The California League was positively stacked with high-end prospect talent last year, and much of it was concentrated in my "home" parks at Lancaster and Rancho Cucamonga. Beyond just the upper echelons, however, there was an equally impressive amount of depth in this season’s prospect pool – guys who don’t necessarily profile as stars in waiting but who have the talent and projection to become solid Major League players. In the coming series of posts I’m going to take a more in-depth look at a few of my favorite prospects from last summer who fit the mold of potential second-division starter types. Today we’ll start with a couple infielders who impressed with their work ethic, engagement, and generally broad skill sets.
Tony Kemp, 2B – Lancaster Jethawks (Astros)
It was tough to stand out on the stacked Lancaster roster last year, and tougher still for a guy at 5'6" on his toes. But Kemp is an exciting player to watch on both sides of the ball, and despite his diminutive frame he was one of my favorite prospects to come through the California League last year. He was drafted in the fifth round in 2013 out of Vanderbilt on the heels of winning the SEC Player of the Year award that spring, and he’s shown early signs of being a solid investment by Houston. There are certain players that just ooze energy, and Kemp is one of them. You see him throughout a game constantly talking to his teammates, thinking out loud to himself in the field, and just generally looking the part of a guy who cares what’s going on around him. In the wake of his promotion to Double-A one evaluator told me that in the several years he’d been watching the California League he’d seen "very few players come through who had a better understanding of who they were as a ball player. [Kemp’s] instincts and ability to execute a plan at the plate are real big pluses, and he’s a hard working guy who just keeps getting better with his reads and footwork at second."
Offensively, his swing is as compact as his frame, with his right arm tucked tight to his front side to help keep him short and quick to the ball. True to form with this kind of swing type his hips remain fairly closed through contact, which helps him get to velocity and adjust to the ball but can limit his ability to turn and drive pitches with authority to the pull side. He relies on strong wrists and quick hands to help him bring the bat head through the zone with a quick whip of above-average to plus speed. He has to be precise with his timing because the bat travels through the zone very quickly, but fortunately for him this is one of his strengths in the box. The combination of impressive hand-eye coordination and quick wrists gives him a playable stroke up the middle and to the opposite field, and he’s not completely unable to square mistakes to the pull side either. He also shows an advanced ability to extend at-bats by fouling off pitches that beat him, making him a consistently tough out. I wouldn’t go so far as to call him a line-drive machine, but he makes a bunch of hard contact with a natural feel for getting his barrel to the ball.
Video Courtesy of Big League Futures
Kemp shows as a hitter who has a good plan in the box and the ability to think along with pitchers and make adjustments. The approach is easily his greatest offensive strength: his pitch recognition is advanced, his command of the strike zone plus. He did demonstrate a vulnerability to both inside heat and spin from same-handed pitching, but at least in High-A he was able to offset much of that weakness by staying disciplined and patient. The whole package amounts to a pesky hitter who stays within himself, shows an ability to hit the ball hard, and spends a lot of time on the bases. The power probably maxes out at a 35 if everything goes right (and may well play south of that), but he shows enough consistency in his mechanics and general hitting acumen to project an above-average 55 hit tool with solid walk rates.
On the bases I had him clocked as low as 4.06 and averaging 4.12 to first. He can finish his swing a bit high and doesn’t always flow right into his first step as efficiently as he could, but he’s an above-average to plus runner with good foot speed. He shows projection to become a solid-average base-stealer in time. The raw materials are there, as he gets good reads and finishes his attempts well, though his start-up lacks some explosiveness and may hinder him a bit against big league-caliber batteries.
Kemp’s defense at second base is another above-average aspect of the profile that shows 55-grade projection. He possesses excellent lateral quickness and reactions along with an advanced ability to anticipate hops and take direct angles. He demonstrates a strong exchange technique with quick hands, and his footwork in getting himself into throwing position on groundballs - particularly when ranging to his right - helps him cover for an arm that is slightly below average (though certainly playable). His pivot actions and footwork need further refinement, as again the velocity on his return throws can come in light when he’s rushed and unable to step into the throw.
The big question with Kemp will be whether his hit tool stands up against higher minors arms and better sequencing. After an initial adjustment period at AA Corpus Christi he rebounded to post solid numbers while retaining a double-digit walk rate, which was an encouraging early return. With continued development he offers ceiling projection as a second-division starter at the keystone, and his quickness and instincts offer a potential utility fallback with future outfield reps added into the mix.
Brandon Drury, 3B - Visalia Rawhide (Diamondbacks)
Drury arrived in Arizona’s system from Atlanta as part of the return package in the Justin Upton deal after a poor 2012 season in the Sally League, and the former 13th rounder immediately took a strong step forward in both approach and execution in the Midwest League in 2013. He earned a #7 organizational ranking and a B- from John last winter, before continuing his development with another very strong season at Visalia last summer and an ultimate promotion to Mobile in July. His combined efforts led to a nice bump up into the organization’s #4 slot and a borderline B+/B grade from John. The team had him work out at second base in Arizona last fall, with indications from farm director Mike Bell that future reps at second are likely.
Drury’s swing is compact relative to his size, with a slight crouch and knee-bend creating a bit of pre-pitch movement. The hands stay consistently on their level at delivery though, and his shoulders and arms work rotationally to produce above-average bat speed through the zone. There’s a lot of upper-body in his swing. He maintains a two-handed grip throughout his follow-through, using his powerful shoulders and strong forearms to generate the bulk of the bat speed. It’s a recipe that both allows him to tap into his natural strength and drive the ball but also creates some rigidity and leaves him with less margin for error to adjust to off-speed and breaking stuff. The latter liability can be magnified by a fastball-happy approach, as Drury is a highly aggressive hitter on hard stuff in the zone. He showed an average to slightly better ability to track pitches and identify spin overall, but he will clear his hips too early and lose his balance when he doesn’t get the fastball he’s looking for when sitting dead red. He held his own in a brief trial at AA last summer, but high-minors secondary stuff could make for a difficult challenge next season. The hit tool currently projects as a slightly below-average 45 for me, though that projection is mostly limited by approach concerns rather than mechanical red flags. Further refinement could very well lead to a 50 ceiling, in which case his 55 raw power could very well play to its entirety in games.
The defensive side of the ball is the more interesting one in my opinion, particularly with the news that he’s likely to spend more time at second base next summer. Drury is a high-energy guy in the field who takes his defense seriously and showed an impressive ability to put tough at-bats behind him and concentrate on the task at hand. He’s in constant motion between pitches, talking to teammates and bouncing around. His pre-pitch routine culminates with an aggressive, Pedroia-esque crow hop into fielding position, and he shows good first-step instincts. He’s a below-average runner, however, and while he has enough raw athleticism to make smooth plays on balls in reach he’s got a longish start-up that can limit his lateral and horizontal range. He shows very good hands and clean, coordinated fielding actions on balls he gets to. The arm is easily above-average and certainly strong enough for the left side. Between skillset and work ethic he has the ability to develop into a 50, maybe even a 55 defender at third. I’ll be curious to see how the transition to more second base work looks over a full season. He’s not a lumbering guy by any stretch, and the basic athletic toolbox is there for him to find success.
Regardless of where he ends up on the infield dirt Drury was one of the more well-rounded prospects to play in California last year, with a broad base of skills that grade out to average or, with projection, slightly better. He fits the mold of a steady complimentary player with a decently high floor at the Major League level - a nice return on a 13th round investment and an equally nice bit of return value for Arizona in the Upton deal.