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Hudson Valley hitters are drawing attention

There’s a wide variety of players powering the South Atlantic League’s highest scoring offense.

Syndication: Poughkeepsie Journal
Benjamin Cowles, Ben Rice, and Spencer Henson
Patrick Oehler/Poughkeepsie Journal / USA TODAY NETWORK

Before the 2023 minor league season started, outfielder Aaron Palensky, 24, and first baseman Spencer Henson, 25, were assigned to High-A Hudson Valley after each had spent the entire previous season there. For players of their age and level of experience, repeating Low-A is normally a bad sign, perhaps a precursor to being released. Catcher Ben Rice, 24, was coming off a season in which he played only 68 games for Low-A Tampa, and infielder Benjamin Cowles, 23, was returning to Hudson Valley after a late-2022 cup of coffee there.

Shortstop Alexander Vargas, 21, was being promoted to High-A despite a horrid statistical year in 2022 that left evaluators writing him off as a prospect. Infielder Caleb Durbin, 23, was joining the Yankees organization after coming over in a trade with the Braves, and he was returning to the level he was in to finish last season. Catcher and first baseman Rafael Flores, 22, was leap-frogging Low-A to essentially make his professional debut after signing as an undrafted free agent last summer. Outfielder Spencer Jones, 21, was drawing all the attention after being drafted in the first round last July, and was even dubbed by one scout as the top prospect in the organization.

This is a broad spectrum of players and profiles, prospects and presumed non-prospects, but they all now have something in common. They form the engine of a Hudson Valley Renegades offense that has scored the most runs in the South Atlantic League. The emergence of these hitters wasn’t necessarily anticipated, but it now deserves to be considered in a new light.

This is not to claim that all these hitters should now be considered among the top prospects in the organization, and we are still dealing with a small sample size of a little more than a month of baseball. But their performance does raise the question of whether scouts, evaluators around the league, or the Yankees organization will be looking at these players differently.

If OPS is a statistic that matters to you, and you consider .800 to be a line of demarcation, like .300 once was for batting average, then it should be noted that all of the Hudson Valley hitters listed above have an OPS north of .800, except for Flores (.777) and he is hitting .317 with a .380 on-base percentage. Palensky, Rice, and Henson are over 1.000. If you prefer wRC+ (weighted runs created plus), those same eight players have an average wRC+ of 150, meaning each is performing well above the league average of 100.

If there is a common theme leading to this production, it may be somewhere in the approach. Palensky, Henson, Rice, Vargas, Cowles, and Jones have all seen significant increases in their fly ball rates and consequent decreases in their groundballs. This speaks to an organizational attempt at developing players who hit the ball hard in the air, and it is coming to fruition at Hudson Valley.

Besides lifting the ball more frequently, Palensky, Henson, Rice, and Vargas have all cut their strikeout rates from last year. That’s particularly a big deal for Vargas, who last year seemed to be swinging and missing his way off of prospect lists. Durbin has struck out less than ten percent of the time, and he has a high batting average on balls he puts in play, as does Flores. Hitting the ball hard while making contact frequently is a strong foundation for success at the plate.

Is this sustainable? Are all of these guys for real? It’s still too early to say. For one thing, they all should reach Double-A before we start truly assessing their futures. Durbin was the first to do that this week, and others from this group could join him by the end of the season. You’ll always be right more often if you are pessimistic about the way players will progress, but we are also now in a new age of player development. Successful baseball players come in all shapes, sizes, and backgrounds.

This group of Renegades exemplify that notion. They represent an array of body types and athletic abilities, from the stocky, powerfully-built Henson, to the lithe and twitchy Vargas, to the statuesque Jones. They’ve arrived from strong college programs (Palensky, Cowles), an Ivy League school (Rice), junior college (Flores), and outside the United States (Vargas). Some of these guys could have been written off before the season started, and they still have hills to climb before they are considered legitimate major league prospects, but there isn’t anything fluky about what they are doing. When you don’t have the pedigree of a first-rounder like Jones, you have to hit and keep hitting until you can’t be denied any longer.

The Hudson Valley hitters are making us sit up, take notice, and pay attention to what comes next at Double-A Somerset and beyond.