MLB Draft Research Sample

excel

Sample

For the first edition of this database, I have decided to use the 1997-2007 MLB draft classes to provide an 11-year sample for three reasons: (1) stable number of teams/draft picks per round in year-to-year sample, following the 1997 expansion in Arizona and Tampa Bay to today’s 30 team environment; (2) a sample of draft classes that predates significant changes to resource allocation, primarily through the implementation of draft pools as dictated by the 2011 Collective Bargaining Agreement; (3) all drafted players have completed their age 29 season.

Draft History

Draft class history is provided by Baseball Reference, which provides round-by-round signing and background data with very limited exceptions. If signing status is listed as ‘Unknown’, it’s assumed that the player was never signed, provided he made no professional appearances at any level.

Player Data

I record the professional level by age of any drafted player through age 29, regardless of whether the player was traded or released by his original organization.

I award credit to the player for the highest level of affiliated baseball he reached at any given age, regardless of sample size. A player in rookie ball who plays one game in AA on an emergency basis is credited for having spent the season in question at AA. If he does not play at any affiliated level in a given season, or his professional career is already over, I denote his affiliated level as N for null.

For MLB seasons through age 29, I record the player’s fWAR (Fangraphs Wins Above Replacement value). Because across the sample I want to analyze frequency, distribution and probability of a given value threshold occurring (e.g. any 3rd round pick’s chance at a 3 fWAR season), I take an extra step to also place each season in a “bucket”. I broke WAR into columns of .5 increments from less than -1 WAR (think Chris Davis’ 2018 season) through greater than 10 WAR. Buckets are inclusive: that is, if a player had a 3 WAR season, a 5 WAR season, and a 7 WAR season, in my database this will be reflected as three seasons of 3+ WAR, two seasons of 5+ WAR, and one season of 7 WAR.

Here are a number of variables I am isolating, which will perhaps be renamed further on into this project:

  • DraftAge – the player’s age on draft day using June 30th (customary) as a cutoff. Let’s say that it’s 2019, like it is. A player born on June 29th, or June 30th for that matter, in 1994 would be 25 years old for the purposes of his 2019 baseball season. A player born on July 1st, 1994 would be considered 24 years old.
  • LvlAgeX – Each player has 13 columns of LvlAgeX, where X is every year between his potential age 17 and age 29 seasons. This can only be R, A-, A, A+, AA, AAA or MLB for players who appeared in an affiliated professional game. If the player was drafted but did not appear in a game in his DraftAge year, or any year that follows, this column will be marked null (N).
  • fWARAgeX – These are the accompanying fWAR columns for each age season and are only filled when the player appeared in a MLB game for the age season in question.
  • PeakLvl – The highest affiliated level of professional baseball that the drafted player ever played in through age 29.
  • AgeMLBDebut – If the player ever appeared in any MLB game, this is the age season when he made his debut.
  • MLB (Y/N) – Did the player ever appear in MLB?
  • MLB30+ – I added this column to account for the rare cases in which a player did not reach MLB during my sample of age 17-29 seasons, but did eventually reach MLB. I decided that as long as I was doing all this work, it would be nice to capture all MLB debuts, regardless of age.
  • YrsNonMLB – This is how many full seasons a drafted player spent in affiliated professional baseball before either (a) making his MLB debut the following season or (b) his affiliated professional career ending.
  • DraftDebut (Y/N) – Did the player make an appearance at any level of affiliated professional baseball in the summer immediately following the June draft he was selected in?
  • AgeDebut – The age season in which the player made his first appearance at any level of affiliated professional baseball.
  • LvlDebut – The highest level of affiliated professional baseball a player reached during the season in which the player made his first professional appearance.
  • AgeLast – The age season in which the player made his last appearance at any level of affiliated professional baseball. Note that some players continue playing beyond age 29. Age 29 is the endpoint of this sample, so in those cases we refer to the Age 29 season as the player’s last year of ball.
  • LvlLast – The highest level of affiliated professional baseball a player played at before either his professional career ended, or alternatively, the highest level of affiliated professional baseball that a player made an appearance at during his age 29 season.
  • YearsToMLB – This variable is only for players who made an MLB debut at some point during or before their age 29 season. It is otherwise the same as YrsNonMLB, except it includes the MLB debut season in its count, whereas YrsNonMLB isolates only the non-MLB seasons prior to debut.
  • MLBYears – The number of seasons during which a player spent any time in MLB between age 17 through age 29.

Study Design Choices

10 years ago, I created a different data-intensive draft study that used $/WAR to attempt to assign draft slot values. It was on the internet for several years, and although I can only hope a backup somehow exists somewhere, I deleted the blog that hosted it. Darn.

Something I learned from working through that study was that projects are as complicated as you choose for them to be. I would go through each player’s entire career history and attempt to identify the point at which a player would have exhausted his full six seasons of cost control (three league minimum seasons followed by, usually, three years of arbitration) that would have been potentially available to the team that originally drafted the player. This was a time intensive nightmare that likely added little value to the findings of the study.

I chose to stratify seasons by age rather than worry about service time at all. For most players, this has no effect whatsoever, since most draftees never reach MLB at all, and many who do fall out of the league well before playing six full seasons there. Still, it also means that a small handful of very successful draftees are credited for more MLB years than the six cost-controlled years available to the team. On one hand, this is a limitation of my methodology, in that this small handful of very successful draftees will have their success somewhat overstated as it relates to the team that originally drafted them. Most players reach free agency after their first six full seasons in MLB.

Conversely, I look at the 2006 draft file, and two of the first names to appear are star players Clayton Kershaw and Evan Longoria. Because of the rapid ascent of each player through the minor leagues, Kershaw was able to appear in MLB in 10 years through age 29, with Longoria playing in MLB in 8 years through age 29. It should be noted that both Kershaw and Longoria avoided free agency by signing what are generally regarded to be team-friendly extensions with their original teams. On this basis, there is arguably significant nonzero value in drafting the rights to a future star MLB player. In these two cases, both players provided value significantly below market cost to the teams that drafted them, well beyond the conclusion of each player’s sixth full season in MLB. Acquiring productive players at below market cost is a primary purpose of the MLB draft, and I don’t feel my methodology choice here negates the viability of the research.

All draftees’ professional timelines begin with the age season in which they were drafted, regardless of whether they played any affiliated professional ball in that season or not. This is a mouthful. If a player was drafted in 1997 but made his pro debut in rookie ball in 1998, I count 1998 as his second season. It’s a fair criticism to say this penalizes players for circumstances, like finite roster sizes or workload management, that are beyond their control. I did not make this choice with an intent to punish a player whose debut was held back. Age relative to league is a big factor in the career trajectory of any given player. The player has lost potential development time in each successive season whether or not he appeared in affiliated professional ball. I also want to be able to compare all draftees to one another on how many years it took them to either reach MLB or fall out of affiliated professional ball. If four years elapsed before a draftee reached MLB, but he only played in the minor leagues for the final three of those four years, it still took four years following the draft selection to develop a MLB contributor.

Only affiliated professional baseball is considered a part of a draftee’s career. The Mexican League (MEX) is considered a AAA professional level by MLB and is reflected as such. Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB; Japanese baseball) is not affiliated with MLB and is not counted in the sample. Neither are professional independent baseball leagues, like the Frontier League. Even if a player continues his professional career in a non-affiliated capacity, I only track his progress through the affiliated levels of MLB. Note that a handful of draftees play some minor league baseball, are released, play several seasons in an independent league, and return to play more affiliated minor league baseball. In these cases, I count each age season in between stints in affiliated minor league baseball as null (N), and I continue tracking a player’s progress through either his final affiliated minor league baseball season or his age 29 season, whichever comes first.

Drafted players who sign but never appear in affiliated professional baseball are not excluded from the sample. These cases are uncommon. Excluding them from the sample would reduce (slightly) the failure rates of draftees, as well as exaggerate (slightly) the number of years any given draftee spends in affiliated professional baseball prior to reaching MLB or his career coming to an end. In these uncommon cases, draftees spent 0 years in affiliated professional baseball and variables like DraftDebut, AgeDebut and LvlDebut are all null (N). They are still data points for the given draft class, as well as for the subset of draftees who sign professional contracts. They can always be excluded with relative ease from specific analyses that are built off of this database.

Lazy and Dumb II

This is the time of year to do offseason prospect lists. Even though I enjoy other sports, we’re missing baseball for another several weeks, and nothing compares to it. To each their own, but that’s my mine.

On the smiley face days, I’ve been able to keep up with everything I decided I want to do with the first six months of this year. There’s a super-cereal calendar staring back at me and everything.

New Years’ optimism makes you forget that there’s going to be a bunch of frowny face days in there, too, because stupid brain chemistry. I’m not optimistic about doing the two a week that would have the series finished by the end of March.

In reality, a lot of other things bring me joy, and the internet feels like a second world that sucks me away from it and makes those things less joyful by comparison. I (and many others) have now lived more than half of my life in this paradigm, so I hesitate to mentally commit myself to spending even more time on it. I don’t think this is a healthy world for mental health. Meanwhile, the real world sure is going to shit.

As for scouting Baseball Reference minor league numbers and doing my best with video (disclaimer: I am not experienced at this), I’m just not sure it’s adding much to the conversation anyway. I’d rather find it in me to complete the series than not, but it’s not an exciting project right now. I also don’t want to be derivative of the work of others, and there’s some real good work out there in this niche.

I don’t know how some people manage to stay on top of a couple thousand minor league players, in addition to all the kids pouring in every year from American high schools and colleges, not to mention the Dominican Republic and Venezuela and a couple dozen other countries. You’ve got to maintain contacts and weigh a bunch of sometimes disparate information to corroborate your evaluations.

Every year, dozens and dozens and dozens of minor leaguers are traded, and only a few of them are of the chosen upper echelon list of prospect. Most of them are interesting, developing players, however. There’s a large number of prospects who could make it, and a much smaller subgroup of them will make it. I don’t think anyone would dispute that. So how do you know which ones will and which ones won’t?

I think that’s a very, very difficult answer, and projecting outward is a very, very difficult job. In the course of thinking about this, I began a draft database project. I don’t have objective draft-based metrics to guide the probability of success or failure outcomes, and I can’t be the only one who’d be interested in some. I know that every year, a bunch of advanced college arms will be drafted, and a few of them will turn into tomorrow’s 5th starters and middle relievers and most of them won’t, and figuring out who is who is an imperfect science of guesswork.

My project will attempt to offer probabilistic guidance on outcomes. I want to answer questions like:

  • What are the odds of a 5th round pick reaching MLB and producing at least one 2 WAR season?
  • How often do draft-sourced 23-year-olds reach MLB in any capacity when they haven’t yet reached AA?
  • How are 3, 4 and 5+ WAR seasons distributed among the draft pool?
  • What are the odds of any minor league draftee at any level of reaching MLB after spending four full seasons in the minors?
  • How is MLB debut age distributed among the draft pool?

The process of creating a database involves a lot of manual data gathering and is very time intensive. I’m scrubbing from two different websites and I’m tracking every draftee’s debut level, as well as affiliate level and, if applicable, MLB season WAR by age through age 29. I have finished 1.5 drafts at this point, and I’ve drafted a plan to get through all of the remaining drafts by May, which is a brisk pace but will allow time for some other projects.

Another motivation for a draft database is to give myself a data pool I have familiarity with, which I think would make learning database query and programming languages easier to tackle if I follow through with trying to master those skills over the next couple years. A language you know will help you with a language you don’t. I’m not 100% sure that I want to dedicate a very significant part of my life to living in databases, but exploring that avenue is my happily vague plan.

At the point of finishing the database and acquiring advanced data set skills, I would be equipped to develop a projection system based on the probabilistic outputs I’m developing. I can see returning to these draft classes in the future to scrub additional data, such as BB%, K% and ISO, three factors I lean on heavily for projecting minor league players forward. Minor league performance data would improve the viability of any model, but I think there will nonetheless be quite a lot of helpful information to look at from age, minor league seasons and draft position alone. I like this as a jumping off point for considering growing that database into a projection model incorporating position and minor league performance data, at that point.

There are a lot of questions I’d like to dig into using this data, but I’ve got to collect all of it before I can do anything with it. Hopefully I’ll have some interesting draft articles for you to chew on in the weeks leading up to this year’s draft.

 

Minor League Minor Leaguers: 2018 Sleepers, San Francisco Giants

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Prospects highlighted with 2019 age/projected assignment: SS Ryan Howard (24, AAA), OF Alexander Canario (19, R-SS), RHP Logan Webb (22, AA), RHP Pat Ruotolo (24, AAA), LHP Connor Menez (24, AAA), 2B Jalen Miller (22, AA), OF Bryce Johnson (23, AA), LHP John Gavin (23, A+), SS Yorlis Rodriguez (19, R-SS), RHP Jesus Tona (23, A)

This is the second installment of a look at sleeper prospects for all thirty MLB teams. There is no sense in covering the Giants’ top prospects, such as Heliot Ramos, Joey Bart and Chris Shaw, because you’re already going to hear a lot about those players this winter and throughout the season ahead.

For our purposes, we’re going to consider prospects as young players who have not yet become established MLB players, rather than ignoring young, unestablished players once they have exhausted their rookie eligibility.

 

San Francisco Minor League Affiliates (2018)
AAA: Sacramento River Cats, Pacific Coast League (Sacramento, CA; since 2015)
AA:
Richmond Flying Squirrels, Eastern League (Richmond, VA; since 2003)
A+:
San Jose Giants, California League (San Jose, CA; since 1988)
A:
Augusta GreenJackets, South Atlantic League (Augusta, GA; since 2005)
R-SS:
Salem-Keizer Volcanoes, Northwest League (Keizer, OR; since 1997)
AZL: AZL Giants Black, AZL Giants Orange / DSL: DSL Giants

 

SS Ryan Howard 2016 5th round (155th overall), Missouri
2019 Age: 24
2019 Projected Assignment:
AAA (Sacramento River Cats, Pacific Coast League)

Ryan Howard is neither the Phillies slugger left to languish in AAA Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, nor The Office character who was named after him. Although, on an entirely pointless note, the prospect does bear an, at best, vaguely passing resemblance to the latter.

howard1 howard2

At least they seem content.

Anyway, Howard is a shortstop who doesn’t run triple slash lines that are impressive on their own, but he’s a sneakily solid player once you break out what’s feeding it. Howard does something I really, really like to see from an unheralded middle infielder. He walks more than never, but much more importantly, he strikes out in only one of ten plate appearances, give or take a percentage point.

In fact, he reminds me very much of what Joe Panik looked like as he broke into the high minors, which was a very attractive looking hitter who looked pedestrian at surface level. A contact hitter with doubles and a dose of speed at a position on the difficult end of the defensive spectrum looked very appealing as the run environment began to change such that playing for one run would need to be happening a lot more than we were used to seeing in the previous decade. Thanks, altered baseballs!

Let’s compare the two players at AA, where Howard just finished up his age 23 season. Panik got there a year earlier, but they look like basically the same player. Panik and Howard also yin and yang one another, in that the high minors saw Panik used primarily as a second baseman with 20 starts to see him try short, whereas Howard got about twenty at second (and at third the year before in hi A) while primarily manning the six hole.

Official Ryan Howard as Joe Panik Doppleganger Table (fig. 1)

Panik (age 22/2013) – 9.7 BB% 11.4 K% .090 ISO (27 2B/4 3B/4 HR in 599 PA) 10/15 (67% SB%)
.257/.333/.347
Howard (age 23/2018) – 8.2 BB% 11.6 K% .123 ISO (32 2B/4 3B/4 HR in 475 PA) 9/14 (64% SB%)
.273/.336/.396

I rest my case that this is the same player. The following year, Panik began a run of compiling 9 fWAR between 2014-2017, highlighted by a 3.8 WAR in his first full season as the Giants starting second baseman in 2015.

This is a pretty good example of why I don’t really understand the prospect pump-and-forget cottage industry. Solid enough regulars who pop for a very plus season or two at peak have to come from somewhere. Neither of this player and his clone who is one eighth his size have tools that jump, but this is clearly a profile capable of starting in the majors, with room for more on the 80th-90th end of the percentile spectrum. And they don’t really have a prayer of ranking on top prospect lists, which tells me that we’re doing something wrong.

It should be noted that Panik was a year younger than Howard all the way up, and he has also never struck out as much as Howard did at hi A in 2017. While 14.3 K% is still a comfortably above average rate, putting the ball in play is an important part of this profile working as a reasonably average to almost good starter in the bigs, and there isn’t a whole lot of margin of error there. Panik is an 80th percentile outcome for what Howard could be for the Giants come 2020 (90th percentile is the nonzero but remote chance that Howard has more than one of Panik’s 3+ WAR seasons in his future).

The smart money is that you’ve got a utility infielder candidate who isn’t hopeless at the plate. He can put the ball in play and won’t get himself out. He’ll hit doubles infrequently, but often enough to run an OPS somewhere in the .600s. With a broad base of okay skills, a glove okay enough to play short, and at least some prior experience with the other difficult infield positions, it’s fairly easy to see an MLB floor for Howard. It’s worth keeping in mind that just because we declare a player’s likeliest outcome doesn’t mean he hasn’t shown several signs that indicate he could give us more than that if things really break right.

 

OF Alexander Canariosigned as IFA: 2016 IFA, Dominican Republic, $60,000
2019 Age: 19
2019 Projected Assignment:
R-SS (Salem-Keizer Volcanoes, Northwest League)

The Giants faced IFA signing bonus limits in 2016, so they were unable to award any international prospect more than $300,000 to don the black and orange. There’s no shortage of talented prospects and established major leaguers who signed less prolific deals, or conversely, million dollar signees who never develop. Canario will attempt to be the former, having put pen to paper at an age when many kids are getting ready for their junior year of high school.

Instead, Canario showed a broad, five-tool skill set as a 17-year-old in the Dominican League. He walked almost as much as he struck out. He swiped eighteen bags. He smacked 26 extra base hits in only 66 games against older competition, and he showed defensive promise while splitting time between center and right. He rightfully generated significant buzz as a player to keep an eye on before coming stateside for 2018 to play for the Giants (Black) in the Arizona Summer League.

In the video above, this player shows something in the box that stands out to me (no, it’s not one of the youngest stateside players flailing away at offspeed offerings). I remember stepping both forward and towards the third base line as a righty hitter. This is a problem that, while correctable, is counterproductive to maximizing contact. Your momentum isn’t carried fluidly forward to attack the pitch, and both your vision and swing plane are negatively affected by shifting diagonally as the pitch is delivered. If you begin the video at 0:27 (his feet are obstructed by chain link in the first section), you can see that not only does Canario fail to stride towards the mound as part of a fluid, one dimensional motion, but the landing spot for his front foot also changes pitch by pitch. No matter how ideal or not one’s mechanics are, success is difficult without doing it the same way as often as possible.

Enthusiasm tempered somewhat as Canario made the jump in 2018, largely because he ran hot and cold, showing inconsistency with his swing mechanics while striking out more often. Very young players tend to be very raw. In the third at bat shown in the video (:39), Canario swings through a breaking ball and watches three more en route to striking out looking on the inner third. He struck out in 25% of his plate appearances in the AZL.

Still, we’re talking about 45 games. And the obvious plate issues in the AZL are both a reminder as to why we ought to avoid becoming too excited about DSL numbers from teenagers, as well as a reminder that 18-year-old players are almost uniformly years from being ready to survive the major leagues. Canario does not need to fly through the minors as if it’s the norm. He has plenty of time for coaches to work with him on pitch recognition and smoother mechanics. It’s kind of silly that we could get so excited over nice looking numbers from a 17-year-old and so tempered over more pedestrian numbers from the same player a year later. It’s the same player.

Canario has the ingredients that top position player prospects had before they put it all together. As with so many dynamic but inexperienced hitters, his strike zone recognition and approach will allow his raw tools to play consistently in games as he matures, or his lack of it will mark another example of a player whose sum is less than the parts, and I don’t need to tell you which is the safer bet to take. He has room to physically grow, standing at 6’1” but weighing in at only 165. Time is on his side as he continues to make adjustments.

I projected him to spend the summer in the Northwest League, but it’s also possible he repeats the AZL if the Giants feel he’d be overmatched against the college draftees who will populate NWL pitching staffs. He probably would be, but it’s also an option (care of information I am not privy to) to decide that Canario is a specific player who would be able to keep his head above water and learn more from the challenge than from repeating a level. Since Canario could flourish or bust, it’s impossible to say what will happen. That’s what minor league development staffs specialize in: identifying what needs to change to make the flourish scenario possible, because it’s probably not going to happen out of thin air. There’s better junk pitches ahead than the ones that clearly gave him trouble in Arizona.

 

RHP Logan Webb 2014 4th round (118th overall), Rocklin HS (Rocklin, CA)
2019 Age: 22
2019 Projected Assignment:
AA (Richmond Flying Squirrels)

Taking four years to get beyond A ball in the Giants’ system, Webb’s uneven progress has come while never being old for a level, but also never being especially good at one, either. With thirty new names to learn every June, it becomes easier to push all but the top prospects out of mind. John Sickels likes to call this “Shiny New Toy Syndrome”, although in this case, Webb wasn’t especially shiny to begin with.

Nonetheless, there might be a MLB pitcher here. So, rather than defaulting to someone drafted this coming June who still has to get his friend’s older brother to buy him cigarettes, maybe we should take a closer look at a pitcher who feels like he’s been around several years, but who nonetheless earned a trial at AA as a 21-year-old.

Webb’s velocity took a step forward just weeks before the 2014 draft, hurling compact, round objects deep into the mid ‘90s as a high school senior. It was enough for the Giants to take an early shot on him, and when they offered him almost twice the slot bonus, it was enough to get him to sign and forego a college career at Cal Poly.

Webb was very hittable as he got his feet wet in the Northwest League in 2015 against batters more than three years older than him on average. Opening 2016 at Augusta, he was knocked around in nine starts and ran an ERA over 6. At first glance, I accidentally read his career stats as though he was demoted back to the NWL in summer 2016. That was actually where he went in 2017, but if he hadn’t hurt his elbow to require a June 2016 Tommy John surgery, he was probably pitching his way to a demotion.

He missed twelve months, or, five months of minor league games. Returning to Salem-Keizer in 2017, he struck out more than four batters to every walk and surrendered a single home run across 15 relief appearances spanning 28 innings.

Webb pitched to a 1.82 ERA in 20 California League starts in 2018, which earned him his first taste of AA. He survived Richmond and will return there to begin the 2019 season. He didn’t pitch as well as the ERA indicates (4.37 xFIP), but at the same time, his home run rate bears monitoring. There’s a possibility Webb might be a bit of a different arm on the other side of TJ. In more than 100 innings across his 2017 and 2018 A ball stops, he surrendered only three home runs. This very low rate is largely responsible for the gap between his ERA and xFIP.

But, there could be something to Webb’s improved quality of contact. Pre-TJ Webb surrendered more than eleven hits per nine in over 100 innings; post-TJ Webb cut that rate by more than three hits per game. He’s shown an ability to generate groundballs at a league average rate, and perhaps slightly more than that.

Sticky gains on quality of contact would go a long way as far as this pitcher remaining in the starting rotation long term. He has the ingredients: an above average fastball velocity, a solid slider (swinging strikeout 3:41), and perhaps most importantly, a changeup with enough movement to generate strikeouts. You can watch him locate one on the inner third for a called third strike in the video above at 1:14.

The pitch mix is akin to Joe Kelly as a starting pitcher, but with a couple fewer notches of raw velocity. Unfortunately, like Kelly, Webb shows pedestrian control that may eventually force him into a relief role. The positive is that his pitch mix comfortably places him on a hi lev role trajectory, especially if, as many starters experience, peak velocity edges higher in shorter appearances. Little is settled short or long term in the Giants rotation, however, so Webb could find himself in the mix as early as the second half of 2019, and he’ll get to pitch his home games in an environment in which he can continue to suppress the home run ball, regardless of how much of it is or isn’t skill as opposed to park context alone.

The upside for a mid-rotation starter exists here, and it’s not like there’s a ton that needs to be changed for him to reach it. Again, the safer bet is on an 8th inning arm, but there’s non-remote hope for several years of average to above average starting pitching at the MLB level.

 

RHP Pat Ruotolo – 2016 27th round (815th overall), University of Connecticut
2019 Age: 24
2019 Projected Assignment:
AAA (Sacramento River Cats, Pacific Coast League)

A native of Beverly, Massachusetts, or alternatively, the actual city to the west of silly Hyphen Town, Ruotolo has done nothing but pump strikeouts and limit contact since entering the Giants system after serving the Huskies’ closer as a junior.

Prior to his collegiate career, Ruotolo had a ridiculous season as a high school junior, throwing three no hitters and allowing only six hits total across five starts. Bizarrely, this stretch of dominance doesn’t appear to have received any national attention, as apparently only good baseball players are allowed to come from Florida, Texas and California, because anyone playing high school ball above the Mason-Dixon line is under eight full feet of snow for seven months out of the year, and there’s no such thing as indoor facilities. I can’t believe this player wasn’t worth, what, a 46th round draft pick? At least a pre-draft blurb, perhaps.

Across more than 100 minor league frames, he’s allowed exactly one hit or walk per inning while striking out three batters for every two innings thrown. Ruotolo shows the ball late in the process of the delivery, appearing to hide the ball behind his head as he builds power to stride towards the plate to evoke memory of Tim Lincecum, but with less exaggeration. He modeled his leg kick after the two-time Cy Young Award winner and three-time World Series Champion, after all. The same Richmond Times-Dispatch article describes Ruotolo as a high spin rate pitcher with an above average curve, rudimentary change and a 92-94 MPH fastball. Both spin rate and a deceptive delivery allow his otherwise average stuff to play up.

There’s a reliable MLB relief pitcher here and he’ll be ready to help this year. He’s not going to strand literally every runner he inherits again, like he did at AA, but this guy knows how to pitch off of hiding the ball.

 

LHP Connor Menez2016 14th round (425th overall), The Master’s University
2019 Age: 24
2019 Projected Assignment:
AAA (Sacramento River Cats, Pacific Coast League)

Menez was a fan of the Giants growing up, but ain’t nobody scouting a pitcher sitting in the low ‘80s coming out of high school. Once he had hit the weight room at a college I had never previously heard of, however, it started clicking. San Francisco came calling.

“Flying Squirrels” (yes, really) pitching coach Glenn Dishman likes the late action on his otherwise averageish offerings. He’s got league average velocity but can dial it up to 94. He was given two spring spot starts in AAA, and the first one didn’t go very well, but he allowed just a single hit across seven shutout innings in the second, striking out eight.

He struck out ten or more batters in three starts for the season, and 175 for the entire year. Following a lackluster, hittable 2017 in hi A, it’s encouraging that his strikeout rate took a huge step forward as he transitioned to the high minors. I would not have written up this pitcher based on what we had on record prior to 2018. It looks like real progress may have occurred.

Menez doesn’t boast plus velocity. His release point is out towards the first base side and it creates a natural diagonal plane from his hand to the outer third of the plate against lefties. Check out the low velocity slider he gets the lefty hitter to bite on at 0:47. The late break causes what looks like an outer third pitch with two strikes (and thus a near-automatic swing), but the ball is already off the plate as it crosses above the dirt in front of home plate, and the catcher receives the pitch well into the RH batter’s box.

Menez hits a lot of batters and walks too many for me to see him working out as a starting pitcher long term. He hasn’t been knocked around by righties, but his changeup isn’t good enough for him to be an option against them in the majors. He is difficult enough to be tried as a LOOGY. It’s not an especially high upside, but in the glorious era of eight man bullpens and four hour baseball games, there’s room for a high strikeout option to neutralize a key lefty, and as long as you’d rather have one than not, it’d be ideal if the one you’ve got is going to make the MLB minimum for a couple years. There’s no guarantee of a MLB career here, but that’s his path.

 

2B Jalen Miller2015 3rd round (95th overall), Riverwood International School (Sandy Springs, GA)
2019 Age: 22
2019 Projected Assignment:
AA (Richmond Flying Squirrels, Eastern League)

Miller was highly regarded entering the 2015 draft (BA #35, MLB #41, FG #43, Keith Law #60) but fell on signability, as he was awarded a bonus nearly double slot value to ink with San Francisco. Drafted as a shortstop, Miller settled in as a full time second baseman and enjoyed a breakout season while repeating the CAL league as a 21-year-old. Miller, a CAL league home run derby participant (he lost out on the life-changing $250 prize), knocked 51 extra base hits this season for San Jose en route to a .276/.321/.434 triple slash line, good for a 102 wRC+.

In more than 1500 minor league plate appearances, Miller has been remarkably consistent in running a 21% strikeout rate. His swing isn’t noisy and, while he isn’t a zero when it comes to speed or plate discipline, his route to a second base job in the majors will be entirely dependent on continuing to access his solid if unspectacular power profile. As a player who showed even solid hitting ability only when repeating a hitter-friendly league, excitement needs to be tempered until he’s shown the ability to knock a pile of doubles against better pitching in tougher parks of the Eastern League.

Due to their similar frames and background as middle infielders drafted early out of Georgia high schools, a lazy comp would be Brandon Phillips. Phillips, however, was an elite defender who walked slightly more, struck out less, and had already debuted for the Indians at the age when Miller struggled in high A in 2017. He produced more than 30 WAR across a 15-year career. Phillips represents a 95th – 100th percentile outcome for Miller.

You’d rather have a potential starting infielder in your system than not, but Miller is far from a sure thing to turn into one. He seems like the kind of prospect I would prefer to consolidate into a stable MLB piece via trade, but the Giants are in the wrong phase of the contention cycle to further gut the system. That doesn’t mean they won’t continue to play contender pretender, however, if history is any indication.

 

OF Bryce Johnson2017 6th round (186th overall), Sam Houston State
2019 Age: 23
2019 Projected Assignment:
AA (Richmond Flying Squirrels, Eastern League)

Johnson is no one’s idea of a top prospect, but the switch hitter from Cypress, Texas, is a speed demon who’s played nearly 1500 innings in minor league outfields thus far without an error. He puts the ball on the ground in more than half his at bats, which we’d like to see from a speedster with power that projects as well below average at the MLB level. With six triples during his 2018 season, if Johnson can work gap-to-gap and get to the warning track more than once in a while, he’ll be able to overcome his total lack of raw or game home run power.

Johnson was 31 of 35 on the bases this season and walked in more than ten percent of his plate appearances. For a player with so little power, you’d like to see better contact ability. He strikes out about twenty percent of the time, which contributed to him running a BABIP nearly a hundred points above his batting average (.334 to .249). It’s troubling that a speed-dependent profile ran such a low average without poor luck on balls in play. He may be too overmatched by advanced pitching to survive the upper levels.

Errors and fielding percentage of course do not offer a complete picture of a player’s defensive value, but what little we have in the way of so-called advanced defensive metrics at the minor league level may as well be random numbers. Johnson probably tops out as a defensive replacement and pinch runner type that most rosters no longer have room for on the bench. His defense and speed are well above average, so it will come down to whether he is totally unplayable or merely inept as a hitter at the upper levels.

This player looks a lot like Adam Engel, although Engel both struck out more and flashed at least modest, closer to average power. Engel is something like an 80th percentile outcome. That’s not good, because in MLB so far, Engel has given back more value at the plate than his excellent defense has made up for thus far. Kevin Pillar isn’t even really worth mentioning, because to get there, you have to project Johnson to somehow add significant doubles power and, in the future, double digit home run potential, and where’s any of that going to come from. Pillar is theoretically an extreme high end outcome for Johnson, but it’s just not going to happen here.

Fortunately for Johnson, the Giants have made a habit of essentially playing a couple of pitchers in the outfield for years now. Their outfield situation has been so bad that having a stable glove-and-speed player roaming center has tended to be better than most alternatives. That’s how a team that saw itself as a contender managed to give a 29 and 30-year-old Gorkys Hernandez 799 PA to produce a mere .5 fWAR over the previous two seasons. I’ll revise down from Engel and say that Hernandez is what your optimistic outcome on Johnson looks like. You might like to have one to Dave Roberts for your postseason roster, but not much else.

 

LHP John Gavin2017 8th round (246th overall), Cal State Fullerton
2019 Age: 23
2019 Projected Assignment:
A+ (San Jose Giants, California League)

Following an illustrious silver screen career, John Gavin became the US Ambassador to Mexico under President Ronald Reagan fourteen years before he was born. Although Gavin sadly passed away two months before the 2018 season began, the CSU Fullerton alum was terrific in the South Atlantic League, as any 22-year-old college arm worth his chops ought to be.

Gavin’s season was highlighted by his June 23rd outing against Rome, Georgia (Braves), in which he allowed a single baserunner across seven hitless innings, striking out nine. He surrendered zero runs five total times in a quarter of his low A starts, and he surrendered two runs or more in only six of those twenty starts. San Francisco probably could have pushed him to hi A earlier than August.

Gavin ran some sketchy looking low minors rates that we’ll have to monitor at higher, more age appropriate levels before projecting him to the majors. He allowed a hair more than a meager five hits per inning because his experience allowed him to dominate raw, younger low A hitters. This is also borne out by his strikeout rate of over ten per nine, well above the strikeout ability he showed as a collegiate pitcher.

The 6’6” lefty doesn’t top 90 MPH with his fastball. He’s a 5th/6th starter or an up-and-down shuttle reliever at the next level, if he makes it there. Brian Johnson has a similar arsenal and would represent a positive outcome. There is not a lot of margin for error with substantially below average velocity, and Gavin has neither a sinker/groundball profile or well above average command to help carry him. He will probably need to continue to strike out more hitters in the upper minors than he did in college.

Gavin was smacked around in a six game trial in hi A following his August promotion. He surrendered seven home runs in less than thirty innings, but again, relax, it’s six games. The initial struggle does illustrate how imminently vulnerable this pitcher will be each time he reaches a new level, as he just does not have the stuff to overpower advanced hitters. Perhaps this is why San Francisco was a touch conservative in waiting to send him to hi A.

Because Gavin’s path forward will rely heavily on adjusting to hitters who are suddenly more advanced and better prepared for offspeed pitches than raw teenagers, it may be helpful to give him time to consolidate his gains at a level. Even if he does successfully transition to hi A this season, while you could see a productive Gavin getting a half season of AA under his belt to “catch up”, the “good outcome” scenario will probably look a lot like his 2018 plan: most of the season at hi A followed by a few AA starts in August to get his feet wet at the next level.

If Gavin can’t handle the CAL league, he runs the risk of being pushed aside for more interesting prospects behind him. This is a kind of pitcher that often turns into the swingman of an A ball or AA staff. College arms have a reputation for being thought of as “safe”, but that doesn’t mean you’re hitting on a back end starter with a given pick from that player pool. There’s a very sizable chance Gavin doesn’t accomplish more than giving up five earned runs in three MLB September innings at age 25 or 26 before never being heard from again.

 

SS Yorlin Rodriguez – 2017 IFA, Cuba, $300,000
2019 Age: 19
2019 Projected Assignment:
R-SS (Salem-Keizer Volanoes, Northwest League)

Rodriguez got exposure by playing shortstop for the 15U Cuban National Team. I’d love to give you some more information about this player, but this data does not appear to be available. Historical tournament data does not appear to be available via USA Baseball, and if it was, it might not include all countries’ participants.

Sample sizes are small, but data and historical record itself generates interest in these events, which many of us have never heard about. International amateur competition does not appear to be a priority to market on the behalf of Major League Baseball. This is unfortunate, because engaging with other countries over the game of baseball is a way to build cultural bridges in the world, and promoting high level youth baseball competition can drive new fans to the sport.

Rodriguez signed for a six figure bonus and can’t be considered a non-prospect, while keeping in mind that signing teenagers to begin a career in a new country and challenging culture based on a brief look of playing baseball as the equivalent of a freshman or sophomore in high school is a very risky proposition. There’s a lot of adjustment and hard work between here and there, and there are stateside prospects pouring out of every draft to take a lot of the roster spots low minor league affiliates are afforded.

The only video we have on Rodriguez is from a batting practice session from national play, uploaded by Fangraphs. Who knows how he has changed physically in the interim, as well as any mechanical tweaks he has made to his hitting approach. What he shows in the session we do have is interesting to me. The batter is winding his body up by pivoting on his foot, on his toes, instead of striding or using a leg kick to generate force to drive at the approaching pitch. He’s turning his entire left leg inward to load the spring.

The idea is like pulling back the bar on a not-pro-life rat trap. I think it provides what a leg kick is trying to accomplish; it’s hard to see someone without middle infielder balls-of-their-feet sense being able to keep balance and load on power this way. Maybe I’m still fairly new at this and talking too much, but I can’t find anyone talking about him, so I’ll do my best to. Again, the video is a couple years old.

So, what we’re left with is that Yorlis came stateside this year, but the AZL means that we have a tiny sample of highly volatile data in a league that can’t be appropriately scouted from the numbers alone, and yet very little of that scouting becomes public information. Rodriguez hit .323/.409/.445 as an 18-year-old. He walked almost as much as he struck out, and he didn’t strike out very often, and that’s a pretty darn good start. That’s about all we can conclude from it.

One other thing: Rodriguez played third in the AZL. That doesn’t mean he’s not playing short ever again, it just means that he did in Arizona. I wrote about a possible LOOGY and a 5th OF/pinch runner above. You should be a lot more interested in following this player in the next couple of years. At least we don’t already more or less know what he is.

 

RHP Jesus Tona2014 IFA, Venezuela, n/a
2019 Age: 23
2019 Projected Assignment: A (Augusta GreenJackets, South Atlantic League)

Tona was absolutely electric in the Northwest League this summer as the Volcanoes’ closer. He appeared in 23 games. He secured twelve saves while pitching to a dominant 0.87 ERA and 0.81 WHIP. He struck out a batter in all but one game. He struck out two or more hitters in an outing thirteen times. He sits in the mid 90s with a promising slider, per Scouting the Sally.

Well, Tona was 22 in rookie ball. But, if you take a look at the video above from Baseball Census, he’s on the wrong side of home plate. 2018 was his first season as a professional pitcher, and he appears to be pretty fucking good at it. Tona could move quick. The Dodgers might lean more heavily on Pedro Baez in the recent playoff run, with the benefit of Captain Hindsight. Did you know he played six full seasons as a third baseman before turning into a frustratingly hard-to-trust reliever relative to the late inning arsenal he wields?

Not all of the converted position players who move to the mound make it. Tona was legitimately dominant in his first professional exposure. You could see him in a couple years.

Minor League Minor Leaguers: 2018 Sleepers, Baltimore Orioles

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Prospects highlighted with 2019 age/projected assignment: RHP Yefry Ramirez (25, MLB), SS Adam Hall (20, A), LHP Cameron Bishop (23, A+), LHP Zac Lowther (23, AA), RHP Branden Kline (27, AAA), LHP Keegan Akin (24, AAA), RHP Dean Kremer (23, AA), 2B/3B Rylan Bannon (23, AA), RHP Zach Pop (22, AA), LHP Drew Rom (19, R-SS)

This is the third installment of a look at sleeper prospects for all thirty MLB teams. There is no sense in covering the Orioles’ top prospects, such as Ryan McKenna, Ryan Mountcastle, Yusniel Diaz and DL Hall, because you’re already going to hear a lot about those players this winter and throughout the season ahead.

For our purposes, we’re going to consider prospects as young players who have not yet become established MLB players, rather than ignoring young, unestablished players once they have exhausted their rookie eligibility.

 

Baltimore Orioles Minor League Affiliates (2018)
AAA: Norfolk Tides, International League (Norfolk, VA; since 2007)
AA:
Bowie Baysox, Eastern League (Bowie, MD; since 1989)
A+:
Frederick Keys, Carolina League (Frederick, MD; since 1982)
A:
Delmarva Shorebirds, South Atlantic League (Salisbury, MD; since 1997)
R-SS:
Aberdeen IronBirds, New York-Penn League (Aberdeen, MD; since 2002)
GCL: GCL Orioles / DSL: DSL Orioles

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

RHP Yefry Ramirezsigned as IFA: Jan. 2011, Dominican Republic, n/a
2019 Age: 25
2019 Projected Assignment: MLB

Today I learned that Ramirez signed with Arizona as an infielder. He played as a 17-year-old third baseman in the DSL and hit a meager .169/.301/.213. He began pitching the next season, and as early as his second professional year as a DSL pitcher, he had already begun to build a body of evidence demonstrating strikeout potential and plus walk rates.

2013 (19) – R (DSL) – .3 HR/9, 2.4 BB/9, 9.3 K/9 (60 IP)
2014 (20) – R (AZL, PIO) – AZL, Missoula (MT) – 1.1 HR/9, 1.5 BB/9, 8.6 K/9 (67.2 IP)
2015 (21) – R (PIO) – Missoula (MT) – 1.4 HR/9, 2.7 BB/9, 8 K/9 (69 IP)

Ramirez only became homer prone in the thin mountain air of the Pioneer League. His walk and strikeout rates continued to look very healthy across multiple rookie levels. Despite this, Arizona left him exposed to the minor league portion of the Rule 5 draft, and the Yankees were able to look past a 5.35 ERA from a not-especially-young arm, relative to summer ball rookie leagues, to see more than no potential.

They were rewarded for their no-risk flier, as Ramirez knocked his full season, age-22 debut out of the park. He capitalized on very generous run environments across New York’s South Atlantic League (Charleston, SC) and Florida State League (Tampa, FL) affiliates, but even so, you can’t negate that he performed very well against much more challenging hitters than he had ever faced before. Striking out more than four batters to every walk, Ramirez limited opponents to a 2.82 ERA across 124.1 IP.

After consolidating some of his gains with less eye-popping but still promising results across 18 AA starts, Baltimore picked him up for international bonus pool money, which can be traded to a team that wishes to spend more on amateur international players than it has been allocated. So, New York turned basically nothing into the ability to spend more on top end international talent, and Baltimore capitalized off of New York being better than just about any organization when it comes to developing pitching, but lacking the roster spots to hoard every last interesting pitcher who has passed their AA transition test.

A 24-year-old Ramirez began the year at Norfolk, Virginia, of the International League, and he was almost as good across his first 14 AAA starts (72 IP) as he was in his breakout 2016 in A ball. A 7.8 H/9, .9 HR/9, 9 K/9, and 2.8 BB/9 are all strong marks and characteristic of more potential than the 5th starter Ramirez is typically dismissed as.

Yefry received the call to the big leagues in June and held his own against the most dangerous offense in the league in Camden Yards, a power-happy ballpark. Good luck, kid. He held his own. Through his first 65.1 MLB innings he pitched to an ugly 5.92 ERA, but he had his moments. He struck out five or more batters in five of his twelve starts, including a pair of five inning shutouts among his first five MLB starts.

Despite getting knocked around as the calendar turned to August and he crossed the 100 IP threshold, he struck out almost a batter per inning: a 24-year-old striking out 62 batters in 65.1 MLB innings with all of a half season of AAA under his belt isn’t a bust. This year, I learned that although no one compliments Ramirez’s stuff, he clearly has enough present stuff and perhaps deception in his delivery to fool MLB hitters in the strike zone.

Ramirez ranged between 88-96 on his fastball, but after a brief reprieve in the bullpen, his highest peak velocities (96.8) were recorded in his final two starts of the season, and the lowest velocity he’d posted in any given game gradually crawled up across the entire MLB trial, from a minimum of 88.3 MPH to 91 and change. Ramirez’s average velocity in 2018 was slightly below the MLB average, but there is clearly something extra in the tank where Ramirez can comfortably push into 94-95, touching nearly 97.

If Ramirez is unable to make it as a starting pitcher at the highest level, you’ve got to like the beginning of his reliever profile. Many pitchers see their velocity tick up in a one inning bullpen role where they can go all out for only a few batters. If, as a reliever, he could maintain his late season velocity gains and sit 94-95 t97-in short appearances, his fastball could turn into a strong pitch to pair with the only one in his arsenal that played as above average in 2018, his slider.

Ramirez generated swinging strikes at exactly the league average rate (10.7%), and opposing hitters swung at five percent more of his pitches in the strike zone than average. He was most hurt by a disappointing walk rate that would ideally not play in an MLB rotation if he can’t reduce it going forward, surrendering nearly five free passes per nine. His walk rate previously crept up a bit in AA in 2016, but his MLB rate was over a full walk per nine higher than anything on his track record. Steamer weights recent performance most heavily and sees him with a 3.9 BB/9 next year, which would be both a big improvement on 2018, but also higher than any walk rate across his entire minor league career.

Let’s take a look at the other metric that torpedoes algorithmic projections of Ramirez in 2019: his home run rate. Ramirez surrendered 11 home runs in 65.1 MLB innings, a 1.52 clip. This is not a strong rate, but it doesn’t preclude success as a back end MLB starting pitcher. 2018 seasons with a ~1.5 HR/9 include Rockies lefty Tyler Anderson (1.53 HR/9, 4.55 ERA, 2 WAR), veteran righty “Big Game” James Shields (1.5 HR/9, 4.53 ERA, 0.8 WAR) and Luis Castillo’s sophomore effort in Cincinnati (1.49 HR/9, 4.30 ERA, 1.9 WAR). Note that both two win pitchers are credited for staying afloat while surrendering a bunch of dingers in dinger-happy home parks. Yefry also calls one home and will have to tighten up the rest of his profile to survive the inevitable long balls.

What’s confusing to me is that Steamer has projected Yefry for an even higher HR/9 in 2019 of 1.72, which in 2018 would have been second in the majors behind only O’s teammate Dylan Bundy, who was well over two per nine. Ramirez has never had a home run problem outside of the Pinball Machines of the Pioneer League years ago. Again, the most recent result will be weighted most heavily by an algorithm, but I’m unsure why it generated an even higher projected rate than he showed in his first MLB sample.

I also poked around on Yefry’s game logs and realized that he surrendered 4 of 11 MLB home runs in his final two outings of the season, every inning of which represented a new career high for innings thrown in a season. So, you can go through almost any player’s game logs, pick some arbitrary endpoints, toss out data that doesn’t support what you want to see, and make almost anyone look good.

That said, let’s pretend Ramirez was hitting an innings limit he maybe could have used, and say he got shut down before he surrendered four home runs in his last two games (9 ER in 9.2 IP). That drops his HR/9 all the way to a fine enough 1.13 per nine. It was surprising to me that algorithms see his HR rate as a bigger problem than his BB rate, which is the factor I’m concerned about. Ramirez showed control over the home run ball all the way up.

Ramirez can strike out MLB hitters. He’s an MLB pitcher. If he can successfully mitigate both walks and home runs, he’s a #4 starter, whatever that means, but probably a bit better, a pitcher who could in a best case scenario successfully approach the 3 WAR threshold a couple times at peak, with a few 2 WAR seasons scattered on either side of the peak. His walk rates in rookie ball through extremely pitcher friendly A ball parks were excellent, but control looks like the biggest question mark in his profile, as he hasn’t shown an ability to mitigate walks at an above average rate in either the high minors or in MLB thus far.

If he can successfully mitigate only walks or home runs, he’s an acceptable #4/#5 starting pitcher, or an excellent candidate for a late inning relief role. If he can successfully mitigate neither walks nor home runs at the MLB level, he is a low leverage up-and-down reliever for a couple years, who would probably only start a single game or two in a pinch, like when a doubleheader comes up.

I’d bet on a mid to late inning relief arm, but because Baltimore didn’t want to pay Kevin Gausman, a comfortably 2-3 WAR 27-year-old starting pitcher, what he’d be awarded in arbitration this offseason, Baltimore fans can instead enjoy watching Ramirez and a slew of other, probably lesser 4A pitchers be stubbornly jammed into rotation spots that they probably will prove they don’t belong in. Hey, at least that Lamar Jackson guy looks pretty darn good.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

SS Adam Hall2017 2nd round (60th overall), AB Lucas Secondary (London, Canada)2019 Age: 20
2019 Projected Assignment: A (Delmarva Shorebirds, South Atlantic League)

Hall is a shortstop who demonstrated a broad set of skills as the starting shortstop for the Aberdeen (MD) IronBirds in the New York-Penn League, a short season summer league that is full of recent college graduates who became June draftees. He was nearly two full years younger than the average NYPL player.

He made 13 errors in 58 starts at short, and he picked up an additional four starts at second. He’ll continue to start at short unless he’s a true butcher there, because Baltimore does not appear to have anyone remotely prospect-y occupying shortstop at any of the four minor league levels above him. Fantastic.

Before I get Orioles fans too excited, Hall’s .293/.368/.374 line at Aberdeen may look like that of a pretty good leadoff hitter for a pretty bad team, but the data driving it is too noisy to read much into this particular performance. Hall showed little power with an .081 ISO, and his walk rate was middling while he struck out over 20% of the time. This means that Hall’s strong on base percentage was almost entirely the product of hitting singles, which is borne out by his .386 BABIP.

This isn’t entirely a bad thing: Hall showed potentially above average contact skills in his professional debut against older competition. Hall is clearly a speedy player, and he was 22 of 27 on stolen base attempts (81.5%). Opposition defense improves as a player ascends the minor league ladder, but a strong contact rate and above average speed is a good foundation for a middle infielder, especially if he is able to develop into a solid defensive shortstop.

It’s just important to keep in mind that Hall’s triple slash line looks a lot less interesting if he bats, say, .260/.330/.330. He could run a line like that in his full season debut next year, yet be relatively unchanged as a talent. It’s a bloop falling in one day, catching the third baseman asleep for an easy bunt single twelve days later. A small, small handful of the entire season of outcomes sway triple slash lines, and they’re spread out over the course of a few months. We need to see Hall run close to a .400 BABIP a couple more times before deciding his contact skill and quality of contact is strong enough for it to be his carrying tool. More than not, this metric bounces around a lot, and it may have little to do with the talent of the player. I trust the rare < 10% K/9 types running high BABIPs over ones striking out > 20%. I feel cognitive dissonance in articulating a contact profile that isn’t limiting strikeouts, the anti-contact. Oh well.

Hall was hit by a pitch 4.3% of the time, about once every five or six games. This was merely indicative of the quality of competition until/unless another year or two of data indicates otherwise. Gradually reducing his strikeout rate from 22.7% to allow his contact/speed combo to play up at higher levels would be a big plus for Hall’s path to becoming a regular shortstop. It’s way too early to worry about that, and his current K rate isn’t too high to prohibit him from success at higher levels. Maybe he can bump his double rate some over time and buy some breathing room.

Overall, Hall had a successful professional debut, and he’ll head to the South Atlantic League next spring. He’s immediately the best shortstop prospect in the entire organization after one summer in rookie ball. Cold weather players don’t get to play baseball year round like in California and Florida. Hall held his own for a demographic of player that tends to be more raw, and youth and projection are on his side.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

LHP Cameron Bishop2017 26th round (788th overall), UC Irvine
2019 Age: 23
2019 Projected Assignment: A+ (Frederick Keys, Carolina League)

Bishop is a recent college graduate who threw 125.2 innings, working nearly six innings per start. There are things here that don’t excite me: namely, that it’s a 22-year-old carving up inexperienced low A hitters up to three years younger than him in a very favorable pitching environment. Another is that by the 26th round, there may be only a player or two taken in the entire round that even gets a cup of coffee in the bigs. This upside fishing pond has an algal bloom in it.

There are things that warrant mentioning, though. Even in a positive run environment, striking out nearly five batters per walk is reason enough to keep tabs on a pitcher, even if he isn’t getting any younger. Another thing worth mentioning is that Bishop is a southpaw. Lefty pitching has nine lives. It’s hard to find any, among the revolving door of freely available lefty retreads signed to minor league contracts for a few consecutive years, who don’t tend to walk five or six guys per nine.

Bishop’s strikeout rate might degrade as he advances without elite stuff and begins facing more age-appropriate hitters, so the walk rate is going to be the key with this pitcher. He’s headed to an environment in Frederick, Maryland, that is about neutral on run scoring, yet sees about 50% more home runs than Coors Field. Colorado has several thousand feet of altitude on central Maryland, so you can blame I-70 running behind center and right field for hot pockets of auto exhaust, which surely carry baseballs up, up and away, like scavenging bird wings floating on thermals.

You can expect a higher home run rate for Bishop in 2019 at hi A. It’s ideal if Bishop moves quicker than not, and I’d hope he’s successful enough to be able to get a half season of AA exposure. A 1-2 BB/9 and 7-8 K/9 paired with generating grounders on nearly half of balls in play is a basic formula for the good version of Wade Miley. That’s not a cornerstone, but it is a lefty starting pitcher who, across the final five of his six years of cost control, accumulated 11.5 wins while starting at least 29 games per season, highlighted by a superb 4+ WAR season for Arizona at age 25.

There’s a lot of 22-year-old college lefties who look alright before they hit full season ball. The ones of that pool that turn into MLB pitchers often do so from the bullpen. It’s not out of the realm of possibility that Bishop could surface with a trial by the end of 2020 and as a 5th starter by the end of 2021, but this pitcher doesn’t have much margin for error, and you can punt if he can’t hold onto the impressively low walk rate at high A and especially AA.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

LHP Zac Lowther2017 CBB Round (74th overall), Xavier
2019 Age: 23
2019 Projected Assignment: AA (Bowie Baysox, Eastern League)

Lowther could return to high A to begin 2019, but he made 16 starts there and showed mastery of the level. At 23, I’d rather push him to AA. He doesn’t need to be added to the 40-man roster until after the 2020 season concludes. He could push to debut late in 2019, but if he doesn’t, it may be in part to save the 40-man roster spot for someone else.

Lowther began his year with a bang, allowing just a single walk while striking out thirteen across six no hit innings against some sort of Audubonesque cult called the “Down East Wood Ducks”, the apparent Rangers affiliate in Kinston, North Carolina. For an encore, he shut out Washington’s affiliate (Potomac Nationals; Woodbridge, Virginia) in his next start, surrendering three harmless hits while striking out seven. It was immediately clear how stupid it was to be wasting Lowther’s development time at this level.

Nonetheless, he made four more starts anyway before finally being permitted to give hi A a try. This was due to the Wood Ducks petitioning the Carolina League office after flailing away against Lowther for a third time before the end of May. Lowther faced 65 Wood Ducks and struck out 31 of them (47.7% – !). Nine of them reached base (.138 OBP against – !).

Lowther didn’t slow down at all upon promotion. He allowed two earned runs total across his first five starts at the level, covering 25.1 IP. In fact, combined between the two levels, he allowed two or more runs only seven times in 22 starts, and he allowed four or more runs only three times. That’s exceptional pitching, regardless of age, context or anything else. Lowther looks like a very exciting starting pitching prospect to me and he is easily the best player mentioned on this list so far.

Across the two levels, Lowther limited hits and home runs while running a 2.5 BB/9 and 11 K/9. All four rates are excellent. If he’s anything like this across three months of AA next year, he belongs on a top 100 prospect list. Based on the absurd H/9 and K/9 numbers, especially at Aberdeen in 2017 and his six starts for low A Delmarva, it’s clear younger hitters were totally overmatched at the plate.

As such, AA is data we’re really waiting on, but I see enough already to push some chips in on this pitching prospect despite the inferior competition. He belonged in high A from the beginning of the year, but he also pitched very well once he finally got there. I’m curious how much of his low H and HR rates are a product of environment, a product of poor competition and/or a product of Lowther’s skill as a pitcher. The first two of the three are easier statements to make, because they are skeptical of success, rather than suggesting skill behind high end performance. I don’t doubt that both contextual factors played a role in Lowther’s big 2018, but in this pitcher’s case, I also hesitate to entirely dismiss potentially repeatable hit and home run prevention skill.

Lowther has shown no issues against opposite handed batters, and he generates an awful lot of infield flies, peaking at 29.8% in his three months of high A. Lowther’s now allowed nine total home runs in 178 professional innings. That rate could double in the upper minors or across a full MLB season and not seriously threaten Lowther’s ability to be a valuable starting pitcher.

You’d learn a lot about Zac with three months of AA transition. The pitcher who showed up last year looked consistently dominant enough to have been able to succeed in less favorable conditions. It’s exciting for O’s fans that even if the finished product falls short of the high A statistical profile, he projects into filling some role on an MLB staff nonetheless.

How did Lowther’s season conclude? How else: eight strikeouts over five innings. The damage? One harmless single, no walks. Looking at his game logs, he allowed zero runs in nine of his 22 starts (40.9%). That’s unreal. Challenge this guy already.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

RHP Branden Kline 2012 2nd round (65th overall), Virginia
2019 Age: 27
2019 Projected Assignment: AAA (Norfolk Tides, International League)

Kline was drafted way back when some of us were awaiting the apocalypse, because Mayan calendar and cultural appropriation, and almost all 27-year-old players are not prospects. Kline hasn’t been struggling to conquer an A ball level on his third try, though. He underwent Tommy John surgery in fall 2015 and it was a mess getting back to the mound. He needed two additional procedures on his elbow, and he also broke his leg. All in all, he missed two and a half full years of development time and returned this season as a 26-year-old with 11 AA starts under his belt. Credit him for persevering through all the setbacks to even get back on a mound at all.

Kline returned and got his feet wet with Frederick, striking out more than ten per nine and walking just three batters in 20.2 innings. He returned to Bowie for the first time in three full years in mid May and became the team’s closer, recording weaker contact and holding opponents to just a .194 BAA while maintaining encouraging walk and strikeout rates.

Per this article (Richmond Times-Dispatch, 6/24/18, Jacob Myers), Kline works 93-97 with a slider and changeup as secondaries. He’s going to stay in the pen at this point, and consistency with his slider will determine whether he can turn into a reliable bullpen arm at the highest level. The samples are fairly small, but Kline was actually better against lefty batters by over .150 OPS. He held lefties to a .179/.227/.252 line, striking out 41 of the 132 batters he faced (31.1%). I’m encouraged by this because pitchers who struggle when hitters have the platoon advantage are typically relegated to the low leverage end of the bullpen. You can’t change relievers every other batter, game after game, even though some of today’s managers attempt to. While you still optimize to try to hold the platoon advantage in key matchups, a setup arm who is less vulnerable to pinch hitters and the like is ideal.

Kline pitched 65.2 innings at a 1.64 ERA between his two assignments, and his peripherals were all strong (7.1 H/9, .4 HR/9, 2.5 BB/9, 9.7 K/9). His command wavered a bit at AA, but he compensated by inducing weaker contact and limiting home runs, surrendering only three for the season. He also showed some evidence to suggest he’s got a legitimate chance of being able to handle LHB in hi lev situations.

Kline is already on the 40-man roster and ready for AAA, and I think the only relievers I’d have ahead of him in the entire organization are Paul Fry and Mychal Givens, who are all but guaranteed to be working the 8th and 9th innings in Camden this season pending other additions. Kline should be proud of returning to the mound at all, much less putting himself back on the prospect radar with an excellent 2018 season. Baltimore has a lot of bullpen candidates to sort through, and Kline finally has a lot of things going right for him in his quest to lock one of them down by the time Baltimore is 45 games out of first place.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

LHP Keegan Akin 2016 2nd round (54th overall), Western Michigan
2019 Age: 24
2019 Projected Assignment: AAA (Norfolk Tides, International League)

Akin was dominant in the NYPL in a small sample after being drafted, but that’s what a polished college arm is supposed to do. He followed up the performance with full years at A+ Frederick in 2017 and AA Bowie in 2018. At Frederick, he had an alrightish 4.14 ERA in 100 innings, striking out exactly ten batters per nine but walking more than four. He then was sent to the Arizona Fall League, a prospect showcase of hitting talent in a high run environment with fewer future MLB pitchers in the mix on account of regular season workload. He appeared in nine games and allowed less than one baserunner per inning, striking out 13 in 16.1 IP. That’s a tough place to pitch and he did well as a reliever.

Promoted to Bowie for his age 23 season, he posted a sexier 3.27 ERA in 25 starts totaling 137.2 IP (5.5 IP/GS). However, his profile looks exactly the same as it did a year ago. He runs a nice strikeout rate, but he’s got to tighten up his control to hit his upside, an okayish < 2 WAR fifth starter. His walk rate didn’t top four per nine in Bowie, but it was close enough to call it that. He doesn’t have hit or home run problems, but he also doesn’t demonstrate skill to suppress either at an above average rate that would make his dubious walk rate play better in a rotation.

Akin probably is what he is. He’s ready for AAA exposure at 24, and if he is able to tighten up his control, there are rotation vacancies for the taking without stiff competition in the way. It would be in the O’s interest to give him a trial this year, even if it’s just a spot start, or pitching a couple mop up innings in appearances a week apart from one another while waiting for someone to come off the DL. Akin will need to be added to the 40-man roster after the 2019 season if Baltimore is concerned about losing him in the Rule 5 draft, and he both has a heartbeat and a left arm, so some team will at least consider it.

I don’t see a full time starting pitcher here, but based on where Baltimore is at and how weak the back end of its 40-man is, I’d be more surprised than not if Akin doesn’t grab three or four one-off starts at some point in 2019. There’s no downside to seeing what he is, but I think it’s probably just a middle reliever, and ideally the second or third best lefty in a bullpen rather than someone sniffing important spots.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

RHP Dean Kremer2016 14th round (431st overall), UNLV
2019 Age: 23
2019 Projected Assignment: AA (Bowie Baysox, Eastern League)

Kremer’s professional career got off to an uneven start, but he took off in 2018 as he repeated hi A as a 22-year-old. He got the opportunity to start full time for Rancho Cucamonga, California, after pitching almost exclusively out of the pen in his first try at conquering the level the prior season. He dropped his FIP over a full point, driven by cutting his walk rate to three per nine and running an elite 13 K/9.

The first exclamation point of Kremer’s CAL league stint came in late May. He threw six no-hit innings with ten strikeouts against the Angels’ affiliate, Inland Empire. In his next start, he threw five one-hit innings with nine strikeouts against the Rockies’ affiliate, Lancaster.

The second exclamation point came when the Dodgers promoted Kremer to make his AA debut just before the All-Star break and with less than a month until the MLB trade deadline, giving him the opportunity to show the whole wide world of baseball what a cromulent prospect he had quickly developed into. Kremer carpe’d the diem, scattering six harmless baserunners over seven shutout innings, striking out 11 Midland, Texas (Oakland) hitters.

Before long, he was the second most well regarded prospect of a package of five headed to Baltimore in exchange for a pending free agent, superstar infielder Manny Machado. He started eight times for AA Bowie during the last few weeks of minor league baseball. He held the opposition scoreless three times, allowed only one run a fourth time, and he allowed even so many as four runs only once. In a fairly small sample of just under fifty innings, Kremer saw his K/9 fall to a still great but more human 10.5. His hit rate gains were sticky at AA, but his BABIP also hasn’t fallen below .300 in any of this prospect’s sizable samples. We’ll see where the hit rate goes from here.

At first glance, Kremer looked like a prospect the Dodgers probably sold high on after a hot start in 2018. He may have legitimately improved, however. A walk rate that ranges between three and four per nine is the yellow flag on his profile, but the walk rate isn’t so bad to exclude him from staying in the rotation going forward. The strikeout rate has always been his strength, but the total package is working a lot better than it was when he let a batter and a half reach for every inning pitched in 2017. Like Kline, he was actually more effective against LHB than righties. Batters with the platoon advantage managed only a .191/.266/.284 triple slash while striking out 31.4% of the time.

He’s primarily a fastball/curveball pitcher. Reducing walks or developing a better changeup will be keys to his ability to develop into a productive MLB starting pitcher. There’s a potential #3 starter here if he is able to build on his big 2018. If the walk rate continues to creep back up towards and over four, and/or he ends up with three pitches in name only, you’ll see him head to the bullpen instead.

For as exciting as Lowther looks, Kremer is a year younger and has already survived the AA transition. He will return there to begin 2019 with only nine AA starts under his belt, but he could quickly earn a promotion to AAA Norfolk. Like Akin, Kremer needs to be added to the 40-man after the 2019 season to guarantee that the team can keep him around. If it’s down to one roster spot between the two, you pick Kremer and lose no sleep over it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

2B/3B Rylan Bannon – 2017 8th round (250th overall), Xavier
2019 Age: 23
2019 Projected Assignment: AA (Bowie Baysox, Eastern League)

Bannon is a RHH infielder who can’t play shortstop, which gives him a lower floor than other utility or platoon types. In today’s game, there’s room for only three or four position players on a team’s bench, and one needs to play catcher, and another (or a starter at a different position) needs to play shortstop. That’s a limiting factor on Bannon, regardless of what affiliate he played for this past season.

Speaking of which: Bannon began the year as a 22-year-old mashing in the CAL league, and while 22 isn’t too old, younger players than him have fooled us before, in this league full of bandboxes. As a college draftee, Bannon needed to be mashing in short season ball and hi A to maybe be viewed as a solid prospect.

He did exactly that. He mashed 43 extra base hits and walked in nearly 15% of his plate appearances, fueling a tremendous .296/.402/.559 batting line in just over 400 PA. This was a fantastic season, and we can’t take that away from Bannon. However, given age and league context and defensive position, he basically needed to produce as he did to be regarded as something beyond organizational filler. Expectations need to be tempered. Baltimore bit anyway, and so he was also a part of the Machado trade.

Bannon struggled to a .204/.344/.327 line in his first taste of AA once he became a part of his new organization, although his trial consisted of only 32 games. Bannon played almost exclusively at second base after the Dodgers gave him only about a third of his time there. LA preferred to use him at third where there’s going to need to be quite a bit more bat for him to become something beyond an up-and-down 4A player. Bannon’s not as bad as his triple slash at Bowie in limited time, but he is probably a lot closer to that player than a .300/.400/.500 infielder, which would be a top prospect if there was much reason to believe that his hi A production reflects his true talent level.

Bannon needs a full season in AA to consolidate his gains and attempt to hit his way out of arguably the biggest level-to-level transition in the minors. In his small Bowie sample, he struck out only two more times than he walked, working an excellent 18 BB% and solid 19.7 K%. I would be more inclined to give Bannon more credit for his hi A work in 2018 had he run a K rate several points below his 25.6% mark, which was a product of striking out more than 100 times in two thirds of a season. Because I don’t believe Bannon is a 50 XBH power bat or anything especially close to it in a more neutral environment, he can’t afford to run a high K rate: he doesn’t have carrying power. It was encouraging to see him cut it to under twenty upon promotion, but keep an eye on his strikeouts. I’d give him a full year of AA that, if successful, culminates with an August trial in AAA. Then I’d give him four months of AAA in 2020 before calling the 24-year-old up and giving him 200 second half PA with the parent club to try to convince me to protect him from the Rule 5 draft.

I’m pretty sure this isn’t a starting infielder, and Bannon will have to prove me wrong against better pitchers working in much less unfavorable environments than the two he played in as a Dodger. With his walk rate, consolidating last year’s exclamation point into carrying modest power up the ladder could make him rosterable, even as a bench bat that can’t handle shortstop. Baltimore’s infield picture has so many question marks today that he may get a year or two as something just short of a full time starter almost by default. In general, though, the 2B/3B/LF profile ends up in the prospect graveyard more than it doesn’t, because it takes either a lot of bat, or the perfect storm of depth chart fortune and injuries, for most Bannons to get extended looks.

 

 

 

 

 

RHP Zach Pop – 2017 7th round (220th overall), Kentucky
2019 Age: 22
2019 Projected Assignment: AA (Bowie Baysox, Eastern League)

Pop essentially made his professional debut this year, because I arbitrarily feel like tossing out five AZL appearances in 2017. He began in the Midwest League, where he struck out 24 batters in 11 relief appearances and quickly earned a promotion to – stop me if you’ve heard this one – Rancho Cucamonga. He was filthy while serving as the Quakes’ closer, surrendering a single run in 27 innings of relief and only 19 baserunners.

Meanwhile, on Eutaw Street, former GM Dan Duquette fired up the ol’ Dell, and once Microsoft Works finally loaded, he poked around on Excel’s grandpa and figured that someone with a 0.33 ERA as a 21-year-old in hi A must be pretty darn good. Luckily for the new administration, Duquette guessed right to settle on Pop as one of the five players sent across the country for Machado.

Pop allowed a single home run all year and generates groundballs at a very impressive rate, handily over 60%. Because he also showed strong walk (2.6 per 9) and strikeout rates (8.9 per 9), there are a lot of ways this pitcher could debut by the end of 2019 and emerge as a valuable relief arm by the end of 2020. He doesn’t need to be added to the 40-man until after 2020, but it’s hard to see him not debuting before then if he stays healthy.

In fairness, his strikeout rate was inflated by his brief time in the Midwest League, where he beat up on little kids trying to hit in between April snow flurries. The groundball tendency gives him margin for error, however. If he can repeat his elite home run rate – generating few fly balls logically supports low home run rates – it’s not a problem that his true talent strikeout rate in the upper minors/MLB is going to be a lot closer to 6 or 7 per nine, well below MLB average, but above plenty of groundball pitchers who had successful careers. Despite what you see out of playoff bullpens, relief pitchers didn’t always have to throw six hundred thousand miles an hour to generate weak contact and pile up outs, and they still don’t. Outs are outs.

 

 

 

LHP Drew Rom2018 4th round (115th overall), Highlands HS (Fort Thomas, KY)
2019 Age: 19
2019 Projected Level: R-SS (Aberdeen IronBirds, New York-Penn League)

I noticed this list contained exactly one player under age 22. That’s generally not a good sign when scouring the low minors of a system for interesting players, and it’s also not a good sign for a franchise that lost 115 games last season and has little in the way of MLB players with any trade value. Rom was drafted this year and threw 30.2 innings across ten appearances for the Orioles’ Gulf Coast League team. These numbers are noisy. Consider this little more than a bookmarked player to look out for at Aberdeen in 2019.

Now that I’ve told you that 30 GCL innings comprises noisy data, let’s enjoy contradiction and point out that Rom struck out 28 in 30.2 innings while walking only six batters (although he did hit another four). He also generated groundballs about half the time a ball was put in play.

Rom is four full years away, minimum, from the majors. It’s not that you can read into 30 GCL innings and declare someone, anyone, the next big thing. It’s that even though there would be no immediate cause for concern if an 18-year-old struggled in his first taste of professional ball, it’s not bad news that he handled it just fine. I like seeing a young, raw player that’s given me no reason to believe, yet, that he has a control problem, because that’s a baseball skill that can be incredibly hard to correct, and sometimes it’s there forever. If he runs the same component ratios as a 19-year-old in the NYPL next summer, I’ll become less cautiously interested in this pitcher.

Lazy and Dumb

300lbhomer

I have realized that Mining the Minors is the name of a feature that ran on Rotographs several years ago, so I will be renaming this series of articles “Minor League Minor Leaguers”, as it serves the dual purpose of suggesting we’re looking for prospects generally off the radar, while also being such a comically lazy and dumb name that surely no one has published it before.

  • I was not aware of how plentiful video reports on Youtube appear to be for prospects with little notoriety. I have edited both posts to feature player video, using the most recent available. If you’re curious, check the video description to learn if the video is from July 2018 or March 2015.
  • I will release the Baltimore Orioles list next week with the San Francisco Giants list to follow. Post volume will pick up with the new year.
  • I will dress the site up at some point, although I think content beats design. Usability is important, however, and I’ll change the layout so that every post of a series can be found in one place with navigation.

Thanks for reading!

 

Minor League Minor Leaguers: 2018 Sleepers, Chicago Cubs

cubs

Prospects highlighted with 2019 age/projected assignment: C Michael Cruz (23, A+), RHP Jesus Camargo (23, A), RHP Cory Abbott (22, A+), OF Fernando Kelli (20, R-SS), LHP Brailyn Marquez (20, A), RHP Paul Richan (22, A), LHP Justin Steele (23, AA), RHP Keegan Thompson (23, AA), RHP Tyson Miller (23, AA), SS Zack Short (24, AAA)

 

This is the second installment of a look at sleeper prospects for all thirty MLB teams. There is no sense in covering the Cubs’ top prospects, such as Miguel Amaya, Nico Hoerner, Aramis Ademan, and Adbert Alzolay, because you’re already going to hear a lot about those players this winter and throughout the season ahead.

For our purposes, we’re going to consider prospects as young players who have not yet become established MLB players, rather than ignoring young, unestablished players once they have exhausted their rookie eligibility.

 

Chicago Cubs Minor League Affiliates (2018)
AAA: Iowa Cubs, Pacific Coast League (Des Moines, IA; since 1981)
AA:
Tennessee Smokies, Southern League (Knoxville, TN; since 2007)
A+:
Myrtle Beach Pelicans, Carolina League (Myrtle Beach, SC; since 2015)
A:
South Bend Cubs, Midwest League (South Bend, IN; since 2015)
R-SS:
Eugene Emeralds, Northwest League (Eugene, OR; since 2015)
AZL: Arizona Cubs / DSL: DSL Cubs

 

C Michael Cruz – 2016 7th round (224th overall), Bethune-Cookman
2019 Age: 23
2019 Projected Assignment: A+
(Myrtle Beach Pelicans, Carolina League)

Chicago’s top prospect, Miguel Amaya, is the catcher who gets more attention, and rightfully so. But that doesn’t mean that the other half of South Bend’s battery isn’t a prospect in his own right. Cruz played first base and served as designated hitter in close to two thirds of his starts to at least get him at bats, since Amaya would corral most starts behind the dish. Cruz had a lot of runners attempt to steal on him, nearly two per game, but so did Amaya. The high volume of attempts is characteristic of the low minors and not in of itself an indictment of Cruz’s arm or his ability to stay behind the plate at the upper minors. Nonetheless, he only caught 25% of attempted base stealers; league average was 32%.

It’s worth noting that, as with shortstops or centerfielders, many low minors catchers will not play the position in MLB if they advance to the highest level. Shortstops become second basemen, centerfielders move to right, and that’s why the up-the-middle defensive positions have lower bars to clear for average offense. Many catchers end up at corner infield. Most MLB catchers would not last as starting first basemen because most minor league catchers only have enough offense to play behind the plate. Any catcher that can’t clear wherever that bar is set become non-prospects unless there is enough bat to become a viable option elsewhere. Hall of Famer Craig Biggio and 2015 AL MVP Josh Donaldson began their careers as catchers, but each player also moved to more difficult positions than not, second and third base, respectively.

My guess would be Cruz will keep seeing time at catcher but might not be more than a 3rd option at the big league level, rather than a true backup catcher. It’d be ideal if Cruz could both produce some offense and provide defensive adequacy behind the plate in MLB, but it may not be necessary for him to fake it as a catcher. Cruz might have enough bat to develop into a bench or platoon bat with some power.

The Midwest League doesn’t see a lot of scoring compared to most other leagues. The Great Lakes states and “Rust Belt” (alternate: “Tommy Boy Belt”) have cold, precipitous early springs that make it less easy and fun to try to hit a baseball. The league only saw 4.3 runs per game in 2018 and slugging percentage across the league was a meager .373. Cruz slugged 35 extra base hits in beating that rate by nearly a hundred points. He also ran strong 8.1 BB% and 10.6 K% rates. An OPS in the mid .700s is not going to jump off the page, but running an ISO greater than .200 in the Midwest League is difficult to do, and his 24 doubles tied for ninth in the league. He received less playing time than everyone tied with or above him on the list; he received 100 fewer PA than all but one of them (94 PA).

The safe bet is Cruz isn’t a catcher in the majors, so being the writerperson, I’ll lean that way. He showed power potential this year, but it was during his age 22 season. That’s a little older than average for low A, but we can also cut Cruz some slack since the demands of catching slow development, and 22 isn’t egregiously old for the level.

What would a good outcome look like? Craig Wilson produced 4.6 WAR for a total of eight million dollars across six seasons of cost control for Pittsburgh in the 2000s. He provided emergency coverage at catcher but generally was used as a RHH platoon bat splitting time between first base and right field. Wilson is by no means a memorable, core player, but he provided utility in a platoon role, and you’re better off having one of those ready to go in AAA than paying for one in trade.

What would a bad outcome look like? Ryan Lavarnway was an extremely confusing prospect to follow, as his defense pretty clearly precluded him from becoming a starting catcher, but Boston refused to give up the ghost, yet also gave him only one legitimate opportunity and declined to trade him. There was probably a useful bench player here once upon a time; after all, it’s not easy to find 23-year-old players who rock 59 XBH, an .OPS well over .900 and walk and strikeout rates respectively above 10 and below 20 in the upper minors, including an ISO over .300 at AAA. That’s a very strong offensive profile, and perhaps it’s why Lavarnway still attracts annual interest to be some team’s break-glass-in-case-of-emergency veteran catching option on the AAA bench.

Cruz is a year behind Lavarnway’s development track. He could maintain or even demonstrate further growth of power and plate discipline in the upper minors, and like Lavarnway, he might not ever get a real opportunity anyway. Lavarnway couldn’t break in when bullpens carried one fewer reliever and one more position player. How’s Cruz going to manage it?

It’s worth keeping an eye on Cruz’s doubles power, especially as doubles power can come before home runs show up. I think it’ll be more about his catching defense, because without projecting to stay there as a bat-first timeshare type catcher, he’s going to have a hard time claiming a hotly contested roster spot and holding it as something beyond a temporary injury call up. I feel better about the offense continuing to show than I do about saying he’s going to accumulate a few WAR over a few years on an MLB bench.

 

RHP Jesus Camargosigned as IFA: 2014, Mexico, bonus n/a
2019 Age: 23
2019 Projected Assignment: A (South Bend Cubs, Midwest League)

Camargo made his Cubs debut in the AZL as a 19-year-old and struck out 57 in 46.1 innings while walking just 12 and surrendering a single home run. He missed the entire 2016 season due to injury but has had opportunities to start at Eugene in 2017 and South Bend in 2018, where he continued to show ability to limit walks and home runs while putting hitters away.

His K/9 dipped to 8.1 in his full season debut this year, but he still ran a 2.62 ERA thanks to his control (and the run environment), and his K rate sits at above ten for his career in 151.1 IP. He reportedly sports an above average changeup that gets 10-12 MPH of separation from his low 90s fastball. A solid changeup is the ingredient missing from many young starting pitcher profiles.

Camargo didn’t appear after June, and having appeared in only 11 games to that point, it would certainly figure to be injury related. He made two appearances in the Mexican Winter League in October, but it’s unclear if he had an injury issue or if he was simply replaced with someone else on the team, which is not uncommon for MLB prospects playing in winter leagues. Having appeared in professional games less than four months later, we can at least conclude that any injury that ended Camargo’s summer was clearly not a catastrophic one, and perhaps not a cause for concern.

Still, it’s frustrating to find so little detail about Camargo’s injury history, because it would help guide us in deciding whether we’re more interested in his above average changeup and strike zone command than we are worried about whether this pitcher will have persistent problems staying healthy. Camargo was starting to hit his stride, throwing at least five innings in each of his final five starts of the season. He put together a nice three game stretch in there, shutting out his opponents for 16.2 innings while surrendering 11 hits, walking three and striking out 17. He might have been about ready to spend August getting his feet wet in hi A.

Camargo will be 23 next season, and I think he should go back to low A to start the year and move up to hi A by the time 2019 draftees start arriving. He will need to be added to the 40-man after the 2019 season to avoid being exposed to the Rule 5 draft, and although the Cubs would surely like to get a look at how he adjusts to the upper minors first, it might be best to avoid being aggressive since he has already missed a season and a half of development time.

 

RHP Cory Abbott2017 2nd round (67th overall), Loyola Marymount
2019 Age: 23
2019 Projected Level: AA (Tennessee Smokies, Southern League)

Abbott threw the first perfect game in LMU history and just the 26th in NCAA Division I history by shutting down Brigham Young (BYU) on March 25th, 2017, en route to becoming the West Coast Conference Pitcher of the Year.

He was also very successful in his first full season of pro ball, ending the year with 13 starts for Myrtle Beach after thoroughly dominating Midwest Leaguers like a 22-year-old college arm ought to. Abbott surrendered only three home runs in 67.2 A+ innings, and given that he produces grounders at roughly a league average rate, a 4.2 HR/FB% is going to crawl up as he ascends the ladder. He continued to strike out nearly ten per nine, however, and while his control wavered at the more difficult of his two assignments, he kept it to about three and a half walks per nine, which is higher than we’d prefer, but decent enough for now.

Abbott finished the season on a strong note by allowing just two runs across five August starts spanning 27 innings. He actually got better each month with Myrtle Beach. Lefties hit him to an OPS .200 higher than righties managed, but it wasn’t a disastrous split. It’ll be something to keep an eye on, especially if Abbott ends up in relief in the end. I’d expect his H/9 and HR/9 to come up a bit in the upper minors, as environment and age relative to league are surely factors that affected his A ball performances. Managing walks will be the real key to Abbott’s ability to play at the back end of a big league rotation by the end of 2020.

Abbott may very well be sent back to Myrtle Beach to get his feet under him before the AA transition, but if there’s room, I think I’d just give him a rotation spot in Tennessee from the start of the season and leave him parked there for an entire season. There might be growing pains, but perhaps he could earn a taste of AAA if he keeps it going. I don’t think a 23-year-old pitcher with college experience is going to learn anything in A ball at this point. The point is to produce an MLB pitcher, and minor league statistics are just a byproduct of whatever is done to try to achieve that end. It might be good for Abbott to get knocked around for a couple months and learn how to adjust to better hitters.

It doesn’t really matter if he’s a 4.50 ERA pitcher in AA in 2019. He seems like a fairly safe bet to at least reach the majors, and once in a while, a back end starter overachieves and all of a sudden offers someone you’d consider having start game 4, or in a 90th percentile outcome, game 3 of a playoff series. As a win-now team with a great, young core, the Cubs drafted Abbott because they expect him in the majors soon, ready to contribute in at least some kind of role.

 

OF Fernando Kellisigned as IFA: 2014, Venezuela, $60,000
2019 Age: 20
2019 Projected Assignment: R-SS (Eugene Emeralds, Northwest League)

Because the minor leagues are weird, Eugene was a sub .500 regular season team that went undefeated in the Northwest League playoffs to claim a short season championship. Kelli started in center for the team all year long, just as he had in two DSL stints before coming stateside for 2018. He’s a raw player at the plate, but not completely lost. The limiting factor on his profile is clearly strikeout rate before you even get to figuring out how much bat might be in here. I’ll cut him some slack because I bet it’s not especially easy to go work in a different country when you’re 19.

Kelli is a speedy switch hitter who racked up 58 stolen bases in his second DSL summer in 2017, although Northwest League catchers were able to better keep him in check, limiting him to a success rate under 70%. He has a walk rate above nonexistent and it offers some hope for progress on the strikeout rate. Kelli will be a real nuisance on the bases, but you’ve got to get on base first. As some centerfielders split time almost evenly across the three outfield spots in the low minors, I’m encouraged to see Kelli getting used almost exclusively at the premium position in each of his first three years.

This is a very raw player who does not look ready for full season ball. He needs another summer at Eugene in 2019 and will probably be a one-level-at-a-time guy over the next few years. Or, his strikeout rate continues in the wrong direction for a couple years, and he won’t get out of A ball in spite of speed and defensive utility.

 

LHP Brailyn Marquezsigned as IFA: 2015, Dominican Republic, $600,000
2019 Age: 20
2019 Projected Assignment: A (South Bend Cubs, Midwest League)

Marquez is a 6’4” lefty who spent his summer at Eugene and pitched well enough to earn two end-of-season starts at South Bend, where he’ll return to begin 2019. He’s a flyball pitcher at this point who has been very fairly hittable so far in his brief career. However, Marquez was two years younger than the average Northwest League hitter, and he will be once again in the Pioneer League.

Marquez wasn’t overmatched in his brief seven inning tester at the higher level, and for the whole year, he struck out nearly ten batters per nine innings across twelve starts. He also was able to limit walks to an above average rate of 2.6 BB/9 against the older competition. This is a good start. Health permitting, Marquez is on a trajectory to have a handful of AA starts under his belt by the time the Cubs need to decide on him after the 2020 season. He’ll get most of a season at South Bend, but the keys are in his pocket. Performance could push him to hi A over the summer.

 

RHP Paul Richan2018 2nd round (78th overall), University of San Diego
2019 Age: 22
2019 Projected Assignment: A (South Bend Cubs, Midwest League)

Richan will probably head to South Bend in April with Marquez, but he figures to spend less time there, and it wouldn’t shock me if they sent him straight to high A. Marquez is two years younger and offers more upside than Richan, but Richan’s going to be a finished product sooner.

The pitcher Richan more closely resembles in the Cubs system is Abbott. They are actually the same person, except one of his two characters wears the old fake glasses with mustache for his appearances. The two pitchers were selected at basically the same draft slot as college righties who will move quickly through the minors. You can think of Abbott as Richan plus one year. Abbott is the blueprint for what happens next year. It will be a successful season if Richan continues pitching very well, like a polished college arm is supposed to in the low minors against younger competition, and more importantly if he’s most of the way through conquering hi A by the end of 2019.

Richan struck out more than six batters for every batters across 29.2 innings for Eugene. It doesn’t really prove anything except that he can strike out raw, toolsy 19-year-old players. He faced an arguably more polished pool of college hitters with San Diego. We won’t learn anything substantial about Richan until the AA transition that probably won’t come until early 2020, but he’s surely a pitcher to monitor.

 

LHP Justin Steele2014 5th round (139th overall), George County HS (Lucedale, MS)
2019 Age: 23
2019 Projected Assignment: AA (Tennessee Smokies, Southern League)

The Cubs gave Steele a million dollars, more than double slot value, to encourage him to forego a chance to pitch for UCLA and begin his professional career. Steele showed a decent strikeout rate as he advanced one level at a time through 2017. He struggled some with control but pitched well enough to make more progress than not.

It’s a huge plus that Steele was able to pitch at all this year. After his August 2017 Tommy John surgery, Jim Callis reported as recently as April of this year that he was in danger of missing the entire minor league season. Instead, Steele surprised by being ready for AZL rehab by July, and he was able to get his first exposure to AA hitters to close the season, allowing four earned runs in ten innings across two starts. The samples are small, but Steele showed a better strikeout rate than he did during last year’s residency in Myrtle Beach, and most importantly, he cut his walk rate slightly.

Even if the results aren’t there right away in the most-of-a-full AA season Steele’s going to be getting in 2019, we’re ahead of the curve on him because he only lost a half season of development time to TJ thanks to his quick recovery. Also, although none of his full season lines jump off the page, he’s shown enough in bits and pieces to keep alive hopes of converting this prospect into a viable MLB starting pitcher.

As a flyball pitcher, the key to Steele’s success will be limiting walks at the higher levels of the minor leagues. He was less hittable this season than he had ever shown prior to the surgery (again, a small sample), and he’s never been particularly homer prone. AA will tell us a lot, but this looks like a good-as-most outside shot at a starting pitcher in the end.

 

RHP Keegan Thompson 2017 3rd round (105th overall), Auburn
2019 Age: 24
2019 Projected Assignment: AA

Thompson, an Alabama native, had Tommy John surgery and missed his junior season at Auburn. The righty had the option of rehabbing as Detroit’s 33rd round pick, but he bet on himself and it paid off. He delivered a 2.41 ERA in 93 1/3 innings in the SEC and became the third round pick of the Cubs.

Thompson isn’t the first MLB prospect Auburn coach Butch Thompson (no relation…?) has managed and he surely won’t be the last, but the six foot righty earned high praise for his competitive drive and clubhouse presence, calling Keegan the leader of the 2017 team even though he couldn’t take the field during his recovery.

He has a four pitch mix. There’s a fastball that reportedly has touched 95 previously, but that sat 89-92 for one AA start featured in the video above. He also throws a slider, curve and change. He used all four to tear apart the Carolina League before closing out the year with 13 solid starts in AA.

Thompson was by no means bad in his first try at the high minors. But the noticeable slip of all three of his hit, walk and strikeout rates demonstrate how AA will be the real test for the potential fast moving college arms right behind him. It’s important to understand that the statistics can and often do look a little sketchier at the high minors, and yet this doesn’t mean a prospect is failing. It’s hard to reach the majors. It doesn’t help that the Cubs arms specifically are coming out of Myrtle Beach, a slightly below average run environment that is especially helpful for making pitchers look a little better by suppressing hit rate. This means they might pitch just as well through their first real test in Tennessee, but running an ERA a run higher leads to being dismissed by some observers who had previously bought in. Changing numbers don’t mean that a player himself is changing.

Unless Keegan is one of those uncommon Magic Juju home run suppression skill guys that I’m not sure how we’re supposed to identify without way more track record than we have the luxury of, you can expect a few more bombs ahead against the better competition. The low HR/FB% he compiled this year, as well as in a brief stint in Eugene after signing last season, is why his xFIP has been roughly a quarter to a half of a run higher than his ERA at each stop. He ran a 1.4 WHIP at AA and he’s going to have to tighten up on walks or hits.

Thompson has survived AA, but he hasn’t conquered it. His progress will determine whether he needs a half season or most of a season to master the level. The good news is he’s survived it. That’s half the battle, and there are some positive ingredients here. It’ll be time to get excited if Thompson conquers AA with a tamed walk rate, rather than getting pushed to AAA just because.

 

RHP Tyson Miller2016 4th round (134th overall), California Baptist
2019 Age: 23
2019 Projected Assignment: AA (Tennessee Smokies, Southern League)

Looks like Tennessee is going to have a sneaky interesting rotation next spring, so, congratulations if you like minor league baseball players and live around Knoxville. Miller was hittable in Eugene and across a full season in South Bend, but all four of his component ratios went in the right direction during his age 22 season in Myrtle Beach.

You’ve read this four or five times already, but we’re waiting on his 2019, the most important data point that we don’t have yet. The smart money says he pitched more okay than very well last year, that much of his improvement was South Carolinian ocean air. Miller’s a nice looking prospect if he not only survives AA but hangs onto some of those gains. We’ll settle for him surviving AA with an eye towards a brief AAA trial in August.

 

SS Zack Short2016 17th round (524th overall), Sacred Heart
2019 Age: 24
2019 Projected Assignment: AAA (Iowa Cubs, Pacific Coast League)

Short isn’t a tools-heavy player and he doesn’t have the pedigree of a high draft pick, so perhaps this is why he didn’t get much prospect love after showing off a broad base of skills during an outstanding 2017 season split across the Cubs’ A-ball affiliates. Short struck out 136 times, which jumps off the page for a middle infielder, but he started 124 games and the K% rate was fine at 18%.

Sure, in a perfect world he’d strike out a little less, but it’s easier to swallow when the player in question clubs 47 extra base hits in environments less conducive for power, walks 94 times, and even chips in 18 stolen bases (64% success rate). Short was playing the three difficult infield positions in South Bend but was installed as the Pelicans’ starting shortstop upon his promotion. It seems that Short may have hit his way out of being looked at as a utility player hopeful. How can you not try a guy named Short at short?

Short started at short for the Smokies in 2018 and held the job all season as a 23-year-old. He demonstrated exactly the same skill set as he did in A ball: lots of walks, more than some strikeouts, 50 XBH power, and a little speed. That’s an interesting bat, especially if the glove can play.

There were two yellow flags that emerged with Short this season. First, he struck out nearly 50% more than he did in 2017. He struck out 22 times in his first 12 games but improved his rate throughout the year as he adjusted to life in the high minors. However, we can’t assume that a below average strikeout rate isn’t simply what Short’s true talent level is going to play as against more competitive pitching. Short hasn’t run exceptionally low BABIPs, and yet he’s hitting below .250 over more than 1300 minor league PA. So, I tend to assume he’s going to run a K% around 25 in the big leagues if he’s given a chance to settle into a role, but it might be considerably higher as he learns to sink or swim.

You might as well give Short a full year in AAA from the start. He had more than five hundred AA plate appearances, he survived, he was less overwhelmed as the year went on, and this is probably a finished product as far as projection is concerned. It’s time to get him ready to help the big league club in 2020 and get a taste in September, or as an injury callup, in 2019. He needs to be added to the 40-man after this coming season anyway.

This isn’t a sexy prospect. If the glove is good enough (and it might be, because Chicago would have kept grooming him at 2B and 3B if he needed to max out as a utility player), there’s enough in his offensive profile to project him to be a useful piece in the big leagues, even in spite of contact problems.

He ran a steep platoon split at AA that was less pronounced in A ball; monitor how he handles righties in AAA in 2019. He could be a very nice platoon shortstop, or the guy who comes in the game as a double switch when the swiss army knife type, like Chris Taylor or Marwin Gonzalez, moves off short to replace someone who needs to be pinch hit for against lefties. I’d love to carry this player on my NL bench if the strikeouts don’t spiral out of control, but I’d be prepared for him to be completely overmatched and run a strikeout well above 30% in his first cup of coffee before hopefully adjusting with experience.

Minor League Minor Leaguers: 2018 Sleepers, Los Angeles Angels

angels

Prospects highlighted with 2019 age/projected assignment: RHP Mayky Perez (22, A+), 2B/SS Livan Soto (19, A), 2B/3B Franklin Torres (22, A+), 3B Taylor Ward (25, AAA), RHP John Swanda (20, A), OF D’Shawn Knowles (18, R), 2B/SS Leonardo Rivas (21, A+), RHP Luis Madero (22, A+)

This is the first installment of a look at sleeper prospects for all thirty MLB teams. There is no sense in covering the Angels’ top prospects, such as Jo Adell, Jahmai Jones and Luis Rengifo, because you’re already going to hear a lot about those players this winter and throughout the season ahead.

There is a lot of great prospect coverage around, and I want to be clear that outside of brief ancillary exposure to the world of scouting during brief internships and professional roles with a Rookie level minor league team, USA Baseball and the administrative office of two independent leagues, I lack professional scout training at this time or a network upon whom to rely. Anyone who wants to learn more about where tomorrow’s MLB stars come from need to be reading the great work of Baseball America, Baseball Prospectus, Jim Callis and Jonathan Mayo of MLBPipeline, Keith Law, Eric Longenhagen and Kiley McDaniel of Fangraphs (THE BOARD), and John Sickels, who I feel does the best job of condensing a lot of information into something accessible, especially for people new to following and analyzing minor league players.

Because I don’t want to plagiarize others’ work, I will be using this series to focus on less heralded prospects, especially in the low minors, to keep an eye on this coming spring. There will be a heavier lean on statistical indicators, and you’re going to want to get scouting reports on players from guys like Callis or Longenhagen, who can let you know why the numbers alone do or do not help paint an accurate picture of the player in question.

 

Los Angeles Angels of the Greater Anaheim Metropolitan Area Minor League Affiliates (2018)
AAA: Salt Lake Bees, Pacific Coast League (Salt Lake City, UT; since 2013)
AA:
Mobile BayBears, Southern League (Mobile, AL; since 2017)
A+:
Inland Empire 66ers, California League (San Bernadino, CA; since 2011)
A:
Burlington Bees, Midwest League (Burlington, IA; since 2013)
R-SS:
Orem Owlz, Pioneer League (Orem, UT; since 2001)
AZL: AZL Angels / DSL: DSL Angels

 

RHP Mayky Perez – Signed as international free agent (IFA): 2013, Dominican Republic, $635,000
2019 Age: 22
2019 Projected Assignment: A+ (Inland Empire 66ers, California League)

Perez was ranked by MLB.com as the 9th best prospect of the 2013 IFA class, and he was the most expensive of the Padres’ international signings for the year. Perez didn’t get out of rookie ball in his first three professional seasons. He managed only 2 appearances in 2015 for reasons I was unable to uncover. At the end of 2016, following his most successful pitching to date, San Diego gave him four appearances at their low A Northwest League affiliate, where he held his own in a tiny sample of seven innings, but he was released in March 2017. The Angels picked him up, and he again pitched at a rookie level classification, and he again wasn’t very good.

Armed with a low to mid 90s fastball, a slider and a change, Perez’s profile had long been that of a pitcher demonstrating strikeout potential, yet running hit rates of approximately ten per nine while struggling with control. Perez was moved to the bullpen full time in 2017, although he was never exclusively used as a starter.

In 2018, Perez received his first full season assignment and thrived, posting a 2.58 ERA in 38.1 innings, finishing 17 of the 25 games he pitched in. His season in Burlington was driven by a microscopic 3.8 hits per nine, which is most certainly far too low to be tenable; American League Cy Young Award winner Blake Snell ran the lowest H/9 among MLB starting pitchers in 2018 at 5.6. Still, it was an encouraging development after a worse, less inexperienced pool of hitters had given him trouble through his age 20 season.

Perez had a jump in strikeout rate to a career-best 13.4 per nine, an excellent mark that makes it difficult to wave away all of his giant gain in hit rate, or to dismiss every bit of it as luck fueled by a mere .212 BABIP (batting average on balls in play). He held opposing hitters to a .124 batting average overall. Although he’s going to need to bring his walk rate down to succeed in the upper minors, 2018 represented significant progress on his road to a possible future major league relief role. Perez recorded four strikeouts in a game eight times, even though he only pitched two or more innings thirteen times.

We won’t immediately learn much about Perez unless he’s good enough in hi A to get a few weeks, or a couple of months, to begin the transition to AA next summer. Although there are a lot of big run scoring environments in the California League, the Angels’ affiliate, Inland Empire (San Bernadino, CA), plays in a very difficult park for hitters. Using the most recent three year park factors available for the league (2014-2016), it produced the fewest runs of any park in the league: 80.3% of the runs a neutral run environment would see, and it was second to only San Jose in terms of hit rate (90.8% for Inland Empire, 90.6% for San Jose).

If Perez again runs a well below average hit rate in hi A, I would have little confidence in it being representative of real growth as opposed to run environment, although another late inning potential type of K rate would help assuage some doubts. In researching players for this piece, I noticed several split season pitchers who cut a double digit hit rate by multiple points upon promotions to hi A.

Perez needs to tighten up his control, but let’s see if he can consolidate some gains in a season split between A+ and AA. Someone gave a 16-year-old more than half a million dollars for a reason, presumably, and if his large improvements in H/9 and K/9 across the most challenging assignment of his young career are sticky, we could be looking at someone who begins 2020 on the 40-man roster, ticketed for a AA/AAA/MLB fast track type of split season year with upside for an eventual late inning role.

 

2B/SS Livan Soto signed as IFA: 2017, Venezuela, $850,000
2019 Age: 19
2019 Projected Assignment: A (Burlington Bees, Midwest League)

Soto actually signed with the Braves in 2016 for a million dollars, but he became a free agent when his contract was voided due to Atlanta being pretty darn sketchy about how they went about getting a ton of international talent under contract all at once. While Kevin Maitan, the top ranked IFA among the 2016 class by both MLBPipeline and Baseball America, was the headliner of the Angels’ pickups from the suddenly available Atlanta IFA class, Soto himself was an interesting enough talent to rank 16th for BA and 24th for MLB prior to the signing period. Playing as teammates for the Orem (UT) Owlz of the Pioneer League, the contact-happy Soto demonstrated much better feel for the strike zone than Maitan.

Soto has now walked 51 times to 50 strikeouts across more than 400 professional appearances, good for very healthy 12.5 BB/9 and 12.3 K/9 marks. He’s got a bit of speed and is 16 for 22 in stolen bases while splitting time about evenly between both middle infield positions, although he’s made 26 errors in his first 68 games at short.

It’s worth pointing out that Soto missed the age cut off for this being called his age 17 season by a mere eight days. He will be a very young 19 and one of the youngest players in the Midwest League when he steps onto the field for Burlington (IA). This is not a finished product; we can’t conclude from some rookie ball errors that Soto will not be able to play shortstop as he ascends the minor league ladder. Although he has very little power, a contact hitting profile with a high walk rate is a great foundation for surviving and adjusting to better pitching.

Sometimes low minors walk rates do not hold as the pitchers become less bad with experience and age at the higher levels. I will be concerned if I observe Soto’s strikeout rate creeping up towards 20% over his first couple full season assignments. This isn’t a profile with the power to carry a league average strikeout rate, so he would need to add at least doubles power to compensate for putting the ball in play less. The walk rate is a great sign, because a player so young having control of the strike zone already puts him ahead of a lot of toolsy players who can’t get out of A ball, mostly because of striking out thirty or forty percent of the time. But because rookie ball pitching contains a lot of bad pitchers, it’s dangerous to assume a rookie ball walk rate can carry most of a player’s value at the plate three or four levels higher, before he’s even given low A a first try.

Walk rates and strikeout rates stabilize more quickly in terms of sample size than virtually any metrics we’d want to look at among very young, still developing players. The jump to full season ball is large and Rivas is so young that if 2019 goes poorly, he can afford a second try at Burlington in 2020 without falling off the map. Keep a close eye on the plate approach numbers, however. With more strikeouts or many fewer walks, this is the profile of an empty batting average hitter, and that’s a utility infielder at the highest level, if and only if the defense is not just playable but comfortably above average at shortstop. If the plate approach falls apart, he adds no power, and he’s a full time second baseman, he’s not a major league player.

 

2B/3B Franklin Torressigned as IFA: 2013, Venezuela, signing bonus n/a
2019 Age: 22
2019 Projected Assignment: A+ (Inland Empire 66ers, California League)

Torres made his full season debut in the Midwest League this year, getting about half of his starts at second and about a quarter apiece at first and third. He’s 6’0” 175lbs and will probably not offer significant power at any point; it’s ideal if he can make it as a second baseman. The Angels seemed to agree when he was promoted to high A in July, as he did not make a start at any other position. He made five errors, for what it’s worth, in 51 keystone starts combined between the two levels. His season likely ended due to injury, about which I’ve found no information. He didn’t play past the end of July.

Torres demonstrated reasonable control of the strike zone in A ball, posting a strong 13.1 BB% and an under control 17.8 K%. He’s a high percentage base thief, caught only 8 times in 42 attempts across his professional career. His .285/.381/.382 line at A ball recalls Chone Figgins’ best season, when he hit .298/.395/.393 en route to a 6.5 fWAR season. Figgins had more straight steal speed and more doubles power, and Torres has to conquer three more minor league levels before hoping to approach anything like that production in the majors. However, if he can maintain the foundation of his plate approach and find the gaps against better pitching in the next couple of seasons, Figgins is a 98th percentile outcome for what looks like the ingredients you would throw in the mixing bowl to try to bake a Chone.

Torres now has 1152 career plate appearances. Even though he only received 56 PA with Inland Empire before his season ended prematurely, Torres nonethelesss clubbed his tenth, eleventh and twelfth career home runs in the brief trial. He’ll return to high A to begin 2019 and could push for a late season trial at AA. It’s a mistake to reach hard conclusions about anything across 56 PA.

That said, more prospects struggle upon promotion to better competition than not. Over-the-fence power is not a part of Torres’ game and almost assuredly never will be. However, watching a featherweight swat five extra base hits in two weeks upon promotion isn’t a bad sign. It’s not something that you file under “evidence this player has become overmatched”. A player doesn’t have to light the world on fire as long as he isn’t overmatched. There’s no shortage of empirical examples of middling minor league production that turned into useful enough MLB pieces.

I’ll be interested to see if Torres can build on his successful 2018. Since he can do a lot of things well and he is only missing raw power from his offensive profile, he has a route to more than an up-and-down brief AAA shuttle career. A player who can draw walks, keep strikeouts under control, and perhaps add the corner outfield spots to his profile is the kind of Johan Camargo or Marwin Gonzalez profile that is becoming extremely popular as 8-man bullpens continue to become the norm and major league benches shorten.

I’d like Torres’ chances of eventually sticking on a major league roster more if he could cover shortstop or center on a non-emergency basis. He had shortstop exposure in his first pro exposure in 2014 but does not appear to have shortstop in his future, which is a limiting factor for a utility profile. If the bat holds up as competent enough, you’ve got to try him in the outfield and see if he can justify a 25-man spot by covering five or six positions, even if one of them can’t be shortstop.

 

3B Taylor Ward 2015 1st round (26th overall), Fresno State
2019 Age: 25
2019 Projected Assignment: AAA (Salt Lake Bees, Pacific Coast League)

NOTE: Ward lost rookie eligibility in his first stint with the parent club last year, but he is also a young cost-controlled player who as of yet has not become an established MLB player. For our purposes, we’re going to consider prospects as young players who have not yet become established MLB players, since some of them do.

Ward was drafted by Tampa Bay in the 31st round of the 2015 draft (962nd overall), but went to Fresno State rather than jump into professional ball as a recent Californian high school graduate. As a former first round pick, Ward isn’t entirely off the radar, but it does look like a full time move to third base and away from the defensive grind of catching allowed his bat to take off this year, which Ward finished with his first MLB trial.

Ward may have been overmatched in his first taste of the majors, posting easily the lowest walk rate and highest strikeout rate of his career en route to batting just .178/.245/.333 in 147 PA. However, even while struggling, he swung and missed less than the average MLB player. Actually, he swung at fewer pitches than average in general, whether they were in the zone or out of the zone. The point is that even though he struck out in thirty percent of his plate appearances, he wasn’t flailing wildly at unhittable pitches. There’s no cause for alarm, and we’ll see if Ward is better prepared the next time he gets the call.

His defense graded out as 7.5 runs above average per 150 games, although 40 games is a small sample in general, and I believe when defensive metrics were finding themselves into the public consciousness, we used to talk about needing three full years of such data to consider it relatively stable.

Ward ran excellent lines split across the Pioneer and Midwest Leagues in 2015 following the June draft, but that’s what college hitters are supposed to do at those levels. His triple slash lines in 2016 and 2017 at A+ and AA were uninspired, but not awful. The power was modest and the offensive production he was offering looked unlikely to play if he had to move off of catcher, but even as he otherwise struggled, he ran walk and strikeout rates in the mid teens. He wasn’t clueless or overmatched. Unlike other younger position players mentioned in this piece, he’s already had the chance to show his approach works at higher levels. Although some scouts reportedly weren’t thrilled with his swing, he was able to maintain strike zone awareness while adjusting to better pitching.

Ward reworked his stance and swing in the offseason (OC Register, 9/11/18, Jeff Fletcher). “Ward said he stands a little more upright now, and he added a leg kick.” He also placed more of an emphasis on getting the ball in the air, and it showed. Ward posted healthy 25% and 24.6% line drive rates, indicative of more ideal, hard contact, at AA and AAA, respectively. His previous high mark was 21.5% across a half season of high A in 2017.

Said to possess only average power and showing perhaps slightly less than that throughout his prior minor league career, 2018 Ward looked like a brand new hitter. He hit 29 doubles and 20 home runs across the three levels in 593 PA. He also stole 20 bases and was caught only three times, even though he is thought to have below average speed.

Ward struck out slightly more often, but he more than made up for it by nearly doubling his prior power output. Batting .349/.446/.531 across 446 high minors PA, he made the case that there is everyday potential here, even with the higher offense demanded by third base as opposed to that of catcher. At age 24, he wasn’t young for the high minors, but he wasn’t old for them, and the slower moving college bats are rarely going to have age relative to league on their side, since they don’t get to begin their careers until age 21 or 22. His BABIP ran over .400 at both AA and AAA, and the high scoring run environment of the Pacific Coast League creates more mirages than breakouts. Still, the anecdotal evidence of a swing change, and the observable change of quality of contact and more game power portends higher in play averages: harder hit balls are converted into outs less frequently.

Steamer (the Fangraphs projection system) sees his walk and strikeout rates improving in the majors in 2019, but both the 9.1 BB% and 23.8 K% it projects would still be worse than anything on his minor league track record. His projected .241/.315/.376 triple slash is indicative of a player who be neither especially productive nor completely overmatched in his second shot at the big leagues. But those projections also take into account everything else Ward put on tape before 2018, playing a much more mentally and physically demanding position and batting with a less optimized swing. The previous data doesn’t not matter, but it’s descriptive of what was a very different player from the one who broke out last year.

If the power gains are real and Ward continues to show well defensively, there’s certainly opportunity for a decent everyday third baseman here. The average third baseman hit .251/.324/.425 with a 8.9 BB% and 20.8 K%. Ward can hit that bar and a number of teams did worse at the position, because the league average only includes the players who were both healthy enough and good enough to keep the job long enough to qualify for league leaderboards. I would bet on this player consolidating his gains and rounding into a 2-3 fWAR regular.

 

RHP John Swanda – 2017 4th round pick (115th overall), Roosevelt HS (Des Moines, IA)
2019 Age: 20
2019 Projected Assignment: A (Burlington Bees, Midwest League)

Did you notice yet that the Angels’ have two affiliates nicknamed the Bees? This must be extremely confusing around the front office. Utah (Salt Lake City Bees) is the Beehive State, so surely it is on Burlington to change. Anyway, Burlington is where Swanda is likely to play, less than two hundred miles from Des Moines, where he was named the Gatorade Player of the Year, recognized as the top high school player in the state. You can read an interview with Swanda here at Halos Heaven (SB Nation).

Since Swanda himself said these words, I feel comfortable plagiarizing that he was a two-way player in high school as the team’s shortstop. He only threw about 25-30 innings per year. That’s nice because it means there isn’t a lot of wear-and-tear baked into his arm, but it also means he’s a raw pitcher who will be taking things one level at a time. He turned down a scholarship with Nebraska, missing out on the opportunity to play for former Angel Darin Erstad, who was a part of the 2002 World Series Champions.

He was fastball/curveball in high school, but he has also integrated a changeup that he felt good about heading into the season. He says he loses the shape of his curveball at times and is working for consistency with the pitch.

Swanda made ten starts totaling thirty innings with Orem this summer, right in line with his high school workload. He allowed at least a run in all but two appearances. However, he threw more than 64% of his pitches for strikes and demonstrated strikeout ability. He also never walked more than one batter per appearance and only seven total, good for a 2.1 BB/9. He coaxed a groundball nearly half the time (46.9%), above the average MLB rate. A 4.50 ERA in a small sample isn’t going to turn heads, but control of the strike zone is the first thing I want to see from a rookie ball player, regardless of whether he is pitching or hitting. After all, the samples are small, the environments and player pools volatile, and the majors years away.

Most top 100 overall pitching prospects garner cottage industry attention when they limit walks and spike strikeouts after a full season at low A or more typically high A, chock full of positive reports from professional scouts. Swanda threw thirty competent innings in rookie ball. There are a lot of pitchers like Swanda in rookie ball.

I wouldn’t bet specifically on Swanda turning into a top pitching prospect, but he demonstrated the ability to control what he can control, and I would bet on this type of pitcher often, because if I do that ten times, I’ll get two top pitching prospects, and hopefully only one of the two tears his elbow or shoulder up. That’s how you develop MLB pitching, and the high bust rate is why every team in baseball needs more pitching than it has, virtually all of the time.

Swanda will get an opportunity to put himself on the map with his full season debut in the Midwest League in 2019. He will be a one-level-at-a-time pitcher for a while and even if he never has a lost season, which, yeah, he hasn’t thrown a pitch above rookie ball, I still wouldn’t expect to see him in the majors before 2022.

 

OF D’Shawn Knowlessigned as IFA: 2017, Bahamas, $850,000
2019 Age: 18
2019 Projected Assignment: R (Orem Owlz, Pioneer League)

Knowles is a switch-hitting outfielder who only got 28 games at Orem after getting promoted out of the AZL, but he mashed like he was a 22-year-old college graduate, not a 17-year-old in his first professional season. Knowles batted .321/.398/.550 in 123 PA, and 15 of his 35 hits went for extra bases. Combining his two rookie level stops, Knowles walked in 11.1% of his PA and struck out a little over a quarter of the time, although his K rate spiked at the more difficult assignment, and that’s the cost of above average power potential.

He played all three outfield spots in the AZL, but in Orem, he primarily saw time in center, making three quarters of his starts there while occasionally playing right. More CF end up in right than ones that don’t, which puts more pressure on how much bat a guy will need to develop, since more players can play RF or especially LF than CF. Sustaining his walk rate in full season ball and continuing to show power as one of the youngest players in his league is a great start, should a move to a corner eventually become necessary.

In between Knowles’ young age, his limited exposure to Orem and the 30% K rate he ran there, it seems likelier that he will return for a second go at age 18. Then again, the parent club has a lot more access to the player than we do, and it wouldn’t really shock me to see him pushed to the Midwest League, either.

IFAs with pop and a batting eye is a good foundation for where the once-in-a-solar-eclipse prospects like Ronald Acuna and Juan Soto come from, IFA successes who rocket out of nowhere to the majors as teenagers.

Those are entirely unfair expectations to place on any given player; I do not place them on Knowles. However, you’re never going to find one of those players without fishing out of this pool of upside potential power bat. A successful organization is going to want to do that. Players way less abnormally gifted than Acuna or Soto enjoy years as productive, if unspectacular, starting position players.

A large number of raw teenagers run a 30% K rate like Knowles just did, but pair it with a terrible walk rate. The strikeouts are a little less concerning when you have reason to believe the far-from-finished, very young player isn’t totally clueless about the strike zone. Keep an eye on the K rate, but keep an eye on this guy in general, too, because if he doesn’t hit a wall he’ll probably have justified a place among the Angels’ top 10 prospects in twelve months.

 

2B/SS Leonardo Rivassigned as IFA: 2015, Venezuela, signing bonus n/a
2019 Age: 21
2019 Projected Assignment: A+ (Inland Empire 66ers, California League)

The switch-hitting Rivas stands 5’10” 150. This middle infielder’s frame is not conducive for power, which is why it was problematic that Rivas saw his K rate shoot way up to 25.2% (previous high 19.2% as 17-year-old in DSL) across a full season in the Midwest League.

Rivas does a lot of things well. He can run a bit. Although he was only 16 of 26 (61.5%) on steal attempts this season, it followed up an excellent 19 of 20 (95%) rate in 2017. He plays middle infield and plays it capably. He’s not anemic at the plate, but power is not going to be what makes this player valuable, if he is able to become valuable someday.

Rivas needs less swing and miss in his game to ascend to the highest level. This player makes it when his game on offense is built around contact. His speed, perhaps his best tool, is nullified when the ball isn’t put in play. He’s a sleeper because he’s a middle infielder with a middle infielder bat who just struck out 138 times in low A while producing a pedestrian .233/.355/.326 triple slash line. If 2018 had been the year he cut the strikeouts down, bumped the contact, and sprayed a healthily modest smattering of doubles and triples throughout the year, like you’ll be watching to see if he can accomplish in a poor run environment in San Bernadino next season, then he wouldn’t be a sleeper anymore, because all of a sudden that’s a well rounded player at a position where Charlie Culberson has been the starter on two different playoff teams in two consecutive years.

I also want to point out that Rivas managed to get hit by a pitch 17 times in just 276 PA in the Dominican Summer League (DSL) in 2015. That’s 6.2% of his plate appearances that saw him reach base for the small price of having a hard object launched at his body. Brandon Guyer is the all-time MLB leader in HBP rate at 5.72%.

 

RHP Luis Maderosigned as IFA: 2013, Venezuela, $160,000
2019 Age: 22
2019 Projected Assignment: A+ (Inland Empire 66ers, California League)

Madero was acquired from the Diamondbacks at the 2017 trade deadline in exchange for reliever David Hernandez. He was added to the 40-man roster last month to protect him from being lost in the Rule 5 draft, which allows teams to draft unprotected minor league players who become the property of the claiming team so long as they spend an entire year on the active MLB roster. It’s difficult to hide a raw player for a full season, but at the same time, a couple teams know they gonna 2018 Baltimore next season, and another talent pipeline for a rebuild is more interesting then worrying about losing 109 instead of 104.

Madero was protected despite a performance record that is uneven at best so far, and he’s thrown only 44.1 innings above low A. He’s pretty clearly not ready for MLB action. 40-man protection from the Rule 5, or lack of it, obviously speaks to the parent club’s fear of or relative indifference to losing a player. These choices are always worth paying attention to in November. If a guy would be really hard to hide in the majors for a year, and he’s protected anyway, the team clearly values the prospect highly.

Madero isn’t hopeless, but he’s also been pretty hittable at almost every stop since getting out of Arizona (Arizona’s Arizona League rookie team, not Arizona as an MLB organization). In fact, the lowest rate he’s run came in his nine high A starts to close the 2018 season. But as we’ve talked about earlier in this piece, Inland Empire’s home park mutes about ten percent of hits. And despite the helpful environment, he was still only able to cut his rate to 8.3 per nine, which isn’t bad in a neutral environment, but also isn’t especially great. He has allowed more than ten hits per nine at almost every other stop, including the better part of his season, which was spent with Burlington. Minor league defenders are worse than major league defenders, but 10+ H/9 is a lot, and sometimes it’s indicative of a thrower who needs to learn to pitch. Clearly, Los Angeles isn’t too concerned.

Let’s stop picking on the guy for a bit and appreciate that he caught the Angels’ eye in summer 2017 trade talks, because 2017 was the beginning of a stretch of nearly 200 encouraging innings through the end of this past season. Over the past two seasons, Madero make significant command gains, flashing a winning combination of strong home run suppression and limiting walks to go with strikeout stuff. That’s a comfortable formula for someone who will keep getting opportunities as a starting pitcher. And across 2017-2018, he’s appeared in 38 games and started all of them.

2017 (age 20) – R (PIO) – Missoula, MT – 29.1 IP – .9 HR/9, 1.8 BB/9, 8.6 K/9

2017 (20) – A- (NWL) – Hillsboro, OR – 19.2 IP – .9 HR/9, 2.3 BB/9, 7.8 K/9 (promoted 7/15/17 to make four showcase starts pre-trade)

2017 (20) – A (MID) – Burlington, IA – 26.2 IP – 1 HR/9, 3 BB/9, 6.1 K/9

2018 (21) – A (MID) – Burlington, IA – 61.1 IP – .7 HR/9, 2.2 BB/9, 7.2 K/9

2018 (21) – A+ (CAL) – San Bernadino, CA – .6 HR/9, 2.4 BB/9, 9.3 K/9

Madero ran out of steam at the end of 2017, but not before he first conquered Missoula after putting up an ERA north of 11 and a WHIP well above 2 across five poor starts there the previous season. As strong as the first two thirds of his season looked, he actually recorded a 6.42 ERA on the year. I left the H/9 column off for a reason. He’ll surely return to high A to start 2019, but could end up pitching across three or even four levels and making his MLB debut if things really start to click and/or injuries strike the parent club. It’s more likely that the plan is for him to split a year between high A and AA.

If the hit rate problem wasn’t here, I would be all over this prospect in a keeper league without knowing or even really caring what he throws. He’s never been old for a league, and the three primary component ratios have shown real growth over the past two seasons. The Angels spent a 40-man roster spot on a guy who would likely be below replacement level if thrust into MLB duty next April. They wouldn’t spend the roster spot on a pitcher who they didn’t feel had stuff good enough to play at the MLB level if kept on a proper development path.

It’s also worth bearing in mind that the Pioneer League is the highest scoring run environment in minor league baseball. The Arizona League, Northwest League and California League all aren’t far behind. Burlington is the only place Madero has had the chance to pitch so far that isn’t in one of those four leagues. Some of his hit rate issues might be a product of the environments he finds himself in.

I would ultimately decide to take a shot on this picture, but if a 9-11 H/9 is still showing up the year after he gets his first month or two of AA exposure, I’d be very concerned about it, and if he runs a strong hit rate at Inland Empire to start 2019, I wouldn’t prematurely consider the issue settled due to run environment.