With the cutoff for a full season of service time having passed last Thursday, a major obstacle has been removed from the promotion of top prospects to the majors. Indeed, on Friday we saw the debut of one of the top prospects in baseball, Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant, who after going 0-for-4 with three strikeouts in his first game, went 3-for-6 with a double, three walks and just one more strikeout in two games over the weekend. Bryant was the No. 2 pick in the 2013 draft, and on Monday, the third pick in last year's draft, 22-year-old lefty Carlos Rodon, was called up by the crosstown White Sox. The N.C. State product is just the second member of the '14 class to reach the majors, following in the footsteps of Royals lefty Brandon Finnegan, who debuted last year as a reliever and is now back in Double A stretching out as a starter.
Though a starter by trade and projection, Rodon will, like Finnegan last year, reportedly reside in the bullpen at first. If the combination of a quick promotion and a diminished role seem confusing, note that Chicago had great success using a similar strategy with its top pick in the 2010 draft, another college lefty, Chris Sale. After being selected 13th overall on June 7 of that year, Sale made his major league debut on Aug. 6, then spent all of '11 in the bullpen before moving into the rotation in '12. Rodon is unlikely to reach Sale’s heights of dominance—few pitchers ever do—but expectations for him among White Sox fans seem to be as high as those for Bryant are across town.
With those two already having been summoned, the mind quickly turns to who might be next. Here’s a look at five top prospects whose debuts were similarly anticipated coming into the season, presented in alphabetical order.
Drafted out of the University of Oklahoma immediately after Bryant with the third pick in 2013, Gray spent '14 in Double A and nearly won a spot in the Rockies' rotation in camp this spring. A top-25 prospect (24th according to Baseball America, 13th according to Baseball Prospectus), Gray lost his chance thanks to a disastrous final spring outing in which he gave up seven runs in 2/3 of an inning, which redirected the 23-year-old to Triple A. He has been hit hard in two appearances there thus far—nine earned runs and five walks in nine innings—which means his promotion may not be as imminent as it seemed less than a month ago.
Still, the 6'4" Gray offers triple-digit heat, a nasty slider and a developing changeup, which adds up to ace potential. With the Rockies having received just four quality starts through their first 12 games, the temptation to promote the organization’s best prospect will be strong if Gray has any level of success at the highest minor league level.
Francisco Lindor, SS, Indians
The eagerness with which Cleveland divested itself of Asdrubal Cabrera last year, trading the two-time All-Star to Washington at midseason, was considered a strong indication of Lindor’s likelihood to be the team’s shortstop this season. A top-10 prospect (No. 9 per BA, No. 4 per BP) coming into this season largely due to the quality of his fielding, Lindor could likely be an impact defender in the majors right now and has the speed to add 20-odd stolen bases. The only questions that remain concern his bat. Promoted to Triple A in late July of last season, the switch-hitter batted .273/.307/.388 at that level and is back there again to start this season in the hope of further development at the plate (Lindor’s career minor league slash stats are a near match for that Triple-A line except for a .354 career on-base percentage).
Still, while the 21-year-old Puerto Rican’s bat may be behind his glove, the combination may already be more valuable than that of Cleveland’s current starting shortstop, 22-year-old Jose Ramirez. With one service-time cutoff having passed and Cleveland off to a poor start (4–7), it may not be long before the popular World Series sleeper pick switches things up by promoting its top prospect.
Addison Russell, SS, Cubs
The 21-year-old Russell won't be far behind Bryant and Rodon in arriving in Chicago. Rated No. 3 by BA and No. 2 by BP before the season (ahead of Bryant by the latter), Russell had a strong spring in major league camp, hitting .317 in 41 at-bats and got off to a hot start in his first taste of Triple A this season, going 11-for-31 (.355) with a trio of extra-base hits. He might appear to be blocked at shortstop by three-time All-Star Starlin Castro, but Russell's last three starts have come at second base, all of those in the wake of the Cubs’ Opening Day second baseman, Tommy La Stella, going on the disabled list. That’s telling: Russell isn't being moved to second base because of his defense at shortstop, which is excellent. Chicago, then, may be getting Russell reps at second base to get him ready to handle the position in the majors, at least in the short-term.
Blake Swihart, C, Red Sox
He's only 23, but the anticipation of Swihart’s arrival has influenced Boston's catching situation for the last two seasons. After 2013, the Red Sox let Jarrod Saltalamacchia leave as a free agent and inked veteran A.J. Pierzynski to a one-year deal, in part to avoid blocking Swihart’s arrival. Coming into this season, their intention was to open the season with future backup Christian Vazquez as a placeholder and Ryan Hanigan as a veteran caddy with the understanding that Swihart would eventually displace one of the two. Instead, Vazquez underwent Tommy John surgery just before the season started, likely accelerating Swihart’s promotion.
That promotion might be closer than ever thanks to Swihart’s hot start in Triple A, where he has gone 13-for-36 (.389) in the first eight games of the year. (He played 18 games at that level last season, hitting .261 with a .659 OPS). Despite being a former first-round pick and a top-20 prospect coming into the season (No. 17 per both BA and BP), Swihart doesn’t come with quite as optimistic a projection as the other players on this list, but his path to the majors is clearer than any of them.
Noah Syndergaard, RHP, Mets
With the Mets off to a blazing start (they enter the week 10–3 and on an eight-game winning streak), it may be a while before they feel much pressure to call up their top prospect. Still, fifth starter Dillon Gee has been lousy in his two starts to this point (7.59 ERA with three home runs allowed in just 10 2/3 innings), and Syndergaard is a 6'6" stud whom both New York and its fans have been eager to see pitch in tandem with Matt Harvey in the rotation. Snydergaard, who is ranked No. 9 by BP and No. 11 by BA, mixes a high-90s fastball with movement and a plus-curve with a solid changeup and projects as a 1A partner to Harvey.
However, forearm stiffness has put a damper on his progress. He opened the year in Triple A, where he made 26 starts in 2014, and had strict pitch counts of 60 and 80 in his first two turns. That second start was particularly abbreviated, as Syndergaard hit his pitch limit in the fourth inning after walking five batters through 3 2/3 innings. Given that situation, he won’t be up soon, and given the Mets’ recent organizational history of Tommy John surgery, the mention of forearm tightness raises red flags that it might not in another organization.
Still, if Syndergaard can get on track and pitch up to his ability in Triple A, he is expected to make his major league debut this season, though it may come after the next major service time hurdle passes: the cutoff for Super Two arbitration status, which typically falls in early June.