Every batter has a low success rate; squaring up a fastball is the most challenging endeavor in sports. However, player development has an even lower success rate than a strikeout-prone slugger. Most minor leaguers never make it to the big leagues, and most prospects flame out before they reach their ceiling. Everyone is always looking for the Next Big Thing, but Mike Trout and Jacob deGrom don’t come around very often. Some prospects have bigger obstacles than others in their quests for playing time. Here is a player at each position who faces a big-league roadblock:
Pitcher: Dustin May, Dodgers
Just about every team is in constant search for quality pitching, so when a top prospect bubbles up from the minors, there’s almost always a spot. That’s not the case in Los Angeles. Right-hander May debuted last August as a starter, achieving a stellar 2.82 ERA through 22 ⅓ innings in that role. However, the team’s enviable pitching depth shunted him in the bullpen down the stretch. After some early struggles, he didn’t give up a run after September 1.
He enters the 2020 season ranked as the 23rd-best prospect in baseball by MLB Pipeline, and he’s ready to take on big-league hitters now with his mid-90s heater and razor-sharp cutter. Nearly any other team in MLB would gladly write him into their rotation with permanent marker, but the Dodgers already have more quality starting pitchers than they can use. Clayton Kershaw, Walker Buehler, David Price and Julio Urías have guaranteed spots. If Alex Wood gets the fifth-starter gig, Ross Stripling and Tony Gonsolin are shunted to the bullpen, even though they could be mid-rotation starters on a different team. All of the above pitchers conspire to keep May in Triple-A for now.
Catcher: Keibert Ruiz, Dodgers
Sticking with the Dodgers, May’s Oklahoma City battery mate will likely be Ruiz. The 21-year-old backstop spent most of 2019 in Double-A. He’s a gifted defender behind the plate, lauded for his quality pitch framing. The switch-hitter isn’t a huge power threat but has the potential to hit for a decent average. That should be more than enough offense for a quality defensive catcher to earn a starting job, and MLB Pipeline ranks him No. 73 overall on their board.
Ruiz isn’t quite fully cooked yet. It usually takes a long time for catchers to develop their offensive skills -- especially if they swing from both sides of the plate. Nevertheless, he’s already reached the highest levels of the minors at a very young age (he played nine games in Triple-A last year). The problem is that Will Smith, the most exciting young catcher in baseball, sparkled in his debut last year. He slashed .253/.334/.571 with 15 home runs in 54 games, seizing the starting job in late July. Smith’s presence not only relegates Ruiz to the minors a little longer, but to either a backup role or trade bait long term.
First Base: Dominic Smith, Mets
We’re cheating a little, as Smith is no longer a prospect. The Mets’ slugger was a consensus top-100 prospect prior to the 2017 season, but struggled at the plate and failed to earn the starting first base job in 2017 or 2018. It’s hard to imagine this looking back, but just over a year ago he was in a playing time battle with Pete Alonso. Suffice it to say that Smith lost decisively, as his competitor broke the MLB rookie record and Mets season record with 53 home runs en route to the NL Rookie of the Year.
Lurking in the enormous shadow of Alonso, Smith delivered a mini- breakout of his own. He slashed .282/.355/.525, bashing righties and lefties with equal ferocity (albeit in a small sample size). For lack of a better option, the Mets tried him out in left field, even though he never played anywhere other than first base as a professional before 2018. The results were pretty ugly, but at least he proved he can hit. A trade to a first base or DH-needy team would make sense; Alonso surely isn’t going anywhere.
Second Base: Brendan Rodgers, Rockies
Prospect fatigue is the concept of hearing about a player for so long that they’re no longer exciting. Rodgers was the third overall pick in the 2015 draft out of high school. MLB Pipeline ranked him a top-15 prospect each year from 2016-19 as he steadily climbed the minor league ladder. Along the way, he switched positions, as Trevor Story became a star at his natural shortstop. He finally broke the surface last year, but struggled in his major league debut, then injured his shoulder in July.
While some of the shine has faded- he’s now ranked No. 29 on MLB Pipeline. The second base job that has been waiting for him since his draft day ought to be his by rite. Now, we’re not so sure. Two other former prospects have laid claim to the position. Ryan McMahon is a natural third baseman (blocked by Nolan Arenado) with a big home run swing. Garrett Hampson is a speed-and-defense threat who hit for high average and stole tons of bases in the minors. When D.J. LeMahieu walked away after 2018, Rodgers should have been cleared for landing. A year later, he’s in a three-way dogfight.
Third Base: Jonathan India, Reds
When a team drafts a corner infielder in the top five, they expect him to absolutely hit. India hasn’t ripped the cover off the ball since being drafted out of the University of Florida in 2018, but he has drawn lots of walks, and his latent power potential still remains. He’ll spend 2020 in the high minors, but a major league appearance isn’t out of the question.
Unfortunately, half the Reds’ starting lineup are natural third basemen. Eugenio Suárez has a stranglehold on the position, coming off a 49-home run season. He has a contract running through at least 2024. Former prospect and top draft pick Nick Senzel was in India’s shoes not long ago, and has had to learn to play the outfield and second base. This offseason, the Reds signed Mike Moustakas to play the keystone, despite 1,047 MLB games at third and only 47 at second. Even Nick Castellanos, who was signed to play right field, came up as a third baseman. The organization experimented with India at other infield positions, but it seems like all the other logical options are already plugged by converted third basemen (plus Joey Votto at first base).
Shortstop: Royce Lewis, Twins
Lewis hasn’t disappointed since being selected first overall in the 2017 draft. The do-it-all athlete won the Arizona Fall League MVP in 2019, hitting .353/.411/.565. He enters the season as the No. 9 prospect in baseball according to MLB Pipeline, portending future stardom.
How do you crack a lineup that swatted 307 home runs -- and then added free agent Josh Donaldson? Not easily. Lewis’ natural position is occupied by Jorge Polanco, fresh off his first All-Star selection with a contract carrying through at least 2023. Lewis jumped around to second base, third base and center field in the Arizona Fall League, but Luis Arrzez, Donaldson, and Byron Buxton stand in his way. Lewis’ elite speed begs for an up-the-middle position, but there are no vacancies at the moment.
Left field: Dylan Carlson, Tyler O'Neill, Cardinals
The Cardinals have a situation this year that is similar to the 2019 Mets’ first base dilemma. In two partial seasons, slugging former prospect Tyler O’Neill has failed to seize the left field job. Praising his 68 home runs in 235 Triple-A games would be a backhanded compliment. He turns 25 in June, so there’s still time for him to establish himself as a major league power threat, if not for…
21-year-old Dylan Carlson obliterated Double-A and Triple-A pitching last year, charging hard for St. Louis. Now ranked No. 17 overall by MLB Pipeline, he is a better athlete than O’Neill with superior defense and contact ability as a switch-hitter. If his breakout proves legitimate, there will be no stopping his ascension. Only one of these players can claim the lineup spot, so the other will remain blocked.
Center field: Jo Adell, Angels
There are probably about 1,000 outfielders in the minor leagues, so to be considered the second-best prospect at the position is truly an outstanding accomplishment. Ranked No. 6 overall at MLB Pipeline (Luis Robert is No. 4), Jo Adell has all the makings of a future star. He slashed .289/.359/.475 across three levels last year, reaching Triple-A as a 20-year-old despite missing two months to injuries.
All that’s stopping him is the absolute greatest player of our lifetimes. Mike Trout just earned his third MVP and his eighth consecutive top-five MVP finish. It’s amazing to think that he’s still only 28 and just passed Ken Griffey, Jr. on the JAWS leaderboard (a metric for evaluating Hall of Fame candidates). With left field locked down by Justin Upton’s massive contract, right field looks like the best path to playing time for Adell.
Right field: Alex Kirilloff, Twins
Alex Kirilloff is one of the best pure hitters in the minor leagues. Ranked No. 32 by MLB Pipeline, the 22-year-old has a career .317/.365/.498 slash line in the minors despite Tommy John surgery and wrist injuries in his recent past. His left-handed stroke should allow him to hit for average and power.
Just as we asked with Lewis, how do you crack a lineup that swatted 307 home runs? 36 of them came from Max Kepler’s bat, and his contract runs through at least 2023. Kiriloff was deployed at first base quite a bit last season in Double-A, but Josh Donaldson’s signing will move Miguel Sanó’s power bat to the cold corner.
DH: Nick Solak, Rangers
Sometimes it takes more than pure athleticism to play baseball. Nick Solak is a former second-round pick, listed at 5-foot-11 and 190 pounds. He’s hit at every level for three different organizations, including a 33-game stint in the majors last season. While he’s not a huge base-stealer, he runs reasonably well. For whatever reason, he just never found a defensive home. His natural position is second base, but he’s also tried third base and the outfield without much success. His real position is simply “hitter.”
Of course, “hitter” is the primary position for a handful of Rangers. Shin-Soo Choo is the designated hitter, which means Solak and fellow defensively challenged youngster Willie Calhoun have to make their way in the field ... somewhere.
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