Inbox: Next wave of pitching prospects?

November 4th, 2021

One of the best things about watching the World Series from a Pipeline vantage point is it’s great to think back to how and where we saw the players starring on the game’s biggest stage before they were stars. With the Arizona Fall League in full swing, it’s fun to reminisce about watching Max Fried pitch and Austin Riley hit for Peoria in 2017, Tyler Matzek for Salt River and World Series MVP Jorge Soler for Mesa way back in 2013 … the list goes on and on.

I bring this up as the AFL is now the only game in town (in the U.S. at any rate; there’s great LIDOM action you can watch on MLB.TV), so when you check in on the league, know you’re watching players who are going to win titles in the future.

With Fried putting up zeroes in the decisive Game 6 and Ian Anderson putting up mostly zeroes, well, whenever he’s pitched in the postseason the past two years, it hearkens back to a time when both were considered top young pitching prospects. So the first question in this week’s Inbox, which we also dug into on this week’s Pipeline Podcast, is a tip of the cap to those World Series Champions.

Assuming next season we see a lot of young pitchers make their debuts (Rodriguez, Greene, Kirby, etc) what names are poised to replace them as the next wave of top-notch pitching prospects? -- @spencer_ogara

On the Podcast, we struggled to come up with too many names here, and both Jim Callis and I agreed there could be a little bit of a lull when it comes to elite-level young pitching prospects. All but one of the pitchers on our current Top 10 right-handed pitchers list are in Double-A or higher and many, as you suggested, will graduate in 2022. The lefty list only has two pitchers who have yet to reach Double-A. And there aren’t names that really jump off the page as “waiting in the wings.” I don’t consider someone like Quinn Priester of the Pirates, who is not on the top 10 but is not far off, as not already in that group, but if you want to put him in that bucket, go for it.

That one non-upper level right-hander on the Top 10 who should remain there is Jack Leiter, who the Rangers took with the No. 2 overall pick in this year’s Draft. If all goes according to plan, he probably won’t need a ton of time in the Minor Leagues to be ready, so 2022 might be the lone year he’s in that “top-notch” category before he graduates.

I could see the Phillies’ top two pitching prospects, Mick Abel and Andrew Painter, getting there at some point soon. Abel is No. 64 on the Top 100 and had a mixed season in A ball, but has shown the excellent stuff that made him a mid-first-rounder in 2020. Painter, the No. 13 pick in this past year’s Draft, is another high school right-hander with size and stuff. The Phillies’ No. 3 prospect pitched briefly in the Florida Complex League and should be able to head to full-season ball in 2022.

One other name to keep an eye on is Cleveland's No. 5 prospect, Daniel Espino. He’ll be only 21 for all of 2022, coming off a year where he reached High-A and struck out 14.9 per nine. The 2019 first-rounder has premium stuff and it should be very exciting to see how it plays at the upper levels.

Has anyone's stock improved enough in the AFL to put in the Top 100 Prospects next year? -- @StevieDAles97

This is where we put in the usual disclaimer about the small sample size of the Fall League, both positively and negatively. So we are always careful in not moving guys up too far with a strong performance. For example, Nelson Velazquez (question answered about him below) is having a great Fall League, but he’s not going to go from No. 29 on the Cubs list up into the overall Top 100.

Looking for players who are higher up on a team list, had a solid 2021 season and reached a different level this fall doesn’t leave many candidates. One who jumped out is Rangers No. 7 prospect Ezequiel Duran. Duran became a Ranger by way of the Joey Gallo trade and between his two High-A stops, he finished one home run and one steal shy of a 20-20 season. With a 27.6 percent strikeout rate during the regular season, it was clear Duran needs to work on his approach a bit to be ready for the upper levels. He’s only played a dozen games this fall and it’s not like he’s drawing walks, but he has only struck out seven times in 52 plate appearances. He has 10 extra-base hits in that time and has a .320/.346/.640 line. I’m not going to pound the table for him to be in our next Top 100, but if he continues to perform like this as he moves to Double-A in 2022, then I could see him getting added.

Jim brought up another Ezequiel … Tovar. He’s No. 11 on the Rockies list and had a very strong full-season debut in 2021, hitting .309/.346/.510 in Low-A and earning a jump up a level after 72 games. He’s the second-youngest player in the AFL (turned 20 in August), and this is about more than just his accumulated numbers. His .507 OPS in 16 games doesn’t stand out, but Jim saw a start when he showed off all that he can do, homering, stealing a base and playing outstanding defense at shortstop, against a much higher and older level of competition. He’s one to keep an eye on for sure.

Biggest AFL surprise? Like completely out of nowhere. -- @GenerallyManage

This has been a good fall for “out of nowhere” performers. On the offensive side, there’s Nathan Eaton from the Royals, playing for Surprise. A two-way player at Virginia Military Institute, Eaton hasn’t done all that much in the Minors since the Royals took him in Round 21 of the 2018 Draft. There is some speed (23 steals in 75 games in 2021) and some raw power, though his career .406 slugging percentage says he hasn’t tapped into it that much. In 11 games this fall, however, he’s put up a .444/.479/.667 line while playing third, short and the outfield.

On the pitching side, how about Coleman Crow with the Angels? He’s tossed eight innings for Glendale and given up just one run on six hits, walking two and striking out 12. His 6.0 K/BB ratio is among the best in the league. He’s only 20 as a high school draftee in 2018 who got an over-slot $317,500 to sign in the 28th round in 2019. He hadn’t pitched above Low-A prior to his AFL experience, but has a two- and four-seam fastball, a solid slider and even a changeup that works to make him kind of intriguing.