Mid-Tier Hitting Prospects I Like in 2022

Michael Chow-Arizona Republic

Two weeks ago was Prospect Week here at FanGraphs. I didn’t contribute any analysis to it, because a) it was packed with really good analysis already and b) I wasn’t done compiling the thing I wanted to contribute. With some time to finish up my work — and not much else going on in our lockout-plagued sport — I’m ready to provide a bit of bonus analysis.

Last year, I used a variety of statistical techniques to come up with a list of players I thought stood a strong chance of putting together a meaningful major league career. This year, I’m … well, I’m using a variety of statistical techniques to come up with a list of players I think stand a strong chance of putting together a meaningful major league career. But this time, I’ve spent a bit more time refining my methods.

Here’s a quick overview of those methods. I used a variety of simple models based on historical minor and major league data. In each of them, I looked at a variety of key indicators in minor league hitters: statistics, age, position, level — anything I could download, essentially. I linked those minor league seasons to that player’s eventual major league career (or lack thereof).

This methodology carries many limitations, only some of which I have time to detail here. Baseball isn’t the same as it was in the past; while I think I’ve done a decent job of picking performance metrics that are stable over time, player development and the skills that are necessary to stick in the major leagues don’t look the same as they did 10 or 20 years ago.

That particular problem is inherent in everything that uses the past to predict the future, but don’t worry: my methods have way more shortcomings. For one, 2021 was a strange year to look at minor league statistics. With no 2020 season to gauge players’ skill levels, competition seemed far more variable within each league. I’m also basing much of this data on leagues that don’t exist anymore, as minor league realignment changed the makeup of the minor leagues significantly and also messed with my rudimentary park factors. I didn’t use Statcast or Trackman data, both because I don’t have a complete picture of it for 2021 and because it doesn’t exist at all in most of the years I used to train my various models. Finally, I’m using the position that each player played most in 2021 to give them a position, rather than where they’re projected to end up or what our prospect team thinks they’re best suited for.

With all that said, I think that the general idea makes sense. Sure, maybe Dan Szymborski’s ZiPS Top 100 is a more rigorous statistical approach. Sure, the actual top 100 list features many more in-person looks and has all kinds of knowledge that these numbers will miss (as do the team lists still rolling out). But using a mixture of data and common sense is a useful way to look at things, and I’m pretty happy with the results I’ve gotten in the past, even before a few refinements — extra models, more or less — that I’ve added since last year.

Before we begin, let’s review last year’s mid-tier hitter list. First, here were the hits. Miguel Vargas mashed across multiple levels, and while he didn’t make our Top 100 list, scouts are high on his potential to make an impact in the big leagues. He’s also No. 9 on the ZiPS list, so it seems that Dan and I are into some of the same things. Eguy Rosario also made the ZiPS list on the back of a solid season in Double-A, though there are still questions about his defense. The two players who I took off the list because they were slightly too good — Gabriel Moreno and Tyler Freeman — also had excellent seasons and cemented their place in our Top 100.

There were some misses, too. Kevin Padlo and José Devers both played in the majors — pretty good for a list that’s ostensibly trying to find players who will have major league careers — but were both kinda bad. Nick Allen had a hit-or-miss season; I’m still a fan largely on the back of his excellent defense, but his 2021 hitting line was disappointing. Omar Estévez and Hudson Potts both had rough years.

Should you listen to me given that track record? I think so! The goal of this exercise isn’t to highlight the players I think have the best chance at having a long major league career; that would have been Wander Franco, and I feel good about that one. After that, it would have been Dylan Carlson, and again, I’m pretty confident he’ll have a meaningful major league career. The point of this analysis is to hunt out players who aren’t top prospects but who I think have solid chances of forging a career in the big leagues anyway; there’s some uncertainty inherent in the exercise.

So without further ado, here are the seven mid-tier hitters I’m most interested in this year. I’m sticking to people who weren’t listed in the Top 100 article, which means George Valera, for example, was the 103rd prospect on the list but won’t appear in this article, though I’d put him on the list if I could. To the hitters!

Ezequiel Tovar, SS, Colorado Rockies

Relevant Stats: Tovar turned 20 in August and spent the season split between A ball and Hi-A, hitting an aggregate .287/.316/.475 with a 12.2% strikeout rate and 15 homers. He played shortstop and looks like a near-lock to stick at the position.

What I Like: We’re starting the article off with someone everyone likes, as Tovar was one of Eric Longenhagen’s Picks to Click for the 2023 Top 100. I’m a sucker for premium defenders with good contact skills, because there’s room for the offense to slide a bit and still make a valuable player, but contact skills provide an excellent base, and at low levels of the minors, they’re strongly correlated with future success. Tovar’s approach is questionable — he only walked 3.6% of the time — but the low strikeout rate is a great sign, and the power was a pleasant surprise for someone his age and with his frame.

Warning Signs: Swinging at good pitches to hit is really important, and there’s some chance that Tovar will never acquire that skill. He’s been facing advanced competition his entire professional career, so he could certainly grow into it, but it’s something to keep an eye on. He’s also a long way away from the majors and already on a 40-man, which could lead to some awkwardly aggressive promotions and otherwise poor management of his career by the team.

Juan Yepez, 1B/DH, St. Louis Cardinals

Relevant Stats: Yepez overpowered Double-A in 77 plate appearances, then kept the same pace up at Triple-A the rest of the season. He hit .289/.382/.589 with 22 homers in Memphis and an aggregate .286/.380/.586 across the two levels. He walked a fair amount and didn’t strike out much. He even did it without a fluky BABIP; he just looked like a great hitter.

What I Like: Did you read that first part? At only 23, Yepez might have more in his bat, and he already looks the part of a big league slugger. Sure, he’s first base only, but with a universal DH likely on the way, that’s not the stumbling block it used to feel like. Yepez never displayed much game power before 2021, but he’s a mountain of a man, and scouts are unanimous in expecting him to crush the ball. His minor league exit velocity data agrees. He also excelled in Fall League; from a performance standpoint, his 2021 just doesn’t leave much to be desired.

Warning Signs: Mainly just the first base thing, with a sprinkling of “prove it to me one more time.” Yepez took a step forward from above-average hitter to unholy terror this year, but his previous career trajectory looked more quad-A slugger than impact major league bat. There’s a risk that 2021 was a career season and that his bat goes backwards from here; if that happens, his defensive limitations will sting. Mostly, though, I think this is a layup; Yepez is already developed enough that we’re projecting him for 300 major league plate appearances this year. I think he’ll hit the ground running and never look back.

Abrahan Gutierrez C, Pittsburgh Pirates

Relevant Stats: Gutierrez torched A ball for the Phillies before they traded him to Pittsburgh. He subsequently torched A ball for the Pirates while playing a solid catcher, all at age 21. He also walked more than he struck out and piled up 25 extra-base hits in just over 300 PA.

What I Like: Who doesn’t love catchers who can rake? Gutierrez’s plate discipline might be a mirage when he starts facing better pitching, but his feel to hit looks real, and even if the walks dip, the low strikeout rate gives him a solid offensive base. Doing all of this as a catcher — and switching organizations while doing it after not getting any game reps in 2020 — only adds to my excitement.

Warning Signs: The power could be a sticking point. Only five of those extra-base hits were homers, and he’d never shown any pop at all before 2021. The walk rates were new, too. Gutierrez has always had good feel to hit, but there’s no track record we can draw on to say that this is anything other than a hot season. If he does it again in 2022, this concern will go down, but for now, there’s a “prove it again” asterisk here.

Jordan Diaz, 3B, Oakland Athletics

Relevant Stats: Diaz turned 21 in August. He hit .288/.337/.483 in 365 plate appearances in Hi-A. He struck out only 15.9% of the time and cranked 13 homers to go with 24 doubles while playing third base (and a smattering of left field and first base).

What I Like: Diaz attempted his highest level in 2021 at age 20 and passed the test with flying colors. He grades out well defensively, too, despite the playing time at first and left; the A’s seem to be preparing him for a utility role. If he can keep up his power boost (2021 was his best power season by a long shot), his combination of solid contact and plus defense could give him a fast track to the big leagues as Matt Chapman’s heir apparent.

Warning Signs: Diaz swings a lot and isn’t a big guy, which makes me skeptical that he’ll repeat his power numbers as he faces more advanced pitching. There are 5’10” hitters with plus power, but few of them do so while swinging as frequently as he does. He’s also slow afoot, which means a fall down the defensive spectrum is still possible, and the combination of worse defense and less power might doom an otherwise interesting prospect.

Jonathan Aranda, IF, Tampa Bay Rays

Relevant Stats: Aranda turned 23 last May and made a brief stop at Hi-A before crushing Double-A pitching over 322 plate appearances, to the tune of a .325/.410/.540 line. He clubbed 34 extra-base hits and walked 10.2% of the time, striking out 19.6% of the time. Defensively, he’s a quintessential Tampa player, playing first, second, and short, with the majority of his time coming at first.

What I Like: The Rays had a ton of similarly-intriguing players this year, but Aranda strikes me as the most intriguing. He has an uncertain spot on the defensive spectrum, but that’s not what I’m after here; I’m interested in that premium on-base percentage and power combination. His 2021 looks like a hitter who was simply too good for his competition, running a 25% line-drive rate and smashing balls around the ballpark. Doing that while walking 10% of the time and providing some defensive versatility — as a lefty, no less, which the Rays will surely like — suggests to me that he might have a huge ceiling.

Warning Signs: This is a lot of power to ask for out of a slight frame. He doesn’t need to hit this much to succeed in the majors, but if he realizes the low end of his power potential and also the low end of his potential defensive landing spots, I’m not sure that combination plays as more than a Quad-A type. He’s also one of the players on the list whose performance took the biggest jump since 2019, and he’d never hit for any power before at all, so keep an eye on those homers in 2022.

Cooper Hummel, C/Util, Arizona Diamondbacks

Relevant Stats: Hummel turned 27 in November, which makes him the oldest player on this list. He mostly played the outfield but also caught and played the corner infield occasionally. He had 39 extra-base hits and a .431 OBP in Triple-A between Nashville (when he was in the Brewers’ system) and Reno, with more walks than strikeouts.

What I Like: A surefire way to make me pay attention to a prospect is to throw a “C” next to his name. The offensive bar is far lower for catcher than for anywhere else on the diamond, and Hummel will comfortably clear it so long as he can fake the position. He doesn’t have the chops to catch every day, but a DH/outfielder who can make spot starts at catcher and third base is enough to make me like his chances of finding somewhere he can stand in the field while he piles up value at the plate.

Warning Signs: Twenty-seven is old to start breaking out. Before 2021, when Hummel torched Triple-A, he was consistently far older than his competition. He’s also more “catcher” than catcher, and if he becomes a full-time outfielder or DH, the margin for error narrows significantly. Finally, he’ll have to prove that his advances in strikeout rate and power were both real. If either of those skills regress, the ability to play a passable backup catcher might be the difference between finding a roster spot and bouncing around Triple-A.

Drew Avans, OF, Los Angeles Dodgers

Relevant Stats: Avans hit .275/.388/.438 in Triple-A Oklahoma City in 2021 at age 25. He also stole 19 bases and was only caught twice. Defensively, he can handle all three outfield spots, though he spent most of his time at center. He also has a cannon for an arm; he’s sometimes listed as a pitcher despite no real future at the position.

What I Like: This is the third straight level (along with Hi-A and Double-A in 2019) where Avans has debuted and immediately held his own. Outfielders with blazing speed are useful bench pieces even if they don’t hit much; they can come in as a defensive replacement in several spots, pinch run, and back up a few positions. That’s a nice floor, and Avans could be more than that; he walked 15.4% of the time and cut his strikeout rate compared to his 2019 season, to a respectable 21.1%. If he shows more of that plate discipline this year, he’ll start to be a really interesting player, and if he shows it while continuing to steal bases and display modest pop, I think he’ll be a big league regular for years to come. It would be a long-shot story — he’s a former 33rd-round pick who didn’t break into Double-A until 2019 — but I like his chances of at least playing in the majors.

Warning Signs: I’m worried Avans won’t continue to display modest power, basically. He’s never been a slugger, with 10 homers in each of his first two professional seasons before only five in 2021. He made up for it this year with 15 doubles and four triples, and he’s fast enough to maybe make that work in the majors, but if he can’t add to that power number, the walks won’t hold up.

Honorable Mentions

Lawrence Butler made that Picks to Click article, too, as picked by Kevin Goldstein. Sebastian Rivero is interesting in an “acceptable hitter who catches” way. Seth Beer is coming off of an injury, and Leody Taveras has already graduated from prospect status, but they’re both post-hype sleepers that several of my models liked. Austin Shenton, Beau Brundage, and Alexander Ovalles are some of those Rays I mentioned.

Will this list produce two exciting major league prospects for next year? I think I’d be disappointed if I only did that well. With a year to tweak the outputs and look into what worked and what didn’t, I’m expecting slightly more. It also helps that I’m looking at performance from only last year rather than two years ago, as I did in the previous incarnation of this list. There’s plenty of uncertainty, and I tried to grab a mixture of people you’ve probably heard of and deep cuts like Hummel and Avans, but make no mistake: I’m expecting big things from everyone I profiled here today.

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

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8 months ago

As always, thanks Ben. Two thoughts for you:
1. How much is organizational depth/fit factor in, if at all, in these selections?
2. Maybe next year you should see if Eric would be interested in bouncing back a couple sentences on each of these guys to give readers a bit of an insight on why these guys aren’t ranked/what a more prospect-focused writer thinks of them beyond just their blurb in team lists.