Monday, January 7, 2008

The Stat Pack 20 plus: Exclusive interview with Jim Callis

We here at TheStatPack were lucky enough to have the Executive Editor of Baseball America, Jim Callis, answer a few questions for us. If you want to know anything about drafts, farm systems, prospects or the minor league in general, Jim's the foremost authority. If you want to read more of Jim's work you can check out BaseballAmerica, or you can order the 2008 Baseball America Prospect Handbook here.

TSP:Have you ever been approached by a major league team to work in their personnel department?

JC:Not directly. I've had a couple of teams ask, more in conversation, if I could ever see my self scouting. It would be fun to work for a team, but it also would be tough right now because the hours involved would take me away from my family (four young kids, ages 6 to 12).

TSP:The Rays farm system has been rated at or near the top of baseball for 2-3 years now. What makes it so good?

JC:They have a tremendous combination of blue-chip prospects and depth. They've had a bunch of very high first-round picks because of their poor major league performance, and they've made good use of them (Evan Longoria, David Price). They've also done a nice job with later-round choices such as Jake McGee, Wade Davis, Reid Brignac and Desmond Jennings, to name just a few.

TSP:Do you think the McGee/Davis tandem is as good as advertised?

JC:I do. When we did our personal overall Top 50 Prospects list for the 2008 Prospect Handbook, I had McGee at No. 17 and Davis at No. 18. They're two of the very best pitching prospects in baseball.

TSP:Heath Rollins just put up one of the best seasons in the history of the entire Rays organization. How come his name isn't mentioned in the top group of Rays pitching?

JC:His stuff isn't good enough to rank with that top group. His slider is a legitimate pitch, but the rest of his stuff is fringy. And while his season was impressive, he was 22 and spent the whole year in low Class A, which was not. Let's see him succeed in high Class A and Double-A. Until then, he's more of a "keep an eye on" type than a true prospect.

TSP:Same question just with Chris Mason?

JC:I honestly don't think that's the case with Mason. He's right at the head of the class of Tampa Bay's second tier of pitching prospects. He's not a big velocity guy either, but he did have more fastball in college and may get some more velo back. He has a chance to have three average or better pitches.

TSP:How do you see Jeremy Hellickson progressing through the minors? Is it a stretch to see him at AA next year and in the Bigs by '09 or 2010?

JC:The Rays are very cautious with high school pitching prospects--just look at how carefully they've handled Davis and McGee. Hellickson will definitely start 2008 in high Class A and I wouldn't be surprised if he spent the whole year there. I see more of a 2010 ETA, because of how the Rays handle young arms and also because they'll be breaking guys like Price, McGee and Davis into the majors soon and the pitching staff won't have as many holes as Hellickson gets closer.

TSP:Even after the recent moves, The Rays have a lot of OF talent in the Major Leagues. They also have Fernando Perez, Desmond Jennings, & Ryan Royster working through the minors. Out of that group, who do you see making the biggest impact in the Majors? How soon?

JC:You're right, they still have more outfielders than they know what to do with. I like Jennings. He's a toolsy athlete who seems to be adapting very quickly to pro ball. But because of Tampa Bay's outfield depth, I think he'll get some time to develop. I wouldn't expect him in the majors before 2010.

TSP:Is Evan Longoria the best overall player in the minor leagues?

JC:Close, but I'll go with Jay Bruce. Longoria was the second-rated position player on my Top 50 list in the Handbook, and I had him ranked No. 4 overall.

TSP:How does Evan Longoria compare to former stud 3B prospects Alex Gordon & Ryan Braun?

JC:His bat is in the same class--it's an all-star bat. Longoria is a former shortstop and I think he'll be a better defender at third base than the other two guys.

TSP:What do you expect from David Price this season? Do you think he will start his year at AA Montgomery? If so, does he make it to AAA at some point during the season?

JC:I don't think the Rays have made that decision yet. I do think he'll get to Double-A by June if he doesn't start the season there, and because he has a big league contract and already is on the 40-man roster, I bet he makes his major league debut by September at the latest.

TSP:Do you think John Jaso can be looked at as a future everyday catcher for the Rays?

JC:I do. He's a sleeper who can really hit and play decent to solid defense. The big question is whether he can stay healthy, as he has been bothered by persistent shoulder problems in pro ball.

TSP:Besides Niemann, McGee, Davis & Price the Rays have some other arms like Mitch Talbot, JP Howell & Calvin Medlock hanging around. Do you see any of those three making significant contributions to the Rays in the upcoming years?

JC:I like Talbot more than the other two guys. Howell really competes but has marginal stuff, and Medlock is more a middle reliever for me. I can see Talbot being a No. 4 or 5 starter for Tampa Bay, though the competition for rotation slots will be fierce.

TSP:Obviously there are only 5 spots in the Major League rotation, and a lot of the Rays pitching prospects, barring serious injury, should be ready by the 09 season. Pencil in Kazmir, Shields and Garza, how does the rest of the rotation shake out between Niemann, Talbot, McGee, Davis, Price, Jackson, Sonnanstine, Hammel...etc? Do you see any of those guys as serious candidates for bullpen/closer roles if they don't make it as starters?

JC:The potential depth there is just staggering, isn't it? Of course, injuries and attrition will thin this out a little bit. There has been a little mention of Jake McGee and Wade Davis as a possible closer down the line, and I could see Niemann possibly in that role. The frontline guys right now appear to be Scott Kazmir, Matt Garza, David Price, Jake McGee, Wade Davis and James Shields, in some order.

TSP:Is it true that Reid Brignac's defense has improved, and defensively he maybe ready to make the jump? If he gets off to a hot start next season could we see him in the majors this year?

JC:I don't know if he improved in 2007 as much as he held ground. He can get the job done at shortstop and be fine there, but he won't be a Gold Glover. With Jason Bartlett coming aboard in the Delmon Young trade, I think Brignac will spend most of the year in Triple-A regardless of his start.

TSP:The Rays hold the #1 Pick in the draft. If the Draft was held tomorrow their pick would be _______?
JC:The top talent right now is Vanderbilt third baseman Pedro Alvarez, but the Rays don't really need a third baseman. I think he's more suited to play left field or first base, but those aren't huge areas of need for Tampa Bay either. That said, you don't base the No. 1 overall pick on need. Other guys in the mix at this point would be Missouri righthander Aaron Crow, San Diego lefthander Brian Matusz, Missouri high school righthander Tim Melville and Georgia high school shortstop Tim Beckham.

TSP:Will we ever see international players incorporated in the Draft? Do you think we should?

JC:I don't think so. For one, it would be a logistical nightmare. And two, while it might save some money on the handful of elite international players because they wouldn't be free agents, it also might drive the cost up on the next tier of players. I would just leave it like it is. Teams that work hard and make the investment can find quality talent at a relatively reasonable price. No need to change that. Putting them in the draft would just gum up the works even further.

TSP:Who's the Rays most overrated prospect right now?

JC:Maybe Jeff Niemann. He's still a good prospect, but I'm becoming less convinced he'll become the frontline starter he looked like coming out of college. He still has a chance to be a No. 3 starter, though.

TSP:Who's the most underrated?

JC:I'll throw a few names at you . . . Glenn Gibson is probably getting overlooked because he only recently came over in the Elijah Dukes trade and hasn't pitched in full-season ball yet, but I like him. Also keep your eye on Jaso, whom we mentioned earlier, and righthanders Alex Cobb and Josh Butler.

TSP:Who's the Baseball's overall most overrated prospect right now?

JC:Two guys I don't like as much as my cohorts at BA are Mets outfielder Carlos Gomez and Marlins righthander Chris Volstad. They're both legit prospects, but I see more tools than skills with Gomez and I don't think Volstad misses nearly enough bats.

TSP:Who's the most underrated?

JC:Reds righthander Johnny Cueto has performed well in the minors and has good stuff, but people underrate him some because he's not very big. I think Red Sox first baseman Lars Anderson is going to make a leap forward this year and become recognized as one of the very best hitters in the minors.

TSP:You're driving the '10 Rays World Series Bandwagon; can you give me an early prediction on the Rays opponent and the World Series MVP?

JC:When I first made that prediction last spring, I had them beating the Dodgers. Let's go with B.J. Upton as World Series MVP.

TSP:"I make you commissioner for one day, what's the first thing you do?"

JC:I'd get rid of the slotting process with the draft. The draft is the easiest and best place for lower-revenue teams to compete with higher-revenue clubs for talent, yet MLB discourages that from happening and steers more talent to the higher-revenue teams.

The Stat Pack would like to thank Jim Callis again for sitting down with us. And remember to pick up a copy of the 2008 Baseball America Prospect Handbook here.


Tyler said...

Nice interview.