Interviewing MLB Pipeline’s Jim Callis

Last week, I had the the incredible opportunity of speaking with senior writer at MLBPipeline.com, Jim Callis. Mr. Callis has been working in baseball since 1988, and is truly one of the best baseball minds in the game today. A talented writer himself, he worked at Baseball America for nearly 25 years, writing and evaluating talent from all levels of the game. It was great to work with him and get his thoughts on minor-league and amateur talent across all of baseball.

Below, I’ve paraphrased the conversation we had just about a week ago. Thanks to Mr. Callis for sharing his time and insights.

With the signings of Jason Heyward and Ben Zobrist to multi-year deals this offseason to pair with the question marks surrounding Kyle Schwarber’s defensive home, how do you think the Chicago Cubs intend to use prospects Ian Happ, Albert Almora, and Gleyber Torres when they are ready?

The situation that the Cubs currently are experiencing, that being the surplus of talented position player prospects, is inevitably the result of simply drafting the best possible players in the draft each June and signing the best on the international market every July. Even now at the big-league level — between Montero, Rizzo, Baez, Zobrist, Bryant, Russell, Schwarber, Heyward, Soler and Coughlin — you can argue that the Cubs have nine to ten starting-caliber position players fighting for eight spots, and there are more coming.

I don’t question Kyle Schwarber’s work ethic, yet I have trouble seeing his lack of athleticism and poor pitch-framing metrics coupled with his advanced bat profiling behind the dish. Playing Schwarber in left field will allow him to play 140-150 games and let his bat and elite power play without being hindered by the physical demands and durability concerns catching at the major league level for 162 games often brings. And since he’s a guy that could hit 40 homeruns and post an OPS upwards of .850, it doesn’t make sense to send him back down to Triple-A and try to improve his defensive skills with the service clock now ticking. He also provides excellent protection hitting behind Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo in what looks to be a lethal 2016 Cub lineup — and catching at the big league level will undeniably impact his offensive production, even if he only catches 100 games. Furthermore, with Willson Contreras rapidly rising up the pipeline, there’s even more reason to believe Schwarber doesn’t end up behind the plate long-term.

Now with respect to Happ — despite his athleticism and arm strength, I don’t see him fitting into the mix at second with Baez or Zobrist given his lower-grading hands and footwork at the keystone. He’s another guy that will likely move to a corner outfield spot given his advanced approach at the plate, excellent bat control and bat speed. However, with that said I can see Joe Maddon developing Happ (once he’s ready) into the mold of a Zobrist-type, ultra-utility player than can shift between a number of spots to allow for his skilled bat to play. And although I could eventually see him profiling as a gold-glove caliber third baseman, Javier Baez’s impact and defensive versatility could become the catalyst in opening up playing time, given his recent offensive strides to shorten his stroke and drastically cut his strike out numbers.

Looking further down the pipeline, tools-y players Albert Almora and Gleyber Torres complicate this already crowded haul of star-caliber position players. Almora brings a lot defensively to the table, as he profiles as pure a center fielder as they come with plus speed, plus arm strength and accuracy to pair with plus-plus route running efficiency and reads on the baseball. Nevertheless, he’s not a strong hitter that could potentially scratch a .270 AVG. with an OBP that floats around .320 and strong contact skills. Looking down the road, he certainly makes the defense the strongest up the middle, and could differentiate the often ‘hit or miss’ Cubs lineup with his high-contact rates and low strikeout percentages. Torres is another talented infielder with good range, hands, arm strength and plate discipline that allow him to succeed on both sides of the baseball. As an 18 year-old in 119 A games last season, he slashed .293/.353/.386 while playing shortstop, although I can also see him profiling just as nicely at the hot corner or keystone.

Bottom line — it’s shell-shocking to see just how many impact position players the Cubs have hoarded and developed, internally.

What kind of team are the Atlanta Braves in 2017 once they’ve moved into their new ballpark, and thereafter?

I really like what the John Hart and John Coppolella have done together — rebuilding this team from the ground up both through the draft and trade acquisitions during the past 18 months which have landed them a sizable number of high profile prospects, albeit talking on some appalling contracts in the short term among the likes of Nick Swisher, Michael Bourn, and Bronson Arroyo. Nevertheless, between position players Dansby Swanson, Ozhaino Albies, Mallex Smith, Braxton Davidson, and Austin Riley as well as pitching prospects Sean Newcomb, Aaron Blair, Touki Toussaint, Kolby Allard, Tyrell Jenkins, Manny Banuelos, Max Fried, Lucas Sims, and Chris Ellis, the Braves have built themselves a formidable core of talented youth — especially with respect to this young pitching.

However even with this youthful core moving up the pipeline and a handful of impact players at the big-league level, the Braves have an awful lot of holes to patch up on both sides of the baseball. Given his previous success at the big league level with a nasty arsenal, I believe there’s a chance that Julio Teheran can bounce back and regain his 2013 form when he posted a 1.99 FIP, 170 K’s and .947 WHIP through 185.2 innings pitched. Freddie Freeman appears to be the last piece of the old Braves core that the team will try to build around, of course in addition to others like outfielder Ender Inciarte who they recently acquired in what many executives thought was an incredible haul for Atlanta (acquiring former number-one overall pick Dansby Swanson and RHP Aaron Blair in a deal that sent RHP Shelby Miller to the Diamondbacks).

Additionally, after being acquired from the Dodgers last season, Hector Olivera should man left field and provide some solid right-handed offensive production in the middle of the order behind Freeman. The Simmons deal was puzzling in many respects, but the return for the defensive wizard was on-par with his true value and justifiable given that Swanson and Albies look to work up the middle together in the near future.

With that all said, I really like the talent they’ve acquired, yet I have trouble fully buying into this project just yet given some of these prospects may not pan out just as they’ve been projected.

What are your thoughts on Blake Snell’s development and his projected ETA?

Well, Snell is a guy who was drafted by the Rays as a sort of project with the 52nd-overall pick in the 2011 draft for his raw arsenal and advanced feel for pitching. Within the last two years, he’s really now as he’s grown into a dominant, run-stopping force in 2015 when he posted a 1.83 ERA, 11.57 K/9, a 79.6-percent LOB% which ultimately lead to 46 consecutive scoreless innings across three levels of minor league play.

Nevertheless, the biggest question mark surrounding Blake is his command. Early on in his pro career, he struggled locating his fastball and breaking pitches, which cornered him into falling behind in counts and losing battles with hitters he could have put away. In 2013, through 99 innings at Class-A, he posted a 6.64 BB/9 en route to a 16.3 BB%. Then the next year, he improved a tick but still posted a BB/9 above slightly above 4. So, control is the biggest question with him.

Regardless, this is a guy who stands out for his ability to conceal the baseball from opposing batters. He doesn’t have particularly ‘electric’ stuff — he features a fastball that sits between 92-94 mph, and his slider doesn’t show especially hard, late bite at present. Nevertheless, he keeps hitters off balance with his delivery and late release point.

With that said, I think he’ll continue to refine his stuff as he grows and fills out into his frame. I think he is a legit, top-of-the-rotation, left-handed pitching talent that shouldn’t go overlooked — especially if his command continues to improve with the help of the excellent pitching coaches scattered through the Rays’ player development staff.

The Colorado Rockies have a surplus of talented infield prospects in 2B Forrest Wall, 3B Ryan McMahon, and SS Brendan Rodgers — how do you see them fitting into the mix with 2B D.J. Lemahieu and 3B Nolan Arenado in the big leagues once they’re ready?

In moving the face of their franchise Troy Tulowitzki last season and continuing to dangle Carlos Gonzalez in front of other teams, it’s evident that the Rockies view third baseman Nolan Arenado as the core talent to build around for years to come. As we saw last year, he’s really got four plus tools that play at the big league level, and has the chance to impact the course of a game anytime he’s got an opportunity to touch the baseball.

While McMahon is a talented infielder, and shows skillsets strikingly similar to Arenado at the same time in his career, I think McMahon is athletic enough to move to an outfield corner to let his strong, left-handed stroke play.

Moving to Rodgers, even though he exhibits soft hands, a strong arm action, good instincts, and agile lateral movements, there are still some questions surrounding whether he can be a true shortstop at the major-league level. His bat profiles well at either third or short given his advanced approach and natural pop is his stroke, but I think given Tulowitzki’s departure and Arenado cementing himself at the hot corner, there’s a good chance he stays at short.

As for Wall, he has outstanding bat speed from the left-hand side of the plate and has shown the ability to drive the baseball. His discipline at the plate is also advanced as he draws many walks, and allows for his speed to play. I expect Wall to take over the Rockies second base job since by the time he’s ready, Lemahieu will likely be entering free agency. Last year, Lemahieu played solid defense at the keystone while slashing .301/.358/.388, but showed little pop or extra-base power for a guy without much speed to justify not doing so. I can see the Rockies moving him for pitching help before he hits the open market.

Will Chicago White Sox SS Tim Anderson start the season off in the big leagues sandwiched between Brett Lawrie and Todd Frazier in what looks to be a fairly lethal right-handed hitting Sox Team?

I’ve always found Tim Anderson to be a fairly perplexing prospect as he has limited baseball knowledge — he started playing competitive baseball when he was in his junior year of high school before entering the junior college ranks and getting some recognition for his athleticism and play while there. Not only do I think he doesn’t start at the big leagues out of spring camp this season but also I don’t believe that he sticks at shortstop in the long term. He’s incredibly athletic and has the lateral range to stay at the position, but his hands, arm, and instincts aren’t as strong as you’d like to see out of a major-league-caliber shortstop. Given his athleticism and speed, I can easily see him profiling well in centerfield.

Regardless of his defensive home and his lack of ability to draw many walks, he should continue to develop into a solid contributor at the next level, as he’s consistently shown the knack to drive the ball all over the field when he hit .312/.350/.429 last season at Double-A Birmingham. I expect him to begin the season at Triple-A Charlotte and be up with the big-league club in September 2016 or early 2017.

What are your thoughts on once-hyped prospect Dylan Bundy, his recent injury history, and his future with the Orioles?

Dylan is an extremely interesting case of a talented prospect out of player options with the big league club. The Orioles cannot send him back down to Triple-A without putting him on waivers, where he’d likely be claimed by another organization hoping to bank on him returning to form. So, they’ll have to add him to their 25-man roster for the start of the season, where he’ll likely work out of the bullpen if he’s healthy. I still think he has an awful lot of upside to be an effective starter, but given his elbow and shoulder ailments it likely won’t be in the near future.

In your eyes, who are your three top, most-projectable high-school position players in this year’s draft? What skillsets does each of those respective players demonstrate that really stands out for its potential to play at a high level on the professional stage?

I couldn’t narrow this question down to three, so I’ve decided to give four:

The first kid that comes to mind here is Blake Rutherford, left-handed hitting, right-handed throwing 6-foot-2, 190-lb. outfielder from the California high school ranks (Chaminade College Prep). This is a young man that has the chance to be the first player taken in the upcoming draft. He has solid-to-plus tools across board — as he has a good feel to hit for average and raw power, he’s a plus runner, and uses this speed well on defense to get excellent jumps and routes to the baseball.

Delvin Perez, a 6-foot-3, 165-lb. middle infielder from the International Baseball Academy (in Puerto Rico), is another player worthy of some attention. In my mind, he may have the highest ceiling of all these high school players for his overall package of tools. At present he’s a shortstop, and shows the premium speed, soft hands, instincts, arm strength, and range to stay at the position long-term. Defensively he can make the routine as well as the flashy play, and is working to improve his footwork through the baseball toward whatever bag he throws to. His bat is a tick or two behind his defense development-wise, but he shows some feel for an approach as he continues to fill out and add good mass to his already athletic frame. Very raw as many Puerto Rico/high school baseball products are, but has the potential to be an impact player on both sides of the baseball.

Josh Lowe is the best two-way player in this draft, although many teams value him more as a position player. He has a terrific arm that should play at third base, demonstrated plus agility, and has shown soft hands and good footwork around the position as well. He’s a left-handed hitter with a long lever and some real power potential — as the ball really explodes off his barrel. On the mound, he has an electric arm with some feel for secondary pitches. My feeling is that whatever team drafts him will try to develop him first as a position player, and if that fails to work out, then they may shift him to the mound.

The last guy I’ll mention here is William Benson, an extremely athletic 1B/OF from Westminster High in Georgia, for comparisons he draws to Cubs outfielder Jason Heyward. Similar build at the same age of development, outstanding athlete, excellent bat speed, and raw power with a short stroke to the baseball that should allow him to tap into it fairly consistently. Good actions both at first base and the outfield, soft hands with average arm strength. This kid has a lot of potential to continue to grow and add mass, expect a team to roll the dice early on him this June.

It’s so easy to make the comparison — Latin-American pitcher, smaller frame, Boston Red Sox, electric three pitch arsenal at age 18 — how accurate are the Anderson Espinoza/Pedro Martinez comparisons? Do you think we’ll see him in the big league before 2020?

To tag this kid as a future Hall of Famer and the “second coming of Pedro Martinez” isn’t fair, but they show extremely similar skillsets at the same level of their pro careers. Their smaller physical builds are extremely similar, as well as their electric arsenal of pitches and easy, repeatable delivery. Even at 18 years of age, Espinoza has an excellent feel for pitching with a plus fastball with late bite that works between 94-97 mph, an advanced sinking changeup, and good feel for how to spin his curveball that shows 11-5 break and late bite as well.

I remember talking to the Mariners about Felix Hernandez when he was coming up their pipeline, as they too were extremely hesitant of moving him too quickly. But much like Anderson and the Red Sox, the more the Mariners tried to slow Felix’s development, the harder it became to push him through the system because he continued to pitch extremely well. As talented as he is, the earliest I see Espinoza arriving in Boston is the summer of 2018. Maybe this year he’s limited to 100 innings between Low- and High-A, before making the jump to Double-A next year. I’m not sure how the Red Sox plan to allocate this 100-inning limit — whether that be through three-inning starts throughout the season or full starts more spread out over the course of the minor-league season. At the time they signed him, the Red Sox knew he was the best amateur international pitcher on the market, but I have reason to believe that he’s much better than they might have originally anticipated.

What do you see Kyle Tucker’s ceiling and floor being at the major-league level, respectively?

You could make the argument that Kyle was the best high school position player available in the 2015 draft. The younger Tucker is much more athletic than his older brother Preston Tucker, and is a pure hitter who consistently barrels the baseball up — making hard contact to all fields with his balanced approach and sweet left-handed stroke. He has plenty of raw power at present and should continue improving this as he fills out his tall, frail-looking 6-foot-4 frame. He might loose a step or two agility-wise as he continues to grow, but he’s an average runner at present and a good, aggressive base runner. Given that Daz Cameron has the chance to be the better defensive outfielder of the two, I see Kyle ending up in a corner outfield spot where his strong arm and good routes to the baseball should profile well there.

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