Man, did I miss Minor League Baseball. The 2021 season served as an important reminder of how much talent the minors is laden with. The combination of emergent players seemingly coming out of nowhere and recent draftees making their presence known in their first full season made for a very difficult-to-decide, but fun list.
C: MJ Melendez – Royals
(Double-A, Triple-A): .288/.386/.625, 41 HR, 63 XBH, 103 RBI, 162 wRC+
After hitting .163/.260/.311 in 2019, it’s fair to say that few were looking at MJ Melendez to pace the Minor Leagues in home runs. That’s the beauty of baseball: one small adjustment, or even a different thought at the plate, can make all the difference in the world.
Melendez was a highly touted catching prospect in the baseball hotbed that is South Florida. The Royals were enticed in the left-handed hitting catcher enough to offer him above slot value in the second round of the 2017 MLB Draft. Early results were positive for a teenage Melendez, who posted back to back seasons with a wRC+ greater than 120.
Similar to the next player on the list, Melendez hit a brick wall in High-A during the 2019 season. Melendez returned in 2021 with a different set-up at the dish. His hands are positioned much lower and look to be in a much more comfortable place for him. He also has a heightened emphasis on his weight transfer to his back side, which has allowed him to stay behind the baseball well and drive it with authority to all fields.
Melendez has long earned high marks for his savviness behind the plate and his baseball IQ. It helps that his father, Mervyl is the Head Coach at Florida International University, giving MJ a built in coach during the 2020 layoff. Melendez’s hard work was realized in 2021 at the plate, and the glove has always been strong behind the dish.
With Salvador Perez still manning the catcher spot, the Royals had Melendez getting reps at third base, which I admittedly have not seen much of to draw an opinion. At this point, I feel strongly that Melendez would provide more defensive value than Perez, but that is not for me to decide. Regardless, Melendez has made himself an important building piece for the Royals with his offensive explosion.
1B: Nick Pratto – Royals
(Double-A, Triple-A): .265/.385/.602, 36 HR, and 155 wRC+
Much like Melendez, Pratto did a full 180 from the last time we saw him; a draft class that looked doomed is now strong. Despite being selected in the first round (14th overall) of the 2017 MLB Draft, Nick Pratto quickly slipped off of everyone’s radar after an abysmal 2019 season in High-A which was preceded by a pair of mediocre years at the lower levels. A glove-first prospect at first base is far from ideal, which is where it looked like Pratto was headed after slashing .191/.278/.310 in 124 High-A games.
Pratto took the time off in 2020 to make swing adjustments as well as refine his approach, and boy did he ever. The 22-year-old has finally looked like the guy who was tabbed by many as the best pure hitter in his high school class, backed by his gaudy numbers and rapid accession on the prospect lists.
Pratto cut his 2019 K-rate down by five percent, but he could probably stand to improve his 29% punch out rate. The left-handed hitter offsets those strikeouts by walking around 15% of the time, and his .602 slugging makes the whiffs more palatable as well.
A system that was once viewed as pitching-centric now has three major offensive pieces that are all close to MLB ready.
2B: Nick Yorke – Red Sox
(Low-A/High-A): .325/.412/.516, 14 HR, 39 XBH, 15.6 K%, 11.8 BB%,
Yorke was one of those draft picks were it as hard to have a strong opinion because there just wasn’t much info on him. Back in August, I wrote about how Nick Yorke has proven the Red Sox right, the only team that was willing to take him in the first round last year.
The Red Sox saw Yorke as one of the most polished prep bats in the 2020 class, while other teams focused on his shoulder injury and lack of physical stature, placing him more in the Day 2 category. Everything about Nick Yorke’s 2021 season not only screams Day 1, but also exclaims top five pick. .
While the bulk of Yorke’s value is in his bat, he looked strong defensively this year at second base, especially considering some of the concern with his throwing shoulder. The other question on Yorke was how much power he could provide, but he answered that question with his 14 HR and 39 XBH in 97 games. Yorke’s ability to produce power with limited effort in his swing is quite impressive.
3B: Jose Miranda – Twins
(Double-A/Triple-A): .344/.401/.572, 30 HR, 62 XBH, 158 wRC+
Now, this is a guy who came out of nowhere. A second round pick in 2016, Miranda struggled to get anything going in his first handful of seasons and struggled even more in 2018 and 2019, posting sub-100 wRC+ figures both seasons.
When I featured Miranda on our Breakout Hitting Prospects article, I talked about some of the improvements he made at the plate between the 2019 and 2021 seasons. The first big change was physical, adding around 20 pounds to his frame, which played a big part in him more than doubling up his career high of 13 HR with 30 HR this year.
Miranda also toned down his aggressive approach a tad, waling at the highest clip of his full-season career (7.1%). While it would be nice to see Miranda walk a bit more, he is always going to be an aggressive hitter who puts the ball in play at a high rate. What I was more encourage by in his approach was the way he leveraged his hitters counts and did not go after pitches he couldn’t do much damage with.
Strikeouts have never been an issue for Miranda, but he often tended to get himself out by going after pitcher’s pitches. A better approach and added strength tends to bode well for power production (obviously), and after a meager 5% of his fly balls leaving the yard in 2019, roughly 25% resulted in a homer this year.
Miranda is difficult to project longterm, but he very easily had one of the best seasons in all of the Minor Leagues and is still just 23 years old. Realistically, he should have been a late season call-up, but we will see him in the show next year.
SS: Bobby Witt Jr. – Royals
(Double-A/Triple-A): .290/.361/.575, 33 HR, 29 SB, 97 RBI, 143 wRC+
This kid is special. I marveled at his at bats all year long. Whether it was against former MLB’ers in Triple-A, or some of baseball’s best prospects in the Futures Game, Witt Jr. always looked beyond comfortable. The game seems like it is going slower for him than everyone else whether he is on defense, in the batters box, or on the base paths.
In just 123 games, Witt was just one stolen base away from a 30/30 season and reached the 20/20 plateau in only 90 games. Witt has found the perfect balance of an approach geared for doing damage without compromising his ability to get on base and utilize his plus speed (9% BB, .361 OBP).
The 21-year-old was also a human highlight reel at shortstop, showing off his impressive range, strong arm, and athleticism. He is a true five-tool player who has a chance to be one of the best shortstops in the game. Expect him to be on the Royals Opening Day roster, unless he gets the Kris Bryant treatment.
OF: Brennen Davis – Cubs
(High-A/Double-A/Triple-A): .260/.375/.494, 19 HR, 44 XBH, 141 wRC+
Anyone who knows me or listens to my podcast (Locked On MLB Prospects) knows that Brennen Davis has been a guy I have been bullish on for a long time. Davis may have even exceeded my already lofty expectations on him in 2021, mashing his way up three levels from High-A to Triple-A.
Just 21 years old, Davis entered the season with only 68 professional ball games under his belt. After just eight games in High-A, the Cubs realized Davis was overqualified and bumped him up to Double-A. The upper-levels were a bit more challenging for Davis in terms of swing and miss, but his production hardly suffered. Despite a 30% K-rate, the Cubs saw enough in Davis’ 76 Double-A games to promote him to Triple-A.
The tighter strike zone in Triple-A aided Davis, who actually has a good feel for the zone. In his 15 games for Iowa, Davis struck out 15 times and walked 11. Davis showcased a lot of the things that have me so high on him this year. His power to all fields was consistently put on display, his approach improved as the season endured, and he flashed the leather in center with much improved routes and great closing speed.
I have long maintained the ‘Matt Kemp lite’ comparison for Davis and I am even hesitant to put the word ‘lite’ there because of how impressed I am with Davis’ bat. While there is some risk, Davis only made me more confident in my bullish take on him with his 2021 season.
OF: Julio Rodriguez – Mariners
Julio Rodriguez has done nothing but hit since he stepped foot in the Mariners organization. His numbers as a teenager and young 20-year-old through every Minor League level match up with anyone in recent memory, even Wander Franco.
|Wander Franco (215 Games)||.331/.399/.535, 27 HR, 95 XBH, 275 H, 156 wRC+|
|Julio Rodriguez (217 Games)||.331/.412/.543, 30 HR, 93 XBH, 277 H, 165 wRC+|
Of course, Wander Franco also boasts a ridiculous ability to walk more than he strikes out, but J-Rod sports an impressive 19% K-rate in his Minor League career himself. Rodriguez has always made hitting look easy and as he has continued to grow into the physical 6-foot-3, 190 pound beast he is today, he has only added power to the same special hit-tool.
J-Rod truly is a rare blend of high contact and plus, plus raw power that teams dream of discovering. While he only played 74 games because of his participation in the Olympics for the Dominican Republic, Rodriguez showed more than enough between High-A and Double-A to justify an early season call up next year.
A great athlete for his size, Rodriguez made improvements with his defense in right field and projects to be an above average defender out there as well. An outfield duo of Julio Rodriguez and Jarred Kelenic as well as a healthy Kyle Lewis could be a problem for AL West teams very soon.
OF: Riley Greene – Tigers
(Double-A/Triple-A): .301/.387/.534, 24 HR, 57 XBH, 84 RBI, 16 SB, 148 wRC+
One of the sweetest swings in the Minor Leagues, Riley Greene has done nothing but hit since entering professional baseball as an 18-year-old. The fifth overall selection out of high school in the 2019 MLB Draft, Greene has already leapfrogged many of the collegiate bats in his draft class in terms of track to the big leagues.
Before turning 21 years old last month, Greene already had 40 Triple-A games under his belt. Greene was already one of the youngest players in Double-A, where he posted a 145 wRC+, then was called up to Triple-A where he was the youngest player in his league. Conventional thinking would lead us to think that a 20-year-old Greene may see his production slow down a tad against experienced Triple-A pitching; but Greene is not a conventional prospect and his wRC+ actually jumped to 153 in Triple-A.
An above average runner who takes good routes in the outfield, Greene played a majority of his games in center field in 2021. There is some concern that if he fills out more, he may slow down and move to a corner, but he would be a plus defender there. If Greene sticks in center field, he could have the potentially to be one of the most exciting bats at the position in baseball. I can’t help see a blend of Kyle Tucker and Michael Brantley in Riley Greene which is obviously absurd in the best way possible.
DH: Anthony Volpe – Yankees
(Low-A/High-A): .294/.423/.604, 27 HR, 68 XBH, 86 RBI, 33 SB, 170 wRC+
Don’t be fooled, the DH designation is not because Volpe cannot play shortstop, in fact, he is an above average defender at the spot. Bobby Witt Jr. was just too absurd in every aspect to not put at the shortstop spot, but Volpe was so darn good that he actually pushed Spencer Torkelson out of the incredibly high honor of cracking this list–I’m sure he’s devastated.
Volpe, a 19-year-old at season’s start, devastated pitchers all year long, showcasing power that many evaluators did not even consider to be in the tank in even the best case scenarios. Despite a 5-foot-11, 180 pound frame, Volpe launched 27 homers and was a doubles machine. Volpe’s homers may not travel 450 feet like some of the other players on this list, but guess what? They all count the same!
The gap to gap approach that the Yankees top prospect deploys allows for consistent contact, but his impressive bat speed and barrel control allow for many of those doubles to turn into round trippers. I envision much of the same happening in the bandbox that is Yankee Stadium, especially with Volpe’s ability to go the other way.
The now 20-year-old’s approach is way beyond his years, rarely expanding the zone, and he looks to do damage in the right spots. His feel for the barrel allows him to adjust to tough pitches and spoil the toughest.
The Yankees could have their shortstop of the future here, and his skillset is one that I would expect to climb the Minor Leagues quickly.
Alternate OF: Joey Wiemer – Brewers
(Low-A/High-A): .295/.403/.556, 27 HR, 30 SB, 47 XBH, 155 wRC+
Yes, I literally made up an extra position to include Joey Wiemer; he was that good in 2021. It really is hard to have a much better start to a professional career than Wiemer did last year. After only hitting 12 home runs in his entire three year collegiate career, Wiemer toppled that total by launching 14 bombs in 34 High-A games.
A fourth round pick in 2020, Wiemer was viewed as a player with a ton of power projection, but had not shown that he could tap into it much at all. In August, Wiemer talked to us about the adjustments he has made at the plate and how they have allowed him to put up video game numbers in the Minors.
The big key for Wiemer was staying in his lower half to aid his effort to get the ball in the air more. His exit velos had always been off the charts. The 22-year-old did just that, keeping his roundball rate under 45% while maintaining an impressive HR/FB rate over 25%.
The tall, lanky outfielder has sneaky speed and plays like his hair is on fire. He is an opportunistic base runner who picks good pitches to run on and gets good jumps despite being 6-foot-5. A strong arm and the aforementioned athleticism helps Wiemer project as an above average corner outfielder, but the Brewers deployed him in center field for 24 starts as well.
Wiemer could be a major steal from the 2020 class and has a ton of momentum rolling into his second professional season.
SP: Shane Baz – Rays
(Double-A/Triple-A): 78.2 IP, 2.06 ERA, 2.76 FIP, 0.80 WHIP, 12.93 K/9, .180 AVG
How could I start the pitching section with anybody other than Shane Baz? The 22-year-old was the best pitcher in the Minor Leagues all year long, pitching his way into a pivotal role for the 100-win Rays by season’s end.
The key for Baz heading into 2021 was improving upon his command. The former first-round pick had always displayed plus stuff, but often struggled to keep it in the strike zone. The Rays worked with Baz to simplify his mechanics, which immediately yielded results. Despite seemingly no effort in his delivery, Baz did not see his stuff tick down at all.
The 22-year-old right-hander led all of the Minor Leagues in K/BB among pitchers with at least 70 IP, with a ridiculous 8.69 mark. Baz continued to impress through his first few MLB outings, displaying his upper 90s fastball and wipeout slider along with a good curveball and changeup. Baz has the makings to be a true frontline starter and his continued progress should have Rays fans beyond excited for the future.
SP: Matt Brash – Mariners
(High-A/Double-A): 97 IP, 2.31 ERA, 3.18 FIP, 1.14 WHIP, 13.13 K/9, .178 AVG
The man who owns my favorite pitch in all of the Minor Leagues–the Matt Brash slider may be the eighth wonder of the world. Brash was a fourth-round pick in the 2019 Draft out of Niagara, batting some injuries and command issues which had held him back from showcasing his raw talent and wipeout stuff.
This year was a different story for the 23-year-old, who just carved up hitters like no other. Brash punched out at least seven batters in 12 of his 19 starts and surrendered only six home runs all season. Walks are still a bit of an issue for him, allowing more than four free passes per nine innings, but Brash showed steady improvement in that regard after his Double-A promotion.
Brash’s fastball velocity ticked up to the 94-96 range and he has showed comfort with the curveball and at times changeup to left handed hitters, giving him that important third speed. The electric righty could probably go into the back of a big league bullpen tomorrow, but I have faith in him to stick in the rotation. Especially with the improvements he showed in regards to repeating his mechanics down the stretch of the season.
Look out for Matt Brash in 2022, he could be yet another weapon in one of baseball’s best systems.
SP: Max Meyer – Marlins
(Double-A/Triple-A): 111 IP, 2.27 ERA, 3.21 FIP, 1.19 WHIP, 10.54 K/9, .220 AVG
You think the Marlins have confidence in this kid? They surprised everyone by taking Max Meyer over Asa Lacy with the third selection in the 2020 Draft, then immediately started Meyer in Double-A to kick off his professional career.
Meyer didn’t blink, immediately dealing against upper-level competition. Meyer’s plus plus slider and mid-90s heater gave him a 1-2 punch that even experienced hitters struggled to square up. At times, Meyer became reliant on the slider in a way that Lance McCullers can become dependent on his breaking ball, which can result in higher walk numbers (McCullers led MLB in BBs this year), but I am not overly concerned with Meyer’s slightly high walk figures; Meyer is a fantastic athlete and a former two way player at Minnesota, which allows him to easily repeat his mechanics.
After a fantastic season in Double-A, the Marlins promoted Meyer to Triple-A where he dominated in two starts. It is safe to expect Meyer to begin next season in Triple-A, with a chance to crack the team’s rotation early in the year.
SP: Grayson Rodriguez – Orioles
(High-A/Double-A): 103 IP, 2.36 ERA, 2.67 FIP, 0.83 WHIP, 14.07 K/9, .159 AVG
Our top pitching prospect in all of baseball, and for good reason, Grayson Rodriguez is downright filthy. A late bloomer who continues to get better each time I see him, the man affectionately known as ‘G-Rod’ has a ceiling as far as one’s imagination can run. A deep arsenal that includes a plus heater, plus changeup, and an above average to potentially plus pair of breaking balls, the 21-year-old is nearly impossible to hit.
At 6-foot-5, 220 pounds, Rodriguez has limited effort in his delivery and has actually seen his velocity go up as the season endures. The Orioles right-hander combines raw tools with steady progress and polish that has me thinking future ace not too long from now.