Conner Greene, Blake Rutherford Among Standouts On Arizona Back Fields
The best part of spring training isn't the weather, the atmosphere or even the hopeful feeling that every team's fan base can have before the cruel reality of the regular season sets in for six grueling months.
No, the best part of spring training can be found on the back fields. Usually just a quick drive away from the major league stadium, the back fields are where each team's prospects get their seasons going before beginning their seasons somewhere in the minors.
There, in front of a couple of dozen fans and a gaggle of coaches, a team's next wave of prospects begins to show itself. Seeing the youngest players before they've gotten anywhere near a big league clubhouse is a joy unto itself, and Baseball America spent a week trawling the Arizona back fields for the next names to watch for on future Top 30s, Top 100s and, eventually, in major league box scores.
Conner Greene Looks Golden
The Royals made waves last June for the spectacular pitching haul they landed through the draft. The class included premium arms like Florida duo Brady Singer and Jackson Kowar, Memphis righthander Jonathan Bowlan and lefties Daniel Lynch (Virginia), Kris Bubic (Stanford) and Austin Cox (Mercer).
Beyond that group, the Royals might have found a gem this winter when they claimed Conner Greene off of waivers from the Cardinals. Greene, 24, was the Blue Jays' seventh-rounder in 2013 out of a Santa Monica (Calif.) High School. He's long had a live arm that helped him touch triple-digits with his fastball, but he has never had the command or control to harness his arsenal.
That last point is reinforced by ratios of 4.4 walks and just 6.8 strikeouts per nine innings throughout his six seasons in the minor leagues. Even so, after watching him in Arizona, it's clear his enviable stuff is still very much in place.
Against White Sox minor leaguers in one of his final spring training starts, Greene showed a full four-pitch complement, including a lively fastball that touched 97 mph as well as a changeup and slider in the mid-80s and a curveball in the upper 70s. He racked up seven strikeouts over his five innings, primarily on his fastball and slider, but threw strikes with all of his pitches.
"If you just sat there and watched what we watched today, you can see why scouts from a lot of organizations really like him," Royals director of baseball operations Alec Zumwalt said. "That is a good delivery and an easy arm action, and now the hard part is getting it to all come together."
Greene ranked as high as No. 2 in the Blue Jays' Top 30 before his issues with command sent him tumbling. He's a lottery-ticket signing for sure, but if he can throw more quality strikes then the Royals might have hit the jackpot.
Blake Rutherford Hopes To Power Up
About the only mistake Greene made in his start came against White Sox outfielder Blake Rutherford, a Yankees first-rounder in 2016 out of high school in California who was dealt to the White Sox in 2017. Throughout his career it's been clear that Rutherford is as pure a hitter as can be found in the minor leagues. He sprays balls from line to line, and in 2018 he clubbed 25 doubles and put together a .781 OPS that ranked seventh among qualified hitters in the White Sox system.
Rutherford is versatile enough to play at all three outfield spots, but he primarily rotates between right and left field. If his eventual home is in either corner, however, he'll need to add enough juice to turn some of those doubles into home runs. That's why it was so encouraging this spring to see him make continued hard contact, including sending a 94 mph fastball from Greene out to right field for a no-doubt home run.
He made loud contact in his next at-bat, too, lashing a mid-90s heater on the outside part of the plate on a line over the shortstop and into the left-center field gap for a ringing double. He hit a very similar two-bagger the next day on a nearly identical pitch from Padres righthander Mason Thompson.
Rutherford works in the offseason with big leaguers like reigning NL MVP Christian Yelich, 2011 NL MVP Ryan Braun and new Brewers infielder Mike Moustakas and estimates he's added 25 pounds of muscle since signing his first pro contract. That extra bulk has shown up in the batter's box.
"I feel a lot stronger, "Rutherford said. "I put in a lot of work in the offseason just trying to get stronger, put the right weight on, become more explosive and just kind of fine-tune my swing. I feel like the swings I've taken are a step in the right direction right now."
The White Sox's system is bursting with outfield talent right now, but if Rutherford carries his power surge from spring training into the regular season he could easily vault himself into the upper realms of the organization.
Mason Thompson Looks To Put Himself Back On The Map
Being the No. 1 farm system in baseball, it's not surprising that the Padres are flush with pitching talent. From MacKenzie Gore, Adrian Morejon, Reggie Lawson and Ryan Weathers in the minor leagues, to Joey Lucchesi, Eric Lauer and Chris Paddack in the big leagues, there's no shortage of arms in the Padres' pipeline.
Dig a little deeper in the deck and you'll find a few wild cards. That group includes massive righthander Mason Thompson, whom San Diego selected out of Round Rock (Texas) High School in the third round of the 2016 draft. When he turned pro, he had a three-pitch arsenal that featured a fastball, changeup and curveball. He's added a slider since last year, however, and the pitch is making a big difference.
One evaluator noted that it gave him more of a swing-and-miss pitch to go with his curveball, which is close to average but is the type of offering most useful for dropping in for called strikes rather than as an out-pitch. The slider, which Thompson throws in the mid-80s, has more of a slicing break rather than depth and got several hitters to chase pitches out of the zone. The pitch is especially effective when contrasted with his fastball, which bores in on righthanders.
There are 14 pitchers in the Padres' Top 30 prospects. With a new slider in tow, Thompson could be among that group next year.
Chris Rodriguez Shines In Return To The Mound
Chris Rodriguez waited nearly 20 months for last night's moment and didn't let himself down.
— If you're looking for a sleeper, Padres righthander Frank Lopez might be your guy. The lanky Lopez showed a whip-quick arm that generated fastballs up to 92 mph in a simulated game toward the end of spring training, as well as a breaking ball in the low 80s that garnered multiple swings and misses.
— He has a long way to go in terms of command and control, but Cubs righthander Riley Thompson already spins the ball at elite rates. One of his curveballs during a minor league scrimmage registered at 3,113 revolutions per minute. For context, the highest average spin rate in the major leagues in 2018 was 3,252 rpm by then-Angels' righthander Garrett Richards.
— Also on the Cubs' back fields, righthander Jose Albertos looked solid in a quick burst. The stuff wasn't quite as explosive as in years past, but he blended a 91-92 mph fastball with a diving changeup in the 81-82 mph range. After a rough 2018 season, simply finding the strike zone represented a small step forward.