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.
The Dominican Republic native earned his recent promotion to Triple-A Albuquerque after a strong early-season stint in the Double-A Chattanooga bullpen. With the Lookouts, he yielded eight hits in 17 1/3 innings, walking eight and fanning 28. Dominguez relies heavily on his elite fastball but also mixes in an average slider. If he continues to throw strikes, he could become a big-league bullpen option for the Dodgers this summer. –Jason Cole
Martin Perez, LHP, Rangers (Triple-A Round Rock)
Perez appeared well on his way to winning the Rangers’ no. 5 starter job in spring training before a broken wrist sidelined him for nearly two months. The left-hander has come back strong, posting a 2.10 ERA through five Triple-A starts. He showed dominant stuff against Albuquerque on July 12, flashing above average command of a lively 92-96 mph fastball (T97) to go along with a curveball-changeup-slider mix.
It’s easy to get prospect fatigue with Perez, who has been considered among the Rangers’ top prospects since 2008. But at 22, he’s just three months older than no. 1 overall draft pick Mark Appel. Perez is making definite strides with his mental maturity on the mound, and his stuff remains excellent. The prospect could find his way back to the majors soon, and if he continues to control his delivery and plus stuff, he’ll have a chance to stick. –Jason Cole
Austin Hedges, C, Padres (High-A Lake Elsinore)
After an injury-shortened month of May, Hedges has been on a tear so far in June, making a lot of hard contact and driving in runs. The progress with the stick is significant because Hedges is already the best defensive catcher in the minors, with a very strong arm, lightning fast release, soft hands, quick feet, and game-calling skills that rival most major-league backstops. The better the bat the bigger the ceiling, and if Hedges can find a way to hit .250 at the highest level with some pop, he’s going to be an impact talent because of the quality of the glove, which could make him a perennial Gold Glove candidate. If the bat happens to play even higher, Hedges could be a star. His defensive chops are that good. For more on Hedges, check out Jason Cole’s fantastic prospect video. –Jason Parks
B.J. Upton, OF, Braves (Atlanta Braves)
I rarely write about major-league players, especially ones so far removed from their prospect roots. But a recent in-person viewing of the 28-year-old outfielder reminded me of the importance of perspective when it comes to scouting. From the amateur levels throughout the minors, we put our eyes on undeveloped talent that we then compare to the players at the highest level of the game. Watching Upton in action reminded me just how substantial a talent he is– despite early season struggles that would seem to suggest otherwise–and the huge gap between the talent at the major league-level and the talent found anywhere else on the planet. When I’m watching the aforementioned underdeveloped talent in the minors, I always want to see players that make it look easy, that play the game with an intrinsic feel that is hard to describe yet easy to identify when you witness it. Upton is such a natural talent that he makes it look effortless, especially the way he glides to the ball in the outfield. I’d pay to watch him shag flies because of the simplicity of his actions. Say what you will about his exaggerated stroke at the plate that leads to pop-ups and large baskets full of whiff, or the effortless displays that can drift into low-energy descriptions, Upton remains a good example of a pure baseball talent, and the perspective that talent provided in a brief viewing will stay with me throughout the rest of the season. –Jason Parks
Kevin Pillar, OF, Toronto Blue Jays (Double-A New Hampshire)
When a player signs for $1,000 as a 32nd round pick, it is unlikely that expectations will be all that high. That was true of Pillar after signing out of Cal State Dominguez Hills in 2011 but he is doing his best to elevate expectations after reaching Double-A in just his second full season of pro ball. Pillar’s tools aren’t flashy but what he does well – hit, and hit a lot – could carry him to the big leagues. After sitting on him for three games last week, I found Pillar’s ability to get the barrel to the ball to be truly impressive. His quiet load and solid bat speed allow him to make easy contact on a variety of pitches and he uses the whole field very well. He doesn’t have a ton of power but he can drive the ball from gap to gap and pick up some extra-base hits. While I expected Pillar to hit last week, his defense was quite surprising. Tasked with manning center field, he managed quality jumps and consistently took proper routes to the ball. He moved well to both sides and his aptitude for going back on the ball was impressive. Pillar is just an average runner and center field may not be part of his long-term profile, but the versatility afforded through an ability to handle the position occasionally will give him a better chance of succeeding as a major-league fourth outfielder. –Mark Anderson
Maikel Franco, 3B, Phillies (High-A Clearwater)
Not many guys finished the first half of the Florida State League any hotter than Franco; over his last 10 games, the 6'1", 180-lb. Franco has put up a .342/.390/.711 line with four home runs. It's easy to notice his raw power seeing just a couple of swings. While his BP sessions are impressive and must-see television if you have the means, his quick hands and excellent bat speed stand out as well. In the games I saw he was able to handle fastballs on the inside and barrel them up without cheating. He still needs to work on his approach, but he is showing improvement on recognition of off speed offerings and staying in his zone. Franco is about a 20 runner. Despite the lack of speed he still moves pretty well at third base, fields the position well (five errors), and shows a plus arm from the corner. Franco is a player who still has much risk in his development, but there seems to be a good opportunity for him to stay at third base and advance fairly quickly up the ranks. –Chris King
Ty Blach, LHP, Giants (High-A San Jose)
A fifth-round pick in the 2012 draft, Blach failed to crack the Giants’ top 10 coming into the season, but he was listed as an “On the Rise” player, a distinction his 2013 performance more than justifies. Making his professional debut in the hitter-friendly California League, the 22-year-old has been fantastic, missing bats and keeping the ball in the park. With extremely sharp command of a heavy low-90s fastball, Blach is able to pitch off the heater and use a promising changeup to keep hitters off balance. He lacks high-end projection and doesn’t have a “wow” arsenal, but the command could be special which pushes the solid-average arsenal to another level, giving Blach a chance to develop into a mid-rotation starter at the highest level. –Jason Parks
Mark Sappington, SP, Angels (High-A 66ers)
The Angels’ fifth-round pick in the 2012 draft found himself squarely in the system’s top 10 mix following a year where he showed off a quality fastball, along with at least two projectable off-speed pitches. Now, after being pushed from rookie ball to High-A, Sappington is still bringing a nice three-pitch mix to the table, yet hasn’t found the delivery and command of these pitches to be completely effective.
Despite reports that Sappington featured a slider as his primary breaking pitch, he threw none in his June 11th start, throwing mostly curveballs anywhere from 74 mph to 82 mph. The pitch has a nice 11-to-5 plane when mechanics are sound, but more often than not he was out of whack and it tended to get slurvy. Unfortunately, he noticeably slows down his release for this pitch and the arm drags behind the body, allowing the hitter to read and react. The hesitation is also seen while throwing his changeup, which leads me to believe it’s a bigger problem than the Angels would like.
Sappington is still young and can be effective pitching versus High-A batters. His statistics aren’t bad and if the Angels can clean up his delivery and get him more fluid throughout, they might have a back-of-the-rotation starter on their hands. Currently though, Sappington’s command of all his pitches along with the inconsistencies in his delivery are signs he’s destined to the bullpen in the long term. –Chris Rodriguez
Kennys Vargas, 1B, Twins (High-A Ft. Myers)
With Buxton and Sano in the same organization, it's easy to see why Vargas' name isn't brought up more. He has so much size and raw power that he was my favorite to win Saturday's FSL Home Run Derby. Naturally, with my luck, he was knocked out in the first round. Vargas immediately stands out on any field due to his size; he’s listed at 6'5" and 215 this year, as opposed to around 270 last year. (He was suspended 50 games in 2011 for using a banned metabolism drug to lose weight.) Vargas is a switch hitter and has power from both sides. Batting from the left side is still his strength, but his swing is long and tends to feature an exaggerated plane. He’s so strong that he's been able to produce despite a pronounced hitch in his swing, but he'll need to work on it more as he starts facing more advanced pitching. Vargas has showed some improvement in his approach and discipline this season, striking out less this year and working himself into better counts. A converted third baseman, he still doesn't seem very comfortable at first base and projects to be a below average defender at the position.–Chris King
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Golfers and ball-players tweak their swings daily. But serious, fundamental changes? Tiger withstanding, swing overhauls at the touring-pro level are rare, are usually undertaken only by the desperate, require a year (if not years) of crazy hard work, are as often as not abandoned, and are almost always at least part of the answer to "I wonder whatever happened to (Justin Leonard, Seve Ballesteros, David Duval, Chip Beck, Sandy Lyle and, yes, Tiger Woods.)"
(obviously fairly apples to oranges, but still curious)
Speaking of 16 year old pitchers. Have you seen Luiz Gohara pitch this year? Is he still as dreamy?