Who Is Osman Gutierrez?

This past month, the Marlins gave troubled starter Tom Koehler (1-5, 55.2 IP, 7.92 ERA, 1.72 WHIP) a change of scenery by trading him north of the border to the Blue Jays for a virtual unknown, Osman Gutierrez. I teamed up with Matt Weber and Tom Dakers of Bluebird Banter to scout and place a potential value on this 22-year-old righty.

Gutierrez, a native of the Dominican Republic, was part of the same international draft as part of the same international draft that brought the likes of Yu Darvish, Yoenis Cespedes, Rougned Odor and Roberto Osuna to Major League Baseball. He was signed by the Jays at a time where their GM Alex Anthoupolous had money burning a hole in his pocket.

“From when Anthopoulos was hired in late-2009 until the hard restrictions on amateur spending with the 2011 CBA came into force in 2012, the Blue Jays were really aggressive in the spending in the draft (heavily skewed to high school pitchers) and internationally.” Matt told me.

Matt’s claim is backed up by the fact that Toronto, in the international draft alone, spent upwards of $20,000,000 in that three year span. Gutierrez himself, a late round pick, cost Toronto upwards of $200,000. In the coming years, while his fellow international selection names like Osuna and Hechavarria and his minor league teammate stateside draft names such as Syndergaard, DeSclafani and Nicolino quickly established themselves as legitimate prospects and began a quick journey through the minors, Gutierrez, due to both his still teenage years and the pure rawness of his talent, remained in rookie ball in the Dominican for three years and rarely saw the mound in the first two. However, after holding down an impressive 1.91 ERA in 47 innings and 10 starts in 2014, he was able to make it to North American ball by his age 20 season, quite average for a player of his B type caliber and quite advantageous considering the amount of high priced talent the Jays were currently circulating. Clearly, the organization saw something in this kid.

Gutierrez came to the US in 2015. It was then during his tenure in the GCL that his reinvention began and coaches got to work on teaching him how to pitch strategically rather than allowing him to continue leaning on simply blowing his stuff past the opposition, a transformation many amateur picks undergo in order to make it as a professional. For the very immature Gutierrez, it is a process that has been lengthy and one that is still going on today. In 2015 and 2016, Gutierrez responded fairly well to his coaches and to the changes. Despite his ERA being victimized by a heightened .330 BABIP, he held holding down good combined control numbers including a 2.91 BB/9 and an 8.67 K/9 and a solid FIP that came in under the 3.70 mark as he began to establish a good breaking ball, piggybacking his fiery heat.

“In his July 23rd start, he touched 96 a couple times on the stadium gun, with a mid-80s breaking ball. So there’s some quality stuff to go along with the good stat line,” Matt wrote on Bluebird Banter back in 2016. “[He’s] done everything you want to see: missed bats and worked ahead of batters, and been able to finish them off while still being quite efficient.”

This season, the 22-year-old made the jump to full season ball. In his first 13 starts with the Lansing Lugnuts Gutierrez — there’s no getting around it — struggled mightily. On July 21, after a particularly dreadful 3 inning, 6 run, 4 walk, 2 K start, his ERA sat at a hideous 10.13 via an equally dreadful 2.08 WHIP and .295 BAA. Matt chalks the ugly start to his career in full season ball up to an inability to work ahead and a failure to place his pitches, issues that, if not for a serious lack of depth among the Lansing staff, would have landed him either in the pen or back in rookie ball.

“The struggles until recently were very simple: lack of control and command. He often struggled mightily to throw strikes, got himself behind in counts and into lots of jams, and then got hit hard when he came in the zone,” Matt said. “That he kept a spot in the rotation at all with mostly due to injuries to other players meaning Lansing had little other choice.”

All of that out of the way, there’s something to be said for how Gutierrez has performed recently. Since the aforementioned disaster outing on July 21, the Nicaragua native bounced back by allowing just 14 runs over his next 30 innings pitched (4.20 ERA) which spanned five starts, including a career outing on August 2 in which he went 7 innings, allowing just four hits, one walk and striking out 10 Bowling Green Hot Rods. In his second start with the Marlins’ organization, Gutierrez came within one K of matching that total. Both of his first two Muckdogs starts were of the quality variety, lasting six innings each and consisting of four hits and one earned run. Our colleague at Bluebird Banter says that Gutierrez’s recent success has been due to his slider taking another step forward and turning into a plus-plus offering and the fact that overall, he is throwing with a lot more confidence.

“He’s been vastly improved the last last couple months, including a couple of really dominating outings. One of he keys has been that his slider’s been a lot better, giving him an out pitch. One of the Lansing broadcasters was talking recently about how the coaches wanted him trust his stuff more, not try to be so fine. And against low-A hitters, his stuff should be plenty.”

If given time to develop his changeup that is distinctly a mix in offering at the time being, Gutierrez, still 22, could make it as a starter. However, given the fact that the fastball/slider combo thrower dumbs down his velo to the low 90’s range in order to make it deeper in starts and the fact that he is a minor league free agent after next season, Matt and I both agree that he profiles best as a late inning reliever.

“There will be some impetus to move him along,” Matt said of Gutierrez’s situation. “He should start next year in high-A regardless but if moved to relief, he could get to AA.”

In a straight up trade for a troubled starter who barely touched B-type status as a prospect looking at finishing out his career as a swing man, the Marlins could have done a lot worse than a ceiling 4-5 starter, floor late relief/closing option. I give Michael Hill a passing grade on this trade, one of few he’s turned in in his tenure as President of Baseball Ops. Look for Gutierrez to participate in the offseason winter leagues overseas before starting 2018 in Jupiter.

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Prospect Of The Month, July 2017: Ben Meyer

Ben Meyer: A Golden Gopher with a golden arm and a golden future. The Minnesota alum spent the past 30 days continuing to prove himself worthy of those titles, tossing to a 1.01 ERA via a 0.79 WHIP and in so doing, earned himself another accolade: Fish On The Farm’s July Prospect Of The Month.

Monthly Stats
Seasonal Stats
35.2 IP, 1.01 ERA, 0.79 WHIP
100.1 IP, 2.06 ERA, 0.94 WHIP
39/3 K/BB, 10.0 K/9, 0.75 BB/9
121/21 K/BB, 10.9 K/9, 1.88 BB/9
.188 BAA, .266 BABIP, 73.3 LOB%
.204 BAA, .298 BABIP, 76.8 LOB%

 

Benjamin K. Meyer was born on January 30, 1993 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. In his high school days at Totino-Grace, Meyer lettered in both baseball and basketball but upon his graduation, Ben, who comes from very athletic bloodlines, followed in his father’s footsteps rather than his twin siblings and gave up the court in favor of the mound. In 2012, he became a second generation University of Minnesota pitcher proceeding his dad, Bob and by so doing, made a childhood dream reality.

“I wanted to do the same [as my dad] ever since I was younger,” Meyer said regarding toeing the rubber for the Golden Gophers.

Although he became a quality basketball player late in his amateur career, Meyer says he didn’t fully acquire the physical size for it until his high school tenure was finished which made him focus more on and gain more of a passion for baseball.

“I was a late grower, so I was better at baseball at a young age,” Meyer said. “I wasn’t done growing until my freshman year of college, so my basketball skills developed later in my high school career.”

Even though his basketball days are behind him now, Meyer credits his time on the hardwood to his ability to adjust to his body, remain well conditioned and most importantly for him, keep baseball fresh and exciting.

“I think it’s important for kids not to specialize in one sport too early to keep from burning out,” Meyer said. “Basketball helped me become a better all around athlete which correlates to success on the mound.”

Focusing solely on baseball, Meyer quickly became the anchor of the Golden Gophers’ bullpen, holding down a 2.37 ERA via a 1.08 WHIP in his first 38 collegiate innings. This all came after he dropped two subpar offerings from his arsenal and rapidly developed two brand new pitches that backed up his low 90s cut fastball more advantageously. Meyer credits his Minnesota coaches for immediately turning him in to an effective collegiate arm and for starting him down the road to becoming a professional rotational arm.

“When I got to college I switched out my splitter and curveball for a changeup and slider,” Meyer said. “I worked a lot with my college pitching coach to improve their consistency and make them look more like my fastball out of the hand to keep hitters off balance.  I’ve also found a bigger need for the changeup at the pro level as hitters bat speed is quicker.”

In his sophomore year, Meyer began the transition to the rotation, playing in 15 games and starting eight, doubling up his inning count from the year previous. The increased workload showed a bit as his WHIP rose .2 points and he gave up 2 more hits per nine than the year previous but he still held his ERA under 3 (2.80), improved his BB/9 by .45 points, tossed two eight inning shutouts and one complete game shutout, proving he belonged in the rotation.
The Golden Gophers staff took notice of Meyer’s overall successful tenure as a starter and made him one full time in his junior year. Despite taking on an even bigger workload and putting by far the most stress on his arm he ever has, tossing in his conference’s third most innings (98), Meyer placed sixth in the Big 10 in ERA (2.39), 12th in WHIP (1.13) and fifth in strikeouts (67). His K total combated the only area where the high inning total showed any effect on him, his heightened but still respectable walk rate (2.57). That career high BB/9 was completely offset by his career low 7.62 H/9.

After starting the Big 10’s second most games in his junior season, Meyer once again proved his durability by tossing in 14 more in his senior year. However, that same season and his draft year, Meyer’s stats became the victim of circumstance when the Big 10 modified their official baseball in an attempt to increase offensive production. Although his great control persisted (7.29 K/9, 2.46 BB/9), the result for Meyer was a 4.31 ERA by way of a H/9 over 9 and a HR/9 over 1.00, causing his draft stock to plummet. In hindsight though, Meyer says the change was an advantageous for him in that it allowed him to hurdle over some common struggles for young professionals at an earlier age.

“My last year of college they lowered the seams on the baseball. This made it more similar to a minor league baseball, which was a good transition for me,” Meyer said. “It taught me to pitch more effectively down in the zone and forced me to mix my pitches a little more.”

Meyer admits he sweated through the draft process as he watched the rounds pass him by, hoping to not have a bad case of deja vu from the year previous when he was not selected. His relief came on the final day in round 29 of 40 when he got his call from Stan Meek and the Marlins.

“The last day of the draft was definitely the longest day of my life as well as one of the most exciting, especially after I didn’t get drafted after my junior year of college.” Meyer said. “I was just hoping for an opportunity and was very grateful when the Marlins called saying they were going to take me.”

After seven innings in the GCL and five in Greensboro, Meyer lived out the rest of 2015 in Jupiter pitching against competition a year and a half older than him. That fact along with the wear on the 22-year-old’s arm (he racked up a total of 120 innings pitched, by far a career high), led to a 1.54 WHIP via a 9.13 H/9 and 11.7 BB% but thanks to a 76% LOB%, Meyer was able to hold down a 3.18 ERA, which was very respectable when all things are considered. His overall successful cup of coffee with Jupiter that year planted a good seed within the organization as he found himself just outside of its top 20 prospects.

Meyer lived out 2016 in Greensboro where he began his transition to starting as a pro. It was a bit of a learning curve for Meyer as he went 0-8 in 10 starts with a 4.23 ERA and 1.41 WHIP. He was much more effective out of the pen. Throwing in eight more innings as a reliever as opposed to a starter, he held down an ERA a full point lower (3.10), walked one less (10 vs 11) and striking out nearly twice as many (60 vs 34). However, Marlins didn’t give up on the prospect of one day seeing Meyer in their big league rotation. After beginning the year regaining his confidence tossing out of the Grasshoppers’ bullpen where he held down a 2.15 ERA and 0.95 WHIP, the Marlins brought Meyer back to A+. There, Meyer has started 10 of his 16 games appeared in and rewarded the confidence the organization has shown in his ability by producing a 2.03 ERA by way of a 0.93 WHIP, marks which rank second and first in the Florida State League among qualified players (>70 IP). Within that same group, Meyer’s 28.7 K% and 23.4 K/BB% each rank second. Even though he divulges that all of the moving around between the rotation and bullpen was a bit tedious, taxing on his body and wracking on his nerves, Meyer, ever the “big picture” guy, says the experience was a major catalyst in making him the pitcher he is today, able to pitch in any circumstance, understanding the mind of a hitter and mastering the art of pitch selection and location.

“Moving to the bullpen after college was a big transition for me because I was only in the bullpen for my freshman year of college.  I had to learn how to warm up quicker, and come into the game with a different mentality,” Meyer said. “When I moved back into the rotation in 2016, the biggest adjustment for me was learning to throw on a 5 day rotation vs the college 7 day. It took some time to get my body to bounce back quicker. This year, my velocity has been up a little bit, which has helped, and my slider has been more consistent than it was last year. I have had more confidence in my slider to throw in more situations and keep hitters off balance.”

The impetus behind Meyer being allowed to experience all the things he has, learn from them and grow so quickly has been excellent health. In his entire baseball career, even though the stress on his body has doubled and sometimes even tripled, Meyer has never made a trip to the disabled list and has never been out of action for more than a few days. In addition to his overall fantastic athletic background imparted on him at birth and fully realized very early in his amateur career, Meyer attributes his good health to good fortune, staying active every day, and to the medical regimen assigned to him by the attentive Marlins’ medical staff.

“I have been very fortunate to stay healthy over the years,” Meyer said. “The Marlins have a great arm care program that I follow between starts, as well as running every day and staying on top of our strength program has helped keep my body and arm healthy.”

The fact that Meyer once succeeded as a basketball player is evident as he stares down his opposition from his towering 6’5″, 180 build. Meyer maintains his height advantage over hitters as he winds up from a straight up-and-down stance but creates deception as he planes his pitches in downhill. Viewing the strike zone from a birds eye, overhead angle, Meyer commands it wonderfully with all of his pitches, something he has done his entire career, something which he is very satisfied with and the basis of his confidence as a hurler. He plans to ride that confidence to the upper levels of the minors and beyond.

“I have always prided myself on my command of 3 pitches and ability to work ahead in the count.  I would rather give up a hit than walk somebody and give them a free base,” Meyer said. “It’s definitely tougher as the competition gets better as the strike zone shrinks, and hitters get better eyes, but it comes down to trusting my stuff and preparation.”

Meyer will rarely touch any higher than 94 MPH with the fastball but his plus plus secondaries both of which he created in college and has established during his great minor league run more than make up for it. He throws all three of his pitches with the same arm speed which adds to his nearly impossible to pick up motion and mixes them beautifully which makes him nearly impossible to time or wait out. As a result, Meyer works quick tidy innings and limits pitches. Six of his 10 starts, including four in a row in July, have been quality outings. Meyer’s best pitch is his go-to slider which sits in the 82 MPH range, has hard bite and which he likes to run in on the hands of guys inducing plenty of whiffs. He will also bury it in favorable counts and due to the late break, get guys fishing. The Meyer changeup sits in the 86 MPH range. Due to its good depth and his shortened stride to the plate, it is one of the more deceptive pitches in the Marlins’ system right now. As with all of his pitches, Meyer will throw it in any count but he shows an affinity for pitching off of it. The change sets up Meyer’s “show me” fastball, a 9o-94 MPH offering which he can run to either corner and which he likes to put in the eyes of hitters in two strike counts. In most cases, a three pitch arsenal isn’t translatable to Major League rotational success but in the case of Meyer, who throws all three pitches interchangeably with similar arm speed and great control and command, he should be able to succeed with it. If not, judging by how quickly he established two brand new pitches, he has the ability to quickly re-develop and fall back on the split change and 11-6 curve that he threw as a high schooler.

A battle tested thinking man’s thrower, Meyer sets up as a 4-5 inning eating rotational option and floor bullpen anchor in that same capacity. With similar success in the upper minors which he stands to break into soon, the 24-year-old should be fast-tracked to his MLB debut, realizing not only his dream but fulfilling a family legacy. But for now, Meyer, as per usual, as staying level headed and letting the process work itself out.

“Playing in the big leagues would obviously be a lifelong dream of mine. I’ve put in a lot of hard work, and still have a ways to go, so I don’t want to get too far ahead of myself,” Meyer said. “I’m just trying to stay day to day and get better each outing.”

Meyer should make the jump to AA next season.

Prospect Of The Month, June 2017: Chris Mazza

Adjustment and perseverance. If there are two words that sum up the career of Chris Mazza, these are them. Despite having to adjust to pitching after spending most of his amateur career as a shortstop and although he had to persevere through some difficult mental and physical circumstances including ignoring his doubters and naysayers, coming back from a serious injury and being released by his first team which nearly forced him to contemplate life after baseball, Mazza did it. He overcame. Today, he is one of the best starting pitchers in the Southern League, on the verge of realizing his Major League dream. The latest of his fantastic exports this season is a month of June in which, despite some more rough luck proven by a .322 BABIP, he limited damage, stranding 83% of his runners and holding down a 1.04 ERA lowering his seasonal ERA to 2.71 sixth best in his league. Mazza’s June not only continued to prove his ability to pitch effectively but proved once again his ability to rise above. For those reasons, he is our June Prospect Of The Month.

Monthly Stats
Seasonal Stats
26 IP, 1.04 ERA, 1.46 WHIP
79.2 IP, 2.71 ERA, 1.23 WHIP
14/10 K/BB, 3.5 K/BB%
51/23 K/BB, 8.5 K/BB%
.277 BAA, .322 BABIP, 82.5% LOB%
250 BAA, .287 BABIP, 76% LOB%

 

Chris Mazza was born on October 17, 1989 in the San Francisco area as not-so-distant relative to Joe DiMaggio. He has wanted to follow in the Hall Of Famer’s footsteps ever since he could pick up a baseball.

“He was my grandmother’s cousin,” Mazza said. “I’ve wanted to play since I was 6 years old.”

Mazza attended high school at Clayton Valley High in nearby Concord where he barely reached a nonathletic 5’6″, 120 pounds and struggled statistically, hitting just .238/.322/.266 in his junior and senior years, causing him to go recruited. So Mazza took his talents to nearby Menlo Oaks College where he spruced (pun intended) up and began realizing his true potential. After making the team in tryouts his freshman year, Mazza became the college’s all time leader in home runs and triples. In his junior year, Mazza would usually start games at his normal shortstop but would be called upon to pitch in save situations. Doing so, he posted a team low 2.37 ERA, and 19 saves, another school record thus making him a prominent fixture in Menlo’s first ever Conference Title run. Following his success leading both the offense and defense that year, Mazza, for the first time ever, garnered the attention and selection of clubs at a variety of levels, including prestigious collegiate schools, independent ball and affiliated ball. One of those clubs was the Minnesota Twins who drafted Mazza as a pitcher in the 27th round of that year’s MLB Draft. Although a mixture of flattered, excited and nervous, was faced with what he describes as a very difficult decision in terms of where to and how to continue his baseball career. But with a bit of guidance and some motivation provided by his Menlo squad mates, Mazza chose to accept the Twins’ offer.

“It was a really tough decision to make because we had just won our league and made it to the conference tournament for the first time in school history. It was also tough because I had teams that looked at me to play shortstop and that’s really what I wanted to do because wasn’t 100% ready to give up playing shortstop and becoming a pitcher only,” Mazza said. “But after having a long talk with teammates, my high school coach Bob Rolsten who played in the Twins organization, and my dad, we came to the decision that this was a once in a lifetime opportunity and that I didn’t really have anything else to prove in college ball. Also my college teammates said they would kick my butt if I came back for my senior year.”

Mazza broke into his pro career with the rookie ball GCL Twins and Elizabethtown Twins. Even though the numbers looked great over his 18 appearances in his rookie season, (30.2 IP, 2.05 ERA, 0.95 WHIP, 28/2 K/BB), Mazza attributes that success to throwing to a similar level of hitters as those he faced in college who were also just beginning to get acclimated to using wood bats. He divulges that despite the solid numbers, he really didn’t have a full understanding of what he was doing on the mound.

“The biggest adjustment for me was learning how to pitch. When I got to pro ball, I didn’t really know how to actually pitch,” Mazza said. “In college, I just got on the mound and threw as hard as could. And when you throw in the mid 90’s in college, you get away with a lot things.”

Here Mazza was, virtually a brand new pitcher who was simply taking the mound and putting the stress of throwing as hard as he can with every pitch on his arm with underdeveloped mechanics. Accordingly, just seven starts into his 2013 season, his arm blew out. Despite every effort to avoid surgery, Mazza eventually went under the knife. It cost him more than an entire season’s worth of playing experience.

“I went on the DL because of an issue with my ulnar nerve. The nerve was popping in and out of the groove every time I would throw cause my arm to go numb. It was like getting hit in the funny bone every time I threw,” Mazza described. “At first, we just tried resting it for about four weeks of no throwing. I was in a brace where I could bend my elbow. After that, I started up a throwing program to build my arm up. About three weeks into the throwing program, my arm started going numb again because of the nerve. About a week later, I had to fly up to Minnesota and have surgery to move my nerve. They call it an ulnar nerve transposition. So I ended up missing the rest of the season.”

Upon returning to the mound on May 26, 2014, Mazza went on to play the best ball of his career. In 25 appearances out of the Cedar Rapids’ bullpen, he held down a 2.79 ERA via some of the best control numbers in the league. Striking out 62 and walking just 11, his 25.5 K/BB% ranked 4th in the Midwest League. He also had the second lowest FIP in the league (1.93). However, much like his rookie season, a lot of Mazza’s success would come at another hefty price. Unbeknownst to Mazza, he threw the final two and a half months of that season with a broken right wrist.

“I fell up the stairs one night during a power outage and broke my scaphoid bone between my hand and wrist on my throwing arm. At first I didn’t even know it was broken. I thought I just jammed my wrist really bad because I could still move it. So I didn’t throw for five days then when I started playing it hurt a little bit but not enough for me to say that I can’t throw. Plus when I would actually pitch it didn’t hurt at all.”

Then, that offseason, things came another very unfortunate head.

“During the offseason, it was still bugging me a little bit until I was working with my dad and I went to hand him up a pile of bricks and my wrist bent back I just collapsed in pain,” Mazza said. “So this whole time from when I fell in July to me handing up my dad some bricks I couldn’t do a push-up or anything that caused my wrist to bend back because it hurt. But since it didn’t hurt to throw a baseball I didn’t think anything of it.”

A few days later, Mazza found himself back in another waiting room with the prospect of once again being absent from baseball for a lengthy period of time very real, if not a forgone conclusion. The diagnosis and treatment curtailed exactly that.

“I finally went a got my wrist looked at and got an MRI and the doctor said I had a broken scaphoid nonunion in my right hand. He told me he doesn’t know how I was even able to throw a baseball. I just said I’ve always had a high pain tolerance which in this case isn’t always a good thing,” Mazza said. “I had surgery in November of 2014 and they had to put a screw in my scaphoid bone to fuse the bones back together. So I had to be in a cast for 6 months because of course the scaphoid bone is the worst bone to break in your entire body because it only has two little veins blood supply so the healing process takes longer.”

Almost eleven months from when he was last permitted to pick up a baseball, Mazza finally did so again on July 3, 2015, beginning a rehab assignment with the GCL Twins. After five appearances there, Mazza was ready to return to Cedar Rapids, to get back on the horse. However, after just two outings back in single A, he was knocked back off said horse once again when the Twins. Being forced off the mound once again after he had just returned from a second hiatus was admittedly a tough pill for Mazza to swallow, especially after the promise he showed when he was healthy (and sometimes even when he wasn’t 100% healthy) but the close relationships he built within the organization including the one he had with his head coach helped keep Mazza afloat in a deep sea of adversity.

“When he called me in to his office I had a pretty good idea was getting released,” Mazza said. “One thing that helped was Jake Mauer who was my manager for three years in the Twins’ organization. Being with Jake for three years, we got to know each other really well and became pretty close. So hearing get choked up as he’s telling me he has to release me because they simply don’t have a spot for me kept positive that this wasn’t the end of my baseball career.”

Mauer had that same confience that he hadn’t seen the last of Chris Mazza and vowed to put in some calls to some independent league teams that he had connections with. But before those calls came to fruition, Mazza got a call of his own.

“About a week later, me and my brother are out golfing and we are on the 14th green getting ready to putt and my phone rings and when I answer it Brett West is on the other end and tells me that the Marlins want to sign me as a free agent,” Mazza recalls perfectly. “I was so excited. I was getting a second chance.”

Mazza, who was able to stay professional through two lengthy injuries, the disappointment of being cut and through one of the best and most relieving phone calls he’s ever received hung up the phone. From there, the emotion poured out of him and created a scene that must have resembled one from Happy Gilmore.

“When I got off the phone I told my brother and he started screaming,” Mazza said. “We were jumping around looking like two idiots out on the golf course.”

After Mazza signed his minor league deal on August 4, 2015 he headed to Jupiter to begin his Marlins’ career as a Hammerhead. After he finished out that season by tossing to the tune of a 3.60 ERA with a 1.07 WHIP over 15 innings and following another 15 innings worth of 1.09 ERA, 0.93 WHIP ball to begin 2016, the Marlins would present Mazza with the biggest challenge of his career: transitioning to the rotation and adjusting to life as a starting pitcher.

“As I got to about my seventh start is really when I felt the number of innings start to catch up to me and wear my body down. At the time I was just doing the same body maintenance that I did as when I was a reliever. So I just I just had to start doing more, whether it was running more, getting more physical therapy or extra work in the gym,” Mazza said. “It was tough because my body wasn’t ready for that extra work load. Unfortunately it led to inconsistency the last month and a half of the season. It was a definitely a learning curve but helped me prepare for the offseason. It gave me an idea on how much more I had to get my arm and body in shape so I can take on the innings of a starter.”

Although he was still relying on the same stuff he used as a reliever, Mazza admits it was tricky having to face hitters more than once and thus having to learn how to select pitches advantageously as he got into more deep counts. However, with some help from his battery mates, he was able to conquer that feat.

“Things really didn’t change much on my approach to attacking hitters that year. I was only a three pitch pitcher so I still went after hitters the same way,” Mazza said. “The biggest thing was not to get stuck in the pitch sequences but I had a lot of help from my catchers with that.”

As much as Mazza learned from himself and his teammates that year, the best piece of advice he got came from Hammerheads’ pitching coach Joe Coleman in spring training. It was then Coleman noticed a hitch in Mazza’s game that the Twins never did, an issue that when fixed, would allow Mazza to become a much more effective hurler and will allow him to succeed at the next level. The issue lay in the amount of effort Mazza put behind each pitch, sometimes throwing the ball as hard as he could trying to blow hitters away and the other painting corners and trying to induce weak contact. Coleman informed Mazza that whichever brand of pitcher he wanted to be, a max effort late relief type or a more methodical innings eating back end starter, was acceptable but he could no longer be both at the same time.

“Joe sat me down and asked me what kind of pitcher do I wanna be. He said after my first couple outings in spring training it looked like I was trying to be two different kind of pitchers at the same time. The first was the pitcher that want to throw the ball past guys and the being the pitcher that wants to sink the ball and get ground balls,” Mazza said. “He told me yeah, I have a plus plus sinker but when I try to throw the ball past guys, it stays straight and doesn’t sink. He said if you want to be a guy that throws past guys, that’s fine and if I wanted to be a guy that sinks the ball. that’s fine too. We just need to pick the guy that you want to be so can have a plan when you are on the mound. Then told me with a sinker like mine, he felt like I would be more successful and have a better chance of getting to the big leagues. So the next day I went up to him and told him that I wanted to be a guy that sinks the ball and ever since then, my career has been going in a positive direction.”

Following his transitional year in 2016, via the assistance of Coleman and his most extensive year of uninterrupted on field experience, Mazza entered the 2016 offseason with a firm grasp on being part of the rotation as well as his own identity as a pitcher. With that knowledge, he dedicated the next six months to one thing: truly becoming a starting pitcher.

“I went in to the offseason last year telling myself that I’m going to get in shape to be a starter. I worked really hard on developing a change-up because it’s just a pitch that you need to have as starter. Even though I’m most really on my sinker and cutter I can throw my change-up a few times a game to keep hitters honest.” Mazza said. “I also need to thank my strength coach Rob and trainer Cesar who have kept me in shape and kept up with physical therapy to make sure I’m healthy and ready to go.”

Coleman’s ability to recognize and fix Mazza’s issue in trying to throw two different styles from pitch to pitch during spring training in 2015 and Mazza’s own drive and extra work put in that offseason had him well on his way to becoming an effective starter. But he still had some work to do mechanically and mentally. That’s where Jacksonville pitching coach Storm Davis’ expertise has come into play.

“I’ve been more consistent in my delivery and being able to make the adjustment when I get out of wack one or two pitches rather then it taking me two or three batters to get back to where I need to be. And that’s all because of Storm Davis,” Mazza said. “Whether it’s looking at film, fixing my arm slot, seeing how hitters are reacting to certain pictures I throw during the game or talking about pitch selection. And when we make a mistake, asking why did we make that mistake and how do we change our approach so we don’t make that mistake again and so much more. He’s really helped me mature as a pitcher.”

Through all of Mazza’s trials and tribulations whether it be going unrecruited, suffering two major injuries early in his career, being released after he finally began to enjoy some success and so many more factors that would have made a lesser man throw in the towel, Mazza is finally a near finished product this year. The exports of that finished product speak for themselves: a 3.01 ERA that ranks 12th in the Southern League, a 1.29 WHIP that ranks 17th, a 7.0% walk rate than ranks 15th and a 75% LOB% that ranks 13th. All of this has been made possible by a very balanced arsenal which includes his bread-and-butter groundball 90 MPH sinker, a 92 MPH cut fastball that he can ramp up to 94 and which he will throw interchangeably with the sink peice to keep hitters guessing, an 84-86 MPH changeup that is emerging as the secondary pitch Mazza has the best feel for despite his learning how to throw it this past winter and a slider that has lessened to a mix-in offering since his surgery but which he will still bury for strikes in pitcher’s counts.

Much like the way he has approached his baseball career, Mazza won’t shy away from any challenge. He is an in-your-face style pitcher who won’t pick at corners but instead comes right after his opposition  and dares them to beat him. He can get in trouble doing so at times, giving up baserunners, proven by his 8.5 hits per 9 innings but his ability to keep the ball down almost exclusively and induce groundballs keeps runs off the board and his pitch counts in check. According to Mazza, that bulldog, win-above-all style mentality approach to pitching as well as every other aspect of his life is something that was inborne in him and has, above all else, been his biggest and best companion along the way. As long as he hasn’t let the beast run completely wild.

“I hate losing. I hate losing more than I like winning. I’ve always been that way. I don’t care if I’ve given up 10 runs, I want the ball in my hand and I’m not coming out off the game. Even though Storm has told me I gotta keep the bulldog on a leash at not let him run out of control,” Mazza said. “I’ve just always been super competitive ever since i was a little kid. It doesn’t matter if it’s baseball or tic-tac-toe; I’m going beat you. My mom gets mad at me cause I don’t let my six year old nephew win when we play video games together.

With the Marlins on the verge of a firesale and Mazza continuing to turn in quality outings, he is on the verge of realizing his Major League dream and in so doing, beating all of those individuals, teams, schools and organizations who thought he would lose. For the 27-year-old and those who have been by his side since the start no matter what, his call to the big leagues will symbolize the biggest win of his life. Without having to actually speak a word, Mazza will tell a lot of people “I told you so.”

“It’s crazy to think about sometimes. I’ve had lot of people tell me I wasn’t able to play at the the next level and the started in high school. I got told I was too small or you good but you’re not good enough to play college ball. And when I got to college it was the same thing people would say, “Go to a Division III school, you can’t play pro ball.””, Mazza said. “I just always had that chip on my shoulder to prove people wrong.”

Attention all naysayers and doubters: grab your foot and prepare to insert it into your own mouth. Chris Mazza is about to arrive.

2017 Batavia Muckdogs Season Preview

2016 Team Stats

.218/.298/.294
20 HR/133 XBH
651 IP, 5.00 ERA, 1.53 WHIP

At the midway point of the season and with All-Star Games are happening all over affiliated baseball, the start of a brand new season is upon us. The short-season single A campgain kicks off this week, including in the New York Penn League and for your Batavia Muckdogs. There, manager Mike Jacobs, a former Marlins’ favorite, leads the likes of Thomas Jones, JC Millan, Shane Sawczak and the rest of a young spirited bunch hoping to become that and more.At the midway point of the season and with All-Star Games are happening all over affiliated baseball, the start of a brand new season is upon us. The short-season single A campgain kicks off this week, including in the New York Penn League and for your Batavia Muckdogs. There, manager Mike Jacobs, a former Marlins’ favorite, leads the likes of Thomas Jones, JC Millan, Shane Sawczak and the rest of a young spirited bunch hoping to become that and more.

After a seven year playing career, Mike Jacobs begins his first season behind the bench at the helm of this year’s Batavia squad. Jacobs was known best for his power hitting game proven by his .253/.313/.473 career slash line and 100 career homers, most of which came in his tenure as a Fish. His career year came in 2008 when he slugged .514, 15th in the NL, slammed 32 homers, 14th in the NL and drove in 93 runs, 20th in the NL all while playing in a pitcher-friendly home park, Pro Player Stadium. The Dawgs are already reaping the benefits of Jake’s power hitting background. Where last year’s squad scored 47 runs via 18  XBH in the entire month of June, this year’s squad has already scored 44 runs via 13 XBH in their first five games. Jacobs’ staff is rounded out by assistant coach and former Muckdogs’ OF TJ Gamba, hitting coach Rigobertio Silviero who enters his ninth season as a Marlins’ affiliated coach and pitching coach Jason Erickson, another former NYPL player (for State College as part of the Pirates’ orgainzation) and third-year pitching skipper.

Lineup

2B Jhonny Santos
CF Thomas Jones
1B Lazaro Alonso
RF Zachary Daly
DH Terry Bennett
3B JC Millan
LF Mathew Brooks
C David Gauntt
SS Marco Rivera

Center fielder Thomas Jones is the Marlins’ third round draft pick out of Laurens High School in South Carolina. He enters 2017 as the club’s sixth ranked overall prospect and third ranked positional prospect. A football standout in high school who earned some of the nation’s best overall rankings as a safety and had multiple offers on the table from some of the nation’s top football programs including Duke, Wake Forest, North Carolina and South Carolina, Jones forwent that career to play baseball in Miami. According to Jones, he used football to improve his athleticism and get his name into the first round of multiple sports’ drafts, but it was always baseball he saw himself making his career in.

“The decision was easy. I always wanted to play baseball,” Jones said of his decision to sign witht the Marlins. “I did well in football which gave me a lot of exposure. Playing football helped me to be quick on my feet. Playing free safety in football and center field in baseball have similar characteristics.”

The characteristics Jones speaks of include blazing speed that allotted him a 4.31 40-yard dash time as well as 16 stolen bases in 17 attempts his senior year and the overall ability to cover both center field gaps advantageously, fantastic hands that allowed him to easily create turnovers as well as maintain superior bat speed and an extremely athletic frame that let him outmuscle opposing wide receivers, bench 260 pounds and squat 500, and which has scouts projecting him to become a 20+ homer threat as he fills out and matures.

Of course, Jones has some things to iron out in order to reach that offensive potential. He needs to add some fluidity and repeatability to his timing and mechanics which currently look slightly stiff at times. He also needs to add some loft to his straight-through swing in order to make the most of his power potential. Jones does well at getting his lower half involved in his approach but he will need to perfect his footwork which currently sees him almost hopping into swings before his back foot pivot, leading to him frequently falling out of the box on his follow-through. While he needs some seasoning, the few hitches in his offensive game are quite understandable for a two-sport athlete and should all work themselves out as he commits all of his time to baseball. Though he admits filling in the holes in his game has been and will continue to be a trial, Jones is trusting the course of action and putting in all the necessary effort to succeed.

“All my time is focused on baseball now,” Jones said. “I’m training to become consistent with all my tools. It’s a process but I continue to grind it out.”

With plus present speed and power and average defensive skills, all of which stand to improve, Jones has a five-tool make-up which makes it easy to see why he comes into this season as the Marlins’ second best positional prospect. However, the intuitive Jones who owned a 3.66 GPA in high school and shows maturity well beyond his years isn’t worried about rankings and he isn’t going to let anything deter his focus from his modus operandi.

“I always keep a positive mind, no matter what,” Jones said. “This game is already hard itself. So I don’t even think about the outside talk and I just play the game.”

Yasiel Puig: $42 million, Yoan Moncada: $31 million, Luis Robert: $25 million. You probably remember reading about these massive international deals being reached which instantly turned poverty-stricken Cuban kids and families into multi-millionaires, all for their services on the baseball field. One you probably didn’t read about was Lazaro Alonso, a 20-year-old native of Pinar Del Rio who signed with the Marlins for $100,000. Although he didn’t receive the fanfare nor the payday his countrymen received upon arriving in America, Alonso hopes, that through hard work, both the money and the adulation will one day come.

“I was just a boy in Cuba, with no history,” Alonso told El Nuevo Herald. “I have only just started in everything. My life is a book to be written. I hope to make noise soon.”

Alonso will attempt to get the band tuned up this short season with Batavia. Regarded as Cuba’s eighth best prospect last season after he hit .299/.436/.494 as a rookie during Serie Nacionale’s 2014-15 season and .395/.495/.535, the second best hitter in Cuba’s 23-and-under summer league last year, Alonso is a massive physical specimen, standing 6’3″, weighing 230. Accordingly, his best tool is his incredible raw power which scouts contend could someday produce 25+ home runs if in the lineup every day.

Alonso’s best secondary tool is plus- pitch recognition ability that allotted him more walks than strikeouts in his rookie season. The disciplined plate approach allows Alonso to see a lot of pitches and force oppositions into making mistakes, a trait rarely found in power-first hitters. If Alonso is to fully reap the benefits of his prodigious power and his solid plate presence though, he is going to need to vastly improve the mechanics behind his swing. With his back leg bent and front leg straight, he strides from a very off-balanced load and fails to get his hands and arms linear to the ball. His inability to get ahead of pitches leads to very subpar timing and a very long swing. Alonso also fails to cover the plate, struggling against pitches on the outer half, particularly against lefties, a downfall that doesn’t bode well for his future against pitchers at the next level who can go corner to corner. Top to bottom, Alonso’s mechanics need a near complete overhaul. He’s also currently quite limited position ally due to  below average athleticism and speed.

Needless to say, Alonso definitely has some work ahead of him, making him one of the rawest prospects in the organization. However, he has already taken a positive first step in realizing his true potential by formulating the understanding that he has a long road ahead of him, accepting it and having the will to learn and grow.

“My swing is not perfect, my mechanics in the box must improve a lot,” Alonso said. “But I trust that I have the strength to improve.”

Terry Bennett is a Marlins’ 12th round draft pick from 2015 out of Atlantic Coast High School in Jacksonvlle. Before signing with the Fish, the exponentially athletic Bennett accepted an offer to continue playing both football and baseball at FIU. However, when Miami came calling, Bennett didn’t think twice.

“Baseball has always been my first love & being drafted was always dream for me growing up,” Bennett said. “After my senior season of football, I knew that I was done playing. My love for doing it everyday wasn’t there.”

After spending the last two seasons getting acclimated to playing baseball full time in the GCL, the Marlins believe Bennett is ready to make the jump to single A. A .340 senior year hitter in high school and Atlantic Coast’s first ever baseball draftee, the 6’0″ 205 Bennett, who was also a stout yet sneaky quick running back in the football world, owns a good combination of power and speed. When it has come to focusing solely on baseball, Bennett says he has made the acclimation quite naturally, not forgetting or completely abandoning his roots but also not being accustomed to change.

“The transition has been really good. I love baseball so know matter if I’m going good or bad I still want to come out everyday and try to get better,” Bennett said. “Football gave me that tough edge so that always comes in handy because baseball can break you down if you aren’t tough enough. I’ve gotten tremendously better from being in high school to now. I also have a lot of room for improvements but the coaches work us hard and know their stuff.”

The lefty hitter favors the pull variety of hitting but has also shown the ability to go to all fields. Mechanically, everything looks pretty good here. Bennett stands from a straight away stance, triggers with a front foot heel turn and steps into the ball. He keeps his back knee and shoulder linear and his head stationary before he engages a quick lofty swing.

The only knock here is that Bennett doesn’t load up much on his back foot and instead relies almost completely on his arms at the expense of his looseness and some of his power potential. Also, his back elbow doesn’t move far from his body which negates even more of his strength and leads to trouble barreling up. However, these are common mechanical flaws for undergraduate hitters, especially those who play more than one sport. If Bennett can get his lower half more involved in his swing and learn to reach back more on his swing while his body matures and his knowledge of the strike zone improves, he could become a solid middle of the order doubles-first threat with the ability to reach fences at any part of the park.

Though his throwing arm has some growing to do, Bennett’s aforementioned furious athleticism and good jets give him eligibility at all three outfield spots. He’s spent most of his time in center field which is likely where he will line up most of the time for the Dawgs this year. Like Alonso, Bennett is another guy who has a lot of growing to do but at just 19 and at the expense of just a 12th round pick, he will not be pressured at all. At this point, he’s viewed as a long-term project but his able-bodiedness, energetic attitude and sponge-like brain could allow him to make leaps instead of steps.

J.C. Millan’s backstory is one which will resonate with many in the Miami community and hit close to home for any Marlins fan who became familiar and got to know the late Jose Fernandez. Millan was born on January 18, 1996 in Havana, Cuba. A middle child in a family of limited means and the son to a father who he rarely saw due to him chasing his own baseball dreams, life wasn’t easy for Millan growing up.

“Living in Cuba wasn’t easy for us. My parents had to work really hard to always find a way for me and my sisters to always have food on the table, especially my mom since my dad was most of the time.”

During his teenage years, J.C.’s parents came upon the opportunity to relocate some of the family to the United States. Some of the family, but not all. Still, Millan’s mother jumped at the opportunity and although life in America wasn’t much easier at first, J.C. eventually found comfort.

“We had the opportunity to come to the US and my parents never hesitated because they wanted the best life for us and for me and my sister to one day succeed,” Millan said. “At first it was hard for us to adjust to the system here, especially me going to a new school, speaking no English and sitting in classes when I didn’t understand a word the teachers would say. But as the years passed by, we settled in.”

Much like Jose Fernandez and his family were faced with and made the difficult decision to leave Jose’s grandmother and his entire extended family behind in hostile Cuba in order to better their own lives, J.C. and the Millans parted from one of J.C.’s two sisters and her child, J.C.’s nephew, when they made their trek to Florida, a process and experience which has admittedly taken its toll on him.

“It’s pretty hard to take sometimes, leaving mostly your entire family behind and not being able to see them every day and instead maybe once every couple years,” Millan said. “I would love for them to be here but I don’t know if that will ever happen.”

Before each game, after he takes the field, Millan has made it a ritual to spirtually show gratitude what he has been given these past few years. Then, he audibly recites the same phrase for both his parents who allotted him the opportunity to take that field and for those whom he was made to leave behind back home.

“Every game I get on one knee in any position I play and give my thanks to the man above,” Millan said. “Then I verbally say, “This game is for my family.””

When told the story of how the organization made it possible for Jose’s grandmother to flee Cuba and join him in the United States to share in the realization of his dream, Millan, although still a bit skeptical given the still arduous political relations between Cuba and America, is a bit more hopeful of one day playing on an MLB diamond in front of his entire family, including his sister and nephew who, for the time being, remain in Havana.

“I feel like it’s impossible for my other sister and nephew to be here right now,” Millan said. “But it would mean everything in the world for them to be here with us, and I wouldn’t know how to thank them for that.”

Millan, a 6’0″ 185 pounder attended Brito Academy in Miami before spending a season at Broward College where he hit .324/.407/.443/.850, placing fifth in BA, third in OBP, fourth in SLG and third in OPS. His 18 steals ranked second in his conference and his .846 BB/K by way of a 26/22 K/BB also ranked third. From there, he took his talents to the GCL. There, as he got his first taste of big league ball, his stats weren’t nearly as glorified but as long as he was learning, Millan wasn’t concerned with them. He enters this year in Batavia with the same mindset: control what he can control and not get too far ahead of himself.

“I learned a lot at Broward as far as always being prepared before at bats and always have a plan when i go to the plate,” Millan said. “GCL wasn’t the year I wanted to have numbers wise but I’m not worried much about how my numbers were as long as I felt I was competing every single at bat and not getting overmatched. I have the same mindset coming into this year with the Muckdogs: compete every at bat, be on time and get a good pitch to hit. That’s all I can control. From there on, the ball will take care of itself.”

From a wide split stance that stretches to both ends of the box, Millan bends his plant leg and straightens his front leg as he leans over the strike zone, leading to a preloaded approach. He forgoes a timing trigger by being able to determine location and exhibit patience well beyond his years. The swing itself generates plenty of contact via the use of his quick hands but the timing needs to improve, specifically on breaking pitches where it can get a bit long.

On the basepaths, Millan has the speed and ability to wreak havoc. A long striding runner who gets good jumps, what he lacks in power he makes up for by turning any on-base chance into extra bases with his legs. That same speed serves Millan well in the field where he can play a pluthera of positions. He has eligibility at all three outfield spots, second base and third base and he will play all of them and then some in the same night, as long as it keeps him on the field.

“I feel comfortable at all three outifled spots but I feel like I have worked really hard in the infield to be where I am,” Millan said. “I can play second and third with no pressure but I’ll play any position that keeps me on the lineup every night, even if I have to pitch an inning or catch a whole game. Whatever it takes to be on the lineup, I’ll do it.”

Thankfully for Millan, his skill set as a singles-first bat with good speed and good range to both sides of the field projects him best as a top of the order second baseman. After a challenging start to life which born in him the need to grow up and mature fast, things are finally beginning to go Millan’s way. With success in Batavia, he should get the chance to finish out the year in Greensboro and get a look at the full-season level. As long as Millan’s road has been to this point, he still has a long way to go in perfecting his game and reaching the upper minors but a few years to him probably sounds like a few minutes. The right mindset and will to succeed should carry him a long way to pulling on a Marlins jersey sometime in the 2019-2020 range.

Pitching Rotation

1. Sam Perez
2. Edward Cabrera
3. Alejandro Cabrera
4. Alberto Guerrero

Sam Perez is a Marlins’ fifth round pick from last year out of Missouri State University. Exclusively a reliever over his four year collegiate career with the Bears, Perez tossed to a 3.31 ERA and 1.15 WHIP via fantastic control numbers including a 9.33 K% and a minuscule 2.75 BB%. But the Marlins saw something more in Perez than a late inning reliever. Last year in Batavia, they eased him into starting as he got the ball to begin a game in eight of his 16 appearances. Usually a long, strenous and difficult process and frequently a failed experiment, Perez, despite having to modify his game quite extensively, got through the transitional process to the rotation quite smoothly, holding down a 3.72 ERA by way of a 1.38 ERA.

“The adjustment to the rotation wasn’t as hard as I thought it would be but it was somewhat stressful at first mainly due to the mindset,” Perez said. “Out of the bullpen, you would get a signal to start throwing and you would try to get hot as fast as possible. In your head it’s, “okay, who’s up to bat, who’s on deck, go, go, go, get hot.” Being in the rotation you have so much time you have to make sure to pace yourself in the pregame warmup.”

Another big change for Perez as part of the rotation has been pitch selection. A zone pounding interchangeable fastball/slider thrower with a very infrequently used changeup out of the pen, he has had to develop the changeup to the point where he can throw it with just as much confidence as the slider and more frequently than it. In order to keep stress down but also keep his velocity consistent, he’s also had to learn how to set hitters up with the fastball rather than just coming right after them. Despite being a lot to tackle, it seems Perez has his recipe for success forumulated.

“As a starter I am throwing more fastballs instead of high stress pitches. The goal for most starters is usually to get as many outs as possible with your fastball and use your offspeed pitches when necessary,” Perez said. “But I would say that fastball and changeup usage go hand in hand with trying to go deeper in games. My velocity hasn’t suffered in order to go deeper in games. My pitch selection is what should allow that. Throwing a pitch with full conviction is a must for all pitchers, starters included, therefore my velocity has remained the same. The ability to be an efficient pitcher is what should help me go deeper in games.”

It’s a testament to Perez’s work ethic the strides he’s been able to make with his changeup which less than a season ago was nothing more than a mix-in waste pitch. Since, it has become arguably as good as his bender, and, at 82, a perfect companion to his mid-90s heat. Thrown with the same arm speed as his slider, he effectively keeps hitters guessing, no matter how many times through the order he goes. Perez attributes his success as a starter and ability to get deeper into games to that pitch.

“The changeup is a must for any starting pitcher. This is a big change from the bullpen because you attack hitters with your best stuff as soon as you’re in the game. As a bullpen pitcher you’re lucky if you go through a lineup once. That’s why my changeup wasn’t used as often as my slider: I wasn’t having to think of how to approach hitters more than once. The only times I threw changeups out of the bullpen was in a hitter’s count and they were expecting a fastball over the plate,” Perez said. “I feel as though my changeup has good movement and enough speed differential to help my fastball play even better. I have great confidence in my changeup and that allows me to throw it in any count to any batter, right or left. In order to become the most successful starting pitcher I can be, my changeup will be thrown more often in order to make the fastball more effective. For me as a starter I use the changeup to help set up the fastball and induce ground balls.”

With an obvious great understanding of how to effectively eat innings despite coming up as a reliever and his ability to make great strides with his changuep, Perez has successfully molded himself into a future 4-5 starter and the ace of this year’s Muckdogs staff. With a good 95-82 velo mix, a tricky slide step to short arm right handed delivery, and the aforementioned similar arm speed on all three of his pitches, Perez can still live all around the zone without getting hit too hard. He will need to improve his command and ability to get his stuff to the corners and not catch as much of the plate as he matures to the upper minors but that should all come as he logs more innings. At 22, Perez should be among those called up to Greensboro at short season’s end. With continued success there, he could be pushed rather aggressively to A+ and beyond, making him a candidate to contribute to the pitcher-needy Marlins in some capacity by 2019.

Shane Sawczak, a local kid out of Lake Worth and former student at Palm Beach State, was selected by the Marlins in the 19th round of last year’s draft. As Sawczak puts it, he was thrilled just to be drafted but to be drafted by his hometown team which has allowed his family to continue to share in his dream on a regular basis, turned the moment from great to amazing.

“Being drafted in general was a dream come true, but being drafted to the Marlins was an incredible feeling,” Sawczak says. “I would like to thank the organization for giving me the opportunity to pitch for them. I just got lucky I’m from south Florida. I grew up watching and attending the Marlins games with my family. It gives me better opportunities to see my family still and get to train and prepare myself for the upcoming season.”

After the draft, an energetic and pumped up Sawczak spent 2016 stifiling hitters to the tune of a 1.93 ERA via a 1.13 WHIP and 26/13 K/BB in 17 appearances for the Muckdogs. After getting a look with the Grasshoppers to end 2016, he is back with Batavia to begin this season as the anchor out of the bullpen. He is one of quite a few returnees that make up the core of this year’s Muckdogs squad, a core which Sawczak describes as kindred, making showing up to work every day comfortable and fun.

“This year, the Muckdogs have a special bond,” Sawczak said. “We all have spent a year together and are having fun playing together on the same diamond. We all have each others’ backs and we pick each other up.”

Sawczak relies on mid-90s moving heat, an 84-86 mph changuep and an upper 70s breaking ball. He pounds the zone with the fasbtall which he has found success with at the lower levels but he will need to learn to place the breaking stuff to succeed in the upper minors. If he can, Sawczak lines up as a quality late reliver based on a lively fastball with projectable secondaries. Keep him on the radar as a future closer.

Projected 2017 Team Stats

39-41
.245/.322/.336
38 HR/157 XBH
647 IP, 4.26 ERA, 1.42 WHIP

Prospect Of The Month, May 2017: James Nelson

Woah, it’s Nelly! Not only is it befittingly his Twitter handle, it’s the exact phrase the South Atlantic League, its scouts, the Marlins’ organization and anyone who follows it are exclaiming regarding James Nelson’s season to date. One look at the stats including his absolutely unprecedented month of May, it’s easy to see why.

Monthly Stats
Seasonal Stats
.372/.425/.540
.338/.404/.500
34/10 K/BB
45/17 K/BB
5/1 SB/CS
5/1 SB/CS

 

Nelson was born on October 18, 1997 in Rex, GA and attended Redan High School in nearby Stone Mountain. Other than the budding Nelson, Redan is famous for producing MLB talents such as Wally Joyner and Brandon Phillips. As Nelson relates to, Redan is a place that is very proud of that past and their long-tenured heritage and Raiders players, including Nelson, coaches and parents quickly learn that. Rahter than just being part of for four years, they are part of a brotherhood forever.

“Baseball tradition at Redan is probably the best I’ve ever been a part of,” Nelson said. “It was all about winning and being a part of a family.”

After his graduation in 2015, Nelson was selected by the Red Sox in the 18th round of that year’s Draft. However, Nelson forwent signing with Boston to attend junior college in Cisco, Texas in an attempt to raise his draft stock.

“Going to Junior college was probably the biggest and best decision I could’ve made to be honest,” Nelson said. “I don’t think I got enough exposure in high school as far as seeing the pitchers I did.”

Despite his great high school tenure, Nelson only hit four total home runs in his junior and senior seasons. In his one year at Cisco, a bulked up Nelson hit 17. After going off the board 531st overall a year prior, some scouts had Nelson going off the board as early as round 12. The Marlins selected Nelson with the 443rd overall pick in round 15 thus making his decision to attend Cisco a success. This time, Nelson forwent the rest of his college career to sign a pro contract at the age of 19, another big choice and another one he and his family does not regret.

“Baseball is what I loved to do and I believed I was ready to take on the next level,” Nelson said. “My family was proud. Everyone thinks it was a great decision and I get all the support I need.”

Upon his arrival in the professional ranks last season, Nelson supported evidence that he was indeed ready to make the jump. In 43 games in the Gulf Coast League, he hit .284/.344/.364. His BA ranked 15th in the league and his OBP ranked 20th. Among his impressive countable stats were 24 RBI and a 7/3 SB/CS. Despite appearing at the plate just 162 times, the Marlins were impressed enough to promote Nelson to full season ball at the ripe age of 19, 2 1/2 years younger than the average Sally League player. After a bit of a feeling out process in his first eight games in April when he hit .207/.324/.345, Nelson absolutely exploded in May, responding and rewarding the Marlins’ vote of confidence by becoming one of the best hitters in the league and a sure-fire choice for the upcoming All-Star Game. His ridiculous month of May consisted of a .372/.425/.540 slash line along with 8 doubles, a triple, 3 homers, 17 RBI and a 5/1 SB/CS. Overall this season, Nelson’s .338 BA ranks third in the Sally, his .404 OBP ranks fourth and his .500 SLG ranks ninth. He ends the month of May riding a 17-game hitting streak.

So how has this teenager with just a year’s worth of college experience and 43 games worth of pro experience under his belt, responded so well to playing against the best competition that he ever has gone up against while being under the pressure and microscope that goes along with being regarded as the club’s 10th best prospect and how will he keep it up over the course of a 140 game season, three times as many games as he’s ever played in in a single year? Simple: he won’t change a thing and most importantly, he will not get too far ahead of himself. Because after all, whatever level you’re at and wherever you are or aren’t ranked within the organization, the game remains the same.

“It’s baseball, man. I’m just taking it day by day, making sure I’m staying healthy and staying on top of my game,” Nelson said. “I just take it one at bat at a time. If I don’t get it done one at bat, just get it done the next, and also keeping my routine I’ve been doing is a major deal as well. It’s all about playing baseball, it’s the same game, just with better competition. The biggest thing is focus, if you don’t focus you won’t succeed how you want to.”

If there was a knock on Nelson’s offensive game from his days in the GCL it was his production against lefties which he hit at just a .231/.286/.269 clip. This season, again, against much more advanced competition, he has remedied that by hitting southpaws at a .388/.492/.694 pace. Once again, Nelson credits what he believes is the end-all, be all, vision. After that, it has been his ability to stay inside the ball a lot more consistently that has made the difference.

“All about the focus,” Nelson said “From last year to this year, I think my middle-oppo approach has gotten a lot better and I am actually driving the ball to right field and I think that was a big advantage against lefties, especially this season”

Nelson has accomplished all of these offensive accolades over the past two years while also learning how to play a new position, third base, where the Marlins believe his growing frame, plus power and strong arm will be better suited in the long run. While learning the hot corner has been and will continue to be a process for Nelson, he doesn’t mind; as long as he’s on the diamond.

“I took the news [of the switch] great. If they see me playing there in the future then I’d be happy to be there,” Nelson said. “Any way I could help the team. I love shortstop, but as long as I am on the field, I’d play catcher.”

Nelson’s at-bats are a sight to behold. After the 6’2″ specimen stares down his opposition from a straight vertical stance, he times his swing with a front leg trigger that is less reminiscent of a batter and more so of a pitcher. From there, there’s only one word to describe him: explosive. Stretching his arms all the way back for as much power as possible while somehow maintaining extremely good balance and very rarely, if ever, falling off to either side of the plate, Nelson’s bat is barely recognizable as it whips through the zone with uppercut action. After exhibiting some of the best bat speed within the organization, he stays through the ball with two hands on the bat and two eyes down all the way and looks the ball off the barrel, keeping him from pulling off. Mechanically, everything looks close to perfect for the still-maturing Nelson, making him a near lock to become a 20+ home run hitter. While on base which Nelson has been a ton this season, he has more than above average speed, especially for a guy his size. Add to that the ability make great reads and you have the acumen of a 20+ base stealer. As a GCLer in 2015, he stole seven bags and was caught three times. In less games this year, he has already swiped five while being caught just once.

If there has been one consistently below-average area of Nelson’s offensive game throughout his career it’s been his ability to walk, common for any power-first hitter but not an area which Nelson is willing to go to the wolves. He has proven that by walking more in less ABs this season compared to last season and which he hopes to improve even further by advancing and utilizing his plate vision, no matter the situation.

“The biggest thing is not wasting at bats, bearing down and getting the job done with runners on or not,” Nelson said. “If they are gonna give me a walk, I gotta take it and not press.”

Nelson will be the first one to admit he is far from a finished product and he has work to do. However, the 19-year-old who will not even turn 20 for another two months, defines the word ‘athlete’, has a baseball IQ well beyond his years, and is already on the verge of a call-up to A+. With 20/20 club type talent, the ability to hit for both average and power and great fielding instincts, footwork and hands, he is a 5-tool type talent that could arrive in the majors as early as 2019. But for now, the extremely modest and level-headed Nelson ins’t worried about that.

“Baseball is a crazy sport man,” Nelson said. “I’m just trying to trust the process, so I’m just doing me.”

Keep doing you, James. If baseball is crazy, you’ve found the remedy.

What Happened To Junichi Tazawa?

There’s bad, then there’s Junichi Tazawa in 2017 bad. One of the best relievers in the league in 2015 has become anything but this season, leading him to be placed on the “disabled” list just a month and a half into the year. However, it appears as though his “injury” may just be a bad excuse for what has turned out to be a signing just as heinous as Tazawa’s exports in a Miami uniform.

Through 15 games, Tazawa owns a 6.60 ERA bt way of a 6.84 FIP and a 4.8% walk rate. His 26.7% ground ball rate is the eleventh lowest in baseball. If those figures aren’t alarming enough, he also owns a lowly .195 BABIP meaning he has been very fortunate not to give up even more damage. In 2015, Tazawa held down 4.14 ERA via a 3.05 FIP and an extremely low 1.99 BB% all while having pretty bad luck on balls in play (.349 BABIP) at hitters’ haven Fenway Park. Last year, he had a much more Fenway-like 15.8 HR/FB ratio of 15.8 and a more neutral BABIP of .292. However, he regulated himself by striking out nearly 10 hitters per 9 innings (9.79) and inducing ground balls at a 40% rate and stranding 79% of his runners. This season though, in the much more pitcher friendly Marlins Park, the wheels have completely fallen off. The question is why?

The Marlins are using the excuse that Tazawa is injured, saying that he has rib cartilage inflammation. While there may be some truth to the fact that Tazawa recently tore something in his rib cage, it’s hard to believe they would ever let him take the mound if he was suffering from the main symptom of costochondritis which is chest pain. Accordingly, there must be another explanation for the way Tazawa has struggled for the entire season. Pitching coach Juan Nieves spoke more closely to that reason when he said Tazawa needs time off not for his chest, but for his head.

“He needs time off to make a mental adjustment,” Nieves said.

That would definitely be a great place for Tazawa to start. From there, he can work on fixing his mechanics. In order to compare an effective Tazawa to whatever this is he has become, here is a stop motion image of his fastball circa 2014 and one of his fastball this year. Out of respect for any sort of injury Tazawa might have suffered recently, the second image is of a fastball he threw to a virtually powerless Yuli Guriel that got taken for a grand slam during his first outing of the season when he was pretty much undoubtedly 100% healthy, right out of camp.

In both images, the same pitch is being called for and thrown: fastball in. Tazawa has maintained similar velocity from then until now but the command is night and day. The reason for this appears to be that, probably not purposefully, Tazawa is throwing from a higher plane and arm slot which he cannot control. At the apex of his leg kick which has gone from high to even higher, it is easy to notice that Tazawa’s glove is also much higher in the air his arm is at a much more horizontal angle and a lot closer to his body.

This is where Tazawa’s problems begin and stem from. From there, they get even worse. Where he used to swing his arm nearly straight horizontally behind his back while keeping the top of his hand facing the hitter, hiding his grip on the ball advantageously and leading to a fluid turnover of his palm, this new windup leads to Tazawa having to drop his arm straight down vertically, giving hitters a clear view of the baseball and his fingers followed by him barely getting his arm fully extended backward and a rotation of his wrist that looks forced. Where Tazawa used to almost literally sit back on his pitches, leaning all the way back on his back leg to the point that he almost falls over before powering through his delivery, he is now almost completely relying on his arm, barely transferring any weight whatsoever. This leads to him flying open to the third base side before overthrowing his pitches and throwing off his release points. The end result of all of those factors are pitches that miss his targets and wind up way out over the plate.

Opposing hitters are taking full advantage of this version of Tazawa, being patient early in counts, allowing Tazawa to get behind in the count early (he has a first pitch strike percentage of just 60%) and staying patient allowing them to work themselves into a favorable hitter’s count (he gets into just as many 3-0 counts (6.2%) as he does 0-2 counts), virtually disabling Tazawa’s once-filthy offspeed secondaries and making him rely on the fastball/forkball changeup combo which accounts for 79% of his pitches thrown. Between them sitting on his stuff and Tazawa misplacing it, guys are making contact at an 80.5% rate, including a 90% rate on pitches inside the zone, both career highs for Tazawa and recording swinging strikes 8.3% of the time, a career low. Deception and the ability to get in guy’s heads are completely gone from Tazawa’s game as he is only generating chase swings outside the zone at a 28.2% rate, another career worst.

Not only are hitters making contact often against Tazawa, they are making loud contact.

The average Tazawa pitch leaves a hitters’ bat at 89 MPH and goes 210 feet. The latter of those figures is the 21st-highest average distance in baseball, proving Tazawa has been lucky to not give up even more homers and thus an have an even higher HR/FB% which currently sits around 14%. Hitters are barreling up against Tazawa once in every five of their ABs. All of this proves that thanks to his .195 BABIP and the fact that he’s pitched in mostly pitcher friendly parks, Tazawa has been arguably the luckiest man in baseball not to have an even higher WHIP than his already mediocre 1.33 mark and his absolutely horrendous 6.60 ERA.

Even more fortunately for Tazawa and most unfortunately for the Marlins is that he has job security. Tazawa is under contract for the remainder of this season as well as next season. With it becoming more and more unlikely that he will opt out after this year due, the Marlins, who are paying him $6 million a season until 2019, need to hope Tazawa gets his stuff right ASAP. Upon his return from injury, Tazawa will almost certainly get a rehab assignment in the minors. What the Marlins do with Tazawa immediately after that will be a good barometer of where they are in the towel-throwing-in process for the year. If they are still playoff hopeful, Tazawa will work out his issues in the minors. If not, he will be allowed to do so with the Marlins, likely leading to more fans’ pain and suffering. Wherever he attempts to work out his woes, the Marlins better hope for the sake of not wasting $12 million that he is able to do so because right now, Tazawa isn’t worth 12 Yen (10 cents American).

Prospect Of The Month, April 2017: Kyle Barrett

Monthly Stats
Seasonal Stats
.330/.376/.372
.330/.376/.372
18/5 K/BB
18/5 K/BB
5/2 SB/CS
5/2 SB/CS

 

Jupiter Hammerhead’s outfielder Stone Garrett came into 2017 as the sixth ranked prospect in the organization. But through 22 games, Garrett’s Jupiter teammate, fellow outfielder and owner of a similar surname has been the one playing up to that title. Introducing our April Prospect of the Month, Kyle Barrett.

Kyle Barrett, a Georgia native, was born August 4, 1993 and spent his college days in Wildcat blue at the University of Kentucky. There, he spent three seasons amassing a .324/.386/.391 slash line with an 8% walk rate and 21 steals in 34 tries, beginning to lay the foundation for the type of bat he is currently becoming. Playing in the same conference as current top MLB prospect Andrew Benentendi, in his junior year, Barrett finished seven spots underneath the league leading Benentendi in BA, hitting .354. He also appeared just inside the top 10 in his freshman year when he hit .349.

Following the 2015 collegiate season, Barrett entered the MLB Draft and was selected 446th overall in round 15 by the Marlins. He signed on June 19 of that year and took his talents to Batavia to begin his big league career. However, the excitement of being drafted and the prospect of making a quick first impression soon came to a grinding halt. In his fourth game with the Muckdogs, Barret broke his right hand, an injury that cost him the rest of the year. Going from the high of being drafted only to, after just 11 ABs, land on the DL for an extended period was an experience Barrett admits was very frustrating.

“I was pretty crushed,” Barrett said. “I worked so hard my whole life to get drafted and it happens and I start my career off on the wrong foot.”

Even though Barrett was able to return for the start of the 2016 season and although he made the jump to full season ball strictly on a confidence vote by the team, he still wasn’t completely over the injury. Despite rehabbing during the offseason, the strength in his dominant hand still hadn’t completely returned and it showed. In his first 22 games as a Grasshopper, Barrett went just 12-72 with a 17/6 K/BB. For Barrett, it was probably the lowest he’s been mentally in his baseball career.

“It really affected me that off season because I really wasn’t able to hit without being pain free,” Barrett said. “I got the opportunity to go to Greensboro that year and I really struggled at first because I was out of baseball for nine months.”

However, despite a disappointing start to his career that lasted 11 months and must’ve seemed like 11 years, the pure talent of the grinder Barrett finally prevailed. On May 29, he went 3-5 with a walk and scored two runs in a 6-2 Greensboro win. It began a stretch in which Barrett would reach via a hit in 55 of his last 79 2016 games, a stretch in which he went 88/282 (.312 BA).

“I finally got some mechanical things adjusted and the success and confidence came,” Barrett said.

After ending that season hitting .282/.333/.345, very respectable considering how the year started, Barrett got his second call up in as many years which was, all things considered, spectacular. This season with the Hammerheads, a 100% healthy Barrett has once again become the guy the Marlins drafted out of UK. Hitting at the top of the order, he has gotten on base in 20 of his 22 games and collected at least one hit in 19. He’s slashing .330/.376/.372 with a BA and an OBP that rank among the top 10 in the Florida State League. It may have taken him a little longer than he would have liked, but through determination and perseverance through adversity, Barrett has now fully arrived on the Minor League Baseball scene. Barrett was able to overcome the disappointing start to his career not only because of fantastic raw talent but also because of the understanding that in baseball, like any sport, it’s not about how the game knocks you down; it’s how long you let it keep you down that really counts.

“Baseball is full of ups and downs and how you overcome adversity,” Barrett said. “You can’t let one bad game from the day before affect the next game.”

Not only is Barrett’s bat exporting similar results to those he provided during his time at Kentucky, he is making them happen via the exact same approach and mechanics. Barrett and his coaches agree: if it isn’t broken, why fix it?

“My approach has stayed the same since I was in college so I’m really comfortable with it,” Barrett said.

Because of that comfort and the confidence he has in his game, Barrett is playing stress-free despite knowing that he is a few months of similar play away from a call-up to AA.

“There’s no pressure to keep hitting like this at all,” Barrett said. “I don’t look too much ahead on whether or not I’ll get called up; instead, I control what I can control and I make the most of it and don’t take anything for granted.”

During an average Kyle Barrett AB, there is rarely a strike that goes by without him getting at least some part of the bat on it. A stout 5’11”, 185, the lefty hitter minimizes an already small strike zone via an extremely quick snap swing which gives him the ability to wait out the break on pitches, select one he likes and drive it. At the very least, the result of a Barrett swing is almost always some sort of contact, even if it is just to foul off a tough pitch and the result of his ABs, nearly all of which last at least five pitches, either end with him on base or at the very least, with him inside of a pitcher and catcher’s heads, setting up his next chance. While most of Barrett’s hits go for base hits, he does have some hidden gap-to-gap power which allotted him 12 doubles in his final year in college and has already led to four two-baggers this season. As the 23-year-old completely reaches his ceiling, that number should increase.

On the base paths, Barrett exhibits great instincts on top of plus speed. Last year in Greensboro, he swiped 17 bags in 22 chances. This year, Barrett is already 5/7 in stolen base attempts. Barrett puts his plus jets to good use in the field as well where he makes good reads off the bat, runs good routes and exhibits an above average throwing arm.

With a swift singles first swing, some disguised strength, good speed and good outfield prowess, Barrett appears to be nurturing a skill set similar to Chris Coghlan and his personal hero, Brett Gardner. Excellent on-field play coupled with an outgoing personality and a sound head for the game make Barrett a great teammate and an extremely easy guy to root for. An all-around great athlete, it isn’t out of the realm of possibility for Barrett to reach the bigs by next season.

  • * This is Kyle Barrett’s second time being named Prospect Of The Month.