From Suspect To Prospect: Ten Players Who Made The Leap In 2017
Every now and then a prospect has the kind of season where they make "the leap”—from suspect to prospect. A one-time organization player proves he is a legitimate prospect; the projected big league backup proves he is worth considering as a future starter, or a solid prospect proves he’s one of the better prospects in the game.
Here are 10 players who have made that prospect leap this year. This is by no means a comprehensive list of who has raised their stock this season. But it is a good snapshot of 10 players who have caught scouts' attention for all the right reasons.
No one in the top 50 rankings in the most recent Baseball America Top 100 is included on this list. Ronald Acuna, Bo Bichette, Walker Buehler and Michael Kopech have all made the leap but considering they all now rank among the top 50 prospects in baseball, we’re assuming that their jumps are self-evident. Also 2016 first-round picks such as Forrest Whitley and Joey Wentz carried very high expectations. They have exceeded those expectations, but this list is made up of players who have come from further away.
So we’re digging a little deeper. There are a few Top 100 Prospects on the list, but the majority of this list is prospects who were seen as far from the Top 100 when the season began, but will be in strong consideration for the Top 100 this offseason.
1. Austin Hays • OF • Orioles Hays hit three home runs as a sophomore at Jacksonville, then blossomed to hit 16 as a junior. He’s shown this year that last year’s collegiate power boost was a true step forward as he’s become the standout of the Orioles’ farm system. He ranks third in the minors with 31 home runs, and his numbers have only gotten better since he was promoted to Double-A Bowie.
Hays doesn’t walk a lot (four percent of plate appearances), but he also doesn’t strike out much (15 percent) for a hitter with such power. With legitimate defensive skills and a center fielder’s range as well as a right fielder’s arm, Hays looks like a future cornerstone in the Orioles outfield. It’s been a blistering ascent for the 2016 third-round pick. He ranked No. 99 on our Midseason Top 100 that was compiled in late June/early July. If we were re-ranking right now, he’d be 50-plus spots higher.
2. Fernando Tatis Jr., SS, Padres Tatis looked like a promising-but-young shortstop in the first month or two of the Midwest League season. He’d show flashes of greatness, but a pitcher with a plan could generally figure out a way to send him back to the dugout.
But the great ones catch on fast, and Tatis has caught up and passed those pitchers who could toy with him in April. Now he’s showing plus power, athleticism and most importantly a solid plan at the plate, which has made him one of the toughest outs in the league. He’s now been promoted to Double-A San Antonio to end the season.
Not all of Padres general manager A.J. Preller’s trades have worked out, but getting Tatis in a deal that sent well-past-his-prime righthander James Shields to the White Sox last year might end up as one of the heists of the decade. The White Sox will pay Shields $10 million to pitch for them next year on the heels of his 6-16, 6.44 record in 35 starts with them so far. In return the Padres got one of the better prospects in baseball and the best hitter in the minors in the second half of the season.
3. Michel Baez • RHP • Padres
When an organization spends $80 million on the international market like the Padres did last year, it should find some gems. The Padres might end up with a lot of gems from players such as Adrian Morejon, Luis Almanzar, Gabriel Arias, Tirso Ornelas and Jordy Barley. But none of them has made a bigger step forward in 2017 than Baez.
Baez is already a scouting success story for the Padres’ international scouting staff and player development. He has shown significantly better stuff as a Padre than he did when he was pitching in Cuba.
As a 6-foot-8 righthander with a mid-to-high 90s fastball, Baez has exceptional stuff, but it’s his ability to control it that stands out. He’s struck out 13 batters per nine innings while walking 1.4 batters per nine in his 46.2 pro innings.
4. Keibert Ruiz • C • Dodgers The only hitter younger than Ruiz to get 100 plate appearances in high Class A or higher is Vladimir Guerrero Jr., who ranked No. 2 on our Midseason Top 100. Ruiz reached the California League before his 19th birthday, but the youngest player in the Cal League has shown no problems adjusting to a more advanced level–.330/.360/.544 in 111 plate-appearances.
Ruiz is nowhere near a finished product defensively, as that is where his youth is apparent. Opponents have run against him at will (102 stolen base attempts in 74 games this year with a 21 percent caught stealing percentage), and his receiving needs further work as well. But that doesn’t remove the shine off of an amazing season.
Scouts often say that the heavy workload that comes with catching usually wears out young catchers and means they mature as hitters later than other positions. Conversely, Ruiz is on pace to be ready for Double-A sometime before his 19th birthday. His offensive production draws comparisons to Victor Martinez and Carlos Santana, but both of them broke out offensively as 21 and 22-year-olds. Ruiz is doing it as a teenager.
5. Rhys Hoskins • 1B • Phillies Hoskins has put up solid numbers throughout his now three-and-a-half-year pro career. He’s slugged better than .500 and posted an on-base percentage above .375 at all four full-season stops in the minors.
But as he got closer to the majors, Hoskins has gained more believers among scouts. It’s not just that he has power. It’s that he shows bat speed and a knack for hitting as well. The bar that a righthanded-hitting first baseman has to clear to be an impact player is quite high. Hoskins has shown he should clear that bar with ease. His first month in the majors has established a level of production that no slugger can keep up, but it's also ensured he's in Philadelphia for a long time to come.
6. Estevan Florial • OF • Yankees Florial has been one of the most anticipated and toolsiest young prospects in the Yankees system ever since he signed out of Hati in 2015, but this year he made a significant leap in on-field production.
Florial’s strikeout rate is still frighteningly high, but he runs, has developing power and has a chance to be an impact defender in center field in addition to a dynamic power-speed threat in the batter’s box.
7. Alec Hansen • RHP • White Sox If Hays has validated his excellent final college season, Hansen has done a very good job of proving that his disaster of a junior season at Oklahoma isn’t indicative of the pitcher he can be. Long bedeviled by control problems, Hansen has tamed his delivery as a pro. The White Sox and Hansen have worked to get him to balance better on the rubber and to clean up how his arm works early in his delivery.
That has allowed his always impressive stuff to start playing in 0-1 and 1-2 counts instead of 2-0 and 3-1 counts. Scouts still want to see Hansen self-diagnose and battle more when he does run into control problems, but this season has been a big step forward for the big (6-foot-7) righthander.
8. Ryan McMahon • 1B/3B/2B • Rockies In his first couple of pro seasons, McMahon established himself as a power prospect with some athleticism who should be able to stay in the dirt. He was helped by the hitter-friendly ballparks he played in and his strikeout rate was a little high, but his lefty power made him a prospect to watch. He climbed up to 43rd on the BA Top 100 Prospects after the 2015 season.
And then it all fell apart when he reached Double-A Hartford last year. McMahon’s strikeout rate climbed and his power fell. Scouts see McMahon’s power as more of the 20-25 home run variety than 30-plus, and his best position (third base) isn’t an option in Colorado thanks to Nolan Arenado. But McMahon can hit enough to be a first baseman who slides to second base occasionally.
9. Jack Flaherty • RHP • Cardinals A teammate of Max Fried and Lucas Giolito at Los Angeles’ Harvard-Westlake High, it’s no longer crazy to think that Flaherty could end up as the best of the trio. His development has followed the track that scouts and player development officials hope to see–he always commanded his fastball but as he’s matured, his fastball has gotten firmer.
So after learning how to succeed with an average fastball, Flaherty now succeeds with an above-average fastball. His changeup and curveball are solid offerings now but both still have room for improvement, and the change has flashed plus in the past.
10. Michael Chavis • 3B • Red Sox Rafael Devers is quickly stamping a long-term claim to third base in Boston and Chavis is unlikely to move him aside. But Chavis has shown he has a big league future of his own, as he’s managed to combine the power potential with improved contact ability.
Chavis always has had bat speed and power potential, but this season’s power surge (29 home runs) is still surprising. He broke the record for home runs hit at Salem’s Haley Toyota Field in just half a season.
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Scouts have long suspected that Chavis could end up in left field or second base. With Devers at third, Chavis likely will have a position switch or trade coming in his future, but for now he’s a third baseman.