Top Prospect Promotions Rumors

Astros To Promote Lance McCullers Jr.

Not long after bumping him up to Triple-A, the Astros have decided to advance pitching prospect Lance McCullers Jr. to the majors, the club announced. His first start will come on Monday against the Athletics.

McCullers, 21, is the son of seven-season big leaguer Lance McCullers Sr. He was taken in the sandwich round of the 2012 draft out of high school. Using some of the savings they achieved after taking Carlos Correa first overall — a somewhat controversial decision which has turned out nicely — the ‘Stros locked up McCullers with an above-slot, $2.5MM bonus.

The young righty fell off of top-100 prospect lists after last season — he had reached #50 on Baseball America’s list and was 52nd per MLB.com — when he struggled to a 5.47 ERA over 97 frames in his first action at the High-A level. The issue then, as it has been more generally, is control, as McCullers put up 10.7 K/9 but permitted 5.2 free passes per nine.

That led Baseball America to drop him to 11th on the Houston prospect list heading into the year. But BA did note that McCullers still have very high quality stuff, including a big fastball, outstanding breaking ball, and improving changeup.

As the big league call-up would indicate, things have come together this year. Houston saw enough to start him off at the Double-A level despite his youth and his tough year, and he rewarded that confidence with 29 innings of top-notch pitching. McCullers has permitted just two earned runs in that stretch, striking out 43 and walking only 11 hitters.

If he can stick at the big league level all year, McCullers would stand a good chance of qualifying for Super Two status. Of course, that is far from a given. It seems reasonably likely that Houston’s purpose here is twofold: first, and most importantly, to get a look and see whether McCullers can contribute at the big league level this year; and second, for their team and others to gauge his future value in weighing him as a trade piece.


Phillies Promote Maikel Franco

The Phillies announced this morning that they’ve recalled top prospect Maikel Franco from Triple-A Lehigh Valley, giving the power-hitting third baseman a second crack at the Majors after struggling in a late-season debut in 2014. Franco, 22, rated as Baseball America’s No. 56 prospect this offseason, also ranking 55th on MLB.com’s Top 100 and 96th on the Top 101 of Baseball Prospectus.

Maikel Franco

The Phillies seem intent on giving Franco a shot to become their everyday third baseman, as Cody Asche has already been sent down to Triple-A to work on transitioning to the outfield. That move, as well as Franco’s hefty .355/.384/.539 batting line in 33 Triple-A games helped pave the way for what seems to be a more serious look than the one he received in 2014. Last September, Franco split time Asche at third and with Ryan Howard at first, ultimately hitting just .179/.190/.214 in 16 contests.

Perhaps most interesting about Franco’s promotion, however, is the service time implication that comes along with it. The Cubs’ handling of Kris Bryant in Spring Training this season spurred a good deal of controversy, but the Phillies have effectively taken the same route with Franco. Last September, Franco accrued 27 days of Major League service time in his September cup of coffee. That service time means that he’d have needed just 145 days of service this season to reach the 172 days necessary to be credited with a full year of service time. The Phillies have, likely not in coincidental fashion, promoted Franco at a time when there are only 144 days of the regular season remaining. That means that he, like Bryant, will fall one day shy of a full year of service. Because of that, the earliest that Franco could be eligible for free agency would be following the 2021 season.

GM Ruben Amaro Jr. and the Phillies, of course, aren’t acknowledge that reasoning — no team would openly do so. In a similar manner to the way in which the Cubs’ front office sidestepped the service time factor, Amaro said of today’s promotion: “This was a baseball decision based on Maikel’s development and performance. We believe he is ready for the next step.”

That the Phillies waited to ensure they could delay Franco’s free agency is telling about their hopes for this promotion, however. Clearly, the Phillies believe that Franco is capable of holding down third base long-term; they’ve moved Asche to another position and, if they weren’t serious about this promotion being a long-term move, the service time considerations likely wouldn’t have factored so heavily into their thinking.

It’ll be interesting to see if Franco’s case generates anywhere near the level of drama that Bryant’s case did in late March/early April. That level of controversy admittedly seems unlikely, but Franco’s case nonetheless serves as another example that this type of service time manipulation is a relatively common practice when it comes to the game’s most highly regarded prospects. Looking at the view through the Phillies’ lens, one can hardly blame the team for being willing to give up 40 games of Franco in a rebuilding season in order to control him for an additional year (2021) when they hope to be in a better spot to contend.

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Mets To Promote Noah Syndergaard

The Mets will promote top pitching prospect Noah Syndergaard to start on Tuesday, GM Sandy Alderson told reporters today, including ESPNNewYork.com’s Adam Rubin (Twitter link). Righty Dillon Gee is headed to the DL with a groin strain, though the injury does not appear to be serious.

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Syndergaard, 22, is widely regarded as one of the very best prospects in all of baseball. The towering righty came to New York along with backstop Travis d’Arnaud in the deal that sent R.A. Dickey to the Blue Jays.

Since that trade, Syndergaard has shot up prospect boards by continuing to show a huge fastball, solid control, and quality secondary offerings, as Baseball America explained in rating him New York’s best minor league arm coming into the year. There is a clear industry consensus that Syndergaard is ready and able to be a quality big league pitcher: BA rated him the 11th best prospect in the game, with MLB.com (#10) and Baseball Prospectus (#9) concurring in the general assessment. Kiley McDaniel of Fangraphs is somewhat less bullish, but only slightly, as he rated Syndergaard just inside the top 20 while expressing some concern with the consistency of the youngster’s offspeed offerings.

Syndergaard has done nothing to tamper expectations so far in 2015. Over 29 2/3 frames at Triple-A Las Vegas, a tough place to pitch, he has a 1.82 ERA with 10.3 K/9 against 2.4 BB/9. That start to the year seems to answer any questions that might have cropped up after Syndergaard proved somewhat easier to score against than expected last year (4.60 ERA) in his first run at the highest level of the minors.

It remains to be seen, of course, whether Syndergaard will hold down a big league job this year. Certainly, the opportunity is there. While Gee has been as solid as usual, and the Mets have ample rotation depth even after losing Zack Wheeler for the year, the club’s strong 18-10 opening to the year only raises expectations and increases the importance of putting the best product possible on the field.

If Syndergaard is able to hold onto an active roster slot all season, he would set himself up for future Super Two qualification. But by keeping him down to start the year, the Mets would retain control over their prized young arm through 2021. Regardless of roster status, it is not likely that Syndergaard will spend the entire year putting up long outings at the big league level; he has yet to exceed 133 frames in a professional season, meaning the club will likely look to manage his innings.

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Padres To Promote Austin Hedges

The Padres will promote top catching prospect Austin Hedges, Dennis Lin of the San Diego Union-Tribune tweets. It’s uncertain how much he’ll play with the Padres, however, since their current starting backstop, Derek Norris, is in the midst of a strong season, and first baseman Yonder Alonso and the Padres’ outfielders have all played well too, so there’s nowhere else to move Norris (who has little big-league experience at any position besides catcher anyway). The team does have a brief series in Seattle next week that could allow Hedges to catch while Norris plays DH. Wil Nieves is the Padres’ current backup catcher, and Lin suggests Nieves could be designated for assignment, with Hedges taking over in a backup role.

Hedges is ranked as the No. 23 prospect in baseball by Baseball Prospectus, No. 50 by MLB.com, and No. 74 by ESPN’s Keith Law (Insider-only). Hedges’ defensive ability wins widespread acclaim from nearly all prospect analysts. MLB.com praises his receiving, arm, and potential game-calling ability, while Law notes that framing pitches should prove to be a strength as well. Hedges wins less praise for his hitting — he batted a weak .225/.268/.321 at Double-A San Antonio last year. He’s off to a much better start in 2015 for Triple-A El Paso this year, however (.343/.413/.552 in 75 plate appearances), and his strong standing among prospect analysts suggests he might be so valuable defensively that he won’t need to hit much.

If Hedges manages to stick in the big leagues, he’ll likely be in line to become eligible for arbitration as a Super Two player following the 2017 season. He could then become a free agent after 2021.


Reds To Promote Michael Lorenzen

The Reds will promote right-hander Michael Lorenzen to take a start on Wednesday, C. Trent Rosecrans of the Cincinnati Enquirer tweets. The 23-year-old was taken in the first round of the 2013 draft.

Michael Lorenzen

Lorenzen entered the season rated as the game’s 63rd-best overall prospect in the eyes of Baseball Prospectus, while Fangraphs’ Kiley McDaniel ranked him 88th. He was a position player and closer in college, and built up relatively few innings before jumping to 120 2/3 Double-A frames last year. But they were good ones: he posted a 3.13 ERA with 6.3 K/9 against 3.3 BB/9.

Thus far in 2015, Lorenzen has allowed just six earned runs over 19 innings covering three starts. He has just 12 strikeouts in that span, hardly a dominant rate, but has only permitted four free passes.

As McDaniel explains, Lorenzen has already pleasantly surprised with the rapidity of his development and may yet have some ceiling to strive for. The Reds will once again push him forward fairly aggressively, now by asking him to step in for the injured Homer Bailey at the game’s highest level.

If he keeps his roster spot for the rest of the year, Lorenzen will be in good shape to quality down the road for Super Two status. While that would obviously enhance his earning power, he would still be controllable for six seasons after 2015.

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Nationals To Promote A.J. Cole

The Nationals will call up righty A.J. Cole to start for the club tomorrow, Dan Kolko of MASNsports.com reports on Twitter. A starter was needed with Max Scherzer‘s scheduled appearance being pushed back due to a thumb injury.

Cole, 23, opened the year rated as a consensus top-100 prospect. Baseball Prospectus, in particular, is quite high on him, rating him 30th overall. MLB.com, which had Cole in the 52nd slot, praises his “easy velocity,” quality change, improving breaking ball, and overall approach.

It appears that this could be nothing more than a spot start for Cole, given the Nationals’ still-loaded rotation, but it will nevertheless represent his first big league action and first chance to accumulate some service time. In the off chance that he does stick on the active roster, he would be set up to qualify for Super Two status down the line.

Cole was drafted by the Nationals before being shipped to the Athletics as part of the Gio Gonzalez trade. He struggled in one season in the Oakland organization, and was then sent back to D.C. (along with Blake Treinen and Ian Krol) in the three-team swap that sent Michael Morse to the Mariners and John Jaso to the A’s.

He has regained his stock since, obviously, and reached the Triple-A level last year. Across 134 innings in the upper minors in 2014, Cole worked to a 3.14 ERA with 7.5 K/9 and 2.1 BB/9. He has been fairly dominant in three starts in the highest farm level this season, permitting just four earned runs and one free pass while striking out ten in 15 frames.


Cubs Promote Addison Russell

The Cubs have announced that top infield prospect Addison Russell has been promoted to the Majors.  To create roster space for the 21-year-old, Arismendy Alcantara has been optioned to Triple-A and Mike Olt has been transferred to the 60-day DL in corresponding moves.  Russell, usually a shortstop, will play second base, where the Cubs have struggled this season.

USATSI_8461249_154513410_lowresRussell was the No. 11 overall pick in the 2012 draft by the Athletics. He hit a combined .295/.350/.508 at the Class A+ and Double-A levels in 2014, spending part of the year in the Athletics’ system before they shipped him to Chicago as the key to the Cubs’ side of the Jeff Samardzija trade. He had been hitting .297/.308/.432 for Triple-A Iowa in a 39 plate appearances this season. Baseball Prospectus ranked Russell the No. 2 prospect in the game heading into the 2015 season, while Baseball America ranked him No. 3. MLB.com placed him at No. 5, praising his offensive game and noting that he’s received comparisons to Barry Larkin and Miguel Tejada.

The Cubs, of course, also recently promoted another top prospect, Kris Bryant, to play third base. The timing of Bryant’s promotion caused controversy due to the perception that the Cubs delayed his arrival so that they could control him for another season. Russell’s promotion could conceivably attract similar criticism, although he has less experience at Triple-A than Bryant and has not been nearly as dominant at that level. If anything, the Cubs could easily have postponed Russell’s promotion until June, which would have prevented him from being a Super Two player. If he sticks in the big leagues now, he will likely receive that designation, becoming arbitration-eligible for the first of four times starting in 2018 before becoming eligible for free agency following the 2021 season.

Nonetheless, Russell gives the Cubs yet another top young talent to go along with Bryant, Jorge Soler, and young veterans Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro. The Cubs’ future has looked very bright for quite some time, and now, with a team loaded with excellent young players and off to a strong 7-5 start, that future seems to be coming quickly.

Russell’s promotion was first reported by Jon Heyman of CBS Sports.

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D’Arnaud Fractures Hand; Mets To Promote Plawecki

The Mets suffered a pair of bad breaks as they extended their winning streak to eight games. Catcher Travis d’Arnaud and left-hander Jerry Blevins both suffered fractures in the 7th inning of the Mets’ 7-6 win over the Marlins: d’Arnaud’s right hand after being hit by a A.J. Ramos pitch and Blevins’ left forearm when struck by a liner off the bat of Dee Gordon. Mets GM Sandy Alderson announced the contract of catching prospect Kevin Plawecki will be purchased from Triple-A Las Vegas and right-hander Hansel Robles will be recalled from Vegas. A 40-man roster move is required to add Plawecki.

Plawecki is ranked 40th overall by FanGraphs’ Kiley McDaniel, 63rd by both Baseball America and MLB.com, and 80th by Baseball Prospectus. Manager Terry Collins told reporters after the game (as tweeted by ESPNNewYork.com’s Adam Rubin) Plawecki will become the Mets’ number one catcher in d’Arnaud’s absence. D’Arnaud told reporters, including Rubin, Plawecki is ready for his MLB debut. “He’s a great catcher, a great player, a really smart player. He can swing the bat really well. And he knows how to work with the pitching staff as well.

Drafted with the 35th selection in the 2012 draft (a free agent compensation pick obtained when the Marlins signed Jose Reyes), Plawecki is viewed as an offensive-minded catcher. MLB.com’s scouting report on Plawecki, however, gives him credit for having good hands and enough agility to block balls well, but believes the 24-year-old will never be the kind of backstop who can shut down a running game because of his average arm. Plawecki was hitting .229/.250/.343 in 36 plate appearance for Vegas before his call-up, though he hit a much more impressive .309/.365/.460 in 419 PA between Double-A and Triple-A in 2014.

The loss of both d’Arnaud and Blevins figure to test the Mets’ depth. While early, d’Arnaud had the makings of a breakout season with his line of .317/.356/.537 at the time of his injury. Defensively, d’Arnaud also stepped up his game throwing out three of the seven runners attempting to steal after catching just five all of last year. Blevins, meanwhile, has been death on left-handed hitters this season retiring all 14 he has faced. Alderson said a timetable for how long d’Arnaud and Blevins will be out will not be known until both are examined by hand specialists Monday.


White Sox To Promote Carlos Rodon

The White Sox will promote left-hander Carlos Rodon, the third overall selection in last year’s draft, tweets Ken Rosenthal of FOXSports.com. Rodon will join the team tomorrow and will initially pitch out of the bullpen, according to Rosenthal. The White Sox will need to create both a 25-man and 40-man roster spot for Rodon.

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The 22-year-old is considered the White Sox’s best prospect and, overall, one of baseball’s top prospects. The former NC State lefty is ranked eighth by FanGraphs’ Kiley McDaniel, 12th by ESPN’s Keith Law, 15th by both Baseball America and MLB.com, and 41st by Baseball Prospectus. Rodon made a steady rise through the Chicago organization after signing for a franchise-record $6.582MM bonus compiling a line of 2.96 ERA, 14.1 K/9, and 4.8 BB/9 in nine games (six starts) across three levels. This year, Rodon has struck out 13 against four walks in his two starts (10 innings) for Triple-A Charlotte after a strong camp in which he posted 21 strikeouts versus five bases on balls in 17 2/3 innings of work.

MLB.com praises Rodon as the best college left-hander since David Price and credits him with a wipeout slider that explodes on hitters with two-plane break. Baseball America also ranks Rodon’s slider as his top pitch rating it 70 on the 20-80 scouting scale (20 the lowest, 80 the highest, and 50 considered average).

News of Rodon’s promotion comes two days after the crosstown Cubs officially elevated their own prospect phenom and fellow Scott Boras client, Kris Bryant. Unlike Bryant, however, there was no hue and cry over Rodon’s failure to make the Opening Day roster (and resulting service time implications) as the White Sox shipped him to Triple-A to work on his fastball and changeup command. Also like Bryant, Rodon is now on track for Super Two status (assuming he is not returned to Charlotte) and will be eligible for arbitration four times, instead of the standard three, while qualifying for free agency after the 2021 season. The timing of Rodon’s call up, though, may be more about the schedule than service time considerations. MLB.com’s Phil Rogers tweets the White Sox’s next seven games are against division foes Cleveland and Kansas City and both teams have impact left-handed bats.

Of course, even though Rodon will begin working out of the bullpen, one would imagine that his move into the rotation is inevitable. John Danks and Hector Noesi currently occupy the final two spots in Chicago’s rotation, and while Danks’ contract may keep him in the starting mix, Noesi has struggled early on and already had a start skipped. The 28-year-old Noesi has a shaky track record, to say the least, and it’s not hard to envision a spot opening for Rodon sooner rather than later.

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Cubs To Promote Kris Bryant

The Cubs will promote top prospect Kris Bryant to the Major Leagues for tomorrow’s game against the Padres, reports Jesse Rogers of ESPN Chicago (on Twitter).

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The 23-year-old Bryant was the No. 2 pick in the 2013 draft out of the University of San Diego and entered the season ranked as MLB’s No. 1 prospect according to both Baseball America and ESPN’s Keith Law. MLB.com and Baseball Prospectus ranked the third baseman second and fifth overall, respectively.

The timing of Bryant’s promotion isn’t exactly a surprise. Chicago generated some controversy by beginning Bryant in the Minor Leagues this season, but the move made sense for the team in the long term. By keeping Bryant in the Minors for the season’s first 12 days, he’ll fall one day shy of accumulating a full year of Major League service this season. While that means he will assuredly qualify as a Super Two player and be eligible for arbitration four times instead of the standard three, it also buys the team an additional year of club control. At the end of the 2020 season, Bryant will have five years, 171 days of Major League service time — assuming he is not optioned back to Triple-A at any point — leaving him a day shy of being eligible for free agency. In simpler terms, the Cubs opted to delay Bryant’s promotion by 12 days in order to extend their control over the phenom for an additional season.

Of course, the Cubs won’t acknowledge that as the reason for Bryant opening the year in Triple-A, nor should they. While the motives behind the decision are widely known, coming out and saying it would provide concrete fuel for a grievance from Bryant and agent Scott Boras. As MLBR’s Tim Dierkes noted earlier today, some teams have taken the plunge and allowed top prospects to break camp with the club, but it’s rarely, if ever, worth it for the team from a baseball standpoint. And there are plenty of other prospects who not-so-curiously open the year in Triple-A only to be promoted once enough time has passed to extend the team’s control by a year or to potentially prevent a player from reaching Super Two designation and entering arbitration an extra time.

While in some cases, the whole situation is mitigated by agreeing to a long-term contract that extends into a player’s free agent seasons, that was a highly unlikely outcome with the Boras-represented Bryant. Boras typically encourages his players to go year-to-year through the arbitration process and test free agency as early as possible. While there are a few notable exceptions, including Jered Weaver, Carlos Gonzalez and Carlos Gomez, the Cubs likely knew that their odds of controlling Bryant beyond the 2020 season without ponying up on a sizable free agent contract were slim. Boras outspokenly challenged the Cubs on their spring decision with Bryant, noting that it makes little sense for the team to claim it is trying to win while leaving a young player who could very well be one of the best on the team. In fact, in Boras’ mind, the question was not one of why Bryant may have to begin the season in the Minor Leagues, but rather one of why Bryant wasn’t promoted last September when rosters expanded.

From a statistical standpoint, it’s hard to say that Boras doesn’t have a case. Bryant annihilated Minor League pitching in 2014, hitting a ridiculous .325/.438/.661 with 43 home runs in 138 games between Double-A and Triple-A. This spring, he batted .425/.477/1.175 with nine home runs in 40 at-bats. And to begin the year in Triple-A, Bryant hit .333/.379/.625 with a pair of homers in 29 plate appearances — and that was before going deep with a three-run homer tonight. The Cubs cited a need to work on his defense, and president of baseball operations Theo Epstein accurately noted that he’s never had a prospect break camp out of Spring Training if it meant making his Major League debut on Opening Day. That reasoning appeared questionable at the time and looks transparent when juxtaposed with the convenient timing of his promotion, though the Cubs can point to the fact that both Mike Olt and Tommy La Stella are on the disabled list, creating a need at third base.

Bryant figures to step into an everyday role at third base or, potentially, in a corner outfield spot with the Cubs, hitting in the heart of their order. Few doubt that he’s ready to hit Major League pitching right now, and he adds to the Cubs’ growing young core. The Cubs are hoping that Bryant, along with the likes of Jorge Soler, Anthony Rizzo, Starlin Castro and Addison Russell, among others, will lead the team back to prominence and break a World Series Championship drought — the Billy Goat curse — that spans more than 100 years. The team spent aggressively this offseason to add Jon Lester to the top of a rapidly improving rotation that also features breakout star Jake Arrieta, and expectations are high already in 2015. Many are expecting the Cubs to make the playoffs this season, and Bryant would be a vital component of a playoff berth. In the unlikely event that the Cubs miss the playoffs by a single game, there will unquestionably be some second-guessing about the decision to hold Bryant in Triple-A to begin the year.

Whether or not one agrees with the Cubs’ tactics, they are not the first, nor will they be the last team to employ this method with a highly regarded prospect. There are clear long-term benefits from a baseball operations standpoint, and it’d be hard to justify having brought Bryant north with the team, in retrospect, at the end of the 2020 season if he were eligible for free agency entering his age-29 campaign.

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