Well, after poring over hundreds and hundreds – and hundreds – of minor leaguers over the past five or six months, I’m happy to announce that my third book, The 2016 Prospect Digest Handbook, shameless plug alert, is now available here.
Anyway, after the arduous process of analyzing every single solitary prospect of note – and many that aren’t – here’s a brief list of who I see as some of the most underrated prospects in the game.
1. Justus Sheffield, LHP, Cleveland Indians – The Indians haven’t exactly been a factory for prep arms over the last couple decades-plus. Since 2000 the organization has drafted and signed just five prep arms that would eventually make their way to the big leagues: J.D. Martin, Aaron Laffey, Chris Archer, T.J. McFarland, and T.J. House. But Sheffield, a 2014 first round selection, is likely the next in line.
Sheffield quietly put together one of the most dominant minor league seasons in 2015, averaging more than a punch out per inning with fantastic control as a 19-year-old in the Midwest League. But how exactly how dominant was he?
Well, consider the following: no other teenage arm with at least 100 innings last season topped Sheffield’s 18.0% strikeout-to-walk percentage; he also finished with the third best mark among all Low Class A arms as well.
Here’s another impressive tidbit from his first full season of minor league action: among all prospect arms with at least 100 innings last season, his strikeout percentage, 24.9%, ranked in the top 30.
2. Alex Verdugo, CF, Los Angeles Dodgers – Verdugo burst onto the scene during his debut showing two years ago, hitting a robust .353/.421/.511 with the Dodger's Rookie affiliate, but his overall numbers last season (.311/.340/.441), while impressive, don’t exactly paint the entire picture.
The former second round pick got off to an absolutely putrid start in the Midwest League last season, hitting a lowly .213/.254/.274 with just eight extra-base hits (six doubles and a pair of triples) in his first 173 plate appearances.
But something seemed to click in Verdugo and he absolutely shredded the competition over his final 367 trips to the plate; he bashed to the tune of .356/.380/.520 with 26 doubles, a pair of triples, and nine homeruns.
3. David Perez, RHP, Texas Rangers – The big right-hander out of the Dominican Republic was limited to just under 40.0 innings between 2012 and 2014 thanks to injury, but Perez looked like a force to be reckoned with in his 2015 campaign – something that became quite evident during his first two starts as the club transitioned him back into the rotation last season.
In a pair of back-to-back starts against Rancho Cucamonga in mid-August, the 6-foot-5 righty fanned 20, and walked zero in 10 total innings. His cumulative work as a starting pitcher last season: 31.1 IP, 42 K, 10 BB, and one homerun.
4. Grant Holmes, RHP, Los Angeles Dodgers – Another baby-faced, fireball slinging arm last season, Holmes was actually the only other teenage arm to top Justus Sheffield’s strikeout percentage last season, easily besting the southpaw’s 24.9% mark by nearly two full points.
Holmes, like Sheffield, was a 2014 first round pick. The hard-throwing right-hander finished his first taste of full season action by posting a ridiculous 26.6% strikeout percentage, the 13th highest mark among all minor league arms with at least 100 innings last season.
Over the last nine seasons there have been just 22 other teenage hurlers to fan at least 26.6% of the batters they faced and tally 100 innings: Alex Reyes, Tyler Glasnow, Lucas Sims, Jose Fernandez, Dylan Bundy, Noah Syndergaard, Henry Owens, Kyle Crick, Clayton Blackburn, Tyler Skaggs, Shelby Miller, Robbie Erlin, Julio Teheran, Jordan Lyles, Madison Bumgarner, Clayton Kershaw, Tyler Robertson, Trevor Cahill, Will Inman, Brandon Erbe, and Jake McGee.
Notice a trend? Yeah, there’s a lot of impact big league arms in the bunch.
5. Jamie Westbrook, 2B, Arizona Diamondbacks – Not tremendously known outside his own organization, the pint-sized second baseman had a coming-out party in High Class A last season, hitting .319/.357/.510 with 33 doubles, four triples, 17 homeruns, and 14 stolen bases. As a 20-year-old.
Granted, the California League is incredibly hitter-friendly, but consider this: only one other 20-year-old second baseman since 2006 – Jonathan Galvez – has slugged double-digit dingers in the California League.
Westbrook isn’t a perfect prospect – by any stretch of the imagination, thanks to an iffy walk rate – but he’s certainly one to watch in the coming years.
6. Junior Fernandez, RHP, St. Louis Cardinals – St. Louis has had the uncanny ability to churn out dominant big league arm after dominant big league arm. Just to name a few: Carlos Martinez, Lance Lynn, Michael Wacha, Trevor Rosenthal, Jaime Garcia, and Shelby Miller. And Fernandez, a 6-foot-1, 180-pound right-hander, could be the next in line.
The then-18-year-old right-hander spent the majority of the year dominating the Gulf Coast League to the tune of a 2.21 FIP while fanning 58 and walking just 15 in 51.0 innings of work.
But here’s where it gets at least a little bit interesting: St. Louis bumped the flame-throwing 18-year-old all the way up to High Class A for a pair of three-inning stints near the end of the season. And he held his own. While he isn’t likely to open the 2016 back with the Palm Beach Cardinals, the front office seems to sense something in his potentially dominant right arm. And so should you.
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Joseph Werner is a contributor to Beyond the Box Score. All statistics courtesy of FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference. After peaking as Amazon's #3 baseball book last year, his most recent book, The 2016 Prospect Digest Handbook, is now available here. For more analysis check out Werner's site: ProspectDigest.com. You can follow him on Twitter at @JoltinJoey.