While the big boys started their season in late March, the kids hit the fields on Thursday, April 3rd for their season opener.
To celebrate the minor league opener, I made my way to Lancaster California in the High Desert to watch the Houston Astros High-A affiliate, the Lancaster JetHawks. The JetHawks could have the most talented roster in the entire minor leagues buoyed by elite names like Carlos Correa, Mark Appel, and Lance McCullers. Their opponent, the Lake Elsinore Storm, the Padres High-A affiliate, also boast several top prospects in their own rite including Hunter Renfroe and Joe Ross.
I had a chance to catch both batting practice as well as the home opener and have provided scouting notes of six of the more notable prospects who appeared in the game.
Carlos Correa (SS, Houston)
Carlos Correa will be a star, and it’s isn’t going to take much longer. Blessed with great bat speed, balance and a short powerful stroke, Correa was easily the best player on the field. In batting practice, he lined shots all over the field and then hit bombs to left, left center and right-center field with ease. There wasn’t any dipping of the shoulder or lifting his left leg to get more leverage to show off his power, it was just a tight stroke with nice hip rotation to create the power.
In looking at him physically, it’s hard not to compare him to a young Alex Rodriguez – tall, a bit lanky but very athletic. His current body is clearly not built to hit a lot of home runs, but as he matures, the body will fill out and the strength should meet his bat speed to create plus future power potential.
Despite his height, he was very nimble at shortstop showing good lateral movement and an average arm. He tried to execute the “jump throw”, ala Derek Jeter, but it didn’t have the zip on the throw that would indicate plus arm strength. I believe he’ll stay at short for the next three to five years, maybe longer, but a move to third or even the outfield could eventually happen.
It’s all there for Correa to be perennial all-star and while Byron Buxton might be getting all the accolades as the best prospect in baseball, Carlos Correa isn’t far behind.
Vincent Velasquez (RHP, Houston)
While Carlos Correa stole my heat on Thursday evening, Velasquez was a worthy suitor as well. Over the winter, I ranked him as the number four pitcher in the system behind Mark Appel, Mike Foltynewicz, and Lance McCullers but after what I saw, I could easily move him ahead of McCullers if not Folty. In a word, he was impressive.
He threw a four pitch mix with a fastball sitting 92-94 MPH that touched 95 multiple times on the cold blustery evening. In the first inning, he threw exclusively heat and struck out two of the first three batters. His command was good in that first innings but did waiver during the rest of his four inning outing. Starting in the second inning, he unleashed a 77-79 MPH hard curve that had a nice 11-5 break that had the Storm batters flailing. He then added an 84-86 MPH slider that wasn’t as good as the curve but still held it’s own. In the third, he started throwing a change-up that while inconsistent, showed flashes of being an above average pitch.
All in all, he showed a plus fastball and curve ball as well as a change-up that should grade out to at least an average future offering. His mechanics were also solid with good posture and balance with an easy athletic delivery. His release point was not consistent as his front shoulder would fly out from time-to-time but with repetition and more experience, the command should grade out to at least average if not more.
The total package is at least a number three starter with a chance for more as his command improves. As I said, he was impressive and much more advanced than I thought and could easily see Corpus Christi by the end of the year.
Teoscar Hernandez (OF, Houston)
At times, I struggle pronouncing names, ok…I struggle a lot. So with Teoscar, I decided to talk with the PA announcer before the start of the game to see how to properly say it. Basically, the “o” is silent and you merge together Te with scar. I still can’t say it…but now at least I know.
Hernandez had an impressive batting practice showing bat speed and the body that should be able to produce future power. At 6-2 and 180 pounds, he’ll fill out the frame and the above-average speed he demonstrated on his triple in the fifth inning (11.58), should eventually regress. However, the bat could be very good.
He has a quiet setup with good balance and a relatively short swing that explodes when he hits the ball. A .280 batting average with 20-25 home runs is not a crazy future projection. Plus, he could also add double-digit stolen bases.
While his 2013 stat line showed only a 73% contact rate in Low-A, Houston officials indicated that Hernandez was a little too passive last year, particularly early in the season and it’s something they worked with him during the Spring. If it all comes together, Hernandez should force his way into the Houston outfield by 2016.
Rio Ruiz (3B, Houston)
While I was really impressed with Correa, Velasquez, and Hernandez, I can’t say the same for Rio Ruiz. First, it’s a bad body. The back of the bubble card says 6-foot-1 and 180, but he looked heavier and had well below average foot speed. I clocked him on a possible infield hit at 4.41 to first.
While there was bat speed, the setup was noisy and there was some length to his swing. I could see above-average future power but given his swing mechanics, I only see an average hit-tool. Defensively, he was average with a strong arm but lacked great foot work.
If it all comes together for the 2012 fourth round pick, he could be a solid Role 5 player at the highest level.
Joe Ross (RHP, San Diego)
Joe Ross didn’t make my San Diego Top 10 list as the reports I had on him were not stellar. Sources raved about his athleticism and plus fastball but those physical gifts were not translating into results. After seeing him pitch five innings, I believe those reports are accurate but I think I can now fill in the blanks a little more.
Ross has the body that farm directors crave: 6-foot-3 and 180 pounds with great athleticism and body control. His mechanics are very smooth with good posture and balance and nice extension on his release. He was able to repeat his delivery well during the evening and had good control.
The fastball sat 92-94 MPH and he was able to hold it for most of the evening. However, the fastball was straight and the JetHawks made good contact against him. The hard slider that I had heard so much about was not very good. Most of the pitches had little break and in some cases, were almost as straight as his fastball. Not all though, as he did reel off a few that showed promise. The change-up was also below average and he only threw five during the evening.
Ross is still very young and physically there is a lot to like. However, there is little deception in his delivery and the arsenal overall is below average. That said, I always bet on the athlete and therefore I’m not giving up on Ross; but there is a lot of work left to be done.
Hunter Renfroe (OF, San Diego)
I had a chance to see Hunter Renfroe quite a bit in Spring Training and liked very much what I saw. He has plus bat speed and raw power, plus running ability, and a plus arm. His bat speed was on display during batting practice on Thursday as he showed nice power to all fields. However, as opposed to Correa, he didn’t demonstrate a lot of over-the-fence power.
Once game time hit, Renfroe was overwhelmed by Velasquez and struck out both times he faced the right-hander. He wasn’t able to catch-up to Velasquez’s heat and was badly fooled on his breaking pitches. Granted, Velasquez was dealing, but I expected better. He also, stumbled against Mitchell Lambson, who was only throwing his fastball 83-85 MPH. He seemed lost during that at-bat and struck out looking on an 84 MPH fastball that was over the heart of the plate.
Eight at-bats is not enough to draw a full picture of a player, but I am concerned about his approach and his ability to hit breaking pitches. While Velasquez was nasty on Thursday, Renfroe didn’t have a chance. It was disappointing.