Feature Photo: Keston Hiura, 2B/OF, Brewers
Mark Shreve, Spencer Hansen, and Nick Janssen are back this week with in-depth looks at a few of the top names in the minor leagues, including 2017 ninth-overall pick Keston Hiura’s (2B/OF, Brewers) loud start at Class A Wisconsin in the Midwest League, and the rapid emergence of Mitch Keller (RHP, Pirates) as one of the top right-handers in the minors. Shreve also writes up the Yankees’ 2015 second-rounder and second-base prospect Nick Solak, and Hansen evaluates two starters in the Cardinals’ system at Triple-A Memphis: a quickly-maturing righty in 2014 first-rounder Jack Flaherty, who could be ready for a mid-rotation spot for St. Louis out of camp in 2018, and 2016 first-rounder Dakota Hudson, who has reached Memphis just 14 months removed from his college career at Mississippi State.
2080 Prospect Spotlights
Josh Pennington, RHP, Brewers (Class A Wisconsin, Midwest League)
Ht/Wt: 6’0”/175 lbs. B/T: R/R Age (as of April 1, 2017): 22y, 3m
Acquired from the Red Sox in the Tyler Thornburg trade last December Pennington possesses a small frame, that can still produce double-plus velocity that will play well at the back end of a major league bullpen.
He works with a short and compact arm action from a full windup, with a drop-and-drive delivery which has some effort to it. Striking out seven over 4 2/3 innings in my viewing on August 6, Pennington demonstrated above-average ability to miss bats (9.6 SO/9 in 2017) using a plus fastball and an above-average curveball. His four-seam fastball sat 94-to-96 (T97)and while it doesn’t have a lot of movement, it does show some hop when it’s up in the zone getting hitters to chase. He also throws a two-seamer (91-to-93 mph) that shows some tail that he likes to run away from lefties late in counts. His 11-to-5 curveball has tight rotation with sharp, deep break. His changeup is below average presently (86-to-87 mph) and he lacks feel for it – it shows some tumble when thrown for a strike, but projects as average at best, even if the control comes around.
Control issues through his three pro seasons has led to a well-below-average 4.1 BB/9. A slight crossfire action in the windup causes an inconsistent release point, and his tendency is to pull pitches missing glove side. Coming off offseason elbow surgery, he’s only thrown 27 1/3 innings, but early signs point to a big improvement as he’s halved his walk totals this year to, 1.9 BB/9, and he walked none in this view.
Pennington’s elbow injury history is concerning given that he’s only only thrown 106 innings in three years. His small frame is cause for concern regarding his durability, but the upside is substantial. Due to an inconsistent third pitch, he looks destined for a bullpen role, where his plus fastball can play up. He’s got a high-risk, Role 60 ceiling if he stays healthy and keeps improving the control/command, and a Role 50 floor. – Nick Janssen
Keston Hiura, 2B/OF, Brewers (Class A Wisconsin, Midwest League)
Ht/Wt: 5’11”/190 lbs. B/T: R/R Age (as of April 1, 2017): 21y, 8m
Hiura was the Brewers first-round draft choice (#9 overall) this year, has settled into Class A ball quickly for the Timber Rattlers, slashing a hefty .382/.432.624 over his first 176 plate appearances.
Hiura has a small, stocky build with minimal projection left. He has an unusual load as he toe taps into a high leg kick, but he maintains a consistent, balanced and athletic hitting position. He has quick hands that help him get on plane early, and he finishes with an upward path creating leverage, and has some torque in the swing that allows him to drive balls to all fields. He has above-average bat speed and is showing extra-base-hit pop (23 XBH). Presently the power is gap-to-gap, but with his ability to backspin balls and his advanced ability to barrel balls up, he should start to hit balls in the air more (46% GB rate) and develop above-average power at maturity.
Hiura is a fringe-average runner (4.38 home-to-first times). He runs better underway, but doesn’t look to be much of a base-stealing threat. Currently DH’ing due to a ulnar collateral ligament issue, he doesn’t have a set position, but his pre-game work was at second base. He has a short arm action with little carry and had trouble throwing from angles, most likely because of the UCL trouble. His hands are quick and they work well, but the footwork is choppy and he doesn’t consistently get into proper positions to field the ball.
Hiura has an aggressive approach at the plate (12 walks in 176 plate appearances), and even though he is raking to a .389 batting average at Wisconsin, developing a more patient approach and taking more walks will benefit him. The amount of pre-pitch movement makes him susceptible to changing speeds away, and he does have his share of strikeouts (21.3%), but it’s a tolerable number given his extra-base-hit totals. Hiura has a moderate risk ceiling of a Role 60 player, with a floor of Role 55 above-average regular, with the only concern being how the arm and defense progress. That said, the hit tool should carry him to his ceiling. – Nick Janssen
Lewin Diaz, 1B, Twins (Class-A Cedar Rapids, Midwest League)
Ht/Wt: 6’3”/254 lbs. B/T: L/L Age (as of April 1, 2017): 20y, 4m
Signed as an international free agent out of the Dominican Republic in 2013, Diaz has been with the Twins organization for four years now, yet it’s easy to forget he’s still only 20 years old. He has grown into a large, bulky frame with broad shoulders and a thick lower half. Diaz possesses light-tower power, however, work is needed to see that power come out in games more consistently. His hips don’t consistently clear fully, limiting his leverage and resulting in him rolling over balls that he should be driving. Diaz has quick hands and is strong enough to muscle balls to all fields (28 doubles), presently his over-the-fence pop is almost exclusively to pull side (nine home runs to right field, just one to left). He’s an aggressive hitter — he’s walked only 22 times in 456 plate appearances (5% BB rate), but he shows consistent contact ability for a younger power guy, as his strikeout rate is only 15.8%. Defensively, Diaz’s soft hands played well in the field at first base. He doesn’t move well laterally, but he will make the plays he needs to, and he can handle throw in the dirt.
There’s still some risk in the profile given his age, but, Diaz shows big upside, and Twins fans should be excited on what type of player he could become. Letting the lower half work more freely will allow him to tap into his raw power more consistently and expand it to all fields, making him a real threat in the middle of the order. Diaz hass a moderate-risk, Role 60 ceiling, with a Role 50 floor. Realistically, he should settle right in the middle, as a Role 55 first baseman with plus power potential. – Nick Janssen
Mitch Keller, RHP, Pirates (Double-A Altoona, Eastern League)
Ht/Wt: 6’3” / 195 lbs. B/T: R/R Age: (As of April 1, 2017): 20y, 11m
It was a poised and confident Double-A debut for Keller last week in Trenton, as he threw 6 innings of five-hit ball, allowing two earned runs, walking three and striking out five.
Keller, taken in the second round of the 2014 draft out of Xavier H.S (Cedar Rapids, IA), is one of the best arms in the Pirates’ system, and he showed solid, repeatable mechanics built from a base of strength in his lower half, with a long, fluid arm action that generates easy velo through a ¾’s slot. The consistency of the delivery shows in his plus control numbers (2.4 BB/9 in his brief career, and 2.3 BB/9 equally spread across three levels this season).
He showed a real presence on the mound and using his fastball aggressively as an effective two-way offering. The two-seamer showed the most movement, thrown in the 93-to-95 mph range with plus tailing action, and the four-seamer was a real beast in the 94-to-96 velo band – reaching back for 97-to-98 mph on occasion – with bore and late life on some, and some heavier cut action on others, and showing plus movement. He was able to spot the pitch to all quadrants with above-average command, and even showed some effective wildness to keep hitters honest. While most readings were in the 60-to-65 grade range, the movement and variance play it up to a 70-grade, double-plus offering.
His best secondary is his plus 11-to-5 curveball, which has depth and sharp biting action at 78-to-82 mph. He showed good feel both to vary the break and throw it for strikes, and get plenty of swing and miss as an out-pitch. The fastball-curveball combo was effective enough to virtually eliminate the need for the changeup in this view, though he did throw a couple in the 78-to-79 mph range as he worked his way through the lineup a third time. It’s not a stretch to see the offering become an average secondary with increased use, given the arm action and the polished mechanics he possesses.
Still just 21 years old and moving quickly through the system, Keller is giving up just 6.7 H/9 this year in his 93 1/3 innings while striking out 8.1 per nine, and his GO:AO rate has jumped to 1.66 this year from 1.07 in 2016. He could still see a tick or two of added velocity as the body matures, which would be a real sight to see if the added upper-body strength comes. It’s an impressive overall package, and the combination of velocity, movement and control of the arsenal is something to dream on. He has a moderate-risk ceiling of a Role 70, number two starter who will flash signs of a true number one when he is on. – Mark Shreve
Nick Solak, 2B, Yankees (Double-A Trenton, Eastern League)
Ht/Wt: 5’11” / 175 lbs. B/T: R/R Age (As of April 1, 2017): 22y, 3m
Solak, a converted outfielder taken by the Bombers in the second round of the draft last year out of Louisville, was promoted to Double-A Trenton on August 1 after a solid campaign at High A Tampa, where he slashed .301/.397/.460 with 10 home runs over 100 games. He’s only gained momentum since then, slashing a healthy .327/.352/.538 from the number two spot in the order, and playing a solid-if-unspectacular second base in my multiple views this month.
Solak is playing above his listed 175 pounds, looking 10-to-15 pounds heavier, and there is room for some additional added strength in his upper half to go with his present lower-half strength. At the plate, Solak has minimal pre-pitch movement and some mild bat wrap, and he uses a moderate leg lift to trigger the swing. He times it up well, keeping his quick hands and wrists inside and showing above-average bat speed. The barrel stays in the zone nicely on a level swing plane, and he shows some leverage when making consistently hard contact. While the swing plane is oriented to line drives (2.76 GO:AO ratio) he’s finding some backspin carry to get the ball out of the park (11 home runs) as the season has progressed. Solak uses the whole field well, with consistent extra-base pop into the gaps, and he’ll hang back and shoot the ball to the oppo field. He’s also showing patience at the plate (55/87 BB/SO rate this year), hitting for high average and getting on base at a .391 clip, and the hit tool overall projects as plus. On the bases, he’s a plus runner whose speed plays better underway, with 4.03-to-4.15 second home-to-first times, and he can score on a double from first base. He should project to 15-to-20 stolen bases annually.
On defense, Solak showed fringy footwork at second base, but his quick reads and reactions help him show solid-average range into the hole and up the middle. He can make the routine plays, and does well coming in on balls, and ranges particularly well to the first-base side. He has average arm strength, utilizing a short, slingshot release, and he throws with accuracy when on the run. While there’s still room to improve – in particular the pivots/transfers on double play balls, and improving his balance at the margins of his range – there’s enough athleticism and instincts to expect him to be average defender at maturity.
While he could see some time in the outfield at the upper levels in an effort to find room for the bat-first profile to play in a big league lineup, the bet here is that he settles in nicely as a solid Role 50, major league second baseman. His high average and on-base percentage and his consistent contact should carry the profile, and there’s a chance to hit an above-average ceiling if some more strength is added to his polished swing mechanics to bump the power profile to an average grade. – Mark Shreve
Thyago Vieira, RHP, Mariners (Triple-A Tacoma, Pacific Coast League)
Ht/Wt: 6’2’’/210 lbs. B/T: R/R Age (as of April 1, 2017): 23y, 9m
Vieira had a solid showing in the Arizona Fall League in 2016 and earned himself a spot on the Mariners’ 40-man roster this past offseason. The 24-year-old began the season at Double-A Arkansas and was promoted to Triple-A Tacoma on July 19. In 47 2/3 innings between the two levels he’s posted a 3.59 ERA. Vieira has elite velocity, but is still a fairly raw prospect at this point.
Vieira has a violent delivery that he struggles to repeat consistently, and he pitches primarily from the stretch. He has a wrap in the back, hiding the ball well to create some deception. He pitches from the third-base side of the rubber, creating good angle against righties. Despite relative durability to this point, Vieira has a high-effort effort delivery and some occasional recoil in his arm action, which raises some concerns about future injury, and adds some risk to the profile.
Vieira’s fastball sat 96-to-99 mph (T101) during this viewing. The pitch plays up with some late arm-side run and downward plane but flattened out up in the zone. He has below-average command and control numbers because he struggles to repeat his delivery consistently. Despite poor walk and strikeout rates, however (career 4.61 BB/9 and 7.49 K/9 rates), he does miss barrels. Given his lack of control and command of the pitch it does grade as near-elite given its velocity, movement, and deception in his delivery.
Vieira’s best secondary pitch is a fringe-average curveball that sat 80-to-82 mph with 11-to-5 shape. He uses the pitch mostly for put-away, but it lacks effectiveness because he doesn’t command it or control it well. However, it had sharp bite and could be an average offering if he can improve his command of the pitch.
Vieira has the stuff to be a Role 55, top set-up man if he can improve his control. But the more likely outcome is him settling as a Role 50, average set-up or situational arm, especially given his effectiveness in short stints and against righties. He could be a late bloomer given his age and lack of experience at the higher levels (47 ⅔ combined innings at Double and Triple-A). His profile best compares to that of Arquimedes Caminero (RHP 2013-2016, multiple teams). – Spencer Hansen
Dakota Hudson, RHP, Cardinals (Triple-A Memphis, Pacific Coast League)
Ht/Wt: 6’5’’/215 lbs. B/T: R/R Age (as of April 1, 2017): 22y, 6m
Hudson is just 14 months removed from pitching at Mississippi State, and he’s already reached the Triple-A level. Not only is he advanced for his first full year in the pro ranks, but he’s got room to get even better. Despite some struggles during this viewing – just his second start at the Triple-A level – Hudson showed the makings of a future Role 50, number four starter for the Red Birds.
Hudson displayed a plus four-seam fastball sitting 93-to-96 mph (T97) that he gets good downhill angle on with his tall, high-waisted frame. The pitch also had some arm-side run at times. At present, he has average control of the pitch, however with 151 pro innings and a repeatable delivery there’s no reason to think the fastball control, and the overall control profile (career 2.98 BB/9), could reach above average.
The 22-year old’s best secondary offering is a 60-grade slider that sat 86-to-88 mph and at times looks like a cutter at the higher end of the velo range. He used it mostly for putaway and had ¾’s depth and sharp break, and it misses bats. Hudson’s other breaking ball was a curveball that had 11-to-5 shape and was used mostly as a get-me-over offering. During this outing he did a nice job locating the curveball to both sides of the plate.
Hudson also mixed in an average changeup 80-to-82 mph and had some fading action. The pitch plays up because of good arm action and its 10-12 mph velocity separation from the fastball, and he does a nice job of keeping the pitch down in the zone to elicit weak contact.
Hudson has a high floor given his good makeup, mound presence and four-pitch mix, but also a relatively high ceiling because of how good the stuff is. At this point, one could assume the Cardinals want to see Hudson build his innings and maintain his arm strength and effectiveness deeper into games. With good pitching depth already residing in the high minors, it’s likely Hudson spends most – if not all – of 2018 back with Memphis. – Spencer Hansen
Jack Flaherty, RHP, Cardinals (Triple-A Memphis, Pacific Coast League)
Ht/Wt: 6’4’’/205 lbs. B/T: R/R Age (as of April 1, 2017): 21y, 5m
Flaherty was selected in the first round of the 2014 MLB Draft (34th overall) out of Harvard-Westlake H.S. (Los Angeles, CA), and much like several Cardinals prospects of the recent past, he’s shot through the farm system rapidly, and could be an impact starter for St. Louis sooner than later. With four above-average offerings and great pitchability, Flaherty projects as a Role 60, number three starter.
Flaherty displayed a four-seam fastball that grades as above-average and sat 92-to-95 mph with some downward plane, eliciting weak contact. He successfully commands the fastball in all quadrants consistently, and he has above-average control of the pitch thanks to his repeatable delivery and plus athleticism. His overall control numbers are also above average (career 2.59 BB/9).
Flaherty has two breaking balls, a curveball and a slider, both grade as above average. The curveball sat 74-to-76 mph when used early in the count and was able to locate it to both sides of the plate. He could also dial it up to 77-to-79 mph with 12-to-6 shape and solid depth when used for put-away. His slider was 83-to-86 mph and had sharp two-plane break. Flaherty had great feel for it during this viewing, starting it in the zone and burying it low and away to righties, and to the back foot of lefties.
Flaherty’s best secondary offering could be his above-average changeup. It sat 84-to-86 mph with good velocity separation from the fastball and significant fading action. The pitch plays up even more because of his arm action, which adds some deception. Flaherty has tremendous feel for the changeup and is comfortable throwing it in any count.
Just 21 years old, Flaherty is significantly younger than the average prospect at the Triple-A level, which speaks to how highly the Cardinals think of him and how polished he is for his age. Having said that, the Cardinals should be in no rush given their pitching depth at the big league level. Flaherty has advanced feel for sequencing with above-average command and control of his entire arsenal. With Lance Lynn (RHP, Cardinals) set to become a free agent, Flaherty could compete for a spot in the rotation out of camp in 2018. – Spencer Hansen