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Hot Stone League

Larry Stone gives his take on a wide array of baseball issues and weighs in about the Mariners, too.

May 2, 2012 at 9:26 AM

An inside look at the Jackson Generals, Part 2: The hitters

https://youtube.com/watch?v=a3j016ou-jQ

(Here’s today’s Mariner minor league report).

Yeah, they play a snippet of this Johnny and June Cash classic every day at the beginning of each Jackson Generals game. I always thought it was about Jackson, Miss., not Jackson, Tenn., but, come to think of it, the state is never really identified. This song about Jackson, by the great Lucinda Williams, is definitely about the one in Mississippi, but it’s pretty awesome, too:

This post isn’t about music, however. it’s a companion to yesterday’s piece about the pitching prospects with the Jackson Generals, the Mariners’ Double-A team in Jackson, Tenn., where I spent last weekend.

While much of the focus has rightly been on their pitching staff, which is loaded with major-league prospects — perhaps as many as eight who have a real chance to make it to The Show — they also have some interesting hitting prospects. It’s an interesting dilemma the Mariners face in evaluation as their prospects go from Class A High Desert, an absurdly hitter-friendly environment that can greatly skew statistics, to Jackson, which can be a much tougher place to hit.

“Position player wise, it’s night and day,” Jackson manager Jim Pankovits told me. “The High Desert California League is obviously a hitters league. Some of the numbers there are inflated. It’s hard to really project a hitter if you haven’t seen them, coming from that league. It’s an adjustment for a lot of these hitters who are used to some of their routine flies to right field getting out of the ballpark. They’re facing good arms every night. Tennessee (their opponent while I was there) is a couple games under .500, but they have good arms. They challenge you, and they have good stuff. Our hitters have to battle against them. That’s just about every organization in this league.”

jacksonyouth.jpg

(The above photo, taken from the second-level of Pringles Park, where the Generals play, shows the youth sports fields that are part of the facility. There is a cloverleaf of four diamonds, which were constantly filled while I was there with baseball games as well as girls fastpitch.)

One hitter who can relate to exactly that is Rich Poythress, a first baseman out of the University of Georgia, drafted in the second round (No. 51 overall) in 2009, who immediately put himself on the map in 2010 when he hit 31 homers and drove in 130 runs — most by any minor-leaguer at any level that season — with High Desert. But last year in Jackson was an awakening: Poythress hit just .267 with 11 homers and 64 RBIs. People wondered what happened. To a certain extent, Jackson happened. Reality happened.

“High Desert is definitely one of those places, if you’re a hitter, you’ve got to go out and put up some numbers,” Poythress said. “It’s a Catch 22 – you’ve got to put up the numbers, but at the same time, people kind of look at them and go, well, what’s real? This place is polar opposite. It’s a tough hitters’ league. This is definitely a tough hitters park.”

And now Poythress, at age 24, is putting his name back out there. He’s hitting .286/.369/.418 with a team-high 16 RBIs. He has just one homer but a team-leading nine doubles. I also saw him working out at third, but Pankovits said that’s just in case they need him in an emergency.

“On this team, I feel like grandpa, almost, but I’ve only been in pro ball less than three years,” he said. “I feel good. Where I am now compared to where I was last year is leaps and bounds. I think going through a struggle like I did in the first half last year, it takes something like that — I learned more from that struggle than any of the success I had. Just to go out and do what I’m good at and not do more than that, and not try to be a player I’m not, that’s different than college and high school. You get here and the play elevates, you have to know what kind of player you are to be successful consistently.”

Pankovits on Poythress: “I really like how he’s made some really nice adjustments, being more aggressive hitting earlier in the count, and using the whole field, too. He’s hit a lot of balls hard. He’s hit even better than his average shows. He’s hit the ball consistently hard probably as good as anyone on this team, and he’s a big reason we are where we’re at, hitting the four hole and driving in a lot of huge runs.”

The guy that really caught my eye — and the eye of a couple of scouts I talked to, who raved about him — is Denny Almonte, a switch-hitting outfielder who is hotter than a pepper sprout (hat tip to The Man In Black). Just 23, Almonte was drafted in the second round as a Florida high schooler by the Bavasi regime in 2007. He’s had some moments in the minors, but this looks like his breakout year. He’s hitting .330 and has put up a .966 OPS (.330/.384/.582) with six homers. But beyond the stats, Almonte is just a very athletic looking player at 6-2, 191 who really patrols center field well. This report details his improvement in strikeout-to-walk ratio.

“He’s been a little bit of a surprise,” Pankovits said. “He’s put up some numbers here early. He’s played extremely well in center field, played outstanding defense. He’s got a lot more aggressive and has become a pretty good baserunner and base stealer. I think his power was projected to be iffy, based on how often he would make contact. But he’s certainly made more consistent hard contact than we expected early in the season. He’s done a great job.”

Shortstop Nick Franklin is probably the most well-known position player on the Generals, and he’s done nothing to slow his meteoric rise in the organization (which was sidetracked last year by a concussion he suffered shortly after being promoted from High Desert and getting off to a torrid start with Jackson). Healthy again, the first-round pick in 2009 (out of Lake Brantley High School in Florida) is hitting .294/.362/.447 with two homers, 10 RBIs and seven doubles. He’s currently playing just every other day after stubbing a toe last week making a nice play up the middle in Huntsville. I’ve heard some questions about whether he can play shortstop at the major-league level, but Pankovits raves about him offensively and defensively.

“Exciting player. I can certainly see why he’s highly touted. When he came to me last year, midway through the season, he just, wow, he blew me away, his talent on both sides of the ball. Defensively, he made all the plays, he showed me enough arm strength to play shortstop. He’s got really good hands.

“Offensively, he just has some surprising power. He hit a ball opposite field in Montgomery 450 feet. It’s the furthest ball opposite field I saw all last year, and that’s coming from a shortstop at 170 pounds. He’s got a bright future. He’s still young and raw in a lot of ways, still learning the game. He needs some more time, and I think he has a really bright future.”

Pankovits is particularly impressed with the way Franklin overcame last year’s injury, which occurred when he was hit by a bat on a backswing while in the batting cage.

“He was on fire those 10 games before that injury, had a lot of confidence and was having fun,” Pankovits said. “We were playing well with him. I’ve said many times, that’s one of the toughest things for a player to do, come back from an injury where you lose a significant amount of time in the middle of a season. That’s the toughest challenge a position player has, I think.”

Outfielder Joe Dunigan is another guy who catches your eye for his athleticism. He’s 6-1, 226, and played DH while I was there. His career has been slowed by injuries since the M’s picked him in the fifth round in 2007, but now he’s healthy again and starting to make a name for himself. Dunigan has tremendous raw power, and though he strikes out too much and doesn’t walk enough (25 and 5), when you put up a .625 slugging percentage, people are going to notice. He’s hitting .302, leads the Southern League with seven homers, and has a .962 OPS. I saw him hit an impressive opposite-field double as well as a long homer.

“Joe had a really good spring training,” Pankovits said. “He had probably second toughest challenge for a position player, which is not getting to start the season on time last year with an elbow problem. He joined me late, and never really got it going. He had a tough time making consistent contact. We sent him back to High Desert with hopes he could finish the season strong and have some confidence coming into this year.

“To his credit, he didn’t finish the season the way he wanted, but he came ready to play in spring training and had a great spring training, and has continued here. He has developed a lot more discipline at the plate. He’s a lot tougher out. He’s making consistent hard contact and he’s using the whole field. Last night, he had a double to left field, and I don’t think he had one all last season I can recall.

“He’s making some progress, and with Rich Poythress getting off to a good start behind him has gotten him a lot better pitches to hit, and that’s case for most of them. They’ve fed off each other and aided each other’s successs.”

Dunigan said last year he couldn’t even straighten his arm, and the key has been getting his flexibility back.

“My whole thing is be healthy,” he said. “I battled injuries the last couple of seasons. People don’t realize how tough it is. Not to make excuses, but when you go from a whole offseason of working hard, come back, and pow, you’re hit with an injury, it’s hard to come back, but it’s part of baseball and part of life. You have to deal with adversity.”

Johermyn Chavez, the outfielder acquired from Toronto with Brandon League in the Brandon Morrow trade, got off to a slow start, but he played great while I was there, going 4-for-4 in one game and homering on both Saturday and Sunday. Chavez is another impressive looking athlete — the Generals definitely pass the eye test; Kalian Sams, from the Netherlands, is another physical specimen, and though his stats aren’t at all impressive, he puts on a great batting practice. Chavez has potential, but is at a point in his career he needs to step up if he’s going to make it to the big leagues.

Finally, there’s Francisco Martinez, the 21-year-old third baseman acquired from Detroit in the Doug Fister trade. He’s hitting leadoff for the Generals, and has much more speed than I realized. He tried to bunt a couple of times, stole a couple of bases (he leads the Southern League with nine steals, and has only been caught once). The big question is whether Martinez, who is listed as 6-2, 210, but seems lighter to me, will develop power. He hasn’t homered this year and has just 16 in 355 professional games. Martinez is hitting .274 (.343 OBP) with four doubles and a triple. I’ve heard it suggested he might fit eventually as a center fielder, but for now, he’s playing third base.

“He’s one of the fastest guys in the league, probably the fastest guy on our team,” Pankovits said. “I think speed will be a huge part of his progress moving up the ladder. He gets to utilize it more in the leadoff spot and he does a good job of setting the table.

“He gets on base and can run extremely well, gets great jumps on the bases, can go first to third and score from first as good as anybody I’ve ever had. He does a real nice job of putting the ball in play, fouling off pitches. When they’ve gotten him out, they’ve had to work for it.”

Here’s today’s Seattle Times poll:

Which weekend sports are you most looking forward to?

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