Did you know that Kris Bryant isn’t going to start the year with the Cubs? Did you? It’s understandable if you didn’t, barely anyone’s talked about it. Of course, it’s not like Bryant’s two weeks in baseball purgatory are going to stop him from wrecking his way to the Rookie of the Year award (his 28.6 K% at Triple-A might). But who cares about Kris Bryant besides, you know, everyone? Kris Bryant is boring. So are Carlos Rodon, Jorge Soler, Joc Pederson…we know these guys are probably going to be really good. Baseball starts pretty much right now, so I don’t blame you for not wanting to read yet another 3000 word soliloquy espousing the virtues of the Church of Bryant.
To me, what’s far more interesting when it comes to rookies and prospects are the guys who come up after the All-Star break and provide a much-needed shot in the arm to a team looking to reach the postseason. Or, conversely, they act as a source of hope for the future for the fans of a team that won’t be playing in October. These are your Tyler Matzek - types, your Mookie Betts and your T.J. House. They don’t come up after they do their two weeks of time in the minors for service time reasons, these are players that break in because of injuries or genuinely need more time to develop. We’re the chess club of the baseball world, so these are the guys that pique our interest. Who will surface in 2015 to give us something to dream on? Let’s meet them in ascending order of must-watch TV potential.
Jameson Taillon, RHP
Taillon was the second overall pick in the 2010 draft behind Bryce Harper and ahead of Manny Machado, so that should say something about the man’s talent right away. He likely would have been in the big leagues last year had he not injured his UCL and gone under the knife for Tommy John surgery. In his last bit of professional play in 2013, he started 20 games at Double-A (3.46 FIP, 8.65 K/9) before making six starts at Triple-A (3.18 FIP, 9.00 K/9). Those Triple-A numbers don’t mean a ton, but his pedigree leads one to believe that if he’s healed up well he could be a fine mid-to-back-end starter. Steamer 600 says that 150 Major League IP from Taillon (which obviously won’t happen) would result in 1.4 WAR, and Kiley McDaniel ranks him third on the Pirates prospect totem pole. He may not get more than a cup of coffee in September as Pittsburgh eases him back into a full workload, but Taillon’s debut will be a spectacle of sorts and a glimpse into 2016.
Kevin Plawecki, C NYM
The Mets have good prospects besides pitchers, and one of them is Plawecki. He profiles as a solid two-way backstop with good-but-not-great tools across the board. At Double-A he trounced the opposition at a .326/.387/.487 (.385 wOBA) clip in 249 plate appearances, and then slowed down somewhat (.283/.345/.421, .340 wOBA) once he got a taste of the more advanced arms at Triple-A. Plawecki should get a handle on them shortly and before long be knocking on the door at Flushing, but here’s the thing. Travsi d’Arnaud turned an offensive corner last year, and his own combination of offense and defense makes him a valuable piece for a Mets team that has aspirations of contention. Finding playing time for Plawecki could be difficult, and the Mets front office might be loath to give him Major League seasoning in a backup role. d’Arnaud is also something of an injury risk, which could be Plawecki’s ticket to Queens. He ranks first among Mets prospects (yes, ahead of Noah Syndergaard) in projected WAR for 2015, and let’s take a look at his beautiful swing.
Robert Refsnyder, 2B NYY
The Yankees are currently running Stephen Drew out at second base, which would cause one to think that Refsnyder will be up out of the minor leagues rather quickly. One of the Yankees’ hyped prospects du jour, Refsnyder ascended through the minors last year by hitting .318/.387/.497 with 14 homers between Double-A and Triple-A, and then proceeded to mash in Spring Training to the tune of .357/.460/.548. Steamer 600 even says he could produce 2.1 WAR over a full season’s worth of plate appearances. Service time issues be damned, why is Refsnyder not the Opening Day second baseman?
Well, at the risk of sounding like Theo Epstein, he’s being sent down to work on his defense. Refsnyder is a recent convert to the keystone from the outfield, where he was the 2012 College World Series MVP for Arizona. He’s still prone to rushing his defensive plays at second base, and because of that he’s committed a gaggle of errors just this spring. He’s athletic enough to become serviceable at the position, and the Yankees bought him more time to prepare when they brought in Gregorio Petit to fill in for an injured Brendan Ryan (and it wouldn’t be a shock if Petit usurps the job). Make no mistake, though, Refsnyder will get a healthy share of plate appearances in the Bronx this summer. Chris Mitchell’s excellent (if conservative) KATOH projection system, which looks at prospects’ odds of success in the majors, pegs the 24-year old Refsnyder to produce 5 WAR through his age-28 season, which is better than more highly-regarded prospects like Rio Ruiz (3.2) and even fellow Yankee Aaron Judge (1.4). It’s certainly not Bryant’s 16 WAR projection, but hey, that’s why he’s going down to work on his defense. Oh, by the way, his offensive profile is remarkably similar to Kyle Seager’s in the minors, so take that as you will.
Addison Russell, SS CHC
You didn’t think you’d make it out of this piece without having a Cub thrown at you, did you? Meet the kid that Baseball Prospectus ranked over Bryant as the jewel of the Chicago farm, everybody. The centerpiece of Billy Beane’s infamous Jeff Samardzija/Jason Hammel deal, Russell is what’s casually referred to as a 5-tool player, or more accurately a "Holy Moses this kid is going to be amazing" player if you want to use official industry terms. Russell lost some time in 2014 to a hamstring injury, but between high A-Ball and split time at Double-A between Athletics and Cubs affiliates, he still sent pitchers home crying by hitting .295/.350/.508 to pair with 13 home runs (in only 280 plate appearances!). Oh, and the kid plays a pretty good shortstop to boot. KATOH slaps an insane projection of 13.1 WAR through his age-28 season on Russell. There’s very little question that he’ll destroy Triple-A from day one. Here's Russell taking Felix Hernandez deep.
However, Russell may not show up at Wrigley until September call-ups due to the embarrassment of riches the Cubs posses in the middle infield. Starlin Castro, a good player in his own right, is already entrenched at shortstop, while Arismendy Alcantara and Javier Baez can also play shortstop and are currently vying to steal second base permanently from Tommy La Stella. Russell is the kind of talent you make room for so something will have to give, but the Cubs brain trust will need to see how things play out before making the necessary move. There’s also the matter of Russell’s service time clock, which will be a point of contention that could relegate his first taste of the Majors to the duty-free confines of September. Either way, it would be surprising if Russell doesn’t make his presence felt before the year is out.
Or the Cubs could do nothing in September like they did with Kris Bryant, since Russell isn’t on the 40-man roster (calling him up would require someone getting DFA’d) and he needs to work on his defense. Oh, those rascally Cubs and their extra year of team control and good business decisions ruining our fun.
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Nicolas Stellini is a contributor at Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @StelliniTweets.