Last I checked in on 19-year old slugger Ryan Clifford, he hadn’t yet debuted at the High-A level, but was already positively impacting his prospect stock with some impressive discipline at Low-A. Despite his age, the Astros decided that he wasn’t being challenged, as evidenced by his .337/.488/.457 slash line and 25 walks against 27 strikeouts while in Fayetteville, and decided to move him up and make him one of the youngest players in High-A ball in mid-May. While not the hardest transition on the minor league ladder, the move up is a meaningful one, and Clifford initially struggled, going 0-for his first 15 with the Tourists, striking out in 10 of those at-bats. While to some that caused concern that the promotion had been hasty, he quickly quieted the noise with a 7-game hit streak that included 4 multi-hit efforts and 5 extra base hits. He was still striking out an elevated clip at this point, but it was nice to see him doing extra base damage after modest slugging figures in Low-A.
After the hot streak, Clifford cooled back off for the remainder of the month, and it looked as though he may have needed the rest of the season to truly find his footing at the level. Since the calendar turned to June, however, Clifford has without exaggeration been one of the best hitters in the Carolina League- for the month, he currently holds a .294/.431/.667 slash line with 5 home runs, and has limited strikeouts well with just 14 in 64 PAs, a very solid 21.8% clip. He has also continued to maintain a strong walk rate, even if it’s not in the gaudy territory from his Fayetteville stint, with 8 on the month, a 12.5% clip. It is highly impressive to see him finding his power stroke in the midst of this transition, as even at Low-A that part of his game, though it did project well, wasn’t showing up a ton. His defense, while not exactly a standout piece of his profile, has also exceeded expectations to at least some degree thus far. His movement ability is below average, but not by a tremendous amount, and his arm has shown very well in right field. He had been expected to move to first base sooner than later as an amateur, but has some believers as an outfielder at this point, even if the eventual home remains up in the air.
To be clear, this type of performance in High-A is simply not normal. The only other teenagers who have produced to this degree or better at the level this season are Jackson Holliday, considered by many to be the top overall prospect in the sport, Junior Caminero, who has ascended into many overall top 25s, and Roman Anthony, who has become a popular Top-100 pick himself on midseason updates. While it is true that Clifford offers the least defensive value of any of these players, he’s in elite company, and it’s beginning to look like he should hold similar stature as a prospect, even if the defensive limitations ding him a bit.
Since the graduations of Hunter Brown and Yainer Diaz, Drew Gilbert has been a slam dunk as the #1 prospect in the system, but it may be time for a conversation given just how well Clifford has been of late. If the contact skills and plate discipline continue to look as good as they have thus far, Clifford could project as one of the best pure hit/power prospects in the sport. Gilbert, a legitimate center fielder with power in his own right, can create value in more ways, but Clifford’s power is likely the best tool between the two, so it’s an interesting debate. It’s also worth noting that Gilbert has struggled thus far in Double-A, but I’m attributing that to the elbow injury he has been playing through until there’s significant evidence to the contrary. He has recently resumed playing the field after spending multiple weeks DHing, so we should get a clearer picture of who he is in the upper minors in the coming weeks, and perhaps the comparison between the two players will come into greater focus. Whoever you prefer, it’s hard not to be excited by the early returns on the 2022 draft class, which added both players to the system.