Feature Photo: Albert Almora, OF, Cubs
Welcome to 2080’s weekly roundup of action in the Pacific Coast League (Triple-A) and California League (High A) action for the week ending Saturday, April 30th! Melissa Lockard, Jared Massey, Dave DeFreitas, Nick J. Faleris, and new 2080 contributor Ryan Ozella take us through all of the action with updates and in-depth looks at prospects making the news.
Pacific Coast League Prospect Profile
By Nick J. Faleris
Albert Almora, OF, Cubs (Triple-A Iowa)
Ht/Wt: 6’2”/190 | B/T: R/R | Age (as of April 1, 2016): 21y, 11m
If one were to simply read his press clippings, the perception would be that it’s been anything but a smooth climb through the minors for former first-rounder Albert Almora – this in spite of the fact that the instinctual outfielder has progressed through the entirety of the Cubs’ system in just 345 games, and is well positioned to make his major league debut in Wrigleyville as a 22-year-old later this year. True, Almora’s walk rate has been microscopic, and his aggressive approach at the plate has lead to a fair amount of soft contact on pitchers’ pitches. But steady growth in his offensive game has been a constant, and even with some very tough stretches Almora sits on a career minor league slash line of .291/.327/.422.
Through his first 83 PAs in 2016, Almora has shined in his Triple-A debut in Iowa, slashing .351/.390/.527, with nine strikeouts and six walks. Some of the production is attributable to a .370-plus batting average on balls in play. But the scouting backs up the offensive jump, as well, with Almora showing more selectivity in the pitches he is attacking in the zone and a slightly more efficient path to the ball. Given his elite contact rates – fueled by impressive hand-eye coordination – and solid bat speed, as well as an increasing ability to add some loft to his hard-hit balls, Almora could emerge as a potentially impactful number two hitter, with a fallback as a quality down-lineup bat with BABIP-driven production from year-to-year.
While some concerns remain regarding Almora’s ability to execute a disciplined plan of attack against major league arms, there’s no doubt as to caliber of his glove, reads, routes and easy plus arm out in center field. Not only does Almora stand out for his efficient routes, but his first step off of contact is among the truest and quickest you’ll see in the outfield grass. He runs well enough to cover large swaths of the outfield, and his feel for tracking down lofted drives helps his already solid foot speed to play even better.
There’s time for Almora to continue to develop his offensive game in Iowa, and little need for the Cubs to rush him up to Chicago. And while he projects well as a pure center fielder that could fit well into Chicago’s long-term plans, a loud first half in Iowa could push his stock high enough that he becomes too valuable as a potential trade piece to hold on to. He doesn’t grab the headlines in the prospect-driven media, but Almora might be one of the most interesting storylines in the Pacific Coast League over the next three months. –Nick J. Faleris
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2080 Top 125 Prospect Updates
By Jared Massey
-Julio Urias, LHP, Dodgers (#6): After making three starts to begin the year, Urias came out of the bullpen on Friday for Triple-A Oklahoma City, piggybacking Zach Lee’s start, in an effort to ease into a full-season workload. Urias entered in the sixth inning and worked three shutout frames while striking out three batters. The 19-year-old now sports a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 23:3, as well as an ERA of 2.50 over 18 IP.
-Joey Gallo, 3B, Rangers (#9): Gallo had an all-or-nothing week, clubbing three home runs and nothing else for Triple-A Round Rock. The lefty slugger also struck out seven times but did manage to draw seven walks. He’s already collected three multi-home run games in the first 20 games of the season and he now has seven, tying him for the Pacific Coast League lead. He’s also tied for the league-lead in walks with 17. Despite his 3-for-18 week, he still places seventh in the PCL with a 1.042 OPS. Prior to Sunday’s game, however, he was placed on the disabled list by the Express with a left groin strain.
-Orlando Arcia, SS, Brewers (#15): Only playing in five games this past week for Triple-A Colorado Springs, Arcia reached base safely in all five and added a pair of multi-hit efforts. His standout game came on Thursday, where he collected three hits, including a grand slam (the second of his young career) and stole three bases in an 11-9 win over Omaha. The 21-year-old shortstop is now batting .307 on the season with four extra-base-hits and four stolen bases.
-Sean Manaea, LHP, Athletics (#27): The A’s promoted Manaea to the big leagues on Friday. He made his major league debut in Oakland versus the Houston Astros. The left-hander allowed just one run through his first five innings, but allowed a run and left two men on base without recording an out in the sixth. Both runners came around to score, and he was charged with four runs on four hits in five-plus innings. Overall, it was still a solid first start for Manaea, who will have a few turns in the rotation before the A’s have to decide whether he, or another starter, is sent down to Triple-A Nashville to make room for the currently rehabbing Henderson Alvarez.
-A.J. Reed, 1B, Astros (#34): Reed also hit safely in every game this past week for Triple-A Fresno, crushing a pair of home runs, including a grand slam. The Astros’ top prospect bounced back from a disappointing week to raise his OPS from .770 to .902 with nine hits and seven walks. With the early success of 1B Tyler White, and the return of C Evan Gattis, there doesn’t seem to be room in Houston to bring Reed up for his major league debut.
-Jonathan Gray, RHP, Rockies (#55): Gray’s second major league start of the season was more painful than the first. Facing the Pirates in Coors, Gray lasted just 3.2 innings while allowing six runs on nine hits and a walk, striking out two. That gives him an 11.42 ERA in just 8.2 IP with Colorado. His next start will come in pitcher-friendly Petco Park in San Diego – about as far from Coors as a pitcher can get.
-Drew Jackson, SS, Mariners (#90): Jackson continues collecting hits in bunches, as he piled up three multi-hit efforts since our last update and is currently hitting .297 for High A Bakersfield. He’s also doubled four times in his last six games, though he’s yet to homer in the hitter-friendly California League. He’s committed just two errors through his first 21 games, increasing his fielding percentage from .955 last year to .980 this season.
-Forrest Wall, 2B, Rockies (#98): Wall had a down week for High A Modesto, going 4-for-21, though he did hit his second home run of the season in a 5-4 loss to Visalia on 4/26. The 20-year-old second baseman is batting .280 through his first 20 games in the Cal League, which is what he hit over 99 games and 361 ABs for Class A Asheville last season.
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Prospect Spotlights – Pacific Coast League
After scuffling through his first start of the season, in which he managed to record just one out and surrender five runs before exiting the game, Almonte has strung together three solid starts, combining for 15.1 IP in which he’s allowed just two earned runs on eight hits, though also allowing eight walks. Over that same span, Almonte has racked up 21 strikeouts, primarily off the strength of a plus changeup that can play up to double-plus when he’s spotting his fastball and maximizing deception off the paired offerings.
How good has that changeup been thus far in 2016? Left-handed hitters are slashing a paltry .125/.256/.156 off the sturdy righty while receiving a steady diet of the off-speed offering along with a mid-90s fastball that has kissed 97-to-98 mph at times, and the fastball could likely play there with regularity in shorter stints. The depth of his curveball has improved, but the pitch still remains his third most effective offering, and it plays best as a chase pitch when ahead in the count, drawing empty swings or soft contact out of the zone.
The arm action is long on the back side, and it’s not uncommon for Almonte to miss his release points or preferred arm slot, resulting in bouts of wildness and a little too frequently soft stuff out over the heart of the plate. Thus far Triple-A bats have not been particularly successful at making him pay for those mistakes, but there is a much smaller margin for error with major-league hitters.
The frequency with which these hiccups come is enough to cast Almonte as a question mark when it comes to reaching his potential as a solid mid-rotation arm, and an argument can be made his production would be more valuable as potential shutdown late-inning reliever than as a back-end starter who struggles to regularly maintain his effectiveness while turning over lineups. –Nick J. Faleris
Hunter Renfroe, OF, Padres (Triple-A El Paso)
Ht/Wt: 6’1”/220 | B/T: R/R | Age (as of April 1, 2016): 24y, 2m
After an encouraging close to an otherwise ‘meh’ 2015 season, Renfroe has continued to hit for Triple-A El Paso, showing above-average playable power with a chance to produce 20-plus home runs at the major league level in spite of merely adequate contact rates. Renfroe has impressive raw power, stemming from big boy strength and above-average bat speed capable of generating very loud contact with natural loft. He’s susceptible to spin, however, and can be set up with well-placed fastballs and soft stuff away, limiting his potential as a regular producer in the middle of a big league lineup.
Defensively, Renfroe fits comfortably in right field, with plenty of speed and athleticism to field the position, and a plus arm that comes with solid carry and accuracy. The former Mississippi State Bulldog looks the part of a fringe-regular at the major league level, occupying the number six or seven slot in a lineup, and providing solid cost-controlled production, though there remains a non-zero chance that there’s simply not enough feel for the barrel for Renfroe to keep his head above water in the bigs. –Nick J. Faleris
Williamson’s solid showing in his return to full-season action in 2015 after Tommy John surgery earned him a brief cup of coffee in San Francisco, followed by a prompt return to Triple-A Sacramento to begin 2016 as he awaits his next opportunity. He already received a quick up-and-down during the third week of the season, and since returning to Sacramento he’s scorched opposing arms to the tune of a .424/.447/.697 slash line over 38 PAs, with over a third of his hits going for extra bases.
Williamson gets high scores for makeup and his approach to the game, making the most out of his strength and solid, if unspectacular, athleticism. He fits best as a future left fielder with an average defensive profile who won’t give away value on the base paths. He has enough strength to muscle the ball out of his spacious future home in San Francisco, and he should collect his share of two-baggers to the gaps, as well. While not a star, Williamson could be a valuable everyday contributor in the outfield, and a welcome balance to the steady talent San Francisco has cultivated on the infield dirt. –Nick J. Faleris
Prospect Spotlights – California League
Muren is a long, lanky right-handed reliever (think John Axford, RHP, Athletics) with a sidearm delivery. Muren has seen limited action thus far in 2016, with only two innings of work at stops in the Cal League and the PCL. He sat 95-to-96 mph at Rancho Cucamonga last week and hit 98 twice in his one inning there, though he did not show an off-speed pitch. Muren is an interesting story; he was drafted in the 22nd round in 2011 by the Astros and hit .267 over the next two-plus seasons with 46 doubles spanning Class A to Double-A. He posted not-terrible numbers for a guy with a projectable frame and an obviously cannon arm in the outfield, however, he was released and spent 2013-2015 bouncing around independent leagues.
The D’Backs picked him up in a tryout this past February when he showed up as a pitcher pumping out high 90’s fastballs. He has limited time on the mound in his career, so he is the definition of a project, but he has some arm strength and given his size, lanky frame, and arm angle he is far from a comfortable look for hitters. He is a very athletic kid with surprising body control for someone his size; if he can find even a little bit of consistency with any sort of off-speed pitch, look for him to shoot through the system pretty quickly. — Dave DeFreitas
Mieses is built more like one of the outside linebackers we saw at the NFL Draft this past Thursday than the prototypical 20-year-old in High A ball. His broad shoulders and massive lower half boast some natural strength and he moves with surprising quickness for someone of his size. While he is listed as a right fielder, he has spent a good bit of time in center field the past 10 days and has impressed; even to the point of moving fellow outfield studs Andrew Toles and Yusniel Diaz to the corner-outfield spots.
Mieses was not overly tested defensively in my looks; however, he showed a quick first step and some instincts with a couple good reads coming in on pop-ups. He showed a plus arm and was 4.26 down the line from the right side, so currently there is enough run there for him to handle center. That said, he projects to get a bit bigger and could end up being best suited for right field. Mieses is ultra aggressive at the plate, struggles with break, and will over-swing; but has a level plane and very quick hands. I can see some power projection given the tools, but pitch recognition and plate discipline will be keys for him as he moves into the upper levels of the minors. — Dave DeFreitas
In a matchup against Andrew Suarez and the San Jose Giants, Carlos Polanco showed a lean, lanky body with flexibility and athleticism and an easy arm with loose whippy action out of a three-quarters slot. The delivery had a lot of moving parts, including a high leg lift with his hands starting at the waist before lifting and breaking. All the movement in the motion caused Polanco’s timing to be off, and resulted in poor command all night. He did finish in a strong fielding position, but tends to pull the front shoulder open, causing pitches to flatten out and run to the arm side of the plate. The fastball has extra life but is fairly straight and sits 93-to-94 mph, though he did get it up to 96 early. Right now he’s more of a thrower than a pitcher without much confidence or feel for changing speeds and working hitters.
The changeup is his best off-speed pitch, showing light tumble with good arm speed; if he stopped overthrowing it, this could continue to develop and become an average pitch. The curveball was inconsistent and loopy and he lifted his arm to try and get more downward 12-to-5 action. During warm-ups, he showed better bite. Based off the spin, it looks like there could still be some development. The slider was limited, and Polanco didn’t have much feel for the pitch when he did throw it. There was small tilt and break and he tended to get his hand around the ball causing it to dive instead of break.
It looks like Polanco is still trying to get an understanding of pitching and lacks confidence in anything other than the fastball. As his command faltered, his frustration increased and after hitting a batter in the head, he couldn’t throw his fastball over the plate. Polanco is still young, but he will have to develop a secondary pitch to reach his ceiling, but right now he’s best suited for limited looks or single innings where the fastball velocity can play up.– Ryan Ozella
Andrew Suarez, LHSP, (High A San Jose)
Ht/Wt: 6’2”/205 | B/T: L/L | Age (as of April 1, 2016): 24 yrs, 7m
Suarez showed why he was a highly regarded second-round draft pick of the Giants in 2015 during his start against the Modesto Nuts. In the outing, he had plus command of four pitches and ended the night with nine K’s over seven innings, allowing one run. He worked quickly with a repeatable delivery and put his strong, athletic body and good flexibility on display. The delivery has a slight pause and turn over the rubber, and he shields the ball behind his back well to create a deceptive delivery.
He worked his 89-to-91 mph fastball with command to both the glove and arm side, and he utilized a two-seam with late arm side tail. Suarez’s 74-to-75 mph plus curveball kept hitters off balance, having 12-to-6 break, and throwing it in any count for strikes. He spotted the curve on both sides of the plate and was able to dial up the spin when ahead in the count to get the punchout.
The plus slider sat 80-to-81 mph and was tight with hard lateral break. He was able to throw it at the left-handed hitters and break it over the inside of the plate or away off the outside of the plate. He really created problems for the lefties by having the slider and curve come out of the same arm angle with different breaks and kept them guessing all night. When working against the righties, he included an above-average 82-to-84 mph straight changeup that showed good arm-side tumble while replicating his fastball arm speed and release point well. The offering induced a lot of easy groundballs.
Over the outing he showcased a strong understanding of pitching, changed pitch sequences multiple times through the lineup and threw off-speed back-to-back in hitters’ counts. If he continues to showcase the plus command of four pitches, he should be making a push for Double-A Richmond by midseason. – Ryan Ozella
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2080 Player of the Week
By Jared Massey
Peter O’Brien, OF, Diamondbacks (Triple-A Reno)
Ht/Wt: 6’4”/235 | B/T: R/R | Age (as of April 1, 2016); 25 yrs, 9m
13-for-25, 4 HR, 2 2B, 13 RBIs, 9 R (Stats from April 23-30)
A second-round selection out of the University of Miami by the New York Yankees in 2012, O’Brien was optimistically profiled as an offensive-minded catcher. In his first full season in 2013, he clubbed 22 home runs in Class A Charleston and High A Tampa, combining for an OPS of .893. The following season, he bashed 34 home runs between Tampa and Double-A Trenton, but was traded by the Yankees along with a player to be named later to Arizona for Martin Prado. O’Brien had another successful offensive season in 2015, batting .284 with 26 home runs in 131 minor league games, earning a late-season call-up to the Diamondbacks, where he played sparingly but batted .400/.500/.800 in 12 plate appearances. Despite all of the offense, he found himself back in the minors to start 2016.
While his offensive profile is exciting, O’Brien still doesn’t have a defensive home, having played catcher, first base, right field and left field over the past two seasons. He lacks agility behind the plate and the foot speed for the outfield, which leaves his most natural option at first base. However, that role is occupied by one of the best in the game in the person of Paul Goldschmidt. While he’s hit well, he’s also demonstrated a lack of plate discipline, striking out four times as much as he walks. This season, with Reno, he’s struck out 21 times and drawn just a single walk, leading to a higher batting average (.370) than OBP (.369). Unless O’Brien drastically improves his plate discipline or his defense, he seems destined to remain stranded in the minors for the foreseeable future. But in Pacific Coast League play last week, he was an easy choice for 2080’s Player of the Week.
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By Melissa Lockard
(Stats through Saturday, April 30, 2016)
Pacific Coast League
- El Paso Chihuahuas Hunter Renfroe (OF, Padres) began the week on big hot streak. Winner of the league’s Player of the Week award last week, Renfroe followed that up with three hits in eight at-bats to start the week. However, he saw his six-game hitting streak come to an end on Thursday and went 0-for-12 Thursday through Saturday. He still sports a .916 OPS on the season for El Paso, despite the late week slide. The 2013 first-round pick struggled in two stints with Double-A San Antonio, but he has found Triple-A El Paso to his liking, posting a .314/.346/.609 in 41 games with the Chihuahuas since 2015.
- Eric Surkamp (LHP, Athletics) struck-out 10 in his debut for the Nashville Sounds on April 29. Surkamp began the season in the big leagues, but he was sent to the minor leagues this week to make room for Sean Manaea in the A’s rotation. Surkamp looked like a big leaguer in his return to Triple-A. He allowed only two hits and one walk and no earned runs.
- Former first-round pick Brandon Nimmo (OF, Mets) might finally be heating up after a slow start to his season with the Las Vegas 51s. Nimmo reached base 10 times in five games this week. That included a three-hit game on Thursday and two-hit games on Monday and Saturday. He walked twice and had a hit on Friday. The two walks were his sixth and seventh on the season. In 19 games, the 23-year-old is batting .260 with a .648 OPS.
- In 2015, Whit Merrifield (OF, Royals) established a career-high in stolen bases with 32 for Triple A Omaha. Through 20 games this season, the South Carolina alum is halfway to matching that career-high. Merrifield has been burning up the basepaths this season, swiping a league-high 16 bases in 16 chances. The 27-year-old already has four multi-steal games. Merrifield was a center fielder in college, but he has increased his versatility significantly since turning pro. He can now play all three outfield positions and every infield position but catcher. Merrifield came into spring training a reported 20 pounds heavier and emerged as a potential bench option for the Royals during big league camp. Merrifield has a five-game hitting streak through Saturday, going 12-for-24 during that stretch.
- Coming off of his Cal League Player of the Week performance last week, Luke Tendler (OF, Rangers) continued his tear for the High Desert Mavericks. Tendler homered twice and hit safely in every game this week. He has a .372/.443/.628 slashline for the season. The 24-year-old hit 15 homers for Class A Hickory of the Sally League last season.
- After establishing a career-high in strikeouts in a start with nine on April 21, Andrew Suarez (LHP, Giants) one-upped himself in his next outing. The 2015 second-round pick out of Miami struck-out 10 Stockton Ports in a 6.2-inning effort on April 28. Suarez didn’t walk a batter, and he has 30 strikeouts against only three walks through 22.2 IP for the San Jose Giants.
- Bakersfield Blaze left-hander Anthony Misiewicz (LHP, Mariners) carried a no-hitter into the seventh inning in an April 29 start versus the Inland Empire 66ers. Misiewicz went eight shutout innings in the game, allowing just two hits and one walk. He struck out four and lowered his season ERA to 2.70. Misiewicz was a Mariners’ 18th-round pick last season out of Michigan State. He had a strong debut in the short-season Northwest League last year and skipped over Class A to make his full-season debut in the Cal League.
- It isn’t often that pitchers make the jump from the Cal League directly to the big leagues. It’s even less often that pitchers make that jump when they are carrying ERAs higher than five. However, when you strike out more than two batters per inning pitched, people tend to notice. Visalia’s Zac Curtis (LHP, Diamondbacks) earned a call-up to Arizona over the weekend. Curtis, a 2014 sixth-round pick from Middle Tennessee State, had a 5.23 ERA but struck out 22 in 10.1 IP for the Oaks before his promotion. For his career, he has 139 strikeouts in 91.1 IP Curtis induced a double-play against the first batter he faced for the Diamondbacks on Saturday.
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News and Notes
- Sean Murphy, a 2012 Cal League Pitcher of the Week, passed away unexpectedly at the age of 27, writes Melissa Lockard for Oakland Clubhouse. He spent six years in the Oakland A’s organization, reaching Triple-A in 2014.
- SoCal native River Stevens is feeling right at home with the Lake Elsinore Storm, writes Josh Jackson of MiLB.com.
- The Stockton Ports will host the West Coast Conference baseball tournament for the fourth straight year, writes The Central Valley Business Journal.
Pacific Coast League
- After a year out of baseball, Ryan Kalish is relishing his opportunity with the Iowa Cubs, writes Tommy Birch of the Des Moines Register.
- Veteran Nick Buss has translated a good spring training with the Los Angeles Angels into a hot start with the Triple-A Salt Lake Bees, writes Steve Luhm of the Salt Lake Tribune.
- The Reno Aces’ team dog, Princess, is gaining fame, reports KOLONews.
- One of minor league baseball’s most successful managers, Tony DeFrancesco, waits patiently for another shot at coaching in the big leagues while guiding the Fresno Grizzlies, says Marek Warszawski of the Fresno Bee.
This Week at 2080 Baseball…
Dave DeFreitas reports on Los Angeles Dodgers prospect Andrew Sopko, and chimes in on Nippon Professional League ace Shohei Ohtani, with a feature column and scouting report. Plus several new reports on players from around the minor leagues found in our report library.
Several players graduated from the PCL to make their major-league debuts last week. Lisa Winston documents their big moments in her ‘Les Debutantes’ column. Plus Mauricio Rubio and C.J. Wittmann release their latest episode of The Scale.