The 2014 MLB Prospects-to-Watch Team During Spring Training
The start of Cactus and Grapefruit League games this week means all eyes are now trained on baseball’s top prospects. However, with so many top-ranked young players in major league camp, focusing may be a little tricky.
Fans hoping to catch a glimpse of a future superstar will have an overwhelming number of chances to do so over the next few weeks, as teams will be offering their best prospects extensive playing time early in the spring schedule so as to evaluate them against proven big leaguers.
Yeah, it’s pretty awesome.
Even though there will be a solid collection of prospects on the field in any given game this spring, there are certain guys who are simply must-watch entertainment.
And with that said, I’m proud to introduce you to 2014 spring training's MLB Prospects-to-Watch Team.
Catcher: Austin Hedges, San Diego Padres
Austin Hedges held his own last season at High-A Lake Elsinore and Double-A San Antonio—though, as expected given his age and lack of professional experience, his production tapered off at the more advanced levels. Between both stops, the then-20-year-old batted .260/.333/.390 with 25 doubles and a 54-28 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 341 plate appearances.
Hedges’ elite, game-changing chops behind the plate will make him one of the best defensive catchers in the major leagues upon his arrival. There’s simply nothing he can’t do back there.
If Hedges continues to make strides at the plate next season—presumably back at Double-A—it’s not crazy to envision the Padres offering him a late-season cup of coffee. At the same time, it’s doubtful the organization will unnecessarily rush his development, especially with Yasmani Grandal and Nick Hundley ahead of him on the depth chart. Therefore, a debut during the 2015 season is probably more realistic.
First Base: Jonathan Singleton, Houston Astros
Jonathan Singleton began the 2013 season by serving a 50-game suspension following his second positive drug test and then struggled to find his power stroke upon his return while working his way back up the minor league ladder.
The 22-year-old first baseman made brief stops at Low-A Quad Cities and Double-A Corpus Christi before a promotion to Triple-A Oklahoma City, where, in the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League, he posted a pedestrian .687 OPS with six home runs and 89 strikeouts in 294 plate appearances. Between all three levels, Singleton batted .230/.351/.401 with 29 extra-base hits (11 home runs) and a 110-59 K/BB ratio in 367 plate appearances.
However, Singleton’s long-ball struggles finally came to an end this offseason, as the left-handed hitter launched nine home runs in 129 at-bats while playing in the Puerto Rican Winter League.
While it’s doubtful Singleton will open the 2014 season as Houston’s everyday first baseman, he can still make the case for an early-season call-up with a strong showing this spring.
Second Base: Rougned Odor, Texas Rangers
The Rangers assigned Rougned Odor to High-A Myrtle Beach to begin the 2013 season, and the 20-year-old responded to the challenge by batting .305/.369/.454 with 42 extra-base hits and 27 stolen bases in 425 plate appearances before a late-season promotion to Double-A Frisco.
The left-handed-hitting second baseman continued to thrive at the more advanced level, posting a .306/.354/.530 batting line with 20 runs scored, eight doubles and six home runs in 144 plate appearances.
Overall, Odor posted an .839 OPS with 41 doubles, 11 home runs, 32 stolen bases and a 91-35 K/BB ratio in 569 plate appearances.
With Elvis Andrus at shortstop and Jurickson Profar taking over at the keystone this season, the Rangers won’t have to rush Odor to the major leagues, save for an injury to one of the aforementioned middle infielders. However, a strong spring followed by an impressive showing back at Double-A (and probably Triple-A as well) could land the 20-year-old in The Show by season’s end.
Shortstop: Carlos Correa, Houston Astros
Selected by the Astros with the No. 1 pick in the 2012 draft, Carlos Correa proved to be more advanced than expected last year as one of the younger everyday players at a full-season level. He showcased impact potential on all sides of the ball as well as an overall mature feel for the game.
The then-18-year-old batted .320/.405/.467 with 45 extra-base hits (nine home runs), 86 RBI, 10 stolen bases and an 83-58 K/BB ratio in 519 plate appearances at Low-A Quad Cities.
Correa should see more playing time this spring after getting his first taste of major league camp in 2012. The Astros will likely play him against established big leaguers to get a better feel for his developmental timeline.
Amazingly, Correa may not require much more time to refine his game in the minor leagues, as the teenager has makings of a top-tier shortstop (or third baseman, if he’s forced to move off the position) in his prime with legitimate MVP potential.
Third Base: Kris Bryant, Chicago Cubs
Selected with the No. 2 pick in the 2013 draft, Kris Bryant made stops at three minor league levels last summer after signing, capping his impressive professional debut by batting .333/.387/.719 with five home runs and 14 RBI in 16 games at High-A Daytona.
Bryant’s late-season success carried over into the Arizona Fall League, where he was named the circuit’s MVP after batting .364/.457/.727 with eight doubles, six home runs and 17 RBI in 20 games.
While there’s some uncertainty as to whether he’ll remain at third base or move to a corner outfield spot in deference to fellow prospects Javier Baez and Arismendy Alcantara, Bryant’s bat could have him in the major leagues (in some capacity) by the end of the 2014 season.
However, I also wouldn’t be surprised if the Cubs gave him the full year to develop in the high minors (mostly at Double-A, I imagine). Regardless, Bryant should serve as a force in the middle of the Cubs lineup for years to come, with the potential to hit 35-plus home runs annually.
Outfield: Byron Buxton, Minnesota Twins
Byron Buxton, the No. 2 overall pick in the 2012 draft, emerged as baseball’s top prospect last year in his first full professional season, posting a .944 OPS with 49 extra-base hits (12 home runs), 55 stolen bases and an impressive 105-76 K/BB ratio in 574 plate appearances between both Class-A levels—as a teenager.
Buxton technically participated in his first major league spring training last year, prior to his full-season debut, appearing in one game for the Twins before an inevitable reassignment to minor league camp. But one game was all Buxton needed to make a strong impression, as the outfielder went 1-for-4 with three runs scored and a pair of stolen bases.
The 20-year-old should receive significant playing time this spring, considering he’s already viewed as a potential late-season call-up. The Twins are eager to see how Buxton fares against major league-caliber pitching, and a strong showing against advanced competition could potentially improve his estimated time of arrival to The Show.
Buxton has the ceiling of an MVP-caliber player in his prime, with five potentially plus tools and a feel for making in-game adjustments. Assuming he opens the 2014 season at Double-A, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the 20-year-old finish the year in the major leagues.
Outfield: Oscar Taveras, St. Louis Cardinals
After a monster 2012 campaign at Double-A, Oscar Taveras entered the 2013 season as the top-ranked outfield prospect and was expected to make an impact at the major league level at some point last season.
However, after opening the year at Triple-A Memphis, the 21-year-old suffered a high-ankle sprain in late May, which resulted in two separate stints on the disabled list and, ultimately, season-ending surgery. Taveras batted .306/.341/.462 with 17 extra-base hits and 32 RBI at Memphis but was limited to only 46 games.
Taveras will get the chance to compete for a job this spring—presumably in right field, though the team may offer him playing time at both corner outfield spots to ensure he receives consistent (and much-needed) at-bats. But based upon the strength of the Cardinals’ probable outfield configuration of Matt Holliday, Peter Bourjos and Allen Craig, Taveras is likely to open the year at Triple-A.
With a clean bill of health headed into the 2014 season, Taveras is a safe bet to rake upon reaching the major leagues, and he could potentially run away with the National League Rookie of the Year award. Spring training will help determine where the 21-year-old begins the season, but expect Taveras to play regularly once he reaches the majors.
Outfield: George Springer, Houston Astros
George Springer continued his assault on minor league pitching in 2013, as the now-24-year-old put up numbers that made his 2012 stats look like a warm-up act.
Splitting the season between Double-A Corpus Christi and Triple-A Oklahoma City, Springer batted .303/.411/.600 with 68 extra-base hits (37 home runs), 106 runs and 108 RBI in 590 plate appearances. And just for good measure, he also stole 45 bases in 53 attempts.
The outfielder’s 30-30 performance was the first in the minor leagues since 2009, and he ultimately fell three home runs shy of joining the 40-40 club.
Few players in the minors are as naturally gifted as Springer, who showcases four plus tools (power, speed, glove and arm) on any given night. For that reason, there are even fewer players with as high of a ceiling as the Astros’ future outfielder. Springer’s game-changing power/speed potential should make him an impact player in the major leagues.
However, the ongoing development of his approach and hit tool will ultimately determine whether he becomes an All-Star-caliber player or major league regular. Either way, expect Springer to see significant playing time next season in the Astros outfield.
Utility: Javier Baez, Chicago Cubs
Javier Baez struggled out of the gate at High-A Daytona last season but eventually caught fire, ultimately batting .274/.338/.535 with 17 home runs in 337 plate appearances. Following a well-deserved promotion to Double-A Tennessee in late June, the 21-year-old was one of the most productive hitters in the minor leagues, batting .294/.346/.638 with 20 home runs in 240 plate appearances.
Between both stops, Baez batted .282/.341/.578 with 98 runs scored and 20 stolen bases. He also led all minor league hitters with 75 extra-base hits and 111 RBI, and he ranked second with 37 home runs. In addition, he posted a 147-40 K/BB ratio in 577 plate appearances.
Unfortunately, with Starlin Castro under contract through the 2019 season, Baez lacks a clear path to playing time in the major leagues—save for an injury, of course.
Yet the Cubs will likely be forced to make room in the lineup for him at some point next season; with a top-flight prospect such as Baez, an aggressive promotion to the major leagues represents the next logical step in his overall development. So it’s not a surprise that they plan on working him in at both second and third base during spring training, per ESPN Chicago's Jesse Rogers—this is why he’s on this team as a utility player and not a shortstop.
It’s not a secret that Baez’s bat will be a weapon, no matter where he plays defensively.
Starting Pitcher: Noah Syndergaard, New York Mets
Acquired by the Mets from the Blue Jays last offseason as part of the R.A. Dickey deal, Noah Syndergaard took a huge step forward on all fronts in 2013—as many expected would happen—posting an impressive 3.06 ERA and 133-28 K/BB ratio in 117.2 innings between High-A St. Lucie and Double-A Binghamton.
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. Syndergaard’s plus-plus heater sits in the mid- to upper 90s with late, arm-side life, and he frequently flirts with triple digits.
His curveball also has plus-plus potential, and his command of the pitch improved last season after he added a slider to his already impressive arsenal. He throws his changeup with good arm speed and confidence, and it could serve as a third plus-or-better offering at maturity.
Syndergaard has one of the highest ceilings among all pitching prospects, boasting a combination of stuff and command that profiles at the front of a big league rotation. Assuming he opens the 2014 season at Triple-A, the right-hander could be ready to debut around midseason—just as Matt Harvey and Zack Wheeler did in previous years.
Starting Pitcher: Archie Bradley, Arizona Diamondbacks
Assigned to High-A Visalia to begin the 2013 season, Archie Bradley made quick work of the hitter-friendly California League, posting a 1.26 ERA and 43-10 K/BB ratio in 28.2 innings over five starts.
As a result of his overwhelming success, the then-20-year-old received an early-season promotion to Double-A Mobile, where he continued to thrive against older, more experienced hitters. Making 21 starts at the more advanced level, Bradley registered a 1.97 ERA, .214 opponents’ batting average and a 119-59 K/BB ratio in 123.1 innings.
An excellent athlete with a durable, projectable frame, the right-hander repeated his delivery with greater consistency last season, which in turn improved both his control and command.
Bradley arguably boasts the deadliest two-pitch combination among minor-league pitchers, with a heavy fastball in the mid- to upper 90s and power curveball with a 12-to-6 shape and sharp downer bite. The right-hander’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 in time.
Bradley will compete for a spot in the big league rotation this spring, though it’s likely he’ll open the season at Triple-A Reno. Regardless, the Diamondbacks' recent history of promoting top pitching prospects ahead of schedule suggests that the 21-year-old will spend most of the 2014 season in the major leagues.
Starting Pitcher: Taijuan Walker, Seattle Mariners
After a shaky age-19 campaign in 2012 at Double-A Jackson, Walker’s control and execution of his electric arsenal developed rapidly last season during his second tour of the level.
The 21-year-old began the 2013 season by mastering the Southern League, posting a 2.46 ERA and a 96-30 K/BB ratio in 84 innings at Jackson before a promotion to Triple-A Tacoma in late June. In spite of the fact that he was one of the younger pitchers at the level, Walker held his own with a 3.61 ERA and 64 strikeouts in 57.1 innings in the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League.
Though he had logged a career-high 141.1 innings between both minor league levels last season, the Mariners still decided to offer their top prospect a taste of the major leagues as a September call-up. Suffice it to say, Walker responded favorably to the challenge, as the right-hander registered a 3.60 ERA, .204 opponents’ batting average and 12-4 K/BB ratio in 15 innings over three starts.
Walker will audition for the starting rotation this spring and could win a spot based on the virtues of his stuff. Plus, with Hisashi Iwakuma likely to open the season on the shelf, Walker will likely receive ample opportunities to break camp in the Mariners rotation.
If that occurs, then don’t be surprised if Walker’s command (especially as it relates to his secondary arsenal) and ability to make adjustments against major league hitters is challenged.
Relief Pitcher: Jake Barrett, Arizona Diamondbacks
A third-round draft pick in 2012 out of Arizona State University, Jake Barrett quickly emerged as one of the better closers in the minors last season and jumped on the fast track to the major leagues. The 22-year-old opened his first full professional season—technically his age-21 season—with a 1.98 ERA, 15 saves and a 37-9 K/BB ratio in 27.1 innings for High-A Visalia.
Unsurprisingly, Barrett moved up to Double-A Mobile in late June and served as one of the top relievers in the minors during the second half. In 24.2 innings in the Southern League, the right-hander put up video-game numbers, with a 0.36 ERA, 14 saves and a stellar 22-3 K/BB ratio in 24 appearances.
Between both levels, Barrett registered a 1.21 ERA with 29 saves and a 59-12 K/BB ratio in 52 innings (52 appearances). He also held opposing hitters to a .197 batting average.
With a plus fastball-slider combination that generates both whiffs and weak contact and is seemingly designed for the late innings, Barrett should receive a long look this spring in major league camp. And though recently acquired closer Addison Reed blocks his path to the ninth inning, Barrett should still emerge as a seventh- or eighth-inning weapon for the Diamondbacks at some point during the 2014 season.
Relief Pitcher: Derek Law, San Francisco Giants
A ninth-round selection in the 2011 draft, Derek Law dominated across three levels in 2013, posting a 2.31 ERA with 14 saves and the best combination of strikeout (13.8) and walk (1.6) rates among all minor league relievers.
He 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. And just for good measure, the 23-year-old turned in an equally impressive performance in the Arizona Fall League, striking out 16 batters in 12.1 innings (11 appearances) without allowing an earned run.
Although the spring is young, Law has already opened eyes with his performance in major league camp, as noted by Chris Haft of MLB.com:
Giants general manager Brian Sabean has indicated that Law, who made the Arizona Fall League's Top Prospects team, could reach the Majors sooner rather than later. The 23-year-old possesses not only an enviable variety of pitches but also matchless command of them, a combination that should hasten an ascent to the big leagues.
Law will likely open the 2014 season in the Double-A Richmond bullpen, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he ultimately reaches the major leagues by the All-Star break, if not sooner.