Minors | General | 12/1/2021

PG Down on the Farm: AL Central

David Rawnsley     
Photo: Bobby Witt Jr (Perfect Game)
It’s been especially difficult to follow the minors over the past two years, with the pandemic-canceled 2020 season and the complete restructuring of the minor leagues by Major League Baseball in 2021. So, over a two-week period, Perfect Game will be taking a look at former PG standouts who are continuing to build their baseball skills and resumes in the minor leagues in an attempt to bring things into a bit more focus.  One player from each organization will be highlighted, with the schedule as follows: 
American League East: November 29
American League Central: December 1
American League West: December 3
National League East: December 6
National League Central: December 8 
National League West: December 10

American League Central 

Chicago White Sox:
RHP Matthew Thompson 
High School: Cypress Ranch HS (Texas) 
Travel Team: Banditos Black 
Final PG Class Ranking: No. 22 (2019) 
Drafted/Signing Bonus: 45th overall, Chicago White Sox (2019), $2.1M 
Highest 2021 Level: A
2022 Age: 21 
Most Perfect Game All-Americans and future Day One draft picks stand out on their high school teams.  That wasn’t the case for Matthew Thompson, whose 2018 Cypress Ranch HS team featured future first round picks Colton Cowser (Orioles), Ty Madden (Tigers) and JJ Goss (Rays).  After Cowser and Madden graduated, Thompson stepped up to share the spotlight with Goss as a senior in 2019, going 13-0, with a 0.87 ERA and 124 strikeouts in 72 innings while hitting .352-2-26. 
Thompson stood out on the mound for his combination of athleticism and pure stuff.  He regularly pitched in the 91-94 mph range and would touch a 95 or a 96 occasionally.  His best pitch, both in command and in quality, was often a nasty curveball in the low-80s that had big swing/miss potential.  Thompson’s fastball command would waiver at times despite his above-average athleticism.   

2021 was Thompson’s first steady taste of pro ball and he made 20 starts in A ball, striking out 78 hitters in 73 innings.  The White Sox system is very young right now, especially with their top pitching prospects, and the expectation would be for the organization to take their time with young arms such as Thompson and his 2018 All-American teammate and fellow Texan Jared Kelley. 
Cleveland Guardians: RHP Daniel Espino 
High School: Georgia Premier Academy (Ga.) 
Travel Team: GBSA Rays 
Final PG Class Ranking: No. 4 (2019) 
Drafted/Signing Bonus: 24th overall, Cleveland Guardians (2019), $2.5M 
Highest 2021 Level: A+
2022 Age: 21 
Espino’s unusual background is well documented and a big part of his story as a prospect.  Born and raised in Panama, he moved to the United States as a teenager and enrolled at Georgia Premier Academy.  He was already throwing in the low-90s at his first events early in the summer of 2017 and kept building on that over the next two years as he got stronger and more physically mature.  He set the PG All-American Classic record with a 99 mph fastball in 2018 (since broken by Nazier Mule) and had his signature outing at the 2019 PG High School Showdown-Academies, working 96-98 mph for four innings with a plus mid-80s slider while striking out 11 hitters in front of a huge crowd of scouts. 
Despite his absurdly overpowering raw stuff and history of throwing strikes, teams had some reservations about Espino, especially with his unusually long arm action, and it wasn’t even a lock that he would go in the first round in 2019, although he eventually did so. 
The Guardians look initially like they might have pulled off a draft coup in grabbing Espino with the 24th pick.  After a successful debut in 2019 and three months at the team’s alternate training site in 2020, Espino emerged as one of the most dominant pitchers in minor league baseball in 2021.  Making 10 starts in both A and A+, he struck out 152 hitters in 91 innings while allowing only 64 hits.  He was more dominant against the older A+ level hitters, striking out 88 in 49 innings (16.2/9) while only walking 16.  Espino’s fastball has continued to sit in the mid- to upper-90s and his slider is a true swing-and-miss pitch. 
Detroit Tigers: OF Riley Greene 
High School: Hagerty HS (Fla.) 
Travel Team: FTB Tucci 
Final PG Class Ranking: No. 3 (2019) 
Drafted/Signing Bonus: 5th overall, Detroit Tigers (2019), $6.18M 
Highest 2021 Level: AAA
2022 Age: 21 
If there were Perfect Game 13U or 14U Select Festivals back in 2014, it’s a pretty good bet that Greene would have been selected, as he was already well known in the travel baseball world for his hitting ability.  That hitting ability never seemed to take a week off, either, as consistency was as much a part of Greene’s development as anything.  He hit .408 in his documented PG tournament appearances, including a .600-3-9 with 8 walks performance at the 2017 WWBA 16U National Championships, and .422-8-27 as a high school senior. 
Scouts did have some concerns about Greene’s athleticism and feared that he would end up as a left fielder as his body matured, despite Greene being a 6.65 runner with 92 mph outfield arm strength.  That didn’t impact Greene’s draft stock, though, as the 2018 PG All-American was the second high school player taken after Bobby Witt Jr
To say that Greene has raced through the Tigers minor league system might be selling that phrase short, especially considering the canceled 2020 minor league season.  Greene signed almost immediately after the draft, which enabled him to get into 57 games in 2019.  His bat enabled him to brush quickly past the two rookie levels and spend all of August in the Class A Midwest League.  In 2021, Greene played the first three months of the season in AA before spending the last 40 games of the season as a 20-year old in AAA, hitting .308-8-30/.921 OPS in those 40 games. 
While Greene’s bat has been as advertised, his athleticism, which scouts had questioned, has been well beyond what was predicted.  Greene played almost 70% of his innings in center field in 2021 and even stole 16 bases in 17 attempts.  Reports are that he can stay in center field for at least the short term.  Given Greene’s production thus far as a professional and the Tigers 2021 outfield, that might come as soon as opening day, 2022. 
Kansas City Royals: SS Bobby Witt Jr
High School: Colleyville Heritage HS (Texas) 
Travel Team: East Coast Sox 
Final PG Class Ranking: No. 1 (2019) 
Drafted/Signing Bonus: 2nd overall, Kansas City Royals (2019), $7,789,900 
Highest 2021 Level: AAA 
2022 Age: 22 
Perfect Game doesn’t keep track of who spends how much time in the No. 1 slot in each class rankings through their career but if they did, Witt would likely be the all-time career leader in weeks spent at No. 1.  He was the top player in the 2019 class as a precocious freshman in 2015 and remained that way all the way through his high school/PG career.   
 That type of profile can lead to plenty of scrutiny, especially when one is the son of an 18-year former Big League pitcher, and Witt came through it very well, improving every year on the field and always conducting himself with maturity and humility.  He was always the best player on the field, with a very rare combination of speed, arm strength, defensive grace and raw bat speed, but never carried himself like the best player on the field. 
No one will second guess Baltimore for taking Adley Rutschman with the first pick in the 2019 draft; the Oregon State catcher was clearly the top college prospect in the class and is considered by many to be the best minor league prospect in the game now.  But it did leave Kansas City the opportunity to select Witt, who has already caught up to Rutschman in minor league level and projected big league debut. 
Witt’s 2021 season, split evenly between AA and AAA, was one for the ages.  His final numbers were .290-33-97/.936 OPS, with 29 steals and 35 doubles.  Impressively, he performed just as well in AAA as AA after his mid-season promotion.  Defensively, Witt made 8 errors in 102 games at shortstop and none in 18 games at third base.  One never knows with potential service time manipulations but it’s pretty clear that Witt is ready for the Major Leagues right now and has the potential to be the face of the Royals franchise moving into the future. 
Minnesota Twins: 3B Spencer Steer 
High School: Millikan HS (Calif.) 
College: Oregon 
Travel Team: GBG Marucci 
Final PG Class Ranking: No. 171 (2016) 
Drafted/Signing Bonus: 3rd round, Minnesota Twins (2019), $575,000 
Highest 2021 Level: AA 
2022 Age: 24 
Steer was a standout for the outstanding 2013-2015 GBG Marucci teams that won three WWBA championships, and also won the 2015 WWBA 17U National Championship with CBA Marucci, not only as a slugging third baseman with plus defensive skills but the team’s emotional leader as well.  He was named to the All-Tournament Team in all 12 of the PG tournaments he played in, including being named the MVP of the 2013 EvoShield National Championship (Upperclass). 
Steer’s father, Chris, pulled me aside once at a tournament and asked a very reasonable question, “Given all that Spencer has achieved playing for one of the top teams in the country, why isn’t he ranked higher?”  I explained that the PG player rankings were based on high ceiling athletic potential and that his son, while obviously an outstanding baseball player, was going to have to be one of those players who grinded it out at every level, that he wasn’t going to sign out of high school, he’d have to go to Oregon for at least three years and improve each year, would then get drafted and have to grind through every level to eventually reach the Big Leagues.  A 5-foot-11, 180-pound right-handed hitting corner infielder without a plus tool needs to do that. 
And that is exactly what Steer has done since that 2015 conversation.  Cleveland spent a 29th round pick on Steer out of high school and Steer went to Oregon and started for all three years in addition to spending a summer in the Cape Cod League.  He hit .349-6-57/.958 OPS as a junior and was picked by the Twins in the third round in 2019, higher than I would have speculated three years prior to be honest.  In two years in the Twins system (2019, 2021), Steer has played at four different levels already, finishing 2021 with two-plus months in AA. 
For the first time in his career really, Steer hit for over-the-fence power in 2021, slamming 24 home runs, including 14 in AA, while hitting .254-24-66/.833 overall.  Just as importantly, he played 46 games at second base, 41 games at third base and even 15 games at shortstop while playing solid defense.  The Twins are clearly grooming Steer to become a utility infielder at the Big League level who can move around the infield and provide some right-handed pop at the plate.  Another big season in 2022 will likely make that a reality. 

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