SAL season preview: Five prospects to watch

Moniak, Taveras, Anderson, Pint among those to keep an eye on

Mickey Moniak had 50 hits, including 16 for extra bases, in 46 Gulf Coast League games last season. (Cliff Welch/

By Staff | April 5, 2017 10:45 AM ET

The Class A South Atlantic League gets underway Thursday, April 6, with a full slate of seven games. The action starts at 6:05 p.m. ET when the Hagerstown Suns (Nationals) host the Asheville Tourists (Rockies) and at 7:05 p.m. ET on MiLB.TV when former Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow and the Columbia Fireflies (Mets) welcome the Augusta GreenJackets (Giants).

Here are some of baseball's top prospects expected to open the season in the South Atlantic League:

Mickey Moniak, OF, Lakewood Blue Claws (Philadelphia Phillies)

Try to think of another sport in which the No. 1 overall Draft pick doesn't automatically become the focal point of a club's rebuild. It speaks to the depth and top-heavy nature of the Phillies system that Moniak won't be pressured to move quickly in his first full season, starting at Class A Lakewood.

After signing for $6.1 million, Moniak -- who doesn't turn 19 until May 13 -- didn't seem to miss a beat during his 46-game stint in the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League, helping the club go a circuit-best 43-15 last summer. The left-handed-hitting center fielder produced a .284/.340/.409 line with 16 extra-base hits and 10 stolen bases in his first taste of the pro game, all while looking the part defensively at a premium position. 

High school talent can sometimes get tripped up when trying to tackle the everyday nature of a 140-game schedule, but the Phillies trust him to take to the assignment with gusto.

"I think he's got a tremendous feel to hit," Phillies director of player developmeent Joe Jordan said. "I like his approach. It's an advanced approach. He can control the strike zone. If he's on the Lakewood club, I expect him to be able to handle it."

Leody Taveras, OF, Hickory Crawdads (Texas Rangers)

Taveras, a five-tool center fielder who turned 18 last September, played in three leagues over one short season last year, his first as a pro. After seeing time in the Dominican Summer and Arizona leagues, the Rangers' top prospect (No. 55 overall) finished the year with a 29-game stint at Class A Short Season Spokane. According to the Rangers, the talented teen is ready to handle a South Atlantic League assignment.

"He will see a full season as of now," assistant director of player development Paul Kruger said in mid-March. "More than likely, he'll be headed to Hickory. He's a special talent. He's a talented switch-hitting kid who can really go get it in the outfield. That was a thing this time last year that jumped out to us. He can hit, he can run, but seeing him in a big league Spring Training game and the way he tracks down baseballs and his first step on contact, it was uncanny. You don't see that in a Major Leaguer."

If Taveras stumbles and is sometimes frustrated by the grind of a full season, the Rangers won't necessarily see it as a bad thing.

"I think it's going to be a great learning experience," Kruger said. "We've done this path with a couple of our guys in the past, and I'm not saying they're the same player, but Nomar Mazara kind of went this route and Jurickson Profar and so on and so forth. That first season, it's a learning thing. For us, it's a big thing of maintaining strength, maintaining his speed. ... I think his talent speaks for itself, but it's a growing year like anybody's first year in full season. But we couldn't be more excited about what he's become and what he can be in the future. He's going to be a fun player to watch for many, many years."

Ian Anderson, RHP, Rome Braves (Atlanta Braves)

A lot has been and will be made about the Class A Advanced Florida rotation, with so many holdovers from last season's South Atlantic League-championship Rome staff. But don't sleep on this year's version of the R-Braves rotation, anchored by Anderson.

The Braves took the 6-foot-3 right-hander with the third overall pick in last year's Draft out of an upstate New York high school because of his projection, plus fastball and above-average slider. Anderson didn't disappoint in his pro debut with a 2.04 ERA, 36 strikeouts and 12 walks over 39 2/3 innings between the Gulf Coast League and Rookie-level Danville, although eight of his 10 starts lasted no longer than four innings.

The big test for Anderson in his first full season could be durability in trying to hit -- or get close to -- triple digits in innings, given his pedigree as a cold-weather pitcher who wasn't as stretched in high school as perhaps some of his peers. The Braves say they've already taken the necessary steps.

"We brought him in to instructional league," Braves director of player development Dave Trembley said. "We brought him here to mini-camp early. He's gotten bigger. We brought him down here early with the mini-camp early, so we put him under the watch of our pitching people. We'll get him stretched out here. We'll monitor his innings and monitor his pitches. But we expect he's going to go to Rome and pitch there.

"So what's important for us is he begins the season and ends the season still being able to pitch. We don't like to shut guys down in August because they've reached their innings limit. For us, we manage their innings, so if we have to pitch them later in the year or go to every six days instead of every five, that's how we'll do it."

Fellow top 2016 picks Joey Wentz, Kyle Muller and Bryse Wilson are expected to join Anderson in the Rome rotation.

Riley Pint, RHP, Asheville Tourists (Colorado Rockies)

What was once Brendan Rodgers' designation as Rockies phenom belongs to Pint, and he is the prospect around whom most questions about the Colorado system begin.

The Rockies nabbed Pint, a towering prep right-hander, with the fourth overall pick in last year's Draft and sent him to Rookie-level Grand Junction, where he posted a 5.35 ERA and issued 23 walks while striking out 36 over 37 innings. Rockies senior director of player development Zach Wilson isn't worried about numbers -- he's thrilled with the prospect Pint promises to become in his first full season.

"I think the industry knew that if you took him, there were going to be some things to do with his delivery, not major issues, but because he's a big, strong man and he's still growing into his body and still figuring out how to use those big limbs and keep his delivery together," Wilson said. "He had some moving parts coming in, so we knew we were going to have to tighten that down a little bit."

Pint possesses an explosive fastball that can touch 102 mph and complements it with an above-average curve and changeup as well as a developing slider. With smoothed mechanics, the Rockies believe the 19-year-old is ready to take off.

"Towards the end [of last season], we started to do some work on refining that delivery a little bit," Wilson said. "It started to take, and by the time he got to instructional league, you could see some real differences. Now, in his first couple live BPs, the delivery is compact. It's repeatable."

Colorado hasn't been afraid to challenge young arms at Asheville, like they did with fellow righties Ryan Castellani (2015) and Peter Lambert (2016) at 19; Pint could follow a similar track.

Video: Pint gets through five scoreless innings

Juan Soto, RF, Hagerstown Suns (Washington Nationals)

If there ever was a player who could transition from the GCL to Class A in a year's time, it's Soto, who captured the Rookie-level circuit's MVP award in his first pro season.

Playing the entire 2016 campaign as a 17-year-old, the right fielder led the league in average (.361), slugging percentage (.550) and OPS (.960) by wide margins. Prospect evaluators took notice and moved Soto, who signed for $1.5 million out of the Dominican Republic in 2015, from No. 15 in the system before the 2016 season to No. 3 entering 2017.

The Nats pushed Soto to Class A Short Season Auburn for a six-game cameo last September and seem ready to push him to Class A Hagerstown.

"I think he's certainly somebody that could make that jump," director of player development Mark Scialabba said. "He's very young, but he's very advanced for his age, not only in his approach to hitting but all phases of his game. He's very mature. He's got tremendous bat-to-ball instincts. He leverages the ball extremely well. He can cover all parts of the strike zone at a young age. We're optimistic there.

"Defensively, he continues to work extremely hard at his craft and he's shown the ability to have the potential to be an average everyday defender in the corners as well. Bright future ahead."

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

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