Image credit: MacKenzie Gore (Photo by Larry Goren/Four Seam Images)
The California League’s reputation as a hitter’s league continues to take a hit. Now three years removed from High Desert and Bakersfield being contracted, teams in the league scored an average of 4.71 runs per game in 2019, the lowest mark in 30 years. As a result, clubs have become less afraid to send their top pitching prospects to the circuit.
In some ways, 2019 was the year of the pitcher in the Cal League. Lake Elsinore lefthander MacKenzie Gore, the top pitching prospect in baseball, recorded a 1.02 ERA in 15 starts. Visalia’s Josh Green and Modesto’s Logan Gilbert each posted sub-2.00 ERAs during their stops in the league. An additional five starters who pitched at least 60 innings finished with ERAs below 3.00.
The combination of pitching standouts and the usual hitting stars made 2019 one of league’s better seasons in terms of talent. In addition to the strong group of players eligible for this year’s prospects ranking, Modesto’s Julio Rodriguez, Visalia’s Alek Thomas and Geraldo Perdomo, Inland Empire’s Jordyn Adams and Chris Rodriguez and Stockton’s Daulton Jefferies headline a talented group of players who did not accumulate enough playing time to qualify for the list.
1. MacKenzie Gore, LHP, Lake Elsinore (Padres)
Age: 20. B-T: L-L. HT: 6-3. WT: 195. Drafted: HS—Whiteville, N.C., 2017 (1).
Had he logged enough innings to qualify, Gore’s 1.02 ERA would have been the lowest by a Cal League starter ever, beating Bill Wegman’s 1.30 ERA for Stockton in 1983. Gore led the league in strikeout rate (12.5 per nine innings), opponent average (.137) and WHIP (0.71) when he was promoted to Double-A in July.
Gore’s 92-96 mph fastball got on batters quickly with his long extension, resulting in late, confused swings. His upper-70s curveball and mid-80s slider alternated as his best breaking pitch but each flashed plus, and he rarely needed his plus changeup. Gore’s plus control and aggressive demeanor tied it together, earning him a potential No. 1 starter projection from evaluators.
“There was a lot of confidence and aggressiveness in the zone from the really high-level stuff that he has,” Rancho Cucamonga manager Mark Kertenian said. “He did not back off one single pitch against us. We felt like he could pitch in the big leagues this year.”
2. Joey Bart, C, San Jose (Giants)
Age: 22. B-T: R-R. Ht.: 6-2. Wt.: 235. Drafted: Georgia Tech, 2018 (1).
Bart missed seven weeks with a broken bone in his left hand after being hit by a pitch and didn’t fully regain his grip strength for another month after he returned. He began feeling 100 percent in mid-July and hit .315/.358/.584 in his final 20 games before a promotion to Double-A.
When healthy, Bart showed strong plate discipline and easy plus power to all fields. He mainly stood out on defense, where he showed soft hands and average receiving skills, plus arm strength and a knack for framing. Bart took charge of his pitching staff and was voted the league’s best defensive catcher by managers.
“He’s a true talent behind the plate,” Stockton manager Webster Garrison said. “Receiving, blocking, throwing, as well as a big power guy at the plate. He’s a frontline catcher coming along. He looks like a real, real good pick for those guys.”
3. Jarred Kelenic, OF, Modesto (Mariners)
Age: 20. B-T: L-L. Ht.: 6-1. Wt.: 196. Drafted: HS—Waukesha, Wis., 2018 (1/Mets).
Kelenic moved up to the Cal League on May 30 and immediately held his own. He missed two weeks with a wrist injury and another week with a sprained ankle, but he still ranked in the top 10 in OPS (.838) during his time in the league before an August promotion to Double-A.
Kelenic earned universal reviews as a potential plus hitter. He turned around premium velocity, controlled the strike zone and hit both lefties and righties. His flat-planed swing is more geared for contact, but he showed the ingredients to grow into above-average or more power.
Kelenic showed above-average speed and agility in center field and a plus arm, but assertiveness on fly balls and decision-making on throws need to improve.
4. Luis Patiño, RHP, Lake Elsinore (Padres)
Age: 19. B-T: R-R. HT: 6-0. WT: 192. Signed: Colombia, 2016.
The high-octane Patiño struggled with his control early, but he learned to throttle down and began dominating. Patiño finished second in opponent average (.192), sixth in ERA (2.96) and seventh in WHIP (1.09) among starters with at least 60 innings as the league’s youngest pitcher on Opening Day.
Patiño’s plus-plus fastball was his bedrock, checking in at 95-98 mph with explosive late life and cut action. His power slider flashed plus and his improving, mid-80s changeup began showing average as well, though both were inconsistent. Patiño’s poise at a young age impressed league observers as much as his overpowering stuff.
“The way he handled (adversity), very maturely and kept attacking, that was very impressive,” Rancho Cucamonga manager Mark Kertenian said. “When you see a young pitcher as talented as he is do that, it’s neat to see.”
Patiño’s command is still improving, but his pure stuff gives him front-of-the-rotation potential.
5. Heliot Ramos, OF, San Jose (Giants)
Age: 19. B-T: R-R. Ht.: 6-1. Wt.: 188. Drafted: HS—Guaynabo, P.R., 2017 (1).
Ramos showed a special blend of hitting ability and power at San Jose, hitting for average (.306) and power (.500 slugging) despite playing his home games in a hitter’s graveyard.
Ramos took an advanced approach, stayed balanced in his swing and was rarely fooled. His quick hands and exceptional barrel control allowed him to drive pitches in all parts of the strike zone, with the ball jumping off his bat to all fields. Managers voted him the league’s best power prospect and most exciting player.
“There wasn’t, in my opinion, one way you could attack him,” Modesto manager Denny Hocking said. “I was just hoping to throw one down the middle and have him hit it at somebody.”
Ramos’ effortless reads and routes help him play an above-average center field despite his thick frame. He projects to hit enough even if he moves to a corner.
6. Josiah Gray, RHP, Rancho Cucamonga (Dodgers)
Age: 21. B-T: R-R. HT: 6-1. WT: 190. Drafted: Le Moyne (N.Y.), 2018 (2 supp/Reds).
Gray jumped three levels to Double-A in his first year in the Dodgers’ system, including a 7-0, 2.14 showing with Rancho Cucamonga that included an 0.97 WHIP.
Gray’s 93-96 mph heater with running life was voted the best fastball in the league by opposing managers. It jammed righties and rolled off the end of the barrel against lefties, drawing frequent swings and misses and weak contact. He held his fastball velocity and command deep into starts with his strong, athletic physique.
“We’re a fastball-hitting team, and he was pretty much blowing it by us,” Lancaster manager Scott Little said. “It’s really good stuff.”
Gray’s slider showed above-average and his changeup flashed average, giving him the three-pitch mix to project as a starter. His delivery isn’t always smooth, but he throws everything for strikes and projects as a mid-rotation starter.
7. Logan Gilbert, RHP, Modesto (Mariners)
Age: 22. B-T: R-R. HT: 6-6. WT: 225. Drafted: Stetson, 2018 (1).
Gilbert moved up to the Cal League on May 1 and posted the circuit’s lowest ERA (1.73) behind only MacKenzie Gore in his time there. The Mariners promoted him to Double-A in mid-July.
The 6-foot-6 Gilbert did most of his damage with a plus fastball. His heater sat 92 mph and touched 96 mph, and it played up with excellent carry through the strike zone as a result of his extension. His long arm action affected the consistency of his curveball and slider, which ranged from below-average to a tick above-average, but he showed the poise and feel to pitch to battle through.
Gilbert began to show feel for an average changeup and threw everything for strikes. With further secondary refinement, evaluators see a potential mid-rotation starter.
8. Luis Campusano, C, Lake Elsinore (Padres)
Age: 20. B-T: R-R. Ht.: 6-0. Wt.: 215. Drafted: HS—Augusta, Ga, 2017 (2).
Campusano hit .325 to win the league batting title, becoming the first catcher to win it since Lancaster’s Koby Clemens in 2009. Pitchers often singled Campusano out as a hitter they feared because he made adjustments and swung hard, punishing mistakes while rarely straying from the strike zone.
Campusano frequently swung a 40-ounce bat, adding to his offensive lore. He was voted the league’s best batting prospect by managers and named league co-MVP.
“I’ve become a big fan of his,” Lancaster manager Scott Little said. “He’s a strong kid who puts the barrel on the baseball and it comes off pretty good.”
Campusano showed flashes of being an above-average defensive catcher. He has strong, flexible lower half, is an agile blocker and ably handles velocity. His effort wavers depending on the caliber of pitcher, however, and his plus arm strength is negated by a tendency to unnecessarily throw from his knees.
9. Jeter Downs, SS, Rancho Cucamonga (Dodgers)
Age: 21. B-T: R-R. Ht.: 5-11. Wt.: 180. Drafted: HS—Miami Gardens, Fla., 2017 (1 supp/Reds).
Downs started slow but hit .310 with a .961 OPS from May 10 until his promotion to Double-A in mid-August. He led the league with 33 doubles, finished third with an .862 OPS and also finished top 10 in runs (fifth), home runs (seventh), RBIs (fourth) and stolen bases (10th).
Downs’ swing draws high praise. His hands work, he catches up to velocity and he drives the ball from gap to gap. He struggled to find a consistent approach early but improved.
“He progressed really well over the season,” Inland Empire manager Ryan Barba said. “To watch him grow over the period of a couple months and develop a better approach as he went along, and also defensively, I thought he did a pretty good job.”
Downs worked hard to improve his shortstop defense to average. Most evaluators still project him as a bat-first infielder who plays multiple positions.
10. Xavier Edwards, 2B, Lake Elsinore (Padres)
Age: 20. B-T: B-R. Ht.: 5-10. Wt.: 175. Drafted: HS—Coconut Creek, Fla., 2018 (1 supp).
The diminutive Edwards moved up to Lake Elsinore on July 10 and quickly established he wouldn’t be physically overmatched. His .301 average ranked ninth in the league from the time he joined, with his knack for putting the barrel on the ball drawing rave reviews.
Edwards is slash-and-dash hitter who lines the ball into open spaces and lets his plus speed work. His size and swing don’t portend home run power, but his speed helps generate plenty of doubles and triples, not to mention stolen bases.
“He has a little bit of thump in there,” Inland Empire manager Ryan Barba said. “Nothing home run-wise, but just the ability to put bat to ball and square things up and get to the gaps was impressive.”
Edwards proved a reliable defender with a good first step and sure hands. His fringy arm is best suited for second base.
11. Sean Hjelle, RHP, San Jose (Giants)
Age: 22. B-T: R-R. HT: 6-11. WT: 225. Drafted: Kentucky, 2018 (2nd round).
The 6-foot-11 Hjelle stood out for both his size and ability. His ranked sixth in ERA (2.78) and strikeouts (74) during his time in the Cal League before an August promotion to Double-A.
Hjelle showed a rare athleticism and coordination for his height more usually seen in basketball players. He repeated his clean, athletic delivery, filled up the strike zone and showed advanced feel to pitch. Hjelle’s fastball sat 92-93 mph and played up with the plane generated from his height, and he supplemented it with an average curveball. His plus changeup was voted the league’s best by opposing managers.
“It looks like the fastball and then it’s gone,” Visalia manager Shawn Roof said. “Good action, good fade and good arm speed. Being 6-11, the movement and the depth, that’s what made it tough.”
With his strike-throwing ability and pitchability, Hjelle projects as a mid- to back-of-the-rotation starter.
12. Gabriel Arias, SS, Lake Elsinore (Padres)
Age: 19. B-T: R-R. Ht.: 6-1. Wt.: 201. Signed: Venezuela, 2016.
Arias’ graceful shortstop defense drew glowing reviews from evaluators throughout the year, even if they were unsure of his bat. He then hit .344/.376/.533 in the second half to gain believers in his offense, too.
Arias is a fluid defender who makes both flashy plays and routine ones, rare for a young shortstop. He plays under control, ranges well in all directions, picks up every ball with his soft hands and makes throws from anywhere on the diamond with his plus-plus, accurate arm.
“He’s a very athletic kid who has a nose for the baseball,” Lancaster manager Scott Little said. “He was a lot of fun to watch.”
Arias has a good swing that stays through the ball and whacks strikes, but he habitually chases breaking stuff below the zone. His offense improved when he began swinging at better pitches. His future output will depend on if that continues.
13. Ryan Rolison, LHP, Lancaster (Rockies)
Age: 22. B-T: R-L. HT: 6-2. WT: 195. Drafted: Mississippi, 2018 (1st round).
Rolison survived unforgiving Lancaster and thrived away from it, logging a 3.35 ERA with 57 strikeouts and 11 walks in 51 innings on the road in a reflection of his true ability.
The polished lefty threw his 90-93 mph fastball for strikes to both sides of the plate and put away batters with his secondaries. Rolison manipulated his plus breaking ball to give it curveball shape early in counts before tightening it to finish batters with slider action. He flashed an average changeup and threw everything for strikes.
“He’s got good stuff and he keeps it up-tempo,” Rancho Cucamonga manager Mark Kertenian said. “He’s athletic, nice quick arm, has good feel for his pitches. It’s a battle every time we see him.”
Rolison throttled down too much at times but found his best stuff in big situations. He further showed an impressive fortitude working out of jams and other difficult spots.
14. Cal Raleigh, C, Modesto (Mariners)
Age: 22. B-T: B-R. Ht.: 6-3. Wt.: 215. Drafted: Florida State, 2018 (3rd round).
Raleigh’s 22 home runs ranked third in the league despite the fact he was promoted to Double-A in mid-July. The switch-hitting catcher hit 15 homers in his final 101 plate appearances after becoming more decisive with his swings.
Raleigh is a better hitter from the left side than the right but flashes plus raw power from both. He’s an above-average receiver and pitch framer who calls his own game, and he threw out 36 percent of basestealers with an above-average, accurate arm.
“Another frontline catcher,” Stockton manager Webster Garrison said. “The kid’s got pop from both sides . . . and he’s a big target back there. Good receiver, block and throw guy. He didn’t hit for a high average, but he’s a threat every time he steps in the box.”
Raleigh’s thick lower half limits his mobility in the box and behind the plate. How well he manages that will determine his future.
15. Josh Green, RHP, Visalia (D-backs)
Age: 23. B-T: R-R. HT: 6-3. WT: 210. Drafted: Southeastern Louisiana, 2018 (14th round).
Green tore through the Cal League with virtually one pitch: his sinker. A present plus major league offering, Green overwhelmed younger hitters who rarely saw that quality of pitch and was promoted to Double-A in early July.
Green’s sinker sits 92-93 mph and runs up to 96 mph. It features hard, armside movement down and in, and he locates it to both sides of the plate. He pours in strikes at the bottom of the zone and recorded a 66 percent ground ball rate this season, ninth-highest in the minors.
Green was able to get by on just his sinker, so his secondaries have a ways to go. His breaking ball has a chance to be average, and his changeup is a distant third pitch. He’ll need to refine those to become a back-end starter.
16. Ronald Bolanos, RHP, Lake Elsinore (Padres)
Age: 23. B-T: R-R. HT: 6-3. WT: 220. Signed: Cuba, 2016
Scouts liked Bolaños last year even though he struggled to a 5.11 ERA at Lake Elsinore, and he rewarded their optimism this season. Bolaños spent the first two months back in the Cal League, moved to Double-A and June and jumped straight into the Padres’ rotation in September. His 2.85 ERA and .193 opponent average ranked third among Cal League starters when he was promoted.
The Cuban flamethrower brings electric stuff with a 94-96 mph fastball that touches 98 mph with ride up in the zone. His tilting slider flashes plus at 83-85 mph, and he slows hitters down with a looping 72-75 mph curveball. He also has a low- to mid-80s changeup. Bolanos’ concentration occasionally lapses and he’ll start innings at lower velocities, but when things get tough he finds his best.
Bolanos’ fastball command and control of his secondaries need work and may eventually move him to relief. His big arm will play regardless.
17. Nick Allen, SS, Stockton (Athletics)
Age: 20. B-T: R-R. Ht.: 5-8. Wt.: 166. Drafted: HS—San Diego, 2017 (3rd round).
Stockton coaches nicknamed Allen “Magic Man” for his defensive wizardry this year. Regarded as arguably the best defensive shortstop in the minors, the 5-foot-8 Allen earned admirers far and wide.
Allen is a twitchy, instinctive shortstop with wide lateral range and pristine hands. He got stronger and developed plus arm strength this year, eliminating the one previous knock on his game. He rarely makes errors while converting every tough play, to the point observers predict multiple Gold Gloves in his future.
“I thought he was good last year, and he’s even better this year,” Modesto manager Denny Hocking said. “It’s elite. In two years I can’t remember him throwing a ball away.”
Allen’s size yields questions about his offensive impact, but his added strength helped him tie for the league lead in doubles until he suffered a severe ankle sprain on June 27. He stays within himself and has the hand-eye coordination to hit for average.
18. Devin Mann, 2B/3B, Rancho Cucamonga (Dodgers)
Age: 22. B-T: R-R. Ht.: 6-3. Wt.: 180. Drafted: Louisville, 2018 (5th round).
The Dodgers made changes to Mann’s lower half and bat path and unlocked some of the best power in the league. Mann finished sixth in slugging percentage and tied for seventh with 19 home runs despite missing a month with a right MCL sprain.
Mann’s easy swing packs a punch and produces long flies to left and center field. He works counts, takes a short path to the ball and keeps his strikeouts reasonable for a power hitter.
“We saw a lot of home runs this year, and he hit quite a few out against us,” Lancaster manager Scott Little said. “He feasted on us. He had a lot of consistency.”
Mann is a touch stiff defensively at second base but improved his range and arm, and he showed well in his first exposure to third base. He projects as a power-hitting contributor who plays around the diamond.
19. Oliver Ortega, RHP, Inland Empire (Angels)
Age: 22. B-T: R-R. HT: 6-0. WT: 165. Signed: Dominican Republic, 2015.
Ortega emerged from obscurity to become one of the Cal League’s most dominant pitchers this season. Among starters, he ranked third in both opponent average (.198) and strikeout percentage (30.8 percent) behind only MacKenzie Gore and Luis Patiño.
Ortega’s fastball sat 93-96 mph as a starter and 95-98 mph as a reliever. He backed it up with a big, late-breaking, power knuckle-curveball at 81-84 mph he could land for strikes in any count. Ortega pitched aggressively with those two high-octane offerings and also flashed an average changeup and developing power slider.
“He was one of the most respected pitchers in the league in my opinion,” Rancho Cucamonga manager Mark Kertenian said. “He goes right at it, he attacks hitters, and he does it with an even-keeled tempo and rhythm to him. He doesn’t mess around.”
Ortega’s effortful delivery and below-average control make him a future reliever for most evaluators, but potentially an impact one.
20. Ryan Vilade, SS/3B, Lancaster (Rockies)
Age: 20. B-T: R-R. Ht.: 6-2. Wt.: 194. Drafted: HS—Stillwater, Okla., 2017 (2nd round).
Traditionally a slow starter, Vilade scuffled early before catching fire once summer hit. He hit .330/.362/.535 from June 1 through the end of the season.
Vilade worked hard with hitting coach Tom Sutaris to be ready and on time in the batter’s box. Once he was, Vilade showed solid bat-to-ball skills, the ability to use the opposite field and growing power. The ball jumps off his bat when he is short and quick and he consistently takes quality at-bats. Vilade also showed a knack for the clutch.
“He plays up to the situation,” Rancho Cucamonga manager Mark Kertenian said. “He’s at his best when it matters in the game.”
Vilade runs well for his size, but he lacks the quick-twitch athleticism needed for shortstop and is in the early stages of learning to play third base. His above-average arm and advanced instincts give him a chance to be defensively versatile.