Inbox: Who are prospects to watch in '22?

October 20th, 2021

Forgive us if we’re a little bit giddy here in MLB Pipeline land.

It happens every year at this point in the calendar. Well, almost every year, and that’s why we’re even more ebullient with the start of the Arizona Fall League after a one-year hiatus because of the pandemic.

We’re about a week into the AFL season and there have already been some incredible performances, with more sure to come. We spent nearly all of this week’s Pipeline Podcast talking about the AFL present (and a little about the past), with two of the questions below getting answered there as well.

Which prospects who lost most-all of 2021 (or 2021 draftees) to injury or other issues are you most excited to see in 2022? Anybody who hasn’t been on a Top 100 list we should keep an eye on for next mid-season release? -- @spencer_ogara

There are some obvious ones here, the first of whom I am hoping to see eventually in the AFL. That’s Padres shortstop prospect CJ Abrams, our No. 6 overall prospect. We were all very excited to see his name on the Peoria Javelinas roster this fall after his season ended in July because of a fractured left tibia and sprained left MCL. He’s yet to appear in a game and the latest word is that he’s working out on back fields to get ready for what we hope is a solid showing for Peoria. If he can do that, then he can get back on the fast track he started on by jumping to Double-A for his first full season. He and No. 3 prospect Bobby Witt Jr. were on similar paths, high school shortstops from the top of the 2019 Draft who went to Double-A to start their first full season. Witt moved on to Triple-A and is knocking on the big league door. Abrams could be close behind once he puts the injury behind him.

Speaking of shortstop prospects, I’m also looking forward to the return of Twins top prospect Royce Lewis, who missed all of 2021 after suffering a torn right ACL in Spring Training. So that means he hasn’t played a regular-season game since 2019, and not in any game since he was the Fall League MVP following the ’19 season. There might be some rust to shake off there, but the hope is he plays his way to the big leagues in 2022.

As far as the 2021 draftees, it’s always exciting to see them get their careers going in earnest. I think seeing how quickly Jack Leiter, the Rangers’ pick at No. 2 overall and now our No. 12 prospect, moves up the ladder, and how high up he starts, will be a lot of fun as a college arm who should get up to Texas in a hurry.

What’s the floor and ceiling of Bryson Stott for the Phillies? -- @KostivalonBase

We didn’t answer this question on this week’s Pipeline Podcast (the two questions below we did, though!), but we did talk about Stott while discussing players off to good starts in the Fall League. And the Phillies infielder has gone 6-for-15 over his first five games for a .400/.625/.600 line, continuing from a year where he seemed to get stronger as the 2021 season went on. The 2019 first-rounder reached Triple-A, hitting a combined .299/.390/.486 in his first full season.

Stott is now No. 97 on our Top 100 and he’s been the kind of prospect who has flirted with the Top 100 on and off since he was drafted in 2019. And one thing I said on the podcast is that I think he might end up being a better big leaguer than he was ever ranked as a prospect. (That happens a lot!) To answer your question more specifically, I think Stott has an extremely high floor, thanks to his very advanced approach at the plate, knack for contact and above-average defensive skills. I think at the very least, he’s an everyday big leaguer, one who will be ready soon. Ceiling? As I said, it might be higher than expected and he could be the kind of player who puts up a lot better numbers than anticipated, with All-Star type potential not completely unreasonable.

After some huge struggles and setbacks this season, including a stretch where his velocity sat 89-91, [MacKenzie] Gore opened the [AFL] with an impressive outing where he touched 98. Is it possible for him to regain the ground ... lost this season if he continues like this? -- @FriarBad

We talked about how good Gore looked in his first AFL start. We broke this down on the Podcast, and both Jim Callis and I firmly believe he certainly can regain the ground lost. The issues Gore had in 2020 and 2021 were not injury-related, so there isn’t concern about long-term impact like there might be if it was a shoulder issue or something like that. That doesn’t mean delivery issues aren’t difficult to iron out, but time really is on Gore’s side. I know there was an expectation he’d be in the big leagues and established as one of the best young left-handers in the game by now, especially after reaching Double-A at age 20 in 2019.

Yes, things have gone a bit sideways since, with reports of him struggling at the alternate site last year carrying over to a return to Minor League Baseball this year. But here’s the thing. As you mention, the stuff is still very, very good, and it showed up again in his first AFL start. And he’s still only 22, and will be 23 for all of the 2022 season. Assuming the work he’s put in helps him build a solid foundation this fall, seeing him get to San Diego next season still puts him very much ahead of the curve. Suffice it to say, we’re still very bullish on his potential.

MJ Melendez had a breakout season, but won't unseat Salvador Perez as Royals catcher. Can he move to another position? -- @APhiLionel

This was question No. 2 on the podcast, and is the only one in this week’s Inbox that isn’t AFL-related. Combined, Melendez and Perez hit 89 homers. The fact Melendez led the Minors with 41 homers was about as shocking a prospect-related development as there was in all of baseball in 2021, but the fact Perez tied for the Major League lead with 48 (and led MLB with 121 RBIs) was also a bit surprising given that he didn’t play in 2019, had a shortened 2020, is 31 years old and his previous home run high was 27. But here we are.

Assuming Melendez is for real, and there’s no reason to think otherwise, he’s just about knocking on the door after slugging .620 in 44 Triple-A games. It would be easy to think he’ll be ready to impact the Royals’ big league lineup at some point in 2022. Now, if they wanted to, the Royals could have him spend the year in Triple-A (he’s just 23) to help put off how to manage this, but we don’t think that’s necessary.

Melendez did play a handful of games in Triple-A at third, so perhaps they’re already thinking about how they can get both bats into the lineup, but it remains to be seen if the hot corner is a viable option for him long-term. And it would be a shame, given that Melendez has the chance to be a plus defender with a plus arm behind the plate. Meanwhile, Perez threw out 44 percent of potential basestealers in 2021. It’s an embarrassment of riches.

So what we think could/should happen is that the Royals call Melendez up when they feel he’s ready to contribute. Perez is the No. 1 catcher, but also expecting him to catch 120-plus games going forward for too much longer isn’t realistic, since he’ll be 32 next May. So we suggest a time share, with Perez still getting the bulk of the starts, but Melendez spelling him, occasionally at first, then more regularly after that as Perez could be a Royal through 2026. When they're not catching, either could be the DH (a role Perez played 40 times this year) and perhaps Melendez can see some time at third as well. Eventually, Perez would pass the baton to Melendez as the main guy behind the dish.