Armchair Evaluation – University of Florida LHP A.J. Puk

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Saturday afternoon I took advantage of the rainy weather outside to watch the visiting Vanderbilt Commodores play the host University of Florida Gators.  Considering the 2016 MLB Draft is less than a month away, I wanted to seize this opportunity to watch two top-10 teams loaded with potential early round draft prospects.  In particular, I wanted to perform an Armchair Evaluation of Florida’s Saturday starter, and projected top draft choice, LHP A.J. Puk.

Facing a difficult and talented Vanderbilt lineup, Puk pitched 6 impressive innings, allowing 1 earned run on 3 hits and 2 walks against 11 strikeouts.  Puk threw 110 pitches against the 23 batters he faced, (64 strikes / 46 balls), inducing 3 ground outs and 4 fly outs.  Essentially Puk made one mistake, allowing only a solo home run in the 2nd inning to talented freshman Julian Infante.

The monstrous 6-7 230lbs. Puk utilizes a semi-windup, with a simple side step that leads into his high leg kick and delivery toward home.  Puk throws from a three-quarter to high three-quarter arm slot and has a noticeably fast arm.  His immense size, along with a reasonable amount of excess movement in his motion, causes him to struggle repeating his delivery.  Puk has a lengthy arm stroke with a mild arm-wrap, which further limits his ability to command the strike zone.

On this afternoon Puk featured a quality 3-pitch repertoire, including a fastball, slider and changeup.  His fastball consistently sat 92-97mph on the television radar gun with excellent life and the occasional movement to his arm-side.  The slider was 80-85mph with good two-plane movement and 2-to-8 action, which he could throw for strikes or in the dirt to induce whiffs.  Additionally Puk threw a handful of inconsistent upper-80s changeups, some with some movement away from righties and others resembling batting practice fastballs.  As mentioned above, Puk struggles with below-average command and control of the strike zone due to his inconsistent mechanics, which limits the overall quality of his stuff.  Currently Puk possesses an easy “60/65” fastball, a “55/60” slider and perhaps a “30/35” changeup.

This outing gave a terrific synopsis of Puk as a prospect, as his strengths and weaknesses were fully exposed by Vanderbilt.  The “starter kit” with Puk is quite impressive as a lefty with legitimate mid-to-high 90s velocity, a mountainous frame ideal for a starting pitcher and the potential for two plus or better pitches.  Unfortunately his size works against him a bit, as he presently struggles to repeat his motion and arm slot.  In addition, his lack of confidence and the development of his changeup could hinder his ability to get professional right-handed hitters out.  However, his mechanical issues and changeup both should improve with professional coaching and repetitions.

His present velocity, frame and potential for two dominant pitches give him a floor of an impact late-inning reliever.  If he can improve his command of the strike zone and his changeup, the ceiling exists for Puk to develop into a #2 or #3 starter in the major leagues.  Puk should be an easy top-15 pick in next month’s draft, with a chance he goes inside the top-3.

NatsGM Draft Projection ->        Top 5-10 Overall 

THE NatsGM Show Episode #67 – Guest Craig MacHenry

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THE NatsGM Show Episode #67 is now available and we are proud to welcome from The Nats Blog and Nats Talk On The Go, Craig MacHenry!

This week Craig and I discuss the major events with the Washington Nationals.  First we begin by giving our thoughts on the shocking Stephen Strasburg extension announced during Monday’s game, followed by our opinions on the Bryce Harper’s ejection during the same game.  Next, we talk about Max Scherzer’s 20 strikeout game Wednesday evening, which happened just moments before we recorded the show.  Finally we wrap up by giving several Hot Takes on Daniel Murphy, Jayson Werth, Ryan Zimmerman and Saved By The Bell.

Please Rate & Review THE NatsGM Show on iTunes and Subscribe to the show as well, as this greatly helps the show.  Thanks to Craig for joining the show and to you for downloading!

Scouting A Baseball Stadium – Wrigley Field

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Last weekend I was fortunate enough to travel to Chicago to attend the Saturday and Sunday games at Wrigley Field between the surging Chicago Cubs and the 1st place Washington Nationals.  In addition to seeing Jake Arrieta verses Bryce Harper in-person, it was my first trip ever to visit the hallowed grounds of Wrigley Field.

In the midst of knocking this off my baseball “bucket list”, I decided to revisit a recurring column on this site, Scouting A Baseball Stadium.  Rather than using the traditional five scouting tools, I have broken down evaluating a stadium into five categories, namely Accessibility, Aesthetics, Affordability, Concessions and Fan Experience.

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Accessibility                       3 Out Of 4 Radar Guns

This is the biggest weakness of Wrigley Field, as its location within a neighborhood gives it less parking than the new stadiums built in the past generation.  That said, the train stops right at the park and there are dozens of individuals offering parking in nearby businesses or private residences.  Additionally, most fans seemed to arrive hours before the game to enjoy the festivities around the park, helping the potential congestion issues as well.

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Aesthetics                           3.75 Out Of 4 Radar Guns

There is a scene in the movie Rudy, when the father first sees Notre Dame’s football stadium and says “This is the most beautiful sight these eyes have ever seen” – I must admit to immediately thinking of this quote when I arrived at my seat and looked at the picturesque setting in front of me.

Wrigley’s location inside a neighborhood affords a nostalgic charm and the stadium has seen renovations in recent years giving it the look of an old park without the negatives of an old park.  The ivy on the outfield walls is unique and beautiful, the scoreboards are excellent, plus the views are generally unimpeded and spectacular.  Bottom line, this is the most beautiful professional stadium I have attended.

Affordability                     3.25 Out Of 4 Radar Guns

Chicago is a pricey city and the success of the Cubs has made tickets more popular than in previous seasons, but Wrigley Field seems to charge normal “big-league” prices for their tickets and concessions.  I went on Stubhub and bought tickets behind the plate for slightly above face value, a fair price for good seats to a weekend game.  There were plenty of people selling tickets outside the park and the number of rooftop bleachers outside Wrigley allows for a healthy supply of available seating.

The beer and food prices seemed slightly higher than other major league stadiums I have attended in recent years, although they give you impressive portions for your money.  While not a strength of Wrigley, I felt the prices were reasonable all things considered.

Concessions                       3.5 Out Of 4 Radar Guns

In terms of beer, one better be a big fan of Anheuser-Busch products Budweiser, Bud Light and Goose Island (a local former microbrew), as vendors are loaded with only these three choices.  According to Cubs regulars, there are quality craft beer options available, but one must specifically seek them out.  That said the number of vendors, beer and otherwise, in the stands was impressive and made it that fans never needed to leave their seat during the game.  The recent renovations made the concourses easy to walk and there are plenty of concession stands throughout the stadium.  The food options were a bit pricey and I did not notice a great deal of “novelty foods” popular at many stadiums, but this is nit-picking an otherwise solid effort by the Cubs’ organization.

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Fan Experience                 4 Out Of 4 Radar Guns

This is easily the strength of Wrigley Field, as the atmosphere is the most fun I have ever experienced for a regular season game.  From the number of bars and restaurants surrounding the stadium allowing the fans to properly “tailgate”, to the history of a stadium 100 years old, plus the tradition of singing “Take Me Out To The Ballgame” at the 7th inning stretch, attending a game at Wrigley Field is something to treasure.

Overall                               17.5 Out Of 20 Radar Guns  ->    A

I come away from my trip to with nothing but positive things to say after watching a weekend of baseball at Wrigley Field.  It has the charm of an old park, yet the amenities of most modern major league stadiums.  The fans are knowledgeable and generally know they are spending the day at a truly special place.  Wrigley is easily my favorite major league stadium I have ever attended and I cannot recommend strongly enough every baseball fan make at least one trip to these hallowed grounds.

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Analysis of the Stephen Strasburg Extension

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During Monday’s contest against Detroit, rumors began spreading and were confirmed Tuesday afternoon when the Washington Nationals and Stephen Strasburg announced they had agreed to terms on a 7-year contract extension worth $175 million.  Washington’s 1st round selection, 1st overall, in the 2009 MLB Draft, Strasburg was projected to be the top available free agent this coming offseason, making it rather surprising he signs this extension at this time.

The structure of the deal is somewhat unique, as Strasburg will earn $15 million per season from 2017-2023, with the remaining $70 million being deferred without interest and paid out at $10 million per year from 2024-2030.  In addition, the contract allows the 27-year-old Strasburg to opt out of the agreement after the third and fourth year.  Finally, he can earn an additional $1 million per year for each season he throws more than 180 innings.

After perhaps the most publicized collegiate career in a generation, it was difficult to imagine that Strasburg could live up to the pre-draft hype.  However, despite the cloud of skepticism surrounding his 2012 playoff shutdown, Strasburg has developed into one of the best starting pitchers in the National League.  Since his memorable debut in June 2010, Strasburg has a 59-37 record with a 3.07 ERA, 2.80 FIP, 10.5 K/9 and a 2.2 BB/9 over 825.2 innings pitched.

These fantastic numbers, plus his age, had Strasburg primed to be the top available free agent this winter in what is generally considered to be a weak class – this expectation, plus the fact that notoriously difficult negotiator Scott Boras is Strasburg’s agent, makes this extension both shocking and fascinating.

On the surface, it seems interesting that Strasburg signed for less guaranteed money than fellow comparable free agent pitchers Justin Verlander, Felix Hernandez and teammate Max Scherzer did in recent years.  However, the injury risk associated with Strasburg would appear to be greater than those pitchers or similar free agent starters, as he had Tommy John surgery in 2011 and has thrown nearly 650 innings on the repaired elbow.  Understandably Strasburg valued the opportunity to sign for seven years and guarantee his family’s future with $175 million.  Plus, if he continues to pitch in similarly excellent fashion the next few years and/or the salaries paid to free agents continues to skyrocket, Strasburg could opt out of this deal and sign another massive contract after 2019 or 2020.

Nevertheless, even considering the risk associated with signing any pitcher for seven years and the elevated peril associated with someone who has had Tommy John surgery, the Nationals seem to have gotten a relative bargain with this agreement.  Most experts (and myself) expected Strasburg to land a contract above $200 million this winter, as the best available pitcher and probable top available player, making this a value if one looks through that lens.

Secondly, Washington has locked up Strasburg’s age 28-34 seasons, and most specifically, his age 28-30 or 28-31 seasons, also known as his prime, before he reaches the opt outs in the agreement.  Rarely do players reach free agency before 30, meaning teams are often signing these superstars never receiving the chance to capitalize on their supposed peak seasons.

Finally, in an environment where teams are paying $8+ million in free agency for 1 WAR (Win Above Replacement), in sheer economic terms the Nationals need Strasburg to be worth approximately 18-21 “Wins” from 2017-2023.  Considering he has been worth 20.4 WAR thus far in his career according to Fangraphs.com, it feels reasonably plausible he would double this output over the rest of his career, even assuming for little to no production in 2022 and 2023.

While the potential for injury cannot be ignored or overstated, the team has structured the contract where unless catastrophe strikes, Strasburg should be able to be “worth” his contract if he stays for all seven seasons through 2023.  That said, the best case scenario for Washington most likely has Strasburg dominate on the mound for the next several years, then opt out and sign with another organization for his post-prime seasons.

Looking ahead, this deal guarantees the Nationals to have Scherzer and Strasburg, likely along with uber-prospect Lucas Giolito, fronting their starting rotation beginning next season through the rest of the decade.  In what has to be considered the biggest “WOW” moment in franchise history since signing Jayson Werth as a free agent, the Nationals have made a calculated and wise gamble in signing Stephen Strasburg to this extension.

NatsGM Grade ->            Solid B