Rookie Watch

Jonathan Singleton, Astros 1B
Believe it or not, first base is a crowded position for the Astros. Besides the lefty-hitting Singleton, you have right-handed Chris Carter, who is Pedro Cerrano without the voodoo, and righty Jesus Guzman, acquired this offseason in a trade with San Diego. Thanks to the DH, two of three can go in the lineup every day. Singleton’s handedness and the Astros’ utter disregard for winning are his only two advantages, however. Carter has power if not contact and Guzman has contact if not power; neither are ideal first basemen, but they have at least demonstrated their limited utility. Singleton is a power prospect who last season slugged only .401 in 372 plate appearances in the minor leagues. The year before that, he hit 22 home runs (or, slugged .497) in a full season of Double-A. The Astros should be willing to give Singleton an extended audition, on the slim chance that he proves better than a combination of the other two.

Tyler Skaggs, Angels SP
Skaggs hasn’t yet thrown 40 innings in a season, but he has for his career, so I’m not sure if he still qualifies as a rookie. Regardless, he’s our pick for the Angels, because the only other rookies who could conceivably make an impact are a couple of low-end relievers, Matt Shoemaker and Cory Rasmus. They might be important down the road, but this year they figure to pitch garbage-time innings, if they make the big club at all.

Back to Skaggs. Part of the bounty in the deal that sent Mark Trumbo to Arizona, Skaggs returns to the organization that drafted him with a place in the rotation locked up. Forget his ugly ERA for the Dbacks (5.43 in two stints totaling 68 innings). Also forget his ugly ERA for Triple-A Reno (4.59 in 104 innings last year). Nobody on that Reno team had a good ERA—the Pacific Coast League is perhaps the most hitter-friendly professional league in the country. Look instead to his strikeouts and walks, 106 and 39, respectively, in Reno last year, good for a 2.71 K/BB ratio. Good stuff, and even better when you consider he was at least two years younger than every other PCL pitcher who threw at least 100 innings. Skaggs is 22 years old now, and maybe he was rushed to the major leagues, to the detriment of his statistics. If he gets a full season of work this year, consider that a truer test of his talent.

Michael Taylor, A’s OF
The Athletics roster, as it is currently constructed, with established bench players having important platoon roles, has only one spot for the taking, that of fifth outfielder. Taylor is the favorite for the job. Oakland has given him a long look in spring training and he’s seized upon it, leading the team in hits and homers through 16 games. His poor results in 81 PA over the last three seasons can be excused (it didn’t really hurt the club, now did it?), but this is likely his last chance to prove he can hack it against major league pitchers. Taylor is a bull, 6-5, 255 pounds, and if the A’s ever need a pinch-hitter with power late in a game he might get the call based on his size alone. Last year in Triple-A he led the Sacramento River Cats in home runs, with 18.

Taijuan Walker, Mariners SP
After a brief but promising call-up last September, Walker became part of the plan for 2014. The Mariners neglected their thin rotation in free agency, hoping Walker and the other young guys could give them a whole season of quality pitching. After King Felix and Hisashi Iwakuma, there’s coming-off-injury Scott Baker, Walker, and fellow rookie James Paxton. Erasmo Ramirez, first off the bench, isn’t a rookie but he isn’t proven either. Needless to say, this is a risky plan, and Walker was in many ways the centerpiece; of all the Seattle pitching prospects, he was widely regarded as the most talented. In name and practice he would be the third starter, and failure on his part would likely doom Seattle’s small chance of making the postseason. Now, the plan is in jeopardy thanks to the most predictable of reasons: injury. Walker has been held back since the beginning of spring training with shoulder soreness. The Mariners are eyeing a return in April, but you know how these things can go. A healthy Walker probably makes the AL West a four-team race for most of the season. An unhealthy Walker makes for the same old story in Seattle.

Michael Choice, Rangers OF
The waiving of Alex Castellanos and his subsequent acquisition by the Padres makes it more likely that Michael Choice will break camp with the Rangers as a backup outfielder. For a while it seemed as if Texas would keep Choice in Triple-A to start the season so he could get enough playing time to develop, and while that’s still possible, his walk and strikeout numbers are already good enough to merit a major league look. Besides, that would leave Texas with only light-hitting Engel Beltre to back up the outfield. (Mitch Moreland could see time there, but then who would DH?) Choice arrived this December in the Craig Gentry trade with Oakland. His power trickled away as he rose through the minors; last season he was second on the River Cats in home runs after Michael Taylor, with 14. At 24 he is no longer considered young for Triple-A, so might as well see what the former first-round pick can do.

Archie Bradley, Diamondbacks SP
Bradley is Arizona’s top prospect, a hulking 21-year-old right-hander who dazzled in Double-A against older competition. His stuff proved good enough to overcome a lack of command (4.31 walks per nine), but that won’t work in the majors, so after Bradley gets a full complement of spring training starts we will see him moved to Triple-A. How long he stays there is uncertain. Should he display better control while mixing in his changeup some more, the Diamondbacks would find room for him in the rotation. Injuries to the starters would of course expedite his progress, but as it stands today Randall Delgado might be ahead of him in the replacement line. What would help Bradley the most is a close playoff race. The least effective starter, whoever that ends up being, would sooner or later find himself on the hot seat, because he damn sure won’t have Bradley’s talent. General Manager Kevin Towers is building to win now, with his job on the line by most accounts—so why should he delay the arrival of potentially the best pitcher in his organization?

Kyle Parker, Rockies OF
I try to be rosy with these blurbs, but the fact is not all of these teams have a rookie ready to make an impact this season. Parker is a 24-year-old who hasn’t advanced beyond Double-A; this season he’ll get a taste of Triple-A, with a likely call-up to the majors when the rosters expand in September. His power is impressive and he doesn’t strikeout a lot. For a young player, he goes to the opposite field with admirable frequency, suggesting a smooth and controlled approach at the plate. (To wit: Parker is right-handed. Look at the concentration of batted balls in right field.)

(hat-tip to MLBfarm, a recent discovery of mine)

(hat-tip to MLBfarm, a recent discovery of mine)

What bodes well for Parker this year is the Rockies’ lack of outfield depth at the major league level. After Carlos Gonzalez and Michael Cuddyer there is a hotly contested competition for the third starting spot, between Drew Stubbs (a speedster with a Swiss cheese bat) and a group of lesser-knowns. Should the winner or winners disappoint, the Rockies would have more incentive to rush Parker along.

Alex Guerrero, Dodgers 2B
Cuban shortstop Alex Guerrero has spent the spring learning to play second base, and initial reports were underwhelming. Despite his big contract and Uggla-esque power (so says agent Scott Boras), word is Guerrero might start the year in Triple-A. To phrase this differently, Dee Gordon might win the starting job over Guerrero. Dee Gordon of the career -0.8 WAR. The only time you want Dee Gordon on second base is after he enters the game as a pinch runner and steals it. My hunch: this talk of the minors is meant to light a fire under Guerrero’s ass. Test the new guy’s character, make sure he’s not the type to laze once he gets life-changing money. That, and writers need something to write during March. Look for Guerrero to be the everyday second baseman. He could be one of the top power guys at his position and you don’t just let a guy like that toil below some familiar utility man. You think the Dodgers would have learned from Puig.

Keyvius Sampson, Padres P
Sampson was optioned out of the big-league camp on the 13th, so the Padres will be starting the season without him. But we’re talking about an organization that in the last few years has seen an absurd number of pitcher injuries. Cory Luebke is already out this year and Josh Johnson is experiencing elbow trouble. The Padres could be scraping the bottom of their barrel soon enough. Sampson is probably a year away from being ready for the bigs, given how seriously he struggled in Triple-A last season (25 strikeouts, 29 walks and 32 runs allowed in 38 innings). His Double-A numbers, however, were very impressive, and he has a nice repertoire with a compact delivery. A stint in the rotation this season might be jumping the gun, but he can always get a taste of big-league hitting from the bullpen. That way he can hone his best two pitches, the fastball and the slider.

Heath Hembree, Giants RP
Hembree, always highly regarded as a prospect, tossed 7.2 innings for the big league club last September, striking out 12 of 29 batters faced with zero runs allowed. The right-hander works off his mid-90s fastball, mixing in a slider and (rarely) a changeup. The infrequency of his changeup calls into question whether he can succeed against lefties, but he doesn’t need to sort that out quite yet. He’ll start this year near the bottom of the bullpen totem pole, but besides him that’s an aging unit, and he could establish himself as the closer of the future.

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