Tuesday was a good day on the backfields for someone like myself who was looking to get eyes on as many new players as possible. The AZL/Billings group played a game against themselves and I had a chance to see about 10 guys I had never seen in person before play in an actual game situation. The Dayton group had a few pitchers and several position players that I was seeing in person for the first time as well. Today though, I wanted to focus on three guys in particular, all from the Dayton group, that jumped out: Pitchers Jose Lopez and Ariel Hernandez, and outfielder Narciso Crook.
I wrote about the outfielder five weeks ago in the Top Prospects series and he was just outside of the rankings. If you’ve read anything I’ve written on Crook before you know that he’s got plenty of tools but that he’s a bit raw in his plate approach and how often he can use the tools at the plate. Last season he walked just 15 times and had 103 strikeouts – a ratio that simply won’t work for a successful hitter. As the season in 2015 progressed, his ratio of strikeouts to walks did improve, going from 58-to-6 in the first three months of the year to 45-to-9 in the last two. Neither is strong, but there was some improvement and it led to better hitting numbers overall as well, posting a .747 OPS compared to a .573 OPS in the first three months.
While it’s only been two games this spring, what I’ve seen from the 20-year-old outfielder has been impressive. He hits the ball very hard, which I already knew from watching him play last season. But what has stood out is his ability to recognize offspeed stuff better this spring. He’s stayed back, adjusting to and then hitting offspeed stuff that he would have swung through or made weak contact on last season. If Crook is able to improve his pitch recognition and draw more walks/cut down on the strikeouts, the tools at the plate are going to begin to play up to their raw scouting grades and he could put up some strong offensive numbers. He could be the breakout prospect of the year if the ability to adjust to offspeed pitches he’s shown over the last two days carries forward with him this season.
Entering this season I have Jose Lopez ranked as the Cincinnati Reds 19th best prospect (in the article linked he’s list as 16th, but was bumped down after some trades were made), so I obviously had liked what I had seen on video and had good reports. Yesterday though, was the first time I had a chance to see him in person and it was a good showing.
He was working in the low 90’s with his fastball on the day, showing good armside run with the pitch. It also showed some sinking action at times. He mostly worked with his breaking ball as his second offering and it showed itself as an average pitch most of the game, but flashed an above-average one a time or two as well.
The Reds picked up Ariel Hernandez in the Triple-A phase of the Rule 5 draft this past offseason. He was originally signed by the Giants and spent parts of five seasons in the Dominican Summer League or Arizona League – and it wasn’t pretty. He didn’t pitch in 2014 and began the 2015 season pitching in the Frontier League (independent baseball) before signing on with the Diamondbacks, pitching in their short-season Hillsboro bullpen where he posted a 6.04 ERA in 22.1 innings with 21 walks and 32 strikeouts.
I was watching the Daytona game, but saw that a new pitcher was entering the Dragons game and I couldn’t quite see who it was so I walked over to the field and saw the last name Hernandez on the jersey. It wasn’t a name that I recognized, so I began to watch him warm up. After two pitches I found someone to ask who it was. Then the inning started. Explosive fastball. Nasty breaking ball. 95 MPH. 95 MPH. 97 MPH. Nasty breaking ball. It was unexpected, and incredibly impressive to see.
He just turned 24-years-old and he’s never thrown a pitch in full season ball, struggling mightily to throw strikes throughout his career. The odds suggest that guys like this don’t ever figure it out (he had 21 walks, two hit batters and 11 wild pitches in 22.1 innings in 2015 at the rookie ball level). With that said, his arm is as impressive as I’ve seen this year in terms of pure stuff. Despite the poor numbers throughout his career, you can certainly understand why the Reds picked him up in the offseason. Watch the video to see what he’s got – and just note that the noise made was not from me, but from a scout who was watching the game beside me.