Friday, March 31, 2023

A dandy dozen debuts on Opening Day

Opening Day saw a dozen major league debuts, with top prospects Anthony Volpe and Jordan Walker recording their first appearances, as well as Red Sox outfielder Masataka Yoshida, who got his first chance to make good on his five-year, $85-million deal. Other big names included Brewers second baseman Brice Turang and White Sox outfielder Oscar Colas. Four Rule 5 draftees took the field, with Ryan Noda (Athletics), Blake Sabol (Giants), Mason Englert (Tigers), and Gus Varland (Brewers) getting their butterflies over and done with. Nathan Lukes (Blue Jays) and Brett Wisely (Giants) played bit parts as a pinch runner and defensive replacement, respectively. And Arizona reliever Carlos Vargas lit up the radar run in his first stint as a Snake.

Here's a recap for all 12 players:

Oscar Colas, rf, White Sox. Came on as pinch hitter for starting right fielder Romy Gonzalez in the top of the seventh and grounded a Hector Neris offering into center field for a base hit. Flew out to right fielder Kyle Tucker in his only other at-bat to finish 1-for-2 on the day. 

Mason Englert, rhp. Tigers. Rule 5 righthander came on for the bottom of the eighth with the Tigers trailing the Rays 3-0. After Wander Franco led off the inning by drilling a ball over the wall in left-center, Englert settled down and retired the next three batters on a pair of grounders and a fly to right. Threw 14 of his 22 pitches for strikes. Charged with one run on one hit in his only frame as Detroit lost 4-0.

Nathan Lukes, pr/dh, Blue Jays. Minor league veteran scored to bring the Blue Jays level with the Cardinals at 6-6 in the seventh inning after entering as a pinch runner for DH Brandon Belt, who had doubled with one down. A Matt Chapman single to right field plated him shortly after he came on. Lukes remained in the order as the DH, but was replaced by pinch-hitter Cavan Biggio when his turn to bat came up in the top of the eighth.

Ryan Noda, pr/1b, Athletics. Second player taken in last December's Rule 5 draft celebrated his 27th birthday by coming on in the bottom of the eighth as a pinch runner for Jesus Aguilar after the starting first baseman was intentionally walked to load the bases. He was erased moments later on an inning-ending double play. Noda stayed in the game to play first base in the top of the ninth and retired Brandon Drury on a pop out.

Blake Sabol, lf, Giants. Rule 5 selection became 17th different player to start for Giants in left field on Opening Day since Barry Bonds left. Batted eighth against Yankees ace Gerrit Cole, and became strikeout victim No. 6 when he missed a 97.8-mph four-seamer with one on in the second. Grounded to first in the fifth in his only other at-bat. When lefthander Wandy Peralta replaced Cole in the seventh, David Villar pinch hit for Sabol, ending his night at 0-for-2.

Brice Turang, 2b, Brewers. Started at second base as the No. 9 hitter in the Milwaukee order. Chopped the first pitch he saw from Marcus Stroman high in the air toward second baseman Nico Hoerner. Beat out an infield single and advanced to second when Hoerner's rushed throw overshot first baseman Eric Hosmer. Moved to third on a passed ball, but that was as far as he got. Reached on a force out in the fifth, again advancing to third after a groundout and a wild pitch. Flew out to left to end the seventh in his final at-bat, finishing the day 1-for-3. Turned a 6-4-3 double play in the second.

Carlos Vargas, rhrp, Diamondbacks. Flamethrower entered in the seventh as the third Arizona reliever used against the Dodgers. Replaced Kyle Nelson with two down and David Peralta on first and blew away Miguel Vargas on three pitches: four-seam fastball 99.8 mph, four-seam fastball 99.1 mph, low cutter 92.3 mph for swinging strike three. Back out for the eighth, he gave up back-to-back singles to James Outman and Miguel Rojas before catching Mookie Betts looking at a 99.5-mph four-seamer on the outside corner for strike three. Was replaced by Kevin Ginkel after walking Freddie Freeman to load the bases, and later charged with a run after a Will Smith sac fly scored Outman. Final line credited him with 2/3 of an inning, two hits, a run, a walk, and two strikeouts as the Diamondbacks fell to the Dodgers 8-2.

Gus Varland, rhrp, Brewers. Replaced reliever Peter Strzelecki to open the bottom of the seventh with the Brewers trailing 4-0. Fanned Miles Mastrobuoni on three pitches to lead things off, setting him down on a 96-mph four-seam fastball. Retired Nico Hoerner two pitches later on a groundout to short. But singles by Dansby Swanson and Ian Happ and a walk to Cody Bellinger loaded the bases with Cubs. Varland got DH Trey Mancini to ground to first to end the threat. He was replaced by Javy Guerra to open the eighth and finished with a scoreless inning to his credit as the Brew Crew fell 4-0.

Anthony Volpe, ss, Yankees. Bombers' top prospect started at shortstop as the No. 9 hitter in the order against the visiting Giants. Drew a full-count walk to lead off the bottom of the third in his first trip to the plate, then stole second base. Grounded to third and struck out swinging in his two official at-bats, finishing the day 0-for-2. Started a 6-4-3 double play in the top of the sixth.

Jordan Walker, rf, Cardinals. Cards' top prospect got the start in right as the No. 8 hitter in the lineup against the visiting Blue Jays. Got his first base hit out of the way in his first at-bat, sending an 0-1 slider from Alek Manoah into center field for a single. Nudged the Cardinals ahead in the seventh with a force out to short that scored catcher Willson Contreras. Walker had a chance to pad a one-run lead with runners at first and second in the eighth, but grounded to third baseman Matt Chapman to end the inning. He finished the night 1-for-5 with an RBI as St. Louis dropped a wild one, 10-9.

Brett Wisely, cf, Giants. Last-minute addition to the Opening Day roster was inserted in the bottom of the seventh as a defensive replacement for pinch-hitter David Villar. Took over in center field as the No. 8 hitter in the order. Retired Gleyber Torres on a flyball to center in the eighth, but never got a turn at bat.

Masataka Yoshida, lf, Red Sox. Long-time Orix star went 2-for-4 as the starting left fielder against the Orioles. Picked up his first base hit and first RBI in the sixth on a single to center that scored Justin Turner. Singled and scored in the eighth, as Boston rallied to make it close. Grounded into a force out in the bottom of the ninth, advancing to second on a wild throw as the final Sox run crossed the plate bringing the score to 10-9. Also was hit by a pitch in the fourth. Credited with an assist in the top of the seventh when his throw to third baseman Rafael Devers was relayed to second in time to nail a sliding Adley Rutschman.

Thursday, March 30, 2023

Opening Day debutants include high-profile prospects and seven Rule 5 draftees

Anthony Volpe and Jordan Walker have grabbed all the headlines this week, but there are more than 20 players on Opening Day rosters slated to make their major league debuts. In addition to three veterans from Japan (Kodai Senga, Masataka Yoshida, Shintaro Fujinami), we have seven Rule 5 draft picks who stuck (so far). While the Dodgers don't have a debutant on their Opening Day roster, they did supply three of the Rule 5 draftees to make it (Ryan Noda, Jose Hernandez, Gus Varland).

Here's a full breakdown of all of the debutants.

American League

Boston Red Sox

Masataka Yoshida, of. Long-time Orix star signed five-year, $85 million deal in December. Contract was derided by critics who were skeptical the power would translate. Now we'll see.

Chicago White Sox

Oscar Colas, of. Cuban outfielder defected in January 2020 after spending three seasons in Japan, mostly with SoftBank's minor league affiliate in the Japan Western League. Good power and strong arm. Can play all three outfield spots but likely to see most action in right.

Cleveland Guardians

Tim Herrin, lhrp. Cleveland's 29th-round pick in 2018 makes the jump after fanning 101 in 69.1 innings between Double-A Akron and Triple-A Columbus last year. Injury to lefty Sam Hentges opened the door this spring.

Detroit Tigers

Mason Englert, rhp. Strike thrower acquired in Rule 5 draft from Texas. Successful in starting role in Rangers system; could eventually land there for Tigers, but will open in pen. Struck out 14 and walked just two in 12 spring innings while posting 2.25 ERA.

Houston Astros

Corey Julks, of. Astros' 8th-rounder in 2017 out of University of Houston, hails from nearby Friendswood. Smashed 31 homers for Triple-A Sugar Land last year.

Cesar Salazar, c. One of the biggest surprises on Opening Day, Salazar spent most of 2022 at Double-A Corpus Christi hitting .277/.350/.489. A May promotion to Triple-A Sugar Land didn't take, and he returned to CC a month later. 2018 7th-rounder from University of Arizona.

New York Yankees

Anthony Volpe, ss. Yankees' top prospect beat out Oswald Peraza and veteran Isiah Kiner-Falefa for starting shortstop job by hitting .319/.415/.618 in 55 Grapefruit League at-bats.

Oakland Athletics

Shintaro Fujinami, rhp. Veteran of the NPB, was preferred to Shohei Ohtani by some clubs when both were available in the 2012 draft. Dazzled for Hanshin early in his career before losing the plate. Signed one-year deal with A's in January.

Ryan Noda, 1b. Second player taken in Rule 5 draft last December, hit .259/.395/.474 with 25 homers for Triple-A Oklahoma City in 2022. Lefty swinger turns 27 on Opening Day. (Happy birthday, Ryan!)

Tampa Bay Rays

Kevin Kelly, rhrp. Taken by Rockies from the Guardians in the Rule 5 draft, then flipped to the Rays for cash considerations. Struck out 75 in 57.1 innings between Double-A Akron and Triple-A Columbus last year while posting a 2.04 ERA.

Toronto Blue Jays

Nathan Lukes, of. 28-year-old will back up all three outfield spots for the Jays. Hit .285/.364/.425 in 111 games for Triple-A Buffalo in 2022 after signing with Toronto as a minor league free agent.

National League

Arizona Diamondbacks

Carlos Vargas, rhrp. Flamethrower teases triple digits, providing D'backs with power arm they lacked last year. Missed 2021 season due to Tommy John. Capped strong second half with impressive September at Triple-A Columbus last year. Acquired from Guardians for RHP Ross Culver in November.

Atlanta Braves

Dylan Dodd, lhp. Not technically on Opening Day roster, but is projected as member of starting rotation. Will be added before his turn comes up early next week. 2021 3rd-rounder out of Southeast Missouri State throws strikes.

Jared Shuster, lhp. Atlanta's 1st-round pick in 2020 out of Wake Forest. Shot onto prospect radar with outstanding summer on the Cape in 2019. Beat out favorites Ian Anderson and Bryce Elder with strong spring.

Milwaukee Brewers

Brice Turang, 2b. Son of former big leaguer Brian Turang was star of USA Baseball's 15U squad in 2014 before ever playing a high-school game. Committed to LSU as a sophomore. Projected as early 1st-rounder before sliding after so-so senior year. Has progressed steadily since Brewers took him 21st overall in 2018. Climbed as shortstop, but strong defense at second base in spring helped clinch roster spot.

Gus Varland, rhrp. Rule 5 pick from Dodgers last December. A's 14th-rounder out of Concordia in 2018 was sidelined by Tommy John the following summer. Traded to Dodgers in February 2021. Lost arm slot when he returned to action, finally got right last summer. Struck out 17 of 35 batters faced this spring. Older brother of Twins hurler Louie Varland.

New York Mets

Kodai Senga, rhp. Long-time SoftBank ace in NPB. Worked in 224 games over 11 seasons, with an 87-44 record and 2.59 career ERA, 1,252 strikeouts in 1089 innings. Signed five-year, $75 million deal with Mets week before Christmas. Can big-league batters hit the "ghost forkball"?

Pittsburgh Pirates

Jose Hernandez, lhrp. Yet another Dodger lost in Rule 5 draft last winter. Hit hard in spring training, but showed lively 95-98 mph fastball. Struck out 69 in 59.2 innings between High-A Great Lakes and Double-A Tulsa last year.

St. Louis Cardinals

Jordan Walker, of. Fast mover switched from third base to outfield with path blocked by Nolan Arenado. Hit .306/.388/.510 at Double-A Springfield last year. Cooled off late after hot Grapefruit League opening, but showed enough to win the job. Won't turn 21 until late May.

San Francisco Giants

Blake Sabol, c/of. Reds selected him from Pirates with fourth pick in Rule 5 draft, then sent him to Giants for a player to be named later. Hit .284/.363/.497 in 123 games between Double-A Altoona and Triple-A Indianapolis last year while splitting time between outfield and catcher. Speedy for a catcher, but lacks polish behind the plate.

Brett Wisely, util. Last-minute addition was ticketed for Triple-A Sacramento until Matt Beaty acquisition bumped Bryce Johnson off roster. Utilityman can back up all four infield spots as well as all three outfield posts. November deal with Rays brought Wisely west in exchange for outfielder Tristan Peters. Hit .217/.321/.500 in 46 Cactus League at-bats.

Washington Nationals

Hobie Harris, rhrp. Minor league free agent made Nats after allowing just five baserunners in 10 Grapefruit League innings. 31st round pick in 2015 by Yankees was taken by Blue Jays in 2019 minor league Rule 5 draft. Signed with Brewers as minor league free agent after 2021; held opponents to .164 average at Triple-A Nashville in 2022.

Thaddeus Ward, rhrp. First player selected in last December's Rule 5 draft, came to Nationals from Red Sox. Missed most of 2021 after Tommy John surgery. Returned in 2022 and advanced as far as Double-A Portland before making strong showing in AFL. 

Wednesday, March 29, 2023

Turang's arrival makes 2017 Perfect Game lineup even more impressive

When Brice Turang received the happy news that he made the Brewers this week, he became the eighth player to appear in the 2017 Perfect Game Classic to reach the majors. Most impressively, five of the first six hitters in the West lineup have made it: Turang, Nolan Gorman, Jarred Kelenic, Jordan Groshans, and Bo Naylor. Toss in Alek Thomas, and you have six. The West's starting pitcher that day? Matthew Liberatore. (You knew he'd be in there somewhere if his bestie Nolan Gorman was involved.)

The West team was clearly hogging all the good Gatorade that day. Triston Casas is thus far the only member of the East squad to suit up in a big-league uni. Parker Meadows may join his brother in Detroit soon, but aside from that, the talent leaned toward one dugout.

The star power was more evenly spread in 2018, when the West lineup featured Corbin Carroll, Bobby Witt Jr., and Gunnar Henderson, and the East's included CJ Abrams, Riley Greene, and Anthony Volpe.

If you go the other direction, the list gets a lot longer, as one might expect with more time for development. The West roster in 2016 included Nick Allen, Royce Lewis, MJ Melendez, Hunter Greene, Calvin Mitchell, Garrett Mitchell, Ryan Vilade, Tyler Freeman, Trevor Rogers, Shane Baz, and Jeremiah Estrada. Whew. The East squad had Jo Adell, Luis Campusano, Mark Vientos, Drew Waters, DL Hall, and MacKenzie Gore.

Monday, March 27, 2023

2020 picks Shuster, Elder jockey for position on Braves staff

With just four picks and one of the lowest bonus pools available in the 2020 draft, Atlanta had to get a bit creative in how it drafted and what terms it could offer.

Having forfeited its second- and third-rounders for signing qualifying offer free agents Will Smith and Marcell Ozuna, and gained a third for the loss of Josh Donaldson, the Braves went into the five-round affair owning picks 25 (1st rd), 97 (3rd), 126 (4th), and 156 (5th). Their bonus pool was just $4,127,800. To make up for the lost second-rounder, the Braves were hoping to hit a home run later in the draft. But in order to get aggressive there, they would need to save some money early on.

So, while it may have seemed early to hear Jared Shuster's name called late in the first, there was a plan. The Wake Forest lefthander was one of the fastest rising players in his class, having broken out on the Cape the previous summer after struggling for most of his first two collegiate seasons. Still, he was only ranked 47th by Baseball America ahead of the draft and 77th by MLB Pipeline. But by taking him early and signing him to an under-slot $2,197,500 deal, Atlanta saved $542,800.

That money, along with $100,000 banked on a bargain deal with third-rounder Jesse Franklin, allowed the Braves to splurge on fifth-rounder Bryce Elder, who slid due to signability concerns. Elder was regarded as a risky pick for some clubs, leaving BA's No. 84 talent available at pick No. 156. Elder, a polished righthander from Texas, agreed to an $847,500 deal a week after the draft, more than half a million over the pick's $336,600 slot value.

The only Atlanta pick to sign for even close to his pick's preordained value that draft was Clemson righthander Spencer Strider, who received $449,300, just $2,500 under slot. Strider was coming off Tommy John surgery that cost him his sophomore season in 2019. Having thrown just 12 innings in 2020 before the pandemic ended the college season, he was a bit of a wild card. Of course, that gamble paid off, as Strider reached the majors less than 16 months later, appearing in two games out of the bullpen in October 2021. He may have received the smallest bonus of any Atlanta pick in 2020, but he more than made up for it by signing a six-year, $75 million contract extension last October after finishing second in National League Rookie of the Year balloting.

Elder was the second member of the class to reach Atlanta, debuting last April. He was up and down throughout the 2022 campaign, making 10 appearances in all for the Braves and compiling a 3.17 ERA over 54 innings. He was one of the early favorites for the No. 5 starter job heading into training camp this spring, but after allowing eight earned runs in 11.2 innings he was optioned to Gwinnett on March 15, along with righthander Ian Anderson, who had seemed almost a lock to make the club.

So while Shuster and his below-slot deal made it possible to bring Elder into the organization back in 2020, Elder's disappointing spring cleared a path for Shuster to make the Opening Day roster, along with fellow lefthander Dylan Dodd, himself a well below-slot signing as a fifth-year senior in 2021. Both hit their spots within the zone this spring, something Elder failed to do. But should either of them falter, Elder will be more than happy to swap places. (Strider, of course, seems unlikely to make way for anyone, health willing.)

Friday, March 24, 2023

Hall's power resume is nearly Hoskins-esque

Darick Hall 2023 Topps baseball card
There is no positive spin to put on the loss of Rhys Hoskins, who has averaged 30 home runs over the past four non-COVID seasons for the Phillies. Hoskins came up clutch in the postseason last fall, hitting six home runs despite a .159 average. He drove in 12 runs with his 11 hits, making them count. His ACL injury most likely means he is out for the year, and, as he's in the final season of his contract, might spell the end of his run as a Phillie.

Mix in his veteran leadership and salt-of-the-club persona, and the task of replacing Hoskins gets even tougher.

There aren't many teams, however, who happen to have an in-house candidate that hit 37 home runs last year between Triple-A and the majors. Particularly one who entered camp looking like a longshot to see regular playing time, at least once Bryce Harper returns, whenever that may be. But in 26-year-old Darick Hall, the Phillies have a like-for-like power producer available.

In his second shot at Triple-A, Hall was tied for tops among Triple-A hitters with 20 home runs when the Phillies called him up to help plug the lefthanded thump hole after Harper went on the IL late last June with a broken left thumb. After an 0-for-4 debut against the Braves on June 29, Hall went deep twice the following night as Philadelphia trounced Atlanta 14-4. He homered again the following day against the Cardinals and soon became a tough guy to move out of the lineup, at least against righties. Though the power was both streaky and came with a swing-and-miss side effect, Hall proved reliable enough. Seeing regular duty through mid-August, he slashed .266/.299/.555 with nine home runs in 128 at-bats.

When Harper returned on Aug. 18, Hall's playing time disappeared. With the veteran outfielder relegated to DH, there was no place for Hall to play. He saw one more at-bat before being returned to Lehigh Valley on Aug. 22. He took his frustrations out on International League pitching staffs, adding eight home runs, seven of which came in a two-week stretch in September. The Phillies called him back for the final week of the regular season, but he went 0-for-7 and didn't make the postseason roster.

He looked surplus to requirements heading into 2023 on a roster already chock full of DH types. Harper's Tommy John surgery opened the door for some early at-bats, but with his return creeping forward possibly into May, that opportunity wasn't likely to last long. Hoskins' knee injury changes all of that.

Hall's 37 jacks last year may be a career best, but it's not like he doesn't have a track record. He was a legitimate two-way star in college, first for two years at Cochise College in Arizona, where he drove in 103 runs between his freshman and sophomore seasons while winning 16 games as a righthanded pitcher. After transferring to Dallas Baptist for his junior season in 2016, he posted a 1.051 OPS and went 9-3 with a 3.43 ERA while making 16 starts, earning Missouri Valley Conference Player of the Year honors. His 94 strikeouts ranked second among MVC hurlers, and he finished third in both homers (20) and RBIs (69 in 62 games).

The Phillies grabbed Hall in the 14th round of the 2016 draft and sent him to Short-A Williamsport to play first base. He topped the New York-Penn League with 19 doubles and tied for third with nine home runs. He took it even further the next summer, hitting 27 homers and driving in 96 at Low-A Lakeland to garner MVP honors in the South Atlantic League. Having been introduced to launch-angle concepts in college, those doubles and homers came from utilizing his legs and a slight uppercut swing to drive balls in the air. All the way up the ladder he posted power numbers, cranking 49 extra-base hits at two levels in 2018, and 59 for Double-A Reading the following year. He struggled in his first taste of Triple-A in 2021, hitting .161/.277/.280 over the first two months until he began making the necessary adjustments and understanding that pitchers at that level were good enough to work the corners and he wouldn't be seeing meat down the middle. Thirty of his 41 extra-base hits came after July 1.

Add his nine big-league bombs to his 126 minor league shots, and he has 135 as a pro. It's not quite Hoskins' pace, but it's not far off. The biggest difference is that he'll need a platoon mate. Hall hit .184/.255/.336 in 125 at-bats against lefties in Triple-A last year and .286/.363/.617 in 269 at-bats against righties. He saw just a dozen plate appearances against southpaws in the majors, going 1-for-12. All nine of his Philadelphia homers came against righties, as did 24 of his 28 Lehigh Valley ones.

Four of his five home runs this spring have come against righthanders. Regardless of the breakdown, however, that's five home runs in 48 Grapefruit League at-bats. The rest of his stat line pops as well. Hall has drawn eight walks and struck out eight times. He's slashing .313/.411/.667 (through Friday's game), and has driven in 11 runs.

He's made his case. Now it's his turn to step up. 

Thursday, March 23, 2023

Meeting major leaguers on the Effectively Wild podcast

I've met and chatted with some pretty great folks over the past few weeks as they've welcomed me onto their podcasts to talk baseball and Major League Debuts. This week it was Meg Rowley and Ben Lindbergh, who host Fangraph's Effectively Wild show three times a week.

As it goes, Ben and Meg have a regularly recurring "Meet a Major Leaguer" segment, in which they discuss a new arrival who doesn't generally get all the love that some of the top prospects receive. Some of their past subjects include Gosuke Katoh, Logan Gillaspie, and Wynton Bernard, all of whom reached the big leagues in 2022.

For my segment, they asked me to bring three players to the table. I flipped through the book and jotted more than a dozen names down before finally narrowing the list to Jason Delay, Ben DeLuzio, and Donny Sands. A variety pack of interesting backgrounds. Want to know more? Listen to the show.

Big thanks to Meg and Ben for having me on. Same to everyone else who has hosted me lately, including Lindsay Crosby with LockedOn MLB Prospects and Benjamin Hill for The Show Before the Show on Those were both good chats as well.

Sunday, March 19, 2023

Roadblocks nothing new for "Mash" Mervis

After Matt Mervis broke out last season with 36 home runs and a .309/.379/.606 slash line to earn Minor League Player of the Year honors in the Cubs organization, many figured he had a clear path to the first-base job in Chicago this year. Then came the January additions of Eric Hosmer and Trey Mancini, slowing the roll of the Mash train.

It's not the first time Mervis has found his road blocked. Coming out of Georgetown Prep in 2016, he was regarded as the top talent in the state of Maryland. Before arriving at Duke University, he spent the summer playing for the Silver Spring-Takoma Thunderbolts in the Cal Ripken Collegiate Baseball League, hitting .411/.469/.643 in 64 plate appearances. Perfect Game named him as one of the top 35 freshman in the Atlantic Coast Conference heading into the 2017 season, and before he'd even suited up in an official game he owned an invitation to play for Hyannis in the Cape Cod Baseball League that summer. It's fair to say a lot was expected of Mervis. He wound up getting six at-bats that spring. Most of his time on the field as a freshman came as a relief pitcher. The pattern repeated itself in 2018, when he saw just four at-bats.

It wasn't until the summer of 2018 with Kalamazoo in the Northwoods League that Mervis finally saw regular duty again. He hit .316/.395/.450 in 200 plate appearances, drawing 22 walks against 30 strikeouts. Even that wasn't enough to immediately win him a job as a junior, however. Mervis didn't claim a starting role until ACC play began in March, after a couple of injuries created an opportunity. He homered at Virginia in his second start and tossed 1.1 innings of relief to claim the win. Two weekends later, he went 5-for-8 against Wake Forest, cementing his spot in the order. Mervis hit .274/.357/.421 in 190 plate appearances, helping Duke advance to the Super Regional round against eventual CWS champion Vanderbilt.

Blue Devils head coach Chris Pollard credited Mervis' time with Kalamazoo for improving his plate discipline and his ability to handle off-speed pitches. This was allegedly said with no irony. What a Catch-22, how to improve your plate discipline without being given the opportunity to improve your plate discipline.

Mervis returned to the Cape over the summer of 2019, hitting .325/.418/.571 in 91 plate appearances for Cotuit, and capping an All-Star campaign by going 4-for-5 with a homer and two RBIs in the championship game against Harwich as his Kettleers claimed the title. Named team captain for his senior season at Duke, Mervis hit .304/.458/.589 in 56 at-bats, leading the squad with 17 hits and three home runs before COVID-19 ended the campaign after 16 games. Regarded by many as a potential fourth-to-sixth-rounder, Mervis went unpicked in the abbreviated five-round 2020 draft. But the Cubs, who had been on him for months, quickly reached out with a recruiting pitch that included specifics on how to improve his swing. He signed in late June, but with no minor league season his first chance to impress came at instructional league that fall when he stood out as one of the best hitters in camp.

Though Mervis showed decent plate discipline and a bit of power at Low-A Myrtle Beach in 2021, he struggled to keep his average over the Mendoza line, hitting .204/.309/.367 in 288 plate appearances through Aug. 14, when he landed on the injury list. By the time he came back, Myrtle Beach's season was long over. The Cubs jumped him to Triple-A Iowa for three October games, and he went 4-for-14 with a double and two RBIs.

Mervis attributed his first-year struggles to thinking too much about his mechanics in the box instead of trusting the work he'd put in. That approach changed in 2022, when he shot from High-A South Bend to Iowa, leading the minor leagues with 119 RBIs while ripping 78 extra-base hits. He did more damage in the Arizona Fall League, hitting .262/.324/.590 and tying for tops in the circuit with six long balls.

Much has been made about Mervis' meteoric rise from undrafted prospect to the cusp of the big leagues. There will likely be a number of these "undrafted" stories now that guys from the 2020 class are reaching the upper levels of the minors. Had the 2020 draft gone even 10 rounds, Mervis almost certainly would have been taken. And he was drafted once, back in 2016 out of high school, when the Nationals spent their 39th-round pick on him.

It's hard to argue with a Duke education. Mervis was an ACC Academic Honor Roll selection multiple times while pursuing his degree in political science. The college choice was important to him and his family. But you could make a strong case that he'd likely have arrived in the big leagues before now if he'd signed out of high school.

Mervis wasted two seasons riding the bench, and was likely facing a third until injuries opened the door for him in 2019. Like Roy Hobbs waiting for Bump Bailey to hit the wall, Mervis sat and watched, ready and willing. College coaches are under pressure to win, and Pollard thought someone else was more likely to help him do that. Had Mervis signed, he would have been playing somewhere, racking up at-bats, learning how to lay off those breaking pitches by actually facing them.

Hosmer and Mancini won't stand in his way for long. Assuming he doesn't break camp with the big club, if Mervis hits like he did last year, he will force his way into the picture. Big league managers are paid to win, too, and Mervis will help David Ross do that more regularly than the veterans ahead of him in the pecking order.

Friday, March 17, 2023

LockedOn Major League Debuts

When I offered review copies of Major League Debuts up to Internet Baseball Writers Association of America members, Lindsay Crosby of LockedOn MLB Prospects was the first to respond. This week we finally had a chance to get together to talk about the book in a conversation that he captured for a podcast.

It was clear from the start that Lindsay had taken a deep dive into the book, because he had all kinds of great questions. Like about Bennett Sousa being the young reliever on the mound when Tony La Russa called for the intentional walk to Trea Turner when the count was 1-2. And about Cooper Hummel's transition from catching to the outfield. In other words, he went well beyond Julio Rodriguez and Michael Harris II.

It was a fun conversation, and if you can get past the obvious lack of on-camera presence by yours truly, it made a good podcast. Take a look for yourself.

I'll keep a running list of podcast appearances on the Virtual Book Tour page on this site. We're up to four so far, and there are more in the works.

Wednesday, March 15, 2023

Prospect Notes: Masyn Winn, Pete Crow-Armstrong, Paul Skenes, Mason Englert, Shintaro Fujinami, Oscar Colas and more

With two weeks left until spring training draws to a close, here are a few notes on prospects who look likely to make their debuts in 2023.

Masyn Winn, who has turned heads with his play at shortstop in Cardinals camp this spring, spent most of his time at second base when he wasn't on the mound for Kingwood HS. His double-play partner was Tre Richardson, who originally committed to the University of Houston as a freshman before reopening his recruitment during his junior season. Richardson wound up graduating early, leaving Kingwood in December 2019 to enroll at Baylor and get a head start on his college career. The pandemic cut his freshman season short after 10 games. Ironically for Winn, he never got to start at short as a senior that spring after he missed Kingwood's first 12 games due to suspension. He started on the mound in his first game back, the school's last before its season was curtailed by COVID. Richardson was an All-Big 12 Honorable Mention in both 2021 and 2022 while playing primarily at second base. When Baylor head coach Steve Rodriguez left last spring, Richardson transferred to Texas Christian, where he's hitting .417/.488/.583 through 10 games this spring. 

Winn and Pete Crow-Armstrong led USA Baseball's 12U pitching staff in the 2014 COPABE Pan Am Championship, combining for a 0.00 ERA over 20.2 innings. Crow-Armstrong, who was listed on the roster as just Pete Armstrong, didn't yield a hit over 10.2 innings, though he did walk 12 while fanning 16. Winn struck out 14 over 10 innings while allowing three hits and six walks. That roster also included Paul Skenes, who transferred to Louisiana State this year after two All-American seasons at Air Force. Skenes is 4-0 with a 0.75 ERA for the Tigers this spring and has struck out a mind-blowing 48 batters in 24 innings while allowing just eight hits and four walks. He did not pitch for Team USA in 2014. Infielder Robert Moore, who was drafted out of Arkansas in the second round last year by the Brewers, was also on the team. He did pitch, tossing five scoreless innings for the young national squad. Izaac Pacheco, a Tigers second-rounder in 2021 who hit .254/.331/.408 between Low-A Lakeland and High-A West Michigan last year, was on the club as well. Cleveland's 2020 first-rounder Carson Tucker, younger brother of Cole, was there, too. He has yet to kick his professional career into gear, having hit just .137 in 136 plate appearances for Low-A Lynchburg last year. The four players picked immediately ahead of him in the 2020 first-round were Crow-Armstrong (19, Cubs), Garrett Mitchell (20, Brewers), Jordan Walker (21, Cardinals), and Cade Cavalli (22, Nationals). The top hitter on that 12U team in 2014 was Alek Boychuk, who hit .520 with five homers and 19 RBIs in 25 at-bats. A prize recruit to South Carolina in 2020 as a catcher, Boychuk sat out the 2021 season due to a medical issue that affected both feet. He was forced to retire from baseball without ever playing a college game.

Mason Englert, who threw two scoreless innings for the Tigers against the Red Sox Tuesday to drop his Grapefruit League ERA to 3.00 over nine innings, was part of the same Texas A&M recruiting class as Orioles righthander Grayson Rodriguez and Guardians catcher Bo Naylor. All three signed after being drafted early in 2018. Englert got $1 million from the Rangers as their fourth-rounder. Rodriguez went 11th overall and inked a $4.3 million deal. Naylor, who is currently playing for Team Canada in the World Baseball Classic, signed with Cleveland for $2.58 million as the 29th overall pick that June. He was the first of the three to reach the majors, making his debut last October against the Royals.

Shintaro Fujinami was preferred by some scouts to Shohei Ohtani when both were eligible for the Nippon Professional Baseball draft in October 2012. Fujinami made the bigger impact in 2013, going 10-6 with a 2.75 ERA with 126 strikeouts in 137.2 innings for Hanshin as a 19-year-old rookie. Ohtani went 3-0 with a 4.23 ERA in 13 games for Nippon Ham, posting a 1.46 WHIP in 61.2 innings. He also hit .238/.284/.376 in 204 plate appearances. Fujinami looked like the real deal for his first four seasons in the Central League before his control went awry in 2017. He spent significant portions of the next six seasons in the Japan Western League, pitching for Hanshin's minor league affiliate. He signed a one-year deal with the A's in January for $3.25 million. He's expected to be part of Oakland's starting rotation this season, though he's walked eight batters in eight innings so far in Cactus League play while logging a 5.63 ERA. He's also struck out 13.

Though Oscar Colas was dubbed by some as "The Cuban Ohtani" after defecting in January 2020, he rarely pitched during his three years in Japan, mainly taking the mound against independent and amateur teams. Though he was clocked as high as 95 mph as a lefthanded pitcher, he was always regarded as a hitting prospect first. Frustrated by his lack of opportunity at the top level in Japan, he defected in the hopes of forcing a move to the U.S. He eventually got his wish, but not before a protracted battle with the SoftBank Hawks, who placed him on the restricted list in February 2020 to prevent him from signing elsewhere. Not until SoftBank left him off its reserve list that December was he eligible to negotiate. He eventually signed with the White Sox in January 2022 for $2.7 million. Colas, who went 1-for-2 in the Futures Game last summer, hit .314/.371/.524 with 24 doubles and 23 home runs in 526 plate appearances while climbing from High-A Winston-Salem to Triple-A Charlotte. He's hitting .364/.382/.576 with a pair of homers in 33 Cactus League at-bats this spring. 

Thursday, March 9, 2023

Fan-favorite Narciso Crook breaks out with first two spring homers

Narciso Crook is an easy guy to root for. He has a track record of making friends and fans wherever he plays because he makes time for the kids in the crowd, signing autographs in exchange for a promise that they'll pay forward an act of kindness.

He's also fun to cheer for because he's got such a well-rounded basket of tools. He showed off the power side of his game today against the Yankees, bashing two home runs in an 11-7 Red Sox victory.

Here's the Crook entry from Major League Debuts.

Narciso Crook, OF, Cubs

B-T: R-R HT: 6-3 WT: 220 Born: July 12, 1995, Nagua, Dominican Republic

Debut Age: 26

Debut: June 30. Crook had a debut to savor against his former club, coming on as a pinch hitter for Rafael Ortega with runners at the corners in the bottom of the fifth. He drilled the first pitch he saw to short for an inning-ending double play. Not the result he wanted, but the 100-mph exit velocity was duly noted. He hit the ball hard again his next time up, ripping a line drive deep down the left-field line for a double to score Christopher Morel. He wasn’t done yet. With the Cubs up 10-4, Cincinnati shifted Max Schrock from right field to the mound for the eighth inning. Crook got in on the resultant hit parade, singling to center. He would score later on a double by Nelson Velazquez. He finished the night 2-for-3 with a run and an RBI as the Cubs cruised 15-7.

Background: Born in the Dominican Republic, Crook moved to Trenton, N.J., to join his mother when he was 11. As he settled in, he practiced his English by listening to Eminem, 50 Cent, and Lil Wayne. Crook’s mom married former NFL tight end Al Darby, who encouraged him to take up a sport in the hopes that it would keep him out of trouble. He chose baseball and quickly became a success locally. Crook spent one year at Gloucester County College, where he hit .372 with 14 homers and 69 RBIs in 2013, and was the only freshman named to the NJCAA Div. III All-American first-team. Shortly after he hit four jacks in a doubleheader, the Reds selected him in the 23rd round of the draft. He made his professional debut the following summer, hitting .255/.313/.423 in 42 games in the Rookie-level Arizona League. Crook showed promising power but poor plate discipline in his first full season at Low-A Dayton in 2015. Sent back the next spring, his season ended in May when he tore the labrum in his left shoulder. His development was further derailed by a sports hernia in 2017 that required another surgery and more rehab. The injuries limited him to 59 games between the two seasons. But when he played he always hit the ball hard, displaying great athleticism and an infectious enthusiasm that made him a clubhouse favorite at every stop. His offseason routine includes time with Licey in the Dominican Winter League, where Crook belted three home runs in one memorable game during the 2020-21 season. He set a new career best with 14 long balls in 2021, spent mostly at Triple-A Louisville, where he had also spent the bulk of the 2019 campaign.

2022 Season: After eight seasons in the Reds organization, Crook signed with the Cubs as a minor league free agent in November 2021. He got off to an icy start at Triple-A Iowa, hitting .178/.294/.329 through the end of May. But the flip switched with the calendar, and Crook absolutely raked in June, slashing .345/.444/.667 with seven homers and seven stolen bases. When Jason Heyward went on the injured list at the end of the month, the Cubs went with the hot hand. His brief trial lasted just four games, and he returned to Iowa 2-for-8, with both hits coming in his first contest. His final numbers at Iowa were the best of his career, and he proved particularly dangerous against lefthanders, slashing .277/.340/.596 in 94 at-bats against southpaws.

Outlook: Despite his lengthy resume, he’s still only 27. It’s hard to believe he won’t see more time in the big leagues. The swing-and-miss will always be there, but if he gets hot at the right time he could stick long enough to post a few crooked numbers. He signed with a minor league deal with the Red Sox in November.


Wednesday, March 8, 2023

Class of '22 well represented on WBC rosters

Twenty-seven players who made their major league debuts in 2022 appear on rosters for the World Baseball Classic. That's nearly one of every ten players (8.9%) to break into the bigs last year. Mexico and Puerto Rico lead the way with five debutants each. The biggest names are AL Rookie of the Year Julio Rodriguez, Royals shortstop Bobby Witt Jr., and Astros shortstop Jeremy Pena. But there are quite a few other familiar faces.

Here is the full breakdown. (Source: rosters on


Matt Brash, rhp
Bo Naylor, c
Jared Young, 1b


Jordan Diaz, inf
Norge Ruiz, rhp

Dominican Republic

Ronel Blanco, rhp
Jeremy Pena, ss
Julio Rodriguez, of


Jake Fishman, lhp
Bubby Rossman, rhp


Ben DeLuzio, of
Miles Mastrobuoni, 2b/of
Andre Pallante, rhp
Vinnie Pasquantino, 1b


Jonathan Aranda, inf
Javier Assad, rhp
Adrian Martinez, rhp
Joey Meneses, 1b/of
Alek Thomas, of


Richie Palacios, of

Puerto Rico

Fernando Cruz, rhp
Alexis Diaz, rhp
MJ Melendez, c/of
Nicholas Padilla, rhp
Nelson Velazquez, of

United States

Bobby Witt Jr., ss


Max Castillo, rhp

Here is a breakdown of where the 303 players to debut in 2022 were born:

223 - United States
33 - Dominican Republic
24 - Venezuela
6 - Mexico
5 - Cuba
4 - Canada
2 - Colombia, Germany
1 - Bahamas, Japan, South Korea, Panama

Though it should obviously be noted that for WBC eligibility there are orther factors than birthplace. Most of the players representing Israel and Italy, for example, were born and raised in the U.S. And Norge Ruiz, who is playing for Colombia, was born in Cuba.

Sunday, March 5, 2023

Pfaadt emerges from the shadow of former Louisville neighbors Detmers and Miller

In the spring of 2020, three collegiate hurlers in Louisville got off to sensational starts before COVID abruptly curtailed the season.

Lefthander Reid Detmers went 3-0 with a 1.23 ERA in four starts for Louisville, striking out 48 batters in 22 innings while allowing just 16 hits and six walks. He twice logged six shutout innings, striking out 14 against Valparaiso in his second game and fanning 15 at Wake Forest in his final outing. Detmers was the fourth pitcher off the board in the 2020 draft, going 10th overall to the Angels. He signed for $4.67 million.

Righthander Bobby Miller was also part of that Cardinals staff. He too made four starts, going 2-0 with a 2.31 ERA. In 23.1 innings, he struck out 34 and walked nine while issuing just 15 hits. Miller, who like Detmers had been drafted late in 2017 coming out of high school, went to the Dodgers with the 29th overall pick and signed for $2,197,500.

Not far away, righthander Brandon Pfaadt drew scouts to a much smaller campus over at Div. II Bellarmine University. Despite having seen his stock take off while pitching for Wareham in the Cape Cod Baseball League the previous summer, Pfaadt was still a bit of a relative unknown. In five starts for Bellarmine, he went 3-1 with a 1.38 ERA, striking out 27 in 26 innings and allowing 18 hits and four walks. The numbers, while nice, came against competition significantly below the level of that faced by Detmers and Miller. Once the 2020 draft was capped at five rounds, there was no guarantee Pfaadt would even be selected. But the Diamondbacks called his name in the final round, 149th overall. He signed for $100,000.

Pfaadt, who has thrown five scoreless innings over his first two Cactus League appearances this spring, is popping up as a potential top rookie in the National League for 2023. That happens when a guy leads the minors in strikeouts as he did last year, when he logged 218, the most in the minor leagues since Brandon Claussen recorded 220 in 2001. MLB Pipeline ranked him as the No. 59 player on its Top 100 Prospects list, 35 spots behind Miller, at No.  24.

That list is based on long-term ceiling, not just 2023 projections. Based on this season, Pfaadt may have an edge, simply because he has a cleaner shot at a starting job. With Julio Urias, Clayton Kershaw, Tony Gonsolin, Dustin May, and Noah Syndergaard all in line ahead of him, Miller is projected to open the year in the rotation at Triple-A Oklahoma City, where he finished last season, making four starts following a mid-August promotion from Double-A Tulsa. Unlike Pfaadt, Miller has yet to make his competitive spring debut as the Dodgers have him on a slower build-up schedule. 

Pfaadt beat Miller to the Pacific Coast League, making his Triple-A debut last Aug. 4. He made the transition look easy, earning PCL Pitcher of the Month honors in his first go at the league, limiting opponents to a .151 average and a 0.81 WHIP in August. He followed that up with a strong September, striking out 42 and walking just five over 30.2 innings. On the year, he was 11-7 with a 3.83 ERA over 29 starts, persevering despite working in unfriendly environments at both Reno and Double-A Amarillo. The Diamondbacks named Pfaadt their Minor League Pitcher of the Year. Invited to Arizona to accept the honor, he indicated the key to his success was staying aggressive and attacking the zone regardless of how homer friendly his park was. He also learned to expand the zone with two strikes, letting hitters chase their way into the books, having felt that he'd left too many two-strike pitches in hittable locations earlier in his career.

Detmers, of course, won the three-way race to the majors, making his Angels debut on Aug. 1, 2021. He logged a 7.40 ERA in five late-season starts that year, but was much more effective last season, when he went 7-6 with a 3.77 ERA in 25 starts totaling 129 innings. His season included a nine-inning no-hitter against the Rays on May 10 and a brief detour to the minors six weeks later to reset himself after a couple of rough outings. Very brief. Detmers channeled his old college dominance for one start with Salt Lake, striking out 14 in a six-inning effort at Tacoma. A week later, he was back with the big club, and back on track.

Which of the trio will cross the line second? Even with two impressive outings in the books, Pfaadt isn't guaranteed an Opening Day job in Arizona. Starters Tommy Henry, Ryne Nelson, and Drey Jameson all received late season callups in 2022 and are in camp competing for the same job Pfaadt is. But if he continues to pitch like he has been, he will make it very difficult for the Diamondbacks to send him down. Miller, on the other hand, isn't being prepared for a spot on the Opening Day roster in Los Angeles. But plans change, especially when they involve the medical records of the five men ahead of him. Only Urias has made 30 starts in either of the past two years, doing so in both 2021 and 2022. Everyone else has missed significant time in one or both campaigns.

Regardless of who gets there first, Pfaadt is solidly in the conversation, something that couldn't be said back when the three hurlers first enrolled in school in the fall of 2017. 

Soriano sparkles in losing effort for Marlins

It may get lost in the headline of Miami's 5-0 loss to Arizona, with ace Sandy Alcantara once more not finding the 2022 version of himse...