Updates on Byron Buxton, Francisco Lindor, and others around the minor leagues.
Byron Buxton, OF, Twins (Low-A Cedar Rapids)
After a scorching start to the season (1.194 OPS in April), Buxton has cooled (somewhat) in his second month in full-season ball, but thanks to game heroics and flashes of his future brilliance, Buxton’s stock has never been higher. Equipped with eye-splitting tools, including elite speed and easy plus raw power, the 19-year-old is well on his way to being the top prospect in the minors. Buxton recently hit a walk-off grand slam that one scout source in attendance said traveled an estimated 450 feet and was launched off a 98 mph fastball. Perfect Game’s Justin Hlubek captured the event on video, and if you have a change of pants handy, please click this link and drift into a euphoric state. --Jason Parks
Yordano Ventura, RHP, Royals (Double-A Northwest Arkansas)
If Ventura’s physical characteristics read 6’3’’ rather than 5’11’’, the combination of stuff and results would make him one of the premier pitching prospects in the game. Everybody knows about the fastball, as it can hit triple digits in bursts and routinely works in the plus-plus range, but the legitimacy is found in the developmental progression of the secondary arsenal, which includes a plus curveball and a changeup that some think could end up being very special. Because of questions about his ability to handle a starter’s workload, Ventura gets put into the bullpen box, where he profiles as an elite closer. While that’s quite the enticing alternative, the organization is adamant that they always have and will continue to view the 21-year-old righty as a starter, and a very special one at that. Not every slight Dominican righty is going to be the next Pedro, but most slight Dominican righties aren’t in Ventura’s class of talent, and if his body is up to the challenge, the Royals might have the top of the rotation arm they’ve been trying to develop since forever. –Jason Parks
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Checking in on Oscar Taveras, Miguel Sano, Gabriel Guerrero, and others.
Michael Wacha, RHP, Cardinals (Triple-A Memphis)
The Cardinals’ top pick in the 2012 draft, Wacha received an aggressive assignment to Triple-A Memphis despite logging just 21 pro innings last summer. He is proving plenty apt for the challenge, posting a 1.99 ERA while yielding just 27 hits in 40 2/3 innings. Regarded as a polished arm as an amateur at Texas A&M, Wacha has made some quick strides as a pro. The progression hasn’t really changed his projection as a no. 3 starter, but he’s perhaps closer to realizing that potential than initially thought.
The 21-year-old righty has shown lots of polish early this season, pounding the strike zone with a three-pitch mix that includes a 90-95 mph fastball. He generates a steep downhill plane from his 6-foot-6 frame. His secondary pitches play well off the fastball––particularly his deceptive low-80s changeup, which is already a plus offering. Wacha’s curveball has been a key development since college; it’s presently average to solid-average and should become a third plus in the near future.
Brandon Workman, RHP, Red Sox (Double-A Portland)
The 24-year-old has come out of the gate in 2013 showing improved fastball command, with the forward progress translating into less hard contact against and the missing of more bats. Workman has always thrown strikes since turning pro, but the increase in quality strikes has allowed him to efficiently churn through lineups in the Eastern League during the first month of the year. The latest outing saw him heavily feature his 91-94 mph fastball. Workman pounded the lower tier of the strike zone, along with generating more than a handful of swings and misses with the offering. While the right-hander didn’t have his best feel for either the 75-78 mph curveball or 86-89 mph cutter, he used them enough to further enhance the heater.
I’ve felt that Workman’s ultimate role lies in the bullpen, but there’s also been some improvement with loosening up the delivery and becoming less jerky with the arm action. The pitcher does still expend some extra energy, and longer frames do take their toll on him. I still see a seventh- or eighth-inning-reliever role as the best fit long-term, but more of a chance he can stick around as a starter for the near future. The growth of the fastball command is a good sign that Workman is taking steps toward getting closer to the majors, and should help boost his case for getting a crack at Triple-A as a starter. –Chris Mellen
Burch Smith, RHP, Padres (Double-A San Antonio)
Smith has been perhaps the most impressive pitcher in the Texas League this month, posting a 1.38 ERA with 31 strikeouts and just four walks over 26 innings. The 23-year-old has flashed plus command of a dominant fastball that sits between 93-96 mph and reaches up to 98. Although Smith doesn’t create much downhill plane and doesn’t have a ton of fastball life, he has a highly deceptive delivery and hides the ball extremely well. The deception enables his big velocity to play up a tick and induce a number of late swings.
When I saw Smith in action early last week, he also showed a potential average changeup and fringy curveball. The Texan may profile as a late-inning reliever due to the dominant fastball and lack of a plus secondary pitch. But some scouts believe he can stick in a starting role, and his ability to hold plus velocity and command his arsenal with deception could give him a chance. —Jason Cole
Cody Buckel, RHP, Rangers (Double-A Frisco)
Buckel’s start has included 16 walks in just six innings over three appearances. It’s early, but the extreme control issues are a troubling sign for a pitcher who issued only 48 free passes in 144 2/3 innings between the High- and Double-A levels last season. Buckel’s overall stuff has been fine; he touched 96 mph during a recent start in Frisco. But a number of scouts have been quick to point out the 20-year-old’s defeated body language on the mound. His mechanics have also been highly inconsistent, with one scout saying, “He’s making a lot of little adjustments on the mound, but every adjustment needs another adjustment.” If the control issues persist, it’ll be interesting to see if the Rangers eventually let Buckel work things out in the bullpen or move him to a more controlled environment in extended spring training. —Jason Cole
Matt Barnes, RHP, Red Sox (Double-A Portland)
The top pitching prospect in the organization got off to a rocky start in Double-A, lasting just 1 inning and 2 1/3 innings in his first two outings. But the right-hander rebounded nicely with six efficient innings, allowing five hits while striking out seven. Barnes’ heater operated 91-95 mph, with plenty of late life and movement when thrown down in the zone. The 22-year-old showed how he can use his fastball, reaching for extra velocity when needed, pounding both sides of the plate throughout the outing, and creating the steep, downhill angle that pushes it toward a plus-plus pitch. Barnes was a strike-throwing machine with the offering, which allowed him to churn through the lineup with relative ease. What stood out more, though, was his trust in an improved changeup. The pitch has become a viable offering and graded as average to solid-average. The 83-85 mph change showed arm-side fade, and occasional cut when the righty threw it to the glove side. What kept batters at bay was seamless arm-speed between his fastball, creating deception that had hitters in front when Barnes mixed it in sequences. This pitch should go a long way to proving he’s on his way to fulfilling a projection as a solid third starter. —Chris Mellen
Joe Ross, RHP, Padres (Low-A Ft. Wayne)
The former first-round pick dealt with injuries and inconsistency last year in what was a disappointing introduction to full-season ball and the Midwest League. This April, Ross returned to Ft. Wayne and has been nothing short of impressive in his first two starts for the Tincaps, tallying 12 strikeouts and just two walks and two hits over 10 innings. In his Opening Day start against the Great Lakes Loons (Dodgers), Ross showed off low- to mid-90s velocity (peaking at 96 mph) with arm-side life and improved fastball command, working the lower-U (both sides and the knees) and taking advantage of a little extra room the umpire was giving to the glove side.
Ross established himself inside early and often to both lefties and righties, working mostly fastballs the first time through the order and adding a low- to mid-80s slider the second time through. He broke out just a few change-ups—most notably three in one six-pitch strikeout of Dodgers 2012 first rounder Corey Seager in their second meeting (the first resulted in a soft 1-3). Ross still tends to open up his front side prematurely, periodically driving his fastballs high and to the right relative to the target, but overall he’s keeping the ball down, missing bats, and inducing soft contact (the Loons hit just two balls in the air and squared up three through Ross's five innings of work). In limited action thus far there is certainly evidence of growth in stuff and improvement in execution. —Nick J. Faleris
The prospect staff goes through the players they want to get a look at this year.
Courtney Hawkins, OF, Chicago White Sox (High-A Winston-Salem)
My appreciation of Courtney Hawkins is similar to my appreciation of Shiner Bock: it’s from Texas, I’m supposed to love it unconditionally, others love it unconditionally, I recognize some of the qualities that encourage others to love it unconditionally, but it just doesn’t tickle my fancy and I don’t freak out when it’s available. In 2013, my goal is to sit on a Winston-Salem series until the Courtney Hawkins buzz intoxicates me. I enjoy his approach and sturdy physical characteristics, but I’ve yet to witness the major-league flash, the high-end tool utility that separates good amateur prospects from good professional players. I’ve also yet to meet an amateur scout who wouldn’t walk a mile for a cooler full of Courtney Hawkins, and that fact alone makes me feel like I’m the one who is missing out, not the other way around. In 2013, I’m going to find out for sure. –Jason Parks
Kevin Gausman, RHP, Baltimore Orioles (Double-A Bowie)
After I just missed Gausman at both Fall Instructs and spring training, catching the right-hander throw is a high point of interest. My appetite’s been whetted by reports from a couple of contacts: a 93-97 mph explosive fastball with late life, a hard, deep swing-and-miss slider, and a deceptive fading changeup that the 22-year-old shows excellent feel for. I love watching how pitchers with Gausman’s level of stuff go about executing it. Now that he’s in the upper minors, it comes down to pitchability. Does he know how to set a hitter up to utilize the secondary offerings? Can he pitch with his fastball? Or will Gausman just try to blow everyone away? These are aspects of his game that I’ll be looking over closely, while also zoning in deeply at his developmental progress over the course of the season. –Chris Mellen
Prospects who have an innate instinctual gift that sets them apart from their peers and allows some of their weaker skills to play up.
Francisco Lindor, SS, Indians (Low-A Lake County)
The best shortstops in baseball all share a similar skill set, and this is as true at the lowest levels of the game as it is at the highest. To play on the left side of the diamond, you need the arm, you need the fielding actions, you need the range, and, most importantly, you need the instincts. You might be able to placate the defensive Gods with an average arm, or sloppy actions, or even less-than-desirable range, but what can push a skill set beyond its physical state (or limit it to the simple actions of that state) are the feel and instincts for the game itself. Francisco Lindor is as instinctual on the field as any prospect you will find, existing in his surroundings like he was born and raised in the dirt-filled area between second and third. He moves in this space like I move in a bar. His baseball intelligence and makeup are off-the-chart, and even when you create a new chart specifically designed to measure his baseball intelligence and makeup, he’s off that chart as well.—Jason Parks
Zack Wheeler, RHP, Mets (Triple-A Buffalo)
Often pitchers with plus stuff can get away with mistakes, especially when they’re in the low minors, or else they consistently lean on a pitch or two because they are that much better than their competition. The progression into higher levels typically forces them to either adjust quickly or hit the proverbial wall. I caught Wheeler during his time with Double-A Binghamton this year and the stuff was exceptional. He toyed with the hitters, using an electric arsenal: a 92-96 mph fastball, a tight mid-to-high 70s curveball with deep break and finish, an 83-86 mph slider, and a low-80s changeup. Wheeler also showed the ability and knowledge to utilize his whole repertoire, often setting up batters with varied sequences or ruthlessly exploiting weaknesses. I did come away from the outing with some needs going forward, mainly in the form of improving the fastball command due to being late with his delivery at times. The heater can stay up in the zone, but I kept coming back to the pitchability Wheeler showed for a 22-year-old. He pitched like a mature veteran and player with a lot more experience, consistently poised and in control. The knowledge or high IQ of how to execute the craft, rather than just relying on pure stuff, is a positive sign pointing towards both growth going forward and the ability to adjust once he does reach the majors.—Chris Mellen
The AFL is upon us, and here are 10 players to keep an eye on this year.
Billy Hamilton, CF, Reds (Double-A Pensacola/Peoria Javelinas)
Few players in the 20-year history of the Arizona Fall League have reported with as much buzz as Cincinnati Reds' prospect Billy Hamilton. Coming off a season where he broke a minor league record by stealing 155 bases and having posted an overall .319/.418/.431 line between High-A Bakersfield and Double-A Pensacola, Hamilton would have already been targeted as an exciting player to watch closely, but there is more on his plate than most of the other prospects this Fall.
After playing shortstop in the Reds' system since being drafted in the second round of the 2009 draft, Hamilton is listed as an outfielder on the Peoria Javalinas' roster. With shortstops Zack Cozart and Didi Gregorius already in their stable, Cincinnati is going to attempt to convert Hamilton into a center fielder in the AFL. This type of strategy is what Roland Hemond had in mind when he came up with the idea of the Arizona Fall League, because winter ball teams in Venezuela, Dominican Republic, Mexico, and Puerto Rico cannot afford to risk conversion projects in their highly competitive environment laden with roster limitations. The Reds' Arizona headquarters are a short ride from any of the AFL sites, so their instructors will spend a lot of time with Hamilton and observe every game.
Prospects have a long way to climb to reach the majors. After their 2012 efforts, these guys need to keep climbing.
Daniel Norris, LHP, Blue Jays (Short-season A Vancouver)
Norris was an over-slot second round signing for the Blue Jays in 2011, boasting three potential plus pitches: his 91-93 mph fastball, a slow 1-to-7 curve with big depth and bite, and a solid change with some cut-and-tumble. Norris throws with an easy arm out of a three-quarter slot, creating good angles and plane on his pitches, but there is some wrap on the back side, which can lead to drag in his arm and inconsistency in release. The quality of his stuff pops when on, but in order to more consistently tap into it he will need to find a way to standardize the delivery mechanism. Through extended spring training and just over 42-innings between rookie (35 IP) and short-season A ball (7.2 IP), Norris had his moments but was unable to build any momentum from start-to-start. He missed plenty of bats while flashing the goods that landed him a $2 million signing bonus, but he was too often betrayed by his timing and mechanics, with command and pitch execution suffering as a result. It may not take much for Norris to flip the switch and make the jump to a top pitching prospect, but it is at least a little disappointing to see a good athlete and student of the game like Norris continue to struggle with the same inconsistencies that haunted him as an amateur.—Nick Faleris
Jorge Alfaro, C, Rangers (Single-A Hickory)
One of the most physically gifted and athletic catchers in the minors, Alfaro has the profile of a future superstar, with a middle-of-the-order bat and the weapons behind the plate to develop into an above-average backstop. The bat speed is extraordinary, and the raw strength puts his power potential in the plus-plus range. The hit tool doesn’t share the same lofty ceiling, as the appetite for fastballs makes off-speed offerings his kryptonite, and his preference for the right-center gap shrinks his hitting zone and allows pitchers to work him inside. As a teenager in a full-season league, Alfaro was expected to struggle, but a cursory glance at the numbers might suggest his season was a success. Developmentally, the road was bumpy, with approach issues that soured some of his support, and along with a few minor injuries, limited him to only 74 games. Based on his tools, I expected Alfaro to emerge as a premiere prospect in the game, a frontline player with a legit major league floor to go along with the cathedral ceiling. I often stress patience when asked about young players, and perhaps I need to take my own advice. I’m just so enamored with a catcher that has a near-elite arm, plus speed, plus-plus power, and the kind of athleticism rarely found in a catcher. It’s an abnormal package and I expected to see the monster break into the village and start scaring the town-folk. It didn’t happen in 2012, but if it happens in 2013, Alfaro has a chance to go from top ten prospect in the Rangers system to top-tier prospect in all of baseball. The skill set is that terrifying.—Jason Parks
Time for instructional leagues, and time for a number of players to take a step or two forward.
Luiz Gohara, LHP, Mariners (2012 Contract)
An international prize, Brazilian Luiz Gohara signed with the Mariners this summer for $800,000, already armed with a promising arsenal; his fastball can hit 94 with plus life, his slider is average to plus, and his delivery and arm action are very clean and easy. Oh, and he does all that from the left side. The body is already physically mature (listed at 6-foot-3, 220 pounds), but it wouldn’t be surprising to see Gohara tap into more velocity as he ages and receives professional instruction. International scouts worried about him not being challenged as an amateur, and pitchability could take some time to develop, but the tools are outstanding. Instructs will offer many scouts their first look at him, and his stuff could allow him to explode onto the prospect scene.—Hudson Belinsky
C.J. Edwards (RHP) Rangers
Most 48th round draft picks don’t develop into players, much less prospects, but C.J. Edwards has a chance to change that tradition. I first stumbled upon the long and limby Edwards during the Fall Instructional League in 2011. I was charting pitches behind the pitchers tasked with charting pitches, and I thought the South Carolina native was one of the many talented Dominican pitchers in the Rangers system. My cultural and linguistic ignorance aside, I didn’t get a chance to see Edwards on the mound until the spring of 2012, where I once again assumed he was Dominican. The 6-foot-2 155 pound righty was easily one of the more interesting arms in camp, with a whippy low-90s fastball that could touch higher and a charming curve that could miss more advanced bats. Edwards carried over his exhibition success to the short-season circuit, where in two stops the 20-year-old arm (now 21) allowed only 32 hits in 67 innings of work, sending an impressive 85 down on strikes. Now in his second instructional league camp, Edwards is already flashing a high quality changeup, a fading low-80s pitch with a little sink that plays very well off his fastball. One would think that escaping the complex league level would represent the height of a 48th round pick’s professional reach, but apparently C.J. Edwards isn’t aware of such limitations, and looks to take another step forward in 2013.—Jason Parks
Though we've reached the playoffs for the minor leagues, there are still performances worth thinking about.
Bryce Brentz, OF, Red Sox (Triple-A Pawtucket)
Brentz is always an interesting player to scout, with one word summing up a set of multiple looks: “streaky.” The bat speed and the power he creates to all fields are key strengths, but the overly-aggressive approach and fringe-average pitch recognition are tough to dismiss. Brentz got off to a 2-for-17 start in Triple-A after a late-season promotion, only to quickly catch fire in the first five games of the International League playoffs, and then cool down with an 0-for-7 with 5 strikeouts in the last two. The highs and lows typically come back to whether he is staying back on the ball. Projecting the 23-year-old outfielder is tricky. There’s major league talent with the bat, but there are also flaws that can prove to be critical against the unforgiving pitching. I see the power to hit 20-25 home runs, but I also presently see a lot of swing-and-miss that makes it tough to maintain a respectable batting average. Brentz’s ability to hold down a long-term starting job will come down to how much further he can adjust and learn to hit secondary offerings. —Chris Mellen
Oscar Taveras, OF, Cardinals (Double-A Springfield)
What can be said about Oscar Taveras that hasn’t already been said about most bacon products? The Dominican offensive wizard arrived at Double-A as a teenager—fresh off a Low-A breakthrough in 2011—facing an enormous developmental jump in 2012. With the hand speed of boxer and the strength to command those weapons, Taveras and his axe-murderer approach to hitting exploded in the Texas League, hitting a robust .321/.380/.572 during the regular season, including 67 extra base hits. Since the start of post-season play, the violence has been tamed, as the long season in the sun has sapped some of the maniac from the monster; Taveras is struggling to make contact, and the contact he is making is soft and innocent. Fear not. Taveras has blossomed into the best pure hitter in the minors, with only roster depth stalling his eventual rise to major league glory. Catch him while you can, minor league fans; his existence in your domain is short-lived. —Jason Parks