With the Super Bowl and its immensely satisfying result now in the rear view mirror, Spring Training looms that much closer. We continue the Top 40 prospect countdown with three position players who should hit full season ball in 2018 and two pitchers with big fastballs, a breaking ball but reliever risk.
2017: Top 40 Index
25. Samad Taylor, 2B, age 19 (DOB: 7/11/1998), last year: in Cleveland’s system
Taylor came over at the July deadline in the Joe Smith deal after having been drafted in the 10th round in 2016 out of a California high school and signing for $125,000. He had a solid debut in complex ball, moving up to short season in 2017 split across three different leagues. Most of that was against older/college draftees in the New York-Penn and Northwest Leagues, with a brief pitstop in Bluefield after the trade.
Overall, Taylor’s profile in pro ball has been quite consistent, featuring high batting averages in the .290s driven by high BABIPs, and a little pop. His plate discipline metric have been more mediocre, and the strikeout rate will be something to keep an eye on as it hasn’t been a huge issue at a little above average, but higher than ideal for his offensive profile.
Taylor should move up to full season ball in 2018, probably to start the year, although there is a bit of a logjam for playing time in the middle infield at the full season affiliates. At 5’10”/160, he’s going to have to continue to hit for high averages to produce, but it’s worth noting that’s he’s very young as he was 17 when he was drafted and doesn’t turn 20 until the middle of the 2018 season.
As a point of interest, here’s video of Taylor from October 2014, facing a pitcher by the name of Hagen Danner, who it just so happens is one spot behind him on this list (as a catcher).
24. Ryan Gold, C, age 20 (DOB: 10/10/1997), last year: unranked
Gold put himself on the map with a strong offensive performance in 2017, hitting .302/.382/.482 albeit in just 157 PA with Bluefield. That in turn followed a decent complex league debut in 2016 after being drafted as in the 27th round out of high school in South Carolina and signing for $100,000.
Breaking down that performance, Gold has shown good plate discipline metrics, with a strong walk rate and average strikeout rate. He’s shown some pop, but the batting lines have been driven by very strong BABIPs. Given we’re only talking 250 professional PA, it’s hard to say if that’s more skill or luck.
What makes the production at the plate more interesting is Gold being a catcher, though he split time pretty evenly behind the plate and at DH. I believe that’s more a reflection of the need to find time for multiple guys than defensive shortcomings per se, but there’s not a whole lot to go on. I don’t recall getting the sense he was overmatched. Whether he goes to Lansing in April or Vancouver in June could give some sense of how he’s viewed internally.
23. Yennsy Diaz, RHP, age 21 (DOB: 11/15/1996), last year: 24
This ranking is another compromise, as when I stopped tinkering with my list I had him at 13 (too high in hindsight) and Tom had him significantly lower. This spot feels about right, reflecting the raw potential in Diaz’ right hand but the lack of current refinement and high risk.
The upside? Diaz has a fastball that will consistently sit in the mid-90s, touching up to 98, capable of simply overpowering lower level hitters. The downside? His secondaries are very much works in progress. He can flash a quality change-up and breaking ball, so it’s not a matter of lacking the ability to throw them, it’s harnessing them to be effective.
This is reflected in his performance, as he’s put up mediocre results (4.79 ERA in 77 innings at Lansing in 2017), with very good strikeout totals (82) but a lot of walks (41). He’ll teeter between dominance and falling apart, piling up pitch counts. If he figures things out, he could be a good starter, but also flame out entirely. In the meantime, he should move up to Dunedin in 2018.
22. Kevin Smith, SS, age 20 (DOB: 7/4/1996), last year: junior at University of Maryland
Entering 2017, Smith was supposed to be the top ACC shortstop, projected in the late first round mix after a strong summer with wood bats on the Cape. Instead, it was Logan Warmoth who claimed that mantle and Smith slipped out of the top 100 after a very slow start and overall just okay junior season.
On the plus side, he did have a power surge, hitting 13 home runs. But the big question with Smith offensively has always been the ability to make contact, and his strikeout rate was actually at a career high rate whereas most players see improvement over their college careers. Still, as a player with the defensive skills to stick at shortstop and offensive potential, Smith was generally seen as good value at the 129th overall pick.
After an inauspicious debut (3K and a pair of errors in his first game), Smith settled into a quality debut in Bluefield, with a .271/.312/.466 line in 283 PA, with 8 home runs. His strikeout rate was elevated at 25%, but not disastrous, and the 34 extra base hits were good. That said, he was a three year college starter amidst inexperienced Appy Leaguers.
Ideally, Smith starts 2018 in Lansing, which would be a more telling test. That may rely on where Warmoth is assigned, which may in turn rely on where Bo Bichette is assigned. In terms of base case future projection, I’d think utility type infielder or perhaps low OBP second division regular with a little pop if things go right (think Alex Gonzalez, doesn’t really matter which one).
21. Jordan Romano, RHP, age 24 (DOB: 4/21/1993), last year: 35
Romano makes a big leap up the list after following up a breakout 2016 coming back from Tommy John surgery with a strong 2017 campaign in Dunedin. A 10th round pick in 2014 as a closer out of Oral Roberts who signed well underslot for $25,000 bonus has cemented himself as a legitimate MLB prospect.
Romano’s fastball ranges between 90-95 MPH, touching up to 96-98 at times, hitting the latter especially from the middle of the season onwards. He pairs that with a power slider, in the high-80s as a putaway pitch and a low-80s variant to throw for strikes. The work in progress is his change-up, a recent third pitch the Blue Jays are intent on him developing and which will be crucial to his future role.
Performance wise, there’s little to dislike, as Romano’s posted a 2.90 ERA in 217.1 innings over the last year and a half across low-A and high-A, with almost a strikeout an inning. The one issue is control, with 100 free passes (81 BB and 19 HBP). This has been particularly the case against lefties (55 walks in 84 innings). He’s had a Loup-ian tendency to hit righties.
In terms of future role, a big fastball and plus power breaking ball is the classic combination for a quality reliever, and it’s easy to profile Romano as such. That’s probably the base case, with upside if he can figure out a third pitch. Interestingly, Romano had a number of starts where he struggled early, only to get stronger and go 5 or 6 quality innings. Could he make it as a (backend) starter with two pitches? It’s not totally out of the question, but unlikely especially as Romano tends to pile up pitch counts. But he’ll move to AA New Hampshire in 2018, and there’s every reason to leave him as a starter until and unless it doesn’t work, and re-evaluate then.
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