I started a series counting down prospects back in the fall. I wrote a list in late July, started writing the posts at the same time starting from the bottom up, doing one post every few days, then holding on to publish them all in a row. Halfway through the writing, I disliked it, and had already started posting them. Almost two months after making the list my opinions were changing. For a MLB player with a 15-year career, two months is not much time. For a prospect who might spend 15-18 months tops in full-season minor league ball, 2 months is a big chunk of their publicly-displayed minor league development.
From the time that I wrote my list and started typing the accompanying posts to the end of the year, Shelby Miller pitched 59 1/3 minor league innings, striking out 70 and walking only seven. He went from the pitcher passed up by Joe Kelly for a St. Louis rotation spot to the most dominant pitcher in the minor leagues and a no-brainer member of St. Louis’s post-season roster in under six weeks. In August, I went from having just read a little here and there about Addison Russell to enjoying in-person the religious experience of seeing Russell overshadow older players in low-A.
Things change for prospects in a short window like that, especially when we’re assuming the often futile task of putting them in some kind of order.
Instead of a Top 50, or Top 100, that lists players in a specific order, I’m doing a Top 54 (just to be arbitrary and to tie the number to the number in my online handle), and instead of ranking all the players I’m grouping them into tiers.
I like tiers. Tiers don’t leave me open to asking myself “Why do have Player X one spot higher than Player Y?” The answer in some of those cases was a good one like “more upside” or “better in-game hit and power”, but it was often simply “I don’t know. I could go either way.” So I grouped them into tiers, since putting one prospect one spot higher or lower than another strikes me now as kind of silly. I like Oscar Taveras, Dylan Bundy and Jurickson Profar about the same. Bundy is a stud pitcher who looks like a future number one starter, which is not a tag I use lightly. Taveras is the best minor league hitter I’ve ever laid eyes on. Profar has all five tools, and they are all above-average–if he had just one elite tool he might eclipse Bundy and Taveras and sit alone in Tier 1. Between these three, however, there’s no present reason to rank any one of them higher or lower than the two others.
Of the 54 players, I have seen 23 live in person. I have seen most of the rest on television, either on a major network (Futures Game, MLB games) or milb.tv (all of the players in the high minors at least a half-dozen times each. I don’t count low-minors games in places with awful one-camera feeds as having seen the player.) There are only 6 players on the list I have not seen play in some form. Supplementing what I’ve seen from each of those players is my analysis of their statistical performance, and I’ve been influenced a little by what I have read from others, especially the guys at Baseball America, Jason Parks at Baseball Prospectus, Keith Law at ESPN and John Sickels at minorleagueball.com.
If there is bias in the rankings, it is me favoring players I have seen more of over players I’ve seen less, or players I’ve seen over those I have not. Matt Adams is a great example. Adams is very high on my list because I have seen him hit, and know what he can do. I’m ok with where Adams is, though. He’s a future middle-of-the-order 30HR .270/.330/.480 hitter almost without a doubt.
To shed a little light on my tiering of the players, beyond tools and stats, there are a two things I look at heavily. The first, and the most important to me, is age. On the surface, Francisco Lindor’s batting line in low-A this year is unremarkable: .257/.352/.355 is not exactly a world-beating line. However, when I factor in that Lindor was the second-youngest player in any full-season low-A league this year (his 11/14/1993 birthday makes him older than only Texas’s Rougned Odor) and that at only 18 years old Lindor was able to show the kind of advanced approach that produces an OBP over .350, that speaks volumes. Many future stars are still in high school, college, JuCo, or playing short-season ball or instructs at an age in which Lindor was arguably the Midwest League’s most exciting overall player. Age matters.
You should also know that I don’t give as much weight to minor league defense as most. I consider it, which should be obvious by the presence of Austin Hedges and a couple others on this list, but I don’t weigh it as much. Of the 30 position players on this list, most earned their spot with their bat. The more likely a player is to hit well once they reach MLB, and what I perceive their MLB batting ceiling to be, is driving 70% of what you will read below. The more likely a player is to bat well at a premium defensive position, the more likely they are to be ranked higher than someone who will hit the same at a defensive position lower in that order.
However, I don’t consider being a defensive whiz in low-A to be a huge deal. Lots of teenagers are defensive whizzes in the low minors. Lots of strong arms and rangy quick-twitch players have that when they’re very young. I saw several low-A players in 2012 and thought “he could play defense in the majors today.” I did not, however, see anyone in low-A last year who could handle MLB pitching as a hitter. Simply put, it’s tougher to become a great hitter than it is to become a great fielder. You could substitute Albert Almora, Jackie Bradley or Aaron Hicks for the best defensive CF in baseball, Peter Bourjos of the Angels, and not lose much, if anything. But none of those three is nearly ready to hit at the MLB level. Beyond that, the bat will determine how long a lot of those defense-first players stick in the majors. Slick-fielding up-the-middle players tend to have Young Player Skills, and when Young Player Skills slow down or stop, the player loses utility. That slick-fielding SS whose bat does not develop will have a shorter career than the unathletic corner OF, 3B or 1B who can hit–those skills last longer. The hit tool needs time to develop, and when someone has it naturally, and has it at a high level, that’s far more special than a rangy teenage shortstop or a CF prodigy who can run down a lot of fly balls.
That said. If a player is likely to be defensively plus-plus at his position, and if his bat is good or developing into good, and that defensive position is one of the top three (especially catcher and shortstop), that player is going to get more consideration. Position matters, but being a defensive prodigy is not as big a deal to me as it is to others.
On to the tiers. Inside the tiers players are sorted alphabetically.
- Dylan Bundy, RHP, Baltimore Orioles
- Jurickson Profar, SS/2B, Texas Rangers
- Oscar Taveras, OF, St. Louis Cardinals
- Jose Fernandez, RHP, Miami Marlins
- Shelby Miller, RHP, St. Louis Cardinals
- Wil Myers, OF, Tampa Bay Rays
- Taijuan Walker, RHP, Seattle Mariners
- Javier Baez, SS, Chicago Cubs
- Xander Bogaerts, SS, Boston Red Sox
- Byron Buxton, OF, Minnesota Twins
- Nick Castellanos, OF/3B, Detroit Tigers
- Gerrit Cole, RHP, Pittsburgh Pirates
- Francisco Lindor, SS, Cleveland Indians
- Zach Wheeler, RHP, New York Mets
- Albert Almora, OF, Chicago Cubs .
- Archie Bradley, RHP, Arizona Diamondbacks
- Carlos Correa, SS, Houston Astros
- Addison Russell, SS, Oakland A’s
- Tyler Skaggs, LHP, Arizona Diamondbacks
- Jameson Taillon, RHP, Pittsburgh Pirates
- Mike Zunino, C, Seattle Mariners
- Trevor Bauer, RHP, Cleveland Indians
- Clayton Blackburn, RHP, San Francisco Giants
- Jackie Bradley, OF, Boston Red Sox
- Austin Hedges, C, San Diego Padres
- Mike Olt, 3B, Texas Rangers
- Yasiel Puig, OF, Los Angeles Dodgers
- Miguel Sano, 3B, Minnesota Twins
- George Springer, OF, Houston Astros
- Christian Yelich, OF, Miami Marlins
- Matt Adams, 1B, St. Louis Cardinals
- Taylor Guerrieri, RHP, Tampa Bay Rays
- Billy Hamilton, OF, Cincinnati Reds
- Jorge Soler, OF, Chicago Cubs
- Noah Syndergaard, RHP, New York Mets
- Mason Williams, OF, New York Yankees
- Chris Archer, RHP, Tampa Bay Rays
- Oswaldo Arcia, OF, Minnesota Twins
- Nick Franklin, SS/2B, Seattle Mariners
- Kevin Gausman, RHP, Baltimore Orioles
- Carlos Martinez, RHP, St. Louis Cardinals
- Julio Teheran, RHP, Atlanta Braves
- Kyle Zimmer, RHP, Kansas City Royals
- Danny Hultzen, LHP, Seattle Mariners
- Gregory Polanco, OF, Pittsburgh Pirates
- Trevor Rosenthal, RHP, St. Louis Cardinals
- Aaron Sanchez, RHP, Toronto Blue Jays
- Robert Stephenson, RHP, Cincinnati Reds
- Matt Barnes, RHP, Boston Red Sox
- Michael Wacha, RHP, St. Louis Cardinals
- Kolten Wong, 2B, St. Louis Cardinals
- Adam Eaton, OF, Arizona Diamondbacks
- Anthony Rendon, 2B, Washington Nationals
- Jorge Alfaro, C, Texas Rangers
The following are only players I saw in 2012.
Best Hitter: Taveras
Best Power, Raw: Sano
Best Power, In-Game: Adams
Best Fastball: Syndergaard/Bradley
Best Breaking Pitch: Archer
Best Changeup: Wacha
Best Command: Wacha
Best Defender, Catcher: Hedges
Best Defender, Infield: Lindor
Best Arm, Non-Pitcher: Hedges
Best Frame, Pitcher: Bradley