Written by Mark Nikolov
I can’t help but be excited about this upcoming Minor League Baseball season. There is going to be a ton of talent on the field, particularly in the High-A California League. I’ll try to see as many games as I can in San Jose this year but the one hour drive back and forth from could be grueling. My goal is to go to a dozen or so. Here are a few teams that I want to watch and some prospects that I’ll be keeping an eye on.
Island Empire 66ers – Los Angeles Angels Affiliate
Two prospects that I really want to see live and in person are Matt Thaiss and Jahmai Jones. Thaiss was drafted in the first round (16th overall) out of the University of Virginia as a catcher but it looks like the Angels intend on bringing him up as a first baseman. Most people agree that he is one of the best pure hitters coming out of last year’s draft. The Baseball America 2017 Prospect Handbook had this to say about Matt:
“He takes excellent at-bats, knows his plan, doesn’t chase bad pitches and isn’t afraid to take a walk. He walked nearly as often as he struck out in pro ball after compiling a 55-to-74 strikeout-to-walk ratio in three college seasons. With plus bat speed and a strong swing with leverage, Thaiss had above average to plus raw power…”
Jahmai Jones was drafted by the Angels in the second round of 2015 MLB Draft. His hitting approach is behind that of Thaiss but he makes up for it with his speed and defense. In a recent article written by Chase C. Kimura, Jones was praised as “the guy who should help put the Angels farm system back on the map…” I’m really excited about the possibility of Jahmai and Matt both playing for the 66ers this year.
Lake Elsinore Storm – San Diego Padres Affiliate
Another Prospect that I’m really anxious to watch is Cal Quantrill. Cal was drafted in the first round of the 2016 MLB Draft out of Stanford. Quantrill didn’t play at Stanford as a junior and he had his 2015 season cut short because of Tommy John Surgery. So it’s pretty impressive that he was still drafted 8th overall. The Padres must’ve seen something special in the Canadian born prospect. The good news for Quantrill is that he has a degree in Mgmt. Science and Engineering to fall back on just in case injuries plague his career.
Cal pitched really well in his pro debut last season. While playing in Rookie Ball and Short A he struck out 44 and walked only 4 batters. He struggled a little bit in Fort Wayne but he barely got a chance to get comfortable. He only threw 4.2 innings there. I’m expecting him to start off the season back in Low Class A but I’m hoping he gets a call from Lake Elsinore at some point during the season. There’s probably a lot of Stanford Baseball fans that are hoping for the same thing. San Jose Municipal Stadium is only a 25 minute drive from their campus.
Lancaster JetHawks – Colorado Rockies Affiliate
The biggest name to watch for in the California League this year could be Brendan Rodgers. Rodgers was selected number three overall by the Rockies in the 2015 Draft. Kyle Glaser of Baseball America has him listed as the seventh overall prospect in the 2017 BA Prospect Handbook. After looking at his accomplishments last year with Asheville it’s difficult to argue otherwise (see below – info courtesy of MiLB.com).
2016 MILB.COM ORGANIZATION ALL-STAR: Colorado (NL)
2016 BASEBALL AMERICA LOW CLASS A ALL-STAR: Asheville (SAL)
2016 MOST OUTSTANDING MAJOR LEAGUE PROSPECT: Asheville (SAL)
2016 POST-SEASON ALL-STAR: Asheville (SAL)
2016 PLAYER OF THE WEEK: 8/21/16 – Asheville (SAL)
2016 MID-SEASON ALL-STAR: Asheville (SAL)
Rodgers recently made a surprise performance in an MLB Spring Training game. I’m crossing my fingers that he doesn’t get an early promotion to Double-A.
A guy that I’m probably most eager to watch on the JetHawks is Salvador Justo. I met Justo a few months back and he gave me the opportunity to do an exclusive interview with him. Since then we’ve become good friends and I still keep in contact with him about once a week. As far as I know he’s been having a very productive offseason and I suspect that he will start off the year in Lancaster as a result. Keep an eye on him and his 100 mph fastball if you can.
Modesto Nuts – Seattle Mariners Affiliate
Mariners fans are excited about first round pick Kyle Lewis and with good reason. Lewis was drafted 11th overall last year out of Mercer University. He was the highest drafted player in the history of the Southern Conference. His two best tools are his power and his arm. He was very impressive in his first pro appearance last year in Short Season Everett. In 117 at bats he hit .299 with a .385 OBP showing great patience at the plate. His strikeout-to-walk ratio was almost even at 22-to-16. Unfortunately a bad collision at home plate ended his season abruptly with a torn ACL and torn cartilage in his LCL and MCL.
Apparently Lewis has been rehabbing well. He has a reputation for being a hard worker and he is very motivated to get back out on the field. On January 31st of this year he tweeted a video of himself hitting a triple for the AquaSox and told his fans “I need more!” Kyle is obviously a fierce competitor and there’s no doubt in my mind he’ll be back playing at a high level in 2017. He’ll likely start off in Low Class A Clinton but he should see a good amount of time playing for the Nuts.
Rancho Cucamonga Quakes – Los Angeles Dodgers Affiliate
Rancho Cucamonga has produced a good amount of highly talented players in recent years (Cody Bellinger, Julio Urias, Corey Seager, etc.). One player that could gather some attention for the Quakes this year is Walker Buehler. The Dodgers drafted him with the 24th overall pick in 2015 out of Vanderbilt. Buehler spent most of the 2016 season recovering from Tommy John surgery but in a short return to the mound he actually showed improved velocity from his college days. He profiles as a middle of the rotation starting pitcher with three potential plus pitches: a fastball, cutter and a curve.
Walker will face an innings limit in 2017, which is bad news for fans that want to see him play. The good news is, it’s been reported that he’s working diligently on his strength and conditioning this past year in order to improve on his thin frame (via Rotowire). “He says he is 25 pounds heavier than he was prior to undergoing UCL surgery in August of 2015.” A return to Low A is the most likely scenario for Buehler this April but I expect to see him in a quakes uniform at some point during the upcoming season.
Stockton Ports – Oakland A’s Affiliate
@JohnJKerley has been telling me for a while now that A.J. Puk is going to be the next Chris Sale. At first I was skeptical, but after following him in Spring Training this year I’m starting to believe the hype. Puk faced three batters and struck out the side in his first ever spring performance. MiLB.com reported that A’s manager Bob Melvin was particularly impressed with his changeup. “He had good life on his fastball, but something we’ve been talking about is using his changeup and using it effectively, and every changeup he threw ended up being a good one. You take the mound for the first time in a Spring Training game, expect to have some nerves and so forth, and he didn’t. Nice little start for him.”
The 2017 Baseball America Prospect Handbook says Puk has the ceiling of a front end starter “but he must become more efficient with his pitches and more consistent with his command.” Other publications have published similar opinions. Last year in Short Season Vermont A.J. threw 40 strikeouts in 33 innings showing advanced skills at that level. I’m not ready to call him the next Chris Sale but I wouldn’t be surprised if he puts up Sale type numbers in the California League this year. More on this later…
I want to thank John Calvagno of Notes from the Sally for encouraging me to write this piece. Follow him on Twitter @AshevilleSoxFan for the most insightful news on the South Atlantic League. Also, check out my Minor League Baseball card store at REALMcCOYSPORTSCARDS.com.