A few times a year, writers from Future Sox catch affiliates playing live. We interview players, take video of batting practice and the game, and most importantly get to see the players in live game action. By doing all that, we get a feel for the prospects that goes far beyond what you see in the box score. This article is the game story, with some video, a few quotes and scouting information. The interviews will be published in full in a later post.
Our first visit of the regular season this year took us to Charlotte to catch the Knights. Before I even get into the game or the players, it's worth noting that BB&T Ballpark (which debuted in 2014) is a gorgeous facility. Very few minor league teams at any level have a place like this, if any. If you get a chance to catch a game there - do so. Here's a view from the seats...
Now onto the game, which the Knights won 10-4 riding Carlos Sanchez' ridiculous hot streak. Sanchez, who had yet to homer this year, hit one from each side of the plate in his 4-4 day. He's now reached base in ten consecutive plate appearances, going 9-for-9 with 2 HR and 3 2B in the past two games, to up his season average to a blistering .407. In comments after the game, Sanchez said that during this last at bat, he was thinking about the triple for the cycle but really just wanted to drive the ball and drive in a run (which a 3-run home run will certainly do).
Sanchez' hot hitting, added to his already-established strength defensively, give the White Sox a "good problem to have" between Sanchez and Micah Johnson. One option the club has is to start playing Sanchez a bit at 3B (he's been mostly at 2B thus far, along with some SS), given the struggles of Conor Gillaspie. But with Davidson having a bit if a resurgence, that may not be a regular option. I asked Knights manager Joel Skinner about playing Sanchez more at positions other than second base after the game, and he said that Sanchez would play in spurts at other positions and move around. He didn't speak to the 3B question specifically though.
Let's next go over some video and scouting notes from batting practice and the game, focusing on some specific key prospects.
THE STARTER - Chris Beck
Chris Beck got the start in this one - sans glasses this time (looks like the spectacles from last start was a one-time thing). His sinking fastball opened with its usual quality and velocity, and then some; running 92 to 95 and even touching 96, which is more than I've seen reported before for him (confirmed some readings via a second scout gun to be sure). That fastball also made up the great majority of his pitches early on, with only a couple sliders and changes mixed in (SL mid-80s, CH low 80s). Here's an early at bat against Austin Romine, working the fastball heavily and finishing with a 95...
The delivery is high effort, maybe a little more so than in previous looks, and he falls off the mound pretty dramatically to the 1B side as he often has. But even early in the game he was leaving more pitches up than we'd seen before, which isn't a great thing for a sinker-baller. His fastball was fast enough and had enough movement that he was able to still be effective with it, and when it was down it was quite good. Talking with manager Joel Skinner after the game, it sounds like he did get it down much more often than he had in his previous start when he struggled.
Then we get to the later innings. The fastball velocity starting ticking down a bit, which may just be an April thing since we've seen him hold velocity for 6-7 innings just fine before. Catcher Kevan Smith starting calling a lot more of the slider, change, and even the curve (which Beck hadn't used much in previous looks), working backwards into the fastball, which if course is the right choice in that scenario. Here's a later inning at bat against Tyler Austin, where he opens with a change, goes two fastballs, then gives up a hit on the change at the end (and you can see his reaction after the hit)...
What I didn't get much of on the video was his slider, which had some nice break (based on monitor viewing from the press box), but he tended to leave it up occasionally. Jose Pirela, a major leaguer on rehab assignment, crushed a hanging one for the home run Beck gave up. Most of the hits he gave up were on offspeed pitches. That slider is a work in progress, but it utlimately is the key to his future success. Even in relief, his fastball (which is quite good) and change-up (which can be good but wasn't great on this night) combination is probably not enough. The breaking pitch will have to be more than a show-me offering and he'll have to keep it down.
Two other pitchers made appearances. Javy Guerra is on rehab assignment, and looked like he is back to health. The fastball ran 91-93 (he can run it higher but didn't appear to be rearing back for more in this case), and the breaking pitch in the mid-80s.
Jairo Asencio is interesting. Formerly known as Luis Valdez, this now-probably 31 year old was an offseason addition to the club and has 55.2 MLB innings to his name. He'd been doing quite well so far for Charlotte, until this game where he got hit around a bit. He's got a four-seam fastball that ran 93-95 and a two-seamer around 89-90, but neither pitch moved much and both got hit. He had two offspeed pitches, but they seem stacked in an abnormal velocity pairing. The pitch in the mid-80s which I'm pretty sure was a change-up had some nice fade and was his most effective pitch. He also had a low 80s breaking pitch that was unremarkable.
Matt Davidson had a very tough year in 2014, rattled by some tough events in his life off the field and struggling mightily on it. So far in 2015 he's making a rebound, improving defensively and hitting for a better average and some power (though still striking out quite a bit). On the hitting side, the resurgence may seem unsustainable when you look at his strikeout rate (and maybe it is), but you have to watch the games to see that it's truly supported by a real change in approach. Reports had been that he'd been focusing his hits gap to gap, and going up the middle or oppo quite often. I watched him in batting practice, and sure enough he was not only doing that when others were, but he stuck with that approach even in the final sessions when other players were going to their power and pull mode. The right-handed batter was driving the ball with authority up the middle and to right-center. Here is a video of him in BP...
Defensively, Davidson was putting in extra work today at 3B, which may be what is resulting in the improved play at the hot corner. Here's a short clip of him taking a couple grounders...
It is too early to say if these improvements will put him in a position to succeed in the majors, but certainly they are steps in the right direction. You'll be able to read what he said during my interview with Matt when we publish that in a few days.
After repeating some similar negative patterns for a couple years in AA, Trayce Thompson has opened the AAA season with authority and may have turned a corner. This toolsy outfielder didn't play any fall or winter leagues this past offseason for the first time in years, but he did make some changes in his stance and approach working with Jim Thome, Vance Law and Rob Sasser over the winter. His hands are more relaxed in his approach, and the swing is looking smoother. Here are videos of Trayce in the cage, and during the game (though he jams himself in the game video)...
Thompson is so long-limbed that at first he doesn't appear to have huge bat speed. But after you watch him for a while, focus on the hands, and listen to the sound of the ball off his bat, it becomes clear that power is quite real. When some players hit the ball, it just seems to carry further than you expect it to every time, and Thompson falls into that category. There's no questioning this tall outfielder's athleticism, speed and natural power. He made a perfect throw from right field on a would-be sacrifice fly that ended up as a 9-2-6-2 DP when they caught a trailing runner in a run-down. If the changes he's made can also improve his contact rate and consistency in approach, he could be a contributor in the majors this year.
Drafted in the 29th round and playing a little old for level at each stop, many people have dismissed Jason Coats as a prospect. But he's a good example of a player that looks more and more interesting as you dig deeper, and you'll see why he was promoted to AAA after only a brief stop in AA. Coats was at one time a single-digit-round draft prospect, until he blew out his knee in his senior year. That injury not only cost his draft stock, it also meant he missed a rookie season of pro development. Coats doesn't have any one plus tool but does almost everything well - high contact rate, tons of gap power and some HR power, has some speed, plays a very good corner OF and can play center in a pinch, and has a strong and accurate arm. The only weakness in his game is a lack of walks, but he does work counts. The swing is level, and hands are surprisingly quick when you see him hit up close. Here are two videos, one from BP, the other from the game...
It appears Coats has at least the tools and skills to be a 4th outfielder in the majors, and might even be able to break into a starting role on the corners at some point. He's had a pattern of reaching a new level, hitting for average first (and not walking), then adding power and walks as he adjusts. If he does that again in Charlotte this year, he'll be on the radar.
Finally we have Dan Black, who like Thompson has been in the system since 2009. But Black is also going to turn 28 this year. He doesn't look like your typical professional ballplayer, and seeing him walk around with the other players he stands out. You may wonder how it is that, except for a blip in his first AAA trip last year, this guy put up such prolific offensive results year after year (and has even stolen 24 bases in his career). Black has reached base in every game he's played so far this year, and he draws a lot of walks.
Then he gets in the cage. Despite being surrounded by players who are or were considered high end prospects, it was Dan Black who put on the biggest show in BP. More so than anyone else who stood in today, this was the hitter that players stopped what they were doing to watch hit. He sent a couple balls fully out of the stadium from the left side. He wags the bat around before the pitch and makes you wonder about getting around fast enough, but he puts a serious charge on the ball. During the game, he reached out to slap a pitch off the outside part of the plate, which he hooked about 320 feet foul down the RF line. Here is a game video (couldn't get the BP vid because of the crowd of players in the way)...
It's tough to call a 27/28 year old minor league 1B a prospect, but the reality is that if a guy like Jose Abreu or Adam LaRoche goes down with injury today (which, please, no), Black may be the best guy to call up. And isn't that one definition of a prospect?
***Look for an article with interviews of six Knights coming in a few days***
***Big thanks to Tommy Viola, Alec Scearcy and the Knights for working with us to get this information***
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