The 2020 calendar year took a lot away from a lot of people, but in the world of Major League baseball nobody lost more than the minor leaguers. The entire minor league season didn't happen at all, and while some top prospects got to participate at their parent club's alternate site, it was not the same as playing in real games. Provided this ends up being a normal season, the year of lost development bears watching when it comes to rookies potentially making an impact in the year ahead. Let's look at one prospect from each team who's yet to make their big league debut that could have the greatest impact on his club in 2021.
Gil finished the 2019 season pitching for the Yankees A+ team in Tampa, but as a member of the team's 40-man roster he was able to at least spend 2020 at the alternate site rather than on his couch. In 20 total minor league starts in '19, the big righty posted a strong 2.72 ERA in 96 innings while striking out 123 hitters and holding opponents to a .207 batting average. The number that really jumps off the page looking at Gil's numbers is his home run rate, as he's served up only SEVEN long balls in over 200 career innings. He'll probably begin 2021 in AA, but on a Yankees team desperate for impact starting pitching, don't be surprised if he ends up skipping AAA all together.
Had he not lost the 2020 minor league season, Downs very well could have put himself in position to potentially begin 2021 with the big club. Even with the way things stand, don't be shocked if he works his way onto the Fenway Park infield sooner rather than later. Downs was Boston's prize return in their controversial trade with the Dodgers that sent Mookie Betts to the west coast, and while it's a tough ask, they're hoping he can blossom into the type of player that can ease the fanbase's frustrations a little. Across two levels of LA's system in '19, the 22-year-old slashed .333/.429/.688 with 24 homers and 86 RBI. A natural shortstop, Downs will have to shift to second in the big leagues, as the Red Sox have Xander Bogaerts locked up long term at position number six.
Wander Franco is the best prospect in all of baseball, but there's no guarantee he plays for the Rays in 2021. On the other hand, Baz was the final piece of Tampa Bay's heist of the Pirates in the now infamous Chris Archer trade from a few trade deadline's ago. Pittsburgh's 1st round back back in 2017--#12 overall I should add--joined Austin Meadows and Tyler Glasnow in heading from western Pennsylvania to western Florida in the trade that just keeps on giving. The latter two are already cornerstone pieces of a team that just won the American League pennant, and in 2021 Baz should establish himself the same way. In 17 minor league starts in '19 the righty pitched to a 2.99 ERA with a 1.23 WHIP, while blowing away well over a batter/inning and surrendering only five home runs. The Rays love to get creative with the pitchers, and while he might start out as an opener or potentially a reliever, Baz should become an integral part of this pitching staff in short order.
The Blue Jays acquired Woods Richardson from the Mets at the 2019 trade deadline in a swap that sent their ace, Marcus Stroman, to Queens. In six starts for Toronto's A+ affiliate in the Florida State League following the deal, the righty really impressed his new organization. In 28.1 innings he finished with a 2.54 ERA and 29 strikeouts, while allowing only one home run and holding opposing hitters to a .182 batting average. After spending all of 2020 at the 'Jays' alternate site, the team has high hopes for him in '21 and beyond. It's unclear exactly if his long term future is in the rotation or the bullpen, but either way Toronto hopes he can become an important piece of their pitching staff sooner rather than later.
The Orioles system is pretty strong, and while they could certainly get contributions from pitcher DL Hall and catcher Adley Rutschman in 2021, the guy best positioned to make an immediate impact for them is the 24-year-old Diaz. The right handed slugger came to Charm City in Baltimore's high profile trade with the Dodgers that sent Manny Machado to LA, and the O's hope he can become a middle of the order type hitter for them in the near future. In 76 games for Baltimore's AA team in '19 Diaz hit .262 with 11 homers and 53 RBI, while adding 19 doubles and four triples, and racking up 135 total bases.
The Tribe selected Jones in the 2nd round of the 2016 draft, and he's quickly ascended all the way to the top of their prospect rankings. Splitting the '19 campaign between Cleveland's A+ and AA teams, Jones slashed .272/.409/.442 with 40 extra-base hits. While his defense was a weakness at one point, he's made steady strides at the hot corner, and with a left handed power bat that could routinely produce 30+ home runs, the Indians have a lot to be excited about. The only potential roadblock is that Cleveland's current third baseman--Jose Ramirez--is one of their best players. Should Jones hit enough to force the team's hand early in 2021 though, the Tribe feel he has enough athleticism to debut in a corner outfield position if need be.
The Southsiders selected big left handed slugging Sheets in the 2nd round of the 2017 draft, and it shouldn't be long until his tremendous raw power is doing damage at the big league level. In AA in 2019 the 24-year-old hit .267 and reached base at an impressive .345 clip, while crushing 16 homers and driving in 83 runs. Chicago has another elite first base prospect in Andrew Vaughn, but with reigning AL MVP Jose Abreu entrenched at position number three in Chicago, both Sheets and Vaughn's easiest path to making a difference is the DH spot.
A couple of years ago back in 2018, Kirilloff was probably the most impressive player across any minor league level. In 130 games the left handed swinger slashed a dominant .348/.392/.578 with 20 home runs, 44 doubles, seven triples, and 101 RBI. His '19 campaign was partially derailed by injuries, and we all know how 2020 went. But as we get set for 2021 the Twins have incredibly high hopes for their 2016 1st round pick. A hot offensive start early in the season could force Minnesota to bring his bat to the big leagues, and when he makes it to the Twin Cities he's probably never going back.
The Tigers have been picking towards the top of the draft for several years now, and it's time for some of their high picks to start making a difference at the game's highest level. Casey Mize debuted last summer, and this year it will be Manning's turn. Detroit selected the big 6'6 righty 9th overall in 2016, and entering '21 he's got himself knocking on the door of the Majors. In 24 AA starts in '19 Manning was brilliant, going 11-5 with a 2.56 ERA and an 0.98 WHIP, while holding opponents to a .192 batting average and striking out 148 hitters in 133.2 innings. The Tigers have visions of Mize and Manning becoming one of the AL's top 1-2 pitching duos for years to come, and they hope 2021 can be the start of something special.
Lee is an absolute burner, and if he can hit enough he should have an exciting future. In a full AA season in 2019 Kansas City's 3rd round pick from the 2016 draft slashed .264/.363/.372 with eight homers and 51 RBI. His greatest strength is without question his speed, as his eye opening 53 stolen bases in 129 games really jump off the page. Lee spent all of last summer at the Royals' alternate site, and had they been in contention he probably would've earned a promotion as a pinch-runner at minimum. If he can get off to a strong start swinging the bat in 2021 Kansas City could look to get him to the big league level and let him wreck havoc with his legs.
The Angels selected Marsh in the 2nd round of the 2016 draft, and his time to make a difference at the game's highest level has arrived. In 96 games in AA in '19 the left handed swinging outfielder hit .300 and reached base at a .383 clip, and while he homered only seven times, the Halos are confident more power will come as he fills out. Los Angeles intended for Marsh to play in AAA a year ago, and while he didn't get to do that--instead spending the summer at the Angels' alternate site--the team still believes he can reach the big leagues rather quickly in 2021.
Allen is a skilled defensive shortstop whom the A's selected in the 3rd round back in 2017. Early in his professional career his bat was noticeably behind his glove, but in his last full campaign in '19 that began to change. In 72 games he slashed ..292/.363/.434 with 30 extra base hits and 13 stolen bases. While the 22-year-old is likely to begin 2021 in AA, with Marcus Semien likely departing via free-agency Oakland is going to have a vacancy at position number six, and Allen could potentially end up filling that hole.
Whitley has been Houston's top prospect for a while now, and it's somewhat surprising he hasn't made his big league debut yet. The big right hander was the Astros' top pick in the '16 draft, but his professional path has been a bumpy one. After ascending quickly early in his career, a 50-game suspension for violating the league's drug program completely derailed his '18 campaign. A shoulder problem in 2019 caused command problems and led to an insane 44 walks in 59.2 innings. Entering 2021 Whitley is kind of out of excuses, and this is going to be a really important season for him.
Look away, Mets fans. The Mariners brought the uber talented Kelenic to the pacific northwest in their blockbuster trade with New York that sent Edwin Diaz and Robinson Cano to Queens while also importing starting pitcher Justin Dunn. And let's just say this is one the Mets would like to have back. In his first year in Seattle's system Kelenic ripped through three minor league levels, slashing ..291/.364/.540 with 23 homers and 68 RBI. He added 31 doubles, five triples, and 20 stolen bases, showing that he can truly be every bit of the five tool player scouts projected him to be ahead of the 2018 draft. Seattle had him at their alternate site during the 2020 season and he nearly earned a promotion last summer. Expect to see him early in 2021.
Walker is not the highest ranked Texas prospect--in fact MLB.com has him listed 12th--but in terms of making an immediate impact in 2021 he is probably the most likely candidate. In 120 games at the A level of the White Sox organization in 2019 the young outfielder slashed .284/.361/.451, with 10 homers, 36 doubles, and 13 steals. The Rangers acquired him from Chicago in exchange for Nomar Mazara last winter, and had 2020 been a normal campaign he probably would have conquered the AA level. That's probably where he'll begin the upcoming season, but a hot start could have him moving up quickly.
Atlanta's impressive system just continues to churn out dynamic pitchers, and Muller is poised to become the next name to know. The Braves took the southpaw in the 2nd round back in 2016, and he's steadily improved every year of his professional career. In '19 the Texas native pitched to a 3.16 ERA with a .208 batting average against in 22 starts at the AA level. In 111.2 frames he punched out 120 hitters, and expect to hear a lot about him during spring training.
New York has a rapidly improving farm system but most of their elite prospects are still in the lower levels. Which means the most likely player to make an impact on the Mets' big league roster in 2021 is Szapucki, who would have arrived in Queens well before now had he not first suffered from a shoulder impingement and then needed Tommy John surgery early in his professional career. In 2019 he pitched for three of the Mets' affiliates, topping out in AA, and impressed, working to a 2.63 ERA with a 1.22 WHIP. In a career high 61.2 innings he struck out 72 hitters and held opposing batters to a .214 average. New York will surely add pitching this winter, but on a team that struggled mightily on the mound in 2020 there could be an opportunity waiting for Szapucki at some point in the near future.
Like the Mets, the Nationals have several higher ranked prospects than their member of this list, but they're all in the lower levels of their system. Which leaves the left handed Cate in prime position to be their most impactful rookie in the year ahead. In 26 outings in 2019 the 23-year-old was very impressive, turning in a 3.07 ERA and winning 11 games across two Washington minor league levels. An eye opening number on Cate's stat line in his home run rate, as in just under 200 career innings as a pro he's surrendered only 11 long balls.
Maton was Philadelphia's 7th round pick back in 2017, and '21 is shaping up to be the youngster's most important season as a pro. The Phillies shortstop from a year ago, Didi Gregorius, is currently a free-agent, and with the big club's future at the position in question, Maton has a chance to put his name in the conversation. In 2019 he hit .266 with seven homers and 51 RBI, while adding 17 doubles, three triples, and 12 stolen bases across two minor league levels. This summer he got a chance to impress the Major League coaches at Philly's alternate site, and while he'll likely begin 2021 in AAA, look for him to earn a promotion quickly if he can get off to a good start.
Entering the 2019 draft Bleday was considered perhaps the top offensive prospect available, and the Marlins were immensely excited he was still available at pick #4. The left handed slugger didn't disappoint in his introduction to the professional ranks, hitting .257 with three homers in 38 games for the Marlins A+ affiliate in the Florida State League in 2019. He spent this past summer at Miami's alternate site where Major League personnel continuously raved about his development. Look for Bleday to begin 2021 in AA, but he could find himself playing right field at Marlins Park rather quickly.
Chicago signed Amaya, a Panama native, for a whopping $1 million as a 16-year-old in 2015, and they're soon going to start reaping the benefits of that investment. In his last full season in '19 the young backstop hit just .235, but don't be fooled, his offensive season was actually quite strong. Amaya reached base at a .351 clip while crushing 11 home runs, doubling 24 times, and driving in 57 runs. Defensively he gunned down 35% of would be base-stealers while showing steady improvement as a receiver. All of that was for the Cubs' A+ team in the Carolina League, and while Chicago will probably debut him in AA in 2021, he could soon force his way to the Windy City as Willson Contreras' back-up.
Gorman was the Cardinals 1st round pick in 2018, and in two full minor league seasons he's effectively validated St. Louis' decision to select him. In 188 games as a pro the left handed swinging third baseman has slashed .263/.345/.483 with 32 homers, 43 doubles and 106 RBI. Defensively he doesn't have the best range but he does possess a plus arm, and the Cardinals are confident he can be their long term third baseman in the very near future. He should start this season in AA, but his bat could conceivably force St. Louis to promote him early in 2021.
The Brewers selected Feliciano with the 75th pick in the 2016 draft, and he has a chance to bring the sort of stability behind the plate that this team hasn't been able to enjoy since Jonathan Lucroy had a seven year run as their starter. In 116 games for Milwaukee's A+ team in '19 Feliciano hit .273 with 19 home runs and 81 RBI. He added 25 doubles and four triples, and while he'll always be a bat first player, he's not a liability behind the dish. The Brewers will probably start him at AA this season, but it's entirely possible he'll climb the latter to the big leagues in a hurry.
The right handed hitting India was the 5th overall pick in the 2018 draft, and while his minor league numbers have been average thus far, the Reds still have confidence he can become a dominant offensive force in the big leagues. In '19 India split the campaign between A+ and AA, slashing .259/.365/.402 with 34 extra-base hits. Cincinnati is anxious to build on a successful 2020 season, and India is going to play an important role in their future. He's currently blocked at third base by Eduardo Suarez, but the Reds think he is athletic enough to slide to 2nd base if he had to. That's if he stays. With Cincinnati entertaining making a run at big names on the trade market like Francisco Lindor it's basically a given India would have to go the other way in a potential deal.
Pittsburgh went a league worst 19-41 in the truncated 2020 season, and the 2021 season should bring plenty of opportunities for young players like Swaggerty. The Bucs selected the left handed swinging outfielder 10th overall in 2018, and he's steadily risen through the club's minor league ranks since. In a full season for Pittsburgh's A+ affiliate in Bradenton in '19, Swaggerty slashed .265/.347/.381, and while he hasn't hit a ton of home runs, the Pirates believe those will come as his body fills out. Even without the long ball he does possess enough weapons to hurt you in a variety of ways offensively, however. In the 2019 campaign the Alabama native doubled 20 times and stole 23 bases, and look for him to get a chance to patrol the PNC Park grass sometime next summer.
The primary reason the defending World Series champions have enjoyed such a sustained run of success is their incredible ability to draft and develop impact players. Every year the Dodgers debut rookies that are not only ready to contribute, but play important roles on contending teams. Headed into 2021, it would be a good idea to start remembering Josiah Gray's name. The big righty was actually not drafted by Los Angeles, instead coming west in a blockbuster trade with the Reds almost two years ago, but he's been absolutely dominant in the Dodgers' system. In 2019 Gray went 11-2 with a 2.28 ERA and a 0.99 WHIP, while blowing away 147 hitters in 130 innings. He topped out in AA that year, and had '20 resembled anything close to a normal season he may have joined the big league club down the stretch.
Gore was the number three overall pick in the 2017 draft, and while the Padres have been one of baseball's most active traders in recent years, the lefty has been emphatically off limits in discussions. And for good reason. In 43 starts as a pro he's turned in a 2.56 ERA with a 1.01 WHIP and a .201 batting average against. In '19 he was quite honestly the best pitcher in minor league baseball, posting a 1.69 ERA in 101 innings en route to being named MLBPipeline.com's Pitcher of the Year. He finished that season in AA, and the Friars will likely begin him in AAA this spring. Look for him to force his way into the big league rotation in short order.
The Giants have seemingly been desperate for reliable outfield play for several years now, and even with the recent emergence of Mike Yastrzemski, they still need help out on the grass. And their first round pick from the '17 draft is just about ready to provide it. In 102 games in 2019 Ramos slashed an impressive .290/.369/.481 while blasting a career high 16 homers and driving in 55 runs. He spent last summer at San Francisco's alternate site, and slated to begin the upcoming campaign in AAA he could make his way to the Majors in short order.
Vilade was Colorado's top pick in the 2017 draft, and in the very near future he's going to play an important role in this organization. He's spent his entire professional career on the left side of the infield bouncing between short and third, and the Rockies are about to have a ton of uncertainty at those positions at the big league level. Shortstop Trevor Story is set to be a free-agent at the end of the year, and superstar Nolan Arenado is signed long-term at the hot corner, but his contract has a player opt out after '21.Should one or both depart in the near future, Colorado will count on Vilade to pick up the slack. In a full season at the Rockies' A+ affiliate in Lancaster in '19, the 21-year-old opened eyes, hitting .303 with 12 homers and 71 RBI. He added 27 doubles, 10 triples, and even stole 24 bases. He will very likely become the next in a long list of successful Coors Field hitters, despite the pressure that will come with replacing all-star caliber talents.
Bukauskas was a first round pick of the Astros that moved to Phoenix in the high profile trade that sent Diamondbacks' ace Zack Greinke to Houston. Early in his professional career the righty was having no issue validating his high draft status, as during his first two seasons he easily breezed through the lower levels of the Astros system. Things took a turn in AA in 2019, however. In 20 games for Houston's affiliate in Corpus Christi he was struggling, pitching to a 5.25 ERA in 85.2 innings, and that number went up even higher after the trade. His strikeout numbers have always been off the charts, and even were during his difficult season in '19, leading some to believe he'd be better off in the bullpen long term. The Diamondbacks haven't resorted to that line of thinking though, and plan to give Bukauskas every opportunity to reestablish himself as a top starting pitching prospect in '21 with the hope of seeing him at Chase Field before year's end.
Justin Mears is a freelance sports writer from Long Beach Island, NJ. Enjoys being frustrated by the Mets and Cowboys, reading Linwood Barclay novels, and being yelled at by his toddler son. Follow him on twitter @justinwmears.