Modesto, Calif. -- A 5-2 week has the Modesto Nuts (8-8) back to playing .500 ball, and in no small part the club has their pitching staff to thank for the marked improvements. Both Sam Howard and Ryan Castellani have really hit their stride starting every fifth day, with Yency Almonte showing promise and plus velocity.
In the bullpen, Jerry Vasto's good work closing games has been combined with solid outings from Troy Neiman and Logan Cozart in set-up roles, and Helmis Rodriguez has been an intriguing long reliever. Manager Fred Ocasio's team is playing aggressive ball on the bases (more on that below), and the Nuts are hitting an early stride as they continue their road trip in San Jose and then Visalia through next week.
Leading off: Nuts and bolts, April 17-23
I should be in Visalia to see a few of their games next week, so expect a good deal more of scouting video, interviews, etc. You know the drill by now, I'm sure. Enjoy what's below. If you have any questions about the Nuts, or an interview/angle you'd like to see me pursue, reach out to me on Twitter, or send me an email. I'd love to hear from you!
★ ★ ★
Spotlight on: OF Drew Weeks
This isn't outfielder Drew Weeks' first Modesto rodeo. The Florida native—who went 2-for-5 with three RBIs in the Nuts' win on Saturday night—got 149 at-bats in Modesto last summer after starting the year in Low-A Asheville. And, after slashing just .268/.323/.322 for the Nuts a year ago, he's back in the California League and looking for a strong few months before, ideally, he sees a promotion to Double-A Hartford.
Weeks is an affable guy, and funny, but he's also honest in his self-assessment. I found that out when I asked him what he needs to do this summer that he didn't do well enough last year in Modesto.
"Keep putting quality at-bats together," he said, simply. "In the beginning you don’t have that many at-bats, so if you have one bad night, and another bad night, you can start off badly. I’ve lined out a bunch, though, so I’m not too worried about my average. It’s more can I put quality at-bats together, and they can tell who is putting quality at-bats together."
To Weeks, a quality at-bat is somewhat similar to what Wes Rogers was talking about when he discussed his 'A' swing with me; it means getting on base, getting a guy over, or, as Weeks says, "getting your pitch and not missing it."
In that regard, Weeks is being pretty consistent in his approach at the plate, even though the results—he's slashing .262/.307/.277 thus far this season—aren't yet where he wants them to be.
"Once you deviate from your approach, that’s when you start to fail and you don’t really know why," Weeks advised. "So my approach is the same that worked with me last year in Asheville, it worked with me in college, it worked with me last year when I got to Modesto. Stuff is going to start falling here soon."
Stuff will start dropping here soon; barring injury or something else unforeseen, Weeks is going to get at least 400 plate appearances this summer, and the law of baseball averages will inevitably even out for the former seventh-round draft pick. But Weeks was honest enough to admit that being a corner outfielder, a few home runs might be nice as the Rockies look to that position as one where they need power at the plate.
"It’s frustrating sometimes, if I played in Bakersfield, that field would be fun to hit," Weeks admitted about struggling to hit home runs at Modesto's spacious John Thurman Field. "But [Ryan] McMahon was here last year, and he hit 18, and that was very impressive. But it’s frustrating because it’s a bigger field. I guess you gotta hit ‘em on the road, right? Burn some outfielders, hit it above their heads, get your doubles here, and get your home runs on the road."
★ ★ ★
Catching up with: LHP Jerry Vasto
All aboard the Jerry Vasto Hype Train!
The Nuts' lefty closer is dealing early this year, having allowed just one unearned run in seven appearances (9.2 innings). Add to that 11 strikeouts and three saves—and just one walk—and Vasto is pretty much doing what I expected him to do when I saw him during spring training. (Yes, I will take credit for Vasto's success. ...Just kidding.)
Vasto can bring it—in the video (below), he was working 92-94 mph with a mid-80s slider that showed good depth—but he's not all velocity in that closer's role. In fact, when I asked him about it after Wednesday night's victory over Bakersfield, he corrected me pretty quickly to reveal he's pitching first, and trying to run high velocities only after he makes sure he's locating.
"Yeah, I guess I can rear back sometimes, but I really have to locate still," Vasto told me in the Nuts' clubhouse minutes after earning his third save of the year. "I can’t let my velocity take over. I still have to be able to put the pitch where I want it to go. Above all, their job is to hit, and they get paid to do it, and my job in the ninth inning is to go out there and make sure they don’t score."
If that's Vasto's job, he's thus far done a masterful job of it. And even though the ninth inning is a little bit different from the eighth inning role he so successfully occupied last summer in Low-A Asheville, he's taking it calmly as he approaches a higher profile role in California.
"It is a little different," Vasto conceded. "But I got used to it in spring training, I threw a couple ninth innings there, and I feel like I’m transitioning fine. I feel comfortable and I’m not nervous. Now I just have to go out there and do the same thing I did last year in the eighth inning."
To hear him talk about it, though, I get the feeling Vasto still hasn't hit his stride yet in Modesto. That's a nice thing to think about considering his lights-out statistics, since the closer has hinted that his slider still hasn't gotten back to where he had it last year, or where he wants it to be for High-A opponents.
"There’s always something I gotta work on," Vasto admitted when I asked him about his hot start. "Right now it’s just holding runners a little bit better, and really getting my slider back still. My changeup has been pretty good, and I’m keeping my fastball in the zone where I want it to go, but I just have to get that breaking ball back to where I had it last year."
Surprised by that response considering his statistics and my own observations from watching him pitch several times, I followed up asking what about his slider isn't clicking quite yet.
"Last year it was my go-to pitch, and now I’m just not getting it down," Vasto answered. "That's what I have to work on, getting it back foot to righties, brushing a lefty off the plate. Just tyring to get more swing and misses on it than hitters just staring at it. I have to stay through it more, because sometimes I like to pull off. It’s something I’ve been working on every day."
A 94 mph fastball, a .194 opponents' batting average, no earned runs allowed, 11 strikeouts to just one walk in nearly ten innings of work, and three saves, and Vasto is doing it without what was his best pitch last summer? Whoa.
Here's why this matters: Vasto is 24 years old. He was a three-year college guy and he's relatively old for High-A right now. If he keeps throwing well, I have a hunch the Rockies are going to promote him to Double-A Hartford fairly soon and see if he can hack it at higher levels.
Working 92-94 mph, if Vasto develops in the next year or two, he has a legitimate shot to impact the bullpen in Denver as a situational reliever one day. Just imagine a guy like Vasto as the situational lefty surrounded by hurlers like Carlos Estevez, Sam Moll, Matt Carasiti, Miguel Castro, and whomever can't quite make it as a starter among the Rockies' top pitching prospects right now. That ain't bad.
Not for nothing, don't ignore the juxtaposition here; Estevez made his Major League debut on Saturday night. A year ago that same night, he was earning a save for the Modesto Nuts, in the role that Vasto currently occupies. Vasto's ceiling probably isn't as high as that of Estevez, who can legitimately touch triple digits with his fastball, but if Jerry keeps putting up numbers and throwing mid-90s, he'll make himself unable to be ignored. A few more strong weeks in Modesto, and I have a hunch the Rockies will test him in Hartford to see what they have in the New Jersey native. Guess we'll see.
★ ★ ★
Following up: Nuts OF Max White
Yesterday, I ran a big feature on Nuts outfielder Max White, and his personal purgatory going through Low-A Asheville for three straight summers. Go read that if you haven't; hopefully, it's enlightening to you about his career and outlook. Beyond that, though, the feature missed something: White's current toolsy approach to the game, and how he uses speed and small ball to complement teammates like Rogers, Forrest Wall, and Weeks.
White, who has hit everywhere from leadoff to the very bottom position in the Nuts' lineup already this season, continues to work out the kinks—but keep the same aggressive approach—regardless of his role in the order.
"I try to be the exact same guy," White told me. "My approach is my approach, and that’s what is cool about this team, everybody has that approach. A lot of teams, you’ll have a leadoff hitter swing at the first pitch, and fly out or line out, and guys will be like, ‘come on, we need you to see a pitch.’ But these guys, no. These guys are all on the same page, everybody is aggressive."
"We said it before the season, and we said it in spring training," he added, "we are going to be the most aggressive team in the Cal League."
We'll have more on that aggressiveness from a broader perspective, too—I'm hoping to sit down with Nuts manager Fred Ocasio—but White seems like he's not scared to take chances at the plate, or on the bases.
"When I get on the bases, I don’t know, something just kicks in my mind," White said. "It’s real aggressive. I want to be real aggressive, I want to move to the next base, no matter what."
Thus far this year, the Nuts have played that type of small ball well; White and Rogers lead the way in terms of stealing bases, but even big men like Collin Ferguson have been put on the move once on the base paths, and Ocasio hasn't hesitated to use Wall, Dom Nunez, and others to bunt runners over depending on the situation. For White, that style of play might help offset the desire to try to hit home runs in some of the California League's smaller ballparks.
"It is, to an extent, harder to stay in your approach in some places, but it’s really harder before the actual at-bat," White admitted when I asked him about playing in small parks like Bakersfield, High Desert, and Lancaster. "When you’re in the field or when you’re in the dugout before you go to hit, that’s when I think about that stuff. But once I get in the box, everything just kind of blacks out, and it’s just see the ball, hit the ball. It’s not really that big of a deal for me when I’m in the box."
White has thus far slugged two home runs, two triples, and two doubles in 13 games, so he clearly hasn't been too adversely affected by small parks and quirky situations in the California League. Add eight stolen bases to that, and—don't look now—his tools are showing.
★ ★ ★
Nuts in action: This week's scouting videos
TROY NEIMAN, RHP
Troy Neiman, 25, is in his second go-round in Modesto after pitching there all season last summer. The Castaic, California native threw on Wednesday (video, above) in the Nuts' 1-0 win over the Bakersfield Blaze. Neiman showed an 86-89 mph fastball in the game, along with a curve ball he used quite a bit, that registered at 76-79 mph. The big righty doesn't blow anybody away with velocity, but he seemed to pitch primarily off his breaking ball, at least on Wednesday, which makes him something of a unique mid- to late-inning reliever.
Neiman is old for the level, and he's thrown very well thus far this season, so it's not too much of a stretch to imagine that pretty quickly here he moves up to Double-A Hartford's bullpen if his good work continues.
SHANE HOELSCHER, 3B
I did a big interview with Shane Hoelscher recently, and will include some of that in next week's rundown, but before we get there, enjoy some video of him (above) taken recently at a Nuts game in Modesto against the Bakersfield Blaze. Hoelscher has started slowly, slashing just .207/.304/.397 through Saturday night's game, but he does have three home runs to his name to go along with two doubles and six walks in 14 games. The former Rice University standout had a massive year in Asheville last summer (.328/.422/.529 in 92 games), and Modesto will count on him to anchor the middle of their lineup along side Roberto Ramos this season. We've captured Hoelscher before on video, too.
CRAIG SCHLITTER, RHP
Save one bad outing early in the year at Bakersfield, Craig Schlitter has been doing good work out of the Nuts' bullpen, having struck out 14 hitters in his first eight innings of work this summer. I caught the 27th round draft pick from 2014 on camera last week in Bakersfield, coincidentally at his one bad outing, but it's still instructive to see him work (above).
Like Neiman, Schlitter doesn't overwhelm with velocity; he was in the upper 80s last week in Bakersfield. Whatever he is doing is working, though; after pitching in just ten games last summer due to injury, he's certainly starting a new season off on the right foot in the California League and will likely become a very valuable middle relief option for the Nuts this summer as they try to bridge the gap from starters to Vasto.
YOELY BELLO, LHP
Yoely Bello, 25, made three appearances for the Modesto Nuts early this season before being sent back to extended spring training, with right-hander Logan Sawyer taking his place in the bullpen. That "move" was procedural; Bello is still in Modesto, and I watched him go through pitcher's fielding practice this week before a game. But he won't be pitching on the active roster for at least a little while as he irons out the kinks after allowing five runs on seven hits in his first 3.1 innings early last week.
Watching him work (video, above), you can't help but wonder if maybe because he has somewhat of a quirky delivery and arm action, that a more sidearm angle to hitters would work in his favor. He's not young for the level, and it took him a while to break through the Yankees' Dominican and Gulf Coast League facilities before moving on to Colorado as part of the Chris Nelson trade in September 2013. If he can't succeed as a 25-year-old in High-A, he may not be long for affiliated ball; it's speculation, but he already has a three-quarters delivery, and a traditional side arm adjustment might be a tweak well worth the work.
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