While it might seem silly to speculate about possible 2014 assignments, the unexpected promotion of 20-year-old Jose Fernandez to the major leagues took my mind down a curious path. It’s not every day that a prospect ascends to the highest level without first making a stop in the upper minors, especially when the prospect is only two years removed from high school. It has to start with the opportunity, as unexpected injuries and limited options put the Marlins in a personnel quandary, a situation so distressed that a pitcher with only 11 starts at the High-A level was a reasonable choice to secure a spot in the rotation. What I find more interesting is not the decision itself, but the individual characteristics of the pitcher who made such a decision plausible in the first place.
The jump from the High-A level to the Double-A level is considered the second-largest talent jump in the minors, second only to the jump from Triple-A to the majors, and Fernandez is being asked to make both jumps at the same time. This is a monumental challenge that few prospects in the game could manage, both on a physical level (talent) and an emotional level (makeup). Fernandez has both, with room to spare, which isn’t to suggest his refinement level is up to major-league standards or that the decision to promote him so aggressively should be shielded from criticism; rather, Fernandez possesses the necessary characteristics to make such a leap justifiable, at least from a scouting perspective, and that puts him in elite company in that regard.
With Fernandez fresh on the brain, my curiosity expanded into candidates for similar advancement, keeping the organizational needs in the picture but focusing most of the thought on the physical and emotional requirements of the prospect at hand. In my head, I asked: Who could pull a Fernandez in 2014? That is, which prospect that will play the 2013 season at the A-ball level has the skill set to justify skipping the high minors and starting the 2014 season in the majors? I started making calls. I started asking friends. I might have asked a few strangers. In the end, I polled 20 front office members–people responsible for making developmental decisions of such magnitude—as well as sending the hypothetical to the prospect minds currently under the employ of Baseball Prospectus in the hopes of flushing out the top candidates. These are the findings in order of industry nominations*.
*Disclaimer: This is just a scouting exercise and not a suggestion or declaration of developmental intent. The likely candidates to pull a Fernandez aren’t likely to pull a Fernandez, nor are we proposing that they should pull a Fernandez. This is merely an industry poll of the prospects that possess the characteristics necessary to handle a Fernandez in the unlikely event of a Fernandez.
1. SS Javier Baez (Cubs)
Baez received the most votes, but could be disqualified from the discussion if he reaches the Double-A level this season (as is expected). Not that his approach is anywhere near ready for the big stage, but his elite bat speed and offensive potential give him the best chance to do some damage if pushed to that level. The defensive profile is better than people seem to think, as many in the industry view Baez as a legit option at shortstop for the foreseeable future. When the light goes on and he learns to tame the magnificent beast that is his swing, it won’t take long for Baez to not only emerge as one of the top prospects in the game, but to reach the major league level in short order.
2. SS Francisco Lindor (Indians):
Lindor reminds many of Jurickson Profar, in the sense that his precocious on-the-field talent will allow him to move up the professional ladder very quickly, as he has the ability to slow the game down and play up to the level of competition around him. While his defensive game could hang at any level of professional ball, his bat isn’t ready for such aggressive promotion; however, Lindor wouldn’t be an easy out, as the 19-year-old shortstop has a very mature approach at the plate and knows how to battle against advanced pitching. It’s likely that Lindor plays out the season in High-A and moves onto Double-A next season, with 2015 as a more realistic estimated time of major league arrival, but for the purpose of this exercise –based on his on-the-field chops and his off-the-charts makeup –Lindor could pull a Fernandez in 2014 and not collapse under the weight of the opportunity.
3, SS Addison Russell (Athletics)
The first three nominees were all middle-infielders, which is a surprise given that pitchers seem to be the more likely candidates based on the developmental process itself: stuff is stuff. That is true at any level of professional baseball, whereas hitters are at the mercy of the competition they face, with each level presenting new developmental challenges directly tied to the skill set of the opposition. Russell is only 19 and has played only 16 games at the full-season level, but he is likely to explode as a prospect with a strong showing in the California League, and has the physical/mental qualities to pull a Fernandez in 2014. Obviously, as the disclaimer suggests, I’m not advocating for such an aggressive promotion—in fact, I think it would be unnecessary and irresponsible in most cases–but the industry loves the promise of this kid, from the potent bat to the likely defensive home at shortstop, to the overall approach to the game itself, and if the A’s wanted to get funky in 2014 and start a 20-year-old at the highest level, Russell would most likely be able to hold his own.
4. RHP Archie Bradley (DBacks)
We come upon our first arm, and in my opinion, Bradley should sit atop this list of candidates. From the maturity on the mound to the physical ability, Bradley is better prepared to make a major-league contribution than his contemporaries in this hypothetical. At present, Bradley has two well above average offerings in a mid-90s four-seamer and a nasty knuckle-curve that he can drop for strikes or let loose out of the zone. The command needs works, but is not as far off the page as his 2012 numbers might suggest; the delivery is clean and simple, and he should develop into a strike thrower with plus stuff. The work ethic and baseball makeup are crazy good, and if you assume Bradley pitches the entire season at the High-A level (which might be unrealistic to assume given his mature skill set), he would come into the 2014 season as a 21-year-old with two years of full-season ball under his belt and the physical and emotional qualities to handle a huge promotion if the opportunity should present itself.
5. C Austin Hedges (Padres)
Another position player, this one tasked with the most physically and intellectually demanding responsibilities on the field, a position that normally requires more time to develop than any other. Hedges is an advanced receiver, with all the physical tools to develop into an elite backstop at the highest level. Those impact skills are unusually developed for his age, as the 20-year-old catcher is already a general on the field, showing game calling ability and leadership skills of a seasoned veteran. The bat is obviously behind the advanced defensive skills, and would most likely get exploited if the Padres were to promote Hedges to the majors after a season in the California League. But when looking at the candidates, not many possess the same level of defensive polish and competitiveness necessary to rise to such a challenge, and if you don’t think Hedges could survive behind the plate at any level of professional baseball, you haven’t watched Hedges play.
The Deep Sleepers
3B Joey Gallo (Rangers): One source said that if you were to drop Joey Gallo in the majors right now, he could hit you 20-plus bombs. Of course, he would also strike out 300 times. Gallo might have the best raw power in the minors, and it’s certainly the best raw power I’ve ever seen at that level of professional ball, but he has a lot of swing-and-miss in his game. He’s a safe bet to not only lead the Sally League in home runs but in strikeouts as well, and the ridiculous Adam Dunn comps aren’t really that ridiculous given his three-outcome skill set. Of the 20 industry sources polled, five mentioned Gallo as they electronically drooled over the power, and even though its completely far-fetched to suggest he could pull a Fernandez in 2014, at least he has a carrying tool that would play at the highest level, even if that meant breaking the season single record for most strikeouts.
RHP Michael Ynoa (Athletics): Multiple sources mentioned Ynoa, which makes a lot of sense if you consider that he was a good candidate to be selected in the Rule 5 draft, which prompted the A’s to add the 21-year-old to the 40-man roster this offseason. Ynoa has yet to pitch at the full-season level, and anybody who tells you with any certainty what this kid is going to do in 2013 is just moving his lips to see them move. But the stuff looked promising in his limited looks last season, and if the package comes together in the Midwest League this season, Ynoa might just have the stuff to make a multiple level leap in 2014.