Let’s take a shot at pegging some prospect sleepers ahead of the curve. I’m going to divide this by division, with two sleepers per team, one pitcher and one hitter. None of them have a current grade higher than C+ on our prospect lists entering 2017, but all (in my opinion) have a chance to be very good or even excellent values relative to their current ranking.
Chicago White Sox
Joel Booker, OF: Age 23, 22nd round pick in 2016 from the University of Iowa; hit .312/.403/.404 between rookie ball and Pioneer League with 27 walks, 49 strikeouts in 260 at-bats; stole 41 bases in 44 attempts; 70-grade speed with excellent instincts to use it; will have to prove he can hit at higher levels but he showed decent hitting ability in college and it is plausible he will continue to hit as he moves up, at least as a leadoff type.
Jordan Stephens, RHP; Age 24, fifth round pick in 2015 out of Rice University; 3.45 ERA in 141 innings in High-A with 155/48 K/BB, 129 hits; fastball can hit 96 but is more commonly in 89-94 range; 60-grade curve is out-pitch, also mixes in fair cutter and change-up; history of injury including Tommy John surgery and scary precedent of Rice pitchers in pro ball must be considered; potential number three/four starter if off-speed stuff rounds out and if he proves durable, but could move rapidly if switched to pen.
Leandro Linares, RHP: Age 23, Linares is a Cuban right-hander signed in 2013 for $950,000. What I noticed here was a dramatic improvement in his control in 2016. In 2014 he posted an ugly 7.62 ERA with a 38/29 K/BB in 39 innings in rookie ball, followed by disreputable 31/44 K/BB in 44 innings (6.55 ERA) in the New York-Penn League in ‘15. All that changed radically in 2016: he posted a 55/12 K/BB and 1.21 ERA in 45 innings and finished the season in High-A. Scouting information on him is sparse, but Baseball America’s Ben Badler filed this report back in ‘13 when Linares signed, noting a low-90s fastball, a potential plus curve, and a history of control problems in Cuba. Those control problems vanished in ‘16 and if they remain gone he could move quickly.
Samad Taylor, 2B: Still just age 18, Taylor was drafted last spring at age 17 in the 10th round from high school in Corona, California. The switch-hitter batted .293/.359/.397 in rookie ball with six steals, 11 walks, and 24 strikeouts in 116 at-bats. He has an interesting set of tools including 60-grade speed, a feel for hitting, a chance to develop intriguing gap power, and the potential to be an above-average defensive second baseman. There’s more upside here than typical of a 10th rounder.
Bryan Garcia, RHP: Age 21, sixth round pick in 2016 from University of Miami Hurricanes; posted 2.41 ERA with 22/3 K/BB in 19 innings, 16 hits between NY-P and Low-A; another bullpen arm who could move rapidly, fastball 92-95, has a good slider and a better change-up than most bullpen prospects; throws strikes and arsenal is diverse enough that some think he can start but if left in pen could arrive fast. Even if moved to starting could advance rapidly.
Jacob Robson, OF: Age 22, eighth round pick in 2016 from Mississippi State University, Canadian outfielder from London, Ontario; hit .294/.399/.395 between rookie ball and New York-Penn League with 31 walks, 42 strikeouts, 15 steals in 177 at-bats; 60-grade speed and a good feel for the strike zone give him leadoff potential; also has a good track record with wooden bats in college summer ball; can play all three outfield positions; fourth outfielder type unless he shows more power but the speed and OBP make him trackable.
Kansas City Royals
Khalil Lee, OF: Age 18, third round pick in 2016 from high school in Virginia; hit .269/.396/.484 in rookie ball and drew 33 walks in 182 at-bats, albeit with 57 strikeouts; impressive tools with power, speed, throwing arm all positives; was one of the top pure athletes in the entire draft and showed enough in his debut to make us think he can tap those tools; he is a risk and won’t pay off soon, but the payoff could be big.
Kort Peterson, OF: I have been doing one hitter and one pitcher per team but this guy is too interesting to pass up so I will violate the rule; age 22, a 23rd round pick in 2016 from UCLA but had the physical tools to go 20 rounds higher; draft stock was limited by disappointing college track record; hit .347/.437/.545 in the Appalachian League while showing plus power, good running speed, and a right field arm; we absolutely need to see him at higher levels but unlike many college players who dominate rookie ball, Peterson has the physical tools to sustain it at higher levels; key now is to see if his skill progress is genuine.
Jordan Balazovic, RHP: Age 18, fifth round pick in 2016 from high school in Ontario; cost $515,000 to buy away from Auburn; posted 1.97 ERA in 32 innings with 16/5 K/BB in rookie ball; ultra-projectable at 6-4, 175; fastball in low-90s and may get faster; already throws strikes and has a good change-up; breaking ball needs development so watch for any increase in his strikeout rate, which would indicate progress; long way off but has upside of a mid-rotation starter.
Mitch Garver, C: Age 26, Ninth round pick in 2014 from the University of New Mexico, hit .257/.334/.419 with 25 doubles, 11 homers in Double-A then was very hot late in the year in Triple-A with .329/.381/.434 mark; flashes above-average power but not likely to hit for average in the majors; was often seen as a future first baseman in college but his defense has turned out to be very impressive: threw out almost 50% of runners this year and has made huge strides with receiving and game-calling; older prospect at age 26 but combination of power and improved defense should get him a chance somewhere.