Baseball America published its minor league Best Tools award winners last week—low Class A, high Class A, Double-A and Triple-A—and you might be wondering about their prognostic value. Stringing together multiple category wins during the course of one’s career would seem to be a strong indicator of success for a prospect.
To test this theory, I looked back into archival Best Tools data going back a decade in an attempt to add context to the winners of today. For the purposes of this exercise, the “now” players must be either 2016 major league rookies or prospect-eligible minor leaguers, while the roots for “then” award winners can stretch back as far as 2006.
Best Batting Prospect
• Now: Corey Seager, ss, Dodgers (2)
2014 California • 2015 Pacific Coast
The favorite to win the 2016 National League rookie of the year award, Seager rocketed through the Dodgers system by taking levels of the minor league ladder two rungs at a time. He finished each season from 2013 through 2015 in a different place from where he began, winning the 2014 minor league batting title (.349) and then hitting .293 in 2015, a season he finished as a 21-year-old in Triple-A. Seager hit .307 in 1,523 minor league at-bats and has made a seamless transition to the majors.
• Then: Jay Bruce, of, Reds (3)
2006 Midwest • 2007 Florida State • 2008 International
Bruce turned out to be a .250 hitter in the majors, but don’t let that obscure the hitting excellence he showed in the minors. The 2005 first-rounder won the 2007 Minor League Player of the Year award on the back of a .319 campaign that featured 26 home runs and 54 doubles-plus-triples. Bruce produced power for Cincinnati—31 homers and 95 RBIs per 162 games—but perhaps his elevated minor league strikeout rate (22.6 percent) hinted at his downside risk in the batting average department.
Tigers third baseman Nick Castellanos also won three best batting prospect nods in the minors (2012 Florida State, 2012 Eastern, 2013 International).
Best Power Prospect
• Now: Joey Gallo, 3b, Rangers (5)
2013 South Atlantic • 2014 Carolina • 2014 Texas • 2015 Texas • 2016 Pacific Coast
Injuries and big league callups have slowed his pace, but Gallo won home-run crowns in the Arizona (2012), South Atlantic (2013) and Carolina (2014) leagues during his first three seasons. Still just 22, he hasn’t stopped hitting for power at Triple-A the past two seasons (35 homers, .291 isolated slugging in 130 games)—but nor has he stopped striking out at an equally prodigious rate (34 percent). The good news for Gallo is that he won’t have to put that many balls in play to hit 30 home runs, for his power is top-of-the-scale good. He already ranks ninth among active professionals with 148 career minor league home runs. Did we mention that he’s still just 22?
• Then: Giancarlo Stanton, of, Marlins (4)
2008 South Atlantic • 2009 Florida State • 2009 Southern • 2010 Southern
Stanton struck out frequently as a prospect in the Marlins system—and his career major league rate borders on 29 percent—but he puts enough balls in play to have two 37-homer seasons and another with 34 through his six full campaigns.
• Now: Jorge Mateo, ss, Yankees (2)
2015 South Atlantic • 2016 Florida State
The 2015 minor league stolen-base champ (with 82 in 117 games) hasn’t attempted to steal bases as much this season, taking off only 39 percent of the time he reaches first or second base, compared with 63 percent of the time last year. Also, Mateo’s on-base percentage (.308) and stolen-base success rate (67 percent) had both slipped through 92 games at high Class A Tampa, though his 80-grade wheels (on the 20-80 scouting scale) remain evident to league observers.
• Then: Billy Hamilton, of, Reds (4)
2011 Midwest • 2012 California • 2012 Southern • 2013 International
Hamilton is hitting .245 for the Reds as he zeroes in on 1,500 major league plate appearances, but his blazing speed continues to play about as well as it did in the high minors. He has stolen 74 bases per 162 games in the majors, which lines up with the total of 75 he swiped at Triple-A Louisville in 2013. No, Hamilton won’t be approaching the 155 steals he racked up at two levels of the minors in 2012, but he has a shot to win his first big league stolen-base crown this season.
Two others also won four fastest baserunner nods in the minors: Anthony Gose (2009 South Atlantic, 2010 Florida State, 2011 Eastern, 2012 Pacific Coast) and Derrick Robinson (2008 Carolina, 2009 Carolina, 2010 Texas, 2011 Texas).
Best Pitching Prospect
• Now: Tyler Glasnow, rhp, Pirates (3)
2013 South Atlantic • 2015 Eastern • 2016 International
Glasnow has been singled out by managers for possessing the best fastball in his league (2013 South Atlantic) and twice for owning the best breaking pitch (2015 Eastern, 2016 International). That goes a long way toward explaining his minor league strikeout rate of 11.6 per nine innings and opponent average of .171. What Glasnow lacks at this stage is control, for his walk rate of 4.8 per nine innings at the Triple-A level is decidedly below-average and will need to improve in the majors.
Reds righthander Robert Stephenson also owns three best pitching prospect trophies (2013 Midwest, 2014 Southern, 2015 International) and deals with similar control problems as Glasnow, with 4.6 walks per nine innings at Triple-A.
• Then: Madison Bumgarner, lhp, Giants (3)
2008 South Atlantic • 2009 California • 2010 Pacific Coast
Many top pitching prospects zip through the minors too quickly to qualify in more than two leagues on their way to the majors. For example, Dodgers lefthanders Clayton Kershaw (2007 Midwest, 2008 Southern) and Julio Urias (2015 Texas, 2016 Pacific Coast) both topped out at two best pitching prospect awards on their way to Los Angeles.
Bumgarner truly shined as a prospect, winning the minor league ERA title as an 18-year-old in 2008 (1.46), finishing third in 2009 (1.85) and then recording a 3.16 ERA through 14 starts at Triple-A Fresno in 2010 on his way to San Francisco—and eventual postseason glory.
• Now: Alex Reyes, rhp, Cardinals (2)
2015 Florida State • 2016 Pacific Coast
Scouts raved last season about the fact that Reyes pitched with closer stuff—including a mid-90s fastball and hammer curveball—in the rotation. They weren’t kidding. In his major league debut on Aug. 9, Reyes pitched one inning of relief in which he hit 101 mph with his fastball and averaged nearly 80 mph on his curveball. He struck out 93 batters in 65 innings at Triple-A Memphis prior to his callup.
• Then: Noah Syndergaard, rhp, Mets (3)
2013 Florida State • 2013 Eastern • 2015 Pacific Coast
Since bursting onto the big league scene in May 2015, Syndergaard is the hardest-throwing starter in the game, with an average fastball velocity of 97.2 mph, according to Pitch f/x. He has recorded a 2.96 ERA through his first 279 innings, with a strikeout rate of 10.4 per nine innings.
Two other righthanders also won three best fastball nods in the minors: the Cardinals’ Carlos Martinez (2011 Midwest, 2011 Florida State, 2012 Texas) and the Yankees’ Luis Severino (2015 Eastern, 2015 International, 2016 International). Martinez has averaged 96 mph in the majors, and Severino has averaged 95.5 mph.
Best Defensive Catcher
• Now: Austin Hedges, c, Padres (4)
2012 Midwest • 2013 California • 2014 Texas • 2016 Pacific Coast
• Now: Christian Vazquez, c, Red Sox (4)
2011 South Atlantic • 2012 Carolina • 2013 Eastern • 2014 International
They go about things differently with a bat in their hands, but Hedges and Vazquez share a number of similarities. Both have cannon arms. Both have been recognized as the best defensive catcher at each level of the minors, from low Class A on up to Triple-A. And both find themselves back at Triple-A this season for more development time. That’s OK for Hedges (22) and Vazquez (23), because catchers tend to establish themselves at a later age than other position players.
The Pirates’ Elias Diaz has been recognized three times as the best defensive catcher in his league (2013 Florida State, 2014 Eastern, 2015 International). He might have won a fourth this season had he not missed the first half with an elbow injury.
• Then: J.T. Realmuto, c, Marlins (3)
2012 Florida State • 2013 Southern • 2014 Southern
The Marlins drafted Realmuto as a high school shortstop in 2010 from the Oklahoma City area and immediately converted him to catcher. His strong arm and athleticism translated well to the position, and once he improved his receiving and blocking technique, he morphed into an exciting all-around catcher.
Best Defensive Shortstop
• Now: Amed Rosario, ss, Mets (3)
2015 Florida State • 2016 Florida State • 2016 Eastern
Rosario’s defensive value propped up his prospect status heading into 2016—he ranked No. 58 in the game—but the 20-year-old Dominican has begun to swing the bat with authority this season. Through 30 games at Double-A Binghamton, he has hit .351/.403/.500 while still impressing observers as the best defensive shortstop in his leagues.
• Then: Alcides Escobar, ss, Brewers (4)
2006 Florida State • 2007 Florida State • 2008 Southern • 2009 Pacific Coast
• Then: Jose Iglesias, ss, Red Sox (4)
2010 Eastern • 2011 International • 2012 International • 2013 International
• Then: Francisco Lindor, ss, Indians (4)
2012 Midwest • 2013 Carolina • 2014 Eastern • 2015 International
Three of the best gloves in the American League belong to young shortstops in the Central Division. The Indians made Lindor a first-round pick out of high school in 2011, while Escobar plays for the Royals and Iglesias for the Tigers following trades. You’ll note that Lindor won best defensive shortstop at each level of the minors in a four-years span and also that Iglesias, while still a Red Sox prospect, claimed the honor in the International League for three straight seasons, which might be some sort of record.
Best Defensive Outfielder
• Now: Byron Buxton, of, Twins (4)
2013 Midwest • 2013 Florida State • 2015 Southern • 2016 International
As major league pitchers continue to befuddle Buxton—he has hit .199/.250/.319 through 109 games as he heads back to Triple-A Rochester once again—the focus shifts to what he can bring to the Twins. The 2013 Minor League Player of the Year has multiple dimensions from which to draw, including his fine defensive play in center field as well as incredible speed. In addition to his four best defensive outfielder wins, Buxton has claimed two fastest baserunner nods in his minor league career (2013 Florida State, 2015 Southern).
• Then: Jackie Bradley, of, Red Sox (3)
2012 Carolina • 2013 International • 2015 International
Take note, Buxton backers. Bradley hit just .213 with 28 percent strikeouts through his first two seasons and 700 at-bats with the Red Sox, but his defensive value, baserunning acumen and newfound power stroke bought him another opportunity this season. He has made the most of it with an adjusted-OPS+ of 129 and the nod as best defensive outfielder in the American League this season.
Other decorated minor league defensive outfielders include Peter Bourjos (2008 California, 2009 Texas, 2010 Pacific Coast), Anthony Gose (2009 South Atlantic, 2010 Florida State, 2011 Eastern, 2012 Pacific Coast) and Desmond Jennings (2007 South Atlantic, 2009 Southern, 2010 International).
Best Manager Prospect
• Now: Luis Rojas, Mets (3)
2014 South Atlantic • 2015 Florida State • 2016 Florida State
• Now: Mark Johnson, Cubs (2)
2014 Midwest • 2015 Carolina
Rojas won the South Atlantic League title at low Class A Savannah in 2013 and has continued to win acclaim at high Class A St. Lucie in 2015 and 2016. His Mets club has a bead on a second-half division title in the Florida State League this season.
One of the true rising stars among minor league managers, Johnson received plenty of attention at Double-A Tennessee this season but didn’t quite win best manager prospect honors in the Southern League. That wasn’t the case for the Cubs manager in the past two seasons, when he won the Midwest League title at low Class A Kane County (2014) and the Carolina League title at high Class A Myrtle Beach (2015). Johnson also claimed our Minor League Manager of the Year award in 2014.
• Then: Mike Sarbaugh, Indians (5)
2007 Carolina • 2009 Eastern • 2010 International • 2011 International • 2012 International
Now in his fourth season as a member of the Indians’ big league coaching staff—he’s now the third-base coach—Sarbaugh followed the path many distinguished minor league managers must follow to reach the majors. Few go from minor league manager to that same position in the majors. Instead, a role on the big league coaching staff is more likely, as it was for Sarbaugh or the Rays’ Charlie Montoyo (third base coach) or the Mariners’ Tim Bogar (bench coach) or Torey Lovullo of the Red Sox (bench coach).
Sarbaugh won titles as a manager in the following minor leagues: New York-Penn (2004), Carolina (2006), Eastern (2009) and International (2010 and 2011).