2017 South Atlantic League Top 20 Prospects
|Co-Champions Greenville (Red Sox) 3 Kannapolis (White Sox) 1|
|Best Record Greenville (Red Sox), 79-60 (.568)|
|Most Valuable Player Darick Hall, 1B, Lakewood (Phillies)|
|Pitcher Of The Year Joey Wentz, LHP, Rome (Braves)|
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.
Usually the Sally League’s top prospects are the best of the best. Just this decade we’ve seen Luis Severino, Jose Fernandez, Gary Sanchez, Bryce Harper and Manny Machado rank among the top five prospects on various year’s Sally League Top 20s.
However for a second consecutive season, managers and scouts were a little disappointed in the caliber of prospects around the league. The modest debut seasons for 2016 top pick Mickey Moniak and fellow first-rounders Riley Pint, Jay Groome and Blake Rutherford played a part in that general malaise.
But Groome’s Greenville club did get to celebrate a title. The Drive edged Charleston in the semifinals and then topped Kannapolis 3-1 in the best-of-5 championship series. It was Greenville’s first Sally League title since 1970, when the league was still known as the Western Carolinas League.
Dominican Republic, 2015. The Phillies didn’t want to stretch Sanchez out too much in 2017. He was kept on a tight pitch limit while in Lakewood–he never topped 80 pitches and usually was held to between 65-75. But he still managed to go five or more innings nearly every time out because of how efficient he was.
Sanchez is the rare 18-year-old who combines exceptional stuff (95-100 mph fastball) and advanced control. His command in the zone continues to improve, but his ability to throw strikes is already above-average. Shorter pitchers (Sanchez is 6-foot) often have a problem with home runs because their fastball lacks plane. It’s not been an issue for Sanchez, as he’s allowed one home run in three pro seasons.
Sanchez’s curveball, slider and changeup all show flashes of being above-average pitches, but none of the trio is yet there. That’s about the biggest complaint anyone lodged against one of baseball’s best young pitching prospects. His combination of stuff and control makes him much more advanced than the average teenager.
A clever pitcher with a plan could get Florial out, as he can be induced to expand his strike zone to chase. But there was no more feared hitter in the league, because if the pitcher left anything hittable in the strike zone, no one in the league could do more to punish him. He could line a single, smash a double or crank a home run. And with his plus-plus speed, he could do damage on the basepaths as well.
Before being promoted to high Class A Tampa, Florial excelled long enough to finish fourth in the league in batting, third in slugging and third in on-base percentage.
Florial has excellent bat speed with the power to be a 20-plus home run hitter in the big leagues. He is a 70 runner and provides above-average defense in center field. He’s a higher-risk, high ceiling prospect who has further refinement to come, but special tools.
Taveras’ production was modest, but that wasn’t shocking considering he played much of the year as an 18-year-old. Evaluators still love the swing and expect in the long-term he’ll be an impact up-the-middle defender and bat.
“He’s a runner with a great swing and a plus arm,” said one pro scout. “He has bat speed and he’s a solid defender who stays in center field.”
Taveras should add more power as he matures, but his all-fields approach portends higher batting averages in his future as well. A switch-hitter who showed more power from the left side, scouts thought his righthanded swing was more fluid, so he should be fine long-term against both righties and lefties.
Hansen returned to Kannapolis after joining the Intimidators for a two-start cameo to wrap up 2016. He showed improved control and confidence this year, dominating in his 13 starts before being promoted. He struck out 15 against Greensboro in one start and reached double digits in strikeouts in three of his final six starts for Kannapolis.
Hansen dominated with a 93-95 mph fastball that generated swings and misses, but his biggest out pitchers were his pair of breaking balls. Most scouts liked his curveball the best, as he can tighten it up to a 78-80 mph tight power curve or loosen up for a get-over early count strike. His slider was less consistent but also flashed plus. His changeup is a fringy fourth pitch.
Not everyone was enamored with Hansen. His mound presence put off some evaluators, and his velocity sometimes wavered later in games. Considering he was bumped from the Oklahoma rotation in 2016, he’s come a long way in the past year.
5. Cristian Pache, OF, Rome (Braves) Age: 18. B-T: R-R. Ht.: 6-2. Wt.: 185. Signed: Dominican Republic, 2015.
In center field, Pache was a fearless omnivore who gobbled up bleeders just beyond shortstop while capably tracking back on balls to the warning track. He led the league’s outfielders in total chances, range factor, assists and double plays. He’s an elite center fielder defensively with top of the scale speed and a 60 arm to go with his 70 glove.
“He’s the most aggressive outfielder I’ve seen all year,” said one scout.
At the plate, Pache has more work to do. His hands work well and he has good bat-to-ball skills, but his long swing will limit his ability to hit for average. He has very little power now and doesn’t try to lift the ball, but his frame, especially his broad shoulders, leads scouts to believe he could have at least 10-12 home run power down the road.
The third pick in the 2016 draft cruised through Sally League lineups regularly, but you won’t find his name anywhere among the league’s pitching leaders. Coming off a 2016 season where he threw few innings because he’s from a cold-weather state (New York), the Braves kept a very close watch on Anderson’s innings–he threw only 21.2 innings from July 1 until the season’s end.
But when he did pitch, Anderson often dominated with a 92-95 mph fastball and a plus curveball as well as an improved changeup that now flashes average. Anderson changes a batter’s eye level regularly as he works up in the zone with four-seam fastballs then buries a big-breaking curve. Anderson’s changeup is less developed, but it did flash as average at its best, which is a step forward from last year.
7. Andres Gimenez, SS, Columbia (Mets) Age: 18. B-T: L-R. Ht.: 6-0. Wt.: 165. Signed: Venezuela, 2015.
While fans were streaming into Spirit Communications Park to watch Tim Tebow, they also got a chance to see a potentially key part of the Mets’ future. Gimenez was one of the youngest players in the league (a full 11 years younger than Tebow), but he more than held his own at the plate with a short, contact-oriented swing. Some managers were shocked when they figured out he was only 18, as he has an approach and plan at the plate of a more experienced hitter.
Gimenez makes his biggest impact right now defensively. He’s a twitchy athlete and an easy plus runner. He’s an above-average defender with a quick release and an accurate if average arm. He does already show the ability to be accurate from multiple arm slots, a prerequisite for shortstops.
A significant hamstring injury almost wiped out Kieboom’s season. He missed three months, but did return to action in mid-August showing some rust but logging just enough at-bats to qualify for the Top 20.
But pre-injury, Kieboom showed the potential to be a middle-infielder with above-average offensive production. He has plenty of bat speed, the advanced baseball IQ that could be expected out of a baseball rat from a baseball family (his brother Spencer is a catcher in the Nationals’ system). Pre-injury, he used the entire field and showed excellent contact ability.
Defensively, Kieboom draws more mixed reviews. His arm and first step are fringy for a shortstop, but his hands and actions are fine.
9. Colton Welker, 3B, Asheville (Rockies) Age: 19. B-T: R-R. Ht.: 6-2. Wt.: 195. Drafted: HS—Parkland, Fla., 2016 (4).
Welker’s slash line was helped a good bit by the Tourists’ hitter-friendly home park where he hit .400/.449/.584. But scouts were impressed by Welker’s approach, his bat control, timing and his knowledge of the strike zone. And he did hit .302/.355/.419 on the road, so he wasn’t just a McCormick Field creation.
Welker’s power should develop as he matures, as he does have gap power now. But he’s a hit-first line-drive third baseman.Defensively Welker needs to improve his footwork but his hands work well and he has an above-average accurate arm.
The Phillies had a very deep Lakewood rotation last year, but it was even deeper this year thanks to Sanchez, Medina, JoJo Romero and Ranger Suarez. Medina took the biggest step forward of that group as he refined his breaking ball, which helped his excellent fastball play even better.
Medina’s fastball is a 93-97 mph monster with outstanding sink. His slider shows lots of promise. It needs more power, but it’s showing the potential to be an above-average pitch. He also throws a loopier, slower curveball and a promising changeup.
But it’s Medina’s fastball that primarily carved up hitters in 2017. The 20-year-old finished third in the league with 133 strikeouts.
Wilson’s 91-95 mph sinking fastball dominated the SAL. He aggressively worked in and out, showing advanced control and command of the pitch. Generally he kept the ball down in the zone and finished second in the league in ERA (2.50), third in strikeouts (139) and fourth in opponent average (.211).
Scouts loved his athleticism and his aggressive makeup on the mound and consistently rated him as a better prospect than Rome’s equally successful lefty Joey Wentz.
Some scouts don’t really like Wilson’s arm action, which includes a wrap in his takeaway, but it hasn’t kept him from throwing strikes. His curveball is a 12-to-6 breaker, but it is more of a power pitch with modest depth and his changeup is fringe-average. Some scouts don’t believe he’ll ever be able to consistently throw his breaking ball because of his arm action, but others believe he will find a breaking ball because of his feel for pitching. He can already locate all three of his pitches.
12. Micker Adolfo, OF, Kannapolis (White Sox) Age: 20. B-T: R-R. Ht.: 6-3. Wt.: 200. Signed: Dominican Republic, 2013.
Adolfo easily wins the SAL award for most improved. Lost at the plate in a half season in Kannapolis in 2016, Adolfo improved his stance with a wider base, calmed down his pre-swing movement and stopped swinging at every curve and slider that bounced in front of the plate.
Adolfo is still an aggressive hitter who still needs further strike-zone refinement, but that shouldn’t discount the significant improvements he made this year. If he can continue to make further refinements he is a prototype right fielder with a near top-of-the-scale arm, average foot speed and plus raw power.
13. Daniel Johnson, OF, Hagerstown (Nationals) Age: 22. B-T: L-L. Ht.: 5-10. Wt.: 185. Drafted: New Mexico, 2016 (5).
Johnson was one of the stars of the first half of the SAL season. He finished tied for second in home runs (17) despite being promoted out of the league in late July.
Surgery has improved Johnson’s eyesight and its effects were apparent. He showed the hand-eye coordination to spoil pitchers’ pitches and work deep counts to find a pitch he could drive. His swing is compact, but he has the strength and bat speed to drive the ball.
Johnson is a plus runner, but he doesn’t read the ball off the bat well enough yet to project as a center fielder. He’s fine in right field with a plus arm that plays very well. His speed plays better on the bases than out of the batter’s box.
Wentz dominated the SAL, finishing fourth in the league in ERA (2.60), strikeouts (152) and opponent average (.209). Considering his pedigree—he’s a supplemental first-round pick who signed for first-round money—one would be fair to expect him to rank higher.
Even as they watched him dominate, scouts were rarely blown away by Wentz’s stuff. His plus changeup was too much for all but the most advanced SAL hitters, but lefties with a good changeup often have their way at low Class A. What Wentz didn’t show was another above-average pitch. His 89-93 mph fastball has good plane and he locates it well, but scouts saw it as an average offering. His breaking ball is well below-average right now.
What concerned scouts the most is that they didn’t see all that much projection. Even with no further development, Wentz has a shot to be a back-end starter, but he needs to add more arm speed and velocity to project as a front-end starter.
The No. 4 overall pick in 2016, Pint is a work in progress. He struggles to repeat his delivery consistently and he’s behind in counts too often. Even with well above-average velocity—he generally sat 94-97 mph—hitters rarely were blown away by Pint and they often took comfortable swings.
The Rockies wanted Pint to focus on fastball command and improving his changeup, so they largely shelved his potentially plus breaking ball. But he doesn’t repeat his delivery well enough to consistently locate the heater yet. He leaves his fastball up in the zone too often and hitters generally took advantage. His final outing of the season put a poor cap on his year—he gave up nine runs without recording an out.
Pint still has the makings of a flamethrowing front-end starter, but he’s got to tone down his delivery, stay back over the rubber and improve his command and control by at least two grades.
Burger doesn’t really pass the eye test. At first glance he doesn’t look like he’s athletic enough to stick at third base. But the more coaches and scouts watched him, the more impressed they became. He’s faster than he looks (he turned in average run times to first base) and he made all the plays at third base, with plenty of arm strength for the position.
Burger has some stiffness, but he’s strong and muscular and he has legitimate plus power. His power comes from a combination of strength and bat speed. He looks to pull anything on the inner half right now, but he’ll have to adjust to show he can do something when pitchers nibble on the outer half.
Scouts had a hard time figuring out what to think of Moniak, which is understandable after the top pick in the 2016 draft hit .236/.284/.341, ranking him among the least-productive hitters in the league.
That’s a concern because Moniak’s hit tool is vital to his potential, because he is less physical with less power projection than most top picks. Scouts generally graded his future power potential as either a 30 or 40 on the 20-80 scouting scale with his narrow shoulders likely limiting his ability to get significantly bigger and stronger. Moniak is a plus runner who should be able to stay in center field with a lot of work, but the consistency of his reads needs to improve. Despite his lofty defensive reputation as an amateur, some pro evaluators graded him as a below-average defender.
But Moniak’s biggest improvement will have to come at the plate. Scouts like his swing and his quick hands, but he rarely drove the ball this year and hit a large number of easy-out ground balls. Scouts still see Moniak as a future big leaguer, but there’s much less confidence in him being an impact player.
Much like fellow 2016 prep first-rounder Mickey Moniak, Rutherford’s first full season was a disappointment. Unlike Moniak, Rutherford had to deal with a midseason trade as well. The Yankees traded him to the White Sox in a deal that sent Todd Frazier, David Robertson and Tommy Kahnle to New York.
Rutherford’s overall stats suffered because he ran out of gas in August, when he hit .205/.287/.244. But scouts liked his mature approach at the plate and saw a future everyday corner outfielder with excellent instincts, feel for the game and an ability to get on base and hit for average.
Rutherford played all three outfield spots in Charleston and Kannapolis, but evaluators were confident that his fringe-average speed would eventually lead to him to the corners.
19. Sheldon Neuse, SS/3B, Hagerstown (Nationals) Age: 22. B-T: R-R. Ht.: 6-0. Wt.: 195. Drafted: Oklahoma, 2016 (2).
Neuse got to showcase his versatility when the third baseman slid to shortstop after Carter Kieboom injured his hamstring. While stretched at shortstop, Neuse has a strong arm and a quick first step. He is a polished third baseman with good footwork and above-average range. He can also play second base and has excellent instincts.
Neuse’s best work is done at the plate, where he shows plus raw power and solid feel for hitting as well. After the Athletics acquired him in the Sean Doolittle deal, they pushed him more aggressively and he hit in high Class A and Double-A.
Neuse is a fringe-average runner, but he knows how to take advantage of what’s given to him, which explains how he swiped 12 bags for Hagerstown.
A supplemental first-round in June out of North Carolina, Miller moved just an hour west from Chapel Hill to Greensboro and kept on hitting like he was still in the Atlantic Coast Conference. He had the third-best batting average (.322) in the league from July 1 until the season ended.
A plus runner who looked very comfortable in center field, Miller has an easy swing with a lot of fluidity and good bat control. It’s a very opposite-field heavy approach right now, which prevented him from showing the power that’s expected of most everyone in 2017.
Miller’s defense, speed and contact ability give him a pretty high floor as a backup outfielder, but he’ll have to start pulling the ball and using his lower half more to hit for more power to be a regular.
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