Scouting the Johnson City Cardinals

Senior Minor League Writer Dustin Mattison's observations from his recent visit to the St. Louis Cardinals' Appalachian League affiliate in Johnson City.

The St. Louis Cardinals have had a long relationship with the people of Johnson City, Tennessee. The city has been home to the organization's Appalachian League affiliate multiple times with the most recent relationship starting in 1975.

The baby Cardinals' roster is made up of young players recently drafted out of high school or smaller colleges with limited competition. Also, it is filled with Latin players who are not only trying to get accustomed to professional baseball but to the American culture as well.

One of the weekly features here at The Cardinal Nation is Shawn Kerrick's weekly Johnson City report. It contains a wealth of information from the Smoky Mountains and is a must read for fans of the team's minor league system.

On my recent vacation to Eastern Tennessee, I was fortunate enough to catch a Johnson City Cardinals' game. If you ever find yourself in that part of the country this time a year, be sure to check to see if the team is in town. The staff at JC are top notch and the fans love their baseball. Also, the park will take you back to a time when the baseball on the field was the main attraction, not the between inning games and extracurricular activities off the field.

Howard Johnson Field is more reminiscent of the ballpark and atmosphere in Bull Durham than modern day minor league parks. Though it does not have a snorting bull, it does have a hill that stretches from center field to the right field line. Before the game started, the visiting Orioles' outfielders were getting extra fly balls trying to get a feel for the unique feature.

Here are my observations from my trip to Johnson City.

The Pitchers

Being the home team, the first player that caught my eye was pitcher Reynier Gonzalez. The 20-year-old has a thick lower body (think Chris Perez-lite). His fastball has great life and explodes in the zone. On this night, the pitch sat mostly at 92 while touching 94 at times. His second pitch, a slider, sat in the low 80's and has the makings of a plus pitch down the road. The Venezuelan also threw a slurve that sat 74-76.

It is amazing to see that someone with the stuff of Gonzalez would have an ERA of over five in the Appalachian League. But this is where he shows room to grow. He hides the ball well in his delivery but struggles to repeat it. He adds quick arm action but had trouble maintaining his arm slot. This led to problems with the overall command of his arsenal. When Gonzalez missed, he missed up in the zone. With runners on, he has a surprisingly quick move to first.

If he is going to continue to move up the ladder, Gonzalez will have to find consistency in his delivery, which will hopefully lead to better command of his pitches.

His piggyback mate was Andrew Moss. I had a chance to ask Andy before the game how he was enjoying professional ball. He looked at me, smiled and said, "Oh yeah, especially with this on my chest", as he pointed to the familiar birds on the bat.

On the hill, the native of Piedmont, Missouri, is very aggressive, going right at each and every hitter. His fastball sat 88-89 while his slider hit 77. Not possessing overpowering stuff, he used his top-notch control to change the batter's eye level from pitch to pitch. The right-hander was not afraid to go up the ladder while also working the hitter in-and-out.

Moss exhibited a good demeanor, coming right back after the hitter after a bad call was made on the previous play. Though he doesn't possess his stuff, his delivery and body type reminded me a lot of the recently traded Jess Todd.

A player that intrigued on draft day was 32nd round pick Travis Lawler. Originally set to attend the University of Florida, he instead chose to attend Midland Junior College in Texas. The 21-year-old has a long, lean projectable pitcher's frame. He should be able to add bulk to his frame, hopefully, adding to his 89 MPH fastball. Though this outing would be short, he showed great athletiscm on the mound. When the inning started to get away from him, he did seem to get rattled, something he will need to work on as he moves through the system.

The final pitcher of the night was right-hander Aaron Terry. Though undersized at 5'11, he brought a fastball that hit 94 on the gun. This seemed to surprise teammate Chris Notti who was charting pitches behind the plate. After the pitch, Notti turned around to check what the scout sitting behind him registered on his gun. The downside with a frame such as Terry's is that he doesn't leave much room for projection.

Anthony Ferrara reports having learned a lot during his first full season as a professional ball player. Also, he says his arm feels great.

The Hitters

The player in the field that commanded the most attention was shortstop Yunier Castillo. The 20-year-old with a long, lean frame seems to be the talk of a lot of Cardinal prospect watchers after catching a lot of eyes during spring training. At the plate, he has a quick bat and good balance. He needs to add bulk to his undersized frame. Right now his power is around a 25-30 on the scout's 20-80 scale.

It is in the field where Castillo separates himself. He has a quick first step and is very fluid in getting to the ball. He can go to his left or his right with equal ease. His arm is above average and is release is lightning quick.

It will be his bat that has the potential to hold him back because the 20-year-old's glove is going to play.

The Cardinals' leadoff man on this night was Michael Swinson. A two-sport standout as a Georgia prep reminded me a lot of a young Daryl Jones. He is very green but appears to have quite a bit of upside.

When facing 2009 fifth overall pick Matt Hobgood, the speedster seemed overmatched by the plus fastball. He did adjust in his next at bat and was able to single the other way. Swinson is very thin but seems to have a frame that could easily add bulk.

With speed to burn, he covers a lot of ground in a roomy center field at Johnson City. When comparing Jones and Swinson, I think that the younger Swinson has more speed and is a better defender. I believe that Jones projects to have more power.

The player at Johnson City I was looking most forward to evaluating was catcher Robert Stock. The Cardinals' second round pick in this past June's amateur draft handled the DH duties on this night.

Admittedly, it was only one game, but Stock seemed off-balance in the box. His swing is long and his upper and lower bodies do not seem to be in sync. He appeared very stiff though his hands were overly busy.

Stock keeps his weight out front, which will limit his power potential. The 19-year-old possesses a high baseball IQ and hopefully will adjust when facing higher levels of competition. When facing Hobgood, the pitcher got the best of his better Californian.

It will be interesting to see how he progresses against the more polished pitchers as he climbs the ladder. The first thing he will have to do is cut down on his swing if he wants to have continued success. I still like what he brings as a pitcher more than his future behind the plate.

Rich Racobaldo has been feasting on Appy League pitching since his assignment to Johnson City. "The Rock" has used a mature approach to take advantage of the younger, less seasoned competition. At the plate, he shows good strength but he does have a long, loopy swing. That being said, he was able to pull a Hobgood fastball down the left field line for a hit.

At the hot corner, the 24-year-old did not seem comfortable. He was slow to react and seemed stiff. He does not possess the lateral movement and quick first step needed at third. If his bat is going to carry him up the ladder, it will most likely be at a corner outfield spot.

When you first see Matt Adams, the name Matt Stairs comes to mind. Like Stairs, Adams is a polished hitter that is going to go as far as his bat takes him. He uses all fields effectively and like Racobaldo, is too mature for the Appalachian League.

Edgar Lara is another product of the Cardinals investment in Latin America. His body type reminded me quite a bit of Jermaine Dye. The 20-year-old has a thick lower half and needs to add some bulk and strength to his top half. With above average bat speed, the Dominican has real power potential.

On the base paths, he is not a burner but he will not clog the bases either. He seemed comfortable in right field and has the arm to play the position. He needs to improve his plate discipline and patience at the dish.

When you think about an athlete, a player like Ross Smith comes to mind. A son of a scout, the 21-year-old carries himself like a ball player. Playing left field on this night, he gets good jumps on the ball and puts himself in position to make the play. It is very possible that with his speed and athletiscm he could handle center. With an above average throwing arm, he would be more than capable of handling right field as well.

At the plate, he uses a wide stance that gives him a solid base. Though he does not have Joe Mather's size, Smith did remind a lot of the Cardinal utility man. His strikeout total is surprising because he seems to have very quick, capable hands that should be able to adjust to the pitch.

Smith needs to work on going the other way. Even at this level, the Orioles played the outfielder as an extreme pull hitter.

Catcher Travis Tartamella continues the organization tradition of drafting strong defensive backstops. The 21-year-old is very active behind the plate, possessing good footwork and quick, soft hands. On his throws to second, he sets up well and uses a strong arm and quick release to gun down would be base stealers.

Like a lot of the defensive first catchers in the organization, his bat does not project well and will be what keeps him from advancing. But with such an elite arm, he could possibly move to the mound like Jason Motte, Casey Mulligan, and David Carpenter before him.

Like Castillo, Ted Obregon is an undersized middle-infielder with catlike movements in the field. Though a tick below his double play mate in overall defensive tools, the Venezuelan is no slouch by any means. He has quick feet that allow him to get on balls very quickly. His hands are soft and his arm is very capable of the double play throw off the pivot.

On the bases, he uses those quick feet to get enormous leads that proved to be very distracting to the opposing pitchers. He seems to be more advanced at the plate than Castillo but he lacks punch as well.

Though he was not in the starting lineup, I had a chance to talk with C.J. Christian Beatty before the game started. Beatty has an upbeat personality and his enjoyment for what he is doing is very evident. Though he has been relegated to DH duties due to a bad elbow, he feels he is ready. The team though is holding him out of the field until its next road trip to North Carolina.

Editor's note: This report was filed prior to all the player moves earlier this week, as five JC players were promoted - Justin Smith, Matt Adams, Michael Swinson, Jesse Simpson and Rich Racobaldo.


Dustin can be contacted at dustin@whiteyball.com.
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