As promised in the preview that was up on Wednesday, today marks the first weekly installment of the AZ SnakePit Top-30 Prospects List, beginning with the back end of the system's best young talent. For those who have yet to check out how this list was created, refer back to the preview for all of the details. Today's group of prospects shows one of the primary difficulties of trying to evaluate minor-league talent: the relative values of low-ceiling, low-risk prospects vs. high-ceiling, high-risk prospects. And if that clear, logical explanation of this problem didn't drive home the point, perhaps this awkward, strained metaphor will: a bird in the hand may be worth more than two in the bush if all birds are created equal, but is a pigeon in the hand worth more than two bald eagles in the bush? Follow after the jump to see what we think.
Dan: 21 / Michael : NR
Lots of other people have Cowgill rated much higher than I do - for instance, Cowgill slotted in at #20 on BA's PCL Top-20 prospects list, whereas Wade Miley failed to make the list at all despite having enough innings pitched with Reno to qualify. Still, as great as Cowgill has been against the pitchers of the Pacific Coast League, I can't help but take those numbers with a Mt. Everest-sized pile of salt when stacked up against the numbers he'd put up in the Cal League and Southern League the previous two years. Yes, a .354/.430/.554 line is absurdly good, but amounts to just a 116 wOBA+ in the PCL, and required a BABIP of .388 for Cowgill to attain. Particularly with questionable size, a tweener profile, and a history of pretty heavy platoon splits, it doesn't look like Cowgill has much more upside than the fourth outfielder he showed himself to be in the latter parts of 2011.
Don't get me wrong, Cowgill should make a heck of a fourth outfielder, and a great compliment to Gerardo Parra. He has demonstrated significant pop for his size throughout his career, solid plate all-around plate discipline and contact ability, plus defensive abilities in a corner outfield slot, and the ability to occasionally give Chris Young a day off in center field without crippling the team defensively. Considering the fact that Arizona used Willie Bloomquist as its fourth outfielder for much of the 2011 season, and has had to rely on such gems as Xavier Nady, 21-year-old-Parra, and Alex Romero in recent years to fill that spot, Cowgill should be a welcome addition to provide stability in that role for the next few years at minimum salary.
#27 (tied) - RHP Blake Perry
Dan: 22 / Michael : NR
Picked in the sixth round of the 2010 draft, Perry, like Tyler Green, received a well over-slot six-figure bonus to forego a commitment to the University of Kentucky and begin his pro career. Perry has a classic projectable power build, standing at 6'5" and currently listed at just 190 pounds. Perry tops out in the low-90's with his fastball at this point, but might have the most projectable frame in the system. His mechanics were very clean in high school, so while I can't empirically confirm that they're still similarly smooth, I see little reason why they wouldn't be. Like J.R. Bradley, Perry has a 1992 birthdate, and is just half a year older than Archie Bradley, so he has plenty of time to add muscle to his frame and velocity to his fastball while refining his other pitches and command.
Perry is mostly "what could be" at this point, but he nonetheless notched palatable results in the hitter's haven of the Arizona League, posting a 49:19 K:BB ratio in 63 innings, giving up 65 hits (a reasonable rate given his age and league), and sporting a 5.00 ERA. He also made a pair of starts for Short-Season Yakima at the end of the year, including seven innings of one-run work in his final outing of the season against Eugene. If the D-backs are satisfied with his progress in Spring Training, there's a chance that Perry could vie for a rotation slot in South Bend to begin the 2012 campaign, joining a fearsome rotation that should feature Archie Bradley, J.R. Bradley, and Tyler Green, and perhaps a couple months of work from some of the team's top college arms from the 2011 draft.
#27 (tied) - OF Wagner Mateo
Dan: NR / Michael : 22
Based on physical tools, Wagner Mateo ought to be one of the most highly-rated prospects in the D-backs' system, likely a top-5 bat in the system on pure tools along with Keon Broxton, Ty Linton, Chris Owings, and Matt Davidson. Mateo is an absolute monster of an athlete, sporting plus raw power, above-average speed, and a left-handed swing that has drawn more rave reviews than an Arizona sunset. So why the heck is this kid not in the top-10 in the system? Well, unfortunately for Mateo, his sweet swing has not translated to sweet contact nearly enough. Being a tool shed is one thing, but being able to put the bat on the ball is the point of the game, and Mateo hasn't been able to do it consistently.
The big question is whether Mateo's contact issues are due to him simply being raw and needing more plate appearances to develop his hitting, or if they're due to the well-documented eyesight problems that caused Mateo to lose over $3MM from the St. Louis Cardinals. Arizona was confident enough in Mateo's physical to give him a significant six-digit bonus, a rare occurrence for the D-backs, who are typically conservative in Latin America. He tore apart the Dominican Summer League in spite of his swing-and-miss-happy ways, but the transition to the states in 2011 didn't go as planned. Mateo hit just .228/.309/.379 in the AZL, striking out a staggering 88 times in 206 at-bats with 23 walks, nine doubles, two triples, and six home runs. Mateo was moved from center field to first base partway through the season in an effort to improve his hitting by giving him one less thing to worry about, although he likely projects as a corner outfielder if he hits enough to reach the big leagues.
In the end, though, it all comes down to strikeouts for Mateo. Few players survive as prospects when they regularly strike out three times in a single game in complex-based ball. However, there is reason yet to be hopeful, as his peripheral skills shone when you factor out his immense swing-and-miss tendencies - he hit for power when he did make contact, and he showed plenty of patience at the plate. Mateo is still just 18 years old (or so we believe - any falsified age reports completely destroy his value, as with most Latin American prospects), so he'll get at least another two or three years in the US to start making consistent contact (although another year of this kind of performance would all but kill his prospect status). 2012 could easily vault him into the top-10 in the system or take him off the list altogether.
#29 - RHP Tyler Green
Dan: 24 / Michael : 30
Outside of a completely random - and perhaps lucky, given his walk total - month of August, Tyler Green's season isn't difficult to figure out. Green's 2011 monthly splits:
April: 19 IP, 19:7 K:BB, 0 HR, 2.84 ERA
May: 15.2 IP, 10:9 K:BB, 1 HR, 3.45 ERA
June: 17.1 IP, 11:10 K:BB, 3 HR, 7.27 ERA
July: 27 IP, 16:10 K:BB, 5 HR, 8.00 ERA
August: 30 IP, 21:12 K:BB, 1 HR, 3.60 ERA
September: 5 IP, 2:1 K:BB, 0 HR, 1.80 ERA (one start)
Arizona initially slotted Green at South Bend as a starter to work on his off-speed offerings, expecting that he'd move to relief eventually. However, after having Green spend 2010 ironing out some of the effort in his delivery back in Arizona, they were so excited by the progress in Green's mechanics and his results in April and May that they began to be convinced - according to Nick Piecoro - that Green might have a future as a big-league starter. Try though the D-backs did to limit his innings and ease him into a possible starting gig, Green's lack of experience going deep into games (he was a reliever in high school) wore him down very quickly as the season went by, and Green's command seemingly went to the crapper.
It's the exact same pattern we see in the big leagues with young arms: pitchers get tired, they leave pitches up, those pitches get deposited into the bleachers. The only difference here is that Green's exhaustion didn't come from a 115-pitch effort, but a mere 35 innings or so into the season, even with mechanics that were reportedly much-improved from his high school days, although still not as smooth as those of, say, J.R. Bradley. At his best, Green can offer fastballs in the mid-90's despite his youth, complimenting it with an advanced curveball for his age, but a rudimentary feel for a change-up, as Green rarely needed to rely on deception while mowing through high school hitters as a power closer.
When I saw him, though, he topped out at 93 mph in the first inning and also was as low as 87 mph, in that same first inning, no less. The dreams of Green developing as a starter may have slightly waned as Green showed his late-season exhaustion, but since there's no rush for relief help in the big-leagues, they can give him every chance to succeed as a starter. Aside from building up the stamina to handle starting, Green also needs to work on developing a change-up and commanding his arsenal late into games. His upside in the rotation is significant, perhaps greater than a #3 with his big fastball and advanced curveball, while his upside in relief is either in the eighth or ninth inning and carries substantially less risk of breakdown.
#30 - RHP Kyle Winkler
Dan: NR / Michael : 25
Ladies and gentlemen, allow me to direct you to Exhibit 32,578(z) as to why the NCAA needs to crack down on college baseball coaches serving their own interests over the interests of their players. A year ago, the Ace at the head of the TCU rotation was left-hander Matt Purke, the fireballing stud who was forced to pass on a $6MM bonus from the Texas Rangers because MLB didn't think too highly of the Rangers spending money while, y'know, being bankrupt and all. Purke, projected to be a top-3 pick in the draft prior to the college season, was worked into the ground by the Horned Frogs, and just two years after thinking he was a multimillionaire, he is trying to regain the velocity in his left shoulder that once made him one of the top two prospects in college baseball. Drafted by the Washington Nationals in the third round of the 2011 draft, Purke had to swallow a steep drop in bonus money - to less than $3MM - and his chances of reaching the big leagues are significantly diminished because of his time at TCU.
With Purke shelved for most of 2011, it was Kyle Winkler that stood up and offered the future of his right arm to Horned Frogs coach Jim Schlossnagle. Schlossnagle did what he does best - he fried Winkler's arm too, as the 5'11" right-hander was worked relentlessly, resulting in the career-derailing elbow pop Winkler felt in his last start before the 2011 draft,
requiring Tommy John surgery (edit: not requiring TJ, but still horrifying clubs who were considering him in the top fifty picks, h/t Dbacks fan in Taiwan). With one pop, Winkler fell from a likely supplemental round pick to a 10th-rounder, landing in Arizona with the 304th overall pick. The short power-sinkerballer received well over-slot bonus money from the D-backs, but there are still questions as to what role he'll eventually serve in pro ball. He has an advanced, three-pitch arsenal - including a change-up and a breaking ball - to be a mid-to-back-end innings eater at the big-league level, but with his frame and a suddenly-large history of arm troubles, a safer development as an eighth-inning reliever would also make a good deal of sense. This all, of course, assumes that Winkler is able to come back from his arm troubles with the same heavy sink and zip he possessed prior to going on the shelf.
There you have it, the back end of this year's AZ SnakePit Top-30 Prospects List. The fact that the system arguably has 25 prospects who are more valuable than any of these prospects listed here - including someone who has already established himself as a quality big-league bench player - speaks volumes to the incredible depth of the farm system. As exciting as the cream of the system is - and it is exciting - the depth of the system could be just as important for the future of this club.