Predicting Each MLB Team's Prospect Who Will Turn the Most Heads This Spring
With 15 days remaining until pitchers and catchers report to spring training, most organizations have already extended invitations to their non-40-man-roster players.
As expected, this year's crop of non-roster invitees features high-ceiling prospects such as Byron Buxton, Javier Baez, Carlos Correa and Addison Russell.
Besides providing an opportunity for players to fine-tune their skills in anticipation of the season, spring training also offers prospects the chance to make a strong impression in front of the entire organization.
Even though there aren't expected to be many prospect-related roster battles this spring, there undoubtedly will be countless young players who improve their stock and estimated time arrival in the major leagues.
Here's a look at each team's prospect who will turn the most heads this spring.
Eduardo Rodriguez, LHP, Baltimore Orioles
After a strong showing over the first half of the 2013 season in the Carolina League, Eduardo Rodriguez was promoted to Double-A Bowie in early July. The left-hander was initially overmatched at the more advanced level, as he registered a 7.02 ERA and 33-21 strikeout-to-walk ratio in his first 34.2 innings (seven starts).
However, Rodriguez ultimately settled in and went on to post a respectable 4.22 ERA and 59-24 strikeout-to-walk rate in 59.2 innings for the season.
While the 20-year-old normally works in the low 90s with his fastball, he sat in the 92 to 95 mph range more often last season. His slider has improved considerably since the beginning of the 2013 season, as it’s now more of a power offering in the mid-80s with tight spin and swing-and-miss bite. Lastly, Rodriguez’s changeup is a potentially above-average pitch, registering in the low 80s with good sinking action.
Rodriguez will likely head back to Double-A to open the 2014 season, but a strong showing during spring training could set him up for an audition in August or September.
Henry Owens, LHP, Boston Red Sox
The Boston Red Sox made Henry Owens the No. 36 overall pick in the 2011 draft and assigned him directly to Low-A Greenville the following year for both his professional and full-season debut. The left-hander flashed enormous promise against advanced hitters, posting a 4.87 ERA with 130 strikeouts in 101.2 innings over the course of 23 games.
As a result of his success in the South Atlantic League, Owens was moved up to High-A Salem for the 2013 season and responded to the challenge favorably with a 2.92 ERA, .180 opponents’ batting average and 123-53 strikeout-to-walk rate in 104.2 innings.
The 21-year-old received a promotion to Double-A Portland for his final six starts of the regular season. Though it was a small sample, Owens was dominant against older hitters in the Eastern League, registering a 1.78 ERA and 46-15 strikeout-to-walk rate in only 30.1 innings.
As a highly projectable 6’6” left-hander, Owens repeats his mechanics well, despite his long and lanky frame. While his stride toward the plate is shorter than expected, he manages to stay on line with the plate and work on a consistent downhill plane, creating natural deception from a high three-quarters arm slot.
Owens’ fastball typically sits at 88 to 92 mph. The ball can be difficult for hitters to pick up out of his hand, and it also features sink when he’s working down in the zone. His changeup represents his best secondary pitch and projects as a plus offering at maturity, as it is thrown in the upper 70s with late sink and fade to the arm side.
Meanwhile, his curveball flashes average potential, and he’s adept at adding and subtracting when necessary. That said, I would like to see him use it to back-foot right-handed hitters more often moving forward.
Assuming he’s invited to major league camp this spring, Owens should open eyes with his combination of stuff, size and poise.
Video courtesy of Mike Newman, ROTOscouting.com.
Jose Ramirez, RHP, New York Yankees
A member of the Yankees’ farm system since 2008, Jose Ramirez finally reached Double-A last season after spending his previous four campaigns between both A-ball levels. The right-hander made strides with his command at the more advanced level, posting a 2.76 ERA and 50-15 strikeout-to-walk rate in 42.1 innings, and he even spent a month at Triple-A (4.88 ERA, 21 BB in 31.1 IP) before landing on the disabled list with a strained oblique.
Ramirez is a durable 6’3”, 190-pounder who works from a low-three-quarters arm slot, showing a quick arm but inconsistent release point. The 24-year-old has a plus fastball that registers consistently in the mid-90s with sink, though his command of the pitch is fringy. The right-hander also throws a hard slider that registers in high 80s with depth and tilt, and it has at least average potential. He also throws a changeup with outstanding fade in the mid-80s that flashes plus or better potential.
Ramirez has a history of shoulder and arm problems and has been slow to develop, but his proximity to the major leagues is especially valuable to the Yankees, who lack impact arms in the upper levels of their system.
Considering he has electric stuff but poor control, Ramirez should get a long look out of the Yankees' bullpen during spring training.
Enny Romero, LHP, Tampa Bay Rays
Enny Romero has a projectable frame at 6’3”, 165 pounds, with plenty of room to add strength, and he possesses the best arm strength in Tampa Bay’s system. However, despite reaching the major leagues late last season, the left-hander is still more of a thrower than a pitcher, and he struggles to repeat a consistent release point.
The 22-year-old’s plus fastball is explosive and ranges anywhere from 92 to 97 mph, though his control of the pitch is best described as effectively wild. Romero’s power curveball flashes plus potential due to its velocity and downer break, and his changeup is raw but shows at least above-average potential.
Romero has the stuff to pitch in a major league rotation, but his below-average control doesn’t make him a lock for the role over the long term. Plus, unless the Rays deal David Price in the near future, in which case Romero would have to battle fellow prospect Jake Odorizzi for the final spot in the starting rotation, the southpaw appears ticketed to open the 2014 season at Triple-A.
Marcus Stroman, RHP, Toronto Blue Jays
Marcus Stroman served a 50-game PED suspension to begin the 2013 season but blew past expectations following his return with an impressive showing in the Double-A rotation.
After working out of the bullpen during his 2012 professional debut, the 22-year-old excelled as a starter last season, registering a 3.30 ERA with 129 strikeouts and 27 walks in 111.2 innings.
The athletic right-hander possesses tons of arm strength in spite of his 5’9” frame, with an explosive fastball in the mid-90s and a cutter that has the potential to be above average. Stroman’s best secondary offering is a near-plus-plus slider that’s thrown with serious velocity (courtesy of his lightning-quick arm) in the upper 80s, and he throws it with conviction to pile up strikeouts. And though his changeup is technically his lesser offering, his arm speed and consistent release point should make it a weapon.
Stroman is technically a long shot to make the Opening Day roster due to his lack of professional experience. However, if he can prove to be one of the team’s top-five starters in spring training, which he is, then the right-hander could ultimately force his way into the back end of the starting rotation.
Trayce Thompson, OF, Chicago White Sox
A second-round draft pick in 2009 out of a California high school, Trayce Thompson’s baseball skills failed to materialize during his first three minor league seasons, and he didn’t graduate from the Low-A level until the 2012 season.
But things started to pick up for the athletic and toolsy outfielder, as he went on to bat .253/.328/.482 with 62 extra-base hits (25 home runs), 96 RBI and 21 stolen bases in 136 games across three levels. However, Thompson also struck out 166 times during the span.
Although he finished the 2012 season at Triple-A Charlotte, Thompson was assigned back to Double-A Birmingham to open his 2013 campaign. The 22-year-old rebounded after a sluggish first half but struggled to the overall tune of a .229/.321/.383 batting line with 15 home runs, 25 stolen bases and 139 strikeouts in 135 games.
Thompson possesses an intriguing blend of power and speed and has the defensive chops to remain in center field. However, his hit tool has been slow to develop, and the swing-and-miss part to his game remains a serious problem.
In spite of being a self-loathing White Sox fan, I have always felt that things will eventually come together for Thompson. Could this be his year? I sure hope so.
Francisco Lindor, SS, Cleveland Indians
Francisco Lindor’s rapid ascension 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, 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. With that being said, 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.
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, expect the organization to offer him playing time in spring training.
James McCann, C, Detroit Tigers
The Tigers selected James McCann in the second round of the 2011 draft with the hope that his college background (Arkansas) and mature baseball skills would fuel a quick rise through the minors.
However, McCann struggled during his first full professional season the following year. Assigned directly to High-A Lakeland, the catcher posted a .695 OPS with 10 doubles in 177 plate appearances before an early-season promotion to Double-A Erie.
McCann’s offensive struggles continued at the more advanced level, with a dismal .200/.227/.282 line and 44-8 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 230 plate appearances.
The 23-year-old resuscitated his prospect stock this past season while repeating Double-A. In his second tour of the Eastern League, McCann posted a career-best .731 OPS with 39 extra-base hits (eight home runs) in 486 plate appearances.
At 6’2”, 210 pounds, McCann is a physically strong and athletic catcher with average or better defensive attributes across the board. He’s an advanced receiver with the ability to frame high-end pitching, and he controls the running game—40.7 percent caught-stealing rate over the past two seasons—with a quick catch-and-release and above-average arm strength.
Even though McCann made progress at the dish last season, the right-handed batter projects as a league-average hitter in the major leagues, which is meaningful in the context of a defensively sound backstop. McCann has solid power to the gaps and hit a career-high eight home runs last year, though it’s doubtful that he’ll develop consistent over-the-fence pop at higher levels.
While McCann is likely ticketed for Triple-A to start the 2014 season, a eye-opening performance during spring training could help him emerge as the Tigers’ backup catcher earlier than expected.
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.
Though he was fully healthy headed into the 2013 season, Zimmer unexpectedly struggled at High-A Wilmington during the first three months of the season, posting a 5.40 ERA in 71.2 innings. 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, the right-hander posted a 1.86 ERA and 63-8 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 43.2 innings.
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. Employing a clean and repeatable delivery, Zimmer’s fastball works comfortably in the mid-90s with late life, and he has the ability to reach back for something in the 96 to 98 mph range as needed.
His curveball is a second plus pitch with excellent pace and a sharp, downer break, and it will work nicely as an out pitch in the major leagues. The 22-year-old will 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.
Zimmer will open the 2014 season back at Double-A, and provided he stays healthy, he should reach the major leagues sometime after the All-Star break. Just as it’s the case with other pitching prospects on this list, the right-hander's stuff simply is too good to be wasted in the minors for a full season.
Byron Buxton, OF, Minnesota Twins
Byron Buxton, the No. 2 overall pick in the 2012 draft, emerged as baseball’s top prospect in his first full professional season last year, 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.
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-hander 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 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.
Regardless of his path to the major leagues, Buxton is going to be worth the price of admission this spring.
Mike Foltynewicz, RHP, Houston Astros
After back-to-back years at Low-A Lexington in 2011 and 2012, Mike Foltynewicz began putting things together this past season and moved quickly through the Houston Astros’ system as a result.
Opening the year at High-A Lancaster in the hitter-friendly California League, the 22-year-old came out of the gates on fire and posted a 3.81 ERA with 29 strikeouts in 26 innings before a quick promotion to Double-A Corpus Christi.
Foltynewicz excelled against the more advanced hitters in the Texas League, registering a 2.87 ERA and .207 opponents’ batting average with 95 strikeouts in 103.1 innings (23 games/16 starts). While it’s hard to argue with the results, the right-hander’s command left something to be desired, as he ultimately walked 66 batters in 129.1 innings between both levels.
The 6’4” right-hander boasts elite fastball velocity, consistently working in the upper 90s and eclipsing triple digits every time he takes the mound. Foltynewicz throws the pitch on a downhill plane to induce weak ground-ball outs and, in general, uses it to overpower hitters throughout the strike zone.
His breaking ball was more of a weapon this season but was still inconsistent overall. Regardless, it’s a devastating swing-and-miss offering that flashes plus potential. Meanwhile, his changeup is currently below average and lags behind the other two pitches, as he struggles to replicate fastball arm speed and tends to push it toward the plate. Suffice it to say, the offering will be crucial in his development as a starter.
Foltynewicz is probably headed to Triple-A to start the upcoming season, but a head-turning performance during spring training could help expedite his arrival in the major leagues.
Video courtesy of Jason Cole.
Taylor Lindsey, 2B, Los Angeles Angels
Selected out of high school with the No. 37 overall pick in the 2010 draft, the Los Angeles Angels initially took their time developing Taylor Lindsey, assigning him to the rookie-level Pioneer League for his first full season in 2011. The left-handed-hitting second baseman rewarded the organization by quickly emerging as the league’s top hitter, as he batted .362/.394/.593 with 43 extra-base hits in 63 games.
Bumped up to High-A for his full-season debut in 2012, Lindsey had a solid campaign in the hitter-friendly California League but didn’t take a significant step forward in his development, as expected. Overall, he batted .289/.328/.408 with 41 extra-base hits in 134 games.
This past season, however, Lindsey turned in the breakout performance that many expected in 2012. Moved up to Double-A Arkansas, the 22-year-old posted a career-low .274 batting average in 134 games, but he also set career highs in home runs (17) and walks (48).
Lindsey has excellent hand-eye coordination and bat-to-ball skills that allow him to make consistently hard contact. The left-handed hitter sets up with his hands low around the torso, only to elevate them as part of his timing mechanism, and he surprisingly doesn’t struggle to turn around quality velocity.
While he had always shown plenty of gap power with the ability to barrel the ball to all fields, Lindsey showcased improved over-the-fence pop this past season at Double-A and could develop more as he continues to rise toward the major leagues.
Considering that Howie Kendrick popped up in trade rumors this offseason, expect the Angels to give Lindsey a long look at the keystone in spring training. Who knows; an impressive showing in camp could potentially push the organization to make a deal at some point during the season and clear a path for the 22-year-old.
Addison Russell, SS, Oakland Athletics
As a result of his impressive pro debut in 2012, Addison Russell received an aggressive assignment to High-A Stockton to open the 2013 season. As one of the youngest everyday players at the level, the 19-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.
The 20-year-old’s game features some swing-and-miss at the present (125-61 strikeout-to-walk rate last season), though that can at least be partially attributed to his status as a young player facing advanced pitching. Russell is a plus runner with the athleticism, range and arm strength to stick at shortstop, as well as the instincts to swipe 20 bags annually.
Assuming he opens the 2014 season in Double-A, it's very likely that Russell will debut as the A's big league shortstop before his 21st birthday. With that said, expect him to spend a majority of spring in major league camp.
Dominic Leone, RHP, Seattle Mariners
Selected in the 16th round of the 2012 draft out of Clemson, Dominic Leone hopped on the fast track to the major leagues in 2013 (also his full-season debut).
The 22-year-old—in his age-21 season—amassed 16 saves and posted a 2.25 ERA with a 64-18 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 64 innings between Low-A Clinton, High-A High Desert and Double-A Jackson.
Leone may not look like much at 5’11” and 185 pounds, but don’t let his size fool you.
The right-hander boasts a mid-90s fastball that will play up due to his quick arm and release point. Leone will also attack hitters with a cutter that comes in a few ticks below his regular fastball velocity and features late slicing action to the glove side. Leone’s out pitch is a nasty slider that dives out of the zone at the last minute to generate a favorable number of strikeouts and weak-hit outs.
Leone continued to improve his prospect stock even more this fall with a strong showing in the Arizona Fall League, saving six games and posting a stellar 15-1 strikeout-to-walk rate in 12 innings.
Though he’ll presumably open the 2014 season in the minor leagues—either at Double- or Triple-A—it shouldn’t take long for Leone to pitch his way to the major leagues. Once he gets the call, the right-hander’s combination of swing-and-miss, plus stuff and an above-average command should allow him to carve out a role as a solid seventh- or eighth-inning arm.
Rougned Odor, 2B, Texas Rangers
Signed out of Venezuela as a 16-year-old in early 2011, Rougned Odor flashed huge upside the following year, when he batted .259/.313/.400 with 37 extra-base hits and 19 stolen bases in 109 games at Low-A Hickory.
This past season, however, Odor emerged as the Texas Rangers’ top prospect and arguably the top second base prospect in baseball.
Opening the year at High-A Myrtle Beach, the 19-year-old batted .305/.369/.454 with 42 extra-base hits and 27 stolen bases in 100 games before a late-season promotion to Double-A Frisco.
Despite moving up to the more advanced level, the left-handed hitter held his own by posting a .306/.354/.530 batting line with 30 runs scored, eight doubles and six home runs in 30 games.
Overall, he posted an .839 OPS with 41 doubles, 11 home runs, 32 stolen bases and a 91-35 strikeout-to-walk rate in 130 games.
Odor possesses much more physical strength than his 5’11”, 170-pound frame suggests. He has continually thrived as a younger player in advanced leagues and boasts a high-end combination of hit-tool potential and plus speed. The left-handed hitter also has above-average power for his position with impressive power frequency. In general, he’s an extra-base machine and drives the ball with authority to all fields.
He has above-average range at second base, with soft hands and a strong arm that are both clean fits at the position, and he could probably even cut it at shortstop in a pinch. He’s an intense, hard-nosed ballplayer with excellent instincts, and he makes things happen on both sides of the ball.
With Ian Kinsler out of the picture and Jurickson Profar expected to take over at the keystone, the Rangers don’t have a need to rush Odor to the major leagues. However, a strong spring training and hot start to the season back at Double-A could help him reach the major leagues ahead of schedule.
Tommy La Stella, 2B, Atlanta Braves
Selected by the Atlanta Braves in the eighth round of the 2011 draft out of Coastal Carolina University, Tommy La Stella has enjoyed a relatively quick ascent through the minor leagues in spite of his struggles to stay healthy.
The left-handed hitter has raked at every level, posting a .944 OPS at Low-A Rome after signing in 2011, .846 OPS at High-A Lynchburg in 2012 and .936 OPS between High-A and Double-A Mississippi this past season.
With 20 combined home runs in the past three seasons, La Stella doesn’t offer much in terms of over-the-fence pop. Yet, he’s proven to be a consistent source of extra-base hits, with 70 doubles and triples over that same span. Meanwhile, his plate discipline—which has always been his calling card—has translated favorably as a professional in the form of more walks (111) than strikeouts (88) in 999 career plate appearances.
However, injuries have limited the 24-year-old to only 241 games over the past three seasons. In 2012, he missed time at Lynchburg after getting beaned, and he then landed on the disabled list for six weeks after breaking his leg in a collision at first base while covering on a bunt. This year, he spent most of spring training on the disabled list with a sore right elbow.
When healthy, La Stella has shown a projectable blend of hit tools and plate discipline that should play at the highest level. He lacks the speed typically associated with the middle infield position and profiles as an average defender, but he gets the most of his natural ability and should hit well enough to negate some of those concerns.
The Braves know exactly what to expect with La Stella, so it'll be interesting to see how much playing time he receives this spring compared to Dan Uggla, the team's projected Opening Day second baseman.
Andrew Heaney, LHP, Miami Marlins
Andrew Heaney’s first full professional campaign got off to a slow start last year, as an oblique injury suffered during spring training prevented him from making his season debut until May 20. However, once he got going, the 22-year-old was quick to make up for the lost time, registering a 0.88 ERA and 66-17 strikeout-to-walk rate in 61.2 innings at High-A Jupiter.
Heaney was bumped up to Double-A for the final month regular season as a result of his utter dominance in the Florida State League. While he didn’t put up another sub-one ERA, the southpaw certainly held his own with a 2.94 ERA in 33.2 innings.
At 6’2”, Heaney’s frame is both wiry and athletic with room to add strength. As for his stuff, the left-hander features an above-average-to-plus fastball that works in the low to mid-90s with late life. His go-to secondary pitch is a good slider that should induce whiffs at the highest level. Heaney made significant progress developing his changeup last season, and it should at least be a solid-to-average offering at maturity.
The only thing really holding Heaney back from the major leagues is lack of experience. When all is said and done, he should emerge as a solid No. 3 starter, possibly even a No. 2 if everything comes together perfectly. Plus, he’s an excellent candidate to parlay a strong spring training and potentially hot start back at Double-A Jacksonville into an ahead-of-schedule call-up next season.
Kevin Plawecki, C, New York Mets
The No. 35 overall selection in the 2012 draft out of Purdue University, Kevin Plawecki was viewed as a glove-first catcher with a solid approach and knack for making contact. After a mediocre professional debut, the Mets moved Plawecki up to Low-A Savannah this year for his full-season debut in 2013. The 22-year-old emerged as one of the South Atlantic League’s (SAL) top hitters over the first half of the season, batting .314/.390/.494 with 31 extra-base hits, 43 RBI and a 32-23 strikeout-to-walk rate in 65 games.
With nothing left to prove in the SAL, Plawecki was promoted to High-A St. Lucie in late June and batted .294/.391/.392 with 16 extra-base hits and a 21-19 strikeout-to-walk rate in 60 games. While the combination of the grind of his first full pro season and finishing the year in the pitcher-friendly Florida State League sapped his power during the second half, Plawecki continued to show the impressive on-base skills that made him one of the more coveted backstops in the 2012 draft class.
Plawecki is a physically mature right-handed hitter at 6’2”, 205 pounds who makes lots of hard contact thanks to excellent hand-eye coordination and bat-to-ball skills. He keeps the barrel in strike zone for an extended period of time, using a strong top hand at point of contact to drive through the ball on a line-drive plane. He'll never be a home run threat but should easily amass 25-plus doubles in a given season, and his advanced approached should continue to yield favorable strikeout-to-walk rates as he moves up the organizational ladder.
Defensively, Plawecki’s larger build limits his mobility behind the plate, though he does move well enough to handle the position at the highest level. The 22-year-old’s blocking and receiving are greatest strengths, as he consistently stays low to angle the ball back toward the field. However, because Plawecki is blocked in the major leagues by Travis d’Arnaud, it’s worth noting that he appeared in 17 games at first base last season and could see more time at the position in the coming years.
Ken Giles, RHP, Philadelphia Phillies
Signed in the seventh round of the 2011 draft out Yavapai JC in Arizona, Ken Giles' upside as a reliever always has been obvious thanks to a legitimate triple-digit fastball and potentially devastating slider in the upper-80s.
Making his full-season debut in 2012, the 23-year-old recorded eight saves and posted a 3.51 ERA, .209 opponents’ batting average and 111-50 strikeout-to-walk rate in 82 innings between Low-A Lakewood and High-A Clearwater.
This past season, Giles was expected to continue his quick ascent up the organizational ladder. However, the right-hander landed on the disabled list twice with a strained oblique and then struggled mightily following a return to the pitcher-friendly Florida State League.
Logging only 25.2 innings over 24 appearances at the level, Giles tallied six saves and registered a 6.31 ERA and 34-19 strikeout-to-walk rate.
Giles continued to turn heads this fall while showcasing arguably the best velocity in the AFL, working in the 96 to 99 mph range and scraping 100 mph with his four-seam fastball to go along with his largely inconsistent slider in the upper 80s.
Granted, Giles has little clue where the ball will end up after it leaves his hand, but he should not be struggling in the minor leagues given his elite velocity. Given the right-hander’s arm strength and status on the 40-man roster, the Phillies will give him every chance to figure things out, beginning with an extended audition in spring training.
A.J. Cole, RHP, Washington Nationals
A fourth-round draft pick by the Nationals in 2010, A.J. Cole opened eyes during his full-season debut the following year, registering a 4.04 ERA and 108-24 strikeout-to-walk rate in 89 innings. How did the organization reward the right-hander? By trading him to the A’s during the subsequent offseason as part of the Gio Gonzalez deal, of course.
Moved up to High-A Stockton for the 2012 season, Cole struggled mightily in the hitter-friendly California League, registering a 7.82 ERA in 31 innings (eight starts). However, he found his groove following a demotion to Low-A Burlington and finished the season with a 2.07 ERA and 102-19 strikeout-to-walk rate over 95.2 innings.
Cole was traded once again during the 2013 offseason, this time going back to the Nationals as part of a deal for Mike Morse.
Back with his drafting organization, the 22-year-old fared much better in his second crack at the High-A level (4.25 ERA, 102 K in 97.1 IP) before finishing the regular season with seven impressive starts at Double-A Harrisburg (2.18 ERA, 49 K in 45.1 IP).
Cole has a very projectable 6’4” frame with a loose, wiry body that should allow him to add considerable strength to his lower half and core in the coming years.
The right-hander’s fastball sits at 93 to 97 mph with natural sink and decent arm-side run, and he demonstrates good command of pitch, especially when challenging right-handed batters on the inner portion of the plate. Cole’s curveball is thrown with power but largely inconsistent, as he possesses the arm speed to throw a hammer but struggles with release point. Lastly, his changeup noticeably improved last season and represents an average offering, especially when thrown off a well-located fastball.
The development and consistency of Cole’s secondary arsenal will determine whether he comes close to reaching his ceiling as a starting pitcher. However, given his big-time arm strength and lack of a clear path to the major leagues, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Nationals gave him a look out of the bullpen during spring training.
Javier Baez, SS, Chicago Cubs
There may not be a more exciting offensive prospect in the minor leagues than Javier Baez.
After a sluggish start to the season at High-A Daytona, Baez eventually caught fire and received a well-deserved promotion to Double-A Tennessee in late June. After that, the 20-year-old was one of the most productive hitters in the minor leagues, with a .983 OPS and 20 home runs over his last 54 games.
Between both levels, Baez batted .282/.341/.578 with 98 runs scored, 75 extra-base hits (37 home runs), 111 RBI, 20 stolen bases and a 147-40 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 130 games.
Baez is a right-handed hitter with extremely strong wrists and hands that lend to his elite bat speed—the best in the minor leagues. But while he makes a lot of hard contact and has no problems turning around the fastball, Baez still struggles to pick up spin and flails at too many breaking balls out of the zone.
While his pitch recognition may need further refinement in the minor leagues, Baez could still probably post an .800-plus OPS in The Show right now. He’s a streaky player who’s going to endure his share of struggles, but his .920 OPS and 37 home runs suggest that he won't need much more time in the minor leagues.
With current shortstop Starlin Castro under contract through the 2019 season, Baez’s future position in the major leagues is currently up in the air. If the organization chooses to deploy him at other positions this spring, such as second and third base, then expect the 21-year-old and his potent bat to debut in the majors earlier than expected.
Robert Stephenson, RHP, Cincinnati Reds
Few pitching prospects have as high of a ceiling as Robert Stephenson.
The right-hander made huge strides toward reaching his potential this past season by excelling at three minor league levels.
Stephenson 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 spring unfolded.
Although a minor hamstring injury sidelined the 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 20-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 next season, he’s unlikely to receive an audition unless there’s an injury. However, expect the right-hander to assume a spot in the Reds’ starting rotation in 2015, possibly replacing Homer Bailey should he depart via free agency.
Video courtesy of BullpenBanter.com.
Mitch Haniger, OF, Milwaukee Brewers
After his selection by the Brewers with the No. 38 overall pick in the 2012 draft, Mitch Haniger was assigned to Low-A Wisconsin but appeared in only 14 games due to a knee injury.
Fully healthy, the 23-year-old returned to Low-A to open the 2013 season and posted a .909 OPS with 19 extra-base hits and more walks (25) than strikeouts (24) in 41 games. As a result of his success at the level, the outfielder was promoted to High-A Brevard County and held his own with a .250/.323/.396 batting line with 33 extra-base hits (24 doubles) in 88 games in the challenging Florida State League.
Between both levels, Haniger batted .264/.348/.431 with 52 extra-base hits—but only 11 home runs—68 RBI and a 92-57 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 129 games.
Haniger possesses an intriguing blend of athleticism and strength at 6’2”, 213 pounds. He's a mature right-handed batter with consistent approach and solid pitch recognition, so expect the strikeout totals should come down as he gains experience. The outfielder shows a knack for pounding the gaps and features plus raw power to the pull side, but he also struggles at times with good velocity. Defensively, Haniger has a corner outfield profile, with a strong, accurate arm fringe-average speed that plays up due to strong instincts.
Likely to begin the 2014 season at Double-A, Haniger has an outside chance of reaching the major leagues if he can show improved power frequency. Plus, coming off a strong showing in the Arizona Fall League, the 23-year-old should receive decent playing time this spring in major league camp.
Gregory Polanco, OF, Pittsburgh Pirates
Gregory Polanco followed his stellar 2012 full-season debut with an even better performance in 2013, as the toolsy outfielder excelled at three levels and finished the year in Triple-A.
Overall, Polanco batted .285/.356/.434 with 44 extra-base hits (12 home runs), 38 stolen bases in 49 attempts and an impressive 73-52 strikeout-to-walk rate in 536 plate appearances.
A left-handed batter, Polanco has a mature approach and gets excellent plate coverage thanks his lanky build and long arms. His swing will get lengthy on occasion and impede his ability to handle velocity, both on the hands and up in the zone, but that issue might correct itself as he adds strength. Overall, Polanco projects as an above-average hitter in the major leagues with enough raw power to hit 15-plus home runs.
The 22-year-old’s 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 with another standout performance in spring training, it might not be long until Polanco joins Andrew McCutchen and Starling Marte to form the most exciting outfield in baseball.
Stephen Piscotty, OF, St. Louis Cardinals
Selected out of Stanford with the No. 36 overall pick in the 2012 draft, Stephen Piscotty impressed during his professional debut later that summer by posting an .823 OPS with 23 extra-base hits and a 25-18 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 55 games for Low-A Quad Cities.
Given his age and college background, the organization promoted the 22-year-old to High-A Palm Beach for his first full professional season. Though he was expected to hold his own in the pitcher-friendly Florida State League, Piscotty actually enjoyed an uptick in his overall production, batting .292/.348/.477 with 25 extra-base hits (nine home runs) in 63 games.
Piscotty didn’t skip a beat following a promotion to Double-A Springfield in late June, as he batted .299/.364/.446 with 15 extra-base hits, seven stolen bases and a 19-19 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 49 games at the more advanced level.
Though he’s a mature hitter with a consistent approach and a knack for pounding the gaps, there's doubt as to whether Piscotty will provide enough power to be an everyday corner outfielder. However, it started to emerge last season at a pair of challenging levels, and he certainly has the physical strength at 6'3", 210 pounds to be a 15 to 20 home run guy in his prime.
Piscotty's above-average hit tool should get him to the major leagues at some point during the 2014 season, though it's important to remember that he's behind the all-mighty Oscar Taveras on the organizational depth chart. At the same time, Piscotty is exactly the type of player the Cardinals love to develop, so expect him to receive significant playing time in right field this spring.
Archie Bradley, RHP, Arizona Diamondbacks
Moved up to High-A Visalia for the 2013 season, Archie Bradley dominated the hitter-friendly California League over five starts, posting a 1.26 ERA and 43-10 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 28.2 innings.
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 excel against older and more experienced hitters. Making 21 starts at the more advanced level, Bradley registered a 1.97 ERA, .214 opponents’ batting average and 119-59 strikeout-to-walk rate in 123.1 innings.
An excellent athlete with a durable, 6’4”, 225-pound build, Bradley repeated his delivery with more consistency last season, which in turn improved both his control and command.
The right-hander arguably boasts the deadliest two-pitch combination among all pitching prospects, with a heavy fastball in the mid- to upper-90s and a power curveball with 12-to-6 shape and sharp, downer bite. Even though both pitches already grade as plus offerings suitable for the major leagues, they each have the potential to improve a grade with further refinement. The right-hander’s feel for a changeup noticeably lags behind that of his other two 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 next spring, though it’s likely he’ll open the season at Triple-A. 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.
Video courtesy of Jason Cole.
Eddie Butler, RHP, Colorado Rockies
Eddie Butler enjoyed a remarkable full-season debut in 2013, posting a stellar 1.80 ERA and 143-52 strikeout-to-walk rate in 149.2 innings across three levels.
After dominant showings with Low-A Asheville and High-A Modesto, the Rockies promoted Butler to Double-A Tulsa in early August. The 22-year-old right-hander responded by putting together arguably his best month of the season, posting a 0.73 ERA and 22 strikeouts over five starts.
Overall, opposing hitters batted a paltry .180 against the right-hander.
Butler has three pitches that grade as plus or better as well as a vastly underrated feel for pitching. Butler’s fastball sits in the mid- to upper-90s with exceptional sink and run to the arm side, and he complements it with a swing-and-miss, wipe-out slider in the upper 80s. Lastly, Butler possesses a filthy changeup in the same velocity range that dives off the table and evades barrels.
While the 22-year-old’s strenuous arm action and low release point will always provoke questions about his durability as a starter, Butler has passed every test thus far and shouldn't be in the minors for long in 2014. The right-hander is a dark-horse candidate to open the season in the major leagues, though an assignment to either Double- or Triple-A in anticipation of an early- or midseason debut is probably more realistic.
Video courtesy of Jason Cole.
Joc Pederson, OF, Los Angeles Dodgers
After posting a .913 OPS with 18 home runs and 26 stolen bases for High-A Rancho Cucamonga in 2012, Joc Pederson improved his prospect stock in a big way this past season with a strong followup showing at Double-A Chattanooga.
Previously viewed as a potential fourth outfielder, Pederson’s performance last season in the Southern League makes me believe he can be an everyday guy.
Heading into the season, there was concern that the outfielder’s production wouldn’t translate outside the hitter-friendly California League.
Suffice it to say the 21-year-old silenced his skeptics by ranking third in both OPS (.878) and stolen bases (31) among all qualified hitters in the Southern League.
Pederson is an impressive athlete with quiet strength, showcasing five average or better tools and good secondary skills. He projects to be a slightly above-average hitter at the highest level, with a mature approach and line-drive-oriented swing, and he already demonstrates a feel for working counts and getting on base.
Though the Dodgers’ outfield is already overcrowded headed into the 2014 season, Pederson’s ability to play all three positions should get him to the major leagues at some point during the 2014 season. And if his game power translates against big league pitching, Pederson could carve out a role as an everyday player in the major leagues.
Matt Wisler, RHP, San Diego Padres
Since his selection by the Padres in the seventh round of the 2011 draft out of an Ohio high school, Matt Wisler has mastered three full-season levels in the past two years and is banging on the door of the major leagues heading into 2014.
The right-hander's full-season debut in 2012 was basically his pro debut as well. Nonetheless, he caught everyone’s attention by posting a 2.53 ERA and 113-28 strikeout-to-walk rate in 114 innings for Low-A Fort Wayne.
Moved up to High-A Lake Elsinore for the 2013 season, the 21-year-old (in his age-20 season) made six impressive starts in the California League before receiving a quick promotion to Double-A San Antonio.
Wisler continued to dominate at the more advanced level, registering a 3.00 ERA and .223 opponents’ batting average with a 103-27 strikeout-to-walk rate in 105 innings (20 starts). He was especially lethal against same-side hitters, whom he held to a .188 batting average and struck out 73 times in 58.1 innings.
Wisler is an excellent athlete, and he is still growing into a projectable 6’3”, 195-pound frame. His delivery involves moderate effort, as he will jerk with his upper body and head at times. Though it doesn’t impede his ability to throw strikes, it’s something that will need to be cleaned up a bit.
The 21-year-old’s fastball is a presently plus in the low to mid-90s, and he’s capable of running it up to 95-96 mph with late life. And for what Wisler lacks in downhill plane toward the plate, he compensates with a feel for working both sides of the plate with the pitch and generally pounding the strike zone.
Wisler’s slider is a future plus offering, thrown with excellent depth and pace at 82 to 87 mph. It’s a two-plane breaker with huge swing-and-miss potential against right-handed hitters, and he already shows a feel for using it both inside and outside of the strike zone.
The right-hander’s changeup is a fringe offering that projects to be at least average at maturity. He turns it over well to generate two-seam-like fade and sink in the mid-80s—which is a bit on the firm side—but there’s still plenty of room for improvement. Rounding out Wisler’s deep arsenal is a curveball in the mid-70s that’s used sparingly as a show-me pitch.
After dealing over 20 starts and 105 innings last season at Double-A, Wisler has little left to prove at the level. However, an additional quarter- to half-season at the level wouldn’t be at a bad thing, and it certainly wouldn’t prevent him from reaching the major leagues after the All-Star break.
Video courtesy of Jason Cole.
Derek Law, RHP, San Francisco Giants
Selected in the ninth round of the 2011 draft out of Miami Dade (Fla.) JC, Derek Law earned an assignment to Low-A Augusta for his full-season debut the following year. Though he posted a 2.91 ERA with 67 strikeouts in 55.2 innings, it wasn’t until this past season that the right-hander’s career took off.
This past season, the 23-year-old dominated across three levels, posting a 2.31 ERA with 14 saves and the best combination of strikeout (13.84) and walk (1.63) rates among all minor league relievers. Law 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.
A 6’3”, 218-pound right-hander, Law creates enormous deception with an upper-body turn at the height of his delivery and exaggerated arm stab on the backside. Though unorthodox in every sense, it allows him to stay on top of the baseball from an over-the-top release point and work off a steep downhill plane.
In terms of stuff, Law’s fastball typically works in the 92 to 96 mph range and will play up due to his aforementioned deception. Given his release point, the right-hander’s curveball is a big, slow breaker that offers extreme velocity contrast to the fastball. Law will also mix in a good slider so as to keep opposing hitters off balance.
Thanks to a strong showing this fall in the AFL, Law is making a case to open the 2014 season in the Double-A Richmond bullpen. If that’s ultimately the case, I wouldn’t be surprised to see him in the major leagues by the All-Star break.
Video courtesy of Baseball America.