Throw It Like a Ballplayer

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Posts Tagged ‘Steve Clevenger’

Who’s Who Behind the Plate, pt. 2

Posted by dannmckeegan on August 7, 2010

…wherein the author examines the high minors of the Chicago Cubs, in particular those players whose primary position is catcher.

Welington Castillo (http://blogs.desmoinesregister.com/dmr/wp-content/uploads/2010/07/icubs.jpg)Chris RobinsonRobinson ChirinosSteve Clevenger

Beyond Geovany Soto, Koyie Hill and Welington Castillo, there are several catchers in the Cubs’ farm system that are legitimate major league prospects.  There also are those who appear to be farm fodder at this point, as opposed to real prospects at the position.  There is little to no information available on DSL players beyond basic stat lines.  I’ll provide as much depth, in brief, as possible, as well as give a quick onceover to those who no longer are Cubs system catchers.

Triple A – Iowa Cubs

Welington Castillo; Chris Robinson; Mark Johnson

I dealt with Welington Castillo a few days ago.  Read about him here.  In brief, he possesses decent power at the plate and a strong arm behind it.  His broader defensive skills are in question, while his free-swinging ways have downgraded his ceiling to a Miguel Olivo-type career, as opposed to the Ivan Rodriguez-type player the Cubs hopes they were signing back in the middle of the last decade.  Expect to see him on the MLB roster in a matter of weeks, if not days, given the minor ligament soreness Geovany Soto is experiencing and the fact that Koyie Hill is about as good a hitter as Jon Garland.

Chris Robinson, left, shakes hands with P/WR Jeff Samardzija

At twenty-six years of age, Chris Robinson is having a rough go in his second trip through the Pacific Coast League.  Debuting for the Tigers’ short-season low-A affiliate in 2005 as a third round draft pick, Robinson made his way to the Cubs’ system in the middle of the following year, the return in the trade that sent Neifi Perez to Detroit.  A right-handed hitter, Robinson doesn’t have much pop (career .359 SLG) or patience (101 BB in 1620 PA, 6.2%).  After a surprising .326 average in 331 plate appearances at Iowa in 2009, Robinson’s stock has plummeted just as far as his 2010 offensive production has.  He’s hitting only .228 with a .584 OPS in 204 PA.  Even in 2009, his best overall season as a pro, he drew just 13 bases on balls.  He also has caught only 24% of attempted base thieves since the start of the 2008 season.  However, at the start of this season, Lou Piniella and Jim Hendry kept him in camp through the final cut to reward a strong spring.  Piniella emphasized to Paul Sullivan that, at the time, Robinson looked to be the emergency call-up if either Soto or Hill were to go on the DL.  This was surprising, as both Castillo and fellow-farmhand Steve Clevenger, Robinson’s 2009 platoon partner at Iowa, had been considered more highly rated prospects.  With just three weeks remaining in the minor league regular season, Robinson would need to play just about every day to match his games played and plate appearance totals from 2009.  With the progress of those next to and behind him, that’s not likely to happen.  Robinson might remain in the system as Just Another Guy, but his chance to get a cup of coffee with the Cubs likely passed when neither Geo nor Koyie came limping out of the gate.

Out of respect for a longtime member of the Brotherhood of Backup Backstops, I’ll give a brief write-up to Mark Johnson (not pictured), a 34-year-old left-handed hitter who began his professional career in 1994 as the White Sox’ first round pick.  He’s played parts or all of 8 major league seasons and 14 minor league seasons for six different organizations (White Sox, Athletics, Brewers twice, Cubs twice, Diamondbacks and Cardinals), amassing 332 games and 1102 plate appearances in MLB and 3568 plate appearances over 933 minor league games.  For about six weeks at the start of 2010, Johnson rode Iowa’s bench, picking up one pinch hitting opportunity and playing the field in another game.  He singled, scored, struck out, had no one attempt to run on him, and found himself out of a job on May 27th.  It’s likely the end of the road for Johnson, but at least he gets to say he led his team’s position players in hitting and on base percentage in his final season.

Double A – Tennessee Smokies

Robinson Chirinos; Steve Clevenger

Robinson Chirinos

Robinson Chirinos has been in the Cubs’ farm system since he was 17 years old.  That was way back in 2001, when he was a defensively deficient and offensively raw utility infielder in the Arizona rookie league.  He played over 500 games before ever making it higher than high A Daytona.  In 2007, he split the year between the Florida State League and the Smokies, committing 9 errors in 39 games while putting up a weak .629 OPS for Tennessee.  At the urging of Cubs player personnel V.P. Oneri Fleita, Chirinos began to transition behind the plate in the 2008 season, catching 2 games in rookie ball and 18 at Daytona in addition to 55 on the infield between those teams and the Smokies.  In 2009, Chirinos caught 65 of the 81 games in which he played, primarily at Daytona, committing 6 errors, allowing 7 passed balls and throwing out 24 of 86 (28%) thieves on the bases.  He also had by far his best offensive season as a pro, throwing up a slash line of .294/.396/.519 with a career high 11 HR and, for the second straight year, having a 1:1 K/BB ratio.  Earning a spot on the Tennessee team coming into 2010, Chirinos also turned heads at Baseball America, who graded him as the Cubs’ best defensive catcher.  So far in 2010, all he’s done is start the Southern League ASG, earn multiple offensive player of the week awards, and carry a .316/.407/.578 line through the first week of August.  He’s walked 40 times to just 33 strikeouts in 307 plate appearances, as well as hit 15 home runs and 22 doubles.  He’s second on the team in total bases despite being sixth in plate appearances.  Defensively, he has 7 errors in 536 chances (.987), 5 passed balls and a 30% CS rate.  Having turned 26 two months ago, Chirinos is no spring chicken by baseball standards.  He is, however, getting close to MLB-ready.  While likely never a star and probably not a starter, he projects as a potentially strong all-around backup for a few years that might serve as solid trade-bait this coming off-season.

Steve Clevenger

Steve Clevenger’s name has fallen on this list just as far as he has on the organizational depth chart.  Late in 2009, this 24-year-old with a lefty stick was figuring out AAA pitching for the first time during 66 games played with Iowa after a torrid start early on in Tennessee.  A career .300/.360/.390 hitter in the minors, he was a seventh rounder by the Cubs back in 2006, the same draft in which the team took Jeff Samardzija and Tyler Colvin.  A singles hitter with walk and strikeout rates hovering around 10% apiece, he’s only been able to squeeze 200 plate appearances and 43 games behind the plate back at AA Tennessee.  Through no fault of his own, he was the odd man out when someone had to give way to Castillo’s promotion.  Expected to be the long side of the platoon with Chirinos, Clevenger started as slowly as Chirinos was hot and has been playing catch-up ever since.  He’s at .277/.319/.351, numbers more similar to his first trip through the Southern League in 2008 than the .364 average and .976 OPS he put up in the first month down there in 2009.  Clevenger’s first season with the Cubs saw him at the keystone is short season low-A at Boise, but he hasn’t played an inning there since.  In addition to those 63 games at second, he played first in 82 games between 2007 and 2009 while catching just under 200 to date, catching 29% of runners while allowing just 14 passed balls and 15 errors as a catcher.  Given what we know about the careers of Paul Bako, Brian Schneider, and Gregg Zaun, a catcher with even the potential to hit over .200 from the left side will be given every chance and then some to make it.  Expect Clevenger to stick around the system, a la Koyie Hill, for at least a year or two more.

Prognosis

Chris Robinson, most likely, is near the end of his tenure in the upper minors.  The Cubs are hardly a top-5 system, but they do have solid players who have excelled at lower levels.  Room has to be cleared, and that generally means that age gets the boot.  While he is the same age as Chirinos and has been a pro for a shorter period of time, Chirinos’ recent positional transition and rapid development – along with his improving offense and respectable slugging – should make Chirinos Iowa’s starter or someone else’s farmhand come next Februrary.  It’s hard to imagine that Welington Castillo will be anywhere other than Alfonso Soriano‘s sofa in the coming weeks (sorry, Starlin – time to get your own place).  Clevenger likely will be shuffled back up to Triple A Iowa.  There are some intriguing options at catcher in the low minors.  Michael Brenly, Jovan Rosa, Luis Flores, Jonathan Mota and others might be ready to move up one or more steps, with their Augusts, winter ball stints, and spring training performance (if applicable) will determine what the upper minors look like.  Count on Castillo to back up Soto unless he looks absolutely feeble and over-matched as 2010 comes to a close.

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37, 38 and Koyie Hill

Posted by dannmckeegan on July 22, 2010

37-38.  That’s the Cubs’ record in 2010 against every team not named “Astros” or “Pirates.”  Against those two sorry-ass teams, the Cubs are 6-15. I’d been talking with one of the employees at my gym today about the Cubs’ struggles with the Pirates this year, and how getting a few of those back would have completely changed the dynamic of their season.  But it was Bleed Cubbie Blue‘s write-up of today’s disappointing defeat that actually pointed out the first number explicitly.  At worst, against the entirety of MLB excepting the two worst teams in the National League, the Cubs are .500.  And let’s make this clear again: that .500 mediocrity was accomplished with either Zombie Aramis or FonteBaker or Tracy at third base.  Just worth considering.

Mountains out of Mole(Hill)s

So on to today’s game.  Something happened today that I’d prefer not to see happen anymore: Koyie Hill started behind the plate.  Now, I understand the reasoning behind using a backup catcher in a day game after a night game that moved as slowly as Tuesday’s 14-7 thriller.  But Koyie Hill is no longer a viable backup catcher.  In the four plate appearances he made Wednesday against Houston, he found himself some alternate headgear in the form of a Golden Sombrero, only slightly less embarrassing than the little pink snack backpack that the most junior Cubs reliever brings to the pen each day.  Geovany Soto entered late as a replacement, and to what effect? A 2-run homer in the bottom of the 12th that left the Cubs just short of a potentially meaningful victory.

Through the 2009 season, Koyie Hill’s career was the very definition of replacement-level player, according to FanGraphs.  That is, they calculate his career WAR to have been 0.0 in 179 games and 539 plate appearances.  Between 2003 and 2009, Koyie Hill amassed almost exactly a full year’s worth of playing time, and he put up a .215/.286/.304 line with 104 hits (24 doubles, 2 triples, 5 homers).  He struck out 143 times (26.5%) while walking 48 (8.9%, 7 intentional = 7.6% uBB). BaseballReference.com isn’t even as kind as FanGraphs, as BR calculates Hill’s career WAR (including 2010) at -1.5.  Only in 2009 has Koyie Hill been considered “above replacement level” by the advanced metrics.

Koyie Hill sucks.

He sucks on the order of Matt Walbeck, Brian Dorsett (note the 31-year-old with a succession of partial seasons in the bigs parallel), Sandy Martinez, Josh Paul, Rob Bowen…you get the point if you remember these guys, or if you don’t.  These are bad part-time backup catchers employed by the Cubs since 1990.  Not one of the good ones, like Steve Lake, Damon Berryhill/Joe Girardi, That Hector Villanueva Season, Henry Blanco, Tyler Houston, or Paul Bako.  No, Koyie Hill closely resembles those forebears who likewise had no verifiable claim to their status as a major leaguer.

Of course, in the past, the blame for the presence of such players wasn’t that big a deal.  Other than the organization totally missing on the homegrown Jose Molina after a few at bats, there weren’t catchers in the system until Geovany Soto wrested the position from all other contenders in the Piniella era.  This is no longer the case with Koyie Hill. The Cubs farm system is rife with catchers who, at the very least, project as legitimate MLB backups:

  • Welington Castillo (age 23, Iowa): .253/.314/.495, 53 G, 182 AB, 46 H, 12 2B, 10 HR, 46 RBI, 16 BB, 42 K.  He threw out 44% of attempted base-stealers at Tennessee in 2009, but hit in the .230’s with 1 BB in every 6 games; his developing hitting skill might bring him back up the prospect ledge he fell off in the 2009 season.
  • Steve Clevenger (age 24, Tennessee): .272/.322/.346, 57 G, 162 AB, 45 H, 11 2B, 10 BB, 16 K. The lefty-hitting kid has a huge platoon split in this, his third go at the Southern League.  He was the odd man out of the Triple A competition in spring between himself, non-prospect Chris Robinson and Castillo.  He plays a little first, has a 30% CS in his MiLB career, and probably has plenty of chances left to move forward.
  • Robinson Chirinos (age 26, Tennessee): .319/.407/.597, 63 G, 216 AB, 69 H, 21 2B, 13 2B, 53 RBI, 32 BB, 26 K. Southern League Offensive Player of the Week as per MiLB. com, following an RBI hit in the SL ASG and a 7-15 week with a trio of longballs and 10 RBI. Long a languishing low-level infielder, Chirinos made the conversion from shortstop to catcher after the 2008 season at the suggestion of Cubs personnel executive Oneri Fleita.  More than just thriving defensively in his new position, Chirinos credits the move with the drastic offensive improvements of his game: “I have more of an idea of what the pitcher is trying to do when I’m hitting.” Early this year, Chirinos explained to Nick Gates the elaborate decision-making process he undertook in opting to switch positions:

“He thought it was more of a possibility I could play in the big leagues,” Chirinos said. “He told me to think about it and let me know. The next day I told him I was going to do it.

“So far so great. Now my hitting came back.”

  • Michael Brenly (age 23, Daytona): .303/.349/.394, 64 G, 231 AB, 70 H, 9 2B, 4 HR, 29 RBI, 14 BB, 35 K. A 36th round pick, Brenly wasn’t supposed to hit. His single on Wednesday against Charlotte extended his hitting streak, however, to 20 games.  He’s far from ready for the majors, but this 2008 addition to the organization looks on pace to surpass expectations.

So, in summary Koyie Hill sucks and, as much as I’d like to suggest that he not quit his day job, I can’t.  Because the last time he was working on his table saw, he cut off his freaking fingers.

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