Philadelphia Phillies, Cubs among candidates for MLB’s top prospect

Mar 10, 2015; Dunedin, FL, USA; Minnesota Twins center fielder Byron Buxton (70) works out prior to the spring training game against the Toronto Blue Jays at Florida Auto Exchange Park. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Check your Twitter feed. If it’s been a couple minutes since you last scrolled it, you’ve probably missed your favorite team calling up its best prospect.

All around the major league landscape Tuesday, baseball’s best “prospects” were on display; at Globe Life Park in Arlington, Texas, Dodgers outfielder Joc Pederson went 2-for-4 and Rangers pitcher Chi Chi Gonzalez threw a gem, going 8 1/3 innings and allowing two runs on five hits; Astros shortstop Carlos Correa went 2-for-5 against the Rockies; defensive wizard Francisco Lindor notched his first career RBI; and in St. Louis, Twins outfielder Byron Buxton went 1-for-3 and had his first real “welcome to the big leagues” moment when he was thrown out by the great Yadier Molina while trying to steal second.

Here at Grading on the Curve, we compiled our list of  the top 50 prospects at the beginning of the season. It resembled most other prospect lists you’d find. Now, it is shambles: seven of the top 10 and 12 of the top 20 prospects are now in the majors, likely for good. The fountain of youth hasn’t only been found by a lucky few. It seems every team has gotten contribution from at least one of its top prospects. By my estimation, you can easily find 40 prospects in the majors now.

That obviously begs the question: who is baseball’s best prospect now? The new rankings are already coming out, and most of the names you’d expect to see on the list are indeed present.

I’m disqualifying Dodgers prospect Corey Seager right now. I know he’s the obvious choice, but the way he’s punishing pitchers in Triple-A, he’s an injury in the majors away from getting a call-up. If it wasn’t for Justin Turner having a productive season at third base and the Dodgers leaning on shortstop Jimmy Rollins to help cultivate an improved defensive approach, Seager would probably already be in the majors.

Instead, I’m going to turn the focus to 2016. The best players in the minors have been skimmed off the top, which gives more room for those who were just below the surface to shine. (Players like the Rangers’ Joey Gallo and the Cubs’ Kyle Schwarber are rumored to only be up long enough to fill in for injured regulars or play some designated hitter, but if they keep playing well, it’ll be tough to send them back down.)

Here are the candidates for best prospect in baseball. I’ll start with the pitchers…

Mar 27, 2015; Clearwater, FL, USA; Philadelphia Phillies pitcher Aaron Nola (10) throws a warm up pitch during the second inning against the New York Yankees at Bright House Field. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

This camp has plenty of candidates. Lucas Giolito (Nationals), Tyler Glasnow (Pirates), Robert Stephenson (Reds), Aaron Nola (Phillies), Julio Urias (Dodgers), Steven Matz (Mets) and Luis Severino (Yankess) all deserve at least to be considered. 

Giolito is the popular choice. He’s putting together another solid if not stellar campaign, as his ERA and WHIP are way up from last season, but so is his K/BB ratio, which bodes well for the rest of the season. Glasnow was dominating Double-A (2.76 ERA, 1.02 WHIP) in spite of a steep dip in his strikeout rate, but he hurt his ankle and hasn’t pitched in weeks. Urias had a ridiculous 5.11 K/BB before he was shelved to have cosmetic eye surgery. Matz is defying several laws of nature and keeping runs off the board despite pitching in Las Vegas, one of the minors’ great cathedrals of offense.

An especially compelling case is being made by Nola. He is pitching ridiculously well, as he’s 7-3 with a 1.88 ERA, .887 WHIP and 6.56 K/BB ratio. The last number is the most interesting, because while he doesn’t strike out a ton of hitters (6.9/9 innings pitched), he’s only walked nine batters in 76 2/3 innings.

Mar 6, 2015; Clearwater, FL, USA; New York Yankees outfielder Aaron Judge (99) celebrates with teammates in the dugout after scoring in the fourth inning during of a spring training baseball game against the Philadelphia Phillies at Bright House Field. Mandatory Credit: Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

The hitters don’t present many obvious names other than Seager. Buxton and Gallo could still be considered in this category because of faint rumors they’ll be back in the minors before too long, but that doesn’t seem likely.

That leaves us with Buxton’s former teammate Miguel Sano, Phillies prospect J.P. Crawford, Yankees prospect Aaron Judge, Pirates prospect Austin Meadows and Schwarber. (The Cubs have explicitly stated that Schwarber will be sent back to the minors)

Schwarber and Crawford stand out. Crawford plays shortstop, a premium defensive position. He is less heralded as a defensive wunderkind than Lindor, which is like saying the Rolling Stones are less heralded than the Beatles. But he arguably has more offensive potential. There was concern his big jump in batting average to start the season was a BABIP-induced fluke, but he’s slashing .301/.393/.452 since being promoted to Double-A.

Schwarber, a Cubs prospect, stands out for his power, power, power and a hefty side of strikeouts to boot—why does that sound familiar? He had 13 home runs at the time of his promotion to the majors, and his .579 slugging percentage looks great next to his .320 average and .438 on base percentage. His 15.2 AB/HR puts him near the game’s leaders—as a comparison, Gallo’s was 13.4, while Correa’s was 21.5.

Mar 4, 2015; Peoria, AZ, USA; San Diego Padres infielder Trea Turner (89) is tagged out at home by Seattle Mariners catcher Mike Dowd (76) during a spring training baseball game at Peoria Sports Complex. Mandatory Credit: Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

If the search for the search for the best prospect stops at the obvious names, then some very talented players get overlooked.

I’ll start with two shortstops. One is Nationals prospect Trea Turner, the other is the Brewers’ Orlando Arcia

A.J. Preller should regret trading Turner. He’s been a menace to opposing pitchers. He’s slashing .316/.379/.463 and has 11 stolen bases and 31 runs in 69 games this season. This is following his .323/.406/.448 line in 2014. He plays above adequate defense and is a future leadoff threat. With looming free agent Ian Desmond’s putrid glove work ruining the work of an effective pitching staff in the nation’s capital, Turner’s stock is rising quickly.

Arcia has been equally as impressive offensively, hitting .316/.363/.451 in Biloxi. Although that’s not entirely true, because the Shuckers didn’t play a home game until June 6, and they still clinched the Southern League South Division first-half title Sunday. Arcia put up those impressive offensive numbers riding buses for two months. That shows intangibles beyond his budding offensive potential and top-notch defensive work—he is a worthy rival to Lindor and Crawford defensively–that will help make him a productive major leaguer. It doesn’t look like he’ll hit for much power, but his defense should make up for some of that.

Another name to mention here is Mobile BayBears pitcher Aaron Blair. The Diamondbacks prospect is stifling offenses by inducing 1.53 groundouts for every out in the air, which has led to a 2.70 ERA, 1.12 WHIP and 2.8 K/BB. It’s not out of line to say he’s leapfrogged teammate Braden Shipley as the D-Backs’ best pitching prospect.

Feb 12, 2014; Clearwater, FL, USA; A general view of a Philadelphia Phillies hat and glove on the grass at Bright House Networks Field. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

There are more names you could consider for the top spot; Josh Bell, Aaron Judge, Daniel Norris and Justin Nicolino to name a few.

Picking any of the previously mentioned names as the best prospect in baseball is not a slight to any of the other players. If Lindor can improve the Indians’ woeful defense and contribute offensively, I don’t think the Indians will lose sleep knowing he was ranked behind Kris Bryant, Correa and Buxton at the beginning of the season.

That being said, I’m going to make an interesting choice for baseball’s new top prospect: Crawford. Here’s why:

  • Crawford has no competition as the Phillies’ future shortstop. Most GMs in the league will pick a position player over a pitcher as a cornerstone for a team, and Crawford is adroit at a premium defensive position.
  • Rollins, before he was traded to the Dodgers, was the cornerstone of some great Phillies teams that won a World Series. He won a MVP, made multiple All-Star games and played Gold Glove defense. Crawford has plenty of ability to do the same.
  • Crawford is a better hitter at this stage in his development than Rollins was. In his age 20 season, Rollins spent most of the season in Double-A Reading, where he hit .273/.336/.404. Also in his age 20 season, Crawford is hitting well above that and will likely spend most of the season at the same level. He might even make a jump to Triple-A by the end of the season. Crawford has already won a batting title in the minors, while Rollins never hit above .280.
  • Crawford has also drawn more walks than strikeouts this season and has struck out only five more times than he has walked in his entire career in the minors. That’s a very similar spread to the one that allowed Rollins to be one of the game’s best top-of-the-order threats.

There you have it. My pick for the game’s new top prospect is J.P. Crawford.  Who’s your pick?