Much of the talk heading into spring training, and which still dominates baseball, is the lack of movement on a slew of free agents.
Names like Jake Arrieta, Carlos Gonzalez, Lance Lynn, Alex Cobb, Mike Moustakas and Jonathan Lucroy jump off the page as unsigned free agents.
What this may mean for the youngsters competing for jobs in the Grapefruit and Cactus Leagues is that many teams may not be willing to fill spots with high-priced and in some cases over-rated veterans.
In the early stages of spring training, fresh-faced prospects are being put through their paces to see where they slot in either with the big club or at any level from A to AAA.
Shohei Ohtani, the Japanese pitching/hitting phenom, is one of them. He is sharing press with the exploits of quarterback-turned-outfielder Tim Tebow (who won’t make this list).
We’ve had a look at Baseball America’s esteemed top prospect list and scoured the stats pages for the best young players (at least one from each position) to look out for, whether to start the 2018 season, or at worst make an appearance when rosters expand in September.
15. OF Eloy Jimenez – Chicago White Sox
At the tender age of 21, Dominican slugger Eloy Jimenez is already drawing comparisons to another famous power hitter who launched dingers in the South Side — Frank Thomas. Jimenez is fast-tracking to the majors, according to some pundits, and has the stats to prove it. Acquired in a trade with the crosstown Cubs that sent pitcher Jose Quintana to the North Side. Jimenez began the 2017 season with the Cubs Class A affiliate in Myrtle Beach, then had stints in the White Sox farm at Class A Winston-Salem and finally Class AA Birmingham. He hit a collective .312 in 89 games, with 22 doubles, three triples, 19 homers and 65 RBI. The no. 4 rated prospect spent the winter playing in the Dominican Winter League with Gigantes (along with fellow Chisox prospect Leury Garcia) and hit very well there too (.368, 4 HR, 21 RBI in 19 games).
14. 1B/SP Brendan McKay – Tampa Bay Rays
Shohei Ohtani isn’t the only dual threat ball player vying for a job in spring training. Tampa’s Brendan McKay, who is the highest rated first baseman in the Baseball America rankings (no. 39 overall), is also a very good lefthanded pitcher. The 22-year-old was Tampa’s first round, fourth overall pick in 2017 (after being a 34th round selection of San Diego in 2014) and in his first pro action in the Class A New York Penn League with Hudson Valley he impressed on the mound and at first base. In six starts, he posted a 1-0 record with a 1.80 ERA and 21 strikeouts in 20 innings pitched. He also had 36 appearances at first base and hit .232, with nine extra base hits and 22 RBI. It is a stretch that he could be in a Rays uniform by year’s end, but, depending on where he is slotted (pitcher or infielder) it may not take too long.
13. OF Austin Hays – Baltimore Orioles
Outfield jobs are up for grabs in Baltimore and rookie phenom Hays might just grab one of them. In just two seasons, the 22-year-old from Daytona Beach went from Rookie Ball all the way to the bigs. He started at Class A Frederick in 2017 and proceeded to AA Bowie, hitting a combined .365, with 32 doubles, five triples, 32 home runs and 95 RBI in 128 games. That earned him a 20-game call-up to the big club, where he hit fairly well for a guy with all of 164 games of pro ball to his credit. Hays hit .217, with three doubles, a homer and eight RBI. That first big league homer, though inconsequential, came at Yankee Stadium against reliever Chasen Shreve in a 9-3 loss. We think it will hardly be Hays last as a major leaguer.
12. SP Walker Buehler – Los Angeles Dodgers
We were going to put Houston Astros prospect Forrest Whitley here, but he’s suspended for 50 games this season for contravening the minor league drug program. So, we’ve given it to Baseball America’s 13th ranked prospect Walker Buehler of the Astros World Series opponent, the Dodgers. Buehler, a 23-year-old righty from Lexington, KY, has already dipped his toe into major league waters with eight appearances in relief last year (7.71 ERA, 12 strikeouts in 9.1 innings). It is believed he won’t be on the roster when camp breaks, however, he could be counted on to be an effective fifth starter in a great rotation dominated by southpaws like Clayton Kershaw and Rich Hill. The former Vanderbilt hurler threw very well in his first full pro season, from A to AAA, logging a 3-3 record in 28 games (19 starts). Buehler posted a 3.35 ERA and 125 strikeouts in just 88.2 innings.
11. SS Fernando Tatis – San Diego Padres
For now, Freddy Galvis is penciled in as the starting shortstop on a rebuilding Padres squad. Providing a big push on Galvis and likely back-up Allen Cordoba has been the hot hitting of teenaged sensation Fernando Tatis. In his first spring training with San Diego, Tatis is hitting .348, with three doubles, three stolen bases, a home run and eight RBI in nine games. The native of baseball haven San Pedro de Macoris, Dominican Republic progressed fairly seamlessly from A to AA ball in 2017. In 117 games at Class A Fort Wayne he hit .281 with 21 homers, seven triples, 29 stolen bases and 69 RBI. Upon promotion to AA San Antonio, the no. 9 rated prospect recorded a .255 batting average along with a homer and six RBI. He is still a raw fielder, but expected to be a call-up this year.
10. 1B Ryan McMahon – Colorado Rockies
As of this writing, Ryan McMahon is scheduled to be the starting first baseman for the Colorado Rockies. Not bad for the former second round pick, who hit very well in his first foray into AAA in 2017, garnering a late season call-up. He started 2017 at AA Hartford, batting .326 in 49 games with six home runs and 32 RBI. With AAA Albuquerque, McMahon was near unstoppable in 70 games, finishing with a .374 batting average, 23 doubles, two triples, 14 dingers and 56 RBI. So far in spring training the 63rd ranked prospect has seven hits, including three doubles, in 14 at bats, along with three RBI. A versatile infielder who can also play second and third, McMahon logged a .994 fielding percentage at his natural first base position at AA and AAA.
9. OF Victor Robles – Washington Nationals
It’s a crowded house in the Nationals outfield and about to get even cozier. Baseball America’s no. 5 prospect, Victor Robles, is making a case to be a fourth man in an outfield that includes Bryce Harper and Adam Eaton. The speedy 20-year-old Dominican dominated at two levels of minor league ball in 2017, hitting .300, with 37 doubles, eight triples, 10 home runs and 47 RBI in 114 games split between Class A Potomac and Class AA Harrisburg. When rosters expanded late in the MLB season, Robles appeared in 13 games and had a double, two triples and four RBI while hitting .250 overall. This spring he has four hits (two doubles) in 12 trips to the plate, as well as a stolen base. He has been impressive and is making a strong case to stick.
8. SP Jack Flaherty – St. Louis Cardinals
With Lance Lynn likely gone in free agency (he is still waiting for a contract offer), a huge hole has appeared in the St. Louis rotation. Lynn was the staff ace last year and his team high 33 starts will have to be replaced somehow. Enter no. 53 ranked prospect, righthander Jack Flaherty. After a shaky start to spring training, Flaherty recorded seven strikeouts and gave up two earned runs on two hits and one walk over four innings in a 4-4 Grapefruit League tie with the Miami Marlins on Tuesday. A first round pick (34th overall) in 2014, Flaherty pitched very well at AA and AAA in 2017, starting 10 games with AA Springfield and 15 with AAA Memphis, logging a 14-4 record with a 2.18 ERA. He’s had an abbreviated taste of big league ball, going 0-2 in five starts and registering a 6.33 ERA and 20 Ks in 21.1 innings last year.
7. 2B Scott Kingery – Philadelphia Phillies
Kingery is the no. 1 rated second base prospect and no. 31 overall in baseball. But, with Cesar Hernandez and two others ahead of him on the Phillies depth chart, it isn’t looking like he’ll be breaking camp this season. Instead, the Phoenix native will keep building his growing cred at AAA and bid his time until a call-up later in 2018. He has made a strong case in spring training to be a future star, rapping out seven hits, including a double and three home runs, in 19 at bats. Kingery also has a stolen base and four RBI. Last year he split time between AA Reading and AAA Lehigh Valley, with little appreciable difference in statistical output (which bodes well for his future MLB employment). Collectively, he hit .304, with 29 doubles, eight triples, 26 home runs, 65 RBI and 29 stolen bases.
6. OF Lewis Brinson – Miami Marlins
This is the perfect year for prospect Lewis Brinson to finally show his true worth. The former first round pick of the Texas Rangers, who subsequently spent time in the Milwaukee Brewers organization, is penciled in as the starting centerfielder on a Marlins team that is likely to lose over 100 games this season. Brinson spent 76 games with AAA Colorado Springs in the Brewers organization in 2017, finishing with a .331 batting average, 39 extra base hits, 48 RBI and 11 stolen bases. The Brew Crew called him up for 21 games late in the season, and while he didn’t hit much (5 for 47) he did show some power with a triple and two homers (three RBI). Part of the package that came the other way in the Christian Yelich trade, Brinson has been hitting the ball well in spring training and is expected to go north when camp breaks.
5. 3B Vladimir Guerrero Jr. – Toronto Blue Jays
For those Blue Jays fans fretting over the future of 2015 AL MVP third baseman Josh Donaldson, take heart that the team has a blue chip prospect on the fast track to stardom. The son of 2018 Hall of Famer Vlad Sr., Vlad Jr. is the third ranked prospect in all of baseball and will apprentice very little in the minors before finding full-time employment with the Jays. In 2017, he hit .323 between Lansing of the Midwest A League and Dunedin of the Florida High A League. In 119 games he mashed 43 extra base hits, drove in 76 runs and stole eight bases. Guerrero also showed an adept batting eye, walking more times (76) than striking out (62) and finishing with a .425 on base percentage. Fielding-wise he is a work in progress, but with time at AA-AAA this season and some good work, he could find himself wearing the big league uniform in September.
4. C Francisco Mejia – Cleveland Indians
Cracking a major league baseball roster can be daunting at the best of times and it’s even harder when that team has been a playoff squad the past couple of seasons. The Tribe have to count their blessings, though, that they have the top rated catcher in all of baseball, 22-year-old Dominican Francisco Mejia. Cleveland has Mejia ranked third on their depth chart behind Yan Gomes and Robert Perez and at spring training he is giving the veterans a run for their money. He has five hits in 10 at bats with a homer and three RBI, so far. Mejia was great down the lake shore at AA Akron in 2017, logging a .297 batting average in 92 games, with 21 doubles, two triples, 14 homers and 52 RBI. Defensively, he had a .991 fielding percentage and threw out 18 of 60 prospective base stealers.
3. INF Gleyber Torres – New York Yankees
At one time, no. 6 prospect Gleyber Torres was traded from the Cubs to the Yankees in a package for reliever Aroldis Chapman in 2016. Two years later, the hotshot infielder could be Chapman’s teammate. Torres, who underwent Tommy John surgery last year, is not having the greatest spring, but he’s versatile and has the tools to be a big league superstar soon. With his UCL giving him fits in 2017, Torres managed to hit .287 in 55 games in AA-AAA, along with 23 extra base hits, 34 RBI and seven stolen bases. This spring he has but three hits in 19 at bats, but again, he is just coming off surgery. In the field, half his games were played at his natural shortstop position and he logged a personal high .983 fielding percentage. A spot in the minors won’t hurt his development and he’ll be a call-up sooner, than later.
2. OF Ronald Acuna – Atlanta Braves
Barring an injury or a complete collapse the rest of the spring training, no. 1 rated prospect Ronald Acuna will be starting in right field for the Braves on Opening Day. The 20-year-old Venezualan was a non-roster invitee and has absolutely ripped the hide off the ball so far, with 11 hits (one homer) in 26 at bats and four RBI. What makes those stats even more alarmingly good is the fact he was 0-for-7 in his first two games. Last year, Acuna played all three levels of ball in the Braves system, getting better at each stage. He hit .287 at Class A Florida, then .326 at AA Mississippi and finally .344 at AAA Gwinnett. Collectively, Acuna had 31 doubles, eight triples, 21 home runs, 44 stolen bases and 82 RBI in 139 total games. Anyone doubting Acuna’s potential need only look at his line from a game against the New York Yankees and Masahiro Tanaka last Friday. The youngster was 3-for-3 against the veteran hurler, with one of his hits a long home run blast to straightaway center field.
1. DH/SP Shohei Ohtani – Los Angeles Angels
The big fish in the international free agent pond found his way to La-La Land. Angels’ fans have to be excited about the Japanese “Babe Ruth” who was as good with his bat in the Nippon Professional Baseball League as he was mowing down batters as a starter. The 23-year-old no. 2 rated prospect spent five seasons with the Nippon Ham Fighters, starting at age 18. In 82 starts over five years, he fashioned a 42-15 record with a 2.52 ERA, seven complete game shutouts and 624 strikeouts in 543 innings pitched. At the dish, Ohtani batted .286 in 403 games with 48 big flies and 166 RBI. The Angels won the sweepstakes and have penciled in the upper-90s throwing righthander into second in their rotation, as well as back-up designated hitter to Albert Pujols.