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Javier Baez, SS, Cubs (Triple-A Iowa)
After a dominating run across two levels in 2013, Baez was a darling of the offseason prospect hype machine, and when he arrived in camp this spring and continued the onslaught I agreed to name all offspring I might create in the future after him. But 2014 hasn’t gone as planned for the 21-year-old, and we are nearing the point in the season where the sample size is significant enough to validate the concerns about his offensive struggles. As previously documented, Baez is an extremely reactionary, see-ball/hit-ball hitter, the type who looks to attack and drive fastballs out of the park and struggles to make adjustments to off-speed offerings. These approach tendencies have been magnified this year by a larger dose of quality secondary stuff, and when Baez takes the bait and loses the count, his OPS is 500 points lower than it is when he can work himself into more friendly fastball situations.
Another twist in this developmental tale is Baez’s extreme day/night splits, as the high-ceiling slugger has a sub-.200 slugging percentage under the artificial lights, with a batting average that has now dropped below the .100 mark. If vision is the culprit, and Baez is struggling to locate and diagnose the ball early out of the pitcher’s hand, this could present a terminal developmental outcome when paired with existing approach concerns. It’s still early in the season, and the realities of the vision issues are still more speculative than anything else, but we are nearing the point where concerns can solidify and realistic outcomes can start to be questioned. I’m still blinded by his bat speed and therefore optimistic that his future will be abnormal and franchise altering. But the neurological aspects of his struggles are trying to pull me off the Baez bus with each passing day. –Jason Parks
Eddie Butler, RHP, Rockies (Double-A Tulsa)
On nights when I feel lonely and down, I dim the lights, make a delicious cocktail, and watch Eddie Butler’s performance from the 2013 Futures Game in order to return a smile to my face. It was the nastiest of the nasty, and his stock soared as a result, placing him just outside the top 25 prospects in the minor leagues heading into the 2014 season. With only six Double-A starts on his professional resume, the 23-year-old righty returned to Tulsa to start the year, and despite some statistical setbacks as a result of specific developmental focuses his stock remains on the same vaulted plane. With his deadly cutter in his back pocket, Butler has been focusing on pounding the lower zone with both his two-seam and four-seam fastballs and introducing a new curveball into the mix. The former are necessities in the unfriendly confines of his future home park, while the latter only goes to deepen the arsenal and provide a change-of-pace pitch to his often velocity-heavy arsenal.
When the training wheels come off and Butler steps up to the major-league rotation, you are going to see a pitcher with multiple fastball looks—including a bat-missing cutter and a heavy two-seamer thrown with plus-plus velocity and sink—a sharp slider, a double-plus changeup, and a playable curveball that can change sight lines and disrupt timing. On paper, it’s a frontline profile. A move for the short-term could come back to bite Colorado on the ass if Butler is included in any deal. –Jason Parks
Franchy Cordero, SS, Padres (Extended Spring Training)
Of all the short-season level players I saw on the backfields this spring, Franchy Cordero impressed me the most; his combination of projectable size, present strength, natural bat-to-ball ability and power potential separated him from his peers at that developmental level. As a result of his strong camp, the 19-year-old received a full-season assignment to start the year, but his first month at Low-A Fort Wayne was a disaster on all sides of the ball, and he was quickly returned to extended spring training so the Padres developmental staff could pop the hood and get him running again. As is often the case with young Latin American talent, Cordero found himself in unfamiliar environmental conditions in the Midwest League, playing in cold weather for the first time after a professional journey that had only included stops in the Dominican Summer League and the Arizona rookie league.
On top of the cold-weather hurdles, Cordero had a substantial breakdown of throwing mechanics in the field, which he carried over and allowed to affect his comfort and confidence at the plate, as the natural hitter looked anything but natural and he struggled to put his bat to the ball with any consistency or potency. Things obviously snowballed for Cordero out of the gate and he struggled to reconcile and adjust to all the factors involved, but this is the developmental process, and it was smart of the Padres to give the high-ceiling talent a chance to reset and regroup in a more conducive environment. I’m still very high on this prospect, even if I don’t see a shortstop in the long term. The bat is going to play, and whether it comes at the short-season level in 2014 or a return trip to Fort. Wayne, Cordero will show a larger audience the electricity I was fortunate enough to witness in camp. Don’t walk away from this prospect because of the early struggles. –Jason Parks
Kohl Stewart, RHP, Twins (Low-A Cedar Rapids)
The 2013 first rounder (fourth overall) has warmed with the temperature in the Midwest League, having now run off four impressive starts spanning 20 and two-thirds innings pitched since April 25th. Over that period, Stewart has punched out just under a batter an inning while maintaining a sub-1.0 WHIP and allowing just two earned runs. The stuff is sharpening, with the power righty better working both sides of the plate with his low- to mid-90s fastball and a hard slide piece serving as a weapon, particularly against same-side bats. Stewart remains prone to control and command hiccups, especially with his secondaries, but overall it’s been a positive start to his first full season of professional ball. Looking ahead to the remainder of 2014, the main areas of focus will be consistent execution of his secondaries, improved comfort with his changeup, and a more dynamic use of his full arsenal, as he can get formulaic with his sequencing. –Nick J. Faleris
Rymer Liriano, OF, Padres (Double-A San Antonio)
When I saw Liriano during spring training, after he missed 2013 due to Tommy John surgery, the way the ball jumped off his bat stood out. It’s loud and powerful. The 22-year-old unleashes a ferocious swing designed to impact the baseball. He’s more than capable of driving the ball with backspin to all fields. With that style of swing comes a lot of miss, though. Liriano is the type of hitter who likes to get the head out in front of the ball quickly. His hips can open early, which leaves him prone to wrapping over the top of off-speed stuff. There’s a fine line here for Liriano, and that’s why he’s shown flashes but not sustained tool utility in his career. I don’t see the hit tool producing anything better than average batting averages, but the power is legit and starting to translate more into game action. There’s development time to go, with a taste of The Show more likely to come in 2015 than 2014, but Liriano is showing signs that the tools are trending forward. –Chris Mellen
Steven Matz, LHP, Mets (High-A Port St. Lucie)
A full, healthy season last year was a big step in the right direction developmentally and showed that the left-hander was putting his injury troubles in the past. Injury concerns still come up in discussions about the 22-year-old, but the stuff points toward a big-league future. Matz’s fastball comfortably works 92-95 mph and tops out at 96 mph. While the heater doesn’t display a ton of movement, it jumps on hitters out of his 6-foot-2 frame with late hop and explosion. The curveball displays teeth and bite, with deep break that can get chases or bend knees. His changeup is behind the other two pitchers, but has been showing progress in terms of more consistent action.
I have a feeling that I’m going to see Matz in the Eastern League sooner than later. His arsenal is ahead of the hitters he is facing and will need a push to the next level so it doesn’t get stale. I’m most interested in seeing how he is going to attack right-handed batters. Matz has the stuff to challenge them and pitch inside, but at times can run into ruts working away too much. He’s going to have to move his fastball around all four quadrants of the zone, and most importantly be willing to throw inside, to get through advanced lineups. A promotion will give a glimpse of his mentality. This is a player I’m looking forward to seeing. –Chris Mellen
CF Teoscar Hernandez, Astros (High-A Lancaster)
Hernandez was very impressive in early looks, showing off a quick bat, a knack for hard contact, and the ability the play an up-the-middle position and play it well. This is a player who is more than the sum of his parts, and who lacks an above-average carrying tool to propel him into the prospect elite. He does have some trouble with quality breaking stuff and there’s some swing-and-miss, but the aforementioned bat speed and hard contact squashed those thoughts; I came up with a 50 hit tool grade for the future. A more recent look vs. Reds pitching prospect Ben Lively, of the ridiculous 0.74 ERA and untouchable “ghost” fastball, showed that Hernandez also struggles making adjustments in-game. Lively’s fastball was giving hitters trouble due to his great deception and fast arm, and he was flat out challenging hitters with it all game, even without plus velocity (he sat 88-92 mph). Hernandez was late and struck out on a fastball at the letters in his first at-bat. He did the same in his second, and sure enough, his third, this time on a fastball a little lower in the zone.
Lively has a four-pitch mix that he uses liberally, but after the first strikeout he stuck with the fastball almost exclusively and Hernandez simply failed to change his approach. This look puts another question mark on whether Hernandez has a real feel for hitting and if he can recognize what the pitcher’s tendencies are. A 50-grade hit tool seems uncomfortable and aggressive now, but the 21-year-old Dominican is still ahead of the curve and has time to figure it out. –Chris Rodriguez
Paul Blackburn, RHP, Cubs (Low-A Kane County)
Paul Blackburn was the second pitcher taken by the Cubs during Theo Epstein’s inaugural draft in 2012. I saw him during his Friday night start against the Quad City River Bandits and came away noting how well he hit his spots and controlled the pace of the game. Blackburn is 6-foot-2 and works with a repeatable three-quarters delivery in the 88-91 range. He showed excellent command of a running fastball and crisp pace, as he was generally 9-10 seconds between pitches. The curveball is clearly a work in progress, as a few of his 10-to-4 breaking balls were loopy, but the spin and arm slot are there for projection. The body looks like it could fill out pretty well through the lower half. The 20-year-old has developed the command on his fastball that was a question mark early on in his career. He’ll need to develop the curveball some more and maintain consistent depth on it and the changeup will have to show up more often in games. Blackburn isn’t a game changer by any means, but he can grow up to be a solid mid rotation guy. –Mauricio Rubio
Niko Goodrum, OF, Twins (High-A Fort Myers)
Goodrum, now a third baseman, has the athletic ability to play anywhere in the infield, a good skill given his profile as a potentially valuable utility man. He played primarily shortstop last year, but has shifted to third in deference to Jorge Polanco, a move based as much on the organizational depth chart as Goodrum's inability to stay at the position. He's still learning the nuances of third base, but he has all of the tools to be a plus defender there, including a natural, fluid backhand and natural movements on the barehand charge play. His arm is a true weapon and will allow him to play anywhere on the field. He will likely outgrow shortstop once he fills out, but in the meantime, his height shouldn't preclude him from being an acceptable option there.
At the plate, the switch-hitting Goodrum still has some work to do. He's currently a better pure hitter from the right side, but he has the potential to do more damage from the left. From the right side, he keeps his hands inside the ball better and features above-average bat speed. From the left side, he has a tendency to get a little longer, but he has more power potential and generates backspin on the ball. He'll never be a big home run hitter, but he could hit a fair number of doubles. He runs well and is an above-average basestealer.
Goodrum might never have enough power to be anything but an empty hitter for moderate average, but that, paired with his ability to switch-hit and play all three infield positions, makes him a realistic and potentially valuable bench player. Even if the bat develops, he'll never hit for typical third base power, but his defense could help make up the difference to make him an borderline everyday option. –Jeff Moore
Henry Owens, LHP, Red Sox (Double-A Portland)
In most years the top SoCal prep arm doesn't fall to the 36th overall pick, so the Red Sox were happy to scoop up Owens as a supplemental first rounder in 2011. Owens has gotten great results as a pro but can be somewhat underwhelming when people finally see him. He's huge and left-handed, sure, but the stuff, velocity, command and breaking ball are short of what we typically expect from a frontline pitching prospect. What make Owens effective? Size, deception and left-handedness help. The biggest factor is that hitters find it extremely difficult to pick up the ball out of his hand. The ball seems to almost disappear for a couple feet. At his size he's already releasing closer to the plate than most pitchers, and that adds to the perception that the ball is exploding on hitters.
Owens also has an out-pitch in his changeup. He has tremendous confidence in the pitch and throws it with the same arm speed and out of the same slot as his heater. Those who look at his minor-league numbers and are expecting Owens to become an ace will likely be disappointed, but the bottom line is that the way he's getting hitters out will work in the big leagues. He projects as a solid no. 3 or 4 starter and isn't far from helping. —Al Skorupa