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2016 in review: Preseason top 20 Dodgers prospects

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A season review of the Dodgers’ top 20 prospects heading into 2016

Minor League Baseball: Arizona Fall League-Scottsdale Scorpions at Glendale Desert Dogs
Alex Verdugo held his own as one of the youngest players in the Texas League in 2016.
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

It’s time to put a bow on our 2016 Dodgers prospect coverage with a look back at my pre-season rankings. I’m going to highlight a statement from each player’s profile that either defines the season for the player or highlights an oversight in my judgement in an exercise that I find valuable in shaping how I profile players for the upcoming year. 2017 prospect coverage and player rankings will kick off next week with the largest list yet of prospects I’ve covered in the Dodger organization.

#20 Josh Sborz

“I like him better now than I did when he was drafted, but watching these variables play out in the 2016 season will give us a better idea of Sborz’s true ceiling and future role on the big league club.”

The variables I spoke of in the article were adjustments to Sborz’s delivery and his adjustment to full-time starting in the minors. As the California League Pitcher of the Year, it’s safe to say he’s handled starting just fine. However, my opinion is largely left unchanged, I still think relief offers the most value.

#19 Brendon Davis

“If the strength doesn’t come, though, Davis’ floor of an empty, singles-hitting third baseman won’t have much utility for the Dodgers. Still, he’s a worthy upside gamble with a potentially huge payoff, just don’t expect an immediate breakthrough on the offense.”

Said immediate breakthrough did not come, but don’t look at 2015 as a lost season. Davis showed some spark in the playoffs for Great Lakes and may have done just enough to move on to the Cal League. Davis’ upcoming ranking will say less about him and more about the players that have improved enough to jump him in the rankings.

#18 Ross Stripling

“If he could bump the fastball to 93 mph+ more consistently in relief while sharpening the slider, he could be a real weapon in middle relief. I even believe he has Tyler Clippard-like upside as a relief pitcher that can pitch late in games without a plus fastball but generate high strikeout totals.”

This opinion looks overly optimistic after this past season. I actually think that the guts of the scouting profile on Stripling was one of my more accurate descriptions, but my hunch in relief looks a little off. Stripling is still a serviceable swingman, but risks being crowded out when the next crop of arms arrive.

#17 Micah Johnson

“Questions on his overall power potential and defense might have to be answered before he is seen as something beyond a bench piece and late-game pinch runner. Johnson ranks in the top 20 because he’s close to a finished product and has proven his ability to hit at the highest minor league level.”

That proven ability took a big hit in 2016, with a performance that declined across the board. Johnson’s still got speed, athleticism, and youth on his size, but could soon be facing a tenuous grasp of his roster spot.

#16 Jharel Cotton

“If not relief, Cotton might have as much or more value to the Dodgers as a trade chip. The organization is pretty loaded with right handed starting pitchers that might fit better in relief at roughly the same level of development as Cotton (Josh Sborz, Ross Stripling, Chris Anderson) and others behind him that round out the depth (Scott Barlow, Brock Stewart). “

Some of the comparable names look silly now, but Cotton’s trade chip status was proven in the deal for Rich Hill and Josh Reddick. Cotton’s 2016 was largely uneven before the trade, and the move to Oakland gives him a better chance to stick in a major league rotation.

#15 Mitch Hansen

“Being ranked No. 15 is almost a symbol of the fence riding I’m doing on Hansen as a prospect: if he hits in 2016, I could shove him 10 places higher, and if he doesn’t, he might fall out of the Top 30. That makes it sound like he’s already facing a make-or-break season, but to uphold his potential elite status, that might just be the case.”

I certainly feel better about Hansen after his performance in the Pioneer League, but I’m not ready to change my wait and see approach to his ranking. Hansen likely improved his status on other media lists, but I want to see how he reacts to full season ball before I change my opinion about his prospect status.

#14 Zach Lee

“Should the Dodgers acquire more established starting pitching before spring (as they almost assuredly will), Lee’s value will then swing more in favor of a trade commodity. Either way, he’s capable of pitching 160+ innings competently in the major leagues, with the upside approaching 200 innings while limiting walks and fly balls. It’s not sexy, but to some team, it could be worth two+ wins and help stabilize a rotation.”

A trade with Seattle for Chris Taylor was not quite the commodity I assumed Zach Lee would be, but he didn’t light the Pacific Coast League on fire or force his way to a major league role with either team. He still gets ground balls and limits walks, so still count me as a long-term believer in Lee sticking with some big league team in the future.

#13 Chris Anderson

“He’s ranked as high as he is because the potential is still there for late relief, but next season is a make or break season for Anderson’s prospect value. If Anderson’s best stuff shows itself more frequently in relief, it’s possible that he could make his Dodgers’ debut at the end of the 2016 season.”

It broke. Anderson was bad from the word go last season, struggling to find the strike zone with middling stuff on Opening Day and eventually suffering a demotion to the pen and High-A. His stuff never bounced back to early 2015 levels and at this point, his prospect status is quite dubious.

Yadier Alvarez showed electric stuff in his pro debut in 2016.
Photo credit: Amanda Ray | Great Lakes Loons

#12 Yadier Alvarez

“The biggest issue, as mentioned, is that the unknowns are significant and the experience is not. 2016 should bring both issues closer together, and hopefully by the time it’s time to write the 2017 edition, we’ll have a better idea of the type of talent we have here, but expectations are that it’s immense.”

I also stated in his profile that I expected my ranking to be conservative and boy was it. The Dodgers moved slowly with Alvarez but he did not disappoint once he took the mound and climbed the ladder to Low-A. All reports suggest his stuff is elite and Alvarez is one of the brightest stars in the system.

#11 Willie Calhoun

“...I’ll admit I’m playing a hunch on Calhoun, but I’m buying big into his potential. The bar to reach to play a competent second base is not tremendously high, and Calhoun’s offensive potential will carry his defensive shortcomings.”

It’s still true that the bar for competent second base defense is not tremendously high, but Calhoun is on path to fall short of that. I still believe in the bat, and he has plenty of time to address his defensive shortcomings, but I can’t significantly change his prospect profile because the question marks on his long-term position still loom large.

#10 Trayce Thompson

“Should Thompson exhibit no further improvement, his best case outcome would be the player that matches his Triple-A from last season, being a .260/.310/.440 hitter with above average defense at a few positions. That alone could make him a one to two win player in a bench/platoon role for next season.”

Injury and the BABIP monster kept him short of these numbers, but the bench/platoon role was sorely missed in the second half of the season. He looked like a valuable contributor before injury and his healthy return is vital to the 2017 team.

#9 Frankie Montas

“While he could spend some time in Triple-A this season as part of the junior Dodgers’ rotation, Montas is ready for use in a major league pen. Commanding the fastball will be the difference in Montas just being a middle reliever to becoming the sole heir to Kenley Jansen’s throne, if not even more.”

It did not matter which quote I decided to pull for Montas, we hardly saw enough of him healthy to make any grand statement about his time in the organization before he was traded. Oakland appears set on trying him in the rotation, likely only delaying his inevitable move to the pen.

#8 Alex Verdugo

“As exciting a hit tool as Verdugo possesses, we still have to temper our enthusiasm based on fit. His best case scenario for me is an an above average right fielder that can hit .290+ with 10-15 home runs and provide value defensively.”

Like Stripling, I feel like the Verdugo profile was one of my more accurate depictions this year. Alex had no trouble making contact against Double-A pitchers, but his power still lags behind his potential, and his game swing and plate approach last season were rarely in line to tap into it. Verdugo was still young for the Texas League and his prospect status and potential remain intact.

#7 Cody Bellinger

“While he should find the offensive environments less friendly, Tulsa has proven kind to left-handed power hitters in the past, with a short fence lining the bullpens in right field. While I don’t quite expect another .270 isolated slugging from him, I would consider a number above .200 to be another successful season for Bellinger.”

Bellinger had a .225 ISO in Tulsa, but the short right field fence comment under sells his power. Bellinger had seven home runs from left field to the right center gap, and his double chart sprays to all fields. Bellinger’s raw numbers didn’t stand out like his California League numbers, but he’s become a better prospect in Double-A.

Division Series - Los Angeles Dodgers v Washington Nationals - Game Five
Austin Barnes found his way onto the Dodgers roster during the NLDS.
Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

#6 Austin Barnes

“If he makes the 2016 team, it will likely be in a pseudo-utility role, but he could be just as valuable long term to the franchise spending the year working with the prospect laden pitching staff in Oklahoma City. Obviously, Barnes is first in line for a call up should Grandal or Ellis spend time on the disabled list, and he could eventually supplant Ellis in a backup role if Ellis hits like the 2014 version.”

Ellis did hit like 2014 Ellis but it wasn’t Barnes who supplanted him. The reason was partly timing, but Barnes simply didn’t hit in his limited appearances and merely tread water at the Triple A level. I’m not trying to come down overly harsh on Barnes, and he’s very much in the 2017 picture, I was just hoping that he would bang the door down in 2016.

#5 Walker Buehler

“ If Buehler can return to the mound in the fall of 2016, the Dodgers might be able to fast track him in 2017, giving him quick stops at both A levels before finishing the year in Double-A… If Buehler recovers as expected, he will be a vital cog in the next wave of pitching prospects as Jose De Leon and Julio Urias look to graduate soon.”

Buehler made it back before the season ended, and though limited, his velocity was back up to his sophomore season levels. I still believe the former part of this statement and expect Buehler to fast track through the system. He and Alvarez make a tantalizing pair as part of the “next wave.”

#4 Jose De Leon

“De Leon’s three-pitch mix, with no pitch worse than average and two pitches at or nearing plus is good enough for a number three profile with plus strikeout potential.”

The two pitches nearing plus were the fastball and change-up, though the change lagged behind upon his big league call-up and the slider was the more valuable second pitch. De Leon put up big strike out numbers in Triple-A and he’s proven everything he can at the minor league level, but he’s in a crowded group of young arms looking to carve a role in 2017.

#3 Grant Holmes

“Grant Holmes will face a stiffer challenge in the offensive environments of the California League. He will need to continue suppressing home runs while reining in his command to have the success that befits his 80-grade ceiling.”

This ceiling grade was just too lofty. Holmes handled the California League just fine for a prospect, but did not dominate to the level you would expect from a prospect with elite potential. Holmes was obviously valuable enough to be the centerpiece of the Dodgers’ biggest deadline deal, but he would not have stayed this high in the rankings had he been retained.

#2 Julio Urias

“Here is where I find my first major hang-up with Urias: I often struggle with the idea that Urias’ polish might just make him a close-to-finished product much earlier in the development process, and thusly, isn’t likely to see a significant gain simply from maturing… The flip side of this coin is the empirical evidence suggesting that players Urias’ age stand to make significant gains over the next four years… Hedging these two lines of thinking, I see Urias’ best case ceiling is that of an elite number two starter (assuming that only 10-15 pitchers in a given year can be considered "number ones.")“

If you were to pin me down right now, I still say his ceiling is elite two, but he almost pitched to this ceiling in the Major Leagues as a 20-year-old. I would have dealt Urias during the season for Chris Sale straight up if it were my call, but I’m also not sure I could completely defend my position. Whatever we learn from Urias, he’s still an extreme outlier, so if you think he will be a future ace, I can’t argue with conviction that you will be wrong.

#1 Corey Seager

“Long term, Seager is obviously a heart-of-the-order stalwart and should be the face of the franchise in his prime. Should he hold his own defensively at shortstop, Seager could quite possibly be one of the most valuable players in the National League over the next five years.”

The 2016 Fangraphs NL fWAR leaders:

1. Kris Bryant
2. Corey Seager

He’s already reached this projection in his rookie year and none of it feels like a fluke. Seager will enter 2017 as the reigning Rookie of the Year and possibly the MVP runner-up, and next to Clayton Kershaw, the face of the Dodgers’ franchise.