Top MLB-Ready Prospects Who'll Benefit Most from the Offseason Frenzy
The focus of MLB offseason conversations is generally on what players teams could potentially add to fill areas of need, but often times the answer is already in-house.
A team's top prospects, at least the ones on the cusp of reaching the majors, can often make a bigger impact than anyone the team might acquire during the offseason.
Take the Detroit Tigers for example.
Last winter, Jordan Zimmermann and Mike Pelfrey were signed in an effort to bolster the starting rotation.
However, it was rookie Michael Fulmer who wound up being the biggest difference-maker on the pitching side of things as he provided front-line production alongside Justin Verlander and easily out-performed both Zimmermann and Pelfrey.
Prospects are not always afforded a clear path to playing time as teams are wary of relying on unproven talent, but there are a handful of prospects that will find themselves in a better position once the offseason comes to a close.
Whether it's the departure of a key free agent or a trade that could result in a roster shakeup, the following 10 prospects stand to benefit most from the offseason frenzy.
SS J.P. Crawford, Philadelphia Phillies
The Philadelphia Phillies got a surprisingly productive performance from the unheralded middle-infield duo of Cesar Hernandez (.294 BA, 31 XBH, 17 SB) and Freddy Galvis (26 2B, 20 HR) last season.
Neither of those players will stand in the way of J.P. Crawford once he's deemed ready, though.
Crawford scuffled a bit making the jump to the upper levels of the minors, keeping him from receiving the second-half call-up that many predicted, but he remains an integral part of the rebuilding Phillies' future.
In fact, it wouldn't be at all surprising to see Hernandez or Galvis dealt this offseason to clear a path for the 21-year-old.
The team was open to the idea of moving Galvis during the season, according to Jon Heyman of Today's Knuckleball, though his limited on-base skills limit his value.
Hernandez is the better trade chip of the two with a terrific approach at the plate, a solid glove at second base (4 DRS, 12.6 UZR/150) and team control through the 2020 season.
The 26-year-old has already drawn some interest this offseason, per Jim Salisbury of CSN Philly.
If either player is dealt, Crawford stands to benefit the most as it could clear a path to an Opening Day job.
SP Carson Fulmer, Chicago White Sox
If there's one team that could turn the offseason on it's head, it's the Chicago White Sox.
After a disappointing 78-84 finish, it could finally be time to start rebuilding, and there are plenty of valuable assets to move if that's the route they decide to take.
Adam Eaton, Melky Cabrera, Todd Frazier and Jose Abreu would all draw interest among position players, while reliever David Robertson could also become a hot commodity.
However, the two biggest trade chips on the roster are undoubtedly left-handers Chris Sale and Jose Quintana, two of the best starters in all of baseball who are both signed to very team-friendly deals.
Moving one or both of those arms would back a huge prospect haul, restocking a farm system that is in desperate need of an infusion of talent.
It would also leave a vacancy in the starting rotation, and if the move is in fact toward rebuilding, giving Carson Fulmer a chance to see what he could do as a starter would make sense.
The Vanderbilt product has electric stuff, but his max-effort delivery has led some to believe he's destined for the bullpen.
As the top pitching prospect in the organization and a starter by trade, he'll get every chance to stick in the rotation. He could get his shot if one of the big guns is dealt.
SP Brent Honeywell, Tampa Bay Rays
Few teams do a better job developing pitching talent than the Tampa Bay Rays and Brent Honeywell looks to be next in line among the team's homegrown arms.
With a good four-pitch mix, smooth mechanics and impressive all-around athleticism, the right-hander currently ranks as the No. 39 prospect in baseball, per MLB.com's Prospect Watch.
Just how soon he arrives could depend on what the Rays decide to do this offseason.
The team already pulled the trigger on dealing one controllable starter when it shipped Matt Moore to the San Francisco Giants at the trade deadline. And in a market sorely lacking quality starting pitching, another trade could be coming.
Chris Archer, Jake Odorizzi and Drew Smyly have all been popular names for early offseason speculation with the Rays looking to add more offensive firepower to the lineup.
Honeywell shined after a midseason promotion to Double-A, going 3-2 with a 2.28 ERA, 1.10 WHIP and 53 strikeouts in 59.1 innings to continue his rapid ascent through the Tampa Bay system.
A similar showing to begin the 2017 campaign could have the 21-year-old knocking on the door by midseason, if not sooner.
Trading one of the aforementioned starters could push his ETA up even further, as he looks to join Blake Snell as one of the future headliners of the staff.
RP Joe Jimenez, Detroit Tigers
Miguel Cabrera, Justin Verlander, Ian Kinsler and J.D. Martinez have been the popular names on the rumor mill since the Detroit Tigers announced they were looking to trim payroll and would be willing to listen to offers for anyone on the roster, according to Buster Olney of ESPN.
One player who hasn't received much attention but could be targeted by other teams is closer Francisco Rodriguez.
The 34-year-old was solid once again in 2016, converting 44 of 49 save chances with a 3.24 ERA and 1.13 WHIP.
He's not the dominant force he once was and a drop in his strikeout rate (9.8 to 8.0 K/9) and a rise in his walk rate (1.7 to 3.2 BB/9) is a bit troubling. But with the newfound emphasis being put on building a strong relief corps, he has value.
His contract is also fairly attractive as he's owed $6 million in the final year of his current deal.
Moving K-Rod won't bring the Tigers a huge return in terms of talent, but it would free up some payroll space and would also open the door for right-hander Joe Jimenez to step into a key role in the pen.
Jimenez, 21, was a great find by the scouting department after going undrafted in 2013.
In four minor league seasons, he's posted a 1.59 ERA, 0.85 WHIP and 204 strikeouts in 141.1 innings, and he has the upper-90s fastball and wipeout slider to thrive in the late innings.
CF Austin Meadows, Pittsburgh Pirates
What once would have been unthinkable now seems like a very real possibility: The Pittsburgh Pirates appear open to the idea of trading star center fielder Andrew McCutchen.
"There are people I've talked to who are convinced the Pirates are going to trade McCutchen this winter," MLB Network Radio analyst Jim Duquette told Rob Biertempfel of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.
The Pirates would be selling low on the face of the franchise if they traded McCutchen now for the 30-year-old is coming off the worst season of his career.
His batting average (.256), on-base percentage (.336), slugging percentage (.430) and OPS (.766) all represented career-lows, and coupled with his rapidly declining defense in center field (-28 DRS, -23.2 UZR/150), he graded out as a minus-0.7 WAR player in 2016.
Still, he holds plenty of value as a bounce-back candidate capable of performing at an MVP-caliber level.
McCutchen is owed $14 million this season with a $14.75 million option for 2018 before he reaches free agency. If he does rebound he'd be more than just a one-year rental.
From the Pirates side of things, they have in-house options to replace McCutchen for a fraction of the price.
Josh Bell could start the season in left field with Starling Marte sliding over to center until top prospect Austin Meadows is ready to step in as the everyday center fielder.
That may be sooner than later after he climbed three levels for his first taste of Triple-A action this past season with his impressive array of tools earning him billing as the No. 9 prospect in all of baseball, per MLB.com's Prospect Watch.
C Tom Murphy, Colorado Rockies
The departure of veteran Nick Hundley leaves the Colorado Rockies with a decision to make at the catcher position.
Do they trust a platoon of glove-first backstop Tony Wolters and unproven Tom Murphy, or will they sign another veteran to a short-term deal?
Wolters hit .259/.327/.395 with 20 extra-base hits in 230 plate appearances as a rookie last season, but his value came from his defense as he threw out 31 percent of base stealers and ranked top-10 in the league in pitch framing, per Stat Corner.
As for Murphy, his defense has been a work-in-progress since he was selected in the third round of the 2012 draft, but he's come far enough that he should stick behind the plate and his offensive production is tough to ignore.
He crushed Triple-A pitching last season to the tune of a 1.008 OPS with 26 doubles and 19 home runs in just 322 plate appearances.
The 25-year-old has received September call-ups each of the past two seasons, posting a .949 OPS with three doubles, eight home runs and 22 RBI in 88 plate appearances.
As long as no one else is signed to man the position, Murphy stands to benefit as much as any prospect in baseball from the offseason departure of an incumbent starter.
Of Harold Ramirez, Toronto Blue Jays
The Toronto Blue Jays acquired outfielder Harold Ramirez and catcher Reese McGuire in the still puzzling deadline trade that also sent Francisco Liriano to the team in exchange for Drew Hutchison and some salary relief.
Ramirez, 22, burst onto the top prospect scene in 2015 when he hit .337/.399/.458 with 23 extra-base hits and 22 stolen bases in a full season at the High-A level.
He continued to put up strong numbers this past season against higher-level competition in Double-A, leaving him close to ready for a run at big-league competition.
The departures of Jose Bautista and Michael Saunders leaves the Blue Jays with question marks on either side of center fielder Kevin Pillar.
Melvin Upton Jr., Ezequiel Carrera and Dalton Pompey are currently the leading in-house candidates to fill the corner outfield spots, but all three are better suited as fourth outfielders or platoon players.
There's still plenty of time for the Blue Jays to make a push to sign someone in free agency and a reunion with both Saunders and Bautista is not off the table.
However, if they opt for a smaller-scale addition to compliment the likes of Upton and Carrera, the door could be open for Ramirez to get a shot at seizing a significant role in the second half.
SP Alex Reyes, St. Louis Cardinals
With Lance Lynn returning from Tommy John surgery and the St. Louis Cardinals opting to exercise their $12 million option on Jaime Garcia, the team has an abundance of starting pitching options.
That might not be the case for long, though.
Here's what general manager John Mozeliak told Benjamin Hochman of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on the team's decision to exercise Garcia's option:
As we look to the trade market as we get to the GM meetings, we want to be able to not have our hands tied. For example, if we had not picked up the option, and all of a sudden we feel there's a trade that might make sense for us that's going to have to include a starter, then we're left with having to backfill.
Given what Jaime was able to accomplish last year, clearly it didn't end the way he would've liked it to, but he still ate a lot of valuable innings for us. When I think about what's out there on the free-agent market, I still think it's an asset to have. … And what if we have to move someone else? It would be nice to still have the depth in our rotation.
That certainly sounds like the left-hander is he's being viewed as a trade chip first and organizational depth second.
If Garcia is in fact traded and someone like Michael Wacha is moved to the bullpen in an effort to keep him healthy and perhaps utilize him as an Andrew Miller-type weapon, suddenly the path to a spot in the rotation is much clearer for Alex Reyes.
The 22-year-old has all the makings of a future front-line starter and he was very impressive over 46 innings of 1.57 ERA ball after being promoted last season. It's simply a matter of further refining his command and he could be a star.
C Chance Sisco, Baltimore Orioles
The Baltimore Orioles have one of the thinnest farm systems in baseball, but they do have something that many other organization are searching for and that's a catcher of the future.
A second-round pick in 2013, Chance Sisco has hit .323/.402/.434 over four minor league seasons, including an impressive showing in the upper levels of the minors this past season.
He's played just four games in Triple-A and his defense, although significantly improved since he was drafted, remains something of a work in progress. So more time in the minors would be beneficial.
However, the departure of Matt Wieters could put Sisco on the fast-track to Baltimore, and he's responded well to the team's aggressive path to this point.
"The Orioles have challenged Sisco since Day One, and the fact that he had significant Double-A experience entering his age-21 season speaks to his track record of surpassing expectations," wrote MLB.com's Prospect Watch.
It's unlikely the O's will entrust starting catching duties to Sisco to begin the season, and signing a stop-gap veteran seems likely with the team showing interest in Nick Hundley, according to Dan Connolly of BaltimoreBaseball.com.
Still, the departure of Wieters leaves a clear path for Sisco once he's ready and that should be at some point in 2017.
Of Bradley Zimmer, Cleveland Indians
This one is a bit convoluted, so stick with me.
Mike Napoli is the biggest name the Cleveland Indians stand to lose in free agency, and his potential departure could have a direct impact on the arrival of top prospect Bradley Zimmer, despite the fact that they play different positions.
If Napoli is not re-signed and another first baseman is not added to replace him, Carlos Santana, who split his time between first and DH last year, would take over as the everyday first baseman.
That would leave the DH spot open and that could be the perfect way to ease left fielder Michael Brantley back into action after he missed significant time to injury the past two seasons.
That leaves Tyler Naquin in center field, a platoon of Lonnie Chisenhall and Brandon Guyer in right field and the left field spot wide open for Zimmer to make a push to be the Opening Day starter.
"Come spring training, I want to win a job," Bradley Zimmer told Bobby DeMuro of Today's Knuckleball. "I am going to go in there with a mindset that a spot is open, and I’m going to take it. I’ll build off what I’m doing here, go into spring training, and hopefully win a job in the big leagues."
Even if the team re-signs the right-handed hitting Rajai Davis, that wouldn't preclude Zimmer from earning a roster spot and significant playing time.
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