BAKERSFIELD, Calif. — Three weeks ago, Yency Almonte told me his goal to finish 2016 was to get down to a sub-3.00 ERA. Considering the Rockies’ prospect is pitching for the High-A Modesto Nuts in the extremely hitter-friendly California League—and he is a workhorse, among the leaders in all of minor league baseball in innings pitched—that would be no small task to complete. And then, in his last three starts after we talked, Almonte has ripped off 20 consecutive innings without allowing an earned run.
Maybe sub-3.00 is selling himself short.
Below, Today’s Knuckleball has video of Almonte throwing for the Nuts on the road in Bakersfield from a couple weeks ago. Admittedly, the righty wasn’t as sharp in that game, giving up five earned runs on nine hits in six innings, but after correcting course the last few weeks he’s now 8-8 with a 3.40 ERA in 21 starts (132.1 innings) for Modesto.
Velocity/stuff: Almonte is a flame thrower, to say the least. In the start here against Bakersfield, he sat 94-98 mph all start long, and actually got a little bit stronger as the game wore on. On his worst velocity days, I’ve seen him sitting 92-95 mph, and on his very best, he’s topped out at 99 mph. He credits that to getting quite a bit stronger in the offseason and really getting his arm under him, but whatever the cause, he’s throwing the hell out of the ball.
Refreshingly, too, he has some decent run to his fastball, even when thrown in the upper velocity band. When he gets on top of it and commands down in the zone, it has arm-side life beyond just the velocity that makes at-bats very difficult on right-handed hitters.
He pairs that plus velocity with an 84-89 mph slider that shows good depth, especially when thrown in the upper velocity band. It’s becoming quite the put-away pitch for Almonte, who likes to work almost exclusively off his fastball the first few innings of his starts right now, and then start dropping sliders in as the lineup turns over.
His third pitch, a changeup, is more of a work in progress. It has the velocity differential it needs, sitting in the mid-80s, but the feel isn’t quite as strong for it as for the slider. That’s a fairly typical challenge for a 22-year-old hurler, and one that Almonte knows he needs to overcome if he wants to stay in a rotation as he keeps moving up levels (more on that in a second). Changeup or not, though, his stuff is electric and he’s simply overpowering High-A hitters at times with the fastball-slider combo.
Mechanics: Almonte has a free and easy delivery that is repeatable with a good plane thanks to his tall frame and high three-quarters release point. He shows moderate stabbing action in the back at hand break, which allows hitters to pick up the ball early before release, but his delivery is repeatable and consistent. More encouragingly, he has plus velocity without maxing out his effort on every pitch, and his steep downhill plane makes it very tough for hitters to stay on him.
He’ll spin off to first base at times, and can sometimes rush his long arm action, specifically in the stretch with runners on base, but he has the athleticism to overcome some of those issues in-game and the overall physical tools to make subtle changes as his career progresses.
Context: Somewhat young for the level, Almonte has only gotten better as the year goes on, and is now undoubtedly one of the best pitchers in the California League. Entering Monday night, he leads all of minor league baseball in strikeouts (132) and is third in innings pitched (132.1), so the Rockies have really let him loose in Modesto as they find out just how consistently he can get through lineups multiple times.
After being traded by both the Angels (who drafted him in 2012), and then again by the White Sox, it appears he may have found a home in Colorado as he shoots up prospect lists with his reputation improved from the summer. He’s an extremely polite, approachable player, and much like Astros prospect Akeem Bostick, Almonte’s notably positive and mature disposition ought to help him work through adversity and make other adjustments as his career progresses.
Projection: Long-term, the smart money is on Almonte moving to the bullpen, where he could easily slide in as a late-inning reliever at the ultimate level. Obviously, the presence of a nearly-100 mph fastball and a mid- to upper-80s slider to go along with it screams relief ace, but considering how well he’s thrown this summer—and how deep he’s gotten into games all year long—it wouldn’t surprise to see the Rockies keeping him in their Double-A rotation next year.
Obviously, there is work to be done; if Almonte believes he’s capable of staying in a rotation long term, his changeup will have to drastically improve, and he’ll need to learn to command his slider better within the zone early in counts. At 22 and already clearly successful enough to have pitched his way out of High-A by the end of the summer, though, he’ll get plenty of opportunities moving forward as he’s now firmly in the future of the Rockies’ organization.