Addison Russell could emerge as the A's everyday shortstop by the end of the 2014 season.
A prospect usually becomes a household name either by making an impact in the major leagues or exceeding expectations and thriving at multiple minor league levels.
This past season, rookie right-handers Gerrit Cole and Michael Wacha were summoned from the minors during the middle of the season in order to bolster their respective team’s starting rotation before a playoff run. Both pitchers went on to shine in the postseason and will now enter the 2014 season as two of the more highly regarded young arms in the game.
On the other side of the spectrum, Gregory Polanco is an example of a prospect that became household name last season without reaching the major leagues.
Polanco began the 2013 season by posting an .836 OPS with 23 extra-base hits and 24 stolen bases at High-A Bradenton, and he received a promotion to Double-A Altoona after only 57 games at the level. The 22-year-old continued to impress in the Eastern League with a .762 OPS and an additional 21 extra-base hits in 68 games.
The Pirates promoted Polanco once more before the end of the regular season, moving him up to Triple-A Indianapolis in anticipation of the International League playoffs. And after excelling at three advanced levels this past season, Polanco is now on the major league radar heading into the 2014 season.
Here’s a look at each MLB team’s top prospect that will follow in the footsteps of Cole, Polanco and Wacha and emerge as a household name next year.
After a strong showing over the first half of the 2013 season in the Carolina League, Eduardo Rodriguez was promoted to Double-A Bowie in early July. The left-hander was initially overmatched at the more advanced level, as he registered a 7.02 ERA and 33-21 strikeout-to-walk ratio over his first 34.2 innings (seven starts).
However, Rodriguez ultimately settled in and went on to post a respectable 4.22 ERA and 59-24 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 59.2 innings for the season.
While the 20-year-old normally works in the low-90s with his fastball, he sat in the 92-95 mph range more often this past season; the ball just looks free and easy coming out of his hand because of the deception created on the backside. His slider has improved considerably since the beginning of the 2013 season, as it’s now more of a power offering in the mid-80s with tight spin and swing-and-miss bite.
Rodriguez will get another crack at the Double-A level to open the 2013 season and, based on the Orioles' propensity for challenging their pitching prospects, he could conceivably reach the major leagues later in the year.
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 over the course of 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 dominant 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. The ball can be difficult for hitters to pick up out of his hand, and it also 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, as it is thrown in the upper 70s with late sink and fade to the arm side.
Meanwhile, his curveball flashes average potential, and he’s adept at 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.
Bryan Mitchell doesn’t get the love he deserves on account of his fringy command and the fact that he’s struggled at virtually every minor league level to begin his career.
A 16th-round draft pick in 2009 out of high school, Mitchell was roughed up during his full-season debut in 2012, as he posted a 4.58 ERA and 121-72 strikeout-to-walk rate in 120 innings (26 starts) at Low-A Charleston.
It didn’t get any better for the 22-year-old this past season after moving up to the pitcher-friendly Florida State League. Making 23 starts at the more advanced level, Mitchell registered a 5.12 ERA with a 104-53 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 126.2 innings.
However, things seemed to click for Mitchell following a late-season promotion to Double-A Trenton, as he posted a 1.93 ERA and 16-5 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 18.2 innings, spanning three starts.
I happened to be on hand for his final start of the regular season on Aug. 29 against Double-A New Britain, and suffice it to say, I walked away from the field impressed.
In arguably the best start of his young career, Mitchell allowed one unearned run on four hits over 7.1 innings, striking out 10 batters without issuing a walk.
When he’s at his best, the 6’3”, 205-pound right-hander will work in the mid-90s with his fastball, and he complements the pitch with a devastating, downer curveball that consistently flashes plus. He also mixes in a changeup, though it’s the least developed offering in his arsenal.
Mitchell has struggled to develop a sense of control since turning pro, but the quality of his stuff has allowed him to keep moving up the organizational ladder. If his late-season performance was a sign of what’s to come, then expect to see the right-hander contributing in the major leagues (in some capacity) in 2014.
A sixth-round draft pick in 2010 out of Virginia Tech, Jesse Hahn isn’t the sexiest prospect in the Rays organization, as he is a 24-year-old right-hander who has yet to graduate from A-ball. However, he underwent Tommy John surgery after signing and didn’t make his professional debut until the 2012 season.
Hahn finally made his full-season debut in 2013 and showed much of the promise that he did as an amateur. Making 19 starts for High-A Charlotte in the Florida State League, he posted a 2.15 ERA, .218 opponents’ batting average and 63-18 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 67 innings.
At 6’5”, 182 pounds, Hahn has a heavy, plus fastball that sits comfortably in the mid-90s, and he’s shown the ability to pump plus-plus velocity more consistently as he’s regained arm strength.
Hahn’s curveball serves as his go-to secondary offering, thrown with velocity and featuring late downer action. He’ll also mix in a below-average slider to give opposing hitters a different look. The right-hander’s changeup plays a tick above average with nice fading action to the arm side. However, he’s still working to establish a consistent feel for the pitch since the surgery.
Selected by the Toronto Blue Jays with the No. 22 overall pick 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 that is 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.
Prior to his selection by the White Sox in the third round of the 2013 draft, Tyler Danish made national headlines as the guy who didn’t allow an earned run during his senior season of high school.
After signing, the 19-year-old right-hander was assigned to rookie-level Bristol, where he posted a 1.38 ERA and 22-5 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 26 innings.
The immediate success resulted in a late-season promotion to Low-A Kannapolis, where Danish turned it up a notch against the advanced hitters, allowing only two hits with six strikeouts over four scoreless innings.
From a scouting perspective, Danish is an incredibly polarizing pitching prospect.
The 6’2”, 190-pounder employs an unusual delivery that in turn allows him to work from a low three-quarters arm slot. It isn’t pretty and requires considerable effort, but he repeats it well.
Danish’s sinker immediately ranked as one of the best in the minor leagues from the moment he signed with the White Sox. Working in the 88-91 mph range, the pitch is an absolute bowling ball with an excellent downhill plane and dynamic, late sinking action. Plus, it plays up thanks to Danish’s aggressive approach and overall confidence on the mound, as he uses it to attack both left- and right-handed hitters down in the zone.
The action on the right-hander’s slider is only average, but the contrast compared to the life on his fastball makes it a highly effective offering. Due to his lower arm slot, Danish will get around it at times and give the pitch too much shape. However, he already shows legitimate feel for the pitch as well as the confidence to throw it in any count.
Rounding out his arsenal is a changeup that is serviceable but lacks development compared to his dynamic fastball-slider combo. That being said, Danish shows confidence in the pitch, seemingly cognizant of its importance to his overall development.
The White Sox don’t mess around when it comes to potential impact prospects being capable of contributing in the major leagues despite a lack of professional experience (i.e. Gordon Beckham, Chris Sale, Addison Reed). If the organization believes a prospect can help—especially a high draft pick—at the highest level, they will move him through the system at an accelerated rate.
I think Danish is going to be that guy. As long as he holds up physically, the right-hander has the chance to be something special; he offers a challenging look for opposing hitters and backs it up with command of power stuff.
The Indians went with the best player on the board in the 2013 draft, selecting prep outfielder Clint Frazier with the No. 5 overall pick.
Assigned to the complex-level Arizona League, the 19-year-old batted .297/.362/.506 with 21 extra-base hits (five home runs) and 32 runs scored in 196 plate appearances. As expected, Frazier’s tendency to swing through the ball was amplified against better pitching, as he struck out 61 times (31.1 percent strikeout rate) in 44 games.
At 6'0", 190 pounds, Frazier owned the best bat speed in the 2013 draft class, thanks to wrists and forearms loaded with strong, quick-twitch muscles. The right-hander hitter has a compact, explosive swing, driving the ball off of a firm front leg before transitioning weight his off backside and through the baseball with ease.
Frazier’s standout tool is undoubtedly his plus-plus raw power. The ball absolutely jumps off the outfielder’s barrel, as he hits everything out in front and generates tons of backspin carry to all fields.
In general, Frazier is an aggressive hitter who attacks the ball and projects for an above-average or better hit tool at maturity. While he struggles to recognize spin and has some swing-and-miss to his game, Frazier has the physical tools and baseball savvy to make swift adjustments at the plate.
Whether he stays in center field is a decision that will have to be made in a few years. Even if a change ultimately occurs, Frazier’s first-division offensive ceiling would be a clean fit at either corner outfield position.
There isn’t a scenario that will get Frazier to the major leagues next season. However, assuming he’s assigned to Low-A for his full-season debut, the toolsy outfielder could make a Buxton-like impact at the plate and start to move quickly.
The Tigers selected James McCann in the second round of the 2011 draft with the hope that his college background (Arkansas) and mature baseball skills would fuel a quick rise through the minors.
However, McCann struggled during his first full professional season the following year. Assigned directly to High-A Lakeland, the catcher posted a .695 OPS with 10 doubles in 177 plate appearances before an early-season promotion to Double-A Erie.
McCann’s offensive struggles continued at the more advanced level, with a dismal .200/.227/.282 line and 44-8 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 230 plate appearances.
The 23-year-old resuscitated his prospect stock this past season while repeating Double-A. In his second tour of the Eastern League, McCann posted a career-best .731 OPS with 39 extra-base hits (eight home runs) in 486 plate appearances.
At 6’2”, 210 pounds, McCann is a physically strong and athletic catcher with average-or-better defensive attributes across the board. He’s an advanced receiver with the ability to frame high-end pitching, and he controls the running game—40.7 percent caught stealing rate over the last two seasons—with a quick catch-and-release and above-average arm strength.
Even though McCann made progress at the dish last season, the right-handed hitter projects as a league-average hitter in the major leagues, which is meaningful in the context of a defensively sound backstop. McCann has solid power to the gaps and hit a career-high eight home runs last year, though it’s doubtful that he’ll develop consistent over-the-fence pop at higher levels.
McCann will open the 2014 season in Triple-A, and if the bat holds up, he could emerge as the Tigers’ backup catcher by mid-season.
Selected by the Royals with the No. 5 overall pick in the 2012 draft, Kyle Zimmer’s pro debut later in the summer was cut short after he underwent a procedure to remove loose bodies in his right elbow.
Fully healthy heading into 2013 and expected to move quickly, Zimmer unexpectedly struggled at High-A Wilmington during the first three months of the season. However, he was able to right the ship late in June and subsequently dominated following a promotion to Double-A Northwest Arkansas.
Over his final eight regular-season starts, Zimmer posted a 1.86 ERA and 63-8 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 43.2 innings.
Zimmer boasts one of the more complete arsenals among the game's top pitching prospects. His fastball sits comfortably in the mid-90s with late life, and he has the ability to reach back for something extra in the 96-98 mph range as needed. In general, Zimmer’s quick arm and smooth delivery causes the pitch to seemingly explode out of his hand.
His curveball is a second plus pitch with excellent pace and a sharp downer break, and it should serve as an out pitch in the major leagues. He’ll also mix in an average slider with tight spin and decent depth, as well as a changeup with late fading action out of the zone.
Even when he lacks feel a feel for his four-pitch mix, Zimmer still has the ability to work comfortably within the strike zone. With a walk rate right around eight percent in 2013, Zimmer’s knack for pounding the strike zone separates him from most other top pitching prospects. The scary part is that he should become even more effective once he can get opposing hitters to expand their zone.
However, Zimmer’s advanced command can actually hurt him at times, as his propensity for working within the strike zone makes opposing hitters more aggressive. Plus, his delivery, though effortless and fluid, lacks natural deception. And while he has plenty of velocity on his fastball, Zimmer’s tendency to linger at the top of the zone enables hitters to lift the pitch.
Zimmer has the potential to be a monster with four impressive offerings and above-average command, as well as knowledge on how to attack hitters and exploit weaknesses. The only thing that could seemingly prevent him from a great career in the major leagues is an injury—something that has already been an issue early in his professional career.
Acquired from the Nationals during the offseason in exchange for Denard Span, Meyer, 23, had a solid first two months of the season at Double-A New Britain before landing on the disabled in early June with a sore right shoulder.
After roughly two months on the shelf, the 6’9” right-hander returned to the mound in late August and looked like his usual self, with an electric plus-plus fastball-slider combination. Overall, Meyer posted a 3.21 ERA and 84-29 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 70 innings.
Though Meyer has a massive frame with long limbs, he demonstrates better-than-expected body control as well as the ability to repeat his mechanics better than most pitchers his size can. And as expected given his height, the 23-year-old throws everything on a steep downhill plane.
Meyer’s fastball is difficult to barrel up, registering between 93-97 mph deep into starts and even flirting with triple-digits in shorter bursts. He also features a filthy plus slider in the 84-87 mph range with sharp, wipeout break and utilizes it against both right- and left-handed hitters.
Specifically, against left-handed hitters, he demonstrates a feel for throwing it backdoor for a strike and burying it for a swing-and-miss on the hitter’s back foot. The 23-year-old doesn’t throw his changeup that often—because he doesn’t need to—but he does have one that should be at least serviceable at maturity.
With his killer fastball-slider combo, Meyer could be a potential force as a late-inning reliever or closer. However, the right-hander has passed all tests thus far as a starter and will likely reach the major leagues in that role next season.
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 was 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.
Selected out of high school with the No. 37 overall pick in the 2010 draft, the Los Angeles Angels initially took their time developing Taylor Lindsey, assigning him to the rookie-level Pioneer League for his first full season in 2011. The left-handed-hitting second baseman rewarded the organization by quickly emerging as the league’s top hitter, as he batted .362/.394/.593 with 43 extra-base hits in 63 games.
Bumped up to High-A for his full-season debut in 2012, Lindsey had a solid campaign in the hitter-friendly California League but didn’t take a significant step forward in his development, as expected. Overall, he batted .289/.328/.408 with 41 extra-base hits in 134 games.
This past season, however, Lindsey turned in the breakout performance that many expected in 2012. Moved up to Double-A Arkansas, the 21-year-old posted a career-low .274 batting average in 134 games, but he also set career highs in home runs (17) and walks (48).
Lindsey has excellent hand-eye coordination and bat-to-ball skills that allow him to make consistently hard contact. The left-handed hitter sets up with his hands low around the torso, only to elevate them as part of his timing mechanism, and he surprisingly doesn’t struggle to turn around quality velocity.
While he had always shown plenty of gap power with the ability to barrel the ball to all fields, Lindsey showcased improved over-the-fence pop this past season at Double-A and could develop more as he continues to rise toward the major leagues.
However, with Howie Kendrick signed through the 2015 season, Lindsey’s potential emergence as the team’s everyday second baseman is still at least two years away.
As a result of his impressive pro debut in 2012, Addison 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, though he went just 1-for-13 with nine strikeouts in three games.
A physically strong right-handed hitter, Russell 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.
Overall, his combination of plus bat speed and present strength calls for above-average power at maturity—if not more—and his wheels 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.
Assuming Russell opens the 2014 season in Double-A, it's very likely that he'll take over as the A's big league shortstop, as a 20-year-old, by the end of the year.
Edwin Diaz was all projection when the Mariners selected him in the third round of the 2012 draft out of Puerto Rico.
However, after a lackluster professional debut in 2012, the 19-year-old started to come into his own ahead of schedule in the rookie-level Appalachian League last season. The right-hander posted stellar numbers while making 13 starts, with a 1.43 ERA, .191 opponents’ batting average and 79-18 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 69 innings.
At 6’2”, 165 pounds, Diaz has started to grow into his wiry frame over the last year and should continue to add strength throughout his development.
The right-hander’s fluid and smooth arm action makes his 92-95 mph fastball explode out of his hand with late life. And as he adds meat to his athletic but slender frame, it’s conceivable that Diaz will work consistently in the mid- to upper-90s.
Diaz’s curveball is another potential weapon with depth and late bite, and he shows an early feel for throwing the pitch in a variety of counts. The right-hander also throws a changeup but, as one might imagine, it’s a raw offering that will need considerable refinement moving forward.
Diaz should make his full-season debut next year at Low-A, and if his 2013 campaign is a sign of what’s to come, the young right-hander has the chance to emerge as one of top young arms in the minor leagues.
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 baseball.
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.
He has above-average range at second base, with soft hands and a strong arm that are both clean fits 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, and he makes things happen on both sides of the ball.
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 over that same 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 he 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 tools 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.
Andrew Heaney was slowed by an oblique injury to begin last season and didn’t take the mound for the first time until May 20. However, once he got going, the 22-year-old was quick to make up for the lost time.
At 6’2”, Heaney’s frame is both wiry and athletic with room to add strength. As for his stuff, the left-hander features a plus fastball that works in the low- to mid-90s with late life. His go-to secondary pitch is a nasty slider that should induce whiffs at the highest level. Heaney made significant progress developing his changeup this past season, and it should at least be a solid-to-average offering at maturity.
When all is said and done, he should emerge as a solid No. 3 starter, possibly even a No. 2 if everything comes together perfectly.
At this point, the only thing really holding Heaney back from the major leagues is lack of experience. That being said, he’s an excellent candidate to parlay a strong showing in the AFL and a potentially hot start back at Double-A Jacksonville next season into an ahead-of-schedule call-up by the Marlins.
Acquired by the Mets from the Blue Jays in the R.A. Dickey deal, Noah Syndergaard emerged as one of baseball’s top pitching prospects this year, which was also his first in New York's system. The 20-year-old took a huge step forward on all fronts this season, posting an impressive 3.06 ERA and a 133-28 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 117.2 innings between High-A St. Lucie and Double-A Binghamton.
While Syndergaard’s heater sits in the mid-90s with late, arm-side life, he’ll consistently bump it up 96 to 97 mph and occasionally flirt with triple-digits. The right-hander’s curveball has plus potential in the upper-70s, while his command of the pitch has improved this season, thanks to the addition of a slider to his already impressive arsenal.
Speaking of the slider, it’s quickly emerged as an above-average offering that has, in turn, helped to regulate his arm speed on the curveball. Although he’s improved his feel for his changeup, it’s only an average offering, but it is thrown with deceptive arm speed.
The 6’6” right-hander has a power pitcher’s frame and is a physical presence on the mound, throwing everything on a steep downhill plane and pounding the lower portion of strike zone. More significantly, Syndergaard has enjoyed a jump in his strikeout rate (above 30 percent) following a midseason promotion to Double-A, and he posted a ground-ball rate of roughly 50 percent this year across both levels. Additionally, of all the strikeouts he’s recorded since the beginning of the 2011 season, roughly 20 percent have been of the swing-and-miss variety.
The right-hander has a realistic chance of reaching his ceiling of a frontline starter and would fit nicely between Matt Harvey and Zack Wheeler in the team’s future rotation.
Maikel Franco emerged as one of the minors’ more intriguing young sluggers in 2012, when he tallied 32 doubles and 14 home runs for Low-A Lakewood as a 19-year-old.
Heading into the 2013 season, the belief was that Franco would showcase even more power if he refined his plate discipline.
Well, that happened—exactly.
Assigned to High-A Clearwater, the 21-year-old destroyed Florida State League pitching in the first half of the season, posting a .925 OPS with 23 doubles and 16 home runs in 289 plate appearances.
The Phillies challenged Franco with a promotion to Double-A Reading around midseason and, amazingly, he was even more impressive at the advanced level. In 292 plate appearances (69 games), Franco batted .339/.363/.563 with 94 total hits and 15 home runs.
Overall, Franco batted .320/.356/.569 with 36 doubles, 31 home runs and 103 RBI in 581 plate appearances between both levels. More significantly, the 20-year-old showed an improved feel for the strike zone with a 70-30 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 134 games.
Already physically strong at 6’1” and 180 pounds with room to add strength, Franco has incredibly strong wrists that produce plus bat speed. Beyond the plus raw power, the right-handed hitter made hard contact more consistently this past season, though he still tends to over-swing at times. In general, he’s an aggressive hitter who shows good barrel control for player his age and doesn’t expand the strike zone as often as most young mahsers.
Although he’s still technically a third baseman, Franco’s below-average speed and lack of physical projection will force him to move across the diamond. As a first base prospect, the 21-year-old’s bat will now determine his future in the major leagues. Luckily, he has a pretty good one.
Lucas Giolito was viewed as a potential No. 1 overall draft pick early in the spring of 2012, but he unfortunately tweaked the UCL in his right elbow and missed the rest of the high school season. Despite the injury, the Nationals gambled on his enormous upside and made the California native the No. 16 overall pick that year.
After rehabbing his elbow with extreme caution, Giolito re-aggravated the injury during his first professional start late in the 2012 summer and subsequently underwent Tommy John surgery.
This past season, the right-hander returned in early July and quickly made up for the lost time.
Assigned to the team’s affiliate in the Gulf Coast League, Giolito posted a 2.78 ERA and 25-10 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 22.2 innings (eight starts).
Moved up to Short-Season Auburn to finish the year, the 19-year-old was dominant over three starts, posting a 0.64 ERA and .191 opponents’ batting average with a 14-4 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 14 innings.
At 6’6”, 225 pounds, the right-hander has a smooth and balanced delivery that produces a fastball that ranges anywhere from 94-99 mph, and he has the potential to reach triple-digits when he regains full arm strength. While he’s understandably been kept on a short leash as a professional, Giolito demonstrated the ability to hold velocity deep into starts as an amateur.
His curveball is flat-out nasty and a potential plus-plus offering; it draws as many jelly-leg reactions as swing-and-misses. Meanwhile, Giolito’s changeup was a borderline plus pitch before the injury and should be excellent as he regains a feel against good competition
At maturity, Giolito should feature above-average command of all three offerings, which is impressive given the overall movement of his full arsenal.
There may not be a more exciting offensive prospect in the minor leagues than Javier Baez.
After a sluggish start to the season at High-A Daytona, Baez eventually caught fire and received a well-deserved promotion to Double-A Tennessee in late June. After that, the 20-year-old was one of the most productive hitters in the minor leagues, with a .983 OPS and 20 home runs over his last 54 games.
Between both levels, Baez batted .282/.341/.578 with 98 runs scored, 75 extra-base hits (37 home runs), 111 RBI, 20 stolen bases and a 147-40 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 130 games.
Baez is a right-handed hitter with extremely strong wrists and hands that lend to his elite bat speed—the best in the minor leagues. But while he makes a lot of hard contact and has no problems turning around the fastball, Baez still struggles to pick up spin and flails at too many breaking balls out of the zone.
While his pitch recognition may need further refinement in the minor leagues, Baez could still probably post an .800-plus OPS in The Show right now. He’s a streaky player who’s going to endure his share of struggles, but his .920 OPS and 37 home runs suggest that he may not need much more time in the minor leagues.
With current shortstop Starlin Castro under contract through the 2019 season, Baez’s future at the position isn’t a sure thing. And if he shifts to third base in the coming years, then that has the potential to create an entirely different predicament regarding the development of Kris Bryant.
Few pitching prospects have as high of a ceiling as Robert Stephenson.
The right-hander made huge strides toward reaching his potential this past season by excelling at three minor league levels.
Stephenson was assigned to Low-A Dayton to open the season after reaching the level for the first time in late 2012. Though he struggled out of the gate, the right-hander eventually found his groove as the spring unfolded.
Although a minor hamstring injury sidelined the 20-year-old for a month in early June, he still dominated in the Midwest League with a 2.57 ERA and 96 strikeouts in 77 innings. As a result of his success, the Reds promoted Stephenson to High-A Bakersfield in mid-July, where he proceeded to post a 3.05 ERA with a 22/2 K/BB ratio over four starts.
Stephenson received one last promotion in mid-August, with the Reds deciding to move him up to Double-A Pensacola for the final month of the season.
While he showed the ability to miss bats at the more advanced level with 18 strikeouts in 16.2 innings, the right-hander struggled with his control and failed to work deep into games, posting a 4.86 ERA over four starts.
Boasting elite arm strength that is capable of pumping fastballs in the upper-90s and scraping triple-digits, as well as a pair of promising secondary pitches in a changeup and slider, Stephenson has the makings of a frontline starter in the major leagues.
It’s doubtful that the flame-throwing right-hander will spend a majority of the season in the major leagues, but his ahead-of-schedule ascent of the Reds’ system has him poised to debut sometime after the 2014 All-Star break.
Selected by the Brewers in the second round of the 2012 draft, Tyrone Taylor flashed his potential in 2013 during his impressive but under-the-radar full-season debut.
Playing in 122 games at Low-A Wisconsin, the 19-year-old batted .274/.338/.400 with 43 extra-base hits, 19 stolen bases and a 63-35 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 549 plate appearances.
Taylor has an athletic build at 6’0”, 185 pounds, with broad shoulders and a projectable body. While he has a fluid swing, the right-hander hitter has too much pre-pitch movement with his hands but gets quieter before initiating swing.
Taylor has above-average power potential and is still learning how to use it in games. And even though Taylor’s swing lacks leverage to consistently drive the ball over the fence, he has present gap pop and a feel for using entire field.
The 19-year-old is an aggressive defender in the center field, with excellent closing speed and the ability to flat-out go get the ball. Taylor has an instinctual first step and takes direct routes, and he’s especially adept at going back and tracking the ball. He has slightly above-average arm strength that plays up, thanks to a quick release, and his throws are accurate with good carry.
Taylor is one of my top breakout prospects for the 2014 season, as he’s set to open the year in High-A as a 20-year-old. If he takes a step forward in the power department, then we’re talking about an under-the-radar 20-20 candidate.
The Pirates selected Nick Kingham in the fourth round of the 2010 draft—the same draft in which they nabbed fellow right-hander Jameson Taillon with the No. 2 overall pick.
In his full-season debut at Low-A West Virginia in 2012, Kingham showed a tentative feel of a promising arsenal, posting a 4.39 ERA and 117-36 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 127 innings (27 starts). He missed plenty of bats and held opposing hitters to a .243 average, but the right-hander struggled to keep the ball down in the zone and ultimately allowed 15 home runs.
Well, the 22-year-old—in his age-21 season—put things together in a hurry last season at a pair of advanced levels.
Opening the year at High-A Bradenton in the pitcher-friendly Florida State League, Kingham registered a 3.09 ERA and 75-14 strikeout-to-walk in 70 innings (13 starts). As a result of his success with Bradenton, the Pirates promoted Kingham to Double-A Altoona in late June.
The right-hander responded to the challenge by posting even better numbers against Eastern League hitters, with a 2.70 ERA and 69-30 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 73.1 innings. More importantly, he yielded only one home run at the more advanced level.
With an ideal pitcher’s frame at 6’5”, 220 pounds, Kingham works from a consistently high three-quarters arm slot, employing a delivery that involves minimal effort and is easy to repeat. Specifically, his delivery has been cleaner and more efficient after lowering his leg kick. As a result, he’s able to stay in line with the plate and better utilize his strong lower half.
Kingham’s fastball is presently his biggest offering, with plus velocity in the 93-96 mph range that he holds deep into starts. The right-hander demonstrates a feel for pounding the outside corner against both right- and left-handed hitters with the pitch, and he’ll elevate it against same-side hitters to expand the zone.
His changeup is a present fringe-average offering, though the pitch flashes big potential with decent depth and late sinking action. However, the velocity of the pitch is inconsistent, as it typically works in the mid-80s but is sometimes thrown too firmly in the upper-80s.
Kingham’s curveball serves as another fringe-average offering with plenty of room to improve. He throws it consistently with tight spin and late downer bite, and the pitch flashes above-average overall potential. However, his command of the pitch is fringy (at best) and will need considerable refinement next season.
With the graduation of Gerrit Cole to the major leagues last year, Taillon ranks as the Pirates’ top pitching prospect heading into the 2013 season. However, Kingham isn’t far behind his fellow 2010 draftee. The only thing separating the two at the moment is Taillon’s command of a deep secondary arsenal. But if Kingham makes progress on that front during the first half of the 2014 season, then there’s a realistic chance they’ll both finish the year in the major leagues.
In 2012, Oscar Taveras—who was promoted directly from Low-A to Double-A—destroyed Texas League pitching to the tune of a .321/.380/.572 batting line with 67 extra-base hits (23 home runs), 94 RBI and a 56-42 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 124 games. It also marked the third consecutive season in which the left-handed-hitting outfielder posted a .300-plus batting average.
However, Taveras’ highly anticipated 2013 season—one in which he was expected to make an impact at the major league level—didn’t unfold as expected. After opening the year at Triple-A Memphis, the 21-year-old suffered a high ankle sprain in late May, which led to two separate stints on the disabled list and ultimately season-ending surgery. Overall, Taveras batted .306/.341/.462 with 17 extra-base hits and 32 RBI at Memphis but was limited to only 46 games.
Taveras absolutely rakes. He simply hits everything: fastballs, breaking balls, off-speed pitches, same-side pitching, pitcher’s pitches—you name it, and he can barrel it effortlessly. And while his approach may be challenged more at the major league level, Taveras should always make enough contact to negate any strikeout-related concerns.
While he can play a solid center field, Taveras’ defensive profile is better-suited for a corner position. So when the Cardinals recently traded for Peter Bourjos, it eliminated any temptation for the team to open the 2014 season with Taveras in center field.
Expect Taveras to make up for the lost time last season with a beastly rookie campaign in 2014.
Moved up to High-A Visalia for the 2013 season, Archie Bradley dominated the hitter-friendly California League over five starts, posting a 1.26 ERA and 43-10 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 28.2 innings.
As a result, the 20-year-old received an early-season promotion to Double-A Mobile, where he continued to excel. Making 21 starts at the more advanced level, Bradley registered a 1.97 ERA, .214 opponents’ batting average and 119-59 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 123.1 innings.
Bradley has the most deadly two-pitch combination among minor league pitchers: a heavy fastball in the mid- to upper-90s with late life and a power curveball with 12-to-6 shape and sharp downer bite. Even though both pitches already grade as plus offerings, they each have the potential to improve along with his overall command.
Bradley’s feel for a changeup noticeably lags behind that of his two other offerings, but it flashes above-average potential and should serve as a third weapon at maturity.
Besides the fact that Bradley already features two plus pitches, the right-hander’s athletic delivery allows him to throw everything on a steep, downhill plane toward the plate. With a ground-ball rate that hovers around 40 percent, Bradley’s plane makes it extremely difficult for opposing hitters to barrel the ball, as he tends to induce as many weakly hit outs as he does strikeouts. Speaking of strikeouts, Bradley’s strikeout rate has steadily improved as he’s moved up the organizational ladder.
Bradley’s pure stuff is ridiculously powerful and arguably the best in the minor leagues. However, despite the overwhelming success this season, the right-hander is still learning how to harness it. He has the athleticism and aptitude to make adjustments along the way, which only strengthens his projection as a future No. 1 starter.
It was a remarkable full-season debut for Eddie Butler in 2013, who posted gaudy numbers across three levels.
After dominant showings with Low-A Asheville and High-A Modesto, the Rockies promoted Butler to Double-A Tulsa in early August. The 22-year-old right-hander responded by putting together arguably his best month of the 2013 season, with a 0.73 ERA and 22 strikeouts over five starts.
Overall, opposing hitters batted a paltry .180 against him in 149 innings across three levels.
Butler’s overwhelming success this season can be attributed to vastly underrated pitchability and an arsenal comprised of three potential plus offerings. The right-hander’s fastball sits in the mid- to upper-90s with exceptional sink and fade to the arm side, and he complements it with a swing-and-miss wipeout slider in the upper-80s. Lastly, Butler has a disgusting changeup in the same velocity range that dives off the table and evades barrels.
Butler has made it clear that he won't need much more time in the minor leagues. He has pure stuff that is capable of baffling hitters at the highest level, and he should have a chance to do just that for a solid chunk of the 2014 season.
Signed out of the Mexican leagues in August of 2012, Julio Urias has the highest ceiling of any pitcher in the Dodgers system. He also has one of the higher ceilings among all pitchers in the low minor leagues.
For his stateside debut this past season, the Dodgers sent the then-16-year-old directly to Low-A Great Lakes, making him the youngest players to see time at a full-season level.
Making 18 starts on the year, the left-hander posted a 2.48 ERA, .227 opponents’ batting average and stellar 67-16 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 54.1 innings.
Due to the combination of his age and the Dodgers’ desire to limit his workload, a majority of Urias’ outings this season were just one or two innings. However, he did record a few three- and four-inning starts toward the end of the regular season.
At 5’11", 160 pounds, Urias already has a projectable frame and is literally still growing. In general, he possesses a special combination of outstanding stuff and pitchability at a young age. The southpaw employs a smooth, repeatable delivery with easy arm action, and he consistently uses his lower half.
Urias’ fastball sits in the low-90s and, remarkably, he’s been known to bump it up to 94-95 miles per hour. In terms of secondary offerings, he features a curveball with plus potential, and he already demonstrates the confidence to throw it in any count. He also has an impressive present feel for a changeup, showing the ability to turn it over to create late fading action to the arm side.
Overall, Urias has ridiculously bright future with true front-of-the-rotation upside. The Dodgers are likely to exercise caution with his workload moving forward, but there’s a realistic chance that the left-hander reaches the major leagues before his 20th birthday.
Since his selection by the Padres in the seventh round of the 2011 draft out of an Ohio high school, Matt Wisler has mastered three full-season levels in the last two years and is banging on the door of the major leagues heading into 2014.
Wisler technically made his professional debut during the summer after he signed with San Diego; he made an appearance in a complex-level Arizona League game but failed to record an out, giving up four earned runs on two hits and two walks before exiting.
So, Wisler’s full-season debut in 2012 was basically his pro debut as well. Nonetheless, the right-hander caught everyone’s attention by posting a 2.53 ERA and 113-28 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 114 innings for Low-A Fort Wayne.
Moved up to High-A Lake Elsinore for the 2013 season, the 21-year-old (in his age-20 season) made six impressive starts in the California League before receiving a quick promotion to Double-A San Antonio.
Wisler continued to dominate at the more advanced level, registering a 3.00 ERA and .223 opponents’ batting average with a 103-27 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 105 innings (20 starts). He was especially lethal against same-side hitters, whom he held to a .188 batting average and struck out 73 times in 58.1 innings.
Wisler is an excellent athlete, and he is still growing into a projectable 6’3”, 195-pound frame. His delivery involves moderate effort, as he will jerk with his upper body and head at times. Though it doesn’t impede his ability to throw strikes, it’s something that will need to be cleaned up a bit.
The 21-year-old’s fastball is a presently plus in the low- to mid-90s, and he’s capable of running it up to 95-96 mph with late life. And for what Wisler lacks in downhill plane toward the plate, he compensates with a feel for working both sides of the plate with the pitch and generally pounding the strike zone.
Wisler’s slider is a future plus offering, thrown with excellent depth and pace at 82-87 mph. It’s a two-plane breaker with huge swing-and-miss potential against right-handed hitters, and he already shows a feel for using it both inside and outside of the strike zone.
The right-hander’s changeup is a fringe offering that projects to be at least average at maturity. He turns it over well to generate two-seam-like fade and sink in the mid-80s—which is a bit on the firm side—but there’s still plenty of room for improvement. Rounding out Wisler’s deep arsenal is a curveball in the mid-70s that’s used sparingly as a show-me pitch.
After dealing over 20 starts and 105 innings last season at Double-A, Wisler has little left to prove at the level. However, an addition quarter- to half-season at the level wouldn’t be at a bad thing, and it certainly wouldn’t prevent him from reaching the major leagues after the All-Star break.
Although a strained oblique limited Kyle Crick to only 14 starts this past season, the 20-year-old was flat-out nasty when healthy, posting a 1.57 ERA and .201 opponents' batting average with 95 strikeouts in 68.2 innings at High-A San Jose.
At 6’4”, 220 pounds, Crick utilizes his strong core and lower half to generate big-time fastball velocity in the 93-96 mph range, and he can even get it as high as 98 at times. His changeup is a second plus pitch, thrown with excellent arm speed and velocity separation, as well as considerable fade to the arm side. The 20-year-old’s curveball can be a sledge and flashes plus potential with impressive pace and shape. He’ll also mix in a slider with decent bite.
Crick demonstrated improved control and command this past season, but he still endured bouts of inconsistency in which he struggled to repeat his mechanics. Specifically, Crick doesn’t always maintain ideal posture on the mound, which can cause his arm to drag and his stuff to linger up in the zone. So, while the arsenal is electric, he still has a few significant hurdles to clear in terms of his overall development.
Regardless of the concerns, Crick’s stuff will translate in the major leagues. Therefore, if his command starts to come around next season at Double-A, there’s a decent chance the right-hander will be in the major leagues by the end of the year.