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Colorado Rockies prospects: No. 17, Warming Bernabel

The 21-year-old corner infielder suffered an injury-plagued 2023 campaign

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17. Warming Bernabel (332 points, 22 ballots)

Bernabel entered 2023 with a 40-man roster spot and some hype after a strong 2022 season that saw him hit well across two levels of A-ball (129 wRC+ in Low-A, 118 in High-A). Unfortunately, though, his season ended after suffering a concussion in an accidental collision. The 6’2” 21-year-old righty-hitting third baseman, known for his elite hand-eye coordination and aggressive approach, was signed by the Rockies for $900k in July 2018 after being listed as Baseball America’s 33rd-best prospect of the international signing class. For 2023, he was assigned to Double-A Hartford, where he was 2.7 years younger than league average.

Unfortunately, Bernabel struggled in 2023. He hit just .192 in April before heating up slightly in May to .266 before hitting the injured list with a back issue that kept him out of action for over a month. After an eight-game rehab stint at the complex league, Bernabel was back to Hartford in mid-July. His .819 OPS in July was encouraging, but he slumped back to a .553 OPS in August and an abysmal .385 OPS in September. In all, Bernabel had a tepid .225/.270/.338 line with six homers in 322 PA (66 wRC+) for Hartford.

When looking at that line, though, it remains important to remember that Bernabel was one of the youngest players in the Eastern League and that his season was impacted by injury. Still, it’s hard to be a strong offensive player when walking in only 4.7% of PA (striking out in 21% of them). Defensively, he played 80 games at the hot corner (including the complex league) and committed nine errors (down from 21 in 2022).

Here’s some video of Bernabel from the 2022 Arizona Fall League, including a slo-mo look at the swing:

Keith Law of the Athletic was the high man on Bernabel nationally, ranking him 90th overall in the minors and fourth in the system in February 2023:

[Bernabel] can hit even good fastballs and shows above-average power already, with superb hand-eye coordination, resulting in an aggressive approach that doesn’t see him running a lot of deep counts. His offspeed recognition isn’t quite at that level yet, which showed a little bit after his move to High-A Spokane, although he’s young enough to improve in that area. He’s a former shortstop who has the hands and arm for third base, needing work on timing and consistency that he should get with more reps.

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He could end up a hitter for average with 15 to 20 homers a year, or more of a power hitter with less average if he doesn’t progress enough in pitch recognition, but either version would be at least a solid regular at third.

Fangraphs ranked Bernabel 12th in the system with a 40+ FV tag in June 2023:

Bernabel’s lively hitting hands drive a fairly exciting hitter profile even though he has some scary indicators related to his plate discipline. Bernabel’s swing is rhythmic, balanced, athletic, and has natural loft without compromising contact. He has great bat-to-ball feel in the zone (86% Z-contact%), and the lightning-fast way his hands fire allows him to let the baseball travel deep before deciding to swing. He often decides wrong, though. Bernabel is one of the more aggressive hitters in all of pro baseball, chasing at a 37% clip and swinging 54% of the time in 2022.

After a very slow first month of 2023, Bernabel hit the IL with back spasms and missed the month prior to list publication. At this stage of the season, my hope was that he would either keep raking or be exposed and be forced to adjust, but the injury has prevented the latter from happening. He has the hit and power combination to be an everyday third baseman if he can chase fewer non-competitive breaking balls, but he’s a risky young hitter because of how often he tends to. Bernabel is on the 40-man roster and in his first option year. He’s quite young and still only has about a month of reps above A-ball. His second option year will almost certainly be used next season as he continues to try to be more selective or be eaten alive by more mature pitching.

MLB.com ranked Bernabel 10th in their 2023 system list as a 45 FV player with a 50 hit tool:

Bernabel’s feel for the barrel stands out more than anything else. He’s very aggressive early in counts, and it hasn’t hurt the right-handed hitter yet — he’s struck out in just 13.4 percent of his plate appearances heading into 2023. He can do damage too, and he’s just starting to learn how to finish balls, with the raw pop to hit it out to all fields. A more refined approach could lead to more in-game power.

Bernabel’s defense has improved markedly, having moved from shortstop to third base after he signed. His internal clock is much better now, with his footwork and arm working in sync more consistently, and he has plenty of arm strength for the position.

Baseball Prospectus put a 55 OFP grade on Bernabel in November 2022, ranking him 6th in the organization:

Bernabel’s swing is a bit noisy. He is handsy during his load and uses a big leg kick for timing. That should lead to some sync or adjustment problems, but he just makes good contact more often than not. While not really looking to lift and pull, Bernabel has a fair bit of pop already and should have at least average power to go with a plus hit tool. In the field his work at third base is inconsistent at best. He has the arm strength for the position, and while he’s not as hopeless there as his error total might suggest, he didn’t always look comfortable. If he can get to even a gentleman’s 45 at the hot corner, the bat should take care of the rest, but that’s still a bigger “if” than you’d like at this point.

I’m a soft touch for an unconventional stroke—and I think Bernabel’s will work just fine—but there needs to be some positional/defensive value for him to be a good regular.

Bernabel was given an aggressive assignment entering 2023 that befit his 40-man roster status, but the back injury and offensive struggles made it a lost season given we don’t have a good feel on if Bernabel will be able to adjust to upper-minors pitching. He’ll need at least one more minor league option year before the Rockies even consider bringing him up to MLB (that’s assuming he can be average or above average in Double-A this season). If and when Bernabel gets to the Show, he’ll need to fight for playing time in a crowded corner infield situation, albeit with the tools to hang at the hot corner instead of the cold one.

Still though, it’s important to keep the perspective that Bernabel possesses a hit tool that could be a weapon at the big league level, especially if he can lay off a few more out of the zone pitches. The offensive potential and scouting reports were enough for me to rank Bernabel 12th on my list as a 40+ FV player.