Call it Opening Day, Part Two.
The New York-Penn, Northwest and Pioneer Leagues are set to open their 2019 seasons on Friday with the Appalachian League to follow on Tuesday. That means prospects from all 30 farm systems who have spent the last few weeks and months toiling on Florida and Arizona backfields at extended spring training will finally find Minor League homes, where the games count just a little bit more. This edition of Toolshed lists a few of the most notable prospects to watch across those circuits as they embark on their 2019 seasons at the lower levels. (Note: this list does not include 2019 Draft picks, who may also see time in these four leagues this summer.)
Arizona OF Kristian Robinson, Class A Short Season Hillsboro: Having only turned 18 in December, Robinson is ahead of the curve for his age group and could be poised to jump into even more prospect prominence if he carries his potential to the Northwest League. The Bahamas native has plus power to go with above-average speed and defensive skills in center field. He showed off the bat and run tool by hitting .279/.363/.428 with seven homers and 12 stolen bases in 57 games between the Arizona League and Rookie Advanced Missoula. Standing at 6-foot-3, 190 pounds, Robinson should grow into even more pop from the right side, but he'll need to make a little more contact after striking out in 28.4 percent of his Pioneer League plate appearances in 2018. Still, the D-backs' No. 5 prospect has the foundation to jump into the Top 100 by season's end, and now with short-season ball beginning, he'll be able to show off that potential on fields that count.
Boston SS Antoni Flores, Class A Short Season Lowell: The Red Sox liked enough of what they saw out of Flores last season to send him from the Dominican Summer League after only 13 games -- during which he went 17-for-49 (.347) with eight walks and seven strikeouts -- to the Gulf Coast League. Flores played only two games in the GCL before his season was cut short by a left shoulder strain. Still, Boston feels comfortable enough to let the 18-year-old move to the New York-Penn League to open 2019. Flores stands out most for his advanced approach at the plate -- see his K/BB ratio in the DSL -- and he's considered solid enough defensively to handle the premium position at shortstop, at least at this point in his career. That approach will be challenged away from the complexes, so it'll be interesting to see if his right-handed bat looks just as promising over a longer sample against tougher competition. This assignment alone speaks volumes about Boston's thinking on that matter.
Cleveland OF George Valera; SS Brayan Rocchio; RHP Ethan Hankins; Class A Short Season Mahoning Valley: The Scrappers might have the most interesting Class A Short Season roster with three of the Indians' top nine prospects headed to Mahoning Valley on Friday. Rocchio might have the highest ceiling of the group, coming off a season in which he hit .343 with 14 steals in 35 games in the AZL. He has the chance to be above average with the bat, plus with his speed and good enough with the glove to stick to short. That said, Valera is actually the higher-ranked prospect right now with his chance to show an above-average bat from the left side and average tools across the rest of the board. Signed for $1.3 million in 2017, he played only six games last season due to a broken right hand, so this will be his first extended opportunity to show how that skillset holds up stateside. Similarly, Hankins was the 35th overall pick in last year's Draft, and Cleveland knew it was taking a long-term project in the 6-foot-6 right-hander, a project that got a little longer when he developed a shoulder issue last summer. Now that he's back, Hankins can show off his mid-to-upper-90s fastball that received a plus-plus grade from MLB.com along with an above-average changeup, a rarity for a high-school pitcher. This trio could be the next Big Three in the Cleveland pipeline, starting by living up to their individual potential in the NYPL.
2019 MiLB include
Houston SS Deury Carrasco, Class A Short Season Tri-City: One look at Carrasco's scouting report and it's easy to see why there's so much excitement around the 19-year-old Dominican Republic native. His speed is plus to plus-plus, his arm is even better than that and he has the range to handle himself well at shortstop. But Carrasco will have to come around with the bat if he's going to make the most of those other tools. The left-handed hitter produced a .243/.327/.368 line with one homer and a 27 percent strikeout rate between the Gulf Coast and New York-Penn Leagues last season. At 5-foot-9, 165 pounds, he doesn't have the frame that screams more power is coming either. A third season of pro ball experience should allow him to grow the bat a ton, and if he can make it even just average, his profile should rise given the rest of his tool package.
Los Angeles Angels OF D'Shawn Knowles; SS Jeremiah Jackson; Rookie Advanced Orem: Knowles (a 2017 signing out of the Bahamas) and Jackson (a 2018 second-rounder) are both back in Orem after having very different experiences with the Owlz a season ago. The switch-hitting Knowles tore the league apart with a .321/.398/.550 line and 15 extra-base hits over 28 games in 2018, showing off plus speed and good defensive skills at all three outfield spots. Jackson struggled, hitting .198/.260/.396 in 22 games, though that came after long spring and summer seasons. Now after a full winter and spring of preparation, the Alabama native can show off the right-handed bat that helped him hit .317 with five homers and a .971 OPS in 21 games in the AZL before his first move to Orem. He'll also be looking to show he can stick to short, despite possession just average speed and range.
Milwaukee OF Joe Gray, Rookie Advanced Colorado Springs: Last year's 60th overall pick continues a general theme here in that he's a four-tool prospect with questions about his overall hitting ability. The 19-year-old outfielder shows above-average power from the right side and also above-average speed that helps on the basepaths and in center field. His best grades are saved for his arm, and it should be something Pioneer League baserunners will have to take into account throughout this summer. However, Gray hasn't always handled the competition offensively, and he showed that by hitting just .182 with a 25.5 percent strikeout rate in the AZL after he was drafted. Perhaps time in extended spring training has helped him get used to pro pitching, and if his bat can take off, he could be the next loud prospect in the Brewers system.
New York Yankees OF Everson Pereira, Class A Short Season Staten Island: At No. 7, Pereira is the highest-ranked Yankees prospect yet to play a game in 2019, but he'll finally get his chance a subway and ferry ride away from the Bronx. Signed for $1.5 million out of Venezuela in 2017, Pereira was pushed aggressively to Rookie Advanced Pulaksi last season and held his own as a 17-year-old, hitting .263/.322/.389 in 41 games. He'll again be one of the younger players in the NYPL, where he'll try to show more power than he did in his first season of pro ball. Otherwise, the center fielder's hit, run, arm and fielding tools all have the chance to be above average to plus. By the time he's playing at an age-appropriate level, he could be a five-tool player.
St. Louis OF Jhon Torres/3B Malcom Nunez, Rookie Advanced Johnson City: It's possible to get too aggressive with notable prospects, and that seems to have been the case with St. Louis and its No. 5 and 6 prospects. Torres and Nunez each opened the season at Class A Peoria, only to be assigned back to extended spring training on June 3. Torres hit just .167/.240/.212 with 29 strikeouts in his 21 games with the Chiefs, while Nunez produced a .183/.247/.197 line with 15 K's in his 21 contests. Neither right-handed slugger homered. It should be noted that both made the jump from complex circuits straight to the Midwest League before taking their lumps, meaning they may have been fighting uphill battles anyway. Both Torres and Nunez have above-average power potential and could be above-average overall hitters in time. (Both hit well above .300 at the lower levels last season and combined to hit 21 homers in 88 games.) They just need to build up some confidence, and the Appalachian League presents that opportunity.
Toronto RHP Adam Kloffenstein, Class A Short Season Vancouver: A high-school friend of fellow 2018 pick Jordan Groshans back in Texas, Kloffenstein was taken in the third round of last year's Draft, and after pitching only two GCL innings, he'll make more of a full-fledged organization debut in the Northwest League this month. The 6-foot-5 right-hander stands out for his size, sinking fastball, above-average changeup and impressive slider. That's a starting pitcher starter's kit, if there ever was one, and now after being protected in extended, Kloffenstein can show just how far that combination of size and arsenal can get him when he takes the mound north of the border.