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Taking Wing

MLB: MAR 13 Spring Training - Red Sox at Blue Jays Photo by Cliff Welch/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

This week, two hitters with very different prospect pedigrees and skillsets, and a pitcher who might be breaking out in the low minors.

Orelvis Martinez, RHB 3B, AA New Hampshire

This past week, Martinez played six games and walked in all of them, including three games where he walked twice. He also struck out just 5 times in 27 PA. It was the culmination of a trend that’s been playing out very quietly all season. His strikeout rate is 23% for the year, down from 28.5% in 2022, while his walk rate has surged from 8.1% to 12.4%. He’s still getting to all of his plus or better raw power too, having hit 13 home runs in 161 PA, which would put him on pace for 48 in a 600 PA season.

All those positive trends have so far been concealed by a hilariously bad .124 batting average on balls in play (BABIP), which has held his slash line to .175/.281/.489, which is right about average overall production for the Eastern League. Martinez is a dead pull hitter (55% of balls in play to his pull side, 6th of 102 batters with 100+ PA in the league) who has a ton of loft in his swing (his 50% fly ball rate ranks 11th in that group), so he will probably tend to run low BABIPs. He had a .217 during his first crack at AA last year, and .197 in 2021 in High A. A .124 is unsustainable, though, no matter how extreme his batted ball tendencies. No qualified MLB hitter in the past 15 full seasons has been lower than .196. Penciling in some better luck going forward, then, if Martinez maintains his improved plate discipline he will probably turn in much better results the rest of the way.

Martinez’s ascent stalled out last year, as his over-aggressive approach was exposed against advanced pitching. So far this year, it appears he’s adjusted. He’ll never hit for average, but if he can be selective enough to allow his power to play, he could re-establish himself as Toronto’s third baseman of the future.

Rafael Lantigua, RHB Util, AAA Buffalo

From one of the highest bonuses in the 2018 International Free Agent class to a guy who signed for just $100,000 two years before. Lantigua signed at 18, a couple of years older than almost all top international prospects, and while Baseball America complimented his plus speed, feel for contact and baseball IQ, he never appeared on their top 30 Blue Jays prospects. In fact, other than a couple of appearances in the high 40s on Scott Mitchell’s top 50 and on Matt’s pref list this spring he really hasn’t drawn any note.

Over the past seven years, Lantigua has steadily climbed the ladder, playing all over the diamond and typically posting average or slightly better offensive numbers driven by below average strikeout rates, a solid number of walks, and sneaky doubles power for a player listed at 5’7” and 153lbs (though he looks more solid than that lately).

So far this season, Lantigua hasn’t really changed that profile so much as kicked everything into overdrive. He’s sliced his strikeout rate to 14.6% from a bit over 19% last year in AA and AAA, his best since his stint in the Domincan Summer League way back in 2017. His walk rate has skyrocketed to 21%. He’s also posting a career best .207 isolated power, on the strength of 16 doubles and 4 home runs in 178 PA. It’s definitely below average power (he apparently topped out around 107mph last year, which would would be around the 15th percentile for an MLB hitter), but he gets to what he has enough that there shouldn’t be too much worry about the bat getting knocked out of his hands. This past week, he hit three balls at or above 103mph, one for a home run, one a double and one a single. It’s all added up to a .326/.472/.533 slash line and a 159 wRC+ that leads the international league

The lack of thump likely limits Lantigua to a bench/utility ceiling, but his improvements this year should do a lot to solidify his odds of achieving that level. It’s also possible that his speed and on base ability allow him to play as a low end regular for a few years in the vein of Santiago Espinal.

Kendry Rojas LHP, A Dunedin

On Friday, our #27 prospect faced 20 Fort Myers Mighty Mussels and struck out 8 of them, allowing just 4 hits and no free passes across 5 shutout innings. It was the capstone of an impressive start to Rojas’ second season in A ball. Last year, as a 19 year old, he appeared in 12 games at the level, posting a sold 24.7% strikeout rate but issuing a few more walks than you’d like (10.9%). Through seven starts in 2023, Rojas has gone between 4 and 5 innings each time, never surrendering more than 6 base runners or 2 earned runs. His strikeout rate is up to 30.6% and the walks have fallen to 7.4%. His swinging strike rate has jumped from 14.1% to 17.0%, 7th best among 75 pitchers who have gone at least 20 innings in the Florida State League this season and one of only two players 20 or younger in the top 30.

Rojas previously sat in the low 90s with his fastball, although the pitch played up a bit due to good rise. This season, he’s sitting 92-95 and touching 96. The average drop on the pitch on Friday was about 12 inches, which is solidly above average for a fastball at that velocity, and it also has plus arm side movement. The fastball made up just over half of phis pitches on the night, with a change-up and a curve each representing about a quarter. The change comes in around 85 and the curve around 83. All three pitches got swings and misses (5 on 21 pitches for the curve and 4 on 19 for the change, vs 8 on 46 for the fastball), although the fastball is the only one that’s definietly above MLB average by its movement profile at this point.

Rojas is still young and has a lot of work between now and his potential future MLB debut, but the improvement in his velocity this year, paired with some success cutting down on free passes, is a very good sign that he might be able to make good on his potential.