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National League Central Prospect Notebook For May

NL Central Prospect Notebook

Cardinals’ Gordon Graceffo Marries Velocity With Command 

The only prerequisite the major league staff had for the pitcher they needed that spring morning was that he threw strikes and wasn’t likely to injure the middle-order hitters he was about to face in a simulated game.

The suggestion they got made them wonder what took so long.

“Commands at 100 (mph)?” Cardinals manager Oliver Marmol said. “Just now seeing him?”

By the end of spring training, every coach and executive at Cardinals spring training had made sure to see 22-year-old righthander Gordon Graceffo.

One longtime evaluator referred to him as the breakout player of camp as a pitcher who not only vaulted his way higher on the team’s internal rankings but caught the eye of the big leaguers, too.

Graceffo added heft to his fastball, bringing it up from 94-96 mph consistently and touching 98 to revving consistently at 100 mph. All without losing control of it.

All while complementing it with a slider and, from the same tunnel, a tight curveball.

The start of his season reflected his spring. Graceffo recorded a 1.07 ERA through his first six starts for High-A Peoria, striking out 46 in 33.2 innings. He had walked just two batters.

In four consecutive starts he struck out at least eight batters, and he was primed for a promotion to Double-A Springfield that puts him within view of the MLB staff again.

The 2021 fourth-rounder out of Villanova appeared in 11 games (one start) for Low-A Palm Beach last year in his pro debut. He had his work controlled coming out of the college season. He also had his curiosity piqued.

He wondered if there was velocity hidden in his grip. Graceffo went to Annex Sports Performance in New Jersey during the offseason. Through workouts that balanced agility, flexibility and strength, Graceffo was able to improve all three and add weight through muscle so that when he uncoiled and let loose, his velocity increased.

He sprang his new 100 on the Cardinals in March.

“It’s kind of weird, like once you hit it, it’s like what’s next?” Graceffo told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “I’m looking forward to the next step. You always have to strive for something better.”

—Derrick Goold 

Diminutive Felix Valerio Gets Big Results For Brewers  

Listed at 5-foot-7—and that may be stretching it—and weighing 165 pounds, second baseman Felix Valerio knows all about Jose Altuve.

“I read his story and I know he struggled a lot to get a team to sign him,” Valerio said of the Astros all-star. “I struggled a lot (too), and I take advantage of every opportunity that’s given to me.”

The 21-year-old Valerio was the “lottery ticket” portion of the three-player return received from the Mets for Keon Broxton on Jan. 5, 2019.

At the time, Valerio had all of 67 Dominican Summer League games under his belt, but his .409 on-base percentage stood out and was viewed as the skill that could help separate him despite his diminutive stature.

Fast-forward to 2022 and Valerio has advanced to Double-A Biloxi, where not much has changed.

Through the first 22 games of the season, Valerio was hitting .267/.366/.467 with three home runs. He reached base in the first 14 games of the season and overall had drawn 13 walks against 11 strikeouts.

“It starts there,” Brewers vice president of minor league operations Tom Flanagan said of Valerio’s on-base ability. “But the skill that he’s shown since we’ve had him is: he has a very good knowledge of the zone, so he makes really good decisions.

“And he has a really good contact rate. Height-wise, there’s no disputing he’s a shorter guy. But in terms of the way he plays—and when you watch him hit and the way he goes about it—that doesn’t impact his game.”

In 114 games in 2021 split between High-A Wisconsin and Low-A Carolina, Valerio slashed .290/.401/.468.

For his career, Valerio’s on-base percentage sits right around .400 thanks in large part to the fact hen had drawn more walks than he had struck out.

Valerio’s long-term future as he advances will be at second base, but he’s logged time at third base, shortstop and in left field.

“We’re really excited to watch him keep developing,” Flanagan said.

—Todd Rosiak

Cubs’ Yohendrick Pinango Looks To Add Power To Strong Hit Tool

Throughout the Cubs' mass changes in personnel during the last nine months, homegrown talent Yohendrick Pinango remains the best pure hitter in the system.

And there’s one alteration that could enhance Pinango’s value.

Power.

“Actually, he’s really strong,” Cubs vice president of player development Jared Banner said. "He’s got a ton of bat speed. He’s got a lot of power in terms of exit velocity.

“So our focus is on him trying to get the ball off the ground a little more consistently, and that’s the key for him to take off even more than he has.”

The lefthanded-hitting Pinango turned 20 on May 7, so there’s no rush to seek results. He started the season at High-A South Bend by hitting .286 with two homers in his first 15 games.

Pinango's production dipped after that, and he was hitting .234/.301/.351 after 25 games.

The only challenge Pinango is facing is developing more power-oriented results. He hit just five home runs with a .398 slugging percentage over his first two seasons.

It’s not uncommon for hitters to develop power last in their development plans. Banner intimated that Pinango could add power to his impressive hitting résumé.

“It really depends on how you look at it,” Banner said. “He has power now. It just doesn’t show up because of the launch angle. As he learns more how to elevate the baseball, the power numbers will come.”

For now, the Cubs are encouraged by the results they’ve received from the 5-foot-11, 170-pound Pinango, who signed out of Venezuela in 2018 for $400,000.

Pinango possesses enough range and speed to project as a corner outfielder, and Banner said he is attentive to instruction.

“He’s really an impressive hitter,” Banner said. “He hits for a very good average and makes a ton of contact.

“He doesn’t strike out a lot for a guy his age, which is a skill in itself.”

—Mark Gonzales

Reds’ Jose Torres Opens Eyes With Offensive Impact

When the Reds drafted shortstop Jose Torres in the third round in 2021 from North Carolina State, many scouts reports said that he was among the better defenders in the class and that his glove was ahead of his bat.

Torres went out and hit .337 in 25 games with Low-A Daytona after signing.

This season the Reds sent Torres to High-A Dayton, and he hasn’t skipped a beat. Through 19 games he hit .265/.311/.529 with four home runs. The amount of power the 22-year-old has shown to this point has been both surprising and impressive.

“The thing that kind of jumps out to you is the way the ball carries off of his bat,” Reds vice president of player development Shawn Pender said. “He looks lean and wiry, and I think what it amounts to is that he doesn’t look as strong as he actually is.

"So when he impacts the ball, I think the ball goes 20-25 feet more than a lot of people anticipate, because they look at him and think it’s going to be a line-drive swing. If you make a mistake and he gets into one, that ball carries more off of his bat than you would suspect.”

Hitting for power is not the only place he’s excelling. Torres has also carried a high average, hitting .306 so far in his career.

“What we’ve found offensively is that he’s got a really good approach,” Pender said. “He really knows the strike zone.”

The 6-foot, 171-pound Torres is seeing time at second base and shortstop. He’s paired up with Elly De La Cruz in Dayton for now, and the organization is finding ways to get both players reps at shortstop.

“We really felt like we could give them both five days apiece and then flip the switch and let Elly move to third and Torres to short,” Pender said.

With Jose Barrero, Matt McLain, De La Cruz and now Torres, the Reds' farm is flourishing with shortstops.

—Doug Gray

Pirates’ Tsung-Che Cheng Refines His Plan Of Attack

Tsung-Che Cheng stands at 5-foot-7, 174 pounds.

The Pirates signed the shortstop from Taiwan in 2019 for $380,000. Since then, he has emerged as one of the better pure hitters in the low levels of a talent-rich Pittsburgh farm system.

Cheng displayed his contact skills last year in the Florida Complex League, hitting .312/.449/.492 with 16 stolen bases in 38 games. He drew more walks (30) than he had strikeouts (14).

Despite his small frame, Cheng has managed some power, with four home runs and an .181 isolated slugging last year in the pitcher-friendly FCL.

That power was carrying over in the young 2022 season. The 20-year-old Cheng hit .257/.336/.400 through 27 games for Low-A Bradenton.

“He’s started to get more aggressive,” Bradenton manager Jonathan Johnston said. “You’re starting to see more of that power come, because he’s swinging at better pitches that he can actually access.”

Johnston isn’t surprised by Cheng’s power production from a small frame, highlighting how well he centers the baseball and also his bat speed.

“He accelerates the barrel very quickly,” Johnston said. “It’s quick and short impact, and he stays through the plane of the ball very well.”

Johnston said that Cheng was swinging all around the zone at the start of the season, but he quickly adjusted to attacking his specific zone—and the results followed.

Cheng is learning this year how to consistently stay on that attack.

Cheng also provides speed on the bases. He went 7-for-8 on steal attempts early this season. Defensively, he has the skills to stick at shortstop and can also play second base and third base.

If Cheng can stick to his attack plan at the plate and maximize his quick, direct swing, then he could emerge as a middle infielder to watch, with added value on the bases and in the field.

—Tim Williams

Ricky Tiedemann (Mike Janes Four Seam Images)

14 Lower-Profile Draft Picks Who Have Raised Their Stock Significantly In Only A Year

Taking stock of more than a dozen up-arrow prospects drafted after the second round in 2021 who have raised their profile.

AROUND THE DIVISION

* Brewers shortstop Brice Turang was hitting .289/.353/.433 for Triple-A Nashville through 25 games. He was also logging time at a new position: center field. He had started four games there for the first time in his career.

The Brewers still consider Turang a shortstop/second baseman for the long term, with Brewers manager Craig Counsell saying in spring training he expected the 2018 first-rounder to make his MLB debut this season. But positional versatility is paramount in the organization, so Turang becomes that much more valuable if he shows he can play center as well.

* Brewers outfielder Sal Frelick, drafted in the first round last year, was off to a hot start for High-A Wisconsin. The Boston College product collected his first five-hit game as a pro and was hitting .291/.391/.456 through 21 games.

* Reds righthander Joe Boyle was out to an impressive start with High-A Dayton, allowing just three hits through his first four starts. Control was still an issue, as evidenced by 13 walks against 28 strikeouts through 17 shutout innings.

* Reds lefthander Andrew Abbott was also impressing in the High-A Dayton rotation. He had allowed just two runs in 27 innings and racked up 40 strikeouts.

* Reds outfielder TJ Hopkins came out of the gate swinging a hot stick for Double-A Chattanooga. Through his first 25 games he had 12 extra-base hits for the Lookouts.

* Pirates lefthander Luis Peralta, the younger brother of Brewers starter Freddy Peralta, showed promising stuff for Low-A Bradenton. He threw a 92-93 mph fastball that gets up to 95 and a big-breaking curveball that has sweeping left-to-right movement. Peralta had 32 strikeouts this season in 14.1 innings—but also 14 walks. A lot of the strikeouts have come early in his starts, and a lot of the walks have come late, because Peralta has run out of gas adjusting to the longer appearances above Rookie ball.

* Pirates catcher Henry Davis, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2021 draft, hit .342/.450/.585 with five home runs in 22 games for High-A Greensboro before a promotion to Double-A Altoona. The Pirates opened the season with three legit catching prospects on the Greensboro roster, with Davis joining Endy Rodriguez and Abrahan Gutierrez.

* Cardinals outfielder Moises Gomez, a former Rays prospect, has powered his way to a strong first impression with his new organization. The Cardinals signed the outfielder to a minor league deal in November, and by the start of May he led the minors with 14 home runs and was hitting .379/.434/.905 through 25 games for Double-A Springfield.

* The Cardinals' Juan Yepez debuted with a two-double day and joined some notable company with hits in his first six MLB games, all of them starts. His 10 hits in those first six games are matched in Cardinals history only by Bo Hart, Ken Reitz, Emil Verban, Enos Slaughter, Terry Pendleton and the great Stan Musial, the club’s most famous September callup.

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