Tuesday, January 29, 2008
Q&A with John Manuel
Baseball America Editor
Good morning everyone!
Today I am happy to present for you another Q&A. This one is also about the Twins prospects, but this one is with John Manuel. He is the co-editor of Baseball America, and he was the person who researched and determined the Baseball America Minnesota Twins Top 30 prospect list. Now, of course, I certainly questioned his choice of Nick Blackburn at #1 and a few other things. But I think what you will find out below is that Manuel definitely put his time in and did his homework. That is the fun part about prospect lists, we can argue and debate them all day, and yet in the end, we can't really grade them for another five years or longer.
I just think it is pretty neat that Manuel was willing to do a Q&A like this even after I called his rankings "Crazy." So, thank you to John Manuel for taking time to contact me and have this great discussion. If you have any questions or comments, please feel free to e-mail me or use the Comments below.
Let the Questions Begin!
SethSpeaks: Growing up, who was your favorite team, and who were some of your favorite players to watch?
John Manuel: Grew up a Red Sox fan and remain one, though less so since 2004, just not the same. It has been gratifying to be a Red Sox fan and do Yankees top 30s and have people in the Yankees organization think I'm a Yankees fan, which has happened on a couple of occasions. I try hard to keep my fandom out of my work. I had a Wade Boggs poster on my wall growing up in North Carolina and had a Clemens jersey in the late '80s. Carlton Fisk was my favorite players when I was young because I played a lot of catcher.
SethSpeaks: How long have you been with Baseball America, and what are your responsibities?
John Manuel: At BA since Sept. 1996, and I've covered everything. I started out in the closet/office of our old building, barely doing anything beyond data entry and photo filing; I covered college baseball starting in '97, as a beat from 1998-2004, and I've been involved in our international coverage heavily since 1999, going to the Pan Am Games and 2000 Olympics. I was our top minors/prospects writer in 2004-2005, and promoted to co-editor in chief in March 2005.
SethSpeaks: How does BA determine who does each of the team's prospect rankings? Have you always done the Twins rankings?
John Manuel: I've done 11 different Top 30s over the eight years of the Handbook; second year doing the Twins. It really just depends on what correspondents we have that we trust to do their own organization top 30, which writers here want to do a certain organization or who has contacts with which organizations. I was doing several difficult to deal with organizations in recent years and asked for the Twins because of frankly how nice they are as an org. to deal with. That said, they didn't have a clear-cut top 10 not to mention clear-cut No. 1 this year, making it difficult.
SethSpeaks: Without giving names (but feel free to), who do you talk to to gain scouting reports or other information on the Twins prospects?
John Manuel: Scouts outside the organization, which depends on the team or organization; there were about 4-6 outside the organization sources for the Twins that were scouts, not to mention managers' info from the league Top 20s we do. Then in the Twins system, I talked to five different people. I'd rather not give names.
SethSpeaks: For a prospect list, do you look more to upside or ceiling, or do you also factor in likelihood to reach the big leagues in your rankings? (In other words, a guy like Angel Morales has tremendous, 5-tool potential, but just started in the GCL whereas a guy like Brian Buscher is an ok prospect with a minimal ceiling, but he is also likely to contribute to the Minnesota Twins in some (maybe minor) capacity)
John Manuel: It's a marriage of ceiling plus likelihood to reach the ceiling, and age, level of competition and performance tell you how likely a player is to reach his ceiling. Buscher's a great example because I ranked him 10th after 2003-2004, the offseason after he was drafted, because he was likely to make the majors, but his ceiling was to be a lefthanded-hitting Joe Randa. He may not even reach that ceiling now, but he did make the majors. When you rank 30 prospects, I feel like you can start the high-risk, high-rewards guys lower on a list than we used to do. Morales' tools don't consistently play; reports on his tools appear to be more sanguine from before he was drafted than after. The Twins didn't gush about him, and even pre-draft, there were scouts who called him a showcase, workout guy. Neither of those players wound up in the 30, for what it's worth.
SethSpeaks: Alright, let's get to the list and specifically the selection of Nick Blackburn as the Twins top prospect. I ranked him #27 in September and see him as a 4th starter/long reliever. He's already 25 years old. Did his strong performance in the AFL affect his ranking this much?
John Manuel: This will be my longest answer. Blackburn has two negatives data points--his age and his low K rate. Everything else, to me, tells me he's a No. 3 starter, not a 4/5 guy or long man. First, his fastball is a plus pitch, and one scout with an outside org (i.e., not the Twins) said they have him turned in with a 70 fastball, a plus-plus pitch, because of its combination of velocity, life and especially command. It's plus velo at 90-93, touching 94-95 consistently, and he commands the pitch well. He can get hitters out with a fastball even when they are looking fastball. That helps all his other stuff play up. His velo jump this year is believable that it can be sustained because he was low 90s in junior college, a scouting report we had from 2001. Second, he has command of three average to above-average secondary pitches. I had a scout in the Eastern League who just loved his cut fastball/slider, had him throwing 89 mph cutters, graded it as a plus pitch to get lefthanded hitters out. Then the Twins asked Blackburn to shelve the cutter and develop his curve and change more in the AFL, and he delivered, three scouts I talked to who saw him in the AFL all graded his curve as MLB average and he's really just learning how to use it, after being so cutter-happy earlier in his career when his fastball velo was down and he was out of shape. Finally, his changeup gets 55 (slightly above average) grades from scouts in the AFL, more for his arm speed and command of the pitch than its life, but again, this is not some guy with fringe stuff. This guy has good stuff and is learning still how to use it; I believe that accounts in part for his low K rates, but they don't totally excuse the low rates, and I admit that is a caveat, but Blackburn had solid GO/AO rates, and as he learns to rely more on the curve and change and less on the cutter, scouts expect his K rate to go up. As for his age, he lost a year or two developmentally to his knee problems, and as one scouting director always tells me, "They don't check IDs on the mound." As long as he's healthy, he should be fine and close to reaching that ceiling, and his stuff was very firm in his last AFL start, almost 190 IP deep into a season, an excellent sign of his durability. His age (he'll be 26 in February) makes it less likely he'll be a star, but then no one's claiming he'll be a star. I just think he can be a No. 3 starter, and I think he's ready to fulfill that ceiling (which is fairly high, really) sooner than later.
BONUS MATERIAL - Manuel watched a Blackburn start during his incredible streak in June when he didn't allow an earned run. Here is his report on the game. And here, see how well Blackburn's numbers in AAA compared to Kevin Slowey and Andy Sonnanstine.
SethSpeaks: I made Tyler Robertson my choice for the Twins top prospect because of his age and pitching so well, including strikeouts, in the Midwest League. He is not considered a sure-thing by any means, but what are your thoughts on Robertson (who you ranked #4)?
John Manuel: He was considered for the No. 1 spot but I left him at No. 4 because scouts from other organizations were not nearly as impressed with him as the Twins are. Other scouts also didn't like his arm action, which I also tried to describe in my draft preview coverage of Robertson in 2006. He's a four-pitch lefty with solid-average stuff, he's lefthanded, he's physical, but his fastball is short compared to Blackburn's, and that's why I ranked Blackburn ahead of him. The ceiling for both appears to be No. 3 starter, and we talked to several scouts during Midwest League top 20 coverage who consider Robertson a lefty reliever. I can tell you the Twins think higher of him and probably have him as their No. 1 guy internally, either him or Joe Benson.
SethSpeaks: I ranked Wilson Ramos #31 even though I had heard that the Twins were really high on him. He wasn't supposed to get to Beloit in 2007, but when he did, he did well for a couple of months and then got hurt. I acknowledge that based on more information, I had him far too low. What are his skills and the information that you have that made him your #3 prospect?
John Manuel: That's in the Handbook, but he's a catcher who has above-average defensive ability with offensive upside that includes the ability to hit for average and hit 10-15 home runs annually, and possibly more as he learns to add loft to his swing. He's the real deal and slugged .438 in the MWL as a 19-year-old when the league average was .372. I'm surprised no one else picked up on him but I feel good about ranking him so high, he's a classic BA high-ceiling, teenage kind of ranking. I was tempted to rank him No. 1.
SethSpeaks: Joe Benson is all about upside. His numbers in the Midwest League were basically league average, but many consider him a potential four or five tool player. What about his scouting report has you and the Twins so excited about what he can become?
John Manuel: His performance was league average but his tools are well above-average. He's among the organization's fastest players and is a true CF, he plays a premium position. He's probably as fast as Denard Span and has much more offensive potential. He swings and misses too much for his raw power to play but I was very encouraged by how he finished the season .273/.370/.382 after the all-star break, and also by the fact that one of his bigger issues will be learning to hit LHPs--he had a .627 OPS vs. LHPs. I see that improving dramatically as Benson adapts to better competition and becomes more accustomed to playing baseball year-round.
SethSpeaks: I see that you also had Chris Parmelee ranked at #12. Like Benson, Parmelee struck out a lot, but he also showed the ability to walk (not sure if that's plate discipline, or taking too many pitches?) and hit for power. He also was young for the Midwest League. So, what is it that separates Benson and Parmelee?
John Manuel: Benson has much, much more athletic ability than Chris Parmelee, and considering their backgrounds, Parmelee should have really out-performed Benson significantly. Parmelee is baseball-only, SoCal guy who played a lot with wood bats as an amateur compared to Benson, a football-baseball guy from a Northern state. Parmelee was supposed to be a polished hitter and was not, he swung and missed too much and didn't show the premium bat speed or feel for hitting the Twins thought they were getting. Not burying the guy--he has big power and he is more apt to get to his power than Benson--but to me their upsides are pretty far apart. Benson can be a five-tool guy. Parmelee has one plus tool that will play, power (his arm's a power tool but won't play if he's a 1b, and he may not be athletic enough or run enough to stay in the OF).
SethSpeaks: The Twins took Jason Pridie in the Rule V draft two years ago and didn't keep him, but now they got him back. We see that he had a strong 2007, but was that small sample success, or has he turned a corner? What do you hear about him, and could he potential be an adequate CF option for the Twins in 2008?
John Manuel: I like Pridie a lot as a player and I kind of went more on my own eye and instincts on him than any player that I've ranked before. He played in Triple-A Durham obviously and our BA offices are down the street from the park. Also, I did about a dozen Bulls games on TV this year as a color analyst so I got to see him a lot and talked to IL coaches and scouts about him, and he's just impressive to see play. He is a cheap five-tool guy--not a guy who blows you away but a guy without a huge weakness, or a below-average tool, in any way. His biggest weakness is that he's an aggressive hitter who doesn't walk a lot, career .327 OBP, but he will hit for average and I believe in his power. Everything he does, he does easy, including hitting with surprising power to the opposite field. He's more of a six- or seven-hole hitter unless he's hitting for average to hit 2-hole, where he's best suited in terms of tools. I really believe in him as a prospect, so we'll see how good my scouting eye is.
SethSpeaks: Jeff Manship was one of the better pitching prospects in college but he fell to the Twins in the 14th round in 2006 because of signability concerns. He appears to be fully healed from his Tommy John surgery, and Joe Benson called his curveball the best he's ever seen. What is the ceiling on Manship?
John Manuel: He's the same guy, with some added size. His curve's definitely his best pitch. I think his fastball's a solid pitch, but he doesn't have Blackburn's fastball velocity or command. He does throw four pitches for strikes, and he's got a chance to move quickly. To me, Manship is the kind of pitcher who dominates lower levels, because of his excellent breaking ball and control, but may not have enough fastball to thrive at higher levels. I'm conservative on him or lower on him than others because I want to see him do it at higher levels. It's very possible that he becomes another Sean Gallagher, who I thought was that kind of guy but who added velocity and maintained it as he moved up the minors, and is a guy I like more now than I did when he was in A ball. For me, they are similar.
SethSpeaks: In the 2005 draft, the Twins took Matt Garza, Kevin Slowey, Brian Duensing and Ryan Mullins in the first three rounds. What are the reports you're hearing on Duensing (who has flown through the Twins system and was the starting pitcher for Team USA against Cuba in the 2007 World Cup) and Mullins (who pitched at three levels in 2007) in terms of pitches and potential ceiling?
John Manuel: Duensing's a four-pitch lefty without a true plus pitch but his changeup's a 55 and his breaking balls are solid. His fastball is enough for an LHP, 87-90, touch a 91--all this is in the Handbook of course. Reports on him are good, I also ranked him in the Eastern League top 20 prospects and like his chances of reaching his ceiling, but it's a No. 4 ceiling, or a No. 5; he just doesn't have a pitch to dominate with. Mullins had a big year in '07 and got stronger, threw a bit harder, he's come up with a good slider that is more of a hard breaking ball, as opposed to his long-time soft curve that used to be his go to pitch. He's tall, lanky, deceptive, ceiling kind of similar to Duensing's, perhaps higher if his velo ever improves. The Twins could call LHPs a strength in the minors--Duensing, Mijares, Perkins and Mullins at higher levels, plus Robertson heads the lower levels but they also have some other guys they like a bit like Errol Simonitsch, Henry Reyes and Jarrad Eacott (hope I got his name right).
SethSpeaks: I personally don't think you could go wrong with Robertson or Anthony Swarzak as the #1 prospect. I know that makeup is a big factor for the Twins when drafting and acquiring players. Does Swarzak's 50 game suspension account for his fall to the #5 prospect spot?
John Manuel: No; his lack of a consistent third pitch does. Most scouts think a guy can get by with two pitches if they are both really, really good pitches, but Swarzak's are just "good," not great. Good fastball, good curveball, not enough FB command, he needs a changeup or split-finger and lacks the feel for a change. That's why he's No. 5--it's not certain he'll be a starter, he doesn't throw as hard as Blackburn, doesn't have Blackburn's command. For me, he's not as good.
SethSpeaks: When the Twins drafted Ben Revere, they were generally bashed for making a pick based on signability. Many believed that Revere was a second of third round type of pick. Then he reported right away and was incredible in the GCL. He's a baseball player with incredible speed, and yet he's only a few months younger than Benson, who has already spent a year in full-season ball. What are your thoughts on Revere and the Twins taking him in that spot?
I think it's strongly overstating it to say
they were bashed--we didn't bash them, and no one covers the draft the way we
do, we invented draft coverage, so if others did, that's fine, but people in the
know did not. The Twins believe in Revere and we respect that, I respect that. I
threw Ichiro out there as a guy who Revere, best-case scenario, could
approximate. The Twins believe in Revere's power more than the consensus of
scouts; that's why they liked him more than other clubs. They think this is a
10-15 homers a year guy. I remain skeptical; if I thought that were a strong
possibility, he would have ranked No. 1 on the list, But Benson has similar
speed, a bigger, more durable frame, more power potential, so I think Benson's
upside is higher.
SethSpeaks: Looking back to my Top 10 Twins prospect list, I included Danny Valencia (7), Alex Burnett (8) and Erik Lis (10). Were any of these guys realistically considered for your top ten, or how close did they get to making the Top 10?
John Manuel: Valencia was, but the Twins and others outside the organization did not say kind things about Valencia's feel for hitting or makeup. He's got power, he's got ability, he might be No. 7 in terms of ability or maybe even higher; but I have my doubts about him. Burnett's pretty good, he almost made it way up my list, but the questions I had about his size and consistency of his velocity prompted me to drop him into the Valencia range, the low 20s. Burnett's got an average fastball in terms of velocity and command and doesn't have a lot of projection to throw a lot harder. His fastball also lacks life at times; so I just didn't' think he should make the top 10. I like Erik Lis, but ranking him in the top 10 doesn't make much sense to me, he's a one-dimensional player, he's not a good defender at either LF or 1B , and he doesn't hit enough to make up for it. He's a second-division regular or extra bat for me. Everything he does takes effort in A-ball; scouts like players who do it easy, and that's not Lis. I'm rooting for him but humbly disagree with where you ranked him.
SethSpeaks: Trevor Plouffe was your pick for #10 Twins prospect. I had him at #3, in part because of his incredible number of doubles, his plate discipline and the improvement shown. What are his best skills, and where does he still need to improve?
John Manuel: His plate discipline, really? His walk rate declined, and while his K rate did as well, plate discipline isn't his strength, it's an area he needs to improve. He's got a .323 career OBP, lower than Pridie's, to compare him to a guy I like more than Plouffe, and Pridie has more power, more speed, better defense . . . I like Plouffe fine, but he's average everywhere except in terms of arm strength, the least-important tool. Plouffe's constantly compared to Greg Gagne, only with less speed. If he has that kind of career, the Twins will be very happy, but I think he may have more of a chance to be a utility guy rather than an everyday player.
SethSpeaks: Is there hope for Denard Span or Matt Moses at this point?
John Manuel: Yes, for both because they are young. I ranked Span at 20 and believe he'll be a useful extra outfielder while he's cheap; he just doesn't have the power to be a regular, to be an offensive threat, and he doesn't use his speed well enough. He's also still rough around the edges and lacks instincts on the bases and defensively. Moses isn't in the 30 because his tool was supposed to be his bat, and the guy just hasn't hit. He has to produce to be a prospect. His defense at third remains poor; he actually was better at 2B late in the year and may be more of a 2B in the future.
SethSpeaks: Was there a Twins prospect or two that you were researching that jumped out to you as a guy who really has the potential to jump up this list with a strong 2008 showing in the minor leagues?
Deibinson Romero and Wilson Ramos could jump
up with big years in 2008; I've talked about Ramos but Romero has pretty similar
tools and should jump into the top 10 next year. Also, I think Rene Tosoni will
have a big year in '08, he can really hit and has solid other tools, let's see
how this Canadian hitter handles the Midwest League over a full year.
SethSpeaks: The Twins system has a long list of recent top prospects that are now contributing to the Minnesota Twins. Guys like Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau, Jason Kubel, Francisco Liriano, Kevin Slowey, Scott Baker and others are now with the Twins and contributors while Matt Garza helped bring in BA's #1 overall prospect heading into the 2007 season in Delmon Young. What are your general overview thoughts on the Minnesota Twins organization?
At a crossroads for sure, and in an
increasingly competitive division. I think the future of the franchise really
depends on how the Johan Santana saga plays out, so their future is harder to
read right now than any other team. They made a great deal with the Rays; they
traded players they didn't like for players they liked and needed. I could see
the Twins having things come together and winning 90 games or more in '08 (Liriano
comes back strong, Blackburn & Pridie live up to my billing :), Delmon takes
"the leap" and becomes a star, Santana is Santana, Nathan is Nathan, Kubel steps
up more) . . . or they could crash to 70 wins, deal Santana at midseason for
less than what was offered this offseason and fall into a funk as an
organization. I actually lean more for the former.
SethSpeaks: You may have heard, but the Twins are rumored to be shopping lefty Johan Santana. Of the names that have been mentioned most frequently, how many of them would rank in the Twins Top 10, and as important, how many of them would or could claim the #1 overall spot? (Names: jacoby ellsbury, jed lowrie, justin masterson, ryan kalish, jon lester, phil hughes, jeff marquez, austin jackson, fernando martinez, carlos gomez, mike pelfrey, phil humber, kevin mulvey, deolis guerra)
John Manuel: Hughes & Lester & Pelfrey aren't eligible; pretty much everyone else offered, other than Kalish, Humber, Mulvey and Marquez, would have ranked ahead of Blackburn. I'm a big Masterson fan, he's actually quite similar to Blackburn, he's got a great fastball in terms of command, life, ability to pitch off it, improving secondary stuff . . . I am a Carlos Gomez guy, big-time tools, exciting player, worth getting in my mind. I did our Yankees & Mets top 30s and I'm a Red Sox fan, so I hope I know these players more than the average bear. I'd also say that Lowrie is a 2b for the Twins; I don't think they believe he can play SS to their expectations, or else I believe they would have made that deal.