Cody Ponce, Brewers, RHP
The hulking Ponce—all 6-foot-6, 245 pounds of him—was Milwaukee’s second-round pick in the 2015 Draft. He was a somewhat-late bloomer, growing into more strength and velocity later in his college career at Cal Poly Pomona. He put himself on the map with a strong Cape Cod League showing the summer prior to his draft year, displaying velocity from a physical frame and mixing in a quality cutter. Size, velocity, and the ability to get good action on his cutter are still Ponce’s calling cards—overall, though, Ponce’s control and usage of secondary pitches had improved since my looks at him as an amateur.
Ponce’s delivery seemed stronger through its balance point, leading to a more linear drive down the mound and increased ability to fill the strike zone. In his three innings of work against Team Germany, the fastball worked between 91-94 (sitting 93-94) with natural, heavy burst when angled to the lower third. His primary non-fastball remained a potentially above-average cutter in the high 80s, but it was encouraging to see Ponce trust a more complete arsenal of pitches the second time through the lineup. He showed more feel for a circle-change at 82-85 than in previous viewings; showing turnover action down and to his arm-side. Ponce leaned on his change more to left-handed bats, as you might expenct, consistently avoiding the heart of the plate with it. His breaking ball is a curveball between 77-79 mph. Readers shouldn’t expect the pitch to ever play legitimately above-average, but he showed between 45-grade and average shape on the pitch.
No one ever has questioned Ponce’s physicality, arm-strength, or raw two-pitch mix. The concerns leading into the 2015 Draft were seemingly more centered around his ultimate role: starter or reliever. There certainly exists temptation to consider a late-inning future for a hard-thrower who relies on two iterations of a fastball, but the improved control and ability to work with competent off-speed pitches shows Ponce is making improvements in the areas he’ll need to take the ball every fifth day. – Adam McInturff
Zach Davies, Brewers, RHP
Davies exemplifies why late-round acquisitions are still worth following, as the former 26th-rounder from an Arizona high school played in the Futures Game in 2015 while also making six major-league starts. The return from Baltimore for Gerardo Parra, the diminutive (6-feet/165 pounds) righty was in a battle for the back-end of the Brewers rotation, but ultimately has been sent back to minor league camp. He likely will be back up fairly soon; it would be a surprise if he doesn’t appear in Milwaukee at some point in 2016.
Davies is not overpowering, but has good command and pitchability stemming from a very clean delivery. He pitches from a slow-paced semi-windup that he repeats very well. His mechanics are polished and at his size he doesn’t have issues controlling his levers down the mound. While there exists a small wrist-hook on the backside of his motion, it doesn’t prevent his arm action from working loosely through a high three-quarters slot. While he will always look undersized on a big-league field, this is the type of body and mechanics that accompany a starter who really pounds the zone with multiple pitches.
I saw Davies pitch against Cleveland in a big league game. He had a quick, efficient outing—getting contact outs and letting his defense do the work. He worked ahead in counts with his fastball, weaving well to both sides of the plate at 88-91 mph. Likely a 45-grade fastball, Davies’ velocity plays up a tick with at least solid-average command and average arm-side run that gets in on same-side hitters. His best secondary pitch is a changeup at 79-82 that features above-average sell and velocity separation from his fastball—whether his change is 55-grade or a 60 depends on how much he can play the pitch off the fastball, which could be harder to do given his modest velocity. Regardless, Davies showed a quality change throughout the outing, confirming my thoughts following last year’s Futures Game. Davies’ primary breaking ball in this look was soft, loopy 12-6 curveball that consistently had downer shape and spin, but lacked significant velocity in the low 70s. It’s a good complementary pitch, but given its lack of bite and below-average velocity, it’s much more of a set up pitch that will require finesse in the strike zone. He flashed two sliders at 82-83 that I liked much more to play as average at the big-league level, with enough velocity and 50-grade tilt.
Whether Davies finishes as a genuine no. 4 starting option or a lesser-impactful no. 5/long-man ultimately depends on how well he throws off hitters’ timing and works with command in the strike zone. He doesn’t have margin for error from a stuff perspective. – Adam McInturff
Jorge Lopez, Brewers, RHP
Lopez closed the game against Cleveland, and though his plus stuff probably could play out of a big league bullpen right now, there’s simply too much upside here to not continue to develop him as a starting pitcher. After extensive looks at Milwaukee’s system this spring in Arizona, I’m convinced Lopez has the highest ceiling of any arm in the Brewers’ system. His size, athleticism, and genuine flashes of three 60-or-better pitches all fit a legitimate front of the rotation mold, though the difference between Lopez being a power no. 3 starter and a true front-rotation piece is likely based on the degree he can improve his delivery and command—areas where there’s room for development.
Lopez pitches from a fairly slow-paced full-windup, breaking his hands over his head before working into a tall, rotated leg kick. In my opinion, he over-rotates his upper-half at the top of his delivery, and this causes his hands to break too far behind him—as opposed to right at his belt. The torso-rotation and deep hand-break cause more wrap behind his body than his arm circle would have otherwise, though the moving parts do add some deception. All told, the twist and long arm in the back rob him of some command within the strike zone right now, though his lightning-quick arm is still able to get out in front of his delivery through a fluid high-three-quarters slot. A plus athlete, Lopez does well to control his body down the mound, and stays through his pitches without fall-off after release. He won’t be a true command artist any time soon, but the athleticism and easy mechanical fixes do allow for hope that continued improvements to his command can be made.
Lopez’s fastball was sizzling in this look, likely the best of any starting-pitcher prospect I saw in the Cactus League. He sat 93-96 mph and grabbed a handful of 97s and 98s on some guns, and it’s not unrealistic to expect him to consistently crack 95 early in his big-league career. His long, twitchy levers and easy arm speed give the fastball above-average late action: it really explodes the last 15-20 feet to the plate with riding arm-side life. When scouts talk about “free-and-easy” velocity, this is what they mean. His breaking ball was a power curve in the low 80s that still maintained true downer shape despite its velocity. The ceiling of the breaking ball is 60-grade, though it might have so much downward break that one of Lopez’s last points of refinement in the high-minors will be learning where to start the pitch so it finishes in the zone. Lopez isn’t limited to two pluses and an average third, like most young power pitchers—his splitter has at least the same ceiling as the curveball, if not a little more. It was a nasty high-80s splitter with legitimately filthy arm-side break and tumble at its best. Hitters need to be cognizant of a high-velocity fastball, so a pitch he delivers with similar arm speed, with dive and drop can make opponents look foolish when they swing over the top.
There’s a lot to be excited about with Lopez, and he just needs a hair more refinement before he could make immediate impact in Milwaukee’s rotation. If their system rebuild actually yields big league success, Lopez will likely be a key part of the Brewers’ future core. – Adam McInturff
Hobbs Johnson, Brewers, LHP
Johnson has been a reliable starter in the Brewers’ mid-minors affiliates the last two seasons, though his walk rate took a fairly large jump once he hit the Double-A level in 2015. At 5-foot-11, 230 pounds, Johnson is shorter but muscular throughout his upper and lower halves. He pitches from a simple semi-windup with a compact leg kick and arm action. Johnson extends well through his delivery’s finish, with an overall mechanical profile that would appear to pass the eye test as far as allowing for command and control. Given his demonstrated ability to limit free passes in his previous professional stops—paired with a repeatable and low-maintenance delivery—it will be worth monitoring in 2016 how much Johnson’s 2015 walk percentage of 15.1 was reality or aberration.
It will be control and feel to pitch that dictate if Johnson—a 2013 16th-round pick out of UNC—has much big-league utility at the end of the day. His mix of stuff is below average, and the only types of southpaws that carve sustained major-league roles with Johnson’s quality of stuff almost always do so solely based on their advanced pitching IQ and moxie. Johnson worked in the 87-90 mph range with his fastball, comfortably sitting 88-89. It was a four-seam fastball that stayed fairly straight; he’ll need to be fine commanding it to spots in the zone, and should be playing the fastball off a healthy mix of secondary offerings. Johnson’s go-to secondary pitch was a changeup (78-80) that he threw to hitters of any persuasion. His change has the best chance to finish as an average pitch. Johnson’s breaking ball is a soft, fringy curveball at 72-74 that shows early and had limited sharpness.
I didn’t see the deception or angle in Johnson’s current mechanics to project a fallback ceiling as a lefty bullpen piece—even in a matchup role that only faces left-handed bats. Johnson profiles more as an organizational-type starter who logs solid innings in the high-minors, with his ideal big-league utility being an emergency call-up in a no. 5 starter or long-relief role. – Adam McInturff
Javier Salas, Brewers, RHP
The 6-foot-4, 210 pound Salas—Milwaukee’s 10th-round pick in 2014 out of the University of Miami—posted a fairly pedestrian first full professional season as a Brevard County starter in 2015. Though he isn’t lacking velocity, his sub-six K/9 indicates he had a hard time missing bats—and that strikes me as a direct byproduct of him pitching without a deep arsenal or a secondary pitch of MLB average quality. That, paired with the fact he has both a deceptive and high maintenance delivery, give me confidence that Salas’ best role at the highest level is exclusively as a relief pitcher.
Salas starts with a wide stance on the rubber, throwing from a semi-windup in which he turns away from the hitter at the top of his leg kick. He lands extremely closed, throwing cross-fire around his body and slinging the ball from a lower three-quarters slot. While it gives him intended deception—especially against righties—it isn’t the type of free-and-easy look that generally accompanies a starter’s toolset.
Given the demonstrated lack of a third pitch, Salas’ repertoire fits better in a short-exposure rolel. His fastball ranged between 91-94 mph throughout the outing, sitting at 92-93 with natural arm-side tail due to his lower arm-slot. His slider lacked velocity and had a below-average-to-fringy look in the 77-80 band. If he doesn’t improve his slider, a ceiling closer to upper-organizational bullpen arm and/or up-and-down lower-leverage relief piece than a consistent contributor at the major-league level makes sense. – Adam McInturff
Adrian Houser, RHP
Houser faced a deep Triple-A Cleveland club in my viewing, squaring off against Bradley Zimmer, Yandy Diaz, and Nelly Rodriguez among others. He consistently hit the mid 90s with his fastball, sitting at 94-95, while reaching 97. It was a straighter offering at the upper end of that velo band, but frequently (if not consistently) showed wiggle at the lower end. This is a plus offering, and is at its best when uses his 6-foot-4 frame to get steep plane into the lower third, though he’s not afraid to pitch up in the zone for swings and misses. The depth and shape of his curveball was on point throughout the outing, and he was able to drop it in the zone for strikes on occasion. He also got batters to chase out of the zone, spiking it in the dirt at times. Those spiked pitches weren’t meant to be strikes, and while his penchant for missing his mark by that much worked out this game, it is something to work on, as major-league hitters will learn to lay off quickly. Still, it’s a plus pitch at its best, and is comfortably above average. He threw five changeups, generally around 82 mph, with three for strikes. Houser threw 38 of 58 pitches for strikes and relied mostly on his fastball (38 fastballs) in the outing. If he continues to avoid throwing his changeup, the group that sees him as a reliever will likely score a victory. Still, with his frame and a clean, repeatable delivery, the changeup should only have to play as usable for him to earn multiple shots as a starter. – Craig Goldstein