Guardians Count on Bieber; Prospect Countdown Continues with 80-71

Guardians Count on Bieber; Prospect Countdown Continues with 80-71
(Photo by Ron Schwane/Getty Images)

MESA, AZ. — Shane Bieber was dominant for three innings in his second spring start Saturday in the Cleveland Guardians‘ 4–4 tie with the Oakland Athletics at Hohokam Stadium. Bieber topped many prospects lists a few years ago as a member of the Guardians. Also, the 2023 Guardians’ top prospect countdown continues today with more pitching potential in a group of players ranked numbers 80-71.

As for the game, Bieber gave up only an infield single and struck out two. That had to please the 2020 AL Cy Young Award winner who is seeking a quick start and consistent 2023. He told Paul Hoynes of earlier this week: “We need to be careful not to fall into the trap after we exceeded the expectations people had on us last year. We had a decent year, but we can’t focus on that. We have to focus on what’s in front of us.”

Minor-league hopeful Micah Pries maintained his focus on trying to impress, hitting a two-run homer in the sixth. It was his second of the spring and put his average at .357. Will Brennan (.364) hit a leadoff double and scored on a one-out single by Oscar Gonzalez in the fourth. Nine different Guardians had one hit apiece.

Guardians reliever Trevor Stephan was touched for a three-run homer in the fifth by Oakland rookie-of-the-year candidate Esteury Ruiz. Lefty Konnor Pilkington, trying to claim a roster spot, yielded three hits and a run over two innings. James Karinchak, Touki Toussaint, and Michael Kelly each worked one scoreless inning for Cleveland.

2023 Cleveland Guardians Top Prospect Countdown: 80 to 71

Here’s the third installment of the countdown of the top 100 prospects in the Guardians’ system for 2023. Ranked No. 80-71, this group of 10 features seven pitchers. Cleveland’s baseball fortunes have been built upon pitchers since Cy Young debuted for the Cleveland Spiders in 1890.

Click here to see previous rankings:  Prospects 100 to 91 | Prospects 90 to 81

80. Wuilfredo Antunez, OF     2019 International free agent (Venezuela)      6’0” 150 B: L T: R 5/16/2002

Not a big-name, big-money signing, yet this speedy left-handed hitter has been impressive in all aspects despite playing only 41 pro games and missing all of 2020 and 2021 due to COVID cancellations and restrictions. He has put up a .285 average, .426 on-base percentage and .926 OPS with 13 steals in that limited time.

Strong wrists give him more power than expected from such a lanky frame. There’s room to add muscle and more pop at the plate. He’s played all three outfield spots and shown fine range and decent arm in center. He needs to play, play, play — most likely at Low-A Lynchburg with a possible call-up to Lake County this year.

79. Jacob Zibin     10th-round pick (301 overall) in 2022      6’4” 218 B: L T: R 1/30/2005

His $1.2 million signing (stop with the talk the Dolans are cheap for not wasting big money on often-worn MLB free agents) was more than any other 10th-round pick EVER. It trumped his college commitment to South Carolina. Director of amateur scouting Scott Barnsby expressed the Guardians’ excitement to “This guy is the youngest in the draft; absolutely physical at 6-foot-4. He’s got life to his fastball, really good feel for his change. We’re confident the breaking ball is going to come as well. Throws strikes, and a guy we couldn’t be more excited about the player development group getting their hands on.”

Born in British Columbia, he attended the TNXL Baseball Academy in Florida, where he grew two inches, added 25 pounds and saw his fastball go from 91 to 96 MPH. Very athletic, the fastball has been timed up to 98 MPH from a smooth, three-quarters delivery. He has a two-seam sinker, slider, and plus-rated changeup– unusual for such a young hurler. He’ll likely make his pro debut in the Arizona Complex League and receive plenty of instruction that could increase velocity and movement. He just turned 18. If he develops as envisioned into a top-of-the-rotation ace, last year’s price tag will be bargain-basement brilliance.

78. Bradley Hanner, RHP     2022 Rule 5 Draft, minor phase, 1st round, No. 20      6’4” 210 B: R T: R 2/10/1999

Selected from the Minnesota Twins farm system in December, Hanner has plenty of unpolished tools. An infield prospect with a line-drive bat in high school, scouts noted his mound work in junior college and the Twins took him in the 21st round in 2019 out of Patrick & Henry CC in Virginia. In three years (COVID shut down minors in 2020), he has been wildly inconsistent though shows flashes of a fine sinker, tight-spinning curve, and decent slider from a well-balanced, drop-and-drive, three-quarters delivery. In 76 games, 74 in relief, he has fanned 144 in 127 innings. That is countered by an ugly 73 walks.

He opened 2022 at High-A, fanning 22 and allowing one earned run over his first 20 innings. Command issues cropped up and he ended up with a 4.60 ERA over 58.2 innings. It is evident there’s something to his game that caught Cleveland’s eye. Once again, it is up to all the Guardians’ horses and all their coaching staff men to put yet another hurler together again.

77. Rodney Boone, LHP     8th-round pick (241 overall) in 2021      6’1” 195 B: L T: L 4/9/2000

The 11th UC Santa Barbara player in history drafted by Cleveland, he hopes to join three (all pitchers) to make The Show: Bruce Egloff (1986), Kyle Nelson (2017) and 2020 AL Cy Young winner Shane Bieber (2016), In his first 10 pro games last year, Boone bettered Bieber’s best: 3-0, 1.85 ERA, 63 strikeouts and only 8 walks over 48.2 innings at Lynchburg. Such stats surely meant he was a flame-thrower. Another Sudden Sam McDowell?

Maybe Sam now, at age 80. Boone instead resembled old Cleveland reliever Doug Jones, once described as having three speeds: slow, slow, and slower. Beloit batters belted Boone at High-A Lake County on June 17: five runs on four hits (one homer) and four walks over 3.2 innings. The “fastball” was in the mid-80s that night, though seemingly below the speed limit on Route 91 outside Classic Ballpark. In 65.2 innings overall for the Captains, Boone did whiff 74, going 5-4 with a 4.80 ERA. Turns out that like Jones, his best pitch is the change, with a big, overhand curve to help. He must add fastball velocity. A change is only as good as it what it changes.

76. Yordys Valdez, SS     25-round pick (63 overall) in 2019      6’0” 170 B: S T: R 8/16/2001

Born in Cuba and nicknamed “Mr. Hands” for his fielding prowess in high school in Miami, he got his hands on $1,001,000 to sign at age 17 and drop a college commitment to Florida State. He’s had great schooling: father Oscar played for the vaunted Cuban National Team and former Cleveland outfielder Oddibe McDowell was his scholastic coach. Valdes, yet another switch-hitting shortstop in Cleveland’s system, has a complete defensive package: exceptional range, soft hands, and a strong arm. He’s a burner on the bases (44-of-60 in steal attempts) but must make more contact to get there. “Mr. Hands” did have 56 RBI in 387 at-bats at Lynchburg last year, but he’s far from becoming “Mr. Stick”.

He has batted only .221 with just 38 extra-base hits and 244 strikeouts in 844 pro at-bats. Right now, he’s like a young Omar Vizquel, dubbed “Omar The Outmaker” for his weak bat until being traded to Cleveland in 1994 and esteemed batting guru Charlie Manuel worked wonders with him. One thing Omar didn’t do even in the minors was fan too much. Valdes must cut down the Ks. He has already accomplished more than Cleveland’s other pick from McArthur High School, the mysterious Norman Morton, a 7th-round pick in 1980. The lefty pitcher then was a first-round choice by the Pirates and White Sox, then in the second round by the Blue Jays and Expos. He never signed with any team.

75. Hugo Villalobos, RHP     2019 International free agent (Panama)       5’10” 195 B: R T: R 7/27/2001

A strained right elbow cut short a nice season at Low-A Lynchburg last year and probably kept this two-pitch reliever from a higher ranking. He didn’t pitch after July 6. He did not have surgery and the organization is cautiously optimistic that he can bounce back in 2023 after shutting it down completely. Before that, he got 50 strikeouts in 32 innings with a mid-70s curve and low-90s fastball. More impressive was the .167 against him with runners on base.

That went a long way towards his 91% rate of stranding runners on base. He was particularly effective against right-handers in all situations. They hit only .196 off him. Villalobos worked more than one inning in 13 of his 17 outings, but the Guardians will monitor his workload carefully from the very first workout this year. He’ll probably stay in Arizona and build up his arm with the goal of returning to Lynchburg once the weather warms.

74. Ryan Webb, LHP      4th-round pick (125 overall) in 2021      6’1” 202 B: L T: L 4/19/1999

He signed for $400,000, about mid-range for 4th-round picks in 2021 but good news for a guy who had Tommy John Surgery just one month earlier. The Guardians were confident he could rehab and return to the form that enabled him to fan 183 while yielding only 123 hits in 152 innings over four seasons at Georgia.

After rehabbing for a year, he did strike out 68 in 50.2 innings of Class A ball in 2022. His fastball is usually in the low 90s but has touched 96 MPH. He’s got a good curve, while his slider needs work and now it is time to add a changeup or sinker. He may go back to Low-A Lynchburg to open 2023 at age 24 against younger hitters with hopes of moving up quickly.

Highest Bulldog Drafted by Cleveland

He’s the seventh Bulldog drafted by Cleveland; the others all 17th-round or later. Ex-Indians Derek Lilliquist (LHP, 1992-94) and Larry Littleton (OF, 1981) are among 20 of 157 Georgia draftees to make it. Littleton was picked by Pittsburgh and later traded to Cleveland for RHP Larry Andersen (who went on to pitch in 677 more major league games thru 1994).

Littleton played well in the minors for five years. He was an all-time disaster in 26 MLB games, all with Cleveland in 1982. He went 0-for-26 at bat and cost Hall of Famer Bert Blyleven a possible no-hitter in Toronto. Inserted as a defensive replacement for Joe Charboneau in the bottom of the ninth, he promptly misplayed pinch hitter George Bell’s fly ball into a double. Lloyd Moseby followed with an RBI single and Blyleven had to settle for a 3-1, two-hit win. Nine days later, Len Barker pitched a perfect game over the Blue Jays in Cleveland. Eleven days after that, Littleton was sent back to the minors for good.

73. Reid Johnston, RHP      19th-round pick (576 overall) in 2021      6’3” 218 B: L T: R 4/7/1999

A 5-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio (122 to 24) in his pro debut season at Low-A Lynchburg left many curious as to exactly how he did it. He utilizes four pitches, none of them eye-popping, but he does toss them all for strikes. The fastball hovers around 90 MPH with some sink. He hides the ball well out of a drop-and-drive delivery and three-quarters arm slot, which helps the curve and slider dart towards the outside corner against right-handed batters. They may not have enough oomph, however, to truly jam lefties and he tends to be inconsistent in finishing off both breaking balls.

One scout believes that developing a sinking changeup would really help matters. The Guardians likely took notice of his work in the 2019 Cape Cod League (2-0, 1.82 ERA, 17 Ks and 5 walks). In four seasons at North Carolina State, he went 22-7. Tommy Smith (OF, 1973-76) is the only one of six other NC State picks by Cleveland to make the majors. Overall, 27 of 169 Wolfpack players have done it, including current Phillies star Trea Turner. The most interesting was RHP Tim Stoddard, a reliever for six teams (1975-89), including Cleveland. He was a 6-foot-7 power forward on NC State’s 1974 NCAA basketball champions and on Baltimore’s 1983 World Series championship team. Nobody else has that unique double-double.

72. Zach Hart, RHP      10th-round pick (310 overall) in 2019      6’4” 235 B: R T: R 5/17/1997

He went 17-4 as mostly a starter in college and has a 17-7 record as mostly a reliever in the pros. That’s essentially irrelevant even if somewhat mathematically interesting. What IS relevant is his 4.28 ERA as a pro compared to 2.62 in college. He’s now facing players who won’t swing at as many pitches outside the strike zone and Hart delivers plenty of them. He’s got a 95-MPH fastball and a sharp curve and slider – none of which he consistently commands.

In three years in the minors, he has fanned 203 over 147.1 innings, That’s an outstanding 12.4 Ks per nine innings. He has also walked 5.1 per nine innings, fully negating the great K rate. The stuff is tantalizing. He just needs to pitch consistently. Sounds easy. It isn’t. One other note that is completely irrelevant yet mildly interesting: he is the second “Zach Hart” in Cleveland baseball history. Zach Hart Sorensen “hit” .135 as a utility infielder for Cleveland in 2003. His only homer was a two-run pinch-hit “blast” off Arizona ace Brandon Webb. It, too, was irrelevant. The seventh-inning shot made it Diamondbacks 13, Cleveland 3.

71. Korey Holland     14th-round pick (433 overall) in 2018      5’11” 186 B: R T: R 1/1/2000

He raked in a $515,000 bonus, far more than any 14th-round pick in 2018. Cleveland loved his foot speed and bat speed, figuring the cash was worth the gamble. Thus far, it hasn’t paid off. He has yet to utilize either attribute nearly enough and develop into the player he could become. He strikes out an alarming 38% of the time. Last year at High-A Lake County was alarming (11 walks, 105 strikeouts). However, 27 of his 55 hits went for extra bases including 9 homers. He has only 28 career steals in 38 attempts, numbers that he should easily approach in a season.

Of course, he must get on base to use his plus-plus speed. He almost never bunts. Mastering that maneuver could give him 20 or more hits a year. It doesn’t seem to be a viable option the way the game is played these days. He’s a fine fielder at any outfield spot with an average arm best suited for left field. He has so much athleticism and a nice work rate that he is easy to like as a prospect despite being maddeningly inconsistent

NEXT: Evan Thompson covers the Arizona Diamondbacks vs. Guardians game Sunday in Goodyear, Az., while Chuck Murr takes a break from presenting the Guardians’ top prospects and looks back at how pitching has been a prime priority in Cleveland for more than 125 years.

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