Sunday, December 25, 2011

2012 Top Prospect List: #7 Ryan LaMarre, of

Ryan LaMarre
Height 6-2, Weight 205, B/T: R/L, DOB: 11/21/1988
2010 Redlegs Baseball Prospect Ranking: #11

It's been an interesting transformation for the Reds farm system. As we all know, back in the Marge Schott era, the Reds gutted the scouting and player development departments in order to save costs and funnel that money into the 25-man roster. Ultimately, Marge's actions to cut costs did nothing more than shift those costs onto the backs of future Reds teams. Not surprisingly,  it caught up to the Reds in a big way. However, after several missteps, their renewed efforts at developing their own players has paid off.

It's a process that seemed to happen in stages, as the first wave of players seemed to be offense-first players who manned the corner positions (Votto, Frazier, Francisco, Bruce, etc). The next wave seemingly focused more on up-the-middle players (Cozart, Hamilton, Mesoraco, Stubbs) who offered more athleticism and diversified skills.

Ryan LaMarre, with his blend of tools and skills at a premier defensive position, followed comfortably on the heels of that second wave when the Reds drafted him with the 62nd overall pick in the 2nd round of the 2010 draft. LaMarre didn't waste much time negotiating, electing to sign on the dotted line to get his professional career underway immediately.

2011 Season

Heading into the 2011 season, one could reasonably have expected LaMarre to take a step forward based on his decision to quickly sign his first professional contract. By signing early, he logged invaluable experience in the form of 254 low-A ball ABs at the tail end of the 2010 season. Organizations value that early experience so highly that the new Collective Bargaining Agreement moves the signing deadline for draftees up to an earlier date, which permits them to squeeze in a bit of professional experience in their draft year. Unfortunately, despite getting an early start to his career, LaMarre's 2011 season didn't include the step forward that seemed almost inevitable, as he simply didn't drive the ball like he had in the past.  

LaMarre started the season at high-A Bakersfield where he logged 117 games and 445 ABs in which he hit .279/.347/.371/.718 with 6 homers, 52 steals in 66 attempts, and a 97/42 K/BB. For the Blaze, LaMarre hit line drives at a14% clip, but posted a BABIP of .342, which means that there was a bit of hit luck involved, as the line drives didn't support the BABIP. So, it was in spite of both the power outage and the unsustainable batting average that LaMarre was promoted up to double-A to finish out the season.

For double-A Carolina, LaMarre logged a mere 15 ABs in 5 games. Obviously, the organization just wanted to give him a taste of things to come in 2012. Despite the inconsequential sample size, we'll take a quick look at his double-A numbers anyway. For the Mudcats, LaMarre hit .267/.421/.333 with 3 steals and a 3/3 K/BB ratio. His line drive rate jumped up to 18% and he wasn't overmatched in his first experience above A-ball.

While the power production has been underwhelming, LaMarre still managed to reach double-A in his first full season of professional baseball, which is encouraging even for a polished college prospect. LaMarre will likely return to double-A to start the 2012 season and could be on the fast track to the majors if he proves up to the challenge.

Swing Mechanics

To me, the standout characteristic of LaMarre's 2011 season was the sheer lack of power. It was not something I was expecting, especially since LaMarre posted slugging percentages of .404, .599, and .649 in his three years at the University of Michigan. Clearly, power was never a problem for LaMarre in the amateur ranks, so one possible explanation for his professional power outage would be the switch from metal to wood bats, but I don't believe that to be the cause. LaMarre has, in interviews, proven to be very cognizant of the difference between metal and wood bat swings and the need to develop the latter. Not to mention, in the past, he has had good success in the wood bat Cape Cod league. So, I suspect the power outage has its roots in mechanics, more particularly LaMarre's reworked swing. 

First, let's take a look at what LaMarre was doing at the University of Michigan, courtesy of prospectjunkies:

As you can see, he has a high leg kick and strong hip rotation and lower body action to his swing. He really lets it rip. Now, here's what he was doing in 2011 for Bakersfield, courtesy of RedsMinorLeagues: 

The thing that jumps out at me the most is the new and different stride. Interestingly enough, last year I expressed concern about the length of his swing and the length of his stride, so it's curious to see that he made some changes to his lower half. Here is what I wrote in last year's LaMarre scouting report:

"However, his stride and swing both have a bit of length to them. In the professional ranks, he will likely need to tighten up his swing and shorten his path to the ball to reach his ceiling. If he doesn't, then he may be susceptible to hard fastballs in on the hands. He also may need to work on keeping his hands inside the ball, which isn't a type of swing you see all that often in the metal bat college game where pulling the ball is frequently the name of the game.

Overall, LaMarre has good swing mechanics that could enable him to hit for both average and power. He may need a tweak or two, but he has a sound foundation on which to build his offensive game."

Unfortunately, it seems like LaMarre has made more than a mere tweak, as he has completely reworked the action of his lower half. And, it would seem, not for the better. In fact, if that is the swing he was using on a regular basis in 2011, then it doesn't surprise me at all that his power has vanished.

When some hitters fall into a slump, you hear them describe their problem as "being slow to get the front foot down." To me, LaMarre now has the exact opposite problem.

LaMarre still uses a slightly wider than shoulder-width stance. His stance has a bit of forward lean to it, as his weight is largely on his front foot before he unweights his front foot to begin the stride, which transfers the weight to the back foot before it comes forward again as the stride is completed. However, if you look at LaMarre's new stride, which contains two parts, then it almost seems detached from the rest of his swing. He strides forward, landing on the ball of his foot with his heel in the air and holding his foot in this position for a moment. He then rolls off the ball of his foot and brings his heel down to the ground as his hips rotate. So, he interrupts the flow of his weight transfer from back to front, then lingers in the weak position of being on the ball of his front foot before firing the hips.

For comparison, at the plate Albert Pujols starts in a spread out position, then uses a stride that consists of raising his front foot up onto the ball of his foot and putting it right back down where it started as his hips fire, but it's one continuous, uninterrupted motion. On the other hand, LaMarre's stop-and-start stride makes the lower body action herky-jerky, robbing it of torque and power. He starts wide and gets wider, then tries to fire the hips while standing on the ball of his front foot. You simply can't effectively fire the hips if there is a pause between the landing of the stride foot and the firing of the hips.

In fact, LaMarre's stride seems disassociated from the rest of his swing to the extent that the lower body is largely removed from the swing. This is especially problematic due to the fact that most of the power in the baseball swing is generated by the lower body, so if you hinder that action or eliminate it entirely then you are left largely with an upper body swing. And, upper body swings simply don't generate much power. So, the fact that LaMarre's swing changes have significantly restricted his lower body action almost necessarily means that the power will decrease.

As for the upper body, I still really like LaMarre's swing. He starts with a high back elbow, which he drops when he fires his swing. He does a nice job of throwing the barrel of the bat at the pitch and gets good extension, both of which lend themselves to generating power. At the same time, he maintains good bat control and balance by keeping both hands on the bat during his follow-through.

Overall, I still think all the components are there for a fundamentally sound swing that will play at the MLB level. However, I think the changes he made to his lower half are a step in the wrong direction. Last offseason, I thought he needed to tighten and shorten up his swing as he climbed the ladder, but the changes he ended up making have robbed his swing of lower body action, creating a disjointed swing where the upper and lower halves simply don't work in tandem. It's very difficult to generate power without incorporating the lower half, especially a strong hip rotation, into the swing.

If LaMarre needed to tighten up his swing in 2011, then in 2012 he really needs to focus on effectively reincorporating the lower half back into his swing. LaMarre has far too much power potential to consciously sacrifice it, especially since the benefits to be reaped from his restricted lower body action are negligible, at best. In fact, I'm hopeful that that is not a swing to which he had fully committed, but rather an attempt to work through a swing flaw by temporarily incorporating an exaggerated lower body move.  

Athleticism, Speed, and Defense

The old adage that "speed doesn't slump" certainly rang true for LaMarre in 2011, as he remained a force on the bases despite an underwhelming offensive season. Between the two levels, LaMarre swiped 55 bags in 69 attempts, good for a 79.7% success rate. Clearly, he can be a weapon on the bases.

Overall, LaMarre is a very good athlete who has excelled in other sports. In fact, his manager, Ken Griffey Sr., compared him to Fred Lynn. Evidently, I'm just long enough in the tooth to appreciate that as being especially high praise, as the athletic and graceful Freddie Lynn pulled off the stunning feat of winning both the AL MVP and the AL Rookie of the Year award in the 1975 season. LaMarre attributes his impressive speed to hockey skating drills, which he believes helped him generate strength and explosiveness in his legs.

LaMarre teams with Billy Hamilton to give the Reds organization a speed dynamic that they haven't had in recent memory. LaMarre also makes good use of that speed out in the field, where he covers a lot of ground in the outfield. His aggressive style of play in the field may also have its roots in hockey, as he isn't afraid to lay out for the ball to make a play.

In 2011, LaMarre played 122 games in centerfield and 14 games in rightfield and he has the tools to stick in centerfield as he climbs the ladder. The only thing that would necessitate a move to a corner outfield is the presence of a superior outfielder ahead of him, which Drew Stubbs may well be. But, if that comes to pass, then LaMarre should be able to comfortably slide to a corner spot. 

LaMarre did suffer an ankle injury when his foot hit the first base bag wrong, landing him on the 7-day disabled list. But, the injury was minor and didn't slow him down for long, which is important given the importance of speed to LaMarre's game.

LaMarre's speed helps raise his prospect floor, as even if the bat doesn't reach its ceiling, he could still provide value as a pinch runner/defensive replacement at the MLB level. But, if the bat does develop, then pairing it with his speed could make him a legitimate impact player at the Major League level. 

Final Thoughts

LaMarre is a player I actually wanted the Reds to draft, so obviously I liked him before he got to the Reds organization and his 2011 season did nothing to diminish my appreciation for his game. He offers a nice blend of tools and skills, floor and ceiling, and athleticism and baseball IQ. He's not a finished product and certainly has some development left to do, but his 2012 season at double-A will likely provide a very telling data point to his career trajectory.

Will he reintroduce power to his game and emerge as a potential MLB starter? Or, will his numbers remain down against the tougher double-A level of competition, likely sending him down the path taken by so many 4th and 5th outfielders?

Overall, I remain bullish on LaMarre and slot him in at #11 on the list. I look forward to seeing what 2012 brings for LaMarre...hopefully, a reincorporation of his lower body into his swing.  

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The Mat Latos Trade


People complain about GM Walt Jocketty being too deliberate or overly analytical, but when he does decide to take the plunge, he certainly makes a damn big splash.

The first example was the Scott Rolen trade, which pundits hated. The current example was the Latos trade, which pundits also hate. Of course, I liked the former and I like the latter.

There are two components of the trade that need to be considered. First, the theory underlying the trade. Second, the execution of the trade.

The Underlying Theory

Obviously, the underlying theory implemented by the Reds was trading the future for the present. Trading prospects for established MLB talent. Trading from a surplus to address a weakness. Consolidating value in the 25-man roster at the expense of the farm system. The Reds finally realized that the present includes a window for success that may only be open until Votto reaches free agency.

Clearly, the underlying theory of the trade was solid. Of course, it was also so blatantly obvious that it's difficult to give Jocketty much credit for implementing it. In fact, it was painstakingly obvious to anyone who follows the team that this is the type of trade that needed to be made. In fact, it's the exact type of trade for which I was clamoring last offseason and it's been more than a little frustrating for the organization to fail to execute such an obvious strategy.

For those Yonder and Yasmani fans out there who wanted to keep them, well, sorry, but that was never a realistic possibility. From the moment Yonder was drafted, it was obvious that the Reds were going to have a problem. He might have been the best player available, but he was also incapable of playing anywhere else but first base. The idea of playing him out of position was a non-starter, as his defensive deficiencies at other positions would have dragged down the value of his offensive production to the point where his trade value would outpace his actual value. When those are your limitations and you have an MVP winner ahead of you, well there's really no where for you to go but out of town.

The story is largely the same for Yasmani, as Mesoraco is just a better prospect. As a result, there was simply no room for Yasmani. Despite some fan suggestions, the notion of a platoon between the two was a non-starter, as limiting their playing time would have been a waste of one or two of the assets. If you platoon them, then their actual value would simply be outpaced by their trade value. It just wouldn't work.

As for Brad Boxberger, he's an intriguing relief prospect, but he's still a reliever. And, relievers have an inherent volatility which limits their value. There aren't many relievers who maintain a consistent level of dominance and those who do seem to feature a more dominating repertoire of pitches than Boxberger possesses. Unless he can step up and consistently dominate in high leverage innings, then his loss won't be difficult to overcome. 

Fortunately, the farm system exists for one purpose, namely to support the major league team. That purpose can be achieved through the development and promotion of homegrown prospects or by trading those prospects away for established MLB talent. The paths diverge, but ultimately end up in the same place, namely an improved 25-man roster.  

Now that it has finally happened, it's impossible not to give the underlying theory high marks. However, regardless of how good the theory may be, the team still needs to execute it properly for the trade to be a good one.

The Execution

Well, similar to the aftermath of the Scott Rolen deal, the pundits are up in arms over the price the Reds paid. Personally, I had no problem with the price paid in the Rolen deal and don't really have a problem with the price in the Latos deal. Personally, I think we overpaid to a greater extent in this deal than we did in the Rolen deal. Even so, I think the overpayment was justified and made sense for where the Reds are as an organization.

Depending on where an organization stands in the win cycle, the price they should be willing to pay would  differ. For a team in need of a particular player to get them over the hump and into the playoffs, it only makes sense to pay a premium. That's where the Reds stand right now.

For me, it's not so much the price paid, as the risk inherent in such a deal. The Reds made the move they NEEDED to make, but it's a move that is inherently risky. They just traded four players for one. In doing so, they consolidated the total value of four roster slots into a single slot, which is exactly what the team needed. However, such a move also consolidates the risk. Instead of diversified risk spread over multiple assets, the Reds now have all their eggs in a single basket. So, it's a high risk, high reward trade.

Of course, given that the Reds NEEDED to make this move and that this move has inherent risk, the success of such a deal all comes down to picking the right pitcher. If you are going to push all your chips into the pot, then you'd better pick the right hand on which to do it.

For me, the Reds reeled in the best option available this offseason. Frankly, I'd rather have Latos than Trevor Cahill, Gio Gonzalez, Jonathan Sanchez, or even James Shields. He just seems the best combination of polish, upside, salary, and length of time under team control. So, given what was realistically available, I think the Reds did it right.

Latos has had very good success so far in his career, but that success has come while pitching for the Padres and Petco Park. People have jumped at the park effects in pointing out that his career ERA is 3.11 at home and 3.57 on the road. Obviously, it's important to point out that leaving Petco for Great American Ballpark will act as a drag on his numbers. At the same time, I think the NL West context is somewhat under-examined, as the division combines big ballparks with weak offenses to create a very favorable environment for pitchers. And, Latos won't be bringing that environment with him to Cincinnati.

I do, however, have two problems with this trade:

1) That it didn't happen sooner

To me, this is the most egregious part of the trade. This is the trade that I wanted to see go down last year. If it did, then the gamble would have been lower risk. First, we would have landed a pitcher with a higher established baseline of production and a lower level of risk. Additionally, we would have avoided wasting an entire season of our win cycle. It would have cost more in monetary terms, less in prospect terms. Even so, it would have been a better time for such a substantial gamble, as it would have been lower risk and provided more chances to pay off.  

When you are a smaller market team, then your chances for success are typically a small window. When you have Joey Votto on the verge of free agency, Brandon Phillips getting long in the tooth, and the baling wire in Scott Rolen's shoulder getting more distressed by the day, then it's a borderline unforgivable sin to waste an entire season of your window. Windows don't come around very often and they aren't open very long when they do.

After a breakthrough season in 2010, it was unsurprising to see the Reds regress in 2011. Typically, when a team breaks through to a new level of performance, they follow it up with a step backward. The reason is simple, as success is typically the result of an occurrence of a number of positive events that simply cannot be expected to happen again the following season. To offset that, you have to take tangible steps to improve the team. The Reds didn't do that in 2011. They have learned their lesson. Still, it hurts to waste a season of MVP caliber production from Joey Votto.

2) Tossing Edinson into the Deal

Well, you could have knocked me over with a feather, but to me this is the objectionable part of the price we paid for Latos. It just feels like a big mistake to include Edinson in this deal. And, I say that as something less than a fan of Edinson. Frankly, I didn't want Edinson to return to Cincinnati in 2012,. as his attitude and continued status as thrower instead of pitcher are reasons to part ways with him. However, I do think he has some trade value, even if we just treated him as if he did not. And, frankly, I just can't get behind the idea of wasting the value of an asset.

At the time of the trade, Edinson was undeniably the most unpopular player on the roster, so I fully expect this opinion to be equally unpopular. Regardless, I do think Edinson has some value and, frankly, I think he's the key to determining the winner of the deal. Keith Law thinks its Yasmani Grandal. I think it's Edinson.

To me, dealing Yonder, Yasmani, and Boxberger for Latos is a much more palatable price to pay than including those three AND Edinson. The reason is fairly simply, I could easily see Edinson getting back on track in San Diego. In fact, it wouldn't surprise me if Edinson puts up numbers in Petco that are similar to what Latos puts up in GABP.

In 2008, his first with the Reds, Edinson was a 4.2 win player. In 2010 and 2011, Latos was a 4.0 and 3.2 win player, respectively. So, once upon a time, Edinson was as valuable as (perhaps even more valuable than) Latos has been in each of the past two years.

In 2009, Edinson did not pitch after June 1, as his season ended in Tommy John surgery. He made it back in July 17, 2010, but as impressive as his recovery time was he probably came back too soon. Realistically, both his 2009 and 2010 seasons were undone by Tommy John surgery.

However, there is little to excuse his 2011 season. His 5.71 ERA and 1.57 WHIP sealed his fate in Cincinnati. In fact, he was so bad that he was demoted to triple-A. However, there are a few positives to be drawn from that point forward, if you look hard enough.

In triple-A, Edinson tossed 87.1 innings of 2.37 ERA, 1.16 WHIP, and 83/29 K/BB ratio. Overall, solid numbers, most encouraging were his 3.0 BB/9 and 8.6 K/9 ratios. And, while it was lost in the team's late season fade, he carried some of that improvement with him back to the majors in four September starts.

In his September starts, Edinson posted a 4.94 ERA and a 7.3 K/9, but a much more respectable 3.8 BB/9. Strides were made in the free pass department and the existence of those strides was reinforced by his pitch data.

In his four starts, admittedly a small sample size, Edinson took steps forward in percentage of strikes thrown and percentage of first pitch strikes. In September, Edinson tallied a first pitch strike 57.8% of the time and threw strikes 63.8% of the time. On the season as a whole, Edinson had a first pitch strike rate of 54% and threw strikes 60% of the time. So, he showed improvement when he returned to the majors. 

So, to a certain extent, he was getting back on track. And, when he's right, he has significant value, but now we've tossed him into a deal as if he had none. Add in the fact that he's heading to Major League Baseball's best park for pitchers and will be yet another year removed from his TJ surgery and it seems entirely possible that he'll get back on track in 2012. If he returns to form and becomes a 3 or 4 win player for the Padres, then Yonder, Yasmani, and Boxberger are almost pure profit for the Padres and they'll win this deal in a walk.

Final Thoughts

Overall, this deal is strong and long overdue. The underlying theory and the execution of it both work. It's been a long, agonizing, exhausting march towards the completion of this deal, but the Reds have finally gotten serious about improving this team and taking the next step forward.

The Reds paid a heavy price to make this deal happen, but it was the right move and one that was long overdue.