Interview: De Jon Watson looks at Dodger prospects

Though the Dodger farm system certainly has its less fallow spots, it also certainly has its fertile areas, which were enough for ESPN.com’s Keith Law to rank it 12th in the majors, higher than I’ve seen elsewhere.

For a closer look at some of the Dodger developing prospects, I interviewed Dodger assistant general manager in charge of player development De Jon Watson recently for a piece that is running in full at ESPNLosAngeles.com. Here’s how it begins …

The patchwork roster surrounding established Los Angeles Dodgers stars like Matt Kemp and Clayton Kershaw this year would hint at a dearth of minor league chips to play with, but De Jon Watson would encourage you to ante up.

The Dodgers’ assistant general manager in charge of player development has more than a poker hand’s worth of serious starting pitcher candidates rising through the system, and would even argue for a few wild cards among the position players.

“It’s been good stuff, man,” Watson said of the franchise’s depth at starting pitcher. “Our kids are coming. It’s great to have that type of competition. … If you have a hiccup or someone goes down for a little bit, you have a legitimate option waiting in the wings. The key is being as sharp as they can possibly be when that opportunity arises so you really don’t miss a beat.”

That doesn’t change the Dodgers’ pattern of leaning toward veterans at the start of the season. With Hiroki Kuroda leaving as a free agent and the team’s 2010 minor league pitcher of the year, Rubby De La Rosa, recovering from Tommy John surgery, the Dodgers signed Aaron Harang and Chris Capuano rather than hand a starting rotation slot to Nathan Eovaldi, who had a 3.09 ERA in six starts at age 21 late last summer.

Shortstop Dee Gordon is the only 2011 Dodgers rookie who has the inside track on a starting spot with the team this season. Gordon, who had 24 stolen bases in 56 games and a .325 on-base percentage (.398 in September), will look to capitalize on his hot finish.

“The biggest thing to look for from him is going to be his on-base percentage,” Watson said, “because his speed is going to change how they pitch to the guy that’s behind him. He’s going to apply pressure both from an offensive standpoint and a defensive standpoint for the opponent. So he has to get on base. For us, his key is understanding what type of hitter he is, understanding the strike zone.” …

In addition to Eovaldi, De La Rosa and Gordon, Watson also provides a status report on Jerry Sands, Zach Lee, Garret Gould, Allen Webster, Chris Withrow, Shawn Tolleson, Steven Ames, Scott Van Slyke, Alex Castellanos, Chris Reed and Pedro Baez.

Hope you enjoy reading the full story

* * *

The patchwork roster surrounding established Los Angeles Dodgers stars like Matt Kemp and Clayton Kershaw this year would hint at a dearth of minor league chips to play with, but De Jon Watson would encourage you to ante up.

The Dodgers’ assistant general manager in charge of player development has more than a poker hand’s worth of serious starting pitcher candidates rising through the system, and would even argue for a few wild cards among the position players.

“It’s been good stuff, man,” Watson said of the franchise’s depth at starting pitcher. “Our kids are coming. It’s great to have that type of competition. … If you have a hiccup or someone goes down for a little bit, you have a legitimate option waiting in the wings. The key is being as sharp as they can possibly be when that opportunity arises so you really don’t miss a beat.”

That doesn’t change the Dodgers’ pattern of leaning toward veterans at the start of the season. With Hiroki Kuroda leaving as a free agent and the team’s 2010 minor league pitcher of the year, Rubby De La Rosa, recovering from Tommy John surgery, the Dodgers signed Aaron Harang and Chris Capuano rather than hand a starting rotation slot to Nathan Eovaldi, who had a 3.09 ERA in six starts at age 21 late last summer.

Shortstop Dee Gordon is the only 2011 Dodgers rookie who has the inside track on a starting spot with the team this season. Gordon, who had 24 stolen bases in 56 games and a .325 on-base percentage (.398 in September), will look to capitalize on his hot finish.

“The biggest thing to look for from him is going to be his on-base percentage,” Watson said, “because his speed is going to change how they pitch to the guy that’s behind him. He’s going to apply pressure both from an offensive standpoint and a defensive standpoint for the opponent. So he has to get on base. For us, his key is understanding what type of hitter he is, understanding the strike zone.”

Sands through the hourglass

Meanwhile, Jerry Sands, who was the Dodgers’ top minor league hitter in 2010, might be limited to a platoon role at best to start 2012, if he doesn’t begin the year in Albuquerque. However, crediting minor league hitting gurus Eric Owens and John Valentin with tireless guidance, Watson enthused about the adjustments Sands made with the Dodgers last year. After a .622 OPS in his April-June debut, Sands had a .908 OPS in September.

“It’s usually difficult for guys to make swing adjustments during a season, but he bought in,” Watson said. “He put in the work and the effort and time along with our coaching staff to make a really conscious effort at improving where he was to get into a better place to attack the baseball.”

And over the next couple of years, a steady stream of young arms should come up through the pipeline, following in the footsteps of homegrown standouts like Kershaw and Kenley Jansen, who set a major league record for strikeouts per nine innings last year.

Evolution of Eovaldi

With the pitchers having played a bit of leapfrog in their development, Eovaldi currently sits at the head of the lily pad. Assuming the major league rotation is set for April with Kershaw, Chad Billingsley, Ted Lilly, Harang and Capuano, Eovaldi will begin 2012 either as a long man in the bullpen or honing his starting skills a bit longer in the minors.

“He’s definitely capable of pitching out of the bullpen,” Watson said, “but it’s a little hard to find quality starters and to develop young starters, so for us I think it’ll be a tough decision at the end of camp on where we place him.”

Eovaldi took a step forward with Double-A Chattanooga last year, posting a 2.62 ERA and striking out 99 in 103 innings as the only rookie pitcher to start for the Dodgers besides De La Rosa.

“His fastball command was the thing that really kind of grew and separated him from some of the other kids,” Watson said. “He’s always had a power mix. His fastball is anywhere from, goodness, 93 to 98 or 99. …

“He was able to repeat his delivery and command the fastball to both sides of the plate. The slider is ever evolving, as well as his changeup, but the fastball-slider mix right now is pretty good. If he’s able to improve his changeup, to add that as a viable option for him, I think that’ll make him that much better.”

The other young guns

Eovaldi’s position as the Dodgers’ top young right-hander could be tenuous, no matter how well he pitches in 2012. Watson said De La Rosa, who had a 3.88 ERA and 8.9 strikeouts per nine innings in 10 major league starts at age 22 before going under the knife in August, was throwing from 90 feet during rehab in Arizona this week and is on pace to pitch in minor league games by June.

Watson added that Allen Webster and Chris Withrow are among those who made strides last year (even if their stats didn’t always show it), and coming up fast behind them are a pair of 20-year-olds who spent last year with Single-A Great Lakes, Garrett Gould (2.40 ERA) and 2010 first-round draft pick Zach Lee (3.47 ERA).

“I think [Gould] and Zach will both be pushing the envelope and challenging those guys who are ahead of them,” Watson said. “They both have good stuff. I mean, Gouldy’s 90-94 with a very good breaking ball and an evolving changeup.

“I think the biggest thing for him was trusting his secondary pitches. When he was behind in counts and he was able to do that last year, and he was starting to see the results.”

Lee, whom the Dodgers pried away from Louisiana State quarterbackhood with a $5.25 million singing bonus, will push to pitch in Chattanooga this year.

“Zach is on time,” Watson said. “Once he gets in the Double-A mix, it’s just a matter of finishing off his pitches and understanding how he’s going to attack hitters and put them away.

“He’s got good fastball command at both sides of the plate. The slider is still developing, [and] the changeup is another pitch we’re trying to finish off for him. And he also has a curve. So he’s got four pitches, [and] the key is being able to master three of the four. If we can get those mastered, I think you’ll see him ascending as well and pushing us to make some tougher decisions.”

These things take time

Either Gould or Lee could face setbacks in Chattanooga that their (slightly) older colleagues have already experienced, which is why Watson urges the faithful not to lose faith in someone like Webster, even after his ERA rose to 5.04 in 18 Double-A outings. Watson attributed the struggles to fastball command, but believes that an adjustment in his release point will help get Webster back on track.

“He’s got four legitimate pitches right now,” Watson said. “He’s 93 to 97 with his fastball, throws both a two- and four-seamer. … His changeup is a plus-plus changeup, and sometimes he tends to fall in love with it. We have to get him to understand his curveball and his slider is above-average.”

Withrow, a strikeout pitcher with control issues, has been in Chattanooga since 2009 after surgery limited the former first-round draft pick to four innings in 2008. He still won’t be 23 until April.

“This past year was a really good year for him,” Watson said, “because he didn’t miss a start, he was durable, he repeated [his delivery] and he’s added a slider to his mix that gave him something that stayed on the plate,” Watson said. “It seems like he’s been here a long time, but he’s right where he should be, and we’re excited about where he’s going.”

With the six-pack of Eovaldi, De La Rosa, Lee, Gould, Webster and Withrow taking up so much conversation time, there was hardly time to discuss others — such as lefty Chris Reed, the 2011 first-round pick from Stanford who has impressed Watson — especially given the need to address other areas of the system.

The Dodgers’ major league bullpen already has taken on a youthful tinge with Jansen, Javy Guerra, Scott Elbert and Josh Lindblom all rookies last year. But more young fireballers thick with promise await.

Shawn Tolleson, a 24-year-old righty, sizzled to 2011 Dodgers minor league pitcher of the year honors by dominating at three different levels. After striking out an astonishing 33 of 56 batters he faced for Great Lakes with a 0.00 ERA, Tolleson made a quick stop at High-A Rancho Cucamonga (0.93 ERA, 17 strikeouts in 9 2/3 innings) before settling in at Chattanooga, where he had a 1.62 ERA and 55 strikeouts in 44 1/3 innings.

“Every level we challenged him,” Watson said, “and he stepped up and pitched better than the competition. … It’ll be interesting to see what he looks like this year in camp.

“His fastball velocity spiked [last year]. It went from being 88-91 to 92-96, touching 97 on occasion. … His slider is solid-average; at times it can be above-average for him. I think if we can get his changeup to add to his mix for left-handed hitters, it’s going to make him that much better.”

Watson added that Steven Ames, who finished 2011 with 41 strikeouts and a 2.48 ERA in 32 2/3 innings for Chattanooga, has likable stuff. Ames has been improving his fastball command and the consistency of his slider, though the latter needs to be “a little bit better and tighter,” Watson said.

And the hits keep coming

The Dodgers’ 2011 minor league hitter of the year also played in Tennessee. First baseman/outfielder Scott Van Slyke, the 25-year-old son of former major leaguer Andy Van Slyke, had 20 homers, 45 doubles, a .427 on-base percentage and .595 slugging percentage, statistics more typically associated with hit-happy Albuquerque than pitcher-tolerant Chattanooga.

“His skills offensively have grown so much, and last year was a breakout year for him,” Watson said. “Sometimes it just takes these kids a little longer to figure things out, but I think that offensively there’s enough power there to be a contributor at the major league level. … He’ll be an interesting guy for us in the future.

“And the age — I don’t recall anyone asking how old someone is when they write up a lineup up there,” Watson continued. “You get the best players to play the game that can help you win baseball games.”

The Dodgers could also see a bit of help down the road from the player they acquired in exchange for Rafael Furcal last summer, 25-year-old Alex Castellanos. His Double-A numbers (.386 OBP, .573 slugging) impressed, but the key could be whether he can convert back from the outfield to the infield. The Dodgers have begun working with him at his original pro positions, second base and third, positions currently manned at the major league level by Mark Ellis and Juan Uribe.

“Just trying to see if the hands [and] feet work,” Watson said. “It’s early in this process. He will primarily be an outfielder [this year], but we will try to get him some work on the infield to see if that’s something we can utilize and maximize going forward.”

Watson still holds out hope for third baseman Pedro Baez, a two-time Futures Game participant who is coming back from a knee injury. At one point in 2010, rumors emerged that Sands might be tried at third base, but Watson said the Dodgers had no intentions in that area.

If this seems like a team in transition, well, that would only make sense, given what’s happening in the Dodgers’ ownership box. But while the cloud over the franchise might seem a long time going, sliver linings will be sprinkled throughout the farm system, especially on its pitcher’s mounds.

  • http://underdog.typepad.com/ underdog

    Awesome stuff, Jon! Great info from Watson. Even though he’s a “homer” as it were he always seems pretty candid and fair. As we discussed this morning, our pitching seems loaded, position players not so much. But Van Slyke could be fun to see further develop this year.  I don’t have the same faith that Baez will come back to anything useful, though would be happy to be wrong. Maybe they’ll go all KJansen and convert him to pitcher, with that arm of his. And if Rubby can come back and pitch in 2nd half of the season, that would be awesome. 

  • Anonymous

    Great information here.  I wonder if Zach Lee was rated highly enough as a QB to have been LSU’s projected starter this year? 

  • Anonymous

    As a regular volunteer with Habitat for Humanity, I had the opportunity to work alongside Jerry Hairston Jr., James Loney, Javy Guerra, and Josh Lindblom today during the Dodgers Community Caravan.  Former Dodgers in attendance included Ken Landreaux, Lou Johnson, Maury Wills, DErrel Thomas, and Fernando Valenzuela. A good time was had by all, especially Hairston, who was eager to try his hand at the circular saw.
     
    Photos will be live on DodgerDiaries.com soon.   

    • http://twitter.com/terryraustin terry austin

      Glad to hear you’re a Habitat volunteer. I serve on the board of our local (small!) affiliate and am proud to be part of something so life-changing.

      • Anonymous

        Which affiliate?

    • Anonymous

      We just have to hope that nobody does a Roger Metzger.

      • Anonymous

        Poor Roger: Habitat offers a hand up, not a hand out.  
         
        And as we always say at the beginning of the day, if you get hurt, “We’ll pray for you, but we won’t pay for you.”

    • http://underdog.typepad.com/ underdog

      Very cool!

    • Anonymous

      I think I’d prefer if power tools were left to the retired guys. 

    • Anonymous

      Awesome, what a great way to help the community and cool that you got to do it with some of the Dodgers present and past! Thanks for sharing.

  • http://twitter.com/DavidYoungTBLA David Young

    Excellent article Jon, thanks for that. A lot of insightful information from Watson; thanks for asking all the right questions and framing a nice article around it.

  • Anonymous

    Neither Bills nor Either are considered established stars?

    • http://www.dodgerthoughts.com/ Jon Weisman

      Writing “established Los Angeles Dodgers stars like Matt Kemp and Clayton Kershaw this year” means that Kemp and Kershaw are examples of established stars. If I hadn’t used “like” or “such as” that would be different.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1604610572 Lucas Bauer

    Nice article Jon! Always enjoy hearing what De Jon Watson and/or Logan White have to say about the prospects. I’ll be interested to see how Rubby’s rehab comes along this summer. With the way Tommy John surgery has advanced over the past decade or so (i.e. Chris Carpenter, Tim Hudson, John Smoltz’s success) can’t help but be somewhat optimistic Rubby can make a full recovery. 

  • http://underdog.typepad.com/ underdog

    It’s not really going out on a limb or complimenting myself much to say… I saw this coming a mile away. 
    http://www.chadmoriyama.com/2012/02/josh-macciello-not-a-finalist-in-ownership-bidding-was-basically-trolling-in-real-life/

    Good publicity stunt for himself, though. I guess that was the point? Will he be played by Richard Gere or Jim Carrey in a future movie?

    • Anonymous

      Is that actually him posting the last comment?

  • Anonymous

    Nice job.  Look forward to at least a couple of these SPs panning out.   Castellanos did pretty well in Fall ball as well, as I recall.  No mention of Fedex?

  • Anonymous

    I’d bet on Gordon making it.

  • Anonymous

    Thanks Jon.  After watching many of Ned’s signings over the last couple of years, it’s nice to know that at least one person in the front office cares about at least one player’s OBP.

    • Anonymous

      Ha! Good point! From some of the FA signings you would never know if some of the Dodger management knew OBP existed!

  • Wil

    “You get the best players to play the game that can help you win baseball games.” Ned must’ve been absent the day they taught this at GM school. Great read btw! Love hearing breakdowns from guys like Watson and White.

  • http://www.dodgerthoughts.com/ Jon Weisman

    In Keith Law’s top 100: Lee 41, Webster 61, Eovaldi 79 es.pn/z5DLeG

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Jim-Hitchcock/1676059435 Jim Hitchcock

    Dennis Oil Can Boyd outdoes Steve Howe.

  • http://www.dodgerthoughts.com/ Jon Weisman

    Here’s how ESPN ranks the Dodger top 10.

    1. Zach Lee, RHP (41)
    2. Allen Webster, RHP (61)
    3. Nate Eovaldi, RHP (79)
    4. Chris Reed, LHP
    5. Garrett Gould, RHP
    6. Angel Sanchez, RHP
    7. Chris Withrow, RHP
    8. Joc Pederson, OF
    9. Josh Lindblom, RHP
    10. Scott Barlow, RHP

    • Anonymous

      At least there’s one position player on there…..

  • Anonymous

    Thanks for an interesting interview Jon.  I guess we’d expect a guy in Watson’s position to only have nice things to say, but specifics are better than generalities, for sure.  But might the real message be in the guys he didn’t talk about?  I’m not a prospect maven – is anyone a surprising omission from his rundown?

    • http://www.dodgerthoughts.com/ Jon Weisman

       No – he responded to those I asked about … I didn’t ask about everyone. There are a few people he talked about that I didn’t include in this story.  Obviously, he didn’t bash anyone.

      • http://www.dodgerthoughts.com/ Jon Weisman

         Other players we talked about included Sanchez, Barlow and De Jesus, for example.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Jim-Hitchcock/1676059435 Jim Hitchcock

    Go_Bears,

    I misremembered BigCPA as having the flaming orange hair the other day. Sorry, Big!

    • Anonymous

      ??

      • http://www.facebook.com/people/Jim-Hitchcock/1676059435 Jim Hitchcock

        Uh oh. Was that you or bigcpa on the front sports page of the Times at an Angel’s playoff game years ago, posted over to DT?

        • http://www.dodgerthoughts.com/ Jon Weisman

           I think that was BigCPA

          • http://www.facebook.com/people/Jim-Hitchcock/1676059435 Jim Hitchcock

            Sheesh. So i was right before I was wrong…oh, never mind.

          • Anonymous

            Yeah, I think that’s right.  Certainly wasn’t me.  Red is a Stanford color.  I wouldn’t have red hair.

            Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

  • Anonymous

    ESPN’s “Baseball Tonight” (afternoon edition) just did a major piece on Matt Kemp followed by discussion of the Dodgers in general.  Fun stuff!  Bison is IN SHAPE.

  • http://www.dodgerthoughts.com/ Jon Weisman

    New post up top. 

  • Anonymous

    with the transition to new ownership I can’t help but wonder what’s going to happen to the current staff, especially Logan White, traditionally its a total overhaul but I hope they find I place for some of the current staff…

  • Anonymous

    Jon, your view on trading some of this pitching talent next season and if so who could be FA targets?