Minor league baseball is finally back! After the minor league season was canceled last year, we finally get to see what prospects look like in real games after an extended period of development. With that much time for big jumps in a player’s skills, as well as continued excellence by some, certain prospects have really stood out in the early going. Below is a breakdown of one pitching prospect and one position player prospect in each division that has really caught my eye in the early going.
Disclaimer: Many minor leaguers are off to hot starts in 2021. For this article, I chose only those who are ‘prospects,’ or guys who are likely to play a role at the Major League Level one day, instead of a hypothetical 28-year-old who is hitting .360 in AA but is simply organizational depth. All stats are of the morning of June 3rd, 2021.
NL East Hitter: C Francisco Alvarez, New York Mets
2021 Stats: 89 PA, .353/.483/.559, 13.5% K%, 18.0% BB%, 3 HR, 15 RBI for Low-A St. Lucie and High-A Brooklyn
It’s rare to a young catcher like Alvarez this well-rounded on both sides of the ball. This season, Alvarez is establishing himself as the league’s #1 catching prospect outside of Baltimore’s Adley Rutschman. Offensively Alvarez’s swing is a bit unorthodox, but the stat line above indicates that he rakes regardless. He gets really into his back side in his load and his front foot plants super early, but he rotates very well and has an impressive knack for finding the barrel. He also has a very sound approach and doesn’t expand his zone very often, as his at-bats and walk rates indicate he is a pretty cerebral hitter who has a great plan in the box. Alvarez is able to get loft out of that swing as well, and he projects as a guy with both above-average hit and power tools. Sometimes young catchers with this type of offensive upside move to a different position to maintain health and durability, but Alvarez can really catch as well. He has a strong arm and even though he has a heavier body with a thick lower half, Alvarez has surprisingly good lateral mobility and blocks pitches well. Like I mentioned before Alvarez is likely to be baseball’s top catching prospect once Adley Rutschman graduates and Mets fans should be excited about the potential he brings to Queens on both sides of the ball.
NL East Pitcher: LHP Jake Eder, Miami Marlins
2021 Stats: 24.2 IP, 0.73 ERA, 0.97 WHIP, 41.6% K%, 11.9% BB% for Double-A Pensacola
Eder, a former Vanderbilt Commodore, was the Marlins 4th round selection in 2020. Eder was always intriguing because of his strong, prototypical starter’s frame and feel for spinning a breaking ball, but the reality of Jake Eder had never lived up to the idea of Jake Eder. However, after positive reports from the alt site and 2021 Spring Training, Miami aggressively promoted Eder in Double-A to start the season, where he has been outstanding and starting to put it all together. Eder’s velocity has been up from the 90-92 range where he lived in college, sitting 94-96 and bumping 97 in the early going while missing plenty of bats due to the pitch’s explosive life through the zone. Eder’s trademark curveball has been a force, as well. The breaking ball is showing sharp bite and plays against hitters from both sides of the plate, as the depth creates an uncomfortable angle not only on lefties but to the back foot of righties, too. Eder is also showing an occasional changeup that flashes average, but it may even end up being better than that given the success we have seen Miami’s dev group have with adding and improving changeups (ie: Edward Cabrera, Sixto Sanchez, Pablo Lopez, Trevor Rogers). The knock on Eder – even dating back to his days in Nashville – was his command. Those struggles have carried over to pro ball thus far, as he has been falling behind hitters and ultimately walking them because of some issues with locating his fastball. With that being said, Eder’s stuff is still good enough where he can be a back-end starter or a multi-inning relief weapon, but improved command could bolster his already enticing profile.
NL Central Hitter: 3B Jordan Walker, St. Louis Cardinals
2021 Stats: 57 PA, .333/.474/.600, 21.1% K%, 17.5% BB%, 2 HR, 8 RBI for Low-A Palm Beach
The Cardinals’ 2020 first-rounder has laid waste to the Low-A Southeast division, as he seemed to be producing loud contact just about every night before he recently went on the injured list. In fact, the tweet below indicates that Walker’s max exit velocity is already at an elite Major League level.
Not only has Walker’s quality of contact been outstanding, but his approach and bat-to-ball skills have been excellent to start his pro career, as well. In his 57 plate appearances thus far, Walker is running a 17.5% walk rate while striking out at a 21.1% clip, both promising numbers for such a young hitter at a full-season affiliate. A big question regarding Walker prior to last year’s draft was his frame. Walker was an extremely big high school kid, and there were industry concerns that Walker’s body may lose some athleticism and slide him down the defensive spectrum to first base. Walker has quelled those concerns so far, as anyone can tell visually that Walker is playing with a lean, strong build. Obviously, it is still early in his career, but the returns on Walker have been overwhelmingly positive. The ceiling here is quite high, and while it’s early, Walker’s loud start should be very encouraging for Cardinals fans.
NL Central Pitcher: LHP Nick Lodolo, Cincinnati Reds
2021 Stats: 26.2 IP, 1.01 ERA, 0.83 WHIP, 37.3% K%, 5.9% BB% for Double-A Chattanooga
You’d be hard-pressed to find a pitcher that has been better than Lodolo in the 2021 minor league season. As the stats above indicate, Lodolo has been statistically dominant this year, and he is firmly establishing himself as one of the very best pitching prospects in baseball. Lodolo has always had advanced command of his stuff dating back to his amateur days, and that has carried over into pro ball. He specifically commands his fastball extremely well, spotting it to both sides of the plate. His breaking ball has sharp action with a lot of sweep because of where he releases it from. Lodolo has a very low release point for a starting pitcher, one that is not dissimilar from that of Red Sox lefty Chris Sale. The breaking ball is able to cut across the zone and creates a tough angle on batters from both sides of the plate, as it darts away from lefties, and he is able to throw it to the back foot of righties for swings and misses. Lodolo has transformed from a guy who could be a 4th starter in a big-league rotation to a potential anchor towards the top of a staff, which is a testament to not only him but the Reds’ new development group headlined by Driveline Baseball founder Kyle Boddy. Lodolo is on the fast track to the big leagues and may even debut late in the 2021 season if he continues to pitch the way he is now.
NL West Hitter: OF Alek Thomas, Arizona Diamondbacks
2021 Stats: 99 PA, .302/.384/.512, 20.2% K%, 12.1% BB%, 2 HR, 10 RBI for Double-A Amarillo
Thomas is one of my favorite prospects in the minors, as not only is he a fun player to watch but guys like him with a plus hit tool, athleticism, and defensive value seem like safe bets to perform at the next level. Thomas has a really clean stroke and strong feel for the barrel, which provides him with a strong offensive foundation. At his size (5’11”, 175), Thomas has the appearance of a scrappy singles and doubles hitter, but he is more than that. He has a strong, chiseled frame with great strength in his forearms and lower half. His strength and rotational ability allow him to produce excellent bat speed, and his advanced ability to put the barrel on the ball gives him above-average in-game power potential. Defensively, Thomas has a below-average arm, but his defensive instincts and closing speed give him the chance to play a passable center field, but he would be a plus defender in an outfield corner. Thomas is well on his way to an everyday major league role, and his floor as a player is high.
NL West Pitcher: RHP Ryan Pepiot, Los Angeles Dodgers
2021 Stats: 17 IP, 2.12 ERA, 1.12 WHIP, 36.8% K%, 13.2% BB% for Double-A Tulsa
Pepiot was the Dodgers’ 3rd round pick out of Butler in the 2019 draft, and it is looking like he may be one of the best college pitchers to come out of that entire draft class. Pepiot has a starter’s frame at 6’3″ and 215 pounds, and he certainly has the stuff to get outs in that type of role. Any discussion about his stuff has to start with his lethal changeup; the pitch has Devin Williams-like screwball action, as Pepiot does an excellent job of pronating through release and get sidespin on the baseball. The pitch has excellent depth and substantial arm-side movement, and it is the type of pitch that can be used to miss bats regardless of batter-handedness. Pepiot also throws a fastball and curveball, both of which are at least 55 (above-average) offerings on the 20-80 scale. The fastball has rising action that misses bats in the upper part of the zone, while the curveball shows some sharp bite with good shape. All three of these pitches give Pepiot an excellent bat-missing arsenal, as evidenced by the fact that he has struck out 36% of the hitters who have faced him this year. Pepiot has yet to start across a full season of the minor leagues, so it remains to be seen whether he can hold his 93-96 MPH velocity across a normal season’s workload. One of the only flaws with Pepiot is the control of his arsenal. Across his minor league career, Pepiot has a walk rate of around 13%, which is much too high for a pitcher looking to be a starter at the next level. Even with the walk issues and velocity maintenance questions, Pepiot’s sheer stuff is enough to project at least a high-leverage bullpen role that may be able to work multiple innings at a time (similar to the way the White Sox have been using Michael Kopech, for example). If he can iron out some of his early-season strike-throwing issues, though, it’s a middle-of-the-rotation profile.
AL East Hitter: OF Vidal Brujan, Tampa Bay Rays
2021 Stats: 113 PA, .309/.407/.557, 16.8% K%, 14.2% BB%, 7 HR, 21 RBI for Triple-A Durham
Brujan is an incredible athlete who provides a ton of value on both sides of the ball, with strong barrel control on offense and defensive value at all three outfield spots and some infield versatility. Brujan has always been a guy who can put the ball in play at a very high level (he has only an 11.3% K% in his minor league career), but that usually came without much power. In the early going this year, Brujan has already hit 7 homers, after only hitting 4 in all of 2019. The power surge from Brujan is understandable just from watching his swing. Brujan has an extremely quick bat and excellent athleticism, twitch, and looseness in his swings from both sides of the plate. Defensively Brujan has always been a guy who has bounced around quite a bit, but in 2021 it appears he has settled in the outfield. The Rays are an organization that really values versatility, and Brujan’s background as both an infielder or an outfielder will fit in well with the big club.
AL East Pitcher: RHP Grayson Rodriguez, Baltimore Orioles
2021 Stats: 28.1 IP, 1.59 ERA, 0.78 WHIP, 44.0% K%, 6.4% BB% for High-A Aberdeen and Double-AA Bowie
You know how I said earlier that you would be hard-pressed to find a pitcher that has had a better start to the 2021 minor league season than Nick Lodolo? Well, Grayson Rodriguez may be one of the only guys who have a case for that distinction. Rodriguez, just promoted to Double-A, has been sensational ever since being drafted in the first round by Baltimore in 2018. Since the Orioles’ new brain trust and player development group arrived in 2019, Rodriguez has only improved upon an already very good foundation, pitching off his excellent fastball and commanding multiple above-average breaking pitches. Rodriguez’s fastball not only sits in the mid-to-high 90s, but the pitch has explosive vertical movement and high spin rates that misses bats up in the zone, making it a potential double plus offering. Rodriguez’s changeup is one of my favorite pitches to watch in all of the minor leagues. Like Ryan Pepiot, Rodriguez’s change has a screwball-type movement that is just devastating against left-handed batters, especially. Rodriguez also features a curveball and a slider. The curve is more 12-6 in shape, with big depth that he can use early in counts to get ahead and occasionally put hitters away late. The slider holds a tight shape that he throws in the mid-80s, and it looks like it will be his go-to breaking pitch. The only flaw with Rodriguez is some mechanical issues, as he puts a lot of stress on his head and neck at the end of his delivery with a ‘head whack’ towards his glove side after release. Regardless, Rodriguez is looking like one of the best pitching prospects in baseball and looks to be part of the first wave of the next Orioles core with Adley Rutschman, DL Hall, and others in the next year or two.
AL Central Hitter: C Dillon Dingler, Detroit Tigers
2021 Stats: 99 PA, .280/.394/.561, 29.3% K%, 12.1% BB%, 6 HR, 16 RBI for High-A West Michigan
Dingler, the first pick of the second round in 2020, is one of the most unique prospects in the minor leagues. In college at Ohio State, Dingler played quite a bit of center field before moving behind the plate. Not only did Dingler just play center field, but he was good out there as well. His athleticism for a catcher is truly unique, as his flexibility, lateral mobility, and quick feet all check boxes for what it takes to be an above-average to plus defensive catcher. He also possesses a plus arm and a big, strong build at 6’3/210 to withstand some of the rigors of catching. Dingler is a burgeoning offensive player as well, who was in the midst of a torrid start (.340/.404/.706 with 5 HR in 58 PA) before the college season was halted last year. Dingler has shown great on-base skills in the early going as evidenced by the walk rate above, and his rotational athleticism and bat speed gives him power upside in the bat. The strikeouts have been a bit concerning to start the season, but the total package that Dingler brings is so intriguing. With every passing day, he looks more and more like Detroit’s future starting catcher.
AL Central Pitcher: RHP Jackson Kowar, Kansas City Royals
2021 Stats: 31.2 IP, 0.85 ERA, 0.88 WHIP, 33.9% K%, 8.3% BB% for Triple-A Omaha
Kowar is just one of numerous promising young arms in the Royals’ organization, and his early performance in 2021 is likely to earn him a promotion to the big club quite soon. Kowar was the Royals compensation round pick in 2018, the club’s second selection after his Florida teammate and fellow right-hander Brady Singer. In fact, Kansas City’s first four picks, all of which were within the top 40 overall selections, included college pitchers in Singer, Kowar, LHP Daniel Lynch (Virginia), and LHP Kris Bubic (Stanford) that are likely to play key roles on their pitching staff for years to come. In Kowar’s case, the tall righty relies on his sinker and changeup, with the former being one of the better changeups in all of the minor leagues. Kowar’s curveball lags behind these two offerings, mainly because the hump on the pitch out of the hand makes it easier for hitters to recognize out of his hand, and the shape of his sinking fastball doesn’t tunnel or match well with the overhand curve. This issue is what has kept Kowar from missing a ton of bats throughout his career, but the sinker and changeup are both good enough where he can get groundballs at a very high clip. Because he lacks a true put-away breaking ball and relies on those two pitches heavily Kowar may end up being no more than a back-end starter, but the arm strength and a go-to secondary pitch in the change-up could potentially allow him to excel in a relief role.
AL West Hitter: OF Julio Rodriguez, Seattle Mariners
2021 Stats: 99 PA, .322/.404/.575, 26.3% K%, 10.1% BB%, 5 HR, 15 RBI for High-A Everett
Rodriguez is probably the best player on this entire list. A powerful athlete with projectability left in the frame, Rodriguez looks the part of a middle-of-the-order masher. He generates excellent bat speed and has immense raw power. He has an easy swing that generates some loft and is just so smooth and athletic at the plate. While Rodriguez has shown the ability to hit for average, I do have some questions about his hit tool. Rodriguez is a ‘bucket strider,’ meaning that as a right-handed batter he strides open towards the third base line rather than evening his base. This leaves him susceptible to breaking stuff away from him, and over the past year or so he has swung through well-located sliders down and away. Even with this issue, Rodriguez is still scorching the ball against High-A pitching, and his hit tool should be at least average. The combination of at least an average hit tool with plus in-game power gives him a substantial offensive ceiling. Defensively Rodriguez probably doesn’t have the closing speed or range to play center but has a good arm and profiles well in right field. Overall Rodriguez shouldn’t be in High-A for too much longer, and soon he will be roaming the outfield in Seattle with Jarred Kelenic to form a formidable top of the lineup.
AL West Pitcher: RHP Cole Winn, Texas Rangers
2021 Stats: 27.2 IP, 1.63 ERA, 0.72 WHIP, 31.1% K%, 9.7% BB% for Double-A Frisco
Winn, the Rangers’ first-rounder in 2019 out of Orange Lutheran High School in southern California, was aggressively assigned to full-season A-ball after signing, a bit of a rarity for a high school draftee. A big reason why the Rangers felt comfortable with not only selecting a high school pitcher in the first round, but aggressively assigning him to full-season ball, was his advanced pitchability. Winn had advanced command and control of a good four-pitch mix as a prep, making him one of the ‘safer’ high school prospects in the 2019 draft. However, Winn struggled after signing, as he walked an uncharacteristic 13% of the batters he faced with a 4.46 ERA. In 2021, Winn looks to be improved and is showing more signs of being the pitcher that the Rangers, scouts, and prospect analysts everywhere expect him to be. He is still walking batters at too high of a rate, but the stuff looks good. The fastball has that modern, rising shape that looks like an above-average pitch, especially when sitting in the 93-95 range that he has been sitting at thus far. Winn’s curveball seems to be his best breaking pitch with a vertical, 12-6-ish shape that has sharp bite and plays well with his fastball, but it’s the slider that is continuing to improve. He manipulates the shape well to make it distinct from his curveball, as the slider has a sharp lateral bite that consistently misses bats when he locates it down and away to right-handed hitters. Winn’s changeup also looks like at least an above-average offering, with good fade and tumble down in the zone. Guys like Winn – with four offerings that are all at least above average, a prototypical starter’s frame, and a repeatable, easy operation on the mound – typically end up on top 100 prospect lists and in big-league rotations. Winn is trending in that direction if he can continue to harness some of that strike-throwing ability he showed in high school.
Featured Photo: @MLBPipeline on Twitter