Less-Heralded Hitting Prospects I Like in 2024

Rob Schumacher/The Republic / USA TODAY NETWORK

Hey there, and welcome to the last edition of my data-driven look at some mid-tier hitting prospects I like more than the industry consensus. It feels weird, almost funereal, to start this article by mentioning that the series is ending, but that’s just how it is. This will be the fourth installment of my variably named Prospect Week contribution. In it, I use data and a big pinch of intuition to point out some hitters who I think have a good chance of sticking in the majors, even if they’re not your average Top 100 type.

In the past, I’ve done acceptably well at this; I don’t think it’d be fair to say that I’m great at it, but I’ve come up with my fair share of interesting players using this process. In looking through my past lists, I feel good about the process that led me to some guys you’ve heard of (Miguel Vargas and Ezequiel Tovar are probably my biggest hits so far, but I’ve also gotten some role players, and both Gabriel Moreno and Alejandro Kirk performed incredibly well by my model, though I didn’t end up including them in a list thanks to their pedigree) and plenty you haven’t.

What’s so hard about this project? The obvious thing is that my methods are archaic. I’m using some sorting techniques that are still reasonably current. K-nearest neighbors and multiple binary logistic regressions are still my two favorite techniques, and I think they both still do what I want them to. These approaches aren’t state of the art in statistical analysis, but they’re not particularly far from it, especially when you take into account that I’m a baseball writer instead of a data scientist.

That said, I’m using those methods on data that’s inherently limited. My method takes past data from minor leaguers and looks for patterns among the ones who panned out into big leaguers. Then it tries to predict which current prospects are most likely to follow similar trajectories based on their own data. Inherently, that means I’m limiting myself to data that both existed in the past and does currently, and that means publicly available data too.

Ten years ago, that might have been just fine. Public-side analysts were largely working with publicly available data, and in any case, it’s not like teams had far superior sources of their own. If you’re all working with similar data and tough-to-calibrate live looks, it’s easy enough to get a leg up by taking an outside perspective. Sometimes, not being captive to pre-existing ideas is helpful when everyone is working with the same numbers.

Everyone isn’t working with the same numbers anymore, though. Teams are collecting far more data than ever before; Statcast data is public for Triple-A, and teams are using their own Trackman units to collect similar data across every level of the minors. Public-side analysts get non-comprehensive looks at this information, and I’m certainly capable of scrounging some of that up too, but despite a few semi-rigorous attempts, I haven’t been able to use it to build a useful predictive framework yet.

Why is this so bad? Well, it’s not that big of a problem for my method, which is about as effective as ever, which is to say “somewhat.” The bigger problem from the point of view of this series is that prospect evaluation has taken huge leaps forward in the past half-decade while I’m standing still. In 2021, I bemoaned the change in analytical priorities that had tucked Moreno, who might have been overlooked in previous years, into the back end of our Top 100. Three years later, that feels quaint. Tons of the guys I’m interested in, who might have escaped notice in past years, are getting more buzz now. Evan Carter has been my model’s darling for two straight years, but the industry loves him too (and rightly so). Edgar Quero isn’t far behind in the model’s estimation, but he’s too good of a prospect to fit this list. Adael Amador and Jeferson Quero, who both just made our Top 100, are my kinds of guys.

This year, the top 15 prospects this method spit out are either on our Top 100 list or already in the majors (I’m looking at 2023 minor league stats, so mid-season call-ups who are no longer prospect eligible sometimes pop up). That’s way more than in previous years. Out of the top 30 prospects that came back, I only count one who hasn’t been a Top 100 prospect somewhere at some point. Prospect analysis is just too dang good these days, in other words.

That doesn’t mean I won’t keep trying to understand prospects and anticipate who might break out, but I think this exercise has run its course. Until I can figure out some new angle, I don’t think I’m adding enough value anymore. Eric Longenhagen, Tess Taruskin, and their counterparts across the internet are just too good at combining the data I’m using with sources and their own looks to come up with excellent lists. Sitting in my (metaphorical) basement and typing some numbers into a computer just doesn’t give the same kinds of edges in the past. I’m happy with that — because I’m a prospector only as a side hustle and I love to see the main group get better and better — it just makes this list feel unnecessary.

So without further ado, let’s get to it. Here are five hitters who I think are (somewhat) undervalued by the prospect community as a whole, with all the paragraphs up above as caveats. And a quick mention before I get there: I excluded Vaughn Grissom and Mark Vientos because they’ve exhausted prospect eligibility, though I think they’re both still intriguing players. I also left out Edwin Arroyo, Kyle Manzardo, Tyler Black, Owen Caissie, and Juan Brito. Caissie made the back end of our Top 100, and the rest are on at least a couple of other Top 100 lists, so I think they’re too heralded to really fit what I’m trying to do here.

Jorge Barrosa, OF, Arizona Diamondbacks
Relevant Stats: Barrosa turned 23 years old three days ago. He spent his age-22 season posting a near-.400 OBP in Triple-A. He popped 13 homers and a boatload of doubles and triples to compile an ISO comparable to those of true power hitters. I say that because Barrosa is listed at 5-foot-5, 165 pounds. I think he’s taller than that now from looking at some video, but the point is, he’s a little guy. He’s a switch-hitter who plays plus defense in center field.

What I Like: He’s a .400 OBP type who plays plus center field defense. What else do I have to say? Barrosa has the premium bat control you’d expect from someone with such short levers, and he’s walked nearly as often as he’s struck out for the last two years. His game power isn’t embarrassing, either; his batted ball data is below average but comfortably ahead of Victor Scott II, to pick another glove-first center fielder with a power deficit, and Scott just made our Top 100. He’s also done all of that at levels he’s young for.

Warning Signs: If Barrosa can’t punish major league pitches for at least gap-to-gap power, his gaudy on-base skills could erode quickly. He walked 16% of the time in Triple-A, but 5% wouldn’t be out of the question if he can’t do damage against middle-middle fastballs. Hitters who get to big on-base numbers via bat control and selectivity tend to struggle to keep it up in the majors without power, and that’s a huge risk here. His frame inherently limits his upside; Barrosa is never going to be a 30-homer guy. His defense and baserunning will have a lot to say about whether he can contribute like a major league regular. That’s a lot of pressure to put on a player who stole just 15 bases and got caught seven times in 2023. It doesn’t help that Arizona’s big league club is absolutely stacked with plus defensive outfielders.

Darell Hernaiz, 2B/SS, Oakland Athletics
Relevant Stats: Hernaiz hit .338/.393/.486 in Double-A Midland last year, leading to a mid-season promotion to Triple-A. He continued to hit for average there, but his power output came down significantly, leading to a .300/.376/.418 line. He did all of that in his age-21 season while playing good shortstop defense, and a smattering of second and third as well.

What I Like: Hernaiz has a lot in common with Barrosa. He’s compact but still delivers average power thanks to excellent bat-to-ball skills. That gift for making good contact also limits his strikeouts; he’s a freer swinger than Barrosa, but still makes good decisions overall. They both play good defense at important defensive positions, which is a great way to stick in the majors even while your bat takes a while to develop. It doesn’t hurt that Hernaiz is on the A’s; we’re currently projecting him as their starting shortstop on Opening Day. It’s a lot easier to stick in the majors as a mid-tier prospect when there are no obvious stars blocking your way.

Warning Signs: Hernaiz’s decreased power production in Triple-A is exactly what you don’t want to see for a player with his particular profile. You don’t have to look further than the guy he’s replacing, Nick Allen (a former member of this list), to see what could happen if things don’t work out. All the defense and plate discipline in the world can’t make up for a complete inability to do damage; Allen continually shreds the minors, but he’s been abysmal as a major league hitter. That’s how Hernaiz will fail if he does.

Thomas Saggese, 2B, St. Louis Cardinals
Relevant Stats: Saggese torched Double-A at age 21, hitting .313/.379/.512 as a Rangers farmhand and then .331/.403/.662 at Springfield after being traded to the Cardinals in the Jordan Montgomery deal. He had a disappointing finish to the season in 63 Triple-A plate appearances, but still hit 26 homers on the year against advanced competition. He also swiped 12 bases while only being caught twice. He spent more time at second base than anywhere else, but he can handle third as well, and he even played a tiny bit of shortstop as an emergency option.

What I Like: Saggese isn’t much bigger than the guys above him on the list, but he has thump that they can only dream of. His top-end exit velocity numbers would look right at home in the majors, and that’s as a 21-year-old, so there’s room to grow there. He isn’t an impeccable judge of the strike zone, but he’s a fly ball hitter who goes up to the plate knowing what he wants to do and has the power to make that work. I expect him to strike out quite a lot in the majors without walking a ton, but to do so while hitting for legitimate plus power at a middle infield spot. He’s probably not ticketed for the majors in 2024 thanks to a logjam at second base on the big league club, but the Cardinals are good at finding places for minor leaguers who produce offensively, and Saggese’s versatility means it’ll be easy to shoehorn him in somewhere if he continues to smash this season. Don’t just take my word for it, though; he was one of Tess’ Picks to Click as someone in contention for next year’s Top 100.

Warning Signs: Saggese struck out quite a lot for a guy without plus raw power. He can certainly leave the yard, but it feels like that skill might be balanced on a razor’s edge. If he strikes out more in the big leagues in pursuit of power, the whole skill set might fall apart. If he tones down his aggression to limit strikeouts, he might not hit for enough thump. There are a lot of ways it can go wrong, though the upside is clearly high. Saggese was up to the task in 2023, but there’s a difference between roughing up the Texas League and doing it in the majors.

Moises Ballesteros, C, Chicago Cubs
Relevant Stats: Ballesteros turned 20 in December after spending 2023 tearing through the minors. He simply looked too good for Low- and High-A as a 19-year-old before ending the season with a brief Double-A cameo. He walked nearly as often as he struck out, laced doubles to all fields, and ended up with double-digit home runs. He did all of that while catching at least passably well.

What I Like: He’s a 20-year-old catcher who can hit against older competition. It’s not exactly complicated. He’s another little guy, though with the thick frame you’d expect for a catcher, but he cranks out ludicrous power. I’m cheating a little bit by including him here, even; he made the tail end of a few Top 100 lists this year, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s on ours in a mid-season update. Hit the ball as hard as Ballesteros does, at such a young age, and you almost certainly have the raw power to make it work in the majors. Do it as a catcher with plus batting lines against older competition, and you might be a star in the making.

Warning Signs: (Lack of) proximity is the biggest one. There’s plenty of time for Ballesteros to wash out at catcher, or for his approach to run out of steam against tougher competition. He hits the snot out of the ball, with impressive batted ball data even if you ignore how young he is, but that kind of power from someone his size always feels a little tenuous, and if he isn’t a catcher, he’s a positionless defender, which means his bat will have to carry a huge burden. I think that’s a manageable risk, but it’s undoubtedly a risk.

Justyn-Henry Malloy, 3B, Detroit Tigers
Relevant Stats: Malloy played the entire 2023 season at Triple-A Toledo and hit .277/.417/.474 with 23 homers. He walked 18% of the time while striking out 25% of the time, and played what I’ll optimistically call fringe-average defense at third base and in both outfield corners.

What I Like: Malloy is pretty different from the hitters who make up most of the list (namely undersized up-the-middle types who I’m hoping will continue to generate power despite an uphill battle on that front). Malloy has thunderous raw power; when he squares a pitch up, the result would look right at home in the majors, and he sprayed hard contact all over the field with great frequency in 2023. He’s also a good judge of the strike zone, which meshes well with his power; if pitchers stay away from him, he doesn’t chase. Plenty of corner-only guys in the majors survive on plus power despite middling on-base numbers driven by strikeout issues; Malloy could be just that kind of hitter.

Warning signs: He has below-average contact skills, as you can see from his high strikeout rate despite good selectivity. That makes for a scary downside; pitchers are already beating him in the strike zone to the tune of a 25% strikeout rate in the minors. What might major league pitchers do against that kind of whiff-heavy swing? His bat truly needs to work, too; there’s no defensive value to be found here. At 24, he’s also hardly a young guy with plenty of time to grow into his swing; at this point, the cement is likely dry. Getting by in the majors on true outcomes alone is risky; Malloy will have to be a real power threat to make it work, which is why he’s the fifth person on this list instead of the first.

I really do think that these five hitters have a good chance of reaching the major leagues and sticking around for a while. All five have skill sets that have frequently panned out for minor leaguers, and with the exception of Malloy, they have age and positional value working in their favor too.

If this list feels less bold and daring than previous lists, well, I’m in agreement with you on that. I had heard of all five of these guys before starting my research for this project, which is not how I’ve normally operated. Like I said, though, the world is just getting better at evaluating the kind of players I find most interesting. If you get on base a ton with playable power numbers at a young age, people will notice. That’s a feature of modern prospect analysis, not a bug, and I’m very excited to be able to look at batted ball data for minor leaguers to back up what I’m seeing in the raw statistics. I’m looking forward to playing around with minor league Statcast data as it becomes more easily available. I hope that in a few years’ time, I’ll have some different way of doing this series. But for now, these five hitters are my last shot at beating the market, as it were.

Ben is a writer at FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.

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2 months ago

I don’t know what the model does to account for park effects but I’m pretty sure it’s not adjusting for the D-Backs’ affiliates enough for Barrosa. Every pitcher looks way worse and every hitter looks way better at both AA and AAA, even beyond the rest of the league (which itself is pretty hitter-friendly). I think the Reno Aces are the most offense-friendly stadium in the minors and the Sod Poodles are in the Top 5.

Some of that concern also applies to Hernaiz. The Aviators are a very homer-friendly stadium, so you would expect anyone’s power to be exaggerated at their Triple-A affiliate, even compared to the rest of the league. I’m not as sure about their AA affiliate, though.

2 months ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

With a max EV of 112 and decent hard-hit rate Hernaiz seems to have untapped power potential, despite underwhelming performance in Vegas. I wonder if he can get into the 15-18 HR range if he can swap some of his GB for FB.

2 months ago
Reply to  josephd10

I don’t know how easy that’s going to be. I’m not sure he has to, though–might be a regular even without it. Right now ZiPS sees him more in the 10 homer range, and that’s not ideal but it’s in the same range as a guy like Matt Vierling, and it seems like he plays a solid shortstop.

The A’s don’t have a lot of potential future stars in their minor league system except, with the most promising guys being Daniel Susac or Denzel Clarke. And they don’t really have a lot of depth either. But between Hernaiz and Jacob Wilson they will probably have a functional shortstop.

2 months ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

Vierling is an interesting statistical comp. Going from 10 HRs to 15 isn’t THAT hard to fathom given how hard Hernaiz seems capable of hitting the ball. But if not, the hit tool and defense could carry him enough.

If he can resemble a league average hitter with fine defense Hernaiz should clear 2 fWAR easily. Seems to me that somewhere between Jeremy Pena and Orlando Arcia is in reach.

Jasper Franciscomember
2 months ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

To me, Hernaiz looks like Jordan Diaz but with SS capability.