Ben Badler is one of the many talented writers at Baseball America, the standard bearer for all things prospects. Recently I asked him if he’d be up for some Q and A and he very graciously agreed to rap with us. I thoroughly enjoyed his answers and I’m sure you will as well. Thanks to Ben for taking the time out of his busy schedule to give us his insights on the Cardinal farm system.
For many of my readers, you would have one of the world’s best jobs. How did the job come about, and what all does it entail?
Thanks. It is a great job. I graduated from the University of Massachusetts’ Isenberg School of Management with a degree in sport management, which still shapes the way I think about the industry from an on-field, business and legal standpoint. From there I joined Baseball America. In my time at BA I learned a tremendous amount from Chris Kline before he left to take a job with the Pirates and from Alan Matthews before he accepted a position with the Rockies. And of course Jim Callis and John Manuel, among others, have been instrumental in my professional development as well.
During the regular season, I’m one of the people who help to coordinate our daily minor league coverage. Over the course of the 2008 season I saw players from the Appalachian, South Atlantic, California, Carolina, Southern, Eastern and International Leagues, and that’s not including players I saw at the Futures Game. Some of that is just a quick look at all-star games, but I get to see a large number of games during the season, bounce questions off scouts, managers and other field staff, just keeping an open mind and trying to gain as many perspectives as I can. In the middle of the season, I do the majority of the heavy lifting for our preview and review of the July 2 international signing period, when 16-year-old prospects from outside the United States are eligible to sign with major league organizations. As the season draws to a close, I write two of our league Top 20 prospects lists, and after the season I write two of our organization Top 30 prospects lists (A’s and Indians this year). In the off-season I also try to get going on R&D, either for publication or for internal/personal use to help make better player evaluations.
That sums up the most interesting parts, though there is more to do on a day-by-day basis. It keep me busy, but busy is fun.
I find Jeff Luhnow to be one of the more intriguing figures in all of baseball. What is your take on what he has done with the farm system on a whole, whether it be good/bad/indifferent?
It’s always difficult to tie the success of an organization or one unit of any organization to one person, be it a baseball team or any other company. There are so many people involved in evaluating players and making personnel decisions, and then there are other circumstantial variables (where you pick in the draft, how much money your owner will let you spend) that affect the on-field product, that to tease out the effect of one person can be tricky.
All my hedging aside, I’m impressed with what Luhnow has done in his tenure. The farm system is much healthier than it was four or five years ago. Their prospects generally aren’t going to blow you away with athleticism—that’s something I hear from scouts who cover the Cardinals system—but they have produced and grow on you the more you see them. Is it a top five farm system? Probably not, but the teams that usually have ranked among Baseball America’s top five systems have either gotten there by trading away big leaguers for premium prospects, having perennial elite picks in the draft or gone way over slot for players in the draft. The Cardinals haven’t had any of those circumstantial variables in their favor, yet the Cardinals have built a formidable collection of prospects the last few years.
One of the things the Cardinals did was greatly increase their spending on international players. What can you tell us about some of the new players they signed?
The Cardinals one-two punch of third baseman Roberto De La Cruz and righthander Santo Franco ranks among the best duo of Latin American signings by a team this year. I’m quite high on De La Cruz (you may have also heard him referred to as Robert Pina) based on the reports I’ve heard from scouts, who say that his bat is about as good as anyone’s available in Latin America this year. I don’t know if he’ll stay at third base—maybe you’ve heard that about a Cardinals prospect before—but it sounds like his bat has the potential to be valuable at any position.
Franco is more of a project, but a high-ceiling arm like his good to inject into the system. I don’t know whether he’s going to start next year in the Dominican Summer League or the Gulf Coast League, but even in the DSL it wouldn’t surprise me to see him go out and walk a batter per inning; he’s just raw right now and going to need time to develop as his body changes.
Valera was a big-dollar signing at $500,000, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the Cardinals push him aggressively—particularly if he starts out with a strong performance—but I don’t think other teams see the projection that the Cardinals probably see in him.
Speaking of international signings, it appears teams you normally would not expect to be major players in that market are doing so – Cincinnati, Oakland, San Diego, St. Louis – what gives?
Each team has its own set of circumstances. The A’s have become more aggressive in all aspects of amateur talent procurement, be it in the draft, the international market or through trade. I don’t know whether we should be expecting the A’s to be power players in the international market every year, but they identified one of the best 16-year-olds that scouts have ever seen and made a committed effort to put another premium pitching prospect in their farm system. The Padres started getting more involved last year and kicked it up another gear this year, and the Reds didn’t have a second-round pick so they had a little extra money to play with, though I think they’ll continue to be major players in Latin America in the future as well.
I think a lot of teams are realizing that an extra $5 million invested in the free agent market can buy you one marginal win for the next season; $5 million invested in Latin America, on the other hand, can bring a substantial ROI for an organization interested in the long-term view. Because of the salary restrictions placed on players through their first six years of service time, the surplus value that Latin American amateurs can provide for a team can be substantial. I’m probably preaching to the choir here—and I’m obviously not saying eschew all major league free agent acquisitions—but I believe you get more bang for your buck in Latin America than you get in the major league free agent market.
Colby Rasmus by all accounts had a down year. Any insight as to why he struggled, and how quickly do you expect him to rebound?
A scout and I had a conversation the other day about the way high-profile prospects develop today compared to 10-20 years ago. His point was that, if Colby Rasmus came through the minor leagues 15 years ago, how many baseball fans—even Cardinals fans—would know who he is? But in 2008, he’s gracing covers of Baseball America, he’s the subject of frequent fodder on FutureRedbirds, Cardinals message boards and any other minor league blog; people have probably paid more attention to Colby Rasmus in the last two years than they have paid to Skip Schumaker. And the same is true for several high-profile prospects, whether it’s Cameron Maybin, Andrew McCutchen or other high-profile prospects who are young for their level and oozing potential but experiencing some adversity. Look, talent is talent, so the best players (who stay healthy) will rise to the top. But prospects today come through the minor leagues with a lot more scrutiny than ever before.
In terms of on-field performance and true ability, I wouldn’t be concerned about Rasmus. All of the tools (except for health) are still there for him to be a star. Every scout I talk to who saw him this year raves about him. The PCL is generally a hitter-friendly league, but as Matt Eddy pointed out in BA earlier this year, Memphis is in the more pitcher-friendly American Conference and is one of the most pitcher-friendly parks in the PCL. So when you just look at the raw output at see .251/.346/.396, maybe that doesn’t blow some folks away relative to their expectations, but to me that’s a darn impressive performance given the context of his ballpark, his league and his age. I see a guy who controls the strike zone, doesn’t strike out much, gets on base at a good clip, will hit for power, plays good defense in center field and has star potential. So maybe it looks on the surface like he had a down year relative to expectations, but I think in context it was a fine season, and I see no cause for alarm projecting forward.
While we are on the subject of Colby, if you were GM John Mozeliak, would you deem him or any other Cardinal prospect as “untouchable”?
I don’t think an organization can say anyone is untouchable. If you don’t keep an open mind and leave your options open, you never know what offer you might miss. In reality, however, I doubt there is a potential trade for the Cardinals in which trading Colby Rasmus to another organization makes much sense.
Breakout Daryl Jones missed the FSL Top 20, much to the chagrin of much of many of my readers. What is your take on Jones, and why did he miss?
We’re not a group of homogeneous thinkers at BA, and I always try to avoid any opinion cascades, so I guess I might be a little higher on Jones than some others. For me, he’s the No. 3 prospect in the system behind Rasmus and Brett Wallace. Folks I talked to who saw Jones play last year came away underwhelmed in several respects, so he certainly developed in a hurry. He draws walks, he doesn’t strike out too much, he’s got power and he can run well. He put up excellent numbers in the Florida State League as a 21-year-old and had a small amount of initial success upon reaching Double-A. His outfield instincts make him sound like he might be more of a left fielder, which is definitely a concern, but have you seen the major leaguers playing left field these days? It’s a pretty poor collection of fielders, so Jones would negate some of the offensive requirements of left field with what would be above-average defense for a left fielder. There’s a lot to like with his tools and skill set.
Pete Kozma doesn’t seem to get much love with fans, mostly it seems because of the team passing on Porcello. What is your impression of Kozma as a player?
It’s hard sometimes for middle infielders who aren’t flashy athletes or tools monsters to generate a lot of excitement, but Kozma has very impressive baseball skills. Scouts have questions about how his tools and bat speed will play at a higher level, so he’s going to have to pass some tests in Double-A and Triple-A to win over some converts. I look at Kozma and see a player who could potentially hit .270/.350/.430 in the big leagues. That might not get too many folks riled up, but that’s a really good middle infield prospect.
Is there a player that you would compare Brett Wallace to?
I try to avoid player comparisons whenever possible. When scouts make comps, they are usually physical comparisons to give their supervisors who might not have the chance to see them a mental picture of what they look like. When fans see comps, they tend to extrapolate that the player will have the same career arc as his comp and have very similar baseball skills at the same age. But this is a longer shpiel for another day.
If I had to come up with one, I’d say there are some similarities between Wallace and Royals 1B/DH Billy Butler. They have similar builds, both have very good baseball skills and the ability to flat-out hit, though Butler might have a little more raw power and bats righthanded, while Wallace is obviously a lefty. Wallace is a better defender than Butler, but that’s sort of like saying the Whopper has more nutritional value than the Big Mac; the pro scouts I’ve spoken with haven’t been too kind to Wallace’s fielding skills at third base. Maybe he proves them wrong though. There are certainly folks who saw him at ASU who think he has a chance to stick at third.
What do you think Jess Todd’s ultimate role will be?
I see him as a reliever. You don’t see a lot of starters with the kind of short arm action in the back that he has. It has nothing to do with his size, for me.
Suddenly, the system appears to be loaded with power relievers in Perez, Motte, Francisco Samuel and Adam Reifer. To you, which of those players has the greatest upside?
For pure upside, I’ll take Reifer. Make sure you include Luis Perdomo in that conversation as well.
Who in the Cardinals system do you feel is the most overrated? Underrated?
That’s tough, since I work for the company that shapes a fair amount of the rating in the first place! In terms of maybe a player who I think the general blogosphere overrates, Jess Todd comes to mind. I think you can estimate talent fairly well (to a certain extent) for hitters based on performance record, but pitchers require a much more thorough inspection of their scouting reports, which is one reason that I think projection systems always fare better with hitters than for pitchers. There’s stuff to like there with Todd–he’s usually at 89-90 mph with his two-seamer, but he’s got a four-seam fastball up to 94 mph, a good slider and the ability to get some groundballs–so I think he has a role as a big leaguer. I’m just not as enamored as some in the blogosphere seem to be. Maybe I’m wrong, though.
Underrated? Maybe David Freese. He’s not going to get much better, but I think he could be an average big league third baseman right now if given regular big league playing time. He’s the type of player that runs the risk of being labeled a “Four-A” guy just because he’s 25 in Triple-A, but opportunities to play in the big leagues are a scarce resource, and Freese just needs a chance to play. Obviously he wasn’t going to get that opportunity this year with Troy Glaus in his way, and it’s a tough situation for the Cardinals because if they trade him, I’m not sure how much value they could extract from another team. But if he gets a chance to play every day, he has the chance to be an average big league regular, followed by stories in the media about where did this guy come from, how was he not thought of more highly before, etc.
What do you feel the Cardinals’ farm system’s greatest strength is? Greatest weakness?
Their starting pitching doesn’t blow me away. I loved Jaime Garcia a couple years ago before he started coming down with elbow pain, and surprise surprise, it’s turned into a major problem. They are pretty strong at third base with Wallace, Freese, Craig and now De La Cruz, although there are questions about how many of those guys will stick at third base. Center field is good any time you have Colby Rasmus, but Daryl Jones and Jon Jay are good prospects who can play center as well. They also have a stable of relievers—guys you mentioned before—with some crazy power arms. Odds are that one, maybe two of those guys will pan out, but it’s nice to have a few guys in your system who can push 98 mph.