Ahhhh, professional baseball is upon us! Opening Day for the California League is Thursday, and I’d like to take the opportunity of the season getting underway to unveil a preview of some of the more notable pre-season names I’ll hopefully have the good fortune to see this summer. I'll check in on the North division this week and follow up with the South next week before we get into scouting reports and updates as the players start playing. Here are some of the names I'm looking forward to checking out when the North teams occupy visiting dugouts down south.
Modesto Nuts (Colorado Rockies)
Modesto will seize the championship belt from Lancaster this spring as the team to watch in the California League, even after word got out that the Rockies will try to make up for the developmental time John’s #2 prospect David Dahl suffered in 2013 by sending him straight to AA after just a 29 game stopover in California last summer. Number 3 prospect Kyle Freeland is also slated to stay back in extended Spring Training rather than joining the team directly, and when he does make his way to Stanislaus County he’ll join Ryan McMahon (#4), Raimel Tapia (#6), Rosell Herrera (#9), and right-hander Antonio Senzatela (#12) among the organization’s Top 20.
Tapia tops my personal list of players I’m excited to catch in person, while McMahon’s power future home park makes him an intriguing bat. The third member of that offensive troika is perhaps the most interesting, however. After posting a .933 OPS with 16 homers and 21 steals at Asheville in 2013 he struggled mightily at Modesto last summer, and after an off-season in which he bulked up by 15 pounds he’ll try his hand in centerfield during his return engagement in California. Senzatela, meanwhile, is a fastball-heavy guy whose lack of secondary development to this point will be tested mightily by the league context.
From the "Others" section, first baseman Correlle Prime has an interesting power-with-contact-issues bat that thrived in Asheville last year, but he’ll need to makes some approach gains to see that bat play against more advanced arsenals. The power should play in California, and the real test for him should come at AA.
Catcher Wilfredo Rodriguez is lauded for his receiving skills and the foundations of a hit tool, and he’ll continue the long slog of catcher development as the primary backstop for Modesto.
San Jose Giants (San Francisco Giants)
Not far behind Modesto in terms of appointment viewing, San Jose will boast a roster including both of the Giants’ last two first round picks. 2013 top pick Christian Arroyo (John’s #6 organization prospect) and last year’s first selection Tyler Beede (#4) will team with breakout Dominican right-hander Keury Mella (#3) to headline the roster. Arroyo was something of a surprise assignment, as the 19 year-old’s prized hit tool was overmatched in a brief Sally League trial last season and significant questions remain as to his potential to stick at short.
Both rotation pieces feature intrigue and significant question marks. Beede, the former Vanderbilt ace, has shown inconsistent development over the past couple seasons leading to questions about his future ceiling. And Mella showed an excellent fastball with tremendous deception last summer, but was shut down for a spell with a rotator cuff issue.
The deep rotation will also include Venezuelan lefty Luis Ysla (#14), a hard-thrower with some high-energy mechanics that may or may not ultimately limit is secondary development and relegate him to the bullpen. And from the "Others" section, 2013 second rounder Ryder Jones shows projection for a solid-average across-the-board skillset at third, but there’s a long way to go for him to get there as he’s struggled at the dish thus far in his young career.
Tyler Horan, co-owner of the Cape Cod League homerun record, absolutely raked last season, including during a 28 game promotion to San Jose in the second half. He features a prototypical right-field profile and some of the best power potential in the system.
Bakersfield Blaze (Seattle Mariners)
The Mariners’ Cal League affiliate migrated a couple hours northwest over the winter, and whenever they actually announce it they’re likely to bring a relatively light roster of talent to the northern division. The two wild cards with the potential to change that are right-hander Edwin Diaz (#3 organizational prospect) and outfielder Austin Wilson (#4). The former emerged last season as the top arm in the organization after his size and stuff ticked up in the Midwest League, and appears developmentally ready for High-A. Whether the team will risk an assignment to Bakersfield or not remains to be seen. And then Wilson’s bat showed as well advanced for the Midwest League when he was on the field last summer, but he missed a significant chunk of the season with an Achilles injury and seems destined to stay back in extended Spring Training at least to start the season.
2013 third rounder Tyler O’Neill (#8) will headline the offense in the meantime, and he makes for a dangerous proposition in California. He possesses a true power stroke, lauded for its leverage and bat speed, but he also whiffed about a third of the time last season in A ball. He should hit more than his share of bombs, but the allure of chasing the longball may prove costly for his development. Others of note are yet to be determined until the club announces a formal roster, at which point I’ll provide an update.
Visalia Rawhide (Arizona Diamondbacks)
The Rawhide roster figures to be one of the more barren in the league when it comes to impact talent, though there should be a decent amount of mildly intriguing depth. Domingo Leyba (#8 organizational prospect) is the only name from the top 20 to crack the Opening Day roster, offering a solid, contact-oriented swing and some defensive versatility up the middle.
Behind him are several players from the "Others" section of John’s report, led by first baseman Daniel Palka and right-hander Blayne Weller. A third rounder out of Georgia Tech in 2013, Palka popped 22 homers in the pitcher-friendly Midwest League. He’s limited to first and scouts aren’t crazy about his swing, but the California League will give him an opportunity to pad his power numbers. Weller, meanwhile, whiffed 70 hitters in 45 High-A innings last summer with a bat-missing curveball and effectively wild control. Centerfielder Breland Almadova will also return to Visalia fresh off a season in which he stole 35 bases and won the minor league Gold Glove.
Stockton Ports (Oakland Athletics)
The Ports’ projected Opening Day roster took a blow when it came out that last year’s first round pick Matt Chapman (#6 organizational prospect) would miss most of April with a knee injury. When he finished his rehab he’ll join Oakland’s top prospect Franklin Barreto to form an interesting tandem in the middle of Stockton’s lineup. Barretto is fresh off an outstanding campaign in the Northwest League that ultimately turned him into the centerpiece return in the Josh Donaldson trade, and the shortstop cracked the top 40 of John’s Top 175 Prospects list.
The rotation will be led by highly intriguing lefthander Dillon Overton (#11), who returned from Tommy John surgery last year with diminished velocity yet still reeled off a 53:4 K:BB ratio in 37 innings. The former second rounder is a guy with the potential to really rocket up lists this season if his velocity rebounds and the stuff returns all the way to form.
From the "Others" section, B.J. Boyd had generated a bit of helium for himself this time last year after a solid 2013 campaign in the NYPL, but the bat stagnated in the Midwest League last summer. Right-hander also Dylan Covey appears poised for a return ticket to Stockton after a rough debut in High-A last summer. His command profiles well, but reports of less-than-intimidating raw stuff raise questions about how his arm will play in the desert.