We’ve reached another All-Star Break in full-season minor-league baseball, and each year many of us look forward to the latest list of players to earn the honor.
As some of you may recall, last year’s Lexington team produced four All-Stars for the Southern Division roster. RF Seuly Matias, 1B/DH Nick Pratto, and catchers MJ Melendez and Sebastian Rivero made the trip to Greensboro, NC, where Pratto earned All-Star Game MVP honors with a homer and four RBI to lead the Southern Division to a 9-5 win at First National Bank Field. Melendez returns to the All-Star Game this year in the Carolina League as a member of the Wilmington Blue Rocks, along with five pitchers (Jackson Kowar, Tad Ratliff, Tyler Zuber, Daniel Lynch, Brady Singer).
The 2019 Lexington roster will send Jonathan Bowlan, Austin Cox, Jon Heasley, Chase Vallot, and Michael Gigliotti to Charleston, WV, for the Southern Division All-Stars. As with their High-A counterparts, Lexington’s pitching has been a definite strength this year. All stats listed are as of end of play on June 14th.
Bowlan (6-2, 3.36) is combining power and finesse effectively, having struck out 74 batters in his 69 2/3 innings (13 appearances, 11 starts). A truly imposing figure at 6’6”, 262 pounds, his delivery is especially smooth when you consider that his fastball comes in around 92-94, and has touched 97 in the past. He deals a slider with very good movement, but his command of it could stand a bit of polish. His changeup is definitely his third pitch, but if he can refine it to the point that it becomes at least a fringe-average pitch, he’s destined for a starting role in the big leagues. Even if that doesn’t happen, Bowlan has an outstanding shot at appearing on a ML roster by the end of 2021. There’s a lot to like about him; big, physical pitcher, who will probably be able to handle a heavy workload as he advances. Bowlan’s father, Mark, was a 19th-round selection of the St Louis Cardinals in 1989 who pitched the only perfect game in the history of the Memphis Tigers on May 3rd, 1987 and went on to pitch two seasons in the minor leagues. Jonathan set his own record on April 28th, 2018, when he struck out 18 batters in an 8-2 Memphis win over USF. One astounding fact about that game: each of the 18 Ks was a swinging third strike. Coming from a kid who put on over 40 pounds of good weight between his sophomore and junior years, it gives one the impression of a power pitcher willing to go deep into starts.
Cox (5-3, 2.75) is coming off an eight-inning start at Columbia in which he shut out the Fireflies on five hits, two walks and six strikeouts. He’s racked up 77 Ks in 75 1/3 innings and given up only 59 hits along with 22 walks (1.08 WHIP).
In nine of his thirteen starts, this year, he’s given up two or fewer walks. Also worth noting: he’s averaging 89 pitches per start, including the season-high 119 that he dealt vs. the aforementioned Fireflies on the 14th, and has maintained a strike percentage of 67%, thus far. Opposing batters are hitting only .206 against him (.575 OPS against), and have managed a measly 17 XBH (5 HRA). Right-handed batters, as a group, fare only slightly better (.224 BA, .589 OPS). A 5th-round selection from Mercer University in 2018, the 6’4”, 185-pound lefty works primarily with a 92-93 MPH fastball and a high-70’s curve, both of which were rated as above-average pitches by MLB Pipeline, but he also throws a change from 84-86 and an occasional slider in the low-to-mid-80’s, though this appears at times to be a slurvy version of his curve.
Heasley (5-3, 2.76) was a 13th-round pick out of Oklahoma State University in 2018 (we keep going back to that 2018 draft, don’t we?), and started the season coming out of the ‘pen. He posted a 1.93 ERA in 14 innings as a reliever, while opposing batters hit only .185 against him (54 AB). He made his first start of the year on May 3rd in a road game at Columbia, allowing one run on two hits and two walks in 4 1/3 innings, striking out three (47 of 77 pitches for strikes). He gave up four runs in his next start on the 9th, this time at home vs. the Kannapolis Intimidators (3 ER), allowing seven hits but no walks, striking out five. Since then, Heasley hasn’t given up more than three runs in a start (11 ER in 35 1/3 IP, 11 BB, 44 K), and appears to have settled into his new role. He has thrown 80 or more pitches in each of those six starts, with a season-high 103 vs. the Charleston RiverDogs in a home start (6 IP, 4 H, 3 ER, 2 BB, 8 K, 59 of 103 pitches for strikes). That was followed up with 95 and 91-pitch, six-inning starts (June 6th and 11th), and while he allowed only one and three runs, respectively, all he had to show for it was a no-decision and a loss. Heasley has become visibly more confident as a starter, as the year has progressed, and generally seems to keep a level and calm demeanor, regardless of the game circumstances. His K/9 has been steady, and has actually been higher over his starts (10.5 K/9 in 8 starts, 9.6 in 5 relief appearances). He works with a fastball at 93-94, though he does sometimes lose a bit after the first 3-4 innings, sitting closer to 91-93. He also throws a hard, slurvy breaking ball (slider?) around 83-84, that usually shows tight spin and late movement, as well as sharp drop at its best. Refining his command will certainly increase his standing as a KC prospect, but should he return to a relief role he would have a very good shot at advancing in a short-relief role, and could potentially become a multi-inning option at the higher levels with even a passable changeup. RFR’s Joel Penfield interviewed Heasley last year in September.
Vallot (.203, 7 doubles, 3 triples, 9 HR, 25 RBI, .780 OPS) is in his third stint with the team after last appearing with the Legends in 2016.
Since then, he’s played 47 games in rookie-level ball and 136 with Wilmington, and an awful lot of life has happened in that time, as well. The 2014 1st-round pick out of St Thomas More HS in Lafayette, LA, he’s endured two significant injuries in the past three years, one of which was a fastball to the face vs. Gage Hinsz and the West Virginia Power on June 14th, 2016, that led to nearly a month on the IL, thirty stitches, several root canals, and ultimately left him too weak to leave the field without assistance. He’s now a two-time All-Star with Lexington, the first time being 2016, when he batted .246 with 33 XBH in 82 games. Lexington was hosting the ASG, that year, and Vallot was unable to play, so this will he his first appearance in an All-Star Game as a professional. That season, 49.3% of his hits were for extra bases (20 doubles, 13 homers), following a familiar pattern that dates back to 2014, his first season in pro ball. As of today, a staggering 53.3% of his career hits have been extra-base hits; 96 doubles, six triples, and 70 homers among his 323 career hits over 444 games. Eighty-one of his 160 hits in Low-A have been XBH (40 doubles, six triples, 35 homers). It’s easy to see why the Royals want to give Vallot every chance to improve, since this sort of power isn’t exactly commonplace. Still, a great deal of his game involves strikeouts, and this year is no exception. Thus far, he’s up to 87 strikeouts over 158 at-bats (20 walks), though his OPS is .780. So when he hits the ball, it takes off like a rocket. He’s drawn enough walks over his career to maintain a .343 OBP, so he finds ways to get on base. It’s a possibility that if he does advance, it won’t be as a catcher; that’s looking more likely, all the time. He still struggles against outside breaking pitches, though he has shortened his swing a bit in an effort to adjust. But the power alone, along with the fact that he’s still only 22 years old, makes him a worthwhile follow. That power will be on display during the ASG Home Run Derby, as Vallot will be one of four players representing the Southern Division for this competition.
Gigliotti (.305, 19 doubles, 1 HR, 18 RBI, 28 SB, .797 OPS) is a 2017 4th-round pick out of Lipscomb University in Nashville, Tennessee. This is his third year in pro ball, though he’s only played in 127 games to this point. His 2017 season was a complete loss, as he went down with an ACL injury that required surgery and was placed on the IL on April 13th.
He returned to action this year, and by all indications he has lost nothing in the way of speed or agility. He appears to be every bit as fast on the bases and in the outfield as he had been, before the injury. In 127 games over his nascent minor-league career, Gigliotti has amassed 150 hits, 33 doubles, 58 RBI, and 51 steals, while slashing .310/.409/.432 (.841 career OPS). He’s also struck out only 92 times in 584 plate appearances against 73 walks. Gigliotti gets on base any way he can; he’ll go oppo just over the shortstop’s head, he can line one deep in the gap, or he might just bunt his way on base. As I recall, his second base hit in Class-A was a bunt single (Note: August 12th, 2017, bottom of the 6th facing RHP Christian Morris, at home vs. Charleston). He went 2-3 in that game with a walk, stealing two bases and scoring two runs in the 7-3 loss. Since that season, he has gained about ten pounds of good weight. He looks as lean as he always has, but appears noticeably broader in his shoulders and seems to put a bit more “oomph” on batted balls. His average has been climbing since the beginning of the year; he batted .269 in 20 April games, then .297 in 23 games in May, and is currently batting a robust .368 over 14 games in June (.939 OPS). His April performance included ten of his 19 doubles and ten steals. Since May 20th, Gigliotti has gone without a hit in only one game, batting .387 over that stretch of 23 games (36-93, eight walks, 15 strikeouts, .964 OPS). In the 14 games this year in which he’s gone hitless, he drew a walk in six of those games. He’s also had two or more hits in 22 of 57 games. He has handled 131 chances in center field over 508 innings without an error (2.32 RF/9). Gigliotti has excellent bat-to-ball skills, a quick, aggressive, prototypical line-drive swing (22% LD percentage), and advanced base-running skills (especially for this level). He’s also worked at taking an all-fields approach to his hitting; whereas he had a 43.7 and 47.1% pull percentage in rookie and Class-A ball in 2017 (42 and 22 games, respectively), he’s hit to left field 39.6% of the time so far, this year (34.8% pull pct, 25.7% center pct). Gigliotti looks the part of a natural lead-off or #2 hitter, and should be able to adjust to more-advanced pitchers as he climbs the ladder.
This year’s South Atlantic League All-Star Game will be played on June 18th at Appalachian Power Park in Charleston, West Virginia. This is the first time since 2009 that West Virginia has played host to the All-Star Game, and the third time they have hosted the game in the history of the South Atlantic League. First pitch is scheduled for 7:35 pm, Eastern Time.
All photos taken by Doc Riddle (@TheGrandOldGame)