2017 Northwest League Top 20 Prospects
(Photo by Bill Mitchell)
|Champions Series Vancouver (Blue Jays) 3 Eugene (Cubs) 1|
|MVP Ryan Kirby, 1B, Salem-Keizer (Giants)|
|Pitcher of the Year Andres Torres, RHP, Everett (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.
Hitters didn’t have an easy go of it in the Northwest League this summer.
Five pitchers are among the league’s top 10 prospects—four in the top five—and for good reason. The league’s hitters, forced to contend with Cole Ragans’ changeup, upper-90s fastballs from Jhoan Duran and Jose Albertos and the poise and command of Adrian Morejon and Javier Assad, managed to hit just .253/.327/.368 collectively. Missing from that group is Vancouver righthander Nate Pearson, who flirts with triple-digit velocity and had an excellent season (19 IP, 6 H, 2 ER, 24 SO) for Vancouver but didn’t have enough innings to qualify for this list.
While those arms stand out, there was no shortage of positional talent either—particularly up the middle. The likes of Daulton Varsho, Riley Adams and Miguel Amaya made catching a strength in the league. At shortstop, league managers raved about Aramis Ademan and Logan Warmoth.
Warmoth, the Blue Jays’ first-rounder out of North Carolina, hit the go-ahead two-run single against Eugene’s Albertos in the championship series, leading the Canadians to a 2-1 title-clinching win.
The title was Vancouver’s fourth in the last seven years.
Drafted by the Rangers with last year’s 30th overall pick and Signed out of a Florida State commitment, Ragans excelled in his first full year in pro ball. The 19-year-old southpaw anchored Spokane’s rotation, going 3-2, 3.61 and striking out 87 to 35 walks in 57.1 innings. In a league strong on pitching, Ragans stood out.
“The swing-and-miss on his fastball is what impressed me,” said Matt Hagen, Ragans’ manager at Spokane. “It never got squared up that often.”
The 6-foot-4 lefthander typically works 90-93 mph with that fastball, touching the mid-90s. His fastball plays up due to a high spin rate and late action, which gives it the appearance of rising as it crosses the plate. Adding to the pitch’s effectiveness is Ragans’ delivery. Ragans closes off his front side, hiding the ball well and creating a tough angle—particularly when he pitches inside to righthanders.
While advanced for his age, Ragans still needs to refine his command and cut down on the amount of deep counts he works himself into. His 79-84 mph changeup is already graded as plus by some and forms a potent one-two punch with his fastball. However, his low-70s curveball could use tightening. The pitch has a soft, loopy shape and lacks the bite needed to put away hitters at higher levels. If he can develop his breaking ball into at least an average offering, Ragans has No. 2 or No. 3 starter potential.
Smith carved out a reputation as one of college baseball’s finest hitters over the last three years, helping Virginia to the 2015 national title. He batted .342/.427/.570 with 13 homers and 77 RBIs for the Cavaliers this spring before the Diamondbacks Drafted him seventh overall in June.
A 6-foot-2, 210-pound first baseman, Smith continued to hit in his pro debut with Hillsboro, batting .318/.401/.415 and showing a discerning eye with 27 walks to 24 strikeouts. Still, Smith puzzled some evaluators with his lack of power. He finished the regular season without a homer—though he did sneak one over the fence in the NWL playoffs. While concerning to some, the general consensus from league managers is that Smith’s lack of homers stems more from his approach than from any deficiency in strength or in his swing.
“He’s so locked in on his approach that he doesn’t waver from it,” Hillsboro manager Shawn Roof said. “I think the power’s gonna come.”
Smith has a smooth, level lefthanded swing that stays through the zone for a long time. The ball shoots off his bat in batting practice, but he is still learning when to pull the ball in game situations; he’s just as content with an opposite-field single in a 3-1 count as he is a home run. Smith handles first base well and has a plus hit tool, but he can afford to subtract a few points from his batting average in order to drive the ball more frequently. That adjustment will be imperative for Smith to fit the prototypical power-hitting first baseman mold.
3. Jhoan Duran, RHP, Hillsboro (Diamondbacks) Age: 19. B-T: R-R. Ht.: 6-5. Wt.: 175. Signed: Dominican Republic, 2014.
Signed as a teenager out of the Dominican Republic in 2014 for $65,000, Duran has emerged as one of the most exciting young arms in the Diamondbacks system. Just 19, he stood out to managers and scouts alike in the Northwest League, going 6-3, 4.24 in 11 starts at Hillsboro.
Duran boasts an athletic and highly projectable 6-foot-5, 175-pound frame. Even though he has room to get stronger, he already touches up to 98 mph from a three-quarters slot, comfortably sitting in the low- to mid-90s with movement. Duran mainly pitches off of that fastball for now. His mid-80s slider is an average pitch at present, but it shows plus potential, especially when Duran throws it with more velocity—up to 88 mph.
Duran’s firm 85-90 mph changeup is a work in progress. Command comes and goes for Duran, but he maintains a consistent, confident presence on the mound. He’s raw, but his arm speed, velocity, athleticism and physical projectability make him an easy prospect to dream on. If he can continue to refine his slider and changeup to go along with his plus fastball, Duran has the chance to be a No. 2 or No. 3 starter.
After signing with the Cubs out of Mexico in 2015 for $1.5 million, Albertos finally had an opportunity to show what he could do in 2017. The 18-year-old righthander missed all but four innings of last season due to forearm tightness, but he bounced back to throw 34.2 innings across eight starts with Eugene this year, going 2-1, 2.86.
Albertos displayed an advanced feel for pitching and often overmatched hitters with his dominant fastball-changeup combo. The 6-foot-1, 180-pound righthander works 91-94 mph but can rear back for 96-97 mph when he needs it. His changeup is a potential 70-grade pitch on the 20-80 scale, and Albertos is unafraid to throw the pitch in any count. His breaking ball grades behind both pitches but has flashed potential in the past; development of that pitch will be key going forward.
Albertos’ command wavered at times, but Eugene manager Jesus Feliciano said the righthander has a strong mound presence and an eagerness to learn, both of which should serve him well as he moves through the system. “When you see kids at his age able to control his offspeed pitches, it tells you a lot,” Feliciano said. “He’s been capable of doing that lately.”
Morejon first emerged when he was named the MVP of the 15U World Cup in Mexico in 2015, and he was one of the top international targets in July 2016. The Padres splurged on the Cuban lefty, signing him for $11 million—the largest bonus in the signing period and the largest in club history.
Poised beyond his years, the 18-year-old Morejon didn’t show much trouble adjusting to American competition, earning a callup to low Class A Fort Wayne after going 2-2, 3.57 in 35.1 innings with Tri-City. The southpaw sits in the low 90s with movement, reaching back for up to 96 mph when he needs it. He complements the pitch with a well-rounded arsenal that includes a potential plus curveball and two different changeups.
Beyond his raw stuff, Morejon impressed scouts and league managers most with his precocious intelligence on the mound and his above-average command. He issued just three walks and displayed excellent pitching feel, reading opponents’ swings and showing the confidence to throw offspeed pitches in any count.
Building off of a strong finish to his sophomore season and a solid showing in the Cape Cod League, Warmoth hit his way into the draft’s first round with North Carolina this spring. The junior was the first college shortstop off the board, Drafted 22nd overall by the Blue Jays.
Heading into the draft, most evaluators viewed Warmoth as a high-floor, safe pick, and in his first pro season at Vancouver, Warmoth did nothing to detract from that view. The 6-foot, 190-pounder isn’t overly flashy, but managers couldn’t point to any glaring holes in his game, either.
Most believe Warmoth has the range and athleticism to stick at shortstop, with more than enough arm strength to handle the position, while others view him as more of an offensive second baseman. At the plate, Warmoth often looks to pull the ball, as most of his power is to his pull-side. But Vancouver manager Rich Miller said Warmoth did a better job of covering the outside part of the plate and hitting the ball to all fields as the season progressed. He’s smart hitter with a quick bat and has shown the aptitude to make adjustments.
Warmoth doesn’t have any one tool that screams “star,” but the sum of his parts point to him being a future big leaguer. “He’s a kid you appreciate the more you see him play,” Spokane manager Matt Hagen said.
7. Drew Ellis, 3B, Hillsboro (Diamondbacks) Age: 21. B-T: R-R. Ht.: 6-3. Wt.: 210. Drafted: Louisville, 2017 (2).
Ellis has spent much of his life in the baseball limelight, playing in the Little League World Series in 2008 and—most recently—playing in the College World Series with Louisville in June. Ellis surged up draft boards this spring after redshirting his freshman season and playing mostly off the bench in 2016. Building off of an 11-homer summer in the Northwoods League, Ellis seized Louisville’s starting third-base job in 2017 and hit 20 home runs before the Diamondbacks Drafted him in the second round.
Ellis’ offensive numbers with Hillsboro didn’t match his spring production, and fatigue may have played a part. Still, Ellis’ plus raw power has always graded above his hit tool. His pull-oriented approach could preclude him from hitting for a high average long-term, but his power should play well at an infield corner. He has middle-of-the-order ceiling.
Some evaluators have questioned Ellis’ ability to stick at third base, but he showed well in the NWL. Hillsboro manager Shawn Roof said Ellis exhibits a “slow heartbeat” at third. He has enough of an arm for the position, and though he’s not a quick-twitch athlete, he takes smart angles to the ball and rarely panics.
Signed out of the Dominican Republic in 2015 for $2 million, Ademan made a leap forward, particularly with the bat, in 2017. He earned a promotion to low Class A South Bend at the end of July after batting .286/.365/.466 for Eugene. Ademan has an average arm and average speed, but he makes up for it with advanced defensive instincts at shortstop and soft hands.
Just 19, Ademan will still make the occasional error on routine plays, but he’s shown an eagerness to learn and has been highly coachable. He surprised managers and scouts this summer with more juice in his bat than his 5-foot-11, 160-pound frame would suggest. Ademan has a smooth lefthanded swing and shows the ability to spray the ball to all fields.
With a discerning batting eye and a disciplined approach, Ademan has the chance to be a plus hitter. He’s gotten stronger since signing and should continue to get stronger, but he has mostly gap power at present. His hit tool and defensive ability should carry him.
9. Javier Assad, RHP, Eugene (Cubs) Age: 20. B-T: R-R. Ht.: 6-1. Wt.: 200. Signed: Mexico, 2015.
The Cubs Signed Assad out of Mexico in 2015, and the thick-bodied righthander had a strong debut in the Rookie-level Arizona League in 2016, going 2-2, 2.87 in 37.2 innings. Assad built off of that performance with another solid season as a 20-year-old in the NWL. He went 5-6, 4.23 and had an exceptional outing in the playoffs against Vancouver in which he allowed one hit and struck out nine in six innings.
Like fellow Cub Jose Albertos, Assad can run his fastball up to the mid-90s, touching 96 mph, but he generally works 90-94 mph, and he impressed opposing managers with his command of the pitch. Assad throws a full four-pitch mix and showed advanced pitching feel. His slider is his most effective secondary offering, grading ahead of his curveball, but both pitches have shape. Assad is able to add and subtract from his changeup and commands the pitch well.
Going forward, Assad’s focus will need to be on conditioning and keeping his weight down. If he’s able to maintain his health, he has the fastball and pitchability to project as a No. 3 or No. 4 starter.
10. Daulton Varsho, C, Hillsboro (Diamondbacks) Age: 21. B-T: L-R. Ht.: 5-10. Wt.: 190. Drafted: Wisconsin-Milwaukee, 2017 (2s).
Heading into the draft, scouts weren’t entirely sure what to make of Varsho—then a catcher at Wisconsin-Milwaukee with an unusual profile. There are still questions for Varsho to answer in multiple facets of his game, but if his debut season at Hillsboro is any indication, hitting isn’t one of them. The 68th overall pick and the son of former Cubs and Pirates outfielder Gary Varsho, Daulton led the league in slugging during a .311/.368/.534 season and was consistently cited as one of the toughest outs in the league.
Varsho uses a short, compact lefthanded swing to spray the ball to all fields. At 5-foot-10, 190 pounds, Varsho’s hit tool grades above his average power, but he still hit seven home runs in 193 at-bats. The rest of his toolset is unusual in that he’s a catcher with plus speed and a below-average throwing arm. An explosive athlete, Varsho makes up for his lack of arm strength with quick feet and actions behind the plate, registering pop times anywhere from 1.80 to 1.95 (plus to merely average). He’s also adept at blocking balls, and his shorter stature allows him to set a low target.
Gritty, hard-nosed and intelligent with baseball in his bloodlines, Varsho will likely be given every opportunity to stick at catcher. But if his below-average arm proves too much of a detriment, he could use his speed and athleticism in left field.
11. Riley Adams, C, Vancouver (Blue Jays) Age: 21. B-T: R-R. Ht.: 6-4. Wt.: 225. Drafted: San Diego, 2017 (3).
Adams is in many ways the opposite of fellow NWL catcher Daulton Varsho, who was Drafted 31 spots earlier. Compared to Varsho’s smaller stature, pure hitting ability and below-average throwing arm, Adams is much more physical with a plus throwing arm and home run power. He excelled offensively in his professional debut, batting .305/.374/.438, and has raw righthanded power that also comes with some swings-and-misses.
At a chiseled 6-foot-4, 225 pounds, Adams stands out behind the plate with a frame similar to Matt Wieters. Scouts had questions about his hands and blocking ability before the draft, but Adams made strides with both throughout the summer and impressed with his ability to call games.
“I can’t believe how much he improved defensively,” said Vancouver manager Rich Miller. “And it’s not like he was bad when he came in.”
A righthanded hitter playing in a spacious home ballpark, Adams hit just three homers for the Canadians, but he has potential middle-of-the-order power that should show itself more as Adams moves through the system. Adams does have a propensity to swing and miss (50 strikeouts to 18 walks in 203 at-bats), which he’ll need to curtail. Fatigue is likely to blame for at least a handful of those strikeouts, though, as a tired Adams had difficulty catching up to good fastballs late in his first professional season.
The Rangers Drafted Speas 63rd overall in 2016, taking a chance on a high-upside, high-velocity prep arm out of Georgia. To the naked eye, Speas’ 1-6, 6.15 stat line at Spokane this season looks ugly, but his season truly was a tale of two halves. In his seven starts to begin the year, Speas went 0-6, 10.89. However, after moving to the bullpen in the second half, Speas didn’t allow an earned run in 13.2 innings, yielding just four hits and striking out 27 to eight walks.
As a starter, Speas tried to incorporate all three of his pitches and pitch like a finesse pitcher instead of pitching off of his power fastball. In the process, he walked 17 in 19 innings. As a reliever, Speas exhibited more of an attacking mindset and overpowered the competition with his mid- to upper-90s fastball. The move to the bullpen is not necessarily permanent; Speas is just 19 and has shown flashes with his secondary stuff. His mid-80s breaking ball vacillates between a curveball and slider shape, but it could develop into a plus offering if Speas can throw it firmer and with more consistent command. His sparingly used changeup also showed potential as a usable third pitch.
Athletic with long levers and excellent downhill angle, Speas has the physicality to start and has little trouble maintaining his velocity deep into outings. However, if he can’t refine his secondary pitches, he could be destined for a late-relief role long term.
Signed out of Venezuela in 2015 and sent to the Dominican Summer League in 2016, Aparicio played his first season stateside this summer. He opened the year with an aggressive assignment at low Class A Hickory but moved down to Spokane after batting just .176/.255/.247 with the Crawdads. The 18-year-old rebounded nicely in the NWL, where he batted .293/.333/.395.
Aparicio was part of the same international class that yielded Rangers top prospect Leody Taveras. While Aparicio doesn’t have Taveras’ explosiveness—his speed and arm strength are both fringy—there’s a lot to like about his tool set. His manager at Spokane, Hagen, said what impressed him most about Aparicio was his bat-to-ball skills. The lefthanded hitter has a short, quick swing and advanced barrel awareness, and he showed a knack for making contact throughout the summer. He hits line drives to all fields and could hit for more power as he gets stronger.
Though not a dynamic athlete, Aparicio makes up for it with a quick first step and efficient routes. His high baseball IQ and instincts allow his modest physical tools to play up.
14. Eudy Ramos, 3B/1B, Hillsboro (Diamondbacks) Age: 21. B-T: R-R. Ht.: 6-1. Wt.: 195. Signed: Dominican Republic, 2013.
There’s a significant drop-off in power between Ramos’ 13-homer season in the Rookie-level Pioneer League in 2016 and his four-homer season at Hillsboro in 2017. At first glance, that could be alarming, but there’s a method behind it. Ramos’ 2017 goal was to cut down on strikeouts, which he accomplished, cutting a 33 percent rate in 2016 to 23 percent this season.
The next step? Ramos will look to marry that approach with his home run hitting ability. The thick-bodied third baseman boasts plus raw power; he needs refinement to his offensive approach and experience to learn to tap into it consistently.
Ramos has a plus arm, which serves him well at the hot corner, but his large frame and lack of mobility limit his defensive ceiling. The game speeds up for him at times at third base, and he needs to learn to slow it down. He projects as an average third baseman at best and could see more time at first base going forward.
15. Matt Whatley, C, Spokane (Rangers) Age: 21. B-T: R-R. Ht.: 5-10. Wt.: 200. Drafted: Oral Roberts, 2017 (3).
After a solid career as a three-year starting catcher at Oral Roberts, Whatley came off the board in the third round in June, signing with the Rangers and going to Spokane after a quick appearance in the Rookie-level Arizona League. Whatley batted .289/.371/.450 in the NWL and consistently put together some of the most advanced at-bats on the team.
The righthanded hitter has a disciplined approach and some thump in his bat, with the chance to be a double-digit home run hitter. Whatley has the kind of workmanlike mindset and leadership skills coaches look for in catchers and is an above-average defender behind the plate, though there are still areas where he needs to fine-tune his game. He has quick feet for a catcher, an above-average arm and good hands, but he can improve his receiving and framing skills.
Still, Whatley has a strong defensive foundation and has the chance to be a productive hitter, giving him a high floor as a catching prospect.
The Cubs challenged the 18-year-old Amaya by moving him from the Dominican Summer league all the way to Eugene for the 2017 season. Playing against college-aged competition, Amaya battled some inconsistency at the plate, but manager Jose Feliciano said he was impressed with the improvements the young catcher made throughout the season.
Amaya still has a ways to go offensively. The righthanded hitter has some pop in his bat and the chance to hit for power, but he’ll need to cut down on swings and misses in order to access it. Amaya has smooth actions behind the plate and an average throwing arm. He still needs to improve his game-calling skills, but he should have little problem sticking as a catcher.
Amaya is far from his ceiling, but his defensive ability gives him a higher floor. If he’s able to more consistently tap into his power, he could develop into an impact player behind the dish.
17. Sean Bouchard, 1B, Boise (Rockies) Age: 21. B-T: R-R. Ht.: 6-3. Wt.: 215. Drafted: UCLA, 2017 (9).
Bouchard was a big name out of high school, ranking No. 105 in the 2014 BA 500, but he went to UCLA instead and had an up-and-down career as a Bruin before establishing himself as more of a middle-of-the-order threat his junior year. The Rockies took Bouchard in the ninth round in June, and the thick 6-foot-3, 215-pounder put together a promising debut at Boise, hitting .290/.390/.477 with six bombs.
Bouchard’s plus raw power is his carrying tool, and he has gradually learned to tap into it more often during games as his plate discipline has improved and he’s shown more comfort hitting breaking balls. As with many power hitters, the swing-and-miss could be a potential roadblock in his development. Bouchard will need to hit for power, as he most likely projects as a first baseman.
However, Bouchard does have a strong throwing arm and played four games at third base during the season, against Vancouver. Canadians manager Rich Miller said he thought Bouchard “made the transition really well” while also producing offensively.
18. Malique Ziegler, OF, Salem-Keizer (Giants) Age: 21. B-T: R-R. Ht.: 6-2. Wt.: 170. Drafted: North Iowa Area JC, 2016 (22).
A 22nd round pick by the Giants in 2016, Ziegler got off to a sizzling start in his Salem-Keizer debut, batting .314/.388/.464 in the first half before a .149/.285/.263 finish. One opposing manager said he thought Ziegler looked “worn down” by season’s end.
At his peak, though, Ziegler showed the tools of a prospect, including speed that earned varying 70 or 80 grades and helped him steal 26 bases in 35 attempts. The righthanded hitter showed a little power, but his swing is more geared for the gaps than over the fence. His bat is his biggest question mark, but if he can get on base enough, he can cause havoc on the basepaths. Defensively, Ziegler has the range and physical tools to play center field long term, but he’ll need to improve his routes.
Ziegler is somewhat raw in all facets of his game, but his athleticism gives him upside if he’s able to put everything together.
19. Kevin Vicuna, SS, Vancouver (Blue Jays) Age: 19. B-T: R-R. Ht.: 6-0. Wt.: 140. Signed: Venezuela, 2014.
Vicuna played at three levels for the Blue Jays this season, opening the year at high Class A Dunedin before moving down to Vancouver and then finishing the year at low Class A Lansing. The Venezuelan has played alongside top Blue Jay shortstop prospects Bo Bichette and Logan Warmoth and held his own, using their presence as a motivational force.
Vicuna’s carrying tool is his defense. The 19-year-old is a defensive wizard at shortstop with good hands and flashy actions and should have no issues sticking at the position. Hitting is more of a question. The listed 6-foot, 140-pound righthanded hitter has minimal power, but he’s done a good job of staying within himself and making consistent contact at the plate. Vicuna primarily looks to hit the ball up the middle and to the opposite field and will need to get stronger to find the gaps more, as he had just four extra-base hits.
Vicuna finished his season with a flourish, going 17-for-50 with Lansing. If he can find a way to impact the baseball more at the plate, his defense should carry him the rest of the way.
Drafted in the 24th round in 2015, Pruitt has had trouble adjusting to professional pitching, but the 20-year-old appeared to make some offensive strides late in the season at Vancouver, batting .250/.323/.336 in the second half after posting a .531 OPS in the first half. The righthanded hitter also showed a little power with an opposite-field homer in August. His other home run on the season came in inside-the-park fashion.
While his bat remains a key question mark, Pruitt’s other tools keep him on the prospect radar. He’s an excellent defensive center fielder with the range, speed and body control to make highlight-reel plays. Pruitt has plus speed and a plus arm and should have no problem sticking in center.
Pruitt needs to improve his offensive approach and learn to better utilize his speed at the plate. While he likely will never be a masher, he might be able to hit just enough if he can stay within his game and focus on his strengths.
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