A Wednesday Scouting Notebook – 4/14/2021

Prospect writers Kevin Goldstein and Eric Longenhagen will sometimes have enough player notes to compile a scouting post. This is one of those dispatches, a collection of thoughts after another weekend of college baseball, minor league spring training, and big league action. Remember, prospect rankings can be found on The Board.

Kevin’s Notes

Jonathan Cannon, RHP, Georgia: 7 IP, 5 H, 0 R, 0 BB, 9 K

After throwing 11.2 scoreless innings out of the pen last spring as a freshman for Georgia, Cannon entered the year as a potential late-first round pick this summer, earning draft eligibility as a sophomore due to age. He’s had an up-and-down season, but was at his best over the weekend as he shutdown one of the top teams in the country in Vanderbilt, while throwing 75 of his 111 pitches for strikes. At 6-foot-6 and 215 pounds, Cannon has a classic starting pitcher’s frame to go with an on-line delivery and clean arm action. On the season his stats don’t impress, with a 4.35 ERA and 21 hits allowed in 20 innings, but with just three walks and 24 strikeouts, the numbers indicate an ability to locate, which is exactly what he did against the Commodores.

Cannon has decent velocity, with a fastball that averages 94 mph and touches 97, but his three-quarters arm angle produces less than desirable shape to the heater. His mid-80s slider isn’t a big breaker and his upper-80s changeup has decent fade but is a bit on the firm side. There’s nothing even bordering on nasty in the arsenal, but Cannon can locate any of his pitches in all four quadrants of the strike zone, and knows how to work outside it when looking for a chase. With continued success, he should return to those pre-season late first-round projections, and overall feels like a classic safety-over-upside pick.

Kyle Isbel, OF, Royals: 2-for-8, 4 Ks

There have been a lot of surprising big league promotions over the last 12 months, but if you were making a list of the biggest shockers, Kyle Isbel has to be on it. A 2018 third-round pick out of UNLV, Isbel had a big showing during his draft-year debut, putting up a 1.063 OPS in the hitter-friendly Pioneer League, but struggled in his first full-season while he played through some injuries. As a smallish lefty bat with gap power, decent wheels and the ability the play center in a pinch, the toolset screamed fourth outfielder. Having never played above High-A, Isbel clearly needed more time in the minors, but a combination of the Royals’ tough outfield situation and a .968 OPS during camp pushed him onto Kansas City’s Opening Day roster. Still, a closer look at his spring showed some clear holes in his game; a .444 BABIP helped to drive his impressive Arizona numbers. The good news is he’s in the big leagues; the bad news is that he’s not ready and is currently in possession of the majors’ highest strikeout rate (48.3%) entering Tuesday’s action. Isbel is certainly a prospect, but he’s not ready, and his early-season numbers are another reminder of why spring performances should largely be ignored.

Jace Jung, 2B, Texas Tech: 7-for-13, 3 HR, 5 R, 9 RBI, 2 K

The younger brother of 2019 Rangers first-round pick Josh Jung, Jace is setting the college world on fire this spring. He is now hitting a whopping .405/.504/.865 in 29 games while tied for the national lead in both home runs (15) and RBI (44). While he’s a bit smaller than Josh, he shares the same stocky build and the same high baseball IQ. What’s surprising is the amount of pop in his bat, as his home run total has already exceeded Josh’s in his draft year (14), and scouts say there’s more power in the younger brother and arguably just as good a hit tool. Jung doesn’t stand out for his speed or defense, and projects as more of a bat-first second baseman, but with these kinds of hitting skills, the sophomore (who will be draft-eligible in 2022) is lining himself up to potentially go higher than his big brother, who was the ninth overall pick two years ago.

Matt McLain, SS, UCLA: 6-for-12, 2B, 2 HR, BB, K, SB

It’s been a disappointing season for the Bruins, who started the year as the No. 2 team in the country according to D1 Baseball, but fell out of the rankings this week after dropping two of three to Stanford over the weekend and dipping to a well-below-expectations record of 17-11. The good news in Westwood is that Matt McLain has started to hit again. Seen as one of the safer pure bats in the 2021 draft and a potential single-digit first-round selection in July, McClain has scuffled at the plate at times this spring, but his hot weekend has him back over .300 with an overall line of .307/.404/.535, and his six home runs already represent a career high.

When he’s hot, McLain shows excellent bat-to-ball skills and enough pop to project for double-digit home runs down the road. Scouts believe in the bat, but his ultimate draft position could come down to his defense. While his tick-above-average speed and arm strength suggest shortstop ability, scouts are mixed in terms his hands and that ineffable sense of comfort with him on the left side of the infield. He just doesn’t make it look easy. Still, “mixed” means that some teams believe in him there long-term, and if he keeps hitting, he’ll hear his name very early on July 11.

Huascar Ynoa, RHP, Braves: 6 IP, 3 H, 1 R, 1 BB, 10 K

When Eric and I published the Braves list late last month, one frequent question we got was, “Where is Huascar Ynoa?” He exceed rookie eligibility last year, but would certainly have been in the top 10 had he still qualified, and even that feels low at this point. Ynoa has shown big upside ever since signing with the Twins as one of the top arms in the 2014 international class. The stuff has always been plus (that classification seems light now), but command and control problems created constant questions about his ability to consistently perform, and whether his ultimate role was as a starter or bullpen arm.

The Braves raised his release point a touch this year, and the early results have been the best we’ve ever seen from him, including a career-high 10 strikeouts against Miami on Monday night, helping to cement his spot in Atlanta’s rotation for the time being. Ynoa is a pure power pitcher, with a mid-to-upper 90s fastball with a bit of rising shape leading the charge. His slider is performing quite well, and is what evaluators refer to as “velo-driven,” with it’s 85-89 mph velocity generating the performance here more than any kind of big break. Changeups and two-seamers are rare, and it’s a challenge to survive in a starting role with a two-pitch mix, but if both are swing-and-miss pitches, it can be done. Most importantly, Ynoa is throwing more strikes than ever. He’s not exactly commanding anything, but there’s at least control, and the raw stuff is good enough to succeed as long as he can keep his spray in the zone. This all looks and feels like a step forward, and Ynoa is suddenly another young starter with star-level potential for the Braves.

Eric’s Notes

Zac Gallen, RHP, Arizona Diamondbacks: 4 IP, 3 H, 1 R, 8 K, 2 BB

Gallen missed the start of a season due to a stress fracture in his right forearm but looked fantastic during his first start on Wednesday against the Athletics. He touched 95 a couple of times but mostly sat 92-94 with plus command, working at the letters and both corners. Gallen also has superlative control of his changeup, which entices hitters on and around the lower arm-side corner of the plate. He’ll double- and triple-up on his changeup and also throw it when he’s behind in the count. Gallen also threw about 10 curveballs in the outing, which is significant because it was while throwing this pitch that he’d often feel discomfort in his forearm leading up to the season. His curveball and cutter are both above-average and further weaponized by Gallen’s command and ability to set them up with his average fastball. With plus command of four good pitches, Gallen looks like a multi-time All-Star starter and rotation anchor. This forearm fracture is his first pro injury of any kind, at least one that necessitated an IL stint.

Jesús Luzardo, LHP, Oakland Athletics: 2.2. IP, 6 H, 5 R, 1 K, 2 BB

Luzardo, who squared off against Gallen on Tuesday, was not good. His secondary stuff was not at all crisp and he went away from his slider against righties entirely after Carson Kelly hit a poorly-located one out of the park in the second inning. He actually threw so few curveballs that I didn’t get one on tape before he was removed in the third. Neither his slider nor changeup is getting quite as much downward action as it was last year and both of those pitches were below-average to my eye Tuesday. The movement on both of those offerings bled out as last year moved along and haven’t rebounded. This is puzzling and I’m not sure whether to find it concerning or not. I spoke with a scout who saw Luzardo this spring and thinks he’s experimenting with two distinct breaking balls now, and speculates that this might have impacted his feel for his other stuff. Luzardo’s arm strength is fine, and he mostly worked with two-seamers (some fours) in what is a typical mid-90s velo range for him; his secondary stuff just isn’t very good right now.

Angel Zerpa, LHP, Kansas City Royals

This was a backfield look, so I do not have stats for you. Zerpa was a surprise add to the Royals 40-man roster last offseason. The 21-year-old had never thrown a pitch above rookie ball and yet, after how he looked during 2020 instructs, the Royals rostered him. I spoke with a couple of scouts who saw him during instructs and he sounded like a pitchability lefty with a No. 4/5 starter shot, and that’s what I saw earlier this week. Zerpa sat 91-93 with late tailing action, and commands his fastball east and west. He also commands an above-average changeup and curveball, the latter of which he back-doored several times against lower-level hitters. He’s built to carve up inexperienced bats, which is what Zerpa has done to this point, but he looks like a fast-moving, high-probability bulk reliever or backend starter who a team might have popped in the Rule 5 had he been eligible. It’s still odd to me that Zerpa barely got any spring run on a club that seems like it’s trying to compete, but he looked quite good this week.

Alex Speas, RHP, Texas Rangers

Speas looks healthy (for now — his delivery terrifies me) and sat 97-99 in my two looks at him so far this spring. He’s also snapped off a couple 70-grade breaking balls. It definitely looks and feels like you’re watching a high-wire act when Speas pitches because of his injury history and how upright, stiff, and violent his delivery is, and it’s clear other clubs feel that way because he was just passed over in the Rule 5, but he also late-inning stuff. The Rangers are dealing with a lot of injuries right now, and even though Speas looks a little better than some of the pitchers who are likely ahead of him in the pecking order, adding him to the 40-man means exposing someone else to waivers, so unless the Rangers end up with several guys on the 60-day IL, it’s more likely that we see Speas in the big leagues at some point next year.

Matt Mikulksi, LHP, Fordham: 7 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 1 BB, 16 K

A senior at Fordham, Mikulski’s velocity has exploded and his strike-throwing has improved, changes that coincide with a shortened arm action. There was a ton of heat in to see Mikulski over the weekend against St. Bonaventur, and he did not disappoint, striking out 16 Bonnies in seven innings. He’s gone from topping out around 94 to sitting 93-96 and topping out around 100, per Synergy Sports. Mikulski’s delivery is pretty violent and he has a nasty head whack but he also has pretty consistent feel for all four of his pitches, especially his changeup. He got 11 swings and misses on the first 13 changeups he threw on Saturday. Where Mikulski ends up being drafted will probably be impacted by his signability. He’s a senior and has less leverage than someone with more college eligibility remaining, which means a team might want to take him early for an underslot bonus and then try to sign a falling high schooler to an overslot deal later. We saw a version of this happen with Landon Knack last year, but Mikulski has a better chance to start and has performed against slightly better competition.

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This is my new favorite feature at Fangraphs.

I’m especially thrilled to see an update about Alex Speas, who represents (to me) the platonic ideal of “thrower” as opposed to “pitcher”. He was picked back when the Rangers figured they could turn any athlete into a baseball player (something they persisted in a couple of years past a lot of other teams), and is a bit of a reminder of a bygone era for that reason.


Ditto – loving this series each week.