Minor league opening day is upon us. With it, we get the first hard information on what teams really think of their own prospects: their level assignments. There are always a handful of notable prospects given curious assignments for one reason or another, and this week I’m delving into six of the most aggressive prospect assignments of 2017.
Antonio Senzatela, RHP, Colorado Rockies (MLB)
Coming into the 2016 season, the idea that Antonio Senzatela could’ve made the Rockies 2017 rotation wasn’t that far-fetched. He was coming off dominance in the Cal League, certainly no great place for a pitcher, and was tagged by Wilson Karaman as a potential riser into the 101. Then he missed most of the season with recurring shoulder injuries.
Senzatela is a very talented arm, and in spring training he didn’t look any worse for wear. There’s an electric fastball here with a slider that flashes not that far behind. But there were already a lot of questions before he got hurt, like whether he’d develop a viable change of speed pitch or whether he’d pitch with enough consistency to remain in a rotation long-term. Throw in the new concerns about said recurring shoulder problems and the lost developmental time and, well, it sure seems like the Rockies are flinging poop at the wall and hoping something will stick. There’s enough raw stuff here not to totally rule that out, but don’t be surprised if he ends up popping back up in a year or two as a reliever either.
Kolby Allard, LHP, Atlanta Braves (Double-A Mississippi Braves)
Mike Soroka, RHP, Atlanta Braves (Double-A Mississippi Braves)
The Braves are jumping three of their top pitching prospects over High-A Brevard County this year. For one of them, Max Fried, the jump isn’t that aggressive; his career progression has been delayed a few years by Tommy John surgery, and he’s already 23. The other two pitchers skipping the High-A level, Kolby Allard and Mike Soroka, however, are both still teenagers. Allard is an especially aggressive promotion. He missed about half of 2016 with back problems, and about a third of the innings he pitched were in the Appalachian League. After just 60 â…“ IP in full-season ball, in just his age-19 season, Atlanta has deemed Allard ready for the high-minors. I’d have been less surprised if he was held back in Low-A Rome for a month or two than skipped over to Double-A.
The Braves are absolutely loaded with pitching prospects in the low-minors. General manager John Coppolella indicated that part of the reason for the lofty promotions here is that they simply didn’t have enough starting innings in their A-ball affiliates to handle how many starting pitchers they had. Given those constraints and the rest of their High-A rotation, the moves make more sense—perhaps Tyler Pike could be moving faster, but even Allard has more of a full-season foundation than Luiz Gohara, Touki Toussaint and Ricardo Sanchez both need time and polish, and Drew Harrington hasn’t pitched in full-season ball himself yet.
It takes extraordinary skill and polish for teenage pitching prospects to survive and thrive in the high-minors. If Allard and Soroka can pull it off, they’ll be a heck of a lot higher than the sixties the next time we do global prospect rankings.
Justin Dunn, RHP, New York Mets (High-A Port St. Lucie)
In general, high draft picks out of major college conferences making High-A out of their first camp isn’t particularly noteworthy. But since Sandy Alderson took over for Omar Minaya before the 2011 season, the Mets have gone from one of the most aggressive teams in assigning their prospects to one of the most conservative. With Michael Conforto as the major exception, the Mets have made most of their high draft picks do a half-season in Low-A as the cherry on top of spending their draft year bolstering Brooklyn’s pennant chances.
Dunn looked to be no exception last year, throwing short stints of up to three innings for the Cyclones. But after an impressive-enough spring, the Mets did the sensibly aggressive move and bumped Dunn up to High-A as a starter for 2017—and they also surprisingly sent second-round first baseman Peter Alonso and fifth-round infielder Colby Woodmansee to St. Lucie with Dunn, thus having them avoid the Tim Tebow circus at Low-A Columbia. Given the perilously fraught nature of the Met reliance on young pitching and the liveliness of Dunn’s arm, a hot start could put him in position to be a MLB contributor as soon as very late this year or next year.
Joshua Lowe, 3B/OF, Tampa Bay Rays (Low-A Bowling Green Hot Rods)
Lowe is another “horses for courses” pick for this column. Lowe was considered a very raw prep bat with tremendous upside at the time of the draft. Between their organizational drafting philosophies and stockpiling picks through gaming various forms of the compensation system, Lowe is the tenth prep hitter the Rays have drafted this decade. Only three of the previous nine picks made a full-season league in their first full professional season. Lowe was fine but not overwhelming split between the complex and rookie levels last year, and given his relative lack of polish and a conservative organization, it seemed most reasonable that he’d play in extended spring training and pop up in the short-season A New York-Penn League after the draft.
Instead, Lowe will head to Low-A, where he’ll reportedly work as an outfielder, an outcome we saw coming this past offseason. Granted, he did field .836 last year at third, so it didn’t take a group of geniuses to call that one. He’ll be playing next to his fellow former thirteenth overall pick Garrett Whitley, one of those six prep draftees the Rays held back from full-season ball for a year.
Sixto Sanchez, RHP, Philadelphia Phillies (Low-A Lakewood BlueClaws)
I think most watchers of the Phillies system, or people like myself with a vested interest in the Lakewood roster, actually did expect Sixto Sanchez to show up in full-season ball this year. But that belies how aggressive a move it actually is. Sanchez was one of the breakout stars of last year’s GCL, pitching most of last year at just 17 while throwing up video game numbers and sitting in the mid-90s while running it up to 98. But the GCL is a complex league, the absolute lowest level of organized baseball. The games are often not public and rarely charge admission, and outside of keeping score more regularly and bending fewer rules, there isn’t a lot separating those games from extended spring training games or fall instructional games. You’re just getting a medium-sized slice of a long developmental season on the player card, basically.
Sanchez, after two seasons in those complex leagues—one in the Dominican and one stateside—is now skipping over two levels here, jumping Phillies affiliates in both the rookie-level Appalachian League and short-season A-level New York-Penn League to reach full-season ball at age-18. That’s a huge, aggressive move even if it was also expected, one that really speaks to the organization’s belief in the player.