Image credit: Minnesota Twins outfield prospect Alex Kirilloff. (Photo by Mike Janes/Four Seam Images).
A year ago at this time, Juan Soto was just a couple of months past his 19th birthday and a veteran of 83 professional games, none of them above the South Atlantic League. He had played in just 32 contests in 2017, losing most of his season to ankle and hamate injuries. Despite the limited track record, Baseball America ranked him as the 56th-best prospect in the game.
No one, it seems fair to say, saw Soto putting up the best hitting season by any teenager in baseball history. Reaching the majors on May 20 after a biblical spate of injuries to Nationals outfielders, Soto hit .292/.406/.517, making him the only teenager ever to have a .400 on-base percentage, and one of just three to ever slug .500. He drew 79 walks, also a record for a teenager, and an absolutely astounding figure for a player who had a week of experience above Class A before being dropped into the National League East.
Soto’s rapid ascent from the minors to the majors was the most recent reminder of how short that path can be now. Cody Bellinger won the NL Rookie of the Year award in 2017 after playing just 21 games at Triple-A. Walker Buehler, just behind Soto in the 2018 rookie ballot, threw just 109 innings in the minors. Andrew Benintendi went from the University of Arkansas to Fenway Park in 14 months. However fast you think your team’s hot prospect might be playing at a ballpark near you, well, it could be even faster than that.
There are exceptions, of course. Ronald Acuña Jr. was left in the minors early last season for business reasons. Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Eloy Jimenez will meet similar fates in 2019. For the most part, though, and especially for teams trying to win now, the best players set their own timetables.
It’s with that in mind that I want to look at the players who, in 2019, could do what Soto did, not so much on the field—his performance set a high standard—but in terms of arriving much more quickly than anticipated.
ALEX KIRILLOFF, OF, TWINS
“Quickly” requires context for Kirilloff, the 15th pick in the 2016 draft. He missed all of 2017 following Tommy John surgery on his throwing elbow, then returned in 2018 to hit .348 and lead the minors with 71 extra-base hits at two Class A levels. The injury meant he wasn’t young for his leagues, but the stats are backed up by scouting evaluations that rave about his hit tool. The Twins have spent the winter making moves designed to get them back into the playoffs, but they haven’t added anything to a thin outfield. Should Max Kepler and Eddie Rosario not hit, while Kirilloff continues to rake, there won’t be much reason for the team to keep the youngster down in a season where they’re trying to win.
WANDER FRANCO, SS, RAYS
Franco’s pro debut featured a 1.004 OPS in the Rookie-level Appalachian League at a young 17; he won’t turn 18 until March 1. BA was the only major prospect ranker to have Franco on their Top 100 Prospects a year ago, wedging him in at No. 96 before he ever played a pro game. Now, he’ll be a top-15 guy going into 2019. Franco may be a long shot to make the leap—there’s been one 18-year-old in the majors in the last 40 years—but you have to at least consider the possibility given his absurd performance at 17.
CASEY MIZE, RHP, TIGERS
If you’re an Southeastern Conference Friday-night starter and you’re taken with the first pick in the draft, you’re already not that far from the majors. Mize didn’t overwhelm in his pro debut, with a 3.95 ERA in five games at two levels, but there’s little question that he has everything you want in a starting pitcher. The Tigers, going through the early stages of a rebuild, don’t have to rush Mize, so maybe he doesn’t get to Comerica Park in 2019. On talent and pedigree, though, he already is the best pitcher in the organization.
KEIBERT RUIZ, C, DODGERS
Ruiz is closer to the majors than anyone else on this list, having played 101 games in Double-A a year ago. It was the first level at which he didn’t hit .300, but .268/.328/.401 for a 19-year-old in the Texas League—a 19-year-old catcher, mind you—is strong. The Dodgers may lose Yasmani Grandal to free agency, leaving them with framer Austin Barnes behind the plate. Remember the example of Bellinger, who was nominally “blocked” at the end of March, and hitting dingers in Chavez Ravine at the end of May.
NICK MADRIGAL, 2B, WHITE SOX
One of the quirks of the last couple of draft classes is that almost no one from them reached the majors in the next season. Only Kyle Wright, the fifth pick by the Braves in 2017, played in the majors last year, and for just a few appearances. The Orioles’ Austin Hays was the only 2016 draftee to reach the majors in 2017.
The 2018 class has a chance to break that trend, with Mize, with college third basemen Alec Bohm and Jonathan India, and with the guy taken between those two by the White Sox. Madrigal showed the contact skills that made him the fourth pick in the draft by striking out just five times in 173 plate appearances across three levels. The White Sox have three young infielders who combined to strike out 500 times last year. Madrigal will seem like a breath of fresh air in that group, and could push any of Yoan Moncada, Tim Anderson and Yolmer Sanchez for playing time by the all-star break.
These five guys are looking to follow in Soto’s footsteps. There’s no such thing as being blocked any more. There’s no such thing as too far away. If you can play, and your team is one that wants to win now, you can push yourself to the majors in a hurry.