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|1. Jose De Leon, RHP|
|Born: 08/07/92||Age: 24||Bats: R||Top CALs: Evan Scribner, Matt Garza, Jeff Stevens, Blake Snell, Josh Hader|
|Height: 6-2||Weight: 190||Throws: R|
Background: It’s been talked about ad naseum at this point. But to a certain extent it does bear repeating – if only because it rarely happens. De Leon was barely an afterthought outside – and likely inside – the Dodgers’ organization when they took the 6-foot-2, 190-pound right-hander in the 24th round out of Southern University and A&M College in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, in 2013. While the school is home to such dignitaries as Lou Brock and Vida Blue, the Jaguars haven’t had a meaningful draft pick since the Brewers took Rickie Weeks with the second overall selection in the 2003 draft. And since De Leon’s selection as the 724th player taken four years ago, there’s been exactly one player chosen from the college: Lance Jones, a 36th round in 2015.
But in that time the Puerto Rican-born De Leon has flourished and developed into one of the most impressive arms in the minor leagues.
After dominating the lower and middle rungs of the system, De Leon found himself in the Pacific Coast League for the first part of last season. And he looked at home, at ease – even if he was hampered by some arm inflammation and an ankle injury. In 16 starts with the Oklahoma City Dodgers, De Leon threw 86.1 innings, allowed 25 ER while fanning 111 and walking just 20. He finished the year with a 2.61 ERA and a 3.24 FIP. For his career, De Leon is averaging a flat-out impressive 12.1 strikeouts and just 2.7 walks per nine innings.
Projection: From skeptic to perhaps his biggest fan on the planet, here’s my analysis beginning in 2015:
“Former 24th round pick fanned 119 in 77.0 innings between Ogden and Great Lakes. I’ll start believing once he spends more than 22.2 innings above the rookie leagues.”
And here’s what I wrote in last year’s book:
“De Leon has transformed from a late-round gamble into a legitimate front-of-the-rotation caliber arm, who, laughably, would be the system’s top hurler if it weren’t for Urias. Strikeouts come in gobs. The walks barely materialize.”
De Leon’s fastball averaged a smidge under 92 mph – a bit surprising given his propensity for missing wood. But his slider was absolutely filthy during his time in LA. Over his final three starts with Oklahoma City last season the young right-hander fanned 33 and walked 0 in 21.2 innings. And if you expand that to his last five starts he fanned 45 and walked two in 34.2 innings.
Yeah, I’d say he was big league ready. Wouldn’t you?
Tampa Bay is betting on it: they acquired the potentially dominant big league arm for second baseman Logan Forsythe this offseason.
Ceiling: 4.5-win player
MLB ETA: Debuted in 2016
|2. Willy Adames, SS|
|Born: 09/02/95||Age: 21||Bats: R||Top CALs: Tim Beckham, Jonathan Galvez, Arismendy Alcantara, Alen Hanson. Karexon Sanchez|
|Height: 6-1||Weight: 180||Throws: R|
Background: Pop Quiz: Who had a better offensive showing in the Southern League last season, former #1 overall pick Dansby Swanson or Willy Adames? The obvious answer, of course, is Adames, who outslugged the Braves’ face of the franchise .274/.372/.430 (135 wRC+) vs. .261/.342/.402 (117 wRC+). I’d be remiss to mention that Swanson was two years his senior. In 132 games with the Montgomery Biscuits – man, is that the greatest name in sports or what? – Adams, a 6-foot-1, 180-pound shortstop out of the Dominican Republic, set career highs in doubles (31), homeruns (11), and stolen bases (13) while posting the second best marks of his professional life in walk percentage (13.0%), strikeout percentage (21.3%), and Isolated Power (.156). For his career, Adames is sporting a .265/.366/.409 triple-slash line against vastly older competition.
Projection: Let’s continue walking down the Southern League path for a minute, shall we?
- The last time a qualified shortstop in the league topped a 135 wRC+ mark was four years ago when Marcus Semien, who was 22 at the time, finished the year with a 167 wRC+.
- Since 2006, here’s a list of all qualified shortstops in the Southern League that have topped a 135 wRC+ mark before their age-21 season: Willy Adames.
Here’s what I wrote in last year’s book when I ranked him as the 61st overall prospect:
“Similar to [teammate] Jake Bauers in a sense because Adames is also one of the more underrated prospects in the game, especially considering his position (shortstop). To be fair, though, he remains a work in progress on the defensive side of the ball. With a bat in his hands, though, Adames has a solid eye at the plate – he’s walked in more than 13% of his plate appearances – with pop and a decent hit tool.”
Fast forward a year and he’s trimmed his fringe-red-flag territory strikeout percentage down from 27% to a solid 21.3%. The power continued to grow, the patience at the plate actually jumped even higher, and his defense, according to Clay Davenport’s metrics, has been OK. If he continues to take baby steps, there’s no reason his name won’t be in the same group as Carlos Correa, Francisco Lindor, and Brandon Crawford.
Ceiling: 4.0-win player
MLB ETA: 2017/2018
|3. Brent Honeywell, RHP|
|Born: 03/31/95||Age: 22||Bats: R||Top CALs: Jake Thompson, Eduardo Sanchez, Ivan Pineyro, Eduardo Rodriguez, Jesse Litsch|
|Height: 6-2||Weight: 180||Throws: R|
Background: Here’s what I wrote in last year’s book for Top 25 Breakout Prospects for 2016: “Like a simmering pot of water, Honeywell is edging towards a boiling point. He’s entering his age-21 season and likely will spend a good chunk of it in Class AA. [He’s one] of my favorite arms in the entire minors.” Hello, boiling point. Honeywell, a supplemental second round pick out of Walters State Community College in Morristown, Tennessee, sandwiched 10 ridiculous starts in the Florida State League around a six week absence early in the season. In total for the Stone Crabs, he threw 56.1 innings with a 64-to-11 strikeout-to-walk ratio with a 2.77 FIP. And he didn’t slow down upon his promotion to the Southern League either. In another 10 starts with the Biscuits, Honeywell fanned 22.5% and walked 5.9% of the total batters he faced en route to tallying a 3.17 FIP.
Projection: Here’s what I wrote in last year’s book:
“Above-average or better control, Honeywell, who’s walked just 5% of the batters he’s faced in his career, has as high of a ceiling as any pitcher in the system – including budding ace Blake Snell. Honeywell has missed a ton of bats, shows poise beyond his years, and could be in the big leagues as soon as 2017 – as another front-of-the rotation caliber arm. And Cal remains a huge fan as well, linking him to Luis Severino, Robert Stephenson, Drew Hutchison, and A.J. Cole.”
A few things to note: CAL’s still a huge fan, comparing him to Lucas Giolito, Phil Bickford, org-mate Hunter Wood, Stephen Gonsalves, and Spencer Adams, all of whom are top minor league arms; and he’s still positioned to make it to the big leagues in 2017. Again, one of the top MiLB arms in the game with a ceiling as a front-end starter – assuming the arm soreness he suffered through early last season. Oh, yeah, he throws a screwball, which is cool by itself.
Ceiling: 3.5- to 4.0-win player
MLB ETA: 2017/2018
|4. Casey Gillaspie, 1B|
|Born: 01/25/93||Age: 24||Bats: B||Top CALs: Matt LaPorta, Rhys Hoskins, A.J. Reed, Kennys Vargas, Nick Evans|
|Height: 6-4||Weight: 240||Throws: L|
Background: After a bit of a disappointing debut in short-season ball, Gillaspie, whose production that year was buoyed by his tremendous eye at the plate rather than the thump of his bat, had a massive coming out party the following year. In 64 games with the Bowling Green Hot Rods, the switch-hitting Wichita State product slugged .278/.358/.530 with 27 extra-base hits – 11 doubles and 16 homeruns – en route to topping the league average production by 55%. The club pushed him up to High Class A in June, but a left wrist injury knocked him out after five games. Undeterred by his lack of playing time above Low Class A, Tampa Bay’s front office aggressively pushed the 20th overall pick up to the Biscuit for the start of the 2016 season. And he didn’t miss a beat.
Gillaspie got off to a hot start last season, slugging .302/.426/.518 with 16 doubles, nine homeruns and a down right, damn impressive 51-to-45 strikeout-to-walk ratio over his first 59 games. His bat turned cold over his next 26 contests – .202/.296/.319 – but it didn’t stop the team from promoting him up to Durham for the rest of the season.
With the Bulls, Gillaspie slugged .307/.389/.520 with 13 doubles, a pair of triples, and seven dingers while topping the league average production by a mind-boggling 63%.
Projection: First off, here’s what I wrote about Gillaspie prior to the 2014 draft:
“My favorite collegiate bat – bar none. Above-average power and patience, improving hit tool, the ability to hit from both sides of the plate, and a reasonably strong glove at first. And while he’s not going to be a game changer in the professional ranks, I do think he’s the cream of the draft crop in terms of [collegiate] offensive upside, perhaps peaking around a .280/.360/.490-type hitter.”
And I followed that up by writing the following in last year’s book:
“The analysis still seems on point. Gillaspie posted a .252 Isolated Power in Low Class A last season, walked in more than 10% of his plate appearances, and topped the average production by more than 55%. The problem, of course, is that he’s now entering his age-23 season with just 13 games above the Midwest League. Meaning: he’s performed how a collegiate high round pick should perform against inferior competition. And we likely won’t get a better feel until he faces off against Class AA.”
Well, we definitely have a better feel for his ceiling now. And let’s just say it’s a lofty one. He ripped through Class AA, the minors’ toughest test, by topping the league average production by 45%. Here’s the best part: it wasn’t BABIP inflated (.327). Tremendous, tremendous eye at the plate, 20-homer power with 35 doubles, and he handles lefties and righties equally well. He’s entering his age-24 season with zero red flags.
Ceiling: 3.5-win player
MLB ETA: 2017
|5. Jacob Faria, RHP|
|Born: 07/30/93||Age: 23||Bats: R||Top CALs: Johnny Barbato, Josh Hader, Jose Berrios, Wade Davis, Dan Cortes|
|Height: 6-4||Weight: 200||Throws: R|
Background: A late round selection out of Gahr High School, home to Kris Medlen and Shane Mack by the way, Faria, like teammates Willy Adames and Jake Bauers, turned more than a few heads in the Southern League last season. The former 10th round pick in 2010 paced the league in strikeout rate (10.04 K/4) and finished second in strikeout percentage (27.0%) among all pitchers with at least 80 innings last season. And even though his control wavered throughout the year, he still finished his time in the Southern League with fifth highest strikeout-to-walk percentage as well. After 14 starts with the Biscuits, 12 of which were at least five innings, Faria got the promotion to the International League for another 13 contests. Overall, he finished the year with 151 IP, 157 K, 68 walks, and an aggregate – and bloated – 3.99 ERA.
Projection: Like a lot of the Baby Rays, I’ve been on the Faria-Bandwagon for years now. Two years I wrote the following:
“Only two other qualified 20-year-old hurlers finished with a better strikeout-to-walk percentage in the Midwest League [in 2014]. He’s ready to be pushed aggressively. Let’s see if the franchise recognizes it.”
And, of course, I was incredibly modest about it in last year’s book, writing:
“How’s that for spot-on analysis? The only thing I neglected to do was put Faria among the biggest breakout prospects for last season. Faria isn’t overpowering, but optimizes his talent incredibly well by limiting walks, pounding the zone, and keeping the ball in park. He’s not the same caliber arm as Snell or Honeywell, but he’s not far from it. Solid #2/#3-type arm. He’s knocking on the big league club’s door. Remember the name. CAL’s a big fan as well, linking him to Randall Delgado, Johnny Cueto, Edwin Diaz, Eduardo Rodriguez, and Josh Hader.”
CAL’s still a huge fan, linking him to teammate Hunter Wood and Lucas Giolito. The control/command wavered a bit last season, but there’s no reason to suspect that it won’t bounce back in 2017 – even after he makes his big league debut (after the Super 2 deadline, of course). He still looks like a safe bet to develop into a 3.0- to 3.5-win pitcher in the coming years.
Ceiling: 3.0- to 3.5-win player
MLB ETA: 2017
|6. Jake Bauers, 1B/RF|
|Born: 10/06/95||Age: 21||Bats: L||Top CALs: Cheslor Cuthbert, Freddie Freeman, Dominic Smith, Logan Morrison, Anthony Rizzo|
|Height: 6-1||Weight: 195||Throws: L|
Background: Pop Quiz Part I: Name the top three 20-year-old hitters in any Class AA league. Answer (in descending order): Cody Bellinger, Willy Adames, and Jake Bauers. Acquired as part of the three-team deal involving the Nationals and Padres, Bauers has been one of the top sabermetric performers throughout his entire minor league career. He posted a 128 wRC+ as an 18-year-old in the Midwest League, a whopping 142 wRC+ the following year in High Class A through 59 games, and was better than average after a mid-season promotion to Class AA. Back with the Montgomery Biscuits last year, the former seventh round pick batted .274/.370/.420 with 28 doubles, one triple, a career best 14 homeruns, and 10 stolen bases (another career high) while topping the league average offensive production by 32%. For his career, he’s sporting an impressive .280/.360/.413 with 86 two-baggers, eight triples, and 34 homeruns in 422 games.
Projection: Again, taking a page right out of Willy Adames’ book, let’s take another stroll down the Southern League path, shall we? Consider the following:
- Number of qualified 20-year-old players to top a 130 wRC+ in the league: two (Adames and Bauer).
- The number of qualified 20-year-olds to top a 130 wRC+ mark in the league since 2006: two (Adames and Bauer).
If having one player meet the criteria is impressive, it’s an embarrassment of riches for the Rays to have two. Here’s what I wrote about Bauers two years ago in my book:
“His power really seemed to be developing at the onset of  when he was sporting a .169 ISO, but [it] really trailed off after that. Either way, though, he’s slugged just nine homeruns in his first 159 games. If the power takes a step forward, he has a chance to be a middle-of-the-lineup thumper. If not, maybe like an Eric Hosmer, post hype.”
And I followed that up with this in last year’s book:
“Well, after noting Bauers’ power in the first part of 2014, he posted an eerily similar mark in the Florida State League last year (.166). It’s also incredibly promising that the power he showed in Class AA, .128 ISO, is also the second highest mark of his young career. He might be the best prospect you’ve never heard of – YET.”
Solid hit tool? Check. Damn fine walk rates? Yup, got those too. Developing pop? Yes. Can the lefty-swinging first baseman handle southpaws and right-handers equally well? Yes, historically. So there’s reason to believe that last year’s struggles against lefties (.236/.344/.340) should prove to be an anomaly. CAL’s a huge fan, tying him to Freddie Freeman, Logan Morrison, and Anthony Rizzo. Not sure his power gets to that point, but he should develop into an above-average big league bat.
Ceiling: 3.5-win player
MLB ETA: 2017/2018
|7. Jaime Schultz, RHP|
|Born: 06/20/91||Age: 26||Bats: R||Top CALs: Radhames Liz, Marquis Fleming, Brian Akin, Colton Murray, Robert Coelio|
|Height: 5-10||Weight: 200||Throws: R|
Background: Among all hurlers with at least 130 innings under their respective belts last season, no pitcher posted a higher strikeout percentage than the fire-slinging right-hander out of little known High University. Schultz, a former 14th round pick in 2013, fanned a whopping 163 of the 553 total batters he faced – or just under 30%. And this wasn’t the first time the 5-foot-10, 200+ pound hurler compiled strikeouts in bunches either. He struck out 168 in 135.0 innings in Class AA two years ago, whiffed 79 in 60.0 innings between High Class A and Low Class A in 2014, and punched out 55 in 44.1 innings with Hudson Valley during his debut. For his career, he’s fanned 29.5%. Again, that’s for his entire career.
And now for the bad news…
Projection: He has as much accuracy as a little boy being potty trained. And how bad is it? His walk percentage, 12.3%, is just the second time in his four-year career that he’s posted a mark below 15.0%. He’s averaged more than five walks per nine innings in 85 games spanning 370.0 innings.
But we can dream, though…
Schultz fanned more than 10 hitters in four of his 27 starts and struck out at least seven guys six additional times.
In my first article published on ESPN, I asked a simple question: Would Nolan Ryan be a Relief Pitcher Today? The crux of the article is quite simple: Ryan suffered from notorious control issues early in his career, same thing with Randy Johnson too. But they were given ample – ample – time to develop into legitimate aces. The stocky right-hander is on the short, short list of best punch out artists in the minor leagues, so he’ll continue to get options in the rotation. I hope.
Ceiling: 3.0- to 3.5-win player
MLB ETA: 2017
|8. Josh Lowe, 3B|
|Born: 02/02/98||Age: 19||Bats: L||Top CALs: N/A
|Height: 6-4||Weight: 190||Throws: R|
Background: Hailing from Pope High School in Marietta, Georgia, home to Chicago Cubs’ prospect Duane Underwood and former big league vagabond Brandon Boggs, Tampa Bay grabbed the lefty-swinging third baseman with the 13th overall pick last June and signed him to a $2.6 million deal, nearly a full million dollars less than the preceding pick, Jason Groome, received from Atlanta. Tampa Bay pushed Lowe to the Gulf Coast for a crash course in professional ball, where he slugged an impressive .258/.386/.409 with six doubles, one triple, two homeruns, and a stolen base in 28 games. He got bumped up to the Appalachian League for another 26 contests, hitting .238/.360/.400.
Projection: The strikeout rate the second half of the season isn’t concerning – especially considering how well he hit in the GCL. My initial impression: promising power, solid or better eye at the plate. Per the usual on incoming prep players, I’m going to wait until after the 2017 season to fully assess his ceiling.
Ceiling: Too Soon to Tell
MLB ETA: N/A
|9. Garrett Whitley, CF|
|Born: 03/13/97||Age: 20||Bats: R||Top CALs: Eduardo Sosa, Bralin Jackson, Benjamin Gamel, Rymer Liriano, Jose Rivero|
|Height: 6-1||Weight: 205||Throws: R|
Background: The 13th overall pick two years ago, Whitley followed up a miserable debut showing – he batted .188/.310/.365 between both rookie leagues – with a performance more suggestive of his talent. In 65 games with Hudson Valley in the New York-Penn League, the 6-foot-1, 205-pound center fielder batted .266/.356/.379 with 12 doubles, seven triples, one homerun, and 21 stolen bases (in 26 attempts). His overall production, according to Weighted Runs Created Plus, topped the league average mark by 24%.
Projection: There were three players in the New York-Penn League that slashed six or more triples: Whitley, Jake Fraley, and Angel Perez – all of whom play in Tampa Bay’s system. The difference: Whitley was two years younger than his teammates. Anyway, the speedy center fielder offers up an above-average eye at the plate with developing power. His swing-and-miss tendencies were borderline red flag territory last year, so that’s something to keep an eye on.
Ceiling: 2.5- to 3.0-win player
Risk: Moderate to High
MLB ETA: 2019
|10. Hunter Wood, RHP|
|Born: 08/12/93||Age: 23||Bats: R||Top CALs: R. Castillo, Hector Santiago, Chris Jones, Jordan Walden, Tyler Herron|
|Height: 6-1||Weight: 175||Throws: R|
Background: To say that the twice-drafted Wood got off on a hot start in High Class A would be an understatement of sorts. In 11 games, nine of which were starts, he posted a 1.70 ERA (third best mark in the Florida State League among hurlers with 60+ innings), fanned 22.6% and walked 9.7% of the batters he faced. And after he got the promotion to the Southern League, Wood, who was picked in the 32nd and 29th rounds, saw a noticeable uptick in his strikeout rate as he punched out 49 hitters in 49.1 innings. Overall, he finished the year with a promising 105-to-44 strikeout-to-walk ratio and a 2.39 ERA in 113.0 combined innings.
Projection: Like his teammate Justin Williams, I named Wood among the Top 25 Breakout Prospects for 2016, writing:
“After splitting last season between the Midwest and Florida State Leagues, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the former 29th round pick make his way up to Class AAA at some point in 2016. Impressive ability to miss bats with an equally strong feel for the strike zone. And, yet, no one’s really talking about him. For now.”
Well, he didn’t make it up to Class AAA, but he isn’t that far off. Typically, the Rays handle their young arms very cautiously, so I would expect him back in the Southern League for the first half of 2017. As far as his ceiling is concerned, Wood looks like a lively-armed #3/#4 starter – something the Rays seem to grow with ease.
Ceiling: 2.0- to 2.5-win player
MLB ETA: 2018
Author’s note: A special hat tip the following websites for the use of the their statistics – fangraphs, baseballreference, baseballprospectus, statcorner, and ClayDavenport.com