Righthander Miguel Almonte‘s stuff caught up to the South Atlantic League last night in Delmarva. He allowed only one hit in six scoreless innings, walking three and striking out nine in what was easily his best start of the year.
The 20-year-old is one of the most talented arms in the Royals system, but when he joined the low Class A Lexington rotation to start the season, no one knew quite what to expect. After all, he began last season in the Dominican Summer League, then jumped to the Arizona League for 27 innings before a very short stint in the Rookie-level Burlington bullpen for the Appalachian League playoffs.
So the jump to full-season ball was a pretty big leap for Almonte. In his first four starts he had flashed plus stuff, but difficulty locating his secondary pitches often placed him in hitter’s counts. He entered Wednesday’s game with a 0-3, 4.00 record and 22 hits allowed in 18 innings.
“In his mediocre starts he backs himself into fastball corners,” Lexington pitching coach Jerry Nyman said.
That wasn’t a problem on Wednesday night. Almonte quickly showed that he could locate his changeup, baffling hitters by maintaining his arm speed and the drop on the pitch as it neared the plate. With his changeup keeping hitters honest, Almonte’s 92-93 mph fastball was all the more effective. He topped out at 96.
“I gave the changeup a 60 (on the 20-80 scouting scale) last night, and I don’t do that often,” Nyman said. “It was borderline unhittable. Last night he threw both the fastball and changeup at will. It was a nasty, cold night. Not to discredit what Miguel did, but it wasn’t a hitter’s night. But that being said, they had only a couple good swings on him all night.”
Almonte’s curveball hasn’t yet managed to make the trip from the bullpen to Lexington. He shows a plus breaking ball in side sessions, but once the game begins, he has trouble locating it. Frustrated with the lack of feel, Almonte often puts the curve to the side in later innings because his changeup is effective enough alone to keep low Class A hitters off his fastball.
Mike O'Neill, lf, Cardinals: After O'Neill walked twice as often as he struck out at high Class A Palm Beach last year, it was fair to wonder if he could keep up such an on-base-friendly approach against more advanced pitchers.
At Double-A Springfield this season, it turns out, O'Neill isn't walking twice as often as he strikes out. No, he's walking six times as often as he strikes out. So baseball's Mr. OBP has become even more effective at being a pest.
After walking three more times on Wednesday, O'Neill now has drawn 24 free passes in 25 games, while striking out four times. After walking only once in the first six games at Springfield, O'Neill has gone on an 11-game walk streak which includes a BB-to-SS ratio of 15-to-1.
O’Neill also has hit .464 during his walk streak, raising his average to .338, fourth best in the Texas League. It follows that he also leads the league with a .490 on-base percentage and ranks second with 19 runs scored. Nevertheless, O'Neill still faces questions about how he fits in the context of a big league team. He has not played a game in center field this year, and his lack of power (one career pro home run in 763 at-bats) does not exactly fit a corner profile.
But getting on base is a skill, and few are better at that than O'Neill. In fact, there’s not really anyone who comes close to controlling the strike zone like O’Neill. Looking at everyone in affiliated baseball since 2007 with 75 or more at-bats at one level, two things stand out. One is that O’Neill’s skill is rather unique. No one has come close to his 6-to-1 walk-to-strikeout ratio from this year’s limited sample, but he also appears on the list two other times. The other fact isn’t as encouraging for O’Neill: The list generally consists of players who have not had significant big league careers.
|Jonny Ash||2008||Corpus Christi||TL||17||4||4.3|
|Kyle Phillips||2011||San Antonio||TL||4||1||4.0|
|Mike O’Neill||2012||Palm Beach||FSL||70||24||2.9|
|Andy LaRoche||2008||Las Vegas||PCL||37||14||2.6|
|Chris Herrmann||2011||Fort Myers||FSL||15||6||2.5|
|Billy Alvino||2010||West Michigan||MWL||15||6||2.5|
|Barry Bonds||2007||San Francisco||NL||132||54||2.4|
Drew Gagnon, rhp, Brewers: The best start of the day came from high Class A Brevard County’s Gagnon, who has managed to put a very rough start to the season behind him with back-to-back gems.
Gagnon allowed five earned runs in three of his first four starts. The 2011 third-round pick out of Long Beach State didn’t make it through the fifth inning until start No. 4, and he walked off the mound that night with an ugly 9.72 ERA. Since then, Gagnon is hitting his spots much better, and the results are apparent. He threw 5 1/3 scoreless innings against Dunedin on April 26, then followed that up on Wednesday with seven perfect innings against Bradenton during which he struck out 10.
It was easily the best start of Gagnon’s pro career. He’d never reached double-digits in strikeouts before, and he’d allowed at least three hits in each of his first 37 pro starts. Gagnon’s stuff limits his ceiling. He’s a control artist with a good-enough fastball (generally 90-91 mph) to keep hitters honest, but on nights like Wednesday he showed that he can dominate when he’s at his best.