Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Most Improved Prospects (Increased Contact Edition)

An organization like the Twins that has limited major-league ready prospects needs to thoroughly scrutinize and monitor the progress of its developing talent considering the increased cost of acquiring a free agent to replace one that isn't homegrown. While I am confident that Jim Rantz and Mike Radcliff have a good handle on the farm system, there are some concerns that talent isn't being expedited as well as it should. For instance, there are no clear cut internal replacements of Torii Hunter since Denard Span has not proven himself of high caliber. Likewise many believe that Matt Tolbert would be a better candidate for second than Nick Punto or Alexi Casilla. Looking at some of the critical peripheral numbers (K%, BB%, XBH%, ISOP, OBP) that changed from 2006 to 2007 will help highlight who these individuals are.

What a high contract rate essentially means is that the prospect is adapting to the pitching at an acceptable pace. If a strikeout rate drops significantly this a sign that a player is ready to be moved to the next level or conversely it is a symptom that the player will need more time to develop (or perhaps may never be moving hire). The low strikeout rate (strikeouts/plate appearances) indicates that a player is maximizing his plate appearances by putting the ball into play and placing the burden on the defense (we will dissect the quality of balls-in-play at a later date). These analytics are solid performance evaluations for prospects.

The top five improved contact:

5) Juan Portes -- infielder/outfielder -- Decrease of 3% between 2006 and 2007.

Drafted in the 15th round of the 2004 draft by the Twins out of a Massachusetts high school, Portes began his career in the Twins Gulf Coast League. In 44 games, Portes hit .327/.380/.530. He began 2005 with Elizabethton where his numbers in 64 games were the beginning of an offensive reduction after posting a .286/.349/.494 batting line. Moved to low-A Beloit in the Midwest League, Portes struggled again. In 288 plate appearances with Beloit he struck out 55 times (a 19.1% strikeout rate). Even though his numbers with Beloit were less than ideal (.231/.278/.310), the 20-year-old Portes was advanced to High-A Ft. Myers. Quickly the promising career that Portes started with was heading in the opposite direction. However, his numbers rebounded at Ft. Myers (.269/.336/.410) where he had a career-high 553 plate appearances and 89 strikeouts (a 16.1% strikeout rate) once again reaffirming the belief that Portes could be a major league player eventually.

4) Brian Buscher -- 3rd base -- Decrease of 3.6%.

In 524 plate appearances with Double-A Connecticut in 2006, Buscher struck out 75 times (a strikeout rate of 14.3%). Picked up by the Twins in the 2007 Rule 5 Minor League draft, Buscher split time between Double-A New Britain, Triple-A Rochester and finally the Twins. In that duration, Buscher had 529 plate appearances and struck out only 57 times (a 10.7% strikeout rate). This improvement is further highlighted by his decrease from 17.1% strikeout rate in his 484 plate appearances in 2005. What can be determined from this is that Buscher has increased his ability to put the ball in play -- a significant prerequisite to getting a base hit -- following an aborted winter league performance, a strong spring could place Buscher at the top of the short third base candidate list.

3) Drew Butera -- catcher -- Decrease of 5.6%.

Like Buscher, Butera spent 2006 in a different organization (the Mets) but has intimate knowledge of the Twins franchise considering his paternal connections (his dad is Sal Butera ). Butera was assigned to Single-A Hagerstown where he had 348 plate appearances, of those he struck out 69 times (a strikeout rate of 19.8%). Beginning in 2007, the Mets placed Butera in High-A St. Lucie where midseason he was packaged with Dustin Martin for Luis Castillo. Butera reported to New Britain and was promoted to Rochester. In that time span, Butura was given 387 plate appearances and reduced his strikeouts to 55 times (a rate of 14.2%). While it isn't out of the realm of possibility that Butera may end up being a back-up catcher candidate for the Twins in 2010, it is more than likely the 24-year-old Butera will be blocked by Mauer and Redman and will be repackaged or released.

2) Matt Allegra -- right field -- Decrease of 6.6%

Matt Allegra, like Butera and Buscher before him, was drafted by a different team. Allegra was drafted by the Oakland Athletics out of Manatee Junior College in Florida in the 16th round. In his tenure with the A's, Allegra sampled several different levels before they let him leave as a minor league free agent following his 2006 season split between High-A Stockton and Double-A Midland. Allegra struck out 128 times in 436 plate appearances (a 29.3% strikeout rate). Prior to the 2007 season, the Twins signed Allegra and placed him in New Britain. Allegra received 414 plate appearances and managed to cut down his strikeouts to 94 (a 22.7% strikeout rate), but is still obviously a free-swinger. While this is a significant improvement and could imply that Allegra has indeed been able increase his contact by a small adjustment or being able to recognize pitches better, there is also the possibility of regression. The mitigating factor is that the Twins do not have many outfield prospects (two lighter following the Rule 5 draft) so Allegra will be in Rochester to open the 2008 season. We should continue to monitor his progress.

1) Jose Morales -- catcher -- Decrease of 9.3%

Discovered in Puerto Rico, Morales was drafted as a shortstop in the 3rd round by the Twins in 2001 (77th overall). Morales played second base until 2003 where he was moved behind the plate while with the Quad City River Bandits. By 2004, Morales was a full-time catcher. (The problem though was that 76 picks earlier in 2001 the Twins had drafted a high school catcher from St Paul named Joe Mauer). Offensively, Morales was decent. That same season Morales hit .286/.339/.386 in the Florida State League and was named to the all-star team. After missing significant time in 2005, Morales came back with New Britain in 2006 and hit a paltry .215/.280/.319 in 251 at-bats. In 282 plate appearances, Morales struck out 56 times (a 19.9% strikeout rate). After a promotion in 2007 to Rochester, Morales had a career year where in 108 games he hit .311/.366/.399 and was called up to the Twins on September 8th, 2007. He had one of the best debuts for a Twins player in quite some time. In three at-bats, Morales had three hits (including a double and a run scored). In the top of the 5th, Morales was hustling to second on a Jason Tyner bunt and was injured on the play. Lifted from the game, his season was officially over. In 418 plate appearances, Morales had struck out 44 times (a greatly reduced 10.6%). Morales, talented but blocked by the Baby Jesus and the Naked Walker, could still find employment on the roster in 2008 as the elusive third catcher that Gardenhire had been vocal about.