As we’ve now firmly entered the top 20 of LL’s Top 50 Prospects, we encounter a pair of faces that fan will be able to familiarize themselves with when big league camp opens later this month. Unlike many of the guys who landed somewhere in the #17-50 prospect ranking range, today, we take a look at a guy you’re already familiar with (if you were still watching in September), as well as one of the more intriguing position-playing prospects brought into the organization this offseason.
Matt Festa was the first member of the Mariners 2016 draft class to make his debut in the major leagues. The seventh-round pick was called up in July for a couple of days and then again in September, making eight appearances for the Mariners in 2018.
Originally drafted out of East Stroudsburg University (Pa.) as a starter, Festa made the full-time transition to the bullpen in 2017. His stuff immediately played up in shorter stints and he ended up among the league leaders in strikeout rate and strikeout-to-walk ratio in the California League. A hip injury delayed the start to his 2018 season, but he torched Double-A batters once he was healthy, helping him earn his brief cup of coffee in the big leagues.
His advanced control of his four-pitch repertoire helped him fly through the minor leagues. As a reliever, he leans mainly on his fastball and slider, rarely mixing in his curveball and changeup, both of which are below-average pitches. His gaudy strikeout numbers in the minors show just how effective his fastball/slider combo can be. Festa’s best pitch is his breaking ball, a hard, late-breaking slider that sits in the mid- to upper-80s.
Obviously, the slider is most effective against right-handed batters, but he isn’t afraid to use it against left-handed batters too. With good command of the pitch, he’ll locate the slider down and in against lefties, like he did to earn his first major league strikeout (against new/old friend Kaleb Cowart).
His four-seam fastball sits 92-95 with late life to it. He doesn’t generate a high spin rate on his heater, which limits his ability to generate big whiff rates with it. Instead, he commands it well towards the bottom of the strike zone, setting up his devastating slider. By commanding both his heater and breaking ball at the bottom of the strike zone, its likely he creates a good pitch tunnel for that pitch pair. His fastball can be a little too hittable at times, leading to a few too many long balls, something he struggled with in Double-A.
With his background as a starter in college, Festa profiles best as a multi-inning relief arm. Continued development of his fastball/slider combo could push his ceiling into a late-inning role. Since the Mariners churned the majority of their bullpen this offseason, Festa should see significant time in the big leagues in 2019. -JM
As we’ve seen throughout this prospect series, Jerry has made no secret about his willingness to place trust in guys who fall into the “late bloomers” category. Falling somewhere between the McGovern/Gerber types who utilized impressive breakouts in their final collegiate seasons to inflate their draft stock and Joey Curletta, whose career made a turn for the better upon switching organizations, Fraley impressed in a big way in 2018—his third professional season in the Tampa Bay organization—after a pair of relatively uninspiring campaigns.
After thriving through three seasons in the SEC and holding his own in the Cape Cod League, Fraley found success more difficult to come by at the plate upon going pro and eventually sought to re-tool his swing to more efficiently utilize his core and lower body muscles and better tap into his power.
“When I was in college, I obviously did enough to give myself the opportunity to be a top Draft pick, and I was happy with it. “But when I got here [to the pros], I realized I got away with a few things. It’s good competition [in college], but I still didn’t face anything like I was seeing in pro ball. Maybe on Fridays, you’d see a really good pitcher, but on the weekends, that’s when you could boost the stats a little bit. I immediately knew in the pros that my swing was very flat, that I was basically throwing my hands at the ball, taking the rest of my body out of the process, and I knew that had to change.”
“We started by looking at what the best hitters in the world do -- Mike Trout, Miguel Cabrera, Jose Altuve, Mookie Betts, Andrew Benintendi, all of those guys. They all have two things in common. They have a unique rhythm and setup, comfortable to whatever works for them. But as soon as the foot goes down, they all have the same movements. I want to be the best, too. That’s a goal I really have for myself. So I want those same movements. It became about learning about what and where my body is supposed to be.
”So for me, the big thing is swing path. Get the barrel early in the zone and cover as much of the zone as possible. Even if I’m late on the fastball, I can still do damage. So as early as possible, I have to use my entire body and make sure I’m using the biggest muscles I have. I’m talking about my [butt], my quads, my core. The hands are the last thing firing. Now, I’m using all 210 pounds of me to make the ball go, which wasn’t always the case.”
You can see how minimal a degree of rotation Fraley gets through his lower half in this clip below from his college days at LSU. The fact that he’s still able to yank it out of the ballpark shows that he’s got some potential to drive the ball bottled up.
Conversely, in the video below, from 2018 with the Charlotte Stone Crabs, a slightly thicker Fraley is activating his obliques and glutes to produce what appears to be a more powerful swing, just as he stated was his intent with the swing change.
Here’s another view, this one from his time Down Under, the shows off a far more closed stance and a more intentional pre-pitch stride (and also a monster oppo-shot).
JAKE FRALEY! A massive solo blast from the @PerthHeat stud has given the World All-Stars a 6-4 lead! #ABLASG pic.twitter.com/KnV5m5zm8K— Brut Australian Baseball League (@ABL) December 21, 2017
While injuries cost him the opportunity to fully implement the changes during the 2017 regular season, he put on a show in the Australian Baseball League and took home league MVP honors after leading the league in steals (39), total bases (115) and tied for the lead in hits (61) while slugging 13 homers in 40 games. After a delayed start to the season on account of a sprained left toe, Fraley proved the results were more than merely a hot streak against inferior competition as he posted a 172 wRC+ while slashing .347/.415/.547. His batted ball data was nearly identical to his debut 2016 season and suggests that perhaps his BABIP going forward will fall somewhere between the .279 mark he posted in ‘16 and the .407 mark he was able to put up last year. Between some BABIP regression and extrapolating his stats out over the course of a full season, his average is likely to settle in around or just below .300; however, his consistently strong walk rates and propensity to put the bat on the ball make him a good candidate to maintain high on-base rates throughout his career.
While some view his ceiling as that of a fourth outfielder, it isn’t hard to see his stature and blend of offensive/defensive/baserunning abilities and envision a Brett Gardner-type career arc for him as he continues to implement the changes to his game. -BT