Image credit: Sixto Sanchez (Photo by Cliff Welch)
When healthy, Ronald Acuña showed exciting promise as an 18-year-old outfielder making his full-season debut for the Braves in 2016.
Acuña ranked as the No. 67 prospect in baseball after the season, but he played just 40 games that year for low Class A Rome because of a broken thumb that kept him out for three months.
In Juan Soto‘s pro debut, he won the MVP award in the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League as a 17-year-old in 2016. But in 2017, the Nationals outfielder played just 32 games due to a broken ankle, broken hamate bone and then a hamstring injury late in the season.
For both players, everything changed when they stayed healthy the next season. Acuña climbed three levels to Triple-A in 2017 and became the No. 1 prospect in baseball after the season. Soto started 2018 back in low Class A Hagerstown but finished it in Washington, batting .296/.406/.517 in 447 big league plate appearances.
Looking forward, these are 10 prospects who have struggled with injuries who we’re hoping have a healthy new year.
1. Sixto Sanchez, RHP, Phillies
After Astros righthander Forrest Whitley, Sanchez has a compelling argument as the next best pitching prospect in baseball. He sits in the mid- to upper 90s and can break triple-digits, doing it without much effort and while filling the strike zone.
Yet Sanchez threw just 46.2 innings last year, with his final outing coming on June 3 before he went on the disabled list with right elbow inflammation. The Phillies say Sanchez is healthy and ready to go for spring training, but he was out longer than they initially anticipated and missed the Arizona Fall League. He’s still only 20, but his 95 innings in 2017 are the most he has ever thrown. If he can handle a starter’s workload, Sanchez has the potential to anchor a rotation.
2. Anderson Espinoza, RHP, Padres
Espinoza was the No. 1 international pitching prospect in the 2014 class, then saw his status skyrocket the next year when he dominated the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League with an electric fastball and feel for pitching well beyond his years. The next year, the Red Sox traded Espinoza to the Padres, but he didn’t pitch in 2017 or 2018, with rehab attempts that didn’t go well before he had Tommy John surgery in August 2017.
After two years on the shelf, it’s hard to know what to expect from Espinoza when he returns to the mound, but we should at least have a better idea of how to project him once we get to see how his stuff looks post-surgery.
3. Victor Robles, OF, Nationals
Robles has been injury-prone throughout his career, a trend that may continue given how close he stands to the plate and his aggressive, all-out mentality. In early April, he hyperextended his left elbow and didn’t return to Triple-A Syracuse until July 27. Robles has the talent to be a perennial All-Star, with the ability to hit at the top of a lineup while playing Gold Glove-caliber defense at a premium position in center field. Keeping Robles healthy all season would be a major boost for the Nationals.
4. Nate Pearson, RHP, Blue Jays
Pearson was the No. 28 overall pick in the 2017 draft. By the time he finished that season with short-season Vancouver, he looked like he should have gone higher, with an uptick in his stuff and a dominant showing there.
In 2018, Pearson didn’t pitch in a game in April due to a back injury. He returned on May 7, then in the second inning a line drive broke his right forearm and ended his regular season. After the season, Pearson pitched in the Arizona Fall League, where he ran his fastball up to 104 mph. He also had a 6.20 ERA and walked 13 batters in 20 innings, though some rust is to be expected. A full healthy season from Pearson will give a much clearer picture of his future after bad luck derailed him in 2018.
5. Alex Reyes, RHP, Cardinals
Reyes missed the 2017 season due to Tommy John surgery, but everything was going right for him in his return to the mound in 2018. Reyes struck out 44 batters in 23 innings in Triple-A Memphis last year, showing the same high-octane fastball and devastating breaking ball he had before the operation. Reyes, who made his major league debut in 2016, returned to the big leagues for one outing on May 30, but then had season-ending surgery to repair a torn lat the next month.
With exactly 50 MLB innings, Reyes fell one out shy of exhausting his prospect eligibility. Reyes also missed a month in 2016 with a sore shoulder, then 50 games in 2016 due to a suspension when he tested positive for marijuana, so despite being 24, Reyes’ 101.1 innings in 2015 are a career high. There’s significant durability risk with Reyes, but he also has the upside of a No. 1 starter.
6. MacKenzie Gore, LHP, Padres
Gore’s elbow and shoulder were fine in 2018, the problems were on his fingers. The Padres put Gore on the disabled list twice last year due to blister issues, so Gore finished May with just eight innings pitched and didn’t go more than five innings in a start until July. The blister issues returned at the end of August, so the Padres shut down Gore at that point with just 60.2 innings for low Class A Fort Wayne, though with an impressive 74-18 K-BB mark. It was a frustrating first full season for Gore, the No. 3 overall pick in the 2017 draft, but he remains one of the most talented pitching prospects in baseball.
7. Luis Robert, OF, White Sox
Robert combines exciting upside with swing-and-miss risk that we’ve pointed out since he was still in Cuba. That risk showed up more than the upside did in Robert’s first season with the White Sox last year, although I think it would be a mistake to take too much away from Robert’s 2018 struggles without accounting for the context of his season.
Robert had been in a layoff from competitive baseball since leaving Cuba, then while adjusting to a new country, he never got an opportunity to get his timing back at the plate. He tore a ligament in his thumb that kept him out the first two months of the season, then played for a little less than a month before re-injuring that thumb and missing another month. So Robert played just 50 games between two Class A levels last year, never staying on the field for more than one month at a time. Robert’s profile still includes contact and pitch recognition risk, but he also just needs to stay healthy and get a fair opportunity to get his timing back.
8. George Valera, OF, Indians
Valera ranked as the No. 5 international prospect in a loaded 2017 class. With a sweet swing reminiscent of Robinson Cano and a good idea of the strike zone, Valera is an advanced hitter who was earning praise from scouts who saw him during extended spring training, but he played just six official games because of a broken hamate bone. Once Valera stays healthy and starts to build a performance record for himself in pro ball, he could move up our rankings quickly.
9. Estevan Florial, OF, Yankees
With Justus Sheffield traded to Seattle, Florial is the top prospect in the Yankees’ system. He also hit just .255/.354/.361 with a 26 percent strikeout rate and three home runs in 75 games for high Class A Tampa last year. The strikeouts and pitch recognition issues are red flags for Florial, but he also broke the hamate bone in his right wrist in May—a possible mitigating factor in Florial’s season, especially given the lack of game power despite above-average raw power. Being a year removed from that injury and facing Double-A pitching for the first time will make 2019 a pivotal year for Florial.
10. Wander Javier, SS, Twins
Javier was one of the top international prospects in a 2015 class that also included Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Juan Soto, Fernando Tatis Jr., Andres Gimenez, Leody Taveras and Cristian Pache. While all of those players (aside from maybe Taveras) will start 2019 at Double-A or higher, Javier has yet to play a game above the short-season leagues. Hamstring troubles limited Javier to nine Dominican Summer League games in 2016, but he flourished when he jumped to Rookie-level Elizabethton in 2017. Instead of building on that last year, Javier missed the entire 2018 season with a torn labrum in his left shoulder.
Javier just turned 20, so he’s not behind schedule in terms of his age, but in three years he has played just 50 minor league games. Even with his injury setbacks, Javier is still the No. 4 prospect in Minnesota’s system, with high-end tools and athleticism at a premium position and a good performance record in his limited playing time.