Minor League Baseball returned on Friday, with the Triple-A schedule kicking off just hours after Major League Baseball celebrated its own Opening Day. The rest of the minor-league levels will not begin their seasons until Thursday. Triple-A players managed just fine with the spotlight, thanks for asking, with several players having outstanding nights to open up their new campaigns.
To celebrate the occasion, CBS Sports has highlighted five notable performances and performers from the night that was in Triple-A. (The players are presented in no particular order.)
1. Cody Thomas, OF, Las Vegas (Oakland)
True baseball sickos may remember Thomas from his 10-game stint last September with the Athletics. He's not a prospect in the conventional sense -- he's 28 years old and he was removed from the 40-player roster over the winter without any fuss -- but he recorded the first cycle of the new year on Opening Night, going 4 for 5 in a loss against Reno (Diamondbacks).
2. Matthew Liberatore, LHP, Memphis (St. Louis)
Liberatore, on the other paw, is and has been a legitimate prospect. He's the lefty the Cardinals obtained from the Rays in exchange for Randy Arozarena several winters ago. He didn't fare well in his initial big-league voyage last season (he posted a 5.97 ERA in 34 innings), but a few evaluators told CBS Sports that his stuff looked better this spring. They weren't lying based on his outing Friday night against Charlotte (White Sox). Liberatore's fastball averaged 94.8 mph, up more than one tick from last season, and he generated 10 whiffs on 13 swings taken against his signature curveball.
It's to be seen whether or not Liberatore can maintain those gains. If so, he could factor into the Cardinals' big-league rotation sooner than later.
3. Nolan Jones, 3B/OF, Albuquerque (Colorado)
Jones used to be a top prospect, albeit a divisive one thanks to the clash between his well-above-average power and his immense swing-and-miss issues. The Guardians sent him to the Rockies over the winter in a small trade, and he was a candidate to crack Colorado's Opening Day roster. (Obviously he came up short in that quest this spring, given that he's appearing in this column.) Nevertheless, he had a big Friday, homering twice and driving in four runs as the well-named Isotopes scored a 9-4 win against Round Rock (Texas).
4. Grayson Rodriguez, RHP, Norfolk (Baltimore)
5. Taj Bradley, RHP, Durham (Tampa Bay)
We'll wrap this up by focusing on what looked like the best starting pitcher matchup of the night between the Orioles' Rodriguez and the Rays' Bradley. Rodriguez (No. 7) and Bradley (32) both found themselves on CBS Sports' top 50 prospect list earlier this spring, and each should debut this summer. Who knows, they might even end up facing one another in an AL East showdown.
Unfortunately, Friday's game didn't quite live up to the hype. So it goes.
Rodriguez surrendered three runs on four hits and four walks over the course of four innings. He also struck out a pair of batters. Rodriguez's fastball sat in the mid-90s and topped out at 99.5 mph. His usually dominant secondary pitches coerced just four empty swings from Durham's bats, and he ran into trouble immediately, yielding a two-run shot to his fourth batter faced.
Bradley, for his part, allowed three runs on four hits and three walks in two innings of work. He leaned heavily on his fastball-cutter combination, tossing one or the other 87 percent of the time. Bradley did generate nine whiffs despite throwing just 55 pitches on the evening. He too gave up an early home run, as Norfolk infielder Connor Norby hit a three-run shot in the second.
Norfolk ended up winning by a 6-4 final. You have to imagine this won't be the last time Rodriguez and Bradley square up.