Pratto, the Royals first-round pick in 2017, continued his torrid spring with his fourth home run on Monday and is now batting .360/.429/.960 in Cactus League play. While the usual caveats about spring training apply, Pratto’s performance has been particularly impressive given he has yet to play above High-A and is doing damage largely against older pitchers, many of whom have major league experience. He is still in big league camp with the Royals, past the point when most low-level minor leaguers have been optioned or reassigned.
“He’s been hitting bombs,” one rival evaluator said. “There’s nothing cheap about what he’s doing.”
Pratto, 22, hit .191 with nine home runs, a .588 OPS and a 35% strikeout rate at High-A Wilmington in 2019. After the season, the Royals identified issues with the pelvic rotation in his swing and worked aggressively to fix them throughout 2020 at the alternate training site. With help from Royals hitting coordinator Drew Saylor, Pratto re-worked the lower half of his swing—with an emphasis on the rotational pattern of his hips and pelvis—and began using his back leg more. Over the course of the summer, the Royals saw those changes lead to harder contact, fewer swings and misses and more consistency than he’d ever shown before.
Because opposing scouts were not allowed at alternate training sites in 2020 and the Royals were one of the 10 teams who opted out of sharing their alternate site video, the changes went unseen by opposing clubs.
Now, scouts are seeing the new and improved Pratto, and they universally like what they’re seeing.
“They’ve done a really good job there,” another scout said last week. “For me his stock is going up some because he’s showing me that he can get to power against some quality arms out here….He’s a guy that kind of popped a little bit for me.”
While Royals camp has been the source of the most plaudits this spring, Reds camp has been the source of the most negatives. One veteran evaluator described the Reds as a “hot mess.”
Another’s appraisal: “Their regular guys really have to get healthy, stay healthy and remain that way start to finish, or they’re going to be grasping at straws.”
Health is already proving to be a problem. Sonny Gray was shut down with back spasms and is not expected to be ready by Opening Day, while fellow starters Wade Miley and Tejay Antone are out with hamstring injuries. Joey Votto tested positive for Covid-19 and relievers Lucas Sims and Amir Garrett only recently returned after missing the start of camp with injuries.
The Reds’ biggest problem, however, remains the lack of a shortstop. With No. 1 prospect Jose Garcia not ready for the majors and incumbent Freddy Galvis departing in free agency, the Reds needed to add a shortstop in the offseason but failed to do so.
In part due to the spring ascent of Jonathan India, the Reds have shifted their infield alignment and began playing Eugenio Suarez at shortstop. Suarez, the Reds all-star third baseman, came up as a shortstop but has not played more than three games at the position since 2015.
The other options are utilityman Kyle Farmer, who has played shortstop in only 16 of his 153 career games, recent trade acquisition Mike Freeman, who has played shortstop in 24 of his 118 career games, and veteran Dee-Strange Gordon, who has played 16 games total at the position since 2013.
“Their need for a shortstop is glaring right now,” one rival executive said. “It’s questionable roster construction, to say the least.”
The early buzz from spring training is he’s ready to do just that, and then some.
“He looks poised to compete for a Cy Young in my opinion,” one rival evaluator said.
Glasnow, 27, has long dominated with his fastball and curveball and has spent the spring working to incorporate a new slider into his arsenal. The pitch has lived in the upper 80s and flashed plus at its best in scouts’ eyes, although it is still understandably inconsistent. With a potential third plus pitch now in his arsenal, there is a growing sense he is poised to build on his previous success and take another leap in 2021.
The main challenge for Glasnow to ascend to ace—and Cy Young contender—status will be durability. Glasnow has never pitched more than 111.2 innings in a season.
He has already been named the Rays Opening Day starter and will take the ball April 1 at Miami.
One particularly promising development at Phillies camp this spring has been Alec Bohm’s progress on defense.
Bohm, 24, hit .338/.400/.481 last season and finished tied for second in National League rookie of the year voting, but defensive metrics rated him as below-average at third base and scouts delivered similar appraisals.
That has changed this spring. While acknowledging Bohm still isn’t the rangiest defender, evaluators have noted he’s become much more reliable and is making plays he didn’t in previous years.
“As a third baseman he’s gotten a lot better,” one rival evaluator said. “I don’t worry about him playing there short term anymore.”
Bohm has faced defensive questions since the Phillies drafted him third overall in 2018 out of Wichita State, but he noted in February he felt he was making the kind of progress that scouts are now seeing.
“The game has really slowed down for me on that side of the ball,” Bohm said shortly after camp opened. “I’m starting to feel how the play is going to go before the ball even really gets to me. Just little things like that, and that just comes from repetition and doing it over and over again. I definitely feel light years ahead of where I was.”
There is growing concern about some of the changes Jeff McNeil has made to his swing and approach since last season.
McNeil, 28, has been one of the majors’ best hitters since his debut with a career .319/.383/.501 slash line. He is 3 for 32 with seven strikeouts in spring training, and evaluators see it as a product of a change he’s tried to make rather than typical spring rust.
“He’s gotten bigger and is trying to pull the ball to tap into more power right now and that is not his game,” one rival evaluator said. “I’m pretty down on him right now.”
McNeil hit four home runs in the abbreviated 2020 season and had a .454 slugging percentage, the lowest of his career but still above the league average of .418. He’s generally been an all-fields hitter in his career, including 38.3% of his batted balls going to his pull-side in 2020, 35.8% up the middle and 25.9% the opposite way, according to Baseball Savant.
While there is growing optimism about the Angels rotation with the spring training performances of Shohei Ohtani, Dylan Bundy and others, there is also growing concern about the state of their bullpen.
The Angels bullpen posted a 4.63 ERA last season, 21st in the majors, and blew an MLB-high 14 saves. They added Raisel Iglesias and Alex Claudio in the offseason, but the overall group has failed to inspire confidence.
Felix Pena struggled before going down with a hamstring strain, Mike Mayers’ stuff has gone backwards in rival evaluators’ opinions and Ty Buttrey continues to be erratic. Offseason trade acquisition Aaron Slegers is dealing with back spasms and minor league free agent signee Junior Guerra has given up five hits and four runs in four innings this spring.
“They have no bullpen,” one opposing scout said. “It’s going to be a big issue.”
Against that backdrop, Angels manager Joe Maddon has raised the possibility of using top pitching prospect Chris Rodriguez in relief this year. Rodriguez, the Angels No. 3 prospect, has yet to pitch above High-A and has thrown only 9.1 official innings since 2017 due to a pair of back injuries and the coronavirus pandemic. He did pitch 65-70 innings between the alternate training site and instructional league last year.
“If you look at (Rodriguez) right now, he looks like a relief pitcher to me,” Maddon said. “But that doesn’t mean he can’t start. Just looking at the way he comes after you, the physical stuff, how intimidating he can be in the short term, it’s very interesting.”
The Angels reportedly signed veteran reliever AJ Ramos to a minor league deal on Wednesday, according to The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal. Ramos was a standout late-game reliever for the Marlins from 2013-17, including making an All-Star Game as their closer in 2016, but he missed part of the 2018 season and all of the 2019 season after having shoulder surgery. He made three appearances for the Rockies last season.
Nick Nelson is quickly emerging as a reliever to watch in the Yankees bullpen. Nelson, 25, has been flashing “wipeout” stuff in the words of one evaluator and has earned praise from manager Aaron Boone, who said Nelson could have an “immediate” job in the Yankees bullpen.
Nelson, a fourth-round pick from Gulf Coast (Fla.) JC in 2016, has pitched 6.1 scoreless innings this spring. His fastball has reached the upper 90s and his upper-80s changeup has induced weak contact and swings and misses from both lefties and righties. Most importantly, he hasn’t walked anybody after issuing 11 walks in 20.2 innings in his debut last season.
With Zack Britton out with an elbow injury, there is an open spot in the Yankees bullpen. In the eyes of opposing evaluators, Nelson has separated himself as the reliever most deserving of the spot.
Shortstop CJ Abrams and lefthander Adrian Morejon have received the most acclaim among Padres prospects in camp, but they aren’t the only ones. Infielder Tucupita Marcano has drawn high praise from both Padres officials and rival evaluators and remains one of the few low-level prospects yet to be re-assigned to minor league camp.
Marcano, 21, has hit .467 (14 for 30) with four doubles, a triple a home run and nearly as many walks (4) as strikeouts (5) despite facing more experienced pitching almost exclusively. Marcano, the Padres No. 8 prospect, has yet to play above Low-A, although he did spend last year at the Padres alternate training site and continued to get at-bats at instructional league.
“He’s an advanced hitter and he wants something out of the box,” a rival evaluator said. “He’s really opened some eyes.”
As much as his performance, Marcano’s versatility and instincts have drawn praise. The son of former Venezuelan baseball star Raul Marcano, he has demonstrated his advanced feel for the game by laying down timely bunts, ably playing multiple positions and demonstrating keen strike-zone recognition.
“He’s just a ballplayer; that’s been my impression,” Padres manager Jayce Tingler said earlier this month. “I feel very comfortable with him defensively at a lot of positions. He’s a sure-handed guy. He’s a good decision-maker. He’s very trustworthy out there at a lot of different positions. He’s certainly trustworthy in the batter’s box. I love his hand-eye coordination, his ability to find the sweet part of the bat. He can hit line drives. He can hit them a lot of different directions. He can run. He can do a lot of things. He’s just a baseball player. He’s certainly caught my eye.”
While certainly no one would confuse him for Lindor, the 22-year-old is drawing rave reviews this spring.
Gimenez has all but seized the Indians starting shortstop job with his play on both sides of the ball. Scouts have praised his bat speed, knack for contact, reliable glove and strong, accurate arm throughout the spring, with the positive reviews carrying over from week to week.
“He showed up ready to play,” an opposing evaluator said. “He knows the strike zone. He puts the ball in play. He makes every play defensively. It’s been really impressive to see the maturity out of such a young guy. He’s made a really good impression.”
Gimenez hit .263/.333/.398 in 49 games last year as a rookie. He is the No. 66 prospect on the BA Top 100.
Oneil Cruz is already something of a unicorn as a 6-foot-7 shortstop who plays the position well enough to draw positive reviews from scouts.
In another testament to his athleticism, the Pirates gave Cruz some time in center field this spring. Once again, opposing scouts were impressed.
“He looked pretty good out there,” a rival evaluator said. “He’s a good runner. He’s pretty athletic. With those long strides he covers a lot of ground.”
Cruz has said he sees himself as a shortstop, but evaluators have long projected him to right field because of his height. If Cruz plays center field in the majors, he’ll tie Walt Bond and Aaron Judge as the tallest players to play the position.
Cruz still has work to do at the plate. He is 1 for 23 this spring with no extra-base hits, two walks and six strikeouts.