Stanford righthander Mark Appel went first overall to the Astros in the 2013 draft. But if you asked pro scouts who saw him, Rockies righthander Jonathan Gray and Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant make their professional debuts this summer, it's fair to say he would not rank at the top of their lists.
Gray, the No. 3 overall pick out of Oklahoma, lived up to expectations in his limited first pro exposure. After striking out 15 and walking two at Rookie-level Grand Junction in four brief starts, Gray dominated at high Class A Modesto, with 36 strikeouts and six walks in 24 innings. Overall, he compiled a 1.93 ERA in 36 innings.
Beyond the stats, Gray wowed with his stuff. He consistently touched 98-99 mph and generally maintained his velocity throughout his outings, none of which lasted more than five innings.
"Could've been possibly the best stuff we saw all year, actually," an opposing California League manager said. "He had an explosive fastball, located to both sides of the plate. He looked like he's been pitching a for a long time.
"What surprised me was his location on his pitches. He wasn't a high-effort guy. It looked like he was in control. It wasn't like he was throwing as hard as he can, and the ball just came out of his hand really good, and then he located to both sides of the plate. He could throw fastball in, then he'll throw fastball away, and it wasn't like the umpire was giving him some. He was that dominant.
"You see guys that have stuff, but he located his stuff and that what was probably most impressive out of all of it—being able to control the strike zone."
The second overall pick, Bryant won the Golden Spikes Award and was Baseball America's College Player of the Year after his junior year at San Diego. He added to his list of 2013 achievements by helping high Class A Daytona win the Florida State League championship.
"When he barrels it up," Daytona manager Dave Keller said, "it goes pretty far."
He made it look easy from afar, but Bryant got off to rough starts at every level. He made three errors and went 0-for-5 in his pro debut in the Rookie-level Arizona League, then got off to a 1-for-12 start with short-season Boise. But he hit safely in his last 15 Northwest League games, going on a 15-for-30 tear to earn a promotion to Daytona.
Bryant slugged four home runs in 15 regular season games in the FSL, and his overall regular season line between the three levels was .336/.387/.672 with eight home runs and 13 doubles. He went 7-for-20 in the FSL playoffs with four RBIs in six games, and he made just three more errors in 36 games at third (counting playoffs) after his first-game debacle.
"He was awesome," Brevard County manager Joe Ayrault said. "He was what you look for in a high draft pick. His approach and swing, he would just spread out in the box and punish the ball. He made a lot of plays at third base, and I was just impressed from a makeup standpoint, how he carried himself."
Scouts who saw Appel's first starts as a pro weren't as overwhelmed. His numbers were fine, as he went 3-1, 3.79 in 10 starts between short-season Tri-City and low Class A Quad Cities. He struck out 33 and walked nine while allowing 36 hits in 38 innings.
On a good night, scouts saw a pitcher who could run his fastball up to 96 mph and pair it with a good slider. But on other nights, Appel looked hittable with an 88-94 mph fastball, a below-average changeup and an inconsistent slider.
Appel would add and subtract velocity from his fastball to try to deceive hitters, and he tried to mix his pitches. But he would often tip his changeup and throw too many hittable fastballs. And when he ran into trouble, he didn't seem to have a backup plan.
"I don't know what he has as an out pitch to get (major league) hitters out on a consistent basis," an American League scout said.
Appel also did not impress scouts physically. Some said he had a soft body, while others said he had a thick but unathletic build.
The standard caveats for a pro pitcher in his first half season are worth remembering here. Appel was coming off of a significant layoff, having not pitched from the end of Stanford's season in late May until early July. He also had a heavy college workload, throwing more than 100 innings at Stanford as a senior. Some of the concerns can be chalked up to rust—though Appel's layoff wasn't significantly longer than Gray's.
When a scout sees that a No. 1 overall pick is pitching that night, he expects to come away from the outing wowed. Scouts leaving an Appel start generally walked away thinking he was good but not as exceptional as advertised.
The Astros, of course, see things differently, nothing that Appel added nearly 40 more quality innings on top of the 104 he threw at Stanford this year. He came out of it healthy and showed quality stuff.
"For us, his pro debut was a success," Astros farm director Quinton McCracken said. "He got acclimated to pro ball and our philosophies and regimens. He was a big part of a championship club in Quad Cities. He helped propel that team to that success. He was healthy, he's a big, durable guy. He came as advertised."
When we look back on this year's class of Southern League prospects, the prevailing storyline might not be Yasiel Puig or Alex Wood or the Marlins promoting six players directly to Miami from Jacksonville. It might be the sheer number of big league catchers who represented the league's 10 teams.
Pensacola's Tucker Barnhart (Reds) has unquestioned big league potential as a strong defender with the added bonus of being a switch-hitter with a sweet lefty swing. He's had little success as a pro from the right side, but he hit .280/.380/.375 in 275 at-bats versus SL righties this year, making him perhaps the perfect complement to Devin Mesoraco in Cincinnati one day.
Jacksonville's J.T. Realmuto (Marlins) and Jackson's John Hicks (Mariners) have one thing in common in that both converted to catcher late in their amateur careers. Now they profile as big league contributors behind the plate because of their average defensive potential.
Realmuto has nice raw power even if it comes with a somewhat inflexible hitting approach—he hit .239/.310/.353 this year—while Hicks could offer a bit more offensive upside with less catch-and-throw ability. Hicks gunned down 47 percent of basestealers to lead the SL, though he also allowed a league-high 17 passed balls.
The SL's biggest wild card could be Montgomery catcher Curt Casali, whom the Rays acquired during spring training when they traded the rights to Rule 5 pick Kyle Lobstein to the Tigers. Casali has unquestioned defensive tools, but he turned in a career year with the bat, hitting .316/.404/.488 with a patient approach (39 walks, 49 strikeouts) and 10 home runs in 81 games. One scout who likes Casali commends him for his clubhouse presence, work ethic, defensive chops and occasional power, saying he'll play in the big leagues for a long time as a "second catcher on any team."
Seminoles Stand Out
Florida State reached the 2012 College World Series behind an All-America season by outfielder James Ramsey, a senior who hit .378/.513/.652 and was the Seminoles' emotional and spiritual leader. The 'Noles also had a strong infield and bullpen that season, and the alumni proved it in their first full season in pro ball.
No FSU alum had a better pro debut than Tigers second baseman Devon Travis, who mashed his way to a .351/.418/.518 season split between low Class A West Michigan and high Class A Lakeland. The 5-foot-9, 190-pounder also stole 22 bases, more than he swiped in three seasons in college.
Mets first baseman Jayce Boyd joined Travis in the Florida State League in the second half after tearing up the South Atlantic League for three months, batting .330/.410/.461 overall with as many walks (61) as strikeouts. And third baseman Sherman Johnson finished the year helping high Class A Inland Empire win the California League title. He hit .261/.371/.372 and led the Angels organization with 69 walks.
All-America closer Robert Benincasa did what he does, saving 27 games between two A-ball stints for the Nationals, with 64 strikeouts in 51 innings. He's not far from getting a shot in Washington's bullpen.
Travis is the most likely everyday regular of the group, while Boyd (nine homers) doesn't have first base profile power yet. Johnson, who saw time at second base and in the outfield, has a shot as a utility player.
And what of Ramsey? A first-round pick by the Cardinals, he began the year in the FSL, hit .361 in 18 games and got a quick promotion to Double-A Springfield, an aggressive move. While he hit 15 homers, Ramsey batted just .251/.356/.424, and evaluators have many of the same questions they had on Ramsey out of college.
"He jailbreaks and still rushes out of the box," one Texas League manager said. "He has a good swing path, but that's not enough. He could be Jon Jay; he needs to be that guy. But to be that guy, he's going to have to hang in there and hit, and he has to play a better center field. Jay really worked at playing center field and studied hitters. Ramsey has more work to do."
Just Get Healthy
With a full season of good health, Victor Payano would have likely ranked among the Carolina League's Top 20 Prospects. But the Myrtle Beach lefthander's season was derailed by arm fatigue and came to a close on Aug. 6, when he walked the only two batters he faced in a start against Frederick. The Rangers shut the 20-year-old down and sent him to their complex in Arizona.
Payano finished with a 5-6, 6.67 record over 20 starts, with 90 strikeouts and 54 walks in 82 innings. But a better barometer of his potential came during his first eight starts of the season—which Myrtle Beach manager Jason Wood says is all he managed before experiencing discomfort in his arm. Payano was dominant at times during that span, posting a 4-2, 3.83 mark with 55 strikeouts and 21 walks in 38 innings before his control and innings began to decline.
Even when healthy, the 6-foot-5, 185-pound Payano was a work in progress. When pitching well—as he did when he struck out five over four innings in a duel with Salem ace Henry Owens on April 12 or when he yielded one run on two hits with nine strikeouts over five innings against Winston-Salem on April 17—the lanky Payano dials his fastball up to 97 mph, keeps batters off balance with a deceptive changeup and buckles their knees with a true 12-to-6 curveball. He gets good leverage on his fastball coming over the top of his three-quarters delivery, and hitters struggle to pick up the ball out of Payano's long limbs.
"He had signs early of being very effective," Wood said of Payano, who registered at least nine strikeouts in three of those eight early-season starts. "We knew coming into this season that the changeup was his best secondary pitch. And his fastball and curveball combination was something that hitters stood no chance on. From the left side, the angle that he had was pretty hard for the hitters to focus in on. He had the ability to shut down on an offense."
Those long limbs also make it challenging for Payano to repeat his delivery, and that inconsistency showed even before his injury—he yielded 14 runs over three straight starts in late April and early May. He was also vulnerable to leaving pitches up in the zone and would lose feel for his curveball at times.
Payano faced Salem twice in the first six weeks of the season and struck out 14 Red Sox between the two outings.
"He had some of our hitters off balance the first couple of times we faced him, and that was part of the reason he had success against us," Salem manager Billy McMillon said. "As we saw him the third or fourth time, our guys kind of figured him out a little bit and were able to have some success . . . (His delivery) was something our guys weren't used to seeing."
Lot To Like
In a league filled with young, projectable but unrefined players with expansive gaps between their present ability and projection, a polished, fundamentally sound and experienced player like Rookie-level Pulaski shortstop Tyler Smith, can become the apple of every field staff's eyes.
No player in the Appalachian League was more universally lauded by managers than Smith, who won Appy player of the year honors after finishing in the top 10 in all three triple-slash categories (.320/.394/.460) and steals (12). Managers applauded his bat to ball skills, advanced approach and competitive at-bats.
"He is a player any manager would love to have playing for them," one league manager said. "He is very polished, has a great internal clock defensively with very good body control and really knows how to play the game. That guy is a baseball player."
Smith has an average arm, strong field awareness and reliable hands. Playing in a league where youthful defensive miscues are the norm, Smith stood out because of his dependable defense and finished third in shortstop fielding percentage (.963).
Despite his strong summer, Smith faces an uphill climb because he is 22. A four-year starter at Oregon State, he went undrafted as a junior and was selected in the eighth round in June, signing for $20,000 as a discount senior sign. He is a year and a half older than the average Appy Leaguer and was one of the oldest regulars in the league.
Smith, who lacks any plus tools, will likely move to second base at the higher levels or could fill a utility role. But this summer at least, he was one of the best and most highly regarded players at his level.
Contributing: J.J. Cooper, Matt Eddy, Josh Leventhal and John Manuel