Ray Butler’s 2018 Top 200 MLB Prospects: #1-20

Written by: Ray Butler

Follow us on Twitter! @Prospects365

It’s the final countdown!

*keyboard blares loudly in background*

But really, what else needs to be said? We’ve finally reached the best twenty prospects in baseball.

20. Brent Honeywell, SP, TB, Age: 23

I had Honeywell ranked just outside of my top 10, then we learned the right-hander (who was on the cusp of making his big league debut) needs Tommy John surgery to repair a torn UCL in his pitching elbow. It’s an unfortunate blow to one of the best pitching prospects in the game as well as a sobering reminder of just how volatile even the safest of pitching prospects can be. To adjust, I moved Honeywell similarly to how I moved Alex Reyes last preseason when Reyes underwent Tommy John surgery during Spring Training. The sad thing is I think that might be too generous. Reyes figures to be a major cog for the Cardinals as a 23-year-old rookie who already had his first stint in the major leagues. At best, Honeywell will be a 24 year old making his major league debut sometime next season. At worst, Honeywell becomes a #posthype guy who doesn’t get his feet firmly planted in the big leagues until 2020, when he’s 25 years old. Other than the unfortunate recovery time, Tommy John isn’t nearly as disastrous as it was once perceived to be. There’s no reason to assume Honeywell will be worth anything less than the 11.3 K/9, ~2.75 FIP we witnessed last season. Unless there’s an unexpected hiccup during the recovery process, Honeywell remains a low SP #2, high SP #3 who won’t be a major league factor until sometime next season.

19. Mitch Keller, SP, PIT, Age: 22

Keller has become the epitome of the top-tier SP prospect you don’t hear too much about, but he’s never been anything but solid and you should probably pay more attention to him than you currently do. Keller has ‘a strikeout per inning’ potential, he doesn’t walk many batters, he keeps the ball in the field-of-play, and he’s maintained a low ERA, FIP, and xFIP throughout the course of his professional career. The Pirates have enough MLB starter-ish arms to likely keep Keller in the minor leagues for the majority one of more regular season. I’ll get more into this later, but I kind of think the Pirates will exceed expectations this season, thanks in no small-part to the starting rotation. In my dreams, Keller, Jameson Taillon, Tyler Glasnow, Joe Musgrove, and ‘insert name here’ will eventually form one of the best rotations in all of baseball. I think the mystique of Ray Searage has been overplayed recently, but I’m not sure Keller needs much help to reach his full potential. If I have time before Opening Day, I’m going to write a piece on how I believe the ideology of owning pitching prospects should change (it’s already kind of changing?). Simply put, for a couple of different reasons, Keller is a pitching prospect I’d currently acquire if possible. That shouldn’t really have to be said about a top 20 overall prospect, but we’re definitely #shook following the recent Brent Honeywell news.

18. Sixto Sanchez, SP, PHI, Age: 20

The biggest criticism I’ve ever received throughout a prospect list release is that I failed to include Sanchez in my #Top200 prospect list last preseason, and boy do I regret it. On the flip side of me saying that Mitch Keller is a prospect I’d like to acquire stock in, I think Sanchez is actually quite risky despite his high ranking. Honestly, the high ranking plays a fairly large role in the risk. Don’t get me wrong: The risk has absolutely nothing to do with talent. Sanchez won’t be 20 until July, so he could have as many as two full-seasons of development remaining in the minor leagues. That’s a wholeeeeeee lot of time for a pitching prospect to remain linear in their development, regardless of track record. Just saying. Statistically speaking, Sanchez is everything you want in a pitcher: A fastball that tops-out in the triple digits, high strikeouts, low walks, low home runs, etc. and so forth. On paper, the biggest hurdle Sanchez faces is succeeding at a level higher than High-A. He’ll receive that opportunity during the 2018 season, and there’s a chance that Sanchez is the top pitching prospect in baseball heading into next season. Of course, he could also eventually be a cautionary tale as to why it’s extremely risky to acquire top-tier, low-level pitching prospects at a premium price (if you play in a non-dynasty league). I like Sanchez, and I generally like Phillies fans. Here’s to hoping Sanchez continues to develop into the star he appears to be.

17. Bo Bichette, SS, TOR, Age: 20

If you’re not a fan of paying a premium price for a prospect with a funky swing, Bichette likely isn’t your cup of tea. But it’s hard to overstate just how good the legacy was last season, totaling 14 HRs and stealing 22 bases between Low-A and High-A while slashing a ridiculous .362/.423/.565. There’s some concern that Bichette’s unique swing mechanics won’t remain as effective against better competition, but the truth is that Bichette’s on-base numbers could regress to an extent this season without the middle infielder losing too much value. If Bichette continues to overwhelm pitchers in AA and so forth, he could potentially be ranked similarly to how Gleyber Torres currently is (inside of the top 10 across-the-board). For now, the Blue Jays offense is simply inadequate when compared to that of the Yankees and Red Sox. But if Bichette, Anthony Alford and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. can reach their near-full potential (or better), Toronto will be comparable offensively to the teams that featured the younger versions of Josh Donaldson, Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion. All three should officially reach the MLB-level while Marcus Stroman and Aaron Sanchez still have plenty of bullets left in their right arms, which is a scary thought for opposing fans.

16. MacKenzie Gore, SP, SD, Age: 19

High-leg kicks and high ceilings. Not only is that phrase an impressive slogan for a pitching prospect website, it’s also a perfect description of the outlook for the phenom, teenage pitching prospect. Gore was taken third overall in last summer’s MLB draft, and he’s the only pitcher ranked 1-20 who will pitch the entirety of the 2018 season as a teenager. The Padres have Michel Baez, Adrian Morejon, Cal Quantrill, Anderson Espinoza, Eric Lauer, and Logan Allen who ALL have mid-rotation ceilings. Gore has a better floor/ceiling combination than anyone in that group. He certainly fits into the “please be careful” conversation that I detailed when discussing Sixto Sanchez (see above), but it’s hard to contain your excitement over a guy frequently compared to a Jon Lester/Cole Hamels hybrid. Gore will utilize his four-pitch arsenal and above-average command in full-season ball at some point this season (the Padres will look for ways to restrict Gore’s innings when applicable early in his professional career). There’s a fairly-uncrazy path of output that would lead to Gore being baseball’s best pitching prospect this time next season.

15. Walker Buehler, SP, LAD, Age: 24

Including Buehler, two of the next three prospects listed seem to be major success stories on how it’s certainly possible for pitching prospects to overcome the once-dreaded Tommy John surgery. Buehler showed his gargantuan strikeout potential throughout four (yes, four) different levels last season. Beginning in High-A and ending in Los Angeles with the Dodgers, Buehler 125 strikeouts in only 88.2 IP. With last season’s inning total being the highest Buehler has posted during his professional career, the Dodgers will likely restrict Buehler’s workload again this season. The right-hander’s spring timetable has been slowed anyways thanks to back stiffness, so Buehler’s Opening Day status remains blurry at best. Knowing the Dodgers, I’d guess that Buehler will begin the season as a multi-inning reliever before being stretched out and assuming a spot in the Dodgers rotation. Buehler has potential to be a strikeout heavy, low-end #2/elite #3 SP.

14. J.P. Crawford, SS, PHI, Age: 23

The most-patient of fantasy baseball prospect owners are reaping some serious benefits for holding on to Crawford throughout his struggles from time-to-time over the past two seasons. Crawford went on an insane stretch while in AAA last season, recapturing his game power and posting a .351 OBP thanks to possessing one of the most high-disciplined plate approaches in baseball. There’s a pretty substantial difference in value for Crawford depending on whether you play in an AVG-league or OBP-league. The shortstop doesn’t have a track record of posting .300 batting averages, but a delicious walk rate (14.2% BB% in 556 PA last season in AAA) increases his usefulness if your league uses OBP. As I’ve stated, the Phillies are about to reprise their role as a contender in the NL East. Crawford has a golden opportunity to be the face of their contention window. Crawford has .370 OBP/15 HR/10 SB potential, which means he’d be a starting shortstop even in shallow fantasy leagues.

13. Alex Reyes, SP, STL, Age: 23

Much like Buehler, Reyes has overcome receiving a new ligament in his throwing elbow, and now he’s knocking on the door of becoming a stronghold in the big leagues. I wouldn’t trust the Cardinals’ front office to sharpen a pencil (much less manage an entire baseball organization), so I imagine Reyes will play whatever role is the least important for the Cardinals’ pitching staff once he’s officially unleashed shortly after Opening Day. He’s not my 2nd ranked pitching prospect on this list, but I think Reyes has the most potential of any pitcher in my #Top200 list who’s not named Michael Kopech. With his arm troubles hopefully in the rear-view mirror, Reyes’ right wing will continue to get stronger throughout the 2018 regular season. If he progresses fairly linearly, Reyes should clock anywhere from 98-100 MPH regularly as a fixture in the Cardinals rotation next season. Whether he’s utilized as a high-leverage reliever, a multi-inning swingman, or handed a spot in the rotation from the onset, Reyes will hold real-life and fantasy value as soon as he toes the rubber in a regular season game for the first time since the 2016 season.

12. Kyle Tucker, OF, HOU, Age: 21

Is having your swing compared to that of Ted Williams good? That’s been the common comparison for Tucker this spring in Astros camp. I’ve spoken to a couple of scouts who were negatively taken aback by the outfielder’s poor showing last fall in the Arizona Fall League (triple-slash of .214/.305/.310 in 95 PA), but Tucker has silenced the naysayers by dominating in early Spring Training games this preseason. The 21-year-old’s swing is a little more timing-based than most hitters, so it’s feasible to think that Tucker could be a streaky offensive performer against the best pitchers in the world once he reaches the major league level. Most evaluators believe that Tucker won’t replicate his stolen base effectiveness in the big leagues, but I do think he’ll be capable of swiping ~10 bags annually to pair with his .350 OBP/25 HR potential. If Tucker thrives against AAA pitching to being the regular season, it’s possible that he’s a regular for the Astros before July 4th. It’s wild to think that Tucker could eventually be one of the biggest offensive contributors for a big league club who just won the World Series. If you were having doubts, the Astros are here to stay.

11. Francisco Mejia, C, CLE, Age: 22

Ranking a catcher this high on a prospect list can make an evaluator look like a genius or an idiot. In Mejia’s case, I’ll be a genius if he remains locked in at the catcher position. His hit tool will likely remain phenomenal, and his power should continue developing. On the other hand, this ranking will make me look like an imbecile if Mejia gets moved from the catcher position to third base. Sure, the hitting prowess and increasing power will remain. But how much fantasy value does a .320 AVG, 15-20 HR third baseman have? Maybe some, but not nearly as much as a catcher with the same stats. So what’s the future hold? Mejia’s career outlook has been a main topic of conversation between myself and the industry folks I’ve befriended over the last calendar year. I wish I had some breaking news to report, but it’s nearly a 50/50 split between folks who think Mejia will stick as a backstop throughout his career and people who think he projects as a future third baseman. The actuality may lie somewhere in the middle. It’s certainly easy to visualize a scenario in which Mejia plays catcher for the first few seasons of his career before transitioning to a less-taxing defensive position (similarly to what the Indians did with Carlos Santana). Mejia is currently a less-safe own than he would seem, so hopefully we get some thorough clarity relatively soon.

10. Forrest Whitley, SP, HOU, Age: 20

You see Forrest Whitley being suspended 50 games for a violation of the minor league’s drug program policy. I see a golden opportunity to acquire the second-best pitching prospect in baseball. A lot of people will forevermore view Whitley as a bonafide cheater, though the story I’ve been told paints Whitley as a much-less egregious offender than he’s been made out to be. I ranked Whitley 117th last preseason, now he’s in my top 10. If you were bullish on Whitley from the onset, you’re likely reaping the benefits right now. And to be frank, I could care less about Whitley getting nicked with a drug program violation (unless he failed a test for something much more severe than what I’m hearing). He likely wasn’t going to be a factor in Houston throughout the first 50 games anyways, so at worst, this pushes Whitley’s ETA back to the beginning of 2019 instead of the end of 2018. Size-wise, Whitley’s 6’7 240 lb. frame is comparable to A.J. Puk. Statistically, Whitley’s run through three different levels last season is comparable to… nobody. Eventually pitching in front of one of the best defenses (and overall teams) in the major leagues, Whitley has the potential to be the best pitcher on your fantasy team as early as 2020 or 2021.

9. Michael Kopech, SP, CHW, Age: 22

Imagine a fantasy baseball owner who doesn’t prioritize fireballers. You really want that guy to be your friend? Absolutely not. Kopech hangs his hat on the triple digit fastball, but I get the sense that his focus this season will be honing his offspeed offerings in effort to make him a complete pitcher. Kopech’s biggest red-flag heading into last season was his command, but we witnessed it decrease by almost a batter per innings from 2016 to last season (even if it came at the expense of a few strikeouts here and there). Simply put, Kopech is learning how to pitch under the bright lights. As he likely prepares to begin the regular season in AAA, Kopech needs to continue showing his improved command and ability to strikeout batters frequently. For now, Kopech’s ceiling-comp lies somewhere between Noah Syndergaard and Carlos Martinez. You don’t want to know Kopech’s floor comp (but I’ll tell you anyways: It’s a mixture of Tyler Glasnow and a high-leverage reliever). I’m hopeful that Kopech has finally put the ‘character red flag’ worries to rest so we can spend the entirety of the 2018 season pinpointing just how good the right-hander can be. He’s the only starting pitcher in the minor leagues who has a ceiling of a genuine #1 SP (!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!).

8. Nick Senzel, IF, CIN, Age: 23

Just when it seemed like Senzel’s floor couldn’t be higher, the Reds upper-management announced that Senzel would see action in the middle infield to increase his potential versatility defensively at the big league level. Check this: Senzel has one of the highest floors in ALL of baseball. He’ll bat .300 (at least) without breaking much of a sweat as an MLB player, but the question is if he’ll be a 15 HR hitter or a 20 HR hitter. With his offensive ability, I tend to think Senzel will find a way to max out his tools; with that in mind, I could see Senzel posting .325 AVG/20 HR seasons during his prime. The Reds are about to be much better than they’ve been over the past five seasons, and Senzel figures to play a huge role in their uprising. Much like his feature teammate Joey Votto, Senzel is a guy who can easily be under-appreciated because he’ll never be earth-shattering in anything that fair-weathered fans care about. He will, however, play a crucial role in winning fantasy championships throughout the course of the next decade.

7. Gleyber Torres, IF, NYY, Age: 21

I doubt Torres would still be a prospect if he didn’t suffer a freak UCL injury last season, but here we are. The addition of Giancarlo Stanton to an already-loaded Yankees lineup is a nice plus for Torres’ future, seeing as he’ll probably bat in front of Stanton and Aaron Judge once he finally settles in with a big league role. The Yankees have some fascinating decisions to make in regards to Torres. Will he begin the season in AAA or with the big league club? Does he play second base or third base? My best guess is that the Yankees take it slow and let Torres get reaccustomed to game action in the minor leagues to begin the season. Whether it be May or June (or even later), Torres will get the call and become the Yankees everyday second baseman, with the possibility of playing some shortstop or third base depending on performance and injuries. Torres will be one of the main pieces in what’s assumed to be one of the best teams in the leagues for the foreseeable future. It’s fathomable that we see some big-time regression with Didi Gregorious in the near future, which would likely lead to Torres shifting back to his native shortstop position at some point.

6. Brendan Rodgers, SS, COL, Age: 21

Basically an afterthought when compared to the uberathletes listed around him, all Rodgers does is post outrageously good offensive numbers no matter the minor league level he’s playing in. It’s true, Rodgers doesn’t possess the elite athleticism that Fernando Tatis Jr., Victor Robles, and Ronald Acuna possess. But he’s got plenty of functional athleticism (which is my fancy way of saying that Rodgers is ‘just’ athletic enough to get by at his defensive position without becoming a burden), and he certainly has the offensive skillset to be a wonderful asset regardless of his future defensive position. My main long-term concern with Rodgers is his walk rate, though it didn’t stop him from slashing .336/.373/.567 last season between High-A and AA. He’ll likely being the 2018 regular season back in AA, but he has a chance to be a major league player by September. My gut tells me that we saw the absolute best of Trevor Story during the 2016 season, and that Rodgers will eventually assume the everyday shortstop position in Denver. He’s a .300 AVG/25 HR MLB middle infielder who will bat in one of the best offensive lineups in the major leagues. That’ll preach.

5. Fernando Tatis Jr., SS, SD, Age: 19

FTJ was my 126th ranked prospect last preseason. He’s now my 5th ranked prospect. As far as meteoric rises go, Tatis Jr. arguably tops any prospect over the last calendar year. The shortstop threw up a ridiculous 22 HR/32 SB statline last season, but the total value isn’t that far off to what Tatis could eventually be worth at the major league level. Before I was all-in, I ranked FTJ 50th in my midseason top 100 prospect list last season. The player I comped Tatis to? Manny Machado (I’m not the first person to note the similarities). I think Tatis Jr. has an above-average chance of eventually transitioning from shortstop to third base, but the offensive attributes could make FTJ a fantasy superstar regardless of his defensive position. The stolen bases will likely decrease as Tatis Jr. finalizes his physical development, but the power numbers should cap-out near the 30 HR mark. That’s with double-digit stolen bases and a favorable OBP. Get the picture? I think the strikeout rate eventually settles near the 25% mark, which will be a tiny-prick-of-the-finger when you consider the overall value that Tatis Jr. brings to your team. As a six-year-old Cardinals fan, I was listening on FM radio when Fernando Tatis Sr. hit two grand slams in one inning while playing for the Cardinals. His son will live in infamy for much more than a one-inning anomaly.

4. Eloy Jimenez, OF, CHW, Age: 21

I comped Eloy to Nelson Cruz last season, and I still really like the comparison. Others in the industry have compared Jimenez to Kyle Schwarber, which is perplexing until you take into account the fact that Jimenez won’t struggle against southpaws the way the left-handed hitting Schwarber does. Regardless of who he most closely resembles, Jimenez has the potential to someday be a .300 AVG/30 HR big leaguer. That’s elite, and something that only a handful of baseball players on planet Earth can claim. I tend to juggle Jimenez’s ETA, mostly because of the White Sox’ contention window. If he can stay healthy, he’ll almost certainly be capable of being an MLB-regular by some point this summer. With all exterior factors and ulterior motives in play, the worst-case scenario seems to be a cup-of-coffee for Jimenez in 2018 and the opportunity to break camp with Chicago next season. In a league that continues trending toward prioritizing players with massive powers, Jimenez completely fits the profile.

3. Victor Robles, OF, WAS, Age: 21

With all the hype surrounding Ronald Acuna, Robles has somehow become underrated on prospect lists heading into the 2018 season. The truth is, even without the current glitz and glamour that Acuna possesses, Robles has just as much potential with slightly less power. Robles is tooled out, and if Bryce Harper remains with the Nationals following the 2018 season, he’ll bat in one of the best lineups in the league in the early stages of his career. Yes, Bryce Harper’s future status impacts much more than Harper alone. Out of the spotlight for now, the next few weeks is the perfect time for you to check in with your league mate to ensure they’re dead set on keeping the young star. Robles is going to be very good for a very long time. Adam Eaton is expected to be fully-healthy on Opening Day, so Robles will perhaps absorb his last bit of seasoning before receiving a promotion to The Show at some point during the regular season. Robles is a player who may be better in real life than in fantasy, but he’ll be so freakin’ good in real life that he’ll be very, very good in fantasy as well.

2. Vladimir Guerrero Jr., 3B, TOR, Age: 19

Likely the #1 overall prospect next season, the 20-year-old Vladimir Guerrero Jr. has just begun scratching the surface of his potential. He totaled a .323/.425/.485 triple slash with 13 HRs, 76 RBIs and a fantastically low 13.4 K%… all while being, on average, 3.8 years younger than his Low-A and High-A competition. VGJ is still growing and developing physically, and we should begin to see his raw strength more this season. I would be shocked if Guerrero Jr. doesn’t at least threaten (if not surpass) the 20 HR mark in 2018. His future position is a question mark (I tend to think he’ll eventually move from the hot corner to 1B), but he legitimately possesses every necessary offensive tool to be an all star (and hold all star value in fantasy leagues) regardless of his defensive position. I’m not the first person to conjure up this thought, but I could certainly see VGJ’s career take a similar path to Miguel Cabrera’s. If you’re new to baseball, that’s absolutely an upper-echelon compliment.

1. Ronald Acuna, OF, ATL, Age: 20

Mike Trout. That feels almost blasphemous to say, but if Ronald Acuna lives up to the hype and the expectations, his value will be similar to that of the best player in the sport. We’ve come such a long way from following the High-A Florida Fire Frogs Twitter account to track his at-bats and stats. Barring injury, 2018 will be the year we see Acuna don an Atlanta Braves jersey and take his place amongst the exciting up-and-comers in the big leagues. The many nuances of service time likely means he’ll start the season in AAA Gwinnett, but I’d imagine he’ll be an everyday outfielder for the Braves before the end of June. I’m sure pitchers (even in AAA) will make adjustments to Acuna’s tendencies from the 2017 season, so I’m interested to see how he performs from the starting line. You’ve probably read about the Braves reportedly ‘wanting Acuna to wear his hat the correct way’, which is absolutely ridiculous. But my takeaway from that story is that Acuna is viewed in such a light that even the tiniest of things can cause a big stir to some people, which is an honor in a way. This is only my second full season as an amateur baseball evaluator, but Acuna (whose flamboyance can play a role in continuing to usher in a new era in the MLB) is far-and-away the best prospect I’ve evaluated to this point. It’s almost sad that my love affair with ‘prospect’ Ronald Acuna is almost over. It’s been a fantastic ride. Thankfully, my admiration gets to evolve to loving ‘MLB star’ Ronald Acuna. Enjoy his prospect status while you still can, there won’t be many like him.

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Featured image courtesy of MiLB.com

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