Spring Training Backfield Notes: Blue Jays, Pirates and Yankees Prospects To Watch


Image credit: Paul Skenes (Photo by Christopher Pasatieri/Getty Images)

Work isn’t supposed to be this fun. 

I arrived in Tampa last Wednesday evening with the intent of attending two Spring Breakout games, and then an assorted mix of backfield workouts and games. The West Coast of Florida has two pods, but it really breaks down into three. First, the Clearwater pod with the Phillies, Blue Jays, Yankees and Tigers. Then there’s the Bradenton/Sarasota pod, which contains the Pirates and Orioles, who participate in games with some of the teams in the third and final pod in Fort Myers. That pod includes the Red Sox, Rays, Twins and Braves. 

Games are played on the practice fields located at each team’s development complexes. Sometimes, those complexes are directly next to the spring training stadium (Phillies, Red Sox, Orioles, Yankees, etc.) and other times, they are a few miles away from the spring training stadium (Blue Jays and Pirates). A majority of the games are split between low minors and high minors players, with typically two games going on concurrently. 

This setup is ideal, as it allows you to keep an eye on two games simultaneously while seeing four total teams from two different organizations. The lower minors games tend to generate more interest from scouts and front office–types, as many evaluators get their first looks at players just arriving stateside. This reality can lead to some unexpected but exciting live looks on young players.

With two weeks to go, here’s a summary of some prospects of note over the first week in West Florida’s backfields. 


Paul Skenes, RHP: The top pick in the 2023 MLB Draft and the top pitching prospect in baseball started the Spring Breakout game on March 14. He worked one inning and faced the top of the loaded Orioles order, making quick work of Enrique Bradfield, top prospect Jackson Holliday and Connor Norby. Skenes opened up the inning by blowing a trio of 100+ mph fastballs by Bradfield, as Skenes struck out the Orioles first rounder in a matchup of former SEC stars. Next, in stepped Holliday, where Skenes fell behind 3-1. He then landed a back-foot slider to generate a swing and miss from Holliday, before putting him away with a changeup off the plate for a swinging strike three. Skenes made quick work of Norby, getting a whiff on a first-pitch slider and then threw a two-seamer in on his hands to drive a groundball. Skenes had mentioned in the press call prior to the Spring Breakout game that he was throwing a pitch he named his “splinker.” That two-seam to Norby was very likely that pitch, and could be a potential difference-making pitch against righthanded hitters. It was one inning, but Skenes showed his signature combination of power and command. 

Bubba Chandler, RHP: The Pirates pitching dominates throughout this game, as they only  allowed a single hit, an infield single to Enrique Bradfield Jr., the entire seven-inning game. The Pirates ended the game the same way they started it, with an explosive inning from one of their prized pitching prospects. After Skenes opened the game, Chandler came on to close it. Of the two, Chandler perhaps has the better fastball, as it explodes out of the hand with upper-90s velocity and ride. He generated five whiffs on his fastball and sat 97-99 mph. He showed a hard cutter at 93 mph, a low-80s curveball and a changeup. With a starter’s build, power stuff and a rhythmic operation, Chandler is the second-best starting pitching prospect in the Pirates talented minor league pitching corps.

Braxton Ashcraft, RHP: Another inning of explosive stuff came courtesy of Ashcraft, a former second-round pick out of the prep ranks in 2018. Ashcraft has missed significant time as a professional with injury, as he had Tommy John surgery in 2021, missing a majority of 2021 and all of 2022. He returned last season and the Pirates managed his workload. Ashcraft’s health history likely lands him in the bullpen long term, where he can be an explosive one-inning reliever. He sat 95-97 mph on his fastball, missing a cut-slider at 88-90 mph, and flashed a changeup and curveball. Ashcraft uncharacteristically struggled with command, but showed his premium stuff. 

David Matoma, RHP: On Monday, I attended an intersquad scrimmage between all four Pirates full-season affiliates, as the Triple-A team took on the Double-A team and the High-A team battled the Low-A team. There were some repeat looks on a handful of pitchers who participated in the Spring Breakout game (Ashcraft and Khristian Curtis), but it was 18-year-old David Matoma who was the highlight. Signed out of Uganda in 2023 for $20,000, Matoma is one of the rare African prospects in the game. On Monday, he pitched an electric inning, sitting 95-96 mph and touching 97 mph, while generating between 17-19 inches of induced vertical break. Even more impressively, he showed three different secondaries that he landed for strikes with good shape. He mixes a high-80s cut-slider and a mid-80s changeup that shows the ability to kill lift on and a gyro curveball similar to the recently popularized death ball. Matoma should see full-season competition at some point in 2024, and looks like a low dollar-high upside signing. 


Roderick Arias, SS: One of the Yankees top prospects and a recent high-dollar international signing, Arias hit leadoff for the Yankees Low-A squad and started at shortstop. He showed clean actions in the field and some range. Arias is a projectable athlete with quick-twitch mechanisms and elite bat speed. He reached base a couple times in the game, but didn’t make any loud contact. While he may have had a pedestrian game on Tuesday, it was clear he was the most talented prospect on either field that day in Dunedin. Arias has the ingredients of a five-tool player at peak. 

Kyle Carr, LHP: The buzziest arm I’ve seen this spring was that of Kyle Carr, a Yankees lefty plucked out of the juco ranks in the third round. Carr started the High-A game and dominated over three innings, including a six-out third inning, where as often happens in backfield games as teams are more concerned with reps than the score. Carr mixed a cut-ride four-seam fastball at 91-94 mph with a riding sweeper slider in the low-80s and flashed a mid-80s changeup. Carr showed potential for two above-average or better pitches in his fastball and slider, and further development of a changeup could improve his chances of starting. Carr looks like this year’s version of 2023 Yankees breakout prospect Chase Hampton. 

George Lombard Jr., SS: The west coast of Florida is loaded with talented shortstops this year with Jackson Holliday, Roderick Arias, Arjun Nimmala, Marcelo Mayer and others all located in that geographic area. A name that should be listed alongside those players is the Yankees George Lombard Jr. A smooth defender at short with good actions, range and a strong throwing arm, Lombard impresses on both sides of the ball. Lombard at the plate worked deep into counts against more experienced pitching in the Double-A game on Wednesday. Lombard ripped a double that came off the bat at 106 mph. It’s a clean and explosive swing, and Lombard showed the ability to identify and track pitches. Lombard has the look of a future Top 100 Prospect, and arguably isn’t far from that grouping now. 

Blue Jays 

Arjun Nimmala, SS: The Blue Jays 2023 first-round pick hit leadoff and started at shortstop. Nimmala has noticeably added strength this offseason and looked as if he added bat speed. Nimmala is explosive at the plate and shows a discerning eye, often seeing five to six pitches per at-bat. He barreled up a couple balls and reached base four times. It’s a well-synced, quick righthanded swing, and the following day Nimmala hinted at his power potential in the major league game with his first professional home run. In the field, Nimmala shows range and a good first step, but is still learning the intricacies of the position. 

Enmanuel Bonilla, OF: Heading into this trip to Florida, Bonilla was among my primary targets, so I was excited to get a look during Friday’s camp day and the Low-A game on Tuesday. Bonilla is a physically mature teenager with a strong and sturdy, but athletic frame. He’ll likely add strength, but it’s not a tremendous amount of projection. He’s an above-average runner home to first now, but will likely slow down to average or fringe-average by his mid-to-late-20s. Bonilla had a couple hits and showed a good combination of bat speed, natural strength and leverage. He started in center and looked solid, though he wasn’t challenged much on the day. He is a potential above-average hitter with a plus–game power ceiling. 

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