Todd McDonald, OF, Rangers (AZL Rangers)
McDonald is the strangest player I have ever had the privilege to scout; he’s the prospect poster child for the post-minimalist movement. The 17-year-old Australian of Aboriginal descent plays the game with the kind of physical effort than is hard to see and appreciate with the human eye. At the plate, McDonald stands upright, rarely wasting the energy necessary to complete a practice swing or to secure proper footing in the box; rather, McDonald just walks [stress the word: walk] into the box, looks at the pitcher, and practices his ability to remain completely still. Without any lower-half movement, he can square plus velocity by firing his hands and striking the ball. Of course, this assumes he actually decides to remove the bat from his shoulder. McDonald has a very interesting approach at the plate, as his 80-grade #slack might suggest, but it’s the pitch recognitions skills that intrigue me; rarely will McDonald chase a pitch out of the zone, as he would rather not swing and strikeout looking than actually swing the bat and miss the ball. In the field, McDonald plays with the intensity of Quaalude addict watching paint dry in an empty room, but the raw tools suggest he could be an above-average runner if he ever decided to actually run. I have no idea how McDonald will develop on the field, but I guarantee that I will never lose my fascination with his unique blend of bat-to-ball instincts and #slack. –Jason Parks
Miguel Sano, 3B, Twins (Double-A New Britain)
Sano brutalized the Florida State League before reality slowed his prospect flow in Double-A, which is where I had the chance to watch him over a four-game series. His raw power is unbelievable, as the 20-year-old is strong enough to launch balls over the fence without the benefit of sweet-spot contact. The swing is leveraged and long, and despite ball/strike recognition skills, he will look for big extension in most counts and will expand his zone and chase. His hit tool could play to average at the end of the day, which would make him a ~.260 type, but enough that the big boy raw can play in games, which could make him a 40-plus home run type. The defensive profile has been a subject of debate since his professional debut, but I thought he showed more than enough at third to project at the position. For his size, he’s a very good athlete with good balance and coordination, and he is at his best coming in on balls. He struggled with some lateral movements, especially when he failed to center himself to the ball and would opt for a more casual Roger Dorn approach to fielding grounders. But I think he possesses the necessary athleticism to handle the demands of the position, and the arm is more than strong enough to bail him out of a few initial mistakes. The total package could be one of the best power hitters in the game, one with enough holes to exploit if you have a plan and can execute it, but also one who will punish you severely if you make a mistake over the plate. He’s a middle-of-the-order threat that can stick at third if he makes it a priority, and given the fact that he’s only 20, he has plenty of time to refine his game before reaching his potential. –Jason Parks
Henry Owens, LHP, Red Sox (Double-A Portland)
Owens has had a meteoric rise up prospect lists in 2013, and if you are just scouting the numbers, you might see a future top-of-the-rotation arm on the fast track to Boston. I wanted to see a player that fit that exact description this summer, but instead I saw a more moderate future, a pitcher bound for a long major-league career that would most likely come at the back of a rotation rather than the front. It’s hard to argue with the size from the left side, so I won’t, although the delivery had a tendency to get out of whack and he struggled to repeat. When he was able to stay over the ball, the fastball had some zip, working mostly in the 90-93 range with some arm-side movement. Despite his 6’6’’ frame, I didn’t think he got the most out of this particular advantage, especially when it came to his stride length and ability to create a steep plane to the plate. The secondary stuff improved as the night aged, and I could see the changeup developing into a plus offering. The fastball command wasn’t sharp and I don’t see it even becoming sharp, and I think the inability to set the table could influence the effectiveness of the big curveball, a pitch that is predicated on the fastball getting swings. Owens has a promising profile and I think developing into a solid no. 4 starter at the major-league level is an extremely valuable achievement, but I don’t see the top-of-the-rotation upside shared by some, despite his being a 21-year-old 6’6’’ lefty who put up very strong numbers over two levels in 2013. –Jason Parks
Hunter Harvey, RHP, Orioles (Short-season Aberdeen)
When it comes to watching pitching prospects, Harvey is exactly the type who gets me amped up and whom I really enjoy getting to put eyes on. The raw stuff absolutely shined on the diamond, but it was also the way he went about executing his craft that stood out to me and made it a memorable first look at the prospect. Despite being just 18, Harvey showed an advanced feel for locating his fastball in the lower tier of the strike zone and throwing downhill. It really impressed me considering the age and level of experience. You don’t typically see that type of execution even in the more highly touted prep pitchers as well. Harvey does need some work throwing to both sides of the plate, but I see him more than capable of growing in that aspect given the athleticism and overall looseness in which he throws.
Harvey’s ability to snap off his curveball and potential he showed with his changeup earned high marks from me that night. The confidence he oozed using the secondary arsenal screamed even more. It is one thing to have the stuff, which will surely get a pitcher noticed, but it’s another to have the edge when throwing it. And that type of maturity in the present body of work hints that the future can be very special. There’s a ton to like about this right-handed pitcher, with the first look leaving a huge impression, and the time spent watching Harvey ranking at the top of prospect viewing this year for me. –Chris Mellen
J.R. Graham, RHP, Braves (Double-A Mississippi)
From a scouting perspective, Graham turned in perhaps the most enjoyable outing I saw all season when he tossed six innings of one-run ball on April 16, flashing well above-average stuff and borderline plus command. It was the kind of performance that left me prospect-giddy––and led me to upload his video and write his scouting notes immediately after the game. Graham consistently pounded the lower half of the strike zone with a lively 93-96 mph fastball that reached 97-98 whenever needed. His upper-80s slider was a 60-grade offering that missed bats, and he also showed an average power changeup with good two-seam life. At that point, the 23-year-old righty appeared well on his way to making an impact in Atlanta this summer.
Unfortunately for Graham, a slow-to-recover strained right shoulder––which hasn’t required surgery––ended his season in mid-May after only eight Double-A starts. The injury has turned a potential impact campaign into a disappointing one. On the heels of a strong performance in big-league camp this year, Graham seemed almost certain to make an eventual appearance in the Braves’ bullpen, where his mid-to-upper-90s power sinker and plus slider could make him an immediate late-inning relief option. But the focus with Graham now moves forward to 2014. Given his smallish frame, there are questions about whether he’ll be durable enough to handle a long-term starting role. There are few doubts about his stuff and command, however, and a healthy Graham isn’t far from playing a key role in Atlanta. –Jason Cole
Austin Hedges, C, Padres (Double-A San Antonio)
A catcher’s receiving skills are rarely categorized as exciting, if they’re even noticed at all. In some ways, it’s an aspect where less is more; a quiet receiver is often a good receiver. That’s the case with 21-year-old backstop Austin Hedges. I spent three days watching him in a late-season series at San Antonio, and unless a runner was on the move, I found it surprisingly easy to forget about the 6-foot-1, 190-pound man crouched behind the plate. In my defense, Hedges does little to draw attention to himself on the average pitch. He sets up quietly, provides a good target for his pitcher, and catches the ball with minimal body movement, using his strong wrists to stick pitches with little glove drift. Even when Hedges goes to his knees to block a ball in the dirt, as you can see in the video below, it’s quick, fluid, and barely noticeable.
The former second-round pick isn’t perfect yet; he has a 70-grade arm but can rush throws from behind the plate, attempting to release the ball before his feet can get set. Being too quick isn’t exactly a bad problem to have, and it’s an easily correctable one with experience. He was unspectacular as a hitter this season, though his simple swing, solid pitch recognition, and ability to make adjustments are encouraging indicators of future improvement. Hedges’ defensive skills will be on display in the upcoming Arizona Fall League, and if you get a chance to see him, remind yourself to watch him catch a baseball. –Jason Cole
Blake Swihart, C, Red Sox (High-A Salem)
Swihart has been a prospect I’ve gotten to see since he first signed with Boston. One thing I really like about watching prospects is getting the chance to assess players during different stages of their development tracks. I caught Swihart for a series with Salem in June and the improvement in his overall game was noticeable even since spring training. There was much more confidence at the plate controlling at-bats, which translated into the catcher putting the ball into play harder and with a lot more authority than in previous looks. The 21-year-old also had a firmer understanding of what opposing pitchers were trying to accomplish against him, while picking up the spin out of the hand more quickly as well. The hitting skills were starting to come to the surface more.
It’s fun seeing the progression of players, and in watching Swihart this season, it was enjoyable comparing where he is now versus a season ago. Many of the things I had noted as areas needing improvement were beginning to show signs of being polished, and potentially becoming key strengths. My time watching Swihart was one of those instances where I really got a chance to dive in and contrast a prospect’s development. It also made for another set of notes and markers to check back in on this coming season, which will likely be in Double-A. There was something about Swihart that hinted that this was just the beginning of what is to come, and it left me anxiously awaiting the next step. –Chris Mellen
Clint Frazier, Outfield, Indians (AZL Indians)
I had more fun following Frazier June 2012 through June 2013 than any other draft prospect I can recall. Frazier doesn’t make the game look easy, as so many highly touted prospects do, but rather appears to attack the game and, through sheer will, impose himself upon it. In each of my looks in on him, Frazier stood out as a potential future impact major leaguer in all facets, showing plus speed in the field and on the bases, elite bat speed and big raw power, and steady improvement in center as a new convert to the outfield.
The highlight of my scouting year was a high school game between Frazier’s Loganville High and fellow first-rounder Austin Meadows’ Grayson High. During batting practice, Frazier launched more than 20 home runs, while roughly 70 pro evaluators watched on, and that was just the opening act. In his second at-bat of the game, Frazier took a first-pitch fastball and drove it over the left field wall, past a road running parallel to the fence, and into a tree line some twenty feet beyond the pavement. It was such an impressive shot even Grayson second baseman Jeril Dawson gave Frazier a big grin and handshake as he rounded the keystone (video here). Later that evening the future fifth-overall selection homered again, for good measure.
Nights like that make scouting fun, and with Frazier each night is another opportunity to witness something like “that”. –Nick J. Faleris
Addison Russell, Shortstop, Athletics (High-A Stockton)
The questions that surrounded Russell's ability to stick at shortstop versus a move to the hot corner as an amateur are well known, and still exist. But how loud the doubters are has decreased significantly from the draft to the present, with many now believing Russell is a shortstop in the long term.
It's always good to get multiple looks at a prospect, and fortunately for me, I got to see Russell at two different points in the season. The first thing I noticed was the wide, broad shouldered frame. After that, it was the special hands and how well they worked together at the plate. I was sold on the offensive skill set early on, but was hesitant when it came to the actions at shortstop. But by the time I got my second look, I found myself all-in on Addison Russell the shortstop. I wish I could say I foresaw the great hands at the plate translating to the glove as quickly as it came together. The arm strength had always been there, but the glove-to-hand transfers were much cleaner now. The footwork caught up with the rest of the body around the bag as well as when it came to ranging in either direction. It also turned out Russell changed his physical approach at the plate (video). Perhaps no prospect has improved his stock on the national stage as much, or as quickly, as Addison Russell in the non-Buxton division over the past year. He continues to impress and could be in the majors sooner than anyone, aside from himself, could have expected. –Ronit Shah
Matt Smoral, LHP Blue Jays (GCL Blue Jays)
The 6'8" Smoral is one of the most intriguing and favorite arms I saw all season. His fastball sits easily in the 91-94 range while hitting 95 at times. While that is very solid coming from the left side, it's his slider that sucks me in. It's already a plus pitch sitting at 82-85 with tilt and a sharp bite that is effective to both righties and lefties alike. When he's commanding the fastball the slider is a devastating swing-and-miss pitch that he can throw in any count. However, command has haunted Smoral most of the season. With him coming off of foot surgery, the Blue Jays took it slow with him and he admits that the long layoff from pitching caused him to lose consistency with his mechanics. Control and command issues aside, Smoral made it through the season healthy and he's looking to build upon that by pitching during the upcoming instructional league. –Chris King