With the arrival of top-prospect Vladimir Guerrero Jr. to the bigs, now is an appropriate time to discuss which of baseball’s other promising youngsters could provide an impact to their big league clubs in the near future.
Several of the names on the MLB Top-100 Prospects list have already made it to the highest level. Most are lurking in the minors, fine-tuning their craft and patiently waiting for an opportunity to prove themselves.
In order to appear in my top-3, players must meet two criteria: They cannot have already played in the Major Leagues and they must have a major league ETA of this year or next (2019 or 2020). I do not really care about guys who will not be on TV until 2023.
MLB Scouting Grades
Throughout this article I will reference MLB’s scouting grades for prospects. Hitters are graded on hitting for average, hitting for power, running, arm, fielding, and overall potential. Pitchers are assigned a grade for each pitch type that they throw along with their control and overall potential.
Baseball scouts utilize a grading scale that runs from 20 to 80. Players are typically assigned a rating that is a multiple of 10 (i.e. 30, 40, 50) but can also receive half-grades (i.e. 35, 45, 55). Here is how scouts assign the various ranks.
|20-30||Well Below Average|
|70-80||Well Above Average|
Players who receive an overall potential grade greater than 60 are considered future impact players and All-Star-type players.
Alright, enough groundwork. Let’s dig in! Here are the top 3 prospects that could make a big splash in the not-so-distant future.
Royce Lewis – SS – Minnesota Twins
Drafted: 1st Overall, 2017
DOB (Age): 06-05-99 (19)
Current Level: Class A Advanced
MLB ETA: 2020
Below are the scout ratings for Lewis. For context, in parentheses are a couple of other players who were rated equally in that category as prospects.
Hitting: 60 (Xander Bogaerts, Javier Baez)
Power: 50 (Francisco Lindor, Albert Almora)
Running: 70 (Jose Peraza, Tim Anderson)
Arm: 55 (Dansby Swanson, Rafael Devers)
Fielding: 55 (Amed Rosario, Ozzie Albies)
Overall Potential: 65 (Yoan Moncada, Andrew Benintendi)
My MLB Comparison: Jean Segura
Baseball’s highest-regarded shortstop prospect yet to reach the Majors, the Twins’ top-pick from 2017 is currently playing for the Fort Myers Miracle, the Twins’ Class A Advanced team in the Florida State League.
Drafted just one week after his 18th birthday, the young Lewis has understandably been progressed very slowly through the Twins’ farm system. He split his first professional season (2017) at Rookie ball and low-level Class A before making the jump to Class A Advanced mid-way through his sophomore campaign (2018).
Royce Lewis is Fast
Blazing speed is the attribute that most sets Lewis apart. He will occupy a spot inside the MLB’s 90th percentile of footspeed upon his arrival to the Show. Take a look at Lewis’ stolen base numbers at each level of his short pro career.
Royce Lewis definitely has the footspeed – it is the base stealing technique his is still working on. Rookie ball catchers could not contain him. Lewis swiped 15 bags in just 36 games before quickly being promoted to low-level A ball.
The batteries in High A are giving Lewis fits, but his success rate will increase with time and experience.
Royce Lewis’ Approach at the Plate
Lewis is given average to slightly above average grades in the field. It is his feet and his bat that will put food in his future children’s mouths.
Here are several of Lewis’ key offensive stats at each level in the Minors.
|Low A||.311 (366)||1||10||.46||.379||.155|
|High A||.240 (279)||4||5||.57||.316||.110|
Rookie ball was too easy for Lewis, although he did not “rake”. He simply waited for walks and then stole those poor catchers blind.
Low-level A ball is where this young shortstop really began to flourish with the stick. He finally flashed the hitting potential that earned him a 60 grade – post a .311 average with a surprising amount of pop.
The transition to high-level A has not been smooth for Lewis, but his production is still encouraging. Even with the overall dip from low to high A, Lewis’ Class A Advanced SB/AB, 3B/AB, BB/K, and wOBA numbers surpass those of average MLB shortstops.
Because of his speed, Lewis’ floor is high. Speed does not go in slumps and is always useful. If his bat does not develop as experts anticipate, Lewis could turn into a Jonathan Villar-type shortstop. I would not be surprised to see a Major League team move Lewis into the outfield down the road due to his lack of glove skills.
If the 19-year-old develops as projected, he could become a Jean Segura-caliber hitter. Segura has hit north of .300 each of the past 3 seasons and is on pace to do so again in 2019. The then-Diamondbacks shortstop broke out with 20 home runs in 2016, but normally sits in the low teens. 64 is Segura’s career-high mark for RBIs.
The now-Phillies shortstop is a threat to run each time he reaches. His steals totals from 2013 to the present read 44/20/25/33/22/20. Segura’s average defensive contributions are also what we can expect to get from Lewis.
At worst, Royce Lewis will be a slap-hitting speedster. At best, he could anchor the top of a Major League lineup for years to come and make a few All-Star teams.
Don’t expect to see this kid until next year, though.
Nick Senzel – 3B/2B/OF – Cincinnati Reds
Drafted: 2nd Overall, 2016
DOB (Age): 06-29-95 (23)
Current Level: AAA
MLB ETA: 2019
Below are the scout ratings for Senzel. For context, in parentheses are a couple of other players who were rated equally in that category as prospects.
Hitting: 65 (Eloy Jimenez, Alex Kirilloff)
Power: 55 (David Dahl, Nick Williams)
Running: 60 (Michael Taylor, George Springer)
Arm: 60 (Addison Russell, Jorge Soler)
Fielding: 60 (Carlos Correa, Billy Hamilton)
Overall Potential: 65 (Yoan Moncada, Andrew Benintendi)
My MLB Comparison: A better-defensive Jose Ramirez
The second-highest touted position player prospect yet to debut in the Majors, the Reds’ Nick Senzel could feel the green grass of Great American Ball Park under his cleats in the very near future.
Senzel is considered an excellent hitting prospect with an above average glove to boot. Originally an infielder, Senzel has begun playing some outfield as it appears that may be his quickest path to the Majors.
Drafted just prior to his 21st birthday out of the University of Tennessee, Senzel is a bit older than most prospects on the Top-100 list. His 24th birthday is on June 29th, 2019.
Senzel has taken his sweet time moving up through the Reds’ minor league system, but we should finally see this prodigy wearing red stockings this summer.
Nick Senzel is Raking at Every Level
Transitioning from one minor league to the next seems to have no impact on Senzel’s swing. He has posted a batting average above .300 at each level except (oddly enough) rookie ball.
Take a look at the offensive numbers Senzel has accumulated during his parts of 3+ seasons down on the farm.
|Low A||.329 (210)||23||3||7||.65||15-22||.443|
|High A||.305 (246)||26||2||4||.43||9-11||.387|
The only red flag is that BB/K ratio.
Senzel’s BB/K ratio was sensational through his first season of pro ball, but like a middle-aged man’s hair, it is being attacked from both sides as he ages. Take a look at these walk and strikeout rates at each level. Notice how the walks slowly disappear while the strikeouts trend upward – a deadly combo.
Although his production numbers have remained steady throughout each minor league, his swing and miss numbers are in decline. Extraordinary plate discipline was supposedly Senzel’s calling card. More swings and misses will not affect his power, but it will hinder his ability to hit for the .300 average that is expected of him.
I do not want to overreact to a decline in minor league BB/K ratio as his overall numbers are still in line with acceptable major league marks.
Nick Senzel’s Other Tools
Senzel is not just another pretty bat. The kid possesses above average speed, an above average glove, and an above average arm. Able to play multiple infield and outfield positions, Senzel will be coveted by National League teams who must move their fielders around frequently due to double switches and pinch hitters.
The 23-year-old can hold his own at the hot corner but is also flourishing in his time at second base. With good speed and a good arm, Senzel should also be able to slide into the outfield with no problems.
I likened Senzel to the Indians’ Jose Ramirez for a few reasons – the two foremost being that Ramirez has played all over the infield and outfield and is both a power and speed threat, much like Senzel.
While the Reds’ prospect is projected to be better defensively than Ramirez, the Indians’ slugger has displayed more power over the past 2 seasons than Senzel has ever shown.
I could see Senzel as a perennial .300 hitter who you could count on for 20 homers and 20 steals a year for a good portion of his career. Ramirez’s career numbers mirror that projection almost exactly – .280/22/25.
The extent of Ramirez’s power is still unknown. This is a guy who hit 11 home runs in his first full season, then hit 29, and then 39. The MVP-finalist also tore up the basepaths with 34 steals in 2018.
When I say that Senzel is like Jose Ramirez, do not hear me say that Senzel will hit 39 bombs a year with 34 steals. Instead, look for Senzel to be in the mid-20s for both long balls and steals while hitting anywhere between .280 and .320.
Should Senzel develop as experts believe, we will see him in a few mid-summer classics. If that exquisite plate discipline never resurfaces, Senzel could begin swinging for the fences more and become a slightly less powerful Brian Dozier.
Forrest Whitley – RHP – Houston Astros
Drafted: 17th Overall, 2016
DOB (Age): 09-15-97 (21)
Current Level: AAA
MLB ETA: 2019
Below are the scout ratings for Whitley. For context, in parentheses are a couple of other players who were rated equally in that category as prospects.
Fastball: 70 (Noah Syndergaard, Jon Gray)
Curveball: 60 (Tyler Glasnow, Sean Newcomb)
Slider: 60 (Josh Hader, Casey Mize)
Changeup: 65 (Dylan Bundy, Ohtani’s splitter)
Control: 50 (Archie Bradley, Jameson Taillon)
Overall Potential: 65 (Lucas Giolito, Taijuan Walker)
My MLB Comparison: Noah Syndergaard
Currently the highest-rated pitcher in the top-100 prospects list, Forrest Whitley will likely see the major league field before his 22nd birthday.
The Astros are setting their sights very high on this young righty out of San Antonio due to his possession of 4 exceptional pitches. Imagine a hurler with Noah Syndergaard’s fastball, Sean Newcomb’s curve, Josh Hader’s slider, and Ohtani’s changeup – with decent control of each. Oh yeah … did I mention he is 6’7?
Whitley can light up the radar gun, throwing his heater as fast as 98 mph with movement. His changeup is considered his second-best pitch and is especially effective as hitters need to cheat on the fastball just to have a chance of catching up.
Whitley’s outlook would be promising with that 1-2 punch alone, but he also can throw above average breaking pitches. It is a real possibility that the Astros decide Whitley should drop a pitch from his repertoire (probably his curve). 3 go-to options is plenty and maintaining a 4th may prove too inefficient for the diminishing returns.
Hitters Don’t Put the Ball in Play Against Forrest Whitley
As you might expect from my use of the word “decent” when talking about Whitley’s control, walks have plagued him throughout his professional career. This is obviously something that will need to be worked out before the Astros call up their prized prospect for full-time pitching in the bigs.
Here are Whitley’s eye-popping K/9 rates and his accompanying unsightly BB/9 rates throughout his 3-year (plus one month) minor league career.
To put these numbers in perspective, the major league average through all of last season and the beginning of 2019 is 8.60 K/9 and 3.29 BB/9.
Averaging over 13 strikeouts per 9 in the minors, Whitley is shaping up to be a master strikeout artist – a la Chris Sale or the Big Unit. Of course, we cannot assume that Whitley’s 13.1 K/9 in the minors will translate to the same rate in the majors, but the powerful righty is currently striking out 4.5 more batters per nine than the average major league pitcher.
Only 2 big leaguers are getting more strikeouts per 9 than Whitley right now – Gerrit Cole with 13.5 and James Paxton with 13.24.
That 3.4 BB/9 number is a tad concerning, but it is nothing to lose sleep over considering the MLB average is 3.29. Thing we must remember is that the Astros are counting on Whitley to be phenomenal, not simply average. Whitley is supposed to become an ace.
I figure that if you want to be considered an ace, you should probably be a top-20 pitcher. The metric I will use to measure which pitchers are the best is WAR. I looked back at the 2018 numbers and sorted all pitchers by WAR, narrowing my focus to the first 20 on the list.
Of those 20, only half were getting double-digit K/9 which tells me striking out a lot of batters is not a necessity to dominate in the MLB. It appears that good control is a necessity, however. Just 4 of the top 20 pitchers in baseball last season held BB/9 rates at 3 or above. 6 pitchers actually held BB/9 rates under 2, making them more prevalent in the top-20 than their 3+ BB/9 counterparts.
As a side note – last year’s AL Cy Young winner Blake Snell had a 3.19 BB/9 rate, the second-highest in the top-20. I do not think this defeats my argument that you need control to succeed. If you look at the numbers, Snell was getting extremely lucky all season long.
Snell’s BABIP was the lowest in the AL at .241 and his left on base percentage was the highest in baseball at 88%. His ERA in 2018 was a miniscule 1.89 but his xFIP was 3.16, indicating he deserved to allow an additional run and a half each game.
I say that Forrest Whitley is most like Noah “Thor” Syndergaard because he is the only minor league SP right now that can throw consistently in the mid-to-high 90s and make a baseball do something like this.
— Pitcher List (@PitcherList) September 20, 2016
If Whitley’s control betrays him, he may never develop into an ace, but his lively fastball will allow him to enjoy a comfy career as a high-end reliever. I could picture Whitley as a cross between the fastball-changeup pitcher Fernando Rodney and the fastball-slider pitcher Carlos Marmol.
MLB Prospects: Honorable Mentions
As you no-doubt noticed, my top-3 prospects were in the same order that the MLB’s Top-100 lists them. I went back and forth on whether I liked Royce Lewis or Nick Senzel better, but I decided to defer to the experts and stick with their rankings.
Not counting anyone I have already listed or anyone who has already made their MLB debut, here is the top remaining prospect at each of the following positions: catcher, middle infield, corner infield, outfield, right-handed pitcher, left-handed pitcher.
- C – Joey Bart, Giants, #21 overall prospect
- As more clubs elect to move their star players from the roughest toughest position, good catchers are becoming more rare. Bart plays outstanding defense and hits for power. What more can you ask?
- MI – Brendan Rodgers, Rockies, #9 overall prospect
- Primarily a shortstop, Rodgers is also becoming adept at playing both second and third. He’s not fast, but when he doesn’t get himself out, the kid can flat out rake the ball to all fields.
- CI – Austin Riley, Braves, #35 overall prospect
- Not your father’s slugging third basemen – Riley possesses the rare combination of terrific power and plate discipline. Riley has the bat to hit 30 or 40 bombs in the bigs. If he can figure out a way to hit .250, he could become a Khris Davis-type player in his prime.
- OF – Alex Kirilloff, Twins, #8 overall prospect
- Kirilloff was labeled the second-best hitter in the minor leagues behind Little Vlad. His footspeed, arm strength, and defense are all graded as average. It is his bat that will pay for his meals.
- RHP – Casey Mize, Tigers, #16 overall prospect
- Able to throw in the mid-90s throughout his entire start, Mize’s game revolves around using his above average heater and slider to set up his nasty splitter. Everyone raves about Ohtani’s splitter and the experts grade Mize’s even higher. With few veteran options in Detroit, you would have to think Mize’s path to the bigs is wide open.
- LHP – Jesus Luzardo, A’s, #11 overall prospect
- This lefty has two plus-pitches: fastball and changeup. His curve is decent but I have to imagine it will be used sparingly until he becomes more comfortable playing in the show. The most impressive aspect of Luzardo’s game is his impeccable control that normal 21-year-olds cannot rival.