The Next Walsh Or Cronenworth? Here Are 9 Upper-Level Breakout Prospects To Watch
It’s human nature to be excited by whatever’s new. New jobs, new relationships, new cities … new is full of exciting and unlimited possibilities.
But new is not always better. That is true both in life and in terms of prospects.
Every year, under-the-radar prospects pop up in the lowest levels of the minors and receive significant attention, while others have breakthrough years in the upper levels and are largely ignored.
Logically, that’s counterintuitive. Players succeeding in the upper minors are showing their skills play against better competition and are more likely to both reach the majors and make an impact once they get there. Prospects breaking out in the lowest levels often do so against extremely raw competition and have years to go in their development, with many potential pratfalls along the way.
Because those breakthrough players in the upper minors have often been around for multiple years, however, people frequently move on and look for the next exciting, young player. Yet, those breakthrough players in the upper minors often become standout major leaguers.
Recent examples include Jared Walsh and Jake Cronenworth, who had breakout years as 25-year-olds in Triple-A in 2019. Both made their first All-Star Game this season. Others include Randy Arozarena and Ty France, who both had their breakthroughs in Triple-A and have gone on to become impactful everyday players.
David Fletcher, Jeff McNeil, Franmil Reyes, Yandy Diaz, Luke Voit and Adam Frazier are other recent examples who broke out in Double-A or Triple-A and went on to become productive major leaguers. None ever ranked in the Top 10 Prospects in their respective organizations, but their careers have vastly exceeded many of the younger players that ranked ahead of them.
Here are nine unheralded prospects who have made an impact in the upper levels of the minor leagues this season while being age-appropriate for those levels. If history is any indication, at least some of them will go on to productive major league careers, with maybe an all-star or two among them.
1. Jake Meyers, OF, Astros
Meyers is cut from the cloth of Cronenworth and Walsh as a former two-way college player who broke out late in pro ball after focusing solely on being a position player. A crafty lefthander who started on Sundays at Nebraska and played center field when he wasn’t pitching, he failed to do much in the low minors but showed signs of breaking out at the Astros alternate training site last year. Meyer lived up to that promise this season at Triple-A Sugar Land, batting .343/.408/.598 with a career-high 16 home runs despite playing in a pitcher-friendly home park. He received a callup to Houston on Aug. 1 and has hit .287/.336/.465 while settling in as the Astros starting center fielder.
Meyers likely won’t continue to hit around .290 in the majors, but he has developed into a consistent, well-rounded player who should remain a valuable contributor. He battles through at-bats and hits the ball hard to all fields, is a fundamentally sound defender who can play all three outfield positions and is a plus runner who impacts the game with his speed on the bases and in the outfield. He has some length to his swing and occasionally gets tied up by same-side pitching, leading to questions whether he’d be better suited as a platoon outfielder, but others see the strength, athleticism, and consistency for him to remain an everyday center fielder. Either way, Meyers projects to stick on a big league roster and make an impact.
2. Bryan De La Cruz, OF, Marlins
De La Cruz joined Meyers as a breakout outfielder in the lineup at Triple-A Sugar Land, batting .324/.362/.518 with 12 homers and 50 RBIs in 66 games before being traded to the Marlins as one of two players for Yimi Garcia at the trade deadline. He immediately joined the Marlins and hit .338/.389/.478 in his first 40 games while starting at all three outfield positions.
De La Cruz has long had a good feel to hit but didn’t have the strength to impact the ball. That changed this year when he reported to spring training more filled out and stronger than ever and made swing changes to get the ball in the air more. He hit righties (.342, .874 OPS) as well as lefties (.295, .885 OPS) at Triple-A to alleviate pre-existing platoon concerns, destroyed fastballs while staying competitive on breaking balls and showed extra-base power to all fields, all of which he’s carried over to the majors. He’s improved at hitting the ball hard in the air and has above-average speed to go with that newly usable power, making for an intriguing potential power-speed combination.
De La Cruz is playable in center field and above-average in both outfield corners with a strong arm. While he obviously won’t continue to hit nearly .340 in the majors, he’s made a strong case he can continue being a productive everyday outfielder.
3. Jose Miranda, 3B, Twins
A second-round pick out of high school in Puerto Rico in 2016, Miranda long showed a smooth swing and natural feel for the barrel but never quite put everything together offensively. That changed this year on the strength of vastly improved pitch selection. Miranda begun swinging at more strikes, chasing less out of the zone and using the whole field rather than trying to pull everything, and the result has been a breakout campaign at Double-A Wichita and Triple-A St. Paul. He entered Monday batting .337/.397/.560 with 26 home runs and 78 RBIs in 111 games between the two levels and owns the third-highest batting average of any minor leaguer with at least 400 plate appearances.
Miranda projects to continue to hit for a high average with his swing and improved pitch selection and has enough strength to hit 10-15 home runs, with the possibility of reaching 20 in his best years. That offensive production will play anywhere, even with projected below-average defense at third base. Miranda has worked to stay leaner and nimbler in the infield and has shown the ability to make the routine plays at second base and first base. Whether he ends up an everyday third baseman or someone who bounces around to multiple positions, Miranda projects to hit enough to get everyday at-bats.
4. Steven Kwan, OF, Indians
A fifth-round pick out of Oregon State in 2018, Kwan has had a strong track record of hitting for average and getting on base at just about every level. What changed this year is he added power. Kwan has hit .345/.419/.559 between Double-A Akron and Triple-A Columbus with a career-high 10 home runs in only 63 games, with most of his damage coming at pitcher-friendly Akron.
Kwan’s strike-zone awareness and pure contact skills are among the best in the Indians organization. He was previously a slap hitter in college and the lower levels of the minors, but he added a leg kick to get into his lower half more this season and began showing surprising pull-side power. He’s an above-average runner and instinctual defender in center field and has the athleticism to play all three outfield spots, although his below-average arm will limit him in right.
Kwan’s contact skills, athleticism and newfound power have made him a likely major leaguer in most evaluators’ eyes. He’ll start off in the majors as a bench player and has a chance to grow into a starter if he can maintain his power spike.
5. Otto Lopez, 2B, Blue Jays
Lopez isn’t exactly anonymous. He won the Midwest League batting title at Low-A in 2019 and entered this season as the Blue Jays’ No. 12 prospect. Still, his small stature allowed doubts to persist about how well he’d fare at higher levels. Lopez largely eliminated those doubts this season, batting .316/.379/.433 between Double-A New Hampshire and Triple-A Buffalo with a career-high 26 doubles and earning his first major league callup.
Lopez is a plus athlete who does everything fast. He has a compact swing with plenty of bat speed, is a plus runner and has the athleticism and twitch to stay in the middle of the field. He occasionally pulls off when he swings, but he has an innate feel for contact and putting the ball in play. He has progressively learned to take more mature at-bats as he’s gotten older and has surprising average raw power he could tap in to as he gets more selective in his approach.
Lopez is better at second base than shortstop because of his sidearm arm slot, but has the ability to play both positions. Once considered a potential low-end utilityman, he’s shown this year he’s more likely to be a high-end role player with a chance to be an everyday second baseman.
Baseball America Prospect Report — Sept. 17, 2021
Jose Miranda finishes a triple shy of the cycle, Oneil Cruz homers and more.
6. Yohel Pozo, C, Rangers
Pozo first rose to prominence for the wrong reasons. He was suspended and investigated by police for his involvement in an alleged sexual hazing incident at the Rangers’ Dominican complex when he was 19, but no charges were filed. He struggled to hit at the lower levels in the ensuing years and left as a minor league free agent in 2020, briefly signing with the Padres before the Rangers took him back in the minor league portion of the Rule 5 draft. At one point last winter, Pozo was homeless and living out of his car with his wife and 9-month old child.
Through it all, Pozo jumped straight to Triple-A this year and delivered his best season. He hit .337/.350/.608 with a career-high 19 home runs and 63 RBIs in 66 games and was promoted to Texas in mid-August. He has continued hitting with the Rangers, batting .286 (20-for-70) in his first 20 games. Pozo is an aggressive free swinger who rarely walks, but he also rarely strikes out. He’s a good bad-ball hitter who swings at pitches off the plate and drives them into right field for singles while turning on balls over the plate for extra-base hits. He battles through at-bats, has solid bat speed, uses the whole field and has a knack for delivering in close-and-late situations. He has no trouble facing high-octane relievers and revels being in the position to win a game.
Pozo is a below-average catcher who doesn’t offer much defensively and will have to carve out a role as a C/DH type. His body type and skill set draw comparisons to Willians Astudillo, and he has a chance to follow a similar career path and perhaps exceed it.
7. Juan Yepez, 1B, Cardinals
The Cardinals acquired Yepez from the Braves for Matt Adams in 2017 as a teenager in Low-A. He didn’t project to be more than an organizational player before this year, but he got stronger and changed his potential outlook with a breakthrough season. Yepez has hit .285/.387/.591 with a career-high 26 home runs and 74 RBIs in 102 games with Double-A Springfield and Triple-A Memphis. His .971 OPS is third highest among players 24 or younger who have seen time at Triple-A this year, trailing only Top 100 prospects Keibert Ruiz and Jose Barrero.
Yepez is an aggressive fastball hitter who swings hard and frequently finds the center of the barrel. He can turn around a fastball at any velocity and, while aggressive, he stays in the strike zone and forces pitchers to beat him over the plate. Yepez has been vulnerable against spin at times and is prone to selling out for power, but he has improved this year at not chasing secondary pitches and does damage when he connects. Yepez has gotten thicker and tighter as he’s gotten stronger and is now limited solely to first base, where he is an average defender at best and prone to occasionally clumsy plays.
Yepez likely need the permanent addition of the DH to the National League to have an avenue for playing time, but his improvements as a hitter give him a chance to reach the majors and gain a foothold with the right opportunity.
8. Michael Stefanic, 2B, Angels
The Angels signed Stefanic as an undrafted free agent out of NAIA Westmont (Calif.) in 2018 after he sent a homemade highlight tape to all 30 teams and the Angels needed an infielder to fill out their Rookie-level rosters. He quickly proved he was more than just organizational filler, showing good instincts and a knack for contact as he steadily moved up the ranks.
After barreling balls throughout minor league spring training, Stefanic has delivered statistically one of the best seasons in the minors this year. He ranks second in the minors in batting average (.338), third in hits (142), sixth in on-base percentage (.414) and overall has a .908 OPS with 15 home runs and 58 RBIs in 108 games between Double-A Mobile and Triple-A Salt Lake. His performance stands out even in the context of the hitting-friendly environments of Salt Lake and the Triple-A West—his 136 wRC+ is third-highest in the league.
Stefanic isn’t particularly physical or athletic, but he can just plain hit. He barrels just about everything in the strike zone, rarely chases out of the zone and almost never swings and misses. His 5% swinging strike rate is the second lowest in the minors this year and his 18% chase rate at Triple-A is also an elite mark. Stefanic is an edgy competitor who puts together consistently competitive at-bats, wears pitchers down and lines the ball from gap-to-gap. He has no problem hitting velocity and has started to show more power this season, including to the opposite field.
Stefanic’s issue is he’s a well below-average defender in the infield. He’s a slow-twitch player whose lateral agility, first-step quickness and overall range are all lacking at second base, and his below-average arm strength precludes him from playing third base. Stefanic will have to put in lots of work defensively to become playable in the major leagues. If he can, there is a lot of confidence his bat will play.
9. Rene Pinto, C, Rays
Pinto signed with the Rays back in 2013 and spent five seasons in the lower levels of the minors before finally reaching Double-A in 2019. He re-signed with the Rays as a minor league free agent following the 2020 season and began this season back in Montgomery, repeating the same level he was at two years ago. Nothing in Pinto’s past portended a major league future, but he emerged with newfound power this year to change his professional outlook. After never hitting more than eight home runs in any season, he has 20 home runs in only 82 games this year while batting .265/.319/.518 between Montgomery and Triple-A Durham.
Pinto was previously a line-drive hitter who showed some feel for contact, but he began working on hitting the ball in the air more during last year’s coronavirus shutdown. He carried his progress into this season and has been driving the ball hard in the air to all fields, including some long drives to right and right-center. Pinto mostly crushes secondary pitches and struggles against fastballs, but he has shown flashes of the ability to do damage against velocity.
Pinto is a solid defender behind the plate with a cannon for an arm and a track record of building a good rapport with pitchers. With his defense behind the plate and newfound power, he’s made himself a potential major league option.