Will Ryan Lavarnway's weaknesses be exploited by big league pitching? (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
Jason Parks knows what makes prospects good. He also knows what can make them fail. There isn't nearly enough of the latter discussed, but Parks covers those bases with his "What Could Go Wrong" series at Baseball Prospectus. The name of his column is "Prospects Will Break Your Heart" for a reason, as they do just that more often than they turn out like you hope.
We asked Parks a few questions about the Red Sox prospects he didn't cover in his latest feature on them, during this season where everyone is all sunshine and rainbows about the future of minor league players.
Over The Monster: Anthony Ranaudo's stock seemed to dip considerably after his stint at High-A, as a prospect many rated highly ended the year with some wondering if his future was even in the rotation. How did last year change your outlook, if at all? Are any of his issues unlikely to be corrected?
Jason Parks: The health issue has long-plagued Ranuado, be it a legit injury like in college or general soreness, which directly effects his delivery (release points) and intensity of the arsenal. He stayed healthy ( for the most part) for 2011, but I suspect general soreness and arm fatigue played a role in the stuff, which would look sharp in one start and flat in the next.
The changeup has failed to find much consistency, which has some scouts questioning his long-term future. A good changeup is a deception pitch, staying in the same slot as the other offerings, maintaining the same arm-speed as the fastball, and keeping a good separation in velocity from that fastball. Ranaudo's changeup lacks much feel and and can get too firm at times, but even a fringe-average changeup will play, so I think it's too early to write it off.
I like the physical size and the plane to the plate, giving his fastball another dimension. The pitch can work in the plus velocity range with comfort, and with his great extension, can jump on hitters as it approaches the zone. The curveball is probably his best offering, a tumbling breaker with depth and bite thrown off the fastball on the same steep plane. With the big body and the two above-average pitches, Ranaudo could be an innings-eater at worst, and possibly a solid #2 starter if the changeup and command refine. The arm issues of the past are red flags for the future, so I'm not sold he can achieve those heights unless he is 100 percent healthy. Big if.
OTM: Brandon Jacobs is very young, and the tools are there, but there doesn't seem to be any consistency in how his future is projected. What do you think Jacobs is capable of? How likely is he to reach that point? Is his defense going to hold him back?
Parks: I like Jacobs, but let's be realistic about his future. He has some tools, but he doesn't have elite tools. Despite having D1 running back speed, Jacobs isn't a crazy burner on the diamond, and given his size, he will continue to lose speed and quickness as he ages. He lacks a big arm, so he's a left-fielder in the end, which puts tremendous pressure on his bat to produce. He has a decent hit tool, but lots of swing-and-miss in his game, so he's unlikely to hit for a high-average at the higher levels. He has strength and power, but a leveraged swing and lots of potential to be exploited by pitchers with good secondary stuff. Without elite offensive tools and a left-field profile, it's really hard to get that excited about Jacobs.
OTM: Ryan Lavarnway is another prospect that is all over the board in terms of value. The bat is likely there, but no one is quite sure about the defense. What do you envision him becoming (and how soon) on both sides of the ball? If you could guarantee he would be average defensively, would that impact your rating for him?
Parks: I'm not sure about the bat; legit pop, but can he make enough contact for it to matter? Once the book gets written on his weaknesses at the plate, major league pitching will be able to manipulate those weaknesses for their own gain. I think you can attack Lavarnway up and in and dare him to generate enough bat speed to beat you. If he does, tip the cap and try another approach. But I'd dare him to hit quality velocity around the letters, especially if you can bust him inside. I don't think he has the bat speed to handle it.
On defense, I think he's functional, but below-average, with poor athleticism and catch-and-throw skills that might look pretty in a small sample but will not look pretty for very long; the arm just isn't very strong and the footwork isn't very smooth. I don't think he's a major league regular. I could be very wrong about this guy, but if he can't stick behind the plate, his bat can't hold the necessary value at another position. That makes him a tweener.
OTM: Bryce Brentz broke out in 2011 after a down 2010. You hear a lot about his offense and how it might develop, but does he have the defensive instincts and physical tools to stick in an outfield as eccentric and unique as Fenway's?
Parks: He's not overly athletic and his routes and angles to the ball have been a source of problems so far in his brief career. Some of these errors can be refined through repetition and some of the errors come down to his overall aptitude for playing in the outfield. He has the arm for right field, and I think he can eventually become a passable defender at that position. He's never going to be fast and he's never going to thrill people with his instincts for the position, but if the bat develops as planned, all will be forgiven.
OTM: We're partial to Chris Balcom-Miller, because groundballs and missed bats are a wonderful recipe for success. That being said, he's been reliant on his fastball at the lower levels, and seems to be more sleeper than legitimate prospect for many. Do you have to squint to see a big league career for him?
Parks: The fastball is heavy, but the velocity is fringe-average, and when he elevates it, it's on a tee. The changeup isn't bad, with good separation and some fading action, but not a pitch that will grade above-average. He throws strikes, which works in the minors but won't in the majors, as his control is much better than his command. With fringy stuff, his command will need to be pristine to find sustainable success at the major league level, and I just don't see it.
OTM: Finally, who is your own sleeper in the Red Sox system?
Parks: I really like RHP Brandon Workman. He has size and good arm strength, showing the ability to work the heater in the plus range and touch a little higher. I think his best pitch is a nasty cutter, thrown in the mid 80s with serious corridor slice. He can use the pitch to induce weak contact and avoid long at-bats, and he can also use it as a swing-and-miss offering. When he elevates he gets into trouble, which was true of him in college and certainly true of him in the Sally League, where his pitches found too many barrels. If he can stay lower in the zone with his fastball, he can use that cutter to carve up minor league hitters. He will need a reliable breaking ball, a more consistent changeup, and sharper command to stick in a rotation, but he has the arm strength, size, and the competitive nature to back adjustments/refinements.