Tuesday, June 3, 2014

ACC Baseball Draft Preview 2014: Six Names to Know and Full Projections

by John Vittas

With the Major League Draft less than two months away, several players have separated themselves from the competition in the Atlantic Coast Conference.

Many of those players in the ACC come from the traditional powerhouse programs. Some were well-known before the season, while others have made a name for themselves through the first half of the 2014 college season. 

FUTURE MILLIONAIRES

Jake Stinnett, RHP, Maryland

Jake Stinnett has skyrocketed up many draft boards with his performances this spring. This only being his second season in the Maryland rotation and the first as a weekend starter, Stinnett has shined since moving exclusively to the mound.

Originally recruited as an infielder, Stinnett’s weight training program has upped his average fastball velocity from 89 to 94 mph. in just one year. He’s also improved his command on both his heater and breaking ball, throwing both for strikes consistently in 2014.

His stuff is Major League-good, as evidenced by 10.4 K/9 ratio and .156 opponents batting average. His 14-strikeout game against NC State put him on the map as an early-round pick, and his eye-popping fastball, which has touched 97, is keeping him there.

“The biggest thing for him is that he is going from being what I would call a moderate strike-thrower to a consistent strike-thrower,” Maryland head coach John Szefc told Baseball America’s Clint Longnecker. “His walks have decreased dramatically and he makes you beat him.”

Stinnett also has a firm changeup that is a work-in-progress, but manipulates the breaking ball well enough to be effective against different types of hitters.

“He has a tendency to throw it a little bit different to lefthanded hitters and righthanded hitters,” Maryland pitching coach Jim Belanger said to Longenecker. “When he throws it to lefthanded hitters it almost has a little hump in it and it is not as tight of a pitch. Whereas when he throws it to righthanded hitters it has more of that sharp, late, power break to it.

While Stinnett’s improved control has made a difference, his fastball command within the strike zone still has room to improve. If he can also improve his changeup’s consistency, there’s no reason Stinnett can’t be a front-line Major League starter.


Trea Turner, SS, NC State

Turner has the makings of a legitimate Major League shortstop. He can flat out hit. Amassing 611 career at bats, his numbers can be digested like a player who just completed a full MLB season. The Florida native has posted a career average of .342, to go with 52 extra-base-hits (16 HRs), 108 RBIs and 97 stolen bases.

However, Turner has pressed in 2014 as his Wolfpack team has crumbled against ACC competition. He’s sacrificed average for power, trying to lift a lineup that hasn’t lived up to expectations. Subsequently, Turner hasn’t made up for the struggles, but added to them.

Backing the Pack beat writer David Sanders expresses his concerns about Turner’s 2014 trend: “The Turner of the past two seasons used the whole field, but in the games I have seen this season he has been trying to jerk just about everything. He has a tendency to cast his hands a bit, get out on his front foot, and come around the ball rather than wait back and drop the barrel on it. His swing is a bit long, and I wonder how he will adjust as he climbs the ladder in the minors and sees more quality fastballs.”

Regardless, his tools should keep in the first round.

“With a wiry frame and superior athleticism, Turner sprays line drives to all fields. As he fills out, he will be able to take balls out of the ballpark with more consistency,” said ACC broadcaster and former college baseball player John Lewis.

His arm strength, speed and range should allow him to play shortstop at the next level, despite 37 career errors.

Other Future Millionaires: Carlos Rodon (LHP - NC State), Luke Weaver (RHP - Florida State), Nick Howard (RHP - Virginia), Derek Fisher (OF - Virginia), Daniel Gossett (RHP - Clemson)

Under-the-Radar Sleepers


Michael Russell, SS, North Carolina

In a lineup that has kept him out of the spotlight, Russell has shown steady improvement in each of his three seasons in Chapel Hill. He’s started every game but one in his three-year career, and has watched his average rise from .269 in 2012 to .298 last year, and is the Tar Heel’s leading hitter at .336 this year.

He leads the team with 15 extra-base hits and has posted an OPS of .933. Factor in 38 career stolen bases, and Russell’s numbers indicate that he’s one of the most feared offensive players in the ACC.

“Russell is a good runner with excellent baserunning instincts,” Baseball America’s Aaron Fitt said.

But the question is, how does his game translate to the next level?

“I think a lot of people question whether the bat will play in professional ball,” an ACC team manager Phil DePase said. “Defense and footwork could be better, he makes plays on the run really well. I like him as a college shortstop but I don’t know how big of a draft prospect he actually is.”

Those concerns are warranted, especially after his .216 season in the wood-bat Cape Cod League in 2013. However, there’s no doubting Russell’s spring production and athletic 200-pound frame. For the first time in his UNC career, his size has translated into power.

Fitt called Russell “wiry-strong,” a fair analysis for anyone who has seen him play. While Russell may be bulky for a shortstop, the tutelage of former Tar Heel shortstop Josh Horton has improved his defense, and Russell is not lacking anything in the arm-strength department.

After two solid seasons in a stacked lineup, Russell has emerged as the leader in Chapel Hill, and his bat appears to have taken a large step forward. Couple that with his physical gifts, and Russell could end up going higher in the draft than many presume.


Matthew Crownover, LHP, Clemson

Since undergoing Tommy John Surgery, Crownover has bounced back with a flourish so far in 2014. His six wins ranks third in the ACC and his 2.28 ERA is tenth.

The Clemson website describes Crownover as a “lefthander who is not overpowering, but uses his control to be effective.” While his control does make him effective, the velocity has been there for Crownover too.

With his fastball in the upper-80s and touching 90, Crownover has still been able to surprise hitters who are worried about his plus changeup and slider. His recovery from the surgery has been remarkable.

“Not getting to pitch for a year was a terrible feeling and it really drove me to get back as soon as I could,” Crownover told Lindsey Young of the Chattanooga Times Free Press.

Many experts are still not sold on the post-surgery Crownover.
“He is a good college pitcher,” Baseball America’s John Manuel said. “I don’t believe he is seen as a premium draft prospect. He does have pitchability and a good changeup.”

DePase also used the word pitchability, praising the movement on Crownover’s fastball. Many scouts are concerned with his velocity, but if he continues to execute as he has in 2014, there’s no reason he can’t get outs at the next level.

John's Projections of Players He Saw (not including Miami, Virginia Tech, Notre Dame, Boston College, Duke, Wake Forest)

Top 3 Rounds: Carlos Rodon (LHP-NC ST), Trea Turner (SS-NC ST), Jake Stinnett (RHP-Maryland, Luke Weaver (RHP-FSU), Nick Howard (RHP-UVA), Daniel Gossett (RHP-CLEM) Michael Russell (SS-UNC), Mike Papi (1B-UVA)

Rounds 4-10: Brett Austin (C-NC ST), Jose Brizuela (3B-FSU), Matt Grimes (RHP-GT)

Rounds 11-20: John Nogowski (1B-FSU), Artie Lewicki (RHP-UVA), Matthew Crownover (LHP-CLEM), Branden Cogswell (2B-UVA), Brandon Downes (OF-UVA), Ben Brewster (LHP-Maryland), Garrett Boulware (C-CLEM), Tyler Slaton (OF-CLEM)

Rounds 21-40: Justin Gonzalez (SS-FSU), Blake Schmit (SS-UMD), Benton Moss (RHP-UNC), Brandon Leibrandt (LHP-FSU), Daniel Spingola (OF-GT), Whit Mayberry (RHP-UVA), Dusty Isaacs (RHP-GT), AJ Murray (DH-GT), Jake Fincher (OF-NC ST), Parks Jordan (OF-UNC), Logan Jernigan (RHP-NC ST), Steve Wilkerson (2B-CLEM), Mott Hyde (2B-GT)


Names to Remember for Future Drafts

2015

Trent Thornton, RHP, North Carolina

Despite an unconventional delivery, Thornton might be one of the first pitchers taken in next year’s draft. He was dominant as UNC’s closer last year, and has been just as overwhelming to hitters as the team’s ace in 2014. Thornton has increased his use of his off-speed stuff since becoming a starter.

“I’ve been tinkering around with my chaneup, and I’m going to throw a curveball this year that I didn’t really throw last year,” Thornton told Carlos Collazo of the Daily Tarheel. “Obviously, you’ve got to pitch off your fastball, but it definitely helped tinkering around with some other pitchers that as a starter you’re going to need.”

Clearly, it has worked. How does a 1.71 ERA over his first eight starts sound?

“His curveball is good and he throws it with conviction,” DePase said. “He’s kind of a smaller kid so that might shy away teams a little bit but with Thornton’s stuff and command, he should go very high.”

Thornton’s motion includes a high leg-kick and twisting motion, which adds to his deception but makes it difficult to keep runners in check. All things considered, keep an eye on Thornton in the first couple rounds next year.


2016

Andrew Knizner, 3B, NC State

Knizner (pronounced KIZ-ner) is the ACC’s second-leading hitter as a true freshman with an average of .363 and slugging percentage of .531, out-hitting veteran teammates Trea Turner, Brett Austin and Jake Fincher.

Not only is Knizner putting up numbers, he’s drawn the eyes of scouts.

“If anyone has a slump-proof swing, it’s Andrew Knizner. He has very quiet hands and takes the barrel directly to the ball, squaring it up with remarkable consistency for a freshman,” said Backing the Pack contributor David Sanders.

Other experts agree, calling Knizner’s swing compact and on a useful line-drive swing plane. Sanders also says Knizner’s is as quick to the ball as any, allowing him to catch up to any fastball. That is aptly illustrated by Knizner’s total of nine strikeouts in 29 games. That bodes well for his pro future.

The one huge knock on the NC State infielder is that he’s walked just once through the first half of the season.  This would be more alarming if he wasn’t hitting .363 and if he was chasing pitches out of the zone, but he’s clearly not. 


It’ll be interesting to see whether Knizner’s college and pro coaches try and change his approach to allow for more walks, or if they accept his quick trigger for what it’s worth.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Mets Prospect Stock Market & Minor League Update - April

by John Vittas

Another Minor League season is underway, and the four Mets full season teams are all sporting winning records. Here’s how the team’s prospects and farmhands faired in the month of April:

Prospect Status - Rising

Preseason No. 6 Brandon Nimmo (OF)
.389 / .517 / .576 (High-A St. Lucie)
The best story in the system so far, Nimmo is finally putting it all together. The 2011 first round pick is beginning to turn his plus tools into baseball dominance. He’s already picked up eight extra-base-hits and five stolen bases. It’s possible Nimmo will be in Double-A Binghamton by the end of the year, making a late 2015 arrival in Flushing somewhat feasible.

No. 5 Steven Matz (LHP)
4 starts, 2-1, 1.52 ERA, 0.93 WHIP (High-A St. Lucie)
The top pick in the 2009 draft, Matz’ long road of rehab has become so worth it. After showing promise in limited innings the past two years, Matz has finally reached the top half of the system and continued to succeed.

No. 20 Matthew Bowman (RHP)
3-0, 1.04 ERA, 0.98 WHIP (Double-A Binghamton)
The Princeton alum is building off a strong 2013 in the Florida State League by absolutely blowing away Double-A through three starts. With a Tim Lincecum-like delivery, the diminutive Marylander has emerged from the 2012 draft class as a legitimate prospect.


Prospect Status - Holding

No. 11 Dilson Herrera (2B)
.294 / .350 / .376 (High-A St. Lucie)
Added last year in the Buck-Byrd trade, the former Pirates farmhand has acquitted himself nicely in his first dose of High-A ball.

No. 3 Rafael Montero (RHP)
3-1, 4.31 ERA, 1.25 WHIP (AAA-Las Vegas)
While the ERA might not be pretty, the other numbers for Montero are solid, as he continues to pitch well in a hitting-friendly league. Allowing just 7.8 hits per nine so far, Montero is likely the next man up to the Mets’ rotation.

No. 19 Robert Gsellman (RHP)
4 starts, 1.48 ERA, 23 Ks, 6 BBs (A Savannah)
After posting a 2.38 ERA at three levels of A-ball as a 19-year-old, Gsellman settled down in Savannah and is doing what he does best: throw strikes. He's extremely young but has the makings of a Big League starter.

Prospect Status - Falling

No. 2 Cesar Puello (OF)
.244 / .271 / .293
The Biogenesis argument against Puello is winning out. After getting busted in the midst of a career year in 2013, Puello has shown no power at all in 2014. While the tools are there, Puello can no longer be considered a top-level prospect.

No. 14 Michael Fulmer (RHP)
30 hits allowed in 18 IP, 8.00 ERA through 4 starts (High-A St. Lucie)
After meniscus surgery cost Fulmer much of 2013, the Oklahoma native has gotten rocked early this year.

No. 9 Jayce Boyd (1B)
.182 / .270 / .258 (Double-A Binghamton)
After putting together a monster 2013, Boyd has floundered thus far in Double-A. With Allan Dykstra, Eric Campbell and Matt Clark all hitting well in front of him, Boyd will likely be stuck in Binghamton for a while.


Resurrecting their Prospect Status

INF Matt Reynolds .373 / .455 / .440 (AA Binghamton)
After two years of Minor League struggles, the former Arkansas Razorback captain is hitting for the first time at the Double-A level. Reynolds is athletic and can play several positions, profiling as a utility infielder at the Major League level.

OF Stefan Sabol .254 / .376 / .493 (A Savannah)
After hitting .203 last year, Sabol’s second year in Savannah has been far more productive. He’s driven in 21 runs in 21 games, and his raw power is beginning to show.

SS Phillip Evans
.310 / .356 / .405 (A Savannah)
Like Sabol, Evans had a dreadful year during his first dose of full-season ball in 2013, but the California shortstop is off to a hot start. He’s showing some pop as he becomes a possible safety blanket if Gavin Cecchini doesn’t pan out. 


Top Ten Offensive Performers
1.  Allan Dykstra, 1B, Triple-A Las Vegas
2. Brandon Nimmo, OF, High-A St. Lucie
3. TJ Rivera, INF, High-A St. Lucie
4. Eric  Campbell, UTL, Triple-A Las Vegas
5. Jeff McNeil, INF, Single-A Savannah
6. Matt Clark, 1B, Double-A Binghamton
7. Zach Lutz, 3B, Triple-A Las Vegas
8. Matt Reynolds, SS, Double-A Binghamton
9. Jared King, OF, Single-A Savannah
10. Taylor Teagarden, C, Triple-A Las Vegas

Top Five Starting Pitchers
1. Matthew Bowman, RHP, Double-A Binghamton
2. Steven Matz, LHP, High-A St. Lucie
3. Jacob DeGrom, RHP, Triple-A Las Vegas
4. Hansel Robles, RHP, Double-A Binghamton
5. Darin Gorski, LHP, Double-A Binghamton

Top Five Relievers
1. Akeel Morris, RHP, Single-A Savannah
2. Joel Carreno, RHP, Triple-A Las Vegas
3. Robert Coles, RHP, Single-A Savannah
4. Dario Alvarez, LHP, Single-A Savannah
5. Paul Sewald, RHP, High-A St. Lucie

Monday, April 21, 2014

Q & A with the Milwaukee Buck’s Giannis Antetokounmpo

Milwaukee Bucks first round pick Giannis Antetokounmpo is only 19 years old, but he scored over 500 points in his rookie season in the NBA. His role increased as the Bucks faded out of contention, and Bucks fans relish Antetokounmpo as a big part of the foundation going forward.

Making the unusual move from Athens, Greece to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, it’s been a busy first year in the United States for Antetokounmpo.
John Vittas got a chance to speak with him before Milwaukee’s game against the Washington Wizards on April 12.

John Vittas: What was your first year like overall? At first, what did you like about the United States, what was different and how have you gotten more comfortable?

Giannis Antetokounmpo: When I came to the United States, it was a new experience for me, being in such a big country with a new culture, a different culture from Greece. Thank God I have good teammates and good coaches to help me to adjust to the United States and the new culture.

JV: Had you been to the United States at all before the draft or the NBA experience? What was your first time here and what was that like?

GA: No, I had never been here before. The first time I came to the United States was on the draft night. The second time was when I came to live here.

JV: Has your family been able to come over often? What is it like trying to keep up with them?

GA: My family lives with me in Milwaukee. They live with me and they’re having fun and they’re enjoying it.

JV: Well it’s good that they’re around. What’s Milwaukee like compared to Athens. Obviously it’s very different. What surprised you about that part of the country as opposed to your home.

GA: Athens is a big city, it has a lot of things to do, and the weather is different. But Milwaukee is a nice city. It’s a good city for us because you don’t have a lot of things to do and you can just focus on basketball. And the weather is one thing that surprised me.

JV: How did you learn English?

GA: By watching movies from the time that I came here. My teammates talking all the time and my coaches, I’ve tried to pick up some things.

JV: I read that you like Kevin Durant. What is it about his game that you like?

GA: He is a very good player, he’s one of the best players in the league. I just like the way he plays. He’s not the strongest player in the league, but he knows how to score buckets and I like watching his clips.



Don't Laugh: Why the Mets will Make the Playoffs in 2015

by John Vittas

           Try to hold in your laughter. The Mets are going to make the playoffs in 2015. Yes, I said it. Bear with me here, and you might just be convinced. From September collapses, to disgraceful contracts, to Family Guy punch lines, the Mets have been the laughingstock in a city that only tolerates winners.

            But anyone who has followed the team the past two years will tell you that there are reasons for optimism. To buy into this new-found hope, you have to understand what went wrong. And a lot went wrong.

            It all began with a change of culture in 2007. After coming within an inning of a World Series berth in 2006, the Mets choked away the season on the final day in consecutive years in 07 and 08. The perception changed. They went from a promising new team to choke artists of the highest order. Then came the bad contracts: Oliver Perez, Luis Castillo, Jason Bay, Frank Francisco. The horrid deals completely hamstrung the front office for half a decade, as did Bernie Madoff’s ponzi scheme.  

Prospects like Brandon Nimmo have Mets fans optimistic
 
With no money, disappointing prospects and a lineup of misfits, fans stopped showing up. After drawing four million fans during their last winning season of 2008, just 2.1 million brave souls showed up in 2013.

So why am I suggesting that this pathetic bunch will finally turn it around? There are short-term signs and long-term signs. The short terms signs come from this year’s team. Dillon Gee and Jon Niese have again established themselves as effective, middle-of-the-rotation starters, and young gun Jenrry Mejia has been unhittable at times. But perhaps the most exciting player so far has been Juan Lagares. With an impressive mix of size and speed, Lagares has hit with power to all fields and has established himself as one of the best defensive center fielders in the game. Lagares finished fifth in the majors in defensive WAR in 2013 and put up one of the 70 best defensive seasons in the history of baseball, according to that statistic.

Another short-term sign came during the team’s 14-2 loss to the Angels last Sunday. In the midst of an embarrassing loss, first-year umpire Toby Basner called rookie catcher Travis d’Arnaud out on strikes in the seventh inning of a blowout. But the Mets didn’t roll their eyes at a bad call. The three longest tenured Mets, David Wright, Daniel Murphy and Terry Collins berated Basner. Basner ejected Wright and Murphy and a long shouting match ensued.

While many may interpret this as frustrations boiling over, I argue that it shows that this team does something that the previous Mets teams didn’t: show they care. Wright and Murphy are the leaders of the team, they’re two of the few winning players the Mets have. But for the previous four years, they’ve been silent. They showed up, got their hits and went home. To see them both erupt over a call that had nothing to do with their at bat says a lot. After all, it was Travis d’Arnaud who got punched out, not them. But clearly Wright and Murphy believe in the prospects like d’Arnaud and will defend them, even in a meaningless at bat.

“We have each others backs for sure,” Wright said after the game. “When something happens to one of us, it happens to all of us. Just in general, we need to have each other’s backs. And we do.”

  It’s a start. In order for the boys from Flushing to return to relevance, they’ll need both a change in mindset and an arrival of talent. Well the arrival of talent appears to be on its way, which is why there is reason for optimism.

Harvey, Wheeler, Syndergaard. Got that? Go back and read it again. Those three young arms are the foundation, the reason the Mets could become perennial contenders. Long-term success in Major League Baseball requires consistent starting pitching, and those three can provide it. All three have fastballs in the upper-90s and knee-buckling breaking balls. And 2015 is the year they will finally be united. With those three at the top of the rotation, competition bears itself out at the bottom. Mejia, Colon, Gee, Niese, Jacob DeGrom and Rafael Montero will all battle for rotation spots next year, and surely the two best from that group will be above average fourth and fifth starters. 


So there’s young, controllable strong starting pitching and a few veteran positions players in Wright, Murphy and Curtis Granderson to hold their hands and show them the way. The last step of the process is to win back the fans’ faith, get them to show up, make money and buy the remaining pieces necessary.

Picture this. The old Mets front office was like an innocent child in search of cookies. They got confident after successful signings of Pedro Martinez and Carlos Beltran. That combined with the success of 2006, and the Mets thought they could attack the cookie jar with reckless indulgence. They signed Oliver Perez and Jason Bay, which represents the classic “mommy caught you red-handed” moment. So she puts you in timeout, aka the Mets had to swallow their checkbook for five years. Lesson learned, the next time you approach the cookie jar, you do so with caution. You trade an aging knuckleballer for a couple prospects, you sign a chubby sinker-baller for only $10 million a year. OK, so the analogy ends there, but the point is, the Mets and GM Sandy Alderson won’t splurge like Omar Minaya did. Everything is systematic and calculated. Alderson’s strategy allows for financial flexibility down the road. It allows for the team to make multiple mid-level signings each offseason, rather than tie up payroll in guys like Oliver Perez.

Therefore, when the team does start to compete again, and their income starts to head back north, Alderson will have the ability to address the holes that remain via free agency or by trading part of his plethora of arms. 


That’s the formula. That’s what makes 2014 and 2015 different from 2010 and 2011, for example. The Mets finally have assets, they have the best farm system in baseball, and they have the right approach. In other words, Alderson is too wise to get caught with his hand in the cookie jar.