Armchair Evaluation – Washington Nationals Blake Treinen

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Due to a run of mediocre starts from the rotation and having an overtaxed bullpen, over the weekend the Washington Nationals promoted right-handed reliever Blake Treinen from Triple-A Syracuse to bolster their relief corps.  To make room on the roster, the Nationals were forced to demote breakout pitcher Aaron Barrett to the minors.  Similarly to Barrett, Treinen made quite an impression during spring training, striking out 9 hitters in 9.2 innings and flashing mid-90s velocity with heavy sink on his fastball.

Treinen was the Oakland Athletics 7th round pick in the 2011 draft from South Dakota St., and was one of three players (including A.J. Cole and Ian Krol) Washington acquired in the Mike Morse 3-way trade to Seattle in January 2013.  The 25-year-old Treinen is a large man, listed at 6-5 215lbs, and his delivery generates excellent momentum, which makes the ball difficult to see for opposing hitters.  Treinen has been almost exclusively used as a starting pitcher in the minor leagues, with a notably low 2.3 BB/9 ratio and 0.7 HR/9 for his career; these numbers could portend a solid career as a reliever and partially explains why the Nationals promoted him to bolster the overworked bullpen. 

Treinen made his major league debut in the 6th inning Saturday evening in relief of Taylor Jordan, and blanked the Braves for 2 innings, allowing 0 runs on 2 hits with 1 strikeout.  Treinen needed only 30 pitches against the 8 hitters he faced, throwing 20 strikes against 10 balls, and inducing 2 ground outs and 2 fly outs.  Treinen flashed a strong 3-pitch mix, relying heavily on a 96.09mph sinker, while showing an 85.74mph slider and an 84.74mph curveball.   He threw 26 sinkers, 2 sliders and 2 curveballs on his appearance.  (Thanks BrooksBaseball.net)

Treinen overwhelming the Braves lineup with his mid-90s fastball with heavy sink that they could not seem to square up.  He knows his strength and relies on his plus fastball, but he did flash a sharp biting slider to strike out Chris Johnson.  His monster sinker and massive frame have gotten him to the big leagues, but the quality and consistency of his off-speed pitches will determine his eventual role.  If his slider continues to improve in quality and consistency, in addition to his plus sinking fastball, Treinen projects as a high-leverage late-inning reliever. 

Certainly one appearance and 30 pitches falls squarely in the category of small sample size, but it is difficult not to be impressed with this initial appearance from Blake Treinen and intrigued by his future potential.  It is not often a team can acquire a pitcher with a plus fastball and a potential above-average slider, especially as the supposed 3rd player in a trade.  But the Nationals have found a gem in Treinen, and a player who figures to be a big piece of their bullpen in the future, perhaps as soon as this season.    

Scouting the Potomac Nationals

Thursday morning I was lucky enough to take in a game between the visiting Lynchburg Hillcats, the High-A affiliate of the Atlanta Braves, as they played a getaway game against the home Potomac Nationals.  It was middle school science day, so the stands were filled with youngsters extremely boisterous about not being in school and soaking up the outstanding weather.  In a well-played contest between each team, the P-Nats were fortunate to send the crowd home with a victory 7-5 in the series finale.  These are some of my scouting notes about the members of the Potomac squad.

Ronald Pena

Ronald Pena      RHP       Potomac Nationals

The Nationals 16th round pick in 2012, Pena served as Potomac’s starter on Thursday and immediately impressed with his tall, lean, athletic build and noticeably fast arm.  The 22-year-old Pena has a near ideal pitchers frame at a listed 6-4 210lbs. with room to add another 15-25 pounds in the future.  His arsenal Thursday consisted of a 90-92mph fastball, touching 93mph, an 80-82mph changeup with nice sinking action, and a below-average 72-75mph curveball.  I was particularly impressed with his changeup, which at times baffled left-handed hitters and caused them to flinch at the plate. 

Pena has plenty of effort in his delivery, and struggles with his command as evidenced by his career 3.39 BB/9 ratio, meaning he could be destined for the bullpen.  The raw tools are there for him to continue to rise in the organization, and if he sees an uptick in his stuff as he fills out physically, Pena could blossom into a possible major leaguer.  The Nationals’ Scouting and Development people should be commended for finding a talented, projectable arm like Pena so late in the draft.

 Pena

Long one of my favorite sleeper prospects in the Nationals system, right-fielder Brandon Miller impressed me again in this appearance.  Miller, the Nationals 4th round pick in 2012, has impressive physical tools but his difficulties working into a favorable counts and swing-and-miss tendencies cause him to struggle to allow his power to play in game situations.  Also, Miller lost considerable weight last season, which sapped much of his power in the later part of the year.

In particular Thursday, in Miller’s 3rd at-bat of the game he worked the count to 2-0, before taking a monster cut at an 87mph fastball that he just missed.  However, the next pitch he shortened his swing and still hit an opposite-field home run down the right field line.  This adjustment shows he has matured as a hitter, which could help boost his batting average and allow his prodigious power to appear more often.  Not to mention he has added much of the weight he lost last season and looks physically solid.  Remember the name Brandon Miller, as he has the tools to be a solid major league right fielder if things come together for him. 

  Bacus

Dakota Bacus, the prospect the Nationals acquired last summer from Oakland for Kurt Suzuki, entered the game in relief of Pena and blanked the Hillcats in his three innings of work.  Bacus featured an 88-90mph fastball and an 82-85mph slider with late break that resembled a hard cutter, in addition to a changeup, and a curveball.  In addition to having one of the better names in baseball, I was impressed with how Bacus pounds the strike zone and never threw a straight pitch.  His lack of top-end velocity likely limits his ceiling, but Bacus has a good chance to continue climbing the minor league system in future years. 

Another name that quickly caught my eye was Oscar Tejeda, a former top prospect in the Red Sox organization, who was playing third base and batting third for Potomac.  The 24-year-old Tejeda is an excellent looking athlete who can be described as a “tool shed”, with good speed, a strong arm, and obvious power at the plate.  After spending the last three seasons struggling with injuries in Double-A, I am somewhat surprised to see Tejeda playing for Potomac in 2014.  However, if he can stay healthy and make more contact at the plate, the Nationals could have a diamond in the rough in Tejeda.  This is a quality name to watch this year. 

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Serving as Potomac’s closer Thursday was Robert Benincasa, who overwhelmed the Lynchburg hitters in the 9th inning with a 91-92mph fastball with movement and an 80mph splitter.  Benincasa, the Nationals 7th round pick in 2012, locates his fastball well to both sides of the plate, and the movement on the pitch causes a large number of ground ball outs.  Now 23-years-old, Benincasa should continue to move through the farm system and looks like a future major league middle reliever. 

A Special Thank You to Bryan Holland and the Potomac Nationals for their hospitality. 

Armchair Evaluation – New York Yankees Masahiro Tanaka

After many seasons of dominating the Japanese professional baseball league, this offseason the New York Yankees seized the opportunity to sign the 25-year-old Masahiro Tanaka to a 7-year $155 million dollar contract.  Tanaka enters major league baseball coming off a 24-0 season in 2013 and with as much hype as any foreign baseball player in the history of the sport.

In his highly anticipated debut last Friday, Masahiro Tanaka made his first major league start against the Blue Jays, pitching 7 innings and allowing only 3 runs (2 earned) on 6 hits and 0 walks against 8 strikeouts.  Tanaka threw 97 pitches, 65 for strikes, and generally overwhelmed the Blue Jay lineup with his splitter and sinking 2-seam fastball.

Wanting to see him for myself, I grabbed a cold beverage and sat back to analyze Tanaka’s first start in Yankee Stadium, and second career start, Wednesday evening against the Baltimore Orioles.

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Building off his excellent start in Toronto, Tanaka overcame some early scuffles to pitch 7 innings against Baltimore Wednesday, allowing 3 earned runs on 7 hits and 1 walk against 10 strikeouts.  Tanaka’s major blunder of the night was giving up a mammoth 3-run home run to rookie Jonathan Schoop in the 2nd inning.  Otherwise, Tanaka needed only 101 total pitches against the 29 batters he faced, inducing 6 ground outs against only 2 fly ball outs.

Of these 101 pitches, Tanaka threw 71 strikes against 30 balls, while throwing 1st pitch strikes to 16 of the 29 hitters he faced.  During this start, Tanaka was featuring both a 2-seam and 4-seam fastball, along with a slider, a split-finger, and the occasional curveball.  He threw 30 4-seam fastballs averaging 93.11mph and 23 sinkers with an average velocity of 92.33mph.  Tanaka also threw 21 sliders at 85.33mph, 21 splitters at 87.75mph, and only 6 curveballs averaging 73.62mph. (Thanks BrooksBaseball.net)

After watching this start, both Tanaka’s strengths and weaknesses as a young pitcher were quickly exposed.  Positively, Tanaka is extremely athletic and has plenty of deception in a unique delivery that he repeats fairly well.  Tanaka also has a quality sinker with movement down and in to right-handed hitters, along with an inconsistent but above-average slider.  But the true difference-maker for Tanaka is his devastating split-finger.  His incredible off-speed stuff helped induce 23 whiffs in this outing, along with many awkward swings from the hitters.

On the other hand, Tanaka struggles to command the strike zone with his fastball, in particular his 2-seamer, as the outstanding wiggle on the pitch often forces it outside the zone.  Tanaka was only able to throw 1st pitch strikes to 16 of the 29 hitters he faced.  In addition, his 4-seam fastball is pretty straight and the batters consistently squared it up throughout the game.  When he was able to get ahead in the count, the hitters almost looked at the mercy of Tanaka and his breaking stuff; but when he got behind and had to throw a fastball, the Orioles hit the ball hard.

Overall I was quite impressed with what I saw from Tanaka in only his 2nd major league start.  Although his contract numbers and Japanese statistics say otherwise, I do not believe Tanaka is a #1 Ace  starter, mostly due to his mediocre fastball command and his lack of top-end velocity.  Nevertheless, he possesses an above-average sinker and slider, one of the best split-fingers in baseball, and a deceptive, consistent delivery.  If he can throw better strikes with his 4-seam fastball and/or get ahead of hitters at a higher rate in the future, Tanaka looks like an outstanding #3 starter, who can pitch like a #2.  The Yankees took on quite a risk with this contract, but they can afford the gamble and in doing so, added a cornerstone starting pitcher to their rotation for the rest of this decade.

Scouting the Hagerstown Suns and Rome Braves

In addition to it being the first start in 2014 for Lucas Giolito, Saturday’s contest between the Rome Braves and Hagerstown Suns featured many other talented prospects.  Certainly none of these players have the potential (or notoriety) of Mr. Giolito, but I wanted to highlight several other exciting prospects in the Nationals and Braves organizations. 

Drew Ward                         3B           Hagerstown Suns

Drew Ward

The Nationals 3rd round selection last summer, Ward skipped his senior year in high school to be draft eligible in 2013, and has surprisingly earned a starting spot in Hagerstown to begin this season.  Ward possesses a mouth-watering physique and as I like to say, he certainly “looks the part” of a future major league player.

Offensively, Ward has a pretty, but long left-handed swing, which when combined with his large size, should give him well above-average future home run power.  He will need to cut down on his swing as he matures in order to hit more consistent velocity, but I was impressed that Ward seemed to have a plan at the plate and a mature approach as a hitter.  Considering his age and lack of experience, Ward was a more polished batter than I expected at this point in his career. 

The Drew Ward

At third base Ward looks like a raw teenager playing in the Sally League, as he was somewhat clumsy defensively and made a poor decision to force a throw rather than simply eating the baseball.  That said, he has a strong arm and looks agile (and athletic) enough to play the position, so it could be a matter of refining his footwork if he wishes to stay at the hot corner.  But make no mistake, Ward is a bat-first prospect and his professional future depends on his ability to make enough contact to allow his prodigious power to show up in games.  The Nationals drafted a quality prospect in Ward, and I would be surprised if he was not a consensus top-10 prospect in Washington’s organization at the end of this season. 

Other Suns Notes:

Isaac Ballou, a natural center fielder who plays left field in deference to talented defender Rafael Bautista, has a good arm, excellent athleticism, and noteworthy pure speed.  In addition Ballou flashed some serious bat speed and pop Saturday night hitting a no-doubt grand slam to right field.  Stolen in the 15th round last summer as a senior from Marshall University, the Nationals have found an interesting late round gem in Ballou. 

Saturday was my first time watching Wilmer Difo, a 22-year-old second baseman the Nationals signed years ago out of the Dominican Republic.  A switch-hitting middle infielder with obvious speed, Difo is a prospect to watch in the Nationals organization. 

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Victor Caratini                   C             Rome Braves

The top prospect on Rome’s roster this season is likely Victor Caratini, Atlanta’s 2nd round pick last summer and a former third baseman converting to catcher in 2014.  And right on cue, Caratini immediately made his presence felt, hitting a monster 2-run homer in the first inning, turning around a 94mph fastball from Lucas Giolito over the right-center field wall.  A switch-hitter, the 20-year-old Caratini impressed me with his approach at the plate and balance through his left-handed swing. 

Defensively Caratini understandably lags behind his offensive skills, as he has little experience as a catcher.  Caratini is agile behind the plate, with a solid arm and a quick release.  Not surprisingly, he remains raw as a receiver and needs refinement blocking pitches, but I was notably impressed with how soft his hands were catching the baseball.  The package is raw, but the tools are there for an average, or perhaps slightly better, defensive catcher with plenty of repetition.  I am interested to watch him play next year and see his overall progress as a two-way player.

Carlos Salazar                    RHP        Rome Braves

Salazar

Saturday’s starter Carlos Salazar impressed me with his three-pitch mix consisting of a 90-93mph fastball, 79-80mph curveball, and a devilish 79-81mph changeup with impressive depth and sink.  Salazar struggled mightily with his command, walking 7 hitters in his 2 innings pitched, but showed glimpses of why the Braves selected him in the 3rd round last summer.

A thickly built 19-year-old, Salazar does not have much physical projection remaining in his listed 6-0 200lbs. frame.  In addition, there is plenty of moving parts and effort involved in his pitching delivery, making him a probable fit as a reliever in the future.  Those negatives aside, Salazar has an impressive present fastball/changeup combination and could blossom under the Braves’ tutelage as so many other young pitchers have in recent years.  Salazar is a good name to remember and could rise up prospect lists in the future.