Some notes from the weekend on minor league fields in Goodyear and Mesa.
• Robert Stephenson was the Cincinnati Reds' first-round selection in 2011 and ranked as my No. 48 prospect coming into this year, second in the Reds' system behind Billy Hamilton. He threw a superb four innings on Saturday, filling up the strike zone with two pitches, a fastball at 93-98 mph and a slider at 79-81 that was almost unhittable.
Stephenson stays over the rubber well and takes a long stride toward the plate, but he's pretty late turning his pitching arm over and is stiff when he gets out over that front side. He also has a head-bobble after release, which is usually a bad sign for the pitcher's command, but in Stephenson's case, command isn't a problem. I'd like to see a third pitch from him, and I do wish the delivery was cleaner -- especially getting that elbow turned around sooner -- but the size and command of two plus pitches is a special, front-of-the-rotation combination.
• On the other side of the field, however, things weren't so pretty, as right-hander Victor Sanchez, whom the Seattle Mariners signed for a $2.5 million bonus about 20 months ago, looked awful, overweight and under-velocitied.
Sanchez had an appendectomy and a hernia operation this winter, so this was his first start of the spring, but that doesn't entirely explain the weight gain, slow arm, or 89-92 mph fastball (mostly 89-90) that Reds hitters had no problem squaring up. His changeup was flat and up at 89-90, leaving his curveball -- his only decent pitch -- at 74-78, showing pretty tight rotation with a short break.
The main concern here is that he's barely 18 years old and already has a conditioning issue -- he's listed at 6-foot, 255 pounds, and I'd peg his weight at least 10-15 pounds over that. He'll have to shed some of those extra pounds and hope to get his arm back to full strength in extended spring as he comes back from the offseason procedures.
• On Sunday, I saw two more Reds Class A arms, both right-handers, over at the Chicago Cubs' minor league complex. Dan Langfield was their third-round selection in 2012, an arm-strength guy out of the University of Memphis, but was just 91-92 on Sunday, with an above-average curveball at 74-76. Sal Romano was their 23rd-round pick in 2011, signed to an over-slot deal, and was 89-91 with an average curveball at 76-77 with a below-average change. He's got some head violence in his delivery and a lot of effort, but he's got a great pitcher's build with tree trunks where his legs should be.
• The two Cubs arms of note on Sunday came in at opposite ends of the spectrum. Starling Peralta, who was selected by Arizona in the Rule 5 draft this winter but quickly returned to the Cubs, touched 97 and sat around 94 with an inconsistent slider, slurvy at 75 mph, but with real bite at 81 in on a left-handed hitter's hands. There's some effort there but I can see why a team would at least pay $25,000 -- per Rule 5 guidelines -- for an extra look. Robert Whitenack, however, looked awful in his comeback from 2010 Tommy John surgery, sitting 85-87, way below what he was pre-surgery. He's a cautionary tale for every one of us (myself included) who looks at that operation as risk-free. Most guys come all the way back, but maybe one in 10 don't.
• I didn't see most of the Cubs' main hitting prospects, even the lower-tier guys, but did catch a few swings from second baseman Gioskar Amaya. He showed a compact stroke and the ability, maybe even the tendency, to try to keep his hands inside the ball rather than getting around it to drive the ball to the gaps. Jeimer Candelario didn't play; Dan Vogelbach homered to deep right and struck out twice. Their recent Cuban signee, pitcher Armando Rivero, probably won't get into game action until mid-April, when he'll start in extended spring training.