Big Hype Prospects: Rojas, McLain, Davis, Davis, Priester

This week on Big Hype Prospects, we pretend the offseason isn’t looming over us whilst we ponder prospects on the way to the Arizona Fall League. The AFL kicks off on October 3. We’ll aim to focus on players who weren’t thoroughly covered in previous episodes of BHP, i.e. Cardinals third baseman Jordan Walker. He happens to be the top-rated prospect tabbed to play in Arizona this fall.

Five Big Hype Prospects

Johan Rojas, 21, OF, PHI (AA)
264 PA, 4 HR, 29 SB, .260/.333/.387

After an icy start to the season in High-A where he hit a meager .230/.287/.325 in 292 plate appearances (3 HR, 33 SB), Rojas got his act in gear and earned a promotion to Double-A where he produced an exactly league-average batting line. A source theorized he was striving to produce home-run power, and it backfired. Prior to the season, Rojas cited Ronald Acuna Jr. as his aspirational goal. One could see how such a lofty target might lead a prospect to struggle.

Rojas is best known for his elite defense and speed. This season, he swiped a total of 62 bases in 67 attempts and only 556 plate appearances. With new baserunning rules coming into effect, Rojas profiles to be among the league leaders in stolen bases over the next half-decade. Although he’s not as strikeout prone as Adalberto Mondesi, he might prove frustratingly similar. He can deliver surprisingly potent exit velocities, but he mostly makes modest contact due to poor discipline and off-balance swings. Without a breakthrough, he profiles as an above-average centerfielder who hits something like .240/.290/.350 and makes up for it on defense and the basepaths.

Rojas is Rule 5 eligible this winter and will certainly be added to the roster.

Matt McLain, 22, SS, CIN (AA)
452 PA, 17 HR, 27 SB, .232/.363/.453

McLain is a well-regarded prospect in scouting circles, but he can get a bit lost in a system that also boasts the inimitable Elly De La Cruz and Noelvi Marte up the middle. Entering the season, he was regarded as a bat-first future second baseman whose lack of power could lead to a utility role. It appears he attempted to sell out for power this season with modest effect. He hit 17 home runs and more flies than grounders – a good foundation for a player who will call Great American Smallpark his home venue. Unfortunately, he also posted a 28.1 percent strikeout rate – unsightly for a player whom scouts believe has a 60-grade hit tool. Discipline could play a role here as well. He walked in 15.5 percent of plate appearances, a sign of borderline passivity.

Optimists might note that Gunnar Henderson had similar characteristics last season. He made better swing decisions in 2022 en route to number one prospect status. McLain doesn’t have the same raw tools as Henderson, but he could seek to follow the same roadmap from Double-A to the Majors.

Henry Davis, 22, C, PIT (AAA)
(AA) 136 PA, 4 HR, 3 SB, .207/.324/.379

Davis only managed 255 plate appearances across four levels due to a left wrist fracture. That’s not an auspicious form of injury for a player whose defensive prowess is actively questioned. All aspects of his defensive profile need improvement. The profile has a vaguely Gary Sanchez-like feel – both for defensive reasons and because light-tower power is his carrying trait. Unlike Sanchez, Davis has plenty of feel for contact and could probably comfortably profile as a first baseman. The Fall League will give him an opportunity to catch up on lost reps.

The Pirates have interesting questions to answer in the next two seasons. Both Davis and Endy Rodriguez (featured last week) profile as offensive catchers who might fit better at another position. Rodriguez appears to be the better defensive catcher and is slightly ahead developmentally so Davis might find himself used more like Daulton Varsho – a guy who can catch in a pinch but typically fields another position.

Brennen Davis, 22, OF, CHC (AAA)
174 PA, 4 HR, .191/.322/.319

Davis suffered a lost season of sorts, making only 204 plate appearances across three levels. On the whole, he struggled mightily. He missed three months with an unusual back injury – a blood vessel deformity that led to debilitating pain. The issue was corrected surgically. Davis will seek to recover his 2021 form which included excellent production in High-A, Double-A, and Triple-A. Given the nature of his injury, it’s premature to adjust his status as a prospect until we can learn more about his recovery. He has swing-and-miss issues which could limit his production – especially if the injury has sapped his athleticism. Scouting reports tend to focus on the many adjustments he has ahead of him while noting his previous success with making similar adjustments.

Quinn Priester, 21, SP, PIT (AAA)
AA: 75.1 IP, 8.96 K/9, 2.63 BB/9, 2.87 ERA

Although he finished the year in Triple-A, Priester spent the bulk of his campaign at Double-A where he performed well. An oblique injury limited him to only 90.1 innings on the season. For that reason, he’ll attend the AFL. Typically, top pitching prospects only join an Arizona roster if they need to make up for lost innings.

Priester is trending towards a 2023 debut. He’s credited with an impressive curveball and three useful variants of fastball. The repertoire as a whole doesn’t tunnel well which is likely to hold him back from future acedom. However, his ability to miss bats and induce weakly hit ground-ball contact could make up for his shortcomings. Only recently have developmental processes put so much emphasis on pitch tunneling. Plenty of pitchers succeeded in the past (and today) despite a relative lack of tunneling. That said, there’s anecdotal evidence that pitchers without tunneled repertoires take longer to adjust to the Majors.

Five More

Andy Pages, LAD (21): The Dodgers are adept at putting their prospects in positions to succeed, so I often find myself skeptical of their top-rated players. Pages has posted remarkable power output throughout his rise through the minors, but his extreme pulled, fly ball approach could render him a one-dimensional threat. He was a roughly league-average hitter as a 21-year-old at Double-A.

Nick Gonzales (24): Gonzales remains a bit of an enigma. He passes all the eye tests, but his statistical performances leave much to be desired. As a 23-year-old at Double-A, he hit .263/.383/.429 with only seven home runs and five steals in 316 plate appearances. He struggled to make contact with a 16.0 percent swinging strike rate and 28.5 percent strikeout rate. Minor adjustments could unlock major results.

Jackson Merrill, SDP (19): A 2021 first-rounder, Merrill will be one of the youngest players in the AFL. The 19-year-old had an encouraging debut in Low-A, batting .325/.387/.482 in 219 plate appearances. There are questions about his ability to handle high heat or ever generate much power – both of which are probably premature for a player this young.

Zack Gelof, OAK (22): Another 2022 draftee, Gelof got a brief taste of Triple-A last season then spent most of this season in Double-A where he posted an ordinary .271/.356/.438 triple-slash (105 wRC+). Gelof looks the part of a future big league, possibly a second-division starter.

Warming Bernabel, COL (20): Bernabel earned a promotion to High-A late in the season and saw his plate discipline erode (1.8 percent walk rate). Otherwise, he performed ably with a .305/.315/.486 triple-slash in 109 plate appearances. He had more well-rounded success in Low-A where he hit .317/.390/.504 with 10 home runs and 21 triples in 300 plate appearances. At this stage of his career, Bernabel is considered too aggressive to thrive in the Majors, though he does seem to have a knack for squaring up the baseball – even outside of the strike zone.

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