Happy Birthday me. I’ll be celebrating my 36th birthday today by not watching baseball. This isn’t the first year where the Minor League Baseball season was set to begin on my birthday, and in the past I’ve spent more than a few birthdays at a ballpark watching a game. But this year things are different – I couldn’t go watch a game even if I wanted to.
Every season is a big season for someone. The players change every year, but each season there’s always someone, or someones, who are looked at as the guys who may have been the ones where it just felt like this year could be very important for their careers. Usually we get to see how things go in spring training for a lot of guys before we get to throw down some names, but there weren’t any minor league games this year in spring training.
There were some big league spring training games, though. And there were three guys that were in big league camp with the Cincinnati Reds this year who may very well have fit the bill of players who could have used 2020 (and that’s not to say that they still can’t – but it’s going to be a lot different even if they can) to possibly springboard their careers to a different level.
While two of the players that stood out in spring training were top five prospects within the farm system, the guy I’d like to talk about first wasn’t in the Top 25 on my list coming into the year (and was rated #22 over at Baseball America) – Tejay Antone. Entering spring training he was a guy to keep an eye on because there were some things to like in his game. He threw strikes, had big time ground ball rates, and had a pair of good breaking balls. Back in November when writing about guys that Cincinnati could protect from the Rule 5 draft, I noted that while he had started in the past, that a future in the bullpen could be a good role where maybe his fastball plays up some and the offspeed could work well.
There wasn’t a lot of action in the short period of spring training games before the Reds made their first set of roster moves right before things were shut down – but among those moves was optioning Tejay Antone to the minors. He had been successful in the numbers department, allowing just one run in 6.1 innings on four hits, two walks, and picking up five strikeouts along the way. The numbers were nice, but that wasn’t the story. The story was that he had gone from throwing in the 89-92 MPH range last season, to sitting 96-97 in spring training, and touching 98. Shorter outings in the spring, of course, but that’s a very big jump.
Taking that new velocity and throwing in good secondary stuff, big ground ball rates, and a good profile in the past for an ability to throw a lot of strikes? I won’t speak for everyone, but that’s the kind of player that I’m excited to see what happens with. And at least for right now, we don’t get to see that this week as the Louisville Bats would have been taking on the Columbus Clippers over the first four days of the season (two and two between the two cities).
The likely battery mate for Antone to begin the year, Tyler Stephenson, also showed off during spring training. Coming into spring training, Stephenson was the Reds #3 prospect on the list here at RedsMinorLeagues.com and he lived up to the bill on the field. The catcher would get into 12 games for the Reds this spring and hit .375/.500/.750 with three doubles, a home run, four walks, and just one strikeout. It’s always a questionable thing to put much stock into spring training stats, for many reasons, but we can say that Stephenson hit the snot out of the ball and that’s never a bad thing.
Last season saw the now 23-year-old catcher spent the whole year in Double-A Chattanooga. With the Lookouts he hit .285/.372/.410 before heading to the Arizona Fall League following the regular season. With Glendale he hit .353/.421/.549 with seven doubles and a home run (these stats include his performance in the AFL Fall Stars Game). In his 51 plate appearances in Arizona he had five walks and just seven strikeouts.
Like Antone, Stephenson was added to the 40-man roster this past offseason. And like Antone, there wasn’t a direct and clear spot for him in the big leagues. At the catcher position the Reds were set to begin the year with Tucker Barnhart and Curt Casali. But catchers rarely make it a full season without spending time on the injured list – by nature, these guys just take a physical beating. There’s a reason they wear all of that padding and a face mask and a helmet. That likely meant that Stephenson was going to make his debut in 2020 at some point if we were looking at a normal season.
While he’s shown improvements while staying healthy and on the field over the last few seasons, Tyler Stephenson had barely been scratching the surface in the power output department. Having already shown a good ability to hit for average in his career, seeing the continued progression in the power aspect of his game was something that I was looking forward to seeing in 2020 at the Triple-A level.
And then there’s Jose Garcia, the organizations 4th rated prospect. While at the end of the day he didn’t have the kind of spring from a statistical standpoint that Stephenson did, he got more attention. Part of that was due to the fact that he clubbed four home runs, with two of them coming in the same game early on. That really got people talking and really got people excited. In his 13 games played he hit .269/.300/.769 with one walk and three strikeouts to go with his four homers and a double.
That comes on top of season with the Advanced-A Daytona Tortugas where despite playing in just 104 games, the shortstop led the league in doubles with 37. He also added a triple and eight home runs while hitting .280/.343/.436 – good for a 130 OPS+. Unlike the other two guys we’ve talked about, Garcia didn’t spend any time in the upper minor leagues last season. But as a shortstop, he also could potentially fill a very important need for the organization starting in 2021 as Freddy Galvis will be a free agent following the season.
The performance since the start of last season for Jose Garcia combined with the fact that he could fill a very important need made for all of the reasons you’d ever want to add him to a list of guys who had a big season in front of them.