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Prospect-Packed Series Opens In Appalachian League

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Wander Franco (Photo by Brian Westerholt/Four Seam Images)

BLUEFIELD, Va. — When it comes to planning the first night of a holiday weekend, there are plenty of intriguing options. One could take a road trip, see a movie, try a new restaurant or just stay home and binge-watch a new show.

If you found yourself in Bluefield, Va., however, you could also take a few hours and watch one of the most star-studded games you’ll find in the minors. Friday’s game alone featured a matchup of righthanders whose combined signing bonuses totaled $5.5 million, a third baseman who broke his team’s record for largest domestic signing bonus, and a 17-year-old shortstop who has quickly risen to the ranks of the game’s most elite young talents.

As if that weren’t enough, Friday was also Game 1 of the Appy League’s East Division Series. Although the pitching matchup of Bluefield’s Eric Pardinho and Princeton’s Shane Baz didn’t exactly go how either team drew it up — both pitchers allowed six runs in less than two innings — the talent on the field was still apparent.

“It’s exciting to see. It’s good for baseball,” Bluefield manager Dennis Holmberg said. “... Imagine two 17-year-old kids playing at this level—even (Vladimir Guerrero Jr.) was playing here at 17—and it’s all about development, giving them a chance to play above and beyond, say, the Gulf Coast League.

“... (Wander) Franco could have played in the Gulf Coast League and probably had the same year he’s having here. Pardinho could have pitched in the Gulf Coast League and maybe been even better statistically, but they need to be challenged, and I think moving them along to the next level, which is here, it makes them compete more.”

Pardinho, whom the Blue Jays signed last year out of Brazil for $1.4 million, jumped over the GCL and straight to the Appy League. He finished the regular season 4-3, 2.88 with 64 strikeouts just 37 hits allowed in 50 innings. He showed a low-90s fastball that touched as high as 94 mph on Friday, as well as a slider and a changeup in the mid-80s.

He failed to command any of his three pitches, which led to six earned runs on three hits—including home runs on back-to-back pitches to open the second inning—and four walks. He faced five batters in the second inning before getting pulled.

Obviously, Friday was not indicative of how Pardinho has performed this season.

“When Eric’s right he’s throwing a lot of strikes, he’s got his breaking ball going for strikes, he’s got a changeup that he follows up with for strikes,” Holmberg said. “He’s got great location and he competes really well on the mound. It just wasn’t his night tonight, but we were able to get him off the hook.”

Princeton countered Pardinho with Baz, whom the Rays acquired as the third piece—along with outfielder Austin Meadows and righthander Tyler Glasnow—of the deal that sent Chris Archer to Pittsburgh. Like Pardinho, Baz simply did not have command of his arsenal on Friday.

He allowed six runs on five hits and a walk through 1.1 innings. He struck out two, threw 27 of his 44 pitches for strikes and got three swings and misses—one on a changeup and two on consecutive sliders on his final hitter of the game. His fastball sat between 93-95 mph and showed solid cut life. His slider was typically in the mid-80s with more sweeping action than depth.

Baz’s two strikeouts came on a 96 mph fastball on the inside corner and then on an 87 mph changeup that fell off the table to end the first inning.

While the pitching struggled, hitters on both sides showed off all night long.

The crown jewel of the series is Princeton shortstop Wander Franco, a 17-year-old in his first professional season who has spent the summer annihilating the Appy League. In the regular season, Franco, who did not spend a day in the DSL or the GCL, hit .351/.481/.587 with 10 doubles, seven triples and 11 home runs.

More impressively, he struck out just 19 times in 242 at-bats and walked 27 times. He rarely swings and misses—he didn’t in any of his five at-bats on Friday—and has been one of the sport’s most precocious prospects.

“He’s the best guy I’ve seen in the minors this year,” one scout said. “I can’t get over how polished he is at the plate. 17-year-olds don’t have at-bats like this.”

He went 1-for-5 on Friday with a two-run single slipped through a shift on the right side of the infield, but that doesn’t tell the whole story. His incredible contact skills were on display early, even if they don’t show up in the box score.

In one of his early at-bats against Pardinho, Franco got fooled on a breaking ball. He had committed early, and most hitters would have swung through the pitch, which finished in the dirt. Not Franco. He managed to keep his hands back and flare the pitch foul down the line. It was one swing in a game, but it showed how skilled Franco is at such a young age.

Beyond what he did at the plate, Franco also showed smooth actions and a strong arm at shortstop, and leadership skills in the field. He was shouting encouragement to his pitchers when they struggled, and he consistently took looks toward the outfield to make sure his teammates were aligned properly.

“Franco’s going to be a hell of a ballplayer one day,” Holmberg said. “He is today, but he’s still got to move up through the ranks, but I still see him as a big league ballplayer one day. He’s got a lot of talent at 17 years old.”

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But wait, there’s more.

Bluefield started Jordan Groshans, who was Toronto's 2018 first-round draft choice out of high school in Texas, at third base. Groshans signed for a franchise-record $3.4 million this summer, eclipsing the $3,080,000 given to righthander Jeff Hoffman in 2014.

He looked extremely comfortable in the box on Friday, and he responded by going 3-for-4 with a double. It was his sixth three-hit game of the season and second since earning a late-season promotion to Bluefield. His stroke looked smooth and geared for line drives, and he showed plenty of arm strength at third base as well.

“We’ve been playing him at shortstop and third base and he had a nice night tonight,” Holmberg said. “He’s a young kid and there’s a lot of projection with Jordan, not only with (his ultimate) position but certainly with the bat. I think he was drafted and signed with bat potential and defensive stuff down the road.”

If all that weren’t enough, the next two games of the series feature even more prospect power.

Princeton will throw lefthanders Matthew Liberatore and Shane McClanahan, the Nos. 16 and 31 overall picks in this year’s draft, in the next two games. That’s three first-round picks in three games, which calls to mind memories of the 2016 Rome Braves, who entered the postseason with a rotation of first-rounders that included Mike Soroka, Kolby Allard, Max Fried and Touki Toussaint.

After one game, it’s clear that this series is the place to be for the most high-end prospect power in the minor leagues.

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