Byron Buxton is just 22 years old, but it feels as though we—or more to the point, the Minnesota Twins—have been waiting forever for the speedy centerfielder to become a star at the major league level. The No. 2 overall pick of the 2012 draft cracked the top 10 on multiple prospect lists the following year, was the consensus top prospect in the game heading into '14 and topped three of the four major lists (Baseball America, Baseball Prospectus, ESPN.com and MLB.com) a year ago. He finally reached the majors last June and played 46 games for the Twins, but a sprained left thumb cost him six weeks, making it his second season in a row missing significant time due to injuries. One at-bat short of exhausting his rookie status (the cutoff is 130), he still impresses talent evaluators to such a degree that only Dodgers infielder Corey Seager outranked him on the major lists this year, making him the most sensible choice to lead our ranking of AL impact rookies.
Not every top prospect is headed for the majors this season, of course, and many who are still have obstacles in their paths, whether they be service clock considerations, veteran stopgaps blocking their path on the parent club's roster or the need for finishing touches at Triple A. After examining five such youngsters from the National League on Tuesday, what follows here is our American League list. As talented and promising as each of these players are, none is as strong a bet to start the season with a big league job à la Seager or Mets pitcher Steven Matz.
Players are presented by the average of their ranking on the four prospect lists mentioned above; a hat tip to the hard workers at those sites whose observations drive the scout-based information herein. Note that while players with professional experience in Japan, South Korea and Cuba are considered rookies and made some prospect lists, they are not being considered here.
Byron Buxton, Twins, CF
BA: 2; BP: 2; MLB: 2; ESPN: 2 (Average: 2.0)
Between wrist and concussion woes in 2014 and then the thumb injury last year, Buxton has lost significant developmental time, playing in just 149 regular season games across the two seasons, plus another 13 in the 2014 Arizona Fall League. In Double A and Triple A last year, he hit .305/.367/.500 with 22 steals and 13 triples in 72 games, but at the major league level, he looked overmatched, struggling with breaking ball recognition en route to a .209/.250/.326 showing with an ugly 44/6 strikeout-to-walk ratio.
What keeps Buxton’s prospect rankings so high is that scouts still rave about his tools. That starts with his elite, game-changing speed, which rates the maximum score of 80 on the scouting scale and helps him have great range in spacious Target Field. When paired with his 70-grade (“plus-plus”) throwing arm, Buxton is a future Gold Glove contender whose defense alone should be able to keep him afloat until his bat comes around—and there’s a whole lot to love about the bat. “This is still an elite offensive player,” wrote Chris Crawford of Baseball Prospectus. “His hand-eye coordination rivals anyone’s. His fast hands and above-average bat speed give him the potential for at least a plus-hit tool, maybe more.”
Buxton does have some holes in his swing that major league pitchers were able to exploit, but there’s every reason to think that he will come around. Opinions on his power range from above-average to true plus; he’s not going to mash 30 to 40 home runs like Mike Trout, but 20 is certainly possible, and that would look all the more tantalizing when paired with 40 steals. The Twins project him to be their Opening Day centerfielder, but that doesn’t mean that they’re without alternatives if he struggles this spring. Danny Santana, who played 69 games there in 2014, is the most likely to start in center if Buxton returns to Triple A, with Eddie Rosario probably getting a handful of games out there as well. Those are both short-term solutions however; expect Buxton to spend most if not all of this season in Minnesota.
Joey Gallo, Rangers, 3B/LF
BA: 8; BP: 10; MLB: 9; ESPN: 12 (Average: 9.8)
Gallo is a familiar name to prospect hounds thanks to his light-tower power and his penchant for swinging and missing. The 22-year-old lefty slugger, a 2012 supplemental first-round pick who made his major league debut last June 2, homered in his first two games for Texas and in five of his first 14. But then pitchers began to exploit his aggressive approach and the holes in his swing, and he struck out 22 times in his final 40 plate appearances before being sent back to the minors. Including a September call-up during which he played sparingly, he hit just .204/.301/.417 with six home runs in 123 PA for the Rangers, as well as .240/.342/.520 with 23 homers in 374 PA combined at Double A Frisco and Triple A Round Rock. He’s working this spring on improving his plate discipline and making the right adjustments from pitch to pitch and at-bat to at-bat without getting caught up in a cycle of endless tinkering.
Beyond Gallo’s power—the product of his plus bat speed, quick wrists and the tremendous leverage he creates from his 6'5", 230 pound frame—he’s certainly got the arm for third base, though his quickness and hands have raised questions, and he isn’t going to supplant incumbent Adrian Beltre. Texas experimented with him in leftfield as well last year, and that’s his more likely route to immediate major league playing time. That said, there's quite a crowd competing for time both at third base and leftfield, including the recently signed Ian Desmond; former top prospect Jurickson Profar; and veterans Josh Hamilton and Justin Ruggiano, who could platoon in left. And that's without even mentioning 20-year-old outfield prospect Nomar Mazara, who placed even higher on the BP and ESPN lists. Still, Gallo should be in the majors at some point this season.
Blake Snell, Rays, LHP
BA: 12; BP: 14; MLB: 14; ESPN: 21 (Average: 15.3)
The 23-year-old Snell is the latest in the long line of Rays pitching prospects, “a legit, top-of-the-rotation, lefthanded pitching talent,” according to according to Jim Callis of MLBpipeline.com, an MLB.com website. A supplemental first-round pick back in 2011, the 6'4" lefty is coming off a dominant 2015 in which he rocketed from High A to Triple A, beginning the year with a 46-inning scoreless streak and finishing with eye-popping numbers, including a 1.41 ERA (the lowest of any starter in the minors) with 10.9 strikeouts and 0.5 homers per nine in 134 innings.
Snell’s 92 to 95 mph fastball can touch 97, but it’s the pitch’s late life that draws raves; BP's Crawford called it “borderline plus-plus because of its movement [with] more life than any lefthanded pitching prospect in baseball.” His slider is a second plus pitch, with a sharp break that generates swings and misses; noted ESPN's Law, the pitch “looks as if it comes out of the sky thanks to his high three-quarters slot and ability to stay on top of the ball.” Snell’s changeup, though still something of a work in progress, has plus potential as well. And while his control has been an issue, it improved markedly last year as he showed off a new-found maturity and coachability.
So long as Chris Archer, Jake Odorizzi, Drew Smyly, Erasmo Ramirez and Matt Moore are all healthy, Snell doesn’t figure to start the year in the majors. Still, Smyly, who made just 12 starts while pitching through a partial rotator cuff tear, and Moore, who made a rough return from Tommy John surgery, have their own questions to answer this spring. Snell could return to Triple A for as few as 20 days to delay his free agency a year, and it wouldn’t be a surprise if he makes his debut in late May or early June.
Jose Berrios, Twins, RHP
BA: 17; BP: 19; MLB: 28; ESPN: 26 (Average: 22.5)
Such is the Twins’ wealth of young talent that they have two prospects here: Buxton and Berrios, the latter a 21-year-old righty drafted out of Puerto Rico as a supplemental first-rounder in 2012. Splitting last year between Double A and Triple A, he put up a 3.03 ERA with 9.5 strikeouts per nine (against just 2.1 walks per nine) in 166 1/3 innings; his total of 175 strikeouts led all minor leaguers. Minnesota's fans clamored for him to join the much-improved big club as it battled for a wild-card berth last summer, but he was already 27 innings beyond his '14 count, and his age and smallish size (6-foot, 185 pounds) already generate concerns about his durability.
Berrios throws a 92 to 96 mph fastball, a plus curve and an above-average changeup that has a chance to become a plus pitch as well. “He’ll add and take away velocity from his curveball,” wrote BP's Crawford. “[A]t times it’s a legit power offering and at times a softer 12-6. They’re both quality pitches, and both can be located at the bottom of the strike zone.” Berrios does have a tendency to get in trouble high in the strike zone when he overthrows his fastball. Of his changeup, Double A Chattanooga pitching coach Stu Cliburn told the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, “[F]rom the right side [it] reminds me of Johan Santana’s, the action that it has.” Wrote Law, “He has the command and control, the secondary stuff and the poise to succeed in the majors now.”
Beyond Ervin Santana, Phil Hughes and Kyle Gibson, the Twins have no shortage of rotation candidates, including Tommy Milone, who’s coming off a solid season (3.92 ERA in 128 2/3 innings) and is out of minor league options; Ricky Nolasco, who’s been dreadful over the past two seasons but is still owed $25 million; Trevor May, a power arm who split last year between the bullpen and rotation; and Tyler Duffey, who made a solid late-season showing in the rotation. Still, Berrios is good enough to cut the line once the Twins feel that he’s ready, and with this team now a viable contender, there’s little time to waste with subpar pitching. Expect to see him in Minnesota soon.
A.J. Reed, Astros, 1B
BA: 11; BP: 55; MLB: 40; ESPN: 44 (Average: 37.5)
The 6'4", 240-pound Reed is a 22-year-old lefty-swinging slugger whom Houston drafted in the second round in 2014 out of the University of Kentucky, where he also pitched. Last year, he hit a combined .340/.432/.612 with 34 homers combined at High A and Double A. His approach at the plate and his plate discipline are both outstanding, and his power is borderline plus-plus, though concerns about his bat speed have led to a great deal of variance in his prospect rankings. ESPN's Keith Law wrote, “The knock on Reed coming out of Kentucky . . . was that his bat speed wasn’t great, maybe not even quite average. . . . His eye at the plate and his decision-making are both so good, however, that even if he gets a pitch he can’t turn on, he can still shoot it the other way for a hit.” That’s particularly important, because Reed is a player who is already facing frequent defensive shifts.
Defensively, Reed has a plus throwing arm and moves well for a big guy, which is to say that he’s playable at first base, but he's not the second coming of Keith Hernandez. With just 53 games at Double A, he may be in need of more seasoning, and the current Astros’ regime has yet to call up a position player without at least a cursory stop in Triple A; even 2015 AL Rookie of the Year Carlos Correa played 24 games there last year. But with Jonathan Singleton the top alternative and the likes of Preston Tucker, Marwin Gonzalez, Luis Valbuena and (the other) Matt Duffy also in the mix, Reed presents the most complete solution to the Astros’ first base situation. The guess here is that unless one of those other players is on a roll, Reed could be in Houston around the time of the Super Two cutoff in late May or early June.