Predicting When Highly Touted Prospects Will Invade MLB

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterApril 3, 2018

Predicting When Highly Touted Prospects Will Invade MLB

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    Ronald Acuna Jr. will arrive sooner rather than later.
    Ronald Acuna Jr. will arrive sooner rather than later.B51/Mark Brown/Getty Images

    It's true what they say about prospects, you know. They will break your heart.

    But since anxiously awaiting their arrival is a fact of life anyway, we might as well take a whack at predicting when Major League Baseball's best prospects will be in The Show for good.

    The list ahead addresses 10 prospects who can be found at the top of prospect rankings everywhere, and who don't have any red flags (e.g. suspensions or injuries) next to their names. We'll be predicting their major league ETAs based on their MLB-readiness and when their parent clubs might have an opening for them.

    Because these ETAs are meant to get at when prospects might arrive in MLB and stay in MLB, players who have already made their major league debuts are allowed under one condition: They've since been sent back to the minors to continue their development.

    We'll go in order from latest projected arrival to earliest.

Fernando Tatis Jr., San Diego Padres

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    Charlie Neibergall/Associated Press

    At his peak in 1999, Fernando Tatis Sr. provided the St. Louis Cardinals with power (34 home runs) and speed (21 stolen bases) while holding it down at third base.

    His son has the goods to handle production like that annually, and at shortstop to boot.

    Although he's only 19 years old, Fernando Tatis Jr. has already advanced as far as Double-A and is now entering 2018 ranked as a consensus top-10 prospect. Driving both his advancement and his hype are an above average bat and at least an average glove.

    However, he does have an Achilles' heel.

    He struck out in 17 of his 57 Double-A plate appearances (30 percent) last year, and then in 12 of 35 plate appearances (34 percent) with the San Diego Padres this spring. This is a problem that undercuts the otherwise solid numbers that he's put up in his journey to the majors.

    Getting this problem under control could take time. And as far as the Padres must be concerned, Tatis can take all the time he needs. Their contention window isn't open yet, and they have Freddy Galvis to hold down shortstop in the meantime.

    Because the Padres also have Tatis' service time to consider, it'll be a surprise if he debuts in the majors either later this year or even early next year. 

    ETA: Mid 2019

Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Toronto Blue Jays

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    Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images

    Speaking of talented sons of former major league stars, also progressing toward MLB is Vladimir Guerrero Jr.

    If you weren't aware of him before, you will be now in the wake of his walk-off homer at his father's old stomping grounds in a late-March exhibition. It was a taste of past glory for fans of the Montreal Expos, and of what the Toronto Blue Jays hope will be their future glory.

    The Blue Jays' hopes aren't misplaced. Guerrero is a 19-year-old who's coming off a .910 OPS in the low minors in 2017. His next objective is to conquer Double-A, and he has just the talent for the task: a legitimate 80-grade hit tool that's produced more walks (109) than strikeouts (97) in the minors.

    However, Guerrero does have barriers in the way of his big break.

    Assuming Josh Donaldson can bring his dead arm back to life, the former MVP will play third base for the duration of his walk year. Because that's the only position that Guerrero has played, his next-best hope might be to break in as a designated hitter. Alas, that's where Kendrys Morales is stationed.

    So, don't expect to see Guerrero in the majors until 2019. The Blue Jays will likely take the Kris Bryant route and hold him back to gain an extra year of club control, but he'll then be free to inherit the hot corner from Donaldson.

    ETA: Early 2019

Eloy Jimenez, Chicago White Sox

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    Ron Vesely/Getty Images

    Remember that scene in The Natural in which Robert Redford's Roy Hobbs hits a home run high and far enough to smash a light tower?

    Well, Eloy Jimenez did that in real life last year.

    Accompanying that show of strength was a .947 OPS in 89 games at High-A and Double-A. The 21-year-old then compiled a 1.120 OPS in the Dominican Winter League before mashing a couple of taters in his first spring with the Chicago White Sox.

    Not to be overlooked is Jimenez's hitting approach. It was shaky in his first three pro seasons, but he tightened it up enough in 2017 to balance 35 walks against 72 punchouts in 369 plate appearances. 

    Before he can build on all this, however, Jimenez must first recover from a pectoral strain. He must then avoid additional trouble with the injury bug, which has been easier said than done throughout his career.

    If Jimenez can stay healthy this season, he'll be a candidate to break in with the White Sox in either left field or right field. But since they're likely to be in no hurry to bolster a contention run, they can afford to make sure the improvements he made with his approach in 2017 were the real deal. 

    That will involve giving him a further chance at Triple-A after he's passed his Double-A test. Once that's done, there may only be time for Jimenez to grab a cup of coffee with the White Sox in September.

    ETA: Late 2018

Nick Senzel, Cincinnati Reds

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    Matt York/Associated Press

    Of all the super prospects advancing toward major league stardom, none is as overlooked as Nick Senzel.

    He was the Cincinnati Reds' No. 2 pick in the 2016 draft, and all he's done since then is hit, hit and hit some more. Across a 187-game minor league journey that's taken him as far as Double-A, he's put up a .315/.393/.514 slash line with 21 homers.

    At work here is an excellent hit tool. Senzel has had little trouble balancing patience (10.9 BB%) and contact (18.9 K%) while spraying both singles and extra-base hits all over the yard.

    And now, the 22-year-old is set to begin 2018 on the Reds' doorstep: Triple-A Louisville.

    The trouble is, the Reds don't need him to prove that he can keep hitting against tougher competition. They need him to prove that he can handle another position besides third base, where they've committed to Eugenio Suarez for the long haul. 

    Even if Senzel is up to the challenge of playing second base, he'll have Scooter Gennett to get around. The Reds could ultimately give him his shot at shortstop but probably not before former top prospect Jose Peraza gets another fair chance to prove that he can be a viable regular.

    Although Senzel's bat is arguably ready for the majors right now, it's best not to expect him until after the All-Star break.

    ETA: Late 2018

Bo Bichette, Toronto Blue Jays

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    Jason Behnken/Associated Press

    Meet the Blue Jays' other son of a former major league star.

    Dante Bichette was one of MLB's top hitters in his days with the Colorado Rockies during the 1990s. Bo Bichette has inherited the talents that made that possible, plus seemingly a little extra. The 20-year-old has played in 132 minor league games and authored a stupendous slash line of .372/.427/.591.

    Bichette is now set to begin 2018 at Double-A, where he'll be sharing a lineup with Guerrero. 

    Of course, this points to an obvious question: Why should Bichette be expected in the major leagues sooner than his fellow progeny prodigy?

    For one thing, he's one of few hitters with a hit tool that can compete with Guerrero's. For another, he doesn't have Donaldson or Morales blocking his path.

    On the contrary, Bichette is a middle infielder who could be called on to play either shortstop or second base. With Troy Tulowitzki already injured and Devon Travis never far from his own injury trouble, those are two positions where the Blue Jays might need help this season.

    Ultimately, Bichette could be this year's Rafael Devers. With only nine games at Triple-A on his record, he arguably wasn't ready for the majors when the Boston Red Sox called him up last July. But they needed his help, and he turned out to be a big contributor down the stretch.

    ETA: Mid 2018

Michael Kopech, Chicago White Sox

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    Ron Vesely/Getty Images

    And now for a guy who's never met a radar gun that he didn't want to put to the test.

    Michael Kopech's fastball became the stuff of legend when he was clocked at 105 mph while pitching in the Red Sox organization in 2016. He joined the White Sox in the Chris Sale trade the following winter, and he's continued to earn 80 grades for his fastball ever since.

    The 21-year-old made it to Triple-A in 2017 and is set to return there for 2018. And while there's no room for him now, there's enough volatility in Chicago's starting rotation for that to change at a moment's notice.

    This leaves Kopech with just one item on his to-do list: throw strikes.

    His career rate of 4.5 walks per nine innings underscores how this hasn't been easy for him in the minors. And so it went in spring training, as he walked seven batters in seven innings.

    On the plus side, Kopech's stuff is electric enough that he doesn't have to worry about becoming a Cliff Lee-style command artist. And he did show late in 2017 that he knows where he needs to be, as he walked only 1.9 batters per nine innings in his last nine appearances.

    If he gets back on that track, he can be in the majors before the All-Star break.

    ETA: Mid 2018

Victor Robles, Washington Nationals

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    Mark Cunningham/Getty Images

    Victor Robles got his first taste of the majors when the Washington Nationals called him up for a 13-game cup of coffee last September.

    Now the question is when he'll join the big club for good.

    In all likelihood, the 20-year-old will have to be patient. He's going to take neither Bryce Harper's job in right field nor Adam Eaton's job in left field. Michael A. Taylor's center field gig is more attainable. But in light of his excellent defense and offensive breakout (.806 OPS) in 2017, his position isn't on thin ice either.

    What works in Robles' favor, however, is that he doesn't have much left to prove in the minors.

    It's typically hard to say that about players his age, but he's a special case. He's a supreme athlete who also has a feel for the game that's way beyond his years.

    "When he came up, his plate discipline and strike-zone judgment for such a young guy was impressive," Nationals first baseman Ryan Zimmerman said, per Jorge L. Ortiz of USA Today. "I feel like he's ahead of where a lot of guys are at that age, especially at this level."

    With credentials like these, Robles should be game for the challenge that awaits him at Triple-A Syracuse. Should Taylor be felled by his semi-frequent injury woes or by his strikeout habit, Robles' number will be called.

    ETA: Mid 2018

Walker Buehler, Los Angeles Dodgers

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    Mark Tenally/Associated Press

    With Forrest Whitley suspended and Brent Honeywell, A.J. Puk and Alex Reyes all in various stages of recovery from torn UCLs, Walker Buehler is now arguably baseball's best active pitching prospect.

    Like Robles, Buehler also has some major league experience under his belt after appearing in eight games for the Los Angeles Dodgers last September. In those, he flashed a 98.1 mph fastball and a devastating curveball.

    Minor league hitters have proved to be no match for those weapons. In 31 games since returning from a 2015 Tommy John operation, the 23-year-old has compiled a 3.17 ERA and struck out 12.6 batters per nine innings.

    There's a role for Buehler to play on the 2018 Dodgers. That role just happens to be a mystery.

    "We know he's going to pitch meaningful innings for us at the major league level," manager Dave Roberts said, according to Andy McCullough of the Los Angeles Times. "We don't know when. At that point in time, we just have to let things play out themselves."

    This is, however, an organization that isn't shy about using the disabled list to keep its pitching staff fresh. It shouldn't be long before the Dodgers return to that trick in 2018, thereby opening up an opportunity for Buehler to be one of their regulars.

    ETA: Early 2018

Gleyber Torres, New York Yankees

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    Mark Cunningham/Getty Images

    Had things gone differently, Gleyber Torres might have joined the New York Yankees for good last summer.

    He was one of their big stars in spring training, hitting .448 with a 1.400 OPS. He then kept right on hitting at Double-A and continued to rise fast toward The Show with an equally strong performance at Triple-A.

    But in June, his rise came to a halt when he had to undergo Tommy John surgery. He didn't make his return until this spring, wherein he cooled to a .598 OPS in 13 games.

    All the same, the 21-year-old shouldn't be kept down for long. 

    Torres was arguably the best prospect in baseball when he was healthy last year, and he's still located toward the top of all the major prospect rankings this year. One attraction is a bat that projects to hit for average and power. Another is a glove that's plenty good enough for everyday duty at shortstop.

    Obviously, Torres is not going to supplant Didi Gregorius as the Yankees' primary shortstop. He also has Brandon Drury in his way at third base and Neil Walker in his way at second base.

    If Greg Bird continues to fight a losing battle against the injury bug, however, Walker may find himself shifting from a role as a regular at second base to one as a regular at first base.

    That may be the only chance Torres needs to break in and stick with the Yankees.

    ETA: Early 2018

Ronald Acuna Jr., Atlanta Braves

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    B51/Mark Brown/Getty Images

    Ronald Acuna Jr. isn't in the majors. Not because he isn't ready, but because it's too soon for the Atlanta Braves to start his service-time clock.

    Granted, the Braves do have some plausible deniability in this matter. Acuna is only 20 years old, and he has only 54 games at Triple-A under his belt. In theory, extra seasoning would do him good.

    However, it's clear to anyone with a functioning pair of eyes that Acuna is more than ready for his major league closeup.

    All he did in 2017 was hit his way from High-A to Triple-A. Throw in a dominant stint (1.053 OPS) in the Arizona Fall League and further dominance (1.247 OPS) in spring training, and you get a prospect resume like few in recent memory.

    Underneath all the numbers, meanwhile, are real skills. Acuna boasts plus or better grades across the board. These are behind his No. 1 ranks at Baseball America, ESPN and Baseball Prospectus, not to mention the oft-made comparisons to Mike Trout.

    According to Mark Bowman of MLB.com, Acuna denied a report from ESPN Deportes that he turned down a $30 million contact offer from the Braves. It's nonetheless believable that some sort of offer was made, as it would have allowed the Braves to avoid the service-time dance and promote Acuna right away.

    Instead, the earliest they can promote him and gain a seventh year of club control is...

    ETA: April 13

               

    Spring stats courtesy of MLB.com. Other stats courtesy of Baseball Reference, FanGraphs and MLBFarm.com.