It’s early in the season, but several top hitting prospects have already put up some impressive starts to the minor league season. This article will check out the top hitting performers using our ‘Blueberry’ scoring method.
Our ‘Blueberry’ hitter rankings provide a quick tool you can use to size up a hitter’s statistical performance relative to his minor league peers. The Blueberry rankings sort a hitter’s performance by percentile ranks against the rest of qualified minor league hitters in a given season. The Blueberry categories are batting average (AVG), on-base percentage (OBP), slugging average (SLG), stolen bases (SB), and at-bats (AB). Here are 2019’s top Blueberry performers so far:
Josh VanMeter – 99999
He’s not very big (5’11”, 165), and the best single-season HR performance in his career to date is 14 in 2016, but VanMeter showed off some big-time pop in his time with the Louisville Bats this season. It’s safe to say he’s about to post a new career best single-season HR performance, as VanMeter has already launched 13 balls into orbit in 2019. Sure the MLB ball that’s being used in AAA now might have something to do with that power uptick, but no one has had the overall hitting performance that VanMeter has posted so far in 2019, as evidenced by his perfect ‘99999’ showing in our Blueberry scoring.
Before landing a gig with the Toronto Blue Jays, Carson Cistulli wrote up VanMeter as part of his ‘Fringe Five’ prospect series over at FanGraphs. Cistulli’s write-up notes that VanMeter’s breakout really started at the tail end of 2018:
“VanMeter performed particularly well in the concluding days of the campaign, recording walk and strikeout rates of 10.2% and 15.7%, respectively — plus a .310 isolated-power mark — in 127 plate appearances in August and September.”
How long will this cup of coffee last? Matt Thompson of the Prospects Live crew sums up the situation very well:
“The Reds have a wealth of middle infield options in the big leagues and in Triple-A Louisville, so it’s hard to see consistent playing time for VanMeter at the big league level but you can’t blame them for calling upon the hot hand. He’s already done enough to put himself in the Reds plans going forward, but with the return of Scooter Gennett looming it’s that much more difficult to get excited about VanMeter in any re-draft formats of 20 teams or less. He needs to be owned in nearly all dynasty formats though because of what he’s doing with the big league ball in Triple-A. VanMeter was ranked 24th on our preseason Reds Top 30 Prospects list.”
So enjoy him while you can, but probably don’t get too comfortable with locking him into your fantasy lineup just yet. Still, he’s a must own in all dynasty formats, and if you’ve been following our hitting rankings and daily email newsletter, you probably already own him for free (well done!)
Jarred Kelenic – 99999
As if our own Alex “Juicy” Jensen wasn’t excited enough by this preseason workout video:
Having a blast getting ready for #springtraining2019 as a #seattlemariner Check out our youtube channel if you want some behind the scenes https://t.co/VpslW5fCXj #mlb #baseball #seattlemariners #wisconsin pic.twitter.com/NmXHe3Vqzw
— Jarred Kelenic (@JKelenic_1019) February 17, 2019
He’s now got Kelenic’s early ‘99999’ Blueberry line to adore. Just a reminder here: Kelenic is still a teenager and spent his prep years mostly playing travel ball in cold weather Wisconsin. Point being, he might have even more developmental runway to access compared to fellow 2018 draft picks. Which is a scary thought. How will Mets fans live with trading away this potential 5-tool phenom?
Jarred’s father, Tom Kelenic, built an athletic performance facility in Jared’s hometown of Waukesha, WI. The NFL’s Watt brothers, who hail from nearby Pewaukee, train at the Kelenic facility in the offseason. You can tell that Kelenic has put his strength work in, and both his raw power and game power ratings probably need some upward revision from most outlets. His ISO this season is now up to .277, which even outpaces fellow teenage 1st round pick and likely future slugger Nolan Gorman of the Cardinals (.270 ISO).
Jake Cronenworth – 99999
The final ‘99999’ guy on our early season list is Jake Cronenworth, a prospect I am not familiar with. Cronenworth was the Rays’ 7th round choice out of the University of Michigan back in 2015. When first looked at his career minor league performance, the thing that immediately jumped out to me is that he’s consistently posted good to great K:BB ratios in his career. His career MiLB K:BB ratio over 1600+ ABs is 0.71, which is really strong. In 2019, he’s gone even further, combining a 9.1% K-rate with a 14.4% BB-rate. Fantastic plate control.
I’ve got a simple profile I usually look for in hitters which I wrote about last season in the context of what was so extraordinary about Vladimir Guerrero Jr. I look for 1) K:BB ratio at or near 1.0 2) ISO at or above .200 and 3) change in batted ball profile to hit less ground balls (aka an improving ‘green bean’). Cronenworth doesn’t fit the profile exactly, but if he can repeat his 2018 batted ball profile (26% LD – 32% GB – 42% FB) while maintaining something close to his current plate discipline, I bet his 2019 ISO (currently .143) will come along for the ride.
Cronenworth earned a spring training invite this season. In typical Rays fashion, he can play all over the diamond (2B/3B/SS) and of course he pitched in relief (and pitched well!) in college for U of M. I think we will see Cronenworth up with Tampa if one of the club’s other Swiss-army knives goes down with an injury.
Luis Robert – 99998
Robert earned a promotion to AA after just blistering the ball in the Carolina League (.920 SLG, .467 ISO, 8 HR, 8 SB in 19 games). He’s really got the potential to be one of baseball’s top stat sheet stuffers (R, RBI, HR, SB), and might also be one of the minor league’s top overall athletes as well. 2080 Baseball’s Adam McInturff spells it out well:
Robert is a physical specimen, a broad, filled out 6-foot-3 that would look the part on an NFL field. A double-plus athlete, his raw tools are among the loudest in the minor leagues. It starts with power, as his BP sessions draw easy 60s from scouts with raw that could finish as high as a 70-grade tool.
The only blemish on Robert’s ‘Blueberry’ score this season is his ‘8’ for AB score. Ordinarily, this wouldn’t be a huge deal. But a big concern with Robert is whether he’s going to stay healthy enough to live up to his full potential. His professional career has been injury-riddled thus far. Sometimes that just happens when a prime athlete plays this game full tilt as he does.
Steele Walker – 99998
The White Sox picked Walker in the 2nd round of the 2018 draft (paying him an over-slot $2 mil bonus) hoping that, as an advanced college bat, he’d have the opportunity to contribute with the big league club in the team’s next window of contention. Unfortunately for him, Walker dealt with oblique and hamstring injuries throughout 2018, including during his pro debut. Well, it looks like he’s put those injuries behind him and is prepared to mash professional baseballs.
Dan Victor of South Side Sox put together an excellent profile of Walker this offseason that is well worth the read. He’s a bright, coachable, hard-working player that will easily win over the loyal White Sox fanbase. Our own Brenden Gorzelski is a fan, and his writeup on Walker for the White Sox Top-20 Farmhands piece feels awfully prescient:
I think I might’ve found a personal favorite of mine in this system…He has a strong lower half with a beautiful stroke from the left side that should generate good loft on the baseball…I’m excited to see what he can do when healthy in the minors. This is a kid who is going to just keep hitting and with more power than some people expect.
Yonathan Daza – 99997
Venezuelan OF rode the AAA->MLB shuttle a couple of times in April, but he was hitless in 12 big league PAs. At the AAA level, however, Daza has been hitting everything in site, batting .393 for the Albuquerque Isotopes. This shouldn’t come as a big surprise, as Daza actually boasts a career .314 batting average in over 2300 MLB ABs. He’s never hit for much power (last year’s 4 HR matched his single-season high) but Daza makes contact and he can run (stole 31 bags in A+ ball in 2017).
Bobby DeMuro of Baseball Census is bullish on Daza’s future potential:
I hedged for a while between giving Yonathan Daza a 50 FV (average regular) or a 55 FV (above-average regular), and while I think this is on the optimistic side of his ceiling, I’ll put my neck out there on Daza becoming an above-average outfield regular in the big leagues. There are a lot of tools here.
This is the Rockies, so there are a lot of Quad-A hitters lurking about waiting on a playing time opportunity. That being said, Daza might get another run in the big leagues given his solid all-around profile (even when he’s not hitting well). He should be owned in any dynasty format rostering over 200 players.
Ben Ruta – 99997
Ruta was a 30th round selection out of Wagner in the 2016 draft. Ruta was an organizational all-star for the Yankees last season, and his game has taken another step this year by adding more power to his swing. In their 2019 top Yankees prospects list, the FanGraphs prospects crew gave Ruta a Sam Fuld comp. I can see it. He can play all 3 OF spots, runs well (8 for 11 in SB attempts thus far in 2019), and has flashed more doubles-power this season which just adds to his overall value. There’s always the chance that when he hits the MLB/AAA level that the baseball helps turn some of these doubles and long fly balls into HR. His 18:18 K:BB ratio is just icing on the cake as well.
Not sure whether the Yankees view Ruta as a viable fill-in OF option this season. He’s been overpassed by the likes of Mike Tauchman and Cameron Maybin so far, and it’s hard to imagine the Yankees having any more OF injuries than they’ve already had. So Ruta is likely capped as a AAA guy for fantasy purposes this season (and possibly in the future too) if he sticks with the Yankees. Don’t be surprised if he gets himself traded if he keeps hitting like this.
Robert Neustrom – 99995
Neustrom is a RF prospect out of the University of Iowa that was popped by the Orioles in the 5th round last summer. The FanGraphs crew described him as having plus raw power but very limited bat control. Well so far this season, the bat control has been fantastic. He’s posted a 12:12 K:BB ratio in 70 ABs in the A-Full Sally League. Sure, he’s a 22 year-old left-handed power bat, so maybe he should be beating up on the Sally League competition, but it’s still an impressive improvement in his plate approach and batting eye. He’s currently sporting a .427 wOBA.
Neustrom has also flashed great base-stealing ability so far this season, despite his 6’2″, 208 lbs frame. Neustrom is 5-for-5 in SB attempts this year, and he’s hit a triple as well. This SB uptick seems to be out of line with anything he did in college, but he did manage 10 SBs his Sophomore year. It could just be the case of a smart player feasting on an inexperienced A-ball battery.
Cole Tucker – 99995
Tucker’s only Blueberry blemish, a ‘5’ for ABs, is really there because he did so well in his brief minor league stint that he’s played himself into a shot at an MLB job. I think at this time last year, Tucker was viewed by many (most? all?) as an athletic, glove-first SS who would likely steal some bags at the Major League level although he lacked top-end speed. And then, something clicked in the fall of 2018 and he started barreling the ball with authority in the AFL. It carried over really well in AAA to start the season, and he also got to hit with the fancy new aerodynamic AAA baseballs. The result? A .246 ISO, 3 HR, and 5 SB in a brief 13 game AAA stint.
He’s had trouble squaring up the ball in his brief MLB stay (only 1 barrel thus far), but he’s played solid defense and shown some near-elite speed (28.9 ft/s sprint speed according to Statcast, putting him in the 92nd percentile). I’m really rooting for this former 1st round selection to continue fitting the pieces together to become an impact player.
Kyle Isbel – 99995
Kyle was one of the first players that I looked at when I started to prepare my FYPD guide last summer. I thought I was on to something! A secret! It’s mines!
And then everyone else saw the same stuff, articulated it better, and Isbel became a popular prospect due to his average to above-average skill set across the board. Our own Brenden Gorzelski and Alex Jensen ranked him as the #6 overall prospect in the Royals system this offseason. Here’s Brenden’s succinct recap:
Overall I really like Isbel, he’s a player that plays the game hard and it allows his average to above average tools to play up. He might not top 25 homers or SB in a season but there’s a lot to like with this kid. He has the look of an above average big leaguer in my opinion.
We might be underselling the power potential as well. It’s early, but he’s slugging .630 with a .283 ISO and his GB-rate is only around 42%. KC had a great draft in 2018, but if Isbel clicks then it could be a franchise-altering type of draft.