RR Interview Club: John Sickels

Joe Robbins

Q&A with John Sickels of MinorLeagueBall.com

SBNation's resident prospect guru, and proprietor of Minor League Ball, just released his list of Reds Top Prospects.  He was kind enough to answer some questions from BK, Uncle Weez, and myself about this year's list, and the overall state of the Reds farm system.  You can buy his yearly Prospect Book at www.johnsickels.net

When you are grading prospects, how do you weigh upside vs. floor vs. results?  Is there one you weigh more heavily than the others, or is it a mix of all three?

For me it is a mixture of all aspects. I look at a player’s performance obviously, which generally reflects his current level of baseball skill, as well as his physical tools and how much projection his skills have to improve. Generally, the further away from the majors a player is and the younger he is, the more important his tools are, but the closer to the majors he is, the more important the skills are. There are some 24 year olds in Triple-A who have great tools, but if their skills are rotten their tools are unlikely to ever matter. But an 18 year old down in rookie ball, even if he’s struggling, if the tools are there he has time to improve the skills. Derek Jeter and Chipper Jones had problems in rookie ball, for example.

While I strongly consider tools, I probably weight performance more heavily than some other analysts. This has benefits in that it helps me get ahead on the “surprise” guys like Matt Carpenter or Allen Craig who tended to be downplayed in the minors because they didn’t have wow-tools.

As far a position players go, the Reds seem to have a lot of big tools/bad approach guys in their system.  Is this common in other organizations?  In your opinion, is plate discipline something that can be taught?

Yeah, the Reds have had this pattern for awhile, it seems like over a decade I think, gathering players with fine tools but raw approaches that don’t seem to improve much. But when it does work, it can really work. Jay Bruce was a tools guy who figured it out. I think most teams have this to some extent, but there are extremes on either end. As for whether plate discipline can be taught, that’s a very complicated question. I would say the answer is a firm “sometimes.”

I wrote an article about this issue last summer which explains my ideas in more detail.

Nick Travieso was drafted ahead of Lucas Giolito and Michael Wacha in the 2102 draft.  Did the Reds get too cute with that pick?  Is he on his way to becoming a bust?

It is way too soon to write Travieso off as a bust. Last year was like his freshman year in college. I know it is easy to second-guess, but let’s give him some time to work things out first. Comparisons to Giolito and Wacha are a bit unfair I think. Giolito was injured and it was unclear how much money he was going to want. I loved Wacha coming out of that draft, but even his strongest supporters didn’t think he would develop as rapidly as he did. Wacha was considered a more conservative, lower-upside pick than Travieso at the time of the draft, so I imagine that if the Reds had picked him, they would have been critiqued for not taking risks.

Michael Lorenzen made appearances at four different levels in 2013 (five if you count the AFL) and now has an invite to big league camp.  Did it surprise you that such a raw pitching prospect was promoted so aggressively?

Yes, it did, given his background as two-way player I thought they would be more cautious about building up his workload. The move to Double-A didn’t surprise me as much as the assignment to the Arizona Fall League did.

Henry Rodriguez has struggled mightily at the plate since his hand injury in 2012.  Now that he is a year and a half removed from the injury, is there a chance he can turn it around and become a productive major leaguer?

I liked Rodriguez a couple of years ago but he has really tailed off in Triple-A. I am not sure how much of that is due to the injury. He is still a prospect but seems much more likely to be a bench guy now than any sort of starter.

You have David Holmberg ranked #5.  Can you give us a major league comp for him?

I see him as a high-floor guy, someone who isn’t going to turn into Clayton Kershaw but who could be a solidly useful inning-eating starter, along the lines say of Joe Saunders or Travis Wood.

Pick your favorite out of these guys that missed the cut:  Ryan LaMarre, Donald Lutz, Juan Silva.

I think Silva is the most intriguing of this trio. LaMarre’s glove will keep him around but I don’t think he’ll hit enough to play regularly. Lutz is interesting from a personal story standpoint with the whole Germany connection, and he looks physically like a guy who should hit for a lot of power, but it hasn’t fully come together yet and may never do so. Silva doesn’t get a lot of attention but he’s got some pop, draws a lot of walks, and can swipe a base. He may be just a bench guy too but he’s the youngest of the three and I think the most interesting. Seeing him in Double-A will be illuminating.

What do you need to see from Jose Ortiz to add him to the top 20?

How much power will he show outside the Pioneer League? Will his plate discipline be a problem or will he make adjustments? Can he improve his abilities against baserunners? Need to see the answers to those questions before he gets into the 20s, but I do think he’s intriguing. 

With the team control issues of Ismael Guillon and the horrid control as a starter, is his most realistic path as a reliever?

Probably. Even as he currently is, with the control problems, he’s quite tough on lefties. 

Did you notice any major strides from Yorman Rodriguez this past season?

I don’t know about “major” strides, but he improved a little, enough to keep himself from losing ground anyway. He’s still very raw and at least a year away from being ready to contribute. This is very much a guy with excellent tools but marginal skills which may or may not get better. 

Can Phil Ervin stick in center? Winker in LF?

I think as he currently stands Ervin could play center, although if he loses speed when he gets older he would fit better at a corner. His arm is good enough to play anywhere. Winker’s range is limited but he catches what he gets to. I think he can play left field for now, but as with Ervin if he loses speed with age he may wind up elsewhere.

What can we realistically expect from Seth Mejias-Brean?

I am very intrigued with SMB. Although he played mostly first base last year, this was mainly due to roster reasons and everything I’ve heard about his glove at third is positive. He can certainly hit for average and his strike zone judgment is reasonable. He’ll knock doubles too, so it all comes down to how much home run power can we expect. He doesn’t have to hit 20 to be valuable. If you want to dream, you can see him as a potential Matt Carpenter type that sneaks up on the league but who ends up outperforming a hundred guys with better tools. There are some parallels there: both were successful college players but not high-slot draft picks. SMB has a better glove than Carpenter at the same stage.

That dovetails back to your first question actually. For me, it is more fun and more of a challenge to pick out the surprise sleeper players than the big obvious prospects that everyone knows about or the raw tools guys that never learn how to play. SMB could fit very well into that category of player that exceeds expectations.

***

Thanks again to John for taking the time to answer our questions.

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