I’ve been on the Almonte bandwagon since his easy delivery first caught my eye during a fall instructional league game on the backfields in Arizona. I’m a sucker for an easy delivery and an effortless release, and Almonte won my heart that day by pumping a low-90s fastball for strikes and flashing a changeup that was already a near-plus offering. Fast-forward to his full-season debut, and the bandwagon is starting to look like a bus depot, as the 20-year-old continues to take steps forward with the arsenal and the production, working a fastball in the 92-97 range, flashing multiple breaking-ball looks including a bat-missing curve, and throwing a nasty changeup. Almonte’s inclusion on the Futures Game roster was a win for the young Dominican arm, a win for the Royals’ amateur scouting and player development teams, and a win for every wannabe scout that finds arousal in easy arm action and heavily pronated changeups. —Jason Parks
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A tour around the minors, including looks at Oscar Taveras, Xander Bogaerts, Luiz Gohara, and Joey Gallo
Oscar Taveras, CF, Cardinals (Triple-A Memphis)
Taveras celebrated his 21st birthday on Wednesday by going 2-for-5 with a home run. His week ended on a sour note, however, as he was lifted from Sunday’s contest after appearing to aggravate his ankle injury, according to Joe Strauss of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. The top prospect initially injured his ankle while sliding into second base on May 12th. He returned to the Redbirds’ lineup on June 8th. When I saw Taveras in Round Rock last week, his ankle certainly didn’t look healthy––he was limping all over the field (shown in this video).
While Taveras’ ailing ankle rendered him unable to run on the basepaths and in center field––and, despite the clear #want, left me wondering why he was attempting to play through an obvious injury––the other aspects of his game looked sharp. The Dominican Republic native displayed his gargantuan strength by fighting off a fastball and sending it off the wall to the opposite field on Friday. Taveras is a highly aggressive hitter who’s looking to tackle anything within his large hitting zone. But his elite hand-eye coordination and plate coverage (in addition to his strength and bat speed) enables him to make consistent loud contact. As a scout told me this weekend, “That’s what a future all-star hitter looks like.” –Jason Cole
A trip around the minors, with looks at Julio Urias, Martin Perez, Mark Sappington, Jose Dominguez, and others.
Julio Urias, LHP, Dodgers (Low-A Great Lakes) At the end of the day, the minor-league story of the year might be the prospect propulsion of 16-year-old Julio Urias, a left-handed pitcher recently signed out of Mexico. The Dodgers decided to send the precocious arm to the Midwest League to begin his professional career, a move that had an initial scent of novelty, but the reality is far from a stunt. Urias is a special talent, with a preternatural feel for his craft and the type of stuff that could one day play at the top of a major-league rotation. Listed at 5’11’’, the southpaw is actually closer to 6’1’’, with a projectable frame and a present fastball that routinely touches 95 mph on the gun. From an easy, repeatable delivery, Urias works 91-93 with the heater and has two secondary pitches that he can drop for strikes in any situation. While it’s easy to get excited about a would-be high school sophomore pitching in a full-season league, the real excitement comes from the reality that Urias is a very legit talent on the fast track to prospect fame. It’s remarkable for a 16-year-old to get outs at the full-season level, much less miss more than a bat an inning. That’s just insanity. I’m drinking the Boing! when it comes to Urias. I’m all in. –Jason Parks
Jose Dominguez, RHP, Dodgers (Triple-A Albuquerque) A pop-up prospect in the Dodgers system, Dominguez has raced to Triple-A on the strength of his 80-grade fastball that is routinely reaching 100-101 mph. The 22-year-old righty is something of a late bloomer. After signing in 2007, he pitched three years in the Dominican Summer League and didn’t reach full-season ball until 2012. He also served a 50-game PED suspension in 2010 followed by a 25-game ban last year.
Updates on Miguel Sano, Michael Ynoa, Albert Almora, and more.
Miguel Sano, 3B, Twins (Double-A New Britain) Sano has been getting column inches since his amateur days, and thanks to a breakout spring, the press love shall continue. We all know that Sano has some of the best raw power in the minors, with plenty of strength built into a leveraged swing with loft. He was born to hit the ball a long way, and so far in 2013 he’s put 16 balls into Florida State League seats. The 20-year-old takes the headlining spot in this week’s Ten Pack because of his upcoming promotion to the Double-A level, where the precocious talent will face his biggest professional challenge. The swing has some length, and his willingness to expand his zone makes him vulnerable to quality secondary offerings and pitchers with a plan. Double-A arms are better equipped to exploit such weaknesses, and if Sano is slow to make the adjustment (shortening up, looking to go the other way, not selling out for power), his on-the-field production could take a step back before it inevitably takes another step forward. —Jason Parks
Henry Owens, LHP, Red Sox (High A Salem) The 20-year-old left-handed starter has made a smooth transition in taking the next step up the ranks, racking up 68 strikeouts in 56 innings while only allowing 38 hits thus far into the season. The big thing that has jumped out when scouting Owens is the development of his changeup. Showing as a below average offering last season, with varying arm speed and lacking finish, the pitch flashed much improved consistency and fading action in his last outing. Owens also created better deception via arm speed in sync to that of his fastball. While the 6-foot-6 lefty’s change is pushing toward becoming an above average weapon at his disposal, there is still work to do in enhancing the command of the 89-93 mph heater. Owens is inconsistent utilizing his large frame to stay on top of his offerings, and he is often unable to find the balance between over-throwing and releasing early. The young arm has ample development in front of him in reaching a ceiling of a mid-rotational starter, but the progress with his overall game is a good sign things are moving forward. —Chris Mellen
Of all the prospects in the minors, Baez’s status might have the most volatility, with the skill set to blossom into a superstar and the deficiencies that could terminate the dream before it begins. With elite bat speed and the type of raw power that can find a home in the middle of any major-league lineup, Baez could end up as the top prospect in the game. But his one-speed-fits-all approach on both sides of the ball can be limiting: His aggressive, see-ball-hit-ball mentality at the plate often puts him behind in counts and vulnerable to offerings out of the zone, and his tendency to rush the actions and the throws makes him error prone despite his exquisite hands at shortstop. Baez is warming up and is a good candidate to explode this summer, with a chance to sneak into the top 10 prospects in the game. But the Double-A test is looming on the horizon, and without more nuance to his game and a more refined approach, Baez could take a big step back against better competition. The talent is extreme. The risk is just as extreme. —Jason Parks
Updates on Raul Adalberto Mondesi, Addison Russell, Mason Williams, Robert Stephenson, and others.
Raul Adalberto Mondesi, SS, Royals (Low-A Lexington)
As much as I enjoy referring to Adalberto Mondesi as Adalberto Mondesi, the young shortstop has expressed his desire to be called by the first name that appears on his birth certificate, which just happens to be the same as his familiar father’s—a former rookie of the year--and his less-than-familiar older brother’s. Hey, if it works, keep working it. Raul Adalberto, which is still a cool sounding name, is one of my favorite prospects to watch, and on a short list of my favorite prospects to monitor and write about. He’s a 17-year-old playing a premium position at a full-season level, so the excitement can exist regardless of the on-the-field outcomes. Context is always a vital part of the evaluation process, as a prospect’s status or sudden rise in status can often put a spotlight on production [itself] at the expense of the specifics surrounding that production. Mondesi has struggled at times this season, and that can lead to overreactions and assumptions that aren’t tethered to the reality of the situation. Mondesi has struggled--no doubt --but he hasn’t been overwhelmed by the level of competition; he belongs at this level despite the poor statistical line. Coming into last night’s game, Mondesi was hitting an anemic .195/.205/.293 in May, which isn’t going to keep his name dripping from the tip of any Pavlovian tongue. But the talent to develop into something very special lives inside of Raul, son of Raul/brother of Raul, and it’s only a matter of time before his positive developmental steps show up on the stat sheet. He hit for the cycle last night. It’s a one-game sample, but bring the context back into the equation. Raul –son of Raul/brother of Raul—is a 17-year-old playing in a full-season league. The fact that he can show glimpses or flashes of brilliance at that level at his age is absolutely remarkable. This isn’t a normal prospect. –Jason Parks
Robert Stephenson, RHP, Reds (Low-A, Dayton)
Through the first seven weeks of the season, Robert Stephenson has carved up the Midwest League to the tune of 11.6 strikeouts per nine (punching out about one out of every three batters faced) and just 2.4 BB/9, all while holding the opposition to just a .240 batting average. Stephenson was the 27th overall selection in a stacked 2011 draft class, and as impressive as his stuff was out of the scholastic ranks it has bumped up across the board in 2013. His fastball is comfortably sitting mid-90s, climbing to 98 mph on occasion. He pounds the bottom of the zone on a tough downward plane, making him tough to square and helping him to produce a 45 percent groundball rate thus far this spring. His breaker is a hard curve that vacillates between 11-to-5 and 12-to-6 action, working best in the 80-82 mph range. It easily projects to a plus offering, though it plays closer to average right now due to inconsistent execution, which leads to a fair share of hangers. The changeup is still a work in progress, but Stephenson has already shown improvement in his feel for the pitch compared to early April. You can see start-to-start growth in Stephenson's game, particularly in his pitch execution and sequencing, and he's doing the little things, as well, including improving his pacing and set durations from the stretch (which, combined with 1.19-to-1.27 times to the plate makes him difficult to run on). Through 10 starts, Stephenson has made a strong case for being the top arm currently tossing in the Midwest League, and should be included in any discussion regarding the top arms in the minors. --Nick J. Faleris
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
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