International League Top 20 MLB Prospects
Just about everything was going South in the International League this year.
That’s where some of the best talent in Triple-A resided, with many of the top prospects making their ways through Charlotte, Gwinnett and division champion Durham.
Many of those prospects found themselves playing big roles in the pennant chase in September, including Bryse Wilson and Touki Toussaint with the Braves and Jake Bauers and Willy Adames with the Rays.
The strength of the pitching crop stood out in particular, with the aforementioned Gwinnett pitchers plus Kolby Allard, Charlotte’s Michael Kopech, Columbus’ Shane Bieber, Buffalo’s Ryan Borucki and Sean Reid-Foley, Rochester’s Stephen Gonsalves and Fernando Romero. Lehigh Valley’s Enyel de los Santos, Pawtucket’s Jalen Beeks, Indianapolis’ Nick Kingham and Norfolk’s David Hess all making their major league debuts during the year.
Vladimir Guerrero Jr. finished the year in Buffalo but did not accumulate enough plate appearances to qualify for this ranking. Gwinnett righthander Mike Soroka was the best of the pitchers who did not throw enough innings to qualify.
1. Eloy Jimenez, OF, Charlotte (White Sox)
Age: 21. B-T: R-R. HT: 6-4. WT: 205. Signed: Dominican Republic, 2013 (Cubs).
Jimenez’s much-anticipated arrival at Triple-A proved to be warranted because he showed he was worthy of top billing
Jimenez matched his production from Double-A, and he got better the longer he was in the IL, batting .388 with a 1.072 OPS in July and August. He has extraordinary plate discipline for a player with his experience, and his two-strike approach stands out.
Bat speed and leverage for huge power tend to be staples when he’s in the batter’s box. His strength is an attention-getter, with the power likely increasing even more as he grows into his frame.
“You see the physical attributes, the long arms,” Durham manager Jared Sandberg said. “You can dream about all the things he can do.”
Jimenez is a below-average runner and left field is his only viable position.
2. Michael Kopech, RHP, Charlotte (White Sox)
Age: 22. B-T: R-R. HT: 6-3. WT: 205. Drafted: HS—Mount Pleasant, Texas, 2014 (1/Red Sox).
Kopech showed he was capable of using an array of pitches this year, a key development from when he was almost exclusively about his fastball. That resulted in a strong season and a big league callup at the end of August.
Kopech’s fastball sat 96-97 mph with movement and touched 100, and he flashed an above-average slider and occasionally promising changeup, though consistency eluded him. He led the IL in strikeouts (170) but also walks (60).
“He has a really good fastball, and when he’s able to spot that with his slider, he’s going to be hard to hit,” Durham manager Jared Sandberg said.
Kopech is still working on using both sides of the plate, particularly with his secondary pitches.
It all clicked for Kopech at the end, when he recorded 27 strikeouts with no walks in his final three IL starts. He succumbed to Tommy John surgery after four starts in Chicago, and now will wait until 2020 to pitch again.
3. Willy Adames, SS, Durham (Rays)
Age: 23. B-T: R-R. HT: 6-0. WT: 200. Signed: Dominican Republic, 2012 (Tigers).
Adames returned to the IL for the second straight year and looked for the most part like he was on cruise control to the major leagues. His first big league callup finally came on May 22 and was delayed that long mostly to delay his arbitration eligibility.
Adames returned to Durham briefly, but was called back up to the Rays on June 11 and remained in the majors to stay.
“Willy did everything he needed to do,” Durham manager Jared Sandberg said. “He just kept doing those things, and he’ll give you good at-bats.”
Adames’ enthusiasm and energy are reliable. He has enough athletic ability and an impressive arm to overcome youthful snags in the field. He again showed advanced hitting ability and the promise of power in Triple-A, though it had not fully manifested in the majors.
4. Austin Riley, 3B, Gwinnett (Braves)
Age: 21. B-T: R-R. Ht. 6-3. WT: 220. Drafted: HS—Southaven, Miss., 2015 (1s).
Riley drew raves from just about every angle after arriving in the IL in early May from Double-A. A month off with a right knee injury didn’t derail his prospects.
Riley’s plus power blossomed with eight August home runs, and what drew attention was his power to all fields. He goes particularly well to right-center field, and he hit for average as well as power with consistent hard contact.
“He’s what they look like,” Norfolk manager Ron Johnson said. “The way the ball jumps off the bat.”
Riley is well built and gives scouts reason to believe that he might be ready for the major leagues sooner than they might have expected coming out of high school.
In addition to his offensive skills, Riley displayed improved defense at third base. His 10 errors on the season were a career low, and Gwinnett manager Damon Berryhill labeled Riley’s defense “outstanding.”
5. Austin Meadows, OF, Indianapolis (Pirates)/Durham (Rays)
Age: 23. B-T: L-L. HT: 6-3. WT: 210. Drafted: HS—Loganville, Ga., 2013 (1/Pirates).
Meadows saw time in the big leagues with the Pirates before they traded him to the Rays as part of the package for Chris Archer.
From there, Meadows’ stock rose as his power production skyrocketed, headlined by 10 home runs in 27 games with Durham.
“One of the best players in the minor leagues,” Norfolk manager Ron Johnson said. “The Indy ballpark took away some power.”
Meadows’ lefthanded swing is smooth and natural, and he’s comfortable and effective against lefthanders and righthanders. Durham was content leaving him in center field and he is more than capable there, but his arm and speed are merely average and may make him a corner outfielder. Either way, Meadows was so well-rounded he projected to make an impact on both sides of the ball.
Said Gwinnett manager Damon Berryhill: “I just feel like he’s a plus defender (and) he’s showing with the bat that he’s a consistent hitter.”
6. Nick Senzel, 2B/3B, Louisville (Reds)
Age: 23. B-T: R-R. HT: 6-1. WT: 205. Drafted: Tennessee, 2016 (1).
Even with another season interrupted with health issues, Senzel’s hitting ability can’t be overlooked. He missed time early with vertigo, and a torn tendon in his right index finger cut short his season before the end of June.
Senzel hit .310 with an .887 OPS when healthy, showing the ability to handle breaking balls and keep up with fastballs while demonstrating very few holes in his swing.
Scouts like his approach, they just would like to see him on the field more often.
“He has the ability to drive the ball out of the ballpark,” Durham manager Jared Sandberg said. “You see him handling all the pitches.”
Senzel played more at second base this year, but he is a natural third baseman with a plus arm. He is also slated to see time in the outfield in instructional league.
7. Justus Sheffield, LHP, Scranton/Wilkes-Barre (Yankees)
Age: 22. B-T: L-L. Ht: 6-0. Wt: 200. Drafted: HS—Tullahoma, Tenn., 2014 (1/Indians).
Sheffield got promoted Double-A to Triple-A after just five starts and showed he could more than handle the higher-tier competition. He limited opponents to one earned run or fewer in 11 of his 15 starts in the IL and was named the league’s best pitching prospect by managers in Best Tools balloting.
Sheffield’s fastball worked 93-97 mph and he steadily improved his command of it, making it a true plus pitch. He added two-plane break to his mid-80s slider to help it leap forward as well, giving him a pair of power pitches from the left side.
Sheffield still throws his changeup too firm in the upper 80s, and learning to throw that softer will be key to keep hitters from just dialing in on his hard stuff.
8. Victor Robles, OF, Syracuse (Nationals)
Age: 21. B-T: R-R. HT: 6-0. WT: 190. Signed: Dominican Republic, 2013.
A hyperextended left elbow kept Robles out for three months and prevented some of his development this year, but he showed his usual flashes of big tools when he returned in July.
Robles started slowly, but he batted .368/.413/.544 in his final 16 games before being called up to Washington on Sept. 4.
Robles’ speed and defense remained elite, which meant he had the speed to be a difference-maker even if his timing was off.
Robles needs more time in the batter’s box against top-level pitchers in order to return to the level that the Nationals will want him. He also needs more reps to help erase occasional lapses on defense and on the bases, where he is still prone to being reckless at times.
9. Francisco Mejia, C, Columbus (Indians)
Age: 22. B-T: B-R. Ht: 5-10. WT: 180. Signed: Dominican Republic, 2012.
Mejia got off to a slow start during a freezing April in the upper Midwest, but he heated up with the weather. He batted .318/.369/.486 from May through July 17, his last day in the IL before the Indians traded him to the Padres for relievers Brad Hand and Adam Cimber.
A switch-hitter, Mejia showed more power from the left side but overall the ability to hit from both. He gets overaggressive and his pitch selection is questionable, but his gifted hand-eye coordination allows him to make consistent contact.
Mejia’s bat is good enough to carry him, which is important because reviews of his catching have gotten progressively worse. He shows a worrying lack of effort in receiving and blocking, and most expect him to move to left field.
Mejia is athletic enough to warrant that chance—and his arm grades at the top of the scale—though he may be able to stick behind the plate if he exerts more effort.
10. Touki Toussaint, RHP, Gwinnett (Braves)
Age: 22. B-T: R-R. HT: 6-3. WT: 185. Drafted: HS—Coral Springs, Fla., 2014 (1/D-backs).
Toussaint long had big stuff with a mid-90s fastball and hellacious curveball, but he didn’t have the control of them to be effective until this year.
Toussaint shot from Double-A to Triple-A and to the majors once he locked in his control and was particularly dominant in the IL. He ranked second in the league in ERA (1.43) and opponent average (.193) during his time there, and spent September with the Braves as they chased a the NL East division title.
Toussaint’s key was reducing walks, but even with his progress he still has room to grow in that arena. Another big key was the development of a new split-changeup, which his manager Damon Berryhill labeled a plus pitch.
11. Mitch Keller, RHP, Indianapolis (Pirates)
Age: 22 B-T: R-R Ht: 6-3 Wt: 195 Drafted: HS—Cedar Rapids, Iowa, 2014 (2)
Keller cruised through Double-A and got promoted to the IL in late June. He struggled to a 7.98 ERA in his first five starts before adjusting and going 3-0, 2.20 in his final five starts.
Keller continued to show an incredible ability to sit 94-95 mph and touch 97-98 with very little effort. With that gift he became too fastball dependent at times and resistant to throwing his secondaries, which got exposed at Triple-A.
Keller’s curveball has plus action but he struggles to throw it for strikes, both in terms of getting it over or getting batters to chase it. When his changeup works it has fade to the lefthanded hitters and opens up the inside part of the plate, but it was also inconsistent and overall played fringey to average.
Keller’s struggles to get his secondaries over led to a spike in his walk rate (3.8 BB/9) at Triple-A. However, he still missed plenty of bats with his plus-plus fastball and when he got his secondaries over, they flashed above-average to plus. That promise and the adjustments he made at the end of the year keep him in the upper echelon of pitching prospects.
12. Lourdes Gurriel Jr., SS/2B, Buffalo (Blue Jays)
Age: 24 B-T: R-R Ht: 6-2 Wt: 185 Signed: Cuba, 2016
After an injury-plagued season last year, Gurriel showed what he could do when healthy this year. The touted Cuban bounced back and forth between Double-A, Triple-A and the majors, hit everywhere, and secured his spot as the Blue Jays’ everyday shortstop for good in late August.
Gurriel showed the skills that earned him a seven-year, $22 million contract in his time at Buffalo, hitting for average and power while effectively playing both spots in the middle infield. He moved to a different level eight times during the season, but impressively never seemed to lose his rhythm despite constantly moving around.
Gurriel knows the strike zone but is extremely aggressive and rarely walks. Managing his strikeouts moving forward will be key, because he has the potential to be an above-average hitter or more as long as he doesn’t get too overaggressive.
13. Shane Bieber, RHP, Columbus (Indians)
Age: 23 B-T: R-R Ht: 6-3 Wt: 195 Drafted: UC Santa Barbara, 2016 (4)
Bieber’s elite control has long been legendary, and his progressive adding of velocity took him up a notch. After sitting in the upper 80s to low 90s most of his career, Bieber began sitting 92-93 mph and touching 96 this season. With that velocity boost came a dominant run through the IL and a June promotion to Cleveland, where he settled in as the Indians’ fifth starter.
Bieber’s pinpoint control was the best in the minors and has been one of the best in the majors. He struck out 77 and walked seven between Double-A and Triple-A, and in the majors he struck out 104 and walked 19 in his first 17 starts.
That ability to pound the strike zone with an enhanced fastball and above-average slider is Bieber’s foundation. Lefties hit him very well though (.308/.362/.542 in the majors) and needs to significantly improve his changeup to have more success against them.
14. Kevin Kramer, 2B/3B, Indianapolis (Pirates)
Age: 24 B-T: L-R Ht. 6-0 Wt. 200 Drafted: UCLA, 2015 (2)
Kramer has hit for a higher average and more power every level he’s climbed, and that trend continued this year with Indianapolis. Kramer finished tied for second in the IL batting title race (.311), second in doubles (35), third in OPS (.856) and was one of only two players with at least 15 home runs and 10 stolen bases. He earned his first big league callup Sept. 5.
Kramer has settled in as a second baseman, but he showed decently well in stints at shortstop and third base as well, although scouts aren’t entirely comfortable with his range.
Kramer’s bat is enough to keep him in the majors as an everyday second baseman, but his added versatility this year certainly doesn’t hurt. He’s getting the chance to show he can stick in the majors and made the most of it early, going 2-for-4 with a double in his first big league start.
15. Cedric Mullins, OF, Norfolk (Orioles)
Age: 23 B-T: B-L Ht: 5-8 Wt: 175 Drafted: Campbell, 2015 (13)
Mullins played his way into this rating because he does so many things well. Where production matters, Mullins excels.
“He has aptitude,” Norfolk manager Ron Johnson said. “He’s a baseball player. He adapted. He has very good instincts.”
Mullins rates high in base running and plate discipline, where patience helps boost his grades. He has shown he can handle fastballs, showcasing loose hands and the ability to adjust.
What might impress Johnson most is that Mullins, whose speed is an asset, plays like he’s above-average in size rather than 5-foot-8.
There are some mixed reviews based, but an array of scouts see Mullins as making it as an everyday leadoff batter.
16. Jake Bauers, 1B, Durham (Rays)
Age: 22 B-T: L-L Ht: 6-1 Wt: 195 Drafted: HS—Huntington Beach, Calif., 2013 (7/Padres)
Bauers proved he could handle Triple-A last year and merely waited in a holding pattern in the spring for his shot in the big leagues, which came in early June.
Bauer’s swing is smooth without many flaws and his patience has served him well in the batter’s box. Above-average raw power is there, but sometimes the numbers don’t always show it because he doesn’t always elevate. The ball pops off his bat and his ability for solid barrel contact tends to create more line drives and reduces some long balls.
In the field, Bauers’ tryout as an outfielder lost momentum as he struggled with reading basic fly balls, especially in right field, but his natural instincts at first base serve him well.
17. Christin Stewart, OF, Toledo (Tigers)
Age: 24 B-T: L-R Ht: 6-0 Wt: 205 Drafted: Tennessee, 2015 (1)
Stewart’s power has shined at every level and continued to in the IL. He led the league with 23 home runs, ranked third with 77 RBIs and was third with 67 walks. His walk rate was accompanied by a slight decline in strikeouts, marking an encouraging development. He earned his first big league callup in September.
Stewart’s power is primarily to his pull side, but he’ll drive balls around the park, making him a threat regardless of where he’s pitched.
His speed and defense remain below-average and aren’t going to get him to the next level, so some scouts don’t see a well-rounded player. Others say his bat is too much to ignore.
18. Enyel de los Santos, RHP, Lehigh Valley (Phillies)
Age: 22 B-T: R-R Ht: 6-3 Wt: 170 Signed: Dominican Republic, 2014 (Mariners)
De los Santos joined the Phillies in a trade with the Padres for Freddy Galvis in the offseason and found a home in his new organization, flashing a fastball up to 98 mph with movement and earning his first big league callup on July 10.
De los Santos finished second in the IL in ERA (2.63), tied for fourth in wins (10) and third in WHIP (1.16). Hitters were slow to catch up to his big fastball, and he uses his lower body well to generate power and extension.
De los Santos showed flashes of an advanced changeup, an improvement from its previous state. His curveball still needs work and there are times that he’s limited in his confidence throwing it, a development that needs to come for him to remain a starter.
19. Brandon Lowe, 2B/OF, Durham (Rays)
Age: 24 B-T: L-R Ht: 6-0 Wt: 185 Drafted: Maryland, 2015 (3)
Lowe started the season with Double-A Montgomery, showed up in Durham and was an instant hit. He hammered eight home runs in a 10-game span in June and overall hit 14 homers in 46 games with the Bulls before receiving his first big league callup on Aug. 5.
Lowe’s swing is consistent and his power comes without trying to do too much, making scouts confident in his long-term consistency.
“He hit his way to the major leagues,” Durham manager Jared Sandberg said. “Just so many quality at-bats and that makes him stronger mentally. He has calmed down in the box and you see him making adjustments.”
Defensively Lowe draws average at best grades at both second base and left field, but concerns there have been overshadowed by his bat.
20. Kevin Newman, SS, Indianapolis (Pirates)
Age: 25 B-T: R-R, Ht: 6-1 Wt: 180 Drafted: Arizona, 2015 (1)
Newman was rarely flashy but consistently effective for Indianapolis. He finished fourth in the IL in batting (.302), second in stolen bases (28), third in runs (74) and fifth in doubles (30) while playing a steady shortstop. He received his first major league callup Aug. 16.
Newman gets often profiled as a second baseman long-term because he lacks explosiveness in the field, but he makes play and has enough arm for short. Offensively he grinds out at-bats, rarely strikes out, and lines the ball from gap-to-gap. He uses his above-average speed better than many burners, adding to his all-around game.