Top 20 Rookies: Position Prospects Pace Class Of 2015

Rookie pitchers have had an easier time transitioning to the major leagues in recent seasons, but the rookie class of 2015 is shaping up to be a bumper crop of position talent. Leading the way are three elite Cubs prospects, three experienced Cuban stars, the 2014 MVP award winners from both Triple-A leagues and a hard-hitting shortstop from Korea with a pioneering spirit.

Don’t think for a second that we overlooked the rookie pitchers, however. After a down year for southpaw prospects in 2014, this year’s rookie class projects to have four standouts, including three lefthanders ranked inside the top 10. Beyond that group, we’ve included the reigning strikeout champions from both Triple-A leagues, both of whom are towering righthanders with power stuff.

Ranking determined by Baseball America staff. Each player’s season age is listed in parentheses following his organization.

1. Kris Bryant, 3b, Cubs (23)

kris-bryant-2014-mugCredentials: The reigning Minor League Player of the Year earned that particular distinction by leading the minors in home runs (43), extra-base hits (78), slugging (.661) and OPS (1.098) last year. What’s more, Bryant clubbed at least 20 homers at both Double-A Tennessee and Triple-A Iowa, while batting a composite .325/.438/.661 in 138 games. Further evidence that his power will play in the majors: He led all minor leaguers with 19 opposite-field home runs in 2014, according to data collected by

2015 Outlook: A future fixture in the heart of the Cubs’ order, Bryant won’t require much minor league time in 2015. He could reach Chicago as early as mid-April—a la the Astros’ George Springer last year—once the Cubs can postpone his free agency until after his seventh (projected) big league season in 2021. Taking up left field, as the Cubs have tasked Bryant with in spring training, could help alleviate a logjam on the Chicago infield, where talented young players Javier Baez, Starlin Castro and the system’s No. 2 prospect Addison Russell all could warrant starting roles. Even if one of that trio falters, then infielders Arismendy Alcantara, Tommy La Stella and Mile Olt have demonstrated varying degrees of promise.

2. Jorge Soler, rf, Cubs (23)

Jorge SolerCredentials: Signed for $30 million out of Cuba in June 2012, Soler’s brief time in the minors has included profile right-field power (.244 isolated slugging) but also an isolated case of on-field indiscretion and ample time on the disabled list. As to the former count, he charged the opposing Florida State League dugout while wielding a bat in 2013, earning a five-game suspension. As to the latter, Soler batted just 206 times at Double-A and Triple-A last season as he recovered from injuries to both hamstrings.

2015 Outlook: Soler blasted 11 extra-base hits and hit .373 in the first 14 games of his big league career last summer, but pitchers adjusted and kept him in check at 7-for-38 (.184) the rest of the way. Look for Soler to make the necessary counter-adjustments this season and deliver on his promise as a slugger with enough feel for the strike zone to sustain a healthy average and on-base percentage.

3. Joc Pederson, cf, Dodgers (23)

Joc PedersonCredentials: Something of a stealth power-speed prospect as he meticulously climbed the minor league ladder, Pederson hit 18 homers and stole 26 bases in the California League in 2012, then went 22-31 in the Southern League in 2013 before becoming the first 30-30 player—33-30, to be precise—in the modern history of the Pacific Coast League last year. He walked 100 times in 121 games at Triple-A Albuquerque in 2014, when he won the league’s MVP award, and owns a career .405 on-base percentage in the minors.

2015 Outlook: Easily the most accomplished defensive center fielder on the 40-man roster, Pederson got his feet wet as a September callup last year and will cede time to Chris Heisey and/or Yasiel Puig only if he doesn’t hit. Even then, the Dodgers have enough veteran presence—bolstered by offseason pickups Yasmani Grandal, Howie Kendrick and Jimmy Rollins—to shepherd Pederson through any rough offensive stretch.

4. Steven Souza, rf, Rays (26)

Steven-Souza-2015-cwCredentials: The remarkable Souza renaissance reached its crescendo in 2014, when he smashed 18 homers and stole 26 bases at Triple-A Syracuse, while hitting .350/.432/.590 to lead the International League in all three triple-slash categories (and capture the MVP award). Since bottoming out in 2011 following a drug suspension and disciplinary issues in the Nationals system, the rededicated right fielder has hit .317/.399/.574 in more than 1,100 minor league plate appearances on a road to relevancy that began at low Class A Hagerstown in 2012.

2015 Outlook: A third-round pick out of high school in 2007, Souza turns 26 at the end of April, making him old for a domestic rookie. By the same token, older rookies tend to be more productive, and the Rays thought enough of Souza to surrender 2013 AL Rookie of the Year Wil Myers to acquire him (and three other prospects) in a December trade. He should form one-third of a rangy Tampa Bay outfield alongside Desmond Jennings and Kevin Kiermaier.

5. Hector Olivera, 2b/3b, Free Agent (30)

Credentials: A star for the Cuban national team throughout his 20s, Olivera defected following a 2013-14 season in which he hit .316/.412/.474 with 20 extra-base hits in 73 games in Serie Nacional. He turns 30 early in the 2015 season and missed the entire 2012-13 Cuban campaign with a blood clot in his left biceps, but the athletic, all-around contributor showcased a fine plate approach (with more walks than strikeouts for his career) and solid power in his native land.

2015 Outlook: Declared a free agent on March 6, Olivera should sign quickly with a team and report to big league camp, particularly now that he has ditched Rudy Santin and hired Legacy to represent him. He hasn’t played the field much in recent seasons, but in his prime years he showed the range and arm strength to handle second or third base. Regardless of the team or position at which he settles, Olivera can improve a big league lineup right away with his quick, righthanded bat.

6. Rusney Castillo, cf, Red Sox (27)

Rusney CastilloCredentials: The successor to Yoenis Cespedes and Leonys Martin as the star center fielder for the Cuban national team, Castillo followed those players out of the country by defecting in December 2013. He signed with the Red Sox for six years and $72.5 million last August and has played for six clubs since then, none for more than the 10 games he spent with Boston as a September callup. Castillo’s excellent adventure carried him from the minor league playoffs (Gulf Coast, Eastern and International leagues) to the big leagues to the Arizona Fall League and, finally, to the Puerto Rican League.

2015 Outlook: In Castillo’s varied experiences since signing with the Red Sox, he has hit .329/.383/.459 with three homers and 10 doubles in 162 trips to the plate, albeit against uneven levels of competition. His contact ability is notable (14 percent strikeouts), which combined with solid power, range and speed project to make him at least an average center fielder in 2015.

7. Daniel Norris, lhp, Blue Jays (22)

daniel-norris-2014-mugCredentials: Norris’ upside potential is evident from his performance in 2014, when he climbed from high Class A Dunedin to Triple-A Buffalo to a receive a cup of coffee with Toronto in September. He throws three pitches that could develop into plus weapons and is coming off a season in which he led the minors with 11.8 strikeouts per nine innings, plus he walked a career-low 3.1 batters per nine in the minors as he continues to hone his control.

2015 Outlook: A season-ending injury to 2014 rookie standout Marcus Stroman clears the deck for Norris to make the Opening Day rotation behind R.A. Dickey, Mark Buehrle, Drew Hutchison and Marco Estrada. Non-roster graybeards Johan Santana and Jeff Francis could be available if Norris has a rough spring and requires more Triple-A time. At worst, he ought to be in the Toronto rotation by the end of May.

8. Carlos Rodon, lhp, White Sox (22)

Carlos RodonCredentials: The top college arm available in the 2014 draft, Rodon went third overall to the White Sox, who, as they are wont to do with first-round picks, immediately placed him on the fast track. That strategy paid off handsomely for 2010 top pick Chris Sale, but not as well for Gordon Beckham, Jared Mitchell or Aaron Poreda, a trio of fellow college first-rounders. Rodon finished the 2014 season with three starts at Triple-A Charlotte that included 18 strikeouts in 12 innings.

2015 Outlook: If Rodon improves his fastball command and overall control to fringe-average, then he can impact Chicago’s fortune as early as the first half. With a fractured foot potentially affecting ace Sale’s readiness for Opening Day, Rodon could crack the roster from the outset, but letting the powerful lefthander build experience in Triple-A or in the big league bullpen could pay long-term dividends. The new-look White Sox committed $128 million to import free agents Melky Cabrera, Zach Duke, Adam LaRoche and David Robertson (plus they traded prospect depth to acquire Jeff Samardzija), so patience and long-term outlook might not be in the franchise’s vocabulary in 2015.

9. Andrew Heaney, lhp, Angels (24)

Andrew HeaneyCredentials: The Marlins traded away 2012 and 2013 first-rounders Heaney and Colin Moran in the span of five months last year, with the former finding the softest landing spot imaginable in Anaheim. Not only does Angel Stadium favor pitchers, but he now has Mike Trout as his center fielder and Erick Aybar as his shortstop. Heaney made short work of minor league competition in 2014, logging 9.4 strikeouts and 2.4 walks per nine innings at Double-A and Triple-A, but he struggled against big league competition as he tired and consequently dropped his arm slot.

2015 Outlook: As with many young lefthanders, Heaney must improve his efficiency against opposite-side batters after big league righthanders battered him for a .944 OPS in a limited look last year. He has the three-pitch mix and enough velocity to do just that. Heaney will battle for the Angels’ No. 5 starter job with Hector Santiago, Nick Tropeano and Jose Alvarez this spring, though No. 1 starter Garrett Richards probably won’t be ready for Opening Day. That just increases the odds that Heaney breaks camp with the team.

10. Yasmany Tomas, 3b/rf, Diamondbacks (24)

Yasmany Tomas (Photo by Bill Mitchell).Credentials: Perhaps with visions of 2014 AL Rookie of the Year Jose Abreu dancing in their head, the Diamondbacks signed Tomas for six years and $68.5 million last December. Like the White Sox slugger, Tomas is physical, righthanded hitter with a strength-oriented swing, though his raw power grades as merely plus-plus rather than elite. He hit .301/.340/.580 with 16 home runs in 69 games during the in 2011-12 season, his best effort in Serie Nacional.

2015 Outlook: A few years younger than Abreu or Yoenis Cespedes when they defected, Tomas might require time at Triple-A Reno to get up to speed. A tendency to chase pitches out of the zone could inhibit his ability to hit for average, but most scouts expect he’ll chip in with 20 home runs or more as soon as 2015. The D-backs this spring will give Tomas a long look at third base, which he played earlier in his career, though his strong arm profiles in right field if the experiment fails.

11. Marco Gonzales, lhp, Cardinals (23)

Marco-Gonzales-2014-mjCredentials: No team makes drafting and player development look easy quite like the Cardinals. Four of the organization’s five first-round picks from 2009-13 appeared on the 2014 postseason roster, with Shelby Miller, Kolten Wong, Michael Wacha and Gonzales all going off the board with the 19th overall pick or later. For his part, Gonzales rocketed through the system in 2014, a la Wacha the year prior, going 9-5, 2.43 in 21 starts while posting an exemplary SO/BB ratio (4.3) and WHIP (1.12).

2015 Outlook: Having spent most of his full-season debut at Triple-A Memphis and logging 41 big league innings (counting six in the postseason), Gonzales is as battle-tested as any 2013 draft pick. Thus the lefty with the double-plus changeup faces even odds of nailing down a rotation spot for the Cardinals as he battles Carlos Martinez and Jaime Garcia.

12. Noah Syndergaard, rhp, Mets (22)

Noah SyndergaardCredentials: Though he logged a 4.60 ERA in 26 starts at Triple-A Las Vegas last year, Syndergaard’s peripheral rates were virtually as strong as ever. He struck out a Pacific Coast League-leading 145 batters and walked 2.9 batters per nine innings, though his opponent average jumped to .293 in the hitter-friendly circuit. Was it bad luck or a lack of deception? His performance in 2015 will be the judge, but his raw pitch quality suggests the former scenario.

2015 Outlook: Now that he’s a member of the 40-man roster, Syndergaard will make his big league debut in 2015, possibly in the first half. He follows in the succession of high-upside Mets rookie pitchers that includes Matt Harvey (2012), Zack Wheeler (2013) and 2014 NL rookie of the year Jake deGrom.

13. Francisco Lindor, ss, Indians (21)

francisco-lindor-2013-mugCredentials: One of the strongest fundamental players in the minors, Lindor projects to contribute in all areas of the game as a table-setter. No, he won’t hit many home runs, but he spent his age-20 season last year in the high minors, batting .276/.338/.389 with 28 stolen bases in 126 games and then going 6-for-17 (.353) for Triple-A Columbus in the International League playoffs.

2015 Outlook: The advanced defensive metrics agree that Indians incumbent shortstop Jose Ramirez had a fine year with the glove in 2014, but Lindor’s superior grace and efficiency at the position make it his job to lose in the long term. Besides, Ramirez played second base much more frequently in the minors, often as Lindor’s teammate, though that avenue will be closed in Cleveland by Jason Kipnis. The Lindor-Kipnis double-play combo could relegate Ramirez to a role as speed-oriented, switch-hitting utility infielder, and that has value, too.

14. Aaron Sanchez, rhp, Blue Jays (22)

Aaron SanchezCredentials: Undeniable arm strength coupled with well below-average control (career 4.8 walks per nine innings) prompted the Blue Jays to move Sanchez to the bullpen at Triple-A Buffalo last July. He immediately took flight and advanced to Toronto after just two relief appearances. In the big leagues, Sanchez ranked fourth among relievers (min. 30 innings) in fastball velocity (96.9 mph) and groundball rate (65.9 percent), though his strikeout rate (7.4 per nine innings) ranked just 139th in that group.

2015 Outlook: Five Blue Jays pitchers collected more than one save in 2014, including Sanchez with three, though team leader Casey Janssen departed as a free agent and presumed successor Brett Cecil entered camp with a wonky shoulder. Therefore, the door is open just wide enough for Sanchez to step through and assume the job of closer, though he may wind up earning a spot in the rotation if he throws enough strikes this spring.

15. Dalton Pompey, cf, Blue Jays (22)

dalton-pompey-2014-mugCredentials: Pompey has tools that will play in the major leagues and a clearly defined role for the 2015 Blue Jays as starting center fielder. A plus runner with a strong batting eye, he is regarded by some scouts as the finest defensive center fielder among prospect-eligible players heading into the season. Pompey climbed from high Class A Dunedin, where he spent most of the year, to Triple-A Buffalo in 2014, batting a cumulative .317/.392/.469 with 43 stolen bases in 113 games.

2015 Outlook: Toronto gave Pompey a trial run as a September callup last year, and his speed and plate discipline made the jump. Expecting a high batting average or much power production in 2015 seems like a stretch, but given his contributions to other facets of the game, the switch-hitter should make a fine complementary piece for a Blue Jays lineup overstuffed with righthanded sluggers.

16. Maikel Franco, 3b, Phillies (22)

maikel-franco-2014-mugCredentials: Franco blasted 31 homers and reached Double-A in 2013, but he fell on hard times in the first half of 2014 at Triple-A Lehigh Valley. A second-half rebound—he hit .301 and slugged .520 in his final 65 games—led to a September callup, and he continued polishing his résumé in the Dominican League last winter. In 60 games (counting the postseason) for league-champion Cibao, Franco hit .296/.339/.506 with 11 homers and 14 doubles in 233 at-bats, earning him Winter Player of the Year honors.

2015 Outlook: The Phillies will audition incumbent third baseman Cody Asche in the outfield this spring as they consider all the angles. Franco never has walked or struck out that often, but his knack for hard contact and plus power could make him a run-producer for the Phillies in 2015—just don’t expect an elite-level on-base percentage.

17. Jake Lamb, 3b, Diamondbacks (24)

Jake LambCredentials: All Lamb has done as a pro is hit, yet he didn’t gain much prospect credibility until 2014, when he won the Southern League batting title and MVP award at Double-A Mobile for hitting .318/.399/.551 with 14 homers. The Diamondbacks brought him to the majors in early August last year, but his lack of Triple-A experience showed with a .230 average and six times as many strikeouts (37) as walks (six).

2015 Outlook: If Cuban import Yasmany Tomas can’t hack it at third base, then Lamb could move into the No. 1 position on the depth chart with a positive spring training. His fine strikeout-to-walk ratio (2-to-1) and extra-base portfolio (.233 isolated slugging) at Double-A last year tends to translate well to the big leagues, while his defensive play at third base is fundamentally sound.

18. Addison Russell, ss, Cubs (21)

addison-russell-2013-mugCredentials: The headlining prospect the Athletics surrendered when they acquired Jeff Samardzija from the Cubs last July, Russell hit .302/.355/.529 with 13 homers in 63 Double-A games in 2014, his production curtailed only by a strained hamstring that cost him two months. His well-rounded game offers perhaps the best combination of offense and defense among a deep, talented class of shortstop prospects—which also includes Carlos Correa, Corey Seager, Francisco Lindor and J.P. Crawford—a fact reflected by Russell’s No. 3 ranking on this year’s Top 100 Prospects list.

2015 Outlook: Russell forms the third leg of the Cubs’ indomitable prospect trio, each of whom may be featured players in Chicago this summer. Kris Bryant and Jorge Soler are more assured of playing time—and thus they rank Nos. 1 and 2 on this list—but Russell is the youngest of the three and could represent the organization’s golden parachute in the event that sophomore Javier Baez continues to flail in the majors or that Bryant’s services are required on an outfield corner.

19. Alex Meyer, rhp, Twins (25)

Alex MeyerCredentials: The 6-foot-9 Meyer tied for the International League lead with 153 strikeouts at Triple-A Rochester in 2014, as he continued to rain mid-90s fastballs and a fine slider on opponents. The 2011 first-rounder has not been quite so successful at reining in the walks, however, and he issued a career-worst 4.4 free passes per nine innings last year and ranked second in the IL with 64 walks overall.

2015 Outlook: A late-season case of shoulder fatigue cost Meyer a shot at a September callup last year, but with 27 starts at Triple-A under his belt, he won’t require much seasoning before he’s ready for the big leagues. Veterans Phil Hughes, Ervin Santana and Ricky Nolasco seem assured spots of in the Twins rotation, and Kyle Gibson pitched well enough in 2014 to receive the benefit of the doubt, so that leaves Meyer in a four-way scrum with Trevor May, Tommy Milone and Mike Pelfrey. If he doesn’t iron out his control, Meyer could slide into a high-leverage relief role, with a (slim) chance of replicating the value produced by Yankees rookie (and fellow tall guy) Dellin Betances in 2014.

20. Jung-Ho Kang, ss, Pirates (28)

Jung-Ho-Kang-2015-cwCredentials: The MVP of the Korea Baseball Organization last year, when he hit .356/.459/.739 with 40 homers for Nexen, Kang agreed to a four-year, $16 million deal with the Pirates in January. International scouts like his righthanded bat but aren’t convinced he can handle shortstop everyday in the U.S. majors, projecting him more as a routine second or third baseman.

2015 Outlook: Kang led the KBO in slugging and OPS in 2014 and also won the league’s Gold Glove at shortstop, but no Korean professional position player ever has made the jump to the States, and the nation’s one hitting success story, Shin-Soo Choo, signed as an 18-year-old amateur. If he proves to be a pioneer, Kang could push incumbent shortstop Jordy Mercer (a career. 240/.293/.366 hitter versus righthanders) into a platoon role, while also backing up Neil Walker at second base and Josh Harrison at the hot corner.