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Hidden Gems on the Farm: The Bats

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Finding the Overlooked Hitters in the Rangers MiLB System

Surprise Saguaros v. Scottsdale Scorpions Photo by Jennifer Stewart/MLB Photos via Getty Images

Transitioning away from Monday’s look at the farm system’s hurlers, we can now examine one of my favorite types of prospect. These guys are the neglected hitters, whose swings may have a few peculiarities, or they may simply not have a defensive position, or maybe they only have one loud tool. Each of them face substantial obstacles to success at every point of their baseball journey, more so than even their other teammates on the slog through the lower levels of Minor League Baseball. As a brief reminder that even analytics warlocks still have rules to abide by, here’s the regulatory framework for this exercise:

  1. Players must be age 22, or younger, on or before 4 May 2021 (Bye Bye, Big Rig)
  2. Players cannot have previously received an assignment above A+ ball before 2021
  3. Players cannot be listed on MLB Pipeline’s 2021 Rangers Top 30 Prospects List (Keithron Moss, who was once a hidden gem is #28 on MLB Pipeline’s Rangers Top 30)

In a promising crop of young talent, these four dudes stick out as the forgotten diamonds in the rough, in alphabetical order:

Randy Florentino

Signed out of the Dominican Republic in 2017, Florentino is a 20 year-old catcher that will get his first exposure to full season baseball in 2021. In his first professional experience in the Dominican Summer League in 2018, Florentino posted a 179 wRC+, a 1.004 OPS, and managed to walk more than he struck out (53 BB’s to 51 K’s in 249 plate appearances).

In his stateside debut with the Arizona Rookie League Rangers, Florentino didn’t put up the same explosive offensive numbers. But he did manage to keep his head largely above water as an 18 year-old. His BB rate remained solid at 14.7%, while his K rate did not skyrocket, staying relatively tame at 22.9%. The 95 wRC+ along with the .682 OPS Florentino posted in the Arizona Rookie League are more than acceptable given his defensive skills. What Florentino lacks for in physical projection, he makes up for on the defensive side. Here’s just a glimpse of his athleticism behind the plate:

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The first box I look to check with a young catcher is always going to relate to his pop time. This is the time from the ball arriving in the catcher’s mitt to the ball arriving at the glove of the infielder covering the base that’s being stolen. Generally speaking, a 1.95 - 2.0 second pop time is considered average for an MLB catcher. Florentino’s pop time came in at a 1.91 - 1.93, at least to my stopwatch, in the above example. He’ll surely be able to gun down attempted base stealers. With further experience making the throw from home to second in game action, I’m confident Florentino can eventually be a plus defensive catcher.

At just 5’ 11”, Florentino also manages to use his body’s surprisingly long appendages to block pitches well. The only note of concern I have regarding Florentino’s blocking is he sometimes doesn’t shift the center of his body into the empty batter’s box to cover breaking pitches that miss away.

Florentino’s framing is similarly well-regarded. Here, catching Rangers’ prospect Destin Dotson, Florentino brilliantly holds an outside fastball that looks to be just a bit off the plate:

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If he had a better arm, I’d be comfortable slapping a plus-grade (60 FV) on his defense. At present, with his plus framing, blocking, and pop times, the arm drags his defense down an average to slightly above-average grade (50 - 55 FV). Florentino has the skills to succeed behind the plate, and as he matures pitchers will love having the opportunity to throw to him.

The least exciting tool in Florentino’s arsenal is his power. He grades out with potential gap-to-gap power, from a flat, relatively weak swing path. His swing features very little utilization of his core. His hips open too soon, he drops his back shoulder, and extends his arms rather than using his core to power his swing. His elbow also leaks out from his body, wasting much of the rotational leverage he is able to generate in the process. Far from the ideal swing, the part of Florentino’s body that rotates the most before contact is his shoulders:

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Despite the lack of power, Florentino’s quick wrists, barrel control, and pitch recognition skills leave him with an average grade (50 FV) on his hit tool, according to Fangraphs. I’m sure the Rangers’ development staff has highlighted Florentino as a candidate for “the ball in the back arm drill,” which could greatly help to resolve his swing’s inefficiency issues.

At present, Florentino’s swing won’t generate much pop, but he’ll get on frequently enough with his walk rate and contact skills to be a serviceable catcher at the lower-levels of Minor League Baseball. He’s wasting a solid amount of force that he primes well with the leg kick, so I could see below-average (40 FV) power developing in his future.

Florentino’s development could follow a similar path to former Rangers prospect, and now Brewers catcher Manny Piña. While, I wouldn’t say Florentino’s expected outcome is to become Piña, there are quite a few similarities in their respective games.

As Baseball Prospectus’ Jarret Seidler notes, a 75th percentile outcome is “a higher outcome than likely...and in saying that we think there’s about a 25 percent chance for [that outcome], we’re also saying there’s above a 50 percent chance [that outcome is not reached.]” I’d peg Florentino’s 75th percentile outcome to a path resembling Manny Piña’s. In terms of the most superficial of similarities, here’s their stat lines from the Arizona Rookie League: (.AVG / .OBP / .SLG / .OPS)

Piña (2005): .247 / .356 / .306 / .662 (203 innings at C, 7 Errors, 35% CS rate)

Florentino (2019): .243 / .353 / .329 / .682 (224 innings at C, 6 Errors, 27% CS rate)

Thomas Saggese

Tepid Participation, LSB’s resident prospect guru, hinted at this name earlier this week, when commenting:

One more to dream on! I hear Thomas Saggese might be able to hit. Like, really hit. What if the 2020 draft is…good?

I’m here to tell you the 2020 draft is good, and Thomas Saggese can assuredly hit. The ball absolutely jumps off his bat:

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If you’re big on high character players, I would be shocked to find a much better person than Thomas Saggese. He sacrificed his turn on the showcase circuit during his senior year’s baseball season to care for his mother, who, as Jamey Newberg reported for The Athletic, lost her battle with breast cancer shortly before Saggese’s senior season was cut to just 7 games because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Saggese’s confronted an incredible amount of adversity, and he keeps coming back to the game he loves. The praise for his impeccable character is well-deserved, with Newberg saying:

One of the scouts directly involved with the pre-draft evaluation calls Saggese “by far the best human being I’ve ever signed

Saggese showed up for 2020’s instructs at 5’ 11” and 175 lbs. He carries the weight quite evenly across his body, with long limbs that could accommodate another 20 lbs. easily. His body’s projectability remains a positive quality, and I’d expect him to add further power as he continues to physically mature.

The defense is solid, but not great. He likely won’t stick at shortstop over the long-term due to a below-average arm. A transition over to second base would fit Saggese’s skillset perfectly, as you’ll see below from a video sourced via Prospect Pipeline’s YouTube page:

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His defensive movements show solid footwork, a quick transfer, a keen ability to adjust to grounders that take an odd bounce, and all around fluid movements. The only slight concern is it takes him a while to load up his arm to put some juice into his throws. That can be quickly alleviated by the move to second base, which I’d anticipate comes when Saggese eventually assumes a role in full-season ball. I have no qualms grading his future second base defense as above-average.

To transition back towards Saggese’s swing, this is a great basis for him to build on.

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His leg kick drives his swing’s timing, and he brings the foot down to establish the firm base I’ve covered extensively in previous pieces. His front hip opens up a little earlier than I’d like, but that can be worked out through repetition in training and exposure to quality stuff from opposing pitchers, which will force him to stay back if he doesn't want to get exposed by breaking or off-speed pitches.

Saggese’s back shoulder and back knee align well, indicating the balance in his swing. In sum, it’s a short stroke that’s going to make loud contact. Especially given Saggese’s barrel control skills. Saggese also controls the bat plane well through the zone, ensuring that he’s generating lift at the point of contact. Newberg reported excited Rangers’ personnel throwing down the Ian Kinsler comp, which would be Saggese’s absolute ceiling.

At this point, Saggese doesn’t have enough game action for me to be comfortable throwing a realistic outcome on him, but as he continues to develop, he could easily garner the same buzz that’s going to come Dylan MacLean’s way. I’d expect a decent batting average to go along with a high slugging percentage for Saggese in the Arizona Rookie League. We should all be excited to see Sagesse, the Rangers’ 5th rounder from the 2020 draft class develop over the coming years.

Marcus Smith

Upon first look at Smith, my immediate reaction was: “oh no, he’s Eric Jenkins.” For those of you who were on LSB in 2015 and 2016, you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about. They’re both short, stocky players with blazing speed, plus defense, and flat swings. When compared against Jenkins, whose star quickly faded when scouts realized he couldn’t hit, Smith’s hit tool has garnered solid reviews.

Fangraphs’ lead prospect analyst, Eric Longenhagen, summed up Smith as a “plus-plus runner with advanced feel for contact.” While Marcus Smith surely won’t be on most radars to begin 2021, if he continues the momentum he ended 2019 with, he could easily move beyond his current 40 FV profile. Smith’s 156 wRC+ in his first exposure to professional baseball was great, as was his .361 / .466 / .443 triple slash, good for a .909 OPS.

However, the stat line was unsustainable. A .507 BABIP (batting average on balls in play), along with a .082 ISO (Isolated Power) show his offensive profile is far below what he produced in 2019. The swing won’t produce much power, but there’s definitely some components deserving of praise. As seen here:

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Smith’s barrel control is excellent, as he guides the bat through the zone towards the point of contact. Similar to Florentino, there’s not much in the way of substantial rotation hip/core rotation. This leaves his swing currently lacking any semblance of real power. He cuts down at the ball, frequently generating ground balls and low launch angle line drives. On the bright side, Longenhagen complimented Smith’s pitch recognition skills, and also noted that if he can generate a modicum of gap power, Smith could be a serviceable leadoff hitter. As we can see here, the A’s clearly had him working to try to generate some lift on the ball:

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From his facial expression, and the four letter word that appears to pass through his lips, Smith knows he missed a good pitch to hit. He did a good job there of bringing the barrel up towards the ball, but his reliance on his hands guided the bat too far under the ball, resulting in the foul ball.

The swing he featured with Oakland’s Arizona Rookie League team had a hand hitch, where he rocks his hands back-and-forth before loading. I don’t anticipate this posing significant issues, as it seems to benefit his timing more than it could harm any other component of his swing. We shouldn’t expect much in the way of power, but with 5 - 10 homers Smith would put himself squarely on the prospect radar of most outlets.

He doesn’t have as high a 99th percentile outcome as some of the other guys on this list, but his plus-defense, plus-pitch recognition, and plus-plus speed make him a quality 40 FV guy. Pitch recognition’s arguably the hardest skill to teach in baseball, so starting out with a solid skill there will be a tremendous boon to Smith’s chances to succeed at Down East in 2021.

Bubba Thompson

This last one is almost cheating, with most Rangers’ fans well aware of what Bubba Thompson brings to the table. He remains a high-ceiling prospect featuring a tantalizing set of tools. Selected as the 26th overall pick in the 2017 MLB Draft, Thompson brought above-average defensive skills (great athleticism, plus arm, and solid reads off the bat) along with the potential to hit 20 homers per season.

In his last game action in the Arizona Fall League, Thompson put up what appears to be a relatively paltry .254 / .337 / .394 / .732 (AVG / OBP / SLG / OPS) slash line. However, the average slash line in the 2019 AFL was .235 / .320 / .354 / .674. Thompson, more than a year younger than the average player in the AFL, certainly kept his head above water against what’s typically considered an approximation of competition at the AA level. One of the larger motivations behind putting Thompson on this list was his swing:

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It’s a fine-tuned mechanical stroke, and it’s likely the reason Thompson found himself selected in the first round. He transfers his weight well, establishes a firm front side, and uses the force generated from his core’s axis of rotation to punish the baseball.

On the negative side, the most concerning facet of Thompson’s game has been the absence of development in his hit tool. Injuries to his hamstring and hamate bone have hampered his career, limiting him to just 84 and 57 games in 2018 and 2019, respectively. This lack of in-game experience has limited the development of Thompson’s approach, which leaves something to be desired. He's eager to punish fastballs, but this exposes him to being exploited by off-speed pitches. This flaw is why Thompson’s hit tool routinely receives just a 35 - 40 FV (below-average) grade.

The approach hasn’t seemed to improve from 2017 - 2019, with his K rate failing to improve throughout his time in full season ball (28.7% K in 2018, 31.6% in 2019). His K rate in the AFL was also at 30.1%, so the strikeouts are going to be a reality of his game. The question remains whether he can make enough hard contact to overcome the strikeouts.

Lastly, Thompson’s a plus (60 - 65 FV) runner, and his aggressiveness at the plate also shows up in his baserunning. In what is my favorite clip of his amateur career, we can see Thompson recognize the center fielder is lackadaisically approaching this single. Thompson seizes the opportunity to take the extra bag:

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The tools are clearly there, but the likelihood Thompson ever puts them all together remains in doubt. I love his profile - aggressive player with a high baseball IQ - but I’ll hedge against my confidence in his further development by falling back on his approach’s flaws. I wouldn’t even begin to ponder putting a comp on Bubba Thompson, as the variance in his profile remains so extreme as to make any attempt meaningless. But in assigning him to AA Frisco to begin 2021, the Rangers have matched Thompson’s aggressiveness and I’m excited to see how he handles the most challenging promotion in a player’s MiLB career.

That sums up our hidden gems list for the hitters. If you think I missed any names, or would like to suggest a hidden gem who didn’t meet the rules I arbitrarily put on this exercise (Blaine Crim, Zion Banister, etc.) feel free to throw their name in the comment section. With the depth in the Rangers’ farm, there are plenty of other candidates for hidden gems consideration. The most fun part of this exercise is yet to be had, as we wait to watch and evaluate each of these players’ performances across the various MiLB affiliates.