MLB Prospect Watch: Tigers’ Akil Baddoo, Reds’ Jonathan India, Dodgers’ Zach McKinstry off to hot starts

The minor-league schedule won’t begin until May, but we’re reviving Prospect Watch to coincide with the beginning of Major League Baseball’s regular season. For those new to the feature, every Thursday we’ll be highlighting something prospect-related. Sometimes it’ll be spotlighting a single player, other times it’ll be a trend piece; basically, whatever has caught our attention over the preceding week that can be filed, directly or indirectly, under the wide-ranging label of “prospecting.”

In this Prospect Watch, we’re checking in on five rookies who had big opening weeks. Do note that the players are presented in alphabetical order.

Akil Baddoo entered Wednesday having taken just eight plate appearances, the fewest of anyone included here, but he’s made them count. Three of his four hits as of this writing have been notable in some regard: He homered on the first pitch he saw in the majors; he hit a grand slam in his second game; and he drove in the winning run in his third.

Baddoo, a former second-round pick by the Twins on the merits of his above-average raw power and speed, was available to the Tigers in last winter’s Rule 5 draft because of durability and proximity concerns; he’d played in only 29 games since the start of the 2019 season, and none of those were above High-A. It was reasonable to wonder if he would be outwitted and overmatched by older, more practiced arms. So far, in 24 games between spring training and the regular season, the answer has been “no.” 

The great unknown this year with prospect coverage is how the lost season will impact any given individual. The last time we saw Jonathan India, the fifth pick in the 2018 draft, he was faring decently in his first exposure to Double-A pitching. Though a natural third baseman, the Reds asked him to move to second base as part of their infield merry-go-round. 

The early returns have been pleasant, as India has notched nine hits in his first 19 at-bats. The majority of those have been of the seeing-eye variety, including grounders through the right side on a hit-and-run attempt and against an overshift. Perhaps that shouldn’t be too surprising, given that India profiles as a hit-over-power type who’ll need a solid batting average to buoy his overall game. 

The Rangers acquired Nate Lowe, a longtime target, from the Rays over the winter. He’s been a bright spot for a franchise more accustomed as of late to blight spots: He’s already homered three times and has driven in 14 runs, the second most by a player in the first five games of a season since 2000, according to research done by Craig Goldstein of Baseball Prospectus. His average exit velocity to date is 96.5 mph, and his peak (113.9 mph) would’ve had him in company last year with the likes of Joey Gallo, Fernando Tatis Jr., Jose Abreu, and Juan Soto, to name a few. Sorry, that’s a nerdy way of saying the guy is crushing the ball.

Lowe, who has drawn some criticism from evaluators for his passiveness, has done all that while upping his swing rate by about 10 percentage points. He’s still whiffing and striking out more frequently than you’d like, however, and that’ll bear watching once he stops putting runs on the board every other at-bat on average.

The Dodgers permitted Joc Pederson and Enrique Hernandez to leave in free agency without making notable corresponding additions. What Zach McKinstry’s first week presumes is that, well, maybe they knew they didn’t have to. McKinstry has started three of the Dodgers’ first six games, getting a spot assignment at second and in left and right. He’s notched six hits and four of them have gone for extra bases, including the season’s first inside-the-park homer:

He’s also yet to strike out in 16 trips to the dish (you can bet on plate appearance No. 17 ending in a K). Dodgers fans may want to hold off a little longer before forming a “McKinstry’s Ministry” cheering section, but so far so good for someone who was previously regarded as a nifty, versatile bench piece and little more.

It’s only fitting that we end with Yermin Mercedes, the 28-year-old rookie who became the first player in modern history to begin a season with eight consecutive hits. 

Mercedes didn’t come out of nowhere, as you might imagine; he’s been on the outskirts of prospecting radars because of a right-handed, bat-only profile that tends to yield low returns. To Mercedes’ credit, he’s making it work thanks to his above-average strength and feel for the barrel. It is fair to wonder if his swing-happy approach will derail him as pitchers adjust, but for now it’s best to enjoy the ride and the vibes. 

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