Last week, ESPN’s Prospect Guru (and noted board game aficionado) Keith Law released his annual list of top prospects and organizational rankings. Many of the Reds top homegrown players, for better or worse, have reached the big leagues, but Law sees a potential top-10 farm system if all goes right. The Reds are his 17th ranked organization and have two prospects—outfielder Jesse Winker (No. 40) and pitcher Robert Stephenson (No. 49)—on the top 100 list. I talked with Law about his approach to evaluating players, why the Reds value high-upside athletes, and what kind of prospect haul a Johnny Cueto trade could yield. And of course, we nerded-out about board games.
How much information do you have to gather before you feel confident in assessing a player’s ability?
KL: There’s no single answer, obviously. If I’ve seen a player a couple of times myself, especially over more than one season or calendar year, then I don’t feel like I need a lot. I’ll still talk to just about every team about all of their own players, but it’ll change the questions I ask. But players like Aristides Aquino on the Reds—I haven’t seen him yet. Hopefully will in the spring, but he hasn’t gotten out of short season ball, so I haven’t had a chance to lay eyes on him. That was a situation where I talked to people with the Reds and I talked to people that scouted— teams do scout the Pioneer League—and we get video of players like that. So I’m gathering more information because I don’t have the first-hand looks that I would like to have. In an ideal world, I’d see all of these players.
What do you think draws some organizations, like the Reds, to the high-upside, two-sport athletes as opposed to focusing more on safer options?
KL: I should at least say too, they do mix in the Alex Blandino types, so it’s not like they are taking the tools goofs and constantly whiffing on these guys. They prefer what I always say: always bet on the athlete. When a kid’s athletic, you can do a lot more with him. If you need to teach him something or if you need to change a delivery or a swing—you want to teach him to switch hit like they did with Billy Hamilton—if you want to teach the guy to make substantial improvements, it’s a lot easier to do with a kid who is really athletic. It also helps if he’s got some brains, but at the end of the day this is a sport. The best players in baseball tend to be really good athletes. I think also with the multi-sport guys, the philosophy has always been, they’re demonstrating their athleticism and they have more upside, more room for future growth once they are concentrating strictly on one sport. Now as it turns out there may be a second advantage to acquiring amateur baseball players that played more than one sport, especially for pitchers. They haven’t been throwing too much. If you get a pitcher who was also a high school quarterback or played basketball, maybe his arm is much fresher than a pitcher who was pitching 10 months a year. Maybe that actually ends up helping some of these guys stay healthy.
Reds fans have been searching for years for a long-term solution in left field. Do you think Jesse Winker can be that guy?
KL: I do, I absolutely do. It’s different. He’s not going to be a 25-to-30 home run guy in left, I don’t think. But I didn’t think Joey Votto was going to be that kind of guy either and he did develop power later. I don’t think Winker’s that kind of hitter. I think he’s much more of a high average, high OBP, use the whole field, lots of doubles, and he’ll run into 15 to 18 bombs a year kind of player. He’ll play pretty good defense in left, too. He’s not a super athlete but he moves around just fine for a left fielder. I think he’ll end up filling that hole for them and frankly, they need on-base percentage. Since Choo left, they really haven’t had enough of that in the lineup. Votto’s always hurt, Choo’s gone. Those were your two OBP guys. With Winker, it’s not passive. He’s incredibly fun to watch if you like watching a hitter with a plan, like actually trying to get in his head with what he’s doing. He’ll just take, take, take, and boom. He’s clearly hunting for something, but he won’t offer if it’s not what he wants. It’s not what I now call the Jeremy Hermida phenomenon, a prospect I always rated highly. Well he walks a lot, what’s not to like? The problem is, at 2-0 or 3-1, you get the pitch you want, you’ve got to attack. Winker will attack, I’ve seen him do it many, many times going back to high school. And he keeps getting better too, that’s the other thing I really like. I do believe that guys who have made improvements are telling you that they can continue to make improvements. The ability to make an adjustment is a real skill that not every player has, and he has it.
What does Robert Stephenson need to improve the most in order to find his way into the Reds’ rotation?
KL: He’s got to have better command. That means command and control, but for him it’s really command. It’s a little tricky because it’s not a super clean delivery, and if your delivery is not terribly clean, it’s a little harder to repeat. If you have head violence at the end of your delivery, which he’s always had going back to high school, if you’re trying to locate at a certain location on or near the plate, it’s harder to do that if your head is moving at the point that you’re releasing the ball. Also, he’s never really been a three-pitch guy. He’s always had such success with fastball and breaking ball, he hasn’t had to work enough with the third pitch. Those are two things that I think he can improve on, but it’s hard to do both at the same time. We want you to command your fastball more, we also want you to throw more changeups. He might have to go through one of those years where they tell him, Look, the next 10 starts, you’re not throwing breaking balls. You’re allowed to throw three a game, or something. They’re asking so much of him, all at once, and it’s part of why he’s a little lower on the rankings this year than last year. I think there is a little more reliever risk with him today than there was a year ago. Not saying that he will be a reliever, but say with any pitching prospect, it’s 80 percent he’s a starter, 20 percent chance that he’s a reliever. That balance has shifted a little bit in the reliever direction for Stephenson.
There seem to be a lot of Reds prospects that are fringe-y starters or relievers. Is there anybody that you are particularly confident in, aside from Stephenson, developing into a starter?
KL: I think [Nick] Travieso is probably a starter. I would probably say he has higher starter potential, but maybe not the same ceiling as a guy like [Michael] Lorenzen for example. Lorenzen or [Nick] Howard or [Amir] Garrett, you could put any of those guys in the bullpen and they’d actually all move pretty quickly through the minors at this point. But it’s only to the Reds benefit to work them as starters. Especially Lorenzen, who was essentially a center fielder in college. That’s the kind of guy where he comes in to pro ball and he’s got 40 innings pitched in his life. So he really could make a much bigger improvement. I’ve talked to scouts that have all seen him more than I have and there’s some of them that very strongly believe he will end up a big league starter. It’s just going to take more time because there’s so much more that he has to work on. He went from being just a guy who threw hard, now he’s got a better breaking ball and he’s going to continue to have to work on his changeup. He’ll have to be able to build up the arm strength, learn how to turn a lineup over for three times. The reliever risk with some of these guys, there’s so much more they have to learn to do between today and the point where they could actually credibly start a major league game.
Are there any issues in Billy Hamilton’s swing or approach that led to his struggles in the second half last year? (Hamilton hit .285 in the first half and just .200 after the All-Star Break)
KL: One big thing is that pitchers really found that they can pound him inside. It’s such an inside-out approach. Especially when he’s hitting left-handed and he’s trying to go to the left side of the infield because he can beat it out as well as any baseball player that I have ever seen. If the guy on that side of the infield gets a bad first step or just doesn’t read it right, Hamilton is on first. I understand that, but I think pitchers really started to pound him in more, recognizing that was a weakness. The game of adjustments did not work in Billy’s favor, where he tried to cover a little more on the inside then they could go soft away, and if he couldn’t do what he usually did—which is sort of Ichiro it to the left side. That’s a process. He’s gotten stronger, but he’s never going to be super physical. He’s got to continue to improve his wrist and forearm strength in particular. Guys are going to come in with 94-95 and it might have a little cut, and that’s hard to be able to just fight off. He doesn’t have to be able to put it in play, but sort of the Pedroia approach: I can’t hit it but I can foul it off. I’ll make you keep throwing stuff to me until you give me something I can hit. That’s going to have to be Hamilton’s approach, that’s going to be a big adjustment for him. It would also help if he were more patient, but I think that’s an experience thing too.
Are those fixable things?
KL: I absolutely think he’ll get better. I don’t know if there’s a superstar ceiling there, but the nice thing for him is that a marginal gain in his ability to get on base, however it comes, is worth more than that marginal gain for almost any other player because of how he can impact the game on the bases.
Who is the guy in the Reds system that, if he can translate those tools into baseball ability, he can be a good baseball player?
KL: I mentioned Garrett, who hadn’t pitched very much either. He’d pitch over the summer while playing basketball which was ridiculous. He was never going to be a basketball player. People were saying, ‘Does this kid not like baseball?’ He transferred colleges to keep playing hoops. He’s at least a big league reliever, but you never really know. He’s had the one year as a starter and actually looked pretty good, he’s a good athlete, the delivery is OK, he’s really just a two-pitch guy with very little experience. He could get better very quickly now that he finally committed to baseball full-time. Jackson Stephens, you kind of give him a mulligan, he was hurt coming out of spring training last year. He’s another one of those two-sport guys without a lot of experience. He’s got a pretty good arm, the arm works fine. Now sometimes everything works well and the guy still gets hurt. I haven’t seen Gavin LaValley yet, but I know [Reds Senior Director of Amateur Scouting] Chris Buckley and the amateur guys were pretty stoked where they got him, thinking this was sort of the Billy Butler profile, but was not as famous as Butler because LaValley was another two-sport guy in high school too. Just one of those hit, walk, hit for power, first-base-only types. Not that highly coveted in baseball because you’ve got to rake. If you want to play first base every day in the big leagues, you have to absolutely mash. But where they got him, they thought it was a pretty good value pick. He got off to a pretty good start last year, I’ll be curious to see what he does against better pitching.
What do you think the Reds could get in a trade of Johnny Cueto?
KL: It’s late [in the offseason], but say we’re having this conversation at Thanksgiving or the winter meetings and you’re asking the same exact questions. I would probably say they could get a three-prospect package where one is fairly elite—close to elite, top-50 type prospect—another very strong prospect, and then a sort of lottery ticket third guy, which everyone likes to add in the deal because the other teams will always give them up. I think they probably could’ve gotten that for him. Now, it’s trickier. Most teams have already filled out their rotations, set their budgets. The Tigers would probably love Johnny Cueto, but they don’t really have any prospects left to give up. But you could probably still get a pretty good two-prospect package. When you get into July, the market starts to shrink.
Do you think a top-50 prospect would be there in July?
KL: I think you’re more likely to get two lesser prospects in that kind of situation. I could be wrong and someone gets desperate. That could always change the calculus, some GM thinks he’s about to get fired if he doesn’t make the playoffs and different things happen.
I’m a board game fan myself and I know you’re a big board game fan as well. (Law keeps an updated list of rankings on his personal website.) If you had to compare the Reds’ farm system to a board game, what would it be?
KL: This is an answer that I’m going to take way more seriously than anything else that you’ve asked me. [Pauses] When you first said that I thought Power Grid [a game in which you build a power grid linking the U.S. and Germany] because it’s definitely a game where not everyone is going to really like it at first glance and you have to play it a little more to appreciate it, and I feel like that’s a little true of the Reds system too. It’d be very easy to one-look Stephenson and say, ‘It’s too many walks.’ And Lorenzen and say, “He’s just sort of a thrower.” And sort of consign them all to the bullpen. But if you look at that Reds system in a year, with basically the same guys, it could be a top-10 system. I really do feel like that’s the case. They have so many guys that are the athletes of somewhat limited experience. A year or two from now, if one of those reliever-type pitchers turns out to be a bona fide starter candidate and Aquino has a big year and LaValley goes to the Midwest League and pokes 23 homers. None of what I just said is all that unlikely. It could look a lot better, even without considering whatever they get in the draft next year or what they’d get for Cueto.
What’s funny about Power Grid is that—my wife hates it, she says it’s depressing looking because there’s a lot of gray on the card—but it’s one of those where the more you play it, and I’ve talked to people that have played it a few times, you really kind of appreciate it. You really get into it more. It’s a really sophisticated game. Of all the games with an auction mechanic, I think it’s the best executed one and tends to move very quickly. Anything with an auction can drag on, and nobody likes a three-hour board game session.