Deadline Ascenders To Watch, Part 1

It’s always interesting to see how prospects adapt to new levels after they are promoted, and one of the most promotion-heavy parts of the year is the days around the trade deadline. Today, I want to discuss five prospects promoted in that recent vicinity or so who merit close attention as they take on the challenge of succeeding against a higher level of competition. These aren’t necessarily the five most notable prospects to recently move up a level–I have a longer list (not counting Luke Jackson, A.J. Cole, and Josmil Pinto, who I’ve already discussed in recent articles on this site), and I’m tackling five of them this week and others next week.

Marcus Semien, INF, White Sox (AAA)–We’ll start with a player who is a great example of what interesting turns players can take after seeing a promotion. In 2012, Semien hit .273/.362/.471 in High-A Winston-Salem as a 21-year-old–a pretty good line, but one that was inflated by the cozy confines of BB&T Ballpark (.251/.340/.448 on the road), and didn’t feature any one spectacular skill. I saw him several times last year, and “exciting” wasn’t a word that came to mind in describing him–he looked like a potential utility player or good Triple-A guy long-term, with decent contact, decent power, decent discipline, decent athleticism, and decent defense. Decent.

But then Semien was moved up to Double-A–a jump that thwarts a lot of prospects–in 2013, and he transformed his decency into spectacular polish. He more than doubled his already-solid .57 BB/K, taking his walk rate from 11.3% to 17.4% while cutting his strikeouts from 19.9% to 13.7%. He didn’t sacrifice any power in developing this more patient, contact-driven approach, upping his slugging by .012, hitting one more homer in two fewer games, and seeing his Isolated Power fall by just .006. He posted a .290/.420/.483 triple-slash.

Semien doesn’t project as a real above-average defensive shortstop, but I haven’t heard anybody say he can’t hold his own there, and he should be a solid defender at second or third as well–he has experience at all three spots. I wouldn’t expect him to ultimately sustain his absurd K/BB ratio in the big leagues, but it shouldn’t totally collapse either, and Semien’s all-around skillset should make him a fantasy asset at the shortstop position, with double-digit homer ability combined with contact skills, walks, and the occasional stolen base. He’s a fast-rising prospect who could make an impact quite soon.

Rougned Odor, 2B, Rangers (AA)–Speaking of fast-rising prospects, Odor was promoted to Double-A before making it halfway through being 19 years old. It wasn’t a rush job, either–he hit .300/.365/.450 in High-A Myrtle Beach (calling a noted pitcher’s park home) before the promotion.

I did get to see Odor three times this year. Here’s video of everything he did in my viewings:

Odor isn’t quite as polished as Semien is, what with being three years younger and a level lower, but he brings a similar all-around skillset to a key defensive position. He looks shorter than his listed 5’11” and has no trouble making contact within his small strike zone–his K-rates have been between 13% and 16% at every stop in his career. While he’s not a big guy, he has some violence in his swing that allows him to sting the ball into the gaps and occasionally over the fence–it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him become a reliable 10-15 homer weapon a few years down the line. Odor swiped 25 bags in 33 attempts in Myrtle Beach and projects as a moderate threat on the bases at the MLB level. He should be an above-average defensive second baseman, though he probably lacks the arm strength to move across the bag to shortstop, not that he would have the opportunity to do so in an organization that boasts Elvis Andrus, Jurickson Profar, and Luis Sardinas.

Odor’s biggest weakness right now is a lack of walks, as his walk rate has been between 5% and 6% at every stop. It’ll be interesting to see how well he maintains control of the zone as a 19-year-old in Double-A. If he can duplicate or better the approximate 8/3 K/BB ratio he had in Myrtle Beach, then he has to be considered one of the game’s best middle infield prospects entering 2014.

Austin Hedges, C, Padres (AA)–Hedges is touted as the best defensive catcher in the minors, and that superb defensive acumen makes him a near-lock to ascend to a starting catcher position at some point even if his bat slacks off. It’s hard to be disappointed in Hedges’ offense either, really, seeing as he hit .270/.343/.425 in High-A as a 20-year-old. Sure, it’s the Cal League, but the park environments don’t have much to do with Hedges maintaining a solid 45/22 K/BB in 66 games. Between Low-A in 2012 and High-A this year, he swatted 50 doubles in 162 games and should have at least solid gap power to go with the occasional walk and decent contact rates.

Just on his defense alone, Hedges could be a dependable statistical compiler, because he’ll be a catcher you can depend on to stay in the lineup. But there is some offensive upside here too. As always with Cal League guys, we’ll have to hold our breath a bit to see what offensive production was real and what was just Cal League inflation/taking advantage of raw A-ball arms, but if Hedges emerges with a solid offensive statline in Double-A next year, he’ll have to be considered arguably baseball’s top catching prospect. He’s already in the top 5.

Andrew Heaney, LHP, Marlins (AA)–Heaney was drafted ninth overall last year. I managed to see one of his four starts in Low-A Greensboro down the stretch in 2012 and wasn’t overly impressed, as Heaney worked at just 88-92 mph and was hit around some. Reportedly, he gained steam with his stuff right after that viewing, though, touching 97 in his final outing of 2012, and he carried that into 2013, blowing through High-A with a 62/17 K/BB in 56 2/3 innings and a 0.79 ERA (2.64 FIP, but still).

Heaney already had two solid-average offspeed pitches last year, a slurvy curve and a fading change, and with his increased velocity, he’s a three-pitch dynamo. He has an easy motion that shouldn’t impede his ability to throw strikes, and all three of his pitches should work to batters from both sides–see the higher K% vs. RHBs (26.7%) than LHBs (21.2%) that he posted in High-A. As always, we’ll have to see how many of the strikeouts come with him against the advanced bats of Double-A, but Heaney could be a quick mover in a Marlins organization that doesn’t hesitate to promote guys. Frankly, I wouldn’t be shocked to see him break camp in 2014…and hold his own, too.

Braulio Ortiz, RHP, White Sox (A+)–Ortiz may be a bit more off-the-grid than the other four on this list, but he merits inclusion for a few reasons. First, I have a ton of video on him…

…and that’s just the two starts of his that I’ve seen. I’ve seen him in relief several times as well.

Second, Ortiz jumped straight from the DSL to Low-A Kannapolis this year and found a lot of success, with a 3.45 ERA, 3.52 FIP, and most notably, a 27.6% K%.

Third, and just as importantly, Braulio Ortiz is a 6’5″ behemoth with an easy plus fastball. He works at 92-97 mph with a ton of life from a nice, easy motion, and he holds that velocity through six innings.

The size, stamina, delivery, and fastball all suggest Ortiz could be a high-upside starter, but he’s going to need a lot of work to stay in a rotation. His second pitch is a slurvy slider that shows promise when he gets it above 80 mph but tends to just roll when he doesn’t–he’ll throw it anywhere from 75-84, so it’s a very hit-or-miss offering. His third pitch is an 84-88 mph changeup that he never threw as a reliever and only rarely tosses in as a starter, though it occasionally looks solid when he does break it out. Both pitches need a lot of improvement to become the sort of secondary offerings a starter needs.

Ortiz has struggled a lot with walks this year, at 14.6% in Low-A and 14% in his two starts since being promoted to High-A (his most recent start is the second half of the video–it gives you a really nice angle, so I recommend checking it out). While his basic delivery is sound, he struggles with his release point and landing, often overthrowing and struggling to corral his considerable momentum. As such, his control comes and goes with the mechanical consistency.

Of course, even if he can’t maintain consistency as a starter, Ortiz would have considerable upside as a reliever, potentially scraping even higher velocities in shorter bursts. He’s still just a raw kid at this point, but guys with this sort of arm strength don’t come around very often, so he merits close attention to see what sort of control and consistency he can gain. Keep in mind that he’s being asked to get High-A hitters out less than a year after being in the DSL, so the fact that he’s handling the jump at all says something, even if he provides some head-scratching moments along the way.

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Nathaniel Stoltz is a prospect writer for FanGraphs. A resident of Bowie, MD and University of Maryland graduate student, he frequently views prospects in the Carolina and South Atlantic Leagues. He can be followed on Twitter at @stoltz_baseball.

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Ortiz looks like juan nicasio in structure and motion