A tour through the high-octane arms of the California League.
And here we are at Part II of my California League review for 2016. In case you missed Part I, which covered position-player prospects, you can find it here. That article includes links to all of the Eyewitness Reports I filed this year, along with a published version of my 2016 Scouting Database for all of the hitters I saw with any regularity. I’m still adding a few stragglers to both that list and the one you’ll find below, so note to check back if you don’t see a guy you’re interested in reading about.
Today, it’s the pitchers’ turn. One note on my evaluation process, I’ve found that one of the things it’s really easy to do in player evaluation is get caught up in first impressions, and let them harden quickly into definitive opinions. And there’s certainly pressure for that process to take place; the job of an evaluator, after all, is to predict future performance and value likelihoods based on what he or she sees. But I’ve found that pitchers got the short end when I was first trying to evaluate them. I was disciplined and trained to give position players a few looks before starting to form real opinions about them, and that is of course a standard best-case approach. Hitting is hard, and anyone can misread the occasional flair off a burly slugger’s bat. But with pitchers, I found that if I saw a guy throw 90-100 pitches and work into a lineup for the third time, that’s a broader base of gained knowledge than I get from just a one-game look at a position player. And an internal scale for positional value adjustments became quickly apparent: pitchers start every five days, and broadly speaking we look at one-game pitching samples as on par with (ideally) three- or four-game.
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The best bats from the Cal League, all in one place.
It was a notably weaker year for top-shelf prospects in the California League this season, with a whopping 30 combined games from Kyle Tucker, Yohander Mendez, and Luis Ortiz representing the sum total of contributions by prospects that cracked our Mid-Season Top 50. The season also ended under a cloud of bummerness, with the news that two franchises—including eventual champions High Desert—would contract at season’s end. Two of the stronger systems of recent vintage in the circuit, those belonging to the Houston Astros and Texas Rangers, have been confirmed as future transplants to the Carolina League, and rumblings that the Colorado Rockies may join the exodus have been percolating as well. Boo.
The good news: what the league lacked in elite pedigree it made up with quality play from a reasonably large middle class of players with future big-league potential. I’ve written about dozens of them along the way this season, and you can access all of my Eyewitness Reports, as well as a link to my full scouting database, at the bottom of this article.
Evaluating in the public realm can often turn into a big-game hunting event, with a prominent portion of the coverage directed towards the eventual major-league talent. This happens because the big names draw the largest crowd, so it's not an uncommon strategy to target those players that will garner the most buzz. Player evaluation is not so cut-and-dry, however. Over the course of the season, scouts and evaluators watch hundreds of players and are grading more than just the next mid-rotation starter or potential first-division shortstop. Most of the players we lay eyes on are simply minor league filler. This article is meant to highlight some of the talent in the extreme lower levels, while also providing brief notes on players of all stripes.
Kevin Gowdy, RHP, Philadelphia Phillies
A second-rounder this year, Gowdy has been playing down here with top-pick Mickey Moniak—a nod to the fact that the money saved from Moniak’s signing bonus went to pay the nearly $2 million over slot that it took to ink Gowdy. The appeal is obvious: a premium athlete, he has a slender 6-foot-4, 170-pound body with loads of projection remaining. His delivery is clean, with a compact arm action, plus arm speed, and a standard three-quarters slot. While my viewing was a short, one-inning affair, his fastball ran between 93-95 and featured average or better life. The command and movement were both inconsistent, but showed flashes of elite potential that, if harnessed, could play at a peak level down the road. He also showcased an 86-87 slider that featured above-average bite with moderate tilt. While it lacked in depth currently, the action and power behind it suggest it could be an average or better offering in time.
Dylan Cease, RHP, Chicago Cubs (short-season Eugene)
I saw Cease for the second time this year, and while the pure stuff—upper-90s fastball, hammer 12-6 curve, firm and rarely used changeup—is mostly unchanged, it's clear that he's made strides. First, he did a much better job of moving his fastball around the zone in his second outing. In the first game, he spiked his heater a lot and he looked shaken and afraid to unleash the pitch for an inning or so after hitting someone in the head with it. There was no such hesitation in his second start: his command is a work in progress, but he hit all quadrants of the zone, got several whiffs elevating, and had no qualms about pitching inside. His curve also flashed plus more consistently than it did in my first viewing. He's still struggling to get people to chase it out of the zone—it's either a strike or it breaks early into the dirt—but it's tough to hit when it's in the zone, and he froze multiple hitters who were sitting on the fastball. Cease will need to tighten both pitches as he climbs the latter, but he's made substantial progress with both in the last three months, and it's clear that he has thoroughly passed the short season test. —Brendan Gawlowski
Kyle Cody, RHP, Texas Rangers (short-season Spokane)
Tall, big frame; good plane, downhill thrower; straight stride; quick arm; clean landing; no head whack; good posture; clean arm action; 3/4 arm slot. Throws a four-seam and two-seam fastball. The four-seamer sits in the low-to-mid 90s, touching 95, two-seamer has average wiggle, and he's most comfortable locating the pitch arm-side. His primary off-speed pitch was the slider, a two-plane pitch with predominantly horizontal movement. It flashed above average, but the shape was inconsistent, and it spun badly out of the hand more than once. He also has a fading changeup, but he didn't use it much in my viewing. While he has most of the ingredients you look for in a starter, but I'd project a bullpen arm in the long run. He's 22, which isn't old, but isn't young for a pitcher with an inconsistent secondary offering. Perhaps I'd feel differently if I'd seen more of his changeup, but the fact that he didn't use it much presents its own concerns. —Brendan Gawlowski
Notes on first-rounders Hudson Potts, Taylor Ward, and others.
Hudson Potts, 3B, San Diego Padres (Complex Level AZL)
Selected 24th-overall in June out of a Texas high school, the artist formerly known as Hudson Sanchez has already earned his first professional promotion after a solid debut, especially for a kid won’t be 18 until October. A tall third baseman with very soft hands and fluid motions on the field, Potts swings right-handed, gets the barrel to the ball quickly, and shows the ability (and willingness) to use the whole field. He has good balance at the plate and a swing tailored to hit line drives, but he has the frame to develop power as he progresses. I expect his defensive ability to carry him early on, and there’s a reasonable chance the power eventually comes around to league average. —Matt Pullman
Winston Lavendier, LHP, Los Angeles Angels (High-A Inland Empire)
Lavendier's "windup," if you can call it that, basically consists of him lifting his leg into a tucked coil, tensing every muscle in his body, and hurtling every part of it towards the plate as hard and fast as he can. It is among the highest of high-energy delivery you'll see, and it creates some good (moderate deception and quality extension) along with some bad (I just can't see a reliable command profile coming out of that delivery). He controlled the stuff pretty well, though, generating quality plane and driving the ball into the zone. He was all fastball in this look, piling up three outs on just nine pitches with some electricity and finish at 91-94. He apparently has a relatively deep complimentary arsenal, as well, showing a slider and what appeared to be a splitter in warmups, with both moving at a similar vertical trajectory. —Wilson Karaman
Notes on the standout performers at the plate from the East Coast Pro showcase.
2016 ECP Hitters
1B Alex Toral, West Orange HS (FL) - One of the strongest players in the 2017 class, Toral put on a show during the week at the plate. The University of Miami commit has at least plus raw power with plus bat speed, plus physicality, and an uphill stroke with loft. There is a chance for more raw power given how young he is, if he maintains his body well. As a hitter he recognizes pitches well and has an idea of what he can and can’t hit. He got a healthy dose of off-speed offerings during the week, but opted to wait for his pitch rather than chase. Toral taking D.L. Hall deep was one of the highlights of the event and showed how much playable power he could have down the road. Unfortunately, his hit and power are the only average to better tools he brings to the table: he is a 30 runner, with a 40 arm, and a chance for a fringe-average glove at first base. Given the nature of his body now, there is a chance that he could be a DH if his body goes the wrong direction.
D.L. Hall leads the list of pitchers who impressed at the event.
LHP D.L. Hall, Valdosta HS (GA)
Easily the most impressive arm of the event, Hall excited everybody in attendance with his combination of stuff as well as feel for pitching. Hall, who is officially listed at 6-feet, 179 pounds, still has some physical projection remaining given his age and a slender upper half. Pitching from a half windup, Hall combines a smooth, compact arm action with above-average arm speed and a three-quarters slot. His pitches played up thanks to an athletic, easy delivery that allowed the ball to really jump on batters. His fastball sat 93-94 and had some mild run down in the zone. His curve is a true weapon, coming in at 77-79, the pitch featured 1/7 shape with power and sharpness. It had consistent shape and he was able to locate it for strikes, as well as out of the zone when finishing hitters. It is a potential plus offering and given how well he located it, could play higher. Hall also flashed a potential above-average change at 80-81 which featured late, fading action and present arm speed. He located it to right-handers down in the zone and is comfortable throwing it in most counts. Hall has the potential to go early in the first round of the upcoming draft.
RHP Blayne Enlow, St. Amant HS (LA)
Hall might have been the most impressive arm of the event, but Enlow was certainly an intriguing arm. Officially listed at 6-foot-2, 179 pounds, Blayne is a LSU commit with a wiry, projectable body.
Notes on Austin Bain, Nick Dunn, A.J. Graffanino, and more.
Austin Bain, RHP, Louisiana State University – Square shoulders, compact, some room to fill out; semi-wind, quick shuffle into high leg kick, stiffness in takeaway; mild stab, steep arm angle to high three-quarter; drop-and-drive, deceleration and drift into stride, inconsistent balance, significant spine tilt, struggles to get downhill consistently with force; fastball 86-89 relatively straight, lacks a ton of plane, below-average command, ball wanders up in the zone; changeup 79-81, solid tumble, late diving action, consistent arm speed, flashes above-average potential; slider 76-78, lacks depth, will roll it, not a ton of bite; struggled with balance and rhythm in the stretch, lots of misses up in the zone; deliberate pace with runners on, holds the ball to try and counter slow stretch delivery, 1.38-1.5.
A look at ten of the top players from the two-game showcase.
Every year the Northwoods League gathers 80 of its best players in Madison during one of its few off days. The game is a little different in that the players are selected by scouts that cover the league instead of coaches and managers. The result is two games of the best prospects (that haven’t headed home, ahem Keenan Bartlett) the Northwoods League has to offer. Instead of working my way through every player, I’ll highlight ten of the best in a follow list format.