Top 50 Prospects in MLB Review — Jul 19, 2021

With five of the top 50 preseason top prospects now in the Majors, let’s review their performances and discuss their rest of season outlooks.

Wander Franco | TB | Overall Prospect Rank: 1

It was a pretty big deal when Franco made his MLB debut back on June 22. The 20-year-old shot through the minors, jumping from High-A in 2019 to Triple-A in 2021 and now the Majors. He brought with him a skill set you don’t typically associate with a top prospect — strong plate discipline with elite contact ability and more walks than strikeouts during his 2018 and 2019 minor league stints. His power had decline at each of his stops before blossoming before his promotion this year. For a 20-year-old, this is exactly what you wanted to see. Well, we didn’t need to decline from 2018 and 2019, but the explosion this year was exciting.

So far, over 80 plate appearances (I’m including yesterday’s game), he has been unable to translate that minor league success at the plate to the Major League level. At times an on base machine given his low strikeout rate and above average walk rate, his OBP sits at just .275, while his wOBA is also below .300 at .290. Not surprisingly, he has struck out far more often than he ever had. It’s a reminder that ascending to the Majors so quickly and then succeeding is really hard.

There is good news though. He clearly isn’t overmatched as his SwStk% remains in single digits and his O-Swing% is significantly better than the league average. So not only is he still making better than average contact, he’s also not swinging at pitches outside the zone at a worrisome rate. His batted ball profile, featuring a low IFFB% suggests his BABIP is due to rise from its current .250 mark, and a maxEV of 109.6 already is quite impressive.

While there’s no telling if he’ll heat it quickly enough before the season ends to be a real difference maker in fantasy leagues, his early small sample performance isn’t as disappointing as the results might suggest. Remain seriously bullish here.

Jarred Kelenic | SEA | Overall Prospect Rank: 3

It’s possible that fantasy owners were even more excited about Kelenic this year simply because he was expected to be called up far earlier than Franco was. That surely did happen, as Kelenic debuted on May 13. Unfortunately, he flopped over 92 plate appearances, pposting a .178 wOBA and striking out 28.3% of the time. That got him demoted back to Triple-A where he spent a month, before being recalled back to the Mariners after games resumed post all-star break.

As we often see with prospects making their MLB debuts, Kelenic’s strikeout rate has spiked higher than anything he has posted in the minors. The surprising thing is that his SwStk% is actually slightly better than the league average, so you wouldn’t expect his strikeout rate to be closing in on 30%, based solely on his contact ability. The difference here is that he has taken a high rate of called strikes, as his CStr% sits at 19% vs a 16.7% league average. That seems easily fixable as just becoming more aggressive.

Like Franco, Kelenic has posted a maxEV over 109 MPH, but has only been rewarded with a 7.1% HR/FB rate. He has hit a ton of fly balls, which would really boost his home run total if that HR/FB rate was even just league average, though all those flies have also conspired to crush his BABIP. Speaking of those flies, his batted ball profile is poor, heavy on flies and pop-ups and light on liners, all of which are hampering his BABIP.

Overall, the fact that he isn’t swinging and missing as often as his strikeout rate suggests he may be is a good sign. But I think he’s more tweaks away from becoming a fantasy asset this year than Franco is.

Vidal Bruján| TB | Overall Prospect Rank: 15

With 48 steals in 2019 and 55 in 2018, Bruján may actually have the most fantasy potential on this list. The one question mark was his power, but he burst out with a 15% HR/FB rate at Triple-A this year and .212 ISO, making us dream of future 20 homer and 40 steal seasons.

Bruján debuted with the Rays on July 7, but he hasn’t started every day or played a whole lot, recording just 15 plate appearances so far. With so many Rays hitters struggling to hit, I’m not sure what the point of recalling him was if he wasn’t going to play every day. It certainly makes for a fun collection of players, but the point isn’t just to have all your prospects in the Majors, even if they don’t play.

Obviously, with just a .059 wOBA at the moment, Bruján hasn’t given the Rays a reason to start playing him every day. But man, it’s been 15 PAs! If Bruján remains in this limbo spot and never really becoming a consistent fantasy asset this year, I think he could be a fabulous keeper league acquisition target on the chance his price as dropped any bit. Given his elite plate discipline and walk and strikeout rate combos in the minors, his elite speed and willingness to steal bases, plus his growing power, he could be a fantasy force.

Logan Gilbert | SEA | Overall Prospect Rank: 24

The Mariners couldn’t wait to bring Gilbert up to the Majors, as he made all of one start of five innings at Triple-A this year before getting the call to make his MLB debut. So far, so good, as he has posted a 28.3% strikeout rate as I type this, while limiting the walks. A fly ball tendency could be a concern, but with a high strikeout rate and low walk rate, a higher than average rate of his homers allowed are likely to be of the solo variety.

Gilbert’s fastball has averaged 95.1 MPH and he has complemented the pitch primarily with a slider, and then single digit rates of a curveball and changeup. According to his pitch grades, none of his pitches were supposed to stand out, with all of them rating around average to slightly above. So far, his slider has generated a high teen SwStk%, while his changeup has been absolutely elite sporting a 28.1% SwStk%. That doesn’t sound like an average pitch to me!

However, with a low called strike rate and a good, but not elite, SwStk%, there may be some short-term downside in that strikeout rate. He’ll also have to contend with the prospect of his .269 BABIP rising closer to the league average and his 8.1% HR/FB rate jumping into the teens like the rest of the league. Still, he’s done nothing to suggest he won’t remain a strong fantasy asset the rest of the way.

Alek Manoah | TOR | Overall Prospect Rank: 46

With just 35 professional innings, there was no way to know for sure whether Manoah was truly ready for MLB success upon his recall. He has now pitched more innings in the Majors than minors, and the answer, at least so far, has clearly been that he’s ready.

Like Gilbert, a slight concern is his extreme fly ball tendency which could lead to home run issues. But with a SwStk% over 13% and a strikeout rate over 30%, those homers aren’t likely to come with many runners on base.

Unlike Gilbert, Manoah’s pitch grades suggested he was armed with a strong fastball and elite slider. You love to see a pitching prospect already sporting such a foundation to build from. He has actually thrown both a four-seamer and sinker so far, both of which have averaged over 93 MPH, and complemented it primarily with that slider and a changeup 10% of the time.

The four-seamer has been a whiff machine, generating a SwStk% of 15.1%, which is one of the higher marks I’ve seen from a starting pitcher. His slider has also been excellent as well, but an 18.8% SwStk% falls a tad short of elite status so far. The sinker’s 9.1% SwStk% is actually quite high for that pitch type, while his changeup has been ineffective at inducing whiffs with just a 5.6% SwStk%. The changeup has induced grounders at a near 54% clip though, so at least it’s been good for something.

I think between Manoah and Gilbert, I might actually slightly prefer the latter in the near-term as it’s hard to believe Manoah could sustain such a high SwStk% with his four-seamer and he doesn’t have the depth of whifftastic pitches that Gilbert has, while owning worse control. He’ll also need to contend with the regression monster, as his .233 BABIP and 83.3% LOB% aren’t sustainable.

Mike Podhorzer is the 2015 Fantasy Sports Writers Association Baseball Writer of the Year. He produces player projections using his own forecasting system and is the author of the eBook Projecting X 2.0: How to Forecast Baseball Player Performance, which teaches you how to project players yourself. His projections helped him win the inaugural 2013 Tout Wars mixed draft league. Follow Mike on Twitter @MikePodhorzer and contact him via email.

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1 year ago

Nice piece. Fix that last sentence.