By Benjamin Chase
The minor league baseball season began a few days ahead of the Major League Baseball season, which means we have three full weeks of play and many players are establishing themselves as players to watch in 2022.
Let’s take a look at a pitcher and a hitter at each level that has started the season well with underlying indicators that the early performance could be sustainable. One caveat - no player mentioned here was on a top 100 for MLB Pipeline, Baseball America, or Baseball Prospectus before the 2022 season. (All statistics mentioned through Tuesday, April 26)
Hitter: Cal Mitchell, Indianapolis
Mitchell was a second-round pick by the Pittsburgh Pirates out of high school in 2017, and he’s progressed up the Pirates system with plenty of tantalizing athleticism, but never quite putting it all together. He’s opened the season with a 160 wRC+, posting a walk rate of 11.3% and a strikeout rate of 12.9% while flashing power and speed. There will certainly be openings on the Pirates roster as the season moves along, so Mitchell should get a chance to show himself as the season moves along.
Pitcher: Jon Heasley, Omaha
The Kansas City Royals over the last three years have drafted college pitching heavily, and Heasley was an example of that, being selected out of Oklahoma State in the 13th round in 2018. He’s the type of pitcher who simply wants the ball on the mound and that “bulldog” mentality has pushed him ahead of many others who were drafted higher. Heasley works with a heavy mid-90s fastball and a curve that falls off the table, generating plenty of ground ball outs. When he is really going strong, you see it in a high rate of contact going to the opposite field due to hitters not picking up the ball well out of his hand, and his 39% opposite-field contact rate is the highest of his pro career at this point.
Hitter: Jacob Amaya, Tulsa
The Los Angeles Dodgers have a knack for taking an unheralded prospect and turning that player into a productive major leaguer. Amaya may be the latest in that mold. He was an 11th-round selection in 2017 out of high school that has progressed slowly through the system. Amaya is a high-intelligence player on the field both at the plate and in the field with excellent defense around the infield. He’s worked to tap into above-average raw power while not sacrificing contact, and he’s threaded that needle this season, as evidenced by nine of his 15 hits going for extra bases, but also more extra-base hits than strikeouts on the season.
Pitcher: Brandon Walter, Portland
Walter had Tommy John surgery in his time at Delaware in college, and that hurt his draft stock, falling to the Boston Red Sox in the 26th round in the 2019 draft. He was still completing his rehab during the pandemic year and worked hard in that time, with the results evident as Walter was a completely different pitcher in 2021. Stepping up to the upper minors has not shifted his success as Walter leads all of Double-A in FIP to open the season, showing extreme control that was his calling card in college but now featuring a hard sinker that comes in 93-95 MPH and pairs with a sweeping slider and a changeup.
Hitter: Masyn Winn, Peoria
Winn was a legitimate top prospect in the 2020 draft as a hitter or a pitcher, and when the St. Louis Cardinals drafted him in the second round, they initially announced him at both positions. Winn has played shortstop only as a pro, however, and many evaluators saw his skills as quite raw at the position and the plate, expecting him to take some time to grow into his raw tools. That growth happened quickly as Winn lept forward this season in his ability to make strong contact, and it’s resulted in a drop in his ground ball hit rate from 50% to 35% while also reducing his strikeout rate from 26% in 2021 to 14% this season.
Pitcher: Braden Olthoff, Tri-City
With the Los Angeles Angels investing their entire 2021 draft in pitching, there would certainly be some guys in that draft class that didn’t pan out, but the Angels were hoping for a number of arms to step forward ahead of their draft slot. To this point, Olthoff has shown to be one of those. He’s a “weird delivery” type that many scouts worry about, but he repeats the delivery well and doesn’t tax his arm with his abnormal motion, and the oddity makes his stuff hard for hitters to pick up. At the same time, he pounds the strike zone with an elite slider that he throws most of the time and a low-90s fastball that seems much faster to hitters. Olthoff may end up best used in a bullpen role, but to this point, he’s handled multiple times through the lineup well.
Augusta GreenJackets @GreenJacketsRoyber Salinas seems to have a knack for striking out his opponents. All of the 12 outs he recorded on Tuesday were punch-outs! He's averaging a cool 16.9 K/9 innings through 4 starts this season🤯🤯 He was today's IT Guy of the Game presented @PremierNetworx
Hitter: Emmanuel Rodriguez/Kyler Fedko, Fort Myers
Looking at the Single-A leaderboard for wRC+ will show two members of the Fort Myers Mighty Mussels, and the two could not be any more different. Rodriguez was a top-rated international signing by the Minnesota Twins with extremely high-level baseball “feel” and plenty of raw skills as well. Those raw skills have exploded already, and my personal opinion is that Rodriguez could end up the Twins’ top-rated prospect by season’s end. Fedko is a guy that the Twins drafted in the 12th round in 2021 out of the University of Connecticut with the scouting report that he would need to hit as his athletic ability would not push him forward as a prospect. He definitely has hit in 2022, one of the more consistent hitters in Single-A this season so far, failing to reach base only in the Mighty Mussels’ opening game but reaching base in every other game he’s played, including reaching base multiple times in 12 of 15 games through Tuesday.
Pitcher: Royber Salinas, Augusta
The Atlanta Braves have had success producing pitchers in the last decade, but typically not flame-throwers. Salinas is the rare Braves arm that is built around power. He works with a fastball that touches triple digits and a hard slider, with a curve that he doesn’t use a lot. Control has been Salinas’ issue so far, and that showed up in his most recent start, but Salinas has struck out 10+ hitters in three of four starts this season, leading all of the minor leagues with 43 strikeouts.
Benjamin Chase is a newspaper reporter in small-town South Dakota who loves writing about baseball, especially prospects and the minor leagues. He has written or edited for multiple FanSided websites, Prospects Live, Baseball Farm, and now does most of work with his own site videobaseballscout.com. You can find him on Twitter @biggentleben.