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February 20, 2009 at 9:02 AM

2009 Prospect Previews: Hunter Strickland and Mark Wagner

The sixth installment of the Prospects Previews series focuses on a young pitcher looking to make the jump to full season baseball, and a catcher trying to make the push to the major league level.

Hunter Strickland

2008 Team: Lowell Spinners
2009 Projected Team: Greenville Drive

Strengths: Strickland has a free and easy delivery that doesn’t put much stress on his arm. His balance and form are very polished, providing him with an excellent base to pitch from and keeping him from overthrowing the ball. Strickland’s fastball sits 89-91 MPH with the ability to top out at 93 MPH. When operating towards the lower range of his velocity, his fastball has some late movement that gives hitters trouble in gauging which angle the ball is coming in at them. After spending his first month as the swingman on the Lowell staff, Strickland earned a spot in the rotation after the promotion of Brock Huntzinger to Greenville and pitched very well over the course of his last ten outings of the season. There was noticeable improvement in the command of Strickland’s fastball and an uptick in his velocity during this stretch. He really pounded the zone and was aggressive with batters. Word from around the Spinners was that Strickland was instructed to work on fastball command in his outings at the beginning of the season, and that the work was paying off as he was more comfortable throwing the pitch, along with being able to keep it down in the zone and not focus too much on throwing the ball by hitters. Strickland has a very projectable frame, standing at 6’5’’ and 200 pounds, which should fill out some as he gets older.

Development Needs: Strickland’s slider and change-up are a little more unrefined than his fastball at this point in his career. His slider is more of a slurve, sitting 79-82 MPH, and doesn’t have as much sharp break as it should to be considered a dependable out pitch. However, the pitch has the potential to be a better offering if he can consistently get enough snap on it, causing it to break sharper and get hitters to chase it deeper in the count as it falls off the table. Strickland’s change-up is still in the early stages of development. Sitting 83-85 MPH, there isn’t a lot of separation between it and his fastball. The pitch looks more like a fastball that he is taking something off of rather than a true change-up, but the pitch showed flashes of excellence last season, especially down the stretch when there was some good improvement in Strickland’s overall arsenal. His delivery is smooth, but there isn’t a lot of explosion and drive in it. This is an area where Strickland could make some good strides and produce some added velocity on his fastball. He doesn’t miss a lot of bats right now, but was also instructed to work on throwing down in the zone more. This is another area that could see strong development as he hones in on his release point to make his stuff more consistent.

2009 Outlook: With a crowded starting rotation in Greenville, Stickland could find himself working out of the bullpen, finishing off games to get his starter’s work in. After a nice finish to 2008, look for him to build upon his success as he heads into the 2009 campaign. One of the main areas to watch for in terms of positive development is more consistency in Strickland’s stuff, especially with how he finishes his slider. Strickland will need a pitch to lean on to finish off batters with two strikes and pitch a little more away from contact at this level. Keeping his fastball down in the zone will be a must to have good success in 2009. Look for some more life and command of his fastball in 2009 as he gets better and better at repeating his release point, something he worked on in 2008. Another sign of positive development will be improvement in his change-up. Given the nature of the pitch, with more feel and repetition Strickland could see some marked improvement, which would give him another weapon with which to attack hitters. Strickland is an interesting prospect in 2009, having flown under the radar at Lowell in 2008 given the strength of the other arms on the staff. Greenville looks to be stacked with arms in 2009, but Strickland is an improving pitcher and one that could make another strong gain over the course of the upcoming season.

Mark Wagner

2008 Team: Portland Sea Dogs
2009 Projected Team: Portland Sea Dogs

Strengths: With his quickness behind the plate, Wagner is a strong defender overall who is excellent at throwing runners out and blocking balls in the dirt. He has a quick release on his throws which compensates for his arm being slightly above average, but not at elite strength. A hard worker, Wagner puts in the effort to improve his game and demonstrates the leadership ability that a catcher is expected to possess. It was reported that he put a lot of work in his defensive game last season at Portland to focus on the finer points of catching that he was exposed to at the upper levels for the first time in his career. After working with a lot of the pitchers over the course of his three seasons in the Red Sox system, Wagner calls a good game behind the plate and is able to take charge of game situations. In the batter’s box, Wagner hits to the gaps with some decent power. When he is going well, he is driving through the ball and hitting line drives from right-centerfield to down the left-field line. In the lower levels of the minors, he generally made good contact while showing good patience and not striking out too much. Where Wagner doesn’t have one offensive tool that sticks out, they are all average to slightly above average. The Red Sox added Wagner to the 40-man roster in November of 2008.

Development Needs: Wagner had a tough year overall in Portland last season and faded down the stretch. Over the course of his career, he has seemed to wear down as the season has gone along. Being able to sustain the wear and tear of the catching position over the course of the season is something that he is going to have to work on and demonstrate if he is going to project as a major league starter. A line drive hitter in the past, Wagner hit a lot of fly balls and struck out more in Portland last season. He looked over-matched with pitches up in the zone, which he had trouble handling and laying off of. A streaky hitter, he can go into prolonged slumps at the plate where his swing mechanics get out of whack. Wagner will need to work on shortening his swing path to the ball and focus on hitting line drives into the gaps rather than trying to jerk fly balls, which he demonstrated in the lower minors when he had some good success at the plate. Behind the plate, Wagner struggled with some of the finer points of catching, like framing pitches during the early part of last season, but made improvements in that area to become a stronger catcher. With no real dominant offensive tool, it’s not known if Wagner will hit enough at the major league level, but a strong season in AA would answer some of the questions.

2009 Outlook: Wagner will once again start the season with the Portland Sea Dogs to get regular catching work in and sharpen his skills at the plate. 2009 will be a big season for him to show that last season was a period of adjustment. Expect Wagner to have a better understanding of the pitching in AA and a better idea of which pitches he can handle, while not chasing the pitches he cannot. A good sign of positive development offensively for him is a decrease in the amount of fly balls he hits and a return to driving the ball into the gaps. A shorter, more fluid swing is something to watch for to begin the season. Behind the plate, Wagner should to be stronger with his receiving skills and improve on his game management. A good sign of positive development in this area will be to see some more borderline calls going the pitchers’ way as Wagner is firmer in the way he receives and frames the ball, along with less movement of his glove on pitches in the strike zone. The Red Sox added Wagner to the 40-man roster so his option clock is now ticking. Some strong improvements for Wagner in his targeted areas should push him to Pawtucket to finish off the season, and move him towards the finishing touches of his minor league career.

Written by Chris Mellen