Introducing the Next Wave of MLB Superstars Currently in the Minors
The arrival of generational stars Bryce Harper, Mike Trout and Manny Machado in the major leagues during the 2012 season set a new standard for all future rookie classes.
Yet, in spite of the lofty expectations, the overall influx of young talent in the major leagues last season as a whole was more impressive than the now legendary 2012 class.
Top-ranked prospects such as Wil Myers, Jose Fernandez, Yasiel Puig, Gerrit Cole, Michael Wacha, Anthony Rendon, Zack Wheeler and Christian Yelich made immediate impacts last year upon reaching the major leagues, and they since have justified the hype ascribed to them at the onset of their respective professional careers.
However, except for Fernandez, who to everyone’s surprise opened the season in the Marlins starting rotation after pitching at High-A in 2012, all of the aforementioned players began the season in the minor leagues.
This year should be no different; there's an equally promising crop of impact prospects who enter the season already on the verge of reaching the major leagues.
Here's a look at MLB's next wave of superstars currently in the minor leagues.
Francisco Lindor, SS, Cleveland Indians
Francisco Lindor’s quick rise through the minor leagues continued in 2013, as the then-teenager batted .306/.373/.410 with 26 extra-base hits and 20 stolen bases at High-A Carolina before finishing the season with a strong showing (.801 OPS in 91 plate appearances) at the Double-A level.
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—so far he’s surpassed all expectations at the plate—he has the potential to enjoy a long, successful career in the major leagues thanks to his defensive prowess and superb instincts, ability to control the speed of the game and phenomenal makeup.
Yet, the 20-year-old shows all the signs of becoming an average-or-better hitter, as he has an advanced approach (46-49 strikeout-to-walk rate in 464 plate appearances last season) and smooth stroke from both sides of the plate. Plus, he's already developed a reputation as a guy who comes through with the game on the line. (Like I said: phenomenal makeup.)
Lindor has a realistic ceiling of the top defensive shortstop in the game, and he could conceivably blossom into a frequent All-Star. And with Asdrubal Cabrera entering the final year of his contract, Lindor should receive his first taste of the major leagues later this season and, if all goes as planned, will open the 2015 season as the Tribe's starting shortstop.
Mark Appel, RHP, Houston Astros
The No. 1 overall pick in the 2013 draft, Mark Appel has been viewed as a future ace since the beginning of his 2012 campaign at Stanford.
After signing with the Astros last summer, Appel made two brief starts in the short-season New York-Penn League before moving up to Low-A Quad Cities for the final two months of the minor league regular season. Besides one ugly outing (3.1 IP, 9 H, 7 ER), Appel pitched well in his first taste of full-season ball, registering a 3.82 ERA and 29-7 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 33 innings.
As a 6’5”, 190-pound right-hander, Appel’s fastball sits consistently in the 93-97 mph range with some sink and arm-side run. His slider registers around 84-88 mph with a consistent pace, though he can get around the pitch at times and generate slurve-like spin. Appel’s changeup has come a long way over the last year and shows plus potential in the 83-85 mph range with fastball-like arm speed and late fade.
While Appel’s arsenal ranks as one of the more advanced and polished among all pitching prospects, his approach and feel for sequencing may need to be adjusted as he climbs the ladder and faces more experienced hitters.
The Astros won’t need him at the major league level in 2014, but, at the same time, they won’t be afraid to challenge him if it makes sense. So, expect the right-hander to debut in late July or early August.
Oscar Taveras, OF, St. Louis Cardinals
Oscar Taveras had a monster 2012 campaign at Double-A Springfield, batting .321/.380/.572 with 37 doubles and 23 home runs in 531 plate appearances, and the 21-year-old entered the 2013 season as the top-ranked outfield prospect in the game.
However, after opening the year at Triple-A Memphis, Taveras 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 features an explosive yet well-balanced left-handed swing that enables him to keep the bat head in the zone for an extended period of time. As a result, he seemingly always achieves a favorable point of contact, while his extension through the ball allows him to generate backspin carry to all fields and amass a significant number of extra-base hits.
And while he has plenty of strength and raw power, his in-game power is more so a product of him being a pure hitter.
However, it’s Taveras’ unparalleled hand-eye coordination and bat-to-ball ability that separates him from other highly regarded young hitters. Taveras simply hits everything: fastballs, breaking balls, off-speed pitches, same-side pitching, pitcher’s pitches—you name it, and he can barrel it effortlessly.
Taveras has the makings of a future batting champion and perennial All-Star; the only thing currently standing in his way is a path to regular playing time in the major leagues.
Archie Bradley, RHP, Arizona Diamondbacks
Archie Bradley emerged as baseball’s top pitching prospect last season. The then-20-year-old posted a 1.84 ERA with 162 strikeouts in 152 innings between High-A Visalia and Double-A Mobile while also holding opposing hitters to a .215 batting average.
An excellent athlete with a durable and projectable 6’4”, 225-pound frame, Bradley, now 21, boasts arguably the best two-pitch combination among minor league pitchers, with a heavy fastball in the mid- to upper 90s and a 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 enters the season knocking on the door of the major leagues, and as the sport’s top-ranked pitching prospect, he’s expected to join the Diamondbacks rotation sooner rather than later. Considering the right-hander’s present stuff and room for improvement—specifically in the command department—it’s scary to think how good he’ll be in just a few years.
Gregory Polanco, OF, Pittsburgh Pirates
Gregory Polanco followed his breakthrough full-season debut in 2012 with an even better showing in 2013, as the toolsy outfielder excelled at three levels and finished the year in Triple-A. Between all stops, the 22-year-old batted .285/.356/.434 with 26 doubles, 16 home runs, 85 RBI and 40 stolen bases in 485 plate appearances.
A left-handed hitter, Polanco has a mature approach and gets excellent plate coverage thanks to his lanky build and long arms. His swing will get lengthy on occasion, and it can impede his ability to handle velocity—both on the hands and up in the zone—but that’s really only a minor gripe. Overall, Polanco projects as an above-average hitter in the major leagues with enough raw power to hit 15-plus home runs annually.
His tools and feel for the game are both impressive for a player of his age and experience, though he’s still rough around the edges, with room to improve in all facets of the game. However, the potential is there for a first-division standout at maturity, and it shouldn’t be long until he joins Andrew McCutchen and Starling Marte to form the most exciting outfield in baseball.
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, as the then-teenager posted a .944 OPS with 49 extra-base hits (12 home runs), 55 stolen bases and an impressive 105-76 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 574 plate appearances between both Class-A levels.
Buxton 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 has the ceiling of an MVP-caliber player in his prime, with five legitimate plus tools and unique feel for making in-game adjustments at a young age. The 20-year-old was expected to begin the season at Double-A New Britain; unfortunately, he’s been sidelined with a left wrist injury since mid-March and may not return to game action until May.
Javier Baez, SS, Chicago Cubs
Javier 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. The 21-year-old led all minor league hitters with 75 extra-base hits and 111 RBI, and he also ranked second with 37 home runs in 577 plate appearances.
Baez generates elite raw power with his extremely strong wrists and violent swing—the kind that makes 30-plus annual home runs in the major leagues a very real possibility. He has issues with pitch recognition and chases too many breaking balls out of the zone, but that is mostly a product of his aggressive approach, and he should improve in this area with more experience against quality pitching.
Plus, even if Baez posts poor strikeout-to-walk rates in the major leagues—he’s struck out 220 times against 54 walks in 916 minor league plate appearances—his bat speed and ability to square the ball should result in respectable batting averages.
Defensively, Baez is an impressive athlete with smooth actions at shortstop and a plus arm that’s ideal for the position. However, as is the case with most young shortstops, he’s still learning to control his body and, more importantly, learning to slow down the game. So don’t get too caught up in the high error totals (67 errors in 203 games) during the early stages of his career.
Although he failed to make the Cubs’ Opening Day roster—which had more to do with the team saving money in the future than him not being ready for the major leagues—Baez proved that he’s nearly ready to be challenged at the highest level. And if he stays healthy and puts up the numbers he should in the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League, the 21-year-old should be ready to debut sometime around June.
Carlos Correa, SS, Houston Astros
Carlos Correa, the No. 1 overall selection in the 2012 draft, proved to be more advanced than expected last year as one of the younger everyday players at a full-season level, as 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 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 519 plate appearances at Low-A Quad Cities.
The right-handed hitter has a simple, direct swing in which he attacks the ball and utilizes the entire field. However, it’s the advanced plate discipline and pitch recognition that already make him a special hitter. Correa possesses plenty of raw power but doesn’t swing for the fences, employing an approach that is instead geared toward consistent hard contact and getting on base.
Despite his 6’4”, 205-pound frame, Correa, 19, is an excellent athlete with 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 five above-average-or-better tools at maturity, and he may not require much time in the minor leagues to refine his game. There’s no reason to believe he’ll be anything short of a top-tier shortstop with legitimate MVP potential in his prime.
Robert Stephenson, RHP, Cincinnati Reds
Few pitching prospects have as high of a ceiling as Robert Stephenson.
The right-hander was assigned to Low-A Dayton to open the 2013 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 season unfolded.
Although a minor hamstring injury sidelined the then-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 strikeout-to-walk rate 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.
A durable right-hander with a projectable 6’2”, 190-pound frame and huge arm strength, Stephenson boasts a plus-plus fastball in the 94 to 98 mph range and occasionally bumps triple digits. His secondary arsenal is headlined by a potential plus-plus curveball that serves as an out pitch with true 12-to-6 break.
The 21-year-old will also work in a changeup in the high 80s that’s on the firm side, though his improved feel suggests it may improve a grade.
Though Stephenson could be ready for the major leagues at some point this season, he’s unlikely to receive an audition unless there’s an injury. However, expect the right-hander to contend for a spot in the Reds’ starting rotation in 2015.
Kyle Zimmer, RHP, Kansas City Royals
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 a 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 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 8 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.
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