Kris Bryant leads list of impact rookie hitters to watch in 2015
With a wave of impressive young arms making their spring debuts this week, Cliff Corcoran offered up a short list of rookie pitchers who could make the biggest impacts at the major league level in 2015. What follows here is the companion position player list. While not all of these players will break camps with their respective teams, they're certainly worth watching this spring and should play significant roles for their teams at some point soon.
Note that we've set aside a handful of Cuban players who will be in their first full seasons stateside, such as Rusney Castillo, Raisel Iglesias and Yasmany Tomas. They'll be covered in a separate article next week.
Kris Bryant, 3B, Cubs
The game's No. 1 prospect according to both Baseball America—which separately crowned him their 2014 Minor League Player of the Year—and ESPN, the 23-year-old Bryant led the minor leagues with 43 homers last year (22 at Double A Tennessee, 21 at Triple A Iowa) and hit a combined .325/.438/.661. As if those numbers weren't dazzling enough, they came in the first taste of the upper minors for the second pick of the '13 draft; he had just 36 professional games under his belt heading into the season. The 6'5" Bryant has elite raw power to all fields, a great batting eye and good plate coverage, though his swing has some holes—he whiffed 162 times last year. Defensively, he has an outstanding arm, decent range and the athleticism to handle third base, though the Cubs' glut of infield prospects makes a future spot in an outfield corner a possibility.
Over the winter, the team cleared Bryant's path to a job by trading Luis Valbuena to the Astros. They're likely to start the year with Mike Olt or Tommy La Stella serving as a placeholder, with Bryant coming up in May or June so that the Cubs can reap the extra year of club control. The MLBPA is keeping an eye on the situation, but considering that Bryant's rise has been so meteoric that he isn't even on the 40-man roster yet, the controversy is overstated.
Jung-ho Kang, IF, Pirates
Arguably, we could have put Kang in with our Cuban players, since he's actually 28 years old and has spent the past seven seasons playing regularly in the KBO, South Korea's top league. Last year, he hit an off-the-charts .356/.459/.739 with 40 homers, a performance that led the Bucs to play a $5 million posting fee and then sign Kang to a four-year, $11 million deal. He's not going to hit that many bombs at the major league level, though the torque he generates with his swing suggests he'll send his share of balls over the wall.
The big question is where Kang will play, though general manager Neal Huntington has definitively stated that it will be at the major league level to start the year. He may push Jordy Mercer for the starting shortstop job, though the incumbent's fielding prowess won't make that an easy task, and the big knock on Kang from stateside scouts is his defense, with questionable range and an average arm that could make him a better defensive fit at second base or third. For 2015, the most likely scenario is that he takes over the multi-position role vacated by Josh Harrison, who himself pushed Pedro Alvarez across the diamond to first base.
Francisco Lindor, SS, Indians
A glove-first shortstop, Lindor has wowed talent evaluators with his range, strong arm, quick hands and outstanding baseball instincts. He reached Double A as a teenager, split his age-20 season between Double A and Triple A and has already played in three Futures Games. He's considered a true impact defender, and if his combined numbers at the plate last season (.276/.338/.389 with 11 homers and 28 steals) don't jump off the page, they should be understood in the context of a young switch-hitter more than holding his own on an age-to-level basis.
Lindor's hit tool gets at least a 60 grade (plus) from all of major prospect services, with a short, efficient swing from both sides of the plate and an advanced approach. He boasts double-digit homer potential as well as the on-base skills to hit at the top of a big league lineup. He ranked among the top 10 prospects on all of the major lists, as high as fourth via Baseball Prospectus and MLB.com.
With Asdrubal Cabrera gone, the Indians are starting the year with another young switch-hitter, 22-year-old Jose Ramirez, at short. Though he hit just .262/.300/.346 in 266 plate appearances after the Cabrera trade last summer, Ramirez has shown enough power and speed in the minors to suggest he can do better than that, though if he remains in Cleveland once Lindor arrives, he’ll more likely serve in a utility role. As to when Lindor will debut, there’s no set timetable. He's slated to start the year at Triple A, but should be up sometime this summer, ideally to help the Indians in time for a playoff push.
Joc Pederson, CF, Dodgers
Even with the trade of Matt Kemp, the Dodgers' outfield remains a crowd thanks to the 22-year-old Pederson, the only natural centerfielder of the bunch. In 2014, he became the Pacific Coast League's first 30/30 player in over 80 seasons, with 33 homers, 30 steals and a .303/.435/.582 line at Triple A Albuquerque, admittedly a hitter-friendly stop. That said, the 11th-round pick in '10 out of Palo Alto High School has torn up every level where he's played at least 20 games. His late-season cup of coffee with the Dodgers wasn't so successful, though his 4-for-28 showing at the plate was offset somewhat by nine walks.
Pederson offers good bat speed, excellent pitch recognition and plate discipline, and power to all fields; he does have a tendency to swing and miss, with 149 whiffs at Albuquerque, though he offset that with 100 walks. Defensively, he has a strong arm to go with the speed and athleticism for center. BA placed him eighth among their Top 100 prospects, though other rankings have him in the top 20 or 30. With the team trying to unload Andre Ethier by eating some substantial portion of the $56 million he has remaining on his deal, Pederson could be forced back to Triple A to start the year (Oklahoma City this time, as the Dodgers changed affiliates). All signs point to him being the starter of choice at some point, however, flanked by the Carl Crawford/Scott Van Slyke platoon in left and Yasiel Puig in right.
Jorge Soler, RF, Cubs
With all the hype about Bryant, Soler may feel like old news because he made his major league debut late last year, but the 23-year-old Cuban—included here because he's heading into his fourth season stateside—accumulated just 97 plate appearances with the Cubs, leaving his rookie status intact. Though limited to just 62 minor league games last year due to a pair of hamstring strains, he annihilated minor league pitching, hitting .340/.432/.700 with 15 homers in 236 PA, all but 30 of which came in his first exposure to the upper levels. Upon being recalled, he hit an impressive .292/.330/.573 with five homers for the Cubs, and heads into the season as their incumbent rightfielder.
The 6'4", 215-pound Soler has impressive power and good bat speed, though there is some concern about his overly aggressive approach at the plate; three of his five homers came in his first five games, after which major league pitchers found the holes in his swing. Defensively, he's got the arm for rightfield, putting the finishing touches on a player who ranked between 12th and 22nd on the major prospect lists.