10 Top MLB Prospects Who Starred on Minor League Opening Day
The 2014 Minor League Baseball season began on Thursday, with a total 54 games played by teams representing all four full-season levels.
As expected, the day featured countless impressive performances by top-ranked prospects, both hitters and pitchers, with many players making an immediate impact at a new, more challenging level.
So, which players had the best Opening Day, you ask?
Well, after sifting through endless box scores, I've put together a list of the 10 most impressive performances from Thursday, with an emphasis on prospects that appeared in my recent top 100 rankings.
Here are the 10 MLB prospects who starred on Minor League Opening Day.
Henry Owens, LHP, Boston Red Sox
Opening Day Stats (Double-A Portland): 6 IP, 0 H, 2 BB, 9 K
Henry Owens, who is widely considered Boston’s top pitching prospect this year, had an Opening Day start to remember on Thursday, as the 21-year-old left-hander fired a six-inning no-hitter against Reading (Phillies). Owens had recorded nine strikeouts compared to two walks before the game was called due to rain after the sixth inning.
Owens registered a 1.78 ERA and 46-15 strikeout-to-walk ratio last year in 30.1 innings following a late-season promotion to Double-A. And given the age and medical history of several Red Sox starting pitchers, it’s conceivable the organization will challenge Owens with a call-up to the majors late in the summer.
Aaron Sanchez, RHP, Toronto Blue Jays
Opening Day Stats (Double-A New Hampshire): 5 IP, H, 2 BB, 5 K
Aaron Sanchez took a huge step forward this year during spring training, as the 21-year-old right-hander tossed 15.1 scoreless innings and posted an 11-6 strikeout-to-walk ratio during that span. Sanchez also threw four scoreless innings with six strikeouts in early March against the Canadian national team, though his numbers from that start aren’t included in his overall spring line.
Sanchez's Opening Day start on Thursday was his Double-A debut, and it couldn’t have gone much better. In general, the right-hander seems to be figuring things out at just the right time, and with a strong first-half pitching in the Eastern League, he could be ready to join the Blue Jays rotation by midseason. But seriously, guys: His upside is nuts.
Mookie Betts, 2B, Boston Red Sox
Opening Day Stats (Double-A Portland): 4-for-4, 3 R, HR
Mookie Betts was one of the top breakout prospects in 2013, batting .314/.417/.506 with 93 runs, 55 extra-base hits (15 home runs) and 38 steals in 127 games between Low-A Greenville and High-A Salem. As a result of Betts’ overwhelmingly good full-season debut, the Red Sox assigned the 21-year-old second baseman to Double-A Portland to open the season.
Left-hander Henry Owens’ no-hitter was the biggest story to come out of Portland’s season debut on Thursday, but Betts was equally impressive at the plate, going 4-for-4 with a home run and three runs scored. Unfortunately, no matter how well he does this season, Betts remains blocked at the highest level by Dustin Pedroia. So, expect to hear his name come up in more and more trade rumors as the season unfolds.
Kaleb Cowart, 3B, Los Angeles Angels
Opening Day Stats (Double-A Arkansas): 5-for-6, 3 R, 2B, HR, 5 RBI, SB, BB
Kaleb Cowart jumped on the fast track to the major leagues during his impressive full-season debut in 2012, when the then-20-year-old batted .276/.358/.452 with 31 doubles, 16 home runs, 103 RBI and 14 stolen bases in 135 games between both Class-A levels.
However, the switch-hitting third baseman struggled mightily last season after moving up to Double-A Arkansas, evidenced by his dismal .580 OPS, 26 extra-base hits and 124-34 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 132 games.
So with that being said, it obviously was very encouraging to see Cowart turn in a big season debut on Thursday. The 21-year-old did a little of everything in the game, going 5-for-6 with a double, home run, walk, stolen base, three runs scored and five RBI.
Carlos Correa, SS, Houston Astros
Opening Day Stats (High-A Lancaster): 3-for-4, 4 RBI
Carlos Correa proved to be more advanced than expected last season, as the then-18-year-old batted .320/.405/.467 with 33 doubles, nine home runs and 86 RBI in 117 games at Low-A Quad Cities. Due to his enormous upside and potential to move quickly through the minors this season, the Astros offered Correa significant playing time this spring, and he held his own with a .717 OPS, two doubles and a pair of home runs in 16 games.
Assigned to High-A Lancaster for the 2014 season, Correa fittingly went 3-for-4 with four RBI against Lake Elsinore (Padres) in his California League debut. If Correa gets off to a hot start at the new level and stays healthy, the 19-year-old shortstop could potentially reach Double-A by July. And if that’s ultimately the case, then it’s not crazy to think we’ll see him in the major leagues in either August or September.
Randal Grichuk, OF, St. Louis Cardinals
Opening Day Stats (Triple-A Memphis): 3-for-4, 3 R, 2B, HR, 3 RBI
The Cardinals acquired Grichuk from the Angels this past offseason as part of the Peter Bourjos-David Freese swap, and the 22-year-old outfielder opened eyes this spring within his new organization by posting a .742 OPS with six extra-base hits in 37 at-bats.
Grichuk—also known as the guy selected by the Angels ahead of Mike Trout in the 2009 draft—made an immediate impact on Thursday in his Triple-A debut, going 3-for-4 with a double, home run and three RBI against Triple-A Iowa (Cubs).
Considering Grichuk can play all three outfield positions and already owns a spot on the Cardinals’ 40-man roster, he’s likely to be the first player recalled should something happen to any of the team’s major league outfielders.
Rafael Montero, RHP, New York Mets
Opening Day Stats (Triple-A Las Vegas): 6 IP, 4 H, 5 K
Rafael Montero confirmed in spring training that he won’t be long for the minor leagues this year, as the 23-year-old right-hander posted a 3.00 ERA with five strikeouts in nine innings (five appearances; one start) before receiving an Opening Day assignment to Triple-A Las Vegas.
In his season debut on Thursday, Montero allowed just four hits in six shutout innings against Triple-A Fresno (Giants). As usual, the right-hander’s command was terrific, evidenced by his five strikeouts against zero walks in the outing.
Kris Bryant, 3B, Chicago Cubs
Opening Day Stats (Double-A Tennessee): 1-for-3, 2 R, HR, 2 RBI, SB
What would a Kris Bryant debut be without a home run?
Bryant, the No. 2 overall pick in last year’s draft, took the minor leagues by storm last summer, batting .336/.390/.688 with 14 doubles and nine home runs in 36 games across three levels. The 22-year-old went on to play in the Arizona Fall League, where he was recognized as the league’s MVP after batting .364/.457/.727 with eight doubles and six home runs in 92 plate appearances.
With Mike Olt on the 25-man roster and Christian Villanueva in Triple-A, the Cubs were able to offer Bryant an aggressive Opening Day assignment to Double-A Tennessee. As usual, the 6’5” slugger made an immediate impact on Thursday in his season debut, going 1-for-3 with a two-run home run.
Eddie Butler, RHP, Colorado Rockies
Opening Day Stats (Double-A Tulsa): 5 IP, 3 H, ER, BB, 5 K
The Rockies promoted right-hander Eddie Butler to Double-A Tulsa last year for the final month of the minor league season, and he responded to the challenge—in his first full professional season, no less—by posting a 0.65 ERA and 25-6 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 27.2 innings (six starts).
Well, Butler was back at it again on Thursday in Tulsa’s season opener against Corpus Christi (Astros), as the 23-year-old right-hander allowed one run on three hits in five impressive frames. He struck out five batters in the outing compared to only one walk.
Micah Johnson, 2B, Chicago White Sox
Opening Day Stats (Double-A Birmingham): 2-for-4, 2 R, 3B, HR, 2 RBI
Selected by the White Sox in the ninth round of the 2012 draft, Micah Johnson surged up the organizational ladder last year in his full-season debut, splitting time between both Class-A affiliates before finishing the season at Double-A Birmingham.
Overall, the 23-year-old second baseman batted .312/.373/.451 with 24 doubles, 15 triples, seven home runs and 84 stolen bases in 131 games. Johnson’s breakout performance also earned him the recognition as the organization’s minor league player of the year.
Johnson was assigned back to Double-A to open the season after a solid showing in spring training (.360/.407/.400, 3 SB in 21 games), and the speedy left-handed hitter showed some power in Thursday’s season opener, going 2-for-4 with a double and home run.
Johnson’s defense is still fairly raw and will require considerable seasoning at Double- and Triple-A. Yet, given the team’s current lack of production at the keystone over the last five seasons, I wouldn’t be surprised if he received an audition in the major leagues later in the year.