Minor Leaguers to watch from AL East in '21

May 6th, 2021

"What's next?" Those words were the oft-repeated refrain of the fictional President Jed Bartlet from television's "The West Wing," indicating that he wanted to keep the momentum going and was prepared for whatever lay ahead. Fans of every Major League team frequently ask a similar question: "Who's next?"

Whether your team is a postseason favorite or a long shot, there is excitement in wondering aloud which players will receive a knock on the doors of their Minor League hotel rooms, informing them that the big league club needs their services now.

Here is one player from each American League East club who is on track to make it to the Majors this year and could play an important role:

Blue Jays: RHP Nate Pearson (No. 1 prospect, No. 10 overall)

Pearson was never expected to open the season in the Minor Leagues, but after a right adductor strain cost him the latter half of Spring Training, the right-hander needed to use the month of April to build back up as a starter. His recent rehab games weren't the sharpest, so Pearson will open the year with Triple-A Buffalo. And like any other pitcher on the Bisons' roster, he'll need to earn his promotion to the Majors.

Toronto's top prospect has the talent to do so, and when you consider the injuries to the Blue Jays' rotation and their need for upside, Pearson is a perfect fit. With a fastball that regularly touches 100 mph and breaking pitches that can be used in any count, it's easy to project his long-term success. But Pearson will need to stay healthy and find his consistency first. It wouldn't be surprising to see him throw 100 innings in the big leagues this year.
-- Keegan Matheson

Orioles: 2B Jahmai Jones (No. 19 prospect)

The Orioles are already receiving contributions from Ryan Mountcastle and Dean Kremer, and they have seen glimpses of Ryan McKenna and Zac Lowther so far this season. So let's go with Jones, who was acquired in early February in the Alex Cobb deal and but struggled with significant playing time in Grapefruit League action. He will begin the year at Triple-A Norfolk and, along with Richie Martin, constitute the lion's share of the Orioles' upper-level middle infield depth.

The Orioles view Jones, a converted outfielder, primarily as a second baseman. That's also their Major League position of greatest need. Jones profiles as more of a long-term fit, earning high marks for his athleticism and plate discipline. He'll probably need to show he can hit at Triple-A, having leapfrogged the level briefly with the Angels in 2020, but Jones could be in Baltimore soon.
-- Joe Trezza

Rays: SS Wander Franco (No. 1 prospect, No. 1 overall)

It's not a bold prediction to say that Franco, baseball's top Minor League talent for two years in a row, is the prospect to watch in the Rays' system. But it's especially true with Franco beginning the season at Triple-A Durham. Even with his upside, the 20-year-old switch-hitter will need game action against upper-level pitching after not playing in games last year and skipping Double-A.

It stands to reason that Franco could be ready to help the Rays' inconsistent lineup by the middle of the season -- and what a boost he could provide. If he takes well to bouncing around the infield at shortstop, second and third base, there should be plenty of paths to playing time for Franco, in addition to his 80-grade hit tool and his emerging power at the plate.
-- Adam Berry

Red Sox: CF Jarren Duran (No. 3 prospect, No. 98 overall)

Duran has been on the radar ever since his strong showing in Spring Training of 2020. Though there was no Minor League season last year, Duran continued to impress with his array of skills at the alternate training site and during winter league in Puerto Rico. This spring, Duran looked like he had taken his game to another level, adding more power in particular.

A left-handed hitter, Duran has drawn comparisons to a young Jacoby Ellsbury, albeit with more power. Given the lack of production the Red Sox have received in the outfield, Duran could be called up after getting some at-bats at Triple-A Worcester. Boston has also lacked production from the leadoff hole this season, another area where Duran could help.
-- Ian Browne

Yankees: RHP Clarke Schmidt (No. 2 prospect, No. 78 overall)

Expected to contend for a rotation spot coming into this season, Schmidt was sidelined for all of Spring Training due to a common extensor tendon strain of his right elbow -- a relatively rare injury for pitchers, akin to tennis elbow. Schmidt watched with a mix of envy and frustration as the Yankees went north, but the 16th overall selection in the 2017 Draft appears to be back on track.

Kevin Reese, the Yankees' senior director of player development, said that Schmidt looks "fantastic" in his rehab, adding, "I do believe he will be able to help us at some point this year in the big leagues." The 25-year-old strike-thrower made his debut last September with New York, appearing in three games (one start). He was also included on the Yanks' postseason taxi squads for their series against the Indians and Rays.
-- Bryan Hoch