Top 100 Prospects Rising, Falling And Just Missing Our Midseason Update
This is a minor league season like no other. Never before have the minor leagues returned after a full season without games. And as a result, we’ve seen more variability at all levels of the minors. Here’s a look at some of the prospects who have made the biggest moves forward as well as those who have taken the biggest steps back.
TOP 100 RISERS
Shane Baz, RHP, Rays
At this point noting that Baz was the third piece in a trade that saw the Rays also acquire Austin Meadows and Tyler Glasnow from the Pirates for righthander Chris Archer seems like piling on. Baz’s development in the Rays system is notable in its own right. He’s steadily improved his slider and his 95-99 mph fastball consistently gets above bats at the top of the zone. But Baz’s biggest improvements have come with his delivery and his control. He’s toned down the effort his delivery had early in his pro career and now spots his fastball and slider exceptionally well. His walk rate now ranks among the best in the upper minors. Combining plus control and plus stuff has made him one of the best pitching prospects in baseball.
Reid Detmers, LHP, Angels
Much like George Kirby, Detmers is an example of what happens when a college pitcher with control and command makes velocity and stuff gains in pro ball. In 2019 and 2020 at Louisville, Detmers’ fastball sat at 90-92 mph and topped out at 94. This year in the minors, he’s sitting 93-95 mph and touching 98. That kind of stuff improvement has also turned his slider into a weapon. Detmers has proven home run prone this season, but that’s been the only hiccup in an excellent pro debut that has seen him quickly jump to Triple-A.
Jordan Walker, 3B, Cardinals
If you’re building out a list of the toolsiest, highest-ceiling prospects in the minors, Walker should factor very prominently on the list. Few players in the minors hit the ball harder (he’s already posted a 116 mph exit velocity and has regularly topped 109-110 mph on his hardest hits). He’s shown a plus-plus arm at third base (he’s been clocked at 91 mph throwing across the diamond on a ground out). And he runs well, especially once he gets going. But he doesn’t just have excellent tools, he’s performing as well. Walker quickly hit his way out of the Low-A Southeast league to High-A Peoria.
Hunter Greene, RHP, Reds
It’s been the development of Greene’s slider that has helped him take a big step forward in 2021. Greene is the hardest throwing starting pitcher in the minors, and one of the hardest throwing starting pitchers ever. During the 2021 season, Jacob deGrom is the only MLB starting pitcher to have thrown more than 30 pitches at 100 mph or harder. Greene threw 72 100-plus mph fastballs in his first three Triple-A starts. But Greene’s fastball has always been somewhat straight and his clean delivery means hitters pick it up well. His ability to pair it with a hard slider that he can throw for strikes or bury down and away to righthanded hitters has given batters a much tougher challenge.
Jake Eder, LHP, Marlins
The Marlins selected Minnesota RHP Max Meyer with the third pick in the 2020 MLB Draft. Vanderbilt LHP Jake Eder had to wait 101 picks later to hear his name called. But both went straight to Double-A Pensacola, and a year later, you can find a number of scouts who view Eder as the better prospect. Eder spent as much time relieving at Vanderbilt as he did starting because of the Commodores’ over-abundance of quality arms. He’s managed to eliminate some of the inconsistency and control issues that he showed at Vanderbilt. Now he’s a three-pitch lefty with a 92-95 mph fastball, plus slider and promising changeup. In late July he was among the minor league leaders in ERA and opponent batting average.
Michael Harris, OF, Braves
We’re not ready to rank Harris as the top prospect in the Braves organization just yet, but he’s part of that discussion already. The Braves moved Harris fast in 2019, promoting the third-round pick to Low-A Rome before the end of the season. After a productive year at the alternate training site, he jumped to High-A Rome this year, hitting screaming line drives (he’s posted an 114 mph exit velocity and has topped 110 mph multiple times) while showing the potential for plus defense in center field. Harris has a higher ceiling than Pache or Drew Waters and he’s shown excellent bat-to-ball skills too.
Anthony Volpe, SS, Yankees
Figuring out the expectations for Volpe entering the season was fraught with difficulty. First, his 2019 season, spent at Rookie-level Pulaski, was underwhelming. It was also clouded by a bout of mononucleosis, which meant nobody could be truly sure how close to full strength Volpe was playing. Then, the 2020 season happened. It was difficult for the sport as a whole, but Volpe was not invited to the Yankees’ alternate training site and the team did not hold a domestic instructional league. Any development for Volpe happened remotely. Once minor league spring training began, evaluators immediately tabbed the Yankees’ 2019 first-rounder as a player who stuck out from the pack. They noted his bat-to-ball skills, instincts on the diamond and intangibles, in particular. Those positive reviews haven’t stopped. He was excellent during his opening term in the Low-A Southeast and has continued barreling the baseball in a brief stint at High-A Hudson Valley. The reviews, both internally and externally, have vaulted Volpe to the No. 2 spot in the Yankees’ system, behind only toolsy teenager Jasson Dominguez.
Spencer Strider, RHP, Braves
Strider was a prominent pitching prospect in high school who slumped as the draft neared. So he headed to Clemson, where he showed flashes of dominance and big stuff as a freshman. He then missed the 2019 season recovering from Tommy John surgery and only got to throw 12 innings (0-0, 4.50) for Clemson in 2020 before the season was shut down because of the coronavirus pandemic. Now he’s a better prospect than the Braves’ 2020 first-rounder Jared Shuster and looks to have some of the best stuff of the 2020 draft class. Atlanta sent him to Low-A to start the year, but he jumped to Double-A in the first two months of his pro debut. Strider’s fastball is plus-plus. It sits 95-97 mph and touches higher. It gets carry through the top of the zone and because he’s short (6 feet) it comes in on a flat plane which generates lots of swings and misses. His changeup is also plus, although he’ll need to improve his slider as he gets closer to the majors.
Taj Bradley, RHP, Rays
Bradley only turned 20 just before the 2021 season began, even though he is a 2018 draftee. Over the 2020 layoff, he continued to get stronger. As he’s filled out and matured, his stuff has come along for the ride. He sat 90-92 mph coming out of high school. Now he can touch 97-98 mph with his fastball. But it’s the development of his hard 88-89 mph slider/cutter that has given Low-A hitters fits. Bradley hasn’t had a breaking ball to rely on before this season. With an improved breaking ball and above-average control of his fastball, Bradley gives the Rays yet another well-regarded starting pitching prospect.
Jose Miranda 2B/3B, Twins
Last December, any team could have selected Miranda in the Rule 5 draft for $100,000 and a spot on their 40-man roster. The good news for the Twins is unlike Miranda’s 2019 Fort Myers teammate Akil Baddoo, Miranda went unselected, so he’s been able to turn into the Twins' breakout minor league star of 2021. Miranda showed up in 2021 slimmed down and more athletic. He’s also shown improvements in pitch selectivity. He has been one of the best pure hitters in the minors all year. As of late July he already had 11 games of three or more hits, including a 5-for-6 Triple-A debut where he homered three times. Miranda’s also showing signs he can be an average defender at third base after seeming somewhat positionless earlier in his pro career.
M.J. Melendez, C, Royals
It’s easy for his rise to be forgotten in the wake of shortstop Bobby Witt Jr.'s and first baseman Nick Pratto’s impressive seasons, but what Melendez has done this year as a 22-year-old catcher may be even more startling—and certainly more surprising. Melendez was buried under a mountain of strikeouts at High-A Wilmington in 2019. He hit only .163, as his batting average was actually exceeded by his number of strikeouts (165). This year Melendez was second in the minors in home runs (23) as of July 24. In 2019 he had eight multi-hit games all year. This year as of late July he had seven games where he had two or more extra-base hits, including three two-home run games.
Graham Ashcraft, RHP, Reds
Coming into 2021, Ashcraft had thrown 133 total innings since 2017 between stops at Mississippi State, Alabama-Birmingham and a debut 2019 season with the Reds’ Rookie-level Greeneville affiliate. He always threw hard, but was behind in the innings he needed to develop. This year, he dominated High-A, earned a promotion to Double-A and kept rolling right along thanks to a mid-to-high-90s fastball and a hard breaking ball. In nine of 10 starts from late May to late July, he allowed zero earned runs. At one point he had a 44-inning scoreless streak. After that streak ended in a shellacking where he gave up seven runs in one inning, he bounced back by throwing 13 scoreless innings in his next two outings. Ashcraft’s high-energy delivery seems like that of a reliever, but he’s shown he can maintain his stuff deep into games and he’s improved his once shaky control.
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MacKenzie Gore, LHP, Padres
If you were ranking players based solely on how they look in 2021, Gore would not be anywhere near the Top 100. And it is concerning that Gore’s 2021 issues follow issues with his delivery, stuff and control that popped up at the alternate site in 2020. Before the Padres sent him back to the club’s Arizona complex in late June, he was pitching in Triple-A without any above-average pitch. His fastball was sitting in the high 80s, touching 91-92 mph and was getting punished when he worked down in the strike zone. His changeup too often was telegraphed out of his hand. His curveball was a get-over offering at best and he wasn’t really using his slider much. Gore’s biggest problem seems to be staying in sync and on time with his complex delivery. His arm is often struggling to catch up to his lower half, which means he will at times miss badly up above the zone. The hope is that Gore can regain the stuff, feel and control that once made him one of the best pitching prospects in the game. There are examples of top prep draftees who had to rework their deliveries to revitalize their careers (Lucas Giolito is a prominent recent example). But for now, Gore is much further from helping the Padres than he looked in the spring of 2020.
Cristian Pache, OF, Braves
After playing a prominent role in the club’s postseason run last year, Pache was expected to be the Braves’ replacement for Ender Inciarte in center field in Atlanta for 2021. Instead, he was incredibly ineffective at the plate in April and May and was demoted to Triple-A Gwinnett having failed to post one multi-hit game in 22 MLB appearances. His struggles have followed him to Triple-A. Unlike many young, struggling hitters, Pache’s problem isn’t one of chasing pitches out of the zone. He understands the strike zone quite well. He just seems indecisive in his swings on hittable pitches. He’ll foul off balls he should punish and make late swing decisions at times. Pache’s plus-plus defense provides massive value if he provides even league-average offense, and he’s just 22, younger than four of the Braves' top-10 round picks in the 2021 MLB Draft. So it’s wise to be patient, but Pache has not come close to showing the offensive impact he demonstrated in 2019 at Double-A Mississippi.
Nick Gonzales, 2B, Pirates
It’s way too early to make too much of a slow start to Gonzales’ pro debut. But while many of his fellow 2020 college first round hitters are playing in Double-A, Gonzales is striking out in 32% of his plate appearances at High-A Greensboro. His power is lacking as well—away from Greensboro’s very hitter-friendly park Gonzales was slugging .280 as of late July. His defense at second base has been as good or better than expected, but Gonzales was drafted to hit, and so far, he’s not looked all that confident at the plate.
JJ Bleday, OF, Marlins
The top six picks in the 2019 draft were all hitters. Two years later, one of them (Andrew Vaughn) is already a fixture in an MLB lineup and another (Adley Rutschman) is mashing in Double-A. The three high school picks have all reached Double-A or higher and all are impressing at the plate. And then there is Bleday. The fifth pick in that star-studded 2019 draft, Bleday’s .198 average is seventh worst among the 48 qualified hitters in Double-A South. His .660 OPS is 40th among those 48 hitters. Bleday has yet to do damage as a pro, which is concerning as he was seen as an advanced hitter with plus power coming out of Vanderbilt.