Head of the Class: Full-Season Class A

Rays' Franco, Orioles' Rodriguez live up to hype in first half

By Chris Tripodi / MiLB.com | June 17, 2019 10:30 AM

With All-Star Games approaching across the Minor Leagues, members of the MiLB.com staff are looking back at some of the most notable performers from the first half of each of the four full-season levels and who could take off in the months to come. We've looked at the Class A Advanced and Double-A levels. Here, we look at players in the Class A Midwest and South Atlantic leagues.

Most exciting hitter

Rays SS Wander Franco, Bowling Green: Was there ever really a doubt? Second-ranked Mariners prospect Jarred Kelenic hit for more power and otherwise had comparable numbers at West Virginia before being promoted to Class A Advanced Modesto and Indians No. 25 prospect Will Benson is tied for the Class A lead with 18 homers and has stolen 18 bases, but when MLB.com's top overall prospect resides at the lowest full-season level and produces big numbers at age 18, that's about as exciting as it gets. Franco has been remarkably consistent in his first full campaign, going more than one game without a hit just once, and his 70-grade hit tool has been as advertised with a .326/.396/.514 slash line and more walks (28) than strikeouts (18) through 58 games with the Hot Rods. His power is still developing, but he's ripped 25 extra-base hits, including six homers, while improving on the basepaths -- he has 14 steals in 21 chances after swiping four bags in seven tries in 61 games with Rookie Advanced Princeton last season. 

Video: Franco's walk-off hit for Bowling Green

Most exciting pitcher

Orioles RHP Grayson Rodriguez, Delmarva: Rodriguez has been a professional for barely a calendar year, but he already looks ready for a new challenge. His dominance in short bursts last summer in the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League (1.40 ERA over 19 1/3 innings) led to a full-season opportunity this year, and the 2018 first-round pick has given the organization plenty to look forward to. The 19-year-old struck out 10 batters in two scoreless outings to start the season, and he hasn't looked back. He's allowed one earned run or fewer in eight of 10 starts with a 72-to-15 strikeout-to-walk ratio over 52 innings, and his ERA sat at a pristine 1.47 through June 3 before he allowed seven runs on eight hits over five innings the following night in Kannapolis. The O's fourth-ranked prospect bounced back with four one-hit innings in West Virginia and, with three plus pitches -- fastball, slider, curveball -- along with good control for his age, we'll likely be hearing more from Rodriguez in the near future. 

Video: G-Rod notches K on 100th pitch

Best team

Delmarva Shorebirds (Orioles): Delmarva (48-21, .696 winning percentage) earned a spot in the South Atlantic League playoffs by dominating the circuit on the way to a first-half title and its first playoff berth since 2005. In addition to Rodriguez, left-hander Drew Rom leads the level with a 1.23 ERA and the Shorebirds staff tops the circuit with a 3.09 ERA, 708 strikeouts and eight shutouts. Middle infielder Adam Hall ranks fourth in the league with a .321 batting average and .398 on-base percentage, sixth with 72 hits and seventh with 41 runs scored and has chipped in 16 stolen bases, while first baseman Seamus Curran is tied for seventh with 11 homers to lead an offense that's tied for third with 315 runs scored.

Second-half breakout

Mariners OF Julio Rodriguez, West Virginia: Signed for $1.75 million during the 2017 international free-agent period, Rodriguez went crazy in the Rookie-level Dominican Summer League the following season, batting .315/.404/.525 with 27 extra-base hits (five homers, nine triples, 13 doubles), 50 runs scored, 10 steals and 30 walks in 59 games. The 18-year-old went 4-for-7 with a double in Cactus League action this spring before starting the season with West Virginia, where he batted .355/.444/.452 in 36 plate appearances before getting hit by a pitch on his left hand and suffering a hairline fracture that sidelined him for nearly two months. He returned on June 10 and reached base three times with a double and two walks. The injury is likely the only reason he's in position to be considered as a potential second-half breakout star, and he'll get to show off an advanced approach for his age and the above-average power that some within the Mariners organization feel could develop into a 70-grade tool.

2019 MiLB include

Coming soon

2019 draft picks: It's hard to predict whether any of this year's college first-rounders will start their careers at the full-season level -- only Royals right-hander Jackson Kowar and Orioles shortstop Cadyn Grenier did so among last year's top-43 picks and both were set to turn 22 before the calendar year ended. Vanderbilt outfielder JJ Bleday went to the Marlins at No. 4 overall, turns 22 on Nov. 10 and led Division I with 26 homers last season, so he seems as good a bet as any to potentially skip short season ball and should reach Class A Clinton by season's end. No. 1 overall pick Adley Rutschman (Orioles) certainly could reach Delmarva at some point, thanks to his polish behind the plate, and the same can be said for White Sox third overall pick Andrew Vaughn -- who won the Golden Spikes Award at Cal in 2017 and posted a 1.260 OPS in 2018 -- climbing to Kannapolis.

Chris Tripodi is a producer for MiLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @christripodi. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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