Tuesday Prospect Notes: A Few Top 100 Tweaks

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This season, Eric Longenhagen and Tess Taruskin will have periodic minor league roundup post that run during the week. You can read previous installments of our prospect notes here.

Before we get to this post’s analysis, some housekeeping. I’m continuing to trudge through the last few team lists, and hope readers will understand that part of why this has taken so long is because a) we lost multiple writers to teams during the process and b) it takes a lot for me to compromise my vision for the depth and quality of my work. I’m on pace to finish just before the draft while also updating and expanding the draft prospect list so that draftees can quickly be added to their club’s pro list right after they’re picked. I realize that continuing this way during future cycles would leave valuable and relevant info unpublished for too long, and that I need to make changes. For instance, I don’t have a Cardinals list out yet while guys like Andre Pallante, Brendan Donovan and Juan Yepez are all playing big league roles. I’ve had well-formed thoughts on that group of guys since they were part of last year’s Arizona Fall League, and need to find a way to shorten the lag between when I’m taking those notes and when they’re turned into actionable info on the site, especially when it comes to short-term big leaguers.

My approach for in-season updates (which have already underway — duh, you are reading this post) will again be to group teams based on the geographic location of their spring training facility (for example, teams with East Valley facilities in Arizona are already being updated) and drill down deepest on contending clubs (within that East Valley cluster, the Giants) as they’re more likely to part with prospects ahead of the trade deadline. There will still be à la carte updates where I see a player and add them, or where someone’s performance prompts me to source info from scouting and front office contacts and brings about a change in their evaluation or valuation.

Updates will be paired with written analysis explaining why they’ve occurred. I’m averse to simply re-ordering names and announcing an update, as it feels clickbait-y to me and serves to blur the line between real expertise in this field and someone just tweeting a repackaged list of names. I realize I’m fighting an uphill battle in this regard (gestures at our broader culture), but I want to cling as tightly as possible to my priorities (rigorous, well-considered work that garners the approval of my peers and people in the baseball industry) while still giving readers what they crave as a natural byproduct of achieving that goal.

Top 100 Changes

After he made just five starts at High-A toward the end of his breakout 2021 campaign, this season the Marlins sent 6-foot-9, 19-year-old Eury Pérez to Double-A Pensacola, where he has been a buzzsaw, striking out 36% of opposing hitters while only walking 6% across just north of 40 innings. Over the last year, Pérez has added about 30 pounds, experienced a two-tick fastball velocity bump, and incorporated a second, harder breaking ball that has become his primary non-fastball weapon. After sitting 94-95 mph last year (Pérez was a 50 FV prospect ranked 67th in the offseason), he’s now parked in the 96-98 mph range for entire starts, and his hardest sliders (in the 85-87 mph range) are nearly 10 mph harder than his average curveball was in 2021 (77 mph). While he’s been uniformly dominant in the minors, Pérez’s stuff has now hit a different gear and demands a move.

Even more precocious than Pérez’s velocity is his fastball command, which is absurd for a 19-year-old, let alone one who throws this hard and is also this size. He shows bend and balance in his lower half as he propels himself way down the mound and releases on the doorstep of the batter’s box, making hitters extremely uncomfortable. Though he doesn’t throw the pitch a ton, his changeup feel is also very good, and currently more consistent than his feel for his new slider, though I expect that will come. Pérez’s fastball shape operates to the east and west of the zone. His heater is only generating about a 14% swinging strike rate, per Synergy Sports, which is above the big league average but not elite. There are still some things to work on here, but Pérez is younger now than Trevor Rogers was on the day he was drafted, and the fact that he’s made relevant adjustments this year and continues to dominate while implementing them is remarkable.

Within the last couple of days, scouts who have seen Pérez (one who I happened to be at a game with, as well as a newer source of mine) have said they can make the argument that he’s the best pitching prospect in baseball right now because the other few in that discussion (for me, Grayson Rodriguez, who has a strained lat; Shane Baz, who had arthroscopic surgery from which he recently returned, arm strength intact; and Daniel Espino, currently in a pretty long layoff for a knee issue) have all been hurt recently. Rodriguez’s injury, which might cost him the rest of the year, dictates he slide a little bit to reflect the risk that this is the start of persistent problems, as has been the case for many pitching prospects before him. That group is now stacked in the 60 FV tier in order of proximity and health, though Grayson still has the highest ceiling and best collection of pitches.

Gunnar Henderson has moved from the 50 FV tier into the 55s, as he’s cut his strikeout rate almost in half while walking more than he has punched out at Double-A Bowie ahead of a promotion to Triple-A. If we look under the hood, Henderson’s pitch selection appears even more impressive, as he’s only swinging at pitches in the strike zone that he can damage, often letting strikes on the outer third of the zone go past him early in the count. There are scouts and analysts convinced he can play shortstop for at least a little while, though I still have him projected as a plus third baseman. He’s now a top 25 prospect in baseball for me based largely on the improvements he’s made on the offensive end, improvements that have curbed the fear that may have popped up from his 2021 Double-A stint of him striking out at a worrying clip.

Six other players have moved into the 50 FV, four of whom were anticipated coming into the season and two of whom weren’t. Cubs center fielder Pete Crow-Armstrong and Braves center fielder Michael Harris II have both made swing changes. PCA made his change in the offseason and has had time to generate a meaningful sample showing that it has indeed unlocked meaningful pull-power to go with his incredible center field defense. He now ranks among the other excellent up-the-middle defenders poised to make at least one-note offensive impact, in the 40-50 overall range of the list.

You could argue that we’re late to the party on Harris, but (and you can read more about this in his blurb over on The Board) it has tended to serve us well to wait on swing changes and assess their impact (Garrett Mitchell and Jarren Duran come to mind), while anticipating them has been a mistake (Travis Swaggerty). Harris made his change while he was here in Arizona just a few days after he was called up (I went to see him and Spencer Strider), and while there’s still some approach-related risk that Harris won’t get to his power, it’s incredible that this 21-year-old has been able to keep his head above water against big league pitching while making adjustments on the fly.

Rockies catcher Drew Romo and Yankees lefty Ken Waldichuk are the other two additions from the offseason Picks to Click group. Waldichuk’s fastball plays up due to its underlying characteristics, he has two good breaking balls, and I think his changeup will eventually be a bat-missing weapon because of the way he commands it. He’s similar to Reid Detmers (average velo that punches above its weight, big breaking stuff, lots of strikes, projection on the changeup), a plug-and-play mid-rotation starter who could pitch in the big leagues tomorrow if the Yankees needed him to. Graduates like Detmers will migrate to a 2022 Graduates page (like this) when I’ve completed the final few team lists, but for now they serve as a good jumping off point from which to triangulate the position of new additions like Waldichuk.

Romo is a virtual lock to be an impact defender at a key position and continues to post above-average contact rates and hit for power even as he’s exited the Cal League (all the Rockies affiliates are hitter-friendly, however), and he belongs in the mix with Shea Langeliers and Iván Herrera as locks to catch who also stand to contribute on offense.

Chief among the unexpected additions to the Top 100 is Red Sox righty Brayan Bello. I’ve long considered Bello to be a relief prospect due to the length of his arm action, but he’s never generated excessive or role-altering walk rates, and when you look at the clusters of his pitch locations, it’s clear this guy has feel for locating his stuff even though his delivery features a good bit of violence and effort. He has three impact pitches – a mid-to-upper-90s sinking/tailing fastball, a plus slider, and a plus changeup – and is on the doorstep of the big leagues, and I’m buying that he has the command to start. Bello is very similar in many ways to Brewers lefty Aaron Ashby (sinker-oriented fastball, plus secondary stuff, arguable relief risk), and so he enters the list in that zip code.

Cardinals shortstop prospect Masyn Winn slides into the very back of the list among other contact-oriented middle infielders. While focusing solely on shortstop, Winn (who was a two-way amateur with huge arm strength) dominated High-A for the first month of 2022 and was given a quick promotion to Double-A Springfield, where he continued to rake on the surface. While Winn’s underlying metrics indicate his power output in 2022 has, to this point, been a mirage (30-grade peak exit velos), his bat-to-ball skills are advanced, especially for a prospect who was a two-way player not long ago and who is only 20 and already at the upper levels. His contact rates (in the zone and overall) have been better than the big league average this year and have taken a bit of a leap since 2021. There’s big bat speed and rotational athleticism here, and you can project a little more on Winn’s power output even though he’s already a muscular, tightly-wound 20-year-old who doesn’t have a long, projectable frame. While adept at putting the bat on letter-high fastballs, he currently struggles to pull ones that have real big league velocity. Fastballs he’s pulled in the air since arriving at Double-A have averaged only 90 mph, while (this is per Synergy Sports) his opposite-field liners and fly balls have come against fastballs averaging 93 mph. Purely based on where his skills and tools are at this moment, Winn isn’t a 50 FV prospect in the same way that most other upper-level prospects are. Instead, he’s more of a high-variance, high-ceiling type with some freaky tools and an impressive early-career track record for someone who was not unanimously considered a hitter as a high school prospect.

Falling within the Top 100 is Blue Jays third base prospect Orelvis Martinez, who has proven to be extremely chase-prone at Double-A. His 55% swing rate there would rank him among the 15 most aggressive qualified big leaguers in 2022 (though many of them are quite good) and Martinez’s breaking ball issues prompted one scout to compare him to Maikel Franco. There’s still so much pull power here that I want to stay on Orelvis, but he slides among the boom-or-bust corner defenders, close to 100 overall.

Moving out of the 50 FV tier are Rays outfielder Josh Lowe (yes, he’s hitting for huge power at Triple-A, but his strikeouts have exploded and his defense in center is not good enough to support that) and Giants outfielder Heliot Ramos (for similar, though not as stark, issues); both now have role-playing FV grades rather than ones befitting true everyday players. Another Giant, catcher Patrick Bailey, falls as he continues to struggle at High-A, where he finished 2021. His framing metrics are still very strong, but he otherwise isn’t performing, and scouts in to see him are crushing his effort level and athleticism.

I was too aggressive ranking Cubs infielder Reginald Preciado and Yankees shortstop Alexander Vargas during their early Complex League days. Preciado’s breaking ball recognition issues are a big reason he’s punching out 40% of the time (a source of mine who warned me of this and reads the site is going to send me an “I told you so” text very shortly). Vargas hasn’t filled out and added strength in the way I expected/hoped, and in fact is still so undercooked from a strength standpoint that he’s likely to be exposed to and passed over in this offseason’s Rule 5 Draft. He still has no-doubt infield shortstop athleticism and remains a fair long-term prospect, though.

Marlins righty Sixto Sánchez moves out of the top 100, as his shoulder issue will likely prevent him from throwing this year. The track record for total returns from shoulder issues (which Sánchez has dealt with multiple times) is not good, and to be frank, he looked extremely out of shape when I saw him walking around the backfields in Jupiter. I also saw Twins righty Jordan Balazovic (knee) rehabbing in Florida prior to him being sent out to an affiliate, and he has struggled since. His velo was fine (up to 95 mph, sitting 93) and has continued to be (he’s been up to 96 at Triple-A), but he seemed to be working with a new, second breaking ball (a 83-88 mph slider) during the rehab stint I saw, the shape and quality of which was very inconsistent. He hasn’t fallen far but needs to be behind the group of power arms in the Top 100.

Eric Longenhagen is from Catasauqua, PA and currently lives in Tempe, AZ. He spent four years working for the Phillies Triple-A affiliate, two with Baseball Info Solutions and two contributing to prospect coverage at ESPN.com. Previous work can also be found at Sports On Earth, CrashburnAlley and Prospect Insider.

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1 year ago

Seems Hunter Brown is soon to be called up for the Astros, presumably in a bullpen role. Has his command improved to justify the call? Will pitching him out of the bullpen delay his progress?