by Evan Valenti (@EvanValenti)
If you ever have the chance to talk to minor league scouts, do it. They are some of the most knowledgeable people you will ever meet. They are, sort of, baseball historians, and can give you details about some of the current baseball superstars when they were in high school/college.
One of the scouts I talk to on an almost daily basis old me the story of the first time he saw Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez. The scout said he expected to be able to pick out the high school as soon phenom as he walked off the bus, but A-Rod looked just like all of his other team mates (all of them were 6-feet tall and had a baseball player’s build). But as soon as the high school shortstop stepped onto the field it was clear who everyone, both scouts and general managers, was there to see.
Rodriguez took batting practice with a wooden bat, while the rest of his team mates chose aluminum. He showcased everything he had in the arsenal. He hit balls everywhere – opposite field, center field, down each line – with tremendous power before putting on his very own home run derby in his final round.
The scout told me that every tool A-Rod had was graded as an 8 (baseball players are graded on a 2-8 scale, with 8 being the highest) except for his speed, which only graded out as a measly 7.
In his final at-bat, A-Rod found himself in a battle with whoever was pitching. Rodriguez fouled off pitch after pitch, and after each pitch he would talk to some of the scouts and GM’s in the stands about what he was seeing. At some point A-Rod said he had seen enough and told the spectators that he was going to end it . . . which he did by blasting a homer.
When talking to some of the scouts here about some of the current ValleyCats, they had some pleasant things to say.
Tri-City’s strength is clearly its pitching staff. This is no longer a secret. They have the second best ERA in the New York-Penn League with a 2.62 (Batavia has the best team ERA with a 2.60). And some of the scouts here see this success translating to the higher levels and, possibly, the majors.
Aaron West has been, arguably, the ValleyCats best starting pitcher so far this season. The 2012 draft pick from the University of Washington is 2-0 in his first four starts with a 1.02 ERA. In 17.2 IP, West has only given up two runs, both of which came in the same start against Lowell on July 1, and 10 hits, while striking out 15 and only walking 2.
West pounds the strike zone early and often in the count with all of his pitches. He features a fastball that hovers in the low-90’s but can touch 94 as the game gets going, a decent change-up, and features a slider that gets a lot of hitters out here at this level. Two scouts I talked to said they love the make-up of the Snohomish, WA native. His aggressive mind-set bodes well, as both scouts said they could see him starting all-throughout his career.
Reliever Kenny Long has been unhittable early on if you are a left-handed batter. Literally. Long has faced 14 lefties so far and retired them all, including 9 by way-of-the-K. Houston drafted him because he had some of the best lefty splits of any college pitcher in the country, on any level.
But why is he so effective? He does not throw that hard – hovers in the mid-80’s when he’s dialing it up on the fastball. It’s because he varies his pitch speed and his arm slot on nearly every pitch, never mind keeping those hitters off balance with a an assortment of breaking balls. He has arguably been the ‘Cats most reliable pitcher out of the bullpen. One scout told me if you (meaning a pitcher) can get lefties out on a routine basis you’ll have a spot in the majors.
However, out all the pitchers on Tri-City’s roster the one most people seem to be excited about is Vincent Velasquez. Coming off Tommy John surgery in 2011, the second round pick from California has showcased a mid-90’s fastball that can touch 96, a change-up that needs some work, and a really nice slider that he is not afraid to throw inside to right-handed batters. He wasn’t as sharp his last time out against State College as his first start here at ‘The Joe’. He put himself in good position to get guys out, but was unable to put guys away with two strikes. Scouts that I have talked to seem to think he has the highest ceiling of anyone on the roster.