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8 Under-The-Radar MLB Prospects Who Rose Quickly In 2021

Jordan Westburg Tompriddyfourseam
Jordan Westburg (Photo by Tom Priddy/Four Seam Images)

Earning an in-season promotion is generally a sign that a prospect is progressing in their development. Earning multiple in-season promotions is often a sign a prospect is on the fast track.

Every year, prospects surprise even their own organizations with their talent and how quickly they are ready to ascend to higher levels. Even in an era of teams pushing prospects aggressively, a player receiving multiple promotions in the same season is often a telltale sign he is a riser worth noting.

Here are eight relatively unheralded prospects who received multiple in-season promotions this year and performed well when challenged aggressively. To filter out players who only appeared at a level as part of a rehab assignment or injury replacement, only players who had at least 40 plate appearances or 10 innings pitched at three or more levels were considered.

Because this is a look at fast-risers who may not be as well known, Top 100 Prospects who received multiple in-season promotions such as Nationals righthander Cade Cavalli, Tigers first baseman Spencer Torkelson and Cubs outfielder Brennen Davis are not listed. Likewise, players recently highlighted such as D-backs righthander Brandon Pfaadt and Braves righthander Spencer Strider are also not included. 

1. Bryce Elder, RHP, Braves

A fifth-round pick out of Texas in 2020, Elder zipped up three levels to Triple-A in his pro debut and went 11-4, 2.80 overall. The 6-foot-2, 222-pound righthander posted a sub-3.50 ERA at all three levels and was impressively durable, finishing second in the minors with 128.2 innings pitched. He also ranked 11th in the minors with 146 strikeouts. Elder doesn’t have overwhelming stuff, but he locates his sinking fastball to induce ground balls and has three offspeed pitches to keep hitters off balance, including a slider that is an out pitch. Elder’s well-rounded pitch mix and feel for pitching give him a chance to be a back-of-the-rotation starter, and he’s put himself in position to potentially help the Braves as soon as next year.

2. Alec Burleson, OF Cardinals

A two-way player in college at East Carolina, Burleson focused full-time on being a position player this year and raced up to Triple-A in his first professional season. The 2020 second-round pick hit .269/.327/.459 with 22 home runs and 74 RBIs across three levels and is still adding to those numbers playing for Memphis in the Triple-A “Final Stretch.” Physical and athletic, Burleson long had a natural feel for contact and began to tap into power this year with his energies devoted to hitting. He’s played a solid right field and has a chance to be an everyday player.

3. Jordan Westburg, SS/3B, Orioles

The 30th overall pick in last year’s draft, Westburg immediately impressed in fall instructional league and carried it over to his first full season. He began the year in Low-A, quickly hit his way to High-A and received another promotion to Double-A for the season’s final month. He hit a combined .285/.389/.479 with 15 homers, 79 RBIs and 17 stolen bases while playing the majority of his games at shortstop. An advanced player with good instincts on both sides of the ball, Westburg takes the ball where it’s pitched and drives it hard to all fields. He’s a plus runner and has the arm strength, awareness and internal clock to be a reliable everyday shortstop.

4. Ryan Smith, LHP, Angels

Smith is the rare player to be promoted three times in a season. He began the year at Low-A, quickly earned a promotion to High-A, received another bump to Double-A and finished out the year in Triple-A, all in his first full season. He went 7-7, 4.33 and pitched 120.2 innings, seventh-most in the minors. An 18th-round pick out of Princeton in 2019, Smith aggressively pounds his 91-93 mph fastball at the top of the strike zone and can reach back for 95-96 mph when needed. His fastball plays up with running life at the top of the zone to get swings and misses, and he relies on it heavily. He complements his heater with a horizontal slider that flashes above-average and a changeup that has average potential. Smith works extremely quickly and goes right after hitters, earning him the “bulldog” moniker from observers. He commands and locates his fastball enough to potentially start, but the possibility of his fastball ticking up in relief also makes him an intriguing bullpen option.

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Alec Burleson Quickly Hits His Way To Double-A

Cardinals scouts lauded the 2020 second-rounder for his ability to hit, and he showed that ability in his pro debut to earn a quick bump to Double-A.

5. Randy Vasquez, RHP, Yankees

Vasquez was originally set to be traded to the Rangers as part of the deal for Joey Gallo, but the trade was reworked following concerns about the medical records of Rangers lefty John King. Vasquez instead remained in the Yankees organization and completed a multi-level climb from Low-A to Double-A in his first full season, going a combined 8-4, 2.54 in 23 appearances (21 starts). Vasquez emerged as a prospect this year behind his diverse array of weapons and ability to pound the strike zone. He mixes 92-96 mph four-seam and two-seam fastballs, has a big, high-spin breaking ball he can vary the shape of in the 78-82 mph range and a solid mid-80s changeup that is effective against lefties. He was old for Low-A to start the year, but he showed his stuff played against age-appropriate competition at High-A to earn a second promotion to Double-A.

6. Joe Perez, 3B, Astros

The 53rd overall pick in 2017, Perez had Tommy John surgery shortly after being drafted and played only 54 combined games in 2018-19 before losing the canceled 2020 minor league season. Despite minimal game experience, he bounded up from Low-A to Double-A this year and hit a combined .291/.354/.495 with 18 home runs and 61 RBIs. Perez has grown into a powerful corner infielder with enough hitting ability to get to his power. His range at third base is below-average and he isn’t particularly agile, but he converts the plays he gets to and has the plus-plus arm strength to make long throws across the diamond. Even if Perez has to move to first base, his bat gives him a chance to carve out a major league role.

7. Eric De La Rosa, OF, Tigers

De La Rosa showed unique physicality and tools for a junior college player in the 2018 draft and was selected in the seventh round by the Tigers. After struggling to hit his first two seasons and missing the canceled 2020 season, De La Rosa bounded up three levels to Double-A this year to re-emerge as a prospect. He hit .273/.367/.440 with eight home runs, 50 RBIs and 34 stolen bases while playing all three outfield positions. Though older at 24, De La Rosa was a late-bloomer who is still growing into his tools. At his best he’s shown plus raw power, above-average speed, average arm strength and the ability to play center field. De La Rosa’s ability to hit better pitching has long been his biggest question mark, but his progress this year was an encouraging step in the right direction.

8. Cameron Gibbens, RHP, Dodgers

Gibbens had little competitive baseball experience growing up in Australia and didn’t sign with the Dodgers until January 2020. Though old at 26, he’s young in terms of baseball experience and is advancing rapidly. He made his professional debut this year and averaged 16 strikeouts per nine innings while rising from Low-A to Double-A. The 6-foot-8 Gibbens sits 93-95 mph on his fastball and it plays up with the extension and deception he generates from his long limbs. The ball gets on hitters much quicker than they expect and looks like an upper-90s fastball to the naked eye. Gibbens’ slider has improved greatly in a short time and gives him a second pitch he can miss bats with. Like many tall pitchers, Gibbens struggles to repeat his delivery and release point and has a long way to go with his control. Still, his ability to rack up strikeouts at such an early stage of his development put him on the radar of both Dodgers' officials and opposing scouts.

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