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Happy Winter Meetings everyone. It may not be a traditional holiday, but it is certainly a major event on the baseball calendar. If it is a holiday, it is definitely a working one for those of us who cover baseball. For me, the Winter Meetings are second only to the week of the draft in terms of total time invested… and I’m just the minor league guy. I can only imagine the hours Brett is putting in this week.

I seem to be on a run of higher tier prospects in recent Prospects’ Progress editions, and today will definitely continue that trend. Albert Almora, the jewel of the Cubs 2012 draft, is today’s position player. Since the Winter Meetings tend to be more about the immediate future than more distant future, I think we will look at a pitcher who could easily factor into the Cubs’ plans next season. Brooks Raley may not be a household name, but he could be a name we hear a lot once spring training starts.

Would you believe that this is the 14th edition of Prospects’ Progress? That means we’re up to 28 covered players and still counting. Some of those players were top prospects (like Almora), but that is not the point of this feature. The top prospect rankings are coming next year, but for now we are just looking at the improvements made by various players in the farm system.

Brooks Raley, LHP

Pre-Season Evaluation

In a farm system lacking lefty pitchers in the high minors, Brooks Raley has quietly gone about his business. He does not over power hitters and pile up strikeouts, nor does does he leave scouts in awe with dazzling stuff (although his curve is probably one of the best in the farm system). He is, however, a fairly effective starting pitcher who might just be on the doorstep of taking a slot at the back of the Chicago rotation.

But there are still areas of concern. There is a lot to like here (provided you don’t expect too much), but it comes with some risk.

Post-Season Verdict

First of all, he made it to the majors for the first time this summer. I love seeing prospects get that final promotion, even if the first experience at the highest level is somewhat unpleasant. Raley’s cup of coffee qualifies as somewhat unpleasant. He survived 24.1 innings over 5 starts and compiled an ERA of 8.14 thanks in part to the seven home runs he gave up. Anytime a pitcher has an HR/9 of 2.59, the results are going to be ugly.

But that’s not Raley. Historically, Raley holds an HR/9 less than half that. In fact, he’s usually more of a ground ball pitcher than anything else. His career GO/AO of 1.32 in the minors (and 1.52 in Iowa) is a stark contrast from his major league ratio of 0.75. Somehow, when he got to Chicago, he stopped being a solid ground ball pitcher and became a fly ball pitcher who served up homers at a horrifying rate. When he was promoted I was more concerned by his 3.1 BB/9 in Iowa than his was his HR/9.

Then again, not all his numbers exactly promote the idea that he is a success waiting to happen. Hitters’ BABIP against him in Chicago (.317) was actually lower than it was in Iowa (.321) earlier in the season. His 2012 BABIP in 8 starts for Tennessee was .296; that is still higher than I’d ideally like to see it. And while his Chicago FIP suggests he was not as bad as his ERA suggests, that FIP is still 6.88.

Keep in mind, though, that this is the same guy who has been a ground ball pitchers with a high quality curve for much of his career. In theory, a left handed ground ball pitcher should do fairly well in Wrigley. And Raley has been projected as high as a No 3 starter. It is too early to give up on him, but he will be 25 next year. The clocking is definitely ticking.

Future Prognosis

I’d like to see him get at least another dozen or so starts in the majors. If he can get that GO/AO north of 1.3 and keep the HR/9 under 1.2 or so, he will at worst keep the Cubs in a lot of games. If he can do that while eating up 200 innings a year, he could have a home at the back of the rotation.

Unfortunately, I don’t see him as a potential No 3 starter any more, and the back of the Cubs rotation is an increasingly crowded place to be. I would not count Raley out, but he needs to have a fantastic 2013 if he is going to have a future in the Cubs rotation. I’m starting to suspect a move to the bullpen may be in his future.

Albert Almora, OF

Pre-Season Evaluation

The Cubs entered the 2012 draft determined to walk away with Almora, and that is exactly what they did. They liked the tools, the polish, the international experience, the character, and they made Almora the center piece of a very strong draft class.

Now, what exactly did the Cubs get? We know the scouts already love this guy, but the scouts have loved a lot of players who went nowhere. Is Almora any different? If we look past the high rankings and flashy tools, what do we find?

Post-Season Verdict

In 33 games between Arizona and Boise, Almora had 145 plate appearances… and walked twice. Twice. And both of those were with Arizona. Granted he only struck out 13 times (more on that in a minute), but two walks in over a month of games is really, really low. Worryingly low, in fact. The Cubs farm system is supposed to be teaching the importance of working the count and getting on base, and we have seen the likely result of that focus with the improvements made by various players (Josh Vitters, for example). In that context, Almora’s inability to draw a walk is startling.

On the other hand, he did hit .321 for the year (.292 with Boise) and only struck out 13 times (5 Ks in 65 PA in Boise). A high average and insanely low K% often means the hitter is simply not being challenged. It could be he never needed to take pitches because he could square up many of the pitches he saw. Seen in that light, his lack of walks is not a problem so much as an indicator of a player who is just more advanced than his league.

Before we start feeling too positive, though, recall that just a few years ago that very same argument was being applied to Josh Vitters. Whether we like it or not, Almora’s lack of walks in 2012 is a red flag. For now it is a small red flag, but it stands out on an otherwise excellent report card. We don’t have enough data to say for sure that he is a pure hacker with no patience, but that possibility is on the table. Coaching can correct that tendency (if he has it) to some extent; ultimately, time will tell.

I am still extremely high on Almora, but that optimism comes with a lot of uneasiness. I can see the tools that are earning him high placements in baseball wide Top 100 Prospects lists, but I can also see two walks in 145 PAs.

Future Prognosis

Almora will be somewhere in my top three when I rank the Cubs’ prospects next year, but I don’t know yet where he will fall in the top three.

I think the Cubs will move Almora up to Kane County to begin the 2013 season, but I doubt they will push him very far beyond that. There are some suggestions that he has the ability to move up the system very quickly, and I would not rule that possibility out. I’ll go so far as to give him a slim chance to reach Tennessee for a few games at the very end of the season. By far the most likely scenario, though, keeps Almora playing in the suburbs of Chicago all summer long.

I sincerely hope Almora is in Kane County for Opening Day, that he steps to the plate five times in that first contest, and that he draws five walks on 40+ pitches. I will feel much, much better about his chances to reach his ceiling if something of that kind happens. I am afraid, though, that this time next year we will be looking at a BB% under 2.5% and will be wondering when, or if, he will start to turn that around. Despite that area of concern, his upside is right there with some of the best prospects in the minors. He could hit for both power and average, steal more than his fair share of bases, and play plus defense in center field. Based on his tools, he appears to have regular All-Star potential.

Unfortunately, there is more to this game than just having the raw tools. It is hard to reach the majors and even small flaws can significantly impact a career. With Almora we have a guy who has shown that small flaw right away. Here’s hoping he can make it disappear even faster during the 2013 season.

  • Jeremy

    Don’t really care about Raley but nice write up on him Luke.

    In regards to Almora, I agree that his 2 walks should be a small flag right now but I’m not too worried yet. All the scouting reports on him are that he is a patient hitter at the plate. Due to his polish, I really think this is a scenario where he isn’t being challenged enough like you pointed out. I’m hoping he starts the year at Kane County as well with a promotion to High A at some point next year. This is probably because I think the only way a prospect can get better is if he is challenged and there are some bumps along the way. We saw that with Baez and his promotion to Daytona, but still shows incredible tools. When there challenged we should start to see the real development ramp up, which I’m sure we will see next year with Almora.

    Great write up on him Luke.

  • Smitty

    Luke, given the FO’s penchant about plate discipline, don’t you think you are worrying about his # of walks too much? I find it hard to believe that this FO would go and draft a kid who has no discipline considering how much they think it is important.

  • FarmerTanColin

    According to FanGraph Raley threw his slider 26% percent of the time and just got hammered on it. Where his Cutter and Curve weren’t near as bad it seemed like maybe the catcher had the pitch calling backwards? I don’t like comps but I see a Dallas Bradenish type of pitcher?

    Then Almora if he goes his first month and takes a decent amount of walks this little red flag should pass. Seems like he was that 8th grader playing with the 6th graders.

  • Marcel91

    The thing about Almora, unlike a lot of top prospects with high ceilings, his floor is pretty high as well and has very good make-up. There’s not a doubt in my mind Almora will reach the majors in some capacity and you can’t say that about everyone. For as high as a Baez’s ceiling is even he could flame out and never touch the majors. Almora is a great combination of high floor/high ceiling player, for me it’s a matter of “is he Matt Kemp or Franklin Gutierrez” an all-star or just a solid CF. That’s something to hold your head up to.

  • jt

    Always an interesting read
    This one was very interesting

  • http://bleachernation.com someday…2015?

    Damn good article Luke. I believe your thought about Almora possibly not being challenged is accurate. The 2 walks in 145 PA is an eye popping stat, but so is his K rate, and I have a feeling that will truely show once he gets to play more even competition.

  • Dr. Percival Cox

    Even as a charter member of the Cult of Theo, I never understood the obsession with Almora. He always struck me as a guy who squeezed every bit of talent he could out of himself, leaving relatively little room to grow. I also don’t buy the “better than his competition” argument. If that were true, given the advanced approach we kept hearing about, you’d think he’d be more than willing to wait on bad pitchers to give him his pitch. He strikes me as a guy we’re going to want to move as quickly as possible — before he’s exposed.

    • Marcel91

      That’s a product of his polish as a ballplayer. He has plus tools across the board and already knows how to use them to an extent unlike most 18yr olds. What he needs is instruction to make sure those plus skills can translate to the big league level and with his high mental-makeup he’s one of the most likely to reach his potential. it’s pretty obvious why baseball people like him, he’s a pretty sure bet to make the majors in some capacity.

  • http://bleachernation.com ramy16

    Reports that Cubs may look into yuniski Betancourt as a possible 3rd base option.. Love his defense!

  • gutshot5820

    Raley is not a back of the rotation starter. More like back of the AAA rotation starter. You can find guys like these for peanuts in free agency or Rule 5, DFA. Sorry to be negative, but if you are not even considered number 8 or 9 in the Cubs rotation and farm, then you are pretty bad in my book.

  • bluekoolaidaholic

    I guess my question about Raley is whether or not there is room to grow. I wonder if he was just uptight and at some point with a little experience will go back to getting lots of grounders. I’m not ready to give up on him yet, but at his age, he better get his stuff together soon.

  • md8232

    “Almora had 145 plate appearances.”
    Did he look at a lot of pitches, or was he just swinging at everything?

  • JR

    The thing that scares me about Almora is that he has played a ton of baseball and trained so much over the yrs. How much room does he have for growth? I am pretty nervous about him.

  • August

    I think Cub Nation, so to say, owes nothing to Almora or any other prospect. It is the player’s responsibility to grow and achieve for us, as his employers. If there is any doubt about this kid ‘s plate discipline or whatever, trade him to some sucker team for stud pitching prospects that are producing. I’m tired of waiting until next year.

  • Stinky Pete

    Oddly enough, I don’t think Almora owes Cubnation anything as well.

  • Troy

    Or I don’t think he cares what u think either

  • Marc N.

    I think harping on the walk totals of an 18 year old top ten draft pick between rookie ball and a couple weeks of SS ball is almost the definition of nitpicking a prospect. I get that this fan base has been snake bitten before, but who really would buy a pace of less than ten walks in 500 PAs for Almora?

    I see him as the one guy (besides Castro, who is more of a 75) who will actually live up to the 70 hit tool tag that so many high Cubs picks seem to get. I think the two walks is more him not being challenged (especially in rookie ball) than it is that he suddenly has no patience at the plate upon entering pro ball.

  • Marc N.

    Also, Raley never had a ceiling of a #3. I like/d him more than most and never had anything but BOR or lefty pen arm as his ceiling. Excellent athlete though…

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