This was the Wild West of prospect assignment.
The lost 2020 Minor League season left organizations without a rulebook or at least an industry standard on where to put players for Opening Day. Most players went a full year without competitive play. Even those at the alternate sites faced the monotony of playing against their own teammates. Gauging where to send some of the Minors’ top talents was going to be a difficult and revealing process.
That process has now been completed. Opening Day rosters came out the first week of May, thus showing to the outside world what each of the 30 farm systems thought their top prospects could handle. Some clubs were aggressive in their assignments. Others were conservative. All had their reasons.
These are the Top 100 prospects who were pushed or held back most to begin the 2021 season:
Padres SS CJ Abrams, Tigers OF Riley Greene, Royals SS Bobby Witt Jr.: Double-A
We have to break some of these into groups because they’re so similar. Abrams, Greene and Witt were all high-school players taken among the top six picks in the 2019 Draft. They’ve also been pushed two stops away from the Majors for what is technically their first full Minor League seasons. In a vacuum, that’s incredibly aggressive. None of the three had played above Class A entering 2021. But to hear each organization talk about this talented trio, Double-A is right for their talents coming off a year of alternate-site play and plenty of run in Major League spring camps. Facing more talented pitchers than ever, this group is about to reveal a lot more about their true ceilings in the coming weeks and months.
Marlins RHP Max Meyer, Angels LHP Reid Detmers: Double-A
Same Minor League level. Same level of Minor League aggression. The 2020 Draft class has already seen Garrett Crochet reach (and stick in) the Majors, and that blunts any feeling of how quickly his fellow picks from last year can climb the ladder. But we must keep things in perspective. Miami and Los Angeles starting out their first-rounders from last year at the Minors’ second-highest level is bold and telling of what they believe about both arms. Meyer has a wicked combo in his fastball and 70-grade slider. Detmers has a four-pitch mix that he throws with good control. Both were advanced coming out of college last year. Now, we know just how advanced their own clubs believe them to be.
Blue Jays SS/OF Austin Martin: Double-A
We’ll put Martin into his own category here as a position player, even though he comes from the 2020 college ranks like Meyer and Detmers. Fifty-four position players from the 2020 Draft have appeared with a full-season club so far in 2021. Martin is the only one with a Double-A club. A .368 batter at Vanderbilt, the right-handed slugger owns a 65-grade hit tool and should feature well at the top or middle of any lineup. The Jays had planned to get him as much time at shortstop as possible, but because they didn’t want his bat to go unchallenged, they bumped him to the same spot as fellow shortstop and Top 100 prospect Jordan Groshans. The two will play different positions to maximize their playing time, but putting the two together illuminates Toronto’s priorities in the early days of 2021.
Rays SS Wander Franco: Triple-A
You could make the case that Franco should be in the Majors already. Tampa Bay had the No. 1 overall prospect on the taxi squad for the postseason (including the World Series), for crying out loud. But it’s important to zoom out and see the full context here. Franco just turned 20 in March. He is the youngest player at Triple-A. Only Brewers prospect Jhonnys Cabrera (19) is younger than him at Double-A. It’s a testament to his 80-grade hit tool that the switch-hitting infielder is even knocking on the door of the Majors at this age, and if early results are any indication, he could be a 20-year-old at the top level before long.
Cardinals LHP Matthew Liberatore: Triple-A
The third game of the Triple-A East season brought a fun matchup. Liberatore – the pitching prospect traded by the Rays for Randy Arozarena – faced his former teammates at Triple-A Durham, including Franco and fellow Top 100 prospect Vidal Bruján. Liberatore is only 21 himself and will be so for the duration of the 2021 season. Prior to his debut, the youngest pitcher in the first two days of the Triple-A season was 23. The Cardinals are big fans of Liberatore’s fastball, curveball and above-average control and wanted to keep him close to the top level because the stuff alone could play there quickly. Just how quickly remains to be seen, but it feels like St. Louis left a big clue with this opening assignment of the southpaw.
Mariners OF Julio Rodríguez: High-A
Now, we move to the opposite end of the spectrum. Much has been made about how the Seattle system contains two of the most promising outfield prospects in baseball in Jarred Kelenic and Rodríguez. The former climbed three levels in 2019, played at the alternate site last year and was sent to Triple-A Tacoma on Opening Day. The latter climbed two full-season levels in 2019, played at the alternate site last year, saw time in the Dominican Winter League and … was sent to High-A Everett. There is more nuance there, of course. Rodríguez missed time at the alt site with a fractured wrist, and his winter league numbers weren’t eye-popping. But he did end 2019 at the same level at which he’s starting 2021, and that feels odd. It’s very possible the Mariners want to see him get some positive results under his belt before his first move to Double-A, and Rodríguez’s promising power and plus hit tool should make that happen quickly.
Yankees OF Jasson Dominguez: Extended spring training
New York senior director of player development Kevin Reese told reporters including MLB.com’s Bryan Hoch, “I apologize that you have to wait a little bit longer for that mystery to unveil itself, but when it comes, you’ll know.” And so we will wait. Dominguez has been billed as the next big five-tool prospect, earning at least 55 grades across the board as a switch-hitting outfielder. The Yankees spent $5.1 million of their $5.4 million signing pool in July 2019 to put Dominguez in pinstripes. Because of last year’s shutdown, the organization wants to ease Dominguez in longer with actual playing time on the backfields, rather than throwing him directly in the Low-A Southeast at age-18. It’s an understandable, though cautious, approach for a potential franchise-level talent. It’s just a bummer that the wait to see the No. 27 overall prospect on a Minor League field will continue for a few more weeks.
Orioles RHP Grayson Rodriguez: High-A
The Orioles have arguably been the most plodding with their Top 100 prospects. Sure, Adley Rutschman jumping to Double-A is a strong move, but Rodriguez and fellow Top 100 arm DL Hall (also at Double-A Bowie) are both only one level ahead of where they each spent their entire 2019 seasons. Rodriguez feels all the more notable because he has the higher ceiling of the two with 65 grades on his fastball and changeup and a plus slider to boot. After spending time against tougher competition at last year’s alternate training site, the 21-year-old right-hander could have handled a move to Double-A – the same level he would have started out 2021 if not for last year’s shutdown. A few dominant outings with Aberdeen will strengthen the case for such a promotion in the early weeks of this season.
Giants OF Heliot Ramos: Double-A
This spring, Ramos very much looked the part of a player ready to knock down the door to the Majors. He posted a 1.143 OPS and went deep three times over 40 plate appearances, thus building on his work from last year’s alternate site and instructional league. Instead of moving their No. 3 prospect one step away from the Majors at Triple-A, the Giants instead moved Ramos back to Richmond, where he played 25 games in 2019. Sure, Ramos is still only 21, and his last experience at Double-A wasn’t a barn-burner. But the right-handed slugger looked like a bat that could help the Giants as early as the first half of 2021. That’s still possible; it’ll just be a higher climb for him to do so given this assignment.
Reds SS Jose Garcia: Double-A
This is being a little nitpicky, but there needed to be a fifth name here. The Reds thought Garcia was good enough to handle a jump from his previous highest level of Class A Advanced straight to the Majors in 2020. The move didn’t exactly pay off. Garcia hit just .194/.206/.194 and struck out in 38.2 percent of his plate appearances over 24 games. Instead of bumping Garcia down a peg to open the 2021 season, the Reds have instead assigned the shortstop, whose best tools are on the defensive side, down to Chattanooga. The move was likely done to get Garcia a foundation of offensive success so he can regain some confidence at the plate. Fair enough. (Told you this would be nitpicky.) But for a 23-year-old with Major League experience, Garcia shouldn’t have his stay at Double-A be a long one.