With pitchers and catchers reporting around the Major Leagues this week, it’s just about time to get excited about baseball season. One of my favorite things to examine before spring training games get underway is the crop of prospects around the league who could have a significant impact on their respective squads in the not so distant future. Below is the cream of that crop, and the roles each of these young studs are expected to be playing come March 29th.
20. Francisco Mejia – C – Cleveland Indians
Mejia was signed by the Indians in 2012 as an amateur free agent out of the Dominican Republic. He was only 17 at the time, so clearly needed time to develop at the plate as well as behind it as Cleveland’s long-term solution at catcher. Fast forward to 2018, and many seem to think Francisco is finally ready to make the jump to the Bigs.
Through five seasons in the minors, he recorded a slash line of .293/.349/.447 and a very impressive .796 OPS. With Yan Gomes and Roberto Perez still calling Cleveland home, Mejia would have to tear it up this spring to convince Terry Francona to keep him on board for Opening Day. Francisco Mejia starts the 2018 season in AAA, but look for him to be getting at-bats in Progressive Field before the All-Star break.
19. Willy Adames – SS – Tampa Bay Rays
Willy was initially signed as an international free agent by the Tigers in 2012 but was eventually part of the three-team deal in 2014 that sent David Price to Detroit. Adames was shipped to Tampa along with Drew Smyly and fellow prospect Nick Franklin and has been working his way through their system ever since. In 2015 he hit .258/.342/.379 in High-A, in 2016, he hit .274/.372/.430 in Double-A, and in 2017 he hit .277/.360/.415 with the Durham Bulls in AAA.
While his range is subpar at shortstop, he makes up for it with his instincts and rocket arm. With the Rays not having much to look forward to in 2018, expect Adames to make the Opening Day roster.
18. Lewis Brinson – OF – Miami Marlins
Brinson’s name came up a few weeks ago when he was part of the trade that sent the Marlins’ Christian Yelich to Milwaukee. Brinson, along with Monte Harrison, Isan Diaz, and Jordan Yamamoto, was sent to Miami in exchange for Yelich and immediately became one of their few prized possessions. Lewis grew up in Fort Lauderdale and was a standout talent throughout the entire state.
He’s undoubtedly excited to play for his hometown team and will get that chance right from the get-go, as long as the Marlins can find eight other players to take the field with him. The Marlins received a top of the line athlete in Brinson, who was rated the best athlete in the Texas Rangers system after the 2012 season. Mix that with a plus bat and stellar defensive instincts and Miami has a player they can potentially build around for the future.
17. Alex Reyes – RHP – St. Louis Cardinals
Going into spring training last year, Reyes was the top right-handed pitching prospect in all of baseball. That ranking seemed to provide him with some bad luck though, as he was almost immediately shut down for the year to undergo Tommy John surgery. Reyes is still recovering from the surgery and isn’t expected to throw his first official pitch until the beginning of May.
When he finally does take the bump, expect the Cardinals to divvy up his innings, which will almost certainly be limited, between the bullpen and the starting rotation. The consensus throughout the Cardinals organization is that Reyes will eventually take over as the team’s closer barring any further elbow issues.
16. J.P. Crawford – SS – Philadelphia Phillies
Crawford was drafted by the Phillies in the first round of the 2013 Amateur Draft out of Lakewood High in California. J.P. has had his ups and downs so far in his first five professional seasons.
Through 84 games in High-A ball, he hit .305/.387/.416. In Double-A he slashed .265/.367/.402 through 122 games, and through his last two seasons in Triple-A he’s hit .243/.342/.369. Due to the Freddy Galvis trade in December, Crawford is set to be the Opening Day shortstop for the Phillies. He got a taste of Major League competition last year for 23 games and showed he could hold his own at shortstop as well as displaying impressive plate discipline especially for a 23-year old. Look for Crawford to develop into a valuable, versatile force in the middle of that Phillies lineup.
15. Kyle Tucker – OF – Houston Astros
The Astros drafted Tucker out of High School with the 5th overall pick in the 2015 draft. Kyle has surprised a lot of scouts with the efficiency at which he’s developed since going pro. Houston took him number five in the draft as a cheaper sign to compensate for more expensive picks later on like outfielder Daz Cameron whom they selected with the 37th overall pick. That said, Tucker has surprised just about everyone with his ability to put the ball in play and his ability to play all three outfield positions quite well given his average speed.
Nobody is taking George Springer’s spot in Houston anytime soon, but other than that the Astros don’t have much standing in the way of Tucker cracking the 40-man roster within the next couple of years. He’s barely cracked Double-AA thus far, but given the pace at which he’s been able to progress, I wouldn’t be surprised if he was playing every day in Triple-A by the end of 2018.
14. Brent Honeywell – RHP – Tampa Bay Rays
Honeywell was drafted by the Rays in the second round of the 2014 June Amateur Draft out of Walters State Community College in Morristown, Tennessee. He’s quickly climbed through the ranks of Tampa Bay’s system, improving his prospect ranking every season, and has established himself as the Rays’ top prospect going into the 2018 season.
By all accounts, Honeywell is on the cusp of breaking into the big leagues. Last season with Triple-A Durham, the 22-year old went 12-8 with a 3.64 ERA in 24 starts, with a 4.89 K/BB ratio. That ratio would’ve ranked third in the majors last year behind only Corey Kluber and Chris Sale. If there’s anything that stands out with Honeywell, he can get a strikeout seemingly at will.
With Rays manager Kevin Cash reportedly planning to start the season with a four-man rotation that probably means that Brent will start the season back in Durham. In contrast, Cash has also expressed his intent to add a fifth starter to the clan at some point presumably early on, so look for Honeywell to get some innings in before the All-Star break.
13. Walker Buehler – RHP – Los Angeles Dodgers
Walker Buehler was initially drafted by the Pirates in the 14th round of the 2012 June Amateur Draft out of High School but decided to try his hand in collegiate competition at Vanderbilt before he committed professionally. The Dodgers selected him 24th overall in the 2015 June Amateur Draft. His tenure within the Dodgers system started off a bit unceremoniously as he dealt with Tommy John surgery up until the beginning of the 2017 season.
In his first full season as a starter last year in double-A Tulsa, Buehler recorded a 3.49 ERA in 11 starts. He debuted as a reliever for the Dodgers late last year and posted a 7.71 ERA through eight appearances, and 9.1 innings pitched. Walker is rough around the edges, so don’t expect him to start the season in the big time, but with the way the Dodgers let Yu Darvish walk away from Los Angeles this offseason it would seem as though they are leaving room for Buehler to eat up some innings at some point this season.
12. Mitch Keller – RHP – Pittsburgh Pirates
In four seasons since being drafted by the Pirates in the second round of the 2014 June Amateur Draft out of High School, Keller has shown nothing but top of the rotation stuff through 62 games in the minors. In 293.1 innings pitched, the 21-year old has maintained an ERA of 2.79 and has given up only 12 home runs. There’s a lot to like about this right-hander. He gets outs, and he gets them efficiently, with above-average command and a knack for keeping the ball in the ballpark.
Keller throws his fastball and curveball a majority of the time, so to develop into the frontline starter many think he can be, he’ll need to get more comfortable with incorporating his changeup as a third pitch. He’ll start the year in triple-A and have the chance to work on that before he breaks into the bigs, but with the Pirates in the beginning stages of the rebuilding process, I wouldn’t be shocked if that break comes sooner rather than later.
11. Michael Kopech – RHP – Chicago White Sox
Kopech was drafted 33rd overall by the Red Sox in the 2014 June Amateur Draft and was eventually part of the 2016 trade that sent Chris Sale to Boston. He was overlooked in that transaction due to the Red Sox shipping highly touted prospect Yoan Moncada to the White Sox as well as the centerpiece of that deal, so Chicago quietly made out very well when it came to what they were giving up at the time in Chris Sale. Though there’s only one Chris Sale out there, the White Sox are hopeful that Kopech will take over as their staff ace within the next couple of years.
Between double and triple-A last season he’s shown the ability to be just that, posting a 2.88 ERA through 25 starts and 134.1 innings pitched. With a 36-year old James Shields as their presumed ace going into the season, look for a live arm like Kopech to crack the Opening Day roster either as a spot starter or a long-reliever in the bullpen.
10. Forrest Whitley – RHP – Houston Astros
Forrest was picked 17th overall by the Astros in the 2016 June Amateur Draft and has done nothing but impress the Astros after his full season in the pros. He scoffed at single-A competition posting a 2.91 ERA through 10 starts in low-A and a 3.16 ERA through six starts in high-A, as well as striking out a ridiculous 117 batters in only 77.2 innings pitched. It’s extremely rare for developing players to crack double-A in their first full season, but Whitley did just that as he ended 2017 with four appearances in double-A, recording a 1.84 ERA in 14.2 innings pitched.
The kid has virtually done nothing wrong up to this point, but he’s still only 20 years old so don’t expect to see him on a big league bump until at least 2019. With one of the most dependable rotations in baseball top to bottom, the Astros can afford to let their top prospect develop a bit more before they introduce him to the big time.
9. Fernando Tatis Jr. – SS – San Diego Padres
As an international free agent signed out of the Dominican Republic in 2015 by the White Sox, Tatis was ultimately shipped to San Diego in 2016 as part of the deal that sent James Shields to Chicago. The now 19-year old has a ton of upside and is looked at as a future star for the Padres at shortstop, though he may end up moving over to third as he grows physically and to compensate for his rocket arm.
In 131 games last year between single and double-A, Tatis slashed .278/.379/.498. For a teenager, those are pretty damn good numbers, but what stood out to me the most about Tatis’ 2017 campaign was his .877 OPS and 22 home runs. The kid has some serious power in his bat which will only improve as he gets stronger and more accustomed to big league caliber pitching.
He’s the youngest player in any major league camp this spring, which goes to show you how highly the Padres think of Tatis by inviting the 19-year old. He’ll have at least another year to get major league ready, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s competing for a starting spot come next spring.
8. Bo Bichette – SS – Toronto Blue Jays
Bo is a 19-year old product of the 2016 June Amateur Draft getting picked in the second round by Toronto. In his first full season within the Blue Jays’ system, Bichette hit .362/.423/.565 in single-A. He’s a stud put plain and simple, and has the potential to surpass his father Dante when it comes to the most well-known Bichette throughout the MLB.
Bo is still very young, and despite being invited to Blue Jays camp this spring, he will not be making the 40-man roster this season. Since it would be a waste of Bo’s and the Blue Jays’ time to have him start the year in single-A, he’ll most likely begin down in double-A and in my mind will be getting triple-A at-bats by the end of the 2018 season.
7. Nick Senzel – 3B – Cincinnati Reds
Selected second overall in the June Amateur Draft out of the University of Tennessee, Senzel opened a lot of eyes last year in his first full season within the Reds system; the third basemen made a stellar first impression slashing .321/.391/.514 with a .905 OPS throughout 119 games between high-A ball and double-A. Frankly, those numbers are ridiculous but whether or not Senzel can produce at the plate is not the obstacle in his way of Major League playing time.
Cincinnati seems to be content with Eugenio Suarez manning third base at the moment, so Senzel will have to show some versatility this spring with the opportunities he’ll get to play some shortstop and second base, as well as the corner outfield positions. He’ll surely start the year at triple-A Louisville, but that’s mostly because the Reds can get an entire extra year of service time from Senzel if they don’t bring him up from the get-go. I expect him to flat out punish triple-A arms throughout those first couple weeks of the season, so look for the 22-year old to get his first crack at the bigs early on in 2018.
6. Gleyber Torres – SS – New York Yankees
Even though Torres is a shortstop by design, he’s set to take over the second base job in the Bronx due to the presence of Didi Gregorius. He could also be looking at some time at third base given the departures of Chase Headley and Todd Frazier over the offseason.
Many seem to think that the Yankees will have two rookies holding responsibility in the infield this season, with fellow incoming prospect Miguel Andujar looking to join Torres in that potent New York lineup as the every day third basemen. Andujar can rake but is rough around the edges when it comes to his fielding at third, so Brian Cashman and the Yankees might prefer him starting the year in triple-A for some fine tuning before an eventual call-up.
The Yankees are anxious to get Torres acclimated to big league play. Despite that, look for Torres to spend the first two weeks of the season in triple-A as his situation is similar to that of Senzel and the Reds. If the Yankees don’t bring him up right away, they get an extra year of his services before he’s eligible to hit free agency down the road. That extra year could be huge for the Yankees if Torres turns out to be the superstar they think he will be.
Gleyber would’ve probably already been called up last season if he hadn’t required Tommy John surgery in his non-throwing arm due to an errant slide. He has apparently recovered well and is back to 100%. Gleyber Torres will be the starting second basemen for the New York Yankees at some point this season. He very well could be in the discussion for Rookie of the Year as well if everything goes as planned in the Bronx.
5. Victor Robles – OF – Washington Nationals
Washington signed Robles as an international free agent from the Dominican Republic in 2013. Last year between high-A and double-A ball Victor hit .300/.382/.493 with an impressive .875 OPS. He also spent time with the big club in September, playing 13 games and hitting .250/.308/.458 in only 27 plate appearances.
Robles plays with a ton of energy, unhinged if you will, which can sometimes be a negative trait, but the Nationals seem to believe that his relentlessness will be one of his greatest strengths. He’s a genuine five-tool player with incredible speed and a hose for an arm. He’s got an incredibly high contact rate and has shown glimpses of power that might come with physical maturity. Right now he’s your prototypical leadoff hitter.
He’ll start the season in triple-A and get called up relatively early to make an impact off the bench. With Bryce Harper’s imminent departure next offseason, expect Robles to be playing every day by the start of the 2019 season.
4. Eloy Jimenez – OF – Chicago White Sox
As an international free agent, Jimenez was signed by the Chicago Cubs in 2013 but was sent across the city last season in the trade that brought Jose Quintana to the Cubs. Jimenez is a certified stud, putting up impressive numbers all across the board last season between high-A and double-A. In 89 games he hit .312/.379/.568 with a ridiculous .947 OPS and 19 home runs.
He’s projected to be a significant power threat and leader in the middle of that White Sox lineup in the coming years. He’s expected to hit 30-35 home runs on an annual basis while also maintaining an average above .300. Jimenez will start the 2018 season in double-A, but if he continues to punish pitchers as he has from the get-go, he’ll be in a White Sox uniform by mid-season.
3. Vladimir Guerrero Jr. – 3B – Toronto Blue Jays
The son of Hall of Famer Vladamir Guerrero, Vlad Jr. is one of the more polarizing prospects on this list. He’s the first prospect ever to be given an 80-grade hit tool on the 20-80 scouting scale. For those who don’t know how the grading system works, scouts grade prospects anywhere from 20-80 and then predict the kind of player they’ll end up being based on that score.
A player graded at 55 is above average, while a player marked 65 is projected to be an all-star. With a grade of 80, you can infer the type of player experts around the league think Guerrero will be. So far he’s lived up to that grade, hitting .323/.425/.485 with a .910 OPS in 119 games between single-A and high-A in his first full season.
By all accounts, the kid is going to be a superstar in the big leagues one day, but for the time being, he is still just that, a kid. That said, expect him to be planted right in the middle of that Toronto Blue Jays lineup by the time he’s 21.
2. Shohei Ohtani – RHP – Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
By now even casual baseball fans know who Shohei Ohtani is and the expectations there are for him going into his rookie year. During the offseason the Angels one the Ohtani sweepstakes and will be using all of their $2.315 million in international bonus pool to bring him in, as well as the $20 million posting fee they’re required to pay Ohtani’s former team in Japan, the Nippon-Ham Fighters.
“The Japanese Babe Ruth” is what many have dubbed the incoming rookie, because of his unique ability to dominate the game both on the mound and from the batter’s box. The Angels have already said that they will be accommodating Ohtani’s desire to do both in the Major Leagues, though they have not yet made it clear on how they will make that work. By all accounts elsewhere, it would seem as though the best course of action for the Angels would be to run a six-man rotation and have Ohtani DH on the days he’s not pitching.
If Ohtani produces both ways, his impact on the game would be unlike anything we’ve ever seen before at the Major League level and could change the way managers and front offices look at potential two-way players.
1. Ronald Acuna – OF – Atlanta Braves
The top-ranked prospect going into the 2018 MLB season is outfielder Ronald Acuna currently in the Braves farm system. Signed out of Venezuela in 2014, Acuna has quickly established himself as a budding superstar. Per the 20-80 scouting scale mentioned above, none of them scored below a 60.
In 2017 Acuna broke out and began separating himself from the other prospects on this list. He started the year high-A and climbed all the way up the ranks to finish the year with triple-A Gwinnett. Along the way he was able to show why all of his tools are considered well above average, hitting .325/.374/.522 with a .896 OPS, 21 home runs, and 44 stolen bases on 64 attempts.
Maximization of service time again has an impact on whether or not Acuna will start the year in triple-A, as the Braves could hold of his free agency eligibility in the future if they leave him down there to start the season. That said, Acuna has dominated at every level of the Minor Leagues and has proved to everyone that he is ready to play Major League Baseball right now.