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American League East Prospect Notebook For May

AL East Prospect Notebook

Rays’ Seth Johnson Turns Off Day Into New Career Path

Righthander Seth Johnson became a pretty good pitching prospect by being a pretty bad junior college infielder.

Since Johnson wasn’t hitting much, he wasn’t playing often in his second year at Louisburg (N.C.) JC.

After taking swings in the cage during an off-day workout, he picked up a ball and started throwing off one of the mounds with a couple of teammates to see how hard they could throw.

One grabbed a small radar gun from his locker. Johnson clocked in the low 90s. Though he hadn’t pitched in a game since middle school—despite being asked repeatedly to do so in high school—Johnson suddenly had a new career path.

“I figured I had a better chance as a pitcher than as a position player to get to the next college,” he said.

Throwing “as hard as I could,” Johnson did a few formal bullpen sessions and “was able to talk my way into getting actual game reps.”

From there, he went to Campbell and had an impressive enough junior season in 2019 for the Rays to draft him in the supplemental first round and sign him for $1.7 million.

The Rays continue to be impressed with Johnson’s development as he has worked his way slowly through their system, often learning on the fly.

He opened this season with High-A Bowling Green, where he logged a 2.08 ERA and struck out 25 in 17.1 innings through five starts.

Johnson said he got plenty of help last year from Low-A Charleston pitching coach R.C. Lichtenstein, who helped him understand how to best to use his arsenal, especially by using fastballs up in the zone and throwing sliders for strikes.

Johnson also learned from teammates Ian Seymour and Taj Bradley how to best mix pitches and develop a routine.

Lichtenstein said the progress was obvious—and dramatic—as the 2021 season went on.

“Arguably, for me, Seth Johnson was the best pitcher in that league the last six weeks,” Lichtenstein said. “To watch him kind of finish that year was awesome, because in August and September, he was dominant. And it was fun to see.”

—Marc Topkin

Will Warren’s ‘Unicorn’ Slider Gives Yankees Hope

Sam Briend smirks when he talks about 22-year-old righthander Will Warren’s slider.

“It’s one of those 'unicorn' unique pitches,” the Yankees’ director of pitching said.

And it’s got the Yankees thinking they struck gold with last year’s eighth-round pick from Southeastern Louisiana.

Warren pitched so well in spring training that the Yankees sent him straight to High-A Hudson Valley.

Through five starts, Warren had recorded a 2.57 ERA with an impressive 28 strikeouts in 21 innings. His most impressive effort was a five-inning, one-run, nine-strikeout victory against Brooklyn.

Warren’s fastball has touched 98 mph but sits at about 93. When the Yankees drafted him, he was averaging about 91 mph, and team scouts thought the organization would be able to get more out of him than he had shown.

“That’s a guy with an extremely high ceiling who was just underperforming and needed to make a couple of tweaks to be able to get more of a ceiling out of him,” Briend said.

“He’s still able to flash some of the bigger (velocities), and he had some awesome raw characteristics on pitch qualities and things like that. So he was a guy who we thought fit our system and what our strengths are.”

Briend described Warren’s slider as wider than most. He throws it at about 88 mph.

“When you see guys hit the big velos with the slider, they’re short and tight,” Briend said. “He’s one of those guys who has one of those bigger, sweepier sliders and is able to throw it at such a high velocity.”

Warren’s makeup sounds off the charts, too.

“You see guys all the time who have awesome stuff and they never make it, right?” Briend said. “He's just like a blue-collar kid and he knows how to work hard. He has some toughness in him.

"So he goes out there and competes, and if he falls behind he never backs down . . . That's one of the things that separates you."

—Brendan Kuty

Chih-Jung Liu Shows Off High-End Velocity For Red Sox

When the Red Sox signed righthander Chih-Jung Liu out of Taiwan in 2019 for $750,000, he was coming off a dominant performance in international competition in which he showed high-90s velocity while mowing down opponents out of the bullpen.

As a starter in both instructional league in 2020 and his first minor league season in 2021, Liu’s velocity had been more modest, typically sitting in the low 90s. Yet he had displayed a broad pitching arsenal, showing feel for as many as seven pitches.

Liu worked chiefly to develop his four-seam fastball, slider and changeup in 2021, delivering a solid if unspectacular performance—a 4.23 ERA, 60 strikeouts and 19 walks in 55.1 innings in 13 starts in the Florida Complex League and Low-A Salem.

But early in 2022 with High-A Greenville, Liu opened eyes with the ability to conjure some of his upper-end velocity. In back-to-back starts in April, he topped out at 97 mph, resulting in a jump in his swing-and-miss rates not only with his fastball but also with his slider and changeup.

“(The velocity) opens up so much, because the hitters know, ‘He’s got that tick up,’ so they’re gearing up for that,” Greenville manager Iggy Suarez said. “But his breaking pitches have been on. It’s just the worst nightmare for hitters.”

The 23-year-old Liu opened the year by striking out 23 in his first 17.2 innings with eight walks.

For now, the 6-foot, 185-pound righthander is working with a three-pitch mix, though with a chance that down the road he could add back additional offerings in order to attack different areas of the strike zone if he remains in the rotation.

Meanwhile, if Liu's restored velocity continues to hold, it would re-establish his floor as a power bullpen arm.

—Alex Speier

Blue Jays’ Adrian Pinto Wrings Big Production From Small Frame

Of all the numbers that jump off the page when it comes to second baseman Adrian Pinto, the Blue Jays are making sure to look past the one people tend to notice first:

His height of 5-foot-6.

“The strike-zone discipline, contact rates and exit velo really pop,” Blue Jays general manager Ross Atkins said “That overrides any concerns about physical stature.”

In that way, the 19-year-old from Venezuela, acquired from the Rockies as part of the March 24 trade that subbed out Randal Grichuk with Raimel Tapia, is an intriguing new addition to Toronto’s farm system.

A year ago, Pinto lit up the Dominican Summer League, batting .360/.487/.543 with a league-leading 41 stolen bases in 54 games. Similarly impressive were his 38 walks against 18 strikeouts, all part of a toolkit that would have spiked his value if not for his size.

That’s no doubt part of the reason the Blue Jays were able to get him as a prospect piece to help balance out the trade, taking a big swing on a frame that doesn’t fit the typical mold.

Those in the industry have a comfort level with certain body types, Atkins said.

“But the same could be said for a 6-foot-10 pitcher or hitter—you're going to be worried about the length of certain movements and the potential of durability,” he said. “What overrides those things is consistency—and especially when it's performance.

“He seems to be checking that box.”

Enough so that the Blue Jays started Pinto at Low-A Dunedin this season.

The next steps in Pinto’s trajectory will be determined not by his height, but by how he progresses there.

“Right now we're focused more on routines and support, and we believe that his talent's good enough,” Atkins said. “There's a lot of development ahead of him, of course, but we don't see reasons to believe that the height or size of the player will be prohibitive in any way.”

—Shi Davidi

Orioles’ Adam Hall Embraces Utility Role At Double-A

Adam Hall wasn't just accepting a career path that had led him into a utility role. The 22-year-old was enthusiastic about the expansion of his skill set and how it improves his chances of playing for the Orioles.

A 2017 second-round pick, Hall was drafted as a shortstop out of high school in London, Ontario, but the Orioles began playing him in the outfield last summer with High-A Aberdeen.

Hall spent most of his time at second base and shortstop last season but also made 12 starts in center field. Double-A Bowie manager Kyle Moore moved up a level with Hall this year and also has used him in the outfield corners.

“He’s embraced it,” Moore said. “I’ve had a lot of talks with him. He’s somebody I've been with my whole career, so I’ve learned from him and he’s learned from me.

"He’s been super open to this super-utility role, which I told him, if he’s going to play in the big leagues, that’s what he’s going to be . . . and I think he’s responded really well to that.”

The Orioles didn’t offer a lengthy explanation to the 5-foot-11, 165-pound Hall, who was batting .307/.389/.355 through his first 15 games with Bowie this season.

Hall also can read the prospect lists and look around the Bowie clubhouse, which includes top shortstop prospects Gunnar Henderson, Jordan Westburg and Joey Ortiz.

“I’m pretty sure if you ask any guy who’s on a big league roster for the most part, other than some catchers and first basemen, they probably played shortstop or were drafted as a shortstop,” Hall said. "So in terms of seeing that, it’s like, ‘Yeah, who knows where this guy is actually going to end up playing?’

"But the amount of talent coming (into the Orioles organization), it definitely pushes you and makes you realize, ‘Hey, I’ve got to stay on top of things here, because there’s always someone new coming.' "

—Roch Kubatko

Randal Grichuk (Photo by Cole Burston/Getty Images)

Blue Jays Acquire Adrian Pinto, Raimel Tapia In Trade With Rockies For Randal Grichuk

The deal has significant upside for the Blue Jays, who get one of Colorado's young, potential breakout prospects.

AROUND THE DIVISION

* Red Sox righthander Frank German, now a full-time reliever, opened the year with 15 strikeouts and no walks in eight innings while touching 99 mph for Double-A Portland.

* Red Sox lefthander Jeremy Wu-Yelland had Tommy John surgery on April 27.

* Shortstop Cesar Prieto, a 22-year-old Cuban who signed for $650,000 as a key acquisition during the international signing period in January, hit seven home runs in 18 games for High-A Aberdeen before straining his right hamstring while running out a double.

* The Orioles released third baseman Jean Carmona, acquired from the Brewers at the 2018 trade deadline in the Jonathan Schoop trade. The 22-year-old never rose above High-A and owns a .244/.319/.373 slash line in 805 career at-bats.

* Rays righthander Tyler Zombro made an emotional and successful return to the mound on April 24 with Triple-A Durham at Norfolk. The appearance came nine and a half months after the horrific incident when he was struck on the side of the head by a line drive, sustaining traumatic injuries that required brain surgery.

* The Rays made an unexpected decision to create space on the Opening Day roster for top outfield prospect Josh Lowe by trading Austin Meadows a few days before the end of spring training. Tampa Bay then made another surprising decision to demote Lowe to Triple-A Durham when the struggled through the first three and a half weeks of the season, hitting .118 with one home run and a team-high 27 strikeouts in 19 games.

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