The Minor League season is a little more than a month old and has featured plenty of pleasant developments.
Orioles outfielder Heston Kjerstad is showing that his Arizona Fall League performance was real, while Pirates catcher Henry Davis and Rangers right-hander Kumar Rocker are putting their rocky AFL runs behind them. Recovered from back problems that ruined his 2022 season, Nationals third baseman Brady House is hammering balls once again.
We break down those stories and more as we spotlight an encouraging story from each farm system so far this season:
Blue Jays: Sem Robberse, RHP (No. 7)
Injuries and slow starts have plagued many of the Jays’ most notable prospects, and that makes Robberse’s solid Double-A performance all the more refreshing. Toronto told the 21-year-old right-hander to add weight to help his velocity, and the results have followed with a 3.64 ERA, 1.01 WHIP and 30 strikeouts in 29 2/3 innings. While Ricky Tiedemann battles a biceps issue and Yosver Zulueta works on control, Robberse has given Jays fans an upper-level starter to get excited about early in 2023.
Orioles: Heston Kjerstad, OF (No. 5/MLB No. 71)
After missing nearly two years of action following a diagnosis of myocarditis, we were all just happy to see Kjerstad back on the field in 2022. When he took home Arizona Fall League MVP honors last year, we were hopeful he could carry that over to a full and healthy 2023 campaign. So far, so good on that front, as the former No. 2 overall pick has made a very smooth transition to Double-A, posting a 1.022 OPS, good for second in the Eastern League.
Rays: Dominic Keegan, C (No. 25)
We’ll say this first. A bat-first catcher from a legacy Division I program should be performing well at Single-A in his first full season. But Keegan – a former Vanderbilt backstop – is hitting so incredibly that he’s commanding attention through the first month with Charleston. The right-handed slugger leads the Carolina League with a .367 average and has added a .451 OBP, .544 slugging percentage, .995 OPS and 174 wRC+ over 91 plate appearances. Keegan thrives on hitting line drives, and his 17.6 percent K rate is a promising development.
Red Sox: Shane Drohan, LHP (No. 29)
Drohan’s emergence is welcomed in a Red Sox system that’s extremely thin in pitching prospects. A 2020 fifth-rounder from Florida State, he has seen his fastball jump to 92-95 mph this year, which has helped his low-80s changeup with late fade become even more effective. He leads the Minors with a 0.62 ERA and ranks third with a 0.69 WHIP while striking out 30 in 29 Double-A innings.
Yankees: Clayton Beeter, RHP (No. 14)
Acquired from the Dodgers in the Joey Gallo trade last summer, Beeter has nasty stuff but worked as many as five innings just once in his first 53 pro appearances in 2021-22, casting doubt on his ability to start. He has crossed that threshold three times already this year, continuing to showcase a mid-90s fastball and wipeout mid-80s slider while logging a 1.35 ERA and 34 strikeouts in 26 2/3 Double-A innings.
Guardians: Tanner Bibee, RHP (No. 5/MLB No. 57)
After going from fifth-round pick from Cal State Fullerton in 2021 to one of the best pitching prospects in baseball in 2022, Bibee has made another leap this year. He breezed through Triple-A and has posted a 4.30 ERA with 15 strikeouts in 14 2/3 innings in his first three big league starts. He continues to pound the strike zone and get outs with a high-spin mid-90s fastball and a sweeping mid-80s slider.
Royals: Luinder Avila, RHP (No. 30)
Kansas City’s pitching development system has been spotty over the last few years, and to turn that around, the organization doesn’t just need to hit on top names but also popup arms as well. Enter Avila from the latter camp. The 21-year-old right-hander put himself on the map last year with a solid fastball-slider combo, but has taken things to a new level in 2023 with a 2.53 ERA, and 33 strikeouts in 21 1/3 innings at High-A Quad Cities.
Tigers: Dillon Dingler, C (No. 14)
An athletically gifted backstop, Dingler was already facing questions at the plate entering 2023, having struck out 31.9 percent of the time at Double-A Erie last season, only for him to undergo right knee surgery this spring. He began a rehab assignment at Single-A Lakeland on April 21, joined Erie on May 2 and hasn’t stopped hitting anywhere since. The 24-year-old owns a .451/.548/.941 line through 14 games, and his seven homers lead the system, despite the missed time.
Twins: Ben Ross, UTIL (No. 29)
If you’re not familiar with Notre Dame College in Ohio, that’s OK. It’s a Division II school that had never had a player drafted from the program until the Twins took Ross in the fifth round of last year’s Draft. He hit over .400 in college and had a strong summer debut and some mechanical adjustments at the plate not only helped him stand out in Spring Training, but also jump to High-A for his full season debut and start the year with a .310/.374/.471 line, all while seeing time at four different positions defensively.
White Sox: Jonathan Cannon, RHP (No. 10)
The White Sox haven’t had much success developing homegrown pitching in recent years, but they hope their 2023 Draft will change that. Cannon, a third-rounder from Georgia, is as polished as any arm in the system and owns a 92-96 mph fastball with heavy sink and a plus upper-80s cutter. He may not remain in High-A much longer after posting a 3.18 ERA and 24/8 K/BB ratio in 28 1/3 innings through five starts.
Angels: Jordyn Adams, OF (No. 29)
Could there be signs of life from the 2018 first-rounder who was left unprotected from the Rule 5 Draft last offseason, and wasn’t selected? There’s still work to be done on his approach, but he’s still only 23 and after a slow start has been impacting the ball much better than he has previously in his career, with his .504 SLG standing in stark contrast to his .344 career SLG entering the year. His seven homers this year is already just one shy of his career high and he has 11 steals to go along with them.
Astros: Ryan Clifford, OF (No. 4)
One of the better all-around bats in the 2022 high school class, Clifford commanded late-second-round money ($1,131,530) after going in the 11th round. He’s batting .337/.488/.457, leading the Single-A Carolina League in on-base percentage as a 19-year-old and should grow into 20-25 home run power.
A’s: Brett Harris, 3B (No. 13)
It’s always nice when the guy chosen as a breakout candidate in the spring, well, breaks out. To be fair, the 2021 seventh-round senior sign kind of started his breakout in ’22 when he hit 17 homers and reached Double-A. He’s turned it up a notch back in Midland so far, with a .341/.460/.549 line. He leads the Texas League in OBP and is second in average, while his 1.009 OPS places him fifth. It might be time soon to challenge him with a promotion.
Mariners: Michael Morales, RHP (No. 20)
The Mariners went way over slot to sign Morales away from his Vanderbilt commitment in the third round of the 2021 Draft and then saw him do some good things, while also taking his lumps, in his first full season of pro ball last year. On the plus side are the fact he logged 120 innings and finished third in the Single-A California League with 125 strikeouts. On the negative side of the ledger was the .292 batting average against and 10.7 hits per nine rate the resulted in a 5.91 ERA. A return to the level has been a good move as the 20-year-old right-hander boasts a 2.22 ERA and .227 BAA and while he needs to continue to refine his command, he’s still missing bats at a 10.4 per nine rate.
Rangers: Kumar Rocker, RHP (No. 9)
A two-time first-round pick, Rocker went third overall last July after an illustrious career at Vanderbilt and a detour to the independent Frontier League. He showed his wipeout mid-80s slider in the Arizona Fall League but struggled to command or miss bats with his fastball while working with a lower arm slot than usual. He has looked more like his college self during his official pro debut, compiling a 2.70 ERA with a 37/6 K/BB ratio in 23 1/3 innings in High-A.
Braves: AJ Smith-Shawver, RHP (No. 4)
The Braves obviously liked Smith-Shawver’s upside, giving the former two-sport standout nearly $1 million to sign as a seventh-rounder in 2021. There’s huge upside here as last year was the first he’d ever focused only on baseball and he struck out 13.5 per nine in his full-season debut in 2022, though he also walked 5.1 and finished with a 5.11 ERA over 68 2/3 IP. This year, things are happening fast. The athletic right-hander made just three starts (all scoreless) with High-A Rome before getting a bump up to Double-A. Combined, the 20-year old has yet to allow a run over 16 IP (his Double-A debut was just two innings), and he keeps missing bats (14.1 K/9).
Marlins: Patrick Monteverde, LHP (No. 30)
A 2021 eighth-rounder from Texas Tech who relies heavily on his low-80s changeup, Monteverde led the Marlins system in ERA (3.20) last year but got knocked around for a 4.99 mark in six Double-A starts to conclude the season. His finesse approach is playing better at that level in 2023, as he ranks fourth in the Minors in opponent average (.133), fifth in strikeouts (44 in 31 2/3 innings) and seventh in ERA (1.14).
Mets: Mike Vasil, RHP (No. 11)
There is a lot of justified hype around Mets hitting prospects in 2023, but don’t overlook Vasil’s development as an arm, particularly his ability to limit free passes. The 23-year-old right-hander had a 10.7 percent walk rate last season at High-A but has cut that by more than half to 4.7 percent through five starts for Double-A Binghamton this spring. What’s more, he’s fanning 40 percent of his batters faced too, thanks to a promising feel for spin. It could be a fun race between him and Blade Tidwell to be the top Mets pitching prospect in ’23.
Nationals: Brady House, 3B (No. 5)
The 2021 11th overall pick had a rough go in his first full season and didn’t play after June 11 due to a back injury that likely hampered his early production. Back with Single-A Fredericksburg to begin this season, House is flashing much more of his offensive potential now that he’s healthy. The right-handed slugger, who has moved to third base full-time, entered Wednesday with a .277/.395/.492 line in the Carolina League. His three homers equal his 2022 total in 27 fewer games.
Phillies: Ethan Wilson, OF (No. 14)
Wilson was a member of this week’s Prospect Team of the Week after going 12-for-25 with three homers and 11 RBIs. That brings him up to .357/.406/.732 for the year and his 1.138 OPS would be good for second in the Double-A Eastern League if he hadn’t missed a week with a heel bruise. This isn’t a Reading hitting haven mirage, as his early numbers away from home are better. This is a far cry from his first full season last year when he finished with a .626 OPS, showing a much better overall approach and getting to his raw power more consistently so far this year.
Brewers: Tyler Black, 3B (No. 7)
It’s long been known that the Wright State product could hit and reach base, and he’s continued to do that at Double-A Biloxi this season with a .276/.467/.513 line through 105 plate appearances entering Wednesday. The most exciting development is that Black has been supremely aggressive on the basepaths, leading Double-A with 17 steals while only getting caught once. That already surpasses his 2022 total of 13 thefts at High-A Wisconsin. While speed is playing an increasing role in the modern game, Black has found another big way to contribute beyond his bat and patience.
Cardinals: Matthew Liberatore (No. 5)
Velocity doesn’t have to be everything, but in Liberatore’s case, it can be the separator between being a fringe starter and a solid No. 3/4 option in the bigs. The 6-foot-4 left-hander is sitting 94-96 mph much more comfortably with his pair of heaters for Triple-A Memphis to begin 2023 while getting plenty of whiffs with his plus curveball. Liberatore leads Triple-A with 51 strikeouts in 39 innings and should be an option for the Cards soon.
Cubs: Miguel Amaya, C (No. 14)
Amaya signed for $1.3 million out of Panama in 2015, quickly became the Cubs’ best catching prospect and played in consecutive SiriusXM All-Star Futures Games in 2018 and 2019. But he slipped off the Top 100 Prospects list while catching just 12 games in the next three years because of the pandemic shutdown and Tommy John surgery. Healthy again, he’s hitting the ball harder than ever (.273/.411/.659 in Double-A), looks good behind the plate and has made his big league debut.
Pirates: Henry Davis, C (No. 3/MLB No. 49)
A lot of expectations come with being the No. 1 overall pick in the Draft and injuries made it hard for Davis to get in a rhythm in his first full season, especially after he was promoted to Double-A (.703 OPS). He was sent back to Altoona to start this season as the Pirates wanted to make sure he and fellow catching prospect Endy Rodriguez both continued to get a lot of reps behind the plate, but he’s going to force Pittsburgh’s hand soon. After his two-homer game on Tuesday, Davis leads the Eastern League in OPS (1.175), OBP (.464) and SLG (.711) while his .316 average places him sixth. The Pirates are pleased with his progress behind the plate, but it’s that bat that should get him moved up soon.
Reds: Andrew Abbott, LHP (No. 10)
The Reds’ second-round pick in 2021, Abbott had a very solid first full season, spent mostly in Double-A. But while he missed bats consistently (12.1 K/9), he wasn’t as strong with Chattanooga (4.75 ERA, 8.3 H/9, 4.1 BB/9) following his promotion. The addition of a slider has made him much better this year and he’s already been bumped from Double- to Triple-A. He’s throwing more strikes overall (2.6 BB/9) and leads all Minor Leaguers with 60 K’s (17.6/9) while holding hitters to a .165 average. He should be knocking on the door soon.
D-backs: Ryan Bliss, 2B/SS (No. 30)
Even after their 2021 second-rounder hit .214 with a .641 OPS at High-A in his first full season, the D-backs maintained confidence in Bliss and still promoted him to Double-A Amarillo for 2023. He’s rewarded that confidence by leading Double-A with a .385 average while slugging .624 over 24 games. Bliss’ offensive gains have been the result of an adjustment that cut down on an uphill swing that had produced a lot of catchable fly balls last season. He’s stinging a lot more line drives in ’23, fueling the higher average.
Dodgers: the entire Tulsa Drillers rotation
We’re doing something different here because we couldn’t pick just one Drillers starter. Right-handers Nick Nastrini, Nick Frasso, River Ryan, Emmet Sheehan, Landon Knack and Kyle Hurt — all members of our Dodgers Top 30 — have quality stuff and are dealing in Double-A, combining for a 1.74 ERA and 165/34 K/BB ratio in 124 1/3 innings. Los Angeles has plenty of imminent pitching help and trade fodder.
Giants: Luis Matos, OF (No. 7)
Matos injured a quadriceps early last season, lost the feel for his right-handed swing and backslid off the Top 100 list. Signed for $725,000 out of Venezuela in 2018, he’s back to smoking line drives all fields while batting .295/.391/.421 in Double-A.
Padres: Robby Snelling, LHP (No. 5)
Given Snelling’s status as a 39th overall pick last year, expectations for the 19-year-old left-hander were relatively high already, but he’s managing to exceed them with a 0.86 ERA, 0.90 WHIP and 26 strikeouts in 21 innings to start at Single-A Lake Elsinore. Snelling’s above-average fastball and plus curveball give him weapons to be a solid starter the higher he climbs, and with Dylan Lesko still working his way back from Tommy John, Snelling’s early returns bring excitement to a San Diego system that could use it.
Rockies: Aaron Schunk, 3B/2B (No. 30)
After the Rockies took Schunk in the second round of the 2019 Draft, he hit .306 and slugged .503 in his summer debut. But after the pandemic, he largely struggled, hitting .224/.286/.633 in 2021 and finishing with a .743 OPS in Double-A last year. He made some adjustments late in 2022 (.300/.386/.440 over his final 15 games) that have carried over to his 2023 season so far. Now in Triple-A, Schunk is hitting .300/.354/.567 and while he’s taking advantage of the hitting-friendly Albuquerque environment, he was recently added back to the Rockies’ Top 30.