Predicting Boom or Bust for MLB's Highest-Upside Prospects
When it comes to prospects, minor league statistics tend to be misleading. That’s not to say they hold no value, but eye-popping numbers alone, especially against inferior competition, are anything but a guarantee that a prospect will succeed in the major leagues. More importantly, they offer minimal insight about a player’s long-term projection.
Rather, prospect evaluation is rooted in the intense scrutiny of a player’s development and progress, whether it be a hitter or pitcher, in all facets of the game. In terms of projection, it all comes down to a player’s perceived ceiling or upside, which represents the best and most optimistic outcome. With almost every prospect, there’s a big gap between his present ability and future potential in the major leagues.
To ensure that the focus of this article is on prospects with the highest ceilings, I decided to include players that are yet to reach the major leagues, so please don’t freak out when you don’t see Taijuan Walker or Xander Bogaerts.
Similarly, I avoided highly ranked prospects that comparatively carry less risk, such as Albert Almora, Jackie Bradley Jr. and Oscar Taveras.
Here are my predictions on the boom or bust potential for MLB highest-upside prospects.
10. Jorge Soler, OF, Chicago Cubs
Assigned to High-A Daytona for his first full professional campaign, Soler posted an .810 OPS with 22 extra-base hits (eight home runs) and a 38/21 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 55 games before suffering a season-ending leg injury (stress fracture to tibia) when he fouled a ball off his left shin in late June.
At 6’4”, 215 pounds, Soler is a physically strong right-handed hitter with a mature frame that requires little projection. With blinding bat speed and an explosive swing, the ball absolutely jumps off Soler’s bat. Meanwhile, his extension and lift after contact generates exceptional backspin carry and suggests the potential for multiple 20-plus home run seasons in his prime.
Though Soler’s approach has been more polished than expected as a professional, his pitch recognition is still fringy and in need of refinement. He struggles to pick up spin and appears to be guessing at the plate, often chasing pitches well out of the strike zone in a favorable count.
Furthermore, his swing can be rushed and choppy at times and will need to be ironed out as he moves up the ladder. But still, Soler is a natural hitter with plus bat speed and a knack for making hard contact.
Despite his muscular build, Soler is an above-average runner who moves well on both sides of the ball. He has the ideal profile of a big league right fielder with average range and plus arm strength.
Soler is a physical monster with monster potential. However, there are several aspects of his game that need fine tuning, including his makeup. Luckily, he’s still young and relatively inexperienced in terms of stateside baseball, so there’s plenty of time to put things together.
9. Robert Stephenson, RHP, Cincinnati Reds
Few pitching prospects have as high of a ceiling as Robert Stephenson.
The right-hander made huge strides toward reaching his potential this past season by excelling at three minor league levels.
Stephenson was assigned to Low-A Dayton to open the season after reaching the level for the first time in late 2012. Though he struggled out of the gate, the right-hander eventually found his groove as the spring unfolded.
Although a minor hamstring injury sidelined the 20-year-old for a month in early June, he still dominated in the Midwest League with a 2.57 ERA and 96 strikeouts in 77 innings. As a result of his success, the Reds promoted Stephenson to High-A Bakersfield in mid-July, where he proceeded to post a 3.05 ERA with a 22/2 K/BB ratio over four starts.
Stephenson received one last promotion in mid-August, with the Reds deciding to move him up to Double-A Pensacola for the final month of the season.
At the time of his promotion to Double-A, general manager Walt Jocketty mentioned they “wanted to fast track him this year,” according to John Fay of the Cincinnati Enquirer.
While he showed the ability to miss bats at the more advanced level with 18 strikeouts in 16.2 innings, the right-hander struggled with his control and failed to work deep into games, posting a 4.86 ERA over four starts.
Boasting elite arm strength capable of pumping fastballs in the upper-90s and scraping triple digits, as well as a pair of promising secondary pitches in a changeup and slider, Stephenson has the makings of a front-line starter in the major leagues.
It’s doubtful that the flame-throwing right-hander will spend a majority of the season in the major leagues, but his ahead-of-schedule ascent of the Reds’ system has him poised to debut sometime after the 2014 All-Star break.
8. Kris Bryant, 3B, Chicago Cubs
Making stops at three levels after signing with the Cubs, Bryant, the No. 2 overall selection in the 2013 draft, was one of the top hitters in the minor leagues over the final month of the season at High-A Daytona, batting .333/.387/.719 with five home runs and 14 RBI in 16 games.
At 6’5”, 215 pounds, Bryant possesses effortless 80-grade power that has translated in a big way at each professional stop. The right-handed hitter does an excellent job of using his height and size to his advantage, hitting down on the ball to create backspin carry to all fields. At maturity, it’s easy to see him turning in numerous 30-plus home run seasons.
But while he’s known for his light-tower power, Bryant is a much better hitter than he is given credit for, with a line-to-line approach and decent pitch recognition. Additionally, when he’s behind in the count, Bryant will noticeably shorten his swing and look to drive the ball back up the middle.
If Bryant is eventually forced to move off third base, it won’t be because he can’t handle the position defensively. With average range and actions as well as a plus arm, Bryant’s overall defensive skill set is a clean fit at the hot corner. However, due to the presence of several other players in the Cubs’ system, he may ultimately move to a corner outfield position where he has the potential to be an average defender.
Bryant has the potential to move quickly through the Cubs’ system thanks to an advanced approach and gaudy power. While there’s some uncertainty as to whether he’ll remain at third base or move to a corner outfield spot, Bryant’s bat could have him in the major leagues (in some capacity) by the end of the 2014 season.
In his prime, Bryant should serve as a force in the middle of the Cubs’ lineup, as well as one of the top sluggers and run-producers in the game.
7. Noah Syndergaard, RHP, New York Mets
Acquired by the Mets from the Blue Jays in the R.A. Dickey deal, Noah Syndergaard emerged as one of baseball’s top pitching prospects this year, which also was his first in New York's system. The 20-year-old took a huge step forward on all fronts this season, posting an impressive 3.06 ERA and a 133-28 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 117.2 innings between High-A St. Lucie and Double-A Binghamton.
While Syndergaard’s heater sits in the mid-90s with late, arm-side life, he’ll consistently bump 96 to 97 mph and occasionally flirt with triple digits. The right-hander’s curveball has plus potential in the upper-70s, while his command of the pitch has improved this season thanks to the addition of a slider to his already impressive arsenal.
Speaking of the slider, it’s quickly emerged as an above-average offering that has, in turn, helped to regulate his arm speed on the curveball. Although he’s improved his feel for a changeup, it’s only an average offering but thrown with deceptive arm speed.
The 6’6” right-hander has a power pitcher’s frame and is a physical presence on the mound, throwing everything on a steep downhill plane and pounding the lower portion of strike zone. More significantly, Syndergaard has enjoyed a jump in his strikeout rate (above 30 percent) following a midseason promotion to Double-A, and posted a ground-ball rate of roughly 50 percent this year across both levels. Additionally, of all the strikeouts he’s recorded since the beginning of the 2011 season, roughly 20 percent have been of the swing-and-miss variety.
Syndergaard emerged as one of the game’s top pitching prospects, as each of his four pitches have noticeably improved and resulted in even sharper command. The right-hander has a realistic chance of reaching his ceiling of a front-line starter and would fit nicely between Matt Harvey and Zack Wheeler in the team’s future rotation.
6. Addison Russell, SS, Oakland Athletics
As a result of his impressive pro debut in 2012, Addison Russell received an aggressive assignment to High-A Stockton to open the 2013 season. As the youngest everyday player in the California League, the 19-year-old batted .275/.377/.508 with 85 runs scored, 56 extra-base hits (17 home runs) and 21 stolen bases in 107 games.
At the end of the year, the A’s promoted Russell to Triple-A Sacramento for the team’s stretch run, though he went just 1-for-13 with nine strikeouts in three games.
A physically strong right-handed hitter, Russell demonstrates a knack for barreling the ball, showcasing advanced bat control that yields hard contact to all fields. And though the 19-year-old’s game features some swing-and-miss at the present, that can at least be partially attributed to his status as a teenager playing against advanced competition.
Overall, his combination of plus bat speed and present strength calls for above-average power at maturity, if not more, and his wheels should always lead to a high number of doubles and triples.
Although he looked raw at times this past season as a 19-year-old in High-A, Russell has the makings of an impact shortstop at the major league level with four above-average or better tools that will only improve with experience.
Assuming Russell opens the 2014 season in Double-A, it's very likely that he'll take over as the A's big league shortstop, as a 20-year-old, by the end of the year.
5. Javier Baez, SS, Chicago Cubs
After a sluggish start to the season at High-A Daytona, Javier Baez eventually caught fire and received a well-deserved promotion to Double-A Tennessee in late June. After that, the 20-year-old was one of the most productive hitters in the minor leagues, with a .983 OPS and 20 home runs over his last 54 games.
Baez is a right-handed hitter with extremely strong wrists and hands that lend to his elite bat speed—the best in the minor leagues. But while he makes lots of hard contact and has no problems turning around the fastball, Baez still struggles with pitch recognition and flails at too many breaking balls out of the zone.
While his pitch recognition may need further refinement in the minor leagues, Baez could still probably post an .800-plus OPS in The Show right now. He’s a streaky player who’s going to endure his share of struggles, but his .920 OPS, 37 home runs and 20 stolen bases in 130 games this season suggest he may not be in the minor leagues for long next year.
The Cubs have no need to rush Baez to the majors—they also need to figure out where he’s going to play—but there will come a point next season when a call-up represents the next necessary challenge in his overall development.
4. Carlos Correa, SS, Houston Astros
Everyone would probably be gushing about Carlos Correa this season if Byron Buxton were never born. However, that’s not the case. Correa hasn’t put up gaudy numbers like Buxton, who was selected one spot after him (No. 2 overall) in the 2012 draft, but he’s certainly impressed in his own right.
Making his full-season debut at Low-A Quad Cities, the now 19-year-old batted .320/.405/.467 with 45 extra-base hits (nine home runs), 86 RBI, 10 stolen bases and an 83-58 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 117 games.
Correa’s bat has proven to be far more advanced than anyone expect this year in his full-season debut. The right-handed hitter has a simple, direct swing in which he attacks the ball and utilizes the entire field. However, it’s the advanced plate discipline and pitch recognition that will make him a special hitter in a few years.
Despite his size and present strength, Correa has a swing geared toward consistent hard contact rather than over-the-fence pop. That being said, he’s already an extra-base machine who will undoubtedly develop more power as he matures physically.
The 6’4”, 190-pounder has fluid actions despite size, showing excellent instincts with above-average speed. His arm is a legit plus-plus tool (an absolute cannon) that’s ideal for a career at shortstop. Even though he has soft hands and a smooth transfer, Correa can struggle with body control at times and is still learning some of the intricacies of the position.
Given his overwhelming success last season as one of the younger everyday players in the South Atlantic league, Correa will likely receive an assignment to High-A next year with the potential to reach Double-A as a 19-year-old.
Correa is a physically blessed shortstop with the potential for five above-average or better tools at maturity. He’s still growing into his large but athletic frame and will likely endure some rough stretches along the way, but there’s no reason to believe he won’t be a top-tier shortstop with legitimate MVP potential.
3. Miguel Sano, 3B, Minnesota Twins
Already on the fast track to the major leagues, Miguel Sano is racing through the Minnesota Twins’ system and putting up big numbers along the way.
Sano opened the season by batting .330/.424/.655 with 16 home runs for High-A Fort Myers in the pitcher-friendly Florida State League and was rewarded with a promotion to Double-A New Britain in early June. Although the 20-year-old’s batting average dropped off at the more advanced level, his power has translated as hoped, with a .915 OPS and 19 home runs through 67 games.
In 2011, Sano put himself on the map as one of the game’s best young sluggers when he hit 20 home runs in 66 games as an 18-year-old in the rookie-level Appalachian League. He’s since improved in every subsequent season.
Last year, in his full-season debut, Sano led the Low-A Midwest League with 28 home runs in 129 games. He’s shown even more thump against better pitching this season, with 35 home runs in 123 games between High-A Fort Myers and Double-A New Britain.
There was legitimate concern about Sano’s hit tool heading into the 2013 season, as he’s always been a player more likely to jump the yard or strike out than make consistent contact. In his full-season debut last year, the then-19-year-old batted only .258 with 144 strikeouts in 129 games (a 26 percent strikeout rate). However, Sano also demonstrated the foundation of a solid overall approach through his ability to coax walks at a 14.5 percent rate.
With a name that’s become synonymous with elite raw power, it’s easy to peg Sano as a one-dimensional, all-or-nothing prospect.
Even if his strikeout rate results in subpar batting averages, Sano’s combination of on-base skills and power gives him the ceiling of a frequent All-Star. In his prime, 35-plus home runs in a season could easily be the norm.
And if he only reaches his floor, we’re still talking about multiple 25-plus home-run seasons in the major leagues.
2. Archie Bradley, RHP, Arizona Diamondbacks
Moved up to High-A Visalia for the 2013 season, Archie Bradley dominated the hitter-friendly California League over five starts, posting a 1.26 ERA and 43-10 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 28.2 innings.
As a result, the 20-year-old was received an early-season promotion to Double-A Mobile where he continued to excel. Making 21 starts at the more advanced level, Bradley registered a 1.97, .214 opponents’ batting average and 119-59 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 123.1 innings.
Bradley has the most deadly two-pitch combination among minor league pitchers: a heavy fastball in the mid- to upper-90s with late life, and power curveball with 12-to-6 shape and sharp downer bite. Even though both pitches already grade as plus offerings, respectively, they each have the potential to improve along with his overall command. Bradley’s feel for a changeup noticeably lags behind that of his two other offerings, but it flashes above-average potential and should serve as a third weapon at maturity.
Besides the fact that Bradley already features two plus pitches (fastball/curveball), the right-hander’s athletic delivery allows him to throw everything on a steep, downhill plane toward the plate. With a ground-ball rate that hovers around 40 percent, Bradley’s plane makes it extremely difficult for opposing hitters to barrel the ball, as he tends to induce as many weakly hit outs as he does strikeouts. Speaking of strikeouts, Bradley’s strikeout rate has steadily improved as he’s moved up the organizational ladder.
Bradley’s pure stuff is ridiculously powerful and arguably the best in the minor leagues. However, despite the overwhelming success this season, the right-hander is still learning how to harness it. He has the athleticism and aptitude to make adjustments along the way, which only strengthens his projection as a future No. 1 starter.
1. Byron Buxton, OF, Minnesota Twins
In his full-season debut this year, Byron Buxton posted a .944 OPS with 109 runs scored, 49 extra-base hits, 55 stolen bases and a 105-76 K/BB ratio in 125 games between Low-A Cedar Rapids and High-A Fort Myers.
The 19-year-old is a rarity in that he’s a teenager with a realistic ceiling of a plus-plus hitter at maturity. While his off-the-charts bat speed and direct path to the ball will give him a chance to hit at the highest level, it’s the mature approach and pitch recognition that gives him the chance to be one of the game’s top hitters.
His power was regarded as his weakest tool when the Twins made him the No. 2 overall pick in 2012. However, his advanced approach and impressive bat speed allowed it to develop ahead of schedule this past season, and he showcased plus raw power to all fields that should ultimately translate to 20-plus home runs annually at maturity.
Beyond that, Buxton should always be an extra-base machine and rank among the league leaders in total bases.
Buxton’s speed is another plus-plus tool and a product of his insanely good athleticism. Despite his lack of experience, he’s already viewed as an elite baserunner capable of taking an extra base with relative ease. His speed also caters to his present ability and future potential as base stealer, and amazingly it plays up even more thanks to his high baseball IQ.
With all that’s already been said about Buxton’s speed and overall baseball savvy, his projection as an elite defender in center field shouldn’t come as a surprise. While he has the athleticism and wheels to get almost every ball, Buxton’s jumps and aggressive (but direct) routes are especially impressive for a player his age.
With five potential plus tools to his name, it’s obvious why Buxton is regarded as baseball’s consensus No. 1 prospect. Beyond his eye-popping natural ability, the outfielder possesses secondary skills that are uncommon in a player his age.
To put it simply: Buxton has the ceiling of one of the game’s best players, if not the best, in his prime.