We’re only a month and a half into the 2021 minor league season and the pitching prospect landscape is running wild. Both positively and negatively. We’ve seen top arms like MacKenzie Gore, Matt Manning, and Nate Pearson struggle while Grayson Rodriguez, Alek Manoah, and others have dominated and put themselves in the elite pitching prospects conversation. It’s now gotten to a point where there is no clear-cut #1 overall pitching prospect. Is it still Gore? How about Grayson Rodriguez? George Kirby? We discussed this in detail on a recent episode of the Fantrax Toolshed, so I won’t get into that here. However, what I am going to discuss in this article are five pitching prospects that are joining the elite ranks this season.
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Pitching Prospects Joining the Elite
Shane Baz (RHP – TBR)
Age: 22 | Ht/Wt: 6’2/190 | Current Level: AA
All Shane Baz needed was improved command and control to be mentioned in an article like this. While flashing electric stuff in the low minors, Baz was held back by below-average command and control and posted an 11.6% walk rate entering the 2021 season. Well, the time off in 2020 seemed to do wonders for Baz as he was able to really focus on improving this area and it certainly has paid off this season. Through his first seven starts spanning 32.2 innings in Double-A, Baz has walked just two batters. Two! All while still posting a stellar 40.8% strikeout rate, 2.48 ERA, and 0.74 WHIP.
Baz was one of the arms I saw out at the Arizona Fall League back in 2019. He started the Fall Stars game and only went an inning so the velocity was up, but he was pumping upper-90s consistently, even hitting 100 on the pitch below with good arm side run.
Outside of his blazing fastball that borders on double-plus, Baz will also mix in a curveball, changeup, and a plus slider. His fastball and slider are his bread and butter offerings, but he’s shown increased feel for the curveball and changeup as well with both flashing above-average. The development of these two pitches has been crucial for Baz, along with the gains he’s made with his command and control. With this four-pitch mix, Baz has elite potential if he can continue showing the command and control he has so far this season. Buckle up.
Daniel Espino (RHP – CLE)
Age: 20 | Ht/Wt: 6’2/205 | Current Level: A
While the 2019 draft class didn’t have an arm head and shoulders above the rest, you could make a strong case for Daniel Espini having the highest upside in the class. The prep arm from Georgia Premier Academy oozed upside then and still does to this day. Hence his inclusion as the first arm listed in this article. Espino features a four-pitch mix with three potential plus pitches in his fastball, slider, and curveball. His feel for his breaking pitches was apparent very early on with each pitch able to generate plenty of swing and misses thanks to their big verticle movement. The curve is usually thrown in the mid-70s and his slider in the low to mid-80s, both dropping off the table before they reach home plate.
— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) May 20, 2021
As impressive as those pitches are, Espino’s fastball can be even more illustrious. Espino sits regularly in the mid to upper-90’s and can touch 100 throughout his starts with solid armside life. This is easily a plus fastball and borders on double-plus. Espino will also mix in a serviceable changeup that is well behind the other three offerings but gives batters another look, especially left-handers.
As he’s gotten more reps in the professional ranks, Espino’s overall command has ticked up ever so slightly, but continued progression there, along with cutting his current 11.3% walk rate will be crucial in reaching the elite tier of pitching prospects. If he can get to 55 command and control, we could be looking at the best pitching prospect in the game. He’s a long way from 55s, but even average command and control puts Espino in the top tier.
Mick Abel (RHP – PHI)
Age: 19 | Ht/Wt: 6’5/190 | Current Level: A
If you’ve listened to Chris Clegg and me on our Fantrax Toolshed podcast, you’ve probably heard us gush about Mick Abel on more than one occasion. There’s a reason for that; Mick Abel is downright filthy. When looking at the arms in the 2020 draft class, which was loaded with pitching talent, the big three of Emerson Hancock, Asa Lacy, and Max Meyer are pretty much universally regarded as the top three arms in the class. They’re the top three ranked arms for me from this class as it stands now, all three inside my top-50 overall. However, as I’ve said before, I believe Mick Abel has the highest ceiling in the class.
— Joe Drake (@JDrake349) May 17, 2021
When I watch Abel pitch, I can’t help but see a young Stephen Strasburg. Abel can attack hitters with four Major League caliber pitches with all four showing above-average potential or higher. It all starts with Abel’s electric fastball that already is an easy plus pitch and flirting with double-plus in the mid to upper-90’s with explosive finishing life.
But the beauty of Mick Abel is the fact that he’s much more than just a beautiful fastball. Abel is advanced beyond his years with above-average command and control and great feel for both his changeup and both breaking balls. Abel’s changeup is already a plus offering featuring good fading and sinking action along with plenty of velocity separation. His slider also grades around plus with sharp two-plane break in the mid-80s. Abel’s dominating arsenal and advanced feel for pitching are extremely rare for his age and give him legitimate frontline upside.
Cade Cavalli (RHP – WAS)
Age: 22 | Ht/Wt: 6’4/230 | Current Level: A+
The Washington Nationals farm system as a whole is one of the worst in baseball, but one bright spot has been Cade Cavalli. The 2020 1st round pick has absolutely DOMINATED to start his professional career. After his most recent start which saw him toss seven no-hit innings with two walks and 15 strikeouts, Cavalli’s season line sits at a stellar 1.77 ERA, 0.89 WHIP, 7.6% walk rate, and 44.9% strikeout rate through his first seven starts in high-A.
Cavalli’s constant improvement has been very apparent since his first season at Oklahoma. He went from a reliever with great stuff but bad command and control to a starter with slightly better command and control to a potential frontline starter with average to above-average command and control. And the great part about all of this is that he never lost that dominating arsenal. In fact, his arsenal has gotten even better as the command and control have ticked up.
Cade Cavalli leads all @MiLB pitchers in Ks.
He struck out 15 in 7 no-hit innings last night.
He has a 1.77 ERA and a 15.71 SO/9 mark for the @WilmBlueRocks.
— Washington Nationals (@Nationals) June 13, 2021
Cavalli attacks hitters with a four-pitch mix, with three of those projecting as plus offerings. His fastball sits in the 96-98 range with explosive movement and touches higher than that. Both his low to low-80s and mid to upper-80’s slider are big swing and miss offerings thanks to their velocity and big vertical movement. These three plus pitches allow Cavalli to carve up opposing lineups with an average changeup in the upper-80’s giving batters another pitch to keep in the back of their minds when stepping into the batter’s box.
All the ingredients are here for Cavalli to develop into one of the five best pitching prospects in the game and he’s quickly making everyone aware of that. To top it all off, Cavalli has a strong 6’4/230 frame that should allow him to pitch plenty of innings moving forward.
Hunter Greene (RHP – CIN)
Age: 22 | Ht/Wt: 6’5/230 | Current Level: AAA
Wrapping up this list is the 2017 #2 overall selection, Hunter Greene. The big 6’5 right-hander tore through Double-A this season and was recently promoted to Triple-A Louisville. In his seven Double-A starts, Greene racked up an impressive 1.98 ERA, 1.00 WHIP, 8.6% walk rate, and 37.0% strikeout rate in 41 innings. This after missing all of 2019 recovering from Tommy John surgery and then 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Performing this well after not pitching in a competitive game in two years is very impressive. Especially his walk rate, which I was very pleased to see after all the time off. His command and control haven’t appeared to suffer.
— Josh Norris (@jnorris427) June 12, 2021
With Greene, it all starts with that big ol’ fastball of his. Greene regularly sits in the upper-90s and touches triple digits with regularity. I’m not talking about just 100 either. Greene has been clocked at 101, 102, 103, even as high as 104. This is an easy double-plus fastball that Greene fires in with clean mechanics and insane arm speed. There’s really no extra effort in this delivery which makes this velocity even more impressive. Offsetting the fastball is a plus mid-80’s slider with sharp two-plane break and an above-average mid to upper-80s changeup with solid fade and sink. He’s also mixed in a curveball or cutter from time to time in his career, but it’s likely going to be the aforementioned trio that sticks long-term.
On top of all of that filth, Greene has exhibited above-average command and the control could be above-average as well. After the time away, I figured it would take Greene a bit of time to shake the rust off and get back into a groove. Boy, was I wrong. The fact that he’s dominated from the get-go and appears to be getting stronger and more comfortable in each outing is a scary thought for opposing hitters. Now up in Triple-A, there’s a chance we see Greene in Cincinnati later this season, but I’m still penciling him in for an early-2022 debut. Greene has frontline starter and fantasy stuff written all over him.
Media Credit: Washington Nationals, Joe Drake, Joshua Sarner/Icon Sportswire, Rob Friedman, Josh Norris
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