May 25, 2024

Scouting Justin Crawford and other Phillies, Orioles and Mets prospects

I recently caught games involving the Jersey Shore Blue Claws, the Aberdeen IronBirds and the Brooklyn Cyclones. Below are scouting notes on several notable prospects I saw in those games.

Justin Crawford has electric bat speed, needs swing adjustments

Justin Crawford was the Phillies’ 2022 first-round pick, a super-projectable athlete who bore no small resemblance to his dad, former Tampa Bay Rays standout Carl Crawford. At the time he was drafted, it looked like he’d be a year-to-year guy in the minors as the Phillies waited for his body to mature. I saw Crawford and the High-A Jersey Shore BlueClaws play at the Orioles’ Aberdeen affiliate on Saturday night, and while Crawford — Philly’s No. 2 prospect and No. 43 in MLB — is starting to show some progress, hitting the ball harder this year and hitting it in the air more often, there are some swing issues here that he might have to deal with before he reaches his full potential as a 20-homer center fielder.



Phillies 2024 top 20 prospects: Andrew Painter, Justin Crawford lead the way

Crawford is about as athletic a player as you’ll see in the minors, with absolutely electric bat speed and tremendous foot speed that translates into at least 70 range in centerfield. He’s hitting well on the season, with a .302/.397/.444 line and a 26 percent strikeout rate, but in his 0-for-5 night on Saturday I got to see more of his flaws as a hitter and the adjustments he’ll need to make to keep progressing.

He starts with his hands extremely high, so his path to the ball is long and he doesn’t get the barrel to the zone consistently enough to drive the ball like he’s capable of doing. He has no load, and while he has a good stride to rotate his hips, he’s not strong enough yet for that to translate into a consistent swing or harder contact. Crawford had one flyout on Saturday on a ball he almost squared up, and the ball absolutely flew off his bat, but he also got out in front on two other pitches that he hit on the ground. His ground-ball tendency has improved already from last year, when it was 70 percent, to 53.5 percent in the early going in 2024, and I expect that trend to continue as he gets stronger and can control the bat head more through contact. That said, I’d really like to see him start his hands lower — a change that made Charlie Condon the best prospect in this year’s draft — to help him be on time more consistently.

Bryan Rincon (No. 8 in the Phillies’ system) is off to a miserable start at the plate, hitting .140/.308/.220 through 15 games as a 20-year-old in High A. The weird triple-slash line gives you a good idea of what he’s doing at the plate: He’s up there to take.

Rincon walked twice and didn’t swing at all in either at-bat on Saturday, taking fastballs for strikes in 2-0 and 3-1 counts, barely swinging the entire night. He did have one hard-hit ball, a double to right-center on a 90-mph fastball left up in the zone. He’s an elite defender at short, so he doesn’t have to hit a lot to have major-league value, but he is going to have to swing the bat more and probably get stronger to get there.

Scouting starters Eiberson Castellano and Zach Fruit

Jersey Shore right-hander Eiberson Castellano came into Saturday’s game with an 0.77 ERA through three starts and a 38 percent strikeout rate, but his below-average control really bit him against a patient Aberdeen lineup, and he lasted just two innings. He showed three pitches: a 93-95 mph fastball, a mid-80s changeup that he used heavily to lefties (even in 0-0 counts) and a slurvy slider at 80-82 with curveball shape but below-average break and poor command. Lefties absolutely destroy him, though, even with the changeup; they hit .375/.469/.525 against him last year and .429/.579/.786 so far this year.

Right-hander Zach Fruit started the game for Aberdeen and showed big stuff, sitting 93-95 mph and topping out at 97, with what looked like a sweeper-slider in the low 80s, but he cuts himself off very badly in his landing and his arm slot is extremely high, both of which make him a non-factor as a starter prospect and a higher risk for injury.

Matthew Etzel needs to unlock his power potential

The Baltimore Orioles took outfielder Matthew Etzel in the 10th round last year as a bet on his athleticism. He’s a plus runner who scored extremely well for teams that rely on force-plate measurements as part of their evaluation process. I wrote last winter that he was “a big kid with a small, slappy swing,” and, well, that’s exactly what he is: He is a big, strong kid, and he swings very, very small. He’s a swing change waiting to happen, but at 22, he shouldn’t wait too much longer.



Baltimore Orioles 2024 top 20 prospects: Jackson Holliday leads top farm system

Calvin Ziegler showed promise before injury

I also caught Calvin Ziegler’s first start of 2024 on April 7 with the High-A Brooklyn Cyclones, a major event for the right-hander after he threw only one inning last year due to injury, and he was outstanding … but it was just one of two outings he’d make this year before he blew out his elbow. He’ll undergo Tommy John surgery and miss the remainder of this season, leaving him with only seven innings pitched over three appearances since the end of 2022.



Mets 2024 top 20 prospects: Jett Williams, Luisangel Acuña lead the way

If you’re a Mets fan and feel like tormenting yourself, though, Ziegler looked like a mid-rotation starter if not better, working 93-96 mph with good ride, a hard-breaking slider at 81-83, and a mid-80s changeup with strong tumbling action. And the delivery was good, at least for repeating his delivery and throwing strikes. He’ll turn 22 in October, so at least he’s young, but this is a hideous turn of events for the right-hander.

Ryan Clifford needs to improve pitch recognition

Ryan Clifford (Mets’ No. 8 prospect) came over to the Mets with Drew Gilbert in the trade that sent Justin Verlander to the Astros last July, and was rather overhyped because he’d performed well at 19 in the insane hitter’s park in Asheville to start the year. Clifford scuffled with Brooklyn after the deal and continues to struggle with contact even after returning to the level this year, hitting .222/.430/.333 with a 29 percent strikeout rate.

He’s a power-over-hit guy who swings very hard, all the time, without a two-strike approach; his chase rate is 16 percent before he gets to two strikes and 43 percent in two-strike counts. His pitch recognition is also poor, as he pretty much hunts fastballs and doesn’t pick up spin or changes of speed. I sort of get the hype, as he clearly has plus-plus raw power, but he’s a long way from getting to it in games with this approach and swing.

(Photo of Crawford: Courtesy of the Jersey Shore BlueClaws)