2017 California League Top 20 Prospects
(Photo by Tom DiPace)
|Championship Series Modesto (Mariners) 3 Lancaster (Rockies) 0|
|Best Record Lancaster (Rockies), 87-52 (.626)|
|Most Valuable Player D.J. Peters, OF, Rancho Cucamonga (Dodgers)|
|Pitcher Of The Year Nick Neidert, RHP, Modesto (Mariners)|
To qualify for a Minor League Top 20 Prospects list, a position player must have one plate appearance per team game, a starting pitcher must have one-third of an inning per team game and a reliever must have 20 relief appearances.
What the California League lost in quantity, it made up for in quality in 2017.
The league had its fewest number of teams since 1981 after contracting High Desert and Bakersfield at the end of the last year. Despite the loss of two franchises, the league saw a sharp uptick in the talent on the field.
Top draft picks filled the league and excelled, with top-10 selections Brendan Rodgers, A.J. Puk and Cal Quantrill shining in particular before being promoted at the all-star break. In their place came another wave of talent, headlined by Jon Duplantier, Jahmai Jones and Keibert Ruiz.
More than two dozen players were considered potential everyday big leaguers or rotation members by evaluators, squeezing many worthy prospects out of the Top 20. That doesn’t include Rancho Cucamonga righthanders Walker Buehler and Mitchell White and Stockton third baseman Sheldon Neuse, who highlight those promoted before accumulating enough innings or plate appearances to qualify.
1. Brendan Rodgers, SS, Lancaster (Rockies) | 📹 Age: 21 B-T: R-R Ht.: 6-0 Wt.: 180 Drafted: HS—Lake Mary, Fla., 2015 (1)
Rodgers turned heads when he hit .400 in the first half before being promoted to Double-A. He returned to Lancaster at the end of the year to get extra reps in the playoffs after missing nearly 40 games with a hand injury and a quad strain.
When healthy, Rodgers earned wide praise for his elite hand-eye coordination, approach, pitch recognition and ability to drive the ball to all fields. He stays balanced in the box and is quick and controlled with his hands, resulting in a smooth swing that looks easy but packs thump.
“The way he’s able to have that knack of taking a nice easy swing, even on 100 mph fastballs, just how easy his swing was . . . that’s something for me that really stood out,” Rancho Cucamonga manager Drew Saylor said.
Evaluators want to see Rodgers walk more but still regard him as a future plus hitter with enough power to impact a game. He hit .461 at home but also .308 with a .523 slugging percentage away from hitter-friendly Lancaster.
Rodgers lacks the optimal speed for shortstop but positions himself well, possesses sure hands and has a plus, accurate arm. He covers more ground than expected because of advanced instincts and projects to stick at the position.
2. A.J. Puk, LHP, Stockton (Athletics) | 📹 Age: 22 B-T: L-L Ht.: 6-7 Wt.: 220 Drafted: Florida, 2016 (1)
Long electric but wild, Puk worked extensively with Stockton pitching coach Steve Connelly this season at staying balanced and on line to the plate in his delivery. The result was vastly improved control, which turned him into a dynamo.
Puk blew hitters away with his 94-97 mph fastball that played up with extension out of his 6-foot-7 frame, and he complemented it with a side-to-side mid-80s slider with vicious bite and tilt. He also mixed in a curveball and changeup that flashed average with increased consistency. With that arsenal working, Puk led the minors with 13.2 strikeouts per nine innings and limited opponents to a .227 average across two levels.
“Good fastball, was commanding all his stuff, worked top to bottom, and his slider was real effective,” Modesto manager Mitch Canham said. “Usually you see a guy like that and it’s going to be a tough lefty at-bat, but he was tough for both sides.”
Puk still struggles controlling his long limbs at times, and the result was a still-too-high walk rate of 3.5 per nine. But the improvements in his delivery and finish have him in better position to eventually get the most out of his elite stuff.
3. Cal Quantrill, RHP, Lake Elsinore (Padres) | 📹 Age: 22 B-T: L-R Ht.: 6-2 Wt.: 165 Drafted: Stanford, 2016 (1)
Quantrill showed no ill effects from the Tommy John surgery that cost him most of 2015 and 2016. He streamlined his mechanics and sat 93-95 mph with downhill angle on his fastball, showed off his dastardly 82-84 changeup that had hitters lunging wildly and increasingly introduced a low-80s slider and mid-70s curveball into his arsenal. His slider in particular shows promise.
Quantrill’s physicality, athleticism and aggressiveness earned further plaudits, and there is a belief his above-average command can get to plus as he moves further away from surgery.
“He’s got a big league fastball. He’s got the velocity and the command to make that fastball take him to the big leagues,” Visalia manager Shelley Duncan said. “But he’s also got that changeup and he can throw three pitches for strikes. His command overall is what makes him a big leaguer, and his pitchability is going to make him good.”
Quantrill possesses a fiery, competitive demeanor on the mound that further endears him to evaluators, though he is still learning to harness those emotions and not allow mistakes to let him lose focus.
4. Kyle Lewis, OF, Modesto (Mariners) | 📹 Age: 22 B-T: R-R Ht.: 6-3 Wt.:175 Drafted: Mercer, 2016 (1)
The reigning BA College Player of the Year missed the first half of the season recovering from a torn ACL in his right knee, and his comeback was further delayed when he aggravated his knee after banging it into the center field wall in his first game back.
But Lewis returned to Modesto’s lineup for good on July 20 and showed the same all-fields power, prolific tools and ability to adjust that made him a top draft selection a year ago, though the long layoff affected his consistency.
“He’s got all the physical attributes,” Stockton manager Rick Magnante said. “There’s power, there’s arm strength, there is foot speed. The setup, the swing, it all looks fundamentally sound. He looked like a frontline prospect and certainly one who was worthy of a first-round pick.”
Lewis’ knee still caused discomfort at times getting down the line and in the outfield, and the Mariners took it slow by limiting him to DH duty in 25 of his 38 games. He spent significant time working on his outfield play before games and will carry his recovery process into the Arizona Fall League.
5. Keibert Ruiz, C, Rancho Cucamonga (Dodgers) Age: 19 B-T: B-R Ht.: 6-0 Wt.: 200 Signed: Venezuela, 2014
Ruiz didn’t join the Cal League until July 10, but in a short time he showed prodigious talent.
The switch-hitting Ruiz showcased excellent bat speed, timing and ability to adjust the barrel to all different parts of the zone, with growing power as well. He is presently more confident batting lefthanded, but makes respectable contact and is learning to take more aggressive swings righthanded. He rarely strikes out and knows when to take a walk.
“You watch him play and it’s like, ‘Man, that’s a teenager?’ ” Inland Empire manager Chad Tracy said. “He looks good catching, he looks dangerous at the plate. When you see guys get to the league three or four years under the average league age and perform like that, you have to get excited.”
Defensively, Ruiz possesses soft hands in receiving and good timing blocking balls in the dirt, but his throwing needs work. His arm strength is average and he flashed 1.95-second pop times on throws to second base, but an uncoordinated exchange and inconsistent footwork more often resulted in below-average times. As a result he threw out just 22 percent of basestealers.
6. Jon Duplantier, RHP, Visalia (Diamondbacks) | 📹 Age: 23 B-T: L-R Ht.: 6-4 Wt.: 225 Drafted: Rice, 2016 (3)
Duplantier made quick work of the Midwest League, rose to the Cal League in late June, and didn’t miss a beat. His 1.39 ERA overall was best in the minors this season and the lowest since Justin Verlander pitched to a 1.29 mark in 2005.
Duplantier kept hitters guessing with a well-rounded arsenal that included a 92-94 mph fastball with sink, a slider and curveball that each earned future above-average grades and a changeup he didn’t use much but still flashed plus. He tied it all together with excellent control, advanced feel to pitch and poise on the mound.
“He’s really good,” Stockton manager Rick Magnante said. “He does it easily. He pitches at the knees, his fastball’s got some late life and his slider at times is hellacious. He’s a big, strong, physical guy, very poised, unflappable out there. He’s your prototypical major league righthanded starter.”
Importantly, Duplantier pitched 136 innings without issue after he was hampered by a shoulder injury in college and an elbow issue after signing in 2016. He held up strong to the end with a 0.90 ERA over his final six starts.
7. Yadier Alvarez, RHP, Rancho Cucamonga (Dodgers) | 📹 Age: 21 B-T: R-R Ht.: 6-3 Wt.: 175 Signed: Cuba, 2015
Alvarez was not overly successful in the Cal League and struggled with his control after a promotion to Double-A but showed enough of a foundation that many still view him highly.
Alvarez is strong, athletic and throws a 95-99 mph fastball with remarkable ease, and he flashed a swing-and-miss 86-88 slider he buried against righthanded batters.
“The fastball velocity is there, the breaking pitches are there, it’s just a matter of him continuing to develop those pitches,” Lancaster manager Fred Ocasio said. “Once he figures those out, he’s going to be pretty good.”
Alvarez has poor command of his fastball, lacks feel for his 87-90 mph changeup and struggles landing his slider in the strike zone. Those issues resulted in a walk rate of 4.9 per nine innings and ran up his pitch counts to the point he failed to reach five innings in 13 of his 21 outings.
Most evaluators project Alvarez as a high-leverage reliever rather than a starter because of those limitations.
8. Yusniel Diaz, OF, Rancho Cucamonga (Dodgers) | 📹 Age: 20 B-T: R-R Ht.: 6-1 Wt.: 195 Signed: Cuba, 2015
Diaz returned to the Cal League for the second straight season and went on a tear that resulted in a promotion to Double-A in July.
Diaz always possessed alluring tools but began turning them into production this year, particularly at the plate. After limiting his pre-pitch movement and toning down his leg kick in mid-May, he hit .304/.357/.486 in 52 games up to his promotion and .333 with an .881 OPS in Double-A.
“He was another consistent force in that Rancho Cucamonga lineup filled with guys who could hit home runs,” Inland Empire manager Chad Tracy said. “He got on base a ton. He was consistent for them. It was a very dangerous lineup to go through and he was a part of that.”
Diaz remains raw in his outfield routes and decision-making, resulting in occasional drops, communication breakdowns or throws to the wrong base. He is a hard worker with good makeup and is expected to fix those issues with experience. As long as he does, Diaz projects best in right field as a potentially average defender with a plus arm but has the above-average speed to handle center as needed.
9. Jahmai Jones, OF, Inland Empire (Angels) | 📹 Age: 20 B-T: R-R Ht: 6-0 Wt.: 215 Drafted: HS—Norcross, Ga., 2015 (2)
Promoted to the Cal League on July 20, Jones made a big impression in a short time. Regarded as a tooled-up player who was raw at the plate, he hit .302 and put together a best-in-the-league 25-game hitting streak.
Jones features a quick bat and above-average raw power, and his legendary work ethic allowed him to turn those tools into production this year. He flashed plus-plus run times and advanced instincts on delayed steals, curveball reads and timing pitchers en route to 27 stolen bases on the year.
Add in plus defense in center field with elite athleticism and a solid-average arm, plus natural leadership qualities that have long earned rave reviews, and Jones cemented himself as a top prospect with his run through the league.
“He makes the game look easy defensively . . . and offensively he impacts the baseball,” Rancho Cucamonga manager Drew Saylor said. “It’s going to be doubles over anything, but he knows who he is and he tries to get on base and terrorize you with stolen bases. I like him a lot. He can be a special guy some day.”
10. D.J. Peters, OF, Rancho Cucamonga (Dodgers) | 📹 Age: 21 B-T: R-R Ht.: 6-6 Wt.: 225 Drafted: Western Nevada JC, 2016 (4)
In an age where the three true outcomes are becoming more prevalent, Peters fits the mold. He finished third in the league in home runs (27), second in walks (64) and second in strikeouts (189) and earned the Cal League MVP award.
The best power prospect in the league, Peters doesn’t often chase out of the zone and punishes mistakes out over the plate with plus power that plays in any park. He is vulnerable to above-average velocity on the inner half and in the upper quadrants of the strike zone, making him a probable low-average hitter.
“At any given moment he could hit the ball a long ways out of the park,” Modesto manager Mitch Canham said. “He swings real hard and there is stuff he’s missing, but every time he connects the ball comes off the bat extremely fast.”
Peters is an excellent athlete for his size and an able defender in center field, though most project him to right because he is an average runner. He has a plus arm that yielded 11 assists on the season.
11. Nick Neidert, RHP, Modesto (Mariners) | 📹 Age: 20 B-T: R-R Ht.: 6-1 Wt.: 180 Drafted: HS—Suwanee, Ga., 2015 (2)
The Mariners approached Neidert in the offseason and told him they needed to see more strikeouts. He said “OK” and went out and did it. With supreme control and pitchability, Neidert upped his strikeout rate from 6.8 per nine innings to 9.4 and earned a promotion to Double-A. He won the Cal League pitcher of the year award despite not qualifying for the league ERA title.
Neidert sits 91-93 mph with his fastball, but it plays up with carry through the zone due to a late hop in his delivery. He commands it impeccably and backs it up with a changeup that flashed plus and an average-to-above slider, all with the best control in the league.
“He’s very aggressive—he comes after the hitters,” Lake Elsinore manager Edwin Rodriguez said. “When you have that in combination with a powerful arm, with a feel for the secondary pitches, you can pitch in any league.”
Neidert doesn’t have much physical projection left and his pure stuff is a tad short for some evaluators, but most are optimistic he’ll carve out a long career as a solid rotation member.
12. Peter Lambert, RHP, Lancaster (Rockies) | 📹 Age: 20 B-T: R-R Ht.: 6-2 Wt.: 185 Drafted: HS—San Dimas, Calif., 2015 (2)
Few 20-year-olds handle pitching in Lancaster well, but Lambert was one of them.
The Southern California high school product sat 91-94 mph with his fastball, showed advanced feel for a potential plus changeup in the mid-80s and flashed a plus 78-82 curveball with a hard, late drop. With that arsenal and a fearless, competitive edge noted by evaluators, Lambert finished in the top five in the Cal League in WHIP (third), ERA (fourth), opponent average (fourth), innings (fourth) and strikeouts (fifth) despite his notoriously hitter-friendly home park.
“I was most impressed by how advanced he is for how young he is,” Stockton manager Rick Magnante said. “He’s very advanced for how old he is, and he has some physicality. He’s not going to be who he is at 25 or 26, and with his physicality and fearlessness, he’s got a lot of growth left that could make him even better.”
Lambert’s fastball command gets away from him at times, but he tends to keep battling. Shoring that up and increasing the consistency of his secondary offerings are his next steps.
13. Sean Murphy, C, Stockton (Athletics) | 📹 Age: 22 B-T: R-R Ht.: 6-3 Wt.: 215 Drafted: Wright State, 2016 (3)
Murphy was known primarily for his cannon arm and general defensive excellence coming into the season. He quickly established himself as an offensive threat, too.
The physical, muscular Murphy bashed 11 doubles and nine homers in 45 games before being promoted. Primarily a pull hitter at the start, he worked at staying up the middle of the field and began flashing all-fields power with limited swing-and-miss toward the end of his time in the Cal League. He demonstrated both solid hand-eye coordination and feel for the barrel.
“Being able to handle a pitching staff—especially some of the guys he had there—and then also swing the bat as a catcher, that’s a great thing to have,” Modesto manager Mitch Canham said. “I watched him hit one out to all parts of the field. He uses what the pitchers give him, puts the barrel to the ball.”
Murphy also earned positive reviews for his game-calling and solid-average receiving and blocking. He used a plus-plus arm to throw out 33 percent of basestealers before opponents just stopped running on him, with just 46 attempts in Murphy’s 91 games behind the plate.
14. Jaime Barria, RHP, Inland Empire (Angels) Age: 21 B-T: R-R Ht.: 6-1 Wt.: 210 Signed: Panama, 2013
Barria entered the season known as an advanced pitchability righthander whose upside was limited, but he added two ticks of velocity across the board and is now seen as a strong rotation candidate.
Barria now works 91-94 mph with his fastball and commands it masterfully. His mid-80s changeup is his out pitch with a chance to be plus at maturity, and his low 80s curveball is a developing weapon. Where Barria stands out most is for his feel to pitch, preparation and habit of turning up his game a notch in big situations.
Those attributes helped Barria not only master the Cal League with a 2.48 ERA but excel at Double-A (3.21 ERA in 12 starts) and reach Triple-A by the end of the year. He is in position to ascend to Angels rotation by the time he turns 22 next summer.
“He controlled the zone and was able to get his fastball and offspeed over for strikes, but the thing that really stood out was the aggressiveness and tempo on the mound,” Rancho Cucamonga manager Drew Saylor said. “I was (glad) when he got promoted to Double-A, because that guy was tough.”
15. Logan Allen, LHP, Lake Elsinore (Padres) | 📹 Age: 20 B-T: R-L Ht.: 6-3 Wt.: 200 Drafted: HS—Bradenton, Fla., 2015 (8/Red Sox)
Allen entered the Lake Elsinore rotation in July after the promotions of Cal Quantrill, Eric Lauer and Joey Lucchesi to Double-A and delivered similarly strong performance. He pitched to a 2.78 ERA over his first 10 outings in the league before a poor final start inflated his numbers.
Allen is still learning to be consistent but flashes promising stuff for a young lefthander. At his best Allen will sit 93-94 mph with his fastball and flash a power breaking ball and a plus changeup. At others he will sit 89-92 mph with a slurvy breaking ball and an average changeup.
Allen maintains aggressiveness with his fastball, has solid control and a mature feel to pitch, allowing him to succeed even when he doesn’t have his best stuff.
Allen’s fastball command is still improving and some would like to see him pitch inside with it more. His release point on his breaking ball remains inconsistent, thus the wide gap in the quality of the pitch from game to game. Those improvements are expected to come with time.
16. Joey Lucchesi, LHP, Lake Elsinore (Padres) | 📹 Age: 24 B-T: L-L Ht.: 6-5 Wt.: 204 Drafted: Southeast Missouri State, 2016 (4)
Some lefties rely on deception. Others rely on stuff. Lucchesi has the potent mix of both.
With a funky but athletic delivery that features multiple stops and starts, Lucchesi made it nearly impossible for hitters to time him. That deception, combined with a 90-94 mph fastball, an upper-70s curveball with hard downward bite and a low-80s changeup he can cut, made Lucchesi one of the Cal League’s most effective starters before a promotion to Double-A.
“We couldn’t hit the damn guy,” Rancho Cucamonga manager Drew Saylor said. “There’s a tremendous amount of deception. It’s just a very funky (arm) stroke and the way the pitch characteristics are, it’s not something you see every day.”
Lucchesi pitches with a chip on his shoulder and is aggressive in the zone, further endearing him to evaluators. He also shuts down running games with one of the best pickoff moves in the minors. More advanced hitters may not be as fooled by Lucchesi’s delivery, but he has the stuff, control and mentality to be a quality back-end starter anyway.
17. Will Smith, C, Rancho Cucamonga (Dodgers) | 📹 Age: 22 B-T: R-R Ht.: 6-0 Wt.: 192 Drafted: Louisville, 2016 (1)
A former middle infielder with excellent athleticism, Smith showed top-notch reflexes, flexibility and footwork behind the plate at Rancho Cucamonga. The result was plus framing and blocking, consistent sub-1.95 pop times on throws to second base and the ability to handle both explosive velocity and quality breaking stuff from a talented staff.
Managers named Smith the best defensive catcher in the league, and some observers consider him one of the best defensive catching prospects in the minors with his physical attributes and leadership qualities.
“He’s a presence on the field,” Lake Elsinore manager Edwin Rodriguez said. “He manages his pitching staff very well, he positions his infielders very well, and he calls a very good game. He’s physically strong—a very good athlete. But that presence on field, that’s very important the position he’s at, and he has that.”
At the plate Smith showed strong strike-zone awareness and sneaky pop, but overall grades as a fringe-average hitter due to his lack of natural hitting instincts and inconsistent feel for the barrel. Still, evaluators believe he will hit just enough to be an everyday catcher.
18. Josh Naylor, 1B, Lake Elsinore (Padres) | 📹 Age: 20 B-T: L-L Ht.: 6-0 Wt.: 225 Drafted: HS—Mississauga, Ont., 2015 (1/Marlins)
Naylor got off to a fast start with five home runs in April before an Eric Lauer pickoff throw struck him in the face and broke his right cheekbone. While Naylor never quite rediscovered his power stroke after that, he hit well enough to earn a promotion to Double-A and showed respectably there against older competition.
The hefty Naylor is still learning to translate his big raw power into game power, but he showed the bat speed to get to any fastball, strong strike-zone discipline and a knack for contact most believe are a strong foundation for him to eventually get to his power.
Managers also singled him out as the Cal League’s best defensive first baseman for his above-average arm, good hands picking balls out of the dirt and improving footwork.
“He’s a good player,” Lancaster manager Fred Ocasio said. “He’s got some power and is a pretty good hitter. Eventually the more at-bats he gets the better he’s going to get. He’s very smooth at first base. You can tell he feels very comfortable playing the position.”
19. Bryan Reynolds, OF, San Jose (Giants) | 📹 Age: 22 B-T: B-R Ht.: 6-3 Wt.: 205 Drafted: Vanderbilt, 2016 (2)
Tooled up with enviable athleticism, Reynolds also showed improved hitting ability en route to finishing fifth in the Cal League with a .312 batting average. The switch-hitter had hit streaks of 11 and 17 games, and produced from both the left (.295, .805 OPS) and right (.365, .896 OPS) sides of the plate.
Reynolds flashed above-average run times and plus raw power, but he has yet to turn those tools into production. He hit just 10 home runs and stole five bases. He is a solid-average defensive outfielder capable of playing center field but is better suited for a corner.
“He’s got all the ability in the world, just has some fine-tuning to go,” Visalia manager Shelley Duncan said. “All of Reynolds’ stuff is kind of hidden in there. He shows glimpses of it, but the consistency isn’t there yet.”
Reynolds is an upside play with the possibility he never gets the most out of his raw power or speed, but evaluators generally see enough ability and athleticism to project an everyday outfielder.
20. Garrett Hampson, 2B/SS, Lancaster (Rockies) | 📹 Age: 22 B-T: R-R Ht:. 5-11 Wt.: 185 Drafted: Long Beach State, 2016 (3)
Few players in the minors were as disruptive as Hampson. Undersized but twitchy, he created havoc on the basepaths with his plus-plus speed, had the bat control to alternately lay down a bunt for a hit or drive a 98 mph fastball into the gap, and he made highlight-reel plays in the middle infield throughout the year.
Hampson led the minors with 113 runs scored, finished fourth with 51 stolen bases, hit .300 even away from Lancaster and showed himself to be a plus defender with some of the best hands in the league at second base, with the ability to fill in at shortstop ably.
“He’s a little bit of a nightmare on the opposing side,” Inland Empire manager Chad Tracy said. “He stole quite a few hits from us. And he’s just a pest, but not like the typical pest who will foul some stuff off and hit a single. You make a mistake and he’ll drive it into the right-center field gap for a double.”
Hampson’s upside is limited by his below-average power potential, but his speed, up-the-middle defense and bat-to-ball skills will be enough to carry him to the majors for most evaluators.
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