WTNY Hot Seat: Dave Cameron
Monday afternoon, I was lucky enough to have a conversation with Dave Cameron, most known for his great work at U.S.S. Mariner. But Cameron's draw to WTNY was not for his Mariner knowledge, but his intelligence for minor league baseball. An avid Carolina League watcher, Cameron sees more prospects than I'm able to, and with his sources hears about more. My favorite of Cameron's pieces come at Baseball Prospectus, when he finds the time to write a prospect profile. So I asked Dave to sit down with me and talk about everything from the game's best prospects, to the Mariners, to proper minor league analyzation.
Bryan Smith: Well, let's start at the top. I, for one, would rank Andy Marte tops overall in the minors with B.J. Upton gone. In my mind, there are arguments for three players: Marte, Felix Hernandez and Delmon Young. I know you're a Mariners fan, and even the guy that introduced me to Felix a year ago, so would you argue for the King in the top throne?
Dave Cameron: No, I wouldn't, simply because of the monumental attrition rate of teenage pitchers. Felix Hernandez may be the most talented player in the minors, but you can't simply ignore the risk that comes every time he takes the mound. The last few pitching prospects that have been in this kind of class are guys like Rick Ankiel, Josh Beckett, and Ryan Anderson. Not exactly a hall of fame trio. The risk is just too high to take Felix over an established hitting prospect like Marte. He could be better, but he could just as easily be nothing.
Smith: What about Delmon? After starting the year on slow he's really coming on hard down the stretch, breathing down the neck of Hernandez for the #2 spot in my opinion. I mean, Kevin Goldstein noted the other day he was hitting .460 over a 20-game stretch. He's shot past Dallas McPherson in the three spot, who is actually dropping in my mind with bad patience in the PCL.
Cameron: Delmon's a tough case. A year ago, scouts loved him and statistical analysis had no opinion. Now, his statistics are ridiculously impressive for an 18-year-old in the South Atlantic League, but he hasn't made some adjustments that some would like. Like Prince Fielder, I don't think he's a normal 18-year-old who is going to grow at the same rate most do. He's a very mature physical specimen for his age, and I don't see a huge David Wright-style leap in his future. He's already way ahead of where most teenagers are, but I think his development is going to be in smaller increments. His defense is still mediocre at best and he's got some things to work on in his swing and pitch recognition. His numbers, I think, overstate his potential. He's one of the better prospects in the game, but he's not the next great phenom.
Smith: Young's just part of the pre-alcohol trio in the Tampa system. Upton has been up and down since being summoned, keeping his average above .300. And the last of the three, Scott Kazmir, makes his debut tonight against, who else but the Mariners. I know you'll be watching. He was obviously the steal of the deadline, though I can't help but wonder if the scouts are right about Kazmir. But overall, this 3 is about as good as it gets, and you can't help but wonder if the sun might actually reach Tropicana Field soon.
Cameron: I'm not sure I'd agree that Upton has been up and down. He's hitting .306/.348/.500 as a 20-year-old in the majors. That's pretty much just up and up. Good luck finding a scout who doesn't work for the Mets who will say bad things about Kazmir, by the way.
Smith: Well, the downs came mostly in his first couple of games, which I guess is expected given his age. As for Kazmir, you don't doubt he'll be able to stay in the starting rotation. The southpaw version of Roy Oswalt?
Cameron: The knocks on Kazmir staying in the rotation could apply to 95 percent of all pitching prospects. He's not built like a horse, but most aren't. He only has two major league pitches right now; so does Kerry Wood. He might end up in the bullpen, but every pitching prospect might end up in the bullpen. Kazmir isn't behind in his development, and the talk of him needing to move to relief work is pure speculation at this point.
Smith: As for Upton, I gotta ask what you make of this nine-year deal that Tampa and Upton's agent have been talking about. It would end about halfway through B.J.'s 'prime' years, providing financial security for both parties involved. Are we going to see contracts evolve from a Vernon Wells-type contract (buying out auto-renewal AND arbitration years) into this?
Cameron: I'm not a fan of committing to anything besides a spouse for longer than about 6 years. There are just too many unpredictable variables that could ruin this deal for either side. Unless Upton gets the Devil Rays to pay him a rate that would adjust for fair market value in 2011, he could be leaving a ton of money on the table. On the flip side, he could tear his ACL tomorrow and never live up to his potential, giving the D'Rays a decade long albatross. I don't like the idea for either side.
Smith: Upton's not the only young shortstop that has been debuting lately, as we've seen Jose Lopez have 77 at-bats in Seattle. I took some flak last month for leaving Jose off my top 100 prospects list, but I can't help not being a fan. With all the questions surrounding him (defense, patience, low average), there just doesn't seem to be reason to buy his stock. I mean, age can't rule over all statistical indicators, can it?
Cameron: I don't think there's any way you can leave Lopez off the top 100, but he's also fairly overrated by most observers. He was actually having a very successful season statistically for Tacoma, showing legitimate power in cavernous Cheney Stadium. I wouldn't classify him as a low-average hitter, either, as he was hitting .295 in Tacoma and hit .336 in the Cal League as an 18-year-old in 2002. There's no question his lack of patience is going to limit his abilities to turn into a superstar, and his defense isn't very good, but he still projects as a second or third baseman with above average power. He might be Tony Batista, but he might be Jeff Kent. He's not anywhere close to a B.J. Upton kind of talent, but he's still a pretty nifty prospect, and I'm glad the M's have him.
Smith: I posed some analysis of Seattle's farm system Monday, which I'm sure you have comments on. I ranked the group second in the AL West, centering my analysis on a pair of infielders, Matt Tuiasosopo and Asrdrubal Cedeno. Man, those names sound like the DP combo of Grudzielanek-Garciaparra in Chicago. Now the question is, will they ever be that good?
Cameron: Asdrubal Cabrera has a chance to be Jose Lopez offensively with gold glove defense. His work with the glove at shortstop is near major league quality right now, and he's probably the best defensive infielder the M's have had in their minor league system in ten years. Offensively, he's got some work to do, but he has the makings of being a gap power hitter with a high enough average to overcome his swing-at-anything approach. He's still got a long ways to go, but on potential alone, he's definitely one to watch.
Tuiasosopo tore the cover off the ball in Arizona and his first week in Everett, but pitchers have caught on and started exposing him with breaking balls, working him in and away successfully. He has a solid swing with legitimate opposite field power, but his approach needs work. Defensively, he's just not a shortstop. Most organizations had him pegged as a rightfielder heading into the draft, and he hasn't done anything to change anyones' mind about that since. Expect him to move to the outfield permanently in 2006 at the latest. He may have the bat to carry out there, but we just don't know right now. He's more project than prospect at this moment.
Smith: The AL West's other farm systems bring up some interesting stories. I mean, Anaheim has middle infield depth that trumps Seattle's, not to mention Kotchman, McPherson, Santana, etc. Texas looks replenished under the work of Grady Fuson, who has to be one of the game's top free agents. And most surprisingly, Billy Beane's system looks weak, though the latest draft could change that. What do you make of the competing farm systems?
Cameron: I think Anaheim's system is the best in the game, and it isn't particularly close. Kotchman is an unbelievable talent if he can stay healthy. Mathis, McPherson, and Santana are the big names, but the lower levels are stacked as well. They just have waves of talent heading towards Edison Field.
Texas' system has some intriguing talents but lacks the prime time stud that Seattle and Anaheim boast. Fuson did a fantastic job bringing in a lot of depth, and they should produce more quality major leaguers than the rest of the division. I wouldn't expect too many all-stars to come out of their current crop, however.
Oakland's system is doing exactly what Beane wants it to do; give him chips to trade to keep his current team competitive. If the A's weren't world series contenders, they'd draft differently. They are exploiting a current trend of being able to acquire major league talent relatively cheaply during the season, and so they have made a conscious decision to acquire players that will have significant trade value quickly. It will hurt them in a few years, but that's a tradeoff they are willing to make to keep this team competitive in 2004.
The Mariners system is full of athletes who the organization hopes can figure out how to play baseball, but three miserable drafts under old scouting director Frank Mattox have hurt the farm system. Nearly every top prospect in the system comes with above average risk, and the M's are hoping to beat the odds on a few players. There aren't any sure-fire major leaguers in the whole bunch, but they have several possible big time talents.
Smith: Well, my vote for the game's top system (Kotchman doesn't count in my mind since he played in the Majors) is Atlanta, who have great pitching depth with a good hitting pair in Marte and Francouer. I know you like to make it out to Carolina League games, so you probably know Braves prospects well. Do you like what you've seen from Myrtle Beach lately?
Cameron: This year's Myrtle Beach squad is the weakest they've had in the past few years, talent wise. Francoeur is a nice talent, though he has significantly less upside as a right fielder than he did as a center fielder. Brian McCann has pop from behind the plate, but has a long ways to go before he's a major league hitter. Pitching wise, Jose Capellan began his assent through the system at MB, but he's almost certainly a reliever in the big leagues. Kyle Davies has some promise as a mid-to-back-end starter and Matt Wright, Blaine Boyer, and Anthony Lerew have solid arms and decent performances, but these guys aren't front line prospects.
Smith: I thought the same of Capellan after seeing him in the Futures Game, as he's way too dependent on one pitch. But I like Davies, especially if you buy Dayn Perry's analysis about the importance of low HR/9 totals...
Cameron: I don't think there's any doubt that low home run rates are a good thing, but I doubt too many people could take you or me deep in Costal Federal Field. That place is just ridiculously hard to hit a longball, and almost all of the pitching stats put up there have to be taken with large truckfulls of salt. If you love HR/9, Matt Wright (4 in 119 innings) or Blaine Boyer (3 in 137) are your guys. Davies is better than Lerew, but his HR/9 rate isn't that good. 3 HR's allowed in 75 IP is one of the worst marks on that team. CFF is just an unbelievable pitchers park.
Smith: Well, let's talk about the Carolina League as a whole. Prospects-wise it hasn't been a fantastic year for the league, has it? Capellan, Aubrey and Brandon McCarthy all briefly played there, moving on to better places. Who has been the best player you've seen, who's the best player there now, and who is the best player the normal fan wouldn't know?
Cameron: The best prospect in the league this year was probably Francoeur, edging out Michael Aubrey. Francoeur still has a ways to go in his development, but he's the one guy that I saw who could be a regular at all-star games in the next 10 years. The best prospect in the league now may be Fernando Nieve, a diminuitive right-hander who I've been talking up for two years. His velocity has been down to the low 90's this year, but his command and breaking ball have improved and he's setting up hitters well. A sleeper could be Thomas Pauly with the Reds, who has been brilliant but gotten very little press outside of Cincinnati
Smith: I really like Nieve, listing him as my Houston breakout prospect before the season. Did you get a chance to see McCarthy, and is Nieve the best pitcher you've seen?
Cameron: I've liked Nieve ever since I saw him in Martinsville just eating people up with a 98 MPH fastball and a hammer curve. He's a different pitcher now than he was, but he's still getting people out. The Sox were nice enough to promote McCarthy three days before I had a chance to see him, so unfortunately, I have no first hand accounts, but everyone I talk to says the same thing; average stuff, impeccable command, pitching over his head.
Smith: A modern day, right-handed Joe Kennedy.
Cameron: Perhaps, though I've always had a soft spot for Joe Kennedy
Smith: It's obvious when you talk about prospects how much you value your first-hand account, or the scouting reports you hear of a player. How would you say is the proper way to balance tools vs. numbers when evaluating a prospect?
Cameron: I think the key is to understand the limitations of our information. Statistical analysis is only as good as the sample size and the competition and only provides information in retrospect, while scouting is prone to inconsistencies among observers bias', inability to track consistency and important things like a players approach on a day-to-day basis, and the trickeries of the human eye and mind. If you understand the limitations of each and try to complement those with the strengths of the other, I believe you can see a more complete portion of the truth that we're trying to obtain. I don't know that we have a perfect way of balancing projection vs results, but it's pretty clear to me that both are valid to a point and faulty by themselves. Ignoring either one is a waste.
Smith: Is there one great statistic you use to evaluate minor leaguers? Does one not exist? Could one even be created?
Cameron: The search for one all encompassing statistic is useless. There are so many different things to evaluate in a player that trying to add them into one formula successfully is going to take more time than its worth. It really isn't that hard to look at statistics that judge individual player skills without lumping them together. Why would you want to combine perfectly good numbers that reveal a players ability to make contact and hit for power into one less effective number that doesn't do either as well? One of the challenges that statistical analysts face is getting past the belief that the statistics are skills themselves. There's no such thing as the walk-to-strikeout ratio skill. We must remember that the numbers are just tools to use to help us evaluate the player's actual abilities, and the less we focus on trying to come up with one number and the more we focus on understanding the skills, the better off we'll be.
Smith: Rich mentions this in his latest breakdown of Bill James in the 1982 abstract, where James talks about statistics more as a language than a number...
Cameron: Right. Statistics are useful in revealing what a player can and cannot do, but we have to realize that a change in those skills will be noticable to a scout long before they are noticable to a statistical analyst, who has to wait for the sample size to catch up before he claims it as something more than random chance. What we're trying to do is determine just what kind of skills these kids have. The numbers tell us part and scouting tell us part.
Smith: OK...onto the speed round...Put the following five in order: Rios, Sizemore, Upton, Wright, Mauer...
Smith: Finish this sentence: the next great baseball phenom is...
Smith: Should the Diamondbacks take Justin Upton despite already having solid depth at shortstop in Santos and Drew?
Smith: Who might we see a Jeff Francis like bust-out from in 2005?
bsmithwtny: The best talent from the 2004 draft was...
Smith: And finally, the player you're most excited to watch in the Carolina League next year is...
Smith: Dave Cameron, you are off the Wait 'Til Next Year hot seat.
That's all for today. Hopefully I'll be able to get something on the site tomorrow, since my sleeper pick of the year (Jeff Francis), will be making his debut with the Rockies. As Kevin Goldstein points out, the Rockies have created a situation where the Candian southpaw won't make his first Coors Field start until his fourth. Best of luck to Jeff Francis, and congratulations to Scott Kazmir on a fantastic first start. More tomorrow...