It’s a phrase worth repeating often in these parts. Player development is not always linear.
While we tend to get excited about prospects who climb quickly through the Minor League ranks, many talents need more time to hone their skills and build the foundations for future Major League careers. Those that stick with it over a longer road are worth celebrating, too.
These are some of the best Minor League late bloomers, including one Top 30 prospect from every organization:
AMERICAN LEAGUE EAST
Blue Jays: Kevin Smith, INF (No. 10)
It’s been a see-saw career thus far for the 25-year-old infielder. There was the breakout 2018 season in which he batted .302 with 25 homers at two A-ball levels, only to be followed a year later by a .209/.263/.402 line at Double-A. Smith is back on the upswing in 2021, keeping his above-average power while cutting down his strikeout rate by roughly 10 points at Triple-A. That earned him a Major League debut in August, roughly eight months after he went unprotected and unselected in last year’s Rule 5 Draft.
Orioles: Kyle Bradish, RHP (No. 8)
Taken by the Angels in the fourth round of the 2018 Draft, Bradish looked more like a high-floor, mid-to-back rotation kind of guy in his first full season and then he was sent to the Orioles in the Dylan Bundy deal. The O’s first got a sense there might be more than met the initial eye when Bradish’s stuff all ticked up during his time at the alternate training site in 2020. They aggressively promoted him to Triple-A after three scoreless starts with Bowie and he’s been up-and-down there, but the stuff has still been good.
Rays: Tommy Romero, RHP (No. 18)
The results have always been there for Romero since he was taken by the Mariners in the 15th round of the 2017 Draft. He was the 2019 Florida State League Pitcher of the Year, after all. But the Rays have been encouraged by the way Romero has added velocity in 2021 to the point where he now sits 92-94 mph. His curveball and changeup pair well off that heater, and that arsenal has helped Romero fan 134 batters in 100 1/3 innings between Double-A and Triple-A. That improvement in stuff seems to have made the 24-year-old the next Rays pitching development success story.
Red Sox: Jay Groome, LHP (No. 7)
Things have not gone exactly according to plan since Boston selected Groome in the first round back in 2016. Several injuries have derailed prior projections, and last year’s canceled season didn't help. This has really been the southpaw’s first full and healthy season -- at age 22 -- one year after he was added to the 40-man as a Rule 5 precaution. He has found himself recently at Double-A Portland, where he has yet to allow an earned run while fanning 19 and walking one in 11 innings.
Yankees: Donny Sands, C (No. 28)
It’s been a slow line of development from 2015 eighth-round pick to Triple-A for the 25-year-old, but he seems to have unlocked something this season. Sands’ 18 homers between the top two Minor League levels are a clear career high -- well above his previous best of four -- and, subsequently, he is slugging over .400 (.469) for the first time in any of his six professional campaigns. A former third baseman, Sands has also developed enough defensively to make a future Major League role of a backup backstop a real possibility.
AMERICAN LEAGUE CENTRAL
Indians: Richard Palacios, 2B/OF (No. 14)
Palacios was one of the unfortunate players who missed all of 2019 (in this case due to labrum surgery that spring) and, along with just about everybody else in the Minors, was forced to sit out all of 2020 due to the pandemic. He got some time at instructs in the fall and has built on that at Double-A Akron and Triple-A Columbus, where he has produced a .290/.393/.467 line in 92 games. The 24-year-old projects to be an above-average hitter now and complements that with plus speed.
Royals: MJ Melendez, C (No. 4, MLB No. 69)
To be frank, it isn’t fair to call a 22-year-old “late” in pretty much anything but a baseball standpoint. Melendez -- the 52nd overall pick in 2017 -- would have been a college senior in 2021 had he gone to school instead of signing. But we will take this opportunity to highlight once again how pronounced the catcher’s breakout has been this summer. Melendez entered 2021 with 32 career homers spread across three seasons. He has gone deep a Minors-best 37 times between Double-A and Triple-A this time around. He batted .163 at Class A Advanced in 2019. That average is up to .278 now. Late or not, the Royals prospect has certainly bloomed this season.
Tigers: Jacob Robson, OF (No. 28)
Robson had been ranked among the Tigers’ Top 30 prospects in the past, thanks to his plus speed, but his bat dragged enough at Triple-A Toledo in 2019 to take him off the list. His age-26 campaign has been another matter. Robson ranks second among full-season Detroit Minor Leaguers with a 150 wRC+ and has posted a .306/.423/.487 line over 84 games between Double-A and Triple-A. Those numbers earned him a long-awaited Major League debut on Aug. 12, and even at his age, it remains possible that Robson could be a fourth or fifth outfielder at the top level if these offensive improvements hold.
Twins: Charlie Barnes, LHP (No. 30)
The Twins’ fourth-rounder in 2017, Barnes performed decently enough at the lower levels and managed to get to Triple-A in 2019, but he was giving up a lot of hits (9.0 /9 in his Minor League career overall) while not missing many bats (7.6 K/9). A more effective year in Triple-A (.245 BAA vs. .261 for his career), helped by an increased ability to sink his average-ish fastball to get ground-ball outs, has led to six big league starts in August and September.
White Sox: Jake Burger, 3B (No. 3)
Burger’s tale has been one of the feel-good stories in prospect-dom. The 2017 11th overall pick played only 51 Minor League games across his first four years in pro ball due to multiple Achilles injuries, a heel issue and the pandemic. Fully healthy in his age-25 season, the right-handed slugger hasn’t missed a beat. He’s hit .288/.336/.543 with 17 homers in 72 games at Triple-A Charlotte and been called up to feature in 15 games for the AL Central leaders. Merely returning to the field would have been noteworthy for Burger. Playing to this level has been even more encouraging.
AMERICAN LEAGUE WEST
Angels: Oliver Ortega, RHP (No. 14)
Ortega signed for just $10,000 in February 2015 and didn’t reach full-season ball until 2018, missing all of 2017 with a back injury. Initially developed as a starter, he’s always had arm strength, but coupled that with serious command issues at times. A move to the bullpen has paid off as he got locked in at Double-A in July (0.82 ERA) and then up in Triple-A in August (1.64 ERA) while throwing strikes a bit more consistently, leading to his first big league callup this month.
Astros: Scott Manea, C (No. 18)
Signed by the Mets as an undrafted free agent out of NC State in 2016 and traded to Houston prior to the 2019 season, Manea has slowly climbed his way through the Minors. His age-25 season has been his best yet, with career highs in all three slash-line categories (.286/.405/.462) and wRC+ (137). Manea has particularly thrived in taking more free passes at Double-A Corpus Christi, with his walk rate jumping from 9.3 percent in 2019 to 15.5 this summer. He was already considered a good framer behind the plate, and this offensive surge has given his profile another kick.
A’s: Luis Barrera, OF (No. 13)
Barrera has seemingly been around forever, first signing with the A’s back in July 2012 for $450,000. He spent two summers in the DSL, one more in the AZL and finally hit his way to full-season ball in 2016. He touched Double-A for the first time in 2018 and was added to the 40-man roster and has been fairly productive, with some injuries getting in the way, in the upper levels. Now 25, the hit-over-power outfielder did make his big league debut in May.
Mariners: Aaron Fletcher, LHP (No. 23)
Fletcher’s first road bump came when he needed Tommy John surgery at the University of Houston. He was drafted by the Nationals in 2018 after a strong season as a starter and while the Nats tried him in that role briefly, he moved back to the relief role he held for much of his college career. He became a legit relief prospect in 2019, when he pitched his way from Low-A to Double-A while getting traded at the Deadline to the Mariners. He’s touched the big leagues twice in 2020 and this year, with uneven results, but still looks like a lefty relieve who can miss bats.
Rangers: Curtis Terry, 1B (No. 18)
Back in 2015, Terry was a 13th-round pick as a high schooler whose right-handed, first-base-only profile didn’t intrigue many scouts. It wasn’t until his fifth season of pro ball, in 2019, that he got to full-season ball, where he started to show he could get to his power by hitting 25 homers across two levels of A ball. What really put him on the map was that he kept doing it with the big leap to Double-A this year, where his 20 homers and .921 OPS helped him earn his first call up to the big leagues in July.
NATIONAL LEAGUE EAST
Braves: Tucker Davidson, LHP (No. 7)
Davidson was an unheralded prospect when the Braves took him from a junior college in the 19th round of the 2016 Draft. He was a reliever at first, but jumped on the radar some when given a chance to start in 2017. When he scuffled some with a move to High-A the following year, it was hard to get a sense of what exactly he was prospect-wise, but he answered those questions by pitching his way to Triple-A in 2019 and touching the big leagues last year and with more impact in 2021 before he landed on the injured list in June.
Marlins: Edward Cabrera, RHP (No. 2/MLB No. 30)
Maybe it’s a stretch to call a 23-year old with this kind of stuff a late bloomer, but Cabrera didn’t even sign the first year he was eligible out of the Dominican Republic in 2014, finally joining the Marlins in July 2015 for $100,000. He didn’t reach full-season ball until 2018 and flashed big stuff, but inconsistently. The 6-foot-5 right-hander really started to put it together in 2019 and continued to harness that big stuff in 2021 en route to making his big league debut in late August.
Mets: Josh Walker, LHP (No. 16)
The 6-foot-6 southpaw has thrived much more on pitchability than is typical of someone at his size. His fastball and curveball both earn average grades, but it’s most notable that he’s walked only 27 in 110 2/3 innings in 2021. That ability to fill the zone has fueled his climb from High-A to Triple-A this summer, as well as his push up the rankings in a Mets system known for both its high-ceiling players and lack of depth.
Nationals: Donovan Casey, OF (No. 19)
Acquired from the Dodgers in the Max Scherzer-Trea Turner deal at the Trade Deadline, the 25-year-old outfielder was more than a throw-in in a blockbuster. Casey has been known for his plus running and arm tools since his days at Boston College, but he showed promising offensive gains at Double-A in 2021, hitting .303/.361/.483 with 14 homers in 85 games between Tulsa and Harrisburg. He hasn’t been able to replicate those numbers at Triple-A Rochester of yet, but the tools are still there for him to be a fourth outfielder at the top level in his late-20s.
Phillies: Cristopher Sánchez, LHP (No. 20)
Sánchez's pro career started back in 2013, when the Rays signed him for just $65,000, and he didn’t make his United States debut until 2017 and really didn’t show up on prospect radars until a strong 2019 full-season debut. The Rays sent him to the Phillies that offseason because they didn’t have room on their 40-man. The Phillies did and he’s pitched his way to the big leagues this year.
NATIONAL LEAGUE CENTRAL
Brewers: Joe Gray Jr., OF (No. 9)
A second-round pick in 2018, Gray was limited to only 55 games in his first two seasons by pneumonia and hamstring issues and didn’t crack Rookie ball in either campaign. He also didn’t bat higher than .182. The 2021 season has been something completely different. Gray enters Thursday with a .251/.358/.503 line, 20 homers and 23 stolen bases in 107 games between Low-A and High-A, making him one of 13 20-20 players in the Minors. Even though he’s still only 21, Gray has made the most of his power-speed combo a little later than initially expected, but the Brewers couldn’t be more enthused by his progress.
Cardinals: Nick Plummer, OF (No. 10)
Talk about fitting the category to the letter. The Cards had high hopes for Plummer as the 23rd overall pick in the 2015 Draft, only to see him fail to crack Double-A in his first five seasons. He finally made it to the upper Minors in his age-24 season and has looked like a completely different player compared to his early years. Plummer, who spent a lot of time working in the Cardinals’ hitting lab last winter, has produced a .284/.416/.488 line with 14 homers and 12 steals in 108 games between Double-A and Triple-A.
Cubs: Alexander Vizcaino, RHP (No. 19)
Signed for just $14,000 by the Yankees in May 2016, Vizcaino was already 19 when he joined the organization, old by international market standards. Nearly all of his first three pro seasons were spent in rookie ball before his stuff ticked up in 2019 and he was added to the 40-man roster. After missing time this year with a shoulder issue, he was back on the mound when he was sent to the Cubs in the Anthony Rizzo deal. He’s yet to pitch above A ball, but his fastball-changeup combination is worth keeping an eye on.
Pirates: Hoy Park, UTIL (No. 25)
Park joined the Pirates via the Clay Holmes deal and is about to graduate off of prospect lists. While Park got $1 million to sign with the Yankees initially, the versatile defender struggled in his first taste of full-season ball in 2016. He started putting up slightly better numbers after that, always showing off his on-base acumen and athleticism, but he really didn’t put it all together until this year, when he had an OPS over 1.000 in Triple-A when he was dealt to Pittsburgh.
Reds: Alejo Lopez, 2B/3B (No. 21)
A young player in Mexico, Lopez first moved to Canada and then to the Phoenix area for high school. As a 27th-round pick in the 2015 Draft who signed out of high school, Lopez largely had gone overlooked for much of his pro career. While he spent three years in Rookie ball, he’s hit well wherever he’s been and jumped on the map this year after a lost 2020, hitting over .330 across Double-A and Triple-A while receiving his first call to the big leagues in 2021.
NATIONAL LEAGUE WEST
D-backs: Drew Ellis, 3B (No. 15)
It was fair to say that Ellis’ arrow was pointing down after the 2017 second-rounder hit just .235 with a .406 slugging percentage at Double-A in 2019. He’s trending back up in 2021, both offensively and defensively, at Triple-A. His 16 homers are a career high, coming in only 70 games, while his .292/.404/.584 line has been similarly solid. Of course, that comes with the caveat of playing in hitter-friendly Reno, but it’s nonetheless encouraging. Ellis has been rewarded with 28 games in the Majors, and conquering that level will be next on his checklist.
Dodgers: Andre Jackson, RHP (No. 7)
Jackson was a two-way player at Utah, one who hit more than he pitched and who needed Tommy John surgery in 2017. The Dodgers rolled the dice and signed him in the 12th round that summer, and he didn’t throw a professional pitch until May 2018, when he generated mixed results. He took off in 2019, striking out 11.1 per nine in two levels of A ball, and his 2021 has included pitching at four levels, including the big leagues, while also appearing in the SiriusXM All-Star Futures Game.
Giants: Sammy Long, LHP (No. 20)
It’s been a long (pun intended) journey for this southpaw, who began his pro career as an 18th-round pick of the Rays in 2016. He was released two years later, left baseball for a year, then joined the White Sox in 2019. The Giants wanted him as a Minor League free agent after that year, but he went back to Chicago, but after not pitching at all in 2020, he signed with the Giants that offseason. He’s thrown gradually harder over the years and has gone from Low-A to the big leagues in one season in 2021.
Padres: Adrian Martinez, RHP (No. 29)
The starter-to-reliever pipeline typically goes in one direction. That hasn’t been true for Martinez, who has moved back in Double-A and Triple-A rotations in 2021 after last working primarily out of the bullpen two years ago. The Padres have felt comfortable making that move because the 24-year-old has shown two above-average offerings in his fastball and changeup and has the making of another average pitch in his slider. Signed in February 2015, Martinez is eligible for the Rule 5 Draft this offseason and could be building an intriguing 40-man protection case.
Rockies: Ryan Feltner, RHP (No. 22)
While many saw Feltner as a future reliever, especially after dominating in that role in the Cape Cod League back in 2017, the Rockies have continued to let him work as a starter, despite mixed results back at Ohio State and on into the start of his pro career that included a 5.07 ERA in his first full season in 2019. The year off clearly helped as the right-hander pitched his way to Double-A, with a 2.62 ERA and 10.3 K/9 rate in the Minors in 20 starts across two levels, earning his first big league call this September.