Nick Ciuffo and Josh Almonte: Raw Promise in the Appy League

When our other prospect writers submit scouting reports, I will provide a short background and industry consensus tool grades.  There are two reasons for this: 1) giving context to account for the writer seeing a bad outing (never threw his change-up, coming back from injury, etc.) and 2) not making him go on about the player’s background or speculate about what may have happened in other outings.

The writer still grades the tools based on what they saw, I’m just letting the reader know what he would’ve seen in many other games from this season, particularly with young players that may be fatigued late in the season. Often, those will be the same grades. The grades are presented as present/future on the 20-80 scouting scale and very shortly I’ll publish a series going into more depth explaining these grades. – Kiley

Nick Ciuffo, C, Princeton Rays (Rays Rookie-Advanced)

Ciuffo was the Rays’ 21st overall pick out of a South Carolina high school in 2013 ($1.97 million bonus) and was a near wire-to-wire first round pick from the summer showcase season to draft day, after a standout prep career where he drew a scholarship offer from the local Gamecocks before he played in high school.  While his swing and frame aren’t necessarily as pretty as other prep hitter first round picks, Ciuffo made plenty of contact with above average raw power and showed the tools to stick behind the plate with an above average to plus arm.  Scouts often compared him to A.J. Pierzynski as a solid-across-the-board backstop with everyday upside.

Hit: 20/45, Raw Power: 55/55, Game Power: 20/45, Speed: 40/35, Field: 45/50+, Throw: 60/60   – Kiley

Ciuffo is a potential plus defensive catcher who might offer enough bat to make a real impact.

Hit: 20/40

Ciuffo1 Ciuffo2

Nick Ciuffo is not a particularly good hitter at present, as his .229/.301/.331 line in the Appalachian League shows. He has a fairly long stroke from the left side that features significant uppercut action, and that swing puts a fair amount of swing-and-miss in his game against even Appalachian League pitching. He does show quick wrists and solid bat speed and displays rudimentary pitch-recognition skills, hanging in decently against right-handed pitchers, giving him workable raw materials at the plate. He doesn’t project as a high-average hitter by any means, but he has a chance to hold his own enough to make him worth playing as a lefty-hitting quality defensive catcher.

Power: 40/50 Ciuffo possesses a strong frame, the aforementioned quality bat speed, and a fair amount of leverage in his swing, and these attributes combine to produce average raw power. It’s an open question how much he’ll be able to take advantage of it given the deficiency of the hit tool, though. He hasn’t been able to produce much in-game power as a professional to date; while it’s likely he’ll find a way to clear some fences as he gets more experience, he doesn’t project as a true slugging catcher.

Speed: 35/35 By definition, 35-grade speed is hardly exciting, but with a catcher, it’s actually more than solid. Ciuffo clearly stands out among those at his position for his athleticism, though he’s not quite a Jorge Alfaro type who translates that athleticism into big straight-line speed. His body might add some weight as time goes on, taking him from a borderline-40 runner to a true 35, but he’ll be less of a baseclogger than most backstops, and his speed also manifests in aggressive rundowns of popups, wild pitches, and passed balls as well as charges of bunts and infield rollers.

Defense: 4o/60 Ciuffo is a very advanced defensive catcher for short-season ball. He boasts clear athletic advantages as noted above, and he has a tireless motor behind the plate, showing advanced receiving and blocking skills and working well with his pitching staff. As with any young catcher, his technique isn’t always locked in, but he’s far more polished than most at this stage and should evolve into a clear plus defender behind the plate.

Arm: 65/65 Ciuffo’s caught 56% of basestealers this season, and while statistics (especially low-minors ones) don’t tell the whole story of a prospect’s credentials, a number that eye-catching almost always at least has some validity behind it. I didn’t get a great look at Ciuffo’s arm in my looks, but I saw enough of it to verify that it grades out as easy plus, with a very quick release and plenty of carry on his throws. His advanced technique also helps the arm play up to its full potential.

Summary Ciuffo’s a lefthanded-hitting catcher who will play plus defense in the major leagues, which means he’ll be a big leaguer if he can hit at Paul Bako levels. He’s got enough promise offensively to have a good chance of at least reaching that echelon, and he might be able to add some value with the bat, with his ceiling being somewhere around .255 with 45 walks and 15 homers per season. He’ll likely never be a big producer of traditional numbers, but he adds so much value defensively that Ciuffo may end up well worth playing as an everyday catcher or at least the long side of a backstop platoon.

Josh Almonte, OF, Bluefield Blue Jays (Blue Jays Rookie-Advanced)

Almonte was a 22nd round pick of the Blue Jays in 2012 (signed for $100,000 bonus) out of a Long Island-area high school.  He has spent his first three pro seasons in short-season leagues, showing some real progress this season after looking overmatched much of his first two years.  He’s an athletic 6’3 outfielder with a wide base of tools that’s still growing into his physicality.  His approach at the plate still needs some work and his long limbs will likely always give him some contact issues, so the scouts I talked to weren’t convinced we’re looking at a big leaguer.  That said, they liked the tools and one called Almonte a poor man’s Cameron Maybin, so the upside is there.

Hit: 20/40, Raw Power: 50/55, Game Power: 20/50, Speed: 60/60, Field: 45/55, Throw: 60/60   – Kiley

Almonte has many scouts who cover the Appy League buzzing as one of the toolsiest players in the circuit. There’s considerable rawness in his game, making him a high-risk player, but he has impact talent if his skills develop and coalesce.

Hit: 20/45 AlmonteSW Almonte’s swing is a mixed bag at present. On the plus side, he doesn’t add much length with his load, boasts solid-average bat speed, and retains some natural leverage. On the minus side, there’s a fair amount of stiffness in the swing and he’s not consistent mechanically, especially with his stride. Further, his approach is underdeveloped at present, though perhaps not as much as his 57/6 K/BB ratio might make one think. He does show the ability to use the whole field at times. There’s plenty of work to be done in this area, as is the case for most players of this type, but Almonte has the raw materials to make a fair amount of hard contact at higher levels if he can gain more control of the zone and come up with some more mechanical consistency.

Power: 40/55 Almonte3 Almonte doesn’t sell out for power with his swing–check out how little extraneous movement there is in his setup and swing in this double off the wall. He’s not really looking to drive the ball over the fence, focusing more on hard contact, and that’s probably the optimal approach for Almonte, who can still turn on the ball even without focusing on hitting for power. There’s a lot of strength in his athletic 6’3″ frame, and he could end up with above-average in-game power as he learns the finer points of hitting and gets himself in more counts where he can get pitches to drive.

Speed: 55/55, Defense 45/55, Arm 65/65 Almonte’s not a true burner, but he’s above-average in the speed department and should be able to retain double-digit steal totals all the way up the chain. Fairly raw defensively, he’s nevertheless a rangy player who projects to be able to hold his own in center field or be a plus defender in an outfield corner. Even with inconsistent routes at present, he covers a good amount of ground for a player at this developmental stage, and there is obviously potential for further refinement in this area. Almonte’s arm was the first thing I noticed about him, and it’s his best tool. He’s come up with 17 outfield assists in 122 pro games. His accuracy isn’t always there and he needs to learn when to focus more on getting the ball to a target than just unleashing it, but it’s clearly an asset no matter how it’s deployed.

Summary Almonte is one of many players who boast four potential above-average tools but are deficient in the one that matters most. Unlike, say, Adam Engel, whom I profiled a couple of weeks back, Almonte doesn’t have any plus-plus attributes to carry him and lessen the pressure on his bat–he’s going to have to improve a lot at the plate to become the impact talent his other tools suggest. Still, it’s hard to whine too much about how much a player needs to improve when he’s raised his batting average some 129 points from 2013, which itself is a good sign that Almonte has found ways to adjust and better his skillset so far as a professional. He’s a very high-risk player, but few 2014 Appalachian Leaguers have this sort of wide tool base, making Almonte one of the lesser-known high-ceiling players in the circuit.

Nathaniel Stoltz is a prospect writer for FanGraphs. A resident of Bowie, MD and University of Maryland graduate student, he frequently views prospects in the Carolina and South Atlantic Leagues. He can be followed on Twitter at @stoltz_baseball.

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Well-Beered Englishman
8 years ago

Dear readers,

Click my username to hear FanGraphs contributor Eno Sarris attempt, unsuccessfully, to pronounce “Nick Ciuffo”

8 years ago

that is hysterical.