Results tagged ‘ Austin Wates ’

‘Cat Watch: Catching up with former champions

In this week’s final installment of ‘Cat Watch, we look at the members of the 2010 NY-Penn League Champion ValleyCats that have moved on to higher levels of the Astros’ farm system.

2010 ValleyCats MVP Ben Orloff was the toughest player in the league to strike out last year, fanning once every 15 plate appearances. He’s up to his old tricks in the Sally League, with only three strikeouts in nearly 100 times to the plate. Orloff, who led the ‘Cats in hitting, is batting .341 with a .419 on-base percentage, though as usual, he has not provided much pop. The versatile fielder has split his time almost evenly between second base and shortstop.

Though he had tremendous power, right fielder Adam Bailey was a streaky hitter in his debut pro season; his play down the stretch of the regular season was critical for the ValleyCats to reach the playoffs, but he struggled to a .235 batting average for the full season. He has been hot for the first two full months of 2011, hitting .307 through 52 games. Anyone who watched a Bailey BP session knows that he has outstanding raw power, which he has put to good use this season, blasting a team-high 12 home runs. Bailey, who also possesses a strong arm, has already thrown out seven runners on the basepaths this year.

Catcher Chris Wallace, who was called up to Tri-City in August after two fantastic months at Greeneville and quickly became the Cats’ starting catcher, is becoming one of the hotter names in the Astros’ farm system. A 16th-round draft pick out of local University of Houston, Wallace leads the Lexington Legends with 37 RBI and has 24 extra-base hits in 50 games, including 10 longballs.

Mike Kvasnicka struggled in his transition to pro ball, bothered by occasional injuries in 2010, but he has recently shown the hitting skill that that the Astros foresaw when they selected him with the 31st overall pick of last year’s draft. The third baseman is hitting .304 and has driven in 32 runs, though the latter is also the product of hitting in the middle of a potent lineup.

For the second straight year, an outfielder drafted in the 20th round broke out at Tri-City. Dan Adamson showed an impressive combination of speed and power for the ValleyCats last year, and he has put up even better numbers in two months at Lexington, trailing only Orloff with a .329 batting average. Adamson, who fanned more than once per game in the NYPL last year, has struck out only 29 times in 43 games so far.

One of two ‘Cats invited to the 2010 NYPL All-Star Game, first baseman Tyler Burnett was also promoted to Lexington for the 2011 season. Burnett has upped his average by a few points but seen his walk rate take a hit from last year’s remarkable level, which was one of the league’s best.

Young hitter Telvin Nash, who joined the ‘Cats for the stretch run in 2010, suffered a wrist injury at the end of April and has yet to return to the field. It was a shame, as Nash – who showed as much power as any Tri-City hitter despite his youth – killed the ball for three weeks in the Sally League, hitting .310/.394/.603 while playing in both outfield corners and learning first base.

A fan favorite in 2010, Kiké Hernandez has struggled in his first stop in a full-season league, batting .244. He has shown much-improved plate discipline, drawing 10 walks in 23 games after taking only 14 all of last season, but the gap power he showed last season is gone, as he has only four extra-base hits, all doubles. Hernandez is still recovering from a sprained ankle, which took him out of action for four weeks between April and May.

The ace of the 2010 pitching staff, Carlos Quevedo, is having a strange season at Lexington. Known for his stingy nature at Tri-City, Quevedo has unbelievably lowered his walk rate this season, issuing just three free passes in 54.2 innings. Though he has increased his strikeout rate significantly (his K/BB is currently a ridiculous 15.33), Quevedo’s ERA has still risen more than two runs to a mediocre 5.27. The main culprit is that hitters are squaring up his pitches – opponents have racked up 12.5 hits per nine innings and have taken the righty deep 11 times. Part of this may be bad luck, but it’s not a good sign for someone who pitches up in the zone without an overpowering fastball.

Southpaw Alex Sogard has been finishing his share of games for the Legends, notching four saves in 12 relief appearances while also making one start. Sogard, who possesses a deadly curveball, has a 3.14 ERA and 29 strikeouts in 28.2 innings.

Jason Chowning, who joined the ‘Cats in early July last year, has been lights-out in his sophomore season. The righty has a 1.40 ERA, 33 strikeouts and eight walks in 25.2 innings pitched this season, the most effective member of the Lexington bullpen.

Flamethrowing righty Jorge De Leon, who posted a 0.64 ERA as the Cats’ closer last year, has saved six games for the Legends this season. The converted shortstop has fanned 19 batters in 21.2 innings while figuring out his control issues in his second season as a pitcher, issuing only four walks.

Outfielder Austin Wates was one of six ‘Cats assigned to high-A Lancaster for the 2011 season. The athletic outfielder, who was signed in August as a third-round draft pick, is hitting .303 for the Jethawks through two months. Wates, who swiped nine bags in just 12 games for Tri-City, has 11 steals and four unsuccessful attempts this year.

Catcher Ben Heath, who was called up to Lexington midseason and even spent a couple days in AA Corpus Christi, is hitting .260 at Lancaster. The fifth-round draft pick, who shows prodigious power in batting practice and led the ‘Cats with six homers at the time of his promotion, has gone deep four times for the Jethawks. But he has continued to struggle behind the plate, throwing out just three of 36 basestealers while allowing five passed balls.

The ValleyCats’ best pitching performance of 2010 undoubtedly belonged to Jake Buchanan, who threw seven scoreless innings in a 1-0 win at Batavia to earn a berth in the NYPL Championship Series. The righty, who gets good movement and keeps the ball down in the zone, has excelled at Lancaster this season, leading the team with a 3.15 ERA despite playing in a very tough pitcher’s environment. Buchanan has been extremely durable, throwing 74.1 innings in 11 starts, over 20 innings more than the next-best on the team. If he continues to perform like this, Buchanan will rise through the system quickly.

After an inconsistent start to the season, Bobby Doran found his command and was one of five Tri-City starters to excel in August, kick-starting the Cats’ pennant run. He has not transitioned well to full-season ball, however, allowing 54 runs and 71 hits in just 44 innings at Lancaster. He is not missing bats – only 22 strikeouts – and his control, such an asset last season, has faltered, as his walk rate has nearly quadrupled to 3.9 per nine innings.

Andrew Robinson, a righty who spent time as a reliever and starter last season, has split time between the roles again for Lancaster. He was called up for two spot appearances in Corpus Christi, becoming Houston’s first pick from the ’10 draft to reach AA, but quickly returned to Lancaster within a week. Robinson has a mediocre 5.17 ERA despite strong control numbers.

A 33rd round draft pick, Michael Ness was by far the lowest-regarded member of Houston’s 2010 class among the six players in Lancaster. The righty, so successful as the Tri-City closer last year – and the man on the mound when the ‘Cats won the 2010 NYPL Championship – has allowed a 6.40 ERA in his sophomore season. His fastball-cutter combination has not kept California League hitters off-balance, as he has allowed 13.4 hits per nine innings.

Kevin Whitaker

Pennant Chase Postmortem

Me, on 7/5:

Given how strong Vermont has looked – the Lake Monsters are off to an unbelievable 14-3 start, with eight consecutive wins – the ValleyCats’ slim playoff hopes probably rest on the wild card.

Me, on 7/15:

Vermont has already all but clinched the Stedler Division. [...] The ValleyCats’ playoff hopes look awfully slim, despite [the good run differential] – their recent bad fortune has left them 4.5 games back and behind seven other teams in the wild-card race, which is a very difficult hurdle to overcome under any circumstances.

Me, on 7/28:

[The ValleyCats'] playoff chances, however, are still very remote. Even if the ValleyCats played like the league’s best team in the second half, they would finish at 41-35 or so. Five teams are currently on pace to have a better record than that, and another two aren’t far behind, so they would still probably have no better than a 50-50 shot at reaching the postseason.

Evan, on 8/13:

If you had told me back in the beginning of July that, come August, the ValleyCats would have a shot to win the division, I would have had you declared officially insane. [...] It was July 10 and most fans were already hoping for the wild card.

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One month into the season, it was not exactly likely that the ValleyCats would be playing meaningful games in September. They stood at 11-18 on the morning of July 19, 9.5 games behind Vermont. The Lake Monsters had cooled off slightly – it would have been impossible to do otherwise after a 14-3 start – but still had a firm hold on the Stedler Division. Tri-City was also well behind Connecticut in the division and trailed several teams in the wild card, and looked headed for a third-place finish.

There were some signs that things might turn around. The ‘Cats were unlucky in close games, and their strong run differential portended better things for the future. Meanwhile, their offense was bound to improve, while their pitching staff was one of the league’s best.

You can trace the ValleyCats’ turnaround to a late-July game at Vermont. Nearing the end of a seven-day road trip that had proven less than fruitful to that point, they found themselves in a 7-3 hole to the Lake Monsters, after ace Carlos Quevedo suffered his worst start of the season. But the ‘Cats battled back, striking for three runs in the seventh and two on a Mike Kvasnicka single in the eighth to win a 10-8 slugfest. Bobby Doran picked up his first win the next night to complete an unlikely sweep.

After the great weekend, fellow VCN member Chris Chenes proclaimed that the ValleyCats would make the playoffs. Evan and I thought he was crazy. We were both optimistic about their future, but the math seemed too daunting – they still trailed the Lake Monsters by 7.5 games (with only two head-to-head matches left), and the wild card was looking less and less attainable as the Pinckney Division teams pulled away from the pack. 

Recent history doesn’t matter a whole lot in the minors – teams change almost completely from year to year. What little difference it does make, however, certainly seemed to go against the ValleyCats. Tri-City was coming off three consecutive last-place finishes, and indeed no Houston affiliate had reached the playoffs since 2007*. But Chris stuck to his guns, and would eventually be vindicated. 
*The manager on that pennant-winning Salem Avalanche? None other than our own Jim Pankovits.

Tri-City was in danger of losing its next series, a three-game home set against Lowell, when they trailed the rubber match 5-1 in the seventh inning. Such a loss, particularly on their home field, would have been very disappointing for the ‘Cats, as the Spinners had not yet won a series all season. But Adam Bailey belted the team’s first (and only) grand slam to tie the game, and Dan Adamson sent the fans home happy, leading off the 11th inning with a walk-off homer.

The ‘Cats swept another two-game set with Vermont early in August, then embarked on a six-game road trip to Mahoning Valley and State College. They lost slugger Ben Heath to promotion midway through the trip, yet ended it on a high note by winning the last two to split the six games. Tri-City allowed just eight runs over the final five games of that trip, which manager Jim Pankovits credits as the point where his team really started its comeback:

About that time, we had made some adjustments to the rotation and started to go to a more regular lineup, and I think we just got on a roll. We played very well that series, and it continued to a couple more series when we came home. The game of baseball is a really streaky game, and we got on a really good hot streak about then.

The ValleyCats then returned to Joe Bruno Stadium, where they won 11 of their final 15 games, and won series against Williamsport – then leading the Pinckney Division – and Staten Island. The All-Star break did little to cool their momentum, as they swept Connecticut on the road, pulling back to .500 for the first time since the first week of the season. More importantly, they passed Connecticut to take second place in the division, and stood only 1.5 games back of the Lake Monsters.

That paved the way for a thrilling, topsy-turvy stretch run:

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Shown above are my playoff odds on each day for the final two weeks. The ValleyCats swept a home-and-home with Connecticut – taking the latter on a heartbreaking two-error eleventh inning by shortstop Brett Anderson – pushing the Tigers three games back and seemingly knocking them out of the race. But Connecticut would not quit, proceeding to take three at Vermont while the ValleyCats dropped three of their own at Hudson Valley, an extremely unlikely turn of events that left the Tigers right back int he thick of things. The division was still completely up for grabs heading into the last week of the season.

The ValleyCats more or less saved their season in their home finale, pulling out a 14-inning thriller on the heels of a 12-inning defeat to Hudson Valley. Two extra-inning losses would have left the ‘Cats deep in third place and in an unenviable position to embark on a season-ending, six-game road trip.

Instead, Chris Wallace doubled to the left-field wall in the 14th, his third huge hit of the series. Bailey followed with his third hit of the game, a single to right field, and Wallace slid home just inches in front of the tag. Bailey was far from the ValleyCats’ most consistent hitter this season – his batting average was just a point above the Mendoza Line entering that game – but he would be critical down the stretch, racking up a league-high 14 hits in the final week of the season.

The ValleyCats then swept Lowell, while Connecticut improbably did the same to Aberdeen to remain a half-game back. Vermont, meanwhile, dropped four of five at Brooklyn to be all but eliminated from the race. The two teams switched places on Friday, setting the stage for a remarkable Saturday. The ValleyCats took an 8-7 slugfest at Brooklyn – with the key hit, naturally, provided by Bailey – wihle the Tigers finally lost at Aberdeen.

That left the ValleyCats needing only a win or a Connecticut loss entering the final day of the season. Connecticut and Aberdeen began 2.5 hours before Tri-City took on the Cyclones, but the ‘Cats still didn’t know if they needed a win as their game started, because Connecticut forced extra innings. The Tigers twice threatened to make the Tri-City game decisive, scoring in the 11th and twice in the 13th. They entered Sunday with a league-best 19-10 record in one-run games, and a 6-2 record in extras, and it seemed like they would pull another victory out of nowhere (Connecticut finished above .500 despite being outscored by 44 runs).

But this time, they came out on the short end of an improbable defeat. The Ironbirds put two runners on with two outs, and #3 overall draft pick Manny Machado tripled off the right-field wall. Kipp Schutz, who hit a walk-off grand slam against the ValleyCats back in July, ended Connecticut’s season with a game-winning single, and the ValleyCats were free to celebrate.

In the end, the ValleyCats won with incredible pitching. Their 17-11 August was fueled by a 2.56 ERA and 81 runs allowed, both best in the league. Vermont, meanwhile, posted a 5.45 ERA while allowing 159 runs in August, going just 9-17 to blow a seven-game lead. Connecticut fared slightly better on that end, allowing 119 runs with a 3.57 ERA, but hit a league-low .212 for the month.

All five regular starters had a terrific month, posting ERAs below 3.00. David Martinez, a mid-season conversion from the bullpen, fared the best, allowing just four earned runs in 30.1 innings and fanning a team-high 31 batters. Bobby Doran (3-1, 2.41) and Jake Buchanan (2-3, 2.97) rebounded from slow starts with strong months, while Carlos Quevedo (3-1, 2.97) and Andrew Robinson (2-2, 2.74) continued excellent seasons in August. On the other side, the mid-month additions of Marcus Nidiffer (.317/.386/.540 in August) and Austin Wates (.368/.500/.474 in 19 at-bats) boosted an offense that saw some of its regulars drop off a bit, while the arm of Chris Wallace (14/25 CS with Tri-City) proved a valuable asset behind the plate.

The ValleyCats make the playoffs, and will be a tough match for a strong Batavia squad in the first round. All four playoff teams are very good, which should make for a very fun week.

So, Chris: You were right, and I was wrong. And I couldn’t be happier.

Kevin Whitaker

Down to the Wire

It’s amazing what a difference one day makes.

24 hours ago, the ValleyCats trailed Connecticut by a half-game, had two more games remaining with the league-leading Brooklyn Cyclones and had to hope Connecticut lost at least one to Aberdeen, which they had not done in four tries. The ‘Cats had been struggling to get hits and were in danger of wasting a tremendous effort down the stretch by the league’s second-best pitching staff.

Last night, Tri-City racked up a season-high 15 hits in their biggest game of the season, beating Brooklyn in an 8-7 slugfest while the Ironbirds finally downed Connecticut. The ‘Cats regained the Stedler Division lead and can clinch the division this afternoon with a win or a Tigers loss. My playoff odds are almost an exact reverse of yesterday’s, giving the ValleyCats a 72% chance of playing baseball next week.

The playoffs will begin on Tuesday. The Stedler Division winner will host Batavia at 7 pm, then go on the road to face the Muckdogs on Wednesday and (if necessary) Thursday. Whoever wins that will take on the winner of the other series (Brooklyn vs Williamsport or Jamestown) in the championship, which begins on Saturday 9/11.

Up and down the lineup, the Tri-City bats came through last night. The two newest ValleyCats – Telvin Nash and Austin Wates – only had one hit apiece, but they were big ones. Nash led off the third inning with a fly ball over the fence in left-center, and later that frame Wates homered off the hitters’ background in center field. Wates’s first homer of the year was crushed; the wind blows out hard here on the shore, but MCU park is huge – the fence is about ten feet high and 415 feet away where Wates’ homer left the park. That was only the second homer hit off the backdrop in center field – the first came from Vermont last week.

Chris Wallace and Adam Bailey each went 3-for-5, and both have really carried the lower half of this lineup down the stretch. Wallace came through with three huge hits in the home series against Hudson Valley last week, and Bailey has 12 hits in his last six games, including a walk-off single to plate Wallace in the final game of that Hudson Valley series. Bailey was again the hero in the top of the ninth inning last night, bringing Tyler Burnett home from second with a one-out single with the eventual game-winning run.

Burnett and Jacke Healey each had two hits, as well as Ben Orloff, who reached safely in four of his five plate appearances.

We saw another well-played game last night, as neither team committed an error for the second consecutive night. Part of that is generous scoring – I would have called one of last night’s hits an error, and you could have made a case for a couple more – but both teams have still been very solid defensively.

So the ValleyCats have a couple ways to clinch the division tonight. It would be nice if Aberdeen could take out Connecticut in the afternoon and remove all suspense, but the ValleyCats could earn it themselves regardless if they beat Brooklyn.

Two of the best starting pitchers in the NYPL take the mound tonight, as Cyclones starter A.J. Pinera and the ‘Cats’ David Martinez rank fifth and sixth in ERA, respectively. Darrell Ceciliani returns to the Brooklyn lineup tonight after missing a few games to injury. VCN will have coverage of tonight’s game and the division race, and hopefully we can continue to bring you baseball next week.

Kevin Whitaker

Potential Playoff X-Factors

The ValleyCats find themselves 0.5 games up on the
Connecticut Tigers and 1.5 games up on Vermont. Assuming things stay the same,
which they might not (the ValleyCats finish up the season in Brooklyn, the best
team in the NYPL, Connecticut takes on Aberdeen, and Vermont takes on the
Yankees after finishing up their five-game series with the Cyclones),
the ‘Cats will go roaring into the playoffs and take on the Batavia Muckdogs
(who went 18-11 in August).

Batavia took two out of the three games in Troy, the only
series these two teams have played against each other so far this season. The
Muckdogs hit almost .300 in that series and drove in 20 runs against the
ValleyCats pitching staff (12 off the relievers). That’s the bad news. The good
news is, with the exception of Murillo Gouvea, the starters only gave up three
earned runs (the Muckdogs scored the only unearned run off of Tom Shirley this
season) in nine innings. Also, the ValleyCats pitching staff held, at the time,
perennial MVP candidate Nick Longmire to a .214 average. Since then Longmire
has cooled off considerably. His average dropped to .290 after batting .255 in
August. And keep in mind this series came back in early July, a little bit
before the ValleyCats started to heat up.

If the ValleyCats make it that far and want to beat the
Muckdogs it won’t take a superhero effort. Tri-City has been one of the best
teams over the past month and a half. The pitching has been phenomenal and the
hitting is really starting to come around. But it might take something extra to
beat Batavia. Here’s a list of potential x-factors:

Appologies to Ben
Orloff, Dan Adamson, Tyler Burnett, Carlos Quevedo, and Bobby Doran. They have
been consistently good all year long. They don’t count as x-factors.

Austin Wates -

Wates is one of the players the ValleyCats did not have the
first time around, and I’m sure Jim Pankovits is ecstatic that the Hokie will
be there for the playoffs if the team can get there. Wates is just a pure
athlete and does almost everything exceptionally well. Granted, this is a small
sample size, but he has adjusted well to the pro level (7-23, .309 BA, 2 2B).
He is also one of those guys that can turn a walk into a double. In eight games
so far Wates has five stolen bases, including three in one game against Lowell.
He’s a distraction for any pitcher on the mound. He makes pitchers throw over
and keep the focus on him, and that usually bodes well for ValleyCat hitters.
Wates has been on base 12 times, including walks, and has scored seven runs.
You do the math. When Wates gets on, the odds are in his favor to score.

 

Adam Bailey -

I have been waiting for Bailey to break out of his shell for
the entire season, and the playoffs would be a great time to do it. Bailey has
arguably the best power out of anyone on the ValleyCats this year (this
includes when Ben Heath was on the team). He has hit some of the furthest home
runs I’ve seen in batting practice (I’m talking clearing both walls in RF and
sometimes going over the Dunkin’ Donuts cup). Bailey is hitting only .225 in
August, but leads the team in doubles and has eight RBI. In his last three
games, Bailey is 6-13 (.462) with a double and an RBI. Bailey also gives you
flexibility at the corner outfield position and has a cannon for the arm. He can
limit the runners scoring from third on a fly ball.

 

Kik Hernandez -

I know. I know. Evan, what are you thinking? Kik has been
one of the best players on the ValleyCats this year. Here’s the thing though,
I’m not too sure he will be back for the playoffs. He sprained his ankle in a
game against Hudson Valley on August 28, and hasn’t been back since. Last we
saw him he was on crutches, which isn’t a good sign. He is only on this list because he is injured. But, if he makes it back and is 100% healthy for the playoffs the
ValleyCats could be very dangerous. You could argue Kik has been one of the
most valuable players on the ‘Cats this season with the way he has played. He’s
really started to hit lately, and has even added power. He is a great defensive
option out there at second base. We all wish Kik a speedy recovery.

 

Alex Sogard -

I felt like I needed to include a pitcher and it came down
to Sogard, David Martinez, and Mike Ness. The nod goes to Sogard because he is
a lefty. Alex has been one of the best arms out of the bullpen this year. His
versatility gives you a guy out there that can come in and stifle the
opposition if the starter isn’t doing well. Or he can come in during a pressure
situation. Before his last outing on August 29 against Hudson Valley (2.2 IP, 5
hits, 3 runs, 2 earned), he had only surrendered four hits and had not let up a
run in seven straight appearances, covering a span of 13 innings! Sogard
dominates lefties (.229 average against, 0.68 ERA), but can come in against
either side and keep batters off the basepaths.

 

The ValleyCats are on the verge of making their first
playoff appearance since 2006. If they can get there, I believe they could make
some serious noise and get to the championship.

 

Evan Valenti

Notebook: Home Finale

The ValleyCats played their last home game of the regular season last night, and apparently they just did not want to leave Joe Bruno Stadium. We saw extra baseball for the second consecutive game; this one lasted even longer, a 14-inning thriller that took nearly four and a half hours to complete.

Monday’s result was happier for the ValleyCats, as they ended the home slate the same way it began*: a walk-off hit to score the winning run from second. Most of the 6,215 fans had left by that point – it was, after all, 11:30 on a Monday night – but the few that stayed saw the last of many thrilling games at “The Joe” this season.

Cool fact: the same umpires that were here on Opening Day also worked Monday’s finale: Carlos Torres behind the plate and Shane Livensparger on the bases.

Monday’s game was Tri-City’s longest of the season in both innings and time, lasting even longer in absolute time than the 11-inning Vermont game that saw a one-hour power delay. The ValleyCats have had tremendous pitching depth all season and needed all of it last night, going to 14 frames after playing 12 on Sunday. Aside from an uncharacteristically shaky seventh inning by lefty Travis Blankenship – who came into the game with only four earned runs but allowed three last night – the ‘Cats’ pitching was lights-out. Jake Buchanan allowed only one run – a two-out double by the ValleyCats’ nemesis, Nick Schwaner – and fanned eight batters without walking any. Brandt Walker, Jorge De Leon and Jason Chowning were more than solid in relief, seeing the go-ahead run reach third only once in the final seven innings.

Chris Wallace came up with the big hits all series, and last night was no exception. The catcher doubled home Mike Kvasnicka for the eventual deciding run in Saturday’s 2-1 victory and homered to give the ‘Cats the lead on Sunday. Last night, he came up with one out in the bottom of the 14th inning. Both pitchers had retired the side in order in their last inning and it looked like the game might last forever, but Wallace smoked a ball over the shortstop’s head all the way to the wall in left-center. Adam Bailey then drove a liner to the right-center-field gap – his second hit in as many at-bats against the left-handed pitcher – and Wallace came home just inches ahead of the tag with the game-winning run.

Austin Wates played the field for the first time with Tri-City, patrolling center field and giving Dan Adamson a day off. He made a terrific sliding grab on a hard liner deep in the gap in the top of the 13th, which eventually saved the game for the ‘Cats. Wates also doubled in his first at-bat and hit a couple other balls hard, but right at fielders. He was responsible for the game-tying run in the seventh inning: he drew a one-out walk, stole second and advanced to third on an overthrow, then scored on a Tyler Burnett single.

The ValleyCats set a new single-season attendance record for the seventh consecutive year, bringing 155,315 fans to the park in 2010 – an average of 4,313 per game. Last night’s crowd of 6,215 was the fourth-largest in franchise history. Thanks to everyone who came to a game, followed this blog or helped in any other way to make this season special.

While Monday’s game certainly was not a must-win game in the literal sense, the ‘Cats would have been in a poor position, facing a 1.5-game deficit and two teams to chase with less than a week to play. Instead, they’re right in the thick of things in the Stedler Division, a half-game behind Vermont and a half-game ahead of Connecticut.

I’ve tweaked my playoff odds slightly, deciding to regress each team’s performance to the mean a little bit to account for the uncertainty in this league. This brings down the ValleyCats’ odds a little bit – they are the “best” team, by my simulation, because they have the best run differential – to the benefit of Vermont, whose half-game lead becomes a bit more meaningful. Connecticut dropped a game to both teams with the loss, and is now about a 1-in-5 shot, while the ValleyCats are nominally favorites but essentially a toss-up with Vermont.

Updated odds through games of 9/3:

Tri-City: 27%

Vermont: 0%

Connecticut: 73%

Kevin Whitaker

Notebook: Another Attendance Record

Recent visitors to Joe Bruno Stadium have seen their share of excitement: the ValleyCats have played six consectutive one-run games at home. They’ve won three, improving their record in one-run contests to a respectably 9-12, but although they had their chances, the ‘Cats couldn’t pull one out last night.

5,445 fans showed up at the ballpark last night – enough to break the single-season attendance record for the seventh consecutive season – and they certainly got their money’s worth. The early Sunday start time of 5 pm proved to be a big plus, as most of the fans were still there when the game was decided nearly four hours later. The ‘Cats surrendered a twelfth-inning run and lost 5-4, falling to 3-8 this season in extra innings.

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Six runners reached for the home team from the ninth inning on, but the ValleyCats weren’t able to bring any of them around to score. Marcus Nidiffer led off the eleventh inning with a double and stood on third with one out, but Jacke Healey’s fly ball was too shallow to tag on and Ben Orloff also flew out to center. A 12th-inning double by Tyler Burnett – who also doubled in the ninth – gave the ‘Cats some hope of tying the game and forcing more baseball, but closer Austin Hubbard bore down and retired the next two batters to end the game.

The ‘Cats may look back on this one with regret. Vermont lost at Aberdeen, so if the ValleyCats had been able to push one of those runners across, they would have been all alone in first place for the first time this season. Instead, they currently sit in third place, a half-game back of both the Lake Monsters and Connecticut. I still project the ValleyCats as a slight favorite, due to their still-strong run differential and the fact that they have three games remaining with Lowell, but it’s pretty close to a three-team tossup: Tri-City 38%, Connecticut 33%, Vermont 29%. If the ‘Cats had won, they would be above 60% right now. (Connecticut was the big beneficiary, seeing its odds rise by more than 20% after last night’s games.)

Bobby Doran gave up a run on a pair of two-out hits in the first inning, and for a minute I feared we might be seeing a repeat performance from Tuesday, when he allowed nine hits to the Tigers. Instead, he settled down and did not allow another score in his five innings, sending the Renegades down in order in the final two frames.

Murillo Gouvea opened the season quite poorly, and after allowing four runs in a little more than an inning against Brooklyn in mid-July, his ERA stood at 12.71. Many of us wondered if Gouvea would be sent down to a lower level to get straightened out. But whatever pitching coach Gary Ruby did to Gouvea certainly worked, as he’s allowed just three runs in 19.1 innings since. The Brazilian righty was lights-out last night, allowing only one hit in 3.1 innings and fanning eight Renegades – including four in the 11th inning, when Dio Luis reached after whiffing at a wild pitch. Gouvea now ranks second on the team with 50 strikeouts, and he’s thrown less than half as many innings as the team leader, Carlos Quevedo.

Instead, the ValleyCats’ loss came due to poor command by a couple unlikely sources: Alex Sogard and Michael Ness. Sogard had not allowed a run in the previous four weeks, a stretch spanning 14 innings. But he got into trouble right away in the sixth, walking Nick Schwaner and allowing a double to Steven Tinoco. (Schwaner and Tinoco killed the ‘Cats last night, going a combined 6-for-9 with three walks.) A line drive found Orloff’s glove and Sogard froze Mayo Acosta with a curveball, and it looked like he might escape the jam. But Dio Luis drove a 2-1 pitch to the right-center-field wall, driving in two and scoring himself as the ‘Cats kicked the ball around.

Ness had not issued a walk in three full weeks and had only six on the season, but he struggled to find the plate in the 12th inning last night. He hit Chris Winder with his first pitch of the night – Ness’s first HBP of the year – and then issued two-out walks to Schwaner and Tinoco. (With bases open and the go-ahead run on third, he was wisely being careful to both batters, particularly Tinoco, once he fell behind in the count.) Derek Dietrich then lined a shot to first that Nidiffer gloved but could not catch cleanly, and the Renegades had the run they needed.

The ValleyCats have had a lot of trouble figuring out the Hudson Valley pitching staff, scoring only 12 runs in five games. The lone hitter who seems to have it figured out is Chris Wallace, who doubled to score the eventual game-winning run on Saturday and came up big again last night. Wallace scored Mike Kvasnicka with a fifth-inning homer – the ‘Cats’ first hit of the game – that was crushed to right-center. Wallace later walked and laid down a nice sacrifice in the eleventh.

Burnett finished the game with a pair of doubles, which will hopefully give him a bit of a spark – he had only three hits in his previous 30 at-bats. Dan Adamson has also been slumping a bit – one for his last 14, and the hit was a routine grounder last night that Elias Otero played too deep on – and will get a rest tonight.

Adamson’s spot in centerfield will be taken by Austin Wates, who made his first appearance last night since being hit on the hand in Tuesday’s contest. Wates pinch-hit in the ninth and smacked a hard line drive with a man on, but it went right at Otero, who had moved to second base. Tonight marks his first appearance in the field with the ValleyCats.

I can’t believe it’s this time of year already, but tonight marks the last regular-season game at “The Joe.” Hopefully the ‘Cats make the playoffs and come back here next week for some postseason baseball.

Kevin Whitaker

Sweeps Notebook

The ValleyCats pretty much knocked Connecticut out of the playoff race, taking all four games from the Tigers in a one-week span. Even after defeating Vermont last night to pull within two games, Connecticut’s odds of reaching the playoffs are still in the 2-3% range. Usually, I find claims of “must-win” games this far out to be hyperbole, but Connecticut probably can’t make the playoffs unless it takes the next two to sweep the Lake Monsters.

Bobby Doran was coming off five spectacular outings (29 IP, 5 ER combined), but didn’t have his best stuff on Tuesday. He uncharacteristically left his fastball up and in hittable places often. Back when he was throwing low-90s early in the year, he might have been able to get away with that command, but last night he was 87-89 (and lower for the first couple batters, though that could have been a radar gun issue) and gave up nine hits. Three doubles in the fourth inning led to two runs, tying the game at 3-3.

Doran went to his curveball often and early in counts, getting a pair of strikeouts on hooks in the third inning. As usual, Doran didn’t walk anybody; he has allowed only seven unintentional free passes this year, for the second-best walk rate in the league (behind only teammate Carlos Quevedo).

Second baseman Alex Nunez made a pair of terrific plays in the early innings. He robbed Ben Orloff of a base hit, diving fully extended to his left and just barely snaring a grounder. He also made a great play coming in on a grounder off the pitcher’s foot making a quick throw while falling to get Mike Kvasnicka on a bang-bang play.

Dan Adamson continued to demonstrate his ridiculous power, getting a 1-2 curveball in the first inning and absolutely crushing it to left field. The blast landed right underneath the scoreboard, some 410 feet from home plate.

Travis Blankenship came on for Doran in the fifth with two outs and two runners in scoring position, and needed just one pitch to get out of the jam. Blankenship fanned lefty Eric Roof in the next inning with three curveballs away and continues to look very strong out of the bullpen.

Scary moment in the fifth: Austin Wates was hit on the right wrist by a 3-2 pitch by Josue Carreno. Wates went down quickly and stayed there for a couple minutes, eventually leaving the game. Things worked out pretty well, however. Pinch-runner Wilton Infante stole second and eventually scored on an infield single by birthday boy Kik&eacute Hernandez, while X-rays on Wates were negative.

Wates, who has a reputation as a terrific hitter, has been performing as advertised since joining the ValleyCats. We watched his first round of BP and it was not pretty – he was slicing balls around the cage, nearly hitting the visitors’ clubhouse a few times, and only squared up one or two well – but he needed no time to adjust, getting five hits in ten at-bats before leaving Tuesday’s game. He sat last night and I don’t know when he will rejoin the lineup, but this does not look like a serious setback.

Carreno came out after the fifth inning and had already thrown 90 pitches. I believe that’s the most we’ve seen from a starter at JBS this year.

Blankenship wasn’t the only reliever to have success on Tuesday. Brandt Walker wasn’t throwing quite as hard as usual – 92-93 instead of 95-ish – but got three strikeouts in 1.2 perfect innings. Meanwhile, Alex Sogard was consistently throwing 92 mph, as hard as I’ve seen all year. Sogard fanned the first four hitters he faced and then got four ground balls; two went through the left side for hits, but the next one was a tailor-made double play ball to escape the 10th.

The ValleyCats stranded seven runners between the 7th and 9th innings, any of which would have won the game. They loaded the bases in the ninth on a two-out rally that did not involve a hit; Ramon Lebron, consistently at 95-96 mph, walked Kik&eacute to load the bases but got Adamson to swing through a fastball up in the zone to force extras. Lebron struck out the side in the tenth inning and got two quick outs in the eleventh. But a walk to Ben Orloff sparked another two-out rally that again did not involve a hit; Hernandez reached base on a throwing error by shortstop Brett Anderson, and Burnett’s grounder went off Anderson’s glove into left field (his fourth error of the game) to bring home Orloff with the winning run.

Kevin Whitaker

Reinforcements Have Arrived

Words almost cannot express how excited Kevin Whitaker was
when the Astros selected Austin Wates in the third round, 90th
overall, in this year’s draft. I was sitting next to him during our live chat
and he was astonished, to say the least, when he realized that Wates had fallen
that far. Kevin and I had watched film and studied most of the top talents that
were available to the Astros (and occasionally watched some Bryce Harper
footage just for the wow factor), and
Wates was considered one of the top college bats in the entire draft. And
Houston got him at 90! He will arrive here in Troy tomorrow afternoon.

In Keith Law’s draft-day chat, Kevin asked him if he liked
the Wates signing:

Love it. Teams doubt his ultimate position
- no real evidence he can play CF beyond his speed, and he doesn’t look great
out there in practice. But at 90, you have to take a chance on that swing and
plate discipline”.

Did the Astros just draft another J.D. Martinez and get one of the
biggest steals of the draft? Possibly.

BaseballBeginnings.com has been studying and watching Wates for years
and they have been a fan for a long time. John Klima, a contributing writer for
Baseball Beginnings, had this to say about the former Hokie:

I loved Virginia Tech outfielder Austin Wates when I saw
him on the Cape in 2009. For my money, I want guys who give me more than one
tool. Obviously they have to hit, but I want guys who can help the club win in
more ways that one”.

There’s that “love” word again. Seems like Keith Law isn’t the only
one that thinks the Astros might have gotten one of the best players in the
draft. Wates is a four-tool player. He has above-average speed, great plate
discipline, can hit to the gaps, should hit for average, has great range, and
has an average to above-average arm. What is there not to like? Here’s the rest
of the Baseball Beginnings scouting report on Wates (numbers are based on an
80-point system, with 80 being the highest and 20 being the lowest):

Austin Wates 



PHYSICAL DESCRIPTION
: Average height, lean, long and loose athletic
frame, loose hands and wrists, much physical projection in front of him.



STRENGTHS
: Above-average speed, good first step out of the box, graceful and
controlled runner. Good hands, line-drive approach, modest power, should have
gap-to-gap ability. Average arm, good accuracy. Rangy defensive outfielder, can
play all three OF positions.



WEAKNESSES
: Doesn’t have one glaring tool weakness.



SUMMARY
: Excellent all-around OF prospect with above-average speed,
athleticism and hitting ability. Lack of well above-average power shouldn’t
dissuade a team from giving him an opportunity. 



GRADES
(Present/Future):

Hit – 40/60


Power – 35/60?

Run – 70/70?

Arm – 50/50?

Field – 50/60



Overall Future Potential – 60


So he has no glaring weaknesses? Sign me up and put him out on the field ASAP.
The talk amongst Kevin and I put him in left field, giving the ValleyCats an
outfield of Wates (LF), Adamson (CF), and Bailey (RF) for the playoff push. Add
Wates to an offense that is raking the ball in August (seventh in overall
batting average at .256, third overall in RBI with 67, and first in both
categories in the Stedler Division), and you have a team that, combined with
excellent pitching, could make a serious run in the playoffs.

Did the Astros draft a better version of J.D. Martinez (Wates is
better defensively and has a lot better speed)? Only time will tell.
But if Wates comes as advertised, the Astros could have a phenomenal outfield
for the future with J.D. in left and Wates in right.

Evan Valenti

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

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
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