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An Interview with Ben Badler of Baseball America

With the draft behind us and with short-season leagues starting next week, I had an e-chat with Ben Badler, who writes about the minors for Baseball AmericaBadler's most recent work at BA includes a preview of the upcoming international signing period and a writeup on top Dominican pitching prospect Michel Inoa. I asked him about the Pirates' draft and their minor league system. (In case you're wondering, I didn't ask about Pedro Alvarez because I figure there are all kinds of places you can get information about him, including a number of posts here. So some of the questions I asked were about players who are a little more obscure.)

Bucs Dugout: The Pirates took a number of shortstops, including third rounder Jordy Mercer, fourth rounder Chase D'Arnaud, and seventh rounder Benji Gonzalez, in the early rounds of the recent draft. Should this be interpreted as an attempt to address a lack of depth at the shortstop position in their minor league system, or is it just that you can never have too many capable defenders?

Ben Badler: Let me just start by saying that I am not a draft expert and will not pretend to have an in-depth handle on the draft--I'm mainly involved in our pro coverage and international coverage, with some interdisciplinary work sprinkled about as well. Jim Callis, John Manuel, Matt Blood, Aaron Fitt and Dave Perkin do an outstanding job covering the draft twelve months a year for us at Baseball America. There are a lot of people who like to blab and yap about whether a pick or a team's draft was good or bad and pretend to be draft gurus. That's fine, since that's one of the unique aspects of sports, and there are plenty of avid, informed draft followers. But these guys have cumulatively put in thousands of hours into their draft coverage. It really is incredible.

I don't think the Pirates' picks necessarily imply dissatisfaction with their shortstops at the minor league level. There isn't a team out there that's rich with middle infield prospects--the Rays have arguably the top shortstop prospect in baseball in Reid Brignac and just spent the first overall pick on Tim Beckham—and the Pirates have an interesting shortstop right now in Lynchburg named Brian Friday. The players who play in the middle of the diamond in high school or college tend to be the best, most flexible and projectable athletes. If you believe in the bat, they can always move to an easier position on the defensive spectrum. Or maybe you project a player to be an above-average defender at shortstop, maybe saving five to ten runs a year on defense, and you see some signs of life with the bat like bat speed, a sound fundamental swing or a strong knowledge of the strike-zone. Then you can draft him and let your player development staff help him develop his hitting, knowing that the offensive bar for shortstops is lower than any position other than catcher. I had coverage in Puerto Rico for the draft, and that might be what they see in Gonzalez, a glove-first shortstop with a questionable bat from the Puerto Rico Baseball Academy.

Bucs Dugout: Why did the Pirates spend so many of their early picks on college players? Might their preference for college players have something to do with their lack of talent in the low minors?

Ben Badler: It's possible, though it looks like they just went with the best player available on their draft board. There is some relevance in breaking down college vs. high school players for shorthand analysis and evaluating the certainty and volume of information at your disposal, but to me it's one of the most boring, exhausted topics that fans debate with regards to the draft. Each player has an expected value—whether it's a draft pick, a minor leaguer or a major leaguer—based on the probability of every possible outcome of his future performance. That primarily boils down to present tools or skills, ceiling and risk. And that's obviously an oversimplification. How each team calculates that expected value can vary significantly. Neal Huntington came over from the Indians, and if you look at their minor league system, it's somewhat college-heavy, but some of their best prospects—Adam Miller, Aaron Laffey and Nick Weglarz—were high school draft picks.

Bucs Dugout: What, exactly, is going on with second rounder Tanner Scheppers' shoulder?

Ben Badler: We've heard it might be a stress fracture in his shoulder. There are rumblings of a torn labrum, which if true would be a terrible sign for his future. A team almost always plays it off as just a temporary setback, but missing a year for any shoulder injury (or elbow injury as well, to a slightly lesser extent) is a significant problem due to the potential for further injury and atrophy of pitch quality, as well as the loss of a crucial year of development. Go back through old Baseball America Prospect Handbooks and find all the pitchers who have had labrum problems and see how many success stories you find. Well, you guys are Pirates fans… I'm sure you know exactly what I'm talking about. I don't mean that to be a smart aleck, it's just obviously a frustrating track record.

Bucs Dugout: How has Brad Lincoln looked in his first few starts at Class A Hickory? Does he still look like he could become a good starter in the big leagues?

Ben Badler: It was really unfortunate what happened to Lincoln, who I think had better expected value than any of the other high-profile arms that organization has drafted this decade. Finding a guy with a fastball that tops out at 98 mph and has plus sink that he complements with a plus curve and good control is very hard to do. Like I said before, missing a year with any arm injury is a major red flag. Measuring his progress based on any performance marks is going to be difficult because he's a 23-year-old playing in low Class A Hickory, though his one walk in 22 innings is encouraging.

Bucs Dugout: Will Andrew McCutchen's power develop as he ages?

Ben Badler: Right now McCutchen is already hitting for some pretty good power, batting .289 with a .446 slugging average, 15 doubles and eight home runs in 72 hits. That's pretty good for a 21-year-old in the International League. Whether he ends up becoming what most would classify as a "power hitter" isn't really central to his value. He's going to help the Pirates' run creation with his on-base skills and at least moderate power, with the potential for more. In the field he's going to add value as well with his contributions toward the team's run prevention because his speed and first-step quickness give him good range in center field. He's certainly one of the top handful of prospects in the game.

Bucs Dugout: Will Jamie Romak, who has had trouble hitting for contact in the past, keep hitting when he reaches the high minors?

Ben Badler: A lot of scouts will tell you that Canadian players such as Romak will develop later than comparable players from warm-weather climates. Romak has a patient approach at the plate an outstanding raw power, which tends to be a skill set that peaks early and fades quickly. Romak's biggest problem is that he doesn't have a strong fundamental swing. There are holes in the swing and he still gets fooled on offspeed pitches. Obviously batting average isn't everything, but his contact problems may be an issue at the higher levels. You would like to see a guy with more than 1,200 plate appearances coming into the season—with 355 coming at his highest level yet at Lynchburg last year—have a batting average higher than .241. Even a guy like Adam Dunn hit .301 in nearly 1,500 minor league PAs. I love the power, but I can't endorse him with much force until he performs at a higher level.

Bucs Dugout: Who should we watch for to graduate from the Dominican and Venezuelan Summer Leagues to the Pirates' minor leagues this year? Who among them are real prospects?

Ben Badler: The Pirates led the DSL and VSL last year in home runs, for what that's worth, and there's definitely some talent there. One guy who's with the DSL Pirates right now who's kind of an intriguing guy is Eliecer Navarro, a lefthanded pitcher from Panama. He's 20 years old, he's listed at just 5-foot-9 and he was in the DSL last year too, but he's got a pretty good breaking ball, good changeup and his velocity has picked up from the low-80s to about 88-90 mph. The early results have been pretty good this year too: two starts, 10 innings, three hits, no runs, two walks, 18 strikeouts.

The most interesting guy there right now is probably Melvin Charles, a 17-year-old shortstop from the Dominican Republic. He doesn't turn 18 until December and he signed last July for $100,000, so he's the highest profile guy there. Emmanuel De Leon, a 17-year-old lefthander, also signed last year, though for about half of what Charles got.

Bucs Dugout: What is Andury Acevedo's upside? Was his excellent performance in a very small sample as a 16-year-old in rookie ball last year indicative of real hitting potential?

Ben Badler: Man, you're not kidding about small sample size! You can't tell anything from just 18 plate appearances, unless a guy hits something like 15 home runs! There's very little meaning in 100 plate appearances. Even 200 plate appearances tell you a lot less than most people think. Acevedo's a shortstop now, but it questionable whether he'll be able to stick there. But he's got some tools—power and arm strength are his best tools it sounds like—and I hear he's more advanced than a lot of other Latin American players his age.