Prospect Three Day Weekend

We’re getting far enough into the minor league season that some significant injuries are beginning to appear. It’s unfortunate, but it’s also a part of the game, especially when we remember that these are young athletes in their late teens and early 20s, most of whom are playing this many games for the first time.

Some of the injuries can be attributed to wear and tear, while others are just the outcome of putting your body on the line night in and night out. Others still walk the fine line between being the product of misuse and being the result of doing something as unnatural as throwing a baseball over and over again.

Walking that fine line for the better part of the last year and a half were the New York Mets and Jenrry Mejia, who the team pulled back and forth between bullpens and starting rotations like Geppetto did Pinocchio. Now, Mejia has a torn MCL and will be having Tommy John surgery. Did the change in roles cause the injury? Likely not, at least not on its own, but it couldn’t have helped. Scouts have mentioned for years that Mejia has a “max-effort” delivery that has also been described as violent—words not typically helpful in the preservation of elbow ligaments. Regardless of the cause, Mejia will now be set back another season, leaving the promising future of the Mets right hander that much more in doubt.

Hit by a significantly less devastating, but certainly more unexpected, injury were the Baltimore Orioles, who had to hold their breath for a few days after seeing top prospect Manny Machado helped off the field last week, clutching his knee in pain. Machado fell to the ground while trying to tag up from second on a fly ball, and ultimately left the game with what has since been diagnosed as a dislocated kneecap. As gruesome as that injury sounds, it is said to not be serious, and the Orioles say he won’t miss too much time and that the injury should ultimately have no effect on his development.

Before his injury, Machado had been tearing up the South Atlantic League, validating the Orioles’ use of the No. 3 overall pick on him in last year’s draft. While many teams would have loved the opportunity to select Machado, one of two teams who did and passed on him, the Washington Nationals, should have no regrets. That’s because the player they selected in his place, Bryce Harper, has exceeded even the loftiest of expectations.

Most expected Harper to show off his Craftsman-esque set of tools in his first professional season, but expected some bumps in the road. Something along the lines of a .250-.275 batting average, lots of home runs, and lots of strikeouts were among the standard predictions. After all, in the Arizona Fall League (traditionally a hitter’s paradise), Harper showed off his plus-plus power but also his lack of plate discipline.

The first few week or two of the 2011 season went along these same lines, but then Harper figured something out. With a base hit Thursday, Harper extended his hit streak to 16 games (and counting), and over his last 10 games, he’s hitting .512 with four doubles and two home runs. His plate discipline is still not ideal (27 strikeouts in 32 games), but he has cut his strikeout rate down during the hit streak and his walk rate of 12.6 percent shows a good adjustment from the free-swinging approach he showed in spring training. Harper is now leading the South Atlantic League in batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage despite being the league’s youngest player.

While Harper has learned to control the strike zone more effectively, Rockies prospect Tyler Matzek has taken steps in the other direction. Matzek, a left-handed pitcher drafted 11th overall in 2009 out of high school, ranked as the top prospect in the Rockies farm system entering this season, according to Baseball America. Armed with a low-to-mid 90s fastball and off-speed pitches dripping with potential, Matzek handled the South Atlantic League with ease in 2010, posting a 2.92 ERA in 18 starts, and striking out 8.9 batters per nine innings. His performance came in spite of an egregious 6.25 BB/9 rate. Clearly command was atop the list of improvements Matzek was looking to make this season.

Instead, Matzek’s BB/9 rate has almost doubled, skyrocketing to 12.1 and rendering him virtually ineffective. Walking this many batters is almost certainly a case of the yips, although with “only” five wild pitches, he’s not exactly pulling a Rick Ankiel on the mound, meaning it’s just a standard, albeit extreme, lack of command. It’s hard to say how much may be mental versus physical in Matzek’s case, but it is undoubtedly some combination of the two and if the Rockies want to salvage their talented southpaw, they need to get to the root of it immediately.

If I could be one place this weekend…

It would in Trenton. If you question my desire to spend the weekend in central Jersey, well…you’d be right. It’s not something I’d choose to do without reason. But the Trenton Thunder have two of the more intriguing Yankees pitching prospects on the mound this weekend, as Dellin Betances goes on Saturday and Manny Banuelos throws on Sunday. As a bonus, Sunday’s match-up pits Banuelos against Mets righty Jeurys Familia, who was recently promoted from the Florida State League and will be making his second Eastern League start.

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