April Prospect Notes: Nick Allen, Zack Thompson, Jordan Lawlar And More
With the A’s in rebuilding mode in 2022, Las Vegas manager Fran Riordan delivered a straightforward message to his players before the start of the Triple-A season.
“We’re going to have a lot of transactions up and down with Oakland this year,” Riordan said on Triple-A Opening Day. “There’s going to be guys that get either their first opportunity or another opportunity to produce and stay there at the big league level. I think everybody in that clubhouse understands that.”
Clearly, Nick Allen took that message to heart.
Allen, the A’s No. 5 prospect, hit .319/.396/.404 in 12 games at Las Vegas before receiving his first call-up on April 19. The 23-year-old shortstop became the first in an expected wave of prospect arrivals to land in Oakland this season.
A fourth-round pick in 2017, Allen has long been an exceptional defender at shortstop but faced questions about how much offense he will provide. In his brief time at Triple-A this season, he showed increased thump in his bat and an improved offensive approach to help quell some of those concerns.
Allen has spread out more in his stance and become comfortable with his game, taking quick, direct strokes to the ball and hitting it hard on a line. After trying too hard to elevate and manufacture power early in his career, the 5-foot-8, 166-pound Allen is now staying within himself and letting his natural contact skills and surprising strength do the work.
Allen stung balls hard to the left, up the middle and to the right during his brief time in Las Vegas while serving as an effective table-setter out of the No. 2 spot in the Aviators order. He opened the season with a 10-game hitting streak and showcased his speed with three stolen bases in as many attempts. He demonstrated a solid feel for the strike zone while taking close pitches off the edges of the plate and, as usual, made numerous exceptional defensive plays at shortstop that showcased his elite range, hands, release and throwing accuracy.
“I think the big thing is just to stay level-headed,” Allen said at the start of the season. “Make sure I’m hitting good pitches and be ready to hit those because you don’t get too many mistakes as the levels keep going up. I think I adjusted to that and now I’m going to come out here and just keep doing it.”
Allen is the clear-cut top defensive shortstop prospect in the game and won the best defensive player award at the Tokyo Olympics last year while playing for Team USA. If he hits enough to play every day in the majors, the question is not if he’ll win a Gold Glove, but how many.
He’s continuing to show he might just hit enough to do that. Allen hit .319/.374/.471 at Double-A Midland last year. After facing an adjustment period following a late season promotion to Triple-A, he came back this year with his swing and approach locked in. The results followed, culminating in his big league debut.
Zack Thompson Finding His Form
Zack Thompson’s first full season in 2021 was nothing short of a disaster. After being aggressively pushed to Triple-A Memphis on Opening Day, the Cardinals No. 12 prospect went 2-10 with a 7.35 ERA and allowed a .302/.400/.516 opponent slash line. He allowed 114 hits in 93 innings and struck out just 82 batters while walking 57.
Beyond just the numbers, Thompson’s stuff declined sharply. The lefthander’s fastball bottomed out at 86 mph and his curveball dropped to 68 mph last year, leading to widespread speculation that he was pitching hurt.
Thompson is back at Memphis this year and is looking like an entirely different pitcher through the first month of the season. In his most recent outing against Durham, he sat 92-95 mph on his fastball while showcasing a devastating 72-75 mph curveball that he both landed for strikes and expanded the strike zone with. He also threw a short, mid-80s slider and upper-80s changeup, but he overwhelmingly dominated with his fastball and curveball alone. It was the type of stuff that made Thompson the 19th overall pick out of Kentucky in 2019 and one of the Cardinals’ most promising pitching prospects before last year.
With Thompson’s stuff back in peak form, the difference in results has been predictably stark. He is 1-0, 3.98 through four starts with 24 strikeouts and only two walks in 20.1 innings for Memphis this season. In the process, he has re-established himself as one of the Cardinals’ best pitching prospects and a viable option to be called up this year.
Jordan Lawlar Lights Up Cal League
Jordan Lawlar ranked as BA’s No. 1 draft prospect last year but fell to the D-backs at No. 6 on draft day. Already, he’s looking like a steal.
Lawlar, 19, is off to a .308/.452/.554 start at Low-A Visalia with five home runs and 11 stolen bases in only 18 games. He’s shown easy power to all fields—driving even mis-hit balls off the wall the other way to right field—and impressive speed and athleticism both on the bases and in the field at shortstop.
The D-backs No. 2 prospect has shown a propensity to occasionally swing and miss through 87-88 mph fastballs, but he generally self-corrects and makes adjustments to avoid striking out. Through the first month, he has 14 strikeouts in 84 plate appearances, a 16.6% strikeout rate.
Ryne Nelson Dealing With Velocity Drop
Ryne Nelson’s fastball velocity fell to 91-93 mph during spring training and has remained there early in the season at Triple-A Reno, leading to a rough start.
Nelson, the No. 96 prospect on the BA Top 100, has a 7.17 ERA through five starts at Triple-A Reno. After sitting 93-96 mph and touching 98 last year, he has yet to top 94 mph so far in 2022. He still has 25 strikeouts in 21.1 innings, largely on the strength of his secondaries.
Nelson’s secondaries have jumped forward to help him miss bats and withstand his early fastball velocity drop. His mid-80s slider, mid-70s curveball and low-80s changeup have all been swing-and-miss pitches at their best, with improved consistency of his curveball and slider in particular helping him.
Those secondaries have helped him miss bats and represent a promising development, but his previously plus fastball has become a liability. Opponents are batting .311/.354/.467 against his fastball this year, according to Synergy Sports.
2023 D-backs Top 10 Prospects Podcast
Nick Piecoro of the Arizona Republic joins Kyle Glaser to break down the D-backs farm system.
Around the bases
— Marlins No. 5 prospect Max Meyer continues to draw some of the loudest raves of any prospect in baseball this spring. After a dominant showing in spring training, Meyer has a 1.71 ERA with 33 strikeouts and six walks in 26.1 innings at Triple-A Jacksonville through the season’s first month. His fastball is sitting in the mid 90s and his slider and changeup are both drawing plus-plus grades from opposing evaluators, an arsenal that has led scouts and front office officials across the game to comment that Meyer is the most impressive prospect they’ve seen this year—position player or pitcher.
— Cardinals No. 2 prospect Nolan Gorman is making a case for an early call-up to St. Louis. The 22-year-old is tied for the minor league lead with 11 home runs at Triple-A Memphis and reeled off a 16-game hitting streak that ended Sunday. He’s also made significant strides in his transition to second base, showing the ability to range from side to side and convert all the plays he should. Gorman’s strikeout rate remains too high at 35%—largely because of his propensity for chasing secondary pitches out of the zone—but if he can make improvements in that department, his power production will be appealing for a Cardinals team that has hit the eighth-fewest home runs in the majors.
— Dodgers No. 39 prospect Edgardo Henriquez has flashed some of the loudest stuff in the minors this spring in his full-season debut at Low-A Rancho Cucamonga. The 20-year-old Venezuelan has sat 97-101 mph on his fastball with a borderline plus-plus breaking ball, although his outings have been inconsistent and he is still learning to harness his stuff. Henriquez earns frequent comparisons to Dodgers setup man Brusdar Graterol and is expected to follow a similar career path as a starter in the minors who transitions to late relief in the majors.
— Phillies No. 3 prospect Andrew Painter and Twins No. 7 prospect Simeon Woods Richardson are locked in a battle to see who will give up an earned run first this season. Painter, the Phillies first-round pick last year, has yet to allow an earned run in 12 innings for Low-A Clearwater. Woods Richardson, who was acquired from the Blue Jays as part of the Jose Berrios trade last year, has yet to allow an earned run in 21.2 innings at Double-A Wichita. Both are tied for the minor league lead with their 0.00 ERAs. (Each has allowed one unearned run).