A couple weeks back I posted the first half of this series, looking at how the northern half of the California League is shaping up for prospect watchers this season. Today we turn our attention to the Southland.
Lancaster JetHawks (Houston Astros)
A year removed from being arguably the most prospect-stacked team in the entire minor leagues, Lancaster will once again field a strong lineup of intriguing bats and arms alike. Right-hander Michael Feliz (organizational #3 prospect) headlines the list, bringing a mid-90’s fastball and reportedly advanced breaking ball to one of the worst pitching environments in the land. His development will be tested by the desert winds, and he’s already been greeted rudely despite a solid 10:2 K:BB ratio through his first couple starts. Centerfielder Brett Phillips (#6) returns to Lancaster after a late-season promotion last summer. I wrote extensively about my first impressions of him here, and noted some initial signs of progress in both his playable speed and his ability to bring his potential solid-average game power to bear from opening weekend. He offers solid range and a canon of a right arm in center, and some sustained improvements in his offensive approach and execution could vault him quickly into the upper echelon of prospects in the game.
The middle of the lineup features a tremendous amount of thunder that could, with an assist from the environment, play up to be one of the more formidable power gauntlets on the farm. A.J. Reed (2nd round, #14) and J.D. Davis (3rd, #13) both bring plus power potential from last year’s draft, and both have acquitted themselves well thus far in their professional careers. "Burly (6’4" 265 counts as "burly," yes?) slugger Chase McDonald joins them as thumping corner bats with limited defensive value, while outfielder Danry Vasquez (#18) also returns to the high desert with his bag of solid-average across-the-board tools.
Elsewhere in the rotation, undrafted Sacred Heart grad Troy Scribner has done absolutely nothing other than dominate the opposition in his young minor league career, posting a 2.24 ERA and .200 BAA with 12.0 strikeouts-per-nine and a walk rate under three-per. Reports of the stuff don’t necessarily support the results, but lest anyone forget, results do eventually matter. High-A will be an enormous test for him, but he spun a beauty in his first start of the season and bears watching. Another pop-up guy who has impressed thus far has been Ernesto Frias, who I wrote about after his sparkling season debut. His three pitch mix looks legitimate, and if the command shows signs of holding he has the potential to become a very interesting prospect very quickly.
Rancho Cucamonga Quakes (Los Angeles Dodgers)
A season after featuring two of the top prospects in the minor leagues in heavy rotation the Quakes are much less of a must-see event this year, at least at the season’s outset. They still boast a bit of intrigue however, particularly in the rotation, where Jose de Leon (organizational #7 prospect) leads the way. A year after whiffing 119 batters in 77 innings he’s picked up right where he left off thus far in posting a 13:1 K:BB ration over his first nine innings at High-A. Any time a pitcher shows bat-missing ability with a change-up to compliment a fastball that sits comfortably in the low-90’s it warrants attention, and de Leon has perhaps as much potential as any arm in the league to rocket up prospect lists with a strong showing this season. An over-slot ninth rounder out of high school, Zach Bird (#18) has impressed thus far with his athleticism and arm speed, but his command remains quite raw and will be tested mightily this spring.
First baseman Cody Bellinger (#21) leads the offensive list, as an Olerudian defense-and-hit-tool-first corner prospect. It’s unclear how much power he’ll grow into as his 6’4", 180 pound frame fills out, but there’s enough of a feel for hitting to warrant some attention. Assuming standard development paths the second half of the season could become really interesting really fast at Rancho, as 2014 first rounder Grant Holmes (#4), outfielder Alex Verdugo (#5), and offensively-minded catcher Julian Leon (#11) will all start a level below and possess fast-track potential.
Inland Empire 66ers (Orange County Angels)
The Angels’ system was the weakest in the majors last year according to John, but has since made at least a few incremental strides towards respectability in checking in 28th this season. True to form, the IE squad should offer at least a little more to start 2015 than it did at this time last year, though each prospect on the radar will come with significant developmental question marks as well. The headliner will be enigmatic Cuban import Roberto Baldoquin (organizational #4 prospect), for whom the Angels dished out $8 million in December. It’s been a rough go of things to start a career for Baldoquin, as he’s gone one for his first 20 with 10 strikeouts out of the gate. If things come together there’s some potential for a keystoner with above-average power production down the line, but he’ll need to demonstrate he can make consistent contact and adjustments at High-A first.
Right-hander Christopher Ellis (#8) shows some swing-and-miss potential and decent control, but it remains unclear if the command will sharpen enough for him to avoid getting knocked around the high-octane offensive environments of this league. Victor Alcantara (#10) probably offers the most tantalizing upside in the system in terms of raw stuff, with reports of an upper-90’s fastball and some feel for a change. But he walked 60 in 125 and a third innings last year and comes with questions from several sources about whether his mechanics will hold consistently enough to start.
There’s some additional potential for down-the-line MLB depth here, led by centerfielder Bo Way. A seventh round senior sign from last summer, Way has played above his tools to post a .331/.395/.498 line through his first 300-some-odd professional plate appearances after a college career doing much of the same. Side-winding right-hander Greg Mahle has shown deception and feel for a three-pitch mix from multiple arm angles and could move quickly up the ladder if his command progresses.
Former first rounder Kaleb Cowart was also returned to High-A after a second consecutive terrible showing at AA last summer, and he’s picked up right where he left off thus far. He was a decent two-way prospect in high school, and his struggles may just lead the Angels to move in the direction of trying him out on the mound if they continue.
High Desert Mavericks (Texas Rangers)
The Rangers’ first run on the moon, er, in the desert will be extremely light on interesting talent to start the year. The crew will be headlined by toolshed 2012 first round centerfielder Lewis Brinson (organizational #8 prospect). Brinson has been on the requisite low minors radar for a couple years now, but until recently hadn’t made much progress in starting to turn some of his elite athleticism into functional baseball skills. There have been some encouraging signs of such a transformation over the past few months of game play, though he still remains raw in approach and looked overmatched at the plate during a brief cameo in the Carolina League last summer.
Behind Brinson, Ryan Cordell (#19) offers intrigue as the team attempts to exploit his athleticism with the white whale of defensive conversions by moving him from left field to shortstop. The former 11th rounder’s bat certainly hasn’t missed a beat out of the gate, but his work on the infield dirt will really be the thing to watch over the next few weeks.
Beyond that…whew, listen to those desert winds a-whippin’. Right-hander Richelson Pena holds distinction as the only other player on this roster to receive even a "C" grade from John. Pena acquitted himself well in his first turn stateside last year, showing good command of solid-average stuff despite a small frame for a starter. The second half of the season should bring the likes of Travis Demeritte (#14), Josh Morgan (#15), and 2014 first round right-hander Luis Ortiz (#6) among others, but it’ll be slim pickin’s for a while in Adelanto.
Lake Elsinore Storm (San Diego Padres)
It’s hard to keep track of who actually plays for the Padres minor league affiliates anymore after a raucous year of wheeling and dealing by the front office, but we’ll do our best here. Shortstop Jose Rondon (organizational #6 prospect) leads the way after coming over last summer in the Huston Street deal. There was some off-season speculation that his 137 plate appearances at the level last summer may have been enough to justify an aggressive promotion to AA, and he’s shown thus far at the dish (.382/.462/.441) that the idea wasn’t necessarily without merit. He checks more of the "quality Major League utility player" boxes, with the biggest developmental questions relating to whether the defensive chops and hit tool will play well enough to carve out a career as a regular.
2014 3rd rounder Zechariah Lemond (#7) will lead the rotation, though he’ll do so while flying several car dealership-sized flags about the health of his right elbow and overall durability. His stuff is reported to be relatively polished, but concerns abound as to whether he’ll be able to stay on the bump long enough to refine it and develop a third pitch to support his two-seam/curve combo. Acquired from the Yankees in the Chase Headley deal, right-hander Rafael De Paula (#16) garnered some helium last winter before seeing the stuff and command take a step back last summer. Evaluators suspect a future in the bullpen, but the Padres will continue starting him for the time being to see if he can rediscover some of his 2013 magic.
Elsewhere Fernando Perez (#17) faces questions about whether he can stay on the dirt at second or make enough contact for his above-average raw power to play, but there’s something to the baseline skills. Ryan Butler (#20) and Samuel Holland both offer potential to be among the next crop of of-course-they’re-great Padre bullpen arms, though the team will see how long the former can maintain his triple-digit heat in a starting role out of the gate.