Valley Glen, Calif. —— Below are a few quick hits on notable junior college baseball prospects that stood out during a Tuesday afternoon October 2 fall baseball game between the College of the Canyons (CA) and Los Angeles Valley College (CA).
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College of the Canyons
Nate Duarte, C/INF
A Lancaster native drafted by the Houston Astros out of high school last year, Nate Duarte showed up on campus in Santa Clarita as one of four shortstops fighting for time this fall. Seeing the numbers game, Duarte asked the COC coaching staff if he could step behind the plate — Tuesday night marked his second game catching in, well, his life, and the kid already looks like a natural back there. He’s got some things to work on with blocking, framing, and setting up targets for pitches, but Duarte has a legitimate cannon (1.98 and 2.01 pop times) that should only get better as he becomes less a gunslinger and more a true catcher. He has the athleticism and soft hands you’d expect from a top-line infielder at this level, and he bounces around with the toughness and energy you need from a catcher dealing with a young JuCo pitching staff.
Let’s see if he’s able to truly lead and finesse a relatively inexperienced group of pitchers for College of the Canyons this year, but early returns on Duarte’s move behind the plate are extremely promising. And let this not be lost on you: a few hours after Duarte’s second day behind the plate on Tuesday, Colorado Rockies catcher Tony Wolters slapped the game-winning single in the National League Wild Card Game against the Chicago Cubs. I mention it because Wolters was a middle infielder who couldn’t make it past Double-A in the Cleveland Indians’ system (great glove, good arm, no hit) and the Rockies recognized that he might flourish behind the plate. They moved him there after claiming him on waivers in 2016, he’s now a three-year big leaguer, and on Thursday he’ll catch in the National League Division series. That’s not to say Duarte is a big leaguer (yet), of course, but more that the point shouldn’t be lost that middle infielders in the right situation can become very, very good catchers with some work and patience. College of the Canyons may be developing one right here.
Tyler Erne, 3B
Back for his second year at College of the Canyons, Tyler Erne looks like he’s added about twenty pounds of muscle to his frame — a welcome and much-needed addition for the exceptional defender at third. Erne is built, now, with thick legs and a strong core, versus a year ago when he was swimming in his uniform jersey. And he’s as good a defender as ever, early on Tuesday stepping to his left and diving to field a hard-hit ball before getting up and unleashing his legitimately big league-quality arm on a line across to first base.
There’s no question Erne can field at the Division I level, and he reportedly checks all the boxes as a good teammate, student, and leader. If he can hit enough this year, he’s a sure-fire, no doubt Division I recruit who should land at a big program as a third baseman ready to plug in immediately. If the bat really develops now (or soon), he’ll find himself playing pro ball, before too long, too.
Eddie Rodriguez, UTIL
One of the only other returning guys joining Erne this year at College of the Canyons, Eddie Rodriguez is the same as he’s ever been: versatile, athletic, and sneaky powerful, on Tuesday showing it all off by slugging a long, long home run to left field at Valley. You can plug Rodriguez in anywhere — corner infield, corner outfield, second base, etc. — and you’re going to get a competitive guy who does his job and brings it with the bat day in and day out. For me, he’s not on Erne’s level (yet), but I think Rodriguez is a sneaky-good sleeper who deserves at least more than a glance from larger programs who come initially to watch Erne.
Kyle Soberano, SS
Soberano is a newcomer and a bit of a wild card, an undersized infielder who can really pick it at shortstop to go along with impressive barrel skills and an all-fields approach from the left side of the plate. He tripled twice against Valley on Tuesday (thrown out at home on one while trying to stretch it), and he recorded 4.49 and 4.51 times on the turn at first base running out those two balls, so his foot speed is already above-average to plus. He’s got the hands and arm for shortstop but he’s still a little raw for this level — he’ll rush through plays he doesn’t need to, etc. — though refinement through 2019 and into 2020 should make him an exceptional middle infield defender and a must-follow at the four-year level.
Los Angeles Valley College
Lee Brandzel, SS
A freshman shortstop new to the Los Angeles Valley College program this fall, Brandzel showed out early on Tuesday afternoon by making two exceptionally advanced plays on choppers hit slowly his way. He fields and throws well on the run with average arm strength and above-average accuracy. He may well be Valley’s starting shortstop this spring and should hold his own there just fine; long term, at a four-year program, he may ultimately fit better at second or third, but developing at short the next 18 months could make him a dude by the time he’s ready for a four-year look. Good speed, too; he ran 4.22 and 4.24 up the line in my look, plus a 4.01 bunt.
Jose Martinez, RHP
A bit of a wild card as a sophomore righty, Jose Martinez’s draw is the knuckleball. His fastball is a decent second look for a knuckleball-heavy arsenal, sitting 77-81 with some sink, but it’s the knuckler that’ll draw attention and may actually get him to a four-year program willing to take a chance on his unique look. In his inning of work for Los Angeles Valley College on Tuesday, he couldn’t quite get the pitch to completely knuckle without any spin, but even when turning over just once or twice to the plate he showed decent feel for the strike zone and a great, lively tumble that drew some bad swings and weak contact. It’s not a gimmick, either; Martinez has some feel here and throws that knuckleball legitimately and competitively. He’s a must-follow for me later this fall/into the spring so I can see how he’s able to improve it.
Noah Myhre, RHP
A sophomore from Arizona, Noah Myhre ought to be the ace of the Los Angeles Valley College staff this spring. He sat 85-86 from a mid three-quarters slot in two innings of clean work on Tuesday afternoon against Canyons, working downhill and on line to the plate exceptionally well with a little bit of deception to righties through his mechanics and arm swing. He pairs the fastball with a 77-78 change that has some feel, and a promising 68-69 curve with nearly over-the-top 12-to-6 depth. I need to see the curve more; he popped a couple very nice ones early in counts for strikes, but opted to pound the zone with fastballs generally later in counts; the more consistent and better feel he’s got for the curve, the better off he’ll be against top-flight competition, and I have a hunch there’s enough command across the profile for him to blossom a bit this year and maybe even turn into a fringe-average/smaller school Division I prospect.
Sebastian Zepeda, RHP
Sebastian Zepeda threw the hardest pitch of the day on Tuesday afternoon for either club, registering 87 at peak while sitting 84-86 with his fastball in his first inning of relief work. He pairs it with an average 68-69 curveball, and a very promising, sharp 77-80 slider that has serious tilt and enough velo to really be a wipeout pitch, particularly against righties. His velo fell back a good bit in his second inning of work (81-83, touched 84), so there’s some stamina/arm strength issues here, and he needs better early command of his off-speed pitches to really keep hitters honest against the fastball, but Zepeda flashes the stuff and the power, and he’s just a freshman. He’s a high-follow for me long-term, and while command and stamina need to straighten out some, it’s easy to dream on him as a legit power relief arm 12-18 months from now.
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