Written by Mark Firkins Photo by MLB.com
Winter and the off-season is no more. The Cactus and Grapefruit Leagues are done playing. Spring training 2018 has come and gone. MLB and MiLB stadiums and fields have been prepared for the fans to enjoy again. Center Field by John Fogerty can be heard again. Baseball season, IS – FINALLY – HERE.
As the 2018 season begins, I look back on the articles and players I have enjoyed researching and wrote about in the off-season. Here’s an update on their status. These up and coming players will start their seasons:
Mitch Garver – C (Minnesota Twins)
After an impressive season in AAA Rochester (International League), Mitch earned a call up to the big leagues last summer. He entered spring training as the solid choice to and will back up Twins established catcher, Jason Castro in 2018. Look for Mitch to take over catching duties when the Twins face an opposing lefty. The Twins are expected to adjust their line up against lefties, and spelling the left-handed hitting Castro follows the Twins logic.
Sam Perez – P (Miami Marlins)
2017 was a tale of two seasons for Perez. In 17 games for the Greensboro Grasshoppers (Carolina League), Sam posted a 2-1 record, 6.21 ERA, 1.23 WHIP, and pitched out of the bullpen. He was assigned to the Batavia Muckdogs (NY PENN League) in June, started 14 games, went 4-2, with a 2.21 ERA, 1.06 WHIP, and struck out 53 batters. How the Marlins will use Perez in 2018 is a mystery. Some Marlins officials project him as a high leverage pitcher with a good fastball, curve and change-up and suited for the 6th and 7th innings. Others describe him as a durable starter who eats innings, keeps the ball in the park, and will give a solid start every 5th day. Sam will start the season for Batavia in June where we will find out if he’s on the mound at the start of the game or get called out of the bullpen for relief.
Thomas Jones – OF (Miami Marlins)
The Marlins #26 prospect will stay in extended spring training and play for the Batavia Muckdogs (NY PENN League) when their season begins in mid June. Jones is arguably one of the best athletes in the Marlins system. He’s a speedy OF who played the majority of his games in CF last season in Batavia, but with his strong and accurate arm can also play the corners. With a year of NY PENN League experience behind him, expect Jones to improve on the offensive side. Jones has a good eye, takes walks, and can swipe bases. Time at the top of the order will probably be seen. He has a quick and level swing and Marlins scouts feel power should develop as Jones matures.
Kyle Nelson – RP (Cleveland Indians)
Hard throwing Lefty relief pitcher Kyle Nelson will see more action in 2018 as he will be assigned to the Lake County Captains (Midwest League). Nelson is a guy who gets players out from both sides of the plate equally. With a blazing, spinning fastball and excellent off speed slider, Kyle isn’t just a lefty specialist, he is guy you call on to get outs in tough situations and get them out quickly. Dare I say that Kyle Nelson reminds me of another high-profile, Lefty relief pitcher, employed by the Indians, Andrew Miller.
Nolan Jones – 3B (Cleveland Indians)
Currently the Indians #4 prospect, Nolan will look to continue his impressive batting with the Lake County Captains (Midwest League) in 2018. Captains manager, Luke Carlin, will be patient with Nolan and no doubt help him to improve his defensive skills at the hot corner, as this is only his second season at 3B. A full season of baseball in Lake County will give Nolan plenty of extra at bats and chances in the field to showcase his skills.
Logan Ice – C (Cleveland Indians)
Logan will move up another level this year and play for the Lynchburg Hillcats (Carolina League). A true defensive catcher, excellent at blocking balls, has a strong and accurate arm, and who pitchers trust and respect calling their games. At the plate, look more at Ice’s OBP than AVG. He’s got a little pop in his bat and can find the wall and gaps, but equally important, is smart enough to take walks and just get on base. Logan has caught for some of the Indians top pitching prospects in his short MiLB career. Playing in the High A Carolina League will get him even more of these opportunities. Logan Ice is the Indians #21 prospect.
Tristan McKenzie – P (Cleveland Indians)
Currently the #2 prospect in the Indians system, the potential is real for Tristan McKenzie to develop into a frontline MLB starter. The 2017 Carolina League Pitcher of the Year winner started 25 games for the Lynchburg Hillcats. He posted a 12-6 record, 3.46 ERA, kept opposing batters to a .203 AVG and struck out 186 batters in 143 innings. The Indians will place McKenzie at Lynchburg to start the 2018 season, but should he continue to meet the Indians expectations, a placement to challenge him further at AA Akron (Eastern League) could be in order.
Matt Foley – C (NY Mets)
The little engine that won’t quit, Matt Foley, vowed to return to spring training with the Mets organization with a work ethic and determination to advance his career. Playing mostly in the Gulf Coast League the past three seasons, Matt will stay in extended spring training and report to the Brooklyn Cyclones of the NY PENN League when play begins in June. Matt looks to build on his 2017 season where he batted .290 and proved he is a defensive gem behind the plate. Look for this 40th round pick (2015 – Marlins) to give you 100% effort, 100% of the time, and surprise you at the ballpark with his natural abilities.
Royce Lewis – SS (Minnesota Twins)
The Twins #1 prospect will begin his 2018 season with the Cedar Rapids Kernels (Midwest League). Lewis earned a promotion to Cedar Rapids in August last season and proved he belonged. In 18 games he batted .296, scored 16 runs, and blasted his one Midwest League HR in his first game. Look for Royce to continue hitting for good average and driving the balls to the gaps for extra bases. Derek Jeter is who he inspires to be. Lewis has a good work ethic and aspires to improve his defense and replicate his hero. There’s no doubt that Lewis will be an exciting and fun player to keep an eye on this season.
Nick Gordon – SS/2B (Minnesota Twins)
The Minnesota Twins #1 pick in 2014 and current #4 Twins prospect will begin his 2018 season with the Chattanooga Lookouts (Southern League). In 2017 for AA Chattanooga, Nick batted .270, with 9 HR’s, 29 doubles, and 66 RBI’s. A SS through most of his career, Nick will be shifted over to 2B for the majority of his playing time this season. Nick is a very quick infielder with excellent range and a good throwing arm. With Brian Dozier the Twins current 2B, expecting to become a free agent after this season, the shift to 2B for Gordon could be his path to the big leagues.
Emmanuel Tapia – 1B (Cleveland Indians)
Last year’s Midwest League Masher, “Manny” Tapia will move up another level to the Lynchburg Hillcats (Carolina League). Manny led the Midwest League in home runs (29) and RBI’s (71) last season. A powerful, Dominican player who can definitely not just hit for power but also average. Look for Manny to improve his pitch recognition, lay off out of the zone pitches, and take some walks. Still somewhat new to 1B, Manny is a hard worker who will take any extra fielding practice he can get and wants to improve all facets of his game.
Ulysses Cantu – 1B (Cleveland Indians)
Strong and athletic are the two perfect words to describe Cantu who will advance to the Lake County Captains (Midwest League). There’s no doubt Cantu has all the tools of a good, professional hitter. He sees the ball well from the pitcher, recognizes pitches, and rarely gets fooled. Where he’ll play on the field in 2018 is a little bit of a mystery. A catcher by trade, who can play 3B but due to all of the Indians prospects there, was shifted to 1B. A 6 foot, righty, first baseman doesn’t translate well. If Cantu’s bat can do the talking, a position will be found for him.
Austin Wynns – C (Baltimore Orioles)
Austin was assigned to the Norfolk Tides (International League) on March 25th and will begin his first full season at the AAA level. The textbook definition of a catcher; a career .994 FPCT, throws out would be stealers, calls an excellent game, handles his pitchers with respect, and is a natural leader on the field and clubhouse. A decent hitter, who is smart at the plate, structured and disciplined, and gets the job done. Placed on the 40 man roster by the Orioles to protect him from the November rule 5 draft, Austin should be the 1st catcher called up to the O’s should something happen to Caleb Joseph or Chance Sisco.
Chance Sisco – C (Baltimore Orioles)
The Orioles top prospect is ready for the majors. All he has done at every level in the minors is hit for high average, drive in runs, hit doubles, and get on base. In his first full spring training with the big league club, Chance did nothing but impress. He batted to the tune of .429, with 2 HR’s and 10 RBI’s in 35 AB. Look for him to learn the craft of being a solid defensive backstop from veteran catcher Caleb Joseph and ex MLB catcher (now Coach) Einar Diaz.
Alex Murphy – C (Baltimore Orioles)
Drafted as a catcher in 2013, The Orioles asked Alex to learn and play some first base in 2016 and 2017. He did just that and will now call that home for the Frederick Keys (Carolina League) to start the 2018 season. Murphy is just fine with that, “anyway to get to the big leagues” is his attitude. Murphy is a strong right-handed batter with power to all fields. Since learning first base, Murphy has seen a spike in his home runs, bashing 27 of his 35 in 2016/17. With the Orioles thin on first base prospects this may be the perfect opportunity for Murphy and his attitude to succeed.
Will Benson – OF (Cleveland Indians)
1st round pick in 2016 and current #7 Indians prospect, Will Benson will play a full season of baseball for the Lake County Captains (Midwest League). Benson lead the NY PENN League in home runs last season and will look to build his offensive capabilities at the next level. Benson has all of the tools you need in an OF, speed, strong arm, alertness, and agility. Benson played most of his games in RF last year but can and probably will learn to play all three OF positions this year.
Conner Capel – OF (Cleveland Indians)
Capel moves up another level of baseball this season and is assigned to the Lynchburg Hillcats (Carolina League). Conner brings a little bit of everything to his game; good arm strength and can play all three OF spots equally well, has speed and can steal bases, at the plate features a smooth left-handed swing, good batter’s eye, and decent power (22 HR’s & 61 RBI’s in 2017). Currently ranked #12 on the Indians prospect list, watch for Conner to continue his success and development in the Carolina League in 2018.
Mitch Longo – OF (Cleveland Indians)
Mitch pummeled his way through the Midwest League’s pitchers last season showing a slashline of .361/.431/.530 – He covers the entire plate and strike zone with his swing and places the ball in all parts of the field. Mitch has excellent speed and stole 20 of 21 bases. Longo’s speed and arm strength make him a natural fit for RF, where he played all of his games defensively last season. Mitch earned a late season call up to the Lynchburg Hillcats (Carolina League), impressed in his short stint there, and will be assigned to for the 2018 season. Mitch ranks #27 on the Indians prospect list.
Zack Littell – P (Minnesota Twins)
Zack Littell will begin his second season in the Twins organization with the AA Chattanooga Lookouts (Southern League). Zack has done nothing but impress in his short time in AA baseball. He has gone 19-1, with a 2.21 ERA and 1.12 WHIP. He is a RHP with excellent command, rarely gives up a walk, and has finesse. His pitch arsenal features a cut fastball, flashy curveball, and deceptive change-up. Zack gets ahead early in the count, mixes his pitches well and produces a lot of ground ball outs. Zack Littell is currently the #15 prospect in the Twins system.
LaMonte Wade – OF (Minnesota Twins)
Wade will begin another season with the AA Chattanooga Lookouts (Southern League). Since being drafted in the 9th round in 2015, Wade has performed above average at every level he’s played. Through three MiLB seasons, Wade shows a .295 AVG, .404 OBP, 24 home runs, and has stolen 27 bases in 34 attempts. Wade’s alertness and speed has played him defensively mostly in CF and LF. Launch angle and leverage are key buzz words you’re hearing from successful MLB batters lately. The Twins want to teach those mechanics to Wade and see the results turn into more power and HR’s. LaMonte Wade currently places #13 in the Twins prospects rankings.
Jim Curtis – RP (Minnesota Twins)
Curtis will look to build on the success he had at AAA Rochester (International League) last season and start the year there. The Twins brought in some quality veteran arms in Addison Reed, Zach Duke, and Fernando Rodney to replace retired closer Glen Perkins and traded away reliever Brandon Kinztler. If Curtis produces similar results at AAA like he did last year, there’s no doubt that his services will be one of the first called upon, should the Twins bullpen need some help. Curtis currently is ranked as the #21 prospect in the Twins farm system.