The Visalia Rawhide are off to a great start, and by great, I mean the highest winning percentage in baseball (.689, 31-14). Not just High-A baseball, but ALL of baseball, every affiliate level, including the majors. There’s nothing wrong with winning, even when wins aren’t the most important thing. But here we’re most interested in player development, and there appear to be some booming starts mixed with some disappointing ones on the Visalia roster. This is pretty much always the case on every roster in baseball, because, well, baseball.
Anyways, the team ranks third in the California League in OPS, thanks in large part to hitting for power. They lead the league in doubles and rank third in home runs. They’re a middle-of-the-road team in both walks and strike outs, but they lead the league in stolen bases, making the most of their on-base opportunities. Pitching is where the team has made it count, though. The Rawhide lead the league in ERA by nearly .70 runs, a wide margin and something that shouldn’t be expected to hold, especially in the hitter-friendly CAL League. There is a little staying power, however, in the fact that they lead the league in strikeouts, have allowed the fewest walks and have the best WHIP. Add that they’ve allowed the second-fewest homers in the league and it’s clear where the production has come from.
Oddly, the team is devoid of any major pitching prospects. So how is are they doing this without big name pitchers? They’re older than the bulk of their competition, across the board. The team’s three starters with the most innings are 25, 25 and 26-years old. There are some strikeout-heavy relievers who help balance things out, but some of them are old, too. So while the record is impressive and the pitching is incredible compared to the league, it’s important to keep context in the forefront of our minds. High-A is geared for 20 and 21-year old prospects, not 26-year old organizational players. Still, let’s take a look at some of the team’s top prospects and how they’re performing, even if some of them are a little long in the tooth.
At the Plate
The team’s power has been largely supplied by two big sluggers in Kevin Cron and Daniel Palka. Cron has taken over first base duties, pushing Palka, a former first baseman, to right field where the results have less than stellar defensively. As you could reasonably predict (especially if you’ve researched Trumbo, Mark), a first baseman moving to right field may not play well in the field, but it’s a temporary solution to a crowded situation. Cron has racked up seven homers and 13 doubles while Palka has seven home runs and 17 doubles. Both guys are bat-first corner players with first base being the best fit for each player. Palka’s plate discipline and ability to make contact have been superior to Cron thus far, but he’s also a year older. Both have an outside chance to be a major league slugger.
In the middle infield, the Rawhide have two good young players in Domingo Leyba and Jamie Westbrook. Leyba was part of the haul from the Tigers for Didi Gregorius. With a plus hit tool, it’s a bit surprising to see that he’s struggled to hit for average. At just 19, however, there’s lots of time for him to adjust to this higher level of pitching. Westbook is in a similar boat, although he’s hit a bit better and is also just 19. These guys are younger than the bulk of the pitchers they’re facing and both profile as second basemen long term. Each has a chance to be a major league infielder with utility roles most likely and big league regular futures not unforeseen.
On the Mound
Visalia’s rotation is led by two 25-year old right-handed starters in Zach Godley and Blayne Weller. Each has proven tough to hit and both have done a nice job of striking out a batter per inning or more while keeping their walk totals reasonable. Godley came to the Diamondbacks’ organization via the Cubs in the Miguel Montero trade while Weller was drafted by the Twins back in 2008 (14th round). Both profile as potential number five starters or up-and-down rotation pieces who will spend the bulk of their careers in Triple-A. If converted to relievers, however, they could see their stuff tick up and with good strikeout numbers right now, they may be able to carve out roles in the middle of a major league bullpen.
The relief corps of the Rawhide have a trio of interesting guys. Jose Jose was going very well before being injured earlier this month. He’s had some good stints in the past and could move up quickly when he returns as a lefty with strikeout potential. Daniel Gibson is another lefty that’s proven tough to hit with strikeout abilities against righties and lefties (for now) as a 7th-round selection in 2013. Mason McCullough was thought to be a hard-thrower with far-below average command when drafted in the 5th round of the 2014 draft. He’s proven to be as much both at Kane County and now that he’s been promoted to Visalia. If he can develop any command, he may move quickly. All three are thought to be in the wave behind marquee relievers like Jimmie Sherfy, Jake Barrett, Enrique Burgos and others.
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