Rio Grande Valley Ocelots 2023 Preview – Part One – The Rotation

By
Updated: February 2, 2016

Rio Grande Valley Ocelots 2023 Preview

 

The Rio Grande Valley Ocelots captured the hearts and minds of the Rio Grande Valley fans in 2022. Just two years removed from a 123 loss season, the Ocelots surprised not only their own fans, but the entire PEBA world as they fought their way to an 88 win season and a wild card berth in the playoffs. But the Ocelots had no intention of being just happy to be there, instead they fought and clawed their way all the way to an eventual loss in the 7th game of the ILCS.

 

Going into the off season, the Ocelots were determined to strengthen the rotation and improve an offense that finished 11th in the league in runs scored. A secondary goal was to try to keep from promoting any of their best prospects in 2023, instead preferring to wait until 2024 with guys like OF Dean Walden, SS Min-u Yi, and an assortment of pitchers.

 

Over the course of the off season, the Ocelots brought in superb defensive catcher Dan Glenn and 4th outfielder Marcos Ramos in a deal with San Antonio. In a deal with the Ghosts, the Ocelots acquired 2b Shigekazu Shimizu and CF Cheol-chong O.  Two time and defending IL batting champion Mario Tessier was brought over from New Jersey in a deal. Veteran infielder Jose Rivera was signed to a 3 year free agent deal to improve the infield both offensively and defensively. Veteran pitchers Seon-keun Yi and Jun’ichi Yoshino were signed to solidify the rotation. Veteran relievers Bill Carpenter and Travis Hanson were signed to one year deals to round out the bullpen.

 

On paper the Ocelots go into 2023 as a far more talented team than the one that started the 2022 season. What remains to be seen is whether the improved talent can at least match the win total of the gritty 2022 Ocelots and possibly make a return trip to the playoffs.

 

We will start the 2023 Ocelots season preview with a look at the starting rotation. Later this week in Part Two of the season preview we will look at the bullpen, and finally in Part Three we will examine the position players and the offense.

 

Starting Rotation

 

Seon-Keun Yi – 30 – R – signed as free agent 12-01-22

 

Yi was signed as a free agent from Japan, where he spent one year pitching in the new LRS. A soft tosser with good endurance, the Ocelots sent Yi to winter ball to winter ball, where he was asked to lose the fastball and work almost exclusively off the change up. It’s hard to know exactly what the Ocelots have in Yi, but the team made a 5 year investment in the free agent and are hoping he can be a key fixture in the rotation over the life of that contract. While the Ocelots scouting department is very high on Yi, he is still a bit of mystery. With his ability to work deep into games, he will be asked to front the Ocelots rotation in 2023.

 

Ruben ‘Hollywood’ Hernandez – 27 – R – trade with Yuma 6-28-21

 

Hernandez was the Ocelots All Star representative in 2022, with a solid 9 win performance over the first half of the season. Over the second half of the season, he would win just 2 more games despite pitching just as well. The wins just didn’t materialize and he finished 11-7 3.24 on the season, pitching 175 innings in 29 starts and ending the year with a 4.5 WAR. A consistently solid pitcher who excels at keeping the ball in the park, Hernandez upside is limited by the fact that he doesn’t work deep enough into games to consistently pick up wins. He averages right at 6 innings a start, but those are usually a very good 6 innings which leaves the team in a position to win. He will slot into the #2 position behind Yi in 2023.

 

Jun’ichi ‘Hobo’ Yoshino – 32 – L – signed as free agent 1-5-23

 

The Ocelots took the plunge and signed Yoshino to a one year contract for $17.5 million in order to bring another proven starter into the rotation. Yoshino had a strong track record of being a 5.5 WAR type pitcher over the previous 5 seasons before struggling in 2022. His rough season ended early when he had to have surgery to remove bone chips in the elbow, but all reports are that he will be ready for spring training. While the contract comes with some limited risk, the Ocelots are hopeful that Yoshino can return to form and provide the team with a consistent starter in the middle of the rotation in 2023. But he is what he is, a one year rental until the Ocelots young pitching prospects are ready, so Ocelots fans shouldn’t get too attached to Hobo.

 

 

Iwane Sato – 29 – R – trade with Niihama-shi 3-19-22

 

Sato is a workhorse who will consistently give the team a solid 7 innings of work most trips to the mound. He finished last season 11-12 3.81, pitching 179.1 innings in 29 starts. Sato can be counted on to take his turn in the rotation, put up a sub 4 ERA, and probably finish the year with a WAR around 2.5. He is two years removed from an 18 win season. As a #4 starter, he should be expected to be a very solid contributor.

 

 

Dave Parkinson – 27 – L – claimed off waivers from Fargo 2-10-21

 

Parkinson was a huge reason for the Ocelots run deep into the playoffs last season, as he was 7-6 2.53 in 23 starts, with a 2.6 WAR. He also pitched to a .219 BABIP, which is unlikely to be repeated. While he works off a plus change-up, his tendency to mix in a rather flat fastball does on occasion lead to some balls leaving the park. His control has been much better than scouts sometimes give him credit for, which helps to prevent those home runs from being too terribly damaging in most cases. The Ocelots believe Parkinson is a solid pitcher, but that last years numbers were a bit skewed by pitching some in good luck. He should be a more than credible option as the teams 5th starter, though a mid 2’s ERA is unlikely to be repeated. Expect an ERA in the high 3’s with some solid work from Parkinson over the course of the year.

 

 

Next man up:

 

Attilio Gaivo – 26 – L  – Rule V 12-1-20

 

Gaivo has been wildly inconsistent in his time in the rotation over his first two seasons. He has a career mark of 11-14 4.90 in 196.2 innings covering 41 games, 32 of those starts. Last year he was 8-9 4.60 in 29 games, 22 of those starts, in the regular season. He did have a nice run in September, and in the playoffs he was especially good, 1-1 1.61 in 6 games, 4 of those starts. But despite the nice playoff run, his inconsistency in the rotation has him slated to work as the lefty in the middle innings for the Ocelots in 2023, with the likelihood that he will see some spot starts in double headers or as an emergency starter. If the Ocelots were to lose a starting pitcher for any length of time, Gaivo is a leading candidate to take the rotation spot.

 

On the outside looking in:

 

Carlos Rodriguez (AAA) – 25 – L – minor league free agent signing 8-8-20

 

There is no question Rodriguez can rack up some strikeouts, but his lack of control will also lead to a lot of walks and some high pitch counts, limiting his effectiveness. He can bring the fastball at 99, and splitting last year between AA and AAA he punched out 140 batters in 102 innings of work. Though he has 3 pitches and enough endurance to start, his skill set and borderline stamina make him a more likely best fit as a lefthanded specialist. Quite popular among the Ocelot fan demographic best identified as ‘morbidly obese’, Rodriguez is out of options and barring injuries will have a hard time cracking the Ocelots pitching staff this spring. That will likely leave his fate to the fickle tendencies of the waiver wire come early April. Should he somehow pass through waivers, which is at least a slight possibility considering he is signed to a major league contract, he will head back to AAA as insurance.

 

 

Waiting in the wings:

 

Makoto Shimizu (AAA) – 24 – R – 2nd round draft pick, 2020 LRS draft

 

Shimizu has made quick progress towards the PEBA level since being drafted in 2020. He was 1-1 4.26 in 7 games, 5 of those starts, in 2022 for the Ocelots.  He is 14-5, 3.91, in 175 innings at AAA the last two seasons, leaving little doubt that he is just about ready for the PEBA level. Shimizu hits 98 on the radar gun, and has excellent movement, but it doesn’t translate into high strikeout totals. His stamina is rather weak, and his future role is likely as a swing man. He will likely be the first pitcher called up if the Ocelots find themselves with a need this season.

 

Luis Reyes (AAA) – 23 – R – trade with Niihama-shi 3-19-22

 

After coming over with Sato in the trade that send Glenn Dixon to the Ghosts, Reyes opened some eyes in 2022 when he went 16-6 2.86 while splitting time between AA and AAA. A former supplemental round pick by the Florida Featherheads in 2018, Despite a slight tendency to give up flyballs, Reyes has been generally pretty good about keeping the ball in the park over the course of his career. He throws in the low 90’s but the fastball and slider are just for show, he is looking to get batters out with the changeup. He has the stamina to work deep into games, and should eventually be a part of the Ocelots rotation, likely in 2024. He will start this season in AAA, but if the Ocelots were get ravaged by injuries, Reyes is on the shortlist of candidates to get a call.

 

 

 

On the way:

 

Naoki Hayashi (AA) – 23 – L – 1st overall pick 2020 LRS draft

 

Hayashi has been frustrating slow in his development, but he would not be the first lefty in history to have struggled on his way to the major leagues. He was also pushed to AA way too early, but the hope is that after two seasons of struggles at the level he can begin to put it all together. He throws hard and can pitch deep into games, but he needs to learn a 3rd pitch in order to be a viable starter. The Ocelots would like to see Hayashi begin to flash the potential that still appears to be there before investing a valuable winter ball slot on him. He is at the right age and has the right amount of experience that failure to turn a corner this season could lead to him being labeled a bust. But the Ocelots remain hopeful that Hayashi will be ready for a rotation slot at the PEBA level by 2025.

 

 

Chuck Irwin  (AA) – 25 – R – trade with Hartford 12-16-22

 

Originally a Rule V selection by the Ocelots this past winter, the team managed to work a trade with Hartford that allowed the Ocelots to keep Irwin while sending a 3rd round draft pick to Hartford. Irwin is typical of the pitchers the Ocelots tend to favor, he excels at keeping the ball in the park and letting the defense work behind him. He throws in the mid 90’s and has enough stamina to start, but he desperately needs to learn a third pitch. He is among a long list of candidates to potentially head to winter ball next season, and considering his advanced age he could potentially be a front runner for one the Ocelots two winter ball slots. A lot will depend on his development this season. He will start the season in AA, but could advance to AAA fairly early in the season. There is at least an outside chance he makes it into the Ocelots plans for 2024, but a more likely scenario is 2025.

 

 

Ryobe Kobayashi (AA) – 24 – R – 3rd round draft pick, 2020 LRS draft

 

Another struggling pitcher from the 2020 draft class who was rushed to AA way too fast and has paid the price for it over the last two seasons. Much like Hayashi, the Ocelots are expecting Kobayashi to turn a corner this season. He is a soft tosser with two pitches, but he works low in the zone and keeps the ball in the ballpark. He has the stamina to start and likely be a workhorse, but he lacks a third pitch. The Ocelots have toyed with the idea of sending Kobayshi to winter ball in the near future to learn the knuckleball. Much like Hayashi, the Ocelots are hoping Kobayashi can be ready by opening day in 2025, but 2023 is an important year for the young right hander.

 

 

Way off in the distance:

 

Mito Nomura (A) – 21 – R – 2nd round pick in 2022 PEBA draft

 

Nomura throws in the mid 90’s, comes equipped with 3 pitches, and works low in the zone keeping the ball in the park. He had an excellent first season at SSA in 2022 after being drafted, and will spend 2023 at A Nogales. He has a ways to go in his development, but an eventual debut at the PEBA level by 2027 is likely.

 

 

 

ANALYSIS:

 

The 2022 Ocelots finished 4th in the league in ERA, but pure luck played at least a part in that. Justin Barton pitched well over his head for the first 4 months of the season before imploding over the final two months of the season. Dave Parkinson also pitched in quite a bit of good luck.

 

Consider, the 2022 Ocelots had two starters make 29 starts, two starters who made 22 starts, another who made 19. 10 other starters made a combined 41 starts for the Ocelots as the team was forced to constantly juggle the rotation looking for answers, and often going with a 6 man rotation in order to try to get the possible matchups.

 

In 2023, the Ocelots come into the season with a much more stable rotation. It’s not a rotation without question marks, as Yi is a bit of an unknown and Yoshino is coming off an injury. But if guys like Yi and Yoshino pitch to expectations, this is a quality rotation that should need far less juggling than the version the Ocelots used in 2022. The depth to withstand a few injuries is also there, as guys like Gaivo and Shimizu could step on the hill today and be credible starters, and Reyes is on the verge of being ready to help out. With three more potential starters on the way at AA, the future looks fairly bright as well.