Southern preview: Five prospects to watch

Kopech, Brigham, Happ among big names looking to make impact

Michael Kopech recorded 82 strikeouts in 56 1/3 innings last year as a member of the Red Sox system. (Ross D. Franklin/AP)

By MiLB.com Staff | April 4, 2017 10:00 AM ET

The Double-A Southern League gets underway Thursday, April 6, with a full slate of five games. The action begins at 6:15 p.m. ET when the Chattanooga Lookouts (Twins) host the Mobile BayBears (Angels), followed by the Birmingham Barons (White Sox) taking on the Jackson Generals (D-backs) at 7:05 p.m. ET on MiLB.TV. 

Below are some of the biggest and brightest prospects who could see time in the Southern League this season: 

Michael Kopech, RHP, Birmingham Barons (Chicago White Sox)

Acquired from the Red Sox in the trade for big league ace Chris Sale, Kopech made headlines shortly after the December trade when he threw a ball 110 mph. Sure, it was an underweighted ball and was thrown from a short distance, but the idea alone gives one an idea about Kopech's mighty fastball. That pitch is graded an 80 in MLB Pipeline's prospect rankings, the highest possible mark on the scouting scale.

A 2014 first-round pick, Kopech is coming off his first experience in full-season ball, going 4-1 with a 2.25 ERA and an eye-popping 82 strikeouts against 29 walks over 52 innings for Class A Advanced Salem.

"You look at his track record, he doesn't have a ton of innings under his belt," White Sox director of player development Chris Getz said. "For us, we view him as a starter based on stuff, delivery, who this kid is, the makeup, things like that. This year, our focus is to get a full season of innings under his belt, bottom line. It doesn't really matter [where]. We'll find a level for him to be able to do that, and that is our primary focus."

The White Sox could challenge Kopech with an Opening Day assignment to Double-A Birmingham, where he'd be among the Southern League's youngest players at 20.

Jeff Brigham, RHP, Jacksonville Jumbo Shrimp (Miami Marlins)

It might seem easy to overlook Brigham and his career 4.13 ERA, but beyond past numbers, the 25-year-old is ready to turn heads. While the Marlins' No. 18 prospect may need to prevent scoring, he is pretty good at fooling hitters. Brigham ranked second in the system last season with a career-high 112 strikeouts for Class A Advanced Jupiter.

Prior to leading the Hammerheads, Brigham was a 2014 Draft pick fresh off Tommy John surgery at the University of Washington. In 2015, the Dodgers dealt the right-hander at the deadline and he quickly adapted to the new system. In six games (five starts) with Jupiter following the trade, Brigham notched a 1.87 ERA with 22 punchouts in 33 2/3 innings.

"He's got the ability to do certain things, got an electric fastball, he's got power to his breaking stuff," Marc DelPiano, Miami's vice president of player development said. "If he can continue to show the ability to repeat, he's going to have a chance. That's the thing we have to continue with him, which is his ability to repeat his delivery and pitches."

After a tough start to the 2016 season, Brigham bounced back better than ever. The Washington native went 6-4 with a 2.92 ERA in his final 74 innings. Brigham was assigned to the Arizona Fall League, but was sidelined after suffering shoulder tendinitis. DelPiano says he should return to action in early April.

Ian Happ, 2B, Tennessee Smokies (Chicago Cubs) 

After a stellar 2016 season split between Class A Advanced and Double-A, the No. 2 Cubs prospect (No. 28 overall) carried that momentum into the Cactus League this spring. Though he amassed an outstanding 142 total bases in his 69 games for the Smokies, he's expected to start the season back in Double-A but could move up again quickly if he opens the year with a bang. Throughout his time with Chicago, the 2015 first-rounder has focused on becoming the versatile type of player the Cubs love, but he's still managed to produce on offense.

"Everyone to a man [in the Cubs front office] knew this guy can really swing the bat from both sides of the plate, has feel and control of the zone," said Cubs director of player development Jaron Madison. "He's a pure hitter. He's a guy who really understands himself as a hitter, understands how to control the zone and he's always been able hit. That's why we took him [in the first round]."

Stephen Gonsalves, LHP, Chattanooga Lookouts (Minnesota Twins)

The Twins' top-ranked pitching prospect went 13-5 with a 2.06 ERA in 24 starts across two levels last season, helping him move up the Minnesota system to No. 2 overall and win the award as the Twins' Minor League Pitcher of the Year. The 22-year-old saw his numbers improve after a promotion to Double-A Chattanooga, where he was 8-1 with a 1.82 ERA in 13 games. A fourth-round pick in 2013, Gonsalves enters his fourth Minor League season with eyes on Triple-A and refining his control. He features a low-90s fastball, a sinking changeup, a curveball and a slider -- a combo that helped him finish with the 15th-lowest ERA in the Minors last year.

"He's not going to light up on the gun, but his ball gets on people," Twins manager Paul Molitor told MLB.com earlier this month. "I don't know if he hides it, I don't know if his release point is closer. I think there are a lot of metrics that support his style of pitching. He locks people up with that fastball that's 90 mph, [and] his changeup is really good."

Gonsalves has been praised for the "spin rate" of his fastball, which he said makes the ball appear to travel faster than it is.

"With all the Statcast stuff, they say it's got a high spin rate," Gonsalves told MLB.com. "I've heard my fastball at 90 feels like it's coming at 95."

Tyler Jay, LHP, Chattanooga Lookouts (Minnesota Twins)

Staying with the Twins, their first-round pick in 2015 is being converted back into a reliever after spending most of his first two seasons in the Minors as a starter. The 22-year-old worked in relief primarily while in college at Illinois, and Minnesota thinks he's best suited in that role, at least for 2017. Last year at Class A Advanced Fort Myers and Double-A Chattanooga, the lefty went 5-5 with a 3.33 ERA in 18 games, 15 of which were starts. He struck out 77 and walked 26 in 83 2/3 innings. The move could partially come as a result of his struggles at Double-A, where he owned a 5.79 ERA in 14 innings.

"Nothing is permanent in the prospect development process, but this is a collaborative decision to put Tyler in the best situation for success," said Twins vice president of player personnel Mike Radcliff. "Each organization is striving to maximize the strengths and abilities of each of our players and this decision reflects that objective."

Jay was named Big Ten Pitcher of the Year in 2015 and has spoken about his fondness for coming out of the bullpen.

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

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