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Taking Wing

MLB: MAR 07 Spring Training - Blue Jays at Pirates Photo by Joe Robbins/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

After spending last week recapping the players profiled in the first half, today it’s back to highlighting individual performances that have impressed over the past couple of weeks. One of the two players is a top prospect returning to form, the other a later round pick flashing an intriguing skill.

Addison Barger, LHB IF, AAA Buffalo

Last year’s upper level breakout hitter had and awful start to his 2023. He slashed .237/.333/.329 through April 28th, striking out more than 30% of the time and not getting to any power. He hit the IL at the end of the month with an elbow injury that sidelined through May and the first month of June. Luckily, there was no structural damage and he was able to return to game action at the Blue Jays complex in Dunedin on June 8th and rejoin the Bisons on the 21st. He scuffled through the early part of his return, bringing his strikeout rate down to 25.5% across three levels in June but still failing to impact the ball. This month, he’s finally found the form that carried him up the prospect lists last summer. His July line is .290/.380/.500, 20% better than the International League average, and he’s brought his strikeout rate down to 19.7%. He’s still walking, 12.7% of the time, and has managed seven doubles and two home runs in 71 PAs this month.

Barger’s carrying tool is his power. He has a big, rotational swing with an exaggerated leg kick that’s geared for line drive and fly ball contact to his pull side, and he generates explosive bat speed. That huge cut can hard to control, producing a predictable tendency to swing and miss that has in the past been exacerbated by Barger’s tendency to be a free swinger. His breakout last season was founded on finding a balance between control and aggression that allowed his power to play and kept his strikeout rate at a tolerable level. The regression on the contact front combined with the sudden lack of thump this spring was therefore seriously concerning.

It’s been comforting over the past couple of weeks to see both the strikeout rate brought under control and the power return. Barger was smoking the ball last week, including a game on Monday in which he put five balls in play over 100mph (hat tip to Siefert for pointing that one out in the comments at the time) and a ground ball single on Tuesday that he struck at 113.7mph. That would be in the 80th percentile of maximum exit velocities among MLB hitters this season, tied with Bryce Harper and Peter Alonso.

The next couple of months are going to be big for Barger. There’s likely to be some space on the Jays infield in 2024 with both Matt Chapman and Whit Merrifield headed for free agency and incumbents Santiago Espinal and Cavan Biggio vulnerable because of their struggles this season. Capable of playing anywhere on the infield (though opinions differ on whether he can be more than an occasional fill-in at shortstop) and with the potential to do damage against right handed pitching, Barber seems likely to get a real shot to carve out a role for himself next year, and possibly even claim a starting job, if he can keep up his 2022 form for the rest of the season.

Pat Gallagher, RHP, A Dunedin

Last year’s 11th round pick got off to a slow start. After missing the first six weeks of the season nursing an elbow injury, Gallagher produced a middling 4.41 ERA across his first seven appearances with Dunedin. He struck out 26% of batters faced, which isn’t bad but also isn’t particularly impressive for college player competing with mostly younger an less experienced hitters. He’s turned it on in July, though, striking out 8 in each of his three starts this month (a 41% rate) and posting a 0.59 ERA.

Gallagher isn’t a hard thrower. He sits about 90-91 with both of his fastballs (a sinker that’s his primary heater and a four-seamer that he mixes in). He spins both at around 2475rpm, which is excellent (it would be borderline top 10 among MLB sinkers and solidly plus among four seamers), but that spin doesn’t translate into big run, as the movement on both pitches in his most recent start was below average relative to their velocity. He also has an 80mph curveball that has fringe average break and roughly average spin.

The big attraction with Gallagher is his changeup, which comes in around 82mph. He gets about 42 inches of drop and a foot of arm side run on the pitch. That vertical drop is exceptional, and would be among the best relative to velocity in the major leagues. It’s so extreme that the StatCast system in Dunedin seems to regularly classify it as a curveball (although it’s definitely not because it breaks in the wrong direction). The improvement in Gallagher’s results seems mostly to be the result of emphasizing the pitch. In his June starts, he threw is 10-20% of the time, but in his most recent start on Saturday he threw 45 of the change up vs only 29 fastballs and 6 curves. Normally you wouldn’t be able to lean on a pitch that’s about deception that heavily without hitters just figuring it out, but Gallager’s change drops so hard it functions like a screwball, beating hitters with movement and sheer oddity.

It’s hard to know what to make of Gallagher. He’s working as a starter, but his arsenal doesn’t really seem to support that. He’s also 23 in A ball, so he should be able to overpower the hitters he’s facing. On the other hand, he has at least one pitch that stands out, and his ability to spin the fastball suggests that a tweak might unlock more movement. For now he’s just an interesting name to track in the low minors, with a weapon that has the potential to make him an interesting look in higher level bullpens some day.