This week, we take one last check-in on an uber-prospect then turn our attention to new fast-risers.
Five Big Hype Prospects
Zack Thompson, 24, SP, STL (AAA)
44.1 IP, 11.37 K/9, 3.05 BB/9, 4.67 ERA
The Cardinals recently announced Thompson will join the Major League roster, presumably to start one of the games this weekend. Reading the tea leaves, this might be a single-appearance arrival in the big leagues. He should eventually be a fairly regular member of the rotation at times during this season. Like fellow left-handed Cardinals pitching prospect Matthew Liberatore, Thompson’s individual pitches draw strong grades from scouts. However, the repertoire as a whole might leave something to be desired, especially since his fastball and curve don’t tunnel effectively. In other words, they look different out of his hand. That could partly explain his elevated Triple-A ERA despite strong strikeout and walk rates.
Liberatore, a 22-year-old former Rays farmhand, was dinged for a 5.54 ERA in three starts and generated just 6.1 percent swinging strikes. Scouts from multiple outlets have noted the similarities between these left-handed starters. We’ll see if Thompson can make a stronger claim to Major League readiness.
Julio Rodriguez, 21, OF, SEA (MLB)
205 PA, 6 HR, 15 SB, .272/.322/.424
Through the first two weeks of the season, Rodriguez hit a miserable .154/.233/.179 with a 41.9 percent strikeout rate. He struggled, in part, with bad strike calls. Since then, the precocious prospect is batting .303/.346/.487 with all six of his home runs and 11 steals. His strikeout rate during that span is down to 25.9 percent and slowly improving as the season progresses. He’s rapidly establishing himself as one of the most dynamic players in the league.
The obvious next step in his development is improved plate discipline. Rodriguez drew a healthy number of walks in the minors last season, though that could have been a function of opponents working around him. Thus far, he’s proven especially susceptible to swinging outside of the zone. His early experience with egregious strike calls might have taken a mental toll. If he can improve to even a league average swing rate outside the zone, superstardom will be his.
Nick Pratto, 23, 1B, KC (AAA)
186 PA, 10 HR, 4 SB, .221/.349/.461
Prior to this season, Pratto was seen as ahead of teammate Vinnie Pasquantino. Now, it’s not so clear. Both players are first basemen with sufficient thump to make their presence felt out of the designated hitter slot too. The trouble is the Royals entered 2022 with a logjam of cornermen and are resistant to setting aside their veterans. In particular, Carlos Santana has performed poorly since the start of 2020, batting just .203/.322/.311 in 1,061 plate appearances. Their loyalty in the face of contrary evidence is a factor in their 16-33 record.
While Pasquantino is having the spicier season, Pratto’s bat has come alive in the last two weeks. Over his last 59 plate appearances, he’s batting .217/.390/.565 with five home runs. He profiles as a slugger in the mold of Kyle Schwarber, one whose patience and penchant for fly ball contact will serve both as a strength (walks and home runs) and weakness (strikeouts and low batting average).
Eury Perez, 19, SP, MIA (AA)
38 IP, 13.26 K/9, 2.13 BB/9, 3.79 ERA
Unless I’m mistaken, Perez is the youngest member of Double-A, and he’s absolutely thriving. A looming 6’ 8’’ on the bump, Perez has uncanny command for a player his size and generates swinging strikes with ease. To that end, he’s recorded an 18.8 percent swinging strike rate against Double-A competition. He has a traditional repertoire of mid-90s fastball, curveball, and changeup. His build remains youthful. Given his height, Perez will probably add 30 or more pounds within the next couple years.
The Marlins have carefully managed his workload, keeping him to between 18 and 21 batters faced in most starts. In all probability, we won’t see Perez in the Majors this season. He might, however, find his way to the doorstep in time for an early 2023 debut.
Brayan Bello, 23, SP, BOS (AAA)
17 IP, 13.76 K/9, 4.24 BB/9, 3.18 ERA
The Red Sox have a number of interesting starting pitcher prospects headlined by Bello. While their big-league rotation is solid, they desperately need reinforcements in the bullpen. Bello kicked off 2022 in Double-A where he posted a 1.60 ERA with 11.23 K/9 and 3.21 BB/9 in 33.2 innings. He’s hardly missed a beat since joining the Triple-A rotation. A slight uptick in walk rate is the only sign he’s been challenged. Bello features a three-pitch repertoire of above average offerings. His fastball sits in the upper-90s and could play up in relief. He also throws a tight slider and a wipeout changeup.
Bello is poised to immediately reinforce the Red Sox pitching staff, either by joining the bullpen directly or freeing Garrett Whitlock to resume a late-inning role.
Grayson Rodriguez (22): Rodriguez was 20 batters into what many (including me) believe was his final minor league start when a lat strain ended his outing a few batters early. Such injuries can be complex and difficult to rehab. He’ll likely be shut down for at least several weeks before a throwing program is considered.
Ethan Small (25): Small received his first cup of coffee last Monday. He’s a southpaw whose fastball and changeup blend together beautifully even if they lack the big velocity associated with this era. His third pitch, a slider, lags behind the others. With Freddy Peralta and Brandon Woodruff sidelined, the Brewers might need Small again soon.
Taj Bradley (21): Bradley has built upon his breakout 2021 season with a mirror replica in Double-A. He’s posted a 2.20 ERA with 11.20 K/9 and 2.20 BB/9 in 41 innings. A promotion to Triple-A should be forthcoming, at which point he’ll become one of the youngest players at the level.
Gunnar Henderson (20): Speaking of young Double-A players on the cusp of reaching Triple-A, Henderson has put together an otherworldly .433/.500/.767 line over his last 30 plate appearances. Overall, he has more walks than strikeouts along with eight home runs and 12 steals in 200 plate appearances. A promotion is overdue.
Jordan Westburg (23): Although his overall performance hasn’t been as emphatic as Henderson’s, Westburg was just as hot since May 25. He’s batting .406/.486/.594 over his last 37 plate appearances. While Henderson appears to be mid-breakout, Westburg is merely showing modest skills growth.