Wednesday, March 30, 2011

2011 Top Prospect List: #9 Juan Francisco, 3b

Juan Francisco
Height 6-2, Weight 240, B/T: L/R, DOB: 6/24/1987
2010 Redlegs Baseball Prospect Ranking: #6

Juan Francisco has power that stacks up favorable with almost any prospect in the game. A select number could certainly out-power him, including recent #1 overall pick Bryce Harper, but Francisco can really lay the lumber when he gets a hold of one. Of course, his struggle to make consistent contact means that it doesn't happen as often as we would like.

Additionally, Francisco's offensive game lacks secondary skills (i.e. speed, on-base skills, etc), so his game will be driven largely by his power production. Fortunately, his home park accentuates his strongest attribute, so if he can stick in the majors for an appreciable amount of time, then he might be able to make some noise. Of course, while the power would be nice, his lack of both defensive ability and on-base skill will always serve as significant drags on his overall value as a player.

2010 Season

Francisco spent most of the 2010 season at triple-A Louisville doing what he does, namely hitting homers and avoiding walks like the plague. In 77 games, Juan hit .286/.325/.565/.890 with 18 homers and a 81/16 K/BB ratio in 308 ABs. He had a line-drive rate of 19% and a BABIP of .335, but what stands out are his 4.9% walk rate and 24.6% strikeout rate.

His season was hampered by an appendectomy, which cost him roughly two-months of the season. Despite this bump in the road, Francisco managed to log 59 PAs at the MLB level. In those plate appearances, he hit .273/.322/.382 with 1 homerun and a 20/4 K/BB ratio. His BABIP was an unsustainable .412, which was mildly alarming when paired with his lackluster 14% line-drive rate. In short, his batting average, which was the only acceptable part of his slash line, was driven largely by luck.

On the plus side, Francisco did show some capacity to work counts. As an aggressive hitter, you don't expect to see him in many 4+ pitch At Bats. Nevertheless, Francisco worked the count to 3-0 in 7% of his plate appearances, which is quite strong when compared to the league average mark of 5%. Obviously, it's a small sample size and the deeper counts still didn't translate into walks, so the ability to work counts may not have much tangible value and may not even be sustainable. Still, it's mildly interesting and certainly worth of note. However, his contact rate in two MLB seasons remains a disturbing 65%, which falls substantially below the MLB average of 79% over those two seasons. In fact, Francisco's contact rate falls well below Adam Dunn's career 71% contact rate, which is obviously cause for concern. The lower the contact rate, the higher the strikeout totals and the lower the batting average. Adam Dunn's contact rate has always hovered around the lowest acceptable rate for a productive hitter, so Francisco's inability to surpass Dunn's mark is disconcerting. Additionally, Dunn manages to offset his struggles to make contact by drawing a massive amount of walks, which Francisco simply does not do.

Swing Mechanics and Offensive Profile

Francisco has an unorthodox pre-pitch setup. He uses a wide-spread, open stance and a significant bat waggle. He stands tall and holds his hands up next to his left ear. While waiting on the pitcher, Francisco moves his bat in a circle and also from vertical to down past parallel to the ground. He has a very loose, active pre-pitch stance.

Francisco relies on a two-step stride to generate load and transfer his weight to meet the oncoming pitch. His first stride moves his foot in towards homeplate to close up his stance and cock his hips. A wide-open stance prevents a hitter from utilizing the hips to generate power, as you can't fire the hips if you are already in an open position. So, open-stance hitters who want to generate power need to develop a mechanism to cock the hips and generate load for the swing. The interesting aspect of Francisco's stride is that once his first step closes up his hips, he taps his toe and then immediately opens up again. The second step in his stride is a move to open right back up to the pitch again.

In short, he closes up his stance by striding towards the plate, then taps his toe and immediately opens his stance up again. In fact, if you look carefully, when his stride foot lands Francisco completely opens up his foot by pointing his toe directly at the pitcher. He isn't rolling over on the foot when he fires the swing like some hitters, but rather opens up before he fires the swing.

Given his light-tower power, it's undeniable that his stride effectively cocks his hips and allows him to generate substantial power. But, his open stride and early firing of the hips makes me question his ability to cover the outer-half and handle offspeed pitches that upset his timing.

As for his swing, he drops his hands into proper hitting position and gets a very strong bat-throw through the zone. He generates good bat speed and does a nice job of squaring the bat on the ball. He still has length in his swing, which explains his difficulties in making consistent contact. He uses a slight uppercut in his swing, which generates good loft on the ball.

After whipping the bat through the zone, Francisco uses an abbreviated follow-through during which he never really releases the bat, rather cuts it short a la Fred McGriff.

A couple of years ago I thought the most comparable MLB player to Juan Francisco was Mike Jacobs. Basically, a defensively challenged player relegated to the low end of the defensive spectrum who possesses good pop but very little on-base ability. And, even now after Jacobs has really started to slip, it still feels about right. Francisco probably hits for a higher average than Jacobs, but flashes even less on-base ability.

If Francisco manages to stick at the hot corner, then his best comparisons are probably Kevin Kouzmanoff or Pablo Sandoval. Both have an early-count, low-walk approach, but Kouzmanoff is the superior defensive player while Sandoval is the more pure hitter. There really is no perfect comp for Francisco, because he strikes out like a late-count hitter but walks like an early-count hitter. It's an unusual combination and one that really drags down his value. In short, his approach generates the worst outcome of each of the two different plate approaches.

Defensive Skills

On the defensive side, the Reds are convinced that Francisco can hold down the hot corner. In fact, they have arguably alter the development path of Todd Frazier to accommodate Francisco. Frazier profiles best at third base, but the Reds have used him in a super utility role in part because Francisco is on a similar development time-line and has always been locked in a third base.

So, the Reds have actually gambled a decent amount on Francisco's ability to handle third base. His biggest problem continues to be his range, as he simply doesn't move all that well laterally. Unfortunately, he also struggles to convert those balls he reaches into outs, as his fielding percentage is a cause for concern. When he does get his hands on the ball, his plus arm allows him to make more plays than might be expected.

The Reds got a huge boost from Scott Rolen in 2010, but he is aging and will lug around significant injury risk for the rest of his career. As a result, Francisco possesses one of the most important things a prospect can have: opportunity. The Reds will need to have someone spell Rolen at times this year and will need to have someone lined up to replace him in the future. Francisco will likely get first crack.

Final Thoughts

Thus far, Francisco's career serves best as a cautionary tale about the difficulties of both reaching the Majors and thriving when you get there. It is not easy. Even though Francisco has been labeled one of the Reds top prospects for a couple of seasons, that's not a guarantee that Major League success will necessarily follow. Even among the very best prospects in baseball, there is still a significant risk of flaming out. It's easy to dream on prospects, but there is something to be said for established MLB talent.

Francisco's power will always be his calling card and his main value driver. If Francisco can earn the job of Scott Rolen's caddy this year, then he could surprise. In fact, if he can get an extended bit of playing time, then I wouldn't be surprised to see him have the type of small-sample size power surge in Great American Ballpark that really excites the fan base. Actually, for whatever reason, I'm somewhat expecting it. In addition to his power and friendly home park, I suspect Francisco would get some early count fastballs (which, we know he'll jump on) before pitchers develop a proper "book" on his weaknesses. At that point, he'll need to make adjustments and demonstrate the ability to cover up the weaknesses in both his approach and swing, which will be a difficult challenge.

For now, Francisco's plus-power when coupled with the Reds continued faith in him are enough to land him at #9 on the list. I remain wholly unconvinced about his ability to handle the hot corner, but Francisco will always be an offensive-first prospect, so he needs to hit (and hit a lot) to justify a spot on the 25-man roster.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

2011 Pressing Question #3: Zack Greinke Remorse

Pressing Question #3: Will the Reds regret not acquiring the services Zack Greinke?

For the first time in forever, the Reds are in position where they have a surplus of starting pitching. However, the rotation lacks a legitimate number 1 starter. That makes it a rotation ideally suited for the grind of a 162-game season, but perhaps not for a short postseason series where Aces rule. Whether it's a 5 or 7 game series, chances are good that an Ace will get two or more starts. In such an environment, the Reds are at a distinct disadvantage in two games before the first pitch is even fired. So, the obvious question is should they have gone after the services of a young, former Cy Young award winner who actively sought out smaller market organizations in his quest for a new home?

Asking this question now as opposed to a couple weeks ago brings different considerations into play. Over the past couple of weeks, Greinke has been shutdown because of a rib fracture, Mike Leake has looked shaky at best in spring training, and Johnny Cueto has been hampered by forearm tightness. Obviously, that may change the equation to a certain extent.

Greinke was shutdown with a rib fracture which will linger into the beginning of the season and cost him a few starts. However, all he'll need to do is rest and then rebuild his arm strength, so the injury should be a once-and-done type problem, not a lingering issue.

As for Leake, he hit the ground running last year and looked like a legitimate #2 type starter. However, he faded in the middle months and was shutdown early with shoulder fatigue. Leake's Spring Training struggles may be nothing more than adjusting to the strength he added over the offseason, but it could also be lingering effects from the shoulder fatigue. At this point, it's questionable whether he is ready for the majors from an endurance and performance level standpoint.

Perhaps most disconcerting is Johnny Cueto's struggles with arm soreness. He was originally shut down for 8 days due to forearm tightness. At first glance, it seems a minor problem, but forearm tightness is frequently a precursor to Tommy John surgery. However, the Reds medical staff gave him a clean bill of health and ran him back out to the mound today. The results were not promising, as Cueto departed after throwing just one inning, this time complaining of bicep soreness. Obviously, not good. Not. Good. Hopefully, it ACTUALLY is nothing more than soreness, but it could ultimately be something much more serious.

Greinke suffers from social anxiety and is uncomfortable in many social situations, but he comfortably wears the label of #1 Starter. He has legitimate ace potential and in the past 3 seasons he has posted WARs of 4.9, 9.4, and 5.2. The 9.4 WAR season justifiably earned him a Cy Young award and may represent the high point of Greinke's career. Even so, last year only two Reds starters had WARs over 2.0, including Johnny Cueto at 2.8 and Travis Wood at 2.2.

It's looking like the Reds are in danger of losing their best pitcher from 2010 for a significant period of time. Even if Greinke never again approaches his Hall of Fame caliber season of 9.4 WAR, he still represents a 2.5 to 3.0 win improvement over everyone on the Reds staff unless they take a step forward. Given a larger sample size, it's likely that Travis Wood posts an improved WAR, but the Reds have more depth than high performance arms.

When you factor in that the improving NL Central has tightened up and gotten even more competitive, then you have to consider this something of a zero-sum game. If the Reds had acquired Greinke, then they would also have kept him away from a division rival. So, any gain by the Reds is essentially a corresponding loss for the Brewers. If Greinke returns to 9 wins above replacement, then that's a plus 9 for the Reds and a minus 9 wins in missed opportunity for the Brewers.

Obviously, only time will provide the answer to this question, but I think it was a mistake for the organization not to be an aggressive suitor on Greinke.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

2011 Top Prospect List: #10 Dave Sappelt, of

Dave Sappelt
Height 5-9, Weight 195, B/T: R/R, DOB: 1/2/1987
2010 Redlegs Baseball Prospect Ranking: NA

Dave Sappelt stands 5-9 inches tall. That fact has worked against him in his baseball career, as scouts were either confused as to how to grade him or held his smaller frame against him. Initial impressions are difficult to shake in professional baseball. As a result, Sappelt is the type of guy who has constantly had to prove his detractors wrong. Fortunately, he packs a lot of talent into his smaller frame, because he has continued to climb the ladder towards the major leagues and looks poised to arrive on the scene at some point in 2011.

Amateur Career and Draft Position

Sappelt attended Coastal Carolina University where he hit .315/.344/.461/.805 in 178 ABs as a freshman. He posted a 29/8 K/BB ratio, cranked 5 homeruns, and swiped 5 bases in 7 attempts. As a sophomore, he took it up a notch, posting a .359/.410/.580/.990 in 276 ABs. He hit 10 homeruns, swiped 7 bases in 13 attempts, and put up a 40/26 K/BB ratio. As a draft eligible junior, he found yet another gear, kicking it up to .349/.415/.636/1.051 in 275 ABs with 18 homers, a 27/33 K/BB ratio, and 7 steals in 10 attempts. Sappelt's diminutive stature inspired his teammates to nickname him "Gary Coleman."

Even in the collegiate ranks he was already establishing his offensive profile as a player who swings early-and-often, struggles to effectively harness his speed on the bases, and yet features a bit of electricity to his game. In his three seasons at Coastal Carolina, Sappelt's game continued to progress and develop until he emerged on the radar of MLB baseball scouts.

The Reds ultimately reeled him in with the 269th overall pick in the 9th round of the 2008 draft and signed him to a contract with a $75,000 signing bonus.

2010 Season

Sappelt made three stops in 2010, rocketing up the minor league system and prospect rankings in equal measure.

His first stop was high-A Lynchburg, which holds the unusual distinction as being both the lowest level of competition faced by Sappelt and also his worst level of performance. For the Hillcats, Sappelt hit .282/.338/.352/.690 in 19 games and 71 ABs. He hit line drives at the rate of 19% and had a BABIP of .357. While his overall performance is somewhat uninspiring, his component stats are strong. On the bases, he only swiped 6 bases in 10 attempts. Nevertheless, he was a short-timer in high-A, as he was quickly bumped up the ladder to double-A Carolina.

For the Mudcats, Sappelt quickly caught fire. In 89 games and 330 ABs, he posted a robust .361/.416/.548/.964 slash line. He added a more than respectable 46/31 K/BB ratio, but continued to struggle on the bases where he was caught stealing (13) almost as many times as he was successful (15). So, his struggles to turn his good speed into offensive production obviously continue. Once again, Sappelt hit line drives at a very good clip (22%), which helps justify his extreme .400 BABIP. His performance was stellar and earned him a finally promotion to triple-A Louisville.

Sappelt finished up the season at triple-A Louisville where he hit to the tune of .324/.365/.481/.847 in 25 games and 108 ABs. He swiped 4 bases in 5 attempts and posted a 13/6 K/BB ratio. His power numbers dipped, but his line drive rate improved to 24%. In light of such a high line drive rate, Sappelt's BABIP was a reasonable .351.

Swing Mechanics

When I first saw Sappelt at the plate, I was admittedly less than impressed. His swing was unconventional and flawed to an extent unlikely to play at the MLB level. He spun off the ball by stepping in the bucket and opening up his shoulders too soon, which resulted in a very flat swing plane and a very low finishing position for his hands. That swing limited his ability to cover the outer half and his ability to generate loft and playable power.

Fortunately, Sappelt has made a few changes to improve the effectiveness of his swing. The changes have made him a better hitter and a more intriguing prospect. Even now, he still seems to be evolving at the plate, as his spring training swing seems different from his end-of-2010 swing which seems different from his 2009-swing. So, I'll dive into his swing mechanics, but they probably still aren't set in stone.

At the plate, Sappelt stands tall, roughly shoulder-width stance. He holds his hands up high by his right ear, which results in a bat position that is almost parallel to the ground. He also uses a bat waggle in his pre-pitch routine. Sappelt uses a slight hitch to drop his hands down into proper hitting position.

In the video below, courtesy of RedsMinorLeagues on YouTube, Sappelt's stride entails two parts. He begins with a toe-tap that includes a slight move forward, which is followed by a stride that basically lands in the bucket. As a result, he still opens up a bit too early, but it's less extreme than when I first saw him and so far it's been effective for him. Obviously, by using an open stride, he should have little trouble handling pitches on the inner half, as his hips and shoulders are already opening to the thirdbase side. But, despite the fact that he hits a double off the rightfield wall in this clip, Sappelt may struggle to drive the ball with power to the opposite field against more advanced pitching. By opening up early, he leaves himself susceptible to offspeed pitches on the outer half. If pitchers can get out on the front foot, then he will be in a poor position to cover the outside corner, as his swing path cuts across the inner half of the plate.

The early opening of his body and stride into the bucket results in a flatter swing path, as evidenced by the lower finishing position of the hands. At times, his hands almost seem to finish just above belt high, which means that his swing is rotational and flat.

As you can see in the above video, Sappelt runs well. He's small in stature, but has good quickness and speed and seems like a fast-twitch player. He takes a full cut and his follow-through makes him a bit slow out of the box, but it doesn't take him long to get up to full speed.

In this next video, also courtesy of RedsMinorLeagues on YouTube, which was taken about a month after the first video, Sappelt has gone with a completely different stride. The toe tap is gone in favor of a single move stride. As the pitch is delivered, he draws his stride foot back towards his back foot to help him load up for the pitch. He then strides forward to transfer his weight to meet the pitch. As you can see, his stride is much higher than the previous incarnation. Additionally, his stride is directed more towards the pitcher rather than opening up towards the third baseman. This stride leads to better balance and more power.

This different stride also brings about a different swing path. Instead of swinging around his body as he did previously, this new stride better enables him to stay down and through the ball, which allows him to drive it with authority. Also, his swing plane is no longer flat, but rather has more uppercut action to it. As a result, he finishes with his hands up above his right shoulder, rather than in the lower position from the above video. This second swing should enable him to generate more loft and better cover the outer half of the plate, as his swing path is no longer flat and won't cut across the inner half of the plate. He also seems to be in better control of his body and the bat head, as his momentum is heading towards the pitcher rather than off to the third base side.

The downside could be that the higher leg kick serves as a timing mechanism in the swing, which is fine until a pitcher is able to upset that timing. When that happens, he'll be out on the front foot too soon, which would leave him with nothing but an arm swing to protect the plate.

This second swing is much preferable and, in my mind at least, better supports the spike in power that Sappelt generated in 2010. In 2010, Sappelt managed to slug over .500 for the first time in his professional career and the second version of his swing makes me more of a believer in that number's legitimacy. However, early in spring training Sappelt seems to have altered his swing once again.

In Spring Training, Sappelt has been ripping the cover off the ball and has been doing it with a slightly different swing than the previous two. In Spring Training, he seems to have abandoned the two-step stride and the higher leg kick stride in favor of a simply lifting of the foot and putting it back down. There is little forward motion, but he opens up the toe of his stride foot early, which again enables him to clear and fire the hips. This swing again opens Sappelt up a bit early, but it has been hard to argue with the results.

Obviously, Sappelt is still refining his mechanics as a hitter and getting comfortable at the plate. However, despite the fluctuations in swing mechanics, he has maintained good success. The key to his success as a hitter is very good hand-eye coordination, which enables him to make consistent, hard contact even on pitches outside the zone. His ability to square up the pitch on the barrel of the bat dovetails nicely with his aggressive, early-count hitting philosophy. It's tough to succeed with a swing-early, swing-often approach if you can't make consistently hard contact.

So far, Sappelt has been crushing the ball in Spring Training, which can only help his cause. However, given that Dusty Baker has already committed to rolling Jonny Gomes out as his full-time leftfielder, Sappelt is likely to head back to the minors and await an opportunity. At the very least, he has seized the opportunity to open a few eyes and improve his standing in the organization.

Defense and Positional Value

While Sappelt has taken his offensive game to the point where it may now be a tick or two above replacement level in the majors, it's still his defensive ability that will ultimately drive his MLB career. If he can play an elite centerfield, then he could lay claim to a starting centerfield gig at the MLB level.

Scouting reports on Sappelt's defense rate him as a tick above average, but his Total Zone Fielding Runs Above Average for his 304 minor league games in centerfield is a plus 50. Obviously, the statistics indicate a true plus defensive player, but scouting reports aren't quite as complimentary. The difference between the statistics and the traditional scouting viewpoint on Sappelt may represent the difference between a starting job and 4th outfielder duty. To establish himself as an everyday player, Sappelt will need to be a legitimate impact player with the leather.

Given that Drew Stubbs and Jay Bruce are well entrenched in centerfield and rightfield, respectively, a starting gig with the Reds will only happen in leftfield. Obviously, leftfield is traditionally an offense-first position, which works against Sappelt, but his arm will play in any of the three positions, which increases his versatility and makes him a more intriguing 4th outfielder. Jonny Gomes was not impressive in 2010, which when coupled with the lack of a true leadoff hitter may open the door a crack for Sappelt to lay claim to the job in 2011.

Final Thoughts

It's hard not to be impressed with how effectively the Reds have rebuilt their farm system. Their success in the draft over the past decade undoubtedly rivals its performance at any other time in the draft era. The Reds are not only having success with their top picks, but they are also finding good value with their later round selections, of which Dave Sappelt and Chris Heisey are prime examples. Heisey slipped because he went to a small college, while Sappelt slipped because he himself is small. Ultimately, both players may end up as 4th or 5th outfielders, but if things break right, then they might crack the starting lineup.

In Sappelt's case, his power is likely to be below average, but his batting average should be solid. He is a high contact guy and can drive the ball. His swing should ensure that he'll have solid pull power, but he's unlikely to ever post impressive home run totals, even with Great American Ballpark working in his favor. Regardless, if he can play impact defense and post respectable batting averages at the MLB level, then he might work his way into a starting job. If not, then he is likely to be a valuable and versatile 4th outfielder. That combination of ceiling and floor is enough to land him at #10 on the list.