This week on Big Hype Prospects, we use Baseball America’s Minor League Player of the Year awards as a lens to highlight a few guys who didn’t get enough love in this column.
Five Big Hype Prospects
Ezequiel Tovar, 21, SS, COL (AAA)
(AA) 295 PA, 13 HR, 17 SB, .318/.386/.545
Tovar wasn’t picked for the Rockies Player of the Year in what ultimately was a coin-flip situation Adael Amador. However, we discussed Amador last week, and Tovar is set to make his debut today. After performing well in Double-A, Tovar compiled 23 successful plate appearances at Triple-A. He’ll get a brief trial to finish out 2022 while the club considers its long-term plans.
Scouting reports often start with Tovar’s defense which is universally well-regarded and should stand out in a post-extreme-shifts metagame. He relies far less on positioning than many big-bodied shortstops around the league. As a hitter, he improved his quality of contact this season. There’s still concern he’ll be strikeout and soft contact prone early in his career as he further develops his plate discipline. His selectivity seems to be trending in a positive direction.
A couple of freely available reports such as this one from FanGraphs make mention of his hit tool as a carrying trait. Hit-tool-oriented prospects tend to have rocky developmental paths (no pun intended). At lower levels, they perform well against pitches outside of the zone which lends itself to an ineffective, swing-happy approach in the Majors. We’ll soon get a first look at how Tovar adjusts.
Wilmer Flores, 21, SP, DET (AA)
83.2 IP, 10.22 K/9, 2.26 BB/9, 3.01 ERA
The latest pitcher to rise in the Tigers system, Flores squashed High-A hitters early in 2022 before moving on to Double-A. Not to be confused with his brother, 10-year veteran infielder Wilmer Flores, Flores is a pitcher by the same name who relies on arm strength and a pair of power breaking balls. Reports mention poor command despite a low walk rate – an indication he’s throwing his stuff in the zone and letting hitters get themselves out. For a poor-command pitcher with plus stuff, there are worse ways to develop. This season, at least two notoriously errant relievers – Jose Alvarado and FElix Bautista – had breakouts by simply throwing more pitches in the strike zone.
Flores entered the season firmly considered a future reliever. His work this year, including maintaining velocity deep into outings, is beginning to change that perspective.
Andy Rodriguez, 22, C/2B, PIT (AAA)
(AA) 138 PA, 8 HR, 1 SB, .356/.442/.678
Acquired in the Joe Musgrove trade, Rodriguez’s development advanced by leaps and bounds this season. He entered the year as a utility man with some catching experience. He now looks the part of either a premium catcher or second baseman. His hitting, which has always been discipline-forward, took a big step this season. Including all three levels he’s played, Rodriguez hit 24 home runs, 37 doubles, and three triples in 520 plate appearances. Not only is he hitting for power, he’s making excellent swing decisions and improving at every level. In a more widely applauded system, this performance could merit inclusion among the Top 25 prospects. As it stands, he’s quietly leaping onto the Top 100 lists.
Kyle Manzardo, 22, 1B, TBR (AA)
122 PA, 5 HR, 1 SB, .323/.402/.576
A six-foot-one-inch first baseman, Manzardo will have to mash to earn his way to the Majors. Fortunately, he’s already doing so. He also finds himself in the right organization. The Rays are the only team to give the similarly height-deprived Ji-Man Choi a chance to find a role. Manzardo shows better potential to avoid strikeouts than Choi while maintaining comparable plate discipline. Including High-A, his 22 home runs in 397 plate appearances represent an improvement on preseason scouting reports that suggested he had below-average power. Manzardo, a left-handed hitter, skews slightly to fly ball contact. Depending on the development of his power, he could become a premium first baseman or else struggle with low BABIPs at the upper levels. The early returns suggest the first outcome is more likely.
Tyler Gentry, 23, OF, KC (AA)
331 PA, 16 HR, 8 SB, .321/.417/.555
The Royals were perhaps held back by the sheer volume of prospects they promoted to the Majors this season. That also means there’s room for new names to ascend, like Gentry. A well-rounded hitter, Gentry thrived in 152 High-A plate appearances before ascending to Double-A where he continued to excel. Per Baseball America, he credits a simplified approach and load with his offensive breakout – not that he wasn’t already a well-regarded hitter entering the season. The knock on him is his defense. He’s a corner outfielder who isn’t known for particularly good jumps. It’s a profile that requires a big bat to work in the Majors. While he doesn’t have a single carrying trait as a hitter, the entire profile plays up thanks to more discipline and a knack for barreled contact. Keep an eye on his BABIPs next season.
Taylor Dollard, SEA (23): The Mariners graduated Julio Rodriguez and George Kirby. Matt Brash joined the bullpen, Emerson Hancock had a down season, and Noelvi Marte was exported to Cincinnati. Dollard steps in as a candidate for the top spot in the Seattle system on a pitchability basis. The right-hander limits walks (1.94 BB/9) and can induce plenty of whiffs when needed. He mostly pitches to contact, making him a potential future innings-eater on track to debut next season.
Louie Varland, MIN (24): Making his third big league start as I write, Varland pitched ably in 20 Double-A appearances before an impressive four-game stint in Triple-A. While he’s not a physical specimen and lacks the mutant velocity associated with most of today’s pitching prospects, Varland does possess a four-pitch repertoire of average offerings. He’s able to mix and match in a way that should, eventually, keep big league hitters off balance. He’ll probably toss his share of clunkers along the way.
Jeremy De La Rosa, WSH (20): A left-handed hitting center fielder with defensive chops, De La Rosa performed well as an age-appropriate position player at Low-A. A promotion to High-A didn’t slow his base stealing, but it did render his bat impotent (53 wRC+). De La Rosa seems poised for a slow-burn developmental path. Defense all but assures an eventual Major League arrival while a high strikeout rate could render him a long-term backup.
Ceddanne Rafaela, BOS (22): A five-foot-eight-inch utility man, Rafaela hit for surprising power across two levels this season. He’s an aggressive hacker with plenty of swing-and-miss to his game, traits that could be exploited in the upper levels. This season, he managed 21 home runs and 28 stolen bases in 524 plate appearances split between High- and Double-A. He turned 22 five days ago.
Colson Montgomery, CWS (20): Montgomery started slow and did not impress in several looks I took this season. However, the composite statistics show promise from the multi-sport athlete. He makes a ton of contact, works counts well, and is already developing sneaky power. Most players with his background – he was a rising hoops star who also played quarterback – tend to move slowly through the lower levels. Montgomery has already risen to Double-A.