Five Southern League Pitchers To Watch Following Rules Changes In 2023

Image credit: Dax Fulton (Photo by Cliff Welch/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

On Tuesday, Baseball America reported several new rules changes coming to the minor leagues in 2023. Many were tweaks of rules already in place—slight alterations to the pitch clock, locations and calibrations for the automatic ball-strike system—but a few were eye-catching. 

The one that stands to make perhaps the biggest impact will be found in the Double-A Southern League, which from Opening Day until July 13 (the last day of the first half of the season) will use what MLB is calling Grip Enhanced Balls in order to help pitchers get a better feel for the ball without having to resort to surreptitious use of foreign substances.  

Eight big league teams have affiliates in the Southern League, and plenty of prospects will pass through the league both during and after the period when the Grip Enhanced Balls are in play. It will be notable, then, to keep an eye on how their stuff and performance fare with both sets of baseballs. 

Certainly, not all changes in a pitcher’s performance should be attributed to the baseball in play; the jump from High-A to Double-A remains the hardest in the minor leagues even under ideal conditions. 

With that in mind, here are five prospects likely to open in the Southern League to pay close attention to in the first months of the season. Because a good deal of the effects of the new ball will likely be seen in underlying data, we’ve also included the velocities and spin rates from what they showed in 2022, as well as their overall strike percentage.  

Cristian Mena, RHP, White Sox

Mena was one of the biggest up-arrow prospects in the White Sox’s system in 2022. The righthander was one of just five teenage pitchers to throw more than 100 innings last season, and his 29% strikeout rate among that group was bettered only by Phillies phenom Andrew Painter. Mena finished the year in Double-A and is likely to return to the level to begin 2023.

Fastball: 92 mph, 2,300 rpm
Slider: 84 mph, 2,550 rpm
Curveball: 82 mph, 2,550 rpm
Changeup: 87 mph, 2,000 rpm

Strike Percentage: 63% 

Dax Fulton, LHP, Marlins

In the second half of the 2022 season, Fulton turned a corner and began to show the upside the Marlins had been waiting for since they selected him with their second-round pick in the 2020 draft. After getting in better shape, Fulton advanced to Double-A Pensacola and struck out 30 hitters in 21 innings while allowing just nine hits. The cherry on top was a six-inning, 13-strikeout masterpiece that sent the Blue Wahoos to the SL Championship Series. 

Fastball: 92 mph, 2,330 rpm
Slider: 80 mph, 2,550 rpm
Cutter: 91 mph, 2,230 rpm 
Changeup: 87 mph, 1,770 rpm

Strike Percentage: 64% 

Connor Phillips, RHP, Reds

Phillips was one of the prospects who came over from Seattle in the deal that sent Eugenio Suarez and Jesse Winker to the Mariners. Phillips’ outstanding arsenal but scattershot command and control meant he missed both bats (12.7 strikeouts per nine innings) and the strike zone (5.4 walks per nine innings) in 2022. If he doesn’t improve the latter, he might wind up in the bullpen, which could make the 2023 season a fulcrum for his future role. 

Fastball: 96 mph, 2,470 rpm
Curveball: 79 mph, 2,310 rpm
Slider: 83 mph, 2,400 rpm

Strike Percentage: 63%

Sam Bachman, RHP, Angels

Bachman was the Angels’ first-round pick in 2021 out of Miami (Ohio) but has had a tough time with health so far in pro ball. His 2022 season was limited to just 12 starts—all at Double-A—because of arm and back injuries, and what was reported to be “general soreness” limited him to one Cactus League outing through March 15. Early reports had Bachman’s fastball back to its mid-90s form, with peaks in the upper 90s. At his best, he complements the fastball with a nasty high-80s slider and a changeup he’s working to incorporate more often. 

Two-Seam Fastball: 93 mph, 2,000 rpm
Slider: 87 mph, 2,090 rpm
Changeup: 85 mph, 1,440 rpm

Strike Percentage: 58% 

Daniel Palencia, RHP, Cubs

The owner of the best fastball in the Cubs’ system, Palencia originally came to Chicago via the A’s, who dealt him for reliever Andrew Chafin in the summer of 2021. He has an excellent arsenal, fronted by a true 80-grade fastball and backed by a slider and changeup that are potentially plus and average, respectively. Palencia rarely pitches longer than five innings and might have a future as a reliever, but his stuff would be nasty enough to fit nicely in the later parts of games.  

Four-Seam Fastball: 98 mph, 2,320 rpm
Two-Seam Fastball: 98 mph, 1,880 rpm
Slider: 90 mph, 2,200 rpm
Changeup: 87 mph, 1,940 rpm

Strike Percentage: 61%

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