This was a fun season in the Cal League, with a good amount of premium talent pouring through the pipeline alongside a roster middle class of players with big-league potential in supporting roles. Here’s my mid-season review of the league’s standouts from back in late June. What follows is Part I of a look at the league’s best tools of 2017. Next week we’ll turn to the arms, but for now let’s talk position players!
Best Hit Tool: Eric Filia, Modesto (Seattle Mariners)
I’ll caveat this by saying that I’m not convinced Filia has the goods to develop into a useful big-league roster piece; he’s a corner outfielder with an okay glove, very little present game power, and very little speed utility. He’s also already 25. It’s not an easy profile. But the one thing this dude can do is hit. He’s a cerebral player, and he does well to think along with pitchers, understand counts and context, and keep himself on pitches. I’ve been on this bandwagon since his UCLA days, largely because it’s just rare to see guys who get fooled as infrequently as Filia, regardless of level. The swing is quick and compact, the hand-eye outstanding, and combined with the approach his present bat-to-ball ability is as good as you’ll see in High-A. And I think it can hold as he moves up the ladder, as the combination of hitting skills is robust enough that he’s not likely to find himself outclassed or outfoxed by more advanced arms. He’s a big, strong guy, and if he ever learns how to add situational leverage to his flat swing there’s a legitimate opportunity for a late-blooming corner bat here that adds a bit of value to somebody’s roster in his late 20s and early 30s.
Lancaster is obviously Lancaster, but the Rockies’ affiliate featured three actually-very-good hitters for most of the season. I put a 6 hit on Rodgers back in June, and despite some warts in subsequent looks I’d be inclined to keep it there. I love the swing—it’s simple, explosive, and extremely quick through the zone. He handles velocity well, and he’s quick enough to adjust into breaking balls and put good wood on them even when fooled. He did not demonstrate progress in tamping down early-count aggressiveness as the season wore on, as I’d expected he would, and in fact seemed to have gotten all the more aggressive by the time he returned to the Hangar for the playoffs. Still, I think he’s going to be an offensive force at the six spot, even if he never gets past giving away a bunch of at-bats every year on weak contact against early-count sliders.
Hampson will never play on a team that gets Maddux’ed, as it feels like he’s personally responsible for roughly 20-percent of the starter’s pitch count in a given game, and he’s going to play on a lot of teams for a lot of years. He’s just a good hitter, with a game plan and an ability to make adjustments as well as anyone in the league this year. Daza’s quick stroke and elite hand-eye will drive a solid offensive output despite roughly zero game power. He grew up a lot in the box this year. Ruiz demonstrated outstanding hand-eye and a fluid, quick stroke that nonetheless had some thump behind it from the left side. The right-handed swing is much less refined, but it’s going to be a fun offensive profile to watch as it coalesces. Reynolds is just…he’s just solid. All around. Solid approach, solid mechanics from both sides…he’s a fundamentally sound hitter.
Best Power: Ibandel Isabel, Rancho Cucamonga Quakes (Los Angeles Dodgers)
Isabel has some of the best raw power in minor-league baseball, derived from a violent, max-effort swing that leaves him wide open to exploitation by normal sequencing and reasonable pitch execution in game situations. He made some marginal strides in anticipating sequences and restraining his wild impulses to jack everything as the season rolled on, but I have a hard time seeing how he holds his own against advanced pitching. And given that he brings zero defensive or base-running value to the table, that’s problematic. Regardless, he hit three or four of the deepest balls I saw hit in a game this year, and probably 15 of the 20 farthest in BP. So that’s fun.
Lewis still didn’t look all the way healthy in September, but that didn’t stop him from unleashing some hellacious swings in the Cal League championship series, with screaming 100-plus mile-an-hour exit velocity on the end of several efforts. The hand and wrists speed is elite, and his combination of natural strength and loft should produce plenty of power once he’s healthy and rolling.
Peters has a bunch of length in his swing, the product of having a bunch of length in his frame. He can struggle at times to catch up to elevated and inner-third velocity, and he’ll fish for cambios on the semi- regular, too. So there’s a fair amount of swing-and-miss in his game, and the hit tool will very likely limit the amount of game power he gets to. But when he gets extended he can really damage the baseball. The swing’s got loft and his hit balls carry with consistently strong launch angles to the pull side and center. He was the best prospect in the league as far as game power potential this season. Allen’s a big, thick dude who also swings with excellent plane from the left side. The velocity of that swing isn’t the greatest, but his natural path is geared perfectly to lift right-handed pitches moving in on him. The offensive profile’s going to have to carry him, and there’s enough of a path to playable power here for modest optimism that it can.
Jones oozes strength and athleticism, and there’s easy plus raw power flowing from his size and impressive bat speed. The swing as currently constructed is not geared to maximize that raw skill as over-the-fence game production, however. It’s a flatter plane that yields hard, lower-trajectory contact instead. Quinn didn’t ever quite look healthy in my looks around mid-season, but the raw strength in his swing was still quite evident.
Best Speed: Wes Rogers, Lancaster JetHawks (Colorado Rockies)
I’ve comped Rogers’ explosiveness and gait to Usain Bolt around here before, and I’ll do it again. He doesn’t have the fastest start-up, and indeed his first couple strides out of the box or on the back end of a crossover can be inefficient and churning. But holy hell, once he gets synced up his second gear is a sight to behold. I’ve had him as low as 3.6 on a bunt, but it’s really in his first-to-thirds and sniffing out a double that you see the full show. His 70 stolen bases were 12 more than anyone else compiled in a full-season league, majors included—and he stole ‘em at an 85-percent clip. The same second gear that drives that success rate on the bases helps him atone for a lot of issues in early anticipation and pick-up of balls in the outfield, too.
Hampson’s one of the most aggressive baserunners you’ll see; not only did he steal 51 bases, but he pushed from first-to-third as often as any runner in the league, and forced the issue to score a bunch of runs that looked like dodgy prospects. His aggression is controlled, to the degree that he’s consistently correct in his risk assessment. In any other league where Rogers isn’t involved he’s a contender for the best run tool.
Like much of his offensive game, Gettys’ speed utility is still raw at times, though he did manage to acquit himself pretty well on his stolen-base attempts. His is plus raw speed that may play a tick below that, but he should be able to steal a bunch of bags at the highest level. Bishop is probably about as fast as Hampson in raw terms, but he was in my looks much more tentative on the bases, lying in wait and picking his moment after careful analysis of the opposing battery. His speed really plays in center, where his close into the gaps is outstanding. Hilliard certainly doesn’t look the part of a plus runner, with an unassuming and measured physicality, but he really gets to speed quickly with an efficient stride, and he posted consistent plus run times all year.
Best Outfield Glove: Yonathan Daza, Lancaster JetHawks (Colorado Rockies)
Daza’s play in the outfield was consistently strong all season, with an early-season assignment to right gradually giving way to an earned increase in center field reps. His reads and first step were assets out of the gate, and he shows a real knack for efficient route-running. He diagnoses catch points early and has the closing speed to finish plays well into the gaps. Early in the season there were a few instances where he put forth less-than-full effort, but by the season’s second half the commitment to each play had become a notable asset. I think he can play a well above-average center field at the highest level.
Bishop plays a mean center field, ranging far and wide and finding his bead on a given ball pretty quickly. I nominally preferred Daza’s first and last few steps, but those two were the clear class of the grass in the league this year. That’s not to say Jones was too far behind, and when all’s said and done he might end up right there with those two. His athleticism alone makes it easy to project well above-average defensive utility at maturity, but he showed a decent foundation to boot. Gettys has the physical ability to develop into an above-average defender in his own right, though he can struggle at times to go back on balls and still has a good amount of projection to that grade. Jebavy’s defense looked like it had remained more-or-less consistent with what I’d seen last year, though he wasn’t tested a ton in any of the looks I got at him this summer. His quick strides produce a rapid close, and he gets out of the gate very efficiently to track balls well in any direction.
Best Outfield Arm: Michael Gettys, San Diego Padres (Lake Elsinore)
Gettys boasts the best arm to come through the Cal League since Brett Phillips a couple years back. His ball has elite velocity, and he takes advantage by angling his throws on a lower trajectory. He’s shown an ability to generate carry without being fully set, and has demonstrated on-the-fly range from the center field wall to third base.
Lewis has easy plus arm strength, with carry enough for right field, where he may end up sooner than later if the knee doesn’t bounce all the way back after an off-season of rest. Daza likes to show off his own plus arm, sometimes to his detriment (and that of his would-be cut-off man). But it’s a tool to be proud of, and he’s generally accurate with it, regardless of intended base. Hilliard’s raw arm strength is plus as well, though it plays to a utility a bit below that, as his gather and time to unleash the ball is quite slow, and his mechanics get loose, which negatively affects his accuracy at times. Peters demonstrates a similar mechanical issue, where his arm action in uncoiling one he’s behind can get pretty long, but he’s accurate and still able to get decent mustard on balls he returns while on the move. And despite the longer delivery, the raw arm strength is no-doubt plus.
Best Infield Glove: Sergio Alcantara, Detroit Tigers (Visalia Rawhide)
Alcantara’s one of those six-spotters who doesn’t have great speed, but still generates outstanding range on account of his exceptionally quick footwork and lateral agility. He moves with great fluidity, and demonstrates all the actions you look for in a no-doubt shortstop. The hands are soft and efficient…you name it, he does it in the field.
Justus plays a low shortstop, getting his center of gravity down and shifting after balls laterally like he’s defending a point guard. The foot quickness outpaces the speed here again, and there’s an above-average glove here at the six. Jackson once again showed quality hands in his time at Rancho, gobbling up anything in his vicinity. His long strides into the hole allow him to get around on balls most defenders cannot, and that’s a big deal given his arm strength. Ascanio showed me pretty much exactly what he’d shown James Fisher last summer at Clinton.
Best Infield Arm: Drew Jackson, Los Angeles Dodgers (Rancho Cucamonga)
What’s most striking about Jackson is how short and quick the release is for someone who gets as much on the ball as he does. His ball holds its line effectively, with below-average tail and consistent accuracy on the move. It’s a plus-plus tool that he knows how to deploy effectively in game situations.
If this was a tier, Alcantara would have his own, with Ascanio and Howard splitting the check in a next tier. Alcantara manages to find excellent velocity in spite of a slight frame, and he does it with a really strong lower half and well above-average arm speed for a non-pitcher. Ascanio and Howard both showed strong transfers and outsized arm strength for their respective sizes.