Minor League Baseball’s Opening Day took place yesterday, and in the run-up to that event teams were scouring the free agent market to find those last few players to fill out their rosters. The Milwaukee Brewers inked two minor league hurlers in the days leading up to Opening Day, announcing the signings of Johan Belisario and Justin Topa via their player development Twitter account @BrewersPD.
Belisario is a diminutive 25 year old right-hander who began his career back in 2009 when he was signed as an international free agent from Venezuela by the Tigers. He debuted in the now-defunct Venezuelan Summer League the following year in 2010 in what was his age-16 season, and struggled on that circuit for three seasons before taking a step forward with his command in 2013. From 2013-15, Belisario appeared in 91 games and logged 128.1 innings across the VESL, short-season A-ball, and the Midwest League, posting a sparkling 1.33 ERA and 2.54 FIP with marks of 8.8 K/9 and 2.5 BB/9.
Unfortunately, Belisario was soon beset by injuries. He was limited to 17.0 innings in 2016 and 22.2 innings in 2017 and his results suffered greatly. Back fully healthy in 2018, the Tigers had the hurler spend most of the year back in the Midwest League despite his advanced age for that level of competition. But he once again thrived in terms of results, working to a 1.39 ERA and 2.26 FIP across 51.2 innings (with 3.0 of them coming at Class A-Advanced). He struck out 58 batters against only 10 walks, limiting opponents to a .196 batting average while inducing grounders more than 50% of the time.
Standing at 5’11” and 165 lbs, Belisario has been previously described as someone who is “not a big guy, but has a power repertoire.” The Brewers have him suiting up for the Biloxi Shuckers to begin the 2019 season, marking the first Double-A assignment of his career.
Here's a bit of video from tonight's @wmwhitecaps game of Johan Belisario out of the bullpen. He's a bit old to be pitching at Low A (24 y/o), but injuries had something to do with that. Decent raw stuff, esp the offspeed offerings. We'll see. Got a K here, anyway. pic.twitter.com/NdBVYDdWwm— HookSlide (@HookSlide23) August 24, 2018
Justin Topa, now 28, began his professional journey when he signed with the Pirates back in 2013 after being chosen in the 17th round of the MLB Draft. He missed all of the 2015 season while injured and threw only 12.2 innings in 2016 after returning to action that July. He was released the following spring and wound up hooking on with the Rockland Boulders of the independent CanAm League. Topa pitched to a 3.50 ERA across 110.2 innings during the 2017 season and began back with the Boulders to begin 2018. He made four appearances with Rockland before the Texas Rangers purchased his contract in June. He would go on to make 10 appearances (7 starts) mostly at the Double-A level, although his numbers weren’t exactly pretty. After posting a 6.85 ERA in 44.2 innings with 38 strikeouts against 14 walks, Topa was granted minor league free agency.
He had some trouble finding a home for the 2019 season until gaining attention through the @FlatgroundApp Twitter account. While his results haven’t been impressive to this point, his raw stuff certainly is — including a fastball that has reached as high as 99 MPH that he pairs with a sharp-breaking slider. Topa has never had much issue with walks, suggesting that he has good control of the baseball in terms of finding the strike zone. Perhaps with an improvement in command — that is, accurately hitting your target within the strike zone — his bat-missing capabilities will take a step forward to better match his high-octane offerings.
Free Agent @Justin_Topa throwing live today. FB 95-8 T99.2. SL 83-5 average 2574 RPM, HB: -7.7, VB: -0.5. @rapsodo report available upon request. @FlatgroundApp @MSI_Baseball pic.twitter.com/5iEMoodzc3— George Zirkel (@George_Zirkel) March 23, 2019
Topa was obviously working out and throwing but didn’t have an actual Spring Training while sitting in free agency, so he has yet to be assigned to an affiliate. He’ll likely work for a bit in extended Spring Training down at AmFam Fields of Phoenix in Arizona to get back in the swing of things before getting assigned to a full-season team.
Statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference and Fangraphs