To say “things changed” in 2020 would be an understatement. Major League Baseball continued on, albeit a 60 game season. In the meantime, small towns across America were left wondering if they’d see affiliated baseball again. Unfortunately, for some, Minor League Baseball will not return. MLB reduced the number of minor league affiliates and new leagues were formed. One of those is the Low-A East. The league consists of 12 teams who once called either the High-A Carolina League or Low-A South Atlantic League home. This new league will represent one-third of a Low-A triumvirate, joining the Low-A Southeast and Low-A West.
We could argue for days about whether the minor league reorganization was necessary or administered in an appropriate way. Rather than that, let’s look under the hood and see what this new, Low-A offering has in store.
For fans in North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, and Maryland, much stays the same. Seven Carolina League squads made the migration, along with five from the South Atlantic League. Winston-Salem and Wilmington now reside in the High-A East. Former Orioles affiliate, Frederick, is no longer a part of the mix. Charleston, WV, Hagerstown, MD, and Lexington, KY were all dropped from affiliated baseball. Lastly, Fredericksburg takes over for Potomac as the new home of the Nationals Low-A affiliate.
With the housekeeping adjourned, let’s dive into the Low-A East!
Affiliate / Parent Club – Player to Watch
Augusta Green Jackets / Atlanta Braves – Stephen Paolini, OF
Vaughn Grissom is an easy choice here but, I’m targeting OF Stephen Paolini as a Green Jacket to watch. Paolini is only 20 years old and he’s extremely raw. The ’19 draftee was taken in the fifth round, a high schooler from Connecticut. He stands at 6’2″ and 195 pounds and has both the body and athleticism to warrant a deeper look. Paolini flashes plus speed and figures to grow into power given his frame. He wasn’t heavily recruited out of HS. The Braves really took a chance on his upside. If the hit tool comes around, Paolini will be a name you want on your radar in years to come.
Carolina Mudcats / Milwaukee Brewers – Antoine Kelly, LHP
Until Kelly is ready to pitch, also keep an eye on Freddy Zamora, another top 10 prospect in the Brewers organization. I say until he’s ready because Kelly had surgery in November to address Thoracic outlet syndrome. ven so, he’s expected to join the Mudcats at some point this year. Kelly was a second round pick in the ’19 draft. Get this, he led the junior college ranks while at Wabash Valley JC averaging 19.1 strikeouts per inning. Over 21 innings plus in Arizona Fall League the following year, he rode his plus fastball to mow down 41 hitters. At this point, he has one dominant pitch. In 2020 his work at the Alternate Site focused on developing another (changeup), but his work was cut short with the injury. Regardless, he needs to harness the upper 90s gas and develop one secondary that plays. If he does, you could be looking at a dominant closer in years to come.
Charleston (SC) River Dogs / Tampa Bay Rays – Heriberto Hernandez, OF
Alika Williams might have been an early draftee, but Hernandez is the player I most want to follow in Charleston. Once a catcher, the Rays figure to let him “find” another position along the way. Formerly in the Rangers organizations, Heriberto dominated in 2019 slashing .345/.436/.635. In true Rays fashion, they worked a favorable trade during the 2020 offseason grabbing Hernandez in the Nate Lowe deal. Perhaps he has a position in the bigs and perhaps he doesn’t. That remains to be seen. What’s not at question is if the kid can hit. If you’re looking for a possible game-changer in the power department, give Heriberto a look. At a minimum, you’ll want to follow him along the way. For what it’s worth, he’s gotten off to a .368/.538/.895 in 2021 at the time this was written.
Columbia Fireflies / Kansas City Royals – Darryl Collins, OF
The Fireflies should be a fun team to follow this year. Brady McConnell was a second rounder in 2019. His big bat is worth keeping tabs on. Darryl Collins is the bat that piques my interest most, though. He’s a 19-year-old from the Netherlands who played professionally as young as the age of 15. He held his own too, hitting over .400 during his time there. No, the Netherlands isn’t the hotbed for baseball Central America is, but .400 is .400 regardless of where you are. Upon his arrival in the States, Collins slashed .398/.472/.548 in the Arizona Rookie League. Keep in mind, he was younger than his competition there. If nothing else, his track record to this point makes him an intriguing name to watch in the immediate future as his plus hit tool may help your teams somewhere down the line.
Delmarva Shorebirds / Baltimore Orioles- Anthony Servideo, 2B/SS
In an infield that includes Jordan Westburg and Gunnar Henderson, it may be easy for Servideo to go overlooked. To do so could be a big mistake. In many cases, when determining when a player moves up the organizational ladder, the ability to play multiple positions is handy. Having done so in college, perhaps Servideo moves faster than his counterparts on the dirt? At the plate, Servideo made a mechanical change late in his college career to add more power to his game. Whether the leg kick continues to play as his career moves along remains to be seen. One thing is clear, he certainly believes in himself, and based on all I’ve seen, I do too. He may be more of a glove-first type now, but if the hit tool comes along for the ride and the O’s can continue to help him foster his power stroke, Servideo remains a name to keep in the player pool, for sure.
Down East Wood Ducks / Texas Rangers – Evan Carter, OF
I could easily type Luisangel Acuna and move on, but that’s not why you’re here. Ronald’s little brother is very well regarded and should be. If you can get him, take him. That said, the guy I want to highlight here is Tennessee prep star, Evan Carter. The Rangers took some serious flak for selecting Carter in the 2nd round (50th overall) with many seeing it as a tremendous reach. Carter was a Duke commit, just down the road from me in Durham, so I probably heard/read more about him the last year than most. Duke Head Coach Chris Pollard had this to say about Carter. “He’s a really athletic kid, and a really good runner for his size. He’s a big guy, 6’4″, 210, but he really utilizes speed in his game.” Capitalizing on that speed and a capable bat, all Carter did during Fall Instructional Camp is slash .304/.467/.446. He also showed a propensity to take a walk just as often as striking out 17:17. He’s SUPER young and missed all of his senior season in high school. He needs reps and he needs seasoning. Don’t be surprised though if he’s not knocking on the door in Arlington come 2025 or before.
Fayetteville Woodpeckers / Houston Astros – Zach Daniels, OF
Honestly, there’s not a lot on this Woodpeckers squad I find intriguing. One caveat is Daniels. Anytime you have a player with power comps to Giancarlo Stanton, you have to raise an eyebrow. Is there a ton of swing and miss here? Yes, there is. There is also monster power and that’s enough to keep us engaged in his progress. Did I mention, he can run like the wind too? There’s massive letdown potential here, but the power/speed combo is one worth noting. If Daniels can keep the strikeout percentage in check, he could provide some fantasy gold over the next 3-5 years.
Fredericksburg Nationals / Washington Nationals – Mitchell Parker, LHP
If early indications are meaningful, this team has some challenges. However, there is an arm that I find interesting buried within. In ’18 Parker was drafted out of HS by my favorite team, the Chicago Cubs. He decided not to sign and wound up at San Jacinto JC. He’s A LONG WAY from his Nats debut, but he’s the kind of left handed arm that can have a long career pitching in the bigs. Parker has a funky delivery and his college coach Tom Arrington offered the following on his fifth round draftee, “He creates a tunneling effect. He can throw the four-seam fastball, which has got good spin rate on it. And then the tunneling of the breaking ball coming right out of that same slot, it’s hard to hold up on.” I don’t know about you, but “tunneling” and “spin rate” stand out to me. With all the DriveLine and Rapsodo development going on, increasing fringe pitcher’s effectiveness, Parker could be a name to keep tabs on in DC.
Kannapolis Cannon Ballers / Chicago White Sox – Jose Rodriguez, 2B/SS
The prized signing of Chicago’s ’17-’18 International Class, Rodriguez has shown surprising pop in his brief career. He’s also shown he can run a fair amount, too. In a system that’s had one monster prospect after another lately, Rodriguez might not stack up. That notwithstanding, he’s the best bet to be an impact player in the Cannon Baller’s lineup. Honorable mention here goes to James Beard. In the event you’re in a stolen base heavy league, Beard is a name to keep tabs on.
Lynchburg Hillcats / Cleveland Indians – Daniel Espino, RHP
The Hillcats feature a handful of arms that figure to be top of mind in Cleveland for some time to come. Chief among those is Daniel Espino. By now, you’ve likely heard of his triple-digit heater. There’s more to him than velo, though. You should also know that he has two plus secondary pitches as well. Additionally, the command is a strong suit, something you might not expect given his big arm. A question to be answered is how does he hold up with a normal workload down the line. Even if he isn’t throwing 97-100 mph all game/all season, he has the talent and makeup to be a front-of-the-rotation starter for sure. Again, Espino is a name that many have known for some time, but if you’re in a league where he remains available, he’s worth an add.
Myrtle Beach Pelicans / Chicago Cubs – Ed Howard, SS
I mentioned earlier that I’m a Cubs fan. As such, I’m most excited to see Ed Howard in his debut. The Pels have other players worth watching, too. Yeison Santana came over in the Darvish deal and lots of Cubs fans are excited about his future with the club. Let’s turn our focus back to the 16th pick in the 2020 MLB Draft, though. Howard was the first shortstop taken in 2020. He’s already bulked up considerably from his playing days at Mt. Carmel HS, just down the road from Wrigley Field. Howard is a quick-twitch athlete with an incredible work ethic. The main focus as he progresses this year will be on making Howard’s athletic swing more efficient. His glove is ahead of the bat for now and he’s not going to be rushed. Count me among those who can’t wait to see him arrive sometime around 2025. If the bat progresses faster than expected, you might even see him before.
Salem Red Sox / Boston Red Sox – Nick Yorke, 2B
Taken with the seventeenth pick, right after Howard above, Yorke was a California high schooler who just turned 19 this April. Many were surprised when the Red Sox called his name in Round 1. Whether the pundits agree on the pick or not, Boston’s brass clearly believes Yorke can and will hit. I don’t disagree. Though he may not be the flashiest guy drafted in Round 1, give me a grinder over a toolsy flash in the pan all day every day. I don’t know if anyone within the organization would make the parallel, but I can’t help but think of Dustin Pedroia when watching Yorke play. There is some question about him being blocked, with Downs, Lugo, and others in the system. That said, I have a hard time believing a guy with Yorke’s makeup doesn’t succeed.
Feel free to comment or leave your own players to watch below. As always, follow me on Twitter @THEssmith_8 where I welcome feedback and prospect chatter as well!