Players are starting their professional careers earlier than ever before now with the new collective bargaining agreement. Players are signing sooner and getting more at bats and innings under their belt in their first professional seasons.
Some elite, first round talents will be skipped. For example the Cubs' second overall pick Kris Bryant, whom has demolished every level of play he's encountered, will be left out and would lead any list that includes him. Others examples of first round picks that had a great debut were Pirates outfielder Austin Meadows, Cincinnati outfielder Phil Ervin, Seattle third baseman DJ Peterson and Giants short stop Christian Arroyo, with all posting an OPS of at least .900. Royals third baseman Hunter Dozier just missed that cut with an .897 OPS. These players have already garnered plenty of attention and I would like to highlight the lesser known players.
While there are some guys who struggled to get their bearings, these players came out of the gate ready to go. Let's take a look at 15 hitters that had great debut seasons. Their rankings are in no particular order.
1. Michael Fish
|Angels||32||22||R/R+||CF/LF||R/R||5'11 170 LB||Siena (NY)|
Michael Fish was a late round senior sign out of Siena College in New York. He went in the 32nd round with the 967th overall pick. During his senior season at Siena, he hit .364/.415/.602 with 12 home runs and 14 stolen bases with 17 doubles, 20 walks and 23 strike outs over 231 at bats.
The guys over at Monkey With A Halo have a fanstastic scouting report on him and I highly recommend checking it out for more detail. One of their possible reasons for his lack of being previously drafted and falling so far in the 2013 draft, and I'm paraphrasing, is that he plays too hard. Fish has been known to give up his body for the benefit of the out, leading him to play through various injuries to his shoulder and wrist. Prior to his senior season at Siena, the most games he had played in a season was 48 in his freshman year.
Fish looks like he could be a steal, but at the same time there have been plenty of 22 year olds who have hammered the Arizona complex league and the Pioneer League. If he can continue to show good speed and an advanced bat, he could turn into a very usable fourth outfielder in Anaheim.
2. Jacob Morris
|White Sox||24||22||R+||RF||R/R||6'3 195 LB||Arkansas|
A red shirt junior out of the University of Arkansas, Jacob Morris went in the 24th round to the Chicago White Sox. Morris did not get much playing time in college, only getting 100 at bats in his final season as a Razorback. He also only hit .160/.287/.210 which makes his performance in the Pioneer League a bit surprising.
The major red flag on Morris is the huge swing and miss to his game. He struck out in 34.6% of his at bats in rookie ball, which to some, writes him off completely. I'm not in this category as he also had a very good walk rate (18.2%), leading me to believe he has a decent idea of what the zone looks like. His power and speed combination garnered him an All-Star selection. Morris is a plus athlete and a monster in center field. He has plenty of speed to patrol the gaps, and a very strong arm. He routinely made highlight reel catches during his final season of college. He's a tooled up college outfielder that can be special if the package comes together in a perfect world.
His defense likely gives him a ceiling of an everyday center fielder and AAA depth as a floor. Look for him to head to Kannapolis after spring training with the potential to shoot through the system with a hot start.
3. Kyle Wren
|Braves||8||22||R+/A/A+||CF||L/L||5'10 174 LB||Georgia Tech|
While some thought it to be a bit odd Wren would be drafted by his father so early, he produced and did so at three different levels in his first season. He played in five games at Danville of the Appy League, another 47 in Rome of the South Atlantic and one final game in Lynchburg of the Carolina League. His redshirt junior season at Georgia Tech he hit .360/.423/.467 with 11 doubles, six triples, two home runs, 28 stolen bases and 29 walks to 36 strike outs in 272 at bats.
His speed was dynamic and a game changer at the top of the order in Rome where he spent the majority of his professional debut. He stole at an 83% success rate, made a lot of contact, and hit a ground ball 49% of the time, allowing him to utilize his speed. He doesn't have any power to speak of, but he puts the ball in play and is capable and willing to take the extra base. He also shows great instincts in center, taking good routes and covering a lot of ground.
Most see a fourth outfielder and I couldn't agree more. He needs to work more walks to get on base more often and use his speed. If he can do this and hone his base stealing game he could become a .260/.340/.360 type player with 30-35 stolen bases and better than league average defense.
4. Adam Law
|Dodgers||12||23||R/R+||3B||R/R||6'0 193 LB||BYU|
Law is an interesting case because of the time he missed in college while on his Mormon mission. He only received seven at bats as a freshman, then took the next two years off from baseball. He returned his sophomore year at age 21 and shook off the rust at BYU. During his junior season he took off, hitting .365/.440/.510 with 10 doubles, four triples and home runs, 14 stolen bases and 29 walks to 33 strike outs in 208 at bats.
There haven't been many reports on Law's defense but he spent time at all three outfield positions in the complex leagues then played third base in Ogden. He wasn't horrendous statistically at third, making three errors in 64 chances. He reportedly has well above-average speed (5+/6), knows how to hit, and can barrel the ball with ease.
With his age he should be challenged to start the year, possibly as high as High A Rancho Cucamonga. It looks like his bat is for real and he showed he can swipe a base.
5. LB Dantzler
|Blue Jays||14||22||R/A-||1B||L/R||5'11 200 LB||South Carolina|
A staple in the middle of South Carolina's lineup the past two seasons, Dantzler went on to win Northwest League MVP honors after his excellent debut. The senior sign hit .322/.444/.617 with 15 home runs and 16 doubles with the NCAA's toned down BBCOR bats. He continued to rake professionally and now looks primed to advance quickly through the system. He hit 5.7% more line drives and 11.2% more fly balls than league average while also walking 2.1% more and striking out 3.2% less.
He has a very advanced approach at the plate, with a nice short stroke that's quick to the ball. He uses a pull approach until he gets two strikes, then uses the whole field. He's got polish but is limited defensively to first base even though he played a little third in college. He also isn't the fleetest of foot on the diamond.
Look for Dantzler to start the year in Low A Lansing, at least for the short term. I'm almost certain he will finish the season in either High A Dunedin or AA New Hampshire.
6. Jack Reinheimer
|Mariners||5||21||A-||SS||R/R||6'0 165 LB||East Carolina|
A lot of high school short stops went off the board early, but Reinheimer was just the 4th short stop from the college ranks to come off the board after first rounders Hunter Dozier, Tim Anderson, and second round pick Chad Pinder. At East Carolina, Reinheimer hit .271/.356/.339 with nine doubles, two home runs, 10 steals, 29 walks and 43 strike outs in 221 at bats.
He is as steady as they come with the leather, making all the routine plays and showing solid fundamentals with a flashy web gem once in awhile. He also has a knack for positioning himself in the right place at the right time. With a stick in his hands he is great at working counts and getting on base. He doesn't have much power and doesn't look to develop much in the future, but he can hold his own hitting with good speed on the bases. Another few positive marks are the reviews about his work ethic and makeup.
Reinheimer looks primed to start at Low A Clinton and move at a steady pace through the system. Luckily there is no rush as middle infield is a position of strength for the Mariners.
7. Michael Ratterree
|Brewers||10||22||R+||RF||R/R||6'1 190 LB||Rice|
A senior sign who put his name on the dotted line for a mere $25K, Ratterree had as impressive a debut as one can, winning the Pioneer League MVP. His final year at Rice he hit .261/.381/.425 with 10 doubles, nine home runs and 13 stolen bases in 226 at bats. There is no doubt the friendly confines of the Pioneer League inflated his stats, but there is actual talent behind it all.
Ratterree is a good athlete and could project out to be average in all five tools. His most impressive would be his arm which fits well in right field and could be a plus asset. He is also very patient at the plate, even if his walks to strike outs don't show it. There have also been reports that he uses the entire field and shows oppo power as well.
A four year college player coming off a league MVP should definitely be on the fast track. Combine that with his parent organization's dearth of impact prospects and it would not surprise me to see him break camp in High A Brevard County.
8. Jacob May
|White Sox||3||21||R+/A||CF||S/R||5'10 180 LB||Coastal Carolina|
May is one of the highest drafted players on the list, being taken 91st overall in the third round while signing for $525K. Each of his three years at Coastal Carolina he improved, culminating in a .324/.417/.495 line his junior year with 12 doubles, seven home runs, 16 stolen bases and 22 walks to 26 strike outs.
Boy does this kid have some bloodlines. Grandpa Lee Sr. and Uncle Carlos both played for at least a decade in the bigs while his father Lee Jr. topped out in AAA. He's also got some serious wheels. Like 6.3 seconds in the 60 yard dash prior to the draft. He doesn't take full advantage of it yet but will learn with professional instruction. As the old saying goes, "You can't teach speed". He's a future lead off man who is stronger from the right side and should handle center field with ease once his reads and routes get fine tuned.
After spending half the season in Kannapolis, he should displace Courtney Hawkins as Winston-Salem's center fielder for 2014. He's definitely a guy who can shoot up the rankings as well if the power is legit.
9. Conor Bierfieldt
|Orioles||29||22||A-||LF||R/R||6'2 220 LB||Western Conn. St.|
Coming out of the small Divsion III Western Connecticut State, Bierfeldt brought the thump in his debut. During his senior year he did everything; hitting .396/.506/.776 with 16 doubles, nine home runs, 10 for 10 stealing bases, 54 RBI and 29 walks to 20 strike outs. He kept up the pace in the short season New York-Penn League, hitting the second most home runs and leading the league in slugging.
Bierfeldt's power is real. Described as "country strong" by his manager Matt Merullo and physically comped to Jay Buhner, he can hit the ball out to all fields with plus power. He's compact but gets plenty of extension and leverage in his swing with good bat speed. He's also athletic with average speed but nothing special. Defensively he made a pair of errors and had three assists.
It's not hard to see him make the usual progression to full season ball in Delmarva. I'm buying his bat and really think he could surprise as a 29th round steal.
10. David Denson
|Brewers||15||18||R||1B||L/R||6'4 245 LB||South Hills HS (CA)|
The only teenager on the list, Denson shows some serious raw power from the left side. The California native launched a 515 ft. mammoth blast in a showcase at Marlins Park before the draft, catching a lot of attention. Signability concerns about him going to college at Hawaii allowed him to drop to the 15th round where Milwaukee gave it a shot and signed him for $100K.
Denson's power can easily be described as plus plus, a rare commodity in today's game. That's his only stand out tool as his hit, fielding, and speed are all below average. His arm is solid but he doesn't have the mobility to play anywhere but first base. The 17 year old has also been compared to Ryan Howard.
While he could use another year in the Arizona Rookie league I could also see him putting up some absolutely ridiculous numbers in Helena of the Pioneer League. I'm hoping for the latter but the former is more realistic as he still has a lot of work to do closing the holes in his swing.
11. Dominique Taylor
|Royals||15||20||R+||LF/CF||R/R||6'1 190 LB||Cal - Irvine|
Dominique is another guy that won't stand out from a tools perspective, but he gets the job done with average tools across the board. His junior year at UC - Irvine he hit .309/.366/.443 with 14 doubles, three home runs, 10 steals and 13 walks to 33 strike outs. Born in Frankfurt, Germany, Taylor is the only player on the list born in Europe.
He displayed a nice power/speed combo in his debut, almost reaching double digits in home runs and stolen bases despite just 233 at bats. The arm is average, as well as his range and speed. I think he could hold his own in center but if there is a better defensive option available I would slide him over to left field. At the plate he's got the potential for average power and hit tools with the power a bit ahead of the hit. He has a long swing which may cause trouble against higher velocities.
Taylor should already be looking at apartments in Lexington. There's no doubt in my mind he will head to full season ball in April.
12. Tyler Smith
|Mariners||8||21||R+||SS||R/R||6'0 195 LB||Oregon St.|
Another short stop prospect to add to the Mariners' embarrassment of riches, Smith signed for $20K after his senior year at Oregon State where he hit .308/.390/.397 with 10 doubles and two home runs. He worked 24 walks compared to 35 strike outs and also stole nine bags. It's obvious by his signing bonus he is not a true 8th round talent as the team saved $130K to spend elsewhere in the draft.
Smith is another guy without a standout quantifiable tool, but is a natural born leader. His only tool that does not grade out to at least average is his power which comes in well below. While not a standout defensively, he is fundamentally sound and makes the plays he can get to. His arm and glove are both average with solid range.
This is where things get a bit muddled, as the Mariners are full of middle infielders at the lower levels. Sending Smith to short season Everett would be a waste of a year of development. I could see a position switch however, with Smith converting to second base and joining fellow 2013 draftee Jack Reinheimer in Low A Clinton.
13. Daniel Palka
|Diamondbacks||3||21||R+/A-||1B||L/L||6'2 220 LB||Georgia Tech|
Throughout his college career at Georgia Tech, Palka was known as a feared hitter. He hit 41 home runs in three seasons there, including 17 his junior year prior to turning pro. He also hit .342/.436/.637 with 13 doubles, six stolen bases, 31 walks and 60 strike outs. Primarily a right fielder in college, he moved to first base with the Diamondbacks after signing for $550K in the third round.
His calling card is the thunder in his stick. Palka will always put up big power numbers because he takes some huge hacks and has strong hands and wrists. This will also leave him with big strike out totals. His hit tool will be the ultimate decider though. If he can't make contact enough to let his power play his MLB chances are slim. He's not the best athlete but has a powerful arm, hitting 90 mph off the mound in college. Unfortunately, he just doesn't have the speed or range to be an outfielder.
Look for Palka to take on Low A South Bend to start the season with an outside shot he can jump Rudy Flores on the depth chart and take over High A Visalia.
14. Justin Viele
|Orioles||37||22||A-||SS||R/R||5'11 185 LB||Santa Clara|
The Orioles may have found a steal late in the draft, selecting Justin Viele out of Santa Clara in the 37th round. He was the fourth short stop selected by Baltimore but shows the most promise. Viele started 158 consecutive games for Santa Clara as a four year starter and he hit .248/.364/.348 with nine doubles, a pair of homers, 12 stolen bases and 28 walks to 43 punch outs his senior year.
Viele has a few attributes that stand out to me, namely his excellent defense, leadership, and work ethic. He's got a plus glove at short along with a good arm and good instincts. His actions are smoother than silk with hands made of cashmere. The bat is far behind the leather though. He doesn't have any power to speak of and his hit tool won't jump off the page at you. He does have a fantastic eye at the plate though, working more walks than strikeouts in his debut.
Aberdeen looks like his most likely destination with the majority of last year spent in the Gulf Coast League. I also see Adrian Marin repeating Low A Delmarva, limiting his potential destinations in the low minors.
15. Kyle Farmer
|Dodgers||8||22||R+||C||R/R||6'0 195 LB||Georgia|
A Georgia boy like myself, Farmer played as a short stop in college, starting the last three years at the University of Georgia. His senior year he hit .290/.315/.410 with 12 doubles, three home runs, a team-leading 44 RBI and 12 walks to 12 strike outs. Farmer signed for $40K and the Dodgers saved $113K compared to slot for other players. He took to catching very quick, throwing out 39% of attempted base thieves and only four errors.
His bat was steady in college, hitting over .300 for his career in the SEC, and took a leap forward in the Pioneer League. He made tons of contact and wore out the gaps with decent power in Ogden but with all players who come through the Pioneer League, their performance must be taken with a lot of salt. He also has a very aggressive approach which could hinder him at higher levels. His best tool is his very strong throwing arm which is plus while his receiving skills are still raw, as evidenced by 13 passed balls in 35 games. On the bases he's slow but not a clogger.
Despite his relative lack of experience behind the dish, I could see the Los Angeles front office challenging him with a promotion to Low A Great Lakes. There is always the chance he repeats the Pioneer to continue refining his receiving skills though.
Not all of these players will become major league regulars, but a few have a good chance. Almost half of the players listed spent time in the Pioneer League and it bears repeating that this is the most offense-friendly league in all of professional baseball. That said, it wouldn't hurt to keep tabs on these guys going forward.