So I have been doing this for a while now. This will be my eighth season covering prospects and minor league baseball in some capacity. It’s easy to get jaded. Even though I pick out games or series specifically to try and catch the better prospects around, there’s plenty of evenings out at the park where nobody really grabs me.
We were a year late on Vladito. I’ve confessed the reasons elsewhere, and we ranked him as one of the best prospects in the game this past offseason. And he’s in my backyard. I will likely see him six or seven times in April and another half dozen after that before he likely hits himself out of the Eastern League. I also can’t really come into the game with a blank slate. The hype machine is loud. We have been at times part of it. I imagine I will write him as a Ten Pack or an Eyewitness in the coming weeks. He might even give me grist for a longer column.
Every year my engine slowly turns over around Minor League Opening Day. There’s a long season ahead of me, and a lot of cold April nights at the ballpark off the bat. But I suspect I will settle into a hard stadium seat around five o’clock, dressed in about half a dozen distinct layers, mostly wool, and Vladito’s bat will make a sound, that sound. I’ll shift forward in my seat, the clutch will sputter into gear, and we will be off again. —Jeffrey Paternostro
Heliot Ramos, OF, Low-A Augusta (San Francisco Giants)
When the toolsiest prospect in an organization’s past decade is assigned to your area, it’s worth getting excited about. While the San Francisco Giants don’t boast a long list of toolsy prospects over that span, Heliot Ramos is still worth the hype. He flashes every tool in the shed, from power and speed to center field defense and an arm that can play anywhere. He’s the consensus No. 1 prospect in the Giants system, and we slapped a 70 OFP on him over the offseason. The big question is whether Ramos can tone down the aggressive approach that has led to high strikeout totals and some concerns as to how much he’ll hit in the upper levels. A full season in the minors will be the first step in that part of his development. It’s a big year for Ramos, and he’ll get to show off the tools in Augusta’s new gem of a ballpark. —David Lee
Khalil Lee, OF, High-A Wilmington (Kansas City Royals)
The Royals’ third-round pick in 2016, Lee carries an intriguing profile into the 2018 season. He’s got some pop in the bat, above-average speed, and showed the ability to work the count in Low-A Lexington in 2017.
But there were growing pains, the pains expected from a guy who didn’t turn 19 until June. Lee struck out 32 percent of the time, displayed a swing that got a little long at times, and despite showing above-average speed, was thrown out 18 times in 38 attempts. However, the positives were evident: He showed an advanced feel at the plate, and posted a 12.2 percent walk rate. And as Lee was drafted as a pitcher, the Royals are certainly counting on him to show off his plus arm in the outfield. He saw plenty of time in both center and right field last season, and for now, it seems like he could stick in center thanks to his natural athleticism.
What’s the top thing to watch with Lee this season? Mainly, to see if the above-average raw power and quick hands translate against a theoretically higher level of competition in the Carolina League. There’s a lot to like about Lee, and if things go well for Seuly Matias in Lexington to start the year, the Royals could be showing off 2/3 of their future outfield in Wilmington at some point this season. —Victor Filoromo
Nate Pearson, RHP, High-A Dunedin (Toronto Blue Jays)
Pearson, the 28th overall selection in the 2017 MLB draft, is the player I am most excited to see this season. Drafted out of the Juco ranks, Pearson’s coach at College of Central Florida, stated that in September of 2016, Pearson was considered a 15th round pick. By June, he was a first-rounder. What’s more, Ross Atkins has gone on record as saying that if other teams had the intel the Jays had and the draft were to take place a month later, Pearson could have gone 1.1.
He splashed on the scene last season in Vancouver and was dominant. In 19 innings, he allowed 11 baserunners to 24 strikeouts. In the playoffs he was even better, fanning 14 in eight innings. He throws four pitches and he throws them with intent. His fastball has hit 100 mph but what makes him special is his ability to change speeds on the heater and vary his movement. Reports indicate that at 92-93 his fastball has serious run to it. He also has a wipeout slider, a changeup and a curveball. He can maintain his velocity deep into starts, in part due to his imposing size: 6-foot-6, 245 pounds. He’s willing to attach batters with his entire arsenal and has the upside of a top of the rotation arm. —Jason Woodell
Taylor Trammell, OF, High-A Daytona (Cincinnati Reds)
This is my first full season with BP so I’m excited to see a lot of guys. Between the Florida State League and the Southern League, I will have access to affiliates of 17 different MLB teams. I can double up on the Braves, Reds, Twins and Rays so hopefully I won’t miss out on even the fast movers who sometimes sneak by.
The fact that I can see both the High-A and Double-A Reds’ prospects means that I will definitely be able to get a look at Taylor Trammell. I wrote a profile of Trammell during our preseason fantasy coverage and I found him an interesting study. Athletic and toolsy, Trammell wasn’t focused entirely on baseball in high school and he had a football scholarship to Georgia Tech in hand when he was taken in the first round of the 2016 draft by the Reds. Since turning pro, he has shown a strong work ethic and consistent improvement. We know his plus speed will play, but I’ll be looking to see if he can improve his arm enough to stick in center, whether he can cut down his swing-and-miss at higher levels, and whether the power he showed in Dayton last season is sustainable or was just a factor of playing in a home park that skews heavily toward hitters. —Scott Delp
Michel Baez, RHP, High-A Lake Elsinore (San Diego Padres)
As someone weened on grainy footage of Luis Tiant dominating the Big Red Machine, I’ve always had a soft-spot for Cuban pitchers. And when the Cuban pitcher in question is a 6-foot-8 monster of a man-child, I’m inherently all-in. Our Midwest League eyes saw plenty of Baez last year, and while there was requisite separation between the present and future versions, consensus indicated a startling amount of body control for pitcher so young and so large. It’s certainly no secret that the longer the levers, the higher degree of difficulty in repeating a motion pitch to pitch. So when you hear tell of any pitcher of large stature and precocious command in A ball it tends to raise the flag, and that baby starts flapping all the harder when there are further whispers of multiple intriguing secondaries. When those reports then translate to barely a walk per nine and pair with an elite whiff rate across a decent sample of ten starts? Well, that’s when things tend to get real interesting real fast. The Cal League obviously poses its own set of issues for any pitcher, but I’m looking forward to seeing how Baez handles the challenge. —Wilson Karaman
Triston McKenzie, RHP, High-A Lynchburg (Cleveland Indians)
With his first full season of pro ball behind him, I’m excited to see him build on his success from last season where he was one of four single-A players named to the Futures Game. He has been assigned to High-A Lynchburg, where he spent all of last season and became a relied upon starter, having never missed a start. This year will get off to a bit of a slower start, as he has been placed on the DL due to forearm soreness as a precaution.
Starting against the same level of competition as he finished last year should allow him to pick up where he left off. He has an above-average three pitch mix that he will need to continue to command this season. As a younger player in A-ball, with time on his side for further development in his frame, this should lead to an increase in his fastball velocity which he will need as he moves through the Indian’s system where he will face better bats.
If he continues to display success at High-A this season, I expect to see him reach Double-A late this season, but that could all depend on the seriousness of his injury. —Alexis Collins
Fernando Tatis Jr., SS, Double-A San Antonio (San Diego Padres)
Fernando Tatis Jr. is officially heading to the Texas League to start his age-19 season and he tops the list of players that I’m eager to see. Tatis had a massive 2017 breakout where he flashed plus raw power, posted better than a 1:2 walk-to-strikeout ratio, and continued to impress with his glove at the six.
At 6-foot-3 Tatis is traditionally oversized for the position, but his quickness and athletic, high-waisted frame allow him to more than handle the position at present. He could continue to put on more muscle, but he would likely have to move to third base where his quickness and glove work would make him a plus defender. Tatis is twitchy, shows impressive feel for barrel, and adjusts his swing well to ball location. He also shows patience and is willing to wait on a certain location before swinging early in the count. Tatito can struggle with pitch recognition, especially with breaking balls, and he will need to improve his ability to pick up spin out of the hand.
Tatis is a rare profile of athleticism, size, coordination, and polish for his age. Guys with that combination commonly make it to the majors and many of them turn into first-division regulars or better. Pitch recognition can be a tricky stepping stone which could potentially hold Tatis’ other abilities from shining through, but with only two seasons of professional baseball behind him, he has plenty of time to improve. Regardless, Tatis is must watch baseball in the Texas League in 2018 and he will have the unfiltered attention of everyone sitting behind home plate. —Kevin Carter
Alex Faedo, RHP, High-A Lakeland (Detroit Tigers)
It’s not often that you find a player making the jump straight from the College World Series to High-A ball the following season, but it appears that the Tigers will have what they consider a potential front-line starter on the mound this season in Lakeland. Word on the street is that he has big-league stuff already, but the mechanical issues that loom from college still need to be ironed out. He features a funky delivery, usually from a three-quarters slot, but has tinkered with multiple arm angles over time. To some scouts, his mechanics are jerky and use of multiple arm angles has limited his upside/decreased his velocity. The fastball isn’t overpowering for hitters (91-95), though he has shown the ability to reach back for a little more. His fastball also displays significant late, sinking action, making it difficult for hitters to make hard contact. He mixes in a lethal slider (86-87), with hard bite when ahead in the count and is still developing command over his changeup.
I am excited to see how he fairs mentally and prepares physically in his first professional season. Lakeland, particularly, is known for its late afternoon thunderstorms, which could wreak havoc on any players routine, something that Faedo will have to adjust to accordingly. —Josh Turner
Sam McMillan, C, Low-A West Michigan (Detroit Tigers)
The Tigers may be more famous for their raging crush on hard-throwing righties, but they also have developed a reputation for taking catchers in the early rounds. The industry shies away from prep catchers due to a poor track record—it says something when Austin Hedges and Travis d’Arnaud are the poster boys—but McMillan merited some long looks last spring. Rumored to be in play for a second-round selection, he slipped to the fifth. Detroit snatched him up and handed him a fat $1 million bonus.
McMillan ate up GCL pitching during an assignment that lasted 37 games; he slashed .288/.441/.432 and walked more often than he struck out. The Tigers may have expected to slow-play his development when they selected him, but that likely won’t be the case. A prime candidate to spend the entire season in West Michigan, McMillan would benefit from a full season of baseball.
Low-A is a great place to gain stability and adapt to life in pro ball while testing his mettle against pitchers with better stuff than he’s regularly seen before, and he should reach it some point this season. His defensive game will also benefit, working with a pitching staff notorious for strong fastballs and less than ideal command. If his season is successful, he could easily make his way into the organization’s top ten prospects. —Jay Markle