“I’m stupid, you’re smart. I was wrong, you were right. You’re the best, I’m the worst. You’re very good looking, I’m not attractive.” – those words from Happy Gilmore to Chubbs Peterson describe how I feel today about Cincinnati Reds pitcher Tejay Antone when it comes to where he is currently ranked on the teams prospect lists.
Following the 2019 Minor League Baseball season I set out to rank the Cincinnati Reds Top 25 Prospects. In the conversation for one of the last spots on the list was right-handed pitcher Tejay Antone. If you’ve seen him pitch in the big leagues in the last two weeks you are probably asking yourself how that guy was only in the conversation for a spot at the back end of the list.
You’re right in asking that question. But there’s a lot to it, so let’s talk about what went into the decision then, what went into the decision when the list was updated after the draft, and then about where he would rank today.
In the 2019 season Tejay Antone was throwing his fastball in the 89-92 range and touching a little bit higher. The pitch had good movement on both planes, but the velocity was below-average. When the year started his secondary stuff was solid across the board, but as the season progressed his slider kept getting better and by the end of the year he was throwing one of the more effective sliders in all of the minors according to some Trackman metrics and results data. The pitch had gone from a solid one to a potentially plus one.
While the progress of the slider was outstanding to see, and he continued to generate grounders at a high rate, there was some questions about what exactly his role would be in the future. He had that 5th starter/swingman reliever kind of look, with some wondering if the fastball velocity could pick up in a relief role to make him an effective 7th inning guy. There’s nothing at all wrong with that profile, but for a 25-year-old, it was a limiting profile, too. He looked like a guy who was going to make the big leagues, but the upside wasn’t very high – or so it didn’t appear to be based on the current stuff. For the last spot on the Top 25 I chose to go with a player with a little more upside, though a lower floor, leaving Antone unranked in November of 2019.
The Reds liked what they saw from Tejay Antone in 2019 and rather than risk another team selecting him in the Rule 5 draft they added him to the 40-man roster in November. That meant that Antone would get automatically invited to spring training as a player that was on the roster. During the offseason, Antone was quietly (at least to the public) working his proverbial butt off, and when the spring rolled around the hard work paid off in a big way.
After throwing 89-92 last season as a starter, when Tejay Antone began throwing in games during spring training he was sitting 96-98 MPH in 1-inning stints during his first two appearances. That’s when the big red flashing light starts going off that something’s up and you need to pay attention. Unfortunately the world began shutting down shortly thereafter and paying attention wasn’t possible as there were no games happening and everyone was basically back at home trying to do the best that they could to stay on the ready for if and when the game could return.
It would be three-and-a-half months before that time would come. After fighting over money and safety concerns, baseball was back to “spring training 2.0” or as they sold the name rights to it: Summer Camp. At first the players were just working out together and catching up on things after months of not playing. In June the Major League Baseball draft took place, adding six new players to the farm system. Before games began at the Major League level, I updated the Reds Top 25 Prospects list for the “midseason”, which I do at the same point every year – once the draft pick signing deadline has passed and or once the prospects that would be considered for the list have all signed. It wasn’t until the second week of July that everyone had signed, delaying the update until July 13th.
It was at that point that I went ahead and added Tejay Antone to the list at #15. The reason he jumped up so high onto the list from being unranked previously was the big jump in his velocity. But the reason he didn’t go any higher was that he hadn’t yet shown, at least to the rest of the world, that his velocity could remain high over stretches of more than an inning because that was all the opportunity he had to throw during the spring. From my perspective, his ceiling as a reliever went way up, and his ceiling as a starter went up slightly – but I wanted to be able to see where the velocity was at over more than 15-20 pitches before going “all-in”.
Then it was time for regular season baseball, and at first Tejay Antone wasn’t on the Reds roster. That didn’t last very long as he was called up on the second day of the season. It would be another few days before he took the mound, but on July 27th he came on in relief of Wade Miley and threw 4.1 innings in the game. The velocity? Well, he wasn’t sitting 96-98, but he wasn’t that far off, either, averaging 95.4 MPH on the day and hitting 98. On Wednesday night he would make his first big league start, and once again he allowed a run in 4.1 innings. Much like his first time out, he averaged just over 95 MPH with his fastball (95.1) and touched 97 a few times in the game.
While we are still dealing with a smaller sample size of just two big league games and less than a whole nine innings of information, it’s clear that Tejay Antone is a very different pitcher today than he was in November of 2019 when the 2020 Cincinnati Reds prospect rankings came out that had him just outside of the Top 25. We knew things were different on that front back in March. Now that we’ve had a chance to see him, even with it being limited to just two outings of 4.1 innings each, of Antone average 95+ and touch 97-98, it’s clear that he’s also a bit different today than we knew – or at least should have felt confident in knowing – about in March, or even July when the list was last updated.
Not that I am going to go through the process of updating the rankings to reflect this change, but if I were to create new rankings today, Tejay Antone would certainly move up from his current stop at #15 on the list. The question becomes how high does he jump up the list?
When you take a look at the starting pitchers ahead of him there are only four of them. He’s not going to jump ahead of Hunter Greene or Nick Lodolo, who are the #1 and #2 prospects in the organization. Then there’s Tony Santillan at #6 and Christina Roa at #9. From a pure stuff perspective, right now he’s ahead of Roa. He’s also a lot older than Roa is, but the floor is significantly higher because he’s already here, and the ceiling isn’t exactly lower unless you’re looking at long-term career value because of the age difference.
With Santillan things get a bit tougher. The Tony Santillan that pitched in 2018 would be rated ahead of the current version of Tejay Antone. But that version of Santillan didn’t show up much in 2019 as he battled a few different injuries that saw his stuff and control both take a step backwards. As a result, Santillan saw his stock fall a little bit, too. When he’s been at his best, he’s been a mid-90’s fastball guy who could touch 98 while flashing a plus breaking ball and a plus change up.
So the question is more of a “do we think that Tony Santillan can get back to his 2018 version” or was that season more of the outlier to the pitcher who has always shown good stuff, but struggled to throw strikes with consistency in the other years of his career? Without seeing him pitch every day in 2020, that’s really impossible to know. He’s over at Prasco Park as a member of the 40-man roster, but there’s still a big difference between pitching there and pitching in competitive game environments.
Maybe this is taking a bit of a cop out, but exactly where Tejay Antone would fall on the list is somewhere after Austin Hendrick, who is rated 5th in the system, and before Stuart Fairchild who is rated 8th. Whether that’s before Tony Santillan, after Jonathan India at #7, or between them can be debated a little bit.
In the end, it’s another big jump up the list for Tejay Antone. And with how things have played out for both Antone, and for baseball in 2020, the limited scope of what we’ve been able to see in action, but also the big changes that he’s made in the last 10 months since last season ended, have made it rather difficult to have a good grasp on where to rank him.