Predictions for MLB's Top 10 Prospects in 2014
The future of baseball has been on display this spring, with countless top-ranked prospects opening eyes with their performances on a daily basis.
However, with the start of the regular season around the corner, teams have started to trim their rosters by optioning prospects to a specific level or reassigning them to minor league spring training. This past week, Byron Buxton, Oscar Taveras and Francisco Lindor were the biggest names among prospects to be cut from big league camp.
The good news is that this spring probably won't be the last time this year we see these players in a major league uniform. And with that, here are my predictions for Prospect Pipeline's top 10 prospects in 2014.
10. Noah Syndergaard, RHP, New York Mets
Noah Syndergaard took a huge step forward in 2013—as many expected would happen—posting an impressive 3.06 ERA and 133-28 strikeout-to-walk 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 the strike zone. Syndergaard’s plus-plus heater sits in the mid- to upper 90s with late 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, following a similar timeline as Zack Wheeler last year.
However, concern about Syndergaard’s potential workload—especially after what happened to Matt Harvey—might encourage the organization to hold him in Triple-A until later in the season or possibly break him in with work out of the bullpen.
9. Taijuan Walker, RHP, Seattle Mariners
Taijuan Walker 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, the 21-year-old 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 already 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. 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 is yet to appear in a game this spring after an MRI revealed inflammation in his right shoulder. Thankfully, he resumed throwing last week and said on Thursday following a bullpen session that he’s starting to “feel normal again."
But even if that goes well, it’s hard to imagine the Mariners pushing the right-hander just to get him in the Opening Day rotation. Regardless of where and when his season begins, Walker should spend a majority of the year in the major leagues and turn in an eye-opening rookie campaign, even if there are some bumps along the way.
8. Addison Russell, SS, Oakland Athletics
Addison Russell received an aggressive assignment to High-A Stockton last season, where he served as one of the youngest everyday players across the entire the level. However, one wouldn’t guess that based on his production, as the 20-year-old batted .275/.377/.508 with 85 runs scored, 56 extra-base hits (17 home runs) and 21 stolen bases in 517 plate appearances.
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.
Russell has the makings of an All-Star shortstop, with four above-average or better tools that will only improve with experience. The right-handed hitter’s combination of plus bat speed and a deep point of contact should produce above-average power at the highest level, if not more. Also, given his ability to use the entire field, Russell should always tally a high number of doubles and triples.
Russell was starting to swing a hot bat start this spring but has been held out of action since Monday, when he left a game with a hamstring injury. Prior to that, the A’s had given him extensive playing time at shortstop (12 games), which suggests the organization expects him to contribute sooner rather than later.
Assuming he opens the 2014 season in Double-A, it's very likely that Russell will debut as the A's shortstop before his 21st birthday and spend a good chunk of the second half in the major leagues.
7. Archie Bradley, RHP, Arizona Diamondbacks
Opening the 2013 season at High-A Visalia, Archie Bradley made quick work of the California League with a 1.26 ERA and 43-10 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 28.2 innings over five starts.
As a result of his domination in the hitter-friendly league, 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 and projectable 6’4”, 225-pound frame, the right-hander 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 lags behind that of his two other offerings, but it flashes above-average potential and should serve as a third weapon in time.
Bradley had pitched like baseball’s top prospect this spring until his latest start on Thursday against the Mariners, when the 21-year-old allowed four earned runs on five hits and two walks in two innings. While he’s clearly one of the Diamondback’s five best starters headed into the season, Bradley will probably begin the year in the minor leagues, likely Triple-A, so as to prepare for an inevitable call-up.
The organization's recent history of promoting top pitching prospects ahead of schedule suggests that Bradley will spend most of the 2014 season in the major leagues, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he emerges as the National League’s top rookie hurler by season's end.
6. Javier Baez, SS, Chicago Cubs
Arguably the most exciting prospect in baseball, Baez turned in a monster 2013 campaign between High-A and Double-A, batting .282/.341/.578 with 98 runs scored and 20 stolen bases. He led all minor league hitters with 75 extra-base hits and 111 RBI and ranked second with 37 home runs in 577 plate appearances.
Every aspect of his power profile is elite: the bat speed, his sheer strength, the hand-eye coordination, the leveraged bat path and extension after contact and the ability to jump the yards to all fields.
Everything. Based on all those components, it’s hard not to see him blasting 30-plus home runs over a full season in the major leagues, and he’ll probably claim his share of home run titles too.
Baez’s jaw-dropping performance this spring—which is ongoing with Starlin Castro still battling a hamstring issue—in big league camp is exactly why the Cubs will be forced to make room for him in the lineup next season. With a top-flight prospect such as Baez, an aggressive promotion to the major leagues simply represents the next logical step in his overall development.
Though he survived the first round of cuts, Baez is unlikely to break camp with the Cubs this year, save for a scenario in which Castro is forced to miss significant time early in the season. Plus, given his impact potential on offense and the overall likelihood he sticks in the major leagues, it makes more sense for the organization to keep him in the minor leagues until June for financial reasons.
However, assuming Baez debuts around then, there’s a realistic chance he will pace all rookies in home runs and slugging percentage by season’s end.
5. Francisco Lindor, SS, Cleveland Indians
Francisco Lindor continued to surge toward the major leagues last year, as the then-teenager batted .303/.380/.407 with 22 doubles, seven triples, 25 stolen bases and a 46-49 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 464 plate appearances between High-A Carolina and Double-A Akron.
Regarded as the best defensive shortstop in the minor leagues, Lindor is an absolute wizard with the glove and has the potential to be an elite defensive shortstop in the major leagues. Even if the switch-hitter’s bat doesn’t develop as expected, he has the potential to enjoy a long, successful career in the major leagues based on his defensive prowess, superb instincts and ability to control the speed of the game.
Lindor thrived once again this year in major league camp, even hitting a go-ahead, three-run home run in a game against the Mariners on March 2. Yet as expected, the 20-year-old was included in the Tribe’s first round of cuts Wednesday, receiving an assignment to minor league camp.
With Asdrubal Cabrera entering the final year of his contract, Lindor lacks the clear path to playing time compared to some of the other top-ranked prospects. However, since he’s expected to take over as the team’s everyday shortstop the next year, Lindor will probably receive a call-up sometime after the All-Star break following an outstanding showing back at Double-A Akron.
4. Oscar Taveras, OF, 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.
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 just 46 games.
Taveras finally was cleared to play in games last week and appropriately doubled in his highly anticipated spring debut. Unfortunately, two days later he was out of the lineup with hamstring tightness. On Tuesday, Cardinals manager Mike Matheny confirmed that Taveras wouldn’t make the team unless healthy, and he was optioned to Triple-A Memphis two days later.
The Cardinals will let Taveras regain full strength and receive consistent at-bats at Memphis to begin the season, as they have no immediate need (or a spot) for him in the major leagues.
However, once the outfielder settles in at the plate, which he obviously will, the team will be forced to make room for him in the everyday lineup. Assuming he arrives somewhere around midseason, Taveras should be among the top candidates for the NL Rookie of the Year Award by season’s end.
3. Carlos Correa, SS, Houston Astros
The No. 1 overall pick in the 2012 draft, Carlos Correa, had a stellar full-season debut last year, batting .320/.405/.467 with 45 extra-base hits and 86 RBI in 117 games at Low-A Quad Cities. The 19-year-old has struggled this spring in spite of consistent playing time, but that’s not entirely surprising given his age.
The right-handed hitter has a simple, direct swing in which he attacks the ball and utilizes the entire field. However, it’s his advanced plate discipline and pitch recognition that already makes him a special hitter. And while he possesses plenty of raw power, he doesn’t swing for the fences, employing an approach geared toward consistent hard contact and getting on base instead.
In spite of his 6’4”, 205-pound frame, Correa is an excellent athlete with above-average speed and the tools to stick at shortstop, including soft hands, good range and a legitimate plus-plus arm. And last but certainly not least, Correa’s makeup grades through the roof—which is special in itself—and has him poised for success for a long, long time.
Correa is a physically blessed player with the potential for four plus-or-better tools at maturity. He'll move up to High-A in 2014 after last year's dazzling full-season debut at Low-A Quad Cities, and he'll probably spend a majority of the season at Double-A.
Though he's entering his age-19 season, Correa may not require much more time to refine his game in the minor leagues, and there’s reason to believe he’ll be a top-tier shortstop with legitimate MVP potential in his prime.
2. Xander Bogaerts, SS, Boston Red Sox
Assigned back to Double-A Portland to begin the 2013 season, Xander Bogaerts posted a .909 OPS with 24 extra-base hits and a 51-35 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 56 games before a midseason promotion to Triple-A Pawtucket. Bogaerts didn't skip a beat at the more advanced level, posting an .822 OPS with nine home runs and an improved 44-28 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 60 games.
Bogaerts was promoted to the major leagues in late August to bolster the team’s roster for the stretch run. While the recently turned 21-year-old’s playing time was limited, he still impressed by batting .250/.320/.364 in 18 games and playing both positions on the left side of the infield.
The Red Sox decided to include Bogaerts on their postseason roster, and the youngster rewarded the team by batting .296/.412/.481 with nine runs scored, four extra-base hits and six walks in 12 games while playing a major role in Boston winning the World Series.
Slated to open the season as Boston's everyday shortstop, Boagerts is the early favorite to run away with the Rookie of the Year Award in the American League. As he showed last year, the 21-year-old is already adept at making swift adjustments against advanced competition.
So while it’s likely that he’ll struggle at times over the course of a full season, there’s no reason to think he won’t be hugely successful as a rookie.
1. Byron Buxton, OF, 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 strikeout-to-walk rate in 574 plate appearances between both Class-A levels—as a teenager nonetheless.
The 20-year-old outfielder has the ceiling of an MVP-caliber player in his prime, with five potentially plus tools and a feel for making in-game adjustments. He is a supremely gifted athlete with 80-grade speed and the potential to be an elite defender in center field.
At the plate, the right-handed hitter’s combination of explosive bat speed and hand-eye coordination will help him reach the major leagues quickly, while his mature approach and pitch recognition could make him one of the game’s top hitters. And while he’s already an extra-base machine thanks to his wheels, Buxton also has the raw power to produce 20-plus home runs.
Buxton will begin the 2014 season at Double-A New Britain, where he will face advanced pitching on a regular basis. However, after participating in the Arizona Fall League last year and then receiving considerable playing time this spring in major league camp, he should adjust quickly to the new level and receive a call-up in July.
Yes, he's going to be that good. And yes, it's OK to be that excited. I am.