I was one measly day away from publishing this article back in March when the season was suspended due to COVID-19. I ended up shelving it only to see Minor League Baseball’s entire year go by the wayside. In fact, one of the players I was going to write about is selling cars now. But here we are just a day away from baseball again. And for those prospects who were fortunate enough to make it onto the expanded 60-man rosters, the season brings new opportunities to make a big impression.
Here are my 10 bold predictions for prospects in 2020:
1. Spencer Howard Starts a Game for the Phillies in the World Series
In a weird way, the craziest part of this prediction may actually be the Phillies making it to the World Series. Because I’m a big believer in Spencer Howard’s talent. In 2019, the 23-year-old Phillies’ starter reached AA with a 2.03 ERA, 0.83 WHIP, and a 34.8 K% in 71 IP. With the club desperate to win now and the season whittled down to 60 games, it’s kind of the perfect storm for Howard to step in and win a job in 2020. Here’s a look at his curveball against Rhys Hoskins in an intrasquad game last week:
How about this pitch tonight from Spencer Howard, the Phillies top pitching prospect ☄️
— John Clark (@JClarkNBCS) July 17, 2020
Other than signing Zack Wheeler in the offseason, the Phillies didn’t do a lot to bolster its pitching staff, either. Zach Eflin and Vince Velasquez are fringy options to begin with and there isn’t much depth besides Nick Pivetta, who is a total wild card. Given there will likely be injuries as well, I see the Phillies turning to Howard sooner rather than later.
2. Alex Kirilloff Hits the Game-Winning HR for the Twins in the AL Wild Card Game
I promise not all of my predictions are about the playoffs. But I like symmetry, and this is a nice compliment to the first one. Also, I’m coming around on Alex Kirilloff’s potential impact in the majors this year. The Twins’ roster is indeed crowded, but it’s not like Josh Donaldson, Byron Buxton, and Miguel Sano have been pillars of health in recent years, so I suspect there will be a window for Kirilloff to squeeze into the picture. It might be tight though because the cutoff date to make the postseason roster is September 15, so he’ll need to force the Twins’ hand before then.
Thanks to a wrist injury, Kirilloff didn’t have a standout year in 2019. But he’s fully recovered now and opened eyes this spring, hitting .429 with 2 HRs in 22 PAs. He’s probably the best pure hitter available on the Twins’ taxi squad, though admittedly I considered fellow OF prospect Trevor Larnach for the same prediction. Also, I don’t see Minnesota winning the division again, hence the WC prediction. I suspect the Indians (or White Sox?) will pry away the Central title, leaving it up to Kirilloff to go deep and send the Twins into the next round.
3. Brusdar Graterol Goes the Entire Year Without Allowing an Earned Run
OK, OK you got me. For this one to count I will need to establish an innings minimum. Otherwise, Graterol could throw one inning, not pitch again for the rest of the year, and I ride off into the sunset with my fake bold prediction. But I would never do that. Nope. Never.
By all accounts, Graterol has locked up a spot in the Dodgers’ bullpen and that puts his projections at around 17 IP for the year. So, let’s say this one only counts if he reaches 15 IP minimum. Deal?
Good, because I really just wanted another excuse to write about Graterol, the Dodgers’ shiny new toy acquired in the Kenta Maeda trade. The 21-year-old flamethrower hit 100 mph multiple times in a relief appearance this week and already looks to be in midseason form. I’m stoked because there was so much debate on whether he should be a starter or reliever in Minnesota, and now he finally has a set role in the pen where he can fine-tune his stuff. And his stuff is really, really good. He’s already flashed both his signature sinker and sharp slider throughout summer camp. Now he just needs to put it all together consistently, something he’s done in spurts in the minors. For fantasy, I don’t expect any saves this year, but I do see a lot of Ks and if all goes according to plan, that majestic 0.00 ERA.
4. The Padres Sign Edward Olivares to a Long-Term Contract
One of the top storylines coming out of Padres’ summer camp is the emergence of prospect Edward Olivares. After a strong spring performance (.389/.421/.722), Olivares has continued to impress teammates and coaches with his outfield defense and maturity at the plate. Specifically, manager Jayce Tingler has raved about his ability to take pitches, work deep counts, and get on base. That last one is key for Olivares (and fantasy) because he’s an aggressive base stealer. In 2019, he swiped a career-high 35 bags in just 127 games at AA. He also hit 18 HRs and had a K rate under 18%.
In some ways, I’m kind of bummed the cat is out of the bag. Olivares has been one of my favorite under-the-radar prospects for a long time. But I don’t think that will be the case much longer. And while it’s a stab in the dark the Padres would lock him up long term, it’s increasingly more common for teams to pre-emptively engage in team-friendly deals. It also doesn’t hurt that the Padres traded Franchy Cordero to the Royals last week, clearing the path even more for playing time in 2020. I’m betting that Olivares does make his MLB debut this year and cements himself as a legit talent, leading to a deal sometime before the start of next season.
5. Nick Lodolo Becomes the First Player from the 2019 Draft to Reach the Majors
In full transparency, I wrote this same prediction before the season was suspended in March. I’m not actually sure if it’s less bold now with expanded rosters or even bolder, but the basic point remains the same: I think Nick Lodolo will play a role in 2020. A college arm, Lodolo is regarded as one of the most polished pitchers from last year’s draft class. His pro debut did nothing to dispel that notion, as he struck out 30 batters in 18.1 IP without walking anybody. I like that the Reds are intent on winning now and so throwing him into the fire may be a necessary move, especially if they need multiple innings out of the pen. Lodolo was hit hard, though, in an exhibition against Detroit this week, so I’m hoping that’s not a precursor of things to come.
6. Daulton Jefferies is a Hot Free Agent Pick Up in Fantasy Leagues
During the offseason, A’s starter Daulton Jefferies was a trendy prospect name to stash in deep fantasy formats. But the buzz has worn off, and I feel like everyone has forgotten about him. In 2019, Jefferies made a successful return from TJ surgery to pitch 79 innings, and he did it with an eye-popping 26.3 K-BB%. In addition to his superb command, he also utilizes a nasty changeup that contributed to a strong 14.0 SwStr% at AA.
Like many others, I was hoping to see Jefferies up with the A’s in a 162-game season. The shortened schedule dings his chances for sure, but he’s still on the 40-man and will be at the team’s extended training site to open the year. And I worry about that A’s rotation holding up. A.J. Puk went down with a shoulder strain this week and there isn’t a lot of rotation depth after Chris Bassitt and Daniel Mengden. We may have to wait until September, but I can see Jefferies coming up and dazzling in a couple of starts, which will create a buying frenzy in fantasy leagues. If you’re playing in any NFBC formats, remember to save a few FAAB bucks for him.
7. Monte Harrison Hits for the First Cycle in Marlins’ History
Before spring training came to a halt in March, no prospect impressed me more than Monte Harrison. The 24-year-old outfielder put up a gaudy .481 OBP with 6 SBs in just 15 games. This was encouraging because it mimicked what we saw Harrison do in AAA last year before he suffered a wrist injury and missed the final two months of the season. In 56 games with New Orleans in 2019, Harrison hit 9 HRs with 20 SBs and sported a healthy 10.2 BB% as well.
Given his blend of power and speed, I was tempted to just say he’d be the Marlins’ top player in fantasy this year. But hitting for the cycle is also in his wheelhouse and just a way cooler prediction in general. In fact, Miami has never had a player hit for the cycle. And while reports suggest Harrison didn’t make the club’s OD roster, I think we see him secure an everyday role fairly early into the season. He gets a boost with the universal DH and two other projected starters, Matt Joyce and Lewis Brinson, recently hit the IL as well. Let Monte Harrison season begin!
8. Sean Murphy and Austin Allen Combine for More HRs Than Any Other Catching Tandem
We’ve seen a lot of rookie catchers flop at the plate over the years (Danny Jansen, anyone?). And yet I’m feeling optimistic about Oakland’s backstop situation, with Murphy locked in as the starter and Allen as the projected back-up. Murphy hit 14 bombs last year between AAA and MLB, including four in just 60 PAs with the A’s. Allen, meanwhile, was acquired in the Jurickson Profar trade, and all he did was hit 21 HRs with a .663 slug at AAA El Paso last season.
It’s optimistic, but I think they can hit 12 HRs combined. That might not sound like a lot, but Steamer currently has them projected for a grand total of seven. The most HRs projected by Steamer for any catcher tandem belongs to the Yankees with 13, thanks to 11 from Gary Sánchez alone. On a side note, the A’s actually have three rookie catchers in the mix for playing time this year. Jonah Heim may also get game action, though he’s known more for his defense. Watch, with my luck he’ll probably out homer both of them.
9. Kyle Wright Finally Breaks Out and Becomes a Fixture in the Braves’ Rotation
It feels like we’ve been waiting on Kyle Wright forever. The former no. 5 overall draft pick teased us when he made the team out of spring training last year, only to scuffle in the first month and get banished to AAA. While he mostly became a forgotten man, Wright pitched quite well in the minors, with a 4.17 ERA and 24.4 K% in 112.1 innings. Wright posted strong results in March as well, fueled by an increase in his slider usage. For a more in-depth breakdown of Wright’s turnaround, I suggest reading this Going Deep article by Josh Sperry.
The question then becomes, can Wright crack the Braves’ rotation? Right now, the first four are set with Wright competing against Josh Tomlin, Tucker Davidson, and newly-acquired Jhoulys Chacín for the last spot. Cole Hamels figures to also have a spot if healthy, but his injury status is uncertain at the moment. Even if Wright opens the year in the bullpen, I think he gets a chance to start in August and will flourish to the point he’s one of their top starters by season’s end. And if I’m wrong, he’ll no longer be prospect eligible and off all our prospect rankings anyway. So, it’s a win-win.
10. Hector Yan Records a Save for the Angels
One of my biggest prospect obsessions is Hector Yan, so I feel obligated to include him. The 22-year-old southpaw has yet to pitch above Low-A, but the Angels added him to the 40-man this winter, and he’s on the taxi squad for 2020. Yan has a deceptive and funky delivery that helps his mid-90s fastball play up and he pairs it with a nice curveball. His repertoire is limited, and his control is iffy at times, but the dude put up a crazy-good 32.3 K% as a starter in 2019. Here’s a look at his stuff from a March spring game:
#Angels prospect Hector Yan throws a 1-2-3 inning to close out the game for the #Angels in Spring Training. pic.twitter.com/cJ7M1GxuLo
— Angels MiLB (@AngelsMiLB) March 3, 2020
Given he may be destined for the pen anyway, Yan could be a late-inning option if the Angels are in the playoff hunt and feeling ambitious. His ability to throw multiple frames also means he could snag a save without being used as a traditional closer. This is definitely a longshot, but who else is going to stan for Hector Yan if I don’t?
Photo by Cliff Welch/Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Michael Packard (@designsbypack on Twitter and Instagram)