For most fans, Florida remains a blind spot for prospects and development. It makes us reliant on people based out of Florida to really carry a large burden of reporting, and they do incredibly well. Today we have interviews with two of those people. The first is the voice of the Clearwater Threshers Kirsten Karbach, Kirsten is fantastic on the radio and in all the media coverage out of Clearwater, it would be a close race between her and Mike Ventola (Reading) for who I listened to the most this season (it was a lot). Our other interview today is with Baseball Betsy who is based out of the Clearwater area with her husband Ross. You can follow her blog here, Ross’s blog here, and most exciting to things I do here, her YouTube channel which is an invaluable resource for following prospects. Not in this interview is Jim Peyton whose great work you can find at Phuture Phillies.
A lot of top hitting talent passed through Clearwater this season. Let’s start with Andrew Knapp before he hit everything in Reading, was there anything to hint that his breakout would come?
Kirsten: Knapp was consistent with the Threshers, although I’m not sure anyone could have predicted the offensive explosion he had in Reading. In Clearwater, he garnered more attention for the development of his defense and his ability to work with the pitching staff. Greg Legg often praised Knapp’s leadership behind the plate and in the clubhouse. Overall I think Knapp did a tremendous job improving his game in its entirety this season – the offensive numbers in Reading caught a lot of people’s eyes, but the defensive improvements may be just as important.
Betsy: I liked Andrew Knapp, I thought that he was solid, but it seemed to me that he really broke out when he made it to Reading. Frankly, I was rather surprised that they called him up, because he really didn’t seem like he was ready. I’m glad to see he proved me wrong once he got there.
Rhys Hoskins actually outhit Knapp this season, but the buzz has been lower because he is a first baseman. Rather than ask about his strengths, what are his weaknesses that he will need to work on to keep hitting.
Kirsten: I felt like Rhys Hoskins was rather underrated, as a guy who wasn’t on any of the prospect lists entering this season and someone who didn’t seem to get a ton of attention even despite his impressive numbers at both low-A and high-A this season.
For a power guy, he didn’t strike out a ton, and he walked frequently. His 29 walks were tied for second on the Threshers and his eight homers were third, despite being in Clearwater only half the season. Plus, he had more home runs total (17) than anyone else in the system, was second in OBP and tied for first in RBI. Hoskins is a legitimate talent, and I’m excited to see what he’ll be able to accomplish in the higher levels.
Betsy: If you have read Baseball Ross’ blog, you’ll know that he’s been on Rhys’ bandwagon a long time and I’ve been right beside him. Rhys is really something to watch. We did travel to Savannah as well as seeing him in Clearwater during the season. I really didn’t see any weaknesses, other than what’s part of a normal learning curve when you move up a level and are playing in a different stadium. His numbers really didn’t change once he got here to Clearwater. Of his 18 homers hit this season between Lakewood and Clearwater, 14 of them came on the road. If he plays a full season in Reading, he will likely hit more homers as Reading is much more homer friendly.
The Threshers lacked the top starting pitching prospects of Reading, but had some impact relievers. Speak some to the group of Nunez, Rios, Tirado, Ramos, Rivero, Therrien, and Joaquin.
Kirsten: Miguel Nunez for one was perhaps the most improved player for the Threshers this season, as I believe the coaching staff would attest to as well. Nunez went from a fringe starter to a back-end guy by the end of the year, going 8-for-8 in save opportunities. Nunez is only 22 and missed two full seasons a couple years back, so he’s still relatively raw. As the season progressed, he upped his velocity, improved his breaking pitch, and increasingly garnered more high-pressure situations.
I love Alberto Tirado’s stuff – upper 90’s fastball and an absolutely nasty slider. For him it’s all about command, but he certainly has a high ceiling. Edubray Ramos was another guy who impressed in Clearwater, he hadn’t pitched above Williamsport prior to this season but was lights-out with the Threshers. Hard fastball, very good command. Alexis Rivero is another hard-throwing righty, jumped from the GCL last year to Lakewood and Clearwater this season. Had some trouble keeping the ball down early on with the Threshers, but made the adjustment and put up strong numbers as a 20-year old between Lakewood and Clearwater this year.
Nunez made the transition somewhat successfully from starter to reliever. It will interesting to see him at that position for a full season in Reading.
Rios was impressive. He throws a lot of strikes and is the kind of guy you can count on coming in out of the bullpen (or even as a starter). It will be interesting to see if he can continue his success in the hitter-friendly ballpark in Reading.
Tirado has the velocity and can throw in the high nineties. That being said, he has issues with control. If he can master his command, he will be someone to watch with possible big league stuff.
Ramos can throw in the mid-nineties and has a big curve. He has a major league arm, if he can manage to keep his pitches down.
Rivero—in his last nine games, he averaged a strike out an inning and topped out at 97 and of the pitchers in this group, he is the most likely to be successful in the majors. He only just turned 21.
Therrien is the most questionable of the group. His velocity is in the lower nineties and just isn’t as overpowering as the others.
Joaquin throws in the mid-nineties and if he can master the control of his slider, he has major league potential.
Matt Imhof and Brandon Leibrandt put up some of the better stats in the org last year, but their stuff was a question. Their stuff continues to be questionable, is their any signs of hope?
Kirsten: I think there are certainly signs of hope with both of them, if they can stay healthy. Brandon Leibrandt was one of the better starters we saw in Clearwater this year, though his season was limited due to a couple DL stints. He was consistent, showcased good command, and really the few starts in which he struggled were those just prior to landing on and returning from the disabled list. Not a ton of velocity but he commanded everything well – upper 80’s fastball, change, slider, curve. He also has a great pickoff move.
Matt Imhof also spent time on the DL, missing two months. Another lefty with upper 80’s velocity, but his fastball command was inconsistent. A lot of walks and a lot of high-pitch-count at-bats, and thus he was often unable to pitch beyond the fifth inning.
Betsy: My concern for both of them is that their fastballs seem to top out in the high eighties. Is it enough at the next level? They have the control but not the velocity.
Joe Jordan hasn’t stopped raving about Ricardo Pinto all year and he is still probably the most off the radar top prospect in the Phillies’ system, what makes him so good?
Kirsten: Ricardo Pinto emerged as the Threshers ace down the stretch after a strong start in Lakewood. His changeup was already a strength before coming to Clearwater, and he was able to develop his slider throughout the season as well. Pinto showed good fastball command, threw it in the low-90’s generally but when he was ahead he could reach back and throw 96.
Beyond that, he showed the ability to make adjustments, as any struggles he had often came early before dominating the rest of the way. There was a start in July where Steve Shrenck had said he’d tweaked Pinto’s delivery prior to it, to help with the slider. He explained that Pinto was charged with the tough task of not only trying to implement and stay consistent with that change to his delivery, but also trying to effectively compete, and Pinto did so successfully. He gave up four runs in the first, then nothing through his last six innings.
Betsy: Pinto throws strikes. Simple as that. He pitches 92-94 and is very consistent with his location. He also can throw his slider for strikes which makes him very effective.
Aaron Brown has kind of weird profile, he does a lot of things well, but still has had some big struggles. What in your mind is holding him back from putting it together on the field?
Kirsten: Aaron Brown dealt with a couple injuries plus a lot of mechanical adjustments in his swing, which I think were the key factors in his struggles early on. The last couple months were more an indication of what he’s capable of. Brown is very athletic and a terrific defender who made numerous highlight-reel plays all over the outfield. This year was really his first full-season exclusively as a hitter, as his college days were split between the field and the mound as a two-way player before being drafted last year.
Betsy: Brown seems to strike out a lot, he needs to make better contact.
There are a lot of prospects on the Threshers team that won’t place high on many prospect lists (Cozens, Pullin, Mora, Walding, Astudillo, Whitehead, etc.) but showed some positive things in various aspects of the game. Whose growth are you most interested in seeing?
Kirsten: Willians Astudillo is overlooked mostly because of his build, but is an outstanding natural hitter. His mid-swing adjustments and ability to make contact were second-to-none in the FSL, and he was by far the toughest batter to strike out in all of professional baseball. On average, he struck out just once per 41.8 plate appearances, and only 10 times total. Despite concerns about his defense, he threw out 40% this year. It’s intriguing to see where he ends up because I believe he can certainly be a big-league hitter.
Dylan Cozens seems poised for a breakout. After missing a month he came back on fire and carried that success up to Reading. Rob Ducey noted his improvement in pitch selection and recognition. His home run total was fairly low in Clearwater (5) but not for a lack of natural power. As he becomes a better hitter, the power numbers will be there.
I’m also interested in seeing how Mark Leiter, Jr. progresses. He earned his promotion up to Reading by emerging as one of the top starters in the FSL in the first half, but was the odd man out after the Phillies’ trade acquisitions and returned to the Threshers. Leiter might not be a top-rated prospect, but he is a pitcher. He has six weapons – two-seam, four-seam, cutter, changeup, splitter, and curveball – with great command and a high pitcher’s IQ. He’s a dark horse rising through the ranks.
Betsy: I’m a fan of Cozens, he has five tool potential—he can hit, hit with power, run, throw and field. He is very consistent and is still young and developing.
It is worth mentioning it may be interesting to see Astudillo play in hitter-friendly Reading. Many of his hits this year that died on the warning track here in Clearwater would have be out in Reading. He may be in for a great hitting year in Reading
For Kirsten: I don’t think we fully understand what goes into calling a baseball game. What is a normal routine for an evening game to be ready to go on the air?
Kirsten: It’s all about preparation, and most of that revolves around Game Notes. On the most basic day I’ll first spend a couple hours in the afternoon updating them – everything from roster moves and player notes, to obscure stats (records when leading after six innings, record on Wednesdays, etc.), to writing “Shark Bytes,” which are blurbs of notable trends. That normally takes me up to around 4-4:30, at which time I will print and distribute the Game Notes packets and prep for a pregame interview. Around 5 p.m. during homestands I’ll meet with a player or coach for a Threshers Live! interview, and begin work on preparing my scorebook. In addition to lineups and defense, I also like to include basic stat lines and any interesting notes in my book. I then outline my pregame show talking points, run an equipment check and adjust the daily highlight reel, commercials, and music intro playlist before hitting the air 15 minutes prior to first pitch for Threshers Live!
For Betsy: As those that follow you are aware, you have built an actual family in the Phillies system. Is there something about life off the field for players that you don’t think enough fans know about?
Betsy: I think the biggest misconception that a lot of people have is that because a player has signed a minor league deal, they have made it, that they have money. Unless the kids have had an agent the odds are that they didn’t get a big signing bonus. The minimum amounts these kids get paid is astonishingly low.
When they play in Williamsport or Lakewood, they have houseparents where their room is paid for by the team. They need pay for everything else, like food and transportation to and from the field. When they get to Clearwater, they get a bump in pay, however, they are given only a few days in a hotel before they have to either start paying for their hotel room or find somewhere else to live. It’s very difficult for those kids. Many of them are only 21 or 22. If they are from Latin America, they are in a foreign country, dealing with a language barrier, and for the first time they are really on their own to fend for themselves. If they start the season here, they will usually find a couple of guys and share a place. However, if they get called up mid-season, most of the other players already have roommates and it is really a struggle for them to get situated.
American players usually are lucky enough to get the support of friends and family, even if it is just sending a few dollars, presents or visits. The kids from the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Columbia, their families really don’t have the ability to help out very much.
Baseball Ross and I feel so privileged to have gotten to know some of these kids and are honored that some have taken us as their “American Parents”. They are some of the kindest kids around and we just want to support them in whatever way we can.
The key thing is, the kids at this level really are playing to get to a better way of life. Every single game can be make or break for them. For every guy on the field there is someone waiting to take their spot should they struggle. These kids know it and they play hard. They are working every day to try to grab that brass ring that’s going to help them achieve their dream, provide a living/career and in some cases, help their family. Every game is important. That is why I find minor league ball so fascinating.
Photo by Baseball Betsy