It’s about to get real, people. Tomorrow is Opening Day, where all our hypotheses about which young players are ready to break out get put to the test. Who will be this year’s Ronald Acuña, or Juan Soto, or Shohei Ohtani?
In seeking to answer those questions, I caught a good ten days of Spring Training games and backfields in Florida and Arizona this month. From raw 17-year-olds like Ronny Mauricio and Marco Luciano to prospects knocking on the door like Cole Tucker and Mike Shawaryn; from the about-to-debut Pete Alonso to rookie Sandy Alcantara and sophomore Tyler O’Neill, I saw it all. Let’s start with those last two guys, each of whom has already had Major League success.
Standing about 5’10” and utterly jacked, Cardinals outfielder Tyler O’Neill showed off his power with 9 home runs and an .803 OPS in 61 MLB games as a rookie last year (142 PAs). Watch one swing and you immediately buy the notion of this man being a “power hitter.” However, the 23-year-old struck out 57 times to just 7 walks with St. Louis, whiffing in a stunning 40% of his plate appearances. For his minor league career, his BB-K ratio is 1 to 3. This spring, O’Neill has said his offseason focus was improving his contact ability, and he demonstrated that with 8 walks to 20 strikeouts in the Grapefruit League. My first day in Florida, (for a week-long trip shadowing an MLB scout), I saw #41 smoke this Kyle Dowdy fastball for a line-drive home run.
The key takeaway here is how simple O’Neill’s swing is and how effortlessly he generates power—he doesn’t look like he’s trying to hit a homer there, just stay balanced and make good contact. Since he doesn’t need a leg kick or big moving parts to access his power, he should be able to get his contact profile into more respectable territory. Cardinals starting corner outfielders Marcell Ozuna and Dexter Fowler both bear significant risk of injury and/or performance struggles, meaning O’Neill has a real chance at getting on the field more often than not in 2019…and doing damage.
On the pitching side, after young aces like Walker Buehler and Jack Flaherty, I really think 23-year-old Sandy Alcantara is a player to watch in 2019. In 34 innings with Miami last year, he walked an unsightly 23 batters, but only gave up 25 hits for a 3.44 ERA, striking out 30. At 6’4” with an easy, languid delivery, the Dominican righty creates downward plane and sink with his fastball, which touched 99 mph as a starter in ‘18 and 101 out of the pen in ‘17. Even on video, you get a feel for that downward angle as Alcantara K’s Michael Conforto looking.
#22 also has feel for the slider: he’ll throw a tight 89 mph variant and also a more sweeping version at 83 mph, both effective. The changeup is the key to completing his starter’s profile—he certainly showed potential with it in the Majors last year. Alcantara only threw a few in this spring outing, but I saw enough to believe he can develop the cambio to stay in the rotation. And while his control and command leave something to be desired, his 2018 walk rate was anomalous; through his minor league career, he’s walked slightly more than a batter every three innings, a workable rate. Alcantara makes his season debut in Miami March 31st against the Rockies.
Alright, let’s move on to some true prospects who are on the Major League doorstep. Pittsburgh shortstop Cole Tucker made his presence felt this spring, batting .389 with 4 extra base hits in 20 plate appearances and a 1.339 OPS. The 22-year-old Arizonan highlighted his burgeoning power with a 2-home run game (in 2 at bats!) against the Orioles, the second of which was a walk-off to right center field. The day before that special performance, I watched Tucker at Boston’s JetBlue Park in Fort Myers. While the homers against Baltimore came left handed, #3 showed off easy right-handed power with BP bombs over “The Spring Monster” to left and left-center.
A first round pick in 2014, Tucker has already proven that he’s a legit shortstop with a plus arm and plus speed (88 steals to 30 CS the past 2 seasons). After early season struggles in AA last year, he hit .273/.360/.411 with 33 walks to 44 K’s from July to the end of Altoona’s season (273 PAs). Riding that momentum, he wrapped up 2018 with a .370 AVG in the Arizona Fall League. Tucker is a strong, long-limbed athlete who creates great leverage for serious power, as displayed in BP. The next level for him is getting to that power in games, something he’s done a great job of this spring between the 2-homer game and 2 more bombs off Joe Musgrove on the backfields just yesterday. And no, this is not a joke: in the offseason, Cole plays drums in my rock ‘n’ roll cover band, Twice Baked Band. (I play bass and sing). Here’s a taste of some of the tunes we play, from an outdoor show this past December. Needless to say, it was great catching up after Cole’s game vs. the Red Sox. Keep your eyes out for #3 getting the call to Pittsburgh later this year.
Another prospect who was red hot this spring, Pete Alonso ended up batting .368 with 4 home runs and a 1.041 OPS. He looked so polished at the plate that Mets GM Brodie Van Wagenen is going to sacrifice a year of team control (Alonso’s age 30 season in 2025) to start the 24-year-old first baseman on Opening Day. I’ve seen a lot of Alonso between the AFL and now Spring Training, but you only need to see a few cuts in BP to appreciate his prodigious power.
Focusing on the nuances of Alonso’s swing as he took his hacks on a Port St. Lucie backfield, I was struck by how simple and repeatable it is. We see so many huge swings these days from hitters selling out for power: they'll yank their hands way back when loading up then lunge violently at the ball. But look how quiet Alonso's hands are. He just needs that little trigger as they come up at the last second before exploding forward. While he generates some of the highest exit velocities in baseball, he's not swinging out of his shoes, but following through with balance.
All that said, the thing that makes Alonso special is that he's not just a big-time slugger, but a good all-around hitter. Not only does he have power to all fields, (highlighted by this majestic bomb off a 103 mph Nate Pearson fastball in the AFL), but he knows when to take a line drive approach to get on base. I saw him hit line drives to left and right against the Nationals at Ballpark of the Palm Beaches.
And keep in mind, because of Alonso's tremendous strength, a lot of these liners end up in the gaps for extra bases—he hit 31 doubles in 132 games last year on top of his 36 bombs. Perhaps most important is his ability to change his approach depending on the count. He'll look to do damage when he's ahead in the count, but he shortens his swing and protects the plate with two strikes.
If you try to pull that pitch from Henderson Alvarez for a home run, you're probably striking out or bouncing it on the ground. Instead, Alonso goes down and pokes it out to right center to keep the Mets alive with 2 outs in the 9th. Finally, what you have to love about #20’s approach this spring is that he hasn't been content merely to rake at the plate—he's also put a ton of time into improving as a defender. I saw him work diligently on his defense during morning workouts, continuing his Arizona Fall League practice of using a middle infielder’s glove to take ground balls. Alonso will bat somewhere in the middle of the Mets lineup tomorrow against Max Scherzer for Opening Day in D.C.
Alright, time for some quick hits:
Boston’s 24-year-old righty Mike Shawaryn has succeeded at every level of minor league baseball and is ready to help the Major League team in 2019, in the rotation or in the pen. He’s put together two healthy seasons in a row since being drafted in the 5th round in 2016, reaching AAA last year for 36 innings of a 3.93 ERA. A starter thus far, the former Maryland Terrapin sports a career ERA of 3.57 with a 1.17 WHIP and 323 K’s in 299 innings. Shawaryn creates deception with his low 3/4s delivery, gets ahead with his 92 mph fastball, then puts hitters away with his plus slider—like this one to Brandon Nimmo. For a look at how Shawaryn sequences his pitches, watch him pick Dominic Smith apart in this 4-pitch AB.
Miami’s Lewis Brinson is a physical monster who moves well at 6’3”, 200+ lbs. But through 130 MLB games, the 24-year-old has just a .570 OPS. The biggest piece of the Marlins’ Christian Yelich return, Brinson batted .331 with 13 homers (.962 OPS in 340 PAs) in 2017 in the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League (AAA). I caught him pulling this Jason Vargas changeup through the hole for a single, but note the downside of Brinson’s being out in front: in his next at bat, he found himself in a terrible hitting position and struck out against Luis Avilan’s changeup. This season, keep an eye out for how well Brinson stays back on offspeed pitches—he’ll need to improve there in order to realize his potential.
Another piece of the Christian Yelich trade, 22-year-old righty Jordan Yamamoto is a less-heralded prospect who plenty of scouts see as simply lacking the stuff to make it in the bigs. Watching him in the AFL and Spring Training, I see such a good feel for pitching that he just might find his niche in MLB. Yamamoto aggressively sequences his 91 mph FB, sharp slider, changeup, and slow curve, as in this battle with Michael Conforto.
Two numbers stand out from Red Sox Bobby Dalbec’s 2018: 32 home runs and 176 strikeouts. In 129 games between A+ and AA, the 23-year-old third baseman got on base at a .361 clip and also hit 35 doubles for a .919 OPS…but you have to take note when someone K’s in 32% of their plate appearances. Listed at 6’4”, 225 lbs, he’s a bear of a man. Not someone you’d ordinarily think can stay at third, but I believe he will because of his plus arm. (In 2016 for UofA, he led all PITCHERS with 41 K’s at the NCAA tournament). Dalbec will always strike out a lot, but he offsets that with on-base ability and plus plus power. In BP at Port St. Lucie, he hit towering shot after towering shot deep onto the Mets’ berm in right field. He needs more development in the minors, but I think Dalbec ends up a good everyday third baseman.
White Sox outfielder Luis González was born in Mexico but went to high school in Tucson, AZ before attending the University of New Mexico. Drafted in 2017’s third round, he had a great full-season debut in 2018 batting .307 with 14 homers, 40 doubles, and an .866 OPS in 117 games between A ball Kannapolis and A+ Winston-Salem. Back in Arizona this week, I saw the 23 year old lefty single off Archie Bradley at Chase Field.
Winding down here, let’s look at a pair of 17-year-old Dominican shortstops, the Mets’ Ronny Mauricio and the Giants’ Marco Luciano. Mauricio is a special talent, a tall switch-hitter with smooth power from both sides of the plate. He was called up to Kingsport in the Appalachian League late last year, and even got into 5 MLB Spring Training games this March, racking up 3 singles, a walk, and 3 RBIs in 9 plate appearances. Watching his authoritative BP sessions, you can’t help but dream on what Mauricio will be in 5 years with an extra 20 pounds of muscle.
San Francisco went big to sign Luciano for $2.6 million this past summer, enamored with his live right-handed bat. Though he only has average speed, he is quick and coordinated with a chance to stay at short.
For those of you fantasy baseballers who play in dynasty leagues, these are two great pieces to add to your system. Mauricio has popped up on top 100 lists this spring so Luciano might be easier to acquire—though his big time signing bonus last summer still makes him far from an under-the-radar guy.
Finally, Eloy! A mountain of a man, the 22-year-old Dominican outfielder just signed a record six year, $43 million deal without even appearing in an MLB game yet. The jewel of the Jose Quintana trade, Jiménez hit .337 with 22 home runs in 108 games between AA and AAA last year for a .961 OPS. #74 will make his Major League debut in the White Sox Opening Day lineup tomorrow in Kansas City.
Well, there you have it. From hyped-up studs to relative unknowns, these are the young players I think you should follow this year and for years to come. Sound off in the comments with your takes on these prospects, and let’s see what surprises await us in 2019!
Follow Jacob on Twitter @thereeljz