Rounding the Bases: Olympic rings & Rays prospects

So much has happened since the last “Rounding the Bases:” Football ended. The Olympics began. I moved to Brooklyn (thus the absence of this feature, but that’s a story for a different day and a different blog).

And of course, pitchers and catchers are reporting! All right, we have to acknowledge that actually most players are already working out in their Spring Training homes and that the date of “pitchers and catchers reporting” has become more of a deadline for batteries to show up rather than the first day they get to make an appearance.

All the same, that deadline means the season is nearly upon us after a long and cold winter that just doesn’t seem to want to go away. It’s a fun time to be involved in baseball.

Let’s round the bases . . .

Eddy Alvarez’s prospects

On Sunday, we published my piece on American Olympic speed skater Eddy Alvarez and his past, present and potentially future involvement with the national pastime.

The Today Show Gallery of Olympians

An update on Alvarez’s progress in Sochi: The Miami native made it as far as the semifinals in the 1,500-meter event before a disqualification for too much contact ended his run. He has qualified for the quarterfinals in the 1,000m and was a part of the 5,000m relay team that has advanced to the final. (In that final event, Alvarez actually fell to the ice, but it was ruled that he had been interfered with by a South Korean skater, allowing the Americans to move on.) He has the 500m heats still to come on Tuesday.

After all that — he’s said this will be his last Olympics — he’d like baseball to be next. But diving a little deeper, what are his actual prospects?

Let’s look at what we have. Although he hadn’t taken the field for a competitive team since graduating high school in 2008, he exhibited a solid ability to hit junior college pitching with a .311/.390/.478 slash line during a 63 -game in 2011 with Salt Lake Community College. The numbers didn’t look so good on the defensive end as the shortstop committed a team-high 30 errors and posted an .888 fielding percentage. I should add that college coach Manny Mantrana, who recruited Alvarez out of high school, believed defense was his greatest strength and that the quick moves of a short-track speed skater would help a middle infielder like Alvarez, who at 5-foot-9 wouldn’t really fit anywhere else.

Alvarez said scouts were taking a long look at him back in 2011, and although he’s 24, he might be worth one of those late-round (35-40) fliers reserved for good stories. He’ll need more time and guidance to regain his form, but being an Olympic athlete, we know the athleticism is there.

The Marlins (hometown team), Dodgers (who drafted his brother, Nick) and Angels (parent club of Triple-A Salt Lake, where he’s made a speed skating home) could be teams that give him a look, based on story alone.

Rays-Nationals trade analysis

It’s only early February, but this story had the feel of July 31, if only in the way the rumor swelled over time.

Karns

First, we heard that Rays catcher Jose Lobaton was headed to the Nationals for right-handed prospect Nathan Karns, straight-up. At first, it was pretty easy to declare the Rays the winners of that deal. Karns (3.26 ERA in 132 2/3 innings for Double-A Harrisburg) has shown potential in the Minors and provides the Rays with even more starting pitching depth. (Like they needed any more.) Lobaton won’t be much more than a backup catcher in Washington, and one without a quality bat or arm, at that.

Then we learned two other prospects would be headed to the Nationals … and not just throwaways, either — Drew Vettleson and Felipe Rivero, both of whom were among the Rays’ top 20 prospects, according to MLB.com, and slotted into the No. 11 and 15 slots, respectively, in the Nats system.

That certainly changes how I view the trade. Lobaton was the so-called centerpiece of the deal beforehand, only because he was the one who would immediately be on the Major League roster. But with the deal becoming a 3-for-1, Karns became the de facto headliner.

Can Karns make an impact in the Major Leagues? Sure, and he can do it as early as this year, although that’s more likely to happen in the bullpen. Is that worth a Major League backup catcher and two Top 20 prospects? I tend to think not. Heck, Rivero, who’s likely to move up to Harrisburg this year, could become a left-handed version of Karns for the Nationals.

I’m not one to doubt the Rays, but the 3-for-1 had me scratching my head.

Lee’s spot on the D-List

I recommend Jake Seiner’s comprehensive series on what he’s calling, “The D-Listers,” aka the best defensive prospects at each position. This week, he set his sights on shortstops, and I want to focus a little bit more on an intriguing name on the D-List — Hak-Ju Lee.

Hak Ju

As Jake notes, Lee missed all but 15 games last season after tearing ligaments in his left knee. His prospect stock has slipped from No. 32 on MLB.com’s Top 100 to No. 84 heading into this season. Defense undoubtedly was Lee’s calling card before the injury, and it’s not immediately clear how it’ll be affected in his first year back from surgery.

The good news is his arm, which rates as a 60 according to MLB.com, should remain above-average because it wasn’t affected by the injury. He might just lose half a step though, which at the shortstop position is the difference between a groundout and a seeing-eye single. And if that’s true, it’ll be a crying shame because there are few things more beautiful in the game than a smooth operator on the left side of the infield. It’s why Lee will be one of the big prospects, for me, to watch in the International League season.

In the Majors, Yunel Escobar, who had his club option picked up in the offseason, actually enjoyed his best defensive season, by far — his 12.2 UZR/150 at shortstop trumped his previous high of 5.0 at the position — but he’s not a long-term solution. If Lee is back up to speed and Escobar comes back to earth, the former could have a shot at the job by mid- or late-2014.

Mascot Item of the Week

Quick Hits

  • I came out with my FIP-based look at how the top pitching prospects performed in 2013. I’ve said pretty much everything I wanted to in there, so that’s where you’ll find my exhaustive thoughts on the topic.
  • Colleague Danny Wild does his Minoring in Twitter posts on the blog every week and they’re usually quite entertaining. This week’s took a bit of different turn as Danny talked to Mitch Stetter, who announced his retirement via social media before Derek Jeter made it cool.
  • Baseball America had a good story about Blue Jays left-handed pitching prospect Daniel Norris and his “dream car — a 1978 Volkswagen Westfalia camper van.”
  • I’ve written in the past that Jimmy Nelson’s future might be in the Brewers bullpen. The right-hander talked about just that in his Q&A with Kelsie Heneghan.

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