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Big Hype Prospects: Walker, Volpe, Baty, Grissom, Brown
This week on Big Hype Prospects, we’ll take a closer look at high-profile youngsters pushing for an Opening Day assignment.
Five BHPs In The News
Jordan Walker, 20, OF, STL (AA)
536 PA, 19 HR, 22 SB, .306/.388/.510
This column has nothing new to say about Walker. He is in the midst of a bid to skip Triple-A entirely and oust one of Tyler O’Neill or Dylan Carlson in the process. Playing time for Juan Yepez and Nolan Gorman could also be negatively affected by Walker’s imminent debut. Through 54 spring plate appearances, Walker is batting .340/.352/.604 against a mix of competition. If there’s a fly in the ointment, it’s his singular walk. Then again, Walker is in camp to impress with his bat, not to work free passes. Those can come later. Of his 18 hits, eight have gone for extra bases including three home runs.
Anthony Volpe, 21, SS, NYY (AAA)
(AA) 497 PA, 18 HR, 44 SB, .251/.348/.472
Like Walker, Volpe is wearing out his welcome in BHP. The young shortstop is batting .297/.422/.568 with two home runs and four doubles in 44 plate appearances. The Yankees have a number of awkward roster decisions to make. Volpe’s success only adds to the pressure. Do they embrace the youth movement with Volpe, Oswald Peraza, and Oswaldo Cabrera or hand the keys to veterans like Aaron Hicks, Rafael Ortega, Willie Calhoun, and Josh Donaldson one more time? Of course, there’s a middle ground – pick the best option between Volpe and Peraza for shortstop, option the other, and juggle as many of the others as possible until Harrison Bader can return. The “safe” play lies in retaining as many assets as possible. A bolder course might be necessary in a tough AL East.
Brett Baty, 23, 3B, NYM (MLB)
(AA) 394 PA, 19 HR, 2 SB, .312/.406/.544
Continuing a theme, past episodes contain (and then repeat) all of the analysis and scouting notes I have on Baty. He’s batting .351/.478/.459 in 44 plate appearances. Of modest concern, he’s hit for extra bases just twice out of 13 hits. He also has a 27.27 percent strikeout rate. Baty doesn’t profile for the superstar ceilings enjoyed by Walker and Volpe. His ground ball-oriented swing limits his offensive potential. There’s only so much he can do to lift the ball without entirely reworking his mechanics. Despite this shortcoming and inconsistent defense, Baty profiles as a high-probability, above-average regular. His main competition, Eduardo Escobar, is batting .125/.222/.347 in 16 spring at bats. He also went 1-for-10 with a home run at the World Baseball Classic.
Vaughn Grissom, 22, SS, ATL (MLB)
(MLB) 156 PA, 5 HR, 5 SB, .291/.353/.440
The first draft of this writeup was penned before the Braves optioned Grissom or Shewmake. Grissom spent much of the 2022 season in High-A and skipped Triple-A entirely en route to a splashy debut as the Braves second baseman. He faded down the stretch and vanished in the postseason. The presumptive favorite for the shortstop job for much of the offseason, the Braves went out of their way to tout Braden Shewmake in the last week before pivoting to veteran options. Thing is, Grissom performed well this spring. In 37 plate appearances, he batted .371/.400/.429 with only four strikeouts. Reports on his defense have been positive, though he spent more time at second base recently. While he didn’t hit for much power, he looked as if he belonged in Atlanta. Presumably, he’ll continue to work on his defense in Triple-A.
Hunter Brown, 24, SP, HOU (MLB)
(AAA) 106 IP, 11.38 K/9, 3.82 BB/9, 2.55 ERA
Brown has been favored to win a job since the moment Lance McCullers Jr. suffered an elbow strain. Spring stats for pitchers tend to be extra difficult to evaluate since so much of their work happens on back fields and in side sessions. In four recorded games, Brown has 10 strikeouts in nine innings. He’s also allowed only five hits. That’s where the good news ends. Brown has also coughed up six runs (five earned) thanks to five walks and a hit batter. Command has long been the weakest aspect of his game. There’s still relief risk if he continues to miss spots. The overall vibe resembles Red Sox ‘tweener Tanner Houck – a repertoire of plus offerings, a ton of ground balls, a below-average changeup, and shaky command.
Braden Shewmake, ATL (25): Though he’s behind Grissom on the depth chart, Shewmake had an impressive spring. He hit .323/.371/.452 in 33 plate appearances. Shewmake spent the entirety of 2022 in Triple-A where he posted a modest .259/.316/.399 triple-slash. Scouting reports indicate this reflects his actual talent. He’s considered a future bench guy.
Oscar Colas, CWS (24): A free-swinger, Colas seems the obvious favorite to win the right field battle in Chicago. He’s the best defensive option among those with some offensive capability. While aggression is expected to hold him back, such hitters can sometimes ride an early hot streak until opposing scouts discover their weaknesses. He’s batting .283/.298/.500 with three home runs in 47 plate appearances.
Brice Turang, MIL (23): This is Turang’s fifth Spring Training and by far his best outcome. Through 36 plate appearances, he’s batting .313/.389/.438 with a home run and a double. He’s competing for a role at either second or third base with a collection of misfits – namely Mike Brosseau, Keston Hiura, Owen Miller, and Abraham Toro.
Blue Jays Notes: Ryu, Barger, Lopez, Lukes
Left-hander Hyun Jin Ryu, now nine months out from last summer’s Tommy John surgery, is throwing from 90 to 120 feet and still aiming for a mid-July return to the Blue Jays’ pitching staff, writes Keegan Matheson of MLB.com. He’s throwing off flat ground for now but could progress to mound work by mid-April. The timeline aligns with the goal that Ryu stated back in December, but it’s positive development that he’s progressed through his spring throwing program without setbacks and hasn’t had to push that goal further down the road.
Ryu, who’ll turn 36 later this week, is entering the final season of a four-year, $80MM contract signed prior to the 2020 season. He finished third in AL Cy Young voting during the shortened ’20 campaign and gave the Jays 31 roughly average starts in 2021 before an elbow injury limited him to 27 innings and resulted in surgery last June. If he’s indeed able to return at any point midsummer, he could be a boon to a rotation that currently is hoping for rebounds from fourth and fifth starters Jose Berrios and Yusei Kikuchi. Each of Alek Manoah, Kevin Gausman and offseason signee Chris Bassitt delivered strong results in 2022, and top prospect Ricky Tiedemann is looming as an option at some point in 2023 as well.
Turning to more immediate matters on the roster, the Blue Jays announced last night that they’ve optioned infielder Addison Barger to Triple-A, thinning the race for the team’s final bench spot in the process. Barger, a sixth-round pick in 2018, was selected to the 40-man roster back in November on the heels of a combined .308/.378/.555 showing across three minor league levels. He had a nice Grapefruit League showing, batting .294/.351/.441 in 37 trips to the plate, but the 23-year-old still has just eight regular-season games at the Triple-A level under his belt.
Barger ranks as the club’s No. 4 prospect Baseball America and landed at No. 53 on FanGraphs’ Top 100 prospect rankings heading into the 2023 season. He’s undoubtedly viewed as a key piece for the Jays in the future, but the infield already has veterans Matt Chapman, Bo Bichette and Whit Merrifield lined up from third base to second base, to say nothing of bench options like Santiago Espinal and Cavan Biggio in the mix for at-bats. As such, Barger will head to Buffalo and continue to get regular reps that might not be available to him at the MLB level.
With Barger out of the mix for now, Ben Nicholson-Smith of Sportsnet tweets that it’s likely either infielder/outfielder Otto Lopez or outfielder Nathan Lukes will claim the team’s final bench spot. Lopez, 24, went 5-for-17 with a homer, a triple and a walk playing for Canada in the World Baseball Classic and is 7-for-15 with a double and a triple in Jays camp this spring. He’s primarily been a middle infielder in the minors but has at least 500 innings in both left field and center field in his professional career. Lukes, who has yet to make his MLB debut, is hitting .278/.342/.389 in 41 spring plate appearances and can play all three outfield spots. He’d give a righty-heavy Toronto a lineup another left-handed bat, whereas Lopez is another right-handed stick.
Offseason In Review Chat: San Diego Padres
MLBTR will be hosting team-specific chats in conjunction with each entry of our Offseason In Review series. Yesterday, we released the Padres’ entry in the series. Click here to read the transcript of the Padres-centric chat.
Astros Notes: Brantley, Yordan, Gage, Bullpen
Astros left fielder/designated hitter Michael Brantley will likely begin the season on the injured list, manager Dusty Baker confirmed to reporters this morning (Twitter links via Chandler Rome of the Houston Chronicle). Baker also announced that fellow left fielder/DH Yordan Alvarez will make his spring debut on Thursday after missing all of the team’s Grapefruit League games thus far due to soreness in his left hand. The ’Stros also optioned lefty reliever Matt Gage to Triple-A this morning, making an all-right-handed bullpen likely to begin the season.
Brantley, 35, underwent season-ending shoulder surgery last summer. He’s yet to appear in a game this spring, although that’s in part due to a pair of leaves he’s taken while tending to an unspecified family matter. Brantley was participating in hitting drills on the field in late February, but the team hasn’t provided a formal timeline for when or whether he’ll get into a spring game.
Houston re-signed Brantley to a one-year, $12MM contract over the winter, setting the stage for his fifth straight year as an Astro. Though the aforementioned shoulder injury limited him to just 277 plate appearances in 64 games last season, he remained productive when healthy, batting .288/.370/.416 with a higher walk rate than strikeout rate (11.2% versus 10.8%). Brantley has long been one of the toughest strikeouts in the game, and he’s been excellent in his four seasons with the Astros: .306/.368/.464 (128 wRC+).
As for Alvarez, the Astros have continually been coy when it comes to revealing much in the way of details on the still-nebulous hand ailment that has bothered the slugger dating back to 2022. Alvarez had soreness in both hands last summer, but Baker has regularly eschewed specifics regarding the injury. Both Baker and GM Dana Brown have continually voiced confidence that Alvarez, who hit .306/.406/.613 with 37 home runs in just 135 games last season, will be ready for Opening Day. A Thursday in-game debut would give him a week’s worth of plate appearances to ramp up.
Turning to the bullpen, Gage was the lone remaining lefty candidate on the spring roster. Both Blake Taylor and Parker Mushinski are expected to open the season on the injured list, and Houston opted not to re-sign Will Smith or bring in any of the many free-agent lefties available this winter. It’s always possible that a small trade, waiver claim or free-agent signing alters the calculus between now and Opening Day, but it seems increasingly likely that they simply won’t have a left-handed reliever come Opening Day.
That’s familiar territory for the Astros, who have been regularly light on left-handed bullpen arms in recent seasons. Houston didn’t carry a lefty reliever on its ALDS or ALCS roster during the 2022 postseason, for instance. That hasn’t proven to be a major issues for the Astros, due largely to the strength of their right-handed relievers even in typically disadvantageous platoon spots. Houston’s righty relievers not only lack glaring platoon splits but have dominated left-handed hitters. Each of Hector Neris, Bryan Abreu, Ryne Stanek, Rafael Montero and closer Ryan Pressly held lefties to a batting average of .205 or lower, an OBP of .287 or lower, and a wOBA of .240 or lower in 2022.
The Opener: WBC, Profar, MLBTR Chats
With just nine days remaining until Opening Day, here are three things we’ll be keeping an eye on around the baseball world throughout the day today:
1. WBC Update
The World Baseball Classic final is today. After a 6-5 walk off win in the bottom of the ninth against Team Mexico, the undefeated Team Japan moves on to the final round to face Team USA. Japan, of course, sports two-way superstar Shohei Ohtani, as USA counters with not only Ohtani’s teammate Mike Trout, but also Phillies shortstop Trea Turner, who leads all WBC players with four home runs in just 19 at bats. With the game set to air at 6pm CT tonight on FS1, the biggest question remaining is: Will Ohtani pitch? The team has left the answer up in the air publicly, naming lefty Shota Imanaga as the starter for tonight’s game even as Ohtani admits that it would be difficult to get warm in the bullpen while also batting in the heart of the order.
2. When will Profar be made official?
Jurickson Profar, the last top-50 free agent on the market this offseason, recently signed a one-year pact with the Rockies, though Colorado has yet to make the deal official. While the Rockies have a full 40-man roster, making the Profar signing official likely will not be impacted by that, as players such as Brendan Rodgers and Lucas Gilbreath are already ticketed for the 60-day IL. Still, with Profar expected to arrive in camp sometime this week, it seems reasonable to expect the signing to be made official in the coming days as Profar prepares to be the everyday left fielder in Colorado. The timing of the move is also notable given the simple fact that Opening Day is just over a week away. Profar got 16 plate appearances in with the Netherlands during the WBC and went 3-for-13 with a homer and three walks, but he’d still benefit from as many spring at-bats as possible.
3. MLBTR Chats Today
In conjunction with the Padres edition of our Offseason in Review series, MLBTR’s Darragh McDonald will be hosting a Padres-centric live chat with readers later today at 10am CT. You can click here to leave a question in advance, and that same link will take you to the chat when it begins or allow you to read the transcript afterwards. In addition, MLBTR’s Steve Adams will be hosting his weekly chat with an MLB-wide focus at 1pm CT. You can click here to leave a question, participate live, or read the transcript of Steve’s chat.
Latest On D-Backs’ Rotation
The Diamondbacks entered Spring Training with four rotation spots in place. Zac Gallen and Merrill Kelly are the top two on the staff. Madison Bumgarner will get another crack in the middle, while Arizona brought back Zach Davies on a one-year free agent deal to take a back-end spot.
Who would secure the fifth spot was one of the more interesting decisions for the Snakes in camp. As MLBTR’s Darragh McDonald explored in early January, that battle looked likely to come down to four hurlers: Ryne Nelson, Drey Jameson, Tommy Henry and Brandon Pfaadt. Jameson and Nelson, both of whom made their big league debuts late in the 2022 season, seemed the early favorites.
That indeed now appears to be a two-person race. Arizona reassigned Pfaadt, who is not yet on the 40-man roster, to minor league camp over the weekend. They optioned Henry to Triple-A Reno this afternoon, taking him out of consideration for an Opening Day job as well.
Neither Jameson nor Nelson has done much to seize the job this spring. The former has allowed eight runs in 9 2/3 innings, while the latter has been tagged for nine runs in the same amount of work. Jameson has at least managed a solid 12:3 strikeout-to-walk ratio, while Nelson’s 10:6 mark is less impressive.
Both pitchers fared well in very limited MLB looks last year. Jameson made four starts and posted a microscopic 1.48 ERA through 24 1/3 innings. That came with an excellent 56.1% grounder percentage and above-average strikeout and walk numbers. It was a very strong debut effort but won’t completely erase concerns about the ghastly 6.95 ERA he’d posted over the 114 Triple-A innings he’d thrown prior to his promotion. Reno is among the hardest places in affiliated ball to pitch, which certainly didn’t do him any favors. That said, some prospect evaluators have suggested the Ball State product is likelier to settle into a bullpen role than a rotation because of concerns about his command.
Nelson has had some relief concerns himself, though he’s generally credited for more advanced command than Jameson. He doesn’t throw quite as hard and didn’t miss as many bats in his brief big league look as Jameson did. Nelson had similarly strong bottom line numbers in a cup of coffee, however, allowing four runs in 18 1/3 big league frames. Over 136 innings in Reno, he’d posted a 5.43 ERA with roughly average strikeout and walk numbers.
Henry had the most MLB work of this group in 2022, starting nine games. He didn’t find the early success of Jameson or Nelson, pitching to a 5.36 ERA with below-average strikeout and walk rates in 47 innings. Henry allowed 11 runs in 16 1/3 frames in camp before being optioned. Pfaadt is arguably held in the highest regard of the bunch but is the only one who hasn’t made his big league debut. The 24-year-old made 19 starts at Double-A Amarillo and 10 with Reno last season, combining for a 3.83 ERA in 167 innings. He allowed five runs with 15 strikeouts and four walks in 12 innings this spring.
Matt Foster Diagnosed With Forearm Strain
The White Sox informed reporters, including James Fegan of The Athletic, that right-hander Matt Foster has a forearm strain in his throwing arm. They didn’t provide an estimated timeline for him today but said they hope to have one by the end of camp.
Foster, 28, was selected by the club in the 20th round of the 2016 draft. He worked his way to the majors and was added to the club’s 40-man roster in November of 2019, to protect him from being selected in that year’s Rule 5 draft. He then went on to have an excellent debut in 2020, posting a 2.20 ERA over 28 2/3 innings. He struck out 28.4% of batters faced that year, walked 8.3% of them and got grounders at a 35.8% clip.
Unfortunately, his results haven’t been quite as good over the past two seasons, as he’s been frequently shuttled to Triple-A and back. In those two seasons, he’s tossed 84 big league innings with a 5.14 ERA, 22.3% strikeout rate, 8.2% walk rate and 30% ground ball rate. He’s also tossed 18 2/3 innings in the minors in that time with better results, including a 3.86 ERA, 39% strikeout rate and 3.9% walk rate.
At this point, it’s unclear what the next steps will be for Foster, but a strain in a pitcher’s throwing arm is always concerning. He will presumably undergo further tests in the coming days and will hopefully get some good news from those.
Adrian Houser Expected To Begin Season In Brewers’ Bullpen
Despite some offseason speculation about the Brewers potentially trading from their rotation depth, Milwaukee added to the starting staff this winter. Veteran southpaw Wade Miley returned on a one-year free agent deal, joining Corbin Burnes, Brandon Woodruff, Freddy Peralta, Eric Lauer and Adrian Houser in the starting mix.
Milwaukee subsequently lost Aaron Ashby and depth starter Jason Alexander to injuries to open the year. Still, with a rotation that runs six deep, Houser has seemed the likeliest odd man out since Miley joined the club in January. The right-hander confirmed this afternoon that Milwaukee brass informed him at the start of Spring Training they were planning to deploy him in relief to open the year (link via Curt Hogg of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel).
Houser indicated he hasn’t heard from team officials about his role since that initial conversation. Manager Craig Counsell indicated that was still the plan though. “The goal, frankly, was (using Houser in relief) because it means that we were healthy in the other spots,” Counsell said (as relayed by Hogg). “We are in a good spot there. We’re trending toward that. We’re not there yet but we’re trending toward that. (Houser) has been out far enough where we’re in a good spot either way and that’s what we were hoping for.”
Houser would be the next option in the event of injury and seems assured to make some starts throughout the course of the year. Nevertheless, he told Hogg today his goal remains to be in the top five on the depth chart. “In my mind, I consider myself in that five. That’s the way I’ve been going about it. I’ve been considering myself in the rotation. That’s the way I’ve been going about my business and my work is that I’m in the rotation until they tell me otherwise. That’s when it will change.”
The 30-year-old has been an effective big league starter in the recent past. He threw 142 1/3 innings of 3.22 ERA ball with an elite 59% ground-ball rate as recently as 2021. Last year was a struggle, as he allowed a bit fewer than five earned runs per nine innings while his grounder percentage fell to an only slightly above-average 46.7% clip. Houser has had below-average strikeout and walk numbers in each of the past three seasons, so keeping the ball on the ground at a near league-best rate is integral to his success.
Once Milwaukee signed Miley, there was some thought Houser could find himself on the trade block. There’s no indication the Brewers actually explored offers in the past few months, though, and the chances of a trade seemingly diminished once Ashby was ruled out for the first few weeks of the season. Houser is out of minor league option years, so there’s no question he’ll be on the Opening Day roster. The Brewers seem likely to deploy him in multi-inning stints to keep him stretched out if/when a rotation need arises.
Competition Committee Evaluating Potential Alterations To 2023 Rule Changes
Major League Baseball has introduced a number of rule changes for the 2023 campaign. The pitch clock, limitations on infield shifting, and enlarged bases were all announced last September, with the changes going into effect this spring.
With Opening Day now ten days out, Evan Drellich of the Athletic reports the Competition Committee met this afternoon to discuss potential alterations to some of the new rules. Specific changes under consideration aren’t known but Drellich notes that any adjustment made before Opening Day would not be expected to be major. To be clear, there’s nothing to suggest the committee is considering abandoning any of the new provisions entirely. Rather, they’re examining potential tweaks to the rule changes that have already been put in place.
Even small changes to the rules less than two weeks before meaningful action begins could lead to an adjustment period that lingers into the season. However, it appears the changes under consideration are at the MLBPA’s behest. Drellich notes the union brought some concerns about the new rules to the league to prompt the reconsideration.
The players on the Competition Committee voted unanimously against the implementation of the pitch clock and the shift limit last summer. That was little more than a symbolic gesture, as the four players on the committee are outnumbered by the six league appointees (plus an umpire). That gives MLB essential unilateral control for changes to the on-field rules — which was mutually agreed upon by MLB and the Players Association during the last round of collective bargaining — and MLB pushed through the clock and shift ban over the objections of the players on the committee.
As things stand, pitchers have up to 15 seconds with no one on base and a maximum of 20 seconds with runners aboard to begin their delivery. Hitters, meanwhile, have to be in the box and alert to the pitcher by the time the clock gets to eight seconds. Hitters are also capped at one timeout per plate appearance, while pitchers cannot disengage from the rubber (either a step-off or pickoff attempt) more than twice in an at-bat unless an out is successfully recorded on the third disengagement. Umpires are, however, granted broad authority to award extra time if circumstances necessitate.
The pitch clock has seemed to have its intended effect in exhibition play. Drellich points out that this year’s Spring Training games have averaged two hours, 36 minutes through play on Sunday after averaging three hours, one minute in 2022. Whether it’ll carry over to that extent in important games remains to be seen but the league is surely happy with the early reduction in dead time.
Drellich notes some on the players’ side believe the 15-second minimum for pitchers with no one on base and the eight-second rule for hitters leave too little time. MLBPA executive director Tony Clark expressed broad frustration with the process over the weekend. “My hope despite the fact that nearly all of the things that we have seen that would otherwise be characterized as challenges could have been avoided with the input that the players offered when these rules were being constructed,” Clark said on Saturday (link via Associated Press). “My hope is that moving forward that the league continues to take the input of players to heart, such that each of the adjustments that we’ve seen that have been implemented this year are of benefit in the long run.”
It seems MLB has taken that sentiment enough to consider alterations to the new rules, though it’s not yet known if any adjustments will actually be made. There’s a small window to put anything else into play before Opening Day.