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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.

In Part I today, I’ll lay out my takeaways from the season for position-players, and then next week I’ll turn my attention to the mound for a look back at the notable pitching performances and storylines.

No Juggernaut Lineups, Few Offensive Powerhouses

Stockton and Inland Empire were the thinnest squads I saw for position-player prospects, though in Richie Martin and Taylor Ward each had a solid organizational top guy at the helm. Broadly though, the league really lacked a standout juggernaut of a lineup. Run-scoring league-wide ticked back up after a significant step back last year, but the distribution of run-scoring remained relatively widespread. League-wide homerun totals rebounded with a similarly modest bounce, but overall slugging continued a two-year slide from halcyon days in the few years prior. High Desert and Lancaster still played among the most extreme offensive environments in all of minor-league baseball, but adjusted for context neither offense stood out as particularly destructive on its own merits.

R/G Avg

Teams > 5R/G

HR

SLG

2016

5.01

4

1,197

.405

2015

4.9

4

1,160

.407

2014

5.22

5

1,336

.426

2013

5.27

6

1,323

.423

2012

5.4

7

1,355

.427

That’s certainly not to say there weren’t a handful of powerful individual performances, however. Among corner men, Chris Shaw of the Giants and Edwin Rios in the Dodgers’ system stood out for the sheer force with which they can contact a baseball. I saw Shaw hit a ball on the Cape a couple years ago of which the Cassini spacecraft just sent back some stunning visuals, and he launched a couple more into orbit for good measure in my looks this season. And then Rios, during his brief and absurd run of destruction in the league, unleashed the best swing I saw all year on an unsuspecting, center-cut 3-2 fastball; slapping a towering, majestic, must-have-been-460-foot homerun on the end of it. Some say it travelled so fast and so far that, like Superman, it reversed time itself and spun back to unravel last winter’s El Nino system.

My pre-season pick to break out, Johan Mieses, did just that. Well, sort of, anyway. He paced the league with 28 long balls, though they came at the cost of many an empty swing— he checked in second in punchouts—and almost as many infield pop-ups. I chronicled some notable growth in toning down his setup and trigger that helped him get shorter to the ball in the season’s second half, and I still like the profile as a lefty-mashing corner outfielder down the line. Since-traded Travis Demeritte did his part with a similarly boom-bust profile, though with an added dimension of speed and a little less hit tool projection.

A smattering of big boys with correspondingly big raw power rounded out the ranks; guys like Franmil Reyes, Sandber Pimentel, and Jairo Beras would make for an imposing front-court down at your local YMCA. And while all will have their issues in bringing the boom to bear in games, it was awfully fun to watch ‘em get a hold of one when they do.

Hitters Gonna Hit, Players Gonna Play

Precocious 19-year-old hitting phenom Luis Urias of the Padres was the league’s best pure hitter from start to finish, and I’m not sure it was really that close. His bat-to-ball ability is something to behold, especially for a kid who played most of the season as one of the youngest regulars around and currently lacks for much in the way of adult strength. Most encouragingly, his gradual leverage gains and increased willingness to try and lift pitches as he got comfortable at the level suggests more nascent pop than it appeared he’d possess earlier in the year. A jump into even below-average territory would open up a world of doubles for the kid. Steven Duggar (Giants) and Nick Tanielu (Astros) impressed as two of the more under-the-radar players that showed as high-quality hitters capable of developing above-average hit tools down the line. And Yusniel Diaz took a while to win me over, but the wrist strength and plate coverage—specifically notable improvement on the inner-half—are just too hard to ignore. He’s got all of the tools to develop into a very good hitter, though the bridge to that day is a longer one.

Several fleeting Cal League careers came and went for some guys I’d just as soon have watched play many, many more times in the desert. Impact big-leaguer Andrew Toles tops that list; I caught a bunch of Toles’ early-seasons tilts at Rancho, which turned out to be the first of several stops in his whirlwind season, and came away floored that his skills remained largely intact after what amounted to a year-and-a-half of missed developmental time. He was the best player I saw all year in terms of actualized talent, and while his exceptional performance to date has wildly outstripped any reasonable best-case prediction, I’m not entirely surprised he’s found relatively quick success in the big leagues. On the other end of the spectrum, Tucker may have the highest ceiling of any prospect I saw this year, with one of the larger gaps between present and future actualized skill. He’s already a good hitter, and that’s with a relatively raw approach and undeveloped pitch-recognition skills. The size, fluidity, and feel for the barrel are all well-advanced, and he affords as much confidence

Depth at Catching and Shortstop Carried the Day

I wrote last week in our AFL Preview Ten Pack about my infatuation with Rangers’ catcher Jose Trevino, and he emerged as the cream of what was a very strong top tier of backstops this year (and recently won a gold glove). Trevino’s leadership and skill development set the tone for the position, and he’d be on my short list of league MVP candidates overall. Nipping at his heels, Dom Nunez in the Colorado system is going to be a quality two-way backstop in his own right. For a second-straight season his bat took a backseat in the season’s first half, before taking off with hit and power utility after he got more comfortable with his staff and surroundings. That’s a sequence I really quite enjoy with young catchers, and he’ll be one to watch at Double-A next year. Lancaster’s Garrett Stubbs was a favorite of mine when at USC as a backstop who played above his physical tools and showed strong intelligence and leadership qualities, and that has carried over into his early professional career. He offers some rare athleticism that may very well lead to reps out from behind the dish and an interesting hybrid potential down the line. And that’s a profile shared by late-season addition Will Smith, who has one of the fastest transfers I’ve ever seen in his pops, and looks to be worth every penny of his first-round signing bonus. He saw consistent work at second and third as well, and didn’t play half-badly at either position.

Six-spotters also enjoyed a nice run of representation in the league, particularly ones with high-end defensive chops. Despite struggles at the plate that extended pretty much from start to finish, the Padres’ Javier Guerra probably gets my nod as the league’s best full-season prospect this year. His defensive chops were unrivaled, with a combination of plus-or-better field and throw tools that started to play as his internal clock slowed down over the season’s first half. His timing at the plate was consistent only in its hot mess-ness, but the hyper-aggressive approach that exacerbated his struggles early showed signs of calming down in later looks. The quick wrists and bat speed to underline a playable hit tool are there, along with the power to make him a potential Brandon Crawford type down the line. Athletics’ 2015 first-rounder Richie Martin wasn’t far behind him on the dirt, either. His explosive, quick-twitch actions in the field give him a clear path to everyday playing time at the highest level, even if a bat that I was less-than-enthusiastic about never really amounts to much. And Seattle’s Drew Jackson played a crisp shortstop, with one of the best arms I’ve seen at the position affording him a larger-than-average margin for error in his reads and reactions to the ball. His swing is stiff, and his 65-grade speed didn’t really translate to great base-stealing technique in my looks, but the sum of his parts looks like those of a starting shortstop at the highest level, too. Michael De Leon from the Rangers showed a similarly impressive, above-average defensive profile, though the switch-hitter’s hit and run tools probably max in the fringe-average range, and he’ll offer next to nothing power-wise.

The Players

Below you’ll find links to all of the Eyewitness Reports I’ve submitted on position players in the Cal League this year, along with links to any subsequent follow-ups for these players. And then, finally, the link to my full database of another 70-plus hitters that I’ve written up over the course of the season. There are links in that document to corresponding “Notes From the Field” and “Monday Morning Ten Pack” pieces for players where relevant.

Jairo Beras, OF, Texas Rangers – Eyewitness

Bobby Boyd, OF, Houston AstrosEyewitness

Franchy Cordero, OF, San Diego PadresEyewitness

Travis Demeritte, 2B, Atlanta BravesEyewitness

Yusniel Diaz, OF, Los Angeles DodgersEyewitness

Kyle Garlick, OF, Los Angeles Dodgers – Eyewitness

Javier Guerra, SS, San Diego Padres – Eyewitness, Notes

Julian Leon, C, Los Angeles Dodgers – Eyewitness, Notes

Tim Locastro, MIF, Los Angeles Dodgers – Eyewitness

Jason Martin, OF, Houston Astros – Eyewitness

Erick Mejia, MIF, Los Angeles Dodgers – Eyewitness

Johan Mieses, OF, Los Angeles Dodgers – Eyewitness, Notes

Josh Morgan, INF, Texas Rangers – Eyewitness

Josh Naylor, 1B, San Diego Padres – Eyewitness

Franmil Reyes, RF/1B, San Diego Padres – Eyewitness

Edwin Rios, 1B/3B, Los Angeles Dodgers – Eyewitness

Will Smith, C, Los Angeles Dodgers – Eyewitness

Nick Tanielu, 3B, Houston Astros – Eyewitness

Andrew Toles, OF, Los Angeles Dodgers – Eyewitness

Jose Trevino, C, Texas Rangers – Eyewitness

Luis Urias, 2B, San Diego – Eyewitness, Notes

2016 Scouting Database: California League Hitters