Projecting When Baseball's Top 10 Prospects Will Reach the Majors
The development process in Major League Baseball is different than any other sport, which is why we are so fascinated, and frustrated, by it.
Fans see and hear so much about their favorite team's top prospects that it becomes hard to wait for the player to get brought up to the Show. How do you tell the fan of a team like the Astros that their best prospects wouldn't do better than the MLB roster right now?
There are gulfs that separate the minor league talent at each level, and an ocean dividing the line between Triple-A and MLB, which is why teams often exercise caution when moving their best young players.
You don't want a player to arrive still needing to do work. Players are supposed to show up ready to play, then make adjustments as necessary.
In an effort to help inform you when to expect the very best prospects baseball has to offer, here is how we project the development path for the top 10 minor leaguers and when they will be playing in a town near you.
Player rankings are based on my personal evaluations and preference, and prospects with eligibility who have MLB experience and are likely to start the 2014 season in the big leagues are eligible for the list.
No. 10 Gregory Polanco, OF, Pittsburgh Pirates
2013 Stats: 127 G, .285/.356/.434, 30 2B, 2 3B, 12 HR, 71 RBI, 52 BB, 73 K, 38 SB
Highest 2013 Level: Triple-A (Indianapolis)
Between Andrew McCutchen, Starling Marte and Gregory Polanco, the Pirates have one of the best young outfield trios in baseball. Cutch and Marte have already graduated to the big leagues, while Polanco isn't far behind.
Just 22 years old, Polanco is an athletic 6'4", 220 pounds. He boasts above-average or better tools across the board, with in-game power being the only one that hasn't shown up on a consistent basis. (That's normal for young hitters, since it takes time for their frame to fill out and for them to learn to control their swing for average before driving it.)
Advanced hit tools and approach at the plate, combined with athleticism and plus speed, make Polanco a do-it-all offensive player. He also uses that speed to cover a ton of ground in the outfield and boasts plus arm strength that will play in right field.
Projected MLB Debut: Mid-2014
Polanco's path to the big leagues is clear. He played just two games at Triple-A before the 2013 season ended, so there are development steps to be taken prior to the Pirates calling him up.
Given his stellar body of work, maturity and advanced approach, Polanco shouldn't need more than half of a season in Indianapolis before settling in Pittsburgh permanently.
Since McCutchen, the 2013 NL MVP, has center field locked down, expect Polanco to play right field upon his arrival.
No. 9 Austin Hedges, C, San Diego Padres
2013 Stats: 86 G, .260/.333/.390, 25 2B, 1 3B, 4 HR, 38 RBI, 28 BB, 54 K, 8 SB
Highest 2013 Level: Double-A (San Antonio)
Easily the best catching prospect in baseball, Austin Hedges' overall numbers only look disappointing until you realize he made it to Double-A playing most of the season at 20 years old and hit an impressive .270/.343/.425 in 66 games at High-A.
Hedges also suffered a hand injury after getting hit by a pitch that kept him out for most of May, which is why he only played in 86 games.
Every conversation about Hedges starts with his defense. It usually takes years of development for a catcher drafted out of high school to get anywhere near where the 21-year-old is at. He's always had plus-plus arm strength, but the accuracy on his throws is incredible.
Hedges boasts tremendous athleticism for a catcher, far more than he needs, and knows how to frame a pitch. He's still learning to block balls in the dirt, but that's not a huge problem that knocks him down.
Offensively, Hedges tends to be a bit underrated. He's had some problems with better velocity, but has a mature approach and will lay off tough pitches. He boasts above-average raw power that will show up in games soon.
Hedges is a smart baserunner and has more speed than he needs, which could allow him to steal 10-15 bases per season.
Projected MLB Debut: 2015
Finding a premium defensive catcher is hard enough, but to get one who can realistically project to hit .260/.330/.430 is a special rarity.
Hedges is a player who's more impressive in person than on stat sheets. I saw him multiple times during the Arizona Fall League and became more infatuated with him. He's a rare catching talent who will make an impact on both sides of the ball.
No. 8 Javier Baez, SS, Chicago Cubs
2013 Stats: 130 G, .282/.341/.578, 34 2B, 4 3B, 37 HR, 111 RBI, 40 BB, 147 K, 20 SB
Highest 2013 Level: Double-A (Tennessee)
How impressive was Javier Baez's 2013 power surge? The 2011 first-round pick finished fourth in the Southern League with 20 homers...in 54 games.
Baez has the potential to be a special hitter because of his insane bat speed. He whips the lumber through the zone as fast as any player I have seen since Gary Sheffield. The ball explodes off the bat when Baez makes contact.
There are a lot of immature aspects to Baez's game that still need work for the 21-year-old to reach his full potential. He still lacks an approach at the plate, doesn't read or recognize off-speed stuff out of the pitcher's hand, and wants to crush everything near the plate.
Defense still doesn't appear to be a huge area of concern for Baez, though he did play a little better after moving to Double-A. He made 44 total errors (13 in 248 chances with Tennessee).
Plus arm strength and good athleticism give Baez a chance to stick at shortstop, where his offensive upside would make him one of the 10 best players in the sport.
Baez still has room to fill out his 6'0", 195-pound frame, so he could outgrow shortstop even if the glove work at the position improves.
Projected MLB Debut: Late 2014
There's going to be an outcry to get Baez in the big leagues sooner than later, but even with the huge power numbers in a brief Double-A call-up, he still needs a lot of work.
Major league-quality breaking balls are going to be a nightmare for him right now. A lack of discipline and patience in all facets of the game will overwhelm the 21-year-old, which is why I don't see him getting brought up until late in the 2014 season.
It also wouldn't shock me to see the Cubs wait until 2015 to bring Baez up, though I can see the team wanting to get him some MLB experience to be prepared for the next year.
No. 7 Carlos Correa, SS, Houston Astros
2013 Stats: 117 G, .320/.405/.467, 33 2B, 3 3B, 9 HR, 86 RBI, 58 BB, 83 K, 10 SB
Highest 2013 Level: Low-A (Quad Cities)
The No. 1 overall pick in the 2012 draft, Carlos Correa more than lived up to the hype as an 18-year-old playing in the pitcher-friendly Midwest League. He started out well, hitting .304/.400/.430 before the All-Star break, but took it to another level by hitting .335/.410/.500 in the second half.
Correa is a naturally gifted hitter. He boasts plus bat speed, an approach far beyond his years, excellent plate coverage and pitch recognition.
Listed at 6'4", 205 pounds, Correa will show plus raw power in batting practice sessions and had more in-game pop in his first full season than anticipated. Expect home run numbers to increase as his frame fills out.
An instinctive defensive player with plus arm strength, Correa holds his own at shortstop right now. He is already as big as Manny Machado and will likely continue to grow, pushing him over to third base.
In some cases, moving to third base would lower a player's status because it puts tremendous pressure on the bat to play. Correa is not a normal case; he can hit for average and power, while likely posting high OBP totals throughout his career.
Projected MLB Debut: 2015
I can't help but roll my eyes when people say the Astros made a mistake taking Correa over Byron Buxton in the 2012 draft. Don't get me wrong, Buxton is a monster who will be a superstar for a long time.
But Correa isn't exactly chopped liver. He is as gifted as any hitter in the minors with the kind of average and power potential you don't find often, especially not from a player who was drafted at the age of 17.
The Astros are building something special, and Correa will be the centerpiece of the franchise when he debuts in two years.
No. 6 Francisco Lindor, SS, Cleveland Indians
2013 Stats: 104 G, .303/.380/.407, 22 2B, 7 3B, 2 HR, 34 RBI, 49 BB, 46 K, 25 SB
Highest 2013 Level: Double-A (Akron)
Usually when you talk about an elite-level prospect, the word ceiling gets thrown around. The discussion revolves around what a player's tools could translate to in the big leagues.
Lindor is a player whose ceiling doesn't necessarily compare with that of, say, Javier Baez, but his floor is so ridiculously high that he projects to be a star whenever the Indians give him the shortstop job.
Even before the Indians drafted him with the eighth pick in the 2011 draft, Lindor earned rave reviews for his maturity and advanced tool set. He entered professional baseball as a plus defensive shortstop and has only gotten better.
Instincts and positioning often get associated with third basemen, but Lindor has such a great understanding of where to put himself to make every play at shortstop. He's also got well above-average range and plus arm strength.
Lindor also boasts excellent hitting skills. Playing last season at the age of 20, Cleveland's top prospect showed one of the best hitting eyes in the minors. He may never have more than fringe-average home run power (10-12 per season), but his ability to make solid contact and plus speed will allow him to hit 30-40 doubles and a handful of triples.
Projected MLB Debut: Late 2014
The Indians are between a rock and hard place right now. Odds are good Lindor will be ready before the All-Star break, but unless the team can trade Asdrubal Cabrera, or move him to a different position, there's not an immediate opening.
Cabrera is a free agent after the 2014 season, all but ensuring that Lindor will be in Cleveland on Opening Day 2015. A plus defensive shortstop with the ability to hit .280/.360/.430 is an All-Star.
No. 5 Archie Bradley, SP, Arizona Diamondbacks
2013 Stats: 26 GS, 14-5, 152 IP, 1.84 ERA, 115 H, 6 HR, 69 BB, 162 K, .215 BAA
Highest 2013 Level: Double-A (Mobile)
The only pitcher I have listed among my top 10 prospects, Archie Bradley took all of the good things he did in his first season two years ago and got rid of a lot of the bad things to become the best arm in the minors.
Bradley has a workhorse frame at 6'4", 225 pounds. A prototypical power pitcher body and two 70-grade pitches give Arizona a potential No. 1 starter who should make an impact in the rotation very soon.
Working with a fastball that sits 92-95 with some wiggle, Bradley can overpower minor league hitters using just that pitch. He backs it up with a hammer curveball that would make Thor jealous. It is a true 12-6 offering that drops off a table when it gets in the zone.
The 21-year-old has clean mechanics and makes excellent use of his size to generate plane on the fastball. There are a lot of moving parts in the wind-up, most notably a high leg kick, that can throw off his release point and lead to some control issues.
Bradley also has a changeup in his arsenal that can flash above-average at times, though it will need to be incorporated more into his game plan to become a quality No. 3 pitch.
Projected MLB Debut: Mid-2014
Even though the Diamondbacks make a lot of moves at the MLB level that make you scratch your head, it's hard to say anything negative about top prospect Archie Bradley.
He still has to refine some control issues and develop the changeup to get lefties out, but everything screams top-of-the-rotation stalwart for Bradley. It won't be long before the right-hander invades the desert.
No. 4 Addison Russell, SS, Oakland Athletics
2013 Stats: 110 G, .269/.369/.495, 29 2B, 10 3B, 17 HR, 60 RBI, 61 BB, 125 K, 21 SB
Highest 2013 Level: Triple-A (Sacramento)
Addison Russell put a slow start and some injury woes behind him to finish an excellent full-season debut for the Oakland Athletics. The 19-year-old advanced three levels in just 55 games after being drafted two years ago, earned an aggressive assignment to Double-A for 2013 and exceeded a lot of expectations.
It also doesn't hurt that Russell is a physical marvel. He is listed at 6'0", 195 pounds, but looks a little bigger than that in person. He carries the weight incredibly well, looking like a natural shortstop often does.
As far as the defensive tools, Russell is still a little raw in the field. He tries to make all of the plays, though sometimes it comes at the expense of making the routine plays. He will make some bad throws and take some strange routes, but that's not enough to knock him down.
He has plus arm strength and, on the right day, will show plus range at the position. It's all just a matter of getting acclimated to the speed of the game and occasionally taking a step back.
Offensively, Russell has tremendous potential. He showed more in-game power than I was anticipating last season, hitting 17 homers, and showing great instincts on the bases to steal 21 bags.
Russell also has tremendous bat speed and improved control in the zone, but will get a little too aggressive at times. He should be an offensive monster with above-average defense at shortstop.
Projected MLB Debut: Mid-2014
I'm not quite sure what to do with Russell. He's going to start the 2014 season at Triple-A and could be ready by June, but the A's have a quality shortstop in Jed Lowrie.
Given Lowrie's long injury history, I opted to give Russell an early call-up in 2014. I could also see the A's purposefully hold him back until 2015 to avoid starting his arbitration clock.
No. 3 Oscar Taveras, OF, St. Louis Cardinals
2013 Stats: 47 G, .310/.348/.471, 13 2B, 5 HR, 32 RBI, 10 BB, 22 K, 5 SB
Highest 2013 Level: Triple-A (Memphis)
Oscar Taveras was all the rage in a deep St. Louis farm system last season, but battled injuries all year and never really got going. Despite the lost season, the 21-year-old remains the best pure hitter in the minor leagues.
When you think of plate coverage, the first name that comes to mind is Vladimir Guerrero. Taveras isn't quite at that level, but he's much closer than you might think. He has a great feel for the strike zone and incredible control of the bat, so despite his violent swing, he can hit anything.
He also has plus power and will be an elite-level hitter despite not taking a lot of walks because the contact is so hard and consistent.
Some fans have tried to make the case for Taveras in center field, but he doesn't have enough range for the position. He's got above-average speed and plus arm strength, which is an ideal fit in right field, where the bat profiles perfectly.
The Cardinals were able to let Carlos Beltran walk after the 2013 season because they knew what was waiting in the minors.
Projected MLB Debut: Mid-2014
The only reason I think the Cardinals will wait to bring Taveras up is because he missed so much time in 2013. They have more than enough talent at the MLB level to be great, so allowing their top prospect to get his timing and rhythm back for a couple months won't hurt anything.
No. 2 Xander Bogaerts, SS, Boston Red Sox
116 G, .297/.388/.477, 23 2B, 6 3B, 15 HR, 67 RBI, 63 BB, 95 K, 7 SB
18 G, .250/.320/.364, 2 2B, 1 HR, 5 RBI, 5 BB, 13 K, 1 SB (MLB)
Highest 2013 Level: MLB (Boston)
Xander Bogaerts had about as good a 2013 as any prospect could have. He was one of the stars at the Futures Game, grabbing two solid singles that showed off his advanced hitting prowess, then played a pivotal role in Boston's run to a World Series title.
The most difficult thing to do with a young hitter who knows how good he is it get them to take what pitchers give them. Bogaerts is more than willing to do it, understanding what a pitcher wants to do and not trying to overplay his hand.
But when Bogaerts gets something to his liking, he has the kind of power to hit 25-30 homers at his peak. He's such a poised, confident young man in all phases of the game that it'd be a shock if he didn't become a superstar.
Bogaerts has seemed destined to end up at third base for a long time, but improvements with reads and a 6'3", 185-pound frame that may not fill out as excessive as some thought could allow him to remain at shortstop.
Projected MLB Debut: 2014
The only question for Bogaerts is if he starts next season playing shortstop or third base for the Boston Red Sox.
If Stephen Drew re-signs with the team, Bogaerts will slot in at the hot corner and could make Will Middlebrooks expendable. If not, Bogaerts will be the everyday shortstop and Middlebrooks will get a chance to be a starting third baseman.
No. 1 Byron Buxton, OF, Minnesota Twins
2013 Stats: 125 G, .334/.424/.520, 19 2B, 18 3B, 12 HR, 77 RBI, 76 BB, 105 K, 55 SB
Highest 2013 Level: High-A (Fort Myers)
How do you quantify what Byron Buxton is now, or what he will be in the future? Sometimes there are special talents who exceed anything that a bunch of superlatives aren't capable of.
However difficult the task might be, I will do my best.
Finding a true five-tool player isn't easy. At times the term gets thrown around too often, or players are said to have five-tool potential. Buxton is already a five-tool player, with the potential to get even better.
Buxton has game-changing speed on the bases and outfield, plus arm strength, plus power potential, an advanced approach at the plate, excellent feel for the game and tremendous work ethic.
He makes the game look so easy, with a short stroke through the zone and more than enough bat speed to drive balls. Throwing accuracy and routes in the outfield are still two areas that need improvement, but he's not bad in either category.
So we have a true center fielder with plus defense and the potential to be a .300/.400/.500 hitter in the big leagues. I won't say Buxton will be the next Mike Trout, because that isn't fair to either player, but the Twins outfielder is going to be really, really, really special.
Projected MLB Debut: Late 2014
The Twins are going to be bad at the MLB level in 2014, but they are going to get very interesting very quick.
Buxton and Miguel Sano will probably debut at some point next season, and this franchise has the best farm system in baseball with as much high-ceiling talent as you will find.
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