Reality Checks for Top MLB Prospects Who Failed to Deliver in 2021
Not every top prospect takes a linear path to stardom.
Players such as Juan Soto, Fernando Tatis Jr. and more recently Wander Franco are more exception than rule, and even American League MVP candidate Vladimir Guerrero Jr. took time to find his footing in MLB.
The same can be true in the minors, where top prospects have to adjust to improved competition as they climb the ladder. The jump up a level is not always a smooth one, and players' stocks rise and fall.
Ahead we've highlighted a handful of top prospects who failed to live up to expectations this season. That doesn't mean they can't still develop into stars, as these could simply be bumps in the road.
Before we take a deeper dive into seven players who have struggled on the field, we will go through the notable prospects who have been missing in action because of injuries or other factors.
All prospect rankings cited refer to Bleacher Report's Top 100 list from the start of the 2021 season.
Injuries and Off-Field Concerns
RHP Sixto Sanchez, MIA (No. 5): After posting a 3.46 ERA in seven starts down the stretch and then tossing five scoreless innings against the Chicago Cubs in the National League Wild Card Series, Sanchez was one of the NL Rookie of the Year front-runners. Instead, a sore shoulder sidelined him during spring training, and he underwent season-ending surgery in July to repair a tear in his posterior capsule.
SS CJ Abrams, SD (No. 16): Aggressively assigned to Double-A for his full-season debut, Abrams hit .296/.363/.420 with 16 extra-base hits and 13 steals in 42 games to start the year. He was on his way to becoming a consensus top-five prospect, but his season ended in June when he suffered a fractured left tibia and sprained MCL.
OF Kristian Robinson, ARI (No. 24): Robinson was sentenced to 18 months probation in August for assaulting a police officer in April 2020. The 20-year-old slugger has been unable to secure a work visa as a result.
SS Royce Lewis, MIN (No. 51): The No. 1 pick in the 2017 draft, Lewis' stock had already taken a hit when he batted .236/.290/.371 in High-A and Double-A in 2019. A torn right ACL discovered at the start of spring training robbed him of the opportunity to get his development back on track.
LHP Brailyn Marquez, CHC (No. 69): Marquez got a late start to spring training and then suffered a strained shoulder in July. It's a lost season for the 22-year-old flamethrower.
OF Heston Kjerstad, BAL (No. 83): The No. 2 pick in the 2020 draft, Kjerstad was diagnosed with myocarditis, or inflammation of the heart. He resumed baseball activities in August, but he has yet to make his pro debut. It will likely have to wait until 2022.
2B/SS Jeter Downs, Boston Red Sox
B/R Preseason Top 100 Rank: 56
What Went Wrong: When the Boston Red Sox signed Enrique Hernandez to a two-year, $14 million contract, it seemed like he would serve as a stopgap at second base until Jeter Downs was ready to step into the everyday role.
The 23-year-old hit .276/.362/.526 with 35 doubles, 24 home runs, 86 RBI, 92 runs and 24 steals in 119 games at High-A and Double-A in 2019, but the Los Angeles Dodgers traded him to Boston as part of the Mookie Betts blockbuster. He made the jump to Triple-A this year and has scuffled at the plate. He's hitting .177/.263/.314 with a 32.8 percent strikeout rate, and he's posted just a .119 average and .427 OPS since July 1.
Positive Spin: Downs has shown flashes, slugging 12 home runs and swiping 17 bases in 20 attempts. It's a matter of finding consistency.
"He has had stretches where he has lived up to the billing, the hype that's around him," Triple-A manager Billy McMillon told Christopher Smith of MassLive.com. "It just hasn't been consistent. And he hasn't been able to sustain those periods for more than one or two games at a time. So you see something there. We've just got to get him to where he can deliver that performance over a more extended period of time. I think sometimes failure can be a good teacher."
The Red Sox have a track record of developing infielders, and Downs is still young enough to meet expectations.
RF JJ Bleday, Miami Marlins
B/R Preseason Top 100 Rank: 34
What Went Wrong: After tallying just six home runs in his first two seasons at Vanderbilt, JJ Bleday hit .347/.465/.701 with 27 home runs and 72 RBI during his junior season in 2019 and was the No. 4 pick by the Miami Marlins in that year's draft.
Despite a lackluster 38-game pro debut, Bleday was still expected to move quickly while building toward his ceiling as a middle-of-the-order run producer. The 23-year-old has spent the season at Double-A, tallying 22 doubles and 12 home runs in 110 games, but he's hitting just .212 with a .695 OPS in 468 plate appearances.
Positive Spin: With a 13.7 percent walk rate, Bleday has shown an advanced approach, even if his average doesn't reflect it. His .250 BABIP also indicates he has had tough luck and is likely to experience positive regression.
In his last 21 games, he's hitting .267/.356/.387 with seven extra-base hits, 13 RBI and 11 walks over 90 plate appearances. It's a small sample size, but perhaps a strong September can serve as a jumping-off point for a big 2022 season.
RHP Nate Pearson, Toronto Blue Jays
B/R Preseason Top 100 Rank: 20
What Went Wrong: With an 80-grade fastball, a wipeout slider and a 6'6", 250-pound frame, Nate Pearson checks all the boxes to be the future ace of the Toronto Blue Jays.
He got in trouble by nibbling too much in his MLB debut in 2020, posting a 6.00 ERA with 13 walks in 18 innings before a flexor strain ended his season. He made one start in May, but he was soon sidelined sidelined by injuries again, and he shifted to the bullpen while at Triple-A in August. He's been pitching in relief as a September call-up too.
In four appearances since he rejoined the roster, the 25-year-old has allowed six hits, two walks and three earned runs in five innings. Rookie Alek Manoah has provided the in-house rotation boost Pearson was expected to give.
Positive Spin: With an average fastball velocity of 97.2 mph and a mid-80s slider that has generated a 41.2 percent whiff rate, Pearson has electric stuff. He picked up the win with two scoreless innings Saturday, and he could pitch his way onto the postseason roster if the Jays stay hot and punch their ticket to the playoffs.
"It's gone pretty smoothly," Pearson told reporters of his move to the bullpen. "I enjoy coming out of the pen, but I also enjoy starting. I just love baseball, so being able to pitch and be healthy is just a blessing."
The present hasn't gone as hoped, but the future is still bright for the 25-year-old.
RHP Matt Manning, Detroit Tigers
B/R Preseason Top 100 Rank: 18
What Went Wrong: Drafted ninth in 2016 and signed away from a commitment to play baseball and basketball at Loyola Marymount, Matt Manning began pro ball as the definition of a raw, projectable high school pitcher. The 6'6", 195-pound right-hander moved faster than expected through the minors and established himself as one of baseball's top pitching prospects in 2019 with an 11-5 record, a 2.56 ERA, a 0.98 WHIP and 148 strikeouts in 133.2 innings at Double-A.
After fellow pitching prospects Casey Mize and Tarik Skubal made their MLB debuts last year, the 23-year-old joined the Detroit Tigers rotation in June. In 15 starts, he has struggled to a 5.75 ERA and 1.53 WHIP and logged only 5.6 strikeouts per nine innings.
Positive Spin: Patience. Mize (7 GS, 6.99 ERA, 28.1 IP) and Skubal (7 GS, 5.63 ERA, 32.0 IP) were hit hard last season, but they now look like long-term pieces in the starting rotation.
Manning struck out 11 batters per nine innings in the minors, so it's only a matter of time before he starts to miss more bats in the big leagues.
Manning has five pitches, all of which he throws at least 10 percent of the time, so dialing in pitch sequencing and figuring out the best way to keep hitters off balance will come with time and experience.
CF Cristian Pache, Atlanta Braves
B/R Preseason Top 100 Rank: 12
What Went Wrong: With the retirement of Nick Markakis, non-tender of Adam Duvall and a reduced role for Ender Inciarte, top prospect Cristian Pache appeared to have a clear path to the everyday center field job when the season began.
Thrust into his first extended action by the Atlanta Braves during the National League Championship Series last year, Pache went 4-for-22 with a double and a home run while showcasing the elite defense that had been talked about throughout his development in the minors.
He started in center field and batted eighth on Opening Day, but he hit just .133/.161/.200 with 13 strikeouts in 31 plate appearances over his first 11 games before he landed on the injured list. He returned in May and went 3-for-33 with 12 more strikeouts in 11 games, and he has not returned.
Positive Spin: Since the beginning of August, Pache is hitting .322/.383/.488 with 12 extra-base hits and five steals in 134 plate appearances at Triple-A Gwinnett.
He played just 26 games at Triple-A in 2019 before he made his MLB debut last year, and at 22 years old, he is still well ahead of the developmental curve.
His defense made it possible to rush him to the majors and believe he could be a positive contributor even with below-average offense. With a bit more seasoning, he should be back on track toward a future as a well-rounded everyday player.
LHP MacKenzie Gore, San Diego Padres
B/R Preseason Top 100 Rank: 6
What Went Wrong: MacKenzie Gore emerged as the consensus top pitching prospect in baseball in 2019, when he went 9-2 with a 1.69 ERA, 0.83 WHIP and 135 strikeouts in 101 innings while reaching Double-A in his age-20 season.
A 2020 debut seemed all but assured when the shortened season began, but he instead spent the year working through mechanical issues at the San Diego Padres' alternate site.
Those issues have seemingly compounded this year, and after Gore struggled to a 5.85 ERA and 1.80 WHIP with 12 walks in 20 innings at Triple-A, he was sent to the team's Arizona complex to work out the kinks.
Positive Spin: After two months away from game action, Gore returned to the mound for the team's rookie ball affiliate Aug. 19.
He has made three starts at rookie ball, one at High-A and one at Double-A, posting a combined 2.73 ERA and 1.22 WHIP with 35 strikeouts in 26.1 innings. His 13 walks are less than ideal, but he's headed in the right direction and has the offseason to continue tweaking his mechanics.
At 22 years old, time is on his side.
CF Jarred Kelenic, Seattle Mariners
B/R Preseason Top 100 Rank: 3
What Went Wrong: Acquired from the New York Mets in the ill-fated Robinson Cano blockbuster, outfielder Jarred Kelenic hit .291/.364/.540 with 31 doubles, 23 home runs and 20 steals over three minor league levels in 2019 to emerge as one of baseball's elite prospects.
The hype surrounding him was enough to drive talks of potential service time manipulation during the offseason after he continued to turn heads at the alternate site last year, and after laying waste to Triple-A in six games to open the year, he made his MLB debut May 13.
The contending Seattle Mariners have given him a long leash, albeit with a monthlong demotion following his initial call-up, but he's hitting just .166/.243/.304 with a 29.7 percent strikeout rate in 313 plate appearances.
Positive Spin: A .204 BABIP shows there has been bad luck at play. The 22-year-old is also having his best month in September, hitting .235/.278/.451 with five extra-base hits and eight RBI in 54 plate appearances. That might not seem like much, but it represents progress.
"I think nowadays, anytime a young player comes to the big leagues, they are not the final product," manager Scott Servais said, per Scott Hanson of the Seattle Times. "They are far from it. He is still learning and learning to deal with certain situations. Sometimes you see him take a couple of steps forward, and like any young player, you might take a step back before taking another big leap forward.
"That's where he is at in his development. He will continue to play center field for us, and he will continue to compete his tail off like he does every night."
It's far too soon to throw in the towel on a player who has superstar potential.