PCL season preview: Five prospects to watch

Banda, Brinson, Martes among big names close to reaching MLB

Anthony Banda compiled a 2.88 ERA and struck out 152 hitters in 150 innings between Double-A and Triple-A in 2016. (David Calvert/Reno Aces)

By MiLB.com Staff | April 3, 2017 11:30 AM ET

The Triple-A Pacific Coast League gets things started Thursday, April 6, with a full eight-game slate. The action begins at 8 p.m. ET on MiLB.TV when the New Orleans Baby Cakes (Marlins) host the Memphis Red Birds (Cardinals). 

Below are some of the biggest and brightest prospects expected to open the season in the Pacific Coast League: 

Anthony Banda, LHP, Reno Aces (Arizona Diamondbacks) 

No matter where Banda plays, he's a shining star for the D-backs. The club's top prospect has a 2.94 ERA over 336 2/3 innings since being traded from the Brewers in 2014. For the second season in a row, Banda led the system with exactly 152 strikeouts, this time in 26 starts across Double-A Mobile and Triple-A Reno.

"He has good fastball command -- that's where it starts. He has good feel for a curveball and a changeup," said Mike Bell, Arizona's vice president of player development. "He continues to grow and mature as a pitcher. He came in in great shape this year, he's throwing the ball well here and he just continues to get better. I don't think he's done yet."

At big league camp this year, Banda worked around a hit and walk with five strikeouts in four scoreless innings over two outings before being reassigned to Minor League camp.

"He's a great teammate -- that's easy to see," Bell said. "He's a very hard worker, he's disciplined, he studies the game, he has a plan when he goes out there and he keeps growing in that area as well."

Lewis Brinson, OF, Colorado Springs Sky Sox (Milwaukee Brewers)

Brinson looked to be on the cusp of making his Major League debut last offseason after a dominant 2015 campaign that earned him two promotions and saw him finish the season with an eight-game stint at Triple-A Round Rock. The 22-year-old outfielder compiled a slash line of .258/.309/.419 at Double-A Frisco in April -- a far cry from his .332/.403/.601 line across three levels the season before -- and watched teammate Nomar Mazara, one year his junior, race off to a hot start with the big league club after getting called up from Round Rock in the wake of Shin-Soo Choo's early April injury.

Texas' 2012 first-round pick slumped in May and June, posting a .200/.255/.415 line in 141 plate appearances before a shoulder strain landed him on the disabled list. Less than a month after returning to the field, he was included in the trade-deadline deal that sent Jonathan Lucroy and Jeremy Jeffress from Milwaukee to Texas. Brinson wasted no time showing off for his new organization, going 4-for-4 with three runs and a stolen base in his first game at Triple-A Colorado Springs and notching multiple hits in his first four games with the Sky Sox.

"Since Lewis came over in last year's trade deadline deal with Texas, all he has done is hit," Brewers farm director Tom Flanagan said. "He has continued that this spring as he has worked to enhance his game. He's a five-tool player and brings a business-like approach to the park every day."

After his walks decreased from 44 to 21 from 2015 to 2016, Brinson drew four passes while striking out seven times in Spring Training with a slash line of .294/.385/.588 and two home runs in 39 plate appearances. MLB.com's No. 18 prospect may not reach the Majors as quickly as Mazara did last season, but he's set to make an impact in Milwaukee sooner than later.

Francis Martes, RHP, Fresno Grizzlies (Houston Astros)

After years of developing potent offensive weapons like George Springer, Alex Bregman and Carlos Correa, a pitcher is stealing the spotlight in the Astros' Minor League system these days.

Martes overcame a rocky April in 2016 and quickly rose to the challenge of his first full season at the Double-A level. The Astros' top prospect posted a 2.52 ERA over his final 19 starts for Corpus Christi and finished the year with 131 strikeouts over 125 1/3 innings. The 21-year-old carried his good form into the Arizona Fall League, where he fanned 25 batters in 22 1/3 frames.

"Francis has been working a lot with our pitching coordinator Doug White," Astros director of player development Pete Putila said. "For him, it's mainly being more consistent with his delivery and staying in the zone. He's got big fastball velocity and a big out-pitch, so for him it will come down to consistency out of both the wind-up and the stretch. I think he's got some good experience now and is learning what it's going to take for the next step."

Martes will most likely open the 2017 season with Triple-A Fresno, and if things go well in the early going, he could find himself in an Astros uniform before the end of the year. Should that happen, it would be another big win for Houston's front office, which targeted and acquired Martes from Miami in exchange for Jarred Cosart in 2014, despite the fact he hadn't pitched above the Gulf Coast League.

Tyler O'Neill, OF, Tacoma Rainers (Seattle Mariners)

Coming off a California League-leading 32 home runs in his age-20 season with Class A Advanced Bakersfield in 2015, O'Neill had an even more impressive campaign with Double-A Jackson in 2016. While his 24 long balls with the Generals didn't match his total from the prior year, they ranked second on the circuit behind Mobile's Kevin Cron, and O'Neill displayed an improved approach at the plate, batting .293/.374/.508 in 130 games and walking 62 times -- which matched his career total in 195 contests entering the season.

"Anybody who's been around Tyler will mention some ball he's hit that's the farthest ball they've ever seen hit," Mariners director of player development Andy McKay said. "Obviously the power has always been there, and the ability to control the strike zone has really helped his game. You don't have to look far past what he did in the Southern League at the age he did to see the talent he has. He'll start in the PCL at age 22 and showed well at camp this year."

Not only did O'Neill increase his walks last season, he also continued to lower his strikeout rate -- from 32.9 percent in 2014 to 30.5 percent in 2015 and 26.1 last season. Combining those incremental improvements with a move to the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League, O'Neill could find himself back in the 30-homer club in 2017. Although if he continues his trajectory with the Rainiers, he may not stay in the Minors long.

Amed Rosario, SS, Las Vegas 51s (New York Mets)

Rosario may be slated for Las Vegas to start the season, but it should be only a pit stop on his way to Citi Field. The Mets' top prospect went from talented youngster to a potential future star in 2016, blossoming into one of the Minor League's top players.

Baseball's No. 5 overall prospect, Rosario tore through the Class A Advanced Florida State League, hitting .309/.359/.442 in 66 games with St. Lucie before moving up to Binghamton. The promotion didn't faze the 21-year-old, who continued to rake at a .341/.392/.481 clip in 54 games with the B-Mets. Overall, Rosario hit .324/.374/.459 with 42 extra-base hits, 71 RBIs and 19 stolen bases in 120 games. The Mets rewarded him with an invitation to Major League camp for the second straight year.

"Obviously, he's coming off a very, very good year," Mets field coordinator Kevin Morgan said. "We hope and anticipate that he'll continue to progress. He performed well in big league camp [this spring]. We just want him to continue to focus on the process, keep him progressing and moving forward."

In addition to his potent bat, Rosario has a strong arm, soft hands and excellent range at short, making him a franchise cornerstone. His build, talent and style of play is reminiscent of another former top Mets prospect, Jose Reyes.

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

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