2021 MLB Futures Game Notebook
DENVER—Drew Waters knows there were pitchers in all 30 organizations using foreign substances to enhance their pitches.
The Braves No. 3 prospect wasn’t afraid to say as much at the Baseball America Prospect Pad on July 10. He believes the substances, which Major League Baseball began to crack down on beginning in June, were allowing back-end starters to look like aces.
“Sticky substance is used in every clubhouse, or it was,” Waters said. “And it gave guys the ability to not be quote, the fourth or fifth starter. It made them one or twos. Just with the high spin rate.”
Waters also noted a criticism levied against hitters, that players in today’s game trade contact for hitting more home runs. But the 22-year-old outfielder feels that isn’t a fair critique.
“Everybody says hitters as a whole, they’re just out there trying to hit home runs,” Waters said. “No, we’re just trying to hit the ball. But when it’s rising five feet or it looks that way, it makes it really tough.”
MLB’s crackdown on foreign substances has already been felt throughout the majors and minor leagues. On June 15, MLB announced that any pitcher found to have used foreign substances would be faced with a 10-game suspension, effective as of June 21. But even before that announcement, four minor league pitchers—High-A Eugene’s Kai-Wei Teng, High-A Winston-Salem’s Sal Biasi, Low-A Down East’s Mason Englert and Low-A Kannapolis’ Marcus Evey—were ejected in May due to the use of foreign substances.
Few players have been as candid about foreign substances as Waters, but there’s no doubt his frustration is felt amongst other hitters.
Waters wasn’t the only player making news on Futures Game weekend. Here are other notes from Denver.
—Batting practice is routinely one of the most exciting fixtures of the Futures Game, and this year’s iteration was no different. No player hit the ball harder than Mets No. 1 prospect Francisco Alvarez. The 19-year-old catcher crushed the ball, sending one shot about 450 feet to dead center field, where it ran into some trees—Alvarez hit three to center field in total. He added another blast in his lone at-bat in the Futures Game, hitting a solo shot in the sixth inning off Orioles righthander Marcos Diplan.
Fellow Mets prospect Brett Baty was one of the most consistent hitters, crushing five home runs, and Braves prospect Michael Harris hit the ball harder than anyone not named Alvarez. The 20-year-old outfielder hit two upper deck home runs to right field, providing ample evidence of why the organization is excited about him.
—On the American League side, Spencer Torkelson stood out for his consistency during batting practice. The 2020 No. 1 overall pick, who has 80-grade power, led all hitters with nine home runs. His teammate, Riley Greene, was one of the more impressive hitters in the AL. The 20-year-old outfielder hit at least two home runs into the trees in left-center field. Adley Rutschman and Julio Rodriguez, the No. 2 and 3 prospects in baseball, respectively, each demolished baseballs. Rutschman hit two to center field and one to left-center field, and added an upper deck shot. Rodriguez effortlessly launched balls into the stands, hitting one into the trees in left-center field and sending a moon shot to left field.
—Reds shortstop Jose Barrero was hitting the ball hard during batting practice, but his first at-bat in the Futures Game was even more impressive. The 23-year-old shortstop crushed a solo home run 426 feet to left-center field against Rangers righthander Cole Winn for the first run of the game in the first inning.
—Speaking of long home runs to left-center field, Rockies first baseman Michael Toglia added the second and third runs of the game on a two-run shot that traveled 444 feet off the bat at 104 mph in the third inning against Rangers lefthander Cole Ragans.
—Cubs outfielder Brennen Davis added the third home run for the National League in the bottom of the fourth. The 21-year-old outfielder crushed a ball off Twins righthander Josh Winder 428 feet to dead center at 104 mph off the bat. Two innings later, he crushed another solo shot, this one to left-center field off Diplan. The ball left the bat at 109 mph. Davis earned MVP honors for the game for his performance.
—The best pitching performance of the day belonged to Rays righthander Shane Baz, who struck out two batters and induced a groundout in his inning of work. The 22-year-old righthander showed off his 70-grade fastball, sitting in the upper 90s and topping out at 98.5 mph to mow down Michael Harris, Brennen Davis and Ryan Vilade.
—Michael Busch finds a home at second base after spending his collegiate career between first base and left field. The 2019 first-rounder from North Carolina spent the 2020 season at the alternate training site, where he worked to get acclimated at his new position. The work paid off, and while the Dodgers No. 3 prospect will always be known more for his plus hit tool and power, he feels comfortable at his new defensive spot.
“It’s been fantastic, I love it,” Busch said. “Being able to go out there every day and practice out there. It’s a ton of fun, being able to work with some really talented players as well. Learn from them, work from them and all that comes with that, it’s been a blast.”
—Lefthander Cole Ragans never even thought about the Futures Game until he got a phone call from Paul Kruger, the Rangers director of minor league operations, informing him of his selection to the American League roster. The 2016 first-rounder from North Florida Christian High in Tallahassee, Fla. had his career derailed by two Tommy John surgeries, the first in 2018 and the second in 2019, and had just 65 professional innings to his name entering the 2021 season. In his return, Ragans has looked like the impressive young lefthander who ranked as the team’s No. 4 prospect entering the 2017 season, putting up a 1-2, 3.25 mark at High-A Hickory with 54 strikeouts and 14 walks in 44.1 innings, but he still didn't imagine himself being in Denver in mid July.
“I’ve said it to a lot of people actually since I got told I was coming here that this is one of the most unexpected things that’s ever happened,” Ragans said. “Honestly, I hadn’t even heard anything about the Futures Game this year until the day they told me … I’m just like, holy cow. I literally don’t even know what to think. Because it’s crazy to think a year ago I was coming back from my second Tommy John and now I get to play against the best players in the minor leagues.”
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—Cole Winn returns home to play in front of his family and friends. The 21-year-old righthander played in Colorado up until his senior high school season, when he moved to Orange Lutheran (Calif.) High to get better scouting exposure against advanced competition. The move paid off, leading to him being selected 15th overall in 2018 by the Rangers. Now, he gets to play at familiar Coors Field in front of his biggest supporters.
“It was honestly like a wave of emotions,” Winn said about being named to the Futures Game. “Being from Colorado and knowing that as soon as I get off the phone, I’m going to call my parents and tell them that I’m going to be back in Colorado, be back home. It was honestly like a really special moment.”
—Few prospects had as tough of a journey as Pedro Leon to get to the Futures Game. The 23-year-old outfielder from Cuba spent the 2020 season in the Dominican Republic away from his family. He had a hard time adjusting and didn’t get to play as much baseball as he would have liked, but he still tried to make the best of the situation. A year later, he’s made his pro debut at Double-A Corpus Christi, hitting .232/.337/.415 with eight home runs, 30 RBIs and 10 stolen bases and made the Futures Game roster just months into his career.
“It’s a great opportunity to be here,” Leon said through a translator. “And it’s almost like validation, right? All the hard work and effort that we put in and you get a reward like this. It makes it all worth it. So I’m very excited to be here.”
JJ Cooper contributed to the reporting in this article.