Predicting the Biggest 2014 Breakout Prospect in Each MLB Team's System
Part of the fun in prospect evaluation comes from identifying potential breakout candidates prior to the season.
At this time last year, we were talking about players such as Junior Lake, Brad Miller and Danny Salazar, each of whom parlayed a strong minor league season into an impressive audition in the major leagues.
Similarly, it’s just as important to recognize prospects at lower levels who have the chance to gain considerable traction within their respective organizations and ideally reach the majors at some point the following year.
Here’s a look at each team’s top potential breakout prospect for the 2014 season.
Michael Ohlman, C, Baltimore Orioles
Selected in the 11th round of the 2009 draft out of a Florida high school, the catcher struggled mightily in his first full professional season the following year, batting .208/.302/.293 with 17 extra-base hits and 96 strikeouts in 84 games between rookie-level Bluefield and Low-A Delmarva.
Things didn’t get any better for Michael Ohlman in 2011, as he repeated the Low-A level and batted only .224/.320/.307 with 21 extra-base hits and 96 strikeouts in 105 games.
In 2012, Ohlman began the season on the disabled list with a shoulder injury before receiving a 50-game suspension after testing positive on a performance-enhancing drug.
Upon his return, however, the 6’4”, 205-pound catcher began to put things together. Appearing in 51 games with Delmarva, Ohlman batted .304/.411/.456 with 24 extra-base hits and nearly as many walks (35) as strikeouts (37).
The 22-year-old finally turned in a breakout performance this past season at High-A, batting .313/.410/.524 with 29 doubles, 13 home runs and 93-56 strikeout-to-walk ratio while playing in 100 games for only the second time in his career.
Although Ohlman moves well for his size behind the plate and has remained at the position longer than many evaluators initially projected, his defense—his receiving, specifically—is still below average and in need of considerable refinement.
However, the Baltimore Orioles didn’t draft Ohlman for his defense—they were interested in his right-handed power potential. It required a few extra years, but after posting a .934 OPS this past season in his first taste of High-A, it appears as though Ohlman’s power has arrived.
Henry Owens, LHP, Boston Red Sox
The Boston Red Sox made Henry Owens the No. 36 overall pick in the 2011 draft and assigned him to Low-A Greenville the following year for both his professional and full-season debut.
In general, the 6’6” left-hander flashed enormous promise, posting a 4.87 ERA with 130 strikeouts in 101.2 innings spanning 23 games.
As a result of his success in the South Atlantic League, Owens was moved up to High-A Salem to open the 2013 season and responded to the challenge favorably with a 2.92 ERA, .180 opponents’ batting average and 123-53 strikeout-to-walk rate in 104.2 innings.
The 21-year-old received a promotion to Double-A Portland for his final six starts of the regular season. Though it was a small sample, Owens was dominating against older hitters in the Eastern League, registering a 1.78 ERA and 46-15 strikeout-to-walk rate in only 30.1 innings.
As a highly projectable 6’6” left-hander, Owens repeats his mechanics well despite his long and lanky frame. While his stride toward the plate is shorter than expected, he manages to stay on line with the plate and work on a consistent downhill plane, creating natural deception from a high-three-quarters arm slot.
Owens’ fastball typically sits at 88-92 mph and can be difficult for hitters to pick up out of his hand, and it features sink when he’s working down in the zone. His changeup represents his best secondary pitch and projects as a plus offering at maturity, thrown in the upper 70s with late sink and fade to the arm side.
Meanwhile, his curveball flashes average potential, and he’s adept to adding and subtracting when necessary. That said, I would like to see him use it to back-foot right-handed hitters more often moving forward.
Jose Ramirez, RHP, New York Yankees
After three seasons between both Class-A levels, Jose Ramirez, 23, finally put everything together this past year.
Nobody ever questioned the quality of his stuff or ability to miss bats, but a lack of control and consistency always held him back. This year, however, the 6’3” right-hander was a different pitcher, as his fastball-slider combo proved to be deadly against minor league hitters and he made noticeable strides with the changeup.
Ramirez got off to an excellent start with Double-A Trenton, registering a 2.76 ERA and .192 BAA with a 50-15 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 42.1 innings, and the organization felt good enough about his development to promote him to Triple-A.
Making eight starts for Scranton/Wilkes-Barre of the International League, Ramirez posted a 4.88 ERA and a 28-21 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 31.1 innings before landing on the disabled list in late July. Despite the injury, the right-hander is likely to open the 2014 season back at the level and could reach the major leagues by the All-Star break with a hot start.
C.J. Riefenhauser, LHP, Tampa Bay Rays
Selected in the 20th round of the 2010 draft out of Chipola (Fla.) Junior College, C.J. Riefenhauser was developed primarily as a starter during his first two years at a full-season level.
But after spending the first half of the 2012 season in the High-A Charlotte rotation, the Tampa Bay Rays organization decided to transition the left-hander to the bullpen. Riefenhauser responded favorably to his new role and reached Double-A Montgomery by the end of the season.
Assigned back to Double-A for his first season as a full-time reliever, the 23-year-old was outstanding as Montgomery’s closer, posting a 0.51 ERA with 11 saves, .153 opponents’ batting average and 48-11 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 53 innings.
Having mastered the level, the Rays promoted Riefenhauser to Triple-A Durham following his appearance in the 2013 SiriusXM All-Star Futures Game. While he didn’t post video game numbers at the more advanced level, the left-hander was still highly effective with a 3.05 ERA and 22 strikeouts in 20.2 innings.
The Rays presumably will give Riefenhauser an extended look next spring in major league camp to see if he can win a spot in the Opening Day bullpen. Even if he opens the 2014 season back at Triple-A, the left-hander should be able to make quick work of the level and spend a majority of the year in The Show.
Marcus Stroman, RHP, Toronto Blue Jays
Selected by the Toronto Blue Jays with the No. 22 overall in the 2012 draft out of Duke, Marcus Stroman reached Double-A during his professional debut and was seemingly on the fast track to the major leagues. However, the right-hander received a 50-game suspension for performance-enhancing drugs in the fall and then served it to open the 2013 season.
After working out of the bullpen during his professional debut, the 22-year-old was moved into the Double-A starting rotation following his return from the suspension in mid-May. Making 20 starts on the year, Stroman posted a 3.30 ERA with 129 strikeouts and 27 walks in 111.2 innings.
While it’s only natural to envision the 5’9” right-hander as a lights-out reliever given his lack of a downhill plane and ridiculous arm strength, Stroman made a strong case for his future as a starter this past season at Double-A.
Stroman’s fastball registers in the low to mid-90s, and he demonstrates a present feel for working both sides of the plate. Despite the pitch’s lack of plane, the right-hander does a good job of pounding the lower quadrants of the strike zone to generate ground-ball outs.
In terms of his secondary arsenal, Stroman’s 83-86 mph slider flashes plus-plus at times, thrown off the fastball plane and featuring a sharp bite capable of eluding bats at the highest level. He also demonstrates a present feel for mixing in a low- to mid-80s changeup that has average potential, though it’s less developed than the breaking ball.
Trayce Thompson, OF, Chicago White Sox
A second-round draft pick in 2009 out of a California high school, Trayce Thompson’s baseball skills failed to materialize during his first three minor league seasons, and he didn’t graduate from the Low-A level until the 2012 season.
But things started to pick up for the athletic and toolsy outfielder, as he went on to bat .253/.328/.482 with 62 extra-base hits (25 home runs), 96 RBI and 21 stolen bases in 136 games across three levels. However, Thompson also struck out 166 times during the span.
Although he finished the 2012 season at Triple-A Charlotte, Thompson was assigned back to Double-A Birmingham to open his 2013 campaign. While the 22-year-old rebounded after a sluggish first half, he struggled overall to the tune of a .229/.321/.383 batting line with 15 home runs, 25 stolen bases and 139 strikeouts in 135 games.
Thompson possesses an intriguing blend of power and speed and has the defensive chops to remain in center field. However, his hit tool has been slow to develop, and the swing-and-miss to his game remains a problem.
Presumably headed back to Double-A to open the 2013 season, this could be the year that things come together for Thompson. If that’s ultimately the case, then expect him to reach the major leagues by the end of the season.
Kyle Crockett, LHP, Cleveland Indians
The Cleveland Indians made Kyle Crockett their fourth-round selection this past June after he turned in a dominant season as Virginia Tech’s closer. While the 6’2” left-hander lacks a plus pitch, both his fastball and slider are at least average and masked by a deceptive, low-three-quarters arm slot. As you can imagine, the 21-year-old is especially effective against same-side hitters.
After signing with the Indians, Crockett was dispatched to the Short Season New York-Penn League and promptly fanned 16 batters over 9.1 scoreless innings. He then made a brief four-game stop with Low-A Lake County before moving up to Double-A Akron in early August.
Crockett is on the fast track to the major leagues and could serve as a nice addition to the Indians bullpen upon his arrival at some point during the 2014 season.
Devon Travis, 2B, Detroit Tigers
Selected in the 12th round of the 2012 draft out of Florida State University, Devon Travis has done nothing but open eyes since beginning his professional career.
Assigned to the Short Season New York-Penn League after signing last summer, Travis batted .280/.352/.441 with 17 runs scored, seven extra-base hits and a 10-8 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 25 games.
The 22-year-old’s prospect stock took off this past season courtesy of one of the best statistical performances among all Class-A prospects. Splitting the year between Low-A West Michigan and High-A Lakewood, Travis batted a robust .351/.418/.518 with 177 hits, 48 extra-base hits (16 home runs), 22 stolen bases and a stellar 64-53 strikeout-to-walk rate in 132 games.
At 5’9”, 183 pounds, Travis, a right-handed hitter, does an excellent job of getting the barrel on the ball and showcases surprising power thanks to above-average bat speed and strong wrists. He’s a patient hitter who employs a consistent approach at the plate and lets the ball travel deep—qualities that should translate favorably as he moves up the ladder.
And while his defense lags behind the bat, he still possesses the quickness, range and hands to handle second base at the highest level.
Miguel Almonte, RHP, Kansas City Royals
After spending parts of two seasons between the Dominican Summer League and Arizona Rookie League, Miguel Almonte was deployed to Low-A Lexington this year for his full-season debut.
Though he was both young and inexperienced relative to the competition, the 20-year-old right-hander emerged as one of the top pitchers in the South Atlantic League. Making 25 starts on the year, Almonte posted an impressive 3.10 ERA and 132-36 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 130.2 innings.
At 6’2”, 180 pounds, Almonte has a loose, athletic frame that allows for smooth mechanics and encourages his fast but fluid arm. The right-hander has an aggressive approach and attacks the zone with a projectable four-pitch mix, demonstrating a rare blend of pure stuff and feel for a player of his age.
Almonte’s fastball is a plus offering that works consistently in the 91-95 mph range with above-average life, and it’s conceivable that he’ll add velocity as he adds strength. The changeup is a present plus with plus-plus potential and, in general, is highly advanced for his age; he shows confidence in the pitch against both right- and left-handed hitters, and it already serves as a swing-and-miss offering.
The 20-year-old has an impressive overall feel for changing speeds and keeping hitters off balance, throwing a curveball that features a nice shape and has average potential, as well as a slider that’s inconsistent but definitely usable.
Eddie Rosario, 2B, Minnesota Twins
Eddie Rosario has hit for average at every level since the Minnesota Twins selected him in the fourth round of the 2010 draft out of high school.
After posting an .835 OPS with 12 home runs during his full-season debut at Low-A Beloit in 2012, Rosario spent part of the following offseason playing for Team Puerto Rico in the World Baseball Classic.
Assigned to High-A Fort Myers to open the 2013 season, the 22-year-old made quick work of the pitcher-friendly Florida State League by batting .329/.377/.527 with 40 runs scored and 24 extra-base hits in 52 games.
Rosario’s strong first half resulted in a promotion to Double-A New Britain for the remainder of the year. Despite the fact he was one of the younger everyday players at the level—it was technically his age-21 season—the left-handed hitter held his own at the dish with a .284/.330/.412 batting line with 26 extra-base hits in 70 games.
Rosario is a good athlete with surprising strength in his 6’0”, 170-pound frame. His biggest draw is the projectable hit tool that stands out due to his impressive bat-to-ball ability. Though he generally has a plan at the plate and shows the ability to make adjustments, Rosario swings like a power hitter by dropping his hands and trying to lift the ball after contact.
That said, he still makes consistent hard contact because he knows how to get the barrel to the ball, and also works counts and fouls off lots of pitches. He has above-average speed but is an unrefined base stealer, and he runs into too many outs on the basepaths.
Rosario moved from the outfield to second base prior to the 2012 season where he has athleticism and arm strength suitable for the position. While his footwork has steadily improved, I’m not a fan of his hands or actions at the keystone—they play but lack fluidity, and he tends to field the ball too far back relative to his setup.
I did unexpectedly catch him in left field for an Arizona Fall League game and was reminded of how well he moves and closes on the baseball. In that game, Rosario made one of the better catches I saw this year, sprinting toward the left-center field gap and making a ridiculous over-the-head, one-handed grab at the warning track.
Despite the highlight-reel catch, I still prefer Rosario’s offensive profile at second base.
Mike Foltynewicz, RHP, Houston Astros
After back-to-back years at Low-A Lexington in 2011 and 2012, Mike Foltynewicz began putting things together this past season and moved quickly through the Houston Astros’ system as a result.
Opening the year at High-A Lancaster in the hitter-friendly California League, the 22-year-old came out of the gates on fire and posted a 3.81 ERA with 29 strikeouts in 26 innings before a quick promotion to Double-A Corpus Christi.
Foltynewicz excelled against the more advanced hitters in the Texas League, registering a 2.87 ERA and .207 opponents’ batting average with 95 strikeouts in 103.1 innings (23 games/16 starts). While it’s hard to argue with the results, the right-hander’s command left something to be desired, as he ultimately walked 66 batters in 129.1 innings between both levels.
The 6’4” right-hander boasts elite fastball velocity, consistently working in the upper 90s and eclipsing triple digits every time he takes the mound. Foltynewicz throws the pitch on a downhill plane to induce weak ground-ball outs and, in general, uses it to overpower hitters throughout the strike zone.
His breaking ball was more of a weapon this season but still inconsistent overall. Regardless, it’s a devastating swing-and-miss offering that flashes plus potential. Meanwhile, his changeup is currently below average and lags behind the other two pitches, as he struggles to replicate fastball arm speed and tends to push it toward the plate. Suffice it to say that the offering will be crucial in his development as a starter.
Zach Borenstein, OF, Los Angeles Angels
Selected in the 23rd round of the 2011 draft out of Eastern Illinois University, Zach Borenstein quietly turned in an impressive full-season debut last year when he posted an .824 OPS with 11 home runs and 13 stolen bases in 79 games for Low-A Cedar Rapids.
The 23-year-old outfielder followed with a breakout campaign this past season and was ultimately named as the MVP of the High-A California League after batting .337/.403/.631 with 57 extra-base hits (28 home runs), 95 RBI and an improved strikeout-to-walk ratio of 88-43.
While he’s batted only .119 this fall with one extra-base hit, the left-handed hitter has continued to show a mature eye at the plate, amassing more walks (10) than strikeouts (nine) through 13 games.
Borenstein is likely ticketed for Double-A to open the 2014 season, which will also be his first against competition more suitable for his age and college background. Though his power numbers will likely decline facing advanced pitching in the Texas League, the real question is whether the 23-year-old’s hit tool and plate discipline will survive the jump.
Addison Russell, SS, Oakland Athletics
Selected with the No. 11 overall pick in the 2012 draft, Addison Russell took the minor leagues by storm after signing with the Oakland A’s, batting .369/.432/.594 with 46 runs scored, 26 extra-base hits (seven home runs), 45 RBI and 16 stolen bases in 55 games across three levels—including Low-A Burlington.
As a result of his impressive pro debut, Russell received an aggressive assignment to High-A Stockton to open the 2013 season. As one of the youngest everyday players at the level, the 19-year-old batted .275/.377/.508 with 85 runs scored, 56 extra-base hits (17 home runs) and 21 stolen bases in 107 games.
At the end of the year, the A’s promoted Russell to Triple-A Sacramento for the team’s stretch run. Although he went 1-for-13 with nine strikeouts in three games, the promotion itself was a testament to the organization’s belief in his potential.
Russell is a dynamic right-handed hitter with explosive wrists and strong hands. He also demonstrates a knack for barreling the ball, showcasing advanced bat control that yields hard contact to all fields. And though the 19-year-old’s game features some swing-and-miss at the present, that can at least be partially attributed to his status as a teenager playing against advanced competition.
Meanwhile, Russell’s combination of plus bat speed and present strength calls for above-average power at maturity, if not more, and his speed should always lead to a high number of doubles and triples.
Russell has the athleticism and range for any position on the field, which is a strong indication that he’ll be able to remain at shortstop. He is an aggressive but agile defender with plus arm strength that even plays up due to his quick transfer and release.
Although he looked raw at times this past season as a 19-year-old in High-A, Russell has the makings of an impact shortstop at the major league level with four above-average or better tools that will only improve with experience.
Ji-Man Choi, 1B, Seattle Mariners
Signed in 2009 out of South Korea, Ji-Man Choi had a very promising professional debut the following year, batting .360/.440/.517 with 21 extra-base hits and 10 steals in 50 games between the Arizona League Mariners and High-A High Desert.
Unfortunately, he spent the entire 2011 season on the disabled list with a strained back muscle. The setback in his development resulted in an assignment to Low-A Clinton in 2012, where Choi made up for lost time by batting .298/.420/.463 with eight home runs and 43 RBI in 66 games.
This year, Choi has enjoyed the quick ascent of the Seattle Mariners’ system that had seemed inevitable back in 2010. It’s easy to point out that the 22-year-old’s triple-slash line deteriorated upon reaching Double- and Triple-A; it also marked the first time that he’d played at either level.
And depending on the organization’s confidence in Justin Smoak moving forward, it’s conceivable that Choi could get a look in the major leagues next season.
Rougned Odor, 2B, Texas Rangers
Signed out of Venezuela as a 16-year-old in early 2011, Rougned Odor flashed huge upside the following year when he batted .259/.313/.400 with 37 extra-base hits and 19 stolen bases in 109 games at Low-A Hickory.
This past season, however, Odor emerged as the Texas Rangers’ top prospect and arguably the top second base prospect in the game. Opening the year at High-A Myrtle Beach, the 19-year-old batted .305/.369/.454 with 42 extra-base hits and 27 stolen bases in 100 games before a late-season promotion to Double-A Frisco.
Despite moving up to the more advanced level, the left-handed hitter held his own by posting a .306/.354/.530 batting line with 30 runs scored, eight doubles and six home runs in 30 games.
Overall, he posted an .839 OPS with 41 doubles, 11 home runs, 32 stolen bases and a 91-35 strikeout-to-walk rate in 130 games.
Odor possesses much more physical strength than his 5’11”, 170-pound frame suggests. He has continually thrived as a younger player in advanced leagues and boasts a high-end combination of hit-tool potential and plus speed. The left-handed hitter also has above-average power for his position with impressive power frequency. In general, he’s an extra-base machine and drives the ball with authority to all fields.
Odor’s above-average range at second base, soft hands and strong arm are a clean fit at the position, and he could probably even cut it at shortstop in a pinch. He’s an intense, hard-nosed ballplayer with excellent instincts who makes things happen on both sides of the ball.
Tommy La Stella, 2B, Atlanta Braves
Selected by the Atlanta Braves in the eighth round of the 2011 draft out of Coastal Carolina University, Tommy La Stella has enjoyed a relatively quick ascent through the minor leagues despite struggling to stay healthy.
The left-handed hitter has raked at every level, posting a .944 OPS at Low-A Rome after signing in 2011, .846 OPS at High-A Lynchburg in 2012 and .936 OPS between High-A and Double-A Mississippi this past season.
La Stella doesn’t offer much in terms of over-the-fence pop with 20 combined home runs in the last three seasons; however, he’s proven to be a consistent source of extra-base hits with 70 doubles and triples during that span. Meanwhile, his plate discipline—which has always been his calling card—has translated favorably as a professional, as he’s amassed more walks (111) than strikeouts (88).
However, injuries have limited the 24-year-old to only 241 games over the last three seasons. In 2012, he missed time at Lynchburg after getting beaned and then landed on the disabled list for six weeks after breaking his leg in a collision at first base while covering on a bunt. This year, he spent most of spring training on the disabled list with a sore right elbow.
When healthy, La Stella has shown a projectable blend of hit tool and plate discipline that should play at the highest level. He lacks the speed typically associated with the middle infield position and profiles as an average defender, but he gets the most of his natural ability and should hit well enough to negate some of those concerns.
While Dan Uggla may be the highest-paid player on the Braves’ active roster, the organization proved it will not settle for his lousy production when he was left off the team’s NLDS roster against the Los Angeles Dodgers. And considering the demand to promote La Stella this past season when Uggla landed on the 15-day disabled list, expect the Braves to give him a long look next spring.
Nick Wittgren, RHP, Miami Marlins
The Miami Marlins selected Nick Wittgren in the ninth round of the 2012 draft following his two excellent seasons as Purdue’s closer. It didn’t take long for the right-hander to make an impact after signing, as he recorded 11 saves in 17 games in the Short Season New York-Penn League, as well as a 1.46 ERA and 34-4 strikeout-to-walk ratio.
Assigned to High-A Jupiter to open the season, the 22-year-old recorded 25 saves, a 0.83 ERA and a 59-10 strikeout-to-walk rate in 54.1 innings (48 games). As a result of his overwhelming success, the right-hander was promoted to Double-A Jacksonville in late August.
Given his effectiveness in the ninth inning, one would assume that Wittgren boasts overpowering stuff. However, that’s not the case; the 6’3”, 210-pound right-hander’s fastball sits comfortably in the low 90s.
That being said, he does miss a considerable number of bats with the pitch; the deception in his delivery causes the pitch to jump on opposing hitters. Wittgren supplements his heater with a power breaking ball that registers in the 76-81 mph range, and he’s demonstrated an improved feel for the pitch since signing.
Wittgren should keep moving through Miami’s system at an accelerated pace next season and could even get a look in the major leagues later in the year if the team decides to deal Steve Cishek.
Gabriel Ynoa, RHP, New York Mets
Signed by the New York Mets in 2009 out of the Dominican Republic, Ynoa spent his first three professional seasons between the Dominican Summer League, rookie leagues and short-season level.
Making his full-season debut this year, the 20-year-old was named as the South Atlantic League’s Most Outstanding Pitcher after going 15-4 with a .272 ERA, .238 opponents’ batting average and 106-16 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 135.2 innings (22 starts).
At 6’2”, 158 pounds, the right-hander features a combination of pitch ability and advanced command, especially for a pitcher of his age and experience. Ynoa’s fastball sits comfortably in the low 90s with late sinking action; however, he’ll need to do a better job working on a downhill plane as he reaches higher minor league levels.
He turns over the changeup well to create arm-side fade that plays well off his fastball, and the pitch projects to be at least average at maturity. His slider is less developed than the changeup, though it also profiles as a useable pitch at the highest level.
Adam Morgan, LHP, Philadelphia Phillies
Selected by the Philadelphia Phillies in the third round of the 2011 draft out of the University of Alabama, Adam Morgan turned in a beastly full-season debut the following year and appeared to be on the fast track to the major leagues.
Making the jump from the Short Season New York-Penn League to High-A Clearwater, Morgan posted a 3.29 ERA and 140-28 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 123 innings before receiving a late-season promotion to Double-A Reading. Making six starts at the more advanced level, the left-hander held his own with a 3.53 ERA and 29-11 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 35.2 innings.
This past season, however, the 23-year-old moved up to Triple-A but ultimately logged only 71.1 innings after missing several months with a small rotator cuff tear in his left shoulder. The good news is that he returned late in July to post a 2.73 ERA in 29.2 innings spanning eight starts.
If Morgan can get back to where he was prior to the 2013 season in terms of both velocity and command, then expect to see the left-hander in the major leagues at some point next year.
Matt Skole, 3B/1B, Washington Nationals
The Washington Nationals selected Matt Skole in the fifth round of the 2011 draft after he hit 47 home runs over three seasons at Georgia Tech. However, the 6’4” left-handed hitter’s power didn’t translate that summer in the New York-Penn League, as he amassed only five home runs in 72 games.
Skole was assigned to Low-A Hagerstown for his full-season debut in 2012 and thrived as a 22-year-old facing mostly younger pitchers. Playing in 101 games, Skole paced the South Atlantic League in home runs (27), on-base percentage (.438), slugging percentage (.574) and walks (94), and he also ranked second in RBI (92).
The overwhelming success at the level ultimately earned him a late-season promotion to High-A Potomac, where he posted an .841 OPS with 10 doubles in 18 games.
Following the season, Skole was named the Nationals’ 2012 Minor League Player of the Year.
Moved up to Double-A Harrisburg for the 2013 season, the 23-year-old appeared in only two games before an injury to his non-throwing elbow required season-ending Tommy John surgery. Although he probably could have returned to the field before the end of the regular season, the organization decided to err on the side of caution, knowing he’d participate in the AFL.
Skole has continually surpassed expectations since turning pro and put himself on the major league radar with his impressive 2012 campaign. Now regarded as one of the better Three True Outcome hitters in the minor leagues, Skole does an excellent job controlling the strike zone, and he isn’t afraid to let the ball travel deep and work the count.
And while most of his power came to the pull side in college, the left-handed hitter has since learned to consistently jump the yard to the opposite field.
Although he’s played third base almost exclusively since signing, it’s difficult to envision him remaining there as he moves up the organizational ladder. When I saw Skole play two games at first base last fall, I was impressed with his positioning, range and overall agility. This fall I saw him back at third base, where his actions and range were serviceable at best.
Arismendy Alcantara, SS/2B, Chicago Cubs
Arismendy Alcantara put himself on the map by posting a .655 OPS during his full-season debut at Low-A Peoria in 2011, followed by a .786 OPS with 27 extra-base hits and 25 stolen bases in 85 games at High-A Daytona.
This past season, the 22-year-old emerged as one of the more intriguing infield prospects in the game with a breakout performance at Double-A Tennessee. Playing in 133 games—the first time in his career in which he’s played in more than 100 games in a season—the switch-hitting infielder batted .271/.352/.451 with 55 extra-base hits (15 home runs) and 31 stolen bases.
Alcantara is undersized at 5’10”, 160 pounds, but has a compact build loaded with strength and natural athleticism. More specifically, he’s an aggressive hitter who attacks the ball and makes consistent hard contact from both sides of the plate. While he does have some swing-and-miss to his game, Alcantara has demonstrated the ability to draw more walks this season against advanced pitching.
He boasts above-average raw power that only started to emerge last year during his age-21 season. He has a more leveraged swing from the left side that suggests double-digit home run totals, while he’s less consistent from the right side but demonstrates a solid approach.
He’s an easy plus runner whose speed plays on both sides of the ball. Additionally, he’s a smart base stealer with an 80 percent (91-of-114) career success rate over five seasons.
Alcantara is a quick, aggressive shortstop with plus range, though he also has the tools, including plus arm strength, and athleticism for either middle infield position. The one knock of him is that he has a tendency to wait back on balls and show off the arm strength, though his high number of errors is relatively normal for a young shortstop at an advanced level.
While he’s always shown explosive tools on both sides of the ball, Alcantara’s inability to stay healthy delayed the development of his secondary skills. But after the strides he made this season in his first taste of the Double-A level, the 22-year-old could find himself on the Chicago Cubs infield by mid-2014.
Yorman Rodriguez, OF, Cincinnati Reds
After batting .262/.313/.411 with 47 extra-base hits, 84 RBI and a 145-37 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 144 games at Low-A Dayton over parts of two seasons, Yorman Rodriguez was finally promoted to High-A Bakersfield for the final month of the 2012 regular season. However, the outfielder struggled mightily at the more advanced level, posting a .381 OPS and 39-3 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 23 games.
Splitting the 2013 season between High-A Bakersfield and Double-A Pensacola, Rodriguez turned in a long-overdue breakout performance by batting .259/.324/.427 with 54 extra-base hits—including a career-high 13 home runs—in 129 games.
When I saw him last week in the Arizona Fall League, Rodriguez showcased as much right-handed raw power as any player in the league other than Kris Bryant. The 21-year-old isn’t afraid to show it off, as he hit some of the longest home runs during batting practice prior to the Fall Stars Game and then launched two impressive bombs during a game a few days later.
Rodriguez’s impressive raw pop does come with a caveat: It tends to only play in games when he gets a fastball in a fastball count. In the above game video of him from last week, you’ll notice that both of the right-handed hitter’s home runs came against fastballs. Besides that, Rodriguez struggled to recognize spin when I saw him and seemingly took as many ugly hacks as he did fluid ones.
Rodriguez is still very raw with a huge gap between the present and future, but the outfielder’s upside is undeniably huge.
Mitch Haniger, OF, Milwaukee Brewers
I thought the Milwaukee Brewers landed a potential steal in Mitch Haniger when they popped him with the No. 38 overall pick in the 2012 draft, mostly due to the belief that he had untapped power potential.
After signing, Haniger was assigned to Low-A Wisconsin but ultimately appeared in only 14 games due to a knee injury.
Finally healthy, the 22-year-old returned to Low-A to open the 2013 season and posted a .909 OPS with 19 extra-base hits and more walks (25) than strikeouts (24) in 41 games. As a result of his success at the level, the outfielder was promoted to High-A Brevard County and held his own with a .250/.323/.396 batting line with 33 extra-base hits (24 doubles) in 88 games in the challenging Florida State League.
Between both levels, Haniger batted .264/.348/.431 with 52 extra-base hits—but only 11 home runs—68 RBI and a 92-57 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 129 games.
Playing in the AFL this fall, Haniger has posted an .867 OPS with eight doubles, four home runs and a league-leading 24 RBI in 24 games for the Surprise Saguaros.
Likely to begin the 2014 season at Double-A Huntsville, Haniger has an outside chance of reaching the major leagues if he can show improved power frequency.
Alex Dickerson, 1B/OF, Pittsburgh Pirates
Selected by the Pittsburgh Pirates in the third round of the 2011 draft out of Indiana University, Alex Dickerson made the jump from the Short Season New York-Penn League to High-A Bradenton for his full-season debut the following year.
Despite the inherent challenge of hitting in the pitcher-friendly Florida State League, he batted .295/.353/.451 with 47 extra-base hits (13 home runs) in 129 games. Dickerson’s 90 RBI was the most of any hitter in the Pirates’ system that year, and he was ultimately named as the league’s Player of the Year.
Moved up to Double-A Altoona for the 2013 season, the 23-year-old proved that his bat was for real by posting an .832 OPS with 36 doubles and 17 home runs in 126 games.
The left-handed-hitting first baseman has a feel for the strike zone and has proven to be capable of making adjustments at the plate. While it seems as though he’ll hit for at least a serviceable batting average, the emergence of Dickerson’s power—especially relative to this position—will determine whether he becomes anything more than a big league reserve.
Tim Cooney, LHP, St. Louis Cardinals
Selected by the St. Louis Cardinals in the third round of the 2012 draft out of Wake Forest University, Tim Cooney has quietly moved up the organizational ladder over the past year and is now within striking distance of the major leagues.
Assigned to the New York-Penn League after signing, the left-hander made a strong impression by posting a 3.40 ERA and 43-8 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 55.2 innings spanning 13 games (11 starts).
Given his college background, deep arsenal and advanced feel for pitching, the Cardinals decided to send the 22-year-old directly to High-A Palm Beach this year for his full-season debut. Cooney excelled in the pitcher-friendly Florida State League as expected, registering a 2.75 ERA and 23-4 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 36 innings.
The organization continued to challenge the southpaw in early May with a promotion to Double-A Springfield, and he responded favorably with a 3.80 ERA and sterling 125-18 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 20 starts. However, Cooney’s lack of overpowering stuff was exposed at the more advanced level, as he allowed 132 hits (eight home runs) in 118.1 innings. Overall, opposing hitters batted .281 against him this season.
The 6’3”, 195-pounder features a fastball that sits in the low 90s with late run to the arm side, and he’s adept at attacking hitters on both sides of the plate with the pitch. The left-hander’s cutter represents another advanced offering, registering in the upper 80s with consistent glove-side slice.
Cooney’s changeup is arguably his best secondary offering and tends to play up thanks to the deception in his delivery and fastball-like arm speed. The pitch projects to be at least major league average, and he already demonstrates an impressive feel for using it in relation to the heater.
The 22-year-old also has a curveball in his arsenal, though it’s noticeably his least advanced offering and doesn’t project to be more than a serviceable option at best at the highest level.
While his pure stuff pales in comparison to the other arms to come through the Cardinals’ system in recent years, Cooney does know how to pitch and exploit hitters’ weaknesses. The secondary arsenal leaves something to be desired—especially in regard to his breaking ball—and will need refinement as he continues to climb the organizational ladder.
However, his combination of handedness and command should at least be enough to get him to the major leagues, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he sees some time in the Cardinals’ starting rotation next season.
Jake Barrett, RHP, Arizona Diamondbacks
A third-round draft pick in 2012 out of Arizona State University, Jake Barrett was assigned to Low-A South Bend last summer for his professional debut. Coming off a long, grueling college season, the right-hander struggled in the Midwest League, registering a 5.84 ERA with six saves and 25 strikeouts in 24.2 innings.
This year, however, Barrett emerged as the lights-out closer the organization expected and jumped on the fast track to the major leagues as a result. The 22-year-old opened his first full professional season with a 1.98 ERA, 15 saves and a 37-9 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 27.1 innings for High-A Visalia.
Unsurprisingly, he was moved up to Double-A Mobile in late June where he served as one of the top relievers in the minors during the second half. In 24.2 innings in the Southern League, Barrett put up video game numbers with a 0.36 ERA, 14 saves and a stellar 22-3 strikeout-to-walk ratio spanning 24 appearances.
With a plus fastball-slider combination that results in excessive whiffs and weak contact, expect Barrett to carve out a significant role in the Arizona Diamondbacks bullpen by mid-2014.
Dan Winkler, RHP, Colorado Rockies
Do you know who led the minors in strikeouts this past season? If you answered Dan Winkler, you are correct (and perhaps cheated).
A 20th-round selection in 2011 out of the University of Central Florida, Winkler was unimpressive last year in his full-season debut at Low-A Asheville. Making 25 starts in 2012, the right-hander registered a 4.46 ERA with 152 hits allowed and a 136-47 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 145.1 innings.
This year, however, the 23-year-old was simply a different pitcher.
Opening the season in the hitter-friendly California League, Winkler posted a 2.97 ERA, a .184 BAA and a 152-37 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 130.1 innings (22 starts) at High-A Modesto. His overwhelming success at the challenging level led to a late-season promotion to Double-A Tulsa in early August, where the right-hander held his own with a 3.04 ERA in 26.2 innings (five starts).
While he lacks an overpowering offering, Winkler has good command of a solid fastball and isn’t afraid to attack opposing hitters. Meanwhile, his sharp slider with plus potential serves as his out pitch and the source of most of his strikeouts. However, the effectiveness of the pitch, as well as the fact that his delivery involves considerable effort, has led to the popular belief that the right-hander will wind up in the bullpen.
With Winkler projected to open the 2014 season back at Double-A, it may be a race between him and probable-Double-A teammate Eddie Butler to be the first to reach the major leagues.
Yimi Garcia, RHP, Los Angeles Dodgers
Yimi Garcia was dominant in his full-season debut in 2012, registering 16 saves and striking out 82 batters in 52.1 innings between Low-A Great Lakes and High-A Rancho Cucamonga. He’s not overpowering, but the 23-year-old right-hander’s funky arm action makes him highly deceptive and an uncomfortable at-bat for opposing hitters.
Moved up to Double-A Chattanooga for the 2013 season, Garcia continued to surpass expectations by improving his command to the tune of an 85-14 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 60.1 innings. The right-hander was especially effective against same-side hitters with a 1.86 ERA and 53-8 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 38.2 innings.
If there’s a concern with Garcia, it’s that he yielded nine home runs this season in 60.1 innings after allowing none in 2012. Furthermore, because his fastball only registers in the low 90s, there’s growing doubt as to whether his big, sweeping slider will play against major league hitters. Still, there’s something to be said for his ability to consistently miss bats over the past two years.
Rymer Liriano, OF, San Diego Padres
Coming off an impressive 2012 in which he batted .280/.350/.417 with 42 extra-base hits and 32 stolen bases in 127 games between High-A Inland Empire and Double-A San Antonio, there was a popular belief that Rymer Liriano could make an impact in the major leagues during the 2013 season.
However, the 22-year-old never got the chance to do so, as he suffered an elbow injury in the spring that resulted in season-ending Tommy John surgery.
A physically mature player at 6’0” and 225 pounds, Liriano has tons of raw strength and projects for at least average tools across the board.
While his hit tool may never develop into anything beyond average, the toolsy outfielder’s plus bat speed and raw power suggest plenty of untapped potential at the plate. The right-handed hitter keeps his hands inside the ball and gets extensive plate coverage, though it can work against him at times by generating too many weakly hit outs.
Due to his plus speed and strong, accurate arm, Liriano has a clean projection as a right fielder in the major leagues; his routes and jumps are average, and he covers more ground in the outfield than one would expect with impressive closing speed, However, he will need to feature more power and power frequency for a favorable long-term projection at the position.
Despite the year layoff, Liriano is still a raw talent loaded with upside and should be considered a potential breakout candidate in 2014.
Derek Law, RHP, San Francisco Giants
Selected in the ninth round of the 2011 draft out of Miami Dade (Fla.) JC, Derek Law earned an assignment to Low-A Augusta for his full-season debut the following year. Though he posted a 2.91 ERA with 67 strikeouts in 55.2 innings, it wasn’t until this past season that the right-hander’s career took off.
This past season, the 23-year-old dominated across three levels, posting a 2.31 ERA with 14 saves and the best combination of strikeout (13.84) and walk (1.63) rates among all minor league relievers. Law was especially impressive at High-A San Jose over the second half of the season, registering a 2.10 ERA with 11 saves and 45 strikeouts in 25.2 frames.
A 6’3”, 218-pound right-hander, Law creates enormous deception with an upper-body turn at the height of his delivery and exaggerated arm stab on the backside. Though unorthodox in every sense, it allows him to stay on top of the baseball from an over-the-top release point and work off a steep downhill plane.
In terms of stuff, Law’s fastball typically works in the 92-96 mph range and will play up due to his aforementioned deception. Given his release point, the right-hander’s curveball is a big, slow breaker that offers extreme velocity contrast to the fastball. Law will also mix in a good slider so as to keep opposing hitters off balance.
Thanks to a strong showing this fall in the AFL, Law is making a case to open the 2014 season in the Double-A Richmond bullpen. If that’s ultimately the case, I wouldn’t be surprised to see him in the major leagues later in the year.
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