The minor league baseball season is nearly over. Only the Louisville Bats remain on the field and they only have a few games left before their season is over. That felt like a good time to fire up the mailbag request for supporters of the site over at Patreon (here’s the link if you’re interested in helping the site stay alive for a couple of bucks per month). And they came through with a ton of questions – so many that I had to break it down into two different mailbags (the other will go live on Sunday). Let’s jump on in.

Is there anything left that you think Elly De La Cruz has to work on that could keep him from grabbing a starting role on the Reds next year?

There’s almost always something that someone can work on in the minors, so in that sense, yes. I think that the obvious thing for Elly De La Cruz to work on at this point is his rate of contact. When he makes contact he does damage, and his plate discipline/pitch recognition has improved this year without question. But we’re still talking about a guy who struck out just over 30% of the time against minor league pitchers this season.

For me, and let’s be sure to state that the Reds don’t ask for my opinion on any of this, I’d almost assuredly send him to Triple-A next season to start the year. Things could change in the spring if he just comes out and looks very different when it comes to how he handles the strikezone, but as they stand now, I’d have him in Triple-A to begin the year to see how he handles and adjusts to that level of pitching. I’m not concerned in the long term that he won’t make the adjustment, but I do think it would be prudent to see how he handles the pitching there before tossing him to big league pitchers.

How long will the team use Kyle Farmer as the reason to not bring Elly De La Cruz up next season?

I don’t think they will.

What do you think the likelihood is that Elly De La Cruz reaches his ceiling?

Not good. That’s not a knock on him, but just kind of how this game works. The number of guys who truly reach their ceiling is incredibly small. With that said, the fact that his ceiling is so high gives him a lot of wiggle room to work with to still be a very good player if he doesn’t.

In your opinion will we see some improvement from the current roster before the start of spring training next year?

Yes. I think it would be almost impossible not to. With the sheer amount of injuries the team has had this year it’s left the 40-man roster often filled with 10 guys who in a normal year wouldn’t be on the 40-man. I don’t have the numbers in front of me right now, but I think that between spots that will need to be cleared up for prospects to protect from the Rule 5 draft as well as clearing spots for guys currently on the 60-day injured list, we’re looking at nearly 20 spots that will be cleared from the current 40-man roster. The turnover will be massive.  I would also expect the team to actually go out and make a few moves to add big leaguers – probably no big named players or anything, but actual big league caliber players.

What is your prediction as to which prospects make the team next year and which ones will be in the starting lineup?

If we’re talking about guys that will make the team out of spring training I’m not expecting anyone at this point. I’d hedge that bet with Elly De La Cruz just going all Kris Bryant in the spring and winning a job. And of course, much like what happened this past spring – injuries can open up spots that otherwise wouldn’t have been available – but right now the combination of prospects on the verge plus what’s available in the lineup/rotation/bullpen just doesn’t leave me thinking there’s going to be any prospects on the opening day roster.

Now, if we’re talking about guys who could make the team at some point next year, that’s where things can change. I’d say it’s safe to say that we’ll see Elly De La Cruz on the team at some point. His teammates in Double-A this year Matt McLain and Christian Encarnacion-Strand certainly could see time with the big league club. Michael Siani’s in the big leagues now, but I’d be a little surprised if he made the team out of spring, but I’d expect him to see action during 2023. Don’t sleep on a guy like TJ Hopkins coming up throughout the year, though he’s probably more in the 4th outfielder scenario than a guy that’s going to start.

On the pitching side you could see a lot of different guys – but again, probably not on April 1st. Levi Stoudt, Brandon Williamson, Connor Phillips, Andrew Abbott, Joe Boyle, Christian Roa, Bryce Bonnin if he’s ever healthy again, Pedro Garcia, Ricky Karcher, Ryan Nutof…. it may come down to so many different things. When a need is there, for starters it could be as simple as lining up at the right time.

Why do prospects of other teams, the Cardinals for example, understand the strikezone better than Reds prospects do? Why do they seem to have pitchers that throw more strikes? Is any of it ballpark related where the Reds go after power pitchers and hitters who will do best in a small park?

This is a far more complicated answer that I’m probably not entirely qualified to give. With that said, I do think that I can answer the last question best – no, I don’t think the team is drafting or developing guys to try and succeed in a small ballpark. Every team wants power pitchers and power hitters. That’s true whether you’re Cincinnati or you’re Oakland.

As for the earlier two questions, I think that some of it may go back to drafting. The draft in itself isn’t exactly reliable. Every team kind of stinks at it, though some are better than others. Still, history shows us that by the time you’d in the middle of the first round you’re probably only drafting a guy who will be a poor starter, an ok reliever, or a bench player. Often enough people apply the term “bust” to a 1st rounder who didn’t become more than a utility guy, but in reality that’s what history suggests that guy was going to be based on where he was selected. The expectations and the reality for draft picks almost never align.

With that said, it feels like to me that often enough the team leans more on tools than on production/current baseball ability. That can work for you, but it can work against you. When it works for you, you can land a superstar that you’re simply not going to get for a guy without all of those tools but is a “good baseball player”. But when it works against you, you wind up with guys that can’t even be solid regulars. You go after the guys that throw hard and can spin the ball and hope they turn into an ace, but when you take those guys who also can’t throw strikes often, you tend to wind up with guys who can’t get out of Double-A.

Now, I say that and have plenty of counter examples to that. Matt McLain and Jonathan India both were guys who have good, but not great tools, but were also in that good production/current baseball abilities.

To go the St. Louis Cardinals route, though, I honestly don’t know what to make of what they do.  Since 2006 they’ve drafted 12 position players in the first round (including compensation 1st rounds). That’s resulted in Kolten Wong and then a bunch of bench/utility guys and a bunch who never made it. The second most valuable position player they’ve drafted in the 1st round int he last 15 years is Stephen Piscotty.

With the pitch recognition/plate discipline, it’s kind of the holy grail when it comes to player development. No organization seems to really know how to develop it across the board. Part of it is because players that struggle with it do so for different reasons, but it’s also one of those things where it may be a physical limitation or sorts. Perhaps it’s an eyesight thing that allows some guys who recognize the spin that tenth of a second earlier and that makes all of the difference in the world. I’ve asked many scouts about how they would go about trying to develop better pitch recognition and by and large they mostly say that it’s simply about repetitions and seeing more pitches. That helps a little bit, but generally speaking, there aren’t many players throughout history who make big changes in their walk/strikeout rates over the course of their careers.

Cam Collier and Sal Stewart alternated at third base and designated hitter in Goodyear this season. Any idea what the Reds plans are for these two going forward? It would seem natural to have at least one of them try another position.

I think it will be a lot like what we saw in the second half with Elly De La Cruz and Matt McLain in Chattanooga, sort of. With both guys being third basemen, if they are on the same team (and I believe they will be next year) then you’re going to see plenty of time for both between third base and designated hitter, perhaps with a little bit of time at first base. Generally speaking, these things tend to work themselves out. It’s very likely at some point that one guy will be ahead of the other in terms of where they are assigned and that will take care of any “playing time” issue that could possibly arise if simply fielding/defense doesn’t solve it prior to that.

If you have to pick a few prospects, who would you say are most likely to have an Elly De La Cruz like breakout season in 2023?

I wouldn’t put that kind of breakout on anyone if I’m being honest. What he’s done the last two years is just a different kind of thing. With that said I think there are a few candidates to jump from outside of the Top 10 prospects into the Top 10 before the end of next year. At the top of that list I’d put some of the younger international guys coming through the system like Carlos Jorge, Leonardo Balcazar, or Ricardo Cabrera. But of course, no one really saw Elly De La Cruz as the guy to have the breakout on the way, either, at least until 2021 when he showed up for spring training and was an entirely different guy than he had been when he had played last in 2019.

What do you think the ceiling for the Reds is in terms of where they would rank among the 30 farm systems by the end of next year?

I think it’s probably going to be limited a bit for a few reasons: I believe there will be more than a few graduations of Top 100 caliber guys, starting with Elly De La Cruz. And unlike this year when losing several Top 100 prospects to graduation, I don’t think the Reds can fire sale their way into rebuilding the farm. Now, if they win the draft lottery, that could change things a little bit. So could something like having a few high-ceiling types go out and get things done. For example, if Cam Collier goes out and crushes the ball, Connor Phillips finds a little better control and dominates in AA/AAA, Noelvi Marte moves up and crushes the ball, and Ricardo Cabrera comes stateside and tears up things in Goodyear, the story could change. That odds all of those things happen, though, aren’t great. If it does, though, it could be a system that returns to a Top 5 kind of ranking.

This season and in 2020 a couple of relievers started the season with the Reds and dominated without a lot of fanfare before their debut (TJ Antone, Alexis Diaz). Is there anyone in the minors that could do that in 2023?

That’s kind of the question, isn’t it? The team needs bullpen help, and neither of those guys really looked like dominate relievers in the minors the year before they actually became that. I don’t really know that anyone fits the profile for either of those guys, but Antone specifically didn’t fit that profile at all when he was in the minors. He was starting, then showed up in the spring and was throwing like 4-5 MPH harder than he had been the season before. Diaz simply got more consistent than he was in Double-A last year. You’ve probably heard talk about how he’s throwing harder now, and that’s true to an extent – but he’s not throwing harder today than he was throwing last year. He’s just throwing harder than he was earlier in his career (on a consistent basis – when he was in Dayton in 2019 he was touching 98, so he wasn’t a soft tosser who all of a sudden found a bunch of velocity).

There are plenty of guys who have real good stuff that pitched in Chattanooga, Louisville or both this year. But many of them have something that keeps me from saying there’s more than a 1% chance they come out next year and could match anything like what Antone or Diaz have done (which is being a dominant, All-Star caliber reliever).

Which player was the most fun to watch that isn’t necessarily a prospect?

I’ll stick with a non-top 25 prospect here instead of trying to determine what makes someone “not necessarily a prospect”, and I’ll go with Isiah Gilliam. Switch-hitter with big time power, and a swing that looks like he’s trying to hit the ball to Mars often enough. It’s just real fun seeing that.

How close are these various pitchers next year? Levi Stoudt, Brandon Williamson, Andrew Abbott, Christian Roa? Is there an obvious order that we can project?

Short of an incredible spring training that shows a clear change in skillset (as opposed to simply having a good spring – think Tejay Antone showing up throwing 4-5 MPH harder in terms of a change in skillset) – I would start them all in the minor leagues next year without hesitation.

Levi Stoudt posted a 4.99 ERA in Double-A this season before throwing 15.0 innings in Triple-A at the end of the season. Brandon Williamson was solid in Double-A and in Triple-A, but he struggled to throw strikes at both levels even if he did post a 4.26 ERA between the two levels. Both guys should return to Triple-A next season and prove that they should be in the big leagues.

Andrew Abbott dominated early in the year for Dayton, but when he got to Double-A hitters had their way with him for a bit of time. In his 20 starts with Chattanooga he posted a 4.75 ERA. He finished strong with three starts in September where he didn’t allow a run, but his ERA in the previous three months were 6.67 in June, 6.17 in July, and 5.82 in August. He needs to return to Chattanooga to start next year. Christian Roa only made three starts in Chattanooga at the end of the season after making 17 starts with Dayton.

With all of them there’s no reason to even think they should be on the radar to start the season with the big league club. I’d say that unless there’s a clear change in skillset rather than simply good performance, they all need until midseason before they should be considered for the big leagues. As for an obvious order….. I don’t think so. Coming into the year things would have looked quite a bit different than they do after the season has been completed. All of them were inconsistent throughout the season.

What is the Reds projected starting five? How many starters should they intend on signing to compete?

I believe that as things stand right now that only three pitchers head into spring training with rotation spots locked up and it’s the three rookies in Hunter Greene, Nick Lodolo, and Graham Ashcraft.

Beyond that there are likely some other internal candidates with Luis Cessa and Justin Dunn. As addressed above, I don’t think the team should be counting on anyone from the minors to join the rotation out of the gate. So if you’re going to try and actually compete in 2023 I would say that the Reds need to sign two quality starting pitchers to join in with the second-year guys in the rotation.

More questions and answers coming tomorrow (unless something comes up that keeps me from typing 3000 more words)

10 Responses

  1. LDS

    Your explanation of pitch recognition reminded me of a couple of guys I worked with back in the 80s. Both played college ball. One hit well over .300 for his college career and still holds a number of records at his college. He played a couple of years in the low minors and decided to come home, get married, and get an MBA. The other in the .250 range, was a catcher, and went to grad school upon graduation. One night, while out indulging in adult beverages, I asked them about seeing the ball. The catcher said that it was rare that he saw the ball while the other guy saw the ball frequently. He said no one always sees the ball. I noticed going forward that the catcher saw the world like the rest of us. While the all star had unbelieveable peripheral vision and better than 20/20 vision with very fast focus. He could (and would) point out the “hot” blonde from a couple of blocks away. Reminds me of the old timer, Tris Speaker, I believe, who allegedly wouldn’t go to movie theaters because he wanted to “protect” his eyesight. Probably apocryphal, but the eyes matter.

    • James K

      Yes. And research says some people have up to three times as many axons from the retina to the brain as other people do. And correspondingly better detail perception and motion perception.

  2. MBS

    Thanks Doug, good info. I do have 1 question. You left McGarry out of your prospects likely to get a promotion to the Reds. Has he fallen out of favor, or did AAA expose him in some way?

    De La Cruz and McGarry were the 2 that I thought if the circumstances were right, they could be on the opening day roster. Like, if both perform well, and we had key spring injuries.

    • Doug Gray

      I simply forgot to include him. He’s certainly going to have to hit in Triple-A next year – I don’t think he’s going to get an opportunity to break with the big league club.

      • EyeballsInNooga

        McGarry also fits in the “huge breakout” discussion. Not that he’ll have one next year, but that he would have been the guy being discussed were it not for De La Cruz. To go from a .647 OPS and repeating A+ to ending in AAA is quite the journey.

        Overall, great work here. It’s refreshing to see someone with a higher-level view of things validate what I observe through a beer fog on sweltering Tennessee afternoons.

      • Doug Gray

        Hopefully I can join you in Chattanooga at some point next season (sans the beer fog! lol). Things simply fell apart up here that kept me from doing any sort of traveling after May this year. Hoping to be able to get to Arizona next spring and then all of the affiliates for the first time since 2019.

      • Danny

        Doug must be passing on the beer so he can indulge in the Tennessee bourbon- smart choice my friend!!!

      • Doug Gray

        Doug doesn’t drink alcohol, so he’s not having any bourbon, either.

  3. RedsGettingBetter

    When we talk about the relievers in the farm system that could have a breakout kind of Antone or Díaz, it seems to me that it is possible we are witness of a guy that has been arised in the bullpen scene this year in the minors despite his age and he could be considered to 2023 Reds bullpen and he is no less Fernando Cruz…