Because of the way teams are situated in Low-A, 2011 was good year to see South Atlantic League baseball. The first three picks in the 2010 draft— Bryce Harper, Jameson Taillon and Manny Machado—all began the year there; by contrast, the highest-drafted players to hit the Midwest League were the 14th-overall pick by the Cubs, Hayden Simpson (a massive disappointment) and 28th-overall pick Zach Lee of the Dodgers. This year, the Midwest League features a pair of single-digit first-rounders from the previous year's draft in Arizona right-hander Archie Bradley and Indians shortstop Fransico Lindor. This week I had an opportunity to see the much-hyped infielder, and he lived up to every expectation, if not exceeding them.
Despite being just 18 years old (he doesn't turn 19 until November), Lindor's talent and baseball instincts stand out. He's on the smallish size at five-foot-eleven, but well-built, and employs a compact swing with fluidity and plenty of bat speed. His first professional home run was on Monday, and it was anything but cheap, with the only question off the bat being would it stay fair: it was a pull job down the right field line. It was the almost shocking strength in his swing that had the Mariners considering him with the No. 2 overall pick last June after a private workout, and the 15-18 home run projections some scouts have put on him are understandable, especially given his extremely mature approach; he works the count well and identifies breaking balls like a veteran. He's not a future MVP, but rather a shortstop with a plus hit tool—average power and good defense is certainly an All-Star.
And Lindor is certainly going to stay at shortstop; like his work with the bat, he shows maturity beyond his years in the field. He's only a slightly above-average runner, but he's remarkably quick with an outstanding first step, soft hands and exceptionally fluid actions. It's easy to project him as a plus defender in the big leagues and his arm is above-average as well. He was as impressive a middle infielder as this league has seen recently.
Midwest League Notes:
The Lake County roster has plenty of intriguing prospects, but other than Lindor, the highest-rated one on the squad is center fielder Luigi Rodriguez, who had among the strangest days I've seen in person on Monday. At the plate, Rodriguez was a double short of the cycle, showing good hands, a decent approach and consistent loud contact, but he had amongst the worst defensive games I've seen, turning fly balls into adventures and misplaying singles in front of him multiple times. He's fast, but not a burner, so he'll need to improve his defense to develop an all-around package that profiles as a starter.
Royals outfielder Jorge Bonifacio continues to be one of the most impressive bats in the league, hitting .365/.453/.527 in 19 games. One of the youngest players in the league, Bonifacio doesn't turn 19 until June, but he combines advanced plate discipline with a knack for hard contact. “He just barrels up everything,” said one scout, who believed that based on his pure hitting ability and broad-shouldered build, the power would come down the road.
The much-hyped pitching staff at Lansing has lived up to expectations on the stat sheet, as a plethora of impressive young Blue Jays arms, pitching in three-inning stints, have helped the Lugnuts get out of the gate with a league best 15-5 record. While their statistics have all been good, their scouting reports have all varied. Impressing the most at this time is righty Aaron Sanchez, who has delivered four straight outings in which he has allowed one hit over three shutout innings, to go with a total of 17 strikeouts over his 12 frames. He not only has the best statistics, but also the best stuff, with a plus curve and a fastball that ranges from 91-97 mph. Lefty Justin Nicolino has the most polish of the group, and also a 0.00 ERA in 12 innings while striking out 13 and walking just one. With outstanding location and a plus changeup, he's dominating Low-A hitting, but his velocity is preventing scouts from projecting too much for him. “He could be the first to get to the big leagues, but it's hard to get too excited about a guy throwing 87-91 mph,” said one scout. “I really liked him, but it's hard to see him as more than a No. 4 or 5 starter.” Failing to impress, despite striking out 17 in 11 2/3 innings is power righty Noah Syndergaard, who has been getting into the mid-90s with his fastball, but showing little else. “He throws this low-70s breaking ball, and it just doesn't really do anything,” said one scout. “It's a 30 pitch right now and he doesn't have much of a changeup. Based on what I had read on him, I expected way more.”
- If you are looking for a sleeper, look no further than Dodgers left-hander Jarret Martin, currently pitching for Low-A Great Lakes. An 18th-round pick by the Orioles in 2009, Martin arrived in December in exchange for Dana Eveland; after striking out 11 over 5 1/3 innings in his last outing, he has a 1.64 ERA in four starts with 29 whiffs in 22 frames while limiting opponents to a .177 batting average. While at 22 he's a bit old for the level, left-handed power often takes extra time to develop, and Martin has just that, sitting at an impressive 93-95 mph with his fastball and missing bats equally as often with a low-80s slider. He's a physical beast at 6-foot-4 and 230 pounds, and with his stuff comes a history of control problems, but big left-handers with this kind of velocity are rare finds.