By: Justin Lorber
Over the past twenty years, the MLB has seen quite the youth movement. Prospects and draft picks are more valuable than ever, and an All-Star caliber player still on a league minimum (or close) salary is the most valuable asset in baseball.
This year, there were numerous rookies who were a big part of their teams’ push for the playoffs. Gary Sanchez came up midway through the year and set the Bronx on fire, with 24 home runs in just 53 games, and a .358 isolated power percentage (for reference, David Ortiz led the league this year among qualified hitters with a .305 ISO). Dodger shortstop Corey Seager became not only an All-Star and likely Rookie of the Year, but also an MVP candidate, and his team’s most important hitter. Trea Turner showed versatility and hitting prowess as the Nationals’ leadoff hitter, and second baseman/shortstop/center fielder with an OPS of .937 and 33 stolen bases. Andrew Benintendi, Alex Bregman, Wilson Contreras, Kenta Maeda, Edwin Diaz, Seung Hwan Oh, Julio Urias, and other rookies also made big contributions in playoff races.
Looking ahead to next season, let’s take a look at some prospects who could have an effect on 2017’s playoff races.
***This list is only including players who have not made their MLB debut yet, so players such as Yoan Moncada, Manuel Margot, and Jose De Leon, who were called up in September, were not included.
Cody Bellinger, Los Angeles Dodgers, 1B
The 21 year old Dodgers first baseman has seen a dramatic rise up prospect boards over the past year. Son of former Yankees first baseman Clay Bellinger, Cody was drafted in the 4th round in 2013, as a tall, lanky, athletic, low power first baseman. But in 2015, at High A Rancho Cucamonga, Bellinger found his power stroke, hitting 30 homers and increasing his walk rate to a more respectable 9.6%. He continued his progress at Double A, hitting for a WRC+ of 142, and continued his control of the strike zone, increasing his walk rate again, to 12.7%, while cutting his strikeout rate to 20.2%, from 27.6% the year prior. Then, to cap off his year, the Dodgers promoted him for the final three games of the Triple A season, and he promptly hit 3 home runs in his short stint. Bellinger is an above average defender at first, and is athletic enough to play the outfield, including some center. There does not appear to be a clear place for him in the Dodgers’ lineup at the moment, and he’ll likely start next season in Triple A, but his talent and versatility won’t keep him down for long.
Bradley Zimmer, Cleveland Indians, OF
The 21st overall pick in the 2014 draft has made a fast climb through the minor leagues, and now finds himself knocking on the door of the big leagues. Zimmer has average or above tools in every facet of the game, and while his strikeout rate this past year (28.3% at AA, 37.3% at AAA) is alarming, his increased walk rate (13.8% and 14.0% at AA and AAA, respectively) helps balance it out. Zimmer will probably start the season at AAA, after he only produced a WRC+ of 95 there in 150 plate appearances at the end of 2016, but he could easily find himself as a midseason call up in 2017. With the return of Michael Brantley and breakouts of Jose Ramirez and Tyler Naquin, there does not appear to be an immediate starting spot for Zimmer, but if he plays well enough at Triple A, the Indians will look for a way to get him big league at bats.
Dominic Smith, New York Mets, 1B
The former first round pick out of powerhouse Junipero Serra High School in southern California, Smith has been steadily rising through the Mets system. After winning the Florida State League MVP in 2015, he spent the entire year at Double A this season. Smith increased his walk rate to 9.2% and lowered his strikeout rate to 13.7%, and he also saw a jump in his power, hitting 14 homers with an ISO of .155. His power surge likely means another leap to Triple A next season, and has a pretty good shot at seeing some time in Queens in 2017, given that the Mets currently start James Loney at first base.
Francis Martes, Houston Astros, RHP
A throw-in in the Jarred Cosart trade, the Astros acquired Martes from the Marlins in 2014, and in that time he’s transformed himself from a project to a top prospect. Just 20 years old, Martes saw both a decrease in walks and home run rate while playing the entire year in Double A. And even more impressive than his 3.30 ERA was his 2.73 xFIP, further demonstrating his potential promise as a frontline starter. He relies mainly on a fastball/curveball combo, sitting in the mid 90s with the fastball. A key for him this upcoming season will be the development of his changeup, which will ultimately determine whether he stays a starter or is moved to the bullpen. Martes is most likely not ready to contribute in a big way just yet, but he could be a valuable September callup.
Derek Fisher, Houston Astros, OF
Another Astros top prospect, Fisher’s power-speed combo is among the best in the minors. Despite his contact issues (154 strikeouts in 129 games), the 23 year old has the potential to be a middle of the order bat. He slugged 21 home runs in 2016, posted an ISO of .215 in 27 games at Triple A, and also stole 25+ bases for the second straight year. While he can play centerfield, he profiles more in left, given his below average arm. Fisher could push for a spot out of spring training, but with the Astros crop of talented position players, he will likely go back to Triple A and await the call.
Others who could make an impact:
Harrison Bader, St Louis Cardinals, OF
Tyler Beede, San Francisco Giants, RHP
Andy Ibanez, Texas Rangers, 2B
Kevin Newman, Pittsburgh Pirates, SS
Michael Kopech, Boston Red Sox, RHP