The 2021 edition of Spring Training was always going to be a special one for prospects.
Following the lost 2020 Minor League season, Cactus and Grapefruit League play represented the first opportunities to see some of the game’s brightest young stars perform in public once again, away from the alternate training sites and instructional league play they became accustomed to last summer and fall. For those that did reach the Majors, this spring has been a chance to solidify their places on big league rosters and take big steps toward graduation. For those just getting their feet wet, the last few weeks could be used to show their front offices just how far they’ve progressed despite the lack of games since the coronavirus pandemic first hit.
From that wide variety of experience levels, some have absolutely made the most of their moments in the Arizona and Florida sun. With only a handful of games remaining, these are the prospects who have crushed it so far in Spring Training (all stats through Wednesday's games):
AMERICAN LEAGUE EAST
Blue Jays: Alejandro Kirk, C (No. 5)
Even coming off last season’s debut, Toronto’s No. 5 prospect was going to need a strong spring to win himself one of the two Major League catching spots with the Jays. He has held up his end of the bargain, going 7-for-22 (.318) with two homers and a double. Kirk is one of only four Blue Jays hitters to record at least a .600 slugging percentage over 20 or more at-bats in Florida. The 5-foot-8 backstop is still very much hit over power, but his bat is his strength and that has shined through in the Grapefruit League.
Orioles: Bruce Zimmerman, LHP (unranked on Top 30)
The Orioles got Zimmerman at the 2018 Trade Deadline from the Braves in the Kevin Gausman deal, and he made his big league debut in 2020, appearing in two games. He’s likely pitched his way onto the O’s Opening Day roster by tossing nine shutout innings, allowing just one hit and three walks while striking out 10. He could be used to soak up multiple innings out of the 'pen or even be a spot starter if needed.
Rays: Shane McClanahan, LHP (No. 6/MLB No. 84)
Last year’s postseason debutant has been limited to only three innings over three appearances this spring, but he’s looked downright dominant in that stretch. In showcasing his 70-grade fastball, McClanahan has touched 101 mph this spring and has also sported an impressive slider and change. He struck out the side twice against the Red Sox on March 9 and March 15 and finished his time in Major League camp with three punchouts and only one hit allowed in his three total frames. The southpaw could be back in Tampa Bay’s bullpen quickly but is likely to be stretched out as a starter in the Minors first.
Yankees: Deivi García, RHP (No. 3)
García pitched well in his big league debut down the stretch last year and is doing so again this spring, though the Blue Jays knocked him around a bit on Wednesday. He has posted a 3.86 ERA with 14 strikeouts in as many innings while battling Domingo Germán for the final spot in New York's rotation.
AMERICAN LEAGUE CENTRAL
Indians: Bobby Bradley, 1B (No. 20)
Bradley, who has won four league home run titles in the Minors, has shown off his power this spring by batting .313/.324/.656 with two homers in 32 at-bats. He has dropped 35 pounds since last year and has outperformed Jake Bauers in Cleveland's first-base competition, though Bauers may win the job because Bradley has options remaining.
Royals: Bobby Witt Jr., SS (No. 1/MLB No. 7)
This is not Nick Pratto erasure. The first baseman has done plenty to improve his stock with a strong spring. But Witt entered Major League camp with only 37 Minor League games played and some alternate training site action and leaves as a 20-year-old who could make The Show quickly. His biggest highlight was a 484-foot homer off veteran Yusmeiro Petit on March 8, and he's sitting on three dingers in 40 plate appearances. The Royals have a recent history of pushing their prospects aggressively, and at this point, it wouldn’t surprise if Witt cracks the top level by the All-Star break.
Tigers: Tarik Skubal, LHP (No. 4/MLB No. 24)
The 24-year-old left-hander got the rough taste of last year’s Major League stint out of his mouth with three straight scoreless outings to begin the spring. He has allowed only two earned runs while fanning 15 over 12 innings – numbers that have already earned him a spot back in the Detroit rotation. Skubal’s velocity has comfortably returned as he has touched 98 on the gun in Florida, but his typically solid control remains a focus; he walked eight combined over two starts on March 17 and 23. (Quick shoutout to No. 24 prospect and Rule 5 pick Akil Baddoo, whose four homers and 1.221 OPS this spring should get him his own Major League roster spot come April.)
Twins: Brent Rooker, OF (No. 13)
Rooker came up last year and showed what he can do offensively (.316/.381/.579) in seven games before he got hit by a pitch and fractured his arm. He’s slugged .500, with a homer and three doubles this spring while hitting .286 (8-for-28). With Alex Kirilloff being optioned recently, Rooker has a good shot to land playing time in left field at the start of the year.
White Sox: Andrew Vaughn, 1B (No. 1/MLB No. 14)
For anyone wondering whether the No. 3 overall pick in the 2019 Draft could make the jump from High-A to the big leagues, Vaughn has answered by hitting .286/.386/.490 with two homers in 49 at-bats and nearly as many walks (seven) as strikeouts (nine). One of the more polished college hitting prospects in recent years, he has seized Chicago's DH job, and with Eloy Jiménez sidelined for five to six months due to injury, Vaughn could see time in left field.
AMERICAN LEAGUE WEST
Angels: Chris Rodriguez, RHP (No. 4)
Don’t pay any attention to the 5.68 ERA this spring. Take out one truly awful outing and he’s given up just one run and five hits over 5 2/3 innings. Overall, he’s struck out 10 and walked only one in 6 1/3 IP. The stuff has always been good, but he hasn’t been healthy, throwing just 9 1/3 competitive innings in 2018-19 combined because of a stress reaction and fracture in his back. He’s been talked about for a potential bullpen role, which might be a long shot, but speaks to how good he’s looked.
A’s: Daulton Jefferies, RHP (No. 4)
Tommy John surgery kept him out of action for nearly two years, but this extreme strike-thrower (1.1 BB/9 in the Minors) is ready to hit the big leagues, and for longer than his one-outing debut in 2020. His most recent outing on Tuesday was a four-inning gem where he gave up no runs, two hits and walked none while striking out seven. For the spring, he’s struck out 20 and walked only three in 13 IP while posting a 1.38 ERA, giving him a shot to fill the rotation spot left vacant by the injured Mike Fiers.
Astros: Freudis Nova, INF (No. 7)
Houston sent down Nova a week ago, but he went 5-for-13 (.385) with a pair of doubles and walked twice before he left. It's a small sample size to be sure, but also a positive sign for one of the more tooled-up players in the system after he posted a 5 percent walk rate in Low-A in 2019.
Mariners: Jarred Kelenic, OF (No. 1/MLB No. 4)
He was almost certain to start the year in the Minors, or at least the alternate training site, and an adductor strain clinched that. But since he’s returned, Kelenic has served notice he’ll be ready as soon as the phone rings to help out in the Mariners outfield. He’s gone 5-for-15 and three of those hits have been for extra bases (one double, two homers) while playing excellent defense in the outfield to boot.
Rangers: Eli White, OF/SS (unranked on Top 30)
White has claimed a role on Texas' Opening Day roster while hitting .276/.400/.448 in 29 at-bats and stealing three bases. He could start in center field, and if he loses out there to Leody Taveras, he's capable of backing up all three outfield spots while also being able to fill in anywhere in the infield.
NATIONAL LEAGUE EAST
Braves: Michael Harris, OF (No. 11)
Just 20 years old and with fewer than 200 professional at-bats on his resume, it will be a while before Harris is ready for the big leagues. But the club’s third-round pick out of the Georgia high school ranks in 2019 certainly has looked like he’s belonged this spring. The left-handed hitter has gone 4-for-13 in Grapefruit League action, with a double and a homer for a nifty .308/.400/.615 line.
Marlins: Jazz Chisholm, SS/2B (No. 4/MLB No. 66)
Chisholm has weathered a 1-for-17 stretch to hit .250/.294/.531 with three homers in 32 at-bats, looking better than Isan Díaz offensively and defensively as Miami tries to settle on a second baseman. He's a potential 20-20 player with solid defensive skills at shortstop, and he has made a quick transition to second despite little experience there.
Mets: Mark Vientos, 3B (No. 8)
Compared to some other clubs, the Mets haven’t given an abundance of looks to prospects this spring as they work to sort out the Major League roster, but Vientos certainly made the most of his limited time. What has stood out most has been his patience, especially considering young players can get swing-happy in Spring Training as they try to impress the brass. Vientos walked in four of his 10 plate appearances and posted a .700 OBP over eight games. The right-handed slugger made loud contact when he did swing, going 3-for-6 with two doubles. It’s the power that makes Vientos a solid prospect, and he helped his case by mixing in some first base this spring as well.
Nationals: Sam Clay, LHP (unranked on Top 30)
Clay never cracked the bigs over seven seasons in the Twins system, but the Nationals saw enough in him -- particularly when it came to his groundball rate and 92-93 mph sinker -- to sign him to a Major League deal this past offseason. He has rewarded that confidence with a good spring. Clay has allowed three earned runs in 8 2/3 innings and, true to form, has induced three double plays on the ground. The 27-year-old southpaw remains in the bullpen mix at this stage and has a good shot at breaking camp with the big club.
Phillies: Mickey Moniak, OF (No. 12)
The former No. 1 overall pick is going to start the year in the Minors, but he definitely made a very good impression this spring. The outfielder has a 1.112 OPS in Grapefruit League games, with five of his six hits of the extra-base variety (two doubles, a triple, two homers) while showing the ability to play all three outfield spots well.
NATIONAL LEAGUE CENTRAL
Brewers: Garrett Mitchell, OF (No. 1/MLB No. 65)
Last year’s 20th overall pick hasn’t disappointed in his first Spring Training. Entering Thursday, he was 10-for-28 (.385) with a homer and a double over 18 games played. The UCLA product has also shown off his plus-plus speed by swiping three bags. Mitchell has seen the bulk of time in center but has featured in the corner spots as well as the Brewers have tried to find ways to keep getting him playing time -- a sign of a positive first impression.
Cardinals: Dylan Carlson, OF (No. 1/MLB No. 13)
Which version of Carlson would arrive in southeast Florida – the one who struggled in the first half of 2020 or the one who surged in the second half? The answer has been closer to the latter. Entering Thursday, the switch-hitting outfielder had clubbed two homers, added a triple and owned a .783 OPS over 15 games. His batted-ball data is solid as well. Ten of his 26 balls in play measured by Statcast had exit velocities above 95 mph, the mark at which a ball is considered hard-hit. Carlson is expected to be the Cards’ Opening Day center fielder with Harrison Bader out.
Cubs: Alfonso Rivas, 1B/OF (unranked on Top 30)
Rivas has one of the sweetest left-handed swings in the system, and he used it to go 5-for-16 (.313) before getting sent down two weeks ago. He has an unusual profile for a first baseman in that his power is his worst tool, though Chicago hopes to help him unlock more pop.
Pirates: Ke’Bryan Hayes, 3B (No. 1/MLB No. 9)
This should come as no surprise after Hayes took the National League by storm during his debut in 2020, hitting .376/.442/.682 to elicit some Rookie of the Year votes despite playing only 24 games. He's one of the favorites to win the award heading into the 2021 season, and his Grapefruit League showing only cements his front-runner status as he’s hit .450/.488/.775 with six doubles, two triples and a home run in 40 at-bats.
Reds: Jonathan India, 2B/3B (No. 5)
Believers in India, the Reds’ top pick in the 2018 Draft, felt a wrist injury was the root cause of his struggles during his first full season of pro ball in 2019. Following reports of good performance at the Reds’ alternate training site in 2020, he’s proving them right this spring. India has likely played his way onto the Opening Day roster, where he could be the starting second baseman, by hitting .333/.455/.611 with a pair of homers and four doubles over 17 games.
NATIONAL LEAGUE WEST
D-backs: J.B. Bukauskas, RHP (No. 7)
Does it get better than perfect? Bukauskas faced 15 batters over five appearances in the Cactus League. He retired all 15. He struck out 10 of them, or exactly two-thirds. The 24-year-old right-hander topped out at 96 mph with his fastball and also mixed in his plus slider and above-average changeup to generate those whiffs. Arizona optioned him to the alternate site on March 16 (though he has appeared in one game since), potentially in the hopes of getting him back to starting duty, but he should be considered a bullpen option at any time in the first half of 2021.
Dodgers: Zach McKinstry, INF/OF (No. 15)
A 33rd-round pick out of Central Michigan in 2016, McKinstry is poised to fill the utility role vacated by Kiké Hernández. Batting .353/.371/.471 in 34 at-bats this spring, he could have at least average tools across the board and possesses the quickness and arm strength to play all over the diamond.
Padres: Tucupita Marcano, 2B/OF (No. 6)
No. 8 overall prospect CJ Abrams stole a few headlines with his performance in Arizona, but one could make an easy case that Marcano has been the standout of the entire Padres camp, regardless of prospect status. Entering Thursday, San Diego’s No. 6 prospect has gone 15-for-31 (.484) with six extra-base hits and four walks over 21 games. The Padres have played Marcano primarily at second with time at short, third and all three outfield spots mixed in, in the hopes of getting him plentiful playing time. The 21-year-old projects to be an above-average hitter from the left side with 55-grade speed, and he has shown why he shouldn’t be overlooked in the San Diego system.
Rockies: Colton Welker, 3B/1B (No. 11)
Though he faded in 2019 and struggled in the Arizona Fall League that year, Welker performed well enough at the Rockies’ alternate site in 2020 to get added to the 40-man roster. His performance this spring has made that look like a wise decision as he’s hit his way into serious Opening Day roster consideration with a .361/.385/.528 line in 36 at-bats while playing both third and first base.