Despite a deep and talent farm system, the Dodgers have something of a prospect gap currently at their Double-A affiliate in Tulsa. While the promotion of Walker Buehler and the return of Josh Sborz from injury give the rotation a talent shot, the Drillers lineup is especially thin on major-league-quality hitting. I took in the Tuesday evening start of Andrew Sopko, and though it was not his best outing, both he and Edwin Rios stood out as having the greatest professional futures.
Sopko’s velocity was down on this cooler Tuesday evening, which isn’t as alarming as it could be made to be. Though he has pitched in the low 90s in Double-A starts, Sopko was more often in the 88-90-mph range this evening. He spotted the ball well in the zone, but was hit harder than I had seen previously. When right, Sopko tends to pitch above the barrel, forcing several weak flies and pop outs. On this night, he pitched lower with the fastball and Springfield hitters were able to square him up better.
Sopko controlled his breaking ball fine on the evening, though I’ve seen him pitch with tighter spin. The curve and slider looked like it was running together a little more this evening, and was not sharp enough to feature as a putaway pitch. Sopko’s tight and short arm action might be his best deception, with the ball being difficult to pick up out of hand.
Given his deception and ability to throw strikes, Sopko’s able to pitch effectively without his best stuff. It’s still early in the season for Sopko and he’s not fully stretched out yet. He threw just 68 pitches on the evening and has thrown no more than 71 pitches in any of his four outings this year. Sopko’s upside as a number-five starter or swing pitcher looks to still be the case, and I will evaluate his stuff with more scrutiny later in the season as he reaches full strength.
Rios was largely stymied at the plate (the Drillers themselves only had two hits) and was kept off balance by the broad repertoire of pitcher Matt Pearce. Pearce effectively mixed a cut fastball in with his breaking ball and fastball and frequently had Rios in front of the ball. As I’ve mentioned, Rios is an aggressive hitter with a really long swing and below-average bat speed, so a pitcher like Pearce can keep him guessing. A Pearce cutter was able to splinter Rios’ bat as well.
This is largely going to be the issue for Rios at the plate. To be effective, Rios has to attack fastballs early in the count, as he lacks the eye and bat speed to make quick adjustments at the plate. He’s still plenty strong enough to survive as a mistake hitter, and his numbers this year (.333/.360/.573) do not suggest he’s encountering struggles at the Double-A level. But Rios’ bat speed issues will be a continuing concern he will have to account for as he moves up.
Rios’ defense was largely unchallenged on the evening. His body looks trimmer than his call up at the end of last season and while his reactions and agility are below average, he does not look out of place at third base. Rios’ arm is easy plus at the position and he was able to show it off this evening.
Ivan Vieitez showed the best arm strength on the mound for either team. His fastball ranged between 92-94 mph and he flashed an average curveball. He’s listed at 6’2 and 170 lbs., but even that looks a little generous. He needs either a few more ticks on the fastball or to sharpen his breaking ball to become a viable relief candidate.
Tim Locastro seems to hang on the fringes of prospect-dom, given his ability to put the ball in play with frequency. He would help matters by showing utility, though in a few looks now at shortstop I don’t see that as a playable position for him at the next level. Locastro lacks the arm strength for the left side of the infield and that will make a utility future tough in Los Angeles.
I’m not forgetting Johan Mieses in my Drillers coverage, I just have yet to see him. That being said, his struggles largely speak for themselves and he may need more time to make the proper adjustments to more polished pitching.