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Player Game Report: Ralston Cash, 3/19/10

On Friday, I got the chance to check out Ralston Cash, a senior right-handed pitcher from Lakeview Academy in Gainesville, Georgia, about an hour from downtown Atlanta. I knew a good amount about Cash before I even headed down there, and in the interest of knowing that before I even give you the report, here’s the Draft Notebook writeup I had for him ahead of time:

"Ralston Cash is a tall, projectable righty from Cornelia, Georgia, a small town about 75 miles northeast of Atlanta. While he doesn’t feature the plus current stuff that some of the top pitching prospects in this year’s prep class offer, his projectability is up there with almost everyone not named A.J. Cole. Currently, Cash offers three quality pitches that could turn into plus offerings with time and maturity. His fastball is a solid 88-91 mph pitch with average life most of the time, but at the lower end of that range, he can put some serious sink into it. With his downhill plane, he could turn into a power groundball pitcher, every team’s dream. His breaking ball is a curveball that can loosen up and get slurvy sometimes, but at its best it can be a sharp above-average pitch in the 75-78 mph range. He throws a better changeup than most pitchers his age, and it could be another above-average offering. It’s usually in the 81-84 mph range when it’s at its best. Add in the fact that Cash is athletic and features excellent mechanics, and you have yourself a bit of a sleeper. He could go in the 3rd-5th round, but a team could absolutely get a steal there, as Cash has middle of the rotation potential."

I found most of what I had been told to be pretty close to the truth, though I found a little less refinement than I hoped for when I saw Cash in game action. Cash’s opponent on Friday was Commerce High School, making this a matchup of two very small schools, meaning the competition wasn’t as intense as you’d like to see when catching a game. Cash was the only prospect on the field, but he’s played with a solid prospect before. His catcher last year was Brett Armour, who is now a draft prospect at Young Harris College, a junior college in North Georgia, as a freshman, hitting .304/.385/.506 in 79 at-bats as a starter. Needless to say, Cash would have been helped out by having a little better backstop on this day, as it’s hard to almost any prep catcher to catch the kind of stuff that Cash brings.

I arrived to the field early enough to catch Cash’s bullpen session before the game, and I really got to see his frame up close. He was a bit thicker than I was told before, and I’m wondering if he’s put on some strength over the offseason. He’s listed at 6-4/200, though he looked closer to 210 or 215 pounds to me, though he’s built very solidly. He looks like a ballplayer when you see him, and I’m encouraged to see that the weight is pretty well-distributed. He has very thick legs and a very solid core, and I now envision as a sturdy number four starter. The bullpen session itself was nothing special, as the catcher was having enough trouble catching his stuff, but I did pick up on a little bit of a concerning motion with his changeup. His bullpen before the game was almost completely curves and changeups, and the changeup arm action was considerably slower and more noticeable than either his curve or fastball. He hid it a little bit better in the game, but he only threw the change early on, and it was ineffective, so I didn’t get a better view. However, I knew what to look for in the game after catching the bullpen, which is why I encourage fans to arrive early for games if they’re seeing a draft prospect, as it’s sometimes the closest you’ll ever get to them in order to check out the body type and other such telling signals that are harder to pick up on when you’re busy scouting multiple things in game action at the same time.

On to the game, I really got to know something about how Cash operates. As a quick side note, almost all coaches call pitches for catchers at the high school level, and any criticisms I have for pitch selection aren’t criticisms for Cash, and even for the coaches at Lakeview. I simply want to point out that sometimes draft prospects are victims of a less refined approach to their craft than is the norm for either college players or those with pro instruction, so the lines of pitchers are sometimes bigger than you’d like to see. Such was the case on Friday. Cash came out in the first throwing harder than he had been in the bullpen and even in warm-ups for the inning. His first pitches were 90-91 mph fastballs with average life, and his control of that pitch was consistently solid throughout the game. Notice I said control and not command. We’ll get to the command part later. He set up the first batter with two fastballs, then rung him up looking with a solid 79 mph curve that was more of a slurve than a true curve. Cash’s delivery is a true three-quarter bordering a low three-quarter, so it’s going to be harder for him to really develop a consistent curveball. I’d probably change his grip to make it a true slider, which is easier to command anyway, but he’s obviously put a lot of work into his curve. It had above-average shape for much of the game, and I can see where a number of scouts saw the potential for an above-average pitch, but his command of it wasn’t great for most of the game. He had to take off some break to throw strikes with it, making it flatter and more like a slider, but his bigger benders were slower with more up-and-down break. He couldn’t throw strikes with that variant, but it shows potential if he can find the release point. The second batter popped up Cash’s first changeup of the afternoon, an 84 mph pitch that had pretty much no life on it, and the second baseman caught it for the second out. After breaking off a better 77 mph curve to the third batter, he retired him with a ground out, ending the first after just three batters. It was pretty impressive, but not overwhelming, so I wanted to see more.

One of the things I love about watching small schools play is that someone like Cash is not only the star pitcher, but the star hitter, as well. He hit third in Lakeview’s lineup, and he was just noticeably bigger than anyone on the field. After a weak swing on a below-average curveball from Commerce’s pitcher, I realized the reason why Cash is only seen as a pitching prospect. His pitch recognition skills were consistently below-average, and he has no balance at the plate. He grounded out in his first at-bat, lunging at a low-80s fastball. He was clocked at 4.75 seconds to first, though he pulled up for the last ten feet after the first baseman caught the ball. That’s a well below-average time, but he did pull up, and I didn’t see him try to leg out anything else on the afternoon.

Cash came out in the second inning throwing at the range I had been told in the fall, 88-91, and he sat there for most of the afternoon. He threw a couple more 79 mph curveballs that looked more like sliders than curves, and some scouts started wondering if he had actually switched to a slider because of the shape. He threw a pair of changeups on the inning, and he really struggled to finish off one hitter in particular. After the hitter fouled off a few pitches with two strikes, Cash made a mistake, which started with the pitch call. He delivered an 82 mph changeup right over the heart of the plate to a left-handed hitter, and the pitch simply looked like a straight fastball, as it lacked both depth and break. The hitter batted it down the left field line, and because of a poor attempt at diving for the ball by the left fielder, the hitter ended up at third with a triple that should have been a single. Cash did recover from that miscue with a solid effort against the next hitter, striking him out with a 79 mph curve, but the ball bounced away from his catcher for a wild pitch with all runners safe, including the hitter. The next hitter, a righty, proceeded to pop the ball out to right-center field, but because of the tail on the ball and the wind, the center fielder completely misread it for a double that scored one runner, advancing the runner that reached on the wild pitch to reach third. After squeezing in an out, the hitter following hit an average fly ball to center for a sacrifice fly on a 90 mph fastball, making it two runs that shouldn’t have been scored than had come across. Cash finished off the inning with a swinging strikeout on a fastball, but the damage was done. He allowed two runs that were officially earned, but that wouldn’t have scored with better defense behind him, which came to be a theme on the afternoon.

Cash’s third inning was also a victim of some questionable defense. He came out with a solid strikeout looking on a curveball to start the inning, and then allowed a pair of singles, both of which were legitimate hits. One was absolutely scorched to right field by a left-handed hitter, and I wonder how Cash will handle lefties at the next level. However, the next hitter reached on a normal ground ball that the third baseman tried to backhand instead of get around on, leading to another run, making it a 3-1 game, with Lakeview behind. I clocked Cash’s time to the plate consistently through all these jams, and he was normally in the 1.50 range with runners on second, though he had a solid slide step that was in the 1.34-1.36 second range consistently. He’s not going to hold runners very well with his current delivery, as it takes him awhile to get going forward, but it wasn’t awful. After allowing another weakly-hit single that was pretty much slapped past the infield, I got to see how Cash dealt with a big jam. The bases were loaded with only a single out, and I wanted to see how he would react to bad defense and frustrating situations. What I ended up seeing was pretty encouraging. The first hitter up got behind quickly against the fastball, and he ended up actually twisting his ankle when he was way ahead of Cash’s best curve on the afternoon, getting a strikeout and an injury, though he stayed in the game after limping back to the dugout. The following hitter faced the same fate, striking out swinging on another curve, though the ball bounced away from the catcher again, though he recovered enough to throw the runner out at first to end the inning.

Starting in the fourth inning, I started seeing a different Ralston Cash. He fed off a big inning from his offense and the way he ended the previous inning. Pitching with a 4-3 lead, he started pitching confidently, not afraid to shake off his catcher to throw more fastballs, which were obviously overpowering a fairly weak Commerce offense. He was throwing 87-89 in the inning, getting a pair of swinging strikeouts when he elevated 88 mph fastballs on back-to-back hitters. The last hitter hit a weak fly ball to right field on an 87 mph fastball to end a quick 1-2-3 inning, and I was utterly impressed with the new pitcher I saw on the mound. He was simply different from the pitcher of the first three innings. That confidence only lasted for a pair of innings, but I saw some real potential in the pitcher I saw in the fourth and fifth innings.

In the fifth inning, I was one of the few evaluators left at the field, as most of the scouts had departed from the Georgia-Auburn game in Athens. Cash started to tire a little bit, but still bumped up his velocity when he needed it. He was 85-86 mph to a weak hitter in the back of the lineup, but also threw 88-90 against better hitters around that hitter, showing me that he knows what he’s doing and has a good idea who he’s facing. He threw a pair of 77 mph curveballs, one of which went for yet another strikeout, his 9th on the afternoon. I got the chance to see him get off the mound to field a swinging bunt, as well, and I was impressed with his poise. He got to the ball pretty quickly, showing above-average reaction time, and when he picked up the ball cleanly, he didn’t rush his throw or throw it too hard for the situation. He calmly delivered a solid throw right on the money for an easy out in a situation where some prep pitchers would have thrown it down the right field line. The last hitter hit a weak ground ball to third base to end the inning with another 1-2-3 frame for Cash. Like I said in the previous paragraph, this was simply a different pitcher from the early innings.

Cash’s final inning, the sixth, was an unfortunate thing to watch. He was throwing mainly 87-89 in the frame, touching 90, but his stuff was a little less sharp than it had been. He started relying heavily on his curveball, and it was actually much softer than it had been in previous innings, sitting more in the 73-77 mph range than the earlier 77-79 range I witnessed. The difference was noticeable to the naked eye. The results were not too great, though. After allowing a soft single to short left field, a hitter fisted a ball down the left field line for an RBI double, cutting Lakeview’s lead to 7-4. After getting a flyout to center field on an 89 mph fastball, things started to fall apart, though it wasn’t Cash’s fault. The next hitter surprised Cash and company with a running bunt, and Cash’s reaction time wasn’t as impressive this time, but he once again showed solid instincts with his fielding. Instead of trying to do too much, he understood that the play was over and held onto the ball, allowing a bunt single instead of a three base error. He promptly struck out the next batter looking with a 75 mph curve for the second out with runners on the corners, but then his defense departed him. He started pitching off his curveball almost exclusively, and he made his first real mistake of the night on defense. On a normal ground ball, he made a bad throw, allowing the runners to move around, and one scoring to make it 7-5. The next batter hit an easy ground ball to the shortstop that should have ended the inning, but on his easy toss to the second baseman, the second baseman completely dropped it, allowing another run to score, making in 7-6. Cash faced the last hitter of the inning as if pitching without a defense behind him, obviously going for the strikeout. He got in on a 78 mph curve in the dirt, ending his outing with 11 strikeouts in 6 innings. The final line was 6 runs allowed on 8 (generous) hits, with his defense committing 3 errors, 1 by him, and he also didn’t walk a batter.

Cash moved to shortstop in the final inning as Lakeview tried to close it out, and I got to watch one of the more interesting plays I’ve ever seen. Cash lacks the mobility to play shortstop at any level in the future, as he has the body of a third baseman more than a shortstop. However, he was solid in the opportunity he had. With runners on second and third and no outs, Cash went to his backhand to field a sharply-hit ground ball, and the runners froze. He looked back the runner at third, and then delivered an absolute strike to the first baseman right on target, and the runners took off on the throw. The first baseman got the out at first, and then delivered a solid throw to the catcher, who tagged out the runner coming out for the second out. The runner at second had only taken off when he saw the runner ahead of him getting close to home, and the catcher delivered a solid throw to the third baseman, who put down an easy tag well ahead of the runner for what should have been the third out. However, the umpire, who was consistently off, called that runner safe, which obviously ticked off the home team and their crowd. Lakeview did close out the game, but I thought I was going to be in the middle of a riot.

My overall impression of Cash was quite positive. He displayed the solid natural stuff that I expected, though his command wasn’t what it was cracked up to be. He consistently left pitches up in the zone, though the Commerce hitters lacked the strength and bat speed to catch up to the ball. His curveball needs some work, and like I said above, I’d change him to a slider based on his arm speed and angle. The pitch even looked like a slider at times, so I wouldn’t see a tough transition. There’s a good bit of upside here, and I came away still seeing him as a solid 3rd-5th round prospect. He had a bad defense behind him, and every scout that evaluates him will have to completely ignore his final line and actual results on batted balls, but the approach is there for a pro pitcher. He’ll need to learn to adjust to having a competent defense behind him, and he’s going to be a flyball pitcher in the long run, but I’m glad I got to see Cash throw a pretty solid outing.