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These 30 players were underrated as prospects

@GoldenSombrero and @JimCallisMLB
August 15, 2019

Not every successful big leaguer was once a highly touted prospect. For every Bryce Harper, a former No. 1 overall Draft pick and perennial top-ranked prospect who reached the Majors at 19, there are countless examples of guys who have risen through the ranks with minimal fanfare to become impactful

Not every successful big leaguer was once a highly touted prospect.

For every Bryce Harper, a former No. 1 overall Draft pick and perennial top-ranked prospect who reached the Majors at 19, there are countless examples of guys who have risen through the ranks with minimal fanfare to become impactful and valuable players at the highest level.

Player development is rarely a linear process, and with the booming technological revolution within the game, there’s been a growing trend in players learning how to make vital adjustments required to further their careers. The result has been an increase in breakout players best described as “late bloomers,” or guys who seemingly put it all together later in their careers, relative to the typical prospect.

MLB Pipeline has been ranking baseball's best prospects since 2004, and Baseball America has been ranking them all the way back to 1983.

Here are 30 big leaguers who were underrated as prospects -- one from each team.

AMERICAN LEAGUE EAST

Blue Jays: Ken Giles, RHP
A seventh-round pick by the Phillies in 2011, Giles, a Yavapai JC (Ariz.) product, showed his trademark elite velocity early in his career but also had no idea where the ball was going. He never made our Phillies Top 20 Prospects list, but things began to click for the right-hander in the 2013 Arizona Fall League, and he put it together in earnest the next year en route to his big league debut in June and a 1.18 ERA in 44 games out of the Phillies’ pen. Giles has gone on to save 107 games while averaging 12.2 strikeouts-per-nine in six seasons, during which he’s been traded twice.

Orioles: John Means, LHP
An 11th-round pick in 2014 out of West Virginia, Means never appeared higher than No. 29 on any Orioles preseason Top 30 list, ranking in that spot in both 2015 and ’17. He reached the Majors for the first time late last year, debuting on Sept. 26, then carved out a spot in the team’s rotation early in 2019 after refining his changeup during Spring Training. The 26-year-old southpaw became the first Mountaineer to make an All-Star team in July -- and the first O’s starter to earn an All-Star nod since Chris Tillman (2013) -- after going 7-4 with a 2.50 ERA and 1.07 WHIP in 18 games (14 starts) during the first half.

Rays: Kevin Kiermaier, OF
Kiermaier, 29, was long a favorite of scouts for his superb outfield defense, but the former 31st-round pick (2010) didn’t make an impact offensively until 2013, when he made his big league debut as a defensive replacement in the Rays’ final regular-season game. He entered our Rays Top 20 Prospects list at No. 11 in '14 and won the first of his two consecutive Gold Glove Awards the following year -- along with a top 20 AL MVP finish (17th) -- and his continued development at the plate netted him a six-year, $53 million contract from the Rays in 2017.

Red Sox: J.D. Martinez, DH/OF
Martinez went undrafted and unrecruited out of high school, wound up at Nova Southeastern (Fla.) and got a $30,000 bonus as an Astros 20th-rounder in 2009. He tore up the Minors and was ranked the Astros' No. 8 prospect entering 2011, reaching Houston at the end of July that year, but he didn't blossom into a three-time All-Star and Silver Slugger winner until remaking his swing and getting waived in 2014.

Yankees: DJ LeMahieu, INF
Though LeMahieu helped Louisiana State win the 2009 College World Series and went in the second round to the Cubs that June, most scouts saw him as an opposite-field hitter with fringy power and athleticism. Chicago gave him up to the Rockies as part of a deal for Ian Stewart and Casey Weathers in the first trade made by the Theo Epstein/Jed Hoyer regime. Afterward, he became a two-time All-Star and three-time Gold Glover who could have batting titles in both leagues if he can maintain his present American League lead.

AMERICAN LEAGUE CENTRAL

Indians: Jose Ramirez, 3B
Signed for $50,000 out of the Dominican Republic in 2009, Ramirez hit everywhere he went in the Minors, but he stood just 5-foot-9, exhibited little power and never ranked higher than eighth on an Indians preseason Top Prospects list. He has continued to hit in the big leagues and blew away all his projections by hitting 39 homers last year, the second straight season in which he made the All-Star team, won a Silver Slugger and finished third in the AL MVP voting.

Royals: Whit Merrifield, 2B
Merrifield delivered the walk-off hit to win the 2010 College World Series for South Carolina but lasted nine rounds that June because scouts didn't see a carrying tool. That rap dogged him in the Minors too and he never made MLB Pipeline's Royals Top 30 -- and yet he led the AL with 192 hits and 45 steals last year and made his first All-Star team this summer.

Tigers: Matt Boyd, LHP
The 2013 sixth-round pick from Oregon State was ranked as the Blue Jays' No. 22 prospect entering the 2015 season. He made his Major League debut at the end of June that year before he, Daniel Norris and Jairo Labourt were dealt to the Tigers for David Price at the Trade Deadline, and he’s been a fixture in Detroit’s rotation ever since. The 28-year-old lefty has been the definition of durable, making at least 25 starts for the Tigers in three straight years, with results that have improved with experience. He’s broken out in earnest this season, showing improved strike-throwing ability (career-best 2.2 BB/9) with a sharper, more-utilized curveball that’s netted him 192 strikeouts in 146 frames for 11.8 K/9, a career-high mark and up significantly from his 2018 mark (8.4).

Twins: Mitch Garver, C
When the Twins gave Garver $40,000 as a ninth-round senior sign from New Mexico in 2013, his two best tools were his solid power and arm strength, and there were questions about his hitting and receiving ability. He never ranked higher than 15th on the Twins' Top 30 Prospects list, but he has shored up his defense and exceeded expectations, finally finding a big league role in 2018 and homering 22 times in his first 66 games this season.

White Sox: James McCann, C
Most teams didn't rate McCann as highly as the Tigers, who made him a second-round pick out of Arkansas in 2011, because they saw him as an average to solid defender with a questionable bat. He pretty much lived up to that reputation until this season, when he made a leap offensively and became an unexpected All-Star. His prospect ranking gradually climbed during his years in the Tigers farm system (No. 20 in 2012, No. 12 in '13, No. 9 in '14, No. 5 in '15), but he was never one of baseball's Top 100 prospects.

AMERICAN LEAGUE WEST

Angels: Kole Calhoun, OF
An eighth-round senior sign out of Arizona State in 2010, Calhoun signed for $36,000 and projected as a bench player at best because he was maxed out physically and had tweener-outfielder tools. Three straight strong seasons in the Minors saw him climb to No. 5 on the Angels' Top Prospects list in 2013. His instincts help him play above his physical ability and have made him a solid regular in right field, where he won a Gold Glove in 2015.

Astros: Will Harris, RHP
Harris saw more time as a corner infielder than as a reliever at Louisiana State and he had an average fastball, so he landed just a $16,000 bonus from the Rockies as a senior sign in 2006. Never ranked as one of Colorado's top prospects, Harris had middling results in three big league seasons and got waived three times before catching on with the Astros, who turned him into an All-Star by having him rely more heavily on his curveball.

Athletics: Khris Davis, DH
Scouts had Davis pegged accurately when the Brewers made him a seventh-round choice out of Cal State Fullerton in 2009, viewing him as a one-tool guy who was a liability on the bases and in the field. He never ranked higher than 13th on the Brewers' Top Prospects list, but that one tool got him to the big leagues and resulted in 133 homers in his first three seasons in Oakland before he tailed off this year.

Mariners: Daniel Vogelbach, DH/1B
Vogelbach commanded a $2 million bonus as a second-rounder in 2011, but his prospect status waned in a loaded Cubs system as a hit-over-power guy with zero baserunning or defensive value. Following a 2016 trade to the Mariners, that profile didn't change until he started selling out for home runs this year and became an All-Star.

Rangers: Shawn Kelley, RHP
A fifth-year senior who had Tommy John surgery early in his college career at Austin Peay State, Kelley was a sinkerballing finesse righty who signed for $3,000 as a Mariners 13th-rounder in 2007. He's still the same guy, albeit one who got to the Majors less than two years after he signed, and is still going strong in his 11th big league season.

NATIONAL LEAGUE EAST

Braves: Josh Donaldson, 3B
Originally a first-round pick by the Cubs in 2007, Donaldson was shipped off by the A’s nearly 13 months later in a deal that brought Rich Harden to Chicago. Though he never ranked higher than No. 12 on Oakland's Top Prospects list, the Auburn product made steady progress through the A's system, started to tap into more power in the upper Minors and established himself as an everyday player in 2012. He finished fourth in the AL MVP race the next year and then won the Award in 2015 with the Blue Jays after being included in an offseason trade. Now 33, Donaldson has enjoyed a resurgent 2019 season in Atlanta and appears poised to reach the 30-homer mark for a fourth time in the past five years.

Marlins: Martin Prado, 1B/3B
After signing with the Braves for $5,500 out Venezuela in 2001, Prado impressed with his bat-to-ball skills in the Minors but didn't show enough all-around tools to project as a regular and never ranked higher than 17th on Atlanta's Top Prospects list. He did develop enough power to keep pitchers honest and became a versatile defender, which led to an All-Star berth in 2010 and a still-going 14-year big league career.

Mets: Jacob deGrom, RHP
deGrom famously spent more time on the dirt than the mound at Stetson, but the promise he showed in the latter role earned him a ninth-round selection by the Mets in 2010. Though his 2011 campaign was wiped out by Tommy John surgery, deGrom raced through the Minors upon returning, ranking as New York's No. 12 prospect in 2013 and No. 14 in '14. He spent most of 2014 in the Mets’ rotation, ultimately earning NL Rookie of the Year honors. The 31-year-old right-hander has been one of the game’s premier pitchers ever since, recording three top 10 finishes in Cy Young voting, including an Award-winning campaign in 2018.

Phillies: Rhys Hoskins, 1B
Hoskins, the Phillies’ fifth-rounder in 2014, had to prove his power was for real at every stop in his Minor League career and erupted to hit 38 homers -- second-most in the Minors -- in Double-A in ’16. Ranked by MLB Pipeline as the organization’s No. 13 prospect heading into 2017, Hoskins belted 29 homers in his first Triple-A campaign and then added 18 more in his first 50 games after making his debut in August. The 26-year-old homered 34 times in his first full big league season and is heading towards another 30-plus-homer campaign in 2019.

Nationals: Patrick Corbin, LHP
The D-backs acquired Corbin from the Angels in July 2010, a little more than a year after the latter had taken him in the second round. He never ranked higher than No. 8 on Arizona’s preseason Top 30 list during the next two years before joining the team’s big league rotation in early 2012. He ultimately pitched to a 3.91 ERA with 8.5 K/9 and 2.6 BB/9 in 945 2/3 innings during his six years with the D-backs, then signed a six-year, $140 million pact with the Nationals last offseason.

NATIONAL LEAGUE CENTRAL

Brewers: Eric Thames, 1B
A seventh-round pick by Toronto (2008), Thames never ranked higher than No. 12 on Baseball America's list of the Blue Jays' top prospects. He showed promise as a big league rookie in 2011, posting a .769 OPS with 12 homers in 95 games, but his production tapered off in subsequent years, and Thames ultimately was traded twice – going to the Mariners in 2012 and Baltimore in ‘13 -- and claimed off waivers once (Houston, 2013). He resuscitated his career in the KBO, clubbing 124 home runs in three seasons, and returned to the Majors in 2017 to hit 31 homers for the upstart Brewers after signing a three-year, $16 million pact during the offseason.

Cubs: Kyle Hendricks, RHP
Right-handers with upper-80s fastballs never generate much buzz, and that was the case with Hendricks, a Rangers eighth-round pick out of Dartmouth in 2011 who went to the Cubs a year later in a trade for Ryan Dempster. He was Chicago's 16th-ranked prospect on MLB Pipeline's preseason Top 20 list in 2014, but no one realized that his command would make him Chicago's best starter since he arrived in the middle of that season or the National League's ERA champion in '16.

Cardinals: Paul Goldschmidt, 1B
Even after breaking the home record during his three years at Texas State, Goldschmidt received little fanfare ahead of the 2009 Draft before signing with Arizona for $95,000 as an eighth-round pick. He was No. 10 on the D-backs' Top Prospects list entering 2011 and following a midseason promotion straight from Double-A, he began crushing big league homers and has yet to slow down. The 31-year-old slugger hit 209 homers during his eight seasons with Arizona, made six consecutive All-Star teams and finished among the top three in MVP voting on three occasions, including a pair of runner-up finishes (2013, ’17). The Cardinals acquired Goldschmidt from the D-backs in December 2018 and subsequently signed him to a five-year, $130 million contract extension.

Pirates: Felipe Vazquez, LHP
While Vazquez (who went by Felipe Rivero for much of his career) appeared on four different MLB Pipeline preseason Top 30 lists during his time in the Nationals’ and Rays’ systems, the future All-Star closer never ranked any higher than No. 16 (Nationals, 2015). He dominated out of Washington’s bullpen that year but struggled in 2016, prompting a trade to the Pirates in July. The 28-year-old lefty has established himself as one of baseball’s premier closers in Pittsburgh, posting at least 21 saves in three straight seasons (2017-19) while recording a 2.06 ERA and 11.7 K/9 in 192 1/3 innings (187 games).

Reds: Luis Castillo, RHP
Originally signed by the Giants in May 2012, Castillo was traded three times before he finally landed with the Reds in January 2017, after the Marlins -- who believed that the young right-hander would never develop a good enough breaking ball to remain a starter -- packaged him with two others prospects for Dan Straily. Ranked as the Reds' No. 7 prospect entering the 2017 season, Castillo excelled in Double-A, made the jump straight to the Majors in June and delivered 15 impressive starts in the Reds’ rotation. The 26-year-old has since become the team’s ace and garnered All-Star honors in 2019 as part of dominant campaign.

NATIONAL LEAGUE WEST

D-backs: David Peralta, OF
Signed by St. Louis as a non-drafted free agent in September 2004, Peralta struggled as a pitcher in the Cardinals’ system for parts of two seasons and was released at the end of 2008. He resurfaced as an outfielder in 2011 and, after three successful seasons in independent ball, signed with the D-backs in mid-2013. He played in just 104 Minor League games before making his big league debut at age 26 in 2014, launching a career that’s seen him slash .291/.347/.479 and post at least a 3.6 WAR twice in six seasons.

Padres: Joey Lucchesi, LHP
Lucchesi’s high leg kick, funky arm action and assumed lack of durability scared off many teams in the 2016 Draft, but the Padres saw plenty of potential in the Southeast Missouri State left-hander’s profile and took him in the fourth round. That decision netted the Padres one of the Draft’s biggest steals, as Lucchesi breezed through the system to crack San Diego’s Opening Day rotation in 2018, shortly after making his lone appearance on a Padres Top 30 list, at No. 9. He’s gone on to record to a 4.17 ERA and 9.5 K/9 in 49 starts and is poised to post his second straight seasons with at least 130 innings.

Dodgers: Justin Turner, 3B
A $50,000 senior sign out of Cal State Fullerton by the Reds in 2006, Turner bounced around the Minors as a utility type with contact hitting ability but no other notable tool, topping out at No. 27 on Baseball America's 2008 list of the Reds' top prospects. Since signing a Minor League deal with the Dodgers in 2014 and reworking his swing, he has batted .303/.382/.505 and been a force in the postseason.

Giants: Kevin Pillar, OF
Pillar went undrafted despite setting an NCAA Division II record with a 54-game hitting streak at Cal State Dominguez Hills in 2010 and wound up signing for $1,000 with the Blue Jays as a 32nd-round senior the next June. He didn't move the prospect needle much after winning low Class A Midwest League honors in his first full pro season, climbing only as high as No. 15 on MLB Pipeline's Blue Jays Top 30, yet he has carved out a career as one of the better defensive center fielders in the big leagues.

Rockies: Daniel Murphy, 1B
Murphy ranked as Baseball America’s No. 15 Mets prospect after the 2007 season but otherwise failed to appear on national prospect lists during his time in the Minors. The 2006 13th-round pick showed sustainable hitting ability with a knack for making hard contact over seven seasons in New York (.288/.331/.424) but didn’t truly break out until the 2015 postseason, when he homered seven times in 14 games to power the Mets into the World Series. Furthering retooling of Murphy’s swing helped him emerge as one of the game’s most productive hitters as a member of the Nationals in 2016-17 -- he finished as the runner-up in the ’16 NL MVP race -- though injuries and a relegation to first-baseman duties have resulted in more mediocre numbers in recent seasons for the now 34-year-old.

Mike Rosenbaum is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter at @GoldenSombrero.

Jim Callis is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow @jimcallisMLB on Twitter. Listen to him on the weekly Pipeline Podcast.