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2021 Double-A Central Top 10 Prospects

Bobby Witt Jr Eddie Kelly (1)
Bobby Witt Jr. (Photo by Eddie Kelly)

The Texas League was renamed Double-A Central and added two teams, both of them coming from Triple-A. San Antonio and Wichita joined the league, the latter after relocating from New Orleans.

The league had two of the most talented teams in the minors this year. In the first half of the season, Northwest Arkansas’ roster stood out thanks to shortstop Bobby Witt Jr., first baseman Nick Pratto and catcher MJ Melendez.

After the Royals prospects moved to Triple-A, the Mariners’ affiliate in Arkansas became the team to watch thanks to the promotions of outfielder Julio Rodriguez, righthanders Matt Brash and George Kirby and lefthander Brandon Williamson.

Northwest Arkansas managed to win the Double-A Central championship even after losing so many stars to in-season promotions. The league as a whole was filled with impressive prospects. So much so that top-notch prospects like Pratto, Tulsa’s Michael Busch and Ryan Pepiot and Amarillo’s Ryne Nelson and Drey Jameson couldn’t crack the top 10.

1. Bobby Witt Jr., SS, Northwest Arkansas (Royals)
Age: 21. B-T: R-R. HT: 6-1. WT: 200. Drafted: HS—Colleyville, Texas, 2019 (1st round).

Picking the top prospect in a league with two of the three best prospects in baseball is never going to be easy.

Someone has to be No. 1 and someone else has to rank No. 2. In talking to managers around the league, there’s not really a significant distinction between Witt and Arkansas outfielder Julio Rodriguez. Both are outstanding prospects who are expected to be long-time impact big leaguers with solid chances to be stars.

Witt has a better chance to play up the middle than Rodriguez, but there is a chance he ends up eventually outgrowing shortstop and moving to third base. He has plus range now, and his above-average arm is extremely accurate.

Both Rodriguez and Witt hit the ball extremely hard. Rodriguez is a better hitter than Witt, but Witt does a better job of getting to his power. He’s a middle-of-the-order hitter who will trade some strikeouts for the chance to hit 35-plus homers.

Player, Pos, Team (Org)ABRH2B3BHRRBIBBSOSBCSAVGOBPSLG
Bobby Witt Jr., SS, NW Arkansas (Royals)244447211416512567148.295.369.570

2. Julio Rodriguez, OF, Arkansas (Mariners)
Age: 20. B-T: R-R. HT: 6-3. WT: 180. Signed: Dominican Republic, 2017.

Rodriguez has posted 115-plus mph exit velocities, showing he can consistently hit the ball as hard as almost anyone in the minors. But because he doesn’t loft the ball consistently, he’s more likely to hit a stinging single or double than a home run. That is similar to what Wander Franco and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. did in the minors. Not coincidentally, Rodriguez’s .329 career batting average is comparable to Franco (.332) and Guerrero (.331).

The bigger revelation has been Rodriguez’s speed. He has gotten faster, to the point where he was a consistent threat to beat out infield hits. He finished the year with 15 infield hits, including 10 In the final two months of the season. The Mariners also moved him to center field for 12 of the final 24 games in the season, and while he’s likely still a future right fielder, he showed at least the ability to play there in a pinch.

Player, Pos, Team (Org)ABRH2B3BHRRBIBBSOSBCSAVGOBPSLG
Julio Rodriguez, OF, Arkansas (Mariners)17435631107262937164.362.461.546

3. CJ Abrams, SS, San Antonio (Padres)
Age: 20. B-T: L-R. HT: 6-2. WT: 185. Drafted: HS—Roswell, Ga., 2019 (1st round).

Abrams didn’t get nearly as much of a chance to show what he could do as Bobby Witt Jr. or Julio Rodriguez, but until he broke his leg and strained a knee ligament in a collision on June 30, he was one of the most dynamic players in the league.

Witt is the league’s shortstop with the best power, but Abrams is a smoother shortstop. He has plus-plus range and the kind of easy fluidity that makes him a future impact defender if his knee and leg injury don’t slow him down. The Padres played him at both shortstop and second base to increase his versatility.

At the plate, Abrams is a pure hitter with average power. He has a chance to hit .300 in the majors thanks to excellent hands and an adaptable swing that makes it hard to beat him with the same approach twice. There’s some pop in his bat as well, and his speed and aggressive, intelligent approach helps him to turn some singles into doubles.

Player, Pos, Team (Org)ABRH2B3BHRRBIBBSOSBCSAVGOBPSLG
C.J. Abrams, SS, San Antonio (Padres)16226481402231536132.296.363.420

4. Alek Thomas, OF, Amarillo (D-backs)
Age: 21. B-T: L-L HT: 5-11. WT: 175. Drafted: HS—Chicago, 2018 (2nd round).

Thomas is the type of player who puts a clubbie to work. He gets a lot of dirt and grass stains on his uniform thanks to an aggressive, hard-nosed approach.

A lefthanded hitter, Thomas has never had much trouble facing southpaws. Righthanders actually gave him a little more trouble, but he should be a pesky at-bat for pitchers as he advances, thanks to a solid approach and enough power to do some damage if a pitcher makes a mistake.

Thomas could be an Adam Eaton type of player in the majors one day. He’s capable of playing center field, but like Eaton he may end up as a plus defender in the corners. His ability to hit for average, spray doubles around the outfield and get on base should make him an MLB asset.

Player, Pos, Team (Org)ABRH2B3BHRRBIBBSOSBCSAVGOBPSLG
Alek Thomas, OF, Amarillo (D-backs)28654811881041376585.283.374.507

5. M.J. Melendez, C, Northwest Arkansas (Royals)
Age: 22. B-T: L-R. HT: 6-1. WT: 190. Drafted: HS—Miami, 2017 (2nd round).

Two seasons ago, Melendez had a .163 batting average at High-A Wilmington while piling up 165 strikeouts.

Armed with a shorter swing, a toned down leg kick, a better stance and a much-improved approach, Melendez completed one of the most dramatic transformations seen in years. He went from being one of the worst hitters in the minors to one of the best. His 28 home runs were second most in Double-A Central despite being promoted to Triple-A on Aug. 11.

“He’s understanding more what pitchers are doing and not missing his pitch,” Northwest Arkansas manager Scott Thorman said.

Melendez still projects as a fringe-average hitter in the majors, but his improvements make it likely he’ll get to the 25-30 home run power that once seemed out of reach.

Melendez has work to do defensively, but he has a plus-plus arm and the athleticism to develop into a solid receiver.

Player, Pos, Team (Org)ABRH2B3BHRRBIBBSOSBCSAVGOBPSLG
M.J. Melendez, C, NW Arkansas (Royals)29858851802865437624.285.372.628

mariners-900x635

Julio Rodriguez: Mariners 2021 Minor League Player Of The Year

The 20-year-old showed the Mariners everything they wanted to see, both on and off the field.

6. Matt Brash, RHP, Arkansas (Mariners)
Age: 23. B-T: R-R. HT: 6-1. WT: 170. Drafted: Niagara, 2019 (4th round/Padres)

He may not even be the best pitching prospect on his own Arkansas team—George Kirby didn’t throw enough innings to qualify for this list—but at his best, Brash was the most overwhelming pitcher in the league. He threw the first six innings of a combined no-hitter on Sept. 2, which was part of a three-start stretch when he struck out 32 of the 58 batters he faced while allowing four hits and six walks in 18 innings.

Brash throws a 94-98 mph riding fastball and a knuckle curveball. He’ll mix in a changeup as well, but it’s his plus-plus slider that hitters step into the box fearing. And it’s often that same slider that leaves them swinging feebly at strike three.

Brash’s mid-80s slider has as much sweeping movement as any slider in the majors—20 inches or more—leaving hitters with little recourse if he’s locating it.

Pitcher, Pos, Team (Org)WLERAGGSSVIPHRERHRBBSOAVG
Matt Brash, RHP, Arkansas (Mariners)322.13101005532151332380.162

7. Josh Jung, 3B, Frisco (Rangers)
Age: 23. B-T: R-R. HT: 6-2. WT: 214. Drafted: Texas Tech, 2019 (1st round).

Frisco finished tied for the second-best record in the league, but it missed the playoffs by virtue of a 5-6 head-to-head record against Northwest Arkansas. Jung was the team’s best pure hitter until he was promoted to Triple-A Round Rock.

Jung is best at driving the ball up the middle. Eight of his 10 Double-A home runs were hit to center field, ranging from the left- to right-center power alleys. That up-the-middle approach also helps him avoid getting pull-happy and chasing pitches off the plate. Multiple evaluators noted how impressed they were with his ability to lay off borderline pitches in tough counts.

Defensively, Jung is average at third base already and has a chance to eventually be an above-average defender.

Player, Pos, Team (Org)ABRH2B3BHRRBIBBSOSBCSAVGOBPSLG
Josh Jung, 3B, Frisco (Rangers)1692552811040134222.308.366.544

8. Nolan Gorman, 3B/2B, Springfield (Cardinals)
Age: 21. B-T: L-R. HT: 6-1. WT: 210. Drafted: HS—Phoenix, 2018 (1st round).

Gorman was one of the best sluggers in the league during his two months in Springfield. His 11 home runs in just 195 plate appearances—one home run every 17 PAs—was one of the best home run rates in the league.

As a hitter, Gorman could be induced to expand his zone and chase by pitchers who preferred to stay away from giving him pitches to drive.

The 21-year-old is a work in progress defensively, but that’s partly because Gorman is trying to learn a new position. With Nolan Arenado likely entrenched at third base in St. Louis, Gorman split time between second and third at Springfield before focusing mostly on second base in Triple-A.

Gorman’s legs are already thickening , which limits his range, but he makes the routine plays.

Player, Pos, Team (Org)ABRH2B3BHRRBIBBSOSBCSAVGOBPSLG
Nolan Gorman, 3B/2B, Springfield (Cardinals)1772651601127185240.288.354.508

9. Cole Winn, RHP, Frisco (Rangers)
Age: 21. B-T: R-R. HT: 6-2.  WT: 190. Drafted: HS—Orange, Calif., 2018 (1st round).

There were flashier pitchers in the league, but few came close to being as well-rounded as Winn. He didn’t throw enough innings to qualify for the Double-A Central leaderboards, but his WHIP (0.82), opponent’s batting average (.144) and ERA (2.31) were easily the best among the league’s pitchers with 75 or more innings. One opposing manager described Winn as having the league’s best command.

Winn attacked hitters with a trio of above-average pitches. His fastball can touch 95-96 mph and he has the potential to add a little more to that as he gets older and stronger. He shows plenty of confidence in his above-average changeup and mixes in an average slider and a future above-average curveball.

Because Winn has confidence in his ability to spot four pitches, he often found himself a step ahead of Double-A hitters.

Pitcher, Pos, Team (Org)WLERAGGSSVIPHRERHRBBSOAVG
Cole Winn, RHP, Frisco (Rangers)332.31191907838212062697.144

10. Miguel Vargas, 3B/2B, Tulsa (Dodgers)
Age: 21. B-T: R-R. HT: 6-3. WT: 205. Signed: Cuba, 2017.

On a Tulsa team loaded with prospects, Vargas’ ability to make hitting look easy stood out. The 21-year-old led the league with a .321 average, becoming one of just two qualifying players to top .300 in a league where the league batting average was .248.

Vargas is a pure hitter who is much more likely to threaten for batting titles than home run crowns, but he has started to tap into his power potential as well. His approach is to drive the ball back up the middle or go the other way if a pitcher stays away from him, but he hit 23 home runs this year between High-A and Double-A after never hitting more than seven in any previous season.

Vargas is a fringe-average third baseman who could also play a below-average second base and an average first. His dangerous bat should give him that option.

Player, Pos, Team (Org)ABRH2B3BHRRBIBBSOSBCSAVGOBPSLG
Miguel Vargas, 3B/2B, Tulsa (Dodgers)327671051611660365771.321.386.523

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