Presenting the 2017 Yahoo Sports All-Minor League Team, led by a pair of 19-year-old players of the year whose two-league jumps embodied their leaps toward the top of prospect lists. The remaining players are not some makeshift prospect ranking but rather an ode to the best performers in the minor leagues this year, with an emphasis on those who played particularly well for their age at their level.
Player of the Year: Ronald Acuna, OF (AAA/AA/A+, Atlanta) – What Acuna did in blazing through the Braves’ system this season was not only unprecedented but uncanny: As he faced better pitching, he actually improved. It’s not like he was mediocre in A-ball, where he OPS’d .814. The Braves understood there was more there, particularly when examining his exit velocities, which are not just good for minor leaguers but, should they hold, will be truly elite in the major leagues, just behind the Giancarlo Stantons and Aaron Judges of the world. They played at Double-A, as Acuna’s OPS jumped to .895. That was plenty for Atlanta to push the center fielder to Triple-A, where he hit .344 with a .940 OPS. His total season line: .325/.374/.522 with 21 home runs, 82 RBIs and 44 stolen bases. Acuna can cut down on his strikeouts (144 in 557 ABs), but for someone who doesn’t even turn 20 until December, that’s nitpicking. He’s a star – and soon.
Pitcher of the Year: Forrest Whitley (AA/A+/A, Houston) – The text came from a scout in mid-May: “Just saw Forrest Whitley. He’s the best pitching prospect in baseball.” Others had the high-draft-pick pedigree, others yet the overwhelming velocity, but Whitley’s consistent excellence over the course of his first full season proved that scout prophetic. When the Astros drafted him with the 17th pick last year, they were giddy at the possibilities within the 6-foot-7, 240-pound right-hander. Over 92 1/3 innings, Whitley struck out 143 hitters and allowed just five home runs. Once promoted to High-A, his walk rate stabilized, and the control and command joined him in Double-A as well, where he has punched out 26 in 14 2/3 innings. Whitley turns 20 next week and, like Acuna, should make his major league debut before he can take a drink legally.
C: Francisco Mejia (AA, Cleveland) – For the second straight year, Mejia is the first-team catcher, and as he joins the Indians for the stretch run, he’s the most highly regarded catching prospect to debut in the big leagues since … Buster Posey? If you don’t count Jesus Montero – and you shouldn’t – then Mejia, his special bat and his lightning-bolt arm qualifies. The Indians have Yan Gomes and Roberto Perez, and that’s all well and good, but a 21-year-old, switch-hitting, .300-batting catcher who can throw out runners at a 30 percent-plus clip is someone who bludgeons his way into a lineup that’s already pretty damn good.
Victor Caratini (AAA, Chicago Cubs)
Aramis Garcia (AA/A+, San Francisco)
Carson Kelly (AAA, St. Louis)
Jake Rogers (A+/A, Detroit)
Keibert Ruiz (A+/A, Los Angeles Dodgers)
1B: Ryan McMahon (AAA/AA, Colorado) – Yes, getting to play more than half your games in the Pacific Coast League is going to help your numbers, but McMahon’s .355/.403/.583 line wasn’t purely PCL-driven. Aside from a down 2016, the 22-year-old has been crushing ever since the Rockies took him out of high school in 2013, and more and more he’s looking like their first baseman of the future. For now, the power is still more gap than home run, but so was Matt Holliday’s and Nolan Arenado’s in the minor leagues, and, well, we see how that turned out.
Garrett Cooper (AAA/AA, New York Yankees)
Rhys Hoskins (AAA, Philadelphia)
A.J. Reed (AAA, Houston)
Dominic Smith (AAA, New York Mets)
Christian Walker (AAA, Arizona)
2B: Bo Bichette (A+/A, Toronto) – Is it cheating to put Bichette, who has played more than 85 percent of his games at shortstop this season, at second base? Perhaps. But he was so good this year, it felt wrong to include him as an honorable mention, and he may well wind up at second in the major leagues, so here he is, with a .362/.423/.565 line across two levels. The fact that Bichette will be 19 until next spring is a plus, too, and gives the Blue Jays time to cultivate a swing that’s unorthodox but, with a .372 career average in more than 500 minor league at-bats, obviously effective.
Scott Kingery (AAA/AA, Philadelphia)
Yoan Moncada (AAA, Chicago White Sox)
Max Schrock (AA, Oakland)
Nick Solak (AA/A+, New York Yankees)
Luis Urias (AA, San Diego)
SS: Fernando Tatis Jr. (AA/A, San Diego) – Here’s another teenager, and this one is even younger: Tatis played all year at 18 years old and finished in Double-A, where he didn’t look altogether overmatched. Most of his damage was done in the Midwest League, where he walloped 21 home runs, stole 29 bases and, perhaps best of all, drew 75 walks. Tatis’ power and patience are preternatural, and it wouldn’t be much of a surprise to see him at the top of this column next year – or the top of prospect lists, either. Imagine what the White Sox’s loaded system would look like had they not included him in a deal for – gulp – James Shields.
Willy Adames (AAA, Tampa Bay)
Franklin Barreto (AAA, Oakland)
Nick Gordon (AA, Minnesota)
Brendan Rodgers (AA/A+, Colorado)
Cole Tucker (AA/A+, Pittsburgh)
3B: Vladimir Guerrero Jr. (A+/A, Toronto) – Speaking of precocious players, the 19-year-old son of the soon-to-be Hall of Famer is as unique a player as there is in the minor leagues. He’s got plenty of raw power, and it’s starting to show up in games. He has a freakish ability to make contact in an era where so few can. And he walks like a madman, too, giving him a .425 on-base percentage, the highest among minor league players with at least 100 games this season. Guerrero’s overall slash line of .323/.425/.485 doesn’t illustrate how good a prospect he really is. Maybe the best in the game already.
Miguel Andujar (AAA/AA, New York Yankees)
Michael Chavis (AA/A+, Boston)
Rafael Devers (AAA/AA, Boston)
Yandy Diaz (AAA, Cleveland)
Nick Senzel (AA/A+, Cincinnati)
OF: Ronald Acuna
OF: Eloy Jimenez (AA/A+, Chicago White Sox)
OF: Austin Hays (AA/A+, Baltimore)
Jimenez joins Mejia as two-time first-teamers, and his spot comes despite missing the beginning of the season with a bum shoulder. He looked good for the Cubs upon his return and really has cranked things up since joining the White Sox, hitting .345/.410/.682 at High-A Winston-Salem and .353/.397/.559 in 18 games since his promotion to Double-A Birmingham. Jimenez is still just 20, and he’s got star written all over him. He could arrive next season. The White Sox may pump the breaks, knowing 2018 is going to be something of a mess, and save his arrival for 2019, when they’re ready to unleash the monster that’s brewing in their system.
Hays made the rare A-ball-to-the-majors-in-one-season jump with his call-up this week. It came barely a year since the Orioles took him in the third round of the draft, a much-needed boost to a farm system that needed it. Hays’ numbers were almost identical between High-A and Double-A, and he finished the year slashing .329/.365/.593 with 32 home runs and 95 RBIs. Though he played center field in the minor leagues, he projects as a corner outfielder, and that’s perfectly fine. If he can hit anything like he did on the come up, the fear of Baltimore cratering after the free-agent Class of 2018 might not be so acute.
Harrison Bader (AAA, St. Louis)
Lewis Brinson (AAA, Milwaukee)
Daz Cameron (A, Detroit)
Franchy Cordero (AAA, San Diego)
Yusniel Diaz (AA, Los Angeles Dodgers)
Derek Fisher (AAA, Houston)
Estevan Florial (A+/A, New York Yankees)
Jahmai Jones (A+/A, Los Angeles Angels)
Brett Phillips (AAA, Milwaukee)
Victor Robles (AA/A+, Washington)
Jesus Sanchez (A, Tampa Bay)
Taylor Trammell (A, Cincinnati)
Kyle Tucker (AA/A+, Houston)
Alex Verdugo (AAA, Los Angeles Dodgers)
DH: Willie Calhoun (AAA, Texas) – This spot did not exist on previous teams. Calhoun is such a good hitter, he forced it. In a story that sounds apocryphal but apparently is true, a scout asked Calhoun what position he plays. Calhoun’s response: “3-hole,” as in the No. 3 spot in the lineup. Calhoun really is that good a hitter, with unbelievable – in the most literal sense of the word – power for someone who stands 5-foot-6. He was the showpiece in the Yu Darvish deal, and soon enough he’s going to be one of the most entertaining players in baseball, whether it’s in the 3-hole or otherwise.
Honorable mention: Keston Hiura (A, Milwaukee)
SP: Forrest Whitley
SP: Jon Duplantier (A+/A, Arizona)
SP: Alec Hansen (AA/A+/A, Chicago White Sox)
SP: Corbin Burnes (AA/A+, Milwaukee)
SP: Zack Littell (AA/A+, Minnesota)
Duplantier pitched only one inning because of elbow troubles after the Diamondbacks drafted him in the third round out of Rice last season. Expectations weren’t terribly high for the now-23-year-old right-hander, as he started the season in Class A. Then he went all of April without giving up an earned run and did so in nine of his first 10 starts. Even more impressive: He was almost every bit as good following a promotion to the Cal League, and his 1.39 ERA across both levels led the minor leagues. Had he not been old for his level, he would’ve been Pitcher of the Year. He’ll have another chance next season – and he could find himself in the big leagues, too.
Once considered a favorite for the top pick in the 2016 draft, Hansen dropped to the second round, where the White Sox gladly snatched him up with the 49th pick. It may be the steal of the draft. Hansen’s 191 strikeouts this season led the minor leagues, and in an organization laden with potential frontline starters, he has positioned himself as arguably the best next to Michael Kopech. At 6-foot-7 and 235 pounds, the right-handed Hansen should start next season at Double-A and eventually join Kopech, Carlos Rodon, Lucas Giolito and Reynaldo Lopez for some kind of a young rotation.
Even in the Brewers’ deep system, Burnes leaps out as a favorite. Like Hansen, he looks a total steal, grabbed in the fourth round last year by Milwaukee. And like Hansen, he finished a phenomenal season at Double-A, blowing a 95-mph fastball by hitters and allowing just three home runs in more than 140 innings. The Brewers are threatening to make the postseason this season, and considering the number of excellent prospects they’ve got on the way, they may be the biggest threat for the Cubs not just this year but for the next few.
Compared to others on this list, Littell is not much of a prospect. He’s a 21-year-old right-hander whose fastball sits below 90 mph and whose other pitches don’t inspire hosannas. That said, it’s impossible to deny Littell’s 2017: Between his time with the Yankees and Twins, who acquired him in the Jaime Garcia trade, Littell went 19-1 with a 2.12 ERA. No, his strikeout rates weren’t gaudy, but rare are those from a guy who tops out at 91. Littell just pitched and pitched damn well, and that’s well worthy of recognition.
Chance Adams (AAA, New York Yankees)
Rogelio Armenteros (AAA/AA, Houston)
Michel Baez (A, San Diego)
Shane Bieber (AA/A+/A, Cleveland)
Walker Buehler (AAA/AA/A+, Los Angeles Dodgers)
Dylan Cease (A, Chicago White Sox)
Dane Dunning (A+/A, Chicago White Sox)
Jack Flaherty (AAA/AA, St. Louis)
Tyler Glasnow (AAA, Pittsburgh)
Luiz Gohara (AAA/AA/A+, Atlanta)
Stephen Gonsalves (AAA/AA, Minnesota)
Merandy Gonzalez (A+/A, Miami)
Brent Honeywell (AAA/AA, Tampa Bay)
Mitch Keller (AA/A+, Pittsburgh)
Michael Kopech (AAA/AA, Chicago White Sox)
Tyler Mahle (AAA/AA, Cincinnati)
Triston McKenzie (A+, Cleveland)
Freddy Peralta (AA/A+, Milwaukee)
Franklin Perez (AA/A+, Detroit)
JoJo Romero (A+/A, Philadelphia)
Justus Sheffield (AA, New York Yankees)
Mike Soroka (AA, Atlanta)
Joey Wentz (A, Atlanta)
Bryse Wilson (A, Atlanta)
RP: Gabriel Moya (AA, Minnesota) – The truth about minor league relievers is that most don’t make a big impact in the major leagues. Look at big league rosters, and most of the relievers are failed starters. Moya did that already, bombing out in rookie ball before the Diamondbacks converted the left-hander to the bullpen, where in 145 1/3 innings since he has a 1.30 ERA. This season, between the Diamondbacks and the Twins – who acquired him for backup catcher John Ryan Murphy – Moya has a 0.77 ERA with 87 strikeouts in 58 1/3 innings. His stuff isn’t overwhelming, but he may still be the rare sort who makes the transition to relief early and is good enough to crack a big league roster.
Trevor Bettencourt (A+/A, Philadelphia)
J.D. Hammer (A+/A, Philadelphia)
Richard Lovelady (AA/A+, Kansas City)
Dakota Mekkes (A+/A, Chicago Cubs)
Adonis Uceta (AA/A+/A, New York Mets)