The 2016 “prospect” season was a fun one. It may not have been as star-studded as the bumper crop of 2015, but we saw plenty of high-end guys make an impact at the big-league level, and we saw quite a few players show the upside that suggests they could be the next Carlos Correa, Kris Bryant or Carlos Rodon.
That being said, 2016 was also a frustrating season. Many prospects—ranging from upper-echelon to intriguing but volatile to “safe” bets—had more than their fair share of ups and downs. This is to be expected, of course; baseball is extremely hard and young players are going to play like young players, but this year in particular seemed to have more volatility than any I can remember covering.
Last year, I did an article where I gave up on some prospects. This year, I’ll go a bit more positive. Here’s a look at seven prospects that face “make or break” seasons in 2017.
D.J. Peterson, 1B, Seattle Mariners — Compared to what we saw from Peterson in 2015, most of his campaign can be qualified as a success. It still pales in comparison to what we saw in 2013-14, when he was one of the best corner-infield prospects in all of baseball. There’s more length to his swing, and while that’s added some loft, it’s also added more contact issues. He’s also limited to first base defensively, so the bat is going to have to max out. We’ve seen flashes that suggest that outcome is possible, but time is running out.
Duane Underwood, RHP, Chicago Cubs — I’d say Underwood has frustrated scouts since becoming a professional, but that would be a lie; he frustrated in high school, too. When you see Underwood at his best, he’s showing three plus pitches; and the fastball is borderline plus-plus and touching the high-90-mph range. When he’s not at his best, his curveball and change are 40- to 50-grade pitches, and the fastball is flat. And, unfortunately, there are times where we don’t get to see Underwood at all, as he has yet to throw more than 100 innings in a professional season. He’s as talented as any Cubs hurler not named Dylan Cease, but it’s time for him to put it all together.
Trey Ball, LHP, Boston Red Sox — Not only is 2017 potentially a make-or-break year for Ball in terms of his status as a prospect, it could be a deciding factor as to where he makes his living on the diamond. Ball had his best season by far since being taken with the seventh pick of the 2013 draft, but this is not saying much. The only pitch that is consistently more than average is the fastball—and he’s not a flame-thrower, usually 89-92—and while the change flashes plus, it only hits that grade sporadically, and the curveball doesn’t show more than average. He also struggle to throw strikes or hit his spots, so it would not surprise me if the Red Sox were to give Ball a chance to hit if he doesn’t take a major step forward in 2017. He was one of my favorite prep bats in that class, and at this point, it might be his best (only) path to the big leagues.
Colin Moran, 3B, Houston Astros — Ignore Moran’s struggles in Houston. That’s way too small a sample size to fret over. Be concerned instead about his numbers in Triple-A Fresno (.258/.329/.368), at a level and league that a hitter as talented as Moran should dominate. The selling point with Moran when he was a potential 1-1 selection was his advanced feel for hitting, but the approach took a substantial step backwards in 2016, as seen in the 124 strikeouts in just 117 games. He’s also not going to remind anyone of Scott Rolen with the glove, so like we mentioned with Peterson, the bat is going to have to carry him. His chances of making the loaded Houston infield are already pretty much shot, so Moran will be auditioning for a chance to play everyday with another club in 2017, assuming he’s not moved this winter.
Nick Williams, OF, Philadelphia Phillies — After showing a vastly improved approach in 2015, Williams went backwards in 2016, walking just 19 times in 527 plate appearances and posting a .287 on-base percentage. There’s a lot to like about the swing, it’s just that we see that swing entirely too much; rarely working counts and often ending at-bats by swinging at pitches out of the zone. Of all the guys listed here he’s the most likely big leaguer, but his status as one of the best outfield prospects in baseball is on notice. Take more pitches, Nick.
Taylor Guerrieri, RHP, Tampa Bay Rays — Guerrieri actually means up-and-down in Luxembourgish. He’s had his fair-share of peaks and valleys both on and off the field, but in 2016, he looked more like a future swingman than a third starter. He struggled to miss bats at a level we hadn’t seen this summer (just 89 in 146 innings), and the fastball has lost a couple of ticks since he was a prep. His ability to throw strikes gives him a chance to start, but if this year’s version is the Guerrieri we are going to see going forward, that’s a little disappointing.
Mark Appel, RHP, Philadelphia Phillies — I’d say I saved the best for the last, but in truth, I just kinda forgot about Appel. He definitely qualifies, though. It’s hard to forget the version we saw in college, when he was showing three swing-and-miss pitches and locating them for strikes. We haven’t seen that version of Appel as a professional, or at least not very often. It may be inconsiderate to expect much from his right arm coming back from Tommy John surgery, but he’s already 25-year-old, it’s time to see something. I hope we see something.