11 prospects who need solid springs

March 3rd, 2021

Let's get this out of the way. This isn't about Spring Training stats.

It can be far too easy to get wrapped up in Cactus and Grapefruit League numbers and declare that X player is primed for a breakout or Y pitcher deserves a larger role based on what is really just a couple dozen games. Case in point: last year's Spring Training home run leader was Brewers shortstop Orlando Arcia with six. Arcia, who has slugged over .400 only twice in five Major League seasons, finished the regular season with only five dingers.

So to say any player -- especially a younger player with rookie eligibility remaining -- needs to put up numbers in Arizona or Florida to save face isn't right. Instead, the focus here is on what some of the game's top prospects must show in Spring Training competition. Is a strikeout-prone slugger working to make more contact? Is a player making things work at a new position? Is a pitcher commanding his secondaries better? Did he implement a new pitch?

No matter what the specific focus will be, some of the game's top prospects are working out in the sun with something to prove. These are 11 of them, in alphabetical order by last name:

Joey Bart, C, Giants: The return of Buster Posey to the San Francisco lineup means Bart is likely headed to Triple-A Sacramento. That should relieve some of the pressure. Still, MLB Pipeline's No. 23 overall prospect could use a solid spring to take some of the smarting away from his first taste of Major League action. Bart struck out in 36.9 percent of his plate appearances over 33 games with San Francisco and finished with just a .233/.288/.320 line and no homers. He still draws praise for his work behind the plate and power potential. An improved approach against upper-level arms that includes better recognition of breaking stuff would go a long way in proving that Bart is worth a quick return to the Bay Area whenever the need arises.

Bobby Bradley, 1B, Indians: Could this finally be Bradley's year to stick? Bradley played in the upper Minors in 2017, 2018 and 2019 before finally getting his first taste of the Majors in 2019. The results were fairly rough: .178 average, one home run, 40.8 percent K rate in 15 games. He wasn't called up at last season. However with Carlos Santana now out of Cleveland, there is an opening at first base, and Bradley should be in the mix along with Jake Bauers and even Josh Naylor (though he is considered an outfielder at this time). Bradley's best tool is by far his power; he went deep 20-plus times in five straight seasons from 2015-19 and his 139 total dingers are tied with Kevin Cron for the most in the Minor Leagues over that span. He needs to show that he can make enough contact against upper-level arms to get the most of that pop, and that should be the focus in his Cactus League at-bats. Dropping 35 pounds over the offseason should help with the athleticism required in that department. Good news: he has already homered off a building in his first week, so it seems like he is off to a good start in marrying the power of old with the athleticism of new.

Brent Honeywell Jr., RHP, Rays: Honey Days are almost here again. Throw out Grapefruit League performances altogether in this spot. Any spring work Honeywell can get during his time in Port Charlotte will be massive. The former Top 100 prospect missed all of the 2018, 2019 and 2020 seasons due to Tommy John surgery, a broken bone that required its own procedure, a nerve decompression and finally, a surgical cleanup last December. The 25-year-old right-hander told MLB.com's Adam Berry that he feels terrific following the latest procedure and that he is back on a throwing progression. The focus will be on getting Honeywell healthy for each coming step in that process, and if he can get into a game by the end of March, that will be a large cherry on the top of his spring sundae. With an option remaining, the former Top 100 prospect is expected to open with Triple-A Durham, where he could show off the five-pitch mix (including his famous screwball) for the first time in nearly four years.

Alex Kirilloff/Brent Rooker, OF, Twins: It's no secret that the reigning American League Central champs have an opening in left field. The club non-tendered Eddie Rosario in December, thus creating a hole in the lineup. That isn't to say it's a hole they won't be able to fill, however. Kirilloff and Rooker both made their Major League debuts last season. Kirilloff's was the more dramatic as it came during the Wild Card Series. Rooker got the longer look over seven games and made a strong impression, going 6-for-19 (.316) with a homer and two doubles. (That run ended when Rooker suffered a broken forearm in September.) As MLB Pipeline's No. 26 overall prospect, Kirilloff has the higher ceiling, in part because his overall hit tool is more likely to be plus. Both bring different looks to the plate as well with Kirilloff batting left-handed and Rooker from the right. The big difference maker this spring could be defense. Kirilloff has been primarily a right fielder when he has played the outfield during his Minor League career, but his arm would certainly be a fit in left as well. Rooker can be a little bit more of a defensive liability but has much more experience playing left than his younger counterpart. Any advantage the two can find over the other during their time in Fort Myers will be beneficial in deciding who gets the Opening Day start and who begins the year on the bench or at Triple-A St. Paul.

Michael Kopech, RHP, White Sox: The last time Kopech pitched in a regular-season game was Sept. 5, 2018 against the Tigers. Nearly 30 months later, he should use this spring to return to a Major League mound again. The White Sox right-hander underwent Tommy John surgery shortly after that 2018 outing, missed the 2019 campaign as a result and then elected not to play during the shortened 2020 campaign for health-related and personal reasons. He is back in camp this spring and should get a chance to show off the 80-grade heater and plus-plus slider that make him a top-40 overall prospect. The White Sox have been open about the likelihood that Kopech will begin the season working out of the bullpen, potentially as an opener or multi-inning swingman. But a strong spring in which all of Kopech's pitches look good could push the envelope for a move back to the rotation, either immediately in April or earlier than otherwise expected in the first half.

Casey Mize, RHP, Tigers: No one would claim the 2018 top overall pick's first taste of the Majors went to plan. Mize posted a 6.99 ERA and 1.48 WHIP with seven homers allowed over seven starts (28 1/3 innings). He pitched into the sixth inning in only one of those seven appearances. The 23-year-old right-hander's stock hasn't slipped too much, however. He remains MLB Pipeline's No. 11 overall prospect because he still owns three plus pitches, including a splitter that gets 70 grades. Mize's problem in 2020 was command and control. He walked 9.8 percent of the batters he faced, almost double his 5.3 percent rate in the Minors the season earlier. The pitches he did throw in the zone were too hittable at times, as evidenced by the seven dingers. The Detroit rotation is a little more filled with veterans this spring, so Mize could be headed to Triple-A Toledo (where he hasn't yet officially appeared) to continue to hone those location skills, but if he looks like the Mize of old in Lakeland, he could very much press the issue on a return to the Motor City straight out of the gate.

A.J. Puk, LHP, Athletics: Even casual prospect fans may have noticed that Puk dropped out of MLB Pipeline's Top 100 this offseason. That came after Puk didn't pitch at all in the Majors last season due to left shoulder issues that eventually required surgery. Add on a previous Tommy John surgery, and the 2016 first-rounder has only 194 1/3 innings between the Majors and Minors over his first four seasons. Puk is back to throwing this spring, and manager Bob Melvin has described those sessions as "free and easy." Maintaining that health for the duration of camp will be the primary objective. Figuring out Puk's role with the A's is secondary. The club says it wants to get the southpaw extended enough to start, but there's no doubt his fastball-slider combo would play right away in a Major League bullpen. Getting Puk through a healthy spring to the point where Oakland has to make a decision would be a promising step for the 25-year-old.

Tyler Stephenson, C, Reds: This isn't about a player needing to make a strong impression. Stephenson accomplished that last season, starting with the homer he hit in his first Major League at-bat and finishing with his .294/.400/.647 line over eight games. It was a short sample, but MLB Pipeline's No. 95 overall prospect came as advertised with a solid hit tool and promising power coming from his 6-foot-4 frame. The trouble is Stephenson enters spring behind Tucker Barnhart -- the reigning National League Gold Glove winner -- on the Cincinnati depth chart. Stephenson was roughly an average framer behind the plate in his limited Major League looks and was only tested twice on stolen base attempts, throwing out one runner with his plus arm. One good spring won't win him the starting job alone, but more work with the Reds hurlers and more experience learning the best way to frame their pitches will only help his case to take over starting duties from the lighter-hitting Barnhart at some point this summer.

Taylor Trammell, OF, Mariners: There has been a big focus on Mariners outfield prospects this spring and for good reason. Jarred Kelenic and Julio Rodriguez head into the 2021 season as MLB Pipeline's Nos. 4 and 5 overall prospects, respectively. Trammell checks in at No. 100 himself but feels left out of the conversation. That's understandable, given Seattle also has the reigning AL Rookie of the Year playing outfield in Kyle Lewis. Trammell could reinsert himself and strengthen his place in the organization's immediate future with a solid showing in his first spring with the Mariners. The hit tool is the big question these days after Trammell last hit .234 with a .689 OPS in Double-A levels in 2019, and some Cactus League at-bats that end in strong contact -- similar to those Trammell has shown off in his two Futures Game appearances -- would help quiet some of those concerns. He has the speed and fielding ability to play some role with the Mariners in the 2021 season. Some good at-bats in the coming weeks would keep Lewis, Kelenic and Rodriguez from crowding him out of the outfield conversation completely.

Forrest Whitley, RHP, Astros: The 2020 season could have been a redemption tour for Houston's top prospect coming off a disastrous 2019. Instead, the right-hander dealt with a sore right elbow that kept him from continuing his progress from Summer Camp and the alternate training site and carrying it to the Majors for the first time. It will be on Whitley to show that his 2020 adjustments -- including getting back to his old delivery mechanics -- have transferred over to spring play. That proof was delayed slightly when MLB Pipeline's No. 41 overall prospect was held back from camp due to intake protocols, but he officially joined the group last week and sounds ready to go. Whitley told reporters he feels good healthwise and would aim for roughly 140-160 innings in 2021 if given the opportunity. The first step on that journey should come in southeast Florida.