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February 18, 2013 at 6:45 AM

2013 Prospect Previews: Aaron Kurcz and Mickey Pena

Aaron Kurcz

Position: Pitcher
2012 Team: Portland Sea Dogs
2013 Projected Team: Portland Sea Dogs
Opening Day Age: 22

Strengths: Despite a small frame and lean build, this right-hander is more than capable of dialing up his fastball. Kurcz is an easy thrower, who typically stays balanced during his delivery before the ball explodes out of his hand towards home plate. The heater sits 92-94 mph and tops out as high as 96 mph when the righty is reaching back for a little bit extra. There’s late life to the fastball, enabling the offering to produce swing and misses as opposing batters swing under the ball due to mis-timing its path. Kurcz also brings a level of maturity and strong competitive desire to the mound. He’s aggressive when attacking hitters, often showing no fear of challenging them with his fastball in key counts or situations. Kurcz’s mannerisms in these situations also point to a player who knows how to deal with the ups and downs of the long baseball season. When things are not going his way, he shrugs off poor results and continues to work to execute in a controlled manner.

Development Needs: Kurcz’s secondary offerings are on the inconsistent side and he can also be very heavily fastball-dependent during his outings. The breaking ball operates 75-81 mph, showing varying break. In the upper reaches of its velocity it has more of a power break, where the rotation is tight and crisp. Kurcz can either freeze batters or get swing and misses when snapping it off, but doesn’t hold the look with much frequency. The offering gets loopy and slurvy in the lower reaches as the righty tends to wrap his wrist during the release, causing it to spin to the plate. Kurcz also mixes in an 82-85 mph changeup, but doesn’t feature it all that often in sequences. The pitch does show arm-side fade and he has consistent arm speed when throwing it, with the potential to round into an average-to-better pitch at his disposal if the pitcher develops enough trust to use it more. The lack of overall crispness with the secondary offerings presently forces Kurcz to heavily lean on his fastball. Despite the ability to over-power opposing batters with the pitch, his command is presently only fringe-average-to-average, and works too much in the upper tier of the strike zone in stretches.

2013 Outlook: Kurcz is an intriguing arm within the system. He was on the young side for the Eastern League last season and despite some ups and downs, he showed that his stuff was capable of getting upper level hitters out. However, he’s limited to the bullpen, which puts a return to Double-A to start 2013 as likely considering the abundance of relief arms the organization has in front of him slated to fill out the Triple-A roster. Kurcz’s main goal will be to develop more consistency and trust with the secondary stuff. He’s able to get by in Double-A, but when he does take the step up to the next level, the more polished hitters are more apt to take advantage of the mistakes he does make elevated in the strike zone. The progress he makes with his secondary stuff this year will be important in proving that he isn’t going to ceiling out in Triple-A.

Position: Pitcher
2012 Team: Greenville Drive
2013 Projected Team: Salem Red Sox
Opening Day Age: 22

Strengths: Pena is a polished left-hander, with a smooth and repeatable delivery. His easy motion and high three-quarters arm slot allows him to generate downhill leverage when delivering his repertoire. The lefty’s 88-91 mph fastball is enhanced by the downward movement created. Since he stays on top of the offering well, the heavy action through the strike zone causes opposing hitters to roll over the top of the pitch often. The fastball command grades as about average as well. Pena is able to work both sides of the plate with it and throw to all four quadrants of the strike zone consistently. He pounds the strike zone with ease. Pena complements his heater with a mid-70s curveball that shows over-the-top break. He keeps his wrist above the baseball well when throwing it, which creates tight spin and strong depth as it breaks downward through the strike zone. Batters are often fooled by the offering as the lefty snaps it off from a near identical release point to that of his fastball.

Development Needs: There isn’t much overall growth left with Pena’s stuff and he’s essentially a two-pitch pitcher. While he dabbles with a slider and changeup, they aren’t as effective as the fastball and curve. The change has the most room for improvement, but he tends to tip the pitch off due to slowing his arm down when delivering it. As he takes the next step up the ranks, it’s going to become more and more important to mix up sequences and become less predictable. Pena throws strikes with his fastball, but he also needs improvement with the amount of quality strikes he throws as his heater tends to grab too much of the plate at times. So far, this hasn’t been a problem against the more inexperienced hitters of the low minors, and the quality of his curve has also kept them at bay. However, he’s going to have to become finer with his fastball going forward since his stuff doesn’t project to miss a high amount of bats. Pena’s stuff profiles with the ceiling of a left-handed reliever and it’s likely he moves towards that role in the upper minors.

2013 Outlook: Pena is ready to take the step up to the Carolina League after spending last season getting acquainted to professional baseball in the South Atlantic League. His polish and profile point towards the left-hander making a relatively smooth transition to High A. Much of Pena’s work this season will center on becoming more consistent and finer with his command. If he is to continue to succeed once he gets to the upper minors, improvement here is a must. The eight-team Carolina League will be a good test since hitters will become familiar with Pena quickly. He’ll need to execute more consistently in the lower tier of the strike zone and won’t be able to get away with as much deception. I see Pena being able to meet the challenge of High A and at some point in the season being in the mix for a promotion to Double-A. It will be here that he’s going to be presented with his biggest hurdle as a professional. For now, Pena is on a forward track, with much of this year being about showing that his stuff is capable of getting a crack in the upper minors.

Photo Credits: Mickey Pena by William Parmeter; Aaron Kurcz by SoxProspects, LLC.

Chris Mellen is Director of Scouting for SoxProspects.com. Follow him on Twitter @ChrisMellen