10 MLB Teams with Encouraging Signs for the Future

Joel Reuter@JoelReuterBRFeatured ColumnistAugust 16, 2016

10 MLB Teams with Encouraging Signs for the Future

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    The Aaron Judge era has begun in the Bronx.
    The Aaron Judge era has begun in the Bronx.Rich Schultz/Getty Images

    To achieve the sustainable success every MLB team is searching for, a front office needs to have an eye on the future.

    Whether a team is a contender in 2016 or focused on 2017, it's never too early to look ahead at how it is lining up future success.

    That was the idea behind our Future MLB Power Rankings last week, taking a look at how all 30 franchises might stack up three years down the line.

    This time around, we'll focus on the individual level.

    A handful of players have provided their teams with encouraging signs for the future in 2016, whether it's a veteran who's returning to form or exceeding expectations or a young player who's emerging as a key piece of the present and future puzzle.

    The idea here is to highlight things we've learned since the start of the regular season.

    For example, the continued production of the Chicago Cubs' young core is a promising sign for their long-term outlook, but we knew that going into the year.

    On the other hand, healthy seasons from Dylan Bundy in Baltimore and Jameson Taillon in Pittsburgh were far from a given.

    Those two have given their teams a huge boost in 2016 and improved their long-term outlook in the process, as they are finally living up to their top prospect billing.

    Ahead is a look at 10 teams with promising indications for future seasons.

Baltimore Orioles: A Healthy and Productive Dylan Bundy

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    Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports

    There was a time not long ago when Bundy looked like the game's next great pitcher.

    After going No. 4 overall in the 2011 draft, he began his pro career at the Single-A level, where he worked 30 innings without allowing an earned run before being promoted to High-A.

    He'd be promoted twice more that season, culminating in his MLB debut as a 19-year-old on Sept. 23, 2012. He would go on to make a pair of appearances out of the bullpen for a contending Baltimore Orioles team.

    It was all downhill from there.

    He underwent Tommy John surgery in June 2013 and then dealt with shoulder issues upon returning to action.

    All told, he worked a grand total of 63.1 innings from 2013 through 2015. The Orioles were left with a decision to make this spring, as the 23-year-old was out of minor league options.

    He earned a spot in the bullpen out of spring training and emerged as a key piece of one of the league's best relief corps, appearing in 22 games and posting a 3.08 ERA and 7.6 strikeouts per nine innings with three holds.

    With the O's rotation in desperate need of a spark, Bundy made his first career start July 17, and it hasn't taken him long to emerge as the team's best starter.

    In six starts, he's gone 4-2 with a 2.76 ERA, 0.857 WHIP and a minuscule .174 opponent's batting average.

    "I think the progression is there just because he works hard," catcher Matt Wieters told Jon Meoli of the Baltimore Sun. "I think he's going to go out there, and you know each fifth day he goes out there and pitches, he's going to give you his best shot to win. That's all you ask for as a teammate, and that's all you ask for as a catcher."

    The team has to be careful not to push him too far, as his 70.2 innings of work are no doubt closing in on the high end of what it expected him to throw this year.

    His emergence goes beyond aiding Baltimore in its push for an American League East title this season, as all signs indicate he'll front the rotation for the foreseeable future.

Cincinnati Reds: Anthony DeSclafani Pitching Like an Ace

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    Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

    The Cincinnati Reds have done a terrific job building up their farm system in recent years, enough to earn the No. 11 spot in Bleacher Report's latest farm system rankings.

    Pitching depth is one of the strengths of that system, as Amir Garrett and Robert Stephenson headline a group that also includes Tyler Mahle, Keury Mella, Rookie Davis, Nick Travieso, Antonio Santillan and Sal Romano.

    While Garrett and Stephenson both had front-line potential and the same can be said for rookie Cody Reed, there was no clear-cut future ace for the team to build the starting rotation around.

    That is, until Anthony DeSclafani returned to the field.

    The 26-year-old quietly put together a solid rookie season in 2015, going 9-13 with a 4.05 ERA and 1.348 WHIP while leading all rookies with 184.2 innings of work.

    Originally penciled in as the Opening Day starter this season, DeSclafani suffered a strained oblique near the end of spring training, and the nagging injury kept him sidelined until June 10.

    He worked six strong innings in his season debut, and he's only gotten better, going 6-1 with a 3.11 ERA, 1.217 WHIP and 63 strikeouts in 72.1 innings over 12 starts.

    With team control through the 2020 season, he's easily the team's most valuable asset, but building the rotation around him is a more likely approach than trading him.

    A healthy return from Tommy John surgery by Homer Bailey also deserves a mention here, as he struck out 11 over six scoreless innings Friday, his third start since returning.

    With $63 million left on Bailey's contract over the next three years, the Reds will hope for plenty more starts like that.

Detroit Tigers: Justin Verlander Living Up to His Salary Once Again

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    Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

    When Justin Verlander signed a seven-year, $180 million extension prior to the 2013 season, it briefly made him the highest-paid pitcher in baseball history.

    At the time, he was 30 years old and coming off a second-place finish in AL Cy Young voting, just a year removed from taking home that award and AL MVP honors when he won the pitching Triple Crown in 2011.

    However, since the start of 2013, Verlander has not been the same dominant force.

    He was an All-Star again in 2013 when he went 13-12 with a 3.46 ERA and 217 strikeouts, but his WHIP climbed considerably from 1.057 to 1.315.

    The 2014 season saw his ERA climb to 4.54 and his WHIP climb even higher to 1.398. In 2015, he missed a significant chunk of the season to injury for the first time in his career and made just 20 starts.

    Verlander began the 2016 season still owed $112 million and with significantly lowered expectations, as the Tigers simply hoped he could stay healthy and eat up innings as a passable middle-of-the-rotation arm.

    He struggled early with a 6.49 ERA over his first six starts, but then a crazy thing happened.

    The pitcher once regarded as the best in the game started pitching like an ace again.

    Since May 8, Verlander has gone 10-3 with a 2.58 ERA, 0.955 WHIP and 137 strikeouts in 125.2 innings.

    Those terrific numbers look even better if you remove one awful start on June 26 when he allowed nine hits, two walks and eight earned runs in 4.2 innings of work.

    Removing that outing from the equation leaves him at 10-2 with a 2.08 ERA and 0.901 WHIP in his other 17 starts, and he's turned in 14 quality starts during that span.

    Michael Fulmer may be emerging as the ace of the Tigers staff, but there's legitimate hope now that Verlander can come close to earning the $84 million he's still owed over the next three years.

Houston Astros: MiLB Success Translating to MLB for Joe Musgrove

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    Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

    Joe Musgrove has always had pinpoint control and a solid four-pitch repertoire, but most viewed him as the prototypical high-floor starter with a middle-of-the-rotation ceiling.

    "Musgrove's outstanding control is more impressive than any of his individual pitches," wrote MLB.com's Prospect Watch. "... [He] has a ceiling of a mid-rotation starter and is a good bet to reach it."

    That scouting report came with the No. 81 spot among the league's top 100 prospects in MLB.com's midseason update, with minimal impact expected this season.

    However, when Lance McCullers landed on the disabled list at the beginning of August with a sprained elbow, Houston asked the recently promoted Musgrove to step into the rotation.

    The 23-year-old had little left to prove in the minors, as he had gone 7-4 with a 2.74 ERA and 1.043 WHIP over 85.1 innings between Double-A and Triple-A, turning heads with 1.1 walks per nine innings and a 9.2 K/9 rate.

    His MLB debut came Aug. 2 when he entered the game in relief of the injured McCullers. He allowed just one hit and one walk while striking out eight over 4.1 scoreless innings.

    He followed that appearance with his first career start on Aug. 7 (7.0 IP, 5 H, 1 ER, 0 BB, 6 K) and his first career win on Aug. 12 (7.0 IP, 6 H, 2 ER, 1 BB, 7 K).

    Those performances came against two of the best offenses in all of baseball in the Texas Rangers and Toronto Blue Jays, respectively.

    "Musgrove has been phenomenal, just what the doctor ordered," Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow told reporters. "He throws strikes, but he's got good enough stuff to generate some swings and misses and get some punchouts. He's not afraid to let them put the ball in play either. I think he's solidified himself as a guy who is going to be in our rotation for years to come."

    That sounds like someone who is capable of being more than a mid-rotation starter for a team on the rise.

New York Mets: Neil Walker Open to an Extension

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    Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

    Where would the New York Mets be without Neil Walker?

    Acquired during the offseason from the Pittsburgh Pirates in exchange for left-hander Jon Niese, the hope was that Walker could give the offense a boost and bridge the gap to Dilson Herrera at second base before reaching free agency this coming offseason.

    His production has gone beyond giving the offense a boost, though.

    Walker is hitting .279/.341/.470 with 22 home runs, 54 RBI and 52 runs scored, and with Yoenis Cespedes sidelined, he's been the team's best hitter.

    He's also been its top performer in the clutch, hitting a team-best .286 with runners in scoring position.

    Meanwhile, the team as a whole is batting an MLB-worst .236 and .205 with runners in scoring position en route to a paltry 3.71 runs per game.

    Remove Walker from the equation, and a significant problem gets even worse.

    With that in mind, it appears the Mets are going to make a strong push to keep the 30-year-old around beyond this season, as GM Sandy Alderson told reporters:

    Neil's had a very nice season for us, no question about that. And certainly he's been very productive over the last couple of weeks, at a time when we've needed that productivity with some of the injuries and other issues. I have not had any conversations with his agent to this point. I expect that there will be some conversations before the end of the season. … He's been very instrumental in the level of success that we've had.

    Convincing an upcoming free agent to sign an extension before the season ends and he has a chance to test the waters is rare, but not completely unheard of. Hunter Pence comes to mind as one example: He signed a five-year, $90 million extension with the San Francisco Giants on Sept. 29, 2013.

    Walker appears open to exploring the possibility:

    Obviously there's a lot of great things going on here. It's a double-edged sword. … It certainly is interesting to think about what could happen this offseason as far as teams' interest and things like that. But when you look at the big picture and you look at what's going on here and you look at how I fit in here, and how happy I've been with the camaraderie and the front office and the coaching staff and the players, this is a really good fit for me.

    With the aforementioned Herrera since traded to the Reds in the Jay Bruce deal, bringing back Walker now seems like a priority for the Mets. His openness to a reunion has to be considered a promising sign for the future.

New York Yankees: Aaron Judge Showing In-Game Power

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    Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports

    Aaron Judge has always been an intimidating physical specimen in the batter's box, but his tremendous raw power has not consistently shown itself in game situations.

    The towering 6'7", 275-pound outfielder certainly looks the part of the next Giancarlo Stanton, but entering this season, he had hit just 37 career home runs in 1,103 plate appearances during his time in the minors.

    That included a so-so performance between Double-A and Triple-A last season, when he posted a .777 OPS with 26 doubles, 20 home runs and 72 RBI in 540 plate appearances.

    He returned to Triple-A to start the 2016 season and finally began flexing those muscles in-game a bit more often. He had an .854 OPS with 18 doubles and 19 home runs in 410 plate appearances.

    The 2017 season had long been pointed to as the expected arrival date for Judge with Carlos Beltran set to reach free agency following the 2016 season, leaving a hole in right field.

    However, with the New York Yankees thrust into the role of seller this summer and Beltran traded to the Rangers, the door swung open for Judge to audition for that right field job. So far, he's impressed, to say the least.

    The 24-year-old is 5-for-10 with one double, two home runs and three RBI in his first three MLB games.

    That first home run came in his first career at-bat, when he absolutely crushed a 457-foot bomb to dead center field off Tampa Bay Rays starter Matt Andriese.

    If there's one thing the Yankees have lacked this season, it's power.

    The veteran duo of Mark Teixeira and Alex Rodriguez have come nowhere close to the combined 64 home runs they hit a year ago, and the team sits 22nd in the majors with 123 home runs.

    Beltran was the team leader with 22 prior to being dealt, and that leaves shortstop Didi Gregorius and catcher Brian McCann as co-leaders with just 15 long balls.

    Looking to the future, the Yankees are counting on Judge to not only seize the everyday right field job, but also to emerge as a force in the middle of the lineup.

    The early returns have been promising.

Pittsburgh Pirates: A Healthy Jameson Taillon Exceeding Expectations

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    Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

    It's been a long, winding path to MLB success for Taillon.

    The No. 2 overall pick in the 2010 draftand the first pitcher selected after Bryce Harper went No. 1 overallTaillon was seemingly on the fast track to Pittsburgh when injury struck.

    He began his pro career at the Single-A level in 2011 and had reached Triple-A by the conclusion of the 2013 season at the age of 21.

    However, he would miss the entire 2014 season following Tommy John surgery, and a sports hernia cost him the 2015 campaign as well.

    Back on the mound in a competitive environment this season for the first time since his appearance in the Arizona Fall League in 2013, Taillon picked up right where he left off.

    The 24-year-old went 4-2 with a 2.04 ERA, 0.811 WHIP and 61 strikeouts in 61.2 innings for Triple-A Indianapolis before getting the call.

    Now 10 starts into his MLB career, the rookie has been the Pirates' best pitcher since debuting June 8.

    The 6'5", 240-pound right-hander has gone 3-2 with a 2.85 ERA, 1.083 WHIP and a terrific 47-8 strikeout-to-walk ratio over 60 innings of work.

    "Incrementally, he's just working to get a little bit better," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle told reporters. "He's a good student of the game. Our players are really developed in that fashion, to use their ears and their eyes. We have a good group of men in there that help them with that, breaking them in."

    With Gerrit Cole the only set-in-stone piece of the rotation beyond this season now that Francisco Liriano and Niese have been traded and Jeff Locke has been relegated to the bullpen, the Pirates will be counting on Taillon to continue pitching like a front-line starter.

    That's what they expected when they drafted him one spot ahead of a high school infielder by the name of Manny Machado six years ago.

San Diego Padres: A 1st-Place Triple-A Team Full of Young Players on the Cusp

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    Carlos Asuaje, Hunter Renfroe and Manuel Margot at the Futures Game in July.
    Carlos Asuaje, Hunter Renfroe and Manuel Margot at the Futures Game in July.Andy Hayt/Getty Images

    Team statistics and win-loss records don't mean much at the minor league level, but it's hard to ignore what the El Paso Chihuahuas have done this season.

    The Triple-A affiliate of the San Diego Padres is hitting .303/.357/.480 as a team and averaging 5.77 runs per game, tops among the 16 teams in the Pacific Coast League.

    That has propelled the Chihuahuas to first place in the Pacific Southern division despite a team ERA of 5.13 that is fourth-worst in the league.

    Leading the way are a pair of highly-rated prospects in Hunter Renfroe and Manuel Margot, a former top prospect in Austin Hedges and the emerging Carlos Asuaje.

    Here's how their 2016 seasons look to date:

    • Renfroe: .317 BA, .930 OPS, 33 2B, 27 HR, 94 RBI, 86 R
    • Margot: .309 BA, .797 OPS, 36 XBH, 85 R, 25 SB
    • Hedges: .339 BA, 1.000 OPS, 16 2B, 18 HR, 74 RBI, 49 R
    • Asuaje: .322 BA, .847 OPS, 27 2B, 9 3B, 7 HR, 58 RBI, 89 R

    Margot and Renfroe rank as the team's No. 2 and No. 3 prospects, according to MLB.com's Prospect Watch, while Asuaje checks in at No. 20.

    Hedges used up his rookie eligibility last season, but he was the team's No. 1 prospect at the conclusion of the 2014 season.

    The team has held off on promoting that foursome so far this season, but they could all play a significant role in 2017.

    Margot and Renfroe are expected to man center and right field, respectively, for the next decade, while Hedges is the catcher of the future once the team finds a taker for incumbent Derek Norris.

    Asuaje has been viewed as more of a utility type during his time in the minors, but his offensive breakout could give him an opportunity to win the second base job.

    At any rate, the next wave of talent for a rebuilding Padres team is on the cusp, and the players have put together an impressive season as teammates in Triple-A.

St. Louis Cardinals: Carson Kelly Emerging as Heir to Yadier Molina

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    Brace Hemmelgarn/Getty Images

    Since Yadier Molina debuted with the St. Louis Cardinals in 2004, the team has reached the postseason nine times in 12 years, winning four National League pennants and two World Series titles during that span.

    Molina will go down as one of the greatest defensive catchers the game has ever seen. His impact on the game stretches far beyond his counting stats, as he's essentially a second coach on the field when it comes to handling the pitching staff.

    With that in mind, replacing Molina will be no easy task.

    The 34-year-old is signed through the 2017 season with a $15 million option for 2018 that holds a $2 million buyout.

    Unless injuries set in or Molina drops off defensively, it's safe to assume the Cardinals will exercise that option, but the start of a new era behind the plate will begin in 2019.

    The Cardinals have done a fantastic job developing their minor league talent in recent years, but since Molina came up the organizational pipeline, they have not had much in the way of catching prospects.

    That was still the case at the start of the 2016 season, but the emergence of Carson Kelly has changed things.

    Originally drafted as a third baseman in the second round of the 2012 draft, Kelly moved behind the plate in 2014. His defensive game was his biggest strength coming into the year with his bat falling behind.

    Despite a pedestrian .219/.263/.332 line at the High-A level last season, the Cardinals bumped Kelly up to Double-A, and he's responded with a breakout year at the plate and earned a promotion to Triple-A in July.

    He's still not hitting for much power with 13 doubles and six home runs, but a .294/.347/.399 line gives some hope that he'll develop enough of an offensive game to be an everyday option.

    The 22-year-old could step into a backup role as early as next season, giving him ample time to hone his offensive skills and learn from one of the best in the business before taking over as the primary backstop in 2019.

Tampa Bay Rays: The Breakout of Brad Miller as a Power-Hitting Run Producer

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    Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports

    Since the days of Carlos Pena, the Rays have been looking for someone to serve as a second run producer and home run threat alongside Evan Longoria in the middle of the lineup.

    That's likely not what the team had in mind for Brad Miller when it acquired him from the Seattle Mariners as part of a six-player deal this past offseason, but it's precisely what the 26-year-old has provided.

    A career .248/.313/.394 hitter with 29 home runs in 1,243 MLB plate appearances over three seasons, Miller was not exactly an impact bat during his time with the Mariners.

    That's changed this season, as he boasts an .821 OPS with 21 doubles, 22 home runs and 52 RBI in 426 plate appearances.

    Not since the 2012 season has a player other than Longoria topped the 20-homer mark, as both Melvin Upton Jr. (28) and Ben Zobrist (20) eclipsed the modest barrier that year.

    It's not like Miller is squeaking his home runs over the fence either.

    His 22 long balls have gone an average distance of 412.2 feet (12th in MLB) with an average exit velocity of 106.4 mph, according to ESPN Home Run Tracker.

    Included among those blasts is a mammoth 461-foot shot off Cleveland Indians starter Josh Tomlin, good enough to crack the list of the 25 longest home runs of 2016.

    Miller began the season as the Rays' primary shortstop, but the recent addition of Matt Duffy pushed him to first base.

    That's obviously in the best interest of the team, as Miller was one of the worst defensive shortstops in baseball (-15 DRS, -28.0 UZR/150). Allowing him to focus more on the offensive side of his game could make him an even bigger offensive threat.

    Think Wil Myers' move to first base for the Padres this season.

    At any rate, Miller is under team control through the 2019 season, and he'll be arbitration-eligible for the first time this coming winter. The Rays finally look to have a low-cost slugger to flank Longoria.

    All standard stats and WAR totals courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com, while defensive metrics come courtesy of FanGraphs.

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