This week, we (mostly) delve deeper into the minors to examine some fast-rising future stars.
Five Big Hype Prospects
Gunnar Henderson, 20, 3B/SS, BAL (AAA)
(AA) 208 PA, 8 HR, 12 SB, .312/.452/.573
Few prospects have done more to improve their stock than Henderson. Coming off a passable but unspectacular 2021 season, Henderson has torched minor league pitching. Since earning a promotion to Triple-A, he’s continued to punish opposing pitchers to the tune of .286/.500/.536 with two home runs in 40 plate appearances. He also has 12 walks against just five strikeouts. In Double-A, he posted 19.7 percent walk and 18.3 percent strikeout rates.
His outlandish performance to date is backed by scouting observations. I spoke with Orioles Director of Player Development Matt Blood prior to the season, and he specifically highlighted Henderson as someone who has turned the corner mentally. Last year, Henderson had some of the markers of passivity – namely a high walk rate, high strikeout rate, and a modest swinging strike rate. This season, he’s reportedly improved upon his selectivity, punishing pitches in the zone while continuing to spit on those outside the zone.
Henderson currently ranks 45th on the MLB Pipeline Top Prospects List. At this rate, he’ll soon join the Top 10 – unless he races to the Majors before the listmakers have time to adjust. The folks who curate your favorite prospect list tend to be quite conservative about upgrading guys based on a partial-season breakout, and with reason! We’ve seen many players post astronomical half-seasons only to later resume a more ordinary development path.
Michael Harris II, 21, OF, ATL (MLB)
70 PA, 2 HR, 2 SB, .328/.357/.537
To the best of my knowledge, Harris was the third position player to be promoted straight from Double-A to a Major League starting lineup this season. The first, C.J. Abrams, was overexposed in the Majors. Cubs utilityman Christopher Morel looks right at home in the big leagues. So too does Harris.
Harris makes low-angle contact with an all-fields approach. He’s also making frequent hard and barreled contact. Both rates are above league average as measured by Statcast. Taken together, he has the traits of a high batting average hitter. Where he seemingly lags is plate discipline. He’s taken a swing-happy approach in his first exposure to the Majors. He’s especially prone to offering at pitches outside of the zone. His in-zone swing rate is only a hair above league average. His contact rate is roughly league average too. In other words, his aggression hasn’t proven costly. Yet.
It’s not uncommon for physically gifted prospects to reach the Majors, perform surprisingly well, then slump once scouting reports adjust. In Harris’ case, scouts are going to advise a bevy of breaking balls out of the zone. If he plunges into a slump, he might get a belated taste of Triple-A. If he adjusts quickly or otherwise holds his own, then he’s probably here to stay.
Harris is the midst of an eight-game hitting streak over which he’s batting .433/.469/.800 with both of his home runs and steals.
Elly De La Cruz, 20, 3B/SS, (A+)
222 PA, 12 HR, 17 SB, .304/.351/.594
If you haven’t already heard about De La Cruz, expect to see his name appearing in more and more articles. Scouts love his build – he has light-tower power, near-elite speed, and a cannon of an arm. He already makes some of the loudest contact in the minors. While he’s mostly worked at shortstop, there’s an expectation he’ll eventually move to third base or perhaps even center field.
A prospect of De La Cruz’s ilk always comes with caveats. His plate discipline can be (generously) described as questionable. His current 6.3 percent walk rate is a marked improvement over the 4.8 percent rate he posted last season. Meanwhile, his 30.6 percent strikeout rate is right in line with his previous performance.
Given his current contact profile, he could fall into a Javier Baez-like mold. Or perhaps Oneil Cruz is the better comp. After all, they’re both physical mutants who might stick at shortstop. Cruz happened to post similar numbers as a 20-year-old in High-A, then held his own in Double-A later that year. Cruz even had questions about his plate discipline. The Reds have no incentive to rush De La Cruz, but he should sniff the upper minors in the coming months.
Matt Brash, 24, SP/RP, SEA (AAA)
19 IP, 3.32 ERA, 15.16 K/9, 5.21 BB/9
Brash entered the season in the Mariners rotation, dazzled in his debut, then proceeded to walk the world. I recall watching that first outing and worrying what would happen when hitters stopped swinging at his breaking balls out of the zone. He didn’t show any sign of being able to command anything within the strike zone. Sure enough, it quickly became a problem. The Mariners made the decision to demote him from the Major League rotation straight to the Triple-A bullpen. A relief role offers a more direct path for pitchers with Brash’s combination of filthy stuff and poor command.
Signs are pointing in the right direction. After some initial command-related struggles, Brash has shoved over his last 10 appearances. His 10-inning scoreless streak dating back to May 25 includes just five hits and two walks compared to 16 strikeouts. He once again appears to be ready for prime time. Unfortunately for him, the Seattle bullpen is fairly robust and will soon need to make way for Ken Giles (who happens to be flailing in his rehab assignment). Brash may need to await a couple injuries to reclaim a role.
George Valera, 21, OF, CLE (AA)
236 PA, 10 HR, 2 SB, .291/.398/.513
Expectations for Valera vary greatly depending on the source. I’ve seen Cleveland fans compare him to Mike Trout. I’ve also seen open skepticism about his hit tool. His performance this season hasn’t exactly supported either of these extreme interpretations. Instead, he seems to be trending as a steady regular outfielder.
Statistically, Valera works counts and runs a tolerable 11.6 percent swinging strike rate. That’s helped him to around a 23 percent strikeout rate any time he’s settled into a level. His strikeout rate tends to spike above 30 percent when he moves up a level. He’s seemingly nearing a promotion to Triple-A. We should probably expect another temporary surge in strikeouts when it happens. His pattern of struggling then dominating each rung of the minor league ladder is reminiscent of Jo Adell. Valera’s discipline should serve to ensure some kind of big league role.
Zack Gelof, OAK (22): A 2021 draftee, the Athletics promoted Gelof straight from Low-A to Triple-A last season where he held his own in a 13-plate appearance trial. They assigned him to Double-A this season. He’s hit .315/.372/.458. Gelof recently tore the labrum of his non-throwing shoulder and could miss the bulk of this season depending on the treatment plan.
Jackson Chourio, MIL (18): Every season, there’s one teenaged prospect who catches the imagination of every prospect watcher. Last year, it was De La Cruz. This season, it’s Chourio. Scouting reports abound with praise for the young outfielder. He’s currently swatting .347/.394/.599 with six home runs and five steals in 160 plate appearances. It’s uncommon for well-rounded athletes to show this much power as an 18-year-old. Chourio is a long way from the Majors, but his path is already paved. He just has to stay on it, and walk the remaining miles.
Andrew Painter, PHI (19): Painter made a mockery of the complex league, posting a 1.40 ERA with 16.06 K/9 and 3.72 BB/9. He’s shown advanced feel for a pitcher his age. FanGraphs’ Eric Longenhagen notes how well he combines a high, arm-side fastball with a biting slider. He also throws a curve and changeup, both of which lag behind his two primary offerings. He’ll need to develop those in order to stick in the rotation. Painter was recently promoted to High-A.
Bobby Miller, LAD (23): A flamethrowing right-hander, Miller has experienced mixed results in Double-A. He’s posted a 4.60 ERA with 9.57 K/9 and 3.26 BB/9. There’s a Hunter Greene-ish feel to Miller. His fastball runs over 100-mph with regularity, but certain characteristics cause it to play down. There’s relief risk here, especially if the Dodgers don’t trade him. They have the resources to use him in whichever role provides the most instant gratification.
Noelvi Marte, SEA (20): Last week, I observed that a sliver of the shine has come off Marte. A prominent writer reached out for my sources, and I realized I’d misplaced the relevant comment. I’ll do a better job sourcing my material going forward. Presently Marte is putting up slightly better than average production as one of the youngest players in High-A. He remains an exciting prospect.