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2021 Low-A West Top 10 Prospects

Tyler Soderstrom Billmitchell (1)
Tyler Soderstrom (Photo by Bill Mitchell)

Everything changed in 2021 for the league formerly known as the California League. The league’s name changed to Low-A West. The level changed from High-A to Low-A. The composition of the league changed, with Fresno replacing Lancaster as the league’s eighth team as part of MLB’s minor league restructuring.

The rules of the league changed, too. Low-A West was used as a testing ground for experimental rule changes designed to increase the place of play, with 15-second pitch clocks instituted in June and pitchers limited to two pickoff attempts per plate appearance. With the rule changes in place, the league’s average time of game was 2 hours, 43 minutes, a reduction of 20 minutes compared to 2019.

Against that backdrop, the talent in the league was as strong as ever. First-round picks Tyler Soderstrom, Robert Hassell and Zac Veen all starred in their professional debuts and a standout crop of international signees, led by Marco Luciano and Noelvi Marte, shined in their first tastes of full-season ball.

1. Tyler Soderstrom, C/1B, Stockton (Athletics)
Age: 19. B-T: L-R. HT: 6-2. WT: 200. Drafted: HS—Turlock, Calif., 2020 (1st round).

Soderstrom separated himself as one of the best pure hitters in Low-A West while showing better than expected defense behind the plate. He ranked fourth in the league with a .957 OPS when he took a foul ball off his collarbone July 23 and missed the rest of the season.

When healthy, Soderstrom showed a picturesque lefthanded swing, a sharp eye for the strike zone and the ability to slow the game down. He showcased plus power to all fields and made such hard contact that defenders often took a step back when he came to the plate.

“Best hitting prospect in the league,” Fresno manager Robinson Cancel said. “His bat path is really good. His swing looks like a polished swing for his age.”

Soderstrom showed enough defensively to hold off a long-predicted move off catcher. He was surprisingly agile for his big frame, kept pitches in the strike zone and showed the hands and arm strength to project potentially average defense with more development.

Tyler Soderstrom, C, Stockton (Athletics)22239682011249276121.306.390.568

2. Marco Luciano, SS, San Jose (Giants)
Age: 19. B-T: R-R. HT: 6-2. WT: 178. Signed: Dominican Republic, 2018.

Luciano entered the season considered the league’s best prospect and largely lived up to the billing. He finished second in the league with 18 home runs despite being promoted to High-A in early August and ranked second with a .930 OPS.

Luciano’s short, fast, balanced swing generated tremendous power and loft to all fields, especially the opposite way. He had holes in his swing that could be exploited, particularly high and low, but he showed the ability to adjust and frequently delivered in clutch situations.

“He takes a good, aggressive swing and it’s no question he’s up there to do damage,” Modesto manager Eric Farris said. “The intent he has in his swing is impressive and he was able to put some charges into some balls.”

Luciano flashed impressive athleticism to go with good hands and plus arm strength at shortstop, but other times he was a stiff, upright defender with poor throwing accuracy. How his body develops will determine whether he remains at the position.

Marco Luciano, SS, San Jose (Giants)26652741431857386855.278.373.556

3. Robert Hassell, OF, Lake Elsinore (Padres)
Age: 20. B-T: L-L. HT: 6-2. WT: 195. Drafted: HS—Thompson’s Station, Tenn., 2020 (1st round).

Hassell emerged as arguably the most complete player in the league, showing special ability as a hitter, baserunner and defender. He finished third in batting (.323) and second in on-base percentage (.482), stole 31 bases in 37 attempts and was voted the league’s best defensive outfielder by managers.

Hassell demonstrated elite strike-zone discipline and consistently lined balls hard with a smooth, quick swing from the left side. He hit lefties (.384) as well as righties (.301) and showed a precocious ability to use the whole field.

“The thing that really stood out is (how well he hit) against lefties,” Inland Empire manager Jack Howell said. “When he’s staying in on lefties and hitting the ball the other way, I know he’s got a great approach.”

Hassell has room to gain strength and add power, and his contact skills, above-average speed and excellent baserunning instincts should make him a well-rounded offensive threat. He proved a natural defender in center field with light feet, clean routes and plus arm strength.

Robert Hassell, OF, Lake Elsinore (Padres)365771183137655774316.323.415.482

4. Zac Veen, OF, Fresno (Rockies)
Age: 19. B-T: L-R. HT: 6-4. WT: 190. Drafted: HS—Port Orange, Fla., 2020 (1st round).

Veen electrified the league with his combination of power, speed and athleticism. He laced balls hard to all fields, showed above-average power to his pull side and menaced pitchers with his aggressive leads and baserunning. He was one of four players in the minors with at least 15 homers and 35 stolen bases.

Overall, Veen finished top 10 in the league in hits, runs, doubles, home runs, RBIs, stolen bases, batting average and OPS. In addition to Veen’s offensive exploits, he added eight outfield assists while playing above-average defense in both corners. Managers voted him the league’s most exciting player.

“He just plays hard,” Lake Elsinore manager Mike McCoy said. “He’s athletic, he’s fast, power . . . He’s just kind of a live, toolsy guy. Even when he’s not hitting, he still impacts the game in other ways.”

Veen is a bit of a free swinger at times and needs to improve his arm strength a tick. His well-rounded tool set and high effort level should make him an impact player regardless.

Zac Veen, OF, Fresno (Rockies)399831202741575641263617.301.399.501

5. Diego Cartaya, C, Rancho Cucamonga (Dodgers)
Age: 19. B-T: R-R. HT: 6-3. WT: 219. Signed: Venezuela, 2018.

Cartaya played less than two months in the league but made a loud impression in that short time. He had 10 home runs and 31 RBIs in 31 games and consistently made some of the hardest contact of any player.

Lauded for his maturity, Cartaya showed advanced pitch recognition and plate discipline to go with booming, all-fields power. He crushed righties (1.022 OPS) as well as lefties (1.077 OPS) and had a hit in all but nine games.

“The bat was real,” Lake Elsinore manager Mike McCoy said. “He killed us a couple times offensively.”

Cartaya presented a good target for pitchers, framed well at the bottom of the strike zone and drew raves for his game-planning and leadership behind the plate. The only concern was his health. Cartaya missed the start of the season with a back injury, suffered a hamstring injury in July and was shut down in early August after his back issues flared up again.

Diego Cartaya, C, Rancho Cucamonga (Dodgers)1373134601031183700.298.409.614

2 Robert Hassell Getty (1)

Spring Training Notebook: Righthander Jarlin Susana Stands Out, 2021 First-Rounder Creates Buzz

Susana, Jackson Merrill and Manuel Mercedes were among the standouts for the Padres and Giants.

6. Luis Matos, OF, San Jose (Giants)
Age: 19. B-T: R-R. HT: 5-11. WT: 160. Signed: Venezuela, 2018.

Matos earned rave reviews at instructional league last fall and showed it wasn’t a fluke in his first full season. He hit .313 with a league-leading 51 extra-base hits despite a cavernous home park. Managers voted him the league’s best batting prospect.

Matos’ quick hands and excellent bat speed allowed him to jump on fastballs and crush them with eye-popping exit velocities. He had three hitting streaks of at least 10 games and repeatedly topped 105 mph off the bat.

“The biggest thing was the consistent hard contact,” Inland Empire manager Jack Howell said. “Whether it was a base hit or a home run or a lineout. Even when he got fooled on a pitch and put the ball in play, it was hit hard and loud.”

Matos struggled against better breaking pitches, particularly sliders down and away, and will have to show he can lay off them at higher levels. He played a solid center field with quick reads and reactions off the bat, but his average speed may push him to a corner as he matures.

Luis Matos, OF, San Jose (Giants)4518414135115862861215.313.358.494

7. Noelvi Marte, SS, Modesto (Mariners)
Age: 19. B-T: R-R. HT: 6-1. WT: 181. Signed: Dominican Republic, 2018.

Marte struggled with consistency during an up-and-down season, but he was an offensive force at his best. He finished tied for third in the league with 17 home runs and also ranked in the top 10 in hits, runs, doubles, RBIs, walks and stolen bases.

Marte destroyed fastballs and generated plus-plus power out of a smooth, easy swing. His power played to all fields and his sound swing mechanics allowed him to project him as a future above-average hitter.

“He’s one of those bats where you know when he’s coming up,” Stockton manager Rico Brogna said. “He’s six spots away and you start thinking about when he’s coming up because it’s just an impact bat and he really can hit.”

Marte still has work to do on the mental side of the game. The quality of his at-bats often wavered and he tied for a league-worst 29 errors on defense, mostly due to sloppy footwork and poor throwing mechanics. He has the ability to stay at shortstop if he improves his focus.

Noelvi Marte, SS, Modesto (Mariners)41387112242176958106237.271.368.462

8. Blake Walston, LHP, Visalia (D-backs)
Age: 20. B-T: L-L. HT: 6-5. WT: 175. Drafted: HS—Wilmington, N.C., 2020 (1st round).

Walston cruised through the Low-A West for the season’s first six weeks before being promoted to High-A Hillsboro. He ranked third in Low-A West in strikeouts at the time of his promotion and held opponents to two runs or fewer in six of his eight starts.

Walston sat 91-94 mph with his fastball and powered it downhill out of his long 6-foot-5 frame. He landed his mid-70s curveball for strikes, used his mid-80s slider as an effective chase pitch and his mid-80s changeup was voted best in the league by managers. Walston pitched with a quick tempo and aggressively challenged hitters, keeping them from getting comfortable.

Walston’s velocity tended to drop in the middle innings and he still needs to add strength to maintain his stuff deeper into games. Once he does, he could become a mid-rotation starter.

Blake Walston, LHP, Visalia (D-backs)223.328805434181641760.200

9. Drew Romo, C, Fresno (Rockies)
Age: 20. B-T: B-R. HT: 6-1. WT: 205. Drafted: HS—The Woodlands, Texas, 2020 (1st round supplemental).

Romo lived up to his reputation as an elite defensive catcher in his pro debut. He showed soft hands as a receiver, impressed with his game-calling and was exceptionally quick on his footwork and transfers behind the plate. He threw out 35% of basestealers and shut down running games with his above-average, accurate arm. Managers overwhelmingly voted him the league’s best defensive catcher.

Romo’s offensive production was more of a surprise. He finished fourth in the league with a .314 average and even stole 23 bases. The switch-hitter showed a sharp eye for the strike zone, had above-average bat speed and rarely missed pitches in the zone. He hit significantly better lefthanded but showed the ability to make contact from both sides.

“He was awesome,” Stockton manager Rico Brogna said. “Offense, defense, just a quiet, reliable performer. And the more you watch him the more you realize he’s not just reliable, he’s really good.”

Romo’s power is just fringy despite his strong, muscular build. His defensive acumen and contact skills nonetheless make him a potential everyday catcher.

Drew Romo, C, Fresno (Rockies)31248981726471950236.314.345.439

10. Kyle Harrison, LHP, San Jose (Giants)
Age: 20. B-T: R-L. HT: 6-2. WT: 200. Drafted: HS—Concord, Calif., 2020 (3rd round).

Harrison showed some of the best stuff in Low-A West, though he is still learning to harness it. He led the league with 14.3 strikeouts per nine innings but also led the league with 15 hit batters and had the fifth-most walks.

Harrison’s fastball sat 93-96 mph, and he backed it up with a potential plus slider in the low 80s and a tumbling mid-80s changeup. He reached his best stuff out of loose, easy delivery, kept a good tempo and showed the ability to regroup in tough situations.

Harrison lasted fewer than five innings in 14 of his 23 starts, mostly due to elevated pitch counts. He often fell in love with velocity at the expense of control and will need to throttle down to become even an average strike-thrower. He has the delivery and athleticism to do so if he adjusts his intent.

“He’s only going to get better with experience,” Rancho Cucamonga manager John Shoemaker said. “It’s not like he went a long way in each outing, but you could just see it. As long as this guy continues to develop and work and gain confidence, he’s going to be real good.”

Kyle Harrison, LHP, San Jose (Giants)433.192323099864335352157.232

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