The Pawtucket Red Sox had Edwin Escobar, Henry Owens, Brian Johnson and Eduardo Rodriguez pitching last week. How would you rank them, in order?
-- Wes B., The Netherlands
It's not often a pitching staff on any level has four players from an organization's Top 20 on it. Having four Top 20 pitchers who are all left-handed? I can't imagine that's ever happened before.
All four southpaws got to Pawtucket at different times. Owens started the year in the Carolina League, spent most of it in the Double-A Eastern League, then joined the PawSox for the playoffs (where he didn't pitch well, allowing 11 hits and eight runs over eight innings across two starts). Rodriguez came from the Orioles in the Andrew Miller deal and also came from Double-A Portland to Pawtucket for the postseason. He made one solid playoff start. Escobar, another trade acquisition (from San Francisco in the Jake Peavy deal), joined the Pawtucket rotation post-deal, making five regular-season starts. He made three playoff starts (2.18 ERA), after making a one-inning big league debut, and got the ball in that championship game against Omaha, where he got a no-decision in an eventual 4-2 loss. Like Owens, Johnson began the year in Salem, spent most of it in Portland, then made one postseason start for Pawtucket.
The way I listed them above is how I would rank them. It's how they're ordered on the Top 20. Owens is Boston's No. 1 prospect and No. 21 on the overall Top 100. Rodriguez, Escobar and Johnson are Nos. 7-9 on the Red Sox's list. Rodriguez righted the ship following the trade, looking more like the former Top 100 pitcher that he was a year ago. Escobar, too, fared better in Boston's Minor League organization. Johnson may have made the biggest leap, going from No. 14 to No. 9 in our re-rank. All four should be ready to contribute, if needed, in Boston in 2015.
Why is Joey Gallo not going to the Arizona Fall League? What AFL prospect do you expect to explode like Kris Bryant did last year?
-- Albert P., Bakersfield, Calif.
I'll be honest with you. I was expecting Gallo to be among those heading to the Arizona Fall League this year. Given his age and where he is developmentally, having made it to Double-A at age 20, the AFL could have been a perfect springboard to another big season, and perhaps the big leagues, in 2015. For selfish reasons, getting a chance to see that power in the hitting-friendly AFL would have been a treat.
But there's a simple reason why the Rangers didn't send the third baseman, currently ranked No. 1 on their Top 20. Basically, the organization felt Gallo had done enough in 2014. He had a long and very productive season, finishing second in the Minors with 42 homers. While his improved approach suffered a bit in Double-A, he still held his own, and frankly got there ahead of when most expected him to.
Instead of going to the AFL, Gallo will get some work in at instructional league, working on a few specific things on the back fields without having to worry about playing in games. He'll get two to three weeks at the Rangers' Spring Training home in Surprise, Ariz., before heading home with a fully worked-out plan for his offseason that will help him with his speed, flexibility and weight training.
There are plenty of options of hitters who could put up big numbers this fall, though I'd say Bryant didn't really "explode." He kind of just did what he does, didn't he? At any rate, I could see the Mariners' D.J. Peterson, a 2013 first-round pick just like Bryant, having a big AFL campaign. Peterson was supposed to go last year, with Bryant, but was hit in the face with a pitch during his summer pro debut. The Dodgers' Corey Seager, who went to the AFL a year ago, is another good choice to put up big numbers.
Do you feel that the instant success of guys like Mike Trout, Bryce Harper, Jose Fernandez and Manny Machado at incredibly young ages is leading to more teams rushing guys to the Majors? It seems guys like Jonathan Schoop, Jon Singleton, Michael Choice, Jake Marisnick (and more) could all have used another year working out kinks in the Minors.
-- Joe M., Toronto
I think one shouldn't paint with too broad of a brush when discussing this subject. Are players sometimes rushed to the big leagues before they are ready? Absolutely. But sometimes it's a question of need at the big league level, or where the player seems to be developmentally in the Minors. Just because a player doesn't have success immediately at the big league level doesn't mean he needs more time in the Minors. There are plenty of players who have struggled at the outset in the Majors, only to make adjustments and fulfill the potential they had when they were prospects.
I don't think teams look at what other teams do with young players and make their personnel moves accordingly. I do think that with the amount of baseball being played at a high level in the amateur ranks, the gap between amateur and pro ball has shrunk, and it may take the top players less time to be big-league ready. And I also think a longer-range approach needs to be taken. You mention the instant success of Trout, but are you disregarding the .220/.281/.390 debut he had in 40 games in 2011, or that he didn't start the 2012 season in the big leagues? Machado hit .262/.294/.445 during his 51-game debut in 2012. Not bad, but not earth shattering.
My point is that players take different paths. The players you mentioned above may struggle out of the gate, some may never establish themselves. But some will become outstanding big leaguers. Patience is a virtue.
Is Mark Appel's Double-A success a sign of things to come for the Astros?
-- Nathan G., Deer Park, Texas
The Astros certainly hope so. The 2014 season certainly didn't go the way the Astros, or Appel, planned. The No. 1 pick in the 2013 Draft was, and is, supposed to be a quick-to-the-big-leagues starting pitcher, but things got off to a rather slow start.
First, there was the appendectomy that slowed Appel's preparations for his first full season. Then there was the disaster that was his debut in the California League. Appel had a 9.74 ERA and .372 batting average against over 12 starts, including a 10-earned run 1 1/3-inning outing in May and a trip back to extended spring camp to try and right the ship.
It took a while, but Appel did head in the right direction. After a strong start in July, the Astros whisked the right-hander away from the Lancaster launching pad and moved him to Double-A. There were some bumps along the way there, though nothing as severe as what went down in the Cal League. His penultimate start of the season is what the Astros hope to see more of in 2015: no runs on two hits in eight innings, with 10 strikeouts and one walk. Still, the Astros' No. 2 prospect will head to the Arizona Fall League to add some innings to the 83 1/3 he threw during the regular season. The AFL is a hitting-friendly place, to be sure, and if Appel can throw well there, it could serve as a very nice stepping stone to a contribution in Houston in 2015.