A Look At The Winter Leagues – AL East
Last week I posted the first in a series of columns profiling players who are participating in the Caribbean and Australian winter leagues. You can read my intro to the series here, but it’s worth reiterating with each successive post that I am not trying to draw definitive conclusions about these players based on their winter performance. The sample sizes are small and frankly I don’t know enough about the leagues themselves to be able to place these performances in an appropriate context. But I do think the winter leagues provide an opportunity to look at players either on the fringe of deep and dynasty league importance or out of the current picture altogether and ponder their potential relevance in 2015 and beyond.
I covered the NL East last week and I’ll look at the AL East this week.
Alex Colome – RHP, Enny Romero – LHP – Tampa Bay Rays
With Jeremy Hellickson shipped off to Arizona and Matt Moore working his way back from Tommy John surgery, the Rays currently have an opening at the back of their rotation. Two candidates to take the slot are Alex Colome and Enny Romero, both of whom have been kicking around the TB organization for a while. But for the fact that Colome is a righty and Romero a lefty, you could be forgiven for getting these two confused. They are similarly sized, have fastballs that sit in the mid-90s and can get up to 97+, secondary stuff that can make batters look foolish if you catch them on the right day, and histories of command issues. Each improved his walk rate from 2013 to 2014 but both project to be in the 10% range in the big leagues, which would rank near the worst among qualified starters.
By virtue of being out of options, Colome has the inside track to begin the season as Tampa’s 5th starter. Their usage in the Dominican this winter perhaps provides further insight to the Rays’ intentions for 2015. While Colome has pitched 27 innings over 6 starts, Romero has pitched 8.2 innings exclusively out of the bullpen. Colome has issued 11 free passes in his 27 innings (an acceptable 3.27 BB/9) and Romero has walked 6 in his limited work (an ugly 6.23 BB/9).
With Jake McGee on the shelf to start the season the Rays have very little in the way of quality lefties in the bullpen, so I expect Enny Romero to open in the ‘pen and stay there. If you play in an AL-only or deep league and your starting pitching is shallow, Colome is worth a look in case he beats out Nate Karns for the #5 job and pitches well enough to stick while Moore rehabs. The more likely scenario is that by mid-season he is a spot starter and a long man out of the bullpen, since the Rays added Ernesto Frieri and Kevin Jepsen this offseason.
Christian Vazquez – C – Boston Red Sox
Long known as an excellent defensive catcher, Vazquez’s trajectory began to change when he hit .289 at the AA level in 2013. He followed that up by hitting .279 in 66 AAA games to open 2014 and was called up to Boston in July, taking over for AJ Pierzynski as their primary backstop and hitting .240/.308/.309 in 201 plate appearances. That line leaves much to be desired but scouts are somewhat positive on his approach and see some untapped pop in the bat (think gap power, not over the fence) that doesn’t yet manifest itself regularly in games. Vasquez does make above-average contact on pitches both in and out of the zone and his 85.5% Contact% was 8th best among catchers with at least 200 plate appearances in 2014. On the other hand, he also led all catchers with a 57.2% GB%. True to his current profile, Vasquez has a .278/.369/.319 (not a typo) slash in 85 plate appearances in Puerto Rico, with only 3 of his 20 hits going for extra bases.
Despite appearing in only 55 major league games in 2014, Vazquez saved 15.5 runs with his superior framing ability, good for 7th best in the majors and second best on a per framing opportunity basis. That defensive performance and Boston’s otherwise potent offense should afford him the chance to catch regularly in 2015. In AL-only and two catcher leagues, Vazquez deserves some attention based solely on opportunity. Blake Swihart is the top prospect in the Sox system but he is destined to spend most of the year in Pawtucket. Boston had no other viable catching options on its major league roster until they plucked Ryan Hanigan in the AJ Preller trading spree. I would certainly not rely on Vazquez to be my primary catcher and he is unlikely to return any fantasy value beyond 2015 but you could do worse if you’re looking for a backup or injury replacement.
Rey Navarro – 2B/SS – Baltimore Orioles
Rey Navarro was 17 years old when he was drafted by the Diamondbacks way back in 2007. After appearing on Baseball America’s top 10 prospects in the Arizona organization prior to the 2008 and 2009 seasons, Navarro fell off the radar a bit as his raw tools failed to translate to the field. Like many young-for-their-level prospects, the primary knock on Navarro early in his career was his overly aggressive approach. He has made steady progress over eight seasons in the minors and posted a respectable 8.5% BB rate in 2014, complemented by a stellar 10.7% K rate. Navarro’s .282/.343/.435 line across two levels in 2014 also included a career high 12 HR. His current .304 average is 7th best in the Puerto Rican league this winter.
23 year old Jonathan Schoop is still developing but he was flat out terrible at the dish last season, including a reverse platoon split that resulted in a heinous 48 wRC+ against lefties. Schoop’s 16 HR are an obvious positive and his defense was decent but Navarro’s glove work at the keystone is probably as good as Schoop’s and I don’t believe his offensive game is all that far behind. Though Navarro hit righties better than lefties in 2014, it wouldn’t surprise me to see Navarro steal some at bats from Schoop if his struggles against southpaws continues into 2015. Add in Navarro’s positional flexibility – the O’s like him at 2nd but he has played a good bit of SS and a little 3B in the minors – and I think he is an interesting name in AL-only or deep leagues with long benches, where you could stash him and wait for an opportunity to arise. What you’re hoping for is the 2015 version of Yangervis Solarte – a switch hitting minor league free agent with a good hit tool and ability to play multiple positions who gets an opportunity and plays well enough to deliver some return on a free investment at a shallow position.
Anthony Alford – OF – Toronto Blue Jays
Anthony Alford is a loooooooong ways off but he’s a name to file away based on athletic ability alone. The 20 year old former third round pick with first round talent has played only 25 games since being drafted in 2012 because he’s also been playing college football. He led Southern Miss in total offense as a freshman then transferred to Ole Miss, where he played safety and returned punts early this season before quitting football to focus on baseball full time. The time away from the diamond leaves Alford with a good bit of forfeited development relative to his peers but he has the raw talent to make up for lost time quickly.
Unsurprisingly for a guy playing baseball as a way to kill time between football seasons, the hit tool needs a great deal of work. Alford has a .234/.340/.383 line across 110 plate appearances in his four brief stints in rookie and short-season ball. The willingness to take a walk and get his elite speed on the base paths is encouraging and he has raw power to dream on but he is also sporting an unsightly 28.2% K rate. Alford has posted a similar slash in 84 plate appearances in the Australian winter league (.222/.333/.361) and has continued to strike out at an alarming rate (33.3%), including three golden sombreros. It’s hard to imagine a league deep enough to make Alford relevant right now but if the hit tool begins to improve in 2015, the helium watch will be on.