We all know the risks when it comes to pitching prospects, as you just never know when the next highly regarded pitcher will go down due to Tommy John surgery (or another issue). Even among the Top 15 there are some players currently working their way back (and while we want to assume that they will return just as good as they were before, is it really guaranteed? With that caveat in mind, let’s take a look at how the rankings currently look:
|Rank||Player||Current Team||Current Grade|
|1.||Forrest Whitley||Houston Astros||A|
|2.||Jesus Luzardo||Oakland A's||A|
|3.||Brandon McKay||Tampa Bay Rays||A-|
|4.||Dustin May||Los Angeles Dodgers||A-|
|5.||Ian Anderson||Atlanta Braves||A-|
|6.||A.J. Puk||Oakland A's||A-|
|7,||Kyle Wright||Atlanta Braves||A-|
|8.||Alex Reyes||St. Louis Cardinals||A-|
|9.||Sixto Sanchez||Miami Marlins||A-|
|10.||Mitch Keller||Pittsburgh Pirates||B+|
|11.||Dylan Cease||Chicago White Sox||B+|
|12.||MacKenzie Gore||San Diego Padres||B+|
|13.||Michael Kopech||Chicago White Sox||B+|
|14.||Touki Toussaint||Atlanta Braves||B+|
|15.||Justus Sheffield||Seattle Mariners||B+|
|16.||Brent Honeywell||Tampa Bay Rays||B+|
|17.||Brusdar Graterol||Minnesota Twins||B+|
|18.||Tristan McKenzie||Cleveland Indians||B+|
|19.||Casey Mize||Detroit Tigers||B+|
|20.||Matt Manning||Detroit Tigers||B+|
|21.||Michael Soroka||Atlanta Braves||B+|
|22.||Hunter Greene||Cincinnati Reds||B+|
|23.||Jonathan Loaisiga||New York Yankees||B+|
|24.||Chris Paddack||San Diego Padres||B|
|25.||Adrian Morejon||San Diego Padres||B|
|26.||Jon Duplantier||Arizona Diamondbacks||B|
|27.||Bryse Wilson||Atlanta Braves||B|
|28.||Matthew Liberatore||Tampa Bay Rays||B|
|29.||Brailyn Marquez||Chicago Cubs||B|
|30.||Griffin Canning||Los Angeles Angels||B|
1) Forrest Whitley – Right-Handed Pitcher – Grade – A
No one is going to question the upside of Whitley, though 2018 was virtually a lost season for the potential ace. Not only did he serve a 50-game suspension, but he had two separate stints on the DL that limited him to 26.1 innings at Double-A. When on the mound there’s no questioning his ability to miss bats (60 K over 41.0 IP at Double-A) and at 6’7” he’s shown surprisingly solid control. Groundballs could be an “issue”, with a minor league career 0.81 GO/AO over 137.1 IP, but opponents need to be able to make contact for that to become a problem. As long as he can stay healthy he should make his MLB debut in 2019 and he has all of the makings of an ace.
2) Jesus Luzardo – Left-Handed Pitcher – Grade – A
With Puk sidelined Luzardo took the position as the team’s top prospect. Pitching across three levels, including four starts at Triple-A, he posted a 2.88 ERA, 1.09 WHIP, 10.62 K/9 and 2.47 BB/9 over 109.1 IP. He did struggle at Triple-A, with a 7.31 ERA over 16.0 IP, but he’s also just 20-years old so you have to give him a little bit of a pass.
Pitching in Oakland his 47.1% groundball rate would be more than enough, especially when paired with his control and ability to miss bats (14.6% SwStr%). He brings elite stuff and should continue to move quickly up the organizational ladder. Being left-handed only helps, and he should arrive this season and instantly make an impact.
Brandon McKay – Left-Handed Pitcher – Grade
The Rays appear determined to continue allowing McKay to work both as a pitcher and hitter, and you have to wonder if that will ultimately have an impact on the speed of his development. He certainly showed all of the skills we like to see on the mound, over 78.1 IP:
- Strikeouts – 11.83 K/9 (courtesy of a 16.9% SwStr%)
- Control – 1.61 BB/9
- Groundballs – 44.3%
He is more advanced as a pitcher, as he hit .214, though he did show an ability to make consistent contact with a 7.0% SwStr%. If he can develop both aspects of his game, and the results at the plate start to catch up to his ability on the mound, the upside will be tremendous. Even as just a starting pitcher there’s a lot to like, however.
Dustin May – Right-Handed Pitcher – Grade
When you look at an 8.28 K/9 over 132.2 IP, split between High-A (98.1 IP) and Double-A (34.1 IP), you may ignore May as a potentially elite pitching prospect. However just looking at the secondary numbers should get you excited:
- Walk Rate – 1.97
- Groundball Rate – 54.9%
Now consider that his 11.3% SwStr% indicates significantly more strikeout potential and that he didn’t turn 21 until September and it’s easy to see the true upside. Listed at 6’6” there’s little question that he can hold up to a full workload, and the fact that he already has strong control just adds to the profile. He could conceivably arrive as soon as 2019 and become a rotation fixture in 2020. Don’t make the mistake of overlooking him, as the value should grow quickly.
Ian Anderson – Right-Handed Pitcher – Grade
Anderson, selected third overall in 2016, spent the bulk of his time at High-A last season (100.0 IP) but also made four starts at Double-A (19.1 IP) and impressed across the way with a 2.49 ERA and 1.14 WHIP. He clearly has strikeout stuff, with a 13.3% SwStr% leading to a 10.71 K/9. The questions are about his control (3.70 BB/9) and ability to keep the ball in the ballpark (46.0% groundball rate). Both of those things are going to be key as he continues to advance up the ladder, though he’s thus far developed as expected since being drafted out of high school.
There’s still a bit of question, with the control being the biggest, but he won’t turn 21-years old until May and is still developing/harnessing his stuff. That’s expected to come and this season could be the real tipping point. If he turns that corner, with how aggressive Atlanta has been with their pitching prospects, he should arrive in 2019.
A.J. Puk – Left-Handed Pitcher – Grade
He missed all of 2017 due to Tommy John surgery, and while that’s going to delay his arrival it doesn’t change the outlook. With that in mind, it makes sense to simply re-publish what we said about him last year because nothing has changed (except for a little bit more risk as fully returning from Tommy John surgery is never a given):
When you look at his 4.03 ERA and 1.25 WHIP over 125.0 IP between High-A and Double-A you are going to be somewhat disappointed. However a .361 BABIP and 63.6% strand rate show that there was a lot of poor luck behind the numbers. Just look at these key numbers:
- 13.25 K/9
- 3.46 BB/9
- 15.6% SwStr%
- 44.5% groundball rate
The groundball rate is more than enough, especially getting to pitch half his games in Oakland. The upside is there to be one of the elite starters in the game and it could come quickly. There’s even a chance that he gets to make his MLB debut before 2018 is over, especially since he’ll turn 23 early in the season and has already spent significant time at Double-A (64.0 IP).
Kyle Wright – Right-Handed Pitcher – Grade
Selected fifth overall in 2017 Wright has moved quickly, including pitching out of the Atlanta bullpen in September. It certainly was a justified rise, as he pitched well at both Double-A (109.1 IP) and Triple-A (28.2 IP):
- Strikeouts – 8.67 K/9
- Control – 3.33 BB/9
- Groundballs – 53.7%
The control hasn’t been great thus far, though that has always been viewed as a positive. There’s also upside in his strikeout rate, with an 11.8% SwStr% and reports that he owns a quality four-pitch mix. It will be interesting to see how hard Atlanta pushes him, but he should be able to throw around 175 innings this year and could open with a spot in the Atlanta rotation.
8) Alex Reyes – Right-Handed Pitcher – Grade – A-
We all know the potential of Reyes, who has shown flashes in the past. The problem and concern is strictly about his health, as he’s virtually lost the past two seasons due to significant injuries:
- Tommy John surgery
- Torn lat muscle
How will that much lost time impact him, at least in the short-term, remains to be seen. The upside is there to develop into an elite starter, it’s just a matter of him staying on the mound.
Sixto Sanchez – Right-Handed Pitcher – Grade
Sanchez has emerged as one of the best pitching prospects in the game, though an elbow injury ended his season in June (after just 8 starts and 46.2 IP). When he was on the mound he was just as good as he’s ever been, posting a 2.51 ERA and 1.07 WHIP at High-A while displaying all of the skills we look for (8.68 K/9, 2.12 BB/9, 52.3% groundball rate).
There is no questioning the potential, the issue now is his health (and to an extent his ability to hold up to a full workload, listed at 6’0” and 185 lbs.). How big of an issue the elbow turns out to be remains an unknown, though the concerns grew larger after he skipped the Arizona Fall League due to a “setback”. As of today the expectations are that he’ll be healthy ahead of the start of the 2019 season, but until we actually see him on the mound and taking the ball every five days we’ll have to take a wait and see approach. The move to Miami could prove to be beneficial, as it is a more pitcher friendly ballpark, but the health still needs to be proven.
10) Mitch Keller – Right-Handed
Pitcher – Grade
If the Pirates were a bit more aggressive with the promotion of their prospects it’s highly likely that Keller would’ve already arrived, though he did struggle after being bumped to Triple-A last season (4.82 ERA over 52.1 IP). While at least part of it was poor luck (61.7% strand rate at Triple-A), there are a few trends that we have to be concerned about:
|Level||Walk Rate||Groundball Rate||Line Drive Rate|
The control was a regression from last year regardless (2.48 BB/9), so that’s a bad sign. Maybe he needs to adjust to Triple-A so we don’t want to push any panic button. The upside remains tremendous and it’s easy to call him one of the elite pitching prospects in the game, and one who should arrive by mid-year.
11) Dylan Cease –
Right-Handed Pitcher – Grade
If Michael Kopech wasn’t sidelined due to Tommy John surgery he might be the White Sox top pitching prospect… Might is the key word, because it’s hard to overlook the numbers Cease posted last season split between High-A (2.89 ERA over 71.2 IP) and Double-A (1.72 ERA over 52.1 IP):
- Strikeouts – 11.61 K/9
- Control – 3.63 BB/9
- Groundballs – 48.7%
You could argue that the strikeout potential is even greater, considering a 15.5% SwStr%. There are going to be questions about potential home run issues (he’s listed at 6’2” and hadn’t shown quite this type of groundball rate before). He also faces control questions, though last season’s mark was a promising step in the right direction. All he needs to do is continue this path, while continuing to improve his changeup, and you will get a top of the rotation arm.
12) MacKenzie Gore – Left-Handed Pitcher – Grade – B+
The third overall selection in 2017, don’t let a 4.45 ERA over 60.2 IP at Single-A concern you. A 10.98 K/9 and 2.67 BB/9 are both impressive, and a .352 BABIP and 63.6% strand rate show just how poor his luck was. He won’t turn 20 until February and it’s easy to envision his stuff gaining steam as he matures physically and gains experience. He was drafted highly for a reason and don’t be surprised if he starts showing everyone why in 2019.
Michael Kopech – Right-Handed Pitcher – Grade
There has always been one significant question hanging over Kopech, his control. While he did reach the Majors last season he continued to show questions about his ability to throw consistent strikes (4.3 BB/9 at Triple-A, 4.4 over his minor league career). There are potential home run troubles (38.6% groundball rate at Triple-A), and while that’s not uncommon for hard throwers (and there may be no one who throws harder) it’s still something to monitor.
Kopech now faces another question, as he works his way back from Tommy John surgery that will sideline him for 2019. We like to think that all pitchers are going to return without any issues, but that isn’t a guarantee. While he should be an impact starter, that’s a risk that can’t be ignored.
Touki Toussaint – Right-Handed Pitcher – Grade
Toussaint showed the ability to generate strikeouts at each level he played last season, including a cup of coffee in the Majors:
- Double-A (86.0 IP) – 11.20 K/9
- Triple-A (50.1 IP) – 10.01 K/9
- Majors (29.0 IP) – 9.93 K/9
With a 12.3% SwStr% in the minors there should never have been a question in that regard. The issue has been whether or not he could harness that stuff and improve his ability to throw strikes. While a 3.50 BB/9 in the minor leagues isn’t going to blow you away, it’s a positive step (3.97 BB/9 in ’17) and shows his development. Even if he simply maintains his current rate the stuff will play well in the Majors, but any further improvement would elevate him even further.
Justus Sheffield – Left-Handed Pitcher – Grade
Sheffield made three appearances out of the bullpen for the Yankees last season (2.2 IP), but he should get an opportunity to slot into the rotation for the rebuilding Mariners. Splitting time between Double and Triple-A last season he posted a 2.48 ERA and 1.14 WHIP while showing impressive strikeout stuff (12.4% SwStr% leading to a 9.54 K/9). That’s not to say that there aren’t questions, however:
- Control – 3.88 BB/9 (3.68 over 88.0 innings at Triple-A)
- Groundballs – 43.8%
Throw in being listed at 6’0″, shorter than generally desired for a starting pitcher, and there is some risk though he will benefit from getting out of Yankee Stadium and the AL East. There’s no questioning the upside, it’s just a matter of overcoming the obvious risks.
Sources – Fangraphs, MLB.com, MILB.com, Baseball Reference
Make sure to check out all of our 2019 Top 10 Prospect Lists: