appearances since being traded from the Cleveland Indians to the Chicago White Sox on July 29.

Kris Bryant is slashing .385/.448/.615 with one home run in 29 plate appearances since being traded from the Chicago Cubs to the San Francisco Giants on July 29.

Anthony Rizzo is slashing .281/.400/.563 with three home runs in 40 plate appearances since being traded from the Chicago Cubs to the New York Yankees on July 29.

Joey Gallo is slashing .147/.275/.353 with one home run in 40 plate appearances since being traded from the Texas Rangers to the New York Yankees on July 29.

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Being a big fan of baseball history, I always enjoy seeing people wearing jerseys of players from yesteryear. I saw some great ones this past week at a West Michigan Whitecaps game. Two older gentlemen, sitting together, were sporting Norm Cash and Bill Freehan jerseys.

For those of you not in the know, Cash and Freehan are Detroit sports icons. Cash had a 139 wRC+ and hit 373 home runs while playing first base for the Tigers from 1960-1974. He was a four-time all-star. Freehan was the club’s catcher from 1964-1976, and an 11-time all-star. He put up a 113 wRC+ and slugged 200 home runs.

In terms of jersey-selection when attending a minor-league game, the older gentlemen I saw have all-star credentials of their own.

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LINKS YOU’LL LIKE

Travis Sawchik feels that the MLB draft is broken and in need of a fix. He shared his thoughts on the subject at The Score.

MLB.com’s Maria Guardado wrote about the recent catcher’s balk, which technically wasn’t a catcher’s balk.

Lookout Landing’s Amanda Lane looked back at Ken Griffey Jr.’s eight-homer streak in July 1993.

Mark Simon shared his memories of an amazing 15-14 game between Cleveland and Seattle on August 5, 2001.

Bill James presented us with The Teams of the Decade with a special emphasis placed on Gil Hodges.

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RANDOM FACTS AND STATS

The Miami Marlins, who are in last place in the NL East, went into yesterday with a minus-10 run differential. The Arizona Diamondbacks, who are in last place in the NL West, had a minus-172 run differential.

Miguel Cabrera has 498 home runs and needs two more to become the 28th player in big-league history to reach the 500 mark. No one has attained that milestone while wearing a Detroit Tigers uniform.

Seattle’s Ty France was hit by a pitch yesterday for the 19th time, tying the franchise’s single-season record previously set by José Guillén in 2007. (per Mariners PR.)

The Cincinnati Reds have 25 stolen bases as a team so far this season. On today’s date in 1986, Cincinnati outfielder Eric Davis had 60 stolen bases.

The first radio broadcast of a baseball game was aired on August 5, 1921 when the Pirates hosted the Philadelphia Phillies at Forbes Field. Harold Arlin called the action on KDKA as Pittsburgh came out on top 8-5. Possum Whitted scored three runs for the winning side.

On today’s date in 2000, Bernie Williams and David Justice homered on the only two pitches thrown in the bottom of the ninth inning as the New York Yankees beat the Oakland A’s 4-3. Jason Isringhausen gave up the gophers.

On today’s date in 2011, Lucas Duda’s two-run single capped a three-run bottom of the ninth as the New York Mets beat the San Diego Padres 9-8. Jason Isringhausen was credited with the win.

Players born on today’s date include Frank Howard, who logged a 140 wRC+ while playing for three teams over 16 big-league seasons. From 1968-1970, the 6-foot-7 “Hondo” had 136 home runs and a 166 wRC+ while playing for the Washington Senators.

Also born on today’s date was Tot Pressnell, who pitched for the Brooklyn Dodgers from 1938-1940, and for the Chicago Cubs in 1940 and 1941. A knuckleballer from Findlay, Ohio, Forest Charles Pressnell made 154 appearances and went 32-30 with a 3.80 ERA.





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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kriscolic

Might want to fact check that Duda tidbit