Written by: Ian Smith (@FlaSmitty)
Follow us on Twitter! @Prospects365
Here we are finally just a few days away from MiLB Opening Day!
That’s how this article was supposed to begin, but instead we are in the midst of an unheard-of pandemic. Every day presents a new uncertainty, and words like “shortened” and “canceled” are being thrown around when talking about the 2020 baseball season. I can’t let that spoil my excitement on covering the Florida State League (henceforth abbreviated FSL) this season and beyond, and surely it won’t stop us from producing more quality content here at Prospects 365.
This notoriously pitcher-friendly FSL is adding a new wrinkle to the 2020 season, and that’s the Automated Strike Zone. This will be the first time robo-umps have been used above Short Season ball, and I’m excited to see the impact it has on the Advanced-A ball league. Will it possibly become a hitters’ league going forward? I’m anxious to find out.
The previous few seasons in the FSL have been a hotbed for elite prospects making their way towards the upper minors and beyond, and this season is no different. This 12-team league is loaded with Top-100 talent across the board, and the talent doesn’t come close to stopping there. Once we finally get into some games, I plan on spending at least a series at every ballpark in the league. I want to be able to bring you guys the best scouting reports I can from a league that doesn’t get support it desperately needs. Today, I wanted to break down some of players who should be key pieces in the FSL in 2020, as well as the teams who will have the best projected rotations and lineups this summer.
SP Matthew Liberatore (STL)
P365 Top 200- #63
The Cardinals finally were able to move Jose Martinez to his true home of an AL team this offseason, and the most notable player they received in return may possibly have one of the best curveballs in the minors. “Libby” is an extremely projectable southpaw who was drafted as a first rounder in 2018 by the Rays as a high schooler out of Arizona. An extremely repeatable delivery results in the ability to throw all four of his pitches for strikes (fastball, curveball, slider and changeup). The fastball doesn’t overpower you as it sits at 91-94 mph, but he uses it well to set up his secondaries; he also has the ability to tap into some more velo as he matures into his 6-foot-5 frame. The changeup and slider occasionally flash plus, but neither compare to the possible 70-grade-hammer of a curveball he possesses.
— Cardinals Nation 247 (@CardsNation247) February 24, 2020
The embedded video above is the literal definition of being frozen by a pitch. Liberatore was able to get a taste of big league Spring Training this preseason, and he showed a big-league-ready pitch in his curveball. Going into the 2020 season, the 20-year-old is looking to build on what he did well in last season, and that’s inducing ground balls (57.1% GB rate) and keeping the ball in the ballpark (2 home runs allowed in 111 pro innings). If those continue—while refining that plus command potential—in Palm Beach, we’ll likely witness another level from Liberatore that may show there isn’t a left-handed pitcher in the minors not named Gore or Luzardo who possesses more potential than him.
RF Peyton Burdick (MIA)
One of just three prospects I’m talking about today who’s not in Ray’s preseason top 200, but this 23-year-old outfielder is one of my favorite prospects in all of baseball. A third round pick in the 2019 MLB draft out of Wright State—where he posted video game numbers in four years as a Raider including some exit velocities north of 115 mph—Burdick finished his collegiate career strong with a three home run game on Opening Day of the Cape Cod League (using a wood bat) last summer. Burdick generates double plus pull power from an extremely violent swing and forearms that look like a professional arm wrestler. A sneaky runner with a cannon in either corner outfield positions, he parlayed his loud tools into an impressive pro debut, where he led the Clinton LumberKings in nearly every offensive category. Burdick completed his first professional stint in the Midwest League with top-5 finishes in OBP, SLG, ISO and wRC+.
— Ian Smith (@FlaSmitty) March 1, 2020
Seeing Burdick this spring really solidified my thoughts on the stocky outfielder. The kid is special. His name has been all over different outlets this offseason as a sleeper, but I don’t think you should be sleeping anymore. He looks to be in the heart of a strong lineup in Jupiter this season, and be on the lookout for his names on some top prospect lists by 2021. I recently published an entire feature on Burdick for Swings and Mishes.
SP Shane Baz (TB)
P365 Top 200- #46
Rays RHP Shane Baz 5 pitch mix. First is his fastball that sat 95-97mph and topped at 100mph today. Followed up by his cutter, changeup, slider, and curveball. 0.84 WHIP in 5 starts this year. Often overlooked in a deep Rays farm. @Prospects365 #RaysUp pic.twitter.com/fpz5eIztOb
— tyler j. spicer (@tylerjspicer) June 3, 2019
Now we’ve arrived at possibly the most polarizing player on this list. A 100 mile per hour fastball, a slider and cutter that both could finalize as 60-grade pitches or better, and an MLB-ready flow at just 20-years-old. After being a part of one the most lopsided trades in recent years coming to Tampa Bay in the Chris Archer deal, Baz was able to showcase a very deep arsenal in his first full professional season in 2019. A career-low walk rate (still 10.8%) and a 3.66 FIP with 87 strikeouts in just 81 innings led Baz to receiving an invitation to the Arizona Fall League.
His easy delivery can get a little loose late in games causing some wildness, and the short outings of the AFL looked to maximize the top-tier stuff Baz has in his powerful right arm. That also caused some evaluators to use the phrase “reliever risk” as Ray pointed out in his P365 Top 200 list, and this upcoming season will be a massive step in figuring out Baz’s best role moving forward. The automated strike zone in the FSL could lead to a productive struggle for the 20-year-old, especially at the beginning of the season. With a BB/9 that’s never been under 4 and a FB% that’s steadily rising, will the Rays’ top notch player development team and Baz make the adjustments necessary to become a top-tier starting pitcher prospect? I’m saying chances are good; if not, we may be evaluating the next Josh Hader.
C Shea Langeliers (ATL)
When you think about top catching prospects from recent drafts, you’re probably immediately drawn to Adley Rutschman and Joey Bart, but it’s time we give Shea Langeliers some respect. Another player who didn’t quite make Ray’s top 200, the 22-year-old is making all the right moves to be on the next update. The Baylor catcher was the 9th-overall pick in the 2019 MLB Draft, and it’s likely he would have been selected even higher if not for a broken hamate early in his junior season. Langeliers is a defense-first catcher armed with a plus-or-better arm and plus blocking and receiving skills. However, I feel like we’re inadvertently selling him short by even calling him defense-first. His bat is legit.
🔥 Shea Langeliers 🔥pic.twitter.com/Sw9WJnLMma
— C H O P. O N. C O R E Y. (@ChopOnCorey) February 15, 2020
He’s short to the ball with very little wasted effort, which serves as the driving force as he easily reaches his 55+ raw power. His all-around profile has led some outlets to say he could be the Braves’ top prospect in the very near future; I might be a little bullish on that outlook, but I fully believe we won’t be seeing him in the FSL for too long this summer before he’s promoted to Double-A.
SP Nick Lodolo (CIN)
P365 Top 200- #74
Once again, we find ourselves talking about a 2019 draft pick in big, 6-foot-6 lefty Nick Lodolo, who was selected 7th-overall in last summer’s draft. A dominating weekend starter in college, Lodolo works primarily with a fastball/slider combination. The slider (referred to as a curveball by a few other outlets), is a devastating bender that commonly grades as plus. His fastball sits normally at 92-94 mph, but the extension he gets from his lanky frame gives it some extra life in the top of the zone. He’s shown the ability to throw a potential plus changeup in the past, and I think the new addition of Driveline’s Kyle Boddy as the Reds’ pitching coordinator will do wonders for the development of all three of those pitches moving forward.
Nick Lodolo with the strikeout for the Dayton Dragons. pic.twitter.com/jBCLKikqMB
— Doug Gray (@dougdirt24) July 26, 2019
Why do I like Lodolo in the FSL so much? Simply put, his truly-plus command. He’s shown the ability to put the fastball and slider anywhere he wants, and he imposes his presence while in the mound. There’s no waste to his game; he’s coming after you every time. Here’s a funny, little stat to show that command: in Lodolo’s last 272 innings (NCAA at TCU, Rookie Ball and Low-A), he’s struck out 320 batters while walking just 77. I know it’s tough to look at counting stats like that, but those stats are pretty hard to ignore. I think the automated strike zone will be a godsend for Lodolo this upcoming season.
LF Canaan Smith (NYY)
P365 Top 200- #174
This may be the least known player on the list to the common fan, but Yankees fans and our readers are definitely aware of Smith. He’s the epitome of a gamer. A 4th round pick as a Texas prep in 2017, Smith doesn’t have any loud tools or an overly impressive makeup, but he just produces. His last three assignments as a professional have been nothing short of a roller coaster of production, with wRC+’s of 151, 81 and a career-high of 154 in 124 games in Low-Charleston last season. That 154 wRC+ includes this ⬇️
— NYYPlayerDev (@NYYPlayerDev) May 13, 2019
The first cycle for the RiverDogs since Smith was born is impressive, but what’s more impressive is what he really accomplished throughout the 2019 season. At age 20—while facing the best pitching of his career—Smith decreased his strikeout rate from 30.4% down to 20.4%. While only being graded as a 40 runner (according to FanGraphs), Smith was able to go 16 out of 20 (80%) on stolen bases, showing he has plus base running skills and solid instincts to make up for the lack of straight-line speed. The odds are stacked against him since he’s widely considered a defensive liability stuck in left field, but if he continues to put up .307/.405/.465 lines with 46 extra base hits while in Tampa and beyond, I’m not sure the Yankees will care how he performs defensively.
SP Luis Medina (NYY)
P365 Top 200- #105
Another 20-year-old starting pitcher who throws 100 mph with an effortless delivery, I’m starting to think they grow on trees. Medina might have a true 80-grade fastball when he’s fully developed. I’ll stand by that. The right-hander sits 97-100 comfortably right now, but it’s either living at the top of the zone or he has no real idea where it’s going. His command escapes him more often than not, and it’s maddening to watch when you realize he holds a double plus 12-6 curveball in his back pocket.
— Tom Hanslin (@TomHanslin) March 8, 2020
Medina *could* have two 65+ grade pitches at this very moment, and if he can iron-out the flaws in his command, he’s probably a top-50 prospect. The right-hander showed some promise to close the season in the FSL in 2019, and he’s now part of the Yankees’ 40-man roster. We’ll be looking for more of the same promise in 2020 that Medina flashes at the end of last season.
SS Ronny Mauricio (NYM)
P365 Top 200- #41
We have finally made our way to the highest rated preseason prospect on this list in 18-year-old Dominican toolshed Ronny Mauricio. When you watch the switch-hitting Mauricio swing, you instantly get excited. Sporting a 6-foot-4 frame, the teenager appears to have a perfect frame to grow into legit raw power. He has lightning quick hands and a feel for hitting that—as a switch hitter—you don’t find in many kids Mauricio’s age.
What’s suppressed his power numbers so far is his inability to get lift on the ball (50% GB rate), and I’m attributing that to that he’s still growing into his long frame. There’s always going to be some length to his swing, but his makeup tells me he’s got all the ability to overcome it.
— Jacob Resnick (@Jacob_Resnick) March 8, 2020
In the field, Mauricio shows smooth actions and a plus arm at shortstop. Soft hands and instincts show he has a chance to stick at the six, but it’s certainly possible he becomes a power-hitting third baseman in his prime. The Mets currently have Mauricio on the developmental fast track; he’s expected to spend majority of the 2020 in St. Lucie while being the youngest player in the entire FSL.
SP Simeon Woods-Richardson (TOR)
P365 Top 200- #99
We go from a 19-year-old shortstop to a 19-year-old starting pitcher and perhaps one of my favorite arms throughout the minor leagues. SWR, or Simeon Woods-Richardson, looks like the definition of an innings-eating SP3, but I think he’s a little more than that. Equipped with a deep arsenal that includes three pitches with plus potential, Woods-Richardson stands 6-foot-3 with a thicc (two c’s is the correct spelling here), 220 pound frame that he’s uses in its entirety. He often sets-up hitters with a 90-92 mph cutter before utilizing his best pitch—a massive hammer of a curveball that sits 75-79 mph—to end at-bats.
— Callum Hughson (@callumhughson) August 7, 2019
He can ramp up the fastball to 95-96 mph when needed, but again he’s only 19-years-old, so I wouldn’t be shocked if there’s more to tap into as he continues his physical development. Where he really impresses me is his command, coming from an over-the- top arm slot with the ability to throw all four of his pitches for strikes. A 2.0 BB/9 over his first 124 professional innings bodes well for an automated strike zone this summer.
SS Bryson Stott (PHI)
For about 10 months throughout late 2018 and early 2019, you couldn’t tell me Stott wasn’t a top-5 pick in 2019 MLB Draft. Ultimately he went 14th overall, but I continue to love this kid. A left handed (hitting, anyways) shortstop with a sweet swing and impressive plate discipline, Stott walked nearly 30 times more then he struck out at UNLV while showing a pleasant power/speed combo. With natural loft in this swing similar to Jazz Chisholm, Stott can show plus power to all fields, but he’s struggled with elite fastballs up in the zone. His ability to control the plate keeps the critics quiet, but it could be something to monitor as he makes his way through the minor leagues.
The Bryson Stott homer! GOING TO LEFT FIELD! pic.twitter.com/xeanlywfMA
— Philly Nation (@Philly__Nation) August 11, 2019
With the glove, he’s shown potential to maybe stick at shortstop with a quality glove and plus arm, but his instincts and routes may be suited for second base or third base in the future. Coming off a debut pro season in which he took advantage of lesser competition to a tune of 146 wRC+ in the New York Penn League, 2020 in the FSL should show the Phillies organization what they truly have in the power hitting shortstop.
I wanted to close out this article by attempting to build a little excitement for the Florida State League. Tons of top tier talent come through this league every season, and this summer is no different. The Fort Myers Mighty Mussels were the 2019 champions, led largely by studs like Royce Lewis and Jordan Balazovic. Who should be considered the favorite to win the league this season? Here’s some of the lineups and rotations that should make some noise in 2020.
Jupiter Hammerheads (MIA)
(Key players- Kameron Misner, Peyton Burdick, Jose Devers, Connor Scott)
St. Lucie Mets (NYM)
(Key players- Ronny Mauricio, Mark Vientos, Shervyen Newton, Desmond Lindsey)
Lakeland Flying Tigers (DET)
(Key players- Riley Greene, Bryant Packard, Parker Meadows, Nick Quintana)
Tampa Tarpons (NYY)
(Luis Medina, Luis Gil, Roansy Contreras)
Palm Beach Cardinals (STL)
(Matthew Liberatore, Zach Thompson, Griffin Roberts)
Daytona Tortugas (CIN)
(Nick Lodolo, Lyon Richardson, Hunter Greene?!)
Listed above are just a few reasons to come out and join me this season in the Florida State League. There is going to be competition all over the state, and I can’t wait ’til we get back to baseball—whenever that may be.
Follow P365 prospect analyst Ian Smith on Twitter! @FlaSmitty
Follow us on Twitter! @Prospects365
Photo courtesy of photographer Laurie Skrivan and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch