Last week I wrote up five South Atlantic League prospects whose dynasty league stock is trending up thanks to strong opening statements in 2015. This week I’ll give the same treatment to their Low-A brethren in the Midwest League. Whereas I’m very familiar with the Sally, the Midwest is a collection of cities and ball clubs I know relatively little about, save what I pick up online. It’s important to admit that I haven’t seen any of these players in person yet, making my “don’t scout the stat line” caveat even stronger than usual. As I reminded you last week, and always will when discussing prospects, evaluating minor-league statistics should be done in tandem with reading reports from folks who have eyes on these players and the latter should prevail.
With apologies to Gleyber Torres (adequately fawned over elsewhere in these pages), Derek Fisher (promoted and setting Cal League records), Brent Honeywell (did you know he throws a screwball?), and Anthony Alford (J.J. Jansons discussed him last week), here are five Midwest League prospects on the rise.
Jacob Nottingham – C – Quad Cities River Bandits (Astros)
The Astros selected Nottingham with the first pick of the sixth round in 2013 and he passed on both a baseball scholarship from Oklahoma and a football scholarship from Arizona to begin his professional career. You can be forgiven for ignoring a project prep catcher who struggled through two short seasons, but it's time to start paying attention. Nottingham's eight home runs are second most in the MWL and a realization of his plus raw power. His game is not all about clearing the fences, as his 19.6 percent strikeout rate and a .327/.387/.569 triple-slash indicate he's making more contact than in years past; that .956 OPS is the highest in all of Low-A. Nottingham has taken a few reps at first base, but don’t see the forest for the trees. Quad Cities has three catching prospects on its roster and the Astros surely want to keep the Sheriff’s bat in the lineup as often as possible to speed his development. Nottingham's defense behind the plate is only adequate, but he doesn't need to be a plus defender to make it; his bat can carry him.
Michael Gerber – OF – West Michigan Whitecaps (Tigers)
Late-round draft picks providing value is exactly the kind of boost that the Tigers 30th ranked farm system needs and they’re getting just that from last summer’s 15th-rounder. Gerber played his college ball at Creighton, and though he smacked a career high 11 home runs his senior season, his walk rate continued a three-year trend of deterioration. The 2.82 K/BB Gerber posted in the New York-Penn League was in line with his amateur career, but he’s made huge strides in 2015, having struck out only twice more than he’s walked in MWL action. The .374/.436/.516 triple-slash to date is an across-the-board improvement over the impressive .286/.354/.493 line he achieved in the NYPL, and his current .359 TAv sits atop the Low-A leaderboard among qualified batters. Gerber has continued to show a nice mix of pop and speed, with four home runs and 13 steals in 52 games so far. The stolen-base total overstates his potential future impact in that category, but he does have enough speed to contribute a handful. Gerber will celebrate his 23rd birthday next month and deserves a new challenge against more age appropriate competition.
Richard Urena – SS – Lansing Lugnuts (Blue Jays)
Urena made his stateside debut last year in the Appalachian League and performed admirably at the age of 18, a full two years younger than the average age of his league peers. He utilized a solid approach and a gap-to-gap stroke to post a .796 OPS that was a top-15 mark among qualified hitters. Urena only popped two home runs, but scouts saw enough bat speed to project 6-10 at maturity. Fast forward to 2015 and Urena's stat line looks completely different than you might expect if you’ve followed his development. All of a sudden he's hacking like crazy—his 2.4 percent walk rate is easily the lowest of his minor league career. More surprisingly, he has seven home runs as part of a .276/.292/.417 triple-slash. That's impressive for any player in Michigan's cold spring, but especially so for a 19-year-old shortstop in one of the MWL's least favorable hitting environments. With athletic actions and a cannon arm, Urena is a near lock to stick at the six. This kind of power production won't continue, but if he can show enough to comfortably push his peak projection to the 12-15 range, it will represent a big step forward assuming he can scale back his newfound aggressiveness.
Ruddy Giron – SS – Fort Wayne TinCaps (Padres)
I'd never heard of Giron until his May 18 debut, when he announced his presence with a 6-for-6 performance that included a home run and a steal. He began the year in extended spring training, but has been sensational since getting the call to full-season ball, slashing .406/.431/.681 with four home runs in 72 plate appearances. A .168/.205/.222 line and 5.25 K/BB ratio in the Arizona League last year gave no indication that this kind of performance was remotely possible, even for a short stretch. Giron has cut his strikeout rate by more than a third and is hitting the ball much harder, having nearly matched 2014's extra-base hit total already. There is precious little public scouting information on Giron, so I'm excited to hear what emerges as evaluators get a longer look at him. Given his background, there's a good chance this is just a magical, inexplicable three-week period that nobody will remember in six months. After all, we're talking about a sample that includes only 17 games and production that is distorted by a .429 BABIP. Nevertheless, Giron is barely 18 years old and currently the youngest player in the MWL, making him a prospect that demands some attention.
Stephen Gonsalves – LHP – Cedar Rapids Kernels (Twins)
We're used to seeing strong pitching numbers in the first couple months of Midwest League action but what Gonsalves did before this week's promotion to High-A is another thing altogether. The high school rotation-mate of last year's 1:1 and next week's wild card Brady Aiken led qualified MWL starters in strikeouts (77, next closest is 55) and ERA (1.15) and was second in WHIP (0.80). The 12.6 strikeouts per nine innings jumps off the page, but Gonsalves’ improving command is driving his upward trajectory. His walk rate has improved at every stop and now sits at a career low 7.2 percent. More than his pure stuff, it's that command of a three-pitch mix that has MWL hitters glad to see him go. Gonsalves' fastball and changeup are both plus, and if he can continue developing the curveball and add some strength to his frame, he has mid-rotation upside. With one more inning pitched, he'll establish a new career high and he'll do that with fellow 2013 draftee Kohl Stewart in the Florida State League, where hitters won't be quite as hapless when facing a pitcher with the ability to sequence and execute.
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