The Questions You Were Too Afraid To Ask: Minor Transactions Edition

This edition of “Questions You Were Too Afraid To Ask” focuses on the finalization of the Kyle Blanks trade and the Nick Hundley-Troy Patton swap.

The Padres received Ronald Herrera last week from the Oakland A’s to complete the Kyle Blanks trade. He’s just 19 years old and currently boasts a 3.30 ERA in the Midwest League. Is it okay to be excited about this pickup?

We discussed the Blanks trade two weeks ago, noting that the player to be named later set to come the Padres way might be something of value:

While PTBNLs are often just bit pieces, it seems possible, if not likely, that the Padres will get something decent back here, if only because Blanks has plenty more value than Goebbert as far as role players go.

By PTBNL standards, Herrera seems like a pretty nice acquisition. Signed out of Venezuela for $20K in 2011, Herrera has progressed nicely through Oakland’s system, rolling through the Dominican Summer League and Arizona Rookie League in 2012 and 2013, respectively. He’s currently stationed in Single-A Fort Wayne, sporting a 3.30 ERA in 57 1/3 innings, along with a 3.6 strikeout-to-walk ratio and just under a home run allowed per nine innings. (Most of that work was done in Oakland’s system, of course.)

More impressive than the numbers (and they certainly aren’t bad), though, is Herrera’s age. He just turned 19 on May 3rd, and according to Baseball Reference, he’s 2.9 years younger than the average Midwest League player. The Beloit Snappers, Herrera’s team while in Oakland’s system this season, have no other pitcher under age-21 and an average age of 22.4. For Herrera to be holding his own in Single-A, even out-pitching a more highly-regarded, experienced starter like Dylan Covey (who is 22) is indeed exciting.  On Fort Wayne, Herrera joins the struggling Adrian De Horta as the only under-20 pitchers on the staff. (The average pitcher’s age in Fort Wayne is 22.1, by the way.)

Online scouting reports* on Herrera are few and far between, but MLB.com’s Jonathan Mayo (via MLB Trade Rumors) had this to say about him:

… Herrera is exceptionally polished for his age and features three pitches, including a fastball that touches 94 mph despite his small frame (he is listed at 5’10″ and 168 pounds) … Herrera’s changeup shows more promise than his curveball, and his fastball features some nice sink.

*I haven’t yet purchased the Baseball America 2014 Prospect Handbook, which surely has a detailed write-up on him.

An Oakland A’s prospect-focused site, The Afroed Elephant, ranked Herrera as the fourth-best international prospect in Oakland’s system prior to this season:

Herrera has received acclaim for his precision and possesses a pinpoint changeup, mature curveball and a fastball that can graze 95 MPH despite pitching consistently at 88-92, accompanied by a tendency to keep the ball towards the lower portions of the strike zone that has resulted in plus groundball rates.

Herrera’s size (5’10’’, 170) puts a damper on his ceiling, likely limiting any major growth in velocity and potentially making the bullpen his more likely final destination. Sub-6’0’’ starters are a rare commodity, often weeded out of the rotation — perhaps shifted to shortstop, or center field, or the pen —  by the time they become major prospects because of size concerns. Thanks to Play Index, only 18 pitchers since 1990 have thrown at least 500 innings primarily as starters and stood less than 6’0’’ tall, among them are active success stories like Tim Lincecum, Bartolo Colon, and Johnny Cueto, as well as future first-ballot Hall of Famer Pedro Martinez. Less notable hurlers on the list include Jim Parque, Tim Redding, and Dennis Springer.

The other negative with Herrera is the simple fact that most prospect sites don’t rate him all that highly. Baseball America pegged him as Oakland’s 17th-best prospect for the second year in a row prior to 2014, Baseball Prospectus didn’t rank him in the top 10 last winter, and John Sickels didn’t even have him inside of his top 20. The A’s system isn’t a powerhouse one, by the way, as both Baseball Prospectus (28th) and Baseball America (21st) pegged it in the lower two-thirds of major league pipelines.

Just for kicks, I grabbed a couple of old Baseball America Prospect Handbooks (2006 and 2007) and checked out how each organization’s 17th ranked prospect turned out. The results were probably about as you’d expect. Of the 60 prospects, 31 made the major leagues, but a good number of those appearances were just cups of coffee. Only 17 of the 60 players produced positive rWAR and only four (Martin Prado, Geovany Soto, Tommy Hanson, and Tony Gwynn Jr.) have accumulated more than five rWAR. (Of course, a number of players are still playing, adding to their rWAR totals). Considering the failure rate of top 100 pitching prospects, middle tier prospects like Herrera certainly have to wage an uphill battle to become major league mainstays.

Player-to-player comparisons are notoriously tricky, but I can’t help but compare Herrera to former Padres prospect Will Inman. Acquired back in 2007 along with Joe Thatcher and Steve Garrison as part of the Scott Linebrink-to-Milwaukee deal, Inman cracked both Baseball America’s and Baseball Prospectus’ top 100 lists prior to the 2007 season and he was ranked seventh in the Padres farm system in 2008. Like Herrera, Inman was undersized (6’0’’, 200) and worked with less-than-electrifying stuff, but he had plus-command, pitchability, and an excellent performance track-record. Further, like Herrera, he was always young for his leagues, reaching Single-A by 19 and Double-A by 20.

Inman’s stuff, which yielded 5-plus strikeout-to-walk ratios in the lower levels of the minor leagues, wasn’t overpowering hitters as much by the time he reached Double-A. After repeating that level in 2008, his strikeout-to-walk ratio dropped below two for the first time in his minor league career. A shot at Triple-A Portland went disastrously bad in 2009, as he posted a 6.71 ERA, 1.64 strikeout-to-walk ratio, and surrendered 15 home runs in just 63 innings of work. He rebounded somewhat in the following year, but also encountered significant injury issues for the first time in his career. He was last seen in Triple-A Durham (Tampa Bay Rays) last year, walking 27 and striking out 25 in 32 innings of work.

Inman’s failure to reach the majors doesn’t mean anything for Herrera, but it does help to show just how hard it is to reach the big leagues, especially for guys that don’t possess prototypical size or dominant stuff. Herrera’s professional career is off to an excellent start, but he still has to prove that his stuff will translate to the higher levels before he earns bonafied prospect credentials.

To get around to the original questions some 1100 words later, it’s definitely okay to be excited about Herrera, especially if you’re a prospect hound. Just make sure it’s moderated excitement.

The Padres recently traded catcher Nick Hundley to the Baltimore Orioles for left-handed reliever Troy Patton. Why should I care about this trade?

Nick Hundley’s been the odd man out behind the dish all season, as the Padres decided they liked Rene Rivera’s defensive chops better than Hundley’s occasionally useful bat. Hundley played only 33 games in San Diego this year, hitting .271/.271/.373 in 59 plate appearances. Coming off two straight injury-plagued years, Hundley’s health, at least, rebounded in 2013. He hit just .233/.290/.389 in 408 PAs, but that was good enough for a respectable 1.4 rWAR.

Hundley has never approached the offensive level he briefly reached in 2011, but the main reason he fell out of favor in San Diego was because of his defense. As we discussed in March, the ability to accurately measure how many runs a catcher saves by framing pitches has led to a sort of rebirth in defensive-oriented backstops, and Rene Rivera (along with starter Yasmani Grandal) qualifies as one.

According to Baseball Prospectus, Rivera ranks fourth in all of MLB in framing runs this year (+8.7) and he isn’t even receiving full-time work. The Cashner-to-Rivera battery ranks third in the majors in framing runs added, behind only Jon LesterDavid Ross and Johnny Cueto-Brayan Pena.

As Corey Brock reported in the offseason, Nick Hundley (along with the other Padres catchers) worked on his receiving skills in spring training, and that work has started to pay off this season. Hundley was a perennially bad framer throughout his career, costing the Padres 62.2 runs from 2008-2013 (again, according to BP). This season, although in a small sample size, Hundley has actually been on the plus side of the ledger (11 extra strikes, +.2 runs added).

An improved defensive Hundley might have slightly helped his trade market, but it didn’t convince the Padres that he was a better option than Rivera in a backup role. And with three catchers on the roster and Hundley serving little purpose other than overkill, it was time to move him. The Orioles were in the market for a catcher with their starter, Matt Wieters, on the disabled list. Match made.

Troy Patton was once a top prospect when he was in the Astros organization, reaching 58th on Baseball America’s top 100 prior to the 2007 season. He ranked second in the Astros system that year, and in the Prospect Handbook BA noted that “he runs his fastball from 89-94 mph, generates exceptional life at times and easily gets inside on righthanders.” BA tabbed Patton as a potential No. 2 starter, although the write-up also mentioned that he suffered from minor shoulder fatigue late in the 2005 and ’06 seasons.

Those issues didn’t go away and shoulder surgery would eventually wipe out Patton’s 2008 campaign. He lost some velocity upon return and eventually made the major leagues as a reliever with the Orioles. From 2011-2013, Patton threw 141 2/3s innings out of Baltimore’s bullpen, posting a 3.05 ERA (3.65 FIP) with a 3.42 strikeout-to-walk ratio and 1.0 home runs per nine. Patton’s better against left-handed hitters, especially in the power department, but he isn’t such a liability against righties to be considered a true LOOGY. He possessed the deep repertoire of a former starter, using two- and four-seam fastballs, the slider, changeup, and curve ball, and is probably better suited for swingman/mop-up duties than a high-leverage role.

Patton provides another useful lefty complement to Alex Torres in a Padres bullpen that has been stellar so far this year. More than acquiring a mid-leverage reliever, this trade clears out the catching logjam in San Diego and should allow the Padres to more effectively use Hundley’s roster spot. Three catchers just isn’t ideal long-term, and whether that extra roster spot goes to bullpen depth or a legitimate backup middle infielder, it’ll be better utilized than it was when the Padres were carrying a three-headed catcher for the first two months of the season.

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