We’re just a few weeks away from the start of the minor-league season, so we thought now would be a prudent time to start rolling out our minor-league previews for the 2015 season.
Keep in mind that rosters won’t be announced for another few weeks, and these are just educated opinions as to where players will be assigned. Several of these players could end up starting at higher or lower levels—particularly when talking about the Low-A leagues, as teams will not rush teenagers into their first full seasons.
First up: The Midwest League. To me, this is one of the more interesting leagues to follow this year, if only because it features three of the best systems in baseball and three of the worst.
Here’s a look at the top prospects to follow in the Midwest League in 2015, with the three must-watch teams leading it off.
Great Lakes Loons (Los Angeles Dodgers)
Grant Holmes was the steal of the 2014 draft—I thought he’d go in the top 10 and I’m still not quite sure why he didn’t—and was impressive in his professional debut this summer. There’s no projection left, but with a 92-96 mph fastball that will get into the high 90s and two potential plus pitches in his hard curve and change, he doesn’t need it.
Alex Verdugo was one of the true two-way talents in last year’s draft class, and while he was impressive on the mound, the Dodgers did the right thing in making him an outfielder. There were some maturity question marks that saw him fall into the second round, but the talent is obvious, as he has a chance to hit for both average and power from the left side. The mound is a nice fallback, but I doubt we ever see him there.
I wasn’t familiar with Julian Leon until late last summer, but after seeing him play in Odgen, I came away impressed. The 19-year-old backstop has work to do behind the plate, but has a chance for two 60 tools with both his arm and power, and his feel for hitting was impressive for a teenager. If he can handle MWL pitching the same way he did Pioneer arms, this is a prospect whose stock could shoot up quickly.
Lake County Captains (Cleveland)
Last summer’s first-round pick, Bradley Zimmer, might be advanced enough to start the year in Carolina, but Cleveland generally likes their prospects to spend substantial time at each level. Zimmer doesn’t have a standout tool, but there are four above-average ones here, and scouts rave about his baseball acumen to boot. If you’re a Cleveland fan and are near Lake County, go watch him while you can.
In terms of pure talent, the only catcher I’d assuredly take over Francisco Mejia is Blake Swihart. A switch-hitting backstop, Mejia has shown improvement each year in his feel for hitting, and average power isn’t out of the question. Where he really shines is behind the plate, as Mejia can throw with the best of them and gets better each year at receiving and blocking balls.
Bobby Bradley was seen as a high-ceiling, low-floor prospect coming out of Harrison Central High School in Mississippi, but surprised even his most ardent supporters with just how advanced he looked in the Arizona Instructional League. He’s going to strike out a ton, but there’s plus-plus raw power in his left-handed bat, and he appeared to take to coaching very well by showing more patience than he did as a prep. He’ll have to be an offensive force to be an everyday big-leaguer because he doesn’t have any other tangible skill, but he’s got a great chance of doing just that.
South Bend Cubs (Chicago Cubs)
Gleyber Torres doesn’t get talked about as much as some of the other elite Chicago prospects, but I have him as the fifth-best prospect in the system, pretty impressive considering some of the names he’s ahead of. He gets rave reviews on his understanding of how to play the game, and when you add that to above-average field, throw, hit and speed tools, you get a player who can be a big-league shortstop for a long time.
Jake Stinnett was the highest drafted collegiate senior this year, but was inconsistent in his pro debut after returning quickly from an injury when he was hit in the testicle with a fungo bat and had to have surgery to save it. His fastball and slider are both plus pitches right now, and the change—which is extremely inconsistent—will flash average. Expect Stinnett to start out in the South Bend rotation, but because the stuff is advanced, he shouldn’t be there for very long.
Mark Zagunis is one of the fastest catching prospects I’ve seen, and while there’s work to be done with the glove, he has a chance to stick there. He has excellent bat-to-barrel skills, his hit tool is advanced for his age, and though his swing path doesn’t give him much of a chance to hit for power, he’s strong enough to turn on fastballs middle-in. He’s a potential regular even if he does have to move to the outfield, but expect the Cubs to give him every chance to play behind the plate.
Beloit Snappers (Oakland Athletics)
Shortstop Franklin Barreto is one of the best hitting prospects in the system: a 19-year-old who has impressed scouts with his offensive skillset and approach at the plate. If he can show more consistency with the routine play he has a chance to be a very good shortstop as well.
In addition to having one of the top three bats in the Athletics system, Beloit will also likely have the best starting pitching prospect in the system in left-hander Dillon Overton. Overton missed nearly a calendar year after having Tommy John surgery, but appears to have regained his arm strength and now shows a 92-94 mph fastball and a change that flashes plus on a regular basis.
The Athletics had one of my favorite drafts last year, and several hurlers from that class should see time in Beloit this season. The best of these is second-round pick Daniel Gossett, who has two above-average pitches in his fastball and curve, and he’ll show an average change as well, with a funky delivery that creates deception. If I were to look for an Athletics arm to take a major step forward in 2015, I’d bet on Gossett.
Bowling Green Hot Rods (Tampa Bay Rays)
There’s a non-zero chance that Willy Adames starts the year in the MWL, but more than likely he starts the year in Charlotte. Assuming he’s not here, that makes 2014 first-round selection Casey Gillaspie the bat to see if you’re in Bowling Green. A switch-hitting first baseman, Gillaspie isn’t your typical masher at the not-so-hot corner, but he gets rave reviews for his discipline at the plate, and there’s above-average power in his bat as well.
The Rays have taken it slow with 2013 first-round pick Nick Ciuffo, but he should be ready to make his full-season debut in 2015. Ciuffo was considered a bat-first, defense-second prospect coming out of high school, but might actually be further along with the glove now as he’s improved his receiving skills and not shown the same power potential he did as a prep.
Tampa Bay appears to have gotten one of the steals of the draft in Brent Honeywell, a right-hander out of Walters State Community College in Tennessee who was extremely impressive in Princeton last summer. He’s touched 97 mph with his fastball, sitting more comfortably 92-94, and his screwball—yes, screwball—is a plus offering right now. He’ll also show a solid-average change, giving him a chance to be a mid-rotation starter in the coming years.
Burlington Bees (Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim)
Though he didn’t get the hype of some of the other Cuban prospects that signed, Roberto Baldoquin did get $8 million from the Angels, which was a record for an international amateur free agent. Baldoquin doesn’t have a standout tool, but he’s average to above average across the board, with enough athleticism to believe that shortstop is in his future.
The Angels went pitching heavy in the 2014 draft, and a large portion of those hurlers should start their 2015 campaign in Burlington. First round selection Sean Newcomb is a left-hander with two 60 pitches in his fastball and slider, and he’ll also show an above-average change when he’s at his best.
Second-round pick Joey Gatto has battled consistency issues, but on a good day you’ll see a 92-94 mph fastball—with some projection left—and a hard, power curveball. Third-rounder Chris Ellis should also begin the year in Burlington, and while many believe he’s better suited for the bullpen, he has a chance to start with two above-average offerings in his fastball and change, though the curve will have to show more consistency if he’s going to start.
Cedar Rapid Kernels (Minnesota Twins)
The Twins coveted Nick Gordon all spring, and were happy when he made it to them with the fifth pick of the 2014 draft. The son of former All-Star hurler Tom and brother of Marlins second baseman Dee, Gordon has excellent bat-to-barrel skills with sneaky power. What will make him a potential quick advance however is his defense, as his borderline plus-plus arm along with quickness and excellent hands make him a lock to stick at short.
The most volatile pitching prospect in the system might be 2014 third-round selection Michael Cederoth, and he should start the season in Cedar Rapids. In relief, Cederoth will show a legit 80 fastball, but the Twins believe the former San Diego State closer can start and has shown a 94-97 mph heater at times. His command is well below average at this point and neither of his secondary offerings show much consistency, but they’re both better than developmental offerings and give him a chance to be a starter at the big-league level.
Left-hander Stephen Gonsalves also hails from San Diego, and also has had his share of ups and downs since his senior year at Cathedral Catholic High School. He appeared to turn a corner in 2014 though, sitting 92-94 with his fastball and showing the makings of a solid-average slider and above-average change, and there’s still some projection left in his 6-foot-5, 200-pound frame. He spent 36 innings with the Kernels last summer, but at just 20 years old, I imagine he’ll begin his 2015 campaign in the MWL as well.
Clinton Lumberkings (Seattle Mariners)
Alex Jackson had the most offensive upside of any prospect in the draft—college or prep—and like the Twins with Gordon, the Mariners coveted him all spring. Jackson is one of the few hitters who has a chance to have plus hit and power tools, and though he doesn’t have great speed, his plus arm and instincts give him a chance to be a very competent right fielder. It wouldn’t surprise me if Jackson was hitting in the middle of the Mariner lineup by the 2018 season.
It may seem like Luiz Gohara has been in the Mariner system for the past decade, but in reality he’s still just an 18-year-old who should be ready to make his full-season debut in 2015. The Brazilian southpaw has more upside in his left arm than any prospect in the system with a plus mid-90s fastball and a hard slider with late bite. The command and “pitchibility” are light-years away, but if there’s a pitcher on the farm with top-of-the-rotation stuff in the Seattle system, it’s Gohara.
I wasn’t familiar with 2014 fourth-round selection Ryan Yarbrough until a few days before the draft, but the Mariners were high on the left-hander and for good reason. Yarbrough won’t overpower the way he did in Everett (53 strikeouts in 38 innings), but he can miss bats with a 90-92 mph fastball and above-average slider and change.
Dayton Dragons (Cincinnati Reds)
Aristes Aquino was one of the better performers in the Pioneer League in 2014, and is one of the more intriguing “sleeper” prospects in the Reds system right now. The discipline is a concern, but he’s got as much offensive upside as any prospect in the organization, and if the approach grows he’s the one prospect on the Reds who has a chance to be a 20-20 player when he reaches Cincinnati in the next two to three years.
Second-round pick Taylor Sparks is one of the better athletes you’ll see at a corner-infield position, as seen in his 14 stolen bases while with Billings. There’s a great deal of swing and miss in his game, but there’s also a chance for solid-average hit and power tools. And despite standing at 6-foot-4, he has a chance to stick at third base with an above-average arm and solid hands.
The Reds aren’t devoid of pitching prospects, but there isn’t much here in terms of lower-level arms, and 2014 first-round selection Nick Howard is likely headed to High-A Daytona. The best arm that should see time with the Dragons this year is 2014 third-round pick Wyatt Strahan; a right-hander with a sinking 92-94 mph fastball and above-average curveball, though he lacks a competent third pitch at this point.
Fort Wayne Tin Caps (San Diego Padres)
I spoke to scouts about an awful lot of players in 2014, but none had more differing opinions than Michael Gettys. There’s no questioning his athleticism, but there are a ton of questions about whether his 70 speed, 80 arm and 55 raw power can be put into use because the hit tool has so much going against it. He could be an all-star or out of baseball in five years. How’s that for volatile?
Franchy Cordero has been in the Padres system since 2011, has shown flashes of brilliance the last four years, and now looks ready to make his full-season debut. The 20-year-old infielder has major discipline issues (see: 18 walks in 83 games) and makes plenty of mistakes in the field (see: 95 errors the last two seasons), but he also has a chance to hit for average and possesses above-average power as well. Long story short, he’s just as volatile as Gettys. That’s saying something.
There is a long history of Rice pitchers who have come into the league with injury problems, and Zech Lemond is the latest. When healthy, he’s shown a 98 mph fastball along with a plus slider and above-average change, but he’s missed time with soreness in his right arm and at 6-foot-1, 170 pounds; he’s not a lock to start. Assuming the arm troubles are behind him—and again, Rice—he has a chance to be a high-leverage reliever or a competent backend starter. Here’s hoping he’s an exception to the rule.
Kane County Cougars (Arizona Diamondbacks)
When Touki Toussaint is at his best, he’ll show two plus-plus pitches in a 92-97 mph fastball and one of the nastiest curveballs you’ll see from a teenager, with hard spin and two planes of break. When he’s not on, it becomes very obvious that he doesn’t have a quality third offering yet, and his command is well below average. If we see the “best” version more often than the poor edition, he’ll be considered one of the top-20 prospects in all of baseball. That’s a big if, though.
Yoan Lopez was the “other” Cuban prospect signed by the Diamondbacks this spring, holding the record for largest international amateur signing bonus for about 15 minutes before Yoan Moncada devoured it. Lopez doesn’t have a big track-record, but there’s loads of projection in a right arm that already touches 94 mph with the fastball, and two competent off speed pitches in a curveball and change. Scouts I spoke with believe the arm action might profile better in relief, however.
Cody Reed is massive; listed at 6-foot-3, 245 pounds but likely larger than that, the 2014 second-rounder will show above-average pitches at times, including a 92-95 mph fastball. There’s no projection left here—and his size will always be a concern—but there’s solid mid-rotation potential in his left arm.
Lansing Lugnuts (Toronto Blue Jays)
In addition to having one of the stronger names in some time, Max Pentecost also is one of the best catching prospects in baseball. His quick, line-drive stroke allows him to hit the ball hard to every part of the field, and there’s enough strength here to project solid extra-base hit totals as well. He’s also one of the better athletes at the catcher position, and though his arm strength is only average, his quick release is enough to keep all but the fleetest runners at their respective bases.
Toronto took Sean Reid-Foley 38 spots after they selected Pentecost, but there are some who believe that Reid-Foley is the better prospect. The athletic right-hander will touch 97 and sits 92-94 with life on his fastball, and he has a potential plus pitch in his slider, which has hard, late tilt. He’ll also show an average change and fringe-average curveball, throwing all four offerings for strikes. What you see is what you get, but what you see is pretty solid.
With the trade of Barreto to the Athletics, the Blue Jays are as weak as any team up the middle in terms of depth; but Richard Urena is better than a consolation prize as Toronto’s best shortstop prospect. He’s already an above-average defender at short and has a chance to be plus with a borderline plus-plus arm; and though there’s no power potential here, he has a chance to get on base with a short, direct stroke. He’s probably more utility player than regular, but he’s certainly an intriguing middle-infielder to watch this year.
Peoria Chiefs (St. Louis Cardinals)
If someone were to ask me who I thought the most undervalued prospect in baseball was, I believe I’d say it’s Magneuris Sierra. Sierra was one of—if not the—best prospects on display in the Gulf Coast League last year, showing plus speed and an approach at the plate that says prototypical leadoff hitter. He can also “go get it” in centerfield and has an above-average arm. So basically, Magneuris Sierra has a chance to be really, really good.
Jack Flaherty was the second of the Cardinals first-round selections, but with all due respect to Luke Weaver, he’s the most talented player they picked up in the class. Flaherty has two pitches that look like big-league offerings right now in his low-90s fastball and his change, while the slider shows the makings of an above-average pitch as well. He repeats his delivery as well as any prep from the class, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to me if he was one of the first high-school players to make his big-league debut in the next couple of years.
And while I like Flaherty more than Weaver, that doesn’t mean Weaver isn’t a legit prospect. The former Florida State ace has a fastball that has touched 97, but sits more comfortably 92-94, and his change has deception from arm speed with some fade to it, too. The issue is the slider, but if it can become an average offering, he could be a fast-track guy with his ability to throw strikes and miss bats with his change.
Quad City River Bandits (Houston Astros)
Derek Fisher ended up being the highest drafted player to sign with the Astros after the Brady Aiken snafu, and though he’s not near the talent of Aiken, he’s got a chance to be an above-average regular. Consistency has not been his friend, but he has a chance to hit for average and power thanks to his smooth stroke and above-average bat speed, and he’s a plus runner on the bases. The issue here is that he offers very little in terms of defensive value, but he might have the offensive upside to justify putting him in left field everyday.
Daniel Medgen was the fourth-round selection, and the former two-way star at Texas A&M showed above-average stuff in his limited time as a professional last summer. He’ll show four average offerings, led by a 90-92 mph sinking fastball and a hard slider that shows late tilt when he stays on top of the pitch. It’s not the sexiest stuff, but because of his athleticism and newness to pitching, there’s a chance there’s more to come.
West Michigan Whitecaps (Detroit Tigers)
To me, the Detroit Tigers have the worst farm system in all of baseball, and it’s not all that close. It shouldn’t come as a surprise then that this will be one of the least impressive rosters in the Midwest League, though there are a few exceptions to that rule.
The good news for Tigers/White Caps fans is that they’ll get to see Detroit’s best prospect play there at some point this season in 2014 first-rounder Derek Hill. He was one of the very best athletes in last year’s class, but he also has an advanced approach at the plate and a line-drive stroke that isn’t conducive to power, but does allow him to hit the ball with authority to all parts of the field. He’s also arguably the best defensive outfielder drafted last year, as his plus-plus speed and excellent hands make him a lock to play centerfield.
Wisconsin Timber Rattlers (Milwaukee Brewers)
Devin Williams is the best arm in the system, and he should spend most of his time this season in Wisconsin. The 2013 second-round selection touches 95 with his fastball—with some projection left—and he’ll show two average offerings in his slider and change. The control is ahead of the command, but he took a step forward there as well. A future ace he is not, but there’s a non-zero chance he’s a solid mid-rotation starter, with high-leverage reliever as a possible floor.
If there’s a sleeper in the Milwaukee system, it’s right-hander Miguel Diaz, who also should spend time in the Wisconsin rotation. He’s more thrower than pitcher at this point, but he’ll touch 96 with some life to his heater, and both the slider and change flash above average, though he needs to show more confident in the latter. Like Williams, the command needs to see a big bump, but there’s time for the young right-hander to develop into a mid-rotation starter—maybe even more considering how much he’s improved in the past year.
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