Our coverage of in-the-news prospects continues. A couple signings and the Sean Murphy trade give us plenty of fodder to chew upon. The Braves did an excellent job of converting unneeded role players into a premium upgrade. We’ll touch on several of the former-Braves now enjoy new homes with the Athletics and Brewers.
Francisco Alvarez, 21, C, NYM (MLB)
(AA/AAA) 495 PA, 27 HR, .260/.374/.511
The Mets continue to fortify their Major League roster, building out a resiliency of depth they’ve lacked for… the entirety of my living memory. The Mets have always been a club of “just enough,” a formula that rarely works in a 162-game season with extended playoffs.
The addition of catcher Omar Narvaez to veterans James McCann and Tomas Nido seemingly gives New York the opportunity to promote Alvarez if and when they believe he is ready for a regular starting role. That could be immediately out of Spring Training or later in the season. Cynically, it’s worth noting the Mets might gain an extra season of club control by holding Alvarez back until late April. Due to his age, there’s appeal to such an approach.
The recently-turned 21-year-old had a brief cup of coffee to finish 2022. He flashed trademark power, discipline, and a tendency to whiff. At this early stage of his career, he might be a tad too disciplined – a common issue for precocious, discipline-oriented sluggers. Minor league pitchers are exploitable in ways Major Leaguers are not. A second stint in Triple-A – where he compiled 199 plate appearances with a 121 wRC+ – could help him to add a touch of targeted aggression to his approach. Otherwise, he risks carrying over-30 percent strikeout rates early in his career. The tools are there for more acceptable whiff rates. Even without that adjustment, he profiles as an above average hitter.
Then there’s the matter of defense where some of his mechanics are a tad unconventional. This is made necessary by his stocky build. He doesn’t squat as deeply into his crouch as most catchers. Without runners on base, he uses a kneeling approach. There are questions about his blocking (when kneeling) and pitch-framing (when squating). Even his arm, which is at least 60-grade, could play down if opponents correctly guess when he squats and kneels.
Kyle Muller, 25, SP, OAK (MLB)
(AAA) 134.2 IP, 10.63 K/9, 2.67 BB/9, 3.41 ERA
The highest-rated prospect dealt by the Braves in the Sean Murphy trade, Muller has performed well against Triple-A competition for two straight seasons. With the Braves contending and enjoying considerable rotation depth, Muller hasn’t received many opportunities in the Majors. In total, the southpaw has made 12 appearances, 11 starts, for a total of 49 innings with a 5.14 ERA. Muller has a four-pitch repertoire. Three pitches grade out as average or better. His changeup is considered a platoon pitch. His ascent has been slowed by poor command. Although his low walk rate last season seems a positive development, none of the contacts I reached out to believe his command has truly improved. As of now, he profiles as an inefficient fifth starter or high-upside reliever.
Esteury Ruiz, 23, OF, OAK (MLB)
(AA/AAA) 541 PA, 16 HR, 85 SB, .332/.447/.526
The other notable prospect in the Murphy swap, Ruiz had a season to remember in the minors. Neither the Padres nor Brewers gave him many opportunities in the Majors despite rostering him for a considerable chunk of the season. All told, he attempted 102 steals and succeeded 86 times (84.3%) over a total of 576 plate appearances. With new rules on the way, Ruiz could find himself among the stolen base leaders if he hits enough to merit a starting role.
That last detail is in doubt. Despite incredible minor league numbers last season, a half dozen public scouting reports all point to a reserve role. The Athletics undoubtedly hope experience will unlock at least a second-division starter upside – as they attempted with Cristian Pache last season. While he’s drawn some (very) lazy comps to Alfonso Soriano for his combination of power and speed, Ruiz’s hit tool is suspect. He’s shown an ability to work counts and avoid strikeouts, but he seems to do this at the expense of exit velocity. As such, his power plays down in games since he’s so rarely taking his best swing.
Bo Naylor, 22, C, CLE (MLB)
(AA/AAA) 510 PA, 21 HR, 20 SB, .263/.392/.496
Between the lost 2020 season and a terrible 2021 campaign, Naylor found himself entering last year with much to prove. He recovered his prospect panache by adjusting his swing mechanics and now profiles as the Guardians catcher of the future. He even made eight plate appearances for Cleveland, though he went hitless with five strikeouts. The defense-oriented Guardians opted to bring in Mike Zunino on a one-year, $6MM deal to bridge the gap.
Naylor has rare speed for a backstop. The last catching prospect to display similar wheels was Daulton Varsho. The last such catcher to stick at the position as a longterm starter was J.T. Realmuto. Naylor’s defense doesn’t draw rave reviews, but it’s merely below average. A scout I questioned believed he can be an average defender. Cleveland’s preference for elite defensive catchers might lead to a position switch for trade for Naylor. I keep thinking back to Varsho, an acceptable but unexceptional catcher who turned into a gold glove center fielder almost overnight.
Jordan Westburg, 23, SS, BAL (MLB)
(AA/AAA) 622 PA, 27 HR, 12 SB, .265/.355/.496
One of my beats last year was with an Orioles blog, Baltimore Sports and Life. At the end of the season, there were two schools of thought regarding the Orioles 2023 middle infield. One group (including me), advocated for signing one of the four free agent shortstops, moving Gunnar Henderson to third base, and using Jorge Mateo and Ramon Urias at second base until prospects arrived. Others were ready to hand the keys directly to Westburg (or the next guy below) and save the budget for one of the top pitchers on the market.
Baltimore GM Mike Elias opted for Door #3, choosing to ink Adam Frazier on a one-year rebound contract eerily reminiscent of the deal handed to Rougned Odor prior to last season. While Frazier won’t truly block Westburg or others, his presence will help delay the need to promote them. Nevertheless, Westburg is seemingly ready. He spent most of last season in Triple-A where he posted a 129 wRC+. As a hitter, he’s a well-rounded pile of 50-grades. He might be going down a Willy Adames-like path – not a household name but better than a typical core performer. He’s a tad stretched defensively on the left side of the infield, but he should be an above average defender at the keystone. While there’s utility risk here, it’s a premium version of it – in the same way that Chris Taylor, Tommy Edman, and Jake Cronenworth are “utility men.”
Joey Ortiz, BAL (23): One of my favorite Peripheral Prospects, Ortiz isn’t all that highly rated nationally. The Orioles love him. He’s contact-oriented and gets to more game power than you might expect based on his size. He’s trained as a utility man who profiles as a plus defensive second baseman and acceptable elsewhere. He might just beat Westburg to the Majors. Ortiz is already on the 40-man roster.
Jeter Downs, BOS (24): When the Red Sox acquired Downs in the Mookie Betts trade, he was an up-and-comer with impressive minor league stats. With Boston, he developed a serious swinging strike problem – and a commensurate 30 percent strikeout rate. Questions about his hit tool predated the trade, but this outcome feels like a total developmental failure. Now in DFA limbo, Downs looks like somebody another org might be able to salvage.
Freddy Tarnok, OAK (24): It’s been a slow burn for Tarnok who has long profiled as a future big leaguer even without flashing standout skills. He has a four-pitch repertoire, but his secondaries need further refinement. The short path to the Majors is via the bullpen where his velocity might play up. Oakland can afford to be patient.
Royber Salinas, OAK (21): The last notable prospect acquired by Oakland for Murphy, Salinas has starter caliber stuff and poor command. The instinct among evaluators is to move him to relief and watch him take off. He’s entering his Rule 5 evaluation year which could force the Athletics hand.