10 Early Breakout Stars of the 2015 MLB Draft Class

Rick Weiner@RickWeinerNYFeatured ColumnistAugust 12, 2015

10 Early Breakout Stars of the 2015 MLB Draft Class

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    Mike Theiler/Associated Press

    It's true that it typically takes years for the bulk of a draft class to be rightfully called MLB-ready, just as it's true that minor league success doesn't always carry over into the big leagues. The 2015 class is no exception to those rules.

    But that doesn't mean we shouldn't get excited about some of the performances we've seen thus far. After all, these players represent the future of our favorite teams, and for some, the future looks especially bright.

    It may come as a surprise to some that all 10 of the following prospects were drafted out of college, but it really shouldn't. College-age players are typically more mature, both mentally and physically, and they are ultimately better equipped to deliver a breakout performance as their professional careers get underway.

    Which of those breakout prospects stand out from the rest of the class? Let's take a look.

Tyler Alexander, LHP, Detroit Tigers

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    2015 Stats

    Games (Starts)ERAWHIPIPHBBKK/BB
    8 (8)0.720.5625.0104205.0

    Drafted

    Second round, 65th overall pick from Texas Christian University

    Current Level/Team

    Low-A/Connecticut Tigers (New York-Penn League)

    Overview

    As MILB.com's Alex Kraft wrote back in July, Detroit's decision to draft Tyler Alexander in the second round wasn't met with universal praise:

    The selection came as a surprise given that Alexander was not highly rated. Baseball America ranked him the 327th overall prospect prior to the Draft. His fastball velocity runs only in the high 80's to low 90's. Though the Texas native possesses outstanding command -- he walked 21 batters in 193 innings in college -- scouts have questioned whether he has the stuff to justify his Draft position.

    So far, Alexander has proved the Tigers were right to take him as high as they did. He's allowed only two earned runs through his first eight professional starts—both on solo home runs—and continues to exhibit outstanding command of his arsenal, walking only four while routinely getting ahead of batters.

    "He's going out there every game and he's tough," Connecticut pitching coach Carlos Chantres told Kraft. "You see kind of a bulldog mentality from him. He's on a pitch-count type deal, but he goes out there with a good approach. He looks for early contact and then he'll go for the strikeout when he gets a chance."

    That approach and mental toughness is going to be Alexander's calling card to the big leagues, since none of his pitches are what you'd call "plus" offerings at this point, and he's never going to light up the radar gun.

    Still, with plenty of time to continue building arm strength and developing his secondary stuff, Alexander's future looks far brighter than anyone outside of Detroit thought it would.

Andrew Benintendi, OF, Boston Red Sox

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    2015 Stats

    GamesBAOBPSLGOPSXBH (HR)RBIBB/K
    30.279.403.548.95111 (7)1522/14

    Drafted

    First round, seventh overall selection from the University of Arkansas

    Current Level/Team

    Low-A/Lowell Spinners (New York-Penn League)

    Overview

    A draft-eligible sophomore, Andrew Benintendi headed into the draft with big expectations after being named the collegiate National Player of the Year and Southeastern Conference Player of the Year this past season. So far, he's been up to the challenge.

    His numbers on the season may not scream "breakout performance," but consider that after play on July 30, Benintendi sat with a .229 batting average and .867 OPS. In just about two weeks, he's raised his batting average by 50 points and his OPS by nearly 90.

    While there are many adjustments players must make as they begin their professional careers, Benintendi's biggest challenge thus far has been getting used to a new kind of bat.

    "Just switching to a wood bat was the biggest transition, really," he told MiLB.com's Sam Dykstra. "It took a little longer to get used to it than I would have liked. The metal bat has a lot more flex, and obviously, the wood bat doesn't flex nearly as much. I was getting jammed a lot in those first couple games while I got used to it. But I feel pretty comfortable now."

    The more comfortable he gets with a wood bat in his hands, the gaudier his numbers will become.

Austin Byler, 1B, Arizona Diamondbacks

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    2015 Stats

    GamesBAOBPSLGOPSXBH (HR)RBIBB/K
    41.343.473.7341.20733 (10)3534/37

    Drafted

    11th round, 316th overall pick from the University of Nevada-Reno

    Current Level/Team

    Rookie/Missoula Osprey (Pioneer League)

    Overview

    To put Austin Byler's ridiculous numbers into proper perspective, consider this: More than 67 percent of his hits on the season (33-of-49) have gone for extra bases. Not eye-popping enough for you?

    Take a look at how his numbers stack up against "Player X," who also began his pro career with the Missoula Osprey:

    Player (Year)GBAOBPOPSXBH (HR)RBIBB/K
    Byler (2015)41.343.4731.20433 (10)3534/36
    Player X (2009)74.334.4081.04548 (18)6236/74

    "Player X," if you haven't figured it out yet, is Paul Goldschmidt,

    But the similarities between the perennial MVP candidate and Byler don't stop with their numbers in rookie ball. Both were taken in the middle rounds of the draft—Goldschmidt in the ninth round, Byler in the 11th. Both are first basemen standing 6'3" and weighing 225 pounds.

    In fact, the only real difference between the two is that Goldschmidt is a right-handed batter, while Byler is a lefty hitter.

    While it's completely unfair to compare the two, you really can't avoid doing so, considering how many similarities there are. We'll have to see if Byler develops into a similar type of player, but he's certainly off to a good start. 

Willie Calhoun, 2B, Los Angeles Dodgers

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    2015 Stats

    GamesBAOBPSLGOPSXBH (HR)RBIBB/K
    48.296.385.497.88323 (7)3028/22

    Drafted

    Fourth round, 132nd overall pick from Yavapai College (Prescott, AZ)

    Current Level/Team

    Single-A/Great Lakes Loons (Midwest League)

    Overview

    At 5'9" and 177 pounds, Willie Calhoun doesn't look like your prototypical slugger. But the pop he showed at Yavapai College, where he led all junior college players with 31 home runs, has translated to the pros, as Calhoun is among the 2015 draft-class leaders in extra-base hits, home runs, total bases and RBI.

    His numbers may not be as gaudy as some of the other players on this list, but Calhoun has already reached full-season ball and made his presence felt.

    After going hitless in his debut for the Great Lakes Loons on July 31, Calhoun finds himself in the midst of a nine-game hitting streak. While he's yet to go deep in the Midwest League, he's still showing an advanced approach at the plate. He's a work in progress at second base, so a shift to left field could be in his future.

LeDarious Clark, OF, Texas Rangers

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    2015 Stats

    GamesBAOBPSLGOPSXBH (HR)RBIBB/K
    44.299.358.533.89022 (8)2116/51

    Drafted

    12th round, 348th overall pick from the University of West Florida

    Current Level/Team

    Low-A/Spokane Indians (Northwest League)

    Overview

    If you're looking for the most out-of-nowhere breakout star from this year's draft class, you've found him. LeDarious Clark was about as off-the-radar as prospects come heading into the draft. Forget about top 100 or top 200 lists—he didn't crack Baseball America's top 500 draft prospect list.

    That his college career was spent at non-baseball powerhouses like East Mississippi Community College and the University of West Florida certainly contributed to that, but he caught the eye of Texas scouts, and the Rangers didn't hesitate when he was still on the board in the 12th round.

    "Great body, close to the top of the charts as a runner," Rangers scouting director Kip Fagg told MLB.com's T.R. Sullivan. "We're very excited about LeDarious and what he has to offer. He's got a good swing, some power, can play defense in center field. We're very intrigued by him."

    Intriguing is a perfect word to describe Clark, a high school football star whose athleticism is off the charts and, at least in the early part of his professional career, looks like a potential 20/20 candidate down the road.

    He's hit eight home runs—only two off the draft-class lead—to go along with nine doubles and five triples. He's also causing havoc when he gets on base, going 19-for-23 on stolen-base attempts.

    Sure, he's got a ton of swing-and-miss in his game, with a draft class-leading 51 strikeouts. But if he can make the necessary adjustments as he moves through the minor leagues and continue to develop his overall game, there's no reason to think he couldn't become one of the steals of this year's draft.

Taylor Clarke, RHP, Arizona Diamondbacks

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    2015 Stats

    GamesERAWHIPIPHBBKK/BB
    90.000.6517.074194.75

    Drafted

    Third round, 76th overall selection from the College of Charleston

    Current Level/Team

    Low-A/Hillsboro Hops (Northwest League)

    Overview

    Someday, Taylor Clarke is going to allow an earned run as a professional baseball player. But that day has yet to arrive, and Clarke's dominance gives Arizona its second breakout star of the 2015 draft.

    Two years removed from Tommy John surgery, Clarke's fastball is consistently sitting in the mid-90s and working to both sides of the plate, allowing him to set up his go-to strikeout pitch, a nasty slider that, like his fastball, he can pretty much throw wherever he wants.

    While some believe he could crack a major league rotation if his changeup continued to develop, the Diamondbacks seem content to let him develop as a reliever, which should accelerate his ascent through the farm system and find him in the Chase Field bullpen before too long.

Paul DeJong, 3B, St. Louis Cardinals

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    2015 Stats

    GamesBAOBPSLGOPSXBH (HR)RBIBB/K
    41.357.457.5881.04322 (6)2724/34

    Drafted

    Fourth round, 131st overall pick from Illinois State University

    Current Level/Team

    Single-A/Peoria Chiefs (Midwest League)

    Overview

    Having committed nine errors in only 37 professional games at third base, Paul DeJong's final destination on the diamond might be in an outfield corner. But with above-average raw power that he's already begun to tap into and a solid approach at the plate, teams will find a way to get his bat into the lineup.

    Initially assigned to rookie ball, DeJong earned himself a promotion to Single-A Peoria after hitting .486 with 10 extra-base hits (four home runs) and 15 RBI over 10 games with Johnson City. But it's not only DeJong's ability to drive the ball out of the park that commanded St. Louis' attention in the draft.

    It was also his perceived exit velocity. As his agent Burton Rocks explained to Derrick Goold of the St. Louis Post Dispatch, his client is one of those players “that you know are hitting even if you’re munching popcorn because it sounds like the ball is in pain."

    How much DeJong is able to improve on the other side of the ball will ultimately dictate how quickly he rises through the Cardinals farm system, but it certainly appears as if St. Louis found a keeper with its fourth-round pick.

Drew Jackson, SS, Seattle Mariners

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    2015 Stats

    GamesBAOBPSLGOPSXBH (HR)RBIBB/K
    39.395.453.500.95312 (2)1716/24

    Drafted

    Fifth round, 155th overall pick from Stanford University

    Current Level/Team

    Low-A/Everett AquaSox (Northwest League)

    Overview

    In the midst of a 17-game hitting streak that dates back to July 19, during which he's hit .529 (36-for-68) with 28 runs scored and 19 stolen bases in 21 attempts, Drew Jackson is on fire.

    In fact, Jackson has reached base safely in all but five of his 39 games on the season, and his speed has become a major weapon, as he leads the 2015 class in stolen bases (34-for-37). That ability to routinely get himself into scoring position finds him leading the way in runs scored (47) as well.

    Having began his professional career in full-season ball, Jackson is putting up these impressive numbers against a higher level of competition than many of his fellow classmates. At the very least, that suggests he may not have as hard a time maintaining this level of production as he rises through Seattle's system.

Drew Smith, RHP, Detroit Tigers

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    2015 Stats

    GamesERAWHIPIPHBBKK/BB
    110.320.7128.1164348.5

    Drafted

    Third round, 99th overall pick from Dallas Baptist University

    Current Level/Team

    Low-A/Connecticut Tigers (New York-Penn League)

    Overview

    College relievers tend to move quickly through the minor leagues, and with the way Drew Smith has dominated the opposition thus far—he was named Detroit's "Minor League Pitcher of the Month" for July—you'd think he was on the fast track to the major leagues.

    Except that his days as a reliever, despite his early breakout success as a reliever in the pros and eye-popping numbers, are, well, numbered.

    “We still think Drew Smith will start,” Scott Pleis, Detroit's director of amateur scouting, recently told the Macomb Daily's Matthew B. Mowery. “Drew pitched out of the pen mostly in college so we didn’t want to take him out of his comfort zone.”

    While it makes sense to let him get his feet wet as a pro in a familiar role, moving him to the rotation is going to delay his arrival in the big leagues. While he pounds the strike zone with a mid-90s fastball, his secondary offerings are still developing.

    How quickly those pitches develop—and Smith can build up the arm strength required to pitch deep into games—will ultimately dictate whether he sticks in the rotation or heads back to the bullpen.

Taylor Ward, C, Los Angeles Angels

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    2015 Stats

    GamesBAOBPSLGOPSXBH (HR)RBIBB/K
    36.352.481.448.9297 (2)2030/10

    Drafted

    First round, 26th overall pick from Fresno State

    Current Level/Team

    Single-A/Burlington Bees (Midwest League)

    Overview

    Called "a catch-and-throw guy" by MLB.com's Jonathan Mayo heading into the draft, there was enough concern in the scouting community about Taylor Ward's ability to hit as a professional that the following section appeared in Baseball America's predraft scouting report on him:

    "Ward's athletic 6'1", 190-pound frame and arm strength would play on the mound if he doesn't hit enough to stick behind the plate, and scouts have their doubts on his bat. He's hit 13 home runs the last two seasons combined and has decent pull power, though he lacks a natural feel for hitting."

    His numbers thus far certainly don't look like those belonging to a guy who can't produce at the plate. What stands out more than anything else is that he's drawing walks at three times the rate he's striking out. Of his 30 walks on the season, only one has been of the intentional variety.

    That's the kind of thing you expect to see from an elite leadoff hitter, not a catcher with questionable tools at the plate. While his defense will always be his calling card to the big leagues, Ward's bat doesn't appear to be anywhere near as big a hindrance to his future success as many believed it would be.

    Unless otherwise noted, all statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference and MILB.com and are current through games of August 11. Draft class rankings courtesy of MLBFarm.com.

    Hit me up on Twitter to talk all things baseball: @RickWeinerBR

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