|The River Dogs play at Joseph P. Riley Park in Charleston. The park also has an affiliation with the Citadel. Image thanks to citadelsports.com|
Coming off their worse season since 1995, back when they were still affiliated with the San Diego Padres, the River Dogs were in desperate need of an infusion of talent for the 2012 season. The pitching staff looks like it will be improved in a major way from last season, which you can read about here (starting pitchers) and here (relief pitchers). The area that will see the most improvement, however, will be the lineup.
The River Dogs will be comprised of many players who played last season in Short Season Staten Island, and even a few who could make the jump straight from the GCL to Charleston. This will be a fun team to follow this season, although New York fans are most concentrated and numerous in the Northeast where few of us will get to see them play. I'll do the positions in number order, starting with the C and ending with CF. There will likely be a rotating DH.
Catcher- It's funny that catcher is the position this post starts out with, because it's probably the only weak hitting position at this level. Last year, River Dogs fans were lucky enough to watch JR Murphy and Gary Sanchez behind the dish, depending on which part of the season it was. Both are legitimate prospects with significant upside. This year will be different. Some combination of Wes Wilson, Nick McCoy, and Kyle Higashioka will be responsible for the catching duties. None of these players have significant upside, or is ever expected to make it to the major league level. Higashioka has an outside shot to make it as a backup, since he is a defensive whiz who has shown some power in the past. Having Higashioka will be nice for the pitchers though since he is known for his stellar defense. Although unlikely, there could be a revelation by mid-season that could rapidly change the catching landscape in 2012. Isaias Tejeda emerged as a legitimate catching prospect last season with his breakout season in the GCL, which saw him hit .331 with 6 HRs and 5 SB in just 39 games. If he starts off really hot in Staten Island, then he could get a quick promotion to Charleston and get his first taste of full season ball. There's an outside chance he begins the season there, although I wouldn't bet on it.
First Base- 20 year old Tyler Austin will get the lion's share of the reps at first base. He will also see significant time at 3B, with Reymond Nunez filling in at 1B when he's at 3rd. Austin is a 13th round pick out of high school in Atlanta. He's 6'2 and weighs 200 lbs. His hit tool is what will get him to the majors. Finding a position for him will be the major challenge. He's been focusing on his defense in the offseason though, and we have heard from scouts before that hard work translates into defensive improvement, even if the natural ability isn't always there. He put his name on the map last season, when he tore apart the GCL and Short Season Staten Island, hitting a combined .354/.418/.579 with 6 HRs and was a surprising 18/18 in stolen bases in 49 games. I would caution that he is not a player who is considered to have plus speed, so those 18 stolen bases should diminish over time, especially if he bulks up like he must if he wants to tap into his power potential. Hitting for power is something he will have to do if he wants to play 1B in the majors.
Second Base- Drafted as a shortstop, and postulated to be an outfielder in the future by some, Angelo "Bubba" Gumbs will start the season as Charleston's second baseman. A smooth handed fielder drafted in the 2nd round, many scouts felt after watching him last season that he could stick at second base, as long as he doesn't grow too much. The 19 year old also has shown impressive range and a powerful arm. Given his transition from CF though, he still has a long way to go at this position. He's 6' tall, and weighs 190 lbs. His hitting as an 18 year old in Staten Island was a bit inconsistent, but he showed good patience and has a quick, compact swing that has scouts believing he could have some plus power in the future and hit for better average than we saw in 2011. One scout even ranked him as a top 6 prospect in our system. While that may be overzealous, he does have a bright future. He hit .264/.332/.406 for Staten Island last season, with 3 HR and 11 SB in 18 tries. He is a lot more raw still than a guy like Tyler Austin or Dante Bichette Jr., but he's also very young and could continue to improve exponentially with experience.
Third Base- This is the guy that everyone wants to see in Charleston. A supplemental round draft pick in 2011, Dante "Bichette Happens" Bichette Jr. came out of the gate slow in the GCL. People were beginning to question the wisdom of drafting him so high when all of a sudden he exploded and began to mash. As if that weren't enough, he also showed an excellent feel for playing third base, which was a major question coming into the season. Joe Girardi is a long time friend of the family to the Bichette's, so many people felt there was an heir of nepotism to this draft pick. Those criticisms were soon put to rest when Bichette Jr. finished the season batting .335/.440/.507 on the season, with 4 HRs and 48 RBI in 52 games. The scouting report on Bichette Junior is great. If the draft were redone after the season, most scouts agree that he would have been a top 10 pick. The 6'1, 215 lb kid is a tireless hard worker, and knows what it takes to succeed in the major leagues. He has a year round mentor and hitting coach in his father as well. He may struggle in Charleston as the jump from GCL to Low A can be a daunting one, but don't look for this kid to stay down too long. It's possible he will be held back in Staten Island for one extra season, but the Yankees have moved prospects from the GCL straight to Charleston with less impressive seasons than this (see Slade Heathcott). Tyler Austin will also get some time at this position, and both will also DH at times.
Short Stop- Cito "Cheeto" Culver was the first round draft pick in 2010. Similarly to Bichette, he was signed very quickly and played a full season in the GCL in 2010. He now has two seasons under his belt and his hitting statistics have been disappointing, although he has flashes of brilliance. Cito has excellent speed and has all of the tools to be a fantastic defender, which is extremely important at short stop. He's 6'0 tall and weighs 190, which is a reasonably good size for a short stop. He's got excellent range, plus arm strength, and good hands. The error totals were high in his first two seasons, but this is very typical of even the best young short stops. Most of the question marks surrounding Culver are with his bat, mainly from the left side. There has actually been talk amongst scouts that he might be well served to abandoned switch hitting and bat from the right side full time. This is extreme at this stage of the game, but it's not out of the question. Last year he hit .324 from the right side, and .224 from the left side. These are short season statistics so the sample size isn't particularly large, but this will be the main thing to watch as Culver continues to develop. He will also look to be more aggressive on the basepaths. Cito had 10 stolen bases in 10 tries last season. He's a very smart base runner, and with experience he should become more aggressive as well. A very patient hitter, Culver will greatly improve his average (.250) and on base percentage (.323) this year if he starts hitting better from the left side. Some scouts are saying his lefty swing is pretty out of whack right now, so he may have a long way to go. We knew Cito Culver was a long term project when we drafted him, but the common thread with many long term projects is their athleticism, and Culver lacks nothing in that department. There is no reason he shouldn't improve upon his numbers from last year given his athleticism.
Left and Right Field- Okay I'm going a little bit out of order here, but you'll see why I chose to lump left and right field together in a moment. The outfield situation in Charleston for 2012 is going to be unique. There are three players who could be first class centerfielders for the River Dogs. Not all of them can play there, so Mason Williams will be the every day guy in CF. The other two guys are Ravel Santana and Daniel Lopez. They will compete for playing time with Ben Gamel in left and right field. The question remains whether Santana will be fully recovered from his gruesome leg injury (broke his leg below the knee) in time to start 2012 in Charleston, or whether he will be taking it slow and may spend time in Staten Island first. Talent wise, he would be playing for the River Dogs. Daniel Lopez is a different question. The question with him is whether or not the front office thinks he's ready for full season baseball. Ben Gamel is basically a lock to be on the roster, and will probably spend time in both left and right field.
"Ravenous" Ravel Santana is a beast. At 6'2, 175 lbs he has a lot of room to beef up, and yet he's already hitting homeruns at an impressive rate. With his incredibly quick hands, advanced patience for his age, and power to all fields, he was able to hit 9 homeruns in just 41 games and 162 at bats. This is a small sample size, but at that rate, he would hit 30-35 homers in a 160 game season. This was all at the age of 19, so he has a lot of time to develop even more power. He also has considerable speed. He managed to steal 10 bases in 13 attempts on the short season. In the field, the tool that sticks out the most is how the ball comes out of his hand like it's being shot out of a cannon. I have not read a single source that denies the sheer power that is his arm. He is a 5-tool athlete, plain and simple. The triple slash from 2011 is .296/.361/.568. His future success largely depends on how well he recovers from that injury. Apparently he's running around pretty well right now according to twitter comments by Bichette Jr., but we've seen with David Adams how debilitating these injuries can be.
Ben Gamel is another 20 year old with an excellent plate approach. He doesn't have the size or tools of Ravel Santana, but he's a lefty with a nice swing. He's listed at 5'10, and 156 lbs according to milb.com, but he's probably closer to 5'11 and 165 now. Gamel hasn't shown much in the way of power yet (2 HR las season), and his frame isn't all that projectable. What he offers is a solid but not great defender with a great plate approach. He hit .289/.379/.432 last season. He's got some speed, and he stole 7 bases this past season. If he can develop some power then he can put himself on the map, but he doesn't currently have any one tool that separates him from the pack besides patience.
The main question with Daniel Lopez is where he starts 2012. Given that he is so raw, he may well end up in Staten Island. He's an extremely speedy runner with developing power, and he has shown the ability to hit for average early on in his career. Yet another 20 year old, he is 6'2 and has a very stringent offseason workout program. For more info on him, check out my post about him at Daniel Lopez: Super Sleeper.
Center Field- I have unintentionally saved the most exciting prospect that will be in Charleston in 2012 for last. Mason "Mad Mase" Williams was a 5th round draft pick signed for $1.45 million. He's got speed and a sweet swing that allowed him to hit .349 and take home MVP honors in the New York Penn League last season. He had 3 homeruns and stole 28 bases in 68 games last season and was caught 12 times. His OBP was .395 and he had a slugging percentage of .468. The only question with Williams is if/when the power develops. If Mad Mase is able to develop power, he could be a Curtis Granderson type in the future. If not, he could develop into a better version of Brett Gardner, as his swing is naturally much better than Gardner's. Scouts are drooling over Mason Williams and every time trade talks come up with other teams, his name is brought up by the trading partner.
That completes the three part series on the Charleston River Dogs. You'd be hard pressed to find a team more exciting than this one in the entire system. With the exception of maybe the Empire State Yankees (AAA), there is no team that even comes close to the amount of high ceiling talent that will start the season in low A. There are at least 4 players who could be top 100 prospects with a strong showing this season (Campos, Bichette Jr., Ravel Santana, and Tyler Austin), and one who already is (Mason Williams). It's unlikely all will meet expectations, but if one or two of them do then the farm system is going to look pretty healthy by year's end.