Image credit: Rays No. 1 Prospect Wander Franco (Photo by Tony Farlow)
The minor league season is going to be delayed this year. In accordance with guidelines designed to promote safety during the outbreak of the novel coronavirus, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have suggested against groups of 50 or more people until at least the middle of May.
Those limits will delay the start of baseball in the majors and minors at least until late May, and probably even later. Opening Day is unknown, but at some point baseball will be back. When it does return, here are a few of the things we are looking forward to seeing this year—abbreviated though the season may be—down on the farm.
1. Can Wander Franco Do It Again?
The sport’s top prospect was outstanding in his first full season as a pro. Split between both Class A levels, Franco, who played all season as an 18-year-old, hit .327/.398/.487 while walking 56 times and striking out just 35 times. He thrived in the cold weather of the early-season Midwest League and the oppressive summer heat of the Florida State League during what was—we repeat—his first full season as a professional.
Franco’s skill set is so advanced that there was already chatter that he might be able to make his big league debut with the Rays toward the end of the season. Before that, though, he would have to get his first test at the upper levels, starting at Double-A Montgomery, where he was set to be part of one of the minor leagues’ most dazzling arrays of prospects.
It’s often said that the jump from high Class A to Double-A is the most challenging in the minors because of the advanced nature of the pitching. Despite his age, Franco possesses one of the most advanced hit tools that can be found playing below the big leagues. Once Opening Day comes around, he’ll get his first chance to test it out against some of the toughest pitching he’s faced thus far. We can’t wait to find out.
2. What Will Luis Robert Do In The Big Leagues?
Just as they did with Eloy Jimenez before the 2019 season, the White Sox signed Robert, the No. 2 prospect in the game, to a long-term major league contract before he’d set foot in the big leagues. His deal stretches for six years (with two options) and guarantees him at least $50 million and up to $88 million.
Though he’s just a spot below the Rays’ Wander Franco on the Top 100 Prospects list, Robert is by far the toolsiest prospect in the minor leagues, earning potential double-plus grades for his power, speed and throwing arm. He was one of two players in the minors to hit at least 30 home runs and steal 30 bases (the Astros’ Kyle Tucker was the other) and rocketed from high Class A Winston-Salem to Triple-A Charlotte while racking up an absurd .328/.376/.624 line along the way.
Jimenez swatted 31 home runs in just 122 big league games in his rookie season. Can Robert make a similar impact? We’ll find out soon enough.
3. How About The Youngsters?
At the lowest levels of the minor leagues, the biggest seasons of the year belonged to a pair of shortstops—the Giants’ Marco Luciano and the Padres’ CJ Abrams. Both were making their pro debuts, and each dazzled in limited exposure.
Luciano, whom the Giants signed for big money in 2018, proved advanced enough to skip the Dominican Summer League and bullied his way out of the Rookie-level Arizona League by slamming 10 home runs (as well as nine doubles and two triples) in just 38 sun-baked games. He received such rave reviews that he vaulted past a pair of studs—catcher Joey Bart and outfielder Heliot Ramos—to take the top spot on the system’s Top 30 Prospects list.
Abrams, the sixth overall pick in the 2019 draft, just edged Luciano for the top spot on the AZL’s Top 20 Prospects list. He did so by hitting .401 in the league in 32 games, then bypassing the short-season Northwest League while earning a promotion to low Class A Fort Wayne. His stay there was limited to just two games due to a bone bruise. Scouts project Abrams to have a double-plus hit tool that would pair nicely with his already elite speed.
Beyond those two, the full-season debut of Mets catcher Francisco Alvarez was on the menu as one of the most intriguing storylines heading into 2020. The 17-year-old was boffo in the Rookie-level Appalachian League, where he put up a .282/.377/.443 line with five home runs while earning league MVP honors. He also showed a plus arm behind the plate as well as strong hands for framing and blocking.
The Mets and Giants affiliates in the low Class A South Atlantic League were slated to meet in the season’s first week, which would have potentially set up a supremely interesting prospect matchup between Luciano and Alvarez to kick the year off right. The teams aren’t slated to play each other again until the third full week of July—when hopefully the curve will have been flattened enough to allow teams to begin playing.
4. That’s Mr. Pearson If You’re Nasty (He Certainly Is)
After a near complete wipeout of his 2018 season, Nate Pearson was handled carefully in 2019. The big righthander alternated between starts of two and five innings for most of the season—with a dominating Futures Game appearance mixed in—before getting unleashed at Triple-A Buffalo.
Pearson was due back at Triple-A to begin the season—though he’d racked up 11 strikeouts in seven two-hit innings in big league spring training before everyone was sent home—but has the stuff to easily get himself to Toronto before long. He possesses one of the nastiest arsenals in the minors—including an 80-grade fastball that hit a TrackMan-verified 104 mph during the 2018 Arizona Fall League—as well as a big frame that would fit a starter’s workload.
“He’s probably the best pitcher in the minor leagues right now,” one scout said of Pearson during the middle of last season. “I mean, who’s better than him in the minor leagues right now? Pure stuff-wise, I have a hard time believing that anyone is better than Nate Pearson.”
5. The Mystery Men
Truly, this is the most fun part of every season. Sure, watching the brand-name prospects is plenty fun, but the ground floor is much more appealing. Each season brings a new chance for guys to pop up and put themselves on the national radar.
Rays righthander Joe Ryan did so last year by striking out 183 hitters with a hellacious fastball, and Tigers lefthander Tarik Skubal did the same by obliterating franchise records once he arrived at Double-A Erie.
Ryan, a seventh-rounder, and Skubal, a ninth-rounder, struck out a combined 362 hitters in 2019 and both earned invites to big league camp this spring. Neither was particularly well- known outside of his organization before the season.
There are plenty more examples of players popping up during the season and becoming famous, but Ryan and Skubal were the most prominent examples from 2019. Who will follow in 2020? We’ll have to wait a little longer to find out.