Hunter Harvey, RHP, Orioles (Low-A Delmarva)
Given the volatility of young arms, along with the overall nature of the position, it’s easy to be on the conservative side when initially assessing the early stages of their pro careers. After seeing Harvey toward the end of last season, though, it wasn’t a tough call to put a 7 on the future potential. The stuff absolutely screamed “legit.” The heater effortlessly came out of his hand at 92-95 mph, with late life and jump. The feel for the curveball was advanced for a pitcher his age, and though the changeup was inconsistent, the quality arm-side fading action when Harvey did execute lent a big clue that future growth is there. It’s an arsenal of three future plus-to-better pitches.
I left that first look impressed, and with the view that 2014 was going to reveal some big things. We ranked him 58th in the BP Top 101 based on the belief that this is an arm with the potential to be special.
After some solid reports from spring training, especially in regards to Harvey’s fastball command, contacts who saw his first two outings have indicated it is only a matter of time before he’s taking the hill a level up. Both the fastball and curve have received high marks. Harvey’s heater has routinely been 93-95 mph, and he has shown the ability to pound the lower tier of the zone and control plate appearances with it. The curve has shown the tight rotation, depth, and power of a plus offering that can get swinging strikes or freeze hitters. Harvey’s poise and composure have also stood out for a pitcher his age.
Of note, the change can still be firm at times, but has flashed plus and shown improving arm action. Comments have indicated that the pitcher needs more trust in the offering and to work it more into sequences. This is the developmental aspect to zone in on as Harvey progresses. He likely will be able to overmatch low-minors hitters with his fastball-curve combo, but will need to be able to rely on the change in the upper levels and beyond. The progress with the pitch this season should provide big clues as to whether his stay in the lower minors will be a relatively short one. I'm guessing that it will. –Chris Mellen
Mookie Betts, 2B, Red Sox (Double-A Portland)
I’ll be honest and say that I was just lukewarm on Betts after sitting on him for a handful of games last year in Greenville. While the improvement since I saw him during his first summer in Lowell was noticeable, I was still on the skeptical side, especially with the bat, and marked him with the ceiling of a utility player. Looking back, I’m not really sure why I graded him so toughly. The biggest area of improvement was with Betts’ confidence on the playing field, which translated into a more fluid swing, better plate appearances, and the comfort to let his athleticism and speed loose.
In my latest look at Betts, none of that confidence had disappeared. He looked unfazed by the jump to Double-A and step up in competition. Toolswise, Betts’ quick hands accent his compact stroke and enable him to pull the barrel through the zone quickly. He has the type of bat speed to turn around high velocity. The bat-to-ball ability is there. I’d like to see how he handles the higher premium arms, which is a good indication of what a hitter sees in The Show night in and night out, but it’s a player who can develop into a regular. Development is the name of the game, and Betts has shown strong, impressive overall development since his early days as a pro. After this last look, I’m pretty comfortable saying I was previously too low on him, and a projection as a regular is well within his skill set. –Chris Mellen
Aaron Sanchez, RHP, Toronto Blue Jays (Double-A New Hampshire)
Maybe my expectations were a tad unfair, but I rolled into New Hampshire over the weekend expecting superb things from Sanchez. With reasonable expectations, Sanchez would have looked like a potential stud starter on Sunday; instead he looked very much like a work in progress. Sanchez’s velocity sat comfortably in the 94-95 mph range out of the windup, but dipped to 91-93 mph out of the stretch. His delivery escaped him most of the day and he struggled to throw strikes consistently. Of the few changeups he threw in the contest, only one or two were of any quality. Sanchez’s breaking ball was the star of a relatively bleak day as he snapped off several easy-plus hammers in the 81-83 mph range, before abruptly changing the shape in the fourth inning and dropping in a few 78-79 mph overhand versions that were also very successful. All in all, seeing the raw potential in Sanchez was easy, but it was also very apparent that he still needs considerable work to reach his ceiling. –Mark Anderson
Hansel Robles, RHP, New York Mets (Double-A Binghamton)
Hurling opposite Aaron Sanchez on Sunday, Robles was easily the underdog on the card, but he was up to the challenge with a fine performance executed via very different means. With his fastball as the only pitch even touching average, Robles relied on his ability to throw strikes, change the hitters’ sight lines, and make the ball move. His fastball sat 89-91 with excellent arm-side life, and he had 92-93 mph when he needed a little extra. He was aggressive with the fastball and, despite a drop-and-drive delivery and low arm slot, he elevated the fastball with success and blew even fringy velocity past hitters consistently. I have rarely seen so many late swings on fringe-average velocity. Both his slider and changeup were consistently below average but he did enough with them to keep hitters off the fastball. Without progress from his secondary offerings, Robles doesn’t have a starters’ profile, but he could survive as a middle reliever who relies on a funky delivery with deception and possibly an extra tick on the heater when used in short bursts. –Mark Anderson
Vince Velasquez, RHP, Astros (High-A Lancaster)
With all of the other big-name pitchers on the Lancaster pitching staff, Velasquez is a guy who is getting less attention than he probably should. XL frame that has begun to fill, becoming strong and physical. Live arm with a long arm action, good downhill plane coming from high slot, and creates additional angle working from third-base side of rubber and throwing across his body. Fastball peaked at 96 on Friday in Lake Elsinore, sat and held 92-94 range for entirety of five-inning start. Showed significantly better command to arm side in this look. Mechanics would suggest this is typical for him. Showed ability to utilize glove side of plate but with less feel, and the path to strike zone is much more treacherous. In the early going, before he showed a plus changeup, he appeared to be a likely late-inning power-armed reliever. Features very good arm-side sinking life with deceptive arm speed, which will be critical weapon for neutralizing left-handed hitters. Curveball ranged from 75-80, with a slurvy two-plane break at times and occasional bite. He showed the ability to locate down in zone. His curve has a chance to become MLB-average pitch with refined direction and improved consistency, potentially a tick above. Several were well executed in this look. He profiles as a mid-rotation starter at the highest level, perhaps best suited in relief role with the ability to pump up velocity into upper 90s in short stints, but he has a chance to develop into a quality starter at the major-league level if he remains healthy.—Todd Gold
Hunter Renfroe, OF, Padres (High-A Lake Elsinore)
It was a very positive showing for Renfroe despite the 0-for-4 outcome. His first at-bat showed instant pitch recognition, as he took each of first four pitches the entire way out of the pitcher’s hand to get into a 3-1 count, then got a nasty knee-high curveball in a fastball count. He adjusted well and backspun a hard line drive right at center field. He showed an aggressive swing, long and powerful, with good ability to control the aggression and choose his spots wisely. Renfroe seemed comfortable getting deep into counts. On this count, he shows big improvement from pre-draft reports—likely a significant point of developmental emphasis. He was robbed on a line drive crushed to the third baseman. He read curveball out of hand well. If the skill becomes consistent he will earn increased fastball opportunities, which could allow immense raw power to play to potential. His speed appeared to be a tick below MLB average in a brief look, perhaps a bit better, and he moves well for size. The big physical build features good looseness to strength, and he really looks the part. He wasn't challenged on in-game throws, as his arm looked to be at least above-average on low-pressure throws with easy carry out of the hand. I would not be surprised if arm is present plus tool.—Todd Gold
Mark Appel, RHP, Astros (High-A Lancaster)
Appel looks the part, with prototypical size paired with athleticism to control his thick legs and broad shoulders. His delivery is perfectly timed; everything is in sync. His hip drives to the plate creating a ton of torque, and he finishes square. He came out of the gate firing bullets—his first three fastballs registered 96, 97, and 98 mph. The fastball featured some good two-seam run that really burrows into right-handed hitters. Later in the game his fastball sat 92-94 mph and he was commanding it well, getting some weak contact. For the most part, he pounded the zone with the fastball, which was a good sign considering some question his aggressiveness on the mound. My only nitpick is that he shows the ball in the back of his delivery which could give the hitter an advantage, but it certainly did not help on this occasion. His slider is a major-league quality bat-misser, with quick dart and thrown around 87-89 mph. It's a shorter slider, meaning it doesn't have severe horizontal break, but it is thrown with such tight spin that hitters have a very tough time recognizing it. I didn't see a changeup in his five innings of work, which is surprising, but maybe he was simply working on fastball and slider command.
Appel is almost a finished product, which is rarely the case for pitchers in the California League. He has the raw tools to be a monster on the mound. It just depends whether or not he has that extra edge to max out his potential. I'm comfortable putting a no. 2 starter ceiling on him and have little doubt that he will be a solid middle-of-the-rotation workhorse for many years. –Chris Rodriguez
Daniel Norris, LHP, Blue Jays (High A Dunedin)
In a system loaded with arms, Norris entered this season ranked fourth on our Blue Jays Top 10. His four-pitch arsenal and excellent athleticism were on full display Friday night in Dunedin. The fastball was sitting in the 90-93 range while topping out at 94 once, but the command was simply not there. This caused him to rely heavily on his off-speed and breaking balls to get outs. Known for a slider that sits in the low 80s and can cause a good amount of swinging strikes, it was Norris' curveball that really stood out for me. He threw it to get ahead and also as an out pitch to both left-handed and right-handed batters. Consistently spinning it in the 74-76 mph range with command, it was a very good weapon that kept the hitters timing off all night. His changeup was up and down all game, but he did a good job of locating it low in the zone, limiting the chance for a batter to barrel one up. On a night where his velocity was down a tick or two and he lacked fastball command, it was very impressive to see a kid battle like he did and shut out a pretty talented Brevard County lineup over six innings. –Chris King
Austin Barnes, C, Marlins (High-A Jupiter)
Barnes is the definition of solid but unspectacular. Without any one standout tool, he'll never be a star, but as an above-average defensive catcher with enough bat speed to be an above-average hitter for the position, he should put together a nice major-league career. He attacks fastballs with a short, line-drive stroke and can drive one over the fence if he gets something on the inner half he can turn on. Premium velocity can overmatch him at the plate, but he doesn't try to do too much with it, giving him a chance. Behind the plate, Barnes receives with soft hands and is in clear control of his pitching staff. His arm isn't overpowering, but it's strong enough. I got him as low as 1.97 to second base, thanks to good footwork and a quick release, and he usually sits around 2.0. Barnes should be in Double-A, having already spent 2013 in Jupiter, but he's blocked by Kyle Skipworth and J.T. Realmuto on the depth chart. –Jeff Moore
Austin Kubitza, RHP, Tigers (Low A Western Michigan)
After throwing exclusively in relief over the course of his first 25 professional innings last summer, Kubitza has drawn a Low-A Midwest League assignment to start 2014, where he is being stretched out as a starter. In two starts last week the Rice product carved through the overmatched bats of Beloit and Dayton, racking up 16 strikeouts over 10 2/3 innings while allowing just six hits and two walks. Kubitza continues to lean heavily on his mid-80s slider, which is a sharp breaker that works well around the quadrants and as a chase pitch out of the zone. He gets good plane on his fastball, which he can run in on righties, and he is flashing an improving changeup. He’s developmentally advanced for the Midwest League, but it’s noteworthy that Kubitza was able to maintain his stuff while turning over the lineup a few times. It remains to be seen whether his slider-heavy approach will play against more advanced lineups, but the Midwest League has thus far been flummoxed. –Nick J. Faleris
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