Image credit: Jesus Luzardo (Photo by Bill Mitchell)
Boomer Prinstein is a former Orioles pro scout. He’s writing for Baseball America about players he’s seen in spring training in Arizona this year. Today, he’s looking at young pitchers who stood out. Tomorrow, he’ll follow up with 10 hitters who caught his eye.
To qualify for a spot on this list, the player either needs to be a minor leaguer, yet-to-be-established or rising Major Leaguer. A few of the pitchers may not be considered “young” in prospect terms, but in the case of these few, they have yet to establish themselves or realize their potential in the big leagues.
1. Jesus Luzardo, LHP, Oakland
Luzardo has been shut down for the next month or more with a shoulder strain, but before the injury he was somehow even more impressive than he was last year, when I had him pegged as a future ace due to his combination of stuff, command, deception, and poise. In the outing I saw, Luzardo came out throwing his fastball 96-98 mph in the first inning, sat 95 mph in the second and 94 mph in the third. His overall range was 93-98 mph, which was up from last June, when he was 89-96 mph and sat in the 92-94 mph range. His fastball has heavy sink and occasionally some late, arm-side run. Due to his shorter frame and lower arm slot, his fastball has a tendency to flatten out at times, but there’s enough velocity and deception that he can still get away with making a mistake in the middle of the plate.
Even more impressive was Luzardo’s 85-87 mph changeup that falls off the table at times. He really sells the pitch, getting plenty of swings and misses from righthanded hitters. He also featured an above-average and projectable power slurve that he can add and subtract velocity from, going as low as 82 mph and as high as 87 mph. The slurve is really tough on lefthanded hitters and has a tight rotation with sharp, late break out of the zone at times, while other times he will front-door a lefthanded hitter by throwing it with a bigger bend and a bit slower, dropping it in the zone for a strike. If that isn’t enough pure stuff already, he showed plus command of all his stuff. He also changes up his delivery, sometimes quick pitching/slide-stepping from the windup and the stretch to really mess with a batter’s timing. Luzardo has all of the makings of a future ace, and he already has the best stuff of any starter in Oakland’s current rotation.
2. Brandon Woodruff, RHP, Milwaukee
I first saw the Brewers’ breakout righthander back in 2015 at the high Class A level and then again in 2016 at the same level. At that point, I put a present-future role grade on him as a present-40 starter and a future 60, which projected him as a well above-average MLB starter at his peak. Based on what he did last year, at the end of the regular season and in the playoffs, as well as the spring training outing I saw on March 9 against Oakland, Woodruff is even better than I projected.
Woodruff has adjusted his delivery to be more balanced and more on-line, and that helps his fastball velocity get into the 96-98 mph range, while sitting 95-96 mph with plus arm-side run and sink. He also has much more deception than in years past due to his ability to stay closed at landing. His slider is tighter and sharper with true break at 86-89 mph. His circle changeup continues to play from 85-89 mph, and although it can be a little too hard at times, it still has quality movement. He caps off his four-pitch mix with a power, three-quarter breaking ball that’s both tight and deceptive. With three offspeed pitches that grade as 60s, an elite fastball and solid command—he’s easily an above-average starter right now. If he improves the command of his offspeed pitches—and I think he can—there is potential for Woodruff to be a 70-grade starter at his peak.
3. Chris Paddack, RHP, San Diego
I first saw the Padres’ 23-year old prospect back in 2016 at low Class A Fort Wayne, right after he came over in a trade from the Marlins and only shortly before he was sidelined with Tommy John surgery. Three years later, in his March 8 outing against the Athletics, Paddack was as good as advertised. He dominated with a 91-96 mph fastball that had natural cutting action and a lot of hop at the top of the zone. He mostly sat 94 mph throughout his four innings of work, generating plenty of swings and misses and showing the ability to reach 95-96 mph when he was ahead in the count. He was especially adept at pitching inside to righthanded hitters with his fastball, and due to his position of the third-base side of the rubber, he really owned the inner half of the plate. The ability for a righthander to pitch inside effectively against righthanded hitters is an incredible weapon to possess, and Paddack already shows that trait.
Paddack also utilized an above-average changeup to both righties and lefties. He threw it in the 83-85 mph range with really good deception and quality two-plane movement, commanding the pitch to both sides of the plate. Once again, his ability to command his changeup low and inside to righthanded hitters was especially noteworthy. He only flashed his third offering—a consistent, 12-to-6 curveball—and really didn’t need it on the day I saw him, as he had seven strikeouts and zero walks while limiting the A’s to no runs on just three hits. Overall, Paddack’s delivery was repeatable, linear and he hides the ball well on the backside before a quick arm through the release-zone—giving him both plus deception and projectable plus command of all his pitches. Finally, he displayed excellent mound presence, and you could see he really had an idea of what he was doing.
The only real negative I saw was that Paddack wasn’t always consistent to the glove side of the plate with his fastball. As a result, he may need to develop a cutter to get inside on lefthanded hitters more effectively. However, with his arsenal as it currently stands, he clearly has the makings of a 60-grade starting pitcher, which is good enough to be a mid-rotation starter for any MLB team at his peak. The only two things preventing me from seeing him as a top-of-the-rotation starter is not being able to grade his breaking ball and his current lack of a harder slider or cutter to pitch inside to lefthanded hitters.
Again, it’s spring training and putting a full report on anyone by seeing only one outing is a bit challenging, but Paddack has put up impressive statistics at every level of the minors. And with the Padres’ biggest weakness being starting pitching, Paddack proved to me that he belongs in the big leagues. He’s old enough, and even though he may not have the “requisite experience,” I think the Cardinals have shown over the years that if you have the stuff and the command to pitch at the Major League level, then why the heck not bring the guy up, which is what San Diego appears ready to do.
4. Dillon Maples, RHP, Chicago Cubs:
I was really intrigued by Maples. He was a 14th-round pick in 2011 who made his Major League debut in 2017, but he has only amassed a total of 10.2 innings at the highest level over the past two seasons and carried an ERA over 10.00 as well. I saw Maples back in 2015 and 2016, when he was still in (and repeating) low Class A with the South Bend Cubs. With the stuff he showed in his spring training outing on March 7 versus the Rockies, he won’t be pitching for South Bend again any time soon.
Maples faced only four batters and gave up a really solid hit to Rockies prospect Colton Welker, but besides that one mistake he struck out two Rockies hitters with an electric 95-97 mph fastball and complimented that with a late and big breaking cutter from 88-92 mph. His slider had similar shape to the cutter and just a touch lower velocity from 83-87 mph. It’s possible that I have misidentified the slider and cutter at the upper 80s velocity—but if so, that’s a good thing. If I’m having trouble identifying it, imagine how the batter standing 60 feet, 6 inches away is feeling. If he brings this kind of stuff during the regular season, Maples could definitely help the Cubs’ bullpen.
5. Frankie Montas, RHP, Oakland
I have seen Montas in the past sitting upper 90s and topping out over 100 mph with his fastball. When I saw him this spring, his velocity had dipped but his command had improved. He pitched at 91-95 mph over three frames and mostly sat 93 mph. His fastball was tight and had good late sinking action at times, but more importantly he commanded it to both sides of the plate effectively. He also showcased a power slurve from 81-85 mph that fooled righthanded hitters and flashed a big-shape changeup at 84-85 mph that is at least an average offering and potentially an above-average pitch.
Montas showed plus command of both offspeed pitches in addition to his fastball. He has an efficient transfer of energy in his delivery, and he repeats it very well. His overall control was above-average, always in the zone, and he knew what he was doing—even incorporating a quick-pitch/slide-step at times from the windup and stretch, giving him an additional weapon to keep hitters off-balance.
A second spring outing reinforced that Montas is showing better stuff, command, and composure. Montas’ fastball velocity was up in the 93-96 mph range consistently, sitting 94-95 mph. His fastball had plus sink and run and ate up almost all the righthanded hitters, as he owned the inside half of the plate. Against lefthanded hitters, he showed the ability to simply overpower them with his plus velocity that plays up due to his easy, controlled delivery. His power slurve was mostly in the 85-87 mph range (up from the low 80s in his previous outing) and looked like a plus offering. He was able to locate it and very effectively front-door the pitch to righthanded hitters. Montas’ changeup, with more velocity than previously seen, had plus sink to it, and he commanded it to both sides of the plate.
Overall, Montas’ entire arsenal was better, and he again utilized a quick-pitch, at times, to toy with hitters even more. The most impressive thing to me was his repeatable and linear delivery to the plate. He was in total control of his movements, and his overall poise—displaying a calmness even with runners on base and the game being close—was excellent. I can comfortably put a 50 grade on Montas right now, meaning he is a league-average starter, but with his plus command and plus stuff across the board, he has the makings of being a quality, above-average major league starter in the near future.
6. Reynaldo Lopez, RHP, Chicago White Sox
The one-time top pitching prospect acquired from the Nationals a few years ago in the Adam Eaton trade, Lopez looks to be putting everything together. The overall numbers don’t jump out at you this spring, but what jumped out at me in the game I saw was the fastball velocity. He sat 95 mph for the first few innings and worked in the 92-96 mph range overall. He also showed quality movement of his fastball, although that movement is inconsistent. He had heavy sink at times and showed the ability to get a nice, tight rotation with hop at the top when he was ahead in the count. Lopez also flashed two above-average secondary pitches—a slider with late and true, two-plane break in the 83-85 mph range and a very solid changeup that showed quality movement. He was able to get both righthanded and lefthanded hitters to swing and miss when he sold his changeup effectively.
Lopez showed enough stuff that he is at least a solid, league-average starter right now. His command, however, was inconsistent, and he definitely wasn’t precise to spots. He wasn’t wild, but he was also not always in the zone and not economical with his pitches. There’s upside for him to be an above-average starter given his youth, but with current 40-grade command of all his pitches and an inconsistent release point, he’s only a mid-rotation guy for me right now. I would compare him to a righthanded version of Francisco Liriano, which means plus stuff with inconsistent command.
7. Jesus Tinoco, RHP, Colorado
Tinoco is a top Rockies prospect for me—he has great size and a big arm to go along with plus stuff and a mound presence that can be intimidating. He came out throwing his fastball 94-96 mph with plus movement (arm-side run and sinking action) that bores in on righthanded hitters. From the stretch, he was down to 93 mph, but when he got two strikes on hitters he was able to amp it up to 97 mph. He also threw a power slider at 88-89 mph that had plus movement and late action, but the shape wasn’t always consistent. He busted out one 12-to-6 curveball, but it stayed up. He’s only 23 years old and it showed at times. He would overthrow and get himself into trouble when he could have gotten away with challenging hitters. Once he got into trouble, he showed some anger and a tenacity to get after it and finish the job. If Tinoco can harness that focus and command more consistently, he’ll be in the majors contributing out of the bullpen very soon.
8. Daniel Mengden, RHP, Oakland
Mengden, who was surprisingly optioned back to minor league camp this past week, is a throwback type of pitcher in the sense that he utilizes an over-the-head pump during his delivery and will also vary his timing to the plate with various pauses before he goes into his actual delivery of the pitch. One of the things I’ve always liked about him (and pro pitchers in general) is his ability to throw an array of different pitches to keep hitters guessing. It’s generally harder for pitchers to have good command of each additional offering they throw because it takes more reps and practice to master, but Mengden has had success at the big league level with four different pitches.
In an early March outing, he was mostly shuffling between his 90-94 mph fastball, slider and changeup. It wasn’t until his third inning of work when he busted out his big-breaking curveball, and he also featured a fifth pitch that I hadn’t seen much of previously—an 87-88 mph cutter. The ability to throw five different pitches, all from a range of 74-94 mph and with a unique/funky delivery, gives him all the ingredients for being a future mid-rotation starter. The only thing I can see holding Mengden back is what he struggled with at times during this outing, which is missing his spots and being up in the zone when he would rush through and rip his front-side open.
On the pitch in the below video, he’s trying to throw his offspeed low and inside, but his front side stays open and the ball ends up sailing high and to the arm-side.
Then, on the very next pitch, he makes the adjustment and keeps his front shoulder on line a bit longer, allowing him to get his release out in front.
Overall, I think Mengden has the stuff and pitchability to stick in Oakland’s rotation if given the opportunity.
9. Phil Maton, RHP, San Diego
Maton could be a potential closer candidate for the Padres, although he doesn’t overpower guys. Instead, he uses quality movement, good deception and pinpoint command to get outs. Maton predominantly throws a cutter with good shape at 88-89 mph, and I’ve seen him run his fastball with natural cut up to 93 mph. He compliments his fastball mix with a true slider in the mid-80s. He spots up all three pitches with a somewhat funky delivery, and with the late movement on all of his stuff, he has the requisite deception, command and stuff to get a lot of outs at the major league level. Maton is the example that you don’t necessarily need big-time velocity to be a shut-down reliever.
10. Zack Brown, RHP, Milwaukee
This spring Brown was solid and showed enough stuff that he can be long-reliever or spot-starter in the big leagues right now, despite the fact that he has never pitched above Double-A. His fastball was in the 91-94 mph range, mostly sitting 92 mph with solid sink and average arm-side run. He really pronates his two-seam fastball, which sits between 89-90 mph but tends to stay up in the zone more than he would like. Brown also showed a fringe-average 12-to-6 curveball in the 80-82 mph range, as well as a two-plane, mid-80s changeup that he used against righthanded hitters.
Because of his shorter size and drop-and-drive delivery, neither Brown’s fastball nor curveball have consistent depth. Brown does a fairly decent job of staying on top, however, and his fastball does have solid sink when his timing and release is proper. He actually got stronger as his outing went. I like the tenacity that he showed, and he really gets after it, but sometimes at the expense of his command. He’s going to have to work on his command, but with an assortment of fringe or average offerings right now, there’s no reason to think he can’t be up with the big league club by the end of the year and contributing to the Brewers in some fashion soon.
11. Danny Dopico, RHP, White Sox
Dopico entered a late March spring training game wearing No. 88 and without a name on his back. But his outing was far from anonymous. He trotted in from the bullpen and threw six straight strikes—striking out the first two batters he faced while showing two plus offerings, command and composure. He finished off the third and final batter of the inning on two pitches, giving him seven strikes in eight pitches. His 94-95 mph fastball looked heavy with late run, and his 82-85 mph changeup froze righthanded hitters. He also featured an 85-86 mph slider.
Dopico only pitched two innings in big league games this spring, but the one outing I saw was very impressive. In his pro career, Dopico has only pitched three innings above the high Class A level, and he will most likely start this year in Double-A. But given some of the issues the White Sox are having this spring with potential bullpen candidates, Dopico may be pitching in Chicago by the end of the year.
Special Backfields Entry: Nick Highberger, RHP, Oakland
While I was purveying the Athletics’ backfields on March 11, I spotted a somewhat unheralded minor league reliever named Nick Highberger. Highberger showed a nice three-pitch arsenal, led by a low-to mid-90s fastball with quality movement and a somewhat deceptive release. He threw a lot of mid-80s changeups with solid two-plane movement and a hard, mid- to upper-80s slider that was tight and featured late movement.
To top it all off, Highberger showed solid command of all his stuff and was able to execute his entire repertoire with ease. Being 25 years old and a 30th-round pick out of Creighton who has never pitched above high Class A, Highberger is currently well off of the prospect radar. But he showed the stuff, command, and moxie to be eventually be a big leaguer. He’s a groundball-type pitcher who simply throws strikes and misses barrels. Maybe he’s not the prototypical prospect, but Highberger should keep moving up.