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The 2020 VEB Top Prospects List #10-6

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Moving into the top ten.

2017 NCAA Division I Men’s Baseball Super Regional: Kentucky v Louisville Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

#10: Elehuris Montero, 3B/1B

6’3”, 225 lbs; Bats/Throws: Right/Right

DOB: 17th August 1998

Level(s) in 2019: Springfield (AA), Arizona Fall League

Relevant Stats: 238 PA, 52 wRC+ (Spr)

So, what’s so great about this guy?

Coming into the 2019 season, Elehuris Montero had all the momentum in the world. His 2018 season was arguably underappreciated, considering the 157 wRC+ he posted as a nineteen year old in full-season ball, and while he didn’t exactly dominate the Florida State League after being promoted late in the season, he still put up an above-average line.

That’s what made his 2019 campaign so disappointing. A wrist injury — the dreaded hamate bone, specifically — derailed his season, and he never really could get things turned around. He spent most of the season at Double A Springfield, and Texas League pitchers mostly had their way with the big slugger. Seasons of this sort are hard to analyse, simply because so much of what went wrong can be, and probably should be, chalked up to lingering injury issues and the loss of time and rhythm. In the end, 2019 was a lost season for Montero, and all we can hope is that he gets another shot in a fresh year at Double A. He’s still only 21, and while he struggled in 2019 even before the injury, plenty of players face that hiccup when making the jump to Double A.

At his best, Montero has all the ingredients of a star-level impact hitter. Well, most of the ingredients, anyway; his plate approach tends to be overly aggressive, but considering the combination of above-average contact ability and plus raw power he brings to the table, you can live with a lower walk rate. It’s an all-fields approach, and Montero has power from foul pole to foul pole. He’s also naturally good at elevating the ball, giving him the ability to tap into that power more often than many young hitters. There’s a lot of pre-swing movement in his setup, and he’s very much a rhythmic hitter, but it usually works for him.

Montero falls as far as he does on this list (he was third on last year’s list), for two reasons. One, while I’m not going to penalise him heavily for what happened after he hurt his wrist, I was concerned with how much Double A pitchers were able to take advantage of his approach even early in the season. And two, I have serious doubts about his long-term defensive home. He has the big arm to handle third base, but he’s not a natural fit there, and doesn’t show very fluid actions. He’s big and slow already, and so probably not much of an outfield option. Basically, Elehuris Montero’s best position is always going to be hitter, and it may be a struggle to find a spot to get his bat into the lineup if first base is not a long term option. Still, the bat really could be special, and Montero could very easily jump back up in these rankings for 2021 if he shows he can handle Double A pitching the way he has every other level so far.

If he’s good, it will look like: I really hate to double up on comps, and I’ve already used Allen Craig in relation to Juan Yepez earlier in this countdown. Still, Craig is a good comp here, I think, with the combination of contact ability and that natural right-center field power representing the best things about Montero’s offensive game. That downside of a player who lacks a real position is here as well, much as in the case of Yepez. Montero has a higher offensive ceiling than Yepez, I think (and maybe even higher than Craig, though it’s easy to forget just what a force Allen Craig was at his best), but he fits into a similar organisational spot.

#9: Angel Rondon, RHP

6’2”, 185 lbs; Bats/Throws: Right/Right

DOB: 1st December 1997

Level(s) in 2019: Palm Beach (High A), Springfield (AA)

Relevant Stats: 45 IP, 2.20 ERA, 3.35 FIP, 16.8% K-BB (PB), 115 IP, 3.21 ERA, 3.97 FIP, 14.6% K-BB (Spr)

So, what’s so great about this guy?

Up until this past season, Angel Rondon felt like a bit of a secret in the Cardinals’ system. He was a hipster sort of prospect, the pitcher you heard about from the dude wearing the Pavement tee shirt in the left field bleachers. A fairly recent convert to pitching, Rondon had really only been a mound prospect since 2016, and kicked around the low minors the first couple years he was in the system. He took a jump from 2017 to ‘18, showing sudden, intriguing improvement in terms of his control, but he was still very raw, mostly just a fastball and some feel for spinning a slurve that couldn’t quite decide what it wanted to be when it grew up.

Well, consider the secret out. Rondon in 2017 was pitching at The Galaxy (or 1227 if you really want to keep the old school scenester vibe going); in 2018 he pitched a big set at Mississippi Nights, and now he’s playing second on the bill at the American Theatre.

The difference for Rondon in 2019, as opposed to where he was this time last year, was that he began to show some legitimate high-level strikeout punch this season. He rolled up some big strikeout totals in the low minors here and there, but that’ll happen for any pitcher who can throw hard and spike a breaking ball every once in awhile. The hitters are undisciplined enough it doesn’t take much to get strikeouts. Double A, though? That’s a different story altogether.

Rondon operates primarily with a two-pitch combo of a firm fastball in the 92-95 range that has a little big of wiggle to it and a big slider that still gets slurvy at times but is definitely a slider that occasionally gets too big, rather than a curveball that he sometimes throws too hard. His changeup is below average currently, though it does have pretty good movement, and probably needs to improve if he’s going to remain a starter. Personally, I see no reason to move him to a bullpen role anytime soon, but there is some relief downside risk here to be sure. He throws strikes, but the command is still a work in progress as well.

Rondon only just turned 22 in December, and is coming off a very successful season split between High A and Double A. His profile increased by leaps and bounds in 2019, and I see no reason not to think he’ll continue to improve heading into 2020. I think he’ll move up to Triple A, and my biggest question will be how he deals with the offensive environment in the Pacific Coast League, particularly if the ball is as lively in ‘20 as it was in ‘19. Rondon got close to the big leagues in a hurry this past season, and he is all but knocking on the door now just past his 22nd birthday.

If he’s good, it will look like: Rondon’s moving fastball/power slurve combo could play like Brad Peacock in relief, were he to be moved to that role. Hopefully he can continue to improve his third pitch and avoid being pigeonholed, though in today’s game we see how valuable those multi-inning Swiss Army knife relievers are.

#8: Genesis Cabrera, LHP

6’2”, 190 lbs; Bats/Throws: Left/Left

DOB: 10th October 1996

Level(s) in 2019: Memphis (AAA), St. Louis

Relevant Stats:

So, what’s so great about this guy?

Acquired as arguably the headliner in the Tommy Pham trade, we saw Genesis Cabrera enough at the big league level in 2019 to understand what is so exciting about him. We also saw enough to know where the weaknesses are, and where he still has work to do. He closed out the Cardinals’ game five victory in the NLDS with a beautiful swinging strikeout of Dansby Swanson, arguably the last great moment we saw from the Cardinals this October.

The stuff for Cabrera is electric. His fastball ranges from 95-97, and he touched 99 multiple times in relief. His command is an issue, but the raw velocity and movement on the heater makes Cabrera instantly exciting when he takes the mound.

In the past, Cabrera leaned heavily on a hard breaking ball that was somewhere between a cutter and slider, but there was basically no sign of that pitch in the big leagues in 2019. Instead, he went to a bigger, slower curveball and a solid-average changeup, both of which had their moments but need work. I don’t really know why there was such a change in his pitch usage pattern, but the Genesis Cabrera we saw in the big leagues was not the same Genesis Cabrera who came over from Tampa Bay.

The pieces are all very much there for Cabrera to have success as either a starter or reliever. He throws at least three pitches, possibly more like four or five (depending on whether he has permanently scrapped the cutter and how much he wants to throw his two-seam fastball to complement the four-seamer), and all of them have average to plus potential. On the other hand, he’s still fairly raw as a pitcher, with a deliver that’s not bad from a health standpoint but doesn’t appear well suited to throwing consistent strikes (his front side is kind of a mess), and it’s not hard to see how a lefty throwing 98 could probably simplify things by coming out of the bullpen.

If he’s good, it will look like: Cabrera’s fastball-cutter combo would make an easy comp to the Pirates’ former closer, but I really hate to put that on a prospect at this point, considering all that has come to light about that individual. Thus, I will reach back into my own childhood for a personal favourite and comp Cabrera’s all-out fastball approach and slightly wild persona to Steve Avery. It’s also a more optimistic comparison in terms of Cabrera’s chances of remaining a starter.

#7: Jhon Torres, OF

6’4”, 200 lbs; Bats/Throws: Right/Right

DOB: 29th March 2000

Level(s) in 2019: Johnson City (Short season), Peoria (Low A)

Relevant Stats: 133 PA, .286/.391/.527, 149 wRC+, 14.3% BB, 27.1% K (JC)

So, what’s so great about this guy?

You’ll notice I included only one batting line above, despite Torres having played at two levels in 2019. That’s because, much like Malcom Nunez, Jhon Torres was challenged out of the gate with a full-season assignment, and much like Malcom Nunez, the less said about Torres’s abortive efforts in Peoria the better.

Unlike Nunez, however, once Torres was bumped down to Johnson City, arguably a more fitting level for his age and skill, he absolutely dominated once again. Not quite to the same absurd degree he did late in the 2018 season after the Cardinals acquired him from the Cleveland Indians, but to the still-very-impressive tune of a 149 wRC+ and .241 isolated slugging percentage. Yes, the strikeouts were worryingly high, but Torres also showed an incredibly patient approach at the plate and the ability to crush the ball when he made contact.

Torres has all the physical traits of a prototypical right fielder. He’s huge, mobile, and has a cannon for an arm. He’s not quick on the bases, but underway he’s probably a 55+ runner, capable of chewing up a good amount of ground in the outfield. He may slow down some as he adds size and weight, but as of right now he looks like an above-average fielder down the line, with the sort of arm that adds as much value through intimidation as actual throws.

At the plate, Torres hits with an exaggerated leg kick that could probably do with some moderate toning down, and tends to allow his balance to drift more than I like to see. All the same, he has incredible natural leverage in his swing, and a penchant for making loud pulled contact in the air. There’s not a lot of subtlety in Torres’s approach to hitting; he waits for his pitch, and when he gets it he tries to murder it. There is 35-40 home run potential here, just waiting to see if Torres will ultimately make enough contact to tap into it.

That Torres has some swing and miss in his game should come as no surprise, considering how many deep counts he sees and his understanding of what kind of damage he can and should be doing when he swings. However, even in the current context of the game it’s very worrisome to see a kid striking out over a quarter of the time in short-season ball. The approach is not a problem, but Torres needs to not miss his pitch when he gets it.

If he’s good, it will look like: Torres has the frame and athletic gifts of a young Giancarlo Stanton. He approaches hitting in a similar fashion to Jose Bautista or Edwin Encarnacion, which is obviously an intriguing notion to consider.

#6: Zack Thompson, LHP

6’2”, 225 lbs; Bats/Throws: Left/Left

DOB: 28th October 1997

Level(s) in 2019: Gulf Coast League (Rookie), Palm Beach (High A)

Relevant Stats: 13.1 IP, 4.05 ERA, 2.03 FIP, 31.2% K, 6.6% BB (PB)

So, what’s so great about this guy?

Looking at Zack Thompson is something of a Rorshach test; depending upon what the viewer wants to see, the former Kentucky ace can look completely different. He can look like a future ace based on his numbers and stuff, or he can look like a huge risk based on his history and, well, other numbers.

Let’s start with this: Zack Thompson was one of the best pitchers in the SEC his junior season at Kentucky. Pitching in the toughest conference in the nation, Thompson rolled up a 2.40 ERA and struck out 13(!) batters per nine innings. For reference, David Price struck out 13.10 per nine in his junior season at Vanderbilt, the season which led to him being selected first overall by the Rays back in ‘07. To be sure, we have to be careful not to try and draw too straight a line between players in different eras, but the fact is that Zack Thompson missed bats his junior year at a rate that compares favourably with one of the greatest college pitchers of all time and a future Cy Young award winner. That’s good!

On the other hand — and not to make this bit too much about David Price, but he just happens to be the pitcher who popped into my mind when considering all this — we can look at some other numbers and immediately see the issue with Thompson. In that brilliant junior season, Price threw 133.1 innings over eighteen appearances (seventeen starts). He threw 110.1 innings his sophomore season, and 69.1 innings his freshman year at Vandy. That’s a pretty standard progression; Price came in a highly-touted prospect, split time between the rotation and bullpen as a freshman (ten starts, six relief appearances), and then took on a more prominent role his sophomore and junior seasons, shouldering a larger load his final year and serving as the workhorse of a very good SEC program.

Thompson, by contrast, threw 90 innings as a junior over fourteen starts. Now, that’s not exactly being protected, it doesn’t appear (it’s an average of over six innings per start), but it’s also nowhere near the kind of workload we see from many other top-tier college pitchers. Casey Mize threw 115 innings as a junior. Brendan McKay threw 109 innings at Louisville, and that was while serving as a two-way player. Now, one could argue that a lighter workload for a college pitcher is actually a good thing, and that’s fair.

It’s when we look back past Thompson’s junior season that we really start to see some troubling trends. He 75.2 innings his freshman year at Kentucky, pretty evenly split between starting and relieving, but then worked just 31 innings as a sophomore. The culprit was an elbow issue that he rehabbed without surgery, which can be viewed as a positive or negative, again, depending how you look at things. Going back further, Thompson struggled with shoulder issues in high school, and he was on the verge of signing for an overslot bonus with Tampa Bay before he ever got to Kentucky, when he failed a post-draft physical. So far as I know the exact physical issue was never reported, but we can pretty safely assume it was something arm-related. So we have a pitcher who had shoulder trouble in high school, elbow issues in college, and failed a physical when the Rays drafted him before heading off to college.

Trying to balance those long-term injury concerns with the obvious talent Thompson displays is why we can see so much disagreement about his long-term outlook. He could be the thirteen strikeouts per nine force, or he could be the guy who couldn’t find the strike zone his freshman and sophomore seasons. He was healthy and strong his junior year, but has been shut down multiple times in the past, and still didn’t take on an ace’s workload even in his final season at Kentucky.

The stuff is never a question with Thompson. His fastball can reach 97 at times, though he mostly sits 91-94, and it’s sneaky fast when he works up with the pitch. He features three offspeed pitches, a slider, curve, and changeup, and all three have average or better potential. The slider is the prize right now, coming in with great shape and size in the low- to mid-80s, and Thompson can get swings and misses from both right- and left-handed hitters with it. His other two offspeed pitches are more works in progress; the curveball is big and has good depth, but it’s loopy and pretty easily identified out of Thompson’s hand. He mostly throws it against lefties, and it’s good as an early-count get-over pitch, but more disciplined pro hitters are going to handle it much better than college competition, I think. The change is probably his weakest offering at the moment, but it’s not bad. It’s just not fully developed yet. It’s not hard to see an outcome where Thompson ends up with a 55 fastball, 60+ slider, and 50 grades on both the curve and change. That’s a middle of the rotation profile with even just fringe-average command, and it could be way better than that.

And yet still, Thompson feels very risky. Beyond the off and on injury concerns, he’s never been much of a strike-thrower, and while he made significant improvement in that arena in his junior season, his walk rate was still no better than average and he threw eight wild pitches in those 90 innings.

If Zack Thompson can stay healthy and fully harness his stuff, he will go down as a huge steal even as a top 20 overall pick.

If.

If he’s good, it will look like: I’ll go with Robbie Ray as a comp for Thompson here; the strikeout punch Ray regularly shows is pretty well indicative of what the good version of Thompson could look like.

via James Weisser: