Each team's prospect looking to bounce back in '22
Coming out of the 2020 pandemic-shortened -- or in the case of Minor League Baseball, cancelled -- season, no one really knew what to expect from players as they returned to action in 2021. Some prospects showed up ready to go and took big steps forward. Others struggled or got hurt.
The beautiful thing about baseball is that it’s a redemptive sport, whether it’s in the next at-bat or inning, the next day, or in the case of the 30 prospects below, the following season. These players are all hoping to right the ship and show their organization that they have more to offer than what they contributed in 2021.
AMERICAN LEAGUE EAST
Blue Jays: Yosver Zulueta, RHP
It hasn’t been an easy road for the 6-foot-1 right-hander. The Cuba native signed for $1 million in 2019 and needed Tommy John surgery shortly after. He was set to make his Minor League debut finally last spring but tore his ACL after his third pitch in his first game for Low-A Dunedin on May 5. Zulueta has returned to pitching this spring and is back up to 96 mph already. The Jays have hopes he can return to his 98-99 mph range during his ramp-up, and if he does that and fends off the injury bug, a quick climb toward Toronto could be ahead.
Orioles: Heston Kjerstad, OF
The minute Kjerstad has an at-bat in 2022 will be an immediate triumph for the 2020 first-round pick. The Arkansas product has yet to play a professional inning because of the lingering effects of myocarditis, a viral inflammation of the heart that surfaced shortly after the Draft, that kept him off the field for all of 2021. He hasn’t played in a very long time, but he does have run-producing power potential.
Rays: Carlos Colmenarez, SS
There was considerable hype for Colmenarez heading into 2021 after he signed for $3 million as MLB Pipeline’s No. 3 international prospect in the 2021-22 class. The hype wasn’t quite met with on-field production, due to a hamate injury that required surgery. The left-handed-hitting shortstop didn’t debut until Aug. 14 and hit only .247/.319/.289 with three extra-base hits over 114 plate appearances after that. The farther he gets from the injury, which typically saps young players of their power in the early days, the more he can show his true 55-grade offensive potential across the board.
Red Sox: Jeter Downs, SS/2B
A key piece in the Mookie Betts trade with the Dodgers in February 2020, Downs showed 20-20 potential and seemed on the cusp of taking the Red Sox's second-base job as last season began. But he struggled through the worst year of his career, hitting .190/.272/.333 with 14 homers and 18 steals in 99 Triple-A games and continued to scuffle in the Arizona Fall League. He chased more pitches than he had previously in his career and his strikeout and groundball rates spiked.
Yankees: T.J. Sikkema, LHP
The Yankees expected Sikkema to move quickly after selecting him in the supplemental first round in 2019, when the Missouri product led the Southeastern Conference and ranked third in NCAA Division I with a 1.32 ERA. But he has yet to make his full-season debut because of the pandemic shutdown in 2020 and shoulder issues last year. Healthy again, he has tremendous feel for pitching and his ability to vary his arm angle and manipulate his pitches reminds some club officials of a southpaw version of Orlando Hernandez.
AMERICAN LEAGUE CENTRAL
Guardians: Bo Naylor, C
When the Guardians made Naylor a first-round pick in 2019, he was considered one of the best hitters in that high school class but a longshot to stick at catcher. He surprisingly has developed into the best defensive backstop in Cleveland's system -- but he also batted .189/.280/.332 with a 31 percent strikeout rate in Double-A as he focused too much on launching balls.
Royals: Erick Peña, OF
The Royals were rebound specialists in 2021, turning around MJ Melendez and Nick Pratto’s (among others) offensive production with approach-based adjustments. Peña could be their next project. The July 2019 signing moved stateside to the Arizona Complex League for his first taste of the Minors and struggled with contact, striking out 36.5 percent of the time while hitting just .161/.256/.314 over 156 plate appearances. At his best, the left-handed slugger shows plus raw power with an uppercut swing that allows him to elevate on contact. He turned 19 in February and still has time to translate his raw skills into performance.
Tigers: Joey Wentz, LHP
It’s go time for Wentz. The 6-foot-5 southpaw, who was acquired from the Braves in a 2019 deadline swap, underwent Tommy John surgery in early 2020 and returned to a Minor League mound last May. The results were mostly about establishing health, but his 3.71 ERA and 58 strikeouts over 53 1/3 innings at Double-A were solid enough. We’ll still make Wentz a rebound candidate because he’ll have a healthier green light in 2022 and should be pushing to join former teammates Casey Mize, Tarik Skubal and Matt Manning in the Detroit rotation. He has the four-pitch mix, including a plus changeup, to make it happen.
Twins: Royce Lewis, SS/OF
The last time anyone saw Lewis play regularly was back in the 2019 Arizona Fall League, when the former No. 1 overall pick took home MVP honors, helping to erase what had been a rough regular season. He tore his ACL early in Spring Training in 2021, missing the entire season. When he plays in 2022, he’ll get the chance to show he’s healthy and that the adjustments he made in the AFL are for real.
White Sox: Jared Kelley, RHP
Gatorade's 2020 national baseball player of the year, Kelley was a consensus first-round talent who fell to the White Sox in the second round and signed for $3 million. His body, arm action and control have regressed significantly, however, and he logged a 7.61 ERA with 26 walks in 23 2/3 innings between Rookie ball and Low-A in a pro debut truncated by elbow and shoulder soreness. He still can flash upper-90s velocity on his fastball with an advanced changeup.
AMERICAN LEAGUE WEST
A’s: Robert Puason, SS
Puason was ranked just behind Yankees phenom Jasson Dominguez as the 2019-20 international signing period began and the A’s were all in, giving him $5.1 million to sign in July 2019. Because of the pandemic, he wasn’t able to make his pro debut until 2021 and the A’s challenged him by sending him to Low-A at age 18. He may not have been ready as he finished with a .574 OPS and a strikeout rate north of 41 percent. He’s still a teenager, so there’s plenty of time here, but progress in 2022 will help show that large investment was worth it.
Angels: Jordyn Adams, OF
Adams was a two-sport star in high school, one who could have played football in college, so it was a little bit of a surprise when he showed a pretty advanced approach at the plate in his first full season in 2019 that included a walk rate of 11.6 percent. But he lost his way in 2021, with that walk rate dropping and his strikeout rate ballooning from 23 percent in ’19 to 37.8 a year ago. He needs to show he can rediscover that approach to get on base and use his plus speed to his advantage.
Astros: Pedro Leon, SS/OF
A Cuban defector who received the largest bonus ($4 million) in the 2020-21 international class, Leon has the loudest tools in the Astros system: well-above-average bat speed, at least plus raw power, plus speed, top-of-the-scale arm strength. He batted just .220/.339/.369 with nine homers and 18 steals in 72 games, though Houston did push him to Double-A and Triple-A while having him learn shortstop on the fly during his U.S. debut. He was starting to make adjustments before breaking his left pinky on a slide and missing nearly two months.
Mariners: Juan Then, RHP
Then has had two stints with the Mariners, signing with them back in 2016, getting traded to the Yankees in 2017, then being reacquired from the Yankees in 2019, the year he reached full-season ball for the first time, with success. The 2021 season was a step backward as the right-hander finished with a 6.46 ERA and gave up 11.3 hits per nine in 14 High-A starts, then struggled in three Arizona Fall League outings.
Rangers: Ricky Vanasco, RHP
Vanasco looked like the Rangers' best pitching prospect before he blew out his elbow in the last game at the club's alternate training site in 2020 and required Tommy John surgery that September. A 15th-round pick out of a Florida high school in 2017, he returned to the mound during instructional league last fall and was back touching the upper 90s with his fastball and showing off a hammer curveball.
NATIONAL LEAGUE EAST
Braves: Trey Harris, OF
Harris was a feel-good story in 2019, a 32nd-round senior sign, who hit his way from Low-A to Double-A, finishing with a .323/.389/.498 line before a solid performance in the Arizona Fall League. A full year in Double-A in 2021 didn’t go as well, and he finished with a .671 OPS in 96 games. Now 26, he needs to show if he can produce at the upper levels of the system.
Marlins: JJ Bleday, OF
Bleday looked like a good bet to hit for average and power after leading Vanderbilt to the College World Series championship, topping NCAA Division I with 27 homers and going fourth overall in the Draft in 2019. But in his first full pro season, he batted just .212/.323/.373 with 12 homers in 110 Double-A games and generated a lot of harmless flyball contact. After he raked in the hitter-friendly AFL and reported to Spring Training with 20 pounds of added muscle, there's optimism that he'll get back on track.
Mets: Junior Santos, RHP
Listed at 6-foot-7, the 20-year-old right-hander remains very much a tall mound of clay. Previously at 92-93, Santos added some velocity to be closer to the mid-90s in 2021, and given his size, there’s still a decent chance he’ll add more. The results weren’t all that promising last season (4.59 ERA, 79 strikeouts in 96 innings at Low-A), but the Mets have hope this could be the season it all clicks for Santos as he learns his body and tries to find more command. If that happens, he could be a Top 10 Mets prospect by season’s end.
Nationals: Jackson Rutledge, RHP
Anyone who saw Rutledge in last year’s Arizona Fall League Championship Game knows the number of swings-and-misses he can elicit with a plus-plus fastball and impressive slider. The rest of the season was a frustrating one, however. Shoulder and blister issues limited the 6-foot-8 right-hander to only 36 1/3 innings at the lower levels, and a lack of consistency hurt his numbers (7.68 ERA, 1.65 WHIP). This might be the season that decides whether Rutledge can be a starter or if his track changes toward the bullpen. But if he’s healthy, his ceiling is right up there with Cade Cavalli and Cole Henry’s for best in the system.
Phillies: Casey Martin, SS
Martin has long shown glimpses of his considerable raw tools, hitting 28 homers and stealing 18 bases over his first two years at Arkansas. But he scuffled during the shortened 2020 season, and there’s always been a lot of swing-and-miss to his game. That continued in 2021 as he whiffed 28.1 percent of the time during his pro debut and finished with a .601 OPS. The power, the speed, it’s all there, but he has to find a way to consistently turn the tools into production.
NATIONAL LEAGUE CENTRAL
Brewers: Antoine Kelly, LHP
There might be a scarier phrase in pitching circles than “Tommy John surgery” these days. It’s “thoracic outlet syndrome,” given the lesser track record for success on the latter. Kelly underwent surgery in November 2020 to address the issue and returned to make nine appearances last summer. He’s set to take on a bigger workload in 2022 with a mid-90s fastball, above-average slider and decent changeup. The 6-foot-6 southpaw remains a work in progress but has the stuff to beat the TOS odds.
Cardinals: Zack Thompson, LHP
St. Louis has an organizational philosophy of challenging its prospects with aggressive assignments. Thompson, the 19th overall pick in the 2019 Draft, was certainly challenged with a move to Triple-A for the duration of the summer, and the numbers showed: 7.06 ERA, .184 WHIP, .302 average-against in 93 innings. A trip to the Arizona Fall League ended the year on a brighter note, and it’s worth noting that Thompson still possesses an above-average fastball and plus curve. A return to Memphis with more Triple-A experience than your typical 24-year-old pitcher should put Thompson in a better position for success.
Cubs: Brailyn Márquez, LHP
Márquez has gotten just two outs in game action the last two years, making a big league relief appearance on the final day of the shortened 2020 season and missing all of 2021 while dealing with COVID-19 and a strained shoulder. In his most recent full and healthy season in 2019, he worked at 96-98 mph and hit 102 mph with his fastball and also flashed a power mid-80s slider. Signed for the largest bonus ($600,000) any left-hander got in the 2015 international class, the Dominican has the ceiling of a frontline starter but must prove he has the durability and command to get there.
Reds: Austin Hendrick, OF
Hendrick had about as much raw power as anyone in the 2020 Draft class and his bat speed and strength give him a very good chance to hit a lot of balls over the fence. But he tried to sell out for launch angle pull power too much during his debut in 2021 – a leg issue didn’t help – resulting in a 37.6 percent strikeout rate. A return to a gap-to-gap approach and confidence that his power will show up naturally could help him right the ship.
Pirates: Tahnaj Thomas, RHP
The Pirates were greatly encouraged by Thomas’ first year with the organization after coming over via trade from Cleveland, when he had a 3.17 ERA and struck out 11.0 per nine with rookie-level Bristol. A jump to High-A in 2021 didn’t go as well (5.19 ERA) with a huge spike in his walk rate after multiple years of improvement on that front. He still has tremendous power stuff, and maybe a move to the bullpen would remove the pressure to refine his command a lot, but he wasn’t protected on the 40-man roster this past offseason.
NATIONAL LEAGUE WEST
D-backs: Corbin Carroll, OF
The 2019 16th overall pick was one of the Minors’ hottest hitters out of the gate, going 10-for-23 (.435) with five extra-base hits in seven games for High-A Hillsboro, when he injured his shoulder in May. The injury required season-ending surgery, so we’re still eagerly awaiting Carroll’s return to action. He spent part of the downtime learning the game from scouts at Chase Field, and it could be fun to see how he puts that education into play. Carroll remains a potential five-tool star and could solidify that status with long-awaited at-bats.
Dodgers: Jacob Amaya, SS
The best defender in the Dodgers system, Amaya also showed a keen batting eye and feel for hitting before slumping to .216/.303/.343 with 12 homers in 113 Double-A games after getting too homer-happy. An 11th-round pick from a California high school in 2017, he was more under control at the plate in the AFL, creating hope that he'll bounce back in 2022.
Giants: Seth Corry, LHP
Corry appeared to have turned a corner with his delivery and control in 2019, when he dominated down the stretch and won Low-A South Atlantic League pitcher of the year honors, but his mechanics fell apart after the pandemic layoff. Though he still worked with a 91-96 mph fastball and a nasty downer curveball, he posted a 5.99 ERA with 63 walks in 67 2/3 innings in High-A and walked more than a batter per inning in the AFL.
Padres: CJ Abrams, SS
You could certainly include MacKenzie Gore here for his need to rebound in 2022, but Abrams seems like a much likelier candidate to actually do it. The last time we saw Abrams in a game was June 30, when he suffered a fractured left tibia and sprained left MCL in a game for Double-A San Antonio. Abrams was set to play in the Arizona Fall League, but a shoulder injury held him back there as well. He returned to baseball activities this offseason, and that’s promising news for a 21-year-old with a plus hit tool and top-of-the-line speed.
Rockies: Aaron Schunk, 3B/2B
Schunk looked very much like the kind of advanced college hitter who finds success at the next level, one who hit .339/.373/.600 in his Draft year at Georgia and followed that up with an OPS of .873 during his pro debut after the Rockies took him in the second round of the 2019 Draft. But the infielder hit just .224/.286/.346 during his full-season debut as he let the game speed up on him and tried to do too much at the plate.