7 MLB Prospects Who Could Be the Next Justin Upton
The first overall selection in the 2005 draft out of a Virginia high school, Upton received an aggressive assignment to Low-A South Bend for his professional debut. The 18-year-old held his own in the Midwest League, posting a .757 OPS with 41 extra-base hits, 15 stolen bases and 96/52 K/BB in 113 games. Albeit impressive, his inaugural season didn’t suggest that he’d rip through the minor leagues as he did the following year.
Opening the 2007 season at High-A Visalia in the hitter-friendly California League, the 6’2”, 205-pound outfielder absolutely exploded at the plate, batting .341/.433/.540 with 13 extra-base hits and 28/19 K/BB in 32 games.
Upton’s torrid start quickly earned him a promotion to Double-A Mobile where he continued to rake as one of the younger players in the Southern League.
After batting .309/.399/.556 with 34 extra-base hits (13 home runs), 10 stolen bases and an especially impressive 51/37 K/BB in 71 games, the 19-year-old was called up to the major leagues in early August.
As expected, Upton’s bat cooled off as he was challenged by the most advanced pitching he’d ever seen. Overall, he batted .221/.283/.364 over 152 plate appearances, which is still damn impressive for a teenager.
Upton began to close the gap between his present ability and future potential the follow year, as he batted .250/.353/.463 with 15 home runs in 108 games, and, more importantly, demonstrated the ability to make adjustments at the highest level.
It wasn’t until 2009 that his career truly took flight, however, when he posted a 3.8 WAR (Baseball Reference) and batted .300/.366/.532 with 63 extra-base hits (26 home runs) and 20 stolen bases in 138 games. Upton’s breakout campaign also led to his first All-Star selection.
His best season came in 2011 when the right fielder batted .289/.369/.529 with 31 home runs and 21 stolen bases in 159 games. Beyond his selection to a second All-Star Game, Upton’s 5.7 WAR performance resulted in a fourth-place finish in the National League MVP voting.
Signed to a six-year, $50 million contract before the 2010 season, Upton, 25, is owed $38 million over the next three seasons. If he produces as he did in 2011, such a price tag could be a bargain.
Shifting the focus to the minor leagues, I ask you this, loyal Prospect Pipeline readers: Is there a prospect with the potential to be the next Justin Upton?
To identify players with a similar ceiling, I looked at those with loud, but raw, tools and at least average secondary skills. More specifically, I targeted power-speed prospects who have the potential to reach the major leagues at a young age (though not necessarily as a teenager like Upton).
Here’s a look at seven prospects who could be the next Justin Upton.
7. Rymer Liriano, OF, San Diego Padres
A physically mature player with tons of raw strength, Rymer Liriano boasts at least average tools across the board but lacks overall consistency. Although his hit tool will never develop into anything beyond average, the toolsy outfielder’s plus bat speed and strong wrists suggest that he has plenty of untapped power.
He does a good job keeping his hands inside the ball, but his extensive plate coverage is also a detriment and results in too many weak outs. Due to his plus speed and strong, accurate arm, Liriano has a clear future in right field, though he’ll need to feature more power for a favorable long-term projection.
6. Yasiel Puig, OF, Los Angeles Dodgers
Yasiel Puig's wrists and forearms are loaded with quick-twitch muscles that create plus bat speed and a power-oriented swing. With a lofty swing, the right-handed hitter showcases easy raw power to all fields as well as a decent hit tool.
There’s some swing-and-miss in his game that stems from a lack of patience and propensity to over-commit on breaking balls; however, it should improve as he logs experience. Puig's defense in right field is shaky, as he takes too many poor routes and lacks an instinctual first step.
It’s difficult to determine his ceiling based upon the small sample size last summer, but his power is very real and should translate in the major leagues.
5. Jake Marisnick, OF, Miami Marlins
Jake Marisnick’s tremendous athleticism and raw tools are among the best in the minor leagues. With plus speed, tons of range and a very strong arm, he profiles as a center fielder but could also see more time at both corner spots to get his bat in the lineup.
The only question is whether Marisnick will ever reach his offensive ceiling. His swing involves too many moving parts, and his bat head tends to drag through the zone. As a result, he can be beat by an elevated fastball with velocity or breaking ball in the dirt.
If he can improve his plate discipline, Marisnick should offer 20/20 potential at an up-the-middle position.
4. Jorge Soler, OF, Chicago Cubs
Although his experience was limited last season after signing in the early summer, Jorge Soler still showcased an assortment of tools, as well as better-than-expected secondary skills.
Although he may endure his share of struggles next year in his full-season debut, Soler's plus bat speed and present raw power should help him adapt. He moves well in the outfield for his size and features a strong arm ideal for right field.
If the hit tool develops, then Soler should have no problem batting in the middle of the Chicago Cubs’ order for years to come.
3. Gregory Polanco, OF, Pittsburgh Pirates
An incredibly raw but athletic prospect headed into the 2012 season, Gregory Polanco’s outstanding tools and secondary skills emerged in a big way—and seemingly out of nowhere.
Although he’s still young, the left-handed hitter has the potential for an above-average hit tool in the major leagues. He showcases excellent bat speed and hand-eye coordination and is already comfortable driving the ball to all fields.
Due to his plus athleticism, speed and range, he projects to remain in center field where his bat, power and speed are a premium.
2. Courtney Hawkins, OF, Chicago White Sox
A big, physically strong teenager, Courtney Hawkins is an outstanding athlete who moves better than this mature frame suggests.
A right-handed hitter, his excellent bat speed results in plus raw to all fields thanks to a powerful swing. His pitch recognition and approach is understandably raw, as he tends to over-commit to secondary pitches too early and over-swing. He’ll have plenty of time to make adjustments, and should have an above-average hit and plus power tool by the time he reaches the major leagues.
His above-average speed and athleticism will allow him to remain in center for now, but he could easily outgrow the position and move to a corner spot—especially with his plus arm.
1. Byron Buxton, OF, Minnesota Twins
In addition to elite athleticism, Byron Buxton boasts one of the finest collection of tools among all prospects.
His plus-plus speed plays on both sides of the ball in games, while his plus arm and instincts project favorably in center field. Even though he already possesses plus power, his hit tool and approach are both incredibly raw.
With such a high ceiling comes an equally high level of risk. But if he develops as expected, Buxton could emerge as one of the more dynamic players in the game.