Who have been the best players in the South Atlantic League so far this season? I recently posed that question to some of the circuit’s broadcasters, with an important qualifier: I requested that they base their selections on what they’ve seen with their own eyes, and not on players’ reputations. I also asked for snapshot observations on each player named, which the respondents graciously took the time to provide.
As with the Midwest League survey we ran last month, the respondents will have seen some players more than others (or not at all) as the SAL plays an unbalanced schedule with two seven-team divisions. Three broadcasters participated, two from the league’s Southern division, and one from the Northern division. Their respective lists were put together within the past couple of weeks.
Will DeBoer, Delmarva Shorebirds (Orioles)
1. Grayson Rodriguez (Orioles): Perhaps a little biased since he’s one of ours, but I wouldn’t be surprised if everyone else rates him this high. He’s like no 19-year-old I’ve ever seen. Blazing fastball, remarkable command of his changeup at such a young age. When he’s on, you can’t stop him. He’s a Freight Train.
2. Hans Crouse (Rangers): Dominated over the limited innings the Rangers kept him on. Wicked fastball, the sort that makes you pay attention because if anyone ever fouled it off, it turned into a crowd missile. Seemed to streamline his windup, which wasn’t as eccentric as his reputation suggested; for a guy who loves the whimsical side of baseball, that was the only disappointment.
3. Hever Bueno (Rangers): More than anybody in our league, when he came into the game you knew your goose was cooked. Straight gas, phenomenal strikeout stuff. The Rangers always seem to have somebody like this in the Hickory bullpen, but this year’s model outshines the rest.
4. Drew Rom (Orioles): A sneaky pick because Grayson Rodriguez soaks up all the limelight in the Orioles system, but Rom has at times been even better. Great splitter that most guys in this league can’t catch up to. Another 19-year-old that’s advanced beyond his years; the O’s could end up with the R&R Boys in their big league rotation in a few years.
5. Kris Bubic (Royals): Saw him during his first start of the season. Delmarva ended up tagging him for four runs in one inning, but by the end of the night it seemed like a lucky fluke. Great strikeout stuff, great poise on the hill.
Luis Gil (Yankees): He was promoted the day he was supposed to match up with Grayson Rodriguez; perhaps the greatest disappointment of the year not seeing him work.
1. Julio Rodriguez (Mariners): In one series against us, he brought back what would’ve been a sure home run in center field and hit a homer himself that traveled over 440 feet. Incredible tools for an 18-year-old. Jarred Kelenic may get all the headlines in the Mariners system (I never saw Kelenic before his promotion), but Julio may be even better.
2. Canaan Smith (Yankees): We saw him in the midst of his .400-clip from July-early August. Incredible bat control and pitch selection, and an ability to go the other way with power that few have down here. One of those crossover guys that rates high as a prospect and is on the shortlist for Sally League MVP.
3. Curtis Terry (Rangers): The Rangers have a glut of big, hulking first basemen that hit taters. Terry might be the best of the bunch. If he hits one in your direction, primal instinct kicks in and you want to jump out of the way.
4. Adam Hall (Orioles): Hall could end up being a rare .300 hitter that sticks around in the SAL for the full season because he just turned 20 in May. Solid contact hitter whose gap power has blossomed, good range at shortstop, speedy and smart on the basepaths. He’s making his homeland in Bermuda proud with every AB.
5. Mason Martin (Pirates): It’s amazing he lasted as long in our league as he did. Remarkable power stroke for someone who turned 20 in June. Strikes out way too much, but has the plate discipline to compensate.
Sam Huff (Rangers): Again, gone before I could see him, but the 15 home runs in 30 games, and what he did in the Futures Game, speaks for itself. He was still the league leader in homers for at least a month after his promotion.
Doug Maurer, Asheville Tourists (Rockies)
1. Yerry Rodriguez (Rangers): He’s not a top 100 prospect, he’s not even a top 20 guy for the Rangers. I don’t care. This guy has stuff. Throws a sinking fastball in the mid to high 90s, has a sharp slider, and a curveball with the best spin rate I’ve seen this year. He also mixed in a good change up the one outing we faced him. That one outing was all I needed to see. Someone is missing something with this guy; he is Dominant with a capital D.
2. Jarred Kelenic (Mariners): Kelenic did it all against us this year. Let’s start with what he did at the plate: Four home runs in 29 plate appearances speaks for itself. Kelenic hit .393 against Asheville and seven of his 11 hits went for extra-base hits. Defensively he was spectacular in center field. Great instincts allowed for excellent jumps on anything hit his way and I saw him make a few highlight-reel catches. If I had to compare him to players I have previously seen at this level, the two who come to mind are David Dahl and Austin Meadows.
3. Jesus Tona (Giants): You know the feeling one receives when a reliever comes into the ballgame and you know your team has no chance? That is what most teams feel when they see Tona jogging to the mound from the bullpen. Tona has made five appearances against us this season, totaled 9.0 innings, and has allowed a grand total of one hit with 13 strikeouts. He’s recorded three saves in one-run ballgames against the Tourists and all were of the six-out variety. His fastball is in the low to mid 90’s, but there is nothing straight about it. Every pitch he throws moves somewhere. We are hitting .036 against Tona. Enough said.
4. Doran Turchin (Orioles): He is the best player on the best team [and] Delmarva is loaded with talent. What stood out to me watching Turchin is that he has something not a lot of players have; he is tenacious in clutch situations. Delmarva beat us seven times in seven games (they beat everyone) and in more than half of those games we had them dead to rights until Turchin came up with a big hit late in the game. I even watched him do it on the biggest stage, the SAL All-Star game. I told everyone I was watching the game with that Turchin would come through in his eighth inning at-bat. He did. Turchin ripped a bases clearing double to give the Northern division the All-Star game win and he deservingly earned MVP honors.
5. Josh Stowers (Yankees): Stowers has done a little of everything in the 10 games I’ve seen him. He’s shown me a lot. He’s hit four of his six home runs this year against us — remember, power numbers are hard to put up playing in Charleston (ask Aaron Judge). Stowers has a good eye, steals a lot of bases, and has a comfort level to every facet of his game. Don’t sleep on this guy.
Terrin Vavra (Rockies): Terrin isn’t on my list for only one reason: I do not want to be biased in my top five since I see him every game — so now I can brag about him in the honorable mention section. He is the best hitter in the league. Period. Terrin almost never expands the zone, but he almost never takes strikes. You can’t shift him because he sprays the ball everywhere. He is also the best bunter in the league. I’d be stunned if he isn’t on everyone else’s list.
Colten Schmidt (Rockies): Colten was tremendous before his promotion to High-A two weeks ago. He put up a 1.95 ERA in over 90 innings this year. An ERA for a Tourists starting pitcher under two is almost unheard of when you play half your games at McCormick Field. Schmidt has been flying under the radar all season but he still may end up winning the SAL ERA title.
Logan Browning (Red Sox): Another closer that just missed out on my list. Listed at a generous 5-foot-8, this guy is lights out. I haven’t seen a lot of Browning this year, but I really liked what I did see and that was a pair of perfect ninth innings with four total strikeouts.
Matt Dean, Charleston RiverDogs (Yankees)
1. Grayson Rodriguez (Orioles): This is a guy that generated a lot of buzz with the way he started the season. A first-rounder striking out 10 in back-to-back starts as a 19-year-old will certainly turn some heads. Even with some anticipation and expectation going in, the guy that started the South Atlantic League All-Star game for the North delivers in person. He looks in for the sign while resting at a rock star “power stance,” works fast, and just comes right at you. His fastball was up to 96-97 with ride and he’s clearly established an above average third offering with a tumbling changeup that can neutralize lefties (Cannan Smith on the RiverDogs has been one of the league’s best left-handed hitters, and struck out and popped out seeing a lot of them when Charleston faced Delmarva for the first time at the end of August). One of Charleston’s hitters described him as easily the best pitcher of the league with a fastball at 97 that even when you’re looking for it, you still sometimes swing and miss because of the ride that it has.
Upon a second viewing of the big, Texas-born hurler a week later, he wasn’t quite as sharp but the stuff was good enough to get him around two self-induced jams. He loaded up the bases with one out in the first and limited the damage to just a run and had two in scoring position with nobody out in the second but got out of the frame with three straight strikeouts. It’s rare to see a guy throwing three pitches fairly consistently (and working on an occasional fourth) and outright dominating as a standout pitcher in a league where he is nearly three years younger than the average age.
2. Luis Gil (Yankees): I’ll try and take off my rose-colored RiverDogs glasses for a moment to talk about the breakout arm in what was lauded as “the greatest Single-A pitching staff in baseball history” by some of the Yankees brass when the Evil Empire constructed one of the hardest throwing rotations in the minors to open the year. Among a stacked rotation that has included Luis Medina, Roansy Contreras, and Alexander Vizcaino this season, Luis Gil (pronounced “Heel”) has easily been the most impressive. It’s astounding to look back and see that pitcher with the potential to be at least a dynamic reliever in the big leagues was traded straight up from Minnesota for outfielder Jake Cave (no offense to the former RiverDog, who is a quality fourth outfield option in the majors). But maximizing raw, talented arms has been the Yankees’ M.O. lately so it’s tough to say if he would have taken the same strides he did this year if he stayed with the Twins.
Gil will flirt with 100 mph in every start and always seems to save a little extra in the tank when he starts getting into trouble. Charleston’s pitching coach Gabe Luckert called him a one-pitch pitcher with an electric fastball once the year started. His breaking ball is a plus offering now and he can throw his changeup in any count with conviction when it’s working. I personally believe he has a chance to be a quality big league starter, but a power reliever isn’t a bad fall back plan.
3. Triston Casas (Red Sox): This guy looks like a first-round pick and plays like one. A big-bodied, baby-faced 19-year-old who chokes up on the bat no matter the count and still hits 380-foot-plus tanks to the opposite field garners consideration as one of the league’s top prospects in my book. The numbers have dropped off a little bit as the season has winded down, but that’s to be expected for a position player going through his first full season. He’s got a great awareness of the strike zone and is a true hitter first with the eye-popping power that he doesn’t just sell out for. I don’t have as much to elaborate on with this guy but I liked him the first time I saw him and he just continues to impress with his approach along with the power.
Grant Lavigne (Rockies) is a Triston Casas type that seems a little bit too hesitant at the plate right now. He is taking his walks and when he does swing the bat, crushes the ball with a different sound off the bat than a lot of the guys in this league. If he can get aggressive earlier in counts on the pitches he needs to, this guy is going to be really good. He’s also got some speed to his game and plays an above average first base, AKA not your typical hit-tool only first baseman type.
Canaan Smith (Yankees): Numbers-wise, he’s been the best player in the league and as a 20-year-old performing in A-ball that demands attention. Smith’s deliberate approach to work the opposite field (about 40% of his batted balls go this way) is a rare-trait. He’s not just fluttering singles into left field as well; he’s routinely barreling up the ball and hitting rockets the other way. He’s a much better athlete than he gets credit for as well. He’s stolen double digit bases and has eight outfield assists this year with a lot of good baseball instincts. He seems like a guy that’s going to continue growing into his body as he matures and really take off.
Ronny Mauricio (Mets): An 18-year-old that is hanging around the SAL circuit and makes a lot of contact. He’s got a wiry body that you can imagine growing into some power. His numbers at his age, consistency in barreling up the ball, and a cannon of an arm at short really stand out.
Additional note: I heard tremendous things about Julio Rodriguez (Mariners), but unfortunately never got to see him in person. He was on the injured list during the Power’s only previous trip to Charleston this year and he was just called up to High-A this week.
David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.