With the regular season coming to an end later this week, we’re using this — the season’s final edition of Prospect Watch — to hand out 10 accolades. Let’s get right to it.
As is often the case, there were numerous compelling candidates for this spot, including Royals shortstop Bobby Witt Jr. and Mariners outfielder Julio Rodríguez — and those are just the best candidates among the “top prospects.” There are multiple right answers, but we felt obligated to highlight one hitter. For us, that one is Rutschman. He hit .283/.397/.514 with 23 home runs and nearly as many walks (76) as strikeouts (83) across Double- and Triple-A. Oh, and he did it while providing above-average defense behind the plate. Rutschman will play in the majors next season, albeit likely not until after the Orioles have suppressed his service time to their liking. Still, the No. 1 pick in the 2019 draft remains on track to become a star.
2. Pitcher of the year: Grayson Rodriguez, RHP, Orioles
Yes, another Oriole. Rodriguez reached Double-A in June and didn’t miss a beat. He struck out 39 percent of the batters he faced while holding the opposition to one run or fewer in 11 of his 18 starts. That’ll play. Rodriguez has a power pitcher’s frame and a fleshed-out arsenal that includes a big fastball and an improved changeup. As with Rutschman, he seems likely to reach the Show sometime in 2022. Rodriguez, by the way, was the final first-round pick made by Dan Duquette’s administration.
Volpe, New York’s first-round pick in 2019, had a pedestrian introduction to pro ball. He atoned for it this season by hitting .294/.423/.604 with 27 home runs and 33 stolen bases across two levels. Volpe’s underlying quality of contact also improved, suggesting his breakout is more legitimate than not. Among minor-league hitters with at least 400 plate appearances this season, he ranked third in on-base percentage; third in slugging; and first in FanGraphs’ wRC+ metric.
4. Biggest riser, pitcher: Taj Bradley, RHP, Rays
Again, there were any number of candidates for this spot. We’ll give the nod to Bradley because he had the lowest ERA (1.83) of any minor-league pitcher with at least 100 innings. He has a starter’s frame and a good fastball. It’s to be seen if he can improve either his slider or his changeup enough to have a second plus offering. Bradley’s strikeout and walk rates remained close to static after an August promotion to High-A, which seems like a promising sign. The real test, Double-A, likely awaits him next summer.
5. Biggest surprise: Matt Brash, RHP, Mariners
The Mariners acquired Brash from the Padres last summer in exchange for reliever Taylor Williams. While Williams has since been designated for assignment after throwing six innings for the Padres, Brash has emerged as a legitimate starting prospect who could reach the majors next season. (Oops.) In 10 starts at the Double-A level, he struck out more than 10 batters per nine and reduced his walk rate to under four per nine. Brash, whose delivery looks like someone trying to mimic Max Scherzer from memory, has a high-quality fastball-slider pairing. His health and command will remain under scrutiny, but it looks like the Mariners committed a heist.
Downs, a jack-of-all-trades middle infielder, was the key piece of the Mookie Betts trade for the Red Sox. Back in the spring, he seemed certain to become Boston’s starting second baseman by the summertime. Instead, he spent the season at Triple-A, hitting just .187/.269/.331 with an alarming 32.4 percent strikeout rate. That is, as baseball people are wont to say, not what you want. Downs is only 23 and he has enough of a track record to give him another year, but it’s fair to have some concern.
7. Comeback players of the year: MJ Melendez, C; Nick Pratto, 1B, Royals
Is it too cutesy to give this honor to a pair of Royals? Maybe a touch; we just can’t help but marvel at the turnarounds authored by Melendez and Pratto. Both had miserable seasons at High-A back in 2019: Melendez hit for a .571 OPS with a K rate nearing 40 percent, while Pratto had a .588 OPS. This year, though, they’ve redeemed themselves while splitting the season between Double- and Triple-A. Melendez has a .999 OPS and a K rate below 22 percent, and Pratto has a .968 OPS with good first-base defense. Witt (justifiably) receives most of the attention paid to Royals prospects, but he won’t be the only rookie who figures into their 2022 lineup in a big way.
The pandemic’s shuttering of the minor-league season last year meant that most draftees had to wait until this year to make their professional debut. For our money, the two individuals who made up most for lost time were Spencer Torkelson and Max Meyer, or the Nos. 1 and 3 picks in 2020. Torkelson hit .262/.378/.533 with 27 home runs across three levels (he scuffled, understandably so, during his time at Triple-A). Meyer made 21 starts between Double- and Triple-A, posting a 2.38 ERA and striking out more than 28 percent of the batters he faced. Both should debut in the majors in 2022.
9. Best organizational year: Rays
The Rays aren’t going to have the best farm system in baseball entering next spring, but this season has been a high note all the same. All of their affiliates were in their respective league’s postseasons, and they’ve graduated several important pieces of the big-league roster, including wunderkind infielder Wander Franco and hard-throwing lefty Shane McClanahan. Add in Shane Baz, who could make his presence known heading into the playoffs; the emergence of the aforementioned Taj Bradley (among others); and the Rays have to be happy with their minor-league year.
10. Worst organizational year: Cubs
We’re not going to bemoan this too much because of the circumstances, but the Cubs’ 2020 draft class has had a suboptimal introduction to pro ball. First-round shortstop Ed Howard has a sub-.600 OPS; second-round reliever Burl Carraway has walked 46 batters in 35 innings; and so on. It’s too early to give up on anyone, and the Cubs did infuse their minor-league system with a good amount of talent at the trade deadline. Still, it hasn’t been the most fun summer for Cubs fans in any respect.