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Interview with John Manuel

Baseball America editor-in-chief John Manuel has been gracious enough to agree to an interview with Stephen Shelby again this year before BA publishes its annual ranking of the Giants top ten prospects. Last year's interview can be found here. This year the interview is divided into two parts. The first part focuses on the prospects recently added to the Giants 40-man roster before the Rule 5 draft. The second part will expand the focus to the Giants other top prospects. Here is the first part.

Stephen Shelby: John, thank you so much for agreeing to another interview about the Giants top prospects. Those of who follow the Giants in detail appreciate your insights. The Giants recently added six players to their 40-man roster to protect them from the Rule 5 draft: C Eliezer Alfonzo, RF Nate Schierholtz, 1B Travis Ishikawa, LHP Jon Coutlangus, LHP Jesus Reina and RHP Kelyn Acosta. Let's start with Alfonzo. The Giants signed him as a minor league free agent a year ago, and thus he might be the biggest surprise among the group. How does Alfonzo compare against the Giants other top catching prospects, most notably Justin Knoedler, who were the primary catchers in Fresno this past year? Is this a case where one player has the higher ceiling but another player is closer to the majors?

John Manuel: Alfonzo did surprise me too with his addition to the 40-man. Everyone I've talked to about him thinks his power at least is legitimate, as is his arm strength. His biggest issue through his career has been receiving, but he improved there this year. He's never going to be thought of as a catch-and-throw guy, it sounds like; offense is his ticket. But he's got enough experience to be a solid catching option, and for me, he has more upside than, say, Yamid Haad. Knoedler has more upside, I think, but both of these guys profile best as backups, and teams protect guys who profile even as big league backup catchers. I'm not sure that the Giants have other catching prospects other than these guys, with Sandoval moved to third and Jennings essentially profiling as a utility guy who can catch at this point.

SS: Let's next discuss Schierholtz. A year ago you rated as the Giants 5th best prospect and suggested that for you he was a better prospect than Oakland's Dan Johnson, who made a fine debut in the major leagues this past year. Your Baseball America colleague Kevin Goldstein wrote earlier this year, "Few players elicited more mixed reviews than Schierholtz. Some saw him as the best player on a very good San Jose team. Others viewed him as an all-or-nothing hitter who will be exposed at higher levels." I am not sure it is fair to ask you how Giants personnel evaluated Schierholtz this past year, but I would note he was not promoted after spending more than half of the previous season in San Jose. I am curious whether scouts outside the Giants organization to whom you talked also offered such mixed reviews as those received by Kevin Goldstein. Did scouts see Schierholtz taking a step forward or regressing this past year?

JM: I can admit when I'm wrong, and say that Dan Johnson should have ranked ahead of Nate. I can tell you how I look at Nate. I think scouts haven't made up their minds on him, and that's true of me, too. He won't rank as high as fifth this year, but he'll still be in the top 10 for me. I was disappointed by his power numbers. I've seen a lot more of Schierholtz on video this year than last, and it seems he's making some subtle changes to his swing, but it's still a long swing path, and against better pitching this year, he made contact but didn't hit for as much power. He's going to have to make an even greater adjustment next year in Double-A, where Norwich/Connecticut is a pitcher's park and a cold-weather site (in a cold-weather league), it all adds up to a tough place for hitters. A positive for Nate is, he hit for a high average in a good league against the best competition he's ever faced, and he found a position, showing promise in right field.

SS: The other hitter added to the 40-man roster was Ishikawa. This may have been his best year in terms of batting average, but he still had more strikeouts than hits. His high strikeout rate would seemingly indicate that he still has difficulty with pitch recognition. Did he make much progress in that area this year?

JM: He still swings at pitches he needs to take and vice versa. He's clearly gotten better at this, and his power also is starting to blossom. Next year will really tell the tale with him and Schierholtz both, going to Double-A is a huge challenge anyway, but for them, two players with upside but also some real doubts. We'll know if both of these guys are really going to be significant big leaguers after next year. I think one will make it and one will not, and my money is on Ishikawa now over Schierholtz.

SS: Among the three pitchers, Jon Coutlangus is a really nice story. Converted from an outfielder to a pitcher in the middle of the 2004 summer, the 19th round pick in 2003 showed encouraging progress throughout the 2005 season. Here is a breakdown of his season by halves:

thru 6/18: 30.2 IP, 36 H, 13 BB, 35 K, 4.70 ERA
after 6/18: 46.1 IP, 28 H, 16 BB, 44 K, 1.94 ERA

What do you see in his future? Is this a pitcher who showed so much progress that he likely would have been protected even if he threw with his right arm? A year ago the Giants added LHP Brian Burres to the 40-man roster, but you did not rank him among the Giants top 20 prospects. Is this another example where we should not make too much about a player being added to the 40-man roster?

JM: Coutlangus is a favorite of mine, I saw him a lot in college and always had heard that his arm was his best tool. The A's also have a former South Carolina CF now pitching for them in Marcus McBeth, but Coutlangus is the better prospect precisely because he is lefthanded. He's a different cat than Burres pretty much across the board. Burres succeeded with a cutter, while Coutlangus can pitch off his fastball, has shown aptitude with his secondary pitches and is very athletic, so he repeats his delivery and throws strikes. He's stronger than Burres as well. All that said, he was protected because he's lefthanded and should be a lefty reliever, that's the projection. Burres, who I believe I ranked at 21 in the Prospect Handbook, doesn't have a great breaking ball, so he projects better as a starter than as a reliever.

SS: What about fellow San Jose lefty Jesus Reina? For me, his addition to the roster might have been the biggest surprise. His K/IP and H/IP ratios were very good, but his BB/IP was high. I am also concerned about his durability given how injuries limited him to just 72.1 IP in 19 games (14 starts) during his first year in full-season ball. Given his lack of polish, did he have much chance of sticking on a team's 25-man roster in 2006? I suppose this is possible if he was particularly tough against left-handed hitters. Are there any important differences between Coutlangus and Reina?

JM: Reina has better arm strength and projects more as a starter. He's a lefty with a power arm that teams saw well in winter ball last year, a big reason he was protected. He put up a 3.07 ERA in 56 innings in Venezuela in the `04-'05 winter, and that workload kind of set him back for the `05 season for the Giants, but it also put him out front for a lot of other teams' scouts, and that's why the Giants felt he might be picked. He does lack polish, but LHPs with low-90s fastballs are hard to find. I've had a scout on another club talk Reina up to me after last winter, so I can understand why he was protected.

SS: The final player was Kelyn Acosta. I was surprised when the Giants placed Kelyn Acosta on the 40-man roster. He is someone about whom most Giants fans know almost nothing. What can you tell us about him? What is a brief scouting report for him? In 12.2 IP with low-A Augusta this year after returning from Tommy John surgery, he had just six strikeouts. His 1.38 G/F ratio and the .022 IsoP he allowed suggest he might be more of a ground-ball pitcher than the scouting report of mid-90s heat you offered two years ago before his surgery would indicate. At this point, how does he compare to Augusta teammate RHP Craig Whitaker, whom last year you ranked as the Giants 8th best prospect?

JM: Acosta has big stuff, huge fastball velocity. I just don't think I would read much into 13 IP of stats in the SAL coming off Tommy John surgery. He's compared more to Alfredo Simon than to Whitaker, who has explosive secondary stuff and whom the Giants still believe can be a starter. Acosta has touched 99 mph in the past and was back up to 95-96 this year. His breaking stuff, like Simon's, is pretty rudimentary, but guys with big fastballs are the kind of guys you lose in the Rule 5 because they are hard to find.

SS: The last couple years the Giants have had a couple pitchers, Brad Hennessey and Brian Wilson, who had missed an entire season due to an injury or illness, struggle in the low-A South Atlantic League and then have breakout seasons the next year. Could Kelyn Acosta be that pitcher next year? In reference to the Rule 5 draft, I would note that Brad Hennessey was available in the draft a couple years ago. In retrospect, do the Giants consider themselves lucky not to have lost Hennessey?

JM: I do think the Giants believe Acosta can break out in `06, and I would imagine everyone in the organization feels fortunate they did not lose Hennessey. While I think Brad's upside is that of a back-of-the-rotation starter, that has some value and he's obviously a great story.

SS: Since I have mentioned Hennessey I want to ask a question about him that should allow you to talk about how you rank prospects more generally. There are a couple rankings for last year I particularly want to review, one "hit" and one "miss." Many of my friends were not convinced when you ranked Brad Hennessey several spots ahead of Pat Misch. Misch really struggled in 2005, while Hennessey spent most of the year in the Giants starting rotation. (He was very inconsistent in that role as Baseball Prospectus' "flake" stat suggests he was the 3rd most inconsistent starter among the 153 starters with at least 75 IP.) What would you say now to my friends now who questioned your ranking of Hennessey versus Misch? The last two years, you ranked Brian Buscher among the Giants top 15 prospects. You wrote about Buscher a year ago, "I believe in his bat, his makeup, his grinder style." He really fell off the proverbial cliff this year. What happened? Both Buscher and Misch are available in this year's Rule 5 draft.

JM: Misch just was really, really rushed. I always have liked him as a prospect and he was No. 11 for us last year in the Handbook. He's a four-pitch guy who apparently fell into some pitch patterns this year that Triple-A hitters exploited. He's a potential Rule 5 pick for me. I could see a team taking a chance on a lefty who has had some success. Buscher is just a guy I was wrong about. He's not as good a hitter as I or the Giants hoped he would be. He's destined to be a good minor league player, and that's about it, I think.

SS: I was surprised when the Giants did not place Billy Sadler on the 40-man roster. In his November 24th AskBA column, your colleague Jim Callis mentioned Sadler in a short list of players who could be drafted in this year's Rule 5 draft. At the start of the year, you ranked him just behind Jeremy Accardo. Accardo really blossomed this year. At this point how does Sadler compare to Accardo, whom I figure is fairly likely to be on your list of the Giants top ten prospects?

JM: Sadler has a similar power arm to Accardo but isn't as athletic and doesn't repeat his delivery nearly as well, thus his command suffers. He's a Rule 5 possibility; certainly it's no secret he can throw hard, and he's had some success at Double-A.

SS: For a team like the Giants that drafts almost exclusively college players, is the Rule 5 draft a good time to look back at the draft two and a half years earlier? It strikes me that only two of the Giants draft picks, David Aardsma and Nate Schierholtz, have been added to a 40-man roster. Does this signal that the 2003 draft was a below-average draft for the Giants? By comparison, I can look at the team across the Bay and see that Oakland, another team focusing on drafting collegiate players, has also had just two players from their 2003 draft, Andre Ethier and Omar Quintanilla, added to 40-man rosters.

JM: That's an interesting point.... It looks like having two players protected from that draft is about the average, just glancing at the `03 draft and our Rule 5 eligibility list. The Red Sox' `03 draft has at least four guys who were protected in D. Murphy, M. Murton, A. Alvarez and Papelbon.... That looks high for that draft year, to be honest. The Indians have 3 (Aubrey, Snyder, Garko). I don't think it signals a below-average draft for either club. That `03 draft also includes Jon Coutlangus, so it's 3 guys protected by the Giants, plus Marcus Sanders, who doesn't have to be protected yet as he signed in 2004 as a D/F. I think you'll look back on that as a good draft for the Giants because you've already got one big leaguer (Aardsma, used in the dubious LaTroy Hawkins deal), two others on the 40-man, and Misch, Coutlangus, Sanders and Mike Mooney all have some upside. I think it will be average.

SS: John, again thanks for this interview as we look forward to the Rule 5 draft and your ranking of the Giants top 10 prospects.

JM: You're welcome, thanks for asking.