April 8, 2014 at 8:30 AM
Position in a Nutshell: In the middle tier of the system, there is one stud above everyone else, with a few intriguing arms to compliment him.
Why the conservative assignments? Had this edition of the System Restart run before the start of the season, a number of the pitchers highlighted herein would have been projected to start at higher levels, including Brian Johnson, Cody Kukuk, and Pat Light, as well as younger pitchers Trey Ball and Ty Buttrey. It looks like the organization wants a few of these players to get off to solid starts to the year, earn their way to the next level, and if all goes well, set the stage for a series of early promotions. Do not be surprised if the starting rotations for Portland, Salem, and Greenville look entirely different come June. That said, some players—Corey Littrell and Simon Mercedes, who both skipped over Greenville, come to mind—have been handed challenging assignments, so this really is the cumulative result of the team taking things on a case-by-case basis, rather than an organizational philosophy. (As for Buttrey and Ball, more on them later this week.)
Who to Watch
Top Prospect: Henry Owens, Assignment: Portland – There is not much to say about Owens (pictured, above) that hasn’t been said already. Owens knows how to pitch, and more importantly, he gets outs. While his fastball velocity does not stand out, a combination of his length and deception allow the pitch to play up and elicit poor swings from hitters. When you combine that with two potential solid-average-to-plus secondary offerings, you have the makings of a solid big league starter. Owens is back in Portland to start the year and is already off to a flying start, throwing six no-hit innings in his debut with nine strikeouts. If he continues to have anywhere close to that level of success, he will be short for the level and pushing for a promotion to Pawtucket.
Stock Rising: Simon Mercedes, Assignment: Salem – In Lowell last year, Mercedes showed potential, but he was inconsistent in his first full season in the organization. This offseason, Mercedes took major strides forward, showing an improved arsenal and velocity. Last year with Lowell, Mercedes sat in the low-90s, topping out at 95 mph. This spring while on the backfields, we heard that he was sitting in the mid-90s and topped out at 100 mph during an outing against the Orioles. Mercedes’ secondary pitches also took strides coming into this year, and he now possesses two solid offerings, a changeup and curveball, to compliment his fastball. If Mercedes can carry this improved arsenal into the season, he has a chance to quickly rise up the prospect charts and could establish himself near the top of the next wave of arms in the system.
Sleeper: Cody Kukuk, Assignment: Greenville – Kukuk (pictured) struggled last year in Greenville, particularly with his control. In spring training this year, however, Kukuk showed refined mechanics, and much improved control as a result, having not walked a batter as of our trip to Fort Myers. Also, his raw stuff was much better than previous looks. Kukuk’s fastball sat in the low-90s and he touched 95 mph. He mixed in a mid-80s slider that showed swing-and-miss potential and a low-80s changeup. If Kukuk can carry these improvements into the regular season, he should not be long for Greenville and could quickly rise up the prospect rankings.
At a crossroads: Madison Younginer, Assignment: Salem – Entering his fifth season in the organization, this could be a make-or-break year for Younginer. Out of the bullpen, Younginer’s stuff plays up a tick, and and the should alleviate some of the injury concerns caused by his rough mechanics and past injury issues. Younginer’s raw stuff is solid, including a mid-90s fastball, 12-6 curveball and changeup. Younginer does not always finish his delivery, and as a result, his command and control tend to suffer. Refining his command and control, as well as his secondaries, are two key areas Younginer needs to improve upon this year. If he can take strides in these areas, he should push for an in-season promotion to Portland and establish himself as a potential major league relief prospect.
On the Radar
Brian Johnson, Assignment: Salem – Johnson (pictured) put together a solid season last year across Low A and High A, but was limited to only 80 innings because of injuries. Has all the attributes to pitch in a major league rotation, including an advanced, four-pitch arsenal; a smooth delivery; and a starter’s frame.
Miguel Pena, Assignment: Portland – Left-hander does not miss many bats, but throws strikes and has solid stuff. A starter for now, Pena’s future may lie in the bullpen.
Luis Diaz, Assignment: Salem – Good size and solid four-pitch mix, but lacks a true plus offering. Fastball sits in the low-90s, but tends to lose velocity as the game goes on. Could struggle against more advanced hitters.
Pat Light, Assignment: Greenville – 2013 was more or less a lost season because of a hamstring injury that was initially misdiagnosed. Raw stuff and upside are still there, including a mid-90s fastball and slider with solid potential.
Keith Couch, Assignment: Portland – Bounced between the rotation and bullpen last season. Starting the year in the rotation this season, but could move again if Johnson and others are promoted from Salem. Arsenal includes a low-90s fastball, low-80s changeup and breaking ball.
Corey Littrell, Assignment: Salem – 2013 draftee out of Kentucky is skipping Greenville after solid Lowell debut. Strong pitchability and advanced arsenal, but needs to refine command and secondaries.
Kyle Martin, Assignment: Salem – Tall, filled-out righty features a low-90s fastball, changeup and curveball. Martin (pictured) does a good job pitching downhill and eliciting groundballs. Pitched in Greenville last season after a short stop in Lowell, so moving quickly.
Justin Haley, Assignment: Salem – Solid pitcher's frame and deceptive delivery. Has had control issues, but has also shown the ability to miss bats. Will start the season piggybacking, but could step into the rotation easily.
Mike Augliera, Assignment: Portland – Pedestrian arsenal, but throws strikes and shows good pitchability. Still, probably a depth arm who may have trouble until the upper levels. Portland will be a test.
Matt Price, Assignment: Salem (DL) – Right-handed reliever finally got on the field and put together a solid season. Arsenal includes a low-90s fastball that has topped out at 95 mph, and two playable secondary pitches.
See last week’s edition.
Photo Credit: Henry Owens, Simon Mercedes, Cody Kukuk, Brian Johnson, and Kyle Martin by Kelly O'Connor.
Follow Director of Scouting Ian Cundall on Twitter @IanCundall
Follow Executive Editor Chris Hatfield on Twitter @SPChrisHatfield