2017 Southern League Top 20 Prospects
Ronald Acuna (Tom DiPace)
|Co-Champions Chattanooga (Twins) Pensacola (Reds)|
|Best Record Chattanooga (Twins), 91-49 (.650)|
|Most Valuable Player Kevin Cron, 1B, Jackson (Diamondbacks)|
|Pitcher Of The Year Michael Kopech, RHP, Birmingham (White Sox)|
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.
Pitchers ruled the Double-A Southern League to a greater degree than usual in the hitter-hostile circuit. No minor league in 2017 saw fewer runs scored per game (3.95), and no Double-A or Triple-A league featured a lower ERA (3.60) or OPS (.688) than the SL.
Against that backdrop, the exploits of Mississippi outfielder Ronald Acuna, the BA Minor League Player of the Year, and Pensacola third baseman Nick Senzel, the No. 2 pick in the 2016 draft, stood out. Birmingham outfielder Eloy Jimenez, acquired by the White Sox from the Cubs in July, also excited observers in an 18-game trial, but he fell well short of qualifying for this list.
Though Mississippi finished with the second-worst record in the league, they at one point featured three 19-year-olds in a league where the average player is 24. In addition to Acuna, who advanced to Triple-A on July 13, the Braves’ rotation featured 2015 first-rounders Mike Soroka and Kolby Allard all season long.
In related news, Mississippi placed more prospects on this ranking, six, than any other team.
Simply reaching Double-A would have been an accomplishment for Acuna, who missed three months with a broken thumb while at low Class A last year. Instead, the 19-year-old’s mature hitting approach earned him promotions to Double-A in May and Triple-A in July. All told, the high-energy center fielder batted .325/.374/.522 with 21 home runs and 44 stolen bases.
Acuna has superstar potential because all five of his tools grade as plus or better. His outstanding power to all fields made Mississippi’s spacious park look small, and when he stays short to the ball he can turn around velocity with ease. He will hit for a high average because he identifies pitches well and lines the ball gap to gap.
With his top-of-the-scale speed, Acuna is an excellent baserunner and prolific basestealer, albeit an inefficient one. He shines in center field with plus-plus range and arm strength as well as strong instincts.
The Reds plucked Senzel with the No. 2 pick in 2016 and paid him $6.2 million, the highest bonus in his draft class. Like most advanced college hitters, he adjusted quickly to Double-A in his full-season debut when he reached Pensacola in late June. The hard-nosed Senzel ranked fifth in the minors with 40 doubles.
Questions about home-run output dogged Senzel in college, where he maxed out with eight as a junior, but he went on a power surge in the SL, smashing 10 in 57 games, including four deep drives to center and right-center field. With a simple, compact swing, exceptional balance and plus bat speed, he generates consistently high exit velocities off the barrel and will hit for a high average.
Senzel brings the added dimensions of plus speed and athleticism to third base, where will be an above-average defender with a plus, accurate arm, even when throwing on the run. Pensacola coach Dick Schofield helped him improve his first-step quickness and footwork.
Kopech threw more innings this season, 134, than he combined to throw in three years in the Red Sox system, where a 2015 stimulant suspension and 2016 broken hand stalled his progress. The additional mound time paid dividends for Kopech, who ranked first in the SL in opponent average (.184), second in strikeouts (155) and fourth in ERA (2.87).
Kopech throws one of the best fastballs in baseball. He sits 98 mph and tops out at 101 with running action in on righthanders that makes him difficult to square up. He can create additional plane and life on the pitch as he learns to stay over the front side of his delivery more consistently and not fall off to the side. Kopech breaks off a high-80s slider that borders on plus-plus at times, giving him two elite weapons. He throws a fringy low-90s changeup occasionally.
Kopech improved his control from poor in the first half (6.0 walks per nine innings) to above-average (2.7) in the second as his direction to the plate improved.
After tossing 143 innings in his full-season debut in 2016, the durable Soroka added 154 more this season while jumping directly from low Class A to Double-A as a teenager. He ranked second in the SL in ERA (2.75) and walk rate (2.0 per nine innings) as the ace of the Mississippi pitching staff, the youngest in the league.
Soroka exudes confidence and poise on the mound and has a simple, repeatable delivery that translates to plus command. He pitches at 92 mph and tops out at 95 with a live fastball he can sink for ground balls or ramp up for strikeouts. Soroka throws a plus slider as an out pitch, using it to expand the zone versus righthanders and to back-foot lefthanders.
Soroka’s average changeup runs away from lefthanders and keeps them from sitting fastball. He began throwing an average curveball early in counts to alter eye levels and change the velocity range from his slider and changeup.
Gohara failed to crack a full-season roster out of spring training in each of his four seasons with the Mariners, but he gained attention at low Class A Clinton when assigned there last July. The Braves looked past the work ethic questions surrounding Gohara, who could be as many as 80 pounds heavier than his listed weight of 210, when they traded for him in January. He reached the majors in September.
Gohara sits 95-97 mph with his fastball, giving him uncommon arm strength from the left side. Athletic despite his jumbo frame, he repeats his mechanics and showed greater competitiveness this season by throwing more strikes with his fastball. Gohara’s power mid-80s slider grades as plus—he just needs to improve the shape and arm speed of the pitch.
Gohara throws a below-average changeup that the Braves had to force him to throw the second or third time through the order.
Like fellow Braves prospects Ronald Acuna and Luiz Gohara, Riley began the year at high Class A Florida before earning an in-season promotion to Mississippi. The powerfully built third baseman shined in the SL at age 20 and finished the season with 20 home runs for the second year in a row.
Riley can demolish the ball when he barrels it with plus-plus raw power and impact in-game power. He hit some of the longest home runs in the league this season, though his power plays almost exclusively to his pull side. Riley began spraying the ball around the field later in the season and could develop an average hit tool.
A two-way player in high school—many teams preferred him as a pitcher—Riley has committed to improving his lateral range and footwork at third base in pro ball. With a plus arm, good hands and surprising athleticism, he profiles as an average defender.
7. Luis Castillo, RHP, Pensacola (Reds) Age: 24 B-T: R-R Ht.: 6-2 Wt.: 190 Signed: Dominican Republic, 2011 (Giants)
Signed out of the Dominican Republic at age 18, Castillo was traded twice as a prospect despite hitting 100 mph and winning Florida State League pitcher-of-the-year honors in 2016. For a power pitcher, he has fine control and ranked first in walk rate (1.5 per nine innings) among pitchers who qualified for the SL ranking. The Reds called him to the majors from Double-A on June 23.
Castillo sits 97 mph with his top-of-the-scale fastball and mixes in a swing-and-miss, high-80s changeup that keeps batters off balance whether located in the zone or as a chase pitch. With the help of Pensacola coach Danny Darwin, Castillo tightened his mid-80s slider to above-average and also added a mid-90s two-seamer as a groundball pitch.
A high-energy, wiry athlete with incredible arm speed, Castillo must remain direct to the plate and avoid flying open to have big league command.
A rocky late-spring start against eventual College World Series-champion Coastal Carolina helped drop Burnes to the fourth round of the 2016 draft. He pitched like a first-rounder in his full-season debut, however, by ranking third in the minors with a 1.67 ERA and 0.95 WHIP. He allowed three home runs in 26 starts.
Burnes pitches with urgency and stands out for his athletic, repeatable delivery and ability to execute pitches in any count. He pitches at 93 mph and tops out near 95 with cutting action to both sides of the plate. He can consistently front-door righthanders with his cutter, which helps him stockpile awkward swings. His plus curveball plays to batters on both sides of the plate because of his command.
Burnes didn’t throw his changeup often, instead preferring to change speeds with his curve and mix in a fringe-average slider.
The first high school position player drafted in 2014, Gordon continued his steady climb up the ladder by batting leadoff for Chattanooga all season. He led the SL in triples (eight) and ranked third in hits (140) and runs (80). He shined in the first half by showing plus power (.189 isolated slugging) but faded badly in the second half, when his OPS dropped by 271 points.
Gordon projects to be a table-setting middle infielder, but probably at second base and possibly without a plus offensive tool. He takes disciplined at-bats and shed his label as a pull hitter by increasing his willingness to use the middle of the field. As he continues to mature physically he could get to average power, but now he is more of a line-drive and groundball hitter. Gordon is a solid-average runner but not a big stolen-base threat.
Gordon’s plus raw arm strength plays at shortstop, but he struggles with footwork and accuracy on his throws, particularly when on the run. That combined with ordinary range hints at a future at second base.
Allard helped pitch low Class A Rome to the South Atlantic League title in 2016 before jumping directly to Double-A this season, along with fellow 19-year-old Mike Soroka. Waylaid by back trouble in his draft year, Allard answered durability questions in 2017 by leading the SL with 27 starts and ranking fifth with 129 strikeouts.
Allard lacks the physicality and velocity of Mississippi rotation-mates Soroka or Luiz Gohara, relying instead on a sneaky 88-90 mph fastball that touches 93 to set up his above-average secondary stuff. He is unafraid to work inside to righthanders with a fastball that features late cut but little plane.
Allard generates swings and misses with a plus 1-to-7 curveball, which plays up because of his athleticism and pitchability. His changeup improved markedly in 2017 to above-average, giving him a high floor as three-pitch lefty starter.
11. Fernando Romero, RHP, Chattanooga (Twins) Age: 22 B-T: R-R Ht.: 6-0 Wt.: 215 Signed: Dominican Republic, 2011
Romero recorded a 1.93 ERA at two Class A levels in 2016, his first year back after Tommy John surgery wiped out the preceding two seasons. Promoted to the SL this season, he frequently dominated while flashing three above-average pitches and ranking fourth in the league with 8.6 strikeouts per nine innings.
Romero pitched at 95 mph early in the season while topping out at 98, but his arm speed slowed visibly late in the season as he cruised to a career-high 125 innings. His high-80s slider shows sharp, tilting action when he stays on top of the pitch. The pitch flattens out when he drifts in his delivery, but he generates a high groundball rate with both pitches when everything is clicking. When Romero isn’t locating his slider, his fastball becomes hittable because he lacks fine command.
Romero must improve his average changeup to combat lefthanders and continue to prove his durability.
Ortiz joined a new organization late in 2016 but showed in 2017 the same results, both in terms of dominant stuff and health concerns stemming from his extra-large frame. He spent time on the disabled list for the third straight season, this time with a June hamstring injury, and then spent August working on restrictive pitch counts. Even still, he set an innings high of 94.
Ortiz runs his fastball to the mid-90s with plane and riding life through the strike zone. Batters have a hard time picking the ball up out of his hand. Ortiz can spot his plus high-80s slider for strikes or elicit chases out of the zone. When he repeats his delivery, he throws an average curveball. He also shows some feel for a fading mid-80s changeup that can play as average.
Ortiz faces questions about a move to the bullpen based on his conditioning, but most scouts like him as a starter based on his average control, wide repertoire and notable competitiveness.
Mahle threw a no-hitter in the Florida State League in 2016 and a perfect game in the SL on April 22 this year, both times relying on fastball command to navigate lineups. As he matured from skinny high schooler to major league starter—the Reds called him up on Aug. 27—Mahle added mass and velocity.
Mahle now sits 92 mph with a fastball that tops out near 97. He cruises through most of the game in the low 90s, relying on pitching to zones and reserving peak velocity to escape jams. An above-average, low-80s slider is his go-to secondary pitch, but his changeup grades as fringe-average and his curveball is more of an early-count, show-me pitch.
Mahle works quickly, changes speeds, competes with first-pitch strikes and controls the running game, which is what he needs to do because he lacks a single outstanding pitch.
Gonsalves spent the second half of 2016 in the SL but had his return engagement delayed until late May this season by a shoulder injury. Once healthy, he recorded the lowest walk rate of his career (2.4 per nine innings) en route to an Aug. 10 promotion to Triple-A.
Gonsalves pitches at 92 mph and touches 94, but his velocity isn’t as remarkable as his pitching style. He works the top of the zone with a deceptive, riding fastball that generates awkward swings and misses and an extreme flyball rate. Unafraid to work inside to righthanders, Gonsalves commands both sides of the plate and mixes in an above-average changeup that plays low in the zone. He struggles to locate a fringe-average curveball but hasn’t needed it to hold same-side batters to a .225 average this year and .194 last year.
Some observers caution that Gonsalves could struggle with advanced hitters who will lay off his high fastball and make him bring the ball down.
15. Jaime Barria, RHP, Mobile (Angels) Age: 21 B-T: R-R Ht.: 6-1 Wt.: 210 Signed: Panama, 2013
Barria appeared to be a $60,000 steal out of Panama in 2016 when he succeeded at low Class A, but he added two ticks to his fastball this season, mastered two leagues and completely rewrote his future outlook. He even pitched effectively in three August starts for Triple-A Salt Lake.
Barria pitches at 90-92 mph and tops out at 94, and its riding life allows him to work up in the zone with it. He commands his fastball to both sides of the plate, sinks it when needed and makes his modest velocity play up by pitching backwards. Barria trusts his secondary stuff, particularly a plus changeup he locates in any count thanks to an athletic delivery.
Barria refined his breaking ball by adding overall power and separation between a big-breaking curveball and short slider.
16. Justin Williams, OF, Montgomery (Rays) Age: 22 B-T: L-R Ht.: 6-2 Wt.: 215 Drafted: HS—Houma, La., 2013 (2/Diamondbacks)
Williams reached Double-A as a 20-year-old in 2016 for 39 games and returned to the SL this season, when he finished fourth with a .301 average and third with a .489 slugging percentage. An eight-home run outburst in August, which included a three-homer game on Aug. 30, pushed his total to a career-high 14.
Williams doesn’t swing and miss much and uses the whole field, which when combined with his line-drive stroke portends well for his ability to hit for a high average. Scouts question his impact power potential because he puts too many balls in play on the ground and struggles to cover the outer half of the plate, but he has learned to turn on the inside pitch when looking for it.
A below-average runner with an average arm, Williams improved his outfield instincts and reads off the bat this season to now profile as a solid-average defensive right fielder.
Lugo began the year in the Diamondbacks system but finished with the Tigers following the July trade in which he was the headlining prospect exchanged for J.D. Martinez. He played third base and some shortstop before the trade and added second base, where his bat profiles best, while at Double-A Erie in the Detroit system.
Lugo goes to the plate looking to swing the bat, and he has enough bat control to hit for average. Even when he gets caught on his front foot he tends to hit the ball hard. Lugo can drive the ball for home runs to his pull side but is more of a gap hitter overall with average power. If he learns to keep his weight back against breaking pitches, he could probably access more power.
Lugo showed the best infield arm in the SL and received positive reviews for his athletic, sure-handed play and accurate throws at third base. He runs well for his size but isn’t a basestealing threat.
18. LaMonte Wade, OF, Chattanooga (Twins) Age: 23 B-T: L-L Ht.: 6-1 Wt.: 189 Drafted: Maryland, 2015 (9)
A pure hitter and outstanding athlete, Wade slipped to the ninth round of the 2015 draft but has made the Twins look smart by hitting .295 in three pro seasons with more walks (177) than strikeouts (151). This year he ranked fifth in the SL in batting (.292) and third in walks (76) and on-base percentage (.397).
Wade showed the best strike-zone judgment in the league, according to managers, which when combined with his quick lefthanded bat gives him plus hitting ability. He refuses to expand his zone, and he punishes mistakes. Wade doesn’t close off his swing or have a lot of natural lift in his swing path, but he has occasional home run power to his pull side.
Wade runs well and can defend all three outfield positions. He spent the most time in left field, where he appears the most comfortable running routes and making throws with an average arm.
Not often does a Double-A pitcher with an ERA pushing 6.00 crack a league top prospect list, but Fried is the exception because he pitches with two plus pitches at his best. Additionally, he spent most of the SL season plagued by blister problems that cleared up once he reached Triple-A and then the big leagues, where he debuted on Aug. 8.
Unable to go to his trademark curveball for chunks of the season because of blisters, Fried learned to work with his fastball and changeup. He pitches at 92 mph and can touch 97 mph with a plus fastball that he still needs to locate better for early-count strikes.
Both of Fried’s secondary pitches are weapons. His plus curveball ranges from 70-80 mph and generates a high rate of swings and misses. He uses his average changeup less frequently but to good effect.
20. Taylor Clarke, RHP, Jackson (Diamondbacks) Age: 24 B-T: R-R Ht.: 6-4 Wt.: 200 Drafted: College of Charleston, 2015 (3)
Clarke didn’t allow a run while working as a reliever in the Northwest League during his 2015 pro debut then advanced to Double-A in 2016. He opened this season back in the SL and appeared bored at times after making 38 combined starts at the Double-A level. Pushed to Triple-A Reno in August, he scuffled to a 4.81 ERA in six starts.
Clarke profiles as a No. 4 starter with his combination of solid stuff, control of four pitches, an athletic delivery and durability. He works primarily with a plus 92-95 mph fastball and above-average mid-80s slider, but he also throws a changeup and curveball to combat offhand batters.
Clarke’s changeup shows nice fading action and earns average grades, while his downer curve is more of an early-count pitch.
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