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2021 Low-A East Top 10 Prospects

Gunnar Henderson Brianwesterholtfourseam
Gunnar Henderson (Photo by Brian Westerholt/Four Seam Images)

Low-A East featured four Top 100 Prospects among its top 10 prospects—Gunnar Henderson, Nick Yorke, Taj Bradley and Daniel Espino—and an impressive group of players who took big steps forward and raised their stock during the 2021 season. Joey Estes, Dustin Harris and DJ Herz were not highly touted coming out of the 2019 draft, yet all three turned in impressive seasons and earned praise from league managers for their play.

Charleston, the top team in the league with an 82-38 record, finished tied for the most prospects in the top 10 with two (Bradley, Curtis Mead), along with Delmarva (Henderson, Colton Cowser) and Down East (Harris, Luisangel Acuña).

Due to the depth of talent in the league, there were notable omissions from the list, such as Carolina outfielder Joe Gray Jr., whose power, running ability and athleticism stood out; Lynchburg first baseman Jhonkensy Noel, who posted a 1.119 OPS in 38 Low-A games; and Down East outfielder Evan Carter, who missed significant time with injury but showed an impressive tool set.

1. Gunnar Henderson, SS/3B, Delmarva (Orioles)
Age: 20. B-T: L-R. HT: 6-2. WT: 210. Drafted: HS—Selma, Ala., 2019 (2nd round).

Henderson was only in the Low-A East for a month and a half, but he drew plenty of notice during his time there, standing out for his bat control, bat speed and plus power with the ability to hit the ball out of the park to all fields.

Henderson stood out defensively as well, both at shortstop and third base, with advanced instincts and plus arm strength. League managers were confident that he can stick at shortstop, even with his larger frame. He needs to cut down on his swing and miss after striking out 29.3% of the time, but he showed a better approach at the plate after spending the 2020 season against advanced competition at the alternate training site.

“He was probably the best player in our division for a while,” Fredericksburg manager Mario Lisson said. “He can swing it. He can play short and third base. The bat I liked a lot.”

Player, Pos, Team (Org)ABRH2B3BHRRBIBBSOSBCSAVGOBPSLG
Gunnar Henderson, SS, Delmarva (Orioles)1413044111839144651.312.369.574


2. Nick Yorke, 2B, Salem (Red Sox)

Age: 19. B-T: R-R. HT: 6-0. WT: 200. Drafted: HS—San Jose, Calif., 2020 (1st round).

Yorke was the surprise pick of the 2020 draft at No. 17 overall but proved Red Sox evaluators prescient with an excellent pro debut. He showed off a plus hit tool with quick bat speed and the ability to hit the ball to all fields.

Yorke stood out to league managers for his patient approach at the plate, consistently delivering quality at-bats, running the bases well and playing solid defense at second base, though he needs to improve on the double play turn. Yorke added 15 pounds to his frame as a prep senior, and it translated to solid extra-base pop, with 14 home runs and 20 doubles in 2021. Yorke’s bat will lead the way for him, and in his first pro season it more than delivered.

“Swung the bat great, ran the bases, stole bases,” Delmarva manager Dave Anderson said. “He was a fun guy to watch play. Young kid too. He played really good against us.”

Player, Pos, Team (Org)ABRH2B3BHRRBIBBSOSBCSAVGOBPSLG
Nick Yorke, 2B, Salem (Red Sox)294599514410474147118.323.413.500

3. Taj Bradley, RHP, Charleston (Rays)
Age: 20. B-T: R-R. HT: 6-2. WT: 190. Drafted: HS—Stone Mountain, Ga., 2018 (5th round).

Drafted in the fifth round in 2018 out of high school in the Atlanta area, Bradley spent his first two seasons in Rookie ball before working at home during the canceled 2020 season.

Working remotely, Bradley improved his fastball velocity to sitting in the mid 90s and topping out at 98 mph with life after topping out at 93 in his draft season. Armed with his improved fastball this season, Bradley overpowered Low-A hitters en route to a promotion to High-A in early August.

Bradley struck out 10.9 per nine innings in Low-A and showed a tighter breaking ball, a more consistent delivery and maturity beyond his years on the mound. Bradley rounds out his arsenal with a changeup, and he throws all three pitches for strikes.

Pitcher, Pos, Team (Org)WLERAGGSSVIPHRERHRBBSOAVG
Taj Bradley, RHP, Charleston (Rays)931.761514067371713420810.165

4. Daniel Espino, RHP, Lynchburg (Indians)
Age: 20. B-T: R-R. HT: 6-2. WT: 205. Drafted: HS—Statesboro, Ga., 2019 (1st round).

Espino didn’t stay in Low-A for long, barely surpassing the 40-inning threshold for this list, but league managers didn’t forget the way his fastball played, with one manager calling it the best heater in the league.

Espino’s fastball sat in the upper 90s and touched triple-digits, with mostly straight movement. League managers were less impressed with his offspeed offerings, which included a plus slider and two average pitches in his curveball and changeup. The 20-year-old righthander struggled somewhat with his control at Low-A, walking 23 in 42.2 innings, but he began to right the ship at High-A, walking just 16 through 49 innings after a promotion.

Pitcher, Pos, Team (Org)WLERAGGSSVIPHRERHRBBSOAVG
Daniel Espino, RHP, Lynchburg (Indians)123.381010043341716223640.217

5. Joey Estes, RHP, Augusta (Braves)
Age: 19. B-T: R-R. HT: 6-2. WT: 190. Drafted: HS—Lancaster, Calif., 2019 (16th round).

Although Estes’ season ended prematurely when he went on the injured list Sept. 9, he still had a breakthrough year and shot onto the prospect scene.

The 19-year-old righthander had no trouble with Low-A in his full-season debut, impressing league managers with a three-pitch mix headlined by a fastball that sat 93-94 mph, and he could continue to add velocity as he matures. He worked in the offseason on improving his changeup and has gained confidence in it while turning it into a solid pitch. He has enough confidence in his average to above-average slider that he will throw it in any count. Estes worked deliberately, pounding the strike zone and posting 11.5 strikeouts per nine innings compared to 2.6 walks per nine.

“The biggest thing for me was his mentality,” Augusta broadcaster Rylan Kobre said. “Obviously the changeup is nice . . . but he goes at guys. He’s a bulldog.”

Pitcher, Pos, Team (Org)WLERAGGSSVIPHRERHRBBSOAVG
Joey Estes, RHP, Augusta (Braves)362.9120200996639327291270.184

redsox-900x6351

Nick Yorke: Red Sox 2021 Minor League Player Of The Year

The reason the Red Sox valued Yorke so highly in the 2020 draft became apparent in 2021 as he turned in an elite hitting performance.

6. Dustin Harris, 1B/3B, Down East (Rangers)
Age: 22. B-T: L-R. HT: 6-2. WT: 185. Drafted: St. Petersburg (Fla.) JC, 2019 (11th round/Athletics).

Acquired from the Athletics as part of the trade for Mike Minor in 2020, Harris broke out in his new organization, standing out for his ability to make hard contact and barrel the ball consistently.

Harris’ uptick in power that is most impressive. The 22-year-old corner infielder crushed 20 home runs in 110 games after hitting only one in 58 games in 2019. Harris stood out to league managers for his bat speed, baserunning ability (25 stolen bases in 27 attempts between the Class A levels), defense at first base and power production.

Thanks to his sneaky athleticism, Harris could also handle an outfield corner if the Rangers decide to move him there.

Player, Pos, Team (Org)ABRH2B3BHRRBIBBSOSBCSAVGOBPSLG
Dustin Harris, 1B/3B/OF, Down East (Rangers)259547811310533448201.301.389.483

7. Curtis Mead, 1B/3B, Charleston (Rays)
Age: 20. B-T: R-R. HT: 6-2. WT: 171. Signed: Australia, 2018 (Phillies).

Acquired from the Phillies for lefthander Cristopher Sanchez in November 2019, Mead took a big step forward in his full-season debut. The 20-year-old Australian hit .356/.408/.586 with seven homers in 47 games at Low-A.

Mead was promoted to High-A on July 6, but before he left he stood out to league managers for improving his bat-to-ball skills and showing the ability to make contact against velocity and offspeed pitches while hitting the ball from line to line. It’s mostly gap power currently, but some of those doubles should translate to home runs as Mead matures.

Mead fared well at third base, but there are questions remaining about whether he can stick there due to fringe-average range.

Player, Pos, Team (Org)ABRH2B3BHRRBIBBSOSBCSAVGOBPSLG
Curtis Mead, 2B/3B, Charleston (Rays)1913668211735153092.356.408.586

8. Colton Cowser, OF, Delmarva (Orioles)
Age: 21. B-T: L-R. HT: 6-3. WT: 195. Drafted: Sam Houston State, 2021 (1st round).

The first-rounder from Sam Houston State had one of the more impressive pro debuts of any 2021 draftee. Cowser advanced quickly to Low-A, where he stood out to Delmarva manager Dave Anderson.

“Another guy with a lot of tools—can run, can throw,” he said. “Commands the strike zone really well. He’s hit the ball all over the place . . . Just all-around play. He’s been here three weeks and we’ve seen a lot of different things from him.”

In addition to his plus hit tool and plus running ability, Cowser has line drive power that’s mostly led to doubles, but the organization is confident that it will translate to more homers as he adds strength.

Cowser also stood out in Low-A for his baserunning ability, defense in center field and an above-average arm to give him five average or better tools.

Player, Pos, Team (Org)ABRH2B3BHRRBIBBSOSBCSAVGOBPSLG
Colton Cowser, OF, Delmarva (Orioles)98223450126422219.347.476.429

9. Luisangel Acuña, SS/2B, Down East (Rangers)
Age: 19. B-T: R-R. HT: 5-10. WT: 181. Signed: Venezuela, 2018.

The younger brother of Braves star Ronald Acuña Jr., Luisangel impressed in his first season in the U.S. at 19 years old. He showcased strong defense at shortstop, with quick actions, good speed and the range to stick at the position as well as plus arm strength and the versatility to handle second or third base.

The Rangers were hoping to see Acuña grow into more power, and it happened sooner than expected with 12 home runs in 111 games. Acuña’s power and hit tool stood out to Charleston manager Blake Butera.

“He’s a very intriguing kid who can run and is explosive,” Butera said. “The swing is whippy, there’s a lot of juice there. He’s a good defender, but the bat will carry him.”

Acuña also has plus speed and good baserunning ability. He stole 44 bags to finish third in the league. He has four average or better tools, and with added strength, his improving power could tick up to average or better as well.

Player, Pos, Team (Org)ABRH2B3BHRRBIBBSOSBCSAVGOBPSLG
Luisangel Acuna, SS, Down East (Rangers)413771101531274491104411.266.345.404

10. D.J. Herz, LHP, Myrtle Beach (Cubs)
Age: 20. B-T: R-L. HT: 6-2. WT: 175. Drafted: HS—Fayetteville, N.C., 2019 (8th round).

Herz pitched just 10.1 innings in his pro debut in 2019 before the coronavirus pandemic canceled the 2020 season, but he didn’t look rusty in his first full season.

The 20-year-old lefthander excelled with Myrtle Beach before a promotion to High-A on Sept. 2. He used his three-pitch mix to overmatch Low-A hitters while striking out 14.4 per nine innings. Herz uses a crossfire delivery that gives his fastball deception, and he sits in the low-to-mid 90s, with one manager calling the pitch electric.

Herz’s changeup is his best secondary offering, and it’s a pitch that earns plus grades. He has worked to improve his curveball, turning the pitch into an average offering.

The main area of emphasis for Herz is throwing strikes more consistently and pitching deeper into games. He threw five or more innings just four times in 17 Low-A starts, while walking 5.2 per nine innings.

Pitcher, Pos, Team (Org)WLERAGGSSVIPHRERHRBBSOAVG
DJ Herz, LHP, Myrtle Beach (Cubs)343.4317170663225256381050.152

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