The summer of 2018 was a hell of a ride for the Eastern League. It featured one of the best prospect groups we’ve seen in a while, headlined by the legend himself: Vladimir Guerrero Jr. His New Hampshire Fisher Cats squad alone seemed to be a who’s who of dynasty prospect lists with Bo Bichette and the up-and-coming Cavan Biggio joining Vlad in the lineup and Sean Reid-Foley taking the mound. No wonder they were league champs! Toss in guys like Juan Soto (a brief stint), Carter Kieboom, Mitch Keller, and Brendan Rodgers and you can see why the Eastern League was one of baseball’s best last year. Oh, and don’t forget that guy named Tebow! Heard he could toss a football back in the day, too.
Now, for the bad news: none of these fine, young gentlemen returned to the Eastern League to start 2019. Unfortunately, the good times don’t last forever. But, that doesn’t mean 2019 will be a total snooze, either. There are still plenty of good names to look forward to in the northeast this summer. We’re going to take a look at the top 5 fantasy prospects who are calling the Eastern League home to kick off 2019.
Before we dig in, when I began writing this piece in late April, I had planned to include the Tigers’ Casey Mize as a bonus of sorts. While he wasn’t in the Eastern League yet, based on his performance in High-A ball and comments from the Tigers in the spring, it was widely expected he would make his AA debut in the near future. I felt like a prospect of his status that would likely spend the majority of his summer in the league couldn’t go unmentioned. Well, he arrived a bit sooner than I planned, getting the call before the calendar even turned to May. Then, in case you weren’t that excited by his complete domination in Lakeland, he spun a no-hitter in his first taste of the upper minors and followed it up with another gem. All in a day’s work for the 2018 #1 overall pick, I suppose. Here’s what I’d written prior to his promotion:
Casey Mize, RHP – Lakeland Flying Tigers -> now with Erie SeaWolves (Tigers)
A little bonus content here! Technically, Casey Mize isn’t in the Eastern League… yet. The Tigers’ brass has made it fairly clear that they sent him to High A down in Florida to keep him out of the cold weather and potential rainouts this spring – which we’re seeing a bit more with top prospects lately. As expected, the 2018 #1 overall pick has dominated in his first handful of starts and could get the call to AA any minute now as the weather is warming up — we hit 70s in New Hampshire back to back days!
When Mize gets the call, he will immediately usurp the title of top prospect in the Eastern League (for me) and will be must-see TV. He brings legitimate top of the rotation upside with his excellent command and plus repertoire. The fastball has been sitting 93-94 this spring to go along with a slider/cutter combo and a nasty splitter. What’s more unsettling for batters is that reports out of spring from MLB Pipeline’s Jim Callis were that Mize is adding a slurve to that mix which would challenge hitters vertically, giving them one more thing to think about in the box.
If I can leave you with one significant stat on Mize, it’s this: he owns a 36:2 K to BB ratio at the time of this writing and has managed that while still being a year younger than the competition. Casey Mize looks special.
To confirm the arsenal, @2080Adam from @2080ball had Mize featuring his fastball (91-96), splitter (83-88), cut/slider (83-89) and the aforementioned slurve (79-82) during his no-hitter. So the slurve is already making its way into games. I’ll be trying to get an in-person look at Mize each time Erie travels to New England this summer.
Okay, back to our regularly scheduled content:
Yusniel Diaz, OF – Bowie Baysox (Orioles)
Diaz was the centerpiece of the Orioles’ return in the deal that sent Manny Machado out to LA. He made a brief debut in the Eastern League last summer after he torched the Texas League to the tune of .314/.428/.477. However, his time in Bowie wasn’t quite as pleasant and his slash line came back to Earth (.239/.329/.403). Still respectable, but not world beating. Considering his success at each level and his ability to adjust and finish strongly in Bowie, I expect Diaz to take another step forward in 2019.
Yusniel’s calling card as a fantasy prospect will be his hit tool, but he grades out at average or better across the board. That means he’s not going to be a burden on any of your categories. He uses the hit tool to get to all of his average power and I wonder if he might find some unexpected additional pop when he gets to take some hacks at the MLB’s juiced ball. His mid-teens strikeout rate and GB/FB ratio near 1 should play well as he returns to AA and likely moves up later this summer. Diaz also brings good speed to the table (50 grade), but it won’t mean anything until he learns how to steal — he owns a career 44% stolen base success rate in over 1,300 plate appearances. That is abysmal and will earn a very quick red light. If Diaz performs well, look for him to get a crack at Baltimore’s big league lineup mid to late summer 2019 since guys like Joey Rickard and Dwight Smith Jr. are currently manning the Oriole outfield.
Something to keep in mind: These hit-tool first guys look like they may have the most to gain from the MLB’s new “juiced ball” era. Don’t be surprised if the game power starts to tick up when he reaches AAA and the MLB. It’s the warning-track-power types that should benefit the most.
Andres Gimenez, SS – Binghamton Rumble Ponies (Mets)
Gimenez will be ascend to the role of the top prospect for the New York Mets as soon as the sensation Pete Alonso cracks the rookie eligibility barrier… which may have already happened by the time you read this. Before you start salivating over Pete Alonso V2, I should let you know that for all intents and purposes, Andres Gimenez is nothing like Power Pete. Gimenez is a glove-first, middle infield prospect – but that doesn’t mean there’s nothing to be excited about. Gimenez’s above average defensive grades will carry him through the minor leagues at a good pace. After all, he reached AA last year while still just 19-years-old and his 55 hit tool (Fangraphs) helped him hold his own, hitting .277 in 153 plate appearances capping off his longest professional season to date (504 PA compared to 399 in 2018 and and 275 in 2016).
It’s worth noting that Gimenez’s power took a step forward in 2018 as he totaled 40 extra base hits and a .409 SLG across A+ and AA. While his AFL numbers were less than appealing, I think we can give him a pass as long as he picks up where he left off in AA. Like Diaz, it’s worth noting here that the game power could tick up when Gimenez makes his way to AAA and starts hitting the tennis ball that MLB has implemented.
I got a live look at Andres in early April and his athleticism was easy to see. He’s just one of those guys who makes it look easy and everything in the field just looks fluid. I would expect his timeline to the majors to be sometime mid to late 2020 as there’s still plenty of room for the bat and approach to be refined (25:5 K:BB through 109 PA this year). Not to mention that Amed Rosario and Robinson Cano are currently manning the middle infield in Queens. I would expect that Rosario’s defensive pedigree (60s) would keep him at short and force Gimenez to slide over to second, but, there’s still a slight chance Gimenez could stick at short.
Matt Manning, RHP – Erie Seawolves (Tigers)
The beast of Lake Erie… well, the other beast of Lake Erie, now. Before Casey Mize landed in Erie with a bang, Matt Manning was stealing the show. Staying on theme, Manning is a two-pitch monster, fastball/curveball, who has been gobbling up minor league hitters with ease (303 K’s in 226.2 minor league innings). Manning was a 3-level guy last summer working his way from A ball all the way up to AA, finishing the season with 2 starts for Erie — 1 excellent and 1 not-so-excellent. While his introduction the to the league wasn’t anything to write home about, Manning has been back with a vengeance to start 2019. He owns a 2.27 ERA through 6 starts (35.2 IP), but what really stands out are the 50 K’s (12.6 K/9) and 50:8 K to BB ratio — that is outstanding.
What makes Manning so exciting and why some like his ceiling more than Mize’s is that he just oozes athleticism. Listed at 6’6”, 215 lbs, Manning looks like the type of athlete who could throw down a windmill dunk on you after he’s done buckling your knees with his 60-grade curve. That’s probably because his dad was an NBA center and Matt had a full-ride to Loyola Marymount for basketball. So, yeah, he really is a freak athlete. Between that, the fastball that sits mid-90s, and the plus curve, it’s not too hard to see how he could blossom into a frontline starter.
Manning’s biggest area of concern coming into the year is the lack of a serviceable third pitch. His changeup has been consistently described as below average. No matter how good your first 2 pitches are, it’s pretty difficult to find sustained success as a starter in the majors without a third, so the change will need marked improvement in order to for Manning to reach his ceiling. If it doesn’t, he might end up as more of a mid-rotation arm who struggles to get deeper into games. The most likely ETA for his arrival in Detroit is next summer since he’s still just 21-years old, but there’s a small chance we see him this year if he continues to dominate the minors at his current pace. I just wouldn’t bet on it after his quick ascension and innings jump last year.
Colton Welker, 3B – Hartford Yard Goats (Rockies)
Would this be a true fantasy article without a Colorado Rockies prospect? I think not. That’s not to say that I’m forcing Colton Welker in here, though. The former 4th-round pick has earned his spot on this list with a career .494 slugging percentage in 1,000+ professional ABs. He boasts above-average raw power that will work into games more and more as he matures and he projects to reach all of it with his above-average hit tool (.336 career AVG).
Welker is an average fielder who will have to move off 3rd base if makes it to the The Show with the Rockies. Nolan Arenado just has that effect on people. If he’s traded, his arm is likely enough to keep him at the hot corner long term. That strong arm would also fit well in right field should the Rockies decide to move him off the dirt. Should that happen, Welker’s bat might not be quite as enticing as a corner OF as it would be at 3rd. Colton is still one to watch though as he’s off to a hot start in Hartford this spring, already leaving the yard 3 times and hitting .333 through 111 at bats.
Look for Welker to make his way to Denver in the summer of 2020 and join a crew of up and coming youngsters that could create a pretty formidable lineup around Arenado. Coors will give the bat a nice little boost, too.