Bust or Star? Buying or Selling MLB's Former Top Prospects in 2021

Joel Reuter@JoelReuterBRFeatured ColumnistJanuary 21, 2021

Bust or Star? Buying or Selling MLB's Former Top Prospects in 2021

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    Jeff Roberson/Associated Press

    Some high-profile prospects rocket through the minor leagues and quickly develop into stars in the majors, living up to the hype immediately.

    That's not the case with everyone.

    Whether it's because of injuries or the difficulty of facing better competition, some players simply take longer to deliver on the potential that made them top prospects in the first place.

    Ahead we've highlighted 10 such players and declared whether we're buying or selling a breakout in 2021.

    In order to qualify for the list, players had to have appeared on at least one Baseball America Top 100 list and must have already made their MLB debuts.

    Let's start with a rundown of a few others who fit the bill.

Other Post-Hype Top Prospects

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    Isan Diaz
    Isan DiazJeff Roberson/Associated Press

    Buy

    • 2B Isan Diaz, Miami Marlins (Age: 24)
    • C Danny Jansen, Toronto Blue Jays (Age: 25)
    • LF Tyler O'Neill, St. Louis Cardinals (Age: 25)
    • LHP Cody Reed, Tampa Bay Rays (Age: 27)
    • 3B Luis Urias, Milwaukee Brewers (Age: 23)
    • RHP Luke Weaver, Arizona Diamondbacks (Age: 27)

       

    Sell

    • CF Anthony Alford, Pittsburgh Pirates (Age: 26)
    • SS Orlando Arcia, Milwaukee Brewers (Age: 26)
    • LF Jake Bauers, Cleveland (Age: 25)
    • RHP Jeff Hoffman, Cincinnati Reds (Age: 28)
    • C Chance Sisco, Baltimore Orioles (Age: 25)
    • RHP Logan Webb, San Francisco Giants (Age: 24)
    • CF Bradley Zimmer, Cleveland (Age: 28)

CF Lewis Brinson, Miami Marlins

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    Age: 26

    BA Top 100 Peak: No. 16 in 2016

    A key piece of two blockbuster trades, Lewis Brinson was dealt by the Texas Rangers to the Milwaukee Brewers in the Jonathan Lucroy swap in 2016 and then shipped to the Miami Marlins as part of the return package for Christian Yelich prior to the 2018 season.

    He peaked as a prospect following 2015, when he hit .332/.403/.601 with 59 extra-base hits and 18 steals in 100 games over three minor league levels at the age of 21.

    While he was initially viewed as Miami's center fielder of the future, he hit just .199/.240/.338 with a strikeout rate of 29.6 percent in 406 plate appearances as a rookie in 2018.

    In the two years since, he has shown little improvement, posting a .190 average, 39 OPS+ and a 28.9 percent strikeout rate in 360 plate appearances.

    Brinson has one minor league option remaining, and the Marlins have arrived as contenders sooner than expected, so this looks like a make-or-break season.

    Buy or Sell: Sell

RHP Dylan Cease, Chicago White Sox

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    Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press

    Age: 25

    BA Top 100 Peak: No. 38 in 2019

    On the surface, Dylan Cease had a solid second season in the majors.

    He posted a 4.01 ERA in 12 starts, helping to add some length to the starting rotation behind Lucas Giolito and Dallas Keuchel for the playoff-bound Chicago White Sox.

    In his final full season in the minors in 2018, Cease went 12-2 with a 2.40 ERA, 1.06 WHIP and 160 strikeouts in 124 innings, so it's not hard to find reasons for optimism.

    Below the surface, however, there were red flags galore in 2020.

    His strikeout rate plummeted (10.0 to 6.8 K/9), his walk rate spiked (4.3 to 5.2 BB/9) as he issued an American League-leading 34 bases on balls, and his 6.36 FIP ranked 80th among the 81 pitchers who threw at least 50 innings.

    It's easy to point to Giolito as someone who struggled mightily before turning a corner and rising to the top of an MLB rotation, but that has to be viewed as the exception rather than the rule. There's not much to like about what Cease has shown.

    Buy or Sell: Sell

2B Scott Kingery, Philadelphia Phillies

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    John Bazemore/Associated Press

    Age: 26

    BA Top 100 Peak: No. 31 in 2018

    The Philadelphia Phillies saw enough potential in Scott Kingery to sign him to a six-year, $24 million extension that included a trio of club options five days before he made his MLB debut.

    Serving in a super-utility role in 2019, he posted a 101 OPS+ with 34 doubles, 19 home runs, 55 RBI, 64 runs scored and 15 steals en route to a 2.8-WAR season. He appeared to be on the cusp of establishing himself as a cornerstone.

    Instead, he took a significant step backward.

    He hit just .159/.228/.283 for a 37 OPS+ while posting minus-0.8 WAR, which tied for 302nd among the 310 players with at least 100 plate appearances.

    Yikes.

    With Didi Gregorius set to depart via free agency, Kingery is penciled in as the everyday second baseman with Jean Segura shifting back to shortstop.

    His strong 2019 is reason enough to believe he could take a major step forward.

    Buy or Sell: Buy

1B Nate Lowe, Texas Rangers

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    Kathy Willens/Associated Press

    Age: 25

    BA Top 100 Peak: No. 97 in 2019

    Nate Lowe finally has a clear path to playing time.

    A 13th-round pick in 2016 who exceeded expectations to emerge as one of the top offensive prospects in the Tampa Bay Rays system, he hit .330/.416/.568 with 32 doubles, 27 home runs and 102 RBI across three levels of the minors in 2018.

    Despite those numbers—and the potential he showed in limited MLB action over the past two seasons with a 107 OPS+ and 11 home runs in 71 games—he was never given a real shot to seize the everyday first base job with Ji-Man Choi blocking him on the roster.

    Now his path is clear after he was traded to the Texas Rangers in a six-player deal in December.

    He will need to cut down on the swing-and-miss tendencies that have led to a 31.8 percent strikeout rate in 245 plate appearances in the majors, but his power is for real. He has a great opportunity to prove himself.

    Buy or Sell: Buy

C Francisco Mejia, Tampa Bay Rays

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    Gregory Bull/Associated Press

    Age: 25

    BA Top 100 Peak: No. 20 in 2018

    Once viewed as Cleveland's catcher of the future and one of the top prospects in all of baseball, Francisco Mejia is now with his third team and still looking to establish himself in the majors.

    He was shipped to the Tampa Bay Rays as part of the Blake Snell in December, but he still doesn't have a clear path after Mike Zunino re-signed and Kevan Smith inked a minor league deal.

    Questions remain about Mejia's receiving skills, but his bat will be his ticket to playing time.

    He hit .295/.349/.462 over seven minor league seasons, memorably ripping off a 50-game hitting streak in 2016, and he has shown flashes in the majors.

    Splitting time with Austin Hedges in 2019, he posted a 99 OPS+ with 11 doubles and eight home runs in 244 plate appearances. He was a non-factor in 2020, however, and became expendable following San Diego's trade for Austin Nola.

    If he can stay healthy and carve out a role as a backup catcher and part-time designated hitter, he can hit his way into a bigger role.

    The clock is ticking on his development, though, and an organization that values defense might not have been an ideal landing spot.

    Buy or Sell: Sell

RHP Alex Reyes, St. Louis Cardinals

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    Jeff Roberson/Associated Press

    Age: 26

    BA Top 100 Peak: No. 4 in 2017

    After an impressive MLB debut in 2016 that included a 1.57 ERA and 52 strikeouts in 46 innings, Alex Reyes began the 2017 season widely regarded as the top pitching prospect in baseball.

    But after he suffered a torn UCL in his right elbow and underwent Tommy John surgery, he suffered a lat injury in 2018 and had to have another procedure. He injured his pectoral in 2019 and pitched just seven MLB innings in the three years that followed his dazzling debut.

    Finally healthy, he pitched primarily out of the bullpen last season, posting a 3.20 ERA and 12.4 strikeouts per nine innings with one save and three holds in 15 appearances.

    He still has elite velocity (97.9 mph) and electric secondary stuff, but command issues (6.4 BB/9) raise questions about his ability to return to a starting role.

    The St. Louis Cardinals plan to use him as a starter in 2021, but he could fill a high-leverage bullpen role alongside Jordan Hicks, Giovanny Gallegos and Andrew Miller.

    Can he make enough of an impact as a reliever to live up to previous expectations?

    Absolutely, and it wouldn't be surprising if he became the closer or a key cog in the rotation.

    Buy or Sell: Buy

CF Victor Robles, Washington Nationals

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    Julio Cortez/Associated Press

    Age: 23

    BA Top 100 Peak: No. 5 in 2018

    Including Victor Robles might be unfair.

    At 23 years old, he's still younger than a lot of players on this year's Top 100 prospect list, and he already has 241 games of MLB action under his belt.

    Heck, he had the sixth-highest WAR total (4.1) on the 2019 Washington Nationals team that won a World Series title, finishing sixth in National League Rookie of the Year voting that year while showcasing tremendous two-way potential.

    However, we're still a long way from the expectations that were summed up well in this MLB.com scouting report from 2018: "From his athleticism to his immense physical tools and his baseball savvy, Robles has the makings of becoming a true franchise player for the Nationals, one who has the upside of a perennial All-Star and possibly an MVP candidate."

    A punchless .220/.293/.315 line and minus-0.4 WAR this past season are an awfully long way from "perennial All-Star" territory, and he enters 2021 with a lot to prove.

    Brutal exit velocity (1st percentile), hard-hit rate (2nd percentile) and barrel rate (5th percentile) metrics don't provide much reason for optimism, making it hard to buy his 2021 outlook even if there's still hope for his long-term development.

    Buy or Sell: Sell

2B/SS Brendan Rodgers, Colorado Rockies

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    Age: 24

    BA Top 100 Peak: No. 14 in 2019

    Brendan Rodgers was the No. 3 overall pick in the 2015 draft and the first high school player off the board after standout college shortstops Dansby Swanson and Alex Bregman.

    He has long been part of the top-prospect conversation thanks to his vast offensive potential, and he hit .296/.352/.503 over five minor league seasons. That included an eye-popping .350/.413/.622 line and 20 extra-base hits over 37 games at Triple-A in 2019 before he was called up for his MLB debut.

    However, that debut lasted just 25 games before he suffered a season-ending shoulder injury, and he went 2-for-21 with six strikeouts in seven games of action this past season.

    It's hard to judge his long-term potential on an injury-shortened debut and a handful of appearances during a strange 2020 season, and he did nothing but hit every step of the way in the minors.

    The biggest question is whether the Rockies will hand him an everyday spot or spend the year bouncing him between Triple-A and the MLB roster while continuing to shuffle around the right side of their infield.

    If he gets a regular gig, which would be in the team's best interest, he could quickly show why he spent years as the headliner of the Colorado system.

    Buy or Sell: Buy

IF/OF Nick Senzel, Cincinnati Reds

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    John Minchillo/Associated Press

    Age: 25

    BA Top 100 Peak: No. 7 in 2018

    The Cincinnati Reds selected Nick Senzel with the No. 2 overall pick in the 2016 draft, and he cracked the Top 10 in the Baseball America Top 100 list three years in a row in 2017 (No. 9), 2018 (No. 7) and 2019 (No. 10).

    Things just haven't quite clicked in the big leagues yet.

    He hit .256/.315/.427 with 20 doubles, 12 home runs and 14 steals in 414 plate appearances as a rookie while learning to play center field on the fly, but he failed to build off that debut. The 25-year-old hit .186/.247/.357 for a 57 OPS+ over 78 plate appearances in 2020, and with Shogo Akiyama finishing the season strong, he no longer has a clear path to playing time in center field or elsewhere.

    He's a terrific athlete with a .312/.388/.508 line in four minor league seasons and the advanced hit tool necessary to move up quickly, so it's not time to give up on Senzel just yet.

    However, it's hard to see how he fits into Cincinnati's plans for the upcoming season, and that hurts his chances of breaking out.

    Buy or Sell: Sell

RHP Touki Toussaint, Atlanta Braves

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    John Raoux/Associated Press

    Age: 24

    BA Top 100 Peak: No. 53 in 2019

    Touki Toussaint remains an enigma for an Atlanta Braves team loaded with young pitching talent.

    He ranked in the 80th percentile in whiff percentage last season while racking up 11.1 K/9 in 24.1 innings spanning five starts and two relief appearances.

    However, he also struggled to an 8.88 ERA and allowed a .276 opponents' batting average.

    He has a lively mid-90s fastball, a good splitter that he uses like a changeup and a wicked curveball that averaged more than nine inches of vertical break last year. In terms of pure stuff, he is as talented as any pitcher on the staff.

    Luckily, he was one of the youngest players in the 2014 draft class and won't turn 25 years old until June, so there's still time for the pieces to fall into place.

    Despite his ugly surface-level numbers last year, he's as good a candidate as any to break out in 2021 thanks to his raw talent.

    Buy or Sell: Buy

            

    All stats courtesy of Baseball Reference and FanGraphs.