Cal League preview: Five prospects to watch

Rodgers, Buehler, Thaiss among those looking to make an impact

Brendan Rodgers went wire-to-wire with Class A Asheville in 2016, batting .281 with 19 homers in 110 games. (Patrick Cavey/

By Staff | April 5, 2017 3:00 PM ET

The California League begins Thursday with a full slate of four games. Below are some of the best and brightest prospects expected to open the season on the Class A Advanced circuit:

Brendan Rodgers, SS, Lancaster JetHawks (Colorado Rockies)

Last year's full-season debutant in this system is now Colorado's top prospect. Rodgers went wire-to-wire with Class A Asheville in 2016, batting .281/.342/.480 with 19 homers and 73 RBIs while playing 110 games, a notable accomplishment after nagging foot and leg injuries limited him to 37 games with Rookie-level Grand Junction a year earlier.

"The consistency of his at-bats, I think they're just going to continue to improve with plate appearances, pitch recognition and patience vs. aggressiveness that you battle and have to start balancing with every young player," Rockies senior director of player development Zach Wilson said. "That just takes at-bats. I think that's going to continue to develop."

Rodgers' offensive success has been all the more impressive since it was accomplished while adjusting to a part-time position change to add defensive versatility, playing 24 games at second base.

"He still has things to do at shortstop too, but he's going to continue to develop at second," Wilson said. "He's a very fundamentally sound player, but now starting to understand the intricacies of both of those positions, particularly second base, that he hasn't done, around the bag, footwork, quick first steps, taking the right angles when you're in the six-hole or -- if you're playing second base -- in the three-/four-hole. That type of stuff is where I think he's going to make some strides this year."

Rodgers will get to show off his bat at hitter-friendly Lancaster, the Rockies' new Class A Advanced affiliate.

Walker Buehler, RHP, Rancho Cucamonga Quakes (Los Angeles Dodgers)

Buehler's been waiting for this season for a long time. The 22-year-old Vanderbilt product was taken with the 24th overall pick of the 2015 Draft despite an elbow injury during the college season that led to Tommy John surgery that August.

"The organization just wants me to be healthy, like I do. They were aggressive and took me where they took me, knowing that there could be some issues, and I think that shows how they feel," he said. "I've told people before, 'It's time to prove people right.' I don't buy that whole 'prove people wrong' mantra. The organization's been great and extremely supportive and given me everything I need to come back stronger."

In Minor League camp this spring, Buehler cut two pitches -- a slider and two-seam fastball -- at least temporarily.

"It's a good adjustment. It's one of those things where if you can learn to do it with less than if you end up doing it with more, it can be a little easier for you," he said. "You look at some of the best in the game, and it's two-pitch mix guys, or Kershaw throws three, really -- he doesn't throw many changeups. And when you change things up a little, you learn some things about yourself too, I think, so it's been kind of cool."

Matt Thaiss, 1B, Inland Empire 66ers (Los Angeles Angels)

Though Thaiss appeared in 52 games for Class A Burlington in 2016, this year will be his first full season as a professional. The 16th overall pick in last year's Draft, Thaiss hit the ground running after a standout career at the University of Virginia, where he was a two-time All-American as a catcher. The Angels immediately moved him to first base, a switch the 21-year-old handled with relative ease.

Thaiss batted .338 in a 15-game cameo with Rookie-level Orem before finishing the season with a .276/.351/.427 slash line for the Bees. An advanced hitter with patience and good strike zone judgement, the Angels expect the New Jersey native to hit for a high average while developing a more consistent power stroke.

"Matt is another position player we are very excited about," Angels minor league director of operations Mike LaCassa said. "It's his first Spring Training as a pro, and he was already in big league camp. He walked during each of his first two plate appearances and looked like a Major Leaguer in the process. That epitomizes the kind of plate discipline he has, which makes his above-average bat that much more dangerous. Even moving out from behind the plate has been smooth. We've been pleasantly surprised at how good he looks playing first. I don't think anyone in our organization thinks he'll be anything less than average, and many believe he'll be a strong defensive first baseman."

A.J. Puk, LHP, Stockton Ports (Oakland Athletics)

The A's jumped at the opportunity to select Puk sixth overall in the 2016 Draft, and the 6-foot-7 southpaw posted terrific numbers in his first professional season. In 10 games with Class A Short Season Vermont, Puk posted a 3.03 ERA and a 1.07 WHIP. The 21-year-old overpowered New York-Penn League lineups, striking out 40 and holding hitters to a .185 average in 30 2/3 innings.

"We're very excited about how and when we got A.J. We felt he was undervalued at the Draft, and we were lucky to get him where we did," A's director of player development Keith Lieppman said. "He did very well in Vermont. He threw strikes and made some good adjustments in his delivery."

Lieppman said the plan would be for Puk to start 2017 with Class A Advanced Stockton, but it wouldn't be surprising to see the University of Florida product climb the ladder quickly.

"We're thrilled about having a young arm like that in our system. We've been able to get guys through our system pretty quickly, whether it's a Mark Mulder, Tim Hudson or Barry Zito, and we hope he may be on that same kind of track," Lieppman added.

Anderson Espinoza, RHP, Lake Elsinore Storm (San Diego Padres)

The Padres' grand experiment of mass Major League acquisitions in the 2014-15 offseason didn't work out as planned and left their farm system lean. As San Diego has parted with the big league assets it brought in, a wealth of talent has come in return, and Espinoza might be the headliner of the group. Obtained from the Red Sox in last year's trade for big league lefty Drew Pomeranz, Espinoza boasts an above-average curveball, a plus changeup and a 70-grade fastball, one of the best in the Minors.

"Getting him midseason, I think he was doing a lot of things right to start with, so there's not really a desire to put our hands on it or stamp on him, so to speak, for the sake of doing it," San Diego director of player development Sam Geaney said earlier this month at the Padres' Spring Training facility in Peoria, Arizona. "Nothing can really replace having spent the last six months or whatever it's been since we've had him, in countless conversations with him, constantly being around him in the gym, to really get to know the person and then kind of start crafting our own plans and evaluations of where he's at and what we need to do with him."

Espinoza spent last year at full-season Class A, first with Greenville in the South Atlantic League and then Fort Wayne in the Midwest League after the trade. In all, he compiled a 4.49 ERA in 25 outings (24 starts) at age 18. The Padres rave about his maturity and expect it to complement his on-field talent as he continues to rise through the ranks.

"He's so athletic, it's continuing to kind of make sure that that athleticism plays in every delivery, in every pitch, probably finding a little more consistency with his breaking ball," Geaney said. "Obviously he's still a prospect, so we don't ever want that to get in the way of continuing to strive to get better. Whether it's his idol, someone like Felix [Hernandez], it's how to, at a certain point, go from prospect to Major Leaguer and then from Major Leaguer to elite."

Lake Elsinore, which plays in one of the California League's pitcher-friendly parks, will be Espinoza's home this year.

This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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