Underrated Minor League Hitters With Traits To Target In Fantasy Leagues

Image credit: Niko Kavadas (Tom Priddy/Four Seam Images)

The first installment in this series of articles featured some of the top positional prospects in the game—a group of highly touted Top 100 Prospects or hitters playing their way into Top 100 consideration. Today we dive a little deeper and take a look at the next group of prospects that have impressed with production, underlying data or both throughout 2022. This group features less highly touted upper-minors players primarily, with a focus on those that have shown a tremendous growth in one area of plate skills or another. 

The further you go down this list you’ll see a handful of young players that have impressed with their well-rounded plate skills and impact early in their professional careers. Overall, this list, like yesterday’s, is focused on players that are showing some combination of bat-to-ball skills, plate approach and impact in games, with legitimate skills that pass the eye test. This list was built with the aid of sourced Trackman data, conversations with scouts and in-person evaluation.

Esteury Ruiz, OF, Brewers

Over the last three minor league seasons, Ruiz has seen an incremental improvement in his contact, chase and zone contact rates across the board, culminating in a breakout 2022. Ruiz’s contact rate, chase rate, zone contact rate and rate of balls hit 95-plus mph and at launch angles between 10-30 degrees were all at or above the minor league average. Ruiz’s development into a hitter with above-average contact and approach has allowed him to make the most of his advanced baserunning ability. With 70 stolen bases on 83 attempts in 2022, Ruiz leads affiliated baseball in stolen bases this season. His ability to make an impact with his legs while displaying average or better contact, approach and power is a rare combination. How Ruiz fits into the Brewers plans in the short term remains to be seen, but more than likely he’ll be competing for a job next spring. 

Will Brennan, OF, Guardians 

The outfielder spent three seasons at Kansas State racking up lots of hits, runs and stolen bases as he hit .332/.424/.412. He was selected by Cleveland in the eighth round of the 2019 draft and showed contact and approach but little power over his first taste of pro ball. Coming out of the 2020 shutdown Brennan flashed improved exit velocity readings but it didn’t fully manifest itself in game power until this spring. While his power production is just average he’s shown a 50-point increase in slugging year over year, while his exit velocity data has trended upwards over the last three seasons. Brennan’s 90th percentile exit velocity has jumped nearly three mph in 2022, from 100.7 mph in 2021 to 103.3 mph this season. With a combination of plus bat-to-ball skills (80.5% contact rate, 85% zone contact), average swing decisions (28% chase rate) and now average or better raw power, Brennan’s profile as a hitter has taken a sizable step forward in 2022. With center field defense, above-average baserunning skills and a track record of production in the upper minors, Brennan looks ready to contribute now. With the Guardians in a 40-man roster crunch this offseason, Brennan should be a slam dunk addition, as he’d likely go first if left unprotected for the Rule 5 draft. 

Connor Norby, 2B, Orioles 

The former East Carolina standout is now part of a group of talented position players on the cusp of the major leagues in the Orioles system. Alongside Gunnar Henderson, Colton Cowser and Jordan Westburg, Norby has a balanced set of plate skills and has shown the ability to hit for impact in the upper minors. Norby added strength heading into the season and it manifested in measurable gains in both exit velocity data and game power. Norby has hit 20 home runs as of Aug. 30 and is slugging .544 over his first 48 Double-A games. The exit velocity data supports the power surge, as Norby has seen a nearly four mph jump on his average exit velocity between 2021’s 33-game sample and this season. While Norby’s high-end exit velocity numbers are solid-average, it’s his ability to make consistent hard contact that stands out—41.5% of Norby’s balls in play have been 95-plus mph this season. That contact quality is paired with above-average speed and above-average contact rates and chase rates, giving Norby the type of well-rounded skills that play in the major leagues. 

David Hensley, SS, Astros

The 6-foot-6 infielder made his major league debut this summer and has been one of the more fascinating prospects to follow over the last few seasons. Hensley saw a dramatic increase to his contact rate and exit velocity data almost universally in 2022, with improvements to his average exit velocity, 90th percentile exit velocity, contact rate, chase rate, zone contact rate and barrel rate in 2022. A late bloomer, Hensley has blossomed into one of the most well-rounded hitters and versatile defenders in the minor leagues. The infielder’s increase in contact frequency has been married with an improvement in contact quality, increasing his percentage of balls in play at launch angles between 10-30 degrees by 25% year over year. Hensley’s percentage of balls hit 95-plus mph also increased by 13% in 2022. At 26 years old Hensley looks ready to contribute at the major league level, but cracking the Houston lineup is no easy task. With plus raw power, above-average contact and a good approach, Hensley could be an immediate plug-and-play addition for a second division club this offseason.

Tyler Gentry, OF, Royals 

Taken in the third round of the 2020 draft Gentry was limited to just 44 games in 2021 due to a knee injury.  Gentry entered the 2022 season healthy and has produced a .325/.428/.538 slash line across 91 games primarily at the Double-A level. While his defensive profile is questionable, there’s little question that Gentry can hit. He has displayed above-average contact, plus swing decisions and above-average power this season against age appropriate competition. Gentry has a variety of skills as a hitter that have translated to production almost immediately upon entering professional ball. His discerning eye and ability to hit for both contact and power should ultimately mitigate any questions defensively. 

Aaron Zavala, OF, Rangers 

After being limited to just 22 games in his professional debut, we’ve seen a full, healthier season from Zavala in 2022. He’s hit .296/.438/.468 while walking in 17.9% of his plate appearances. His on-base ability is among the best in the minor leagues and he pairs that with above-average bat-to-ball skills, running a 76% contact rate and an 82% zone contact rate. Zavala has shown above-average raw power this season with 35.5% of his balls in play leaving the bat at 95-plus mph, and his 104 mph 90th percentile exit velocity is a full two mph above the minor league average. It’s an impressive number from a hitter with such advanced plate skills. Zavala’s combination of elite plate discipline, strong bat-to-ball skills and blossoming impact make him one of the best all-around hitters in the minor leagues. 

Jared Triolo, 3B, Pirates 

An under-appreciated player with a variety of strong attributes, Triolo is a standout defender with the ability to play shortstop, center field or his natural position of third base. As a hitter Triolo has developed into a well-rounded contributor, with a marriage of bat-to-ball skills (80% contact rate), strong swing decisions (21% chase rate) and average power (102 mph 90th percentile exit velocity). While his power numbers don’t jump off the page this season, his .282/.376/.419 line is 21% above the Double-A average. Triolo’s development into a hitter with contact, on-base ability, average power and speed could see him make the cut as an everyday regular on the left side of the infield. With a versatile defensive profile and a variety of offensive skills, Triolo should be a no-brainer addition to the 40-man roster for the Pirates this offseason. While Pittsburgh is flush with infield talent Triolo could play his way into a super utility role in 2023. 

Jonny DeLuca, OF, Dodgers

Entering the season Deluca was among my top players to follow, thanks to a tip from Matt Pajak of Loden Sports. Deluca’s natural athleticism was impreessive, and it was just a matter of refining his abilities into tools, particularly as a hitter. Five months later and Deluca has produced a .260/.347/.541 line across 98 games between High-A and Double-A. DeLuca started slow over the first two months of the season, hitting .201/.282/.458 over April and May. As the weather warmed in the Midwest League so did Deluca’s bat, as he hit .312/.403/.614 over the next 53 games. He earned a callup to Double-A in early July, and half of that 53-game stretch came with Double-A Tulsa. Coming out of the 2020 shutdown DeLuca showed increased power but regression with his bat-to-ball skills. In 2022, Deluca produced a 78% contact rate, the best of his career and well above minor league average while making incremental gains in the power department. His combination of contact, power, speed and average approach make Deluca a potentially exciting under-the-radar breakout in the Dodgers system. 

Edouard Julien, 2B, Twins 

Who is the most underrated hitter in the minors? It may be Julien. His 77% contact rate, 13% chase rate and 104 mph 90th percentile exit velocity encapsulate Julian’s combination of contact, approach and impact that may be among the best in the minor leagues. The 23-year-old second baseman has hit .286/.431/.490 with 16 home runs, 15 doubles and 15 stolen bases with Double-A Wichita. His combination of elite on-base skills and impact could make him a force at the top of a major league lineup as soon as next season. While there’s some swing and miss to Julien’s profile, he’s a higher contact hitter whose strikeouts are often the product of fringe calls on the edges of the plate. While there are questions around where Julien will fit defensively, he’s held down second base for a majority of the season, which seems like his likely home long term. It’s a bat-driven profile and he may even end up at DH for a good chunk of his games as a major leaguer, but Julien has shown the sort of all-around skills needed to succeed at the big league level. 

Elijah Dunham, OF, Yankees

One of the best nondrafted free agents of the 2020 class, Dunham has developed into a steal for the Yankees. The 24-year-old outfielder has hit .258/.357/.465 with 16 home runs, 33 stolen bases and a 12.3% walk rate to just a 20.8% strikeout rate over 96 games at the Double-A level. His combination of average bat-to-ball skills (73% contact rate), above-average approach (24% chase rate), above-average power (104.5 mph 90th percentile exit velocity) and speed make Dunham a potentially exciting player in the coming years. He’s a more productive hitter against righthanded pitching than lefthanded pitching but his plate skills don’t show a discernible drop off from the left side. Whether or not this leaves Durham as a platoon bat remains to be seen, but reports on his improving defense in the outfield have helped his chances of developing into an everyday player in the coming years. His chances of having a shot to compete for a starting job with the Yankees likely depends on injuries and roster shuffle, but there’s a strong foundational set of skills that should translate to major league opportunities.

Matt Gorski, OF, Pirates 

If you like power then you’ll likely be a fan of Gorski. He pairs plus-plus raw power with a plus-plus throwing arm in the outfield and above-average athleticism. There’s significant swing and miss in Gorski’s game as his contact rate is a below-average 63% this season. He does possess above-average on-base ability backed by solid chase rates. His power is a standout tool, as Gorski has hit 23 home runs as of Aug. 30 split between High-A and Double-A. His exit velocity data backs that up as his average exit velocity of 91.5 mph and 107 mph 90th percentile exit velocity both rank as plus based on major league standards. If Gorski can find more contact in the coming years he has the impact, on-base ability and defensive skills to be a potentially valuable major league regular. 

Niko Kavadas, 1B, Red Sox

There’s a general bias toward younger players both in the public space and the front offices of major league teams. There’s good reason for this but often it can lead to missing a really good player whose age is less a reflection of skill and more a product of happenstance. This is the case with Kavadas. Kavadas went undrafted in the shortened 2020 draft and headed back to school in 2021. He hit .302/.473/.767 with 22 home runs and 64 RBIs over 48 games and was named a first team All-American and a semifinalist for the Golden Spikes Award. Kavadas signed for an over-slot bonus in the 11th round of the 2021 draft with the Red Sox and debuted in full-season ball late in the summer. In 2022 Kavadas is hitting .295/.460/.603 with 24 home runs and 22 doubles split mostly across the Class A levels. While there’s some swing and miss to Kavadas’ game, his 69% contact rate and 74% zone contact rate sit fringe-average. It’s Kavadas’ elite plate discipline and plus-plus raw power that have driven his success to date. His 17% chase rate is in elite territory while 48% of his balls in play have traveled off the bat at 95-plus mph this season. Few hitters possess the combination of power and on-base ability Kavadas does. 

Edgar Quero, C, Angels 

The switch-hitting catcher is another player who’s shown large improvements year over year. Quero has added more than two mph onto his 90th percentile exit velocity while cutting his whiffs by 33% year over year. He’s hit the ball hard at a prodigious rate this season, particularly for a switch-hitter, as Quero has hit 40% of his balls in play at 95-plus mph. Signed out of Cuba in February 2021, Quero has quickly taken to full-season ball, earning a full-season assignment out of camp and hitting .316/.430/.535 with 16 home runs and 32 doubles for Low-A Inland Empire. While Quero’s numbers are stronger overall from the left side, it’s not a noticeable downgrade from the right side. Quero has a fairly interesting profile if he can stick behind the plate long term.

Junior Caminero, SS, Rays 

Acquired by the Rays from the Guardians for Tobias Myers at the 40-man roster deadline, Caminero has impressed in his first season stateside. He hit .326/.403/.492 over 36 games in the Florida Complex League before seeing a promotion to Low-A Charleston the second week of August. Over Caminero’s first 16 games in the Carolina League he’s hit .266/.329/.406 with three home runs. While Caminero is still a fairly aggressive swinger, his chase rate of 30% isn’t out of control for a 19-year-old. He’s able to sustain this semi-aggressive approach due to above-average bat-to-ball skills (77% contact rate) and plus impact (106 mph 90th percentile exit velocity). It’s this balance of contact quality and frequency that make Caminero a true arrow-up prospect heading into the offseason. If Caminero can continue to refine his approach and maintain this level of contact and impact as he moves up the ladder he has a chance to develop into an impact bat. 

Werner Blakely, SS, Angels

Prior to being hit by a pitch on the hand in early July, Blakely was performing well in his full-season debut, hitting .308/.469/.479 with a 20.3% walk rate and 19 steals on 21 attempts over 45 games with Inland Empire. The underlying data shows that Blakely has a strong balance of plate approach and developing power that is already producing above-average exit velocity data in games. Blakely’s discerning eye is noticeable as just 20% of his swings have come against pitches outside the zone. He pairs this with a 90th percentile exit velocity that’s over 1.5 mph above the minor league average and speed to push for extra bases on balls to the gaps. While he has below-average bat-to-ball skills at present, Blakely’s 67% contact rate isn’t a non-starter as incremental improvements from a bat-to-ball standpoint could produce even better all-around production when paired with Blakely’s swing decisions and contact quality. Unfortunately, Blakely has missed a good portion of the 2022 season, but he showed a compelling skill set worthy of following in the coming years. 

Trevor Hauver, 2B, Rangers 

On a list of players with outstanding chase rates, Hauver’s 14% chase rate stands out even among this group. It should come as little surprise that Hauver also owns one of the higher walks rates in the minor leagues at 19%. Unfortunately, a heavy dose of bad luck has sunk Hauver’s overall line, as he’s hit .255 this season on balls in play. Despite a .212 batting average, Hauver has posted a 74% contact rate and an 80% zone contact rate. His rate of balls in play at 95-plus mph is above-average, as are his 90th percentile exit velocity and barrel rate. It’s really just been a matter of the balls not falling for Hauver all season long. 

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