We like to keep things optimistic here at Rotoworld, and even in a year that saw so many prospects graduate or decline, there were plenty of prospects who took positive steps in the right direction in 2016.
Here’s a look at five hitters and five pitchers who showed significant improvement during the 2016 season.
Kevin Newman, SS, Pirates - Newman had more than his fair share of fans coming out of the 2015 draft, but there were those who questioned just how much upside this right-handed hitting shortstop had. There are still some doubters, but 2016 went a long way in showing why so many were so high on him. His feel for hitting is very impressive; you could argue he has a chance for a double-plus (70) hit tool when he’s finished developing. He’s also an above-average to plus runner, and while he didn’t steal a ton of bases in 2016 (10) he’s capable of much more. The big concern is the power, but with the ability to hit for high average while sticking at a premium position with stolen base potential more than compensates for the lack of pop.
Francisco Mejia, C, Indians - Sometimes, it just takes time. Mejia was a prospect that plenty in the industry liked, but the numbers weren’t showing up. Boy did they ever show up this summer. A switch-hitter with a smooth swing from both sides of the plate, Mejia showed better understanding of working counts this season, and he’s still growing into a frame that suggests he’ll be a 15 to 20-homer player as he gets stronger. He’s also a lock to stick behind the plate barring injury, so like Newman, this is a high-floor player who can give you excellent positional value.
Jeimer Candelario, 3B, Cubs - Yep, another Cub prospect. Life isn’t fair. Candelario took a big step forward in 2016, going from potential utility guy to a legit everyday prospect at the hot corner. He’s not a big bopper, but there is above-average power potential from both sides of the plate, and his willingness to work counts makes him a quality addition in leagues that value guys who hit for average and get on base. The biggest fantasy concern right now is where exactly Candelario is going to play, but if he makes another leap in 2017, Chicago will find somewhere to put him.
Tyler O’Neill, OF, Mariners - O’Neill put up quality numbers in 2015, but most of the year was spent in the hitting utopia that is the California League. In the considerably less friendly confines of the Southern League, O’Neill posted an .882 OPS with 24 homers, so it’s safe to say he wasn’t a Cal League fluke. He’s as strong as they come; and he can take any pitch on any part of the plate out of the park. He’s not just a power hitter, however, as O’Neill has shown improved feel for the barrel, and he’s not allergic to taking a walk. The concern going forward is his defense, but that doesn’t matter in fantasy leagues. O’Neill could be a middle of the order hitter in the next two years.
Eloy Jimenez, OF, Cubs - Yep, another Cub prospect. Again. Jimenez might be the most-improved hitting prospect in all of baseball, so it shouldn’t shock you he’s on this list. What once looked like a 45-hit, 55-power player has improved to what could be a 55-hit, 70-power player, and he might be a double-digit stolen base guy for good measure. Like Candelario, there’s no room at the inn just yet, but as one of the 20 or so best prospects in baseball, you better believe Chicago will find a place for him to play when he’s ready. It just might be next year.
Amir Garrett, LHP, Reds - Garrett spent more time on the basketball court than on the diamond at St. Johns, and that clearly impeded his development for his first couple of seasons in the Cincinnati system. In the span of just over a year, he’s gone from intriguing athlete to one of the best left-handed pitching prospects in baseball. He’ll touch 97 mph with his fastball, and he complements that heater with a slider that now flashes in the double-plus range. He’s also throwing more strikes, and even in a loaded Reds’ system, his upside competes with any prospect in it.
Yohander Mendez, LHP, Rangers - When the Rangers were making moves this July in an attempt to win a championship, the one name I was told that was off limits was Mendez. Considering how good that farm system is, that’s high praise. He’s a rare pitcher who has both a high-floor and a high-ceiling. The high-floor comes from his ability to put the ball where he wants it; the high-ceiling comes from three above-average pitches that are led by a 65-grade change. Ignore the struggles in an extremely small sample size with Texas; he’s going to be a good one for a long time.
Mitch Keller, RHP, Pirates - If Jimenez is the most improved hitting prospect, Keller is the most improved pitching prospect, and it might not be close. There’s also been a ton of talent in the former Iowa prep standout, but applying that talent has been rough due to injuries and issues with the delivery. He posted a ridiculous 130-to-19 strikeout-to-walk ratio this year, and he has the stuff (two out pitches in his fastball and curve, solid-average change) to suggest it wasn’t fool’s gold.
Michael Kopech, RHP, Red Sox - Assuming you’re not Aroldis Chapman, Michael Kopech throws harder than you. Heck, even if you are Chapman, Kopech might beat you. There are reports that his heater has gotten up to 105 mph this year. There’s still work to be done, but his command improved significantly in 2016, and both his change and slider showed more consistency as well. If you’re looking for strikeouts in a dynasty league, you should have Kopech queued up right now.
Sean Reid-Foley, RHP, Blue Jays - There were several Blue Jays prospects who took positive strides in 2016, and Reid-Foley might have taken the largest. He pounded the zone with four pitches, and two of those pitches were plus in his fastball and slider, respectively. He’ll also mix in an average change, and he’ll show a fringe-average curveball just to keep hitters honest as well. The control is ahead of the command, but there’s no reason to think the command won’t be good enough to allow Reid-Foley to pitch every fifth day.