Our continued stashing of Taj Bradley may be about to pay off. Or it may not.
I say it may be because, hey, he's back, scheduled to start Thursday's game and inherit Drew Rasmussen's rotation spot. I say it may not because his season has taken a turn for the worse since we saw him string together three strong starts in the majors. Just take a look at his Triple-A numbers:
That's in five starts, two more than he made in the majors. His only good outing in the minors this year came way back on April 6. Since being sent back down, he has just one more strikeout (five) than home runs allowed (four).
So can we really expect him to pick up right where he left off? It's hard to say. Sometimes when a successful player gets sent down, he struggles to maintain the same focus in the minors and ends up going through the motions, just awaiting his return. It's possible that's what happened here. There have also been reports of Bradley varying his pitch mix at Triple-A, perhaps using the demotion as an opportunity to work on things rather than resting on his laurels. That's a possibility as well.
But we don't really know, which makes it almost like he's debuting all over again. Except this time, it sounds like the Rays are planning on him making more than just three starts.
"Where we're at with the injuries that we've had, I think we recognize, we view him as one of our better options to go forward with," manager Kevin Cash said. "We're excited to get him back up here, and hopefully he can find a routine up here to help keep us winning games."
So what now? Obviously, if you've been stashing Bradley all this time, you have to let it play out all the way. See what he does. And if you're in one of the 25 percent of CBS Sports leagues where he's still available, sure, go ahead and add him. He's more rosterable than any of the Five on the Verge I'm about to share with you.
But I had hoped we would be more excited about his return than I personally am. Feels like more of a fingers-crossed situation.
Five on the verge
(These are the prospects most worth stashing in redraft leagues.)
2022 minors: .304 BA (484 AB), 32 HR, 114 RBI, .955 OPS, 40 BB, 137 K
2023 minors: .344 BA (93 AB), 10 HR, 20 RBI, 1.092 OPS, 2 BB, 25 K
If the Reds were willing to call up Matt McLain, it stands to reason they'd be willing to do the same with Encarnacion-Strand, who meets just as clear of a need for them and has been turning heads with his power going back to spring training. So on the one hand, I'm surprised he's not up yet. There's a case to be made, though, that his approach still needs work. He's walked only once at Triple-A while striking out more than 25 percent of the time.
Frankly, though, his walk and strikeout rates weren't much better at Double-A last year. There comes a point where the Reds just need to accept it's a part of his profile, and after he hit another laser Wednesday, his 10th of the year, I would guess they're about there. They're only hindering Spencer Steer's development by having him play first base in the majors. They could easily shift him over to third and kick Nick Senzel to the outfield as a way to accommodate Encarnacion-Strand.
Jordan Walker, OF, Cardinals
2023 majors: .274 BA (73 AB), 2 HR, 2 SB, .718 OPS, 3 BB, 20 K
2023 minors: .200 BA (65 AB), 1 HR, 3 SB, .613 OPS, 9 BB, 19 K
It's tempting to move Walker down this list (or drop him off altogether) on account of his bat going missing at Triple-A Memphis. His defense is no great shakes either, so he's not coming back unless he's hitting well. But if you have him in Fantasy, you invested some real draft capital in him, and with Gunnar Henderson, Corbin Carroll and Anthony Volpe having all graduated, Walker is almost certainly the top prospect in baseball right now. Whenever you're fortunate enough to secure the top prospect in baseball, letting him go for nothing is just bad process. Obviously, in the shallowest formats, you may have no choice, and I suspect you've already moved on. But if you play in the sort of league where prospects are worth stashing, Walker has to be one of them.
Colton Cowser, OF, Orioles
2022 minors: .278 BA (510 AB), 19 HR, 18 SB, .875 OPS, 94 BB, 174 K
2023 minors: .331 BA (139 AB), 7 HR, 5 SB, 1.023 OPS, 35 BB, 40 K
Cowser was left out of Triple-A Norfolk's lineup Wednesday, which prompted rumors that maybe he was on his way to the big leagues. It was just a week ago, though, that GM Mike Elias downplayed his chances of coming up soon. "I don't think we're at that moment in time yet where we can say that he's graduated Triple-A," Elias said.
Of course, Cowser's work since then may have sped up the timetable. Over his past seven games, he's batting .444 (12 for 27) with two homers and a steal, walking nearly as often (eight) as he's struck out (nine). Then again, that's the same skill set he's demonstrated all along, so rather than his own performance, it's likely his promotion hinges on players like Terrin Vavra, Ryan O'Hearn and Kyle Stowers (who was recently demoted) exhausting their opportunities. So far, they're batting a combined .182 (16 for 88).
Jordan Westburg, SS, Orioles
2022 minors: .265 BA (544 AB), 27 HR, 12 SB, .851 OPS, 70 BB, 147 K
2023 minors: .317 BA (139 AB), 11 HR, 4 SB, 1.010 OPS, 16 BB, 38 K
A week ago, it seemed like Ramon Urias' hamstring injury might be Westburg's ticket to the big leagues. But instead, the Orioles called up Joey Ortiz, a lesser prospect who's already on the 40-man roster and who we had already seen this year. Now, it sounds like Urias could be back in a week, so if the Orioles were to suddenly promote Westburg, the timing would be odd.
But Ortiz is 2 for 16. Urias has one home run in 112 plate appearances. Second baseman Adam Frazier is batting .224. Shoot, even Gunnar Henderson has been such a disappointment that it's not unthinkable the Orioles could send him back down. Point is there are enough theoretical openings that Westburg could still get the call any day now, and while I think in the long run he's more like a solid regular than a star, some of us could use that at shortstop.
Elly De La Cruz, SS, Reds
2022 minors: .304 BA (471 AB), 28 HR, 47 SB, .945 OPS, 40 BB, 158 K
2023 minors: .278 BA (97 AB), 6 HR, 5 SB, .936 OPS, 13 BB, 32 K
If Jordan Walker isn't the top prospect in baseball now, it's only because De La Cruz has overtaken him. In terms of physical feats, no one measures up to him -- like, literally no one. He has the hardest-hit ball in all of professional baseball this year, majors included, and, he himself did something no entire team has done during that Statcast era, hitting three balls in excess of 116 mph in a single game. And he doesn't just excel at hitting the ball hard. Here's a look at how his arm plays at shortstop:
De La Cruz's biggest flaw is that he's undisciplined at the plate, but he's done his best to flip the script over his past eight games, drawing 11 walks while striking out eight times. He had two walks compared to 24 strikeouts prior to that. At the same time, he's only 21, and the Reds certainly won't do anything that might interfere with his development. There's a chance, then, that he doesn't get the call at all this year. But they did just promote Matt McLain, and unlike McLain, De La Cruz is already on the 40-man roster. Wouldn't it be nice to have him stashed away if the Reds decide to go the aggressive route?
Five on the periphery
(Here are some other prospects doing something of note.)
Ronny Mauricio, SS, Mets
2022 majors: .259 BA (509 AB), 26 HR, 20 SB, .767 OPS, 24 BB, 125 K
2023 minors: .358 BA (165 AB), 7 HR, 8 SB, 1.010 OPS, 8 BB, 29 K
When Mauricio hit .321 over the first month, it got people talking, but it didn't seem like the sort of thing he could sustain. Turns out it's only gotten better. After a 2-for-4 performance Wednesday, he's batting .424 (25 for 59) in May, having collected multiple hits in four straight games, seven of his past eight and 10 of his past 14. He has struck out only five times in all of May, bringing his season strikeout rate to 16.5 percent as compared to 23.1 percent last year.
The issue was never his power, his long limbs generating all the torque he needs. The issue was his lack of selectivity, which earned Mauricio a 40-grade hit tool from Baseball America prior to the season. He still doesn't walk much, but the improved contact rate shows he's making better swing decisions to the point that his biggest weakness may now be a strength. The Mets don't have an obvious opening for Mauricio, but he's just an up-the-middle injury away, having seen time at both second base and shortstop this year.
2022 minors: .289 BA (478 AB), 17 HR, .862 OPS, 97 BB, 138 K
2023 minors: .310 BA (142 AB), 7 HR, .940 OPS, 30 BB, 44 K
Malloy continues to raise his stock a year after breaking out in the Braves organization. Back then, he stood out mostly for his plate discipline, and he's certainly carried that over to his first year with the Tigers, reaching base at a .440 clip so far. "Whenever he takes a pitch, everybody just yells 'ball' from the dugout," Triple-A manager Anthony Iapoce recently told MLB.com. It's Malloy's power production that has caught everyone by surprise. With three home runs in his past six games, he's up to seven in 40 overall.
Power was considered one of his more questionable attributes coming into the year, but he's shown a knack for elevating to his pull side. And if it continues, I don't see how the Tigers resist calling up the 23-year-old. Their biggest hole in the majors would appear to be third base, where Nick Maton is batting .150.
Jackson Holliday, SS, Orioles
2022 minors: .297 BA (64 AB), 1 HR, 4 SB, .911 OPS, 25 BB, 12 K
2023 minors: .391 BA (115 AB), 5 HR, 10 SB, 1.206 OPS, 28 BB, 26 K
If neither Jordan Walker nor Elly De La Cruz is the top prospect in baseball now (to continue with the theme), it's only because Holliday, the No. 1 pick in last year's draft, has overtaken them. The second-generation star has proven too good for the lower minors even as a 19-year-old. He started out slashing .392/.523/.667 at Low-A, and now he's slashing .391/.500/.719 at High-A. In his last two games alone, he's 8 for 9 with a home run, three triples and two doubles.
He's looked like such a natural talent -- so polished, with plate discipline as good as dear old dad -- that it's not so crazy to think he could be contributing to the major-league club as early as next year, particularly given the trajectory the Orioles are on.
A.J. Smith-Shawver, SP, Braves
2022 minors: 3-4, 5.11 ERA, 1.35 WHIP, 68 2/3 IP, 39 BB, 103 K
2023 minors: 2-0, 0.00 ERA, 0.86 WHIP, 21 IP, 7 BB, 32 K
Their rotation depth depleted by long-term injuries to Max Fried and Kyle Wright, not to mention a season-ender for Ian Anderson, the Braves have put Smith-Shawver on the extreme fast track. The 20-year-old got only three starts at High-A and two at Double-A before making the move up to Triple-A, where he's headed now. Granted, he didn't allow a run between those five starts, allowing a hit every other inning while striking out 13.7 per nine, but he was so new to pitching when the Braves drafted him two years ago that the frenetic pace is surprising.
Still, Smith-Shawver's fastball has all the characteristics of a dominant pitch, and he's made big strides with his control this year. Even if that last jump to the majors figures to be his biggest yet, he's at least positioned himself to be scooped up in any long-term league where he's still available.
Cesar Prieto, SS, Orioles
2022 minors: .273 BA (465 AB), 11 HR, 5 SB, .718 OPS, 20 BB, 74 K
2023 minors: .383 BA (128 AB), 3 HR, 3 SB, .967 OPS, 9 BB, 7 K
Notice that this is the fourth Orioles prospect featured here. Adley Rutschman, Gunnar Henderson and Grayson Rodriguez have only recently graduated to the majors, and yet the cupboard is far from bare.
Prieto is much further down the organizational rank list, but he does have one superlative skill, which is putting the bat to the ball. A recent defector from Cuba, the 24-year-old hit .403 in his final year there to win a batting title, and while he struggled in his transition to minor-league ball last year, he's clearly found his stride in Year 2, batting .455 (20 for 44) over his last 11 games. And oh yeah, he was batting .345 before then. There isn't much power to work with, so he'll need to become another Luis Arraez type to factor in Fantasy. But he'll likely get that chance soon.