FLORIDA -- This year, instead of my normal spring trainingpilgrimage to Tampa and Fort Myers, I spent my Grapefruit League time on the East Coast, where I saw the Nats, Astros, Cardinals, Marlins, Mets, and Braves. With spring training winding down, most prospects were already in minor league camp, so I saw a lot of back-field action.
I wasn’t able to view every prospect of interest, but I did get first-hand looks at most of each team’s top young guys, some of whom will have an impact in fantasy baseball leagues this year and many of whom will be of interest to those in keeper and dynasty leagues in future seasons.
The following are my top takeaways:
Don’t worry about Dansby Swanson’s springstats.Swanson was hitting well early in camp before back stiffness sidelined him for twoweeks.He’s been a little out of sync since returning to action, but I expect Atlanta's young shortstopto be back in shape by the start of the season. Swanson looked good in the batting practice sessions I witnessed, and his low-maintenance swing won’t need too many game reps to find its groove.
I’m driving the Gavin Cecchini hype train.There are lots of reasons why the Mets' SS prospect doesn’t get the attention he deserves: He really doesn’t hit home runs or steal bases; he likely won’t stick at shortstop; andhis brother’s career stalled in Triple-A.Those statements are all true, but so are these – the dude can hit, he has a very good eye at the plate, and his skills will translate to the majors. Sooner or later the Mets will have to give him a chance, and when they do he should step in and produce right away.
Amed Rosariostill has some work to do in the minors.Rosario is an electric athletic, and, unlike fellow Mets' prospect Cecchini, he can play shortstop in the majors.However, he still needs seasoning before he’s ready for New York.At the plate his aggressiveness can be exploited by advanced pitchers, and in the field he’s inconsistent. He'll make highlight-reel plays one inning only to follow it up with errors on easy chances the next. He hasstar potential, but the future isn’t yet now.
Blue Jays' OFDwight Smith reminds me of a shorter James Loney.In his prime, Loney hit for average, got on base quite a bit, and played good defense.Smith is a bit shorter and stockier, but has a similar set of tools.Smith’s plus bat speed and natural strength give him more upside than Loney, and I think if he can get a little more separation in his load (i.e. getting his hands back a bit more before he swings), he’ll improve his over-the-fence pop.And, all in all, a slightly better version of Loney is not a bad thing to be.
Yuli Gurriel is a risky play.Gurriel appears to have won the Astros’ first base job to open the year, but I’m not sure he’ll produce enough to hold the starting gig all season.He has good hands and makes hard contact, but he swings at too many pitches off the plate and doesn’t seem to have improved his pitch recognition since his 2016 debut.Maybe once he learns the AL West pitchers he’ll show better discipline, but right now he’s looking like a guy who’ll hit .260, never walk, and stroke 10-12 home runs.Not bad, just not a level of performance that provides job security.
Rookie arms aren’t actually scarce this year. During my time in Florida, I saw almost no rookie pitchers in big league camps -- and it wasn’t just bad luck on my part. There just aren’t too many rookie starters who will open the season in the majors. Mets RHP Robert Gsellman appears to have won New York’s fifthstarter spot after an impressive spring, but he was the last rookie starter still competing for a job in the camps I visited.Nats RHP Koda Glover may open the season as the team’s closer, but it’s also possible that Washington goes with a more seasoned arm like Shawn Kelley.However, it won’t be long before we see a flood of rookie pitchers getting called up.Injuries and poor performance will open slots.Also, as we saw with Julio Urias last season, it’s a lot easier to manage an innings limit when a pitcher is in the minors where winning isn’t so important.
The Marlins system looks thin.Watching Miami’s minor league camp, the dearth of big league -talent is painfully obvious.SouthpawJarlin Garcia, RHP Jake Esch, and LHP Dillon Peters could all see big league time this year, but none looks like more than a back-end starter.The position player talent pool is even thinner – in watching the Marlins’ Double-A and Triple-A squads, I only saw one guy (third baseman Brian Anderson) who stands out as a potential big league regular. The Fish do have some pitching talent at the lower levels, but overall this looks like a franchise that won’t get much help from its farm system for quite some time to come.
The Cardinals system looks healthy, as usual. St.Louis never seems to have a prospect drought -- it just keepsproducing talent.And, it seems to be able to develop both pitchers and position players.Even with uber prospect RHP Alex Reyes on the shelf after Tommy John surgery, there was lots of talent on display in minor league camp this spring. Outfielder Harrison Bader looked good in Grapefruit League play and could be back with the big club at some point in 2017. Righty Luke Weaver just missed out on a rotation spot and will be waiting in the wings at Memphis. CatcherCarson Kelly should eventually succeed Yadier Molina and could see some big league time this season.Further down the ladder, the Cards have lots of toolsy, athletic prospects who should start to make their way onto prospect lists this season.Keep an eye on OF Magneuris Sierra (.307/.335/.395 with 31 SB in low-A last season) and 2B Eliezer Alvarez (.323/.404/.476 with 36 SB also in Low-A).
Kyle Tucker has star potential.Tucker is only 20and he’s still growing into his lanky 6-4frame, but, on the back fields of the Astros’ minor league complex, his bat speed and power potential stand out. Tucker has a smooth, compact stroke with good leverage and balance that should allow him to hit for average and moderate power.His plate discipline and ability to hit lefthanders increase the chances that his skills will translate against more advanced pitching.He’s still a few years away, but the young outfielder looks like a guy who could eventually hit .280 with 20-plushome runs.
The Nationals may take several years to re-stock their prospect cupboard. If Glover doesn’t win the closer job and utility infielder Wilmer Difo can’t secure a bench spot, the Nationals will have no rookies on their opening day roster. Glover could provide substantial value if he locks down the ninth-inning spot, but the rest of club’s possible rookie additions (Difo, C Pedro Severino, RHP AJ Cole, RHP Austin Voth, OF Andrew Stevenson,and OF Brian Goodwin) are all average or replacement-level players. OutfielderVictor Robles oozed potential and raw tools when I saw him in minor league camp, but the 19-year-struggled in 41 games at High-A last season and probably will be given a few years to develop.In the meantime, with the Nats set to contend for the playoffs over the next few years, the possibility of adding top-tier talent through the draft also seems like a longshot.The cupboard might remainbare for a while.