06 July 2015

The July Tides

After the Orioles promoted Nolan Reimold and Chris Parmelee from AAA Norfolk, and some of the fringe AAA players have been released, the Tides have more-or-less settled on a starting lineup of position players. As of this writing (July 3rd) Norfolk is in first place in the International League Southern Division, one-and-a-half games ahead of the White Sox' affiliate Charlotte.

So far this season, I've seen 27 Tides games. This article will provide my thoughts and observations on the eight current Norfolk position-player regulars, without any sophisticated statistical analysis. I will be sharing my opinions on whether and how these players would fit in with and help the Orioles both for 2015 and, if appropriate, beyond.

Before I review each individual player, one general overview. As a team, the 2015 Tides are the best overall AAA defensive team I've seen. And that's not just my opinion - many people who have been following AAA baseball much longer than I have agree. This means that the ERAs of the Orioles pitchers are better than they would be if there was a more typical AAA defense. Given that, and given that Harbor Park is a pitcher's park, we need to be less impressed by Norfolk pitchers' ERAs than we would normally be.

Now, on to the players:

Catcher Steve Clevenger: Clevenger's been up with the Orioles a few times, so he's a known quantity. He's a left-handed hitter, a line-drive hitter with occasional power. He has been playing well and hitting line drives to all fields. He's a solid, if not spectacular, defensive catcher. He'd probably combine well with Caleb Joseph as a semi-platoon catching combination, with Joseph playing against all lefties and maybe half of the righties. Clevenger's even pulled a Steve Pearce and played second base in one game.

First Baseman Christian Walker: Walker got off to a very slow start in 2015 and I feared he was going to become another Brandon Snyder, who had a half-year at AA in which he played much better than he would ever play again. Walker has gotten hotter and he's starting to hit for more power, although he's never going to be a true power hitter. He's a good defensive first baseman. He doesn't really have a role on the 2015 Orioles in that Steve Pearce and Reimold are already filling the role Walker would fill, and those two have more defensive value. Long-term, Walker might be a "good enough" replacement if Chris Davis leaves; I don't think "good enough" is really good enough for the Orioles going forward.

Second Baseman Rey Navarro: Navarro is a better player than I thought he'd be. He's got good range at second base (and he is also the backup shortstop) and an adequate arm. He's got more pop on offense than I was expecting, although he doesn't have the patience he needs and he's not as fast as I had thought. Navarro has tapered off after hitting well when he first joined the Tides. He would be a perfectly fine backup infielder; I wouldn't want to play him as a regular for more than a week or so.

Third Baseman Michael Almanzar: I've written about Almanzar in depth; he's still a solid, if occasionally error-prone, third baseman with a strong, accurate arm. Unfortunately, he's still trying to hit every pitch out of the ball park and still doesn't use the strike zone well, so it's hard to see a major-league future for him.

Shortstop Paul Janish: All of my co-workers agree - Paul Janish is the best defensive shortstop any one of them has seen on a regular basis. That includes Rey Ordonez, who  played a full season in Norfolk. I agree - Janish relies on positioning, reliability, and a strong arm to shut down the left side of the infield. That makes him more of a J.J. Hardy than an Ozzie Smith, so it's hard to see Janish making the Orioles. Unfortunately for Janish, he hits like Rey Ordonez - he doesn't walk and hits too many weak fly balls. He's also in his early thirties. I actually think he could play regularly for the right team - a team with a really strong offense that needs a defensive anchor. That's not the Orioles.

Left Fielder Henry Urrutia: After a 2014 season wrecked by an injury, Urrutia has bounced back and has been hitting the way he hit in 2013. Even though he doesn't walk and doesn't have great speed, he's been the Tides' leadoff hitter and, like Steve Clevenger,  has been hitting line drives all over the field. An Urrutia-type player would fit the Orioles' offense well; the Orioles offense is sustained by home runs and would benefit by having a player who does something else well. It won't be Urrutia; he's not a good defensive outfielder (the one defensive weak spot on the Tides) and he's not quite a good enough hitter to overcome that. Like many other Cuban refugees, he'll have a long professional career in AAA, Japan, and Mexico.

Center Fielder Julio Borbon: Borbon is a good defensive center fielder with above-average range and a playable, if not good, throwing arm. As an offensive player, he doesn't take advantage of his speed; he hits too many balls in the air. Because he doesn't have much power, pitchers are willing to throw him strikes and consequently he doesn't draw many walks. I wouldn't be surprised if Borbon were a September call-up as a pinch-runner and outfielder defensive replacement.

Right Fielder Dariel Alvarez: Alvarez is a good defensive right fielder with good range and an outstanding throwing arm. He can get by in center field on a short-term emergency basis. As a hitter, Alvarez has shown more power than I expected - he's hit 12 home runs so far - and makes more contact than I expected for someone who takes as many bad / wild swings as he does. He doesn't take walks. I don't see him with a role on the Orioles, and he's the kind of player who has to have his good year to help you.

The Tides have been using Sean Halton, a recent call-up from AA Bowie, as their primary designated hitter; he's also seen time as an outfielder when Urrutia or Alvarez is getting a "day off" as the DH. I haven't seen enough of him to have a good opinion.


Jeremy said...

I'm curious as to why you don't think Dariel Alvarez would be able to help this team - he's probably the best defensive RF we have in the system (majors or minors), can back up in CF in a pinch, runs reasonably well, and has elite contact ability with decent power. If he could show even the slightest ability to take pitches, he'd be a solid option to start in RF, but even now it seems to me he would have similar value to Reimold or Lough (maybe even Pearce, given his struggles) on the current roster.

Tim said...

I know Dariel Alvarez and the guy you describe is not Dariel Alvarez unless we have quite different meanings of the word elite.

Jeremy said...

My definition of elite in this case: 8th lowest K% in the IL, highest ISO among the K% top 25, easily the best K% of any player with an ISO of at least .150 (he is at 11.7%, next closest is 13.7%). Also, he is among the younger, less experienced players putting up those numbers in the IL. For comparison's sake, the O's top 3 this season in terms of K% (Jones, Young, Machado) all posted K rates in the 16-22% range in AA/AAA.

And what is your definition of "elite"? When you say you "know" Alvarez, what does that mean exactly? I am genuinely curious to hear the opinion of someone who has scouted Alvarez, because the numbers and previous scouting reports I've seen point to him possessing a uniquely strong ability to put the ball in play at the higher professional levels.

Tim said...

I think you are analyzing this is a backwards way that can lead to finding meaning in largely disconnected numbers. A low K% does not typically fall in line with good ISO when trying to determine who is a MLB player...otherwise stock up on Kevin Pillar, Wil Rhymes, and Jason Christian. Yes, Alvarez can put the bat on the ball, but not in a wholly meaningful way against better pitching. He is aggressive. He is able to get contact on pitches outside of the strike zone. Those pitches he drives into the ground or right up in the air. If he catches a pitch in the zone, he can hit it. In the majors, control is considerably better than it is in the minors. Pitchers will note him chasing everything and will proceed to work below and above the zone repeatedly. There are good reasons why he is still in Norfolk.

Unknown said...

#Jeremy - When I say that "I don't think Alvarez has a role on [the Orioles]," I'm looking at a more general picture of his strengths and weaknesses and a more general definition of what we would do for the Orioles. Anyone who has seen Alvarez for any length of time would have to conclude that he doesn't have good judgment in deciding what pitches to swing at. That's a significant flaw that, in my opinion, prevents him from being a long-term starting corner outfielder. As a bench player, he does a number of things fairly well but nothing really well. He's a good defensive corner outfielder, but is really nothing more than an emergency center fielder. He's could hit .270 with mid-range power, but isn't really a GOOD offensive player because he swings at too many pitches he shouldn't. Lough is a better option as a defensive outfielder and Reimold is a better option as an offensive threat. So, there's isn't a role for Alvarez on the Orioles right now. If something were to change - say, the right fielders go into free-fall - then a role for Alvarez (as short-term right fielder) is created.

Two other points - Alvarez is 26 (he turns 27 in November), so he's not really young. Second, the track record of second-tier Cuban expatriates - the guys who aren't Cespedes or Puig - is generally that of long-term AAA veteran.

Unknown said...

Looking at recent Orioles, the best way to describe Alvarez is a right-handed-hitting Corey Patterson with less speed and a better throwing arm.

Jeremy said...

#Joe - Thanks for the response, that makes sense to me. Of course, given Reimold's track record there is always a chance he could go into some sort of free fall. I agree on the Cuban expat track record, and I wonder if Alvarez is young/inexperienced enough to improve at all on his approach without hindering his other contributions. Personally, I would be happy to have a starting RF with a .270-.280 BA, mid-range power and above average defense, provided that we are building our team around other positions (CF, 3B, C?).

#Tim - I find it odd that you call my analytical approach "backwards" and then cherry pick three seemingly random names to state your case. Rhymes has no power and Christian didn't show any power until he was in his 30s. I would be happy to stock up on Pillar - a decent comparison to Alvarez, in fact, although he's faster - as he has been quite valuable for the Blue Jays this year (2.1 WAR already). The fact is that since 2006, only six IL players under 27 have posted a <14% K rate and >.150 ISO in the same season. Of those players, one (Justin Turner) has been a valuable ML contributor, two (Pillar and Giovanny Urshela) appear to be well on their way, one (Ben Francisco) was a solid MLer for about 3-4 years, and two (Joe Thurston and Chris Carter) didn't pan out for different reasons (neither added as much defensive value as Alvarez would). Whether or not you think those numbers are "disconnected," they convey a unique skill combination, that is, the ability to consistently put the ball in play and still hit it with authority.

I appreciate your observations and understand the challenges of hitting ML vs AAA pitching, but you still haven't given me any reason to believe Alvarez couldn't help the Os given their current OF situation, were there to be an injury or other opening. As for your last sentence, until an opening is created there is no real incentive to call him up now. That doesn't necessarily mean he can't help the team.

Tim said...

Sure. Alvarez' ceiling is a starter for a couple years. We can wish on things.

I've expressed what the issue is. He swings at everything and MLB quality pitchers will exploit those tendencies. To swing at everything and still be useful is difficult and quite rare. The likely thing is failure not success. I see no reason to think these numbers (which suggests skill, but is not actually skill, it is a representation).

Matt Perez said...

Joe - I've always wondered whether Alvarez could "help" the club as a platoon center/right fielder against solely left handed pitching. Have you noticed whether his judgement is terrible against left handed pitching also?

Perhaps a considerably small role but a role nonetheless.

Jon Shepherd said...

Matt - Not sure if this helps in your assessment, but his whiff per swing rate is 11.8% against southpaws and 18.6% against righties. He chases a lot of pitches against right handers outside of the zone and he tends to put balls on the ground or pop to the infield. I have no data on pitch types against him. Against lefties, just on the advanced numbers, he provides a Brandon Snyder kind of hard line drive contact bat. As a rightie, it is a fringe AAA bat. Again, just from a numbers standpoint and recognizing how he has had a very peculiar pro trajectory, I think he has next to no value. That said, a 40 man slot and a couple cups of coffee seem appropriate.

RHB with a platoon split tend to need a pretty big split or stellar defense to make them worth much. I have not seen many players break a platoon split this late in a career.

Unknown said...

#Matt = to be candid, I hadn't really paid any attention to Alvarez' platoon performance. I can look at my scoresheets and compile that information for a future article.

With Alvarez, I have been struck most with (1) his penchant for really, really horrible swings and (2) his streakiness. He hasn't struck me as someone who mashes lefties, like Danny Valencia did.

Matt Perez said...

Thanks Joe. I'd be interested. I'd also wonder if he has really, really horrible swings primarily against right-handed pitching. I'd imagine he does it against both types of pitchers but wouldn't be surprised to learn he's smarter against lefties.

I wouldn't expect him to mash lefties like Valencia. I'm wondering if he can be above-average against major league lefties though (not like a 130 wRC+ but more like a 105 to 110). Combined with a good arm and good fielding and that's enough to have a minimal role on a club for two to three years.

Jon - I know what his stat line looks like. The difference between "next to no value" and a small role is minimal and probably depends on the mindset of the beholder.

Jon Shepherd said...

Sorry, the data source I have access to is proprietary, so I assumed that you did not have some of the finer detail in the minors. Though there are probably a few groups out there that share things a bit more freely.

I would consider "next to no value" and a "minimal role on a club for two to three years" to be the same thing. Guys like LJ Hoes and Xavier Avery come to mind if we want to ponder something orange.

Anyway, carry on.