Hot MLB Prospects on the Cusp of MLB Breakthroughs

Andrew Gould@AndrewGould4Featured ColumnistJune 17, 2016

Hot MLB Prospects on the Cusp of MLB Breakthroughs

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    Cody Reed will make his MLB debut on Saturday.
    Cody Reed will make his MLB debut on Saturday.Associated Press

    MLB teams can't count on prospects flying in from the minor leagues to save the day. 

    Last year's influx of talent spoiled baseball fans. Kris Bryant, Carlos Correa, Francisco Lindor and Noah Syndergaard wasted no time assimilating to the big leagues, instead offering All-Star production from Day 1. Welcoming such an exceptional crop of future stars isn't the norm.

    Few rookies have successfully jumped from the minors to majors this season. Nomar Mazara and Michael Fulmer haven't shined enough to offset the struggles from marquee prospects Byron Buxton, Jose Berrios and Julio Urias.

    None of the following pitchers will dominate like Thor, and the position players won't vault into MVP candidates next season. Yet as long as franchises and fans keep expectations in line, these prospects will mix solid immediate gains with the promise of long-term stardom.

    All beckoning for a promotion—and a couple recently receiving one—with tremendous minor-league results, these players should get an MLB audition this season.

Honorable Mentions

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    With the Houston Astros hurting at first base, A.J. Reed could graduate to the big leagues by the All-Star break.
    With the Houston Astros hurting at first base, A.J. Reed could graduate to the big leagues by the All-Star break.John Raoux/Associated Press

    A.J. Reed, 1B, Houston Astros

    Tyler White's freefall from a red-hot opening week opens the door for A.J. Reed, the Houston Astros' more highly regarded first-base prospect.

    The 23-year-old would be playing in Minute Maid Park if he sustained last year's offensive onslaught, but he's hitting a subdued .250./344/.474 in Triple-A. Nevertheless, the slugger will eventually parlay his power into an MLB promotion.

    Orlando Arcia, SS, Milwaukee Brewers

    Before Opening Day, most onlookers would have expected the Milwaukee Brewers to bring up Orlando Arcia by June. Nobody, however, anticipated Jonathan Villar's transformation into one of baseball's most lethal leadoff hitters.

    Arcia is adjusting to a learning curve, hitting .287/.331/.398 in Triple-A. Yet if Milwaukee sells high on Villar before the trade deadline, then the 21-year-old shortstop could still debut in 2016.

    Brandon Nimmo, OF, New York Mets

    A first-round pick five years ago, Brandon Nimmo has enjoyed his time in the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League. Sporting a .330/.411/.530 slash line, the 23-year-old outfielder could be considered a call-up candidate for the wounded New York Mets. 

    Lucas Giolito, SP, Washington Nationals

    Recovering from a rough start, Lucas Giolito has amassed 39 strikeouts over his last five outings, allowing five earned runs through 31 innings. MLB.com's top-rated prospect still wields ace upside, but his command issues in Double-A (29 walks in 61.1 innings) will delay his arrival.

    Even if he was toying with minor league victims, the Washington Nationals have no room in their starting rotation for the 21-year-old righty, who could introduce himself as an impact reliever this postseason.

    Alex Reyes, SP, St. Louis Cardinals

    After serving a 50-game suspension to start the season, Alex Reyes is making up for lost time. The St. Louis Cardinals fast-tracked their premier pitching prospect to Triple-A, where he has already fanned 39 batters in 21.1 innings.

    He has also issued 11 walks and pitched past the fifth inning once. It would take an injury for Reyes to join the rotation any time soon, but he's also someone who can get his feet wet as a lethal reliever before becoming a starter in 2017.  

Willson Contreras, C, Chicago Cubs

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    Catcher Willson Contreras is limited behind the plate, but his bat earned him an MLB promotion this summer.
    Catcher Willson Contreras is limited behind the plate, but his bat earned him an MLB promotion this summer.Associated Press

    For the second-straight year, a Chicago Cubs catcher raked his way to a midseason promotion.

    After welcoming Kyle Schwarber to the big leagues last summer, the best team in baseball will introduce another premier bat-first backstop prospect. Willson Contreras has continued his climb into an elite minor leaguer, hitting .350/.439/.591 in 54 Triple-A games. Per Fox Sports' Ken Rosenthal, the Cubs are calling him up on Friday. 

    Signed back in 2009, he didn't make a major splash until last season, when he broke out with a .333/.413/.478 slash line in Double-A. He looks even better this year, already close to topping his previous career high of 11 homers with nine.

    The 24-year-old has also brandished a terrific plate approach, totaling 28 walks to 32 strikeouts in 239 plate appearances. His further progress bumped him to No. 18 in ESPN Insider Keith Law's updated prospect rankings published in late May. 

    "He's a very athletic catcher but is considered a poor framer, though that seems to be a skill that can be improved, at least sometimes, with good coaching," Law wrote. "I think teams would live with some below-average framing if they're getting a star-caliber bat behind the plate."

    Although Law expressed concerns of Contreras' defensive abilities, he's not a perceived liability a la Schwarber. He should get some reps behind the plate, especially with Miguel Montero batting .210/.333/.343.

    Perhaps the Cubs are loaded enough offensively to prefer a veteran catcher guiding the pitching staff with a solid on-base percentage, but Contreras will receive some big-league exposure before eventually assuming the starting role next year.

Trea Turner, 2B/SS, Washington Nationals

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    Trea Turner joined the Washington Nationals for two days before going back to the minors.
    Trea Turner joined the Washington Nationals for two days before going back to the minors.Associated Press

    When the Washington Nationals let Ian Desmond walk, Trea Turner lurked as the logical short- and long-term replacement. Although ready to take over shortstop on Opening Day, he instead resided in Triple-A for two months.

    Washington finally promoted the 22-year-old on June 3. As a reward for going 3-for-3 with a walk and a double, he received a ticket back to Syracuse.

    He now may have to wait a while before returning. After the demotion, Nationals manager Dusty Baker urged patience to The Washington Post's Chelsea Janes.

    “You don’t have to rush him. I’ve seen kids get rushed and get ruined,” Baker said. “Everybody wants to rush these guys. Just go play. That’s the main thing. Go play and stay healthy.”

    Turner's brief presence seems to have lit a fire under starting shortstop Danny Espinosa, who is batting .283/.365/.652 with five home runs in June. There's suddenly no pressing need to replace the 29-year-old, who carries a .708 OPS while playing above-average defense.

    Yet Turner, batting .293 with 19 stolen bases in Triple-A, has nothing left to prove in the minors. He's still a prolonged Espinosa slump or Ryan Zimmerman injury away from getting another call to Washington, who eventually needs to find an everyday gig for a prolific contact hitter with blazing speed and a solid glove at shortstop or second.

Alex Bregman, SS, Houston Astros

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    With their middle infield occupied, the Houston Astros are grooming Alex Bregman for third base.
    With their middle infield occupied, the Houston Astros are grooming Alex Bregman for third base.Associated Press

    Even as 2015's No. 2 overall MLB draft selection, Alex Bregman has boosted his stock over the past year.

    Few prospects have flourished more than the Houston Astros infielder, who is hitting .309/.412/.585 in 54 Double-A games. After going deep four times last year, the 22-year-old has belted 14 homers and 13 doubles this season. 

    There's one pesky problem, a great one for Houston to have: The middle infield is already occupied with second baseman Jose Altuve and Carlos Correa. Neither of those guys is going anywhere—although Law suggested Correa moving to third base—so it's instead up to Bregman to learn a new craft. 

    The easy solution is sliding him over to third, where the Astros collectively wield the fourth-worst weighted on-base average (wOBA) at .296, per FanGraphs. He has began taking reps there, but he's still new to the hot corner. Per MLB.com's Brian McTaggart, Corpus Christi manager Rodney Linares discussed Bregman's transition.

    "I know the numbers look really, really good, but I think it's going to be more of a developmental time for his defensive positioning, because he hasn't played there so much," Linares said. "I'll keep him as long as he's here and I'll be happy to have him. When he has to leave, I'll make sure he's ready to go wherever he's going."

    Those craving his arrival must also consider a possible pit-stop to Triple-A before joining the Astros. He's a polished hitter with more walks (31) than strikeouts (21), but he needs to prove his newfound power will last.  

Manuel Margot, OF, San Diego Padres

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    In his first year with the San Diego Padres, center fielder Manuel Margot has excelled in Triple-A
    In his first year with the San Diego Padres, center fielder Manuel Margot has excelled in Triple-ACharlie Riedel/Associated Press

    The San Diego Padres attained their center fielder of the future when they acquired Manuel Margot in a package for Craig Kimbrel last winter. They might not have realized how fast that time would come.

    In 64 Triple-A games, the 21-year-old outfielder is batting .299/.354/.428 with 17 stolen bases and 53 runs scored. Although not a prototypical power hitter, he has complemented his three homers with 13 doubles and six triples.

    Along with tallying 20 hits in 14 June contests, he has reached base in all but one of his last 43 games. Considering he only played 64 games in Double-A last year, it would have been reasonable to anticipate bumps in the road. Instead, he's playing even better against more experienced opposition.

    He's expediting his estimated time of arrival, but the Padres don't have any outfield vacancies. Jon Jay is handling center field well enough, batting .292/.338/.400 with a 0.9 WAR, per FanGraphs.

    The 31-year-old, however, could attract trade suitors this summer. Before his contract expires this offseason, per Cot's Baseball Contracts, the Padres might as well flip him to a contender searching for depth.

    Although far less likely, San Diego probably wouldn't mind making room for Margot by trading Matt Kemp or Melvin Upton Jr. The strong contact hitter would replicate Jay's offensive abilities while delivering far superior defense for the Friars during the final months.

Cody Reed, SP, Cincinnati Reds

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    Cody Reed is ready to help a poor Cincinnati Reds pitching staff.
    Cody Reed is ready to help a poor Cincinnati Reds pitching staff.Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

    Eleven different pitchers have made at least two starts this season for the Cincinnati Reds. The turnover hasn't yielded any answers, as they have surrendered an MLB-worst 5.9 runs per game.

    After rolling with an all-rookie rotation late last season, the last-place Reds let Alfredo Simon occupy a spot. The 35-year-old made all hitters look like All-Stars, coughing up 56 runs in 52.1 innings with a .333/.424/.591 slash line. His long-overdue replacement, Daniel Wright, was sent down after capitulating five runs to the Atlanta Braves on Monday.

    If only a talented youngster beckoned for an opportunity instead. Maybe someone like Cody Reed. 

    The team's turmoil created an opportunity for Cody Reed, a 23-year-old authoring a 3.20 ERA in 11 Triple-A starts. On Thursday, the team announced that the southpaw will make his MLB debut on Saturday.

    Acquired in last summer's Johnny Cueto trade, Reed shot up prospect lists by notching a 2.17 ERA in eight starts with the Reds' Double-A affiliate. This season he has accumulated 63 strikeouts and 17 walks over 64.2 innings, showing promise as a mid-rotation starter with the potential for more.

Tyler Glasnow, SP, Pittsburgh Pirates

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    Tyler Glasnow is ready to miss bats in the majors, and the Pittsburgh Pirates need pitching help.
    Tyler Glasnow is ready to miss bats in the majors, and the Pittsburgh Pirates need pitching help.Joe Robbins/Getty Images

    The Pittsburgh Pirates recently welcomed top pitching prospect Jameson Taillon, who cemented his rotation spot by tossing eight scoreless frames against the New York Mets. Tyler Glasnow should join him in no time.

    MLB.com's No. 8 prospect has registered a 1.90 ERA and 86 strikeouts in 71 Triple-A innings, limiting the opposition to a .198 batting average. His 36 walks are a concern, but he's a future ace worth developing on the grand stage.

    Pittsburgh has plenty of room in its subpar rotation. Ace Gerrit Cole recently went on the disabled list with strained right triceps. Jeff Locke relinquished 18 runs in his last two starts, expanding his ERA to 5.92. After allowing 33 runs over his last 36.1 innings, Juan Nicasio looks better suited for the bullpen.

    Most of the other prospects have performed well enough to earn a promotion, but aren't needed. Glasnow is submitting a sterling case to move up, and he could offer an upgrade even with his erratic command causing some growing pains.

    As the Cubs run away with the National League Central, the Pirates are stuck in a crowded wild-card race. With Cole sidelined, they need immediate production from Taillon and Glasnow, who will become their front-line starters far sooner than anticipated.

Josh Hader, SP, Milwaukee Brewers

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    Josh Hader dominated Double-A hitters before recently receiving a promotion to Triple-A.
    Josh Hader dominated Double-A hitters before recently receiving a promotion to Triple-A.Morry Gash/Associated Press

    At this rate, Josh Hader won't spend too much time in Triple-A.

    The Milwaukee Brewers lefty decimated Double-A adversaries, allowing six earned runs over 57 innings while issuing 73 strikeouts. Making his first appearance at the higher level on Sunday, he yielded one hit and two runs while tallying nine strikeouts over six frames.

    He also walked four batters, which isn't new for someone who distributes 3.7 free passes per nine innings. He discussed the importance of tuning his spotty control to MiLB.com's Michael Peng.

    "Up here, you can't fall behind too much, that's how you get in trouble," Hader said. "These guys are smart and know what they are looking for, so the biggest thing is staying ahead."

    He'll need to figure out his command in Triple-A Colorado Springs before moving up to Milwaukee. Yet the Brewers won't hold back the 22-year-old for long if he keeps fanning over a batter per inning. If he keeps pitching well, expect at least a late-season call-up from the rising prospect. 

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