10 MiLB Prospects In Need Of A Productive Second Half
All statistics are through June 9.
Anthony Volpe, SS, Yankees
Despite a slow start to his first upper-level test, Volpe remains in the top 10 of Baseball America’s most recent Top 100 update. Evaluators surveyed by BA in advance of the update were steadfast in their belief in the Yankees’ top prospect based on what their scouts had seen in person and what the underlying metrics told them. Now, it’s on Volpe to produce. The 21-year-old opened the season as the fifth-youngest player on an Eastern League roster. Over the first two months, Volpe hit just .203/.311/.373, and that’s with a bit of a hot stretch to close the month of May. The weather is warming up around the country. Volpe’s bat should do the same.
Austin Martin, SS/OF Twins
When the Blue Jays selected Martin fifth overall out of Vanderbilt in 2020 and paid him the second highest bonus in the class the expectations were sky high. He was assigned to Double-A out of camp last May, and held his own, showing strong on-base and bat-to-ball abilities. The issue was an extreme lack of impact, as Martin slugged just .383 over his first 56 games as a professional. Martin was then traded to Minnesota last July alongside New Hampshire teammate Simeon Woods-Richardson. Following the trade it was more of the same from Martin at the plate, strong contact and plate discipline but low-end impact. Optimism remained entering 2022, as Martin’s underlying data suggested his first professional season was a success in many ways. All Martin needed to do was show fringe-average game power and he could recover some of his prospect cachet. Unfortunately Martin has shown even less power in the first half of 2022, as his isolated slugging has dropped below .100. In the modern game the ability to impact the ball is paramount. Even for the best contact hitters, average power can be the difference between a fringe-regular and a batting title champ. If Martin is to recover his once highly-regarded status, he must show the ability to drive the ball.
Defensively, there are even more questions. While the Twins are consistently playing him at shortstop, Martin has not shown the arm to play that position in the majors. He struggles to throw the ball to the first baseman. Even when he’s trying to beat the runner on a close play, his throws often one-hop or two-hop to the first baseman, especially if he has to go to his right. As of June 2, he had an .831 fielding percentage as a shortstop this year. His throwing looks more natural in his limited time in center field. At second base, the same throwing issues are apparent, but the shorter throw means it’s less of an issue.
Kahlil Watson, SS Marlins
During the month of April Watson laughed in the face of danger, as he hit .294/.338/.603 with 11 extra-base hits while striking out a whopping 43.2% of the time. May, however, was not so kind to the swing-happy Watson. His tightrope act of April cratered in May as the shortstop hit .172/.222/.226 with a 41.4% strikeout rate. The two questions that come to mind are why is Watson swinging and missing so much, and is it fixable? The answer to both may lay primarily within one singular trait that’s holding Watson back. He swings too much. In fact, Watson’s swing rate this season would rank in the 99th percentile among qualified major league hitters and well within the top 10 of the major league leaderboard. More troubling is Watson’s contact rate would be the lowest in the major leagues while his chase rate would rank within the top five. The combination of poor plate discipline and below-average bat-to-ball skills mask the simple truth that when Watson does make contact he does damage—as much damage as almost anyone in the minors. Watson’s xwOBAcon is in the 96th percentile, while his rate of batted balls at 95-plus mph combined with a 10-30 degree launch angle ranks within the 87th percentile. There’s true top-of-the-scale impact when Watson connects, but his swing-fast, swing-often approach at the plate is holding him back from getting to that impact with regularity. If Watson can begin to refine his approach and show the ability to swing at the right pitches more often than not a rebound second half could be in order for one of Miami’s most exciting talents.
Brandon Williamson, LHP, Reds
It’s reasonable to give any player the benefit of the doubt post trade, but particularly prospects. Williamson, coming off a breakout season, found himself in new surroundings just weeks leading up to the season. Things went off the rails early for Williamson as he struggled over his first four starts with Double-A Chattanooga. He allowed 12 earned runs over his first 16.1 innings while showing diminished movement, velocity and command. Things seemed to turn a corner in May as Williamson was strong over his last five starts, posting a 4-0 record with a 2.48 ERA in May. However, Williamson’s 24% strikeout rate over this time frame was down significantly from 2021’s gaudy 37.4% rate over 98.1 innings. This stark decrease in strikeouts is likely directly related to some of Williamson’s fastball quality struggles. If Williamson can once again find the best shape and velocity on his four-seam fastball he has the ability to bounce back in a back way. The current trend coming out of May is positive but a jump in stuff could catapult Williamson back into the Top 100 Prospects.
Greg Jones, SS, Rays
Jones’ combination of speed, athleticism and power potential made him a first-round pick in 2019. Injuries have gotten in his way ever since. He had a shoulder injury his draft year, and a knee injury and a quad injury have slowed him since. But at some point, Jones has to shift potential to production. Jones has been better in his return to Double-A Montgomery, but his 35% strikeout rate is just as bad as it was last year. Jones, 24, is older than Juan Soto and roughly the same age as Bo Bichette and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. There’s still hope that Jones will make more consistent contact and have a fully healthy season, but time is starting to run out.
Oswald Peraza, SS, Yankees
Last season, Peraza was one of the biggest breakout prospects not only in the Yankees’ system, but in the sport as a whole. He mashed his way from High-A all the way to a late-season cameo at Triple-A, putting together a .297/.356/.477 slash line to go with 26 doubles and 18 home runs. The latter number was particularly notable, considering it was more than triple his career total to that point. This year has been a different story. Peraza, still just 21, has struggled mightily through the first half of the season. Part of those struggles could certainly have to do with the cold in the Northeast during April and May, but the weather has dissipated and Peraza’s bat remains stagnant. Through June 9, he was hitting .195/.267/.322 and his strikeout percentage had jumped 4% year over year, from 21.7% in 2021 to 25.7% so far this season. He’s still young, he’s still liked by scouts and analytics, but Peraza could use a hot summer to prove last year was no fluke.
Trey Sweeney, SS, Yankees
New York’s first-rounder from 2021 faced a big question heading into his pro career: After putting up gaudy numbers against subpar competition in college, would his bat translate in pro ball? There were promising signs in his first pro test, but he’s run into stiff opposition this year at High-A. Sweeney’s performing well against fastballs, but pretty much anything with a wrinkle is eating him alive. His batting averages this season against sliders, curveballs and changeups are each under .150, and through early June he was chasing at a rate of nearly 30%. To get the most out of his skill set, Sweeney will need to tighten his plate discipline in a major way.
Will Bednar, RHP, Giants
Early in his first full test as a pro, Bednar’s performance has underwhelmed. Evaluators who’ve seen him tab his stuff as vanilla, and the results have been the same. San Francisco’s first-round pick was assigned to Low-A—an eyebrow-raising move for a pitcher with such a strong college pedigree—where he simply hasn’t dominated the competition like one would expect. Scouts see a pitcher with a low-90s fastball without a terrible amount of life who falls back on his signature slider when he gets into trouble. His third pitch, a changeup, still needs a significant amount of work as well. The head whack in Bednar’s delivery also makes evaluators think his future could lie in the bullpen. Bednar hasn’t been terrible, but he’s just not been the kind of pitcher one would expect given where he was taken in the draft.
Jack Leiter, RHP, Rangers
Aggressively assigned to Double-A out of camp, Leiter debuted in the Texas League to a high level of fanfare. The results, unfortunately, have been disappointing. Over his first 10 appearances, Leiter was the owner of a 2.5 record with a 5.90 ERA. His underlying numbers were only slightly forgiving with his xFIP sitting at 5.02. He struck out 27.2% of the batters he faced, a solid number, but his lack of command has dampered these numbers as Leiter walked 10.6% of batters while allowing contact more frequently than his command struggles allow. There are some signs of life, however. First and foremost, Leiter has done a good job of keeping the ball in the ballpark overall. His 0.68 HR/9 is top 10 in the treacherous Texas League. He’s also had negative luck when it comes to balls in play, with a .337 batting average on balls in play this season, and his 51.9% left on base rate is about 15 to 20 percentage points below a luck neutral rating. Some of Leiter’s luck has been his own fault. He’s been loose with his pitch execution, and his once vaunted fastball has been hit. On the season, opposing hitters have a .850-plus OPS against Leiter’s fastball. He’s struggled to command the fastball, particularly elevated, rarely getting the high chases on the top of the zone he got last spring with Vaderbilt. The pitch has been in the zone less, gotten hit harder and generated only a pedestrian amount of swinging strikes. So, how does Leiter adjust and take a step forward? The easy answer is to command his fastball better, but it’s not that simple. The pathway to success for Leiter may lay within the very area he was critiqued for as an amateur—his secondaries. Both his slider and curveball have taken steps forward this year, particularly the slider, which boasts a whiff rate above 40%, with a high strike rate in the upper 60s and the best chase rate of any pitch Leiter throws. If he ups his usage from around 20% on the slider to 30% or above, Leiter may see more swings inside and outside the zone, limit contact and actually throw more strikes. Whether the Rangers or Leiter decide to adjust his sequencing remains to be seen, but it’s a viable option we’ve seen work successfully at the highest levels of the game over the last few seasons.
Nick Yorke, 2B, Red Sox
A surprise first-round pick in 2020, Yorke got off to a slow start in his first month last year before catching fire and finishing the year as one of the most promising pure hitters in the minors. He got off to another slow start this year, but the turnaround hasn’t come yet. Yorke hit .245/.317/.358 through his first 35 games at High-A Greenville, showing the overall lack of impact that initially concerned evaluators when he was an amateur. Yorke isn’t striking out much, but he’s also not doing much damage on contact. With a limited defensive profile, it’s incumbent on Yorke to have a strong rest of the season offensively and show he can still make an impact against higher-level competition.