June 2010

Goose Eggs

There are a lot of things to like about this ValleyCats team, twelve games into the 2010 season. The pitching staff has been dominant, posting a 2.90 ERA – fourth-best in the NY-Penn League. Tri-City leads the league with 108 strikeouts, and has only walked 38 batters, less than the league average.

And the offense has shown strong secondary skills. The ‘Cats have walked 54 times, second-best in the league to date. And their power numbers – 17 doubles and six homers – are not bad in the context of the league.

But, as important as walks and power are, you still can’t score a lot of runs when you’re batting .197, as the ValleyCats are after tonight’s 4-0 shutout loss at Vermont, the second goose egg in as many days. And that’s certainly the biggest story surrounding the Tri-City team right now. On Sunday afternoon, I wrote that I really liked that night’s lineup, and they proceeded to score two runs on three hits, only one of which was well-struck. But although I thought I had jinxed them that night, Sunday’s lineup looks absolutely potent compared to the one we’ve seen in Vermont. Last night, three Lake Monsters combined for a four-hit shutout; tonight, three more home team pitchers allowed only two hits and three walks.

I will offer many of the same warnings I offered last week: we’re still dealing with small samples. This team certainly has the ability to hit – we saw that in the middle of last week’s homestand, when they racked up 28 hits in three games. And the fact that the secondary skills are still there gives me some confidence that the ‘Cats will figure out what they’re doing at the plate.

And again, we’ve seen this before. Tri-City’s batting average through 12 games last year was .198, eerily similar to that of this year’s team. The 2009 offense turned out to be fine, finishing up just shy of the league average at .242 despite the cold start. (Of course, that team picked up an offensive boost at about this point in the season, adding unknown college outfielder J.D. Martinez*, who eventually led the league in hitting. We certainly can’t count on getting that kind of addition again.) Vermont also has the best pitching staff in the league to date, although with only 12 games in the books we run into some cause-and-effect issues with the stats that we need time to sort out (i.e., does Vermont have good numbers because Tri-City is bad, or do the ‘Cats have bad numbers because their opponents can pitch?).

*Care to guess who’s currently leading the ValleyCats in batting average? That’s right, a college outfielder drafted in the 20th round, Dan Adamson.

So I guess my message is pretty much the same as it was last week: be patient. If the ‘Cats are still flirting with the Mendoza Line at the end of the upcoming six-game homestand, well, then it might be time to panic. But right now, it could be no more than a teamwide slump happening at a bad time.

Mike Kvasnicka will not finish the season hitting .121, I promise you that. He’s still found ways to be productive at the plate, however, drawing 10 walks (tied for fourth in the league).

Although the hitting is obviously the headliner, this also has not been a very good defensive team. The ValleyCats rank second in the NYPL in fielding percentage at .974, but that only tells a small part of the story – this defense is allowing a lot of balls to fall for hits. Even with all the strikeouts, opponents are batting .263 against Tri-City pitchers – 20 points above the league average. I plan on diving into this more in a later post, but eyeballing the numbers, I would expect that the ‘Cats have allowed the highest batting average on balls in play, and it might not be close. They have also thrown 12 wild pitches, one shy of the league high, and have thrown out a below-average share of base stealers.

I would expect the defense to get better over time, as the ‘Cats have been breaking in players at new positions. The fact that they are fourth in ERA despite having a lot of players unfamiliar at their position is a tremendous credit to the pitching staff.

Baserunning has been another pitfall of this young team. The ValleyCats got five runners on base tonight, and only two stayed there until the end of the inning. Vermont turned a pair of double plays, which certainly aren’t the runners’ fault, but Wilton Infante was picked off and caught stealing after his base hit in the fourth inning. Tri-City has had eight runners caught stealing and only five successful thefts, and I can’t find stats for pure pickoffs but there have been a couple of those.

It’s probably worth mentioning that, despite the 4-8 record, Tri-City has only been outscored by four runs (44-40). However, that comes with the caveat that Randy Consuegra basically handed them 5-10 runs, depending on how you want to count the inherited runners. Drawing walks is absolutely a skill, and this is a patient lineup, but Consuegra was a special case – batters could pretty much step in the box, see four or five pitches and know they were going to take first base.

I was legitimately disappointed that Carlos Quevedo pitched last night, because the team was on the road and I couldn’t watch. That’s how good he has been this year. He did give up a pair of longballs on Monday but was otherwise brilliant, allowing just two other runners to reach base in six innings. For the season, Quevedo has 16 strikeouts and no walks. That’s Cliff Lee territory. His next start should be at The Joe, projected for July 3rd against Connecticut.

Quevedo’s record so far is 0-1, which should demonstrate exactly how useful that statistic is for measuring pitchers (particularly in this league).

And after a pair of shaky outings last week, the bullpen is right back to its amazing old self. Tri-City relievers have thrown six scoreless innings in the series so far, giving up only three hits.

The ValleyCats and Lake Monsters finish their three-game set tomorrow. Tri-City looks to take the first step towards breaking out of its slump against Matt Swynenberg, who frustrated the ‘Cats in Troy last week. But as long as the pitching keeps this up, we will at the very least have a season full of close, fast-paced games.

Kevin Whitaker

Notebook: Toaster trouble

As fans were filing into Joe Bruno Stadium about an hour before Sunday’s game, there was an awful stench coming from the concourse. It did not take long to locate the source of the chaos: someone in the home clubhouse had left a piece of bread burning in the toaster.

Apparently, this is not the first time that the ValleyCats have struggled with a toaster. Earlier this season, corner infielder Tyler Burnett had a similar toaster-related mishap in the players’ dorms at RPI, setting off the fire alarms in the wee hours of the morning.

As much trouble as the ValleyCats have had figuring out kitchen appliances, it pales in comparison to the difficulty they have had figuring out Lowell pitchers. Aside from the unbelievably wild Randy Consuegra, the Spinners pitchers have had tremendous success against Tri-City.

The line so far for Lowell pitchers, sans Consuegra, against the ValleyCats:

34.2 IP, 19 H, 35 SO, 14 BB, 3 ER, 0.78 ERA, .156 BAA

Right from the start, it was clear that yesterday would be tough for the Tri-City offense. Lefty Hunter Cervenka dialed it up as high as 94 mph and hit every one of his spots early on. He was perfect with five strikeouts through the first two innings, needing only 23 pitches to make the home team hitters look foolish. Cervenka got a little looser with his command in the third and the ‘Cats made him pay, taking advantage of a walk, a hit batsman and an error to tie the game at 1-1, but still could not hit balls hard.

Cervenka took a no-hitter into the fifth inning, when veteran first baseman Nick Stanley broke up the bid with a one-out single after fighting through an eight-pitch at-bat. Stanley’s safety was not particularly well-hit – a Texas Leaguer to the opposite field – but it fell in the right place. The hard-throwing lefty was then removed from the game, as he had already reached surpassed his limit with 72 pitches.

“[Cervenka's] command was real good,” Ben Heath said. “He pitched against us over at Lowell, and he was also really good there.”

“I don’t know what it is with that kid, but we didn’t swing the bats well against him over there,” manager Jim Pankovits said of Cervenka. “Lowell is kind of a strange team – [tonight it was] a different team than you saw last night, that’s for sure.”

Reliever Stephen Fox was just as effective. The righty only reached the high 80s with his fastball, but went to his 75-77 curveball early and often, keeping Tri-City hitters off-balance. Fox retired the first ten hitters he faced, and the first hit he allowed was similarly soft: Dan Adamson hit a grounder to first and beat the pitcher to the bag for an infield single.

The only well-struck base hit the ValleyCats had all game came in the ninth inning, when Heath lined an 0-1 slider over the Tri-City bullpen in left. The catcher leads the team with a pair of longballs, both ninth-inning blasts.

Lost in the shuffle was the fact that Tri-City starter Jake Buchanan threw very well. Pankovits said after the game that Buchanan isn’t yet where he’d like to be, and that’s undoubtedly true in terms of stamina – he was pulled after three innings and 50 pitches. But I was very impressed with the righty’s performance last night.

Buchanan was sitting 88-89 with his fastball, but hitters were still swinging late often, possibly out of respect for his changeup and curveball. He had good run to the arm side as well; shortstop Oscar Figueroa was the main beneficiary of this, picking up three 6-3 assists in the first two innings.

The eighth-round draft pick out of NC State did walk two hitters, but it wasn’t as if he showed a complete lack of control – he issued a bases-empty walk to Kolbrin Vitek in the first on a full count, and Nick Robinson worked an 11-pitch walk in the third inning. Robinson’s would prove more critical when Felix Sanchez followed with a line drive single up the middle – the first hit of the game – and Buchanan hit Jose Garcia on a 2-2 couint, loading the bases. Vitek hit into a fielder’s choice at short, but it was too slow to complete the double play and Robinson scored.

Chris Blazek came on for the fourth, and was brilliant as usual, consistently at 88 mph with his fastball. He did allow his second hit of the season, but it was a lazy fly ball to left that could have been caught if Renzo Tello had made a better read on it. Blazek retired the next two hitters in order, throwing a dirty 79-mph changeup to send David Renfroe down swinging. His season line: 4.2 IP, 2 H, 1 BB, 10 SO.

Blazek is too good for this level. But don’t tell that to anyone in the Houston front office, because I really enjoy watching him pitch.

It was the other Tri-City relievers who uncharacteristically struggled. David Martinez came into the game with a perfect ERA in 6.2 innings, but the Lowell ofefnse woke against him immediately. Felix Sanchez reached on a one-out bunt single – his second of the two-game series – and stole second base; Jose Garcia advanced him 90 feet with a line drive to left. Martinez got Kolbrin Vitek to fly out to shallow right field and could have been out of the inning, but while Adam Bailey’s throw was in plenty of time to catch the speedy Sanchez, it was too far up the third-base line for Heath to make the tag. Two more line-drive hits, the last a shot to the center-field wall by Brandon Jacobs, and the Spinners had a 4-1 lead.

Martinez had a strong second inning, but the meat of the Lowell lineup feasted on Brendan Stines. Garcia hit a line drive into the Lowell bullpen, and Vitek and Miles Head followed with base hits, tacking on two more runs.

Brandt Walker came on to finish the game. His line wasn’t pretty – five hits and a run in two innings – but I would not worry much about the five hits – they were all singles and each one was a grounder that found a hole. The four outs in play off Walker were also ground balls. When you can hit 92-93 like Walker can (and he flashed a nice curve to fan Garcia) with that kind of sink, you’re usually going to have success as a pitcher. Walker did issue a four-pitch walk to Vitek and a five-pitch free pass to Robinson, each of which loaded the bases.

The box score shows a poor game for Heath defensively, as he fielded the bunt single and allowed stolen bases to Sanchez and Vitek. But although I’ve been critical of Heath’s defense before, that wasn’t the problem last night: Sanchez is fast as hell, his bunt was perfectly placed, Vitek stole on a breaking ball and both runners got good jumps off the pitcher. I’ll continue to keep an eye on him behind the plate as the season progresses, but I have no complaints from last night.

I got a chance yesterday to talk with Heath about making the transition to pro ball as a catcher:

Anytime you have a new staff, it’s an adjustment. But it’s also exciting to catch guys who have really good stuff. A lot of guys here throw heavy sinkers – a lot of times, you see a guy throwing 88-90 and think it’s not huge velocity, but if he has sink on the ball, you can’t really tell from the side. It’s definitely a different level than college. But we have a great pitching staff, and it’s fun to catch.

A couple other news items from the weekend:

The 19th overall draft pick, Mike Foltynewicz, made his debut for the Greenville Astros on Saturday. He threw one inning, allowing a hit but erasing the runner with a pickoff. He will be in rookie ball all season, according to reports, so he will not be a ValleyCat in 2010.

And we have reports that third-round pick Austin Wates will sign with Houston soon. Houston will reportedly try Wates out at second base. Given the similarities between Wates and Mike Kvasnicka – advanced bats with positional questions – I would have to think there’s a good chance he comes to Troy. If he does, Wates could be an impact bat for the ValleyCats right away – something it looks like this team could use.

(Update: apparently that report was false.)

Kevin Whitaker

Notebook: Vermont roundup

I meant to post this before tonight’s game, but some World Cup-related distractions got in the way, so it’s now a little dated.

Well, the last two games went a little differently than the first six. The biggest difference was that the ‘Cats actually hit the ball. The stats:

-Tri-City had 10 hits in each game, 20 total – as many as the four games before that combined.
-The ValleyCats were batting .197 after six games, but raised that average to .222.
-5 runs on Thursday tied the season high to that point, which was then broken by Friday’s seven-run output.

Adam Bailey and Nick Stanley each broke out of slumps in big ways, getting three hits apiece. Stanley picked up all three in the first six innings – the last of which drove in Mike Kvasnicka to pull Tri-City within three – and walked in his fourth plate appearance. Stanley, meanwhile, drove in the game’s first run with a sacrifice fly in the second and doubled with two out in the tenth, but most will remember his game-tying two-run homer in the eighth.

Bailey’s homer was gone from the moment it hit the bat, easily clearing the second fence in right field. There’s a Dunkin’ Donuts cup of coffee with a giveaway if anyone hits it, and the sign has been mocked for its distance (at least 450 feet away in right field, maybe more). But if Bailey’s shot had been hit another degree or two to the left, it would have landed within 5-10 feet of the sign. I’d be shocked if anyone else comes closer to hitting it all year.

The ValleyCats are now hitting .222 and are no longer last in the league. Even that understates their offense to some degree – their team OPS of .662 ranks 10th of 16 teams in the NYPL. Offensive numbers in this league are always going to be lower than they are in MLB, because many players are in their first year learning to use wooden bats. For example, while the MLB league batting average is generally in the .260-.270 range, the NYPL average is .243 so far this year.

So…I don’t want to say I told you so, but I kinda did. But seriously, the last two games don’t mean the ValleyCats’ offense will be good any more than the previous two meant it was terrible, and so it’s important to keep an eye on the bats moving forward. But now I think we can all relax a bit after their cold start.

Yes, the bullpen was bad last night, giving up six runs and 11 hits in five innings. But it had a 0.70 ERA coming into the game. That was never going to last. The regression came at a bad time, but I still like it to be a strength going forward; a couple bad pitches ended up in bad places against a good-hitting team, but I loved how Belliard and Champion got out of the two-on, one-out jam in the 8th to keep the ‘Cats in the game, and I’m confident the relievers will continue to be strong.

I’m going to keep writing a lot about Mike Kvasnicka, because there’s a lot of interest in how he develops, particularly among Astros fans. Kvasnicka broke out of an 0-for-16 slump with a line-drive single in the first inning of Thursday’s game, also his first base hit right-handed this year. He still hasn’t been lighting things up offensively, but his swing has looked better from both sides, and he is pretty much where you expect him to be in his development. The first-pitch home run on Opening Day was nice, but he still has work to do. One encouraging sign is his plate discipline – he walked four times in 11 plate appearances against Vermont.

Defensively, things were mixed for Kvasnicka at third base against Vermont. He made a nice play in the second inning Thursday, picking up a slow roller and throwing across the diamond. But in the seventh inning of that game, he overran a foul popup, getting to the dugout only to see it fall five feet away, back towards the field. That play really just showed his unfamiliarity with the position – anyone who has ever tried to field a popup from third or catcher knows how difficult it is to judge a ball spinning back towards the field. Later that inning, Connor Rowe hit a hard worm-burner to his right; Kvasnicka got in front of it and gloved it, but couldn’t pick it off the ground, committting his first error of the season at third base. He got another chance with two outs and runners on the corners, redeeming himself on a hard two-hopper right at him. Last night, Marcus Jones hit a ground-ball double down the third-base line that Kvasnicka might have been able to knock down, but he reacted too slowly. Kvas is back in right field tonight.

Another player with positional questions is catcher Ben Heath. He’s still a backstop and will be for the forseeable future, but people have wondered if he has what it takes to stay behind the plate in the big leagues. He really hasn’t made strides towards answering that question yet this season. Heath was behind the plate for two wild pitches by Robert Doran two days ago and a third by Gouvea yesterday, all of which looked blockable. (On the final one, he reached out to scoop a backhand off the bounce instead of getting his body in front of it). He was also slow getting out from behind the plate in the first inning on Friday, allowing Blake Kelso to reach base on a bunt single. I’m not a scout and don’t know if he’ll end up catching in the big leagues, but he’ll have to work hard defensively to get there.

Renzo Tello made a couple of beautiful throws from left field to kill baserunners in Wednesday’s game, but came up short in a critical spot on Friday. Connor Rowe’s tenth-inning single was a soft grounder through the 5-6 hole, and Tello was playing relatively shallow in left. He came up throwing and would have had plenty of time to get Hendry Jimenez at the plate, but it was too far up the first-base line for Heath to make a play. Tello almost made a sensational play in the ninth, leaping to catch Stephen King’s line-drive homer, but missed it by inches (and was shaken up on the play).

But overall, the defense has been very strong recently. Kvasnicka’s fielding error was the only miscue of those two games for Tri-City. As well as he hit on Friday, I was just as impressed with Nick Stanley in the field. I have been critical of Stanley’s defense before, after two subpar games to open the season, but yesterday’s performance makes me think those might have been an aberration. He made a great play in the fourth inning, sliding to backhand a ball in the hole and completing the 3-1 play. A couple batters later, he started a 3-6-1 double play to get out of the inning.

Of course, the two best defensive plays were made by Lake Monsters. In the eighth inning of Thursday’s game, Frank Almonte hit a line drive to left field that looked like a sure double, but speedy outfielder Chad Mozingo raced back and made a terrific diving catch on the warning track. Renzo Tello was already past second base, expecting the ball to drop; Mozingo was able to get the ball back to the infield in time for the relay throw to double Tello off at first. And yesterday, Enrique Hernandez drove a one-hopper off the mound, but second baseman Blake Kelso dove to his right and snared the ball off the bounce, recovering to throw Hernandez out at first.

We had a scary moment in the third inning of Thursday’s game when shortstop Oscar Figueroa and center fielder Wilton Infante collided going after a popup in the middle of the field. Infante made the catch and was fine, but Figgy went down hard and stayed there for a couple minutes. He remained in the game and it didn’t seem to affect his play much, but he was still feeling the collision in his shoulder the following day.

Some other assorted notes on Tri-City pitchers:

Robert Doran had a very good outing Thursday night. His final line is okay – 4 IP, 5 H, 2 ER, 3 SO, 1 BB – but it really could have been a lot better than that. Only one of those was really well-struck, though – a line-drive double to center by Wilfri Pena that scored a run. Pena only batted that inning because Doran slipped going after a nubber towards third, and while the other hits weren’t as lucky as that one, they could have easily been outs. A pair of ground balls found holes, and Justin Miller hit a ball in the gap that looked like an easy out off the bat but carried forever, going with the wind for a double. It’s a shame Doran was pulled after four due to his pitch count (57); he deserved the win in that game.

Doran was sitting 89-91 for the game, showing an 80 changeup fairly often. More impressively, he threw first-pitch strikes to the first 16 hitters he faced. Astros County picked up on this as well, and it’s by no means unusual within this staff. The day before, Carlos Quevedo went FPS on 15 of the first 16; on Opening Day Quevedo started out 12/12.

The guy who did get the win Thursday, lefty reliever Chris Blazek, did pitch even better. Blazek pitched in Troy way back in 2005 and was last seen in Corpus Christi in 2008, but sat out last season with a labrum tear in his pitching shoulder. The 25-year-old is working his way back up the ranks, and probably won’t be with the ValleyCats much longer if he continues to throw like he did against Vermont. Blazek struck out the side in order in the fifth inning, throwing a dirty changeup to fool Jimenez for the second out. He was just as perfect in his second inning of work, getting two strikeouts and a harmless grounder to first. The southpaw only sits around 85-87 (touched 88), but he hides the ball very well in his delivery, making it hard to pick up out of his hand. Opponents also have to respect his offspeed stuff – the change that got Jimenez clocked at 80, while he throws a breaking ball in the mid-70s – so even though his fastball doesn’t have great velocity, it gets on hitters quickly. As much as I’d love to see Blazek here as long as possible, I would imagine he’ll get promoted sometime in the next couple weeks.

Possibly the most interesting Tri-City pitcher this year is Jorge De Leon, a converted shortstop with an incredibly live arm. The closer was stretched out for a two-inning save on Thursday and got five-sixths of the way there, but walked the final two hitters and had to be replaced by Michael Ness. De Leon didn’t have great command that night, walking two and hitting a third. But he still showed flashes of dominance, freezing King on a curveball to open the eighth and then sawing off Jason Martinson with a 91-mph fastball on the hands. He never hit the 97 that he’s capable of on Thursday, but was in the low-90s and ramped it up as high as 95.

Murillo Gouvea did not command the ball well in his first start, losing a lot of pitches at the batters’ eyes. He had some more bad at-bats on Friday, but overall his control was much better, and he walked only one in five innings of work. Gouvea was again hurt by the longball, though; he gave up his second homer of the season, a two-run shot to Rowe in the fifth. That was about all the damage Gouvea allowed, however – he gave up a run in the fifth on a walk, bunt single, sacrifice bunt and sacrifice fly, and didn’t allow anyone else past second base.

I’ll have more analysis from tonight’s crazy game, hopefully tomorrow afternoon before the 5 pm start.

Kevin Whitaker

Other links: Fan blogger Jim Davey talks about Heath’s game-tying homer and some fans he encountered at “The Joe”

VCN’s Elliot Travis has video from Thursday’s game:

And from Friday:


Weather Updates

It looks like we will have our first real weather scare of the season today.  Fortunately, all forecasts point towards the rain clearing up in time for the 7:00 start.  Stay tuned to http://twitter.com/ValleyCats for updates throughout the evening.

We’ll also have some analysis from the final games of the Vermont series here on ‘Cats Corner later this afternoon.

Power Outage scenes and thoughts

At one point in yesterday’s game, I actually began to wonder if we might be able to finish the game in under two hours. It would have ben a stretch, but didn’t seem like a ridiculous proposition: the sixth inning was almost complete at 8:29, just an hour and 25 minutes after the game began. Carlos Quevedo was throwing great for Tri-City – 6 IP, 3 H, 0 BB, 0 R on 65 pitches – and the Vermont pitchers also working quickly, allowing just one run and no walks. Neither side had needed more than 15 pitches to complete an inning, and with potentially only two and a half innings left to play, it seemed possible.

Then, the scoreboard went dark, the lights went off, and ominous black smoke started escaping from the roof of the generator building behind the left-center field fence. You probably know the story by now. The game was delayed for 61 minutes until all the lights finally came back on and play could resume. In the meantime, the ValleyCats gathered outside the third-base dugout, entertaining fans and themselves by throwing items into the stands. The postgame fireworks show was instead launched during the delay to keep the crowd engaged.

Eventually the game was resumed. Vermont decided that, even after the delay, it had not been at the ballpark long enough, and scored a run in the eighth to force extra innings. Each team had a runner in scoring position in the ninth and tenth, but neither could score. In the eleventh, Vermont finally broke through. Henry Jimenez – who had entered the game in the ninth as a pinch-runner for designated hitter David Freitas – led off the inning with a single through the right side, and came around to score on a two-out single by pinch-hitter Justin Miller. The ValleyCats couldn’t answer, and Vermont had a 2-1 victory.

The 61-minute delay provided some of the wildest scenes of the season.

Infielder Enrique Hernandez became an honorary member of VCN, taping Elliot’s camera to the top of his head:

Photobucket

Hernandez wanted to bring the camera out with him to coach first base, but the rest of us thought that was a bad idea.

The players throw giveaway items into the stands:

Photobucket

Mike Kvasnicka stole some frisbees from Southpaw to throw into the crowd:
Photobucket

Fun Facts: As long as Wednesday might have been for the ValleyCats, it was even longer for John Isner and Nicolas Mahut at Wimbledon. Isner and Mahut began their match on Wednesday…and didn’t finish until Thursday, as Isner took the final set 70-68. Tri-City and Vermont could have almost played their game twice, complete with power delays, in the time it took the tennis pros to complete their fifth set alone (8 hours, 11 minutes).

In fact, in the 11 hours and 5 minutes it took Isner and Mahut to play their match, the ValleyCats could have…
    …put on 44 consecutive firework displays
    …waited through 11 power outage delays
    …in which they could have thrown an estimated 22,000 items into the stands
    …including 11 cardboard boxes, signed by a dozen ValleyCats.
Photobucket

I think we’re all glad it didn’t come to that.

===

Some notes from the game:

The ValleyCats’ pitching staff is due for regression at some point – that 1.73 ERA is simply not sustainable for any team. But I am confident that Carlos Quevedo will continue to have a lot of success at this level. You can’t help but appreciate the righty’s pitching style. How’s this for going after hitters: In his first start, Quevedo threw first-pitch strikes to the first 12 batters he faced. Last night? 14 of the first 15. His fastball only sits around 89-91, but it gets on hitters really quickly, enabling him to challenge batters up in the zone and succeed. The stadium shadows last night helped a bit with that deception, but it was still impressive. Quevedo’s second pitch is a slow curve, which seemed to come in around 74-76 mph (though I trust the stadium gun a little less in this range, as it was showing a few curves at 61); it was very useful for him last night, although he did get some help from the umpire on a couple hooks.

Quevedo was the player affected most by the power outage: he was only at 65 pitches at the time of the delay, and would have pitched the seventh inning (although likely no more). He only allowed three hits – all singles – and now has not given up a walk in 10.1 innings this seasion. He currently ranks second in the NYPL with 10 strikeouts.

The bullpen was not as lights-out last night as it had been. The overall line is good – five innings, one earned run – but that overstates its effectiveness. The first run counted as unearned, but Tri-City pitchers were hardly blameless – Joan Belliard hit Ronnie LaBrie with one out, Travis Blankenship walked LaBrie over to third with two, and then Andrew Robinson walked the next batter to bring in the run. That was uncharacteristic of a team that has had remarkable control this season. The ‘pen held Vermont scoreless in the ninth and tenth, but didn’t make it easy, stranding a runner on second in the ninth and leaving the bases loaded in the tenth with the help of a baserunning out.

I was very impressed with the ValleyCats’ fielding. The outfielders threw out three runners on the basepaths. In the first inning, Chad Mozingo tried to stretch his leadoff single into a double, but hesitated a bit coming around first, allowing a strong throw by Renzo Tello to beat him to second base. In the tenth inning, Rick Hughes tried to score the go-ahead run on a soft single to right, but Michael Kvasnicka’s throw arrived well before Hughes and catcher Buck Afenir held onto the ball in the collision. In the eleventh, Cole Leonida tried to score an insurance run from second with two outs, but Tello again delivered a good throw to end the inning. Ben Orloff added a terrific sliding catch deep in foul territory in the fifth inning, while Oscar Figueroa, starting at third for the first time, made a nice play on a grounder in the second.

But the story, as always, is that the ‘Cats can’t hit. I already covered that theme this week, and one more game doesn’t change my opinion much. Still, Tri-City is batting just .197 on the season, which is not good.

Kvasnicka continued his hitless streak, going 0-for-1 in two plate appearances. The rookie did not start, but pinch-hit for Adam Bailey in the ninth with Burnett on first and one out. From the right side, he took a big swing through the first pitch, but eventually worked a walk. He got up again in the eleventh, this time from the left side and again with Burnett on first. The ‘Cats called a hit-and-run but got a bad pitch as Kvasnicka swung and missed at a fastball up and out of the zone, hanging Burnett out to dry between first and second and effectively ending the ‘Cats’ rally. Kvasnicka went down swinging on a ball in the dirt two pitches later.

He’s back in the lineup tonight, in the three-hole and starting at third. Let’s hope he breaks out of the slump.

Kevin Whitaker

Crazy game

Here’s the media board from today’s wild 11-inning thriller, which featured three pinch-hitters, a pinch-runner and nine pitching changes:

More to come tomorrow.

Fan Blog

We at the ValleyCats Network are pleased to announce a new partner: Longtime ‘Cats enthusiast Jim Davey will be writing from a fan’s perspective.

You can check out Jim’s blog, ValleyCat Fan, at http://jimdavey.mlblogs.com/

A Weekend Of Firsts

After many days of preparation, with most of the staff
putting in 12+ hour days during the week leading up to Friday’s Opening Day,
Opening Weekend 2010 has come and gone. We had a lot of firsts this weekend and
we even made history.

There was no better way to start the season if you are a
ValleyCats fan. Scratch that, just a baseball fan in general. The ‘Cats scored
their first run of the year in their first inning of offense. Mike Kvasnicka,
the Astros first round supplemental pick (33rd overall), hit his
first professional home run on the first pitch he saw as a ValleyCat.

Tri-City also notched its first walk-off victory of the
season. With the game tied 3-3 in the bottom of the ninth, Enrique Hernandez led
off the inning with a single to left. ValleyCats Manager Jim Pankovits wasted
no time and put the speedy veteran Ben Orloff into the game to run (“Walk-off”
Orloff was a part of pretty much every walk-off win last year). Wilton Infante
laid a nice sac bunt down to push Ben Orloff over to second base. With one down
and a runner on second, Oscar Figeroa lined a pitch down the third-base line
that just stayed fair (I’m talking
inches here). Orloff scored all the way from second to give the ‘Cats their
first victory of the young season. The ValleyCats bench erupted, along with the
crowd of 5,380 (the first sell out of the season), exploded out of the dugout,
and mobbed Figeroa as he rounded second. It was Figeroa’s first walk-off hit.

“I was thinking and concentrating on one pitch,” said
Figueroa. “I was looking for fastball middle in. That’s what he threw me,
fastball middle in. When I hit the ball, I was thinking ‘God, please make that
ball fair.’ When the guys got to me at second base, that was really exciting. I
never in my life have been in that situation. It was awesome.”

The excitement carried over to game two the following night
as the ValleyCats organization reached a huge milestone. Heading into this season, 992,109 people had walked through the front gates
at “The Joe” since the ValleyCats debuted in 2002. Now, the total is over one million. To
celebrate, ValleyCats employees gave out more free stuff than ever before.
Ushers were armed with gift certificates, t-shirts were tossed almost every
half inning, the “Giveaway Gun” made its debut, and special prizes were given
to some lucky fans (including four tickets to Country Fest and a baseball
signed by Nationals rookie phenom Stephen Strasburg). It was day for the fans;
a big thank you from the ValleyCats front office staff for years of dedication.
But who was the millionth fan? No one will ever really know, but the front
office staff here has deemed the entire crowd in attendance on June 19 the
millionth fan (remember, we are celebrating all year round).

Other Baseball
Notes (including the first game against the Spinners):

As fellow ValleyCats Network (VCN) member Kevin Whitaker has
pointed out already, the ‘Cats bullpen this season has been exceptional. It has allowed two runs in 22 innings of work so far. Pankovits and his staff
have told me that they will be more reliant on the bullpen this year. Last year,
a lot of the starters had a predetermined pitch count. This year, Pank has more
control of the pitching staff and has said he is not afraid to pull someone
early if his stuff isn’t there. These first couple of games have been a test, a
measuring stick if you will. The ValleyCats aren’t going to send out four
relievers every game. That’s absurd, and is a quick way to exhaust your
pitchers. Pank is just seeing what talent is available to him. David Martinez
has been one of the standouts. In six innings of work so far he is 1-0, has a
perfect ERA, and has only let up two hits.

If people are worried about Mike Kvasnicka because he is 0
for his last 12 with two walks, chill out. It’s early. It generally takes
hitters longer to adjust to the wooden bats, but that isn’t always the case
(J.D. Martinez anyone?). Kvasnicka will turn it around. The guy led the team in
average at .355 this season for the Golden Gophers, with eight homers and 50
batted in (he batted .341 last season). Lowell Spinners outfielder Bryce Brentz
(team mate of ValleyCat Tyler Burnett), the Red Sox first round supplemental
pick (36 overall, just three spots later than Kvasnicka) is batting .077 so far
this season. He was considered one of the best bats in this year’s draft. Are
the Red Sox worried about him? Absolutely not.

The ValleyCats do have areas they need to fix. The defense
needs to get together. This team is 2-2. They have committed four errors in
their two losses and only one in their two wins. They have given up seven unearned
runs. Just not acceptable. I know it is early on in the season, but this trend
cannot continue. The pitching staff has been great, but the D needs to tighten
up behind them. I could see this team playing a lot of close, low scoring games
this year, and there is nothing wrong with that. Tri-City is a National League
affiliate and the NL is notorious for their “small ball.” Playing it here just
gets them more prepped for the big leagues.

All-in-all, not a bad way to start the season. There are a
few kinks to work out, but who doesn’t have that? Answer: everyone does. It’s
still early. We have not even come close to seeing this team’s potential. The
Stedler Division will be a tough battle this year. The Lake Monsters have
started the season off tied for the best record at 3-1, the Tigers always play
the ValleyCats tough, and the Spinners have a few first round picks on their
hands, and might get another one in Anthony Raunado when he finally signs after
playing a little bit in a summer league. The talent is definitely there for the
ValleyCats, and it should be interesting to see how they use it.

By Evan Valenti

Becoming a Team

Elliot Travis takes a look at how the ValleyCats spend the first few days of the season getting to know their teammates better:

Kvasnicka at 3B; weekend roundup

From a long-term perspective, the most important part of Sunday night’s loss was not the outcome of the game. Instead, it was the transition of one of the most promising young ‘Cats: Michael Kvasnicka started at third base for the first time, after playing the first two games in right field.

Although he was primarily an outfielder in college and was seen by many teams as a catcher, the Astros drafted Kvasnicka to play third base. The 33rd overall pick from the University of Minnesota has played everywhere on the diamond, but spent most of his time in the outfield and will be raw as third basemen go. He’s been taking grounders there all week, but today was the first time Kvasnicka was at the hot corner in live action.

He had plenty of chances to prove himself, too. Most notably, Alex Nunez led off the third inning by laying a bunt down the third base line, challenging the rookie’s chops at the new position. Kvasnicka picked the ball up nicely, and his throw almost pulled first baseman Tyler Burnett (moved off the hot corner to make room for Kvasnicka) off the bag, but he got the out. It wasn’t a terribly difficult play as drag bunts go, and most third basemen will get that out, but it was nice to see Kvasnicka handle himself well on it.

Kvasnicka had four other fielding chances at third, and handled them all with ease. The second batter of a game hit a slow chopper to third; Kvasnicka smartly checked off a double-play throw to second, set himself and threw to first, getting PJ Polk by a step and a half. The two other grounders Kvasnicka saw were easy – a two-hopper right at him in the fifth and a soft broken-bat grounder leading off the sixth – and he caught a high popup in foul territory; he had to come back towards the infield late to catch the ball, but he made the play.

One other ball went through Kvasnicka’s zone – a hard, one-hopper through his left side in the fifth inning off the bat of Matt Mansilla. It was a clean base hit, but he had a chance at making a great play if he made a little better read and/or moved better to his left. Not that we should be holding him to these standards yet, but I’d imagine a good percentage of big-league third basemen would have at least gotten a glove on that ball.

But overall, I think Astros fans have to be optimistic about what we saw from Kvasnicka defensively today. ValleyCat fans should be encouraged, too, as the move should strengthen the Tri-City defense. Kvasnicka right now is a downgrade at third from Burnett (who made a nice diving play in the first inning of Saturday’s game), but Burnett at first should be an upgrade over Nick Stanley, who did not technically commit an error in two days but saw three hits go off of his glove. Also, if any of the outfielders who have been DHing are average defenisvely in right, that will probably be a net plus to the ‘Cats run prevention. Kvasnicka made a fielding error trying to pick up a blooper in right in the first inning on Friday, three-hopped a throw home 20 feet up the line on Saturday and took a couple other awkward routes to balls in the outfield this weekend. That also frees up the DH spot for Stanley, should management decide they want his veteran bat in the lineup.

In fact, if you’re looking for a source of worry regarding Kvasnicka’s development, I’d take a look at his performance against lefties. The switch-hitter famously had no trouble adjusting to the speed of the professional game from the left-handed batters box, blasting an opposite-field homer and a double to the same place on the first two pitches he saw. But Connecticut turned him around in his last two at-bats yesterday and for all four today, and Kvasnicka looked shakier as a right-handed batter. From the right side, he’s 0-for-6 with three strikeouts, two popups to second base, and a weak grounder to third. He was up in a key situation in the eighth inning today with two on and two out in the bottom of the eighth, but was way behind an 87 mph fastball from Logan Hoch and then chased an offspeed pitch in the dirt for strike three. Six at-bats is obviously a tiny sample, and I’ll keep an eye on this one throughout the season.

Some other assorted notes from Opening Weekend:

I mentioned this in my gamer, but Connecticut starter Luis Sanz pulled off an interesting feat on Saturday: he allowed three batters to reach base in innings 2-5, but still faced the minimum 12 batters. Even more interesting was the way he did it. All three baserunners were retired in different ways – Renzo Tello was caught stealing, Tyler Burnett was erased on a double play and Dan Adamson was called out on a stolen base attempt due to batter interference on Tello. The call drew an angry reaction – not to mention confusion – from the crowd, but Pankovits didn’t really argue, and it looked like the right call. It was a 1-2 hit-and-run, Tello swung at a pitch way outside to protect the runner and ended up falling over the plate. Catcher Eric Roof still got a throw off and I think Adamson probably had even a good throw beat, but Tello was definitely in Roof’s path and the catcher sold the call.

Sanz had a really incredible outing, in the literal sense of the word: I was amazed at how he turned on and off his command. He threw six pitches, all strikes, to strike out Orloff, but after getting ahead of Figueroa he completely lost it. He threw only five strikes the rest of the inning, with 14 balls and three free passes mixed in. He was lucky Burnett swung first-pitch and Stanley on 2-0, each hitting into outs, because otherwise it could have taken him a long time to get out of the inning. But just as I was preparing for a long day, he found the switch again, needing only 44 pitches to finish the next four innings.

Murillo Gouvea did not have his best outing tonight. In particular, he had very little command of his pitches. In four innings, he managed to limit the damage to just two walks, but he needed 72 pitches to make it through those frames. He left stuff up in the zone all night, the main cause of the single, double and homer in the first inning, and threw quite a few curveballs that never made it below the hitters’ eyes. But the bullpen generally picked him up, and as a team, when you allow five runs you still definitely have a shot to win.

The story of tonight’s game, rather, was the fact that Tri-City hit just 1-for-17 with runners in scoring position. But while it may seem to read, “the ValleyCats offense sucks,” I don’t really agree. Let’s wait a bit longer before declaring the Tri-City bats dead in the water. For one, they weren’t really that futile today – they just picked up their hits at inopportune times. Tri-City didn’t string together two hits in an inning until the last one, and with four doubles and a triple, the ‘Cats were certainly in dangerous positions often. For another, although they didn’t do much yesterday, it was only two days ago that the ValleyCats racked up twelve hits off the Connecticut opening day starter. Finally, Guichardo is a very good pitcher: he posted a 1.73 ERA as a 17-year-old in the Gulf Coast League last year and pitched well in a start at high-A Lakeland.

The run prevention, particularly the defense, is another concern. But I don’t think the last two sloppy days are much more indicative of Tri-City’s true talent level than the opener, when they were incredibly sharp (one harmless error, 15 K, 0 BB). As shaky as some of the pitchers have looked, the ValleyCats still walked only six batters in 18 innings (not good but certainly no disaster), and that’s with 15 different players taking the mound. Eventually a rotation and a bullpen will be set, and the better pitchers will get more innings. Converted shortstop Jorge De Leon looked very good in the ninth tonight, touching 97 on the stadium gun and inducing four groundballs (the first one a single through the 3-4 hole).

I’m not sure if the ValleyCats have 17 pitchers on their roster because they needed 15 of them this weekend, or if they used 15 pitchers this weekend because they had so many that needed work. Either way, as someone tasked with scoring and covering the game, I’m kind of hoping they get rid of a few soon, just so I don’t have to deal with so many pitching changes.

Kevin Whitaker

VCN Videos

Elliot Travis will be producing videos about the ValleyCats’ season throughout the year. Here’s a video from Opening Day:

And here’s Elliot’s video from the Rensselaer County Chamber of Commerce Baseball Challenge:

Game 1 and VCN Behind the Scenes

Well, yesterday’s season opener was great: we got a 4-3 thriller, capped by a walk-off double off the bat of Oscar Figueroa. The game moved along quickly (2:30), it was close and exciting the whole way, and we had a sellout crowd of 5,370.

You can read my gamer here. After sleeping on it for a night, I’m wondering if I kinda buried most important story: the ValleyCats’ pitching performance. Pitching is usually ahead of hitting at the beginning of the season, but the Tri-City stat line from yesterday was ridiculous: 15 strikeouts, 0 walks.

Honestly, the walk-off victory is great for fans and for those of us who cover the game, but given how each team played, yesterday’s game shouldn’t have been that close. Connecticut only got seven runners on base and managed to bring home three of them – teams aren’t usually that efficient at driving runners in. The ValleyCats, on the other hand, smacked 12 hits and added a walk, but only got four runs out of it. If both teams hit as well today as they did yesterday, I’d expect something more like a 5-2 ‘Cats win.

And even those seven baserunners understate the pitching performance yesterday. Enos’s first double was a lazy, 300-foot fly ball that just happened to land right on the line, where Bailey couldn’t get to it. If that ball goes in pretty much any other direction, it’s an easy out. His second one was struck much better, but even that one hung up in the air for a very long time; if Infante’s playing a step or two farther back (and he was positioned very shallow for most of the game), he runs that one down too. Stanley got his glove on two more hits – if he’s another step to the line or even leaning that way, he probably makes those plays. Connecticut really only had two or three clean, no-doubt hits.

Carlos Quevedo’s stuff was absolutely electric. The top of Connecticut’s order couldn’t touch anything he had – they were swinging through high fastballs all night. His approach is dangerous, as working up in the zone results in fly balls that can become extra-base hits – like Enos’s two moonshots – or eventually homers, but it sure worked last night. He only lasted 4.1 innings – presumably, he was on a 70-ish pitch count (69 when he came out), as he was still effective, coming off a strikeout and just about to face three batters who he had fanned twice apiece – but that’s a great sign for the ValleyCats looking forward. Blazek will be on very low pitch counts and we probably won’t see him for more than an inning at a time as he returns from surgery, but he’ll be a great asset in the bullpen. And for three other relievers to come in and be practially untouchable – th eonly hit after the sixth was a line-drive double off Blankenship – is a great sign for Tri-City.

We at the ValleyCats Network felt that our opening day went about as well as the players’.  The production was very smooth, and the fans seemed to enjoy our show.  Here are some behind-the-scenes photos of VCN’s opening night:

Photobucket

Chris, Evan and Gino work on setting up the live broadcast

Photobucket

Jason and Elliot in the production room

Photobucket

Elliot gets some video during batting practice

Photobucket

Jason hard at work before the game…

Photobucket

…controlling what shows up on this.

Photobucket

Evan starts his pregame radio show

And a few more random pictures from the night:
Photobucket

Photobucket

Photobucket

Photobucket

Photobucket

Photobucket

Kevin Whitaker

Opening Night!

Well, it’s June 18th, which means Opening Day is finally here!  The ValleyCats are starting their season at Joe Bruno Stadium for the first time since 2006, and VCN has you covered.

Before the game: read about the season opener and check out the 2010 roster.

During the game: Come to The Joe to see the ValleyCats play! But if you can’t make the game, our own Evan Valenti is broadcasting the game live. Listen here.

After the game: Check our website for a game recap. And we’ll have some content right here on ‘Cats Corner, including some pictures and more analysis,

2010 ValleyCats Roster

In case you missed the news yesterday, we have an official roster for the 2010 ValleyCats. Here’s the press release.

We’ll be providing plenty of information on each player throughout the season. In the meantime, here’s some more information on the roster:

A total of 14 college players will be making their professional debut with the ValleyCats, after being selected in last week’s amateur draft. Foremost among them is Michael Kvasnicka of Minnesota, taken with the 33rd overall pick and signed yesterday. Kvasnicka played the outfield and caught for the Gophers, but Houston sees him as a third baseman, so Tri-City fans will get to watch his transition to the hot corner firsthand. He’s also listed as a utility player, which means we’ll probably see some of him in the outfield, and I wouldn’t be shocked if he gets a few innings at second base. I wrote more about Kvasnicka after the draft.

A couple of other high draft picks will be joining Kvasnicka in Troy this week. Texas Tech pitcher Bobby Doran and Penn State catcher Ben Heath – selected in the fourth and fifth round, respectively – also were assigned to Troy. Two other pitchers taken in the first ten rounds will don ValleyCats uniforms this year: NC State righty Jake Buchanan and Xavier lefty Thomas Shirley. I also wrote about these Day 2 selections last week.

Buchanan should not be very lonely at Tri-City this year, as he joins a pair of former teammates on the ValleyCats. Left-handed pitcher Andrew Sogard was also drafted out of NC State this season in the 26th round. And first baseman Nick Stanley played for the Wolfpack before being drafted in the 25th round last season.

Eleven foreign players add an international flavor to this season’s roster. Five ValleyCats hail from Venezuela and five from the Dominican Republic, while pitcher Murilo Gouvea is from Brazil. Perhaps the most interesting of these players is Jorge De Leon. In his fourth professional season, the righty played 66 games between Tri-City and Lexington at shortstop, but batted just .206/.246/.286. This offseason, Houston decided to convert him to the mound, and he will be pitching for the ValleyCats this year. His fastball has reportedly been clocked at 97 mph this spring, making him one of the most interesting members of the pitching staff.

Five other members of this year’s roster spent time in Troy in 2009. Stanley played in 63 games for the ValleyCats in his first professional season, batting .230/.308/.354 at first base. Joining Stanley in the infield is middle infielder Ben Orloff, who batted just .165 in 97 at-bats before finishing the season at Greenville, and 1B/U Oscar Figueroa, who appeared in two games last season. Centerfielder Renzo Tello will also return to Troy after playing 45 games for Tri-City last year. The only true pitcher to return to the staff is Brendan Stines, who went 3-0 with a 4.93 ERA out of the bullpen in 2009.

Some other related links:

VCN was able to talk with Astros GM Ed Wade at Yankee Stadium last weekend, when Houston came to New York for interleague play. Here’s Wade’s take on the draft and what to expect at Tri-City in 2010:



The Hardball Times breaks down the 2010 MLB Draft. Houston split evenly between pitchers and hitters, but drafted 25 high school players, more than all but three teams.

John Sickels of Minor League Ball posted a review of Houston’s draft, with mostly positive impressions. Sickels is a big fan of one of our 2010 ValleyCats, fourth-round pick Robert Doran.

Former Astro Morgan Ensberg had an interesting piece describing what went through his head when he was drafted.

Tonight is the Rensselaer County Chamber of Commerce Baseball Challenge. The annual event lets Chamber members “be a ValleyCat for a day,” dressing in locker rooms, taking batting practice and then playing a seven-inning game at The Joe. VCN will be running a full-scale production of the game in preparation for Opening Day, so stay tuned tonight for a glimpse of the coverage we’ll be bringing you this season. (Update: Team Niagara wins, 2-0. Read about it here.)

Kevin Whitaker

MLB Draft Recap – Winners and losers

The 2010 MLB Draft concludes today with rounds 31-50, but at this point the draftees are either organizational filler or unsignable high school players. Most of the interesting action happened on Monday and Tuesday, in the first 30 rounds. You can replay our live coverage of Day 1 and Day 2 here on ‘Cats Corner.

We’ll have much more information on Houston’s draftees later in the week, but here’s a general review of how the draft went:

The first pick, as everybody expected, was 17-year-old phenom Bryce Harper. But there was an element of surprise to the pick. Harper has grown up a catcher, and his position is part of the reason why he has been so hyped. Yes, he offers more potential at the plate than any prospect in years, but that becomes even more special if he can do it while playing the hardest position on the field. There were always concerns that Harper would be forced to a different position eventually, because players of his size generally break down after years of catching – but it was generally expected that the Nationals would try him out behind the plate first. However, there Bud Selig was up there on the podium, announcing Harper as a right fielder.

I tend to agree with the majority opinion on this one – the Nationals should have seen how he could handle catching first. Reasonable minds can disagree – Harper can get to the major leagues more quickly as an outfielder and might enjoy a longer career – but his offensive production would be so much more valuable if he could sustain it while catching 120-130 games.

It didn’t take long for more surprises to come. Jameson Taillon went #2 to the Pirates and Manny Machado #3 to Baltimore, as everybody expected. But with the fourth pick, Kansas City took shortstop Christian Colon – a player absolutely nobody had connected to them until an hour before the draft.

Then came a run on college starters, although ones with much different backgrounds. Cleveland took lefty Drew Pomeranz with the fifth pick, Arizona followed with safe and polished righty Barret Loux, and the Mets went with a riskier choce, Matt Harvey of UNC.

That brought Houston up at #8. The Astros had been tied to some highly-rated power hitters, Michael Choice and Josh Sale, but instead went took a player with the opposite profile: Delino DeShields, Jr. The son of the former major leaguer is possibly the fastest player in the draft, but even if he fills out a little, power will not be his strongest suit. The Astros say they see him as a second baseman long-term, but he will see significant time at center field as well.

The next ten picks were all over the place. Teams that got great value included San Diego at #9 (polished and projectable high school starter Karsten Whitson, one of my favorite players in the draft), Cincinnati at #12 (ACC Player of the Year Yasmani Grandal), the White Sox at #13 (LHP Chris Sale, a projected top-five pick as late as draft day) and Tampa Bay at #17 (Josh Sale). Meanwhile, due to financial restrictions and an unprotected pick, Texas took unheralded outfielder Jake Skole at #15, while the Cubs went way off the board and shocked everybody with Division-II starter Hayden Simpson with the sixteenth pick.

The Astros became the first team to pick twice, sitting at #19. They too went with an unexpected choice, high school pitcher Mike Foltynewicz. The righty is well-built and can already hit 96 on the gun, with good movement on his fastball, and combines it with a good changeup. But the lack of a strong breaking ball and a definite out pitch caused most scouts and analysts to expect Foltynewicz to drop to the supplemental or second round.

The back half of the round was full of surprises. St Louis finally ended the descent of Arkansas infielder Zack Cox – who was seen as the most big-league-ready hitter in the class and a projected top-ten pick until he came out with an outrageous bonus demand the day before the draft – while the Rays again got great value, nabbing high school catcher Justin O’Conner. The Angels took three Georgia high schoolers in the first round alone. The Dodgers turned a lot of heads by drafting potential LSU quarterback Zach Lee – the most cash-starved team in baseball taking the least signable player in the draft – while the Yankees went with an unexpectedly low-profile selection in Rochester-area shortstop Cito Culver.

Houston had one more first-day selection, the first pick of the supplemental round. The Astros chose Michael Kvasnicka, from the University of Minnesota. Kvasnicka’s position is still very much unclear – he played mainly right field at Minnesota, was seen as a catcher entering the draft and was announced as a third baseman – but he should be able to hit at a big-league level.

The second day was filled with some intrigue early on. Pittsburgh added to its stash of flamethrowing high school pitchers by choosing Stetson Allie at #52, seen by many as a top-15 talent. But some other big names fell much further. One of the top prep pitchers, A.J. Cole, fell to the Nationals at the top of Round 4 due to signability concerns. James Paxton, caught in limbo after the NCAA declared him ineligible to return to Kentucky and exiled to an independent league, was drafted by the Mariners with pick #132. 

A couple local products heard their names called: Shaker graduate Thomas Kahnle (Lynn University) by the Yankees in the fifth round and Greg Holle of CBA (TCU) by Milwaukee in the 11th. The Dodgers spent their sixth-round pick on another player expected to cost a lot, prep pitcher Kevin Gausman, immediately followed by Boston fittingly drafting an outfielder named Kendrick Perkins. The day’s biggest faller was California-area outfielder Austin Wilson, who dropped all the way to the Cardinals at #379. Wilson was seen as a top-25 talent but didn’t perform very well this spring, and teams felt he would be impossible to sign away from a strong Stanford commitment.

There were a few clear winners in this year’s draft. Although they went relatively safe with Ball St 2B/OF Kolbrin Vitek with their first selection, Boston then made it a point to sign a lot of over-slot players who dropped because of financial reasons. If they can sign most of these picks – including pitchers Anthony Ranaudo and Brandon Workman, as well as outfielder Bryce Brentz – they’ll have the most talented group of prospects by far. St. Louis also had a very good draft, grabbing Cox and Tyrell Jenkins well after they were expected to be off the board and getting a potential ace reliever in the second round, Jordan Swaggerty. I was a big fan of Tampa Bay’s draft; they got some great prep talent in the first without committing too much money, as neither Sale or O’Conner are expected to be particularly expensive signings, and got some nice value in Day 2. And Pittsburgh’s top three picks were sensational; they got the two hardest-throwing pitchers in the draft, Taillon and Allie, plus a top-50 talent in Mel Rojas Jr.

The losers are a little harder to pinpoint. Neither New York team had a very good draft: the Mets went primarily for low-ceiling players after Harvey, while the Yankees spent three of their first five picks on players originally from upstate NY or the tri-state area – drafting local kids works okay if you’re the Angels or Braves, but doesn’t make much sense for a cold-weather team. The White Sox and Brewers played things fairly safe, while the Dodgers will sign very few players if they are as desperate for cash as they have acted over the past year.

How did the Astros fare? I was not a fan of their Day 1 performance, but they redeemed themselves in the later rounds and did a good job of adding talent to a very thin system. Houston loved DeShields all spring, but I thought there were better players they could get at #8, and although I like Foltynewicz a lot more than I did right after hearing his name called, other players could have offered at least as much value at that spot. Kvasnicka is a good pick at #33 if they see him as a catcher, less so if they’re serious about third base. 

Scouting Director Bobby Heck has had success so far with some unconventional selections – such as Jason Castro with the 10th pick in 2008 and Jordan Lyles at #38 that year – so Astros fans have some reason to give these prospects the benefit of the doubt. But these picks will be under scrutiny by other people in the baseball world. 
Houston performed very well on Day 2, however. Second-rounder Vincent Velasquez is relatively raw and was seen as primarily a shortstop until excelling at a showcase event this spring, but has very good stuff and a smooth delivery. Austin Wates was almost universally loved as a third-round selection; his eventual position is in doubt, but he’s the best pure hitter the Astros drafted. They went with another Big 10 catcher in Round 5, Ben Heath, who slugged .747 for Penn State this season but also might not end up behind the plate. Houston raised some eyebrows with the Heath pick and catcher Roberto Pena in the seventh – they already have a young but big-league-ready backstop in the minors, top prospect Jason Castro – but catchers are a valuable asset and the Astros have very few good assets in the system. If one or more of these recievers pans out and Castro is still going strong, Houston will deal with it then, and teams are always looking to trade for good catchers.

A couple signability picks have the chance to turn a solid Astros draft into a great one. I love Adam Plutko in the sixth round. He doesn’t have ace-caliber stuff, but his command was rated the best of all the high-school arms in the class. It’s not like he’s a complete softballer either; he can throw up to 93-94 and throws a very solid changeup. He dropped to the sixth round because of a strong commitment to UCLA that significantly raised his price tag, but if he really wants to play pro ball, three years in college isn’t going to do much to help the stock of a pitcher who’s already as advanced as Plutko. The other big-name pick is Jacoby Jones, a high school shortstop from Mississippi that dropped all the way to the 19th round. He has a strong commitment to LSU and will demand a large bonus – early reports had his price tag around $1.5M – but if the Astros are willing to pony up, they could have the steal of the draft.

Kevin Whitaker
Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.