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National League Central Prospect Notebook For June



Brewers’ Antoine Kelly Gets A Boost From Health, Confidence

The needle is once again pointing up for 22-year-old lefthander Antoine Kelly.

Fully recovered from thoracic outlet syndrome surgery he had in November 2020, Kelly was dealing at High-A Wisconsin.

In one late-May start, Kelly generated 30 swinging strikes against South Bend and finished the game with a career-high 13 strikeouts. Brewers player development tweeted that 30 swings-and-misses was the most by a minor league pitcher in one appearance this season.

Three starts earlier, Kelly had fanned 10 against Fort Wayne.

Through his first nine starts, Kelly posted a 3.27 ERA with 60 strikeouts and 23 walks in 44 innings.

Perhaps most important was the fact Kelly, a 2019 second-rounder out of Wabash Valley (Ill.) JC, now appears to have his command dialed back in after having almost completely lost it during a tough 2021 campaign.

Kelly returned from his surgery in mid July last year and in nine appearances ran up a 9.78 ERA while walking 19 in 19.1 innings.

“The surgery that Antoine underwent was significant,” Brewers farm director Tom Flanagan said, “so getting back on the mound in 2021 post-surgery was important, but getting through 2021 and finishing the year healthy was most important.

“It allowed him to have a normal offseason and come into camp knowing he was basically 100% from a health standpoint.”

Kelly’s calling card has always been his fastball, which peaks in the high 90s. As with any pitcher, controlling his secondary pitches—in Kelly’s case a slider and a changeup—is key.

So is confidence, which Kelly himself said he had been lacking early this spring.

Expect the Brewers to continue to take it slow with the 22-year-old, who pitched into the seventh for the first time in his career and has already set a new career high in innings.

“This year, he has continued to make some big strides,” Flanagan said. “He’s pitching with a better tempo and each start has seemed to be a bit better than the last one.”

Todd Rosiak

Pirates’ Jared Jones Works To Refine Potential

In an era in which it seems every pitcher has elite velocity, Jared Jones is still impressive.

The 20-year-old righthander has the ability to consistently pump 98-99 mph fastballs for High-A Greensboro.

Regardless of the era, one rule always applies: Throwing the ball over the plate is essential.

While the 6-foot-1, 180-pound Jones has the ability to work in the upper 90s, his stuff has come with a 5.35 ERA and a high walk rate this season. Jones is finding that sometimes he’s better with less velocity.

“Jonesy is a fiery kid,” Greensboro manager Callix Crabbe said. “When he’s on the mound, he’s a competitor. Competitors have to find the right gear. Oftentimes when a guy like that gets hit, they try to throw it harder.”

That’s what happened with Jones in his May 22 start. He was overthrowing in the first inning, when he gave up three runs on three hits, a walk and a hit batter.

After that 31-pitch inning, Jones dialed back his velocity to the mid 90s and worked four scoreless innings with four strikeouts and no walks. He needed just 48 pitches to finish his outing.

Crabbe said that Jones has been working on trusting his stuff, without having to rely on the top-end velocity.

In addition to his fastball, Jones throws a tight slider that is a big reason for his 54 strikeouts in 38.2 innings this season. The pitch has steep break that tunnels well with his high fastball to give a north-south attack. Jones is also working on a changeup.

“If he can learn to throw strikes with those pitches early in the count, what it can do is get hitters off the heater that he has,” Crabbe said.

Jones has a lot of potential, which is why the Pirates signed him $2.2 million as a second-rounder from La Mirada (Calif.) High in 2020, steering him away from a Texas commitment.

This will be a big year for Jones to see how he refines that potential.

Tim Williams

Reds’ Andrew Abbott Moves Quickly To Double-A 

When lefthander Andrew Abbott went unselected in the five-round 2020 draft, it may have been a blessing in disguise.

Abbott worked as a reliever for his first three years at Virginia before moving into the rotation in 2021. He posted a 2.87 ERA with 162 strikeouts in 106.2 innings in his draft year.

That performance helped spur the Reds to draft him in the second round in 2021. Abbott threw only a handful of innings last season in his pro debut before embarking on his first full season in 2022.

The 23-year-old began with High-A Dayton and moved quickly to Double-A Chattanooga. He had compiled a 1.69 ERA through 48 innings to go with 68 strikeouts and 12 walks.

Abbott’s performance is not the only thing that stood out to the organization.

“He’s very intelligent and he’s very self-motivated,” Reds vice president of player development Shawn Pender said. “If you give him a plan, he wants to be a part of it. He’s not afraid of figuring out who he is and what he needs to do—and then he just follows up and performs.”

Pender noted Abbott’s mental maturity, preparation and ability to integrate into a plan with complete conviction.

“That’s not something you typically see a first-year full-season player do,” Pender said.

In Abbott’s first appearance at Double-A, he struck out 12 batters without a walk in 5.2 shutout innings. It was his fourth double-digit strikeout game of the season.

Abbott’s combination of a low-90s fastball, a good breaking ball and a solid changeup gives him three average or better offerings. Mix that with his pitchability and he’s a guy who could continue to be a fast riser.

Doug Gray

Zack Thompson Is Right Out Of Cardinals Central Casting

The instructions 24-year-old lefthander Zack Thompson received upon arriving in the majors and preparing for his debut revealed everything about the Cardinals’ plan for him.

“I was told this morning to be ready for anything,” he said.

Less than nine months removed from a difficult and, at times, disappointing first season with Triple-A Memphis, Thompson earned his callup in June at time when the Cardinals were looking for consistent lefthanded relief options and fill-in starters.

He could be both.

The 19th pick in 2019, Thompson zoomed out of Kentucky as one of the Wildcats’ career leaders in many pitching categories.

The Cardinals have a type—think Michael Wacha or Marco Gonzales—of college pitchers from prominent programs who reach MLB quickly. Thompson joins that group.

The loss of the 2020 season pushed Thompson’s Triple-A debut to 2021, and it went rocky. He went 2-10 and ran up a 7.35 ERA in 93 innings. His WHIP was 1.84.

Staying on a starter’s routine offered him little time to make significant overhauls to a delivery that was too inconsistent. So in the Arizona Fall League, he didn’t start. The lefty made nine relief appearances and boasted a 2.08 ERA.

Results weren’t the only thing he took from relief. He ditched the windup.

“I simplified things,” Thompson said. “I really started using my legs a lot better and holding my direction to the plate a lot better. As the effort has gone down, the velocity has gone up.”

“And it’s 97 (mph) from the left side,” Cardinals manager Oliver Marmol said.

Coupling that velocity with a potentially elite curveball, Thompson authored a four-inning save in his debut at Wrigley Field.

He appeared wearing the number the Cardinals set aside for him: 57. He’s the first Cardinal to wear the number since the late Darryl Kile, who died during a series in Chicago in June 2002.

“I’m looking forward to living up to the number,” Thompson said.

Derrick Goold

Scouting Foresight Helped Cubs Find Brandon Hughes

The Cubs used a wide scope when they drafted switch-hitting outfielder Brandon Hughes out of Michigan State in the 16th in 2017.

Matt Dorey, the Cubs’ senior director of player development and former scouting director, recalled the possibility of converting Hughes to a pitcher full-time if he didn’t hit well enough.

Hughes pitched 11 games as a college freshman in 2015, but a torn left labrum ended his pitching career. It seemed like a reach when area scout Shane Farrell asked Hughes during a predraft interview if he would consider pitching if hitting didn’t work out.

“I gave him kind of a ‘yes,’ “ Hughes said. “I’d do it if it came down to it.”

Two years later, it became an ultimatum: Pitch or get released.

Hughes made the switch, and his decision paid off when the lefthander struck out five in 1.2 innings against the Pirates in his MLB debut on May 17.

“For a guy to make the transition and make a ton of progress in a short window, you have to have those intangible things with high energy and high focus,” Cubs pitching development coordinator Casey Jacobsen said.

“He maximizes every day he gets to be on the field.”

During the Covid shutdown, Hughes built arm strength at a Michigan facility. He also ditched a loopy curve in favor of a slider with improved swing-and-miss potential and followed a biomechanics report that enabled him to shift his energy from the lower half of his body to the upper half.

A 12 mph difference between Hughes’ 93 mph fastball and slider helped generate 22 strikeouts in 16.2 innings at Double-A Tennessee and Triple-A Iowa this season prior to his callup.

Among Hughes’ supporters are pitchers Brendon Little, Alex Lange, Cory Abbott and Keegan Thompson, the Cubs’ top four picks in the 2017 draft, one designed to kickstart the organization’s pitching pipeline.

“I’m close with my entire draft class,” Hughes said. “They knew I was going through something very difficult, and they were ready to help me.”

Mark Gonzales

Luis Garcia (Mike Ehrmann/Getty) 1272867667

Fantasy: FAAB Targets For Week Seven

Ten names you need to know for FAAB bidding on May 23 to stay ahead of the competition in fantasy leagues of all sizes, from redraft to deep dynasty. A young Nationals shortstop is a priority target.

AROUND THE DIVISION

— Reds outfielder Rece Hinds hit just .138 with a .518 OPS for High-A Dayton in April while striking out 50% of the time. In May, he flipped the script and hit .388 with an OPS of 1.146. His strikeout rate dropped to 29%.

— Reds outfielder Malvin Valdez, the club’s top signing from its 2021 international signing class, was impressive in extended spring training. He was recovering from dislocating his ankle during instructional league last fall.

— Pirates catcher Henry Davis, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2021 draft, was placed on the seven-day injured list with a small fracture in his wrist. He had just been promoted to Double-A Altoona, where he played two games and hit a homer. The injury is believed to have happened before the promotion and flared up in his first week in the Eastern League. Davis wasn’t expected to be out for a lengthy period of time.

— The Pirates promoted 24-year-old outfielder Matt Gorski to Double-A Altoona after he hit 17 home runs in 37 games for High-A Greensboro. The 2019 second-rounder out of Indiana found a more consistent swing and confident approach while returning to High-A this season. Gorski can play center field and has gotten work at first base, both current needs for the Pirates..

— Brewers righthander Abner Uribe had season-ending surgery in late April to repair torn cartilage in his left knee. The 22-year-old is expected to be out six to eight months recovering but should be ready to go next spring. Uribe is the organization’s hardest-throwing pitcher, topping out at 103 mph with his four-seamer.

— Brewers outfielder Sal Frelick, the 2021 first-rounder out of Boston College, was promoted to Double-A Biloxi in early May. He missed several games for the Shuckers after being shaken up attempting to make a diving catch but overall was slashing .271/.361/.406 in 42 games while playing mostly center field.

— Boyhood teammates and best friends in Phoenix who thought their paths would diverge after being first-round picks by different teams in 2018, Nolan Gorman and Matthew Liberatore received MLB callups to the Cardinals—both on May 19. The Cardinals drafted Gorman 19th overall and traded for Liberatore, the 16th overall pick by the Rays.

— Cardinals outfielder Alec Burleson, a second-round pick in the abbreviated 2020 draft, has forced his way on the MLB club’s radar by succeeding at Triple-A Memphis. In May, Burleson hit .357/.388/.592 with five homers and 24 RBIs compared to 14 strikeouts. That performance won him the Cardinals’ players of the month award. 

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