Every organization takes pride in its ability to identify and develop talent. We’re the same way at MLB Pipeline, especially when it comes to predicting future breakout prospects.
Looking at last year’s list of breakout candidates, we see many examples of players who realized their potential en route to becoming some of the sport’s premier prospects. White Sox outfielder Luis Robert shot up from No. 44 to No. 3 on MLB Pipeline’s Top 100 Prospects list thanks to a 32-homer, 36-steal campaign across three levels, while Blue Jays right-hander Nate Pearson, another three-level climber in ‘19, ascended from No. 90 to No. 10.
With the start of the 2020 season around the corner, MLB Pipeline once again is picking one breakout candidate from each organization. And while some of the names on this year’s list might be more recognizable than others, they all have the potential to jump on the scene during the upcoming season and establish themselves as can’t-miss prospects.
AMERICAN LEAGUE EAST
Blue Jays: Simeon Woods Richardson, RHP (No. 6) -- The Mets’ second-round pick from the 2018 Draft pitched better than his numbers suggest he did at Class A Columbia, and he made six impressive starts for Class A Advanced Dunedin after joining the Blue Jays in the Marcus Stroman Trade Deadline deal to finish his first full season with a 126/24 K/BB and .238 BAA in 106 2/3 innings. The 19-year-old righty is a high-ceiling pitching prospect, armed with a plus fastball-curveball combo, an advanced changeup and a mature overall feel for his craft that could help him move quickly through the Minors.
Orioles: DL Hall, LHP (No. 3, MLB No. 60) -- Baltimore’s 2017 first-rounder boasts some of the best pure stuff in the Minors among left-handed pitching prospects, with a plus fastball-breaking ball pairing and a promising changeup. Hall’s overall control, however, leaves much to be desired after the 21-year-old southpaw issued 6.0 BB/9 over 80 2/3 innings last season at Class A Advanced Frederick. The good news is that Hall has never had any issues missing bats (11.1 K/9 across his first 185 1/3 pro frames) and continues to be tough to barrel (.201 BAA), so it’s easy to envision him taking a step forward in 2020 with improved strike-throwing ability.
Rays: Shane Baz, RHP (No. 7, MLB No. 94) -- Acquired from the Pirates as the PTBNL in the lopsided Chris Archer deal, Baz spent all of 2019 at Class A Bowling Green in the Midwest League, pitching to a 2.99 ERA with 87 strikeouts and 37 walks in 81 1/3 innings (17 starts). He was especially good down the stretch, too, posting a 2.22 ERA over his final six regular-season starts for the Hot Rods before turning in an eye-opening performance in the Arizona Fall League. With a fastball that can touch triple digits, a devastating slider and a raw but promising changeup, the 20-year-old right-hander could develop into a front-of-the-rotation force if he can improve his control and command.
Red Sox: Gilberto Jimenez, OF (No. 7) -- A $10,000 steal from the Dominican Republic in 2017, Jimenez skipped a level last season and led the short-season New York-Penn League in batting (.359) in his U.S. debut. The best center-field defender and one of the fastest runners in Boston's system, he'll make the jump to full-season ball in 2020.
Yankees: Clarke Schmidt, RHP (No. 5) -- Schmidt had Tommy John surgery as a South Carolina junior a month before New York made him a first-round pick in the 2017 Draft. Though he has been brought back slowly, taking that summer off and totaling 114 innings in 2018-19, he already has reached Double-A and shows the makings of four plus pitches.
AMERICAN LEAGUE CENTRAL
Indians: Aaron Bracho, 2B (No. 13) -- Bracho's advanced bat earned him a $1.5 million bonus out of Venezuela in 2017, but he didn't make his pro debut until last season because he fractured his right arm in May 2018. A switch-hitter who possesses deceptive power and precocious command of the strike zone, he hit .296/.416/.593 in the Rookie-level Arizona League last summer.
Royals: Kyle Isbel, OF (No. 8) -- The Royals were excited after Isbel’s exceptional pro debut after they took him in the third round of the 2018 Draft, but his 2019 season was interrupted by injuries and he played in just 59 games. He made up for lost time in the Arizona Fall League and should use his impressive .315/.429/.438 (leading the league in OBP) showing to catapult him to the upper levels of the system
Tigers: Parker Meadows, OF (No. 12) -- The Tigers knew that Meadows -- Rays outfielder Austin Meadows’ younger brother -- would need time to develop when they selected the athletic prep outfielder in the second round of the 2017 Draft, and his .221/.296/.312 showing over 126 games at Class A West Michigan in his first full season only confirmed that assessment. However, the 6-foot-5, 205-pounder’s five-tool profile offers reason to be optimistic about his future, as all the raw qualities are in place for the 20-year-old to develop into an impact player.
Twins: Wander Javier, SS (No. 7) -- While it’s true the Twins didn’t protect Javier on their 40-man roster this offseason, that was a relatively low-risk move given the shortstop hasn’t played above A ball. A torn labrum cost him the 2018 season and he struggled once he got to full-season ball for the first time in late May of 2019 (.177/.278/.323). But he still has tremendous tools, the ones the Twins saw when they gave him $4 million to sign in July 2015.
White Sox: Matthew Thompson, RHP (No. 13) -- Before Chicago selected Thompson 45th overall last June, it had spent just two picks that early on high school pitchers in the previous 17 Drafts (Gio Gonzalez in 2004, Spencer Adams in 2013). Though he was inconsistent as a senior last spring, the White Sox love his athleticism and quick arm, which could result in a mid-90s fastball and plus curveball once he's fully developed.
AMERICAN LEAGUE WEST
A’s: Marcus Smith, OF (No. 30) -- The Kansas City high schooler was a bit of a surprise third-round pick, one who wasn’t on our Draft Top 200 list in 2019, but he sure made the A’s look smart during his relatively brief pro debut in the Arizona League (.361/.466/.443 in 29 games). That advanced approach should serve him well and let him use his 70-grade speed to his advantage in his first full season of pro ball.
Angels: Jeremiah Jackson, SS/2B (No. 4) -- He’s yet to reach full-season ball, but he set the stage for the jump by leading the Pioneer League in home runs and RBIs in 2019. He’ll need to cut down on his strikeouts (33 percent rate), but he’ll also only be 20 for all of 2020, so there’s time for him to refine his approach and become a truly impactful middle infielder.
Astros: Jeremy Pena, SS/2B (No. 8) -- The son of offensive-minded second baseman Geronimo Pena, Jeremy was one of the best defensive shortstops available in the college class of 2018, when Houston popped him in the third round out of Maine. His glove was as good as advertised in his first full pro season, when he exceeded expectations by batting .303/.385/.440 with 35 extra-base hits and 20 steals between two Class A levels.
Mariners: George Kirby, RHP (No. 6) -- Kirby made a name for himself as a control artist at Elon University and parlayed that into being a first-round pick last June. He showed just how good that command was by not walking a single batter in 23 innings during his pro debut. Seen as a safe pick who could ride his pitchability quickly up a ladder, his first full season could show that he’s more than that, with the potential to join others from his class on our Top 100 in 2020.
Rangers: Cole Winn, RHP (No. 4) -- One of the most polished high school pitchers in the 2018 Draft, Winn went 15th overall but struggled more than expected while being kept on a tight leash in his first full pro season in 2019. But he finished the year with a 2.81 ERA and 46 strikeouts in 51 1/3 innings over his final 12 starts, showing signs of a quality four-pitch mix once he dials in his command.
NATIONAL LEAGUE EAST
Braves: Bryce Ball, 1B -- Ball spent two years in junior college before transferring to Dallas Baptist for his junior year. The Braves nabbed him in the 24th round of last June’s Draft after he hit .325/.443/.614 with 18 homers and then he hit 17 more combined in the Appalachian and South Atlantic Leagues during his pro debut. He might have the most power in the system and has already shown the ability to get to it.
Marlins: Braxton Garrett, LHP (No. 7) -- The seventh overall pick in 2016, the Alabama high school product required Tommy John surgery after just four pro starts, costing him all of 2018. Garrett looked like his old self last season, pairing a low-90s fastball with a plus curveball in high Class A, and could move quickly in 2020 as he puts elbow reconstruction further behind him.
Mets: Francisco Alvarez, C (No. 5) -- Alvarez’s $2.7 million bonus in July 2018 was one of the top totals handed out during the 2018-19 international period, and it wasn’t long thereafter that he began to receive rave reviews from those inside the organization. The Mets challenged Alvarez last summer in his pro debut, assigning him straight to the Rookie Gulf Coast League before a quick promotion to the Appalachian League, and the then-17-year-old backstop responded by slashing .312/.407/.510 with seven homers in 42 games between the two stops. The Venezuela native is already perhaps the best pure hitter in New York’s system, with defensive chops behind the plate that could make him an impactful two-way catcher.
Nationals: Jackson Rutledge, RHP (No. 3) -- Taken with the No. 17 overall pick in last year’s Draft, Rutledge, a 6-foot-8 right-hander, has some of the best pure stuff among college pitchers from his class with an explosive mid-90s fastball and a wipeout slider that front his four-pitch mix. Harnessing his stuff to throw more strikes and developing a better changeup will be developmental keys for the 20-year-old in his first full season, though he’s exactly the type of power pitcher the Nats have successfully developed in the past.
Phillies: Francisco Morales, RHP (No. 6) -- One of the top pitchers in the 2016-17 international signing class, Morales has tremendous raw stuff. In many ways, it played well during his full-season debut in 2019, as he struck out just over 12 batters per nine innings and held hitters to a .226 batting average. He needs to refine his command to reach his very lofty ceiling, but here’s betting he takes a big step forward in 2020.
NATIONAL LEAGUE CENTRAL
Brewers: Tristen Lutz, OF (No. 2) -- Tabbed as the Brewers' top breakout candidate a year ago, Lutz advanced to Class A Advanced Carolina in 2019 and produced a nearly identical line (.754 OPS, 13 HR, 137/46 K/BB) compared to his first full season (.742 OPS, 13 HR, 139/46 K/BB). The elevated strikeout rates fuel questions about the 21-year-old’s hit tool, but there’s a lot to like in his blend of right-handed power potential and patience at the plate. Lutz has the makings of becoming an everyday corner outfielder if it all clicks for him, and a strong showing at Double-A in 2020 would mark a significant turning point in his development.
Cardinals: Ivan Herrera, C (No. 6) -- Signed out of Panama for $200,000 in July 2016, Herrera was pushed up to full-season ball at age 18 in 2019 and responded to the challenge by slashing .284/.374/.405 with nine home runs in 87 games across two levels, including Class A Advanced Palm Beach. Herrera continued to impress on both sides of the ball after the season as one of the Arizona Fall League’s youngest players and will enter 2020 with a big up arrow next to his name.
Cubs: Brennen Davis, OF (No. 3) -- Though scouts considered Davis one of the better prep athletes in the 2018 Draft, a hamstring injury slowed him as a senior and helped Chicago grab him in the second round. More advanced than expected, he batted .305/.381/.525 and flashed 30-30 upside in low Class A last season -- albeit while limited to 50 games by multiple finger injuries.
Pirates: Jared Oliva, OF (No. 11) -- A seventh-round pick out of Arizona in 2017, Oliva has had a solid, if unspectacular, first two full seasons of pro ball with a career .274/.348/.403 line, to go along with an impressive 84 steals. He opened a lot of eyes by leading the AFL with 11 steals (in 12 attempts) and hitting .312/.413/.473, setting the stage for a big 2020.
Reds: Tyler Stephenson, C (No. 7) -- The 2015 first-round pick got hit by the injury bug quite a bit during the first stages of his career, but he’s going to look back at 2019 as the year it all started to click. After a solid regular season in Double-A, the backstop had a very strong AFL campaign (.347/.372/.410 in 49 at-bats) to earn a spot on the 40-man roster. A big follow-up campaign should vault him onto the top catching prospects list and have him ready for Cincinnati.
NATIONAL LEAGUE WEST
D-backs: Kristian Robinson, OF (No. 2, MLB No. 71) -- Signed out of the Bahamas for $2.5 million in July 2017, Robinson offered a glimpse of his potential in 2019 as he slashed .282/.386/.514 with 14 homers and 17 steals while ascending from Class A Short-Season Hillsboro to Class A Kane County in his age-18 season. The 6-foot-3 outfielder’s massive right-handed power highlights an all-around exceptional set of tools, and, overall, it gives him one of the higher ceilings in the Minors among teenage prospects.
Dodgers: Diego Cartaya, C (No. 11) -- MLB Pipeline's top-rated international amateur in the 2018 class, Cartaya signed for $2.5 million out of Venezuela. Often compared to Salvador Perez, he has the tools to make a difference offensively and defensively and hit .281/.343/.432 between two Rookie-ball stops in his 2019 pro debut.
Giants: Alexander Canario, OF (No. 7) -- Signed for $60,000 out of the Dominican Republic in 2019, Canario possesses the quickest bat in San Francisco's system and batted .318/.377/.623 with 16 homers in 59 games between the Rookie and short-season levels last year. He fits the right-field profile well and could have even more value if he's able to stick in center.
Padres: Reggie Lawson, RHP (No. 21) -- The Padres’ second-round pick in the 2016 Draft, Lawson spent much of the ’19 season on the injured list with a balky right elbow, but he returned late in the season to make six starts for Double-A Amarillo, then dominated while making three impressive outings in the Arizona Fall League (0.82 ERA, 14 K, 11 IP), where he operated with a mid-90s fastball, a sharp, 12-to-6 curveball and a promising changeup. With his blend of size and stuff, Lawson could break out in earnest with a healthy 2020 campaign.
Rockies: Helcris Olivarez, LHP (No. 25) -- Olivarez made his United States debut in 2019 and missed a lot of bats in the Pioneer League (11.76 K/9 in 46 2/3 IP), largely with a very lively fastball. He’ll need to improve his command (4.63 BB/9) and tighten up his secondary stuff, but the ingredients are all there for him to take a big step forward, perhaps with a move to full-season ball.
Mike Rosenbaum is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter at @GoldenSombrero.
Jim Callis is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow @jimcallisMLB on Twitter. Listen to him on the weekly Pipeline Podcast.
Jonathan Mayo is a reporter for MLBPipeline.com. Follow him on Twitter @JonathanMayo and Facebook, and listen to him on the weekly Pipeline Podcast.