With the minor league season coming to a close, it's time to look back at the year in review. Which prospects were the biggest risers? Which prospects experienced the biggest fall? Those prospects that have already reached the majors and are there to stay will be left out of the analysis, as they have graduated on to greener pastures. As such, we say goodbye to former top prospects like Mookie Betts, Javier Baez, Arismendy Alcantara and Jimmy Nelson, who should be in the big leagues for good.
First, some prospects worthy of mentions in the final edition of "Three Strikes:"
1. We'll try to steer clear of the obvious, big-name prospects in the Upgrade section like Joc Pederson, Kris Bryant, Joey Gallo and Corey Seager, who did nothing to dispel the notion that they are the future stars of the game.
2. Some high-profile players on the negative side that I did not want to duplicate entries on because they have been written about recently: Dylan Bundy, Max Fried, Maikel Franco. However, Franco has been much better the last month or so, and could still end up being promoted to the Phillies when rosters expand in September.
3. Some other, lesser-known players on the upswing heading into 2015: Christian Binford (Royals), Brandon Nimmo (Mets), Trea Turner (Padres), Dalton Pompey (Blue Jays), Wilmer Difo (Nationals), Domingo German (Marlins), Peter O'Brien (Diamondbacks), Aaron Judge (Yankees).
As the Minor League Barometer bids farewell to another successful season, let's take a closing look at some of the biggest winners and losers of the 2014 campaign.
Ben Lively, P, CIN - The first half of the season belonged to Lively, who was simply sensational despite pitching in the hitter-friendly confines of the California League. In 79 innings at High-A Bakersfield, Lively was 10-1 with a 2.28 ERA and 95:16 K:BB ratio. The combination of control and strikeout stuff was the most impressive part of Lively's game, as the 22-year-old righty was able to pound the strike zone yet also gain a bevy of swings and misses. Opposing batters hit just .201 against him at that level. He hasn't been quite as dominant since being promoted to Double-A, but has certainly proven effective. Lively currently has a 3.76 ERA and 72:34 K:BB ratio through 67 innings for Double-A Pensacola. Although his control has been a bit more suspect since moving up a level, Lively has maintained his strikeout success while holding opposing hitters to a .226 BAA. A fourth-round pick in 2013, Lively wasn't on most prospect lists coming into the year, but he will most definitely find his way onto them heading into 2015.
Luis Severino, P, NYY - The Yankees have not had much luck developing elite starting pitching in recent memory. Their best starter to come through the system in the last 5-10 years may be Dellin Betances, who ended up finding his role as a superior reliever instead. That could change with Severino, a neophyte that has stormed his way through three different levels in 2014 with little resistance. The 20-year-old righty started the year at Low-A Charleston, posting a .279 ERA and 70:15 K:BB ratio in 67.2 innings. High-A batters proved no match for Severino, who lasted just four starts at that level. Severino had a 1.31 ERA and 28:6 K:BB ratio in 20.2 innings for High-A Tampa. Now at Double-A Trenton, Severino has continued his breakout campaign. In five starts for the Trenton Thunder, Severino has notched a 2.66 ERA and 25:5 K:BB ratio in 20.1 innings. Opposing batters are hitting a putrid .197 against him. Severino will enter 2015 as the top prospect in the Yankees system, with an outside shot at making his big-league debut late in the 2015 season.
Kyle Schwarber, C/OF, CHC - Many pundits thought when the Cubs picked Schwarber with the No. 3 overall selection in the 2014 draft, it was a bit of a reach. Schwarber was a polished college hitter, arguably the best in the class, but with less upside than some of the players on the board. Perhaps the Cubbies knew something that the scouts didn't, because Schwarber signed quickly and immediately began raking in the minors. Schwarber went 12-for-20 (.600) with four home runs in five games for short-season Boise, and was rapidly shuttled to Low-A Kane County. The hit parade didn't stop there, as the 21-year-old slashed .361/.448/.602 with four home runs, 15 RBI and one steal in 23 games. That led to yet another promotion to High-A Daytona, where Schwarber will end the 2014 campaign. He is hitting .308/.404/.589 with 10 home runs and eight RBI through 41 games at this level. Although Schwarber has been moved out from a catcher to left field, his absolutely torrid start to his professional career has still made him an extremely hot commodity in prospect circles.
Michael Taylor, OF, WAS - Although he was recently demoted after just 18 at-bats for the Nats, Taylor has been one of the breakout stars of the 2014 minor league season. The 23-year-old crushed Double-A pitching in 98 games earlier this season, slashing .313/.396/.539. The power/speed combo really landed Taylor on the map, though. Taylor hit 22 home runs while swiping 34 bases for the Double-A Harrisburg. He spent only four games at Triple-A before the Nats suffered a rash of injuries, and he was pressed into service in August. Still, Taylor received limited playing time, and was sent back to Triple-A to get everyday at-bats. He could get called back into action once September rolls around, but regardless, Taylor has a real shot at making the MLB squad out of spring training in 2015. His MLB comparison is a slightly lesser version of Houston's George Springer.
Byron Buxton, OF, MIN - Just as one fantastic season does not a prospect make, one poor season also doesn't mean you should give up on one. That should be the case with Buxton, who entered 2014 as the top prospect in baseball, and should still enter 2015 as one of the best prospects in the game. Buxton was limited to just 31 games this season due to a variety of ailments, including injuries to both wrists as well as a concussion that ultimately ended his 2014 campaign. Mostly for High-A Fort Myers, Buxton slashed .234/.307/.395 with four home runs, 16 RBI and six steals. Despite 2014 being a lost year, Buxton is just 20 and slated to play in the Arizona Fall League. He is a five-tool player with power, speed and the ability to hit for a high average. Next year will almost certainly be a bounce-back year for Buxton, as his string of bad luck in regard to his health will likely come to an end.
Jonathan Gray, P, COL - It's not that Gray had a bad season for the Rockies, but more disappointing in that he did not end up making his big-league debut or even finding his way to Triple-A. The Rockies appeared to have the reverse thought process of most teams, in my opinion, or perhaps they are still concerned about keeping Gray's Arbitration years down. The big-league squad has been awful this season, and it was readily apparent after a month or two that the Rockies were not making the playoffs this season. However, instead of promoting top phenom Gray through the system and seeing what he could do, they trotted out Tyler Matzek, Christian Bergman and any other mediocre starter they could find to simply eat some innings. In Colorado's defense, Gray wasn't exactly lights-out either; the 22-year-old righty had a 3.91 ERA and 113:41 K:BB ratio in 124.1 innings for Double-A Tulsa. He is currently on the disabled list with what is being called "fatigue." As a result, a September callup looks to be out the window. Gray will still enter next season as one of the top arms in the minors, but most people expected him to be in Triple-A or the majors by now.
Addison Russell, SS, CHC - Russell has had an extremely eventful 2014 season. He missed the first month or so of the season with a hamstring injury, then was traded to the Cubbies in the Jeff Samardzija deal. Russell was the shortstop of the future for the A's, with virtually nobody in his path. That has changed drastically. He is now on a team that is simply overstocked with young infield talent. Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant are keystones at the corners, and the Cubs have Starlin Castro, Javier Baez and Arismendy Alcantara as middle infielders. Alcantara has been playing the outfield mostly for the Cubs, but came up as an infielder as well. As a result, it remains to be seen where Russell will play at the big-league level, including whether he or another player (or two) will be moved or perhaps even traded. On the plus side, Russell has finally gotten back to hitting like the star he is projected to be over the last two months. In 45 games for Double-A Tennessee, the 20-year-old Russell is batting .301/.342/.563 with 12 home runs and 35 RBI. This season might have been a bit tumultuous for the youngster, but he's trending in the right direction again, even if he doesn't know yet what position he'll play when he arrives in Chicago.
Steven Moya, OF, DET - Moya had a huge 2014 season that placed his name of the prospect map, but will enter 2015 with several red flags. The positives are obvious; Moya had a monstrous power burst, smashing 34 home runs and knocking in 102 runs in 129 games for Double-A Erie. The previous season high for Moya? Thirteen dingers. He was also hit for average despite his 6-foot-6, 230, frame. There had been concerns that due to his height, Moya's swing could get long, and he would have huge holes in his swing. However, he hit .274 for the SeaWolves in 2014. Throw in 15 stolen bases, and what's not to like? His plate discipline. Moya has fanned 154 times in 129 games. Strikeouts are usually less worrisome in my book for power hitters, but the hope is that even if they strike out a lot, the player can also draw a ton of walks. That is not the case with Moya either. The 23-year-old has drawn just 20 walks this season, leading to a subpar .301 OBP. Moya's power looks legitimate, but it remains to be seen if his lack of patience and strike-zone recognition at the dish will come back to haunt him at Triple-A and beyond.
Archie Bradley, P, AZ - Bradley began the year with a shot at making the big-league rotation for the Diamondbacks, but that did not materialize. Instead, he started the year at Triple-A Reno, scuffling through April before injuring his elbow. Although thankfully Bradley did not require Tommy John surgery, he still missed almost two months thereafter. Upon his return, he was sent down to Double-A Mobile. Bradley has had mixed results in 54.1 innings with the BayBears. Bradley has a 3.13 ERA and 46 strikeouts, but his control has been spotty. Bradley has allowed 31 walks as well. This lack of control is nothing new for the 22-year-old, who walked 69 batters in 2013 and 84 hitters in 2012. If Bradley cannot hit his spots, it does not matter how hard he throws. He has continually allowed too many base runners during his time in the minors. A fresh start in 2015 should serve him well, but the continued location issues with his pitches are concerning.
Taijuan Walker, P, SEA - Walker and the above-mentioned Bradley were arguably the top two pitching prospects in baseball coming into the season. Despite the hype and high hopes, Walker battled his own demons, as well. After he was supposed to vie for a rotation slot in Seattle, Walker hurt his shoulder and missed a month and a half right off the bat. Upon his return, he was sent to Triple-A Tacoma, where he was blown up in a few starts. Walker did end up making three starts at the big-league level in June when the M's were desperate for an arm; Walker posted a 3.60 ERA and 14 strikeouts in 15 innings, but also issued 13 free passes, and the team was 1-2 in those three outings. He has since remained with Triple-A Tacoma for the better part of two months and has a bloated 4.37 ERA. The 22-year-old has 91:27 K:BB ratio in 82.1 innings, but his command has been off. A groundball pitcher throughout his brief professional career, Walker has surrendered 13 home runs in Triple-A while posting a 0.71 GO:AO ratio. Not only is the last stat curious when it comes to Walker, whose best pitches are supposed to move down in the zone, but then there were the comments from current Seattle manager Lloyd McClendon. The M's skipper essentially questions Walker's work ethic and desire on more than one occasion, citing disappointment with the hurler's lack of progress this season. Walker still may end up being a star, that didn't happen in 2014.
Matt Davidson, 3B, CHW - Poor Matt Davidson. The third baseman had one of the biggest falls from grace in 2014. Acquired from the Arizona Diamondbacks in the offseason, Davidson was tabbed as the starting third baseman for the White Sox out of spring training. He didn't hit, though, and instead Davidson was sent down to Triple-A. Unfortunately, even though Davidson has had almost 500 at-bats with the Charlotte Knights since that time, he still hasn't hit much. Davidson does have 20 home runs, but he has been punched out 155 times and has not made consistent contact. As a result, Davidson's slash line is abysmal; the 23-year-old is batting a paltry .205/.291/.375 this season. By contrast, Davidson hadn't hit below .261 at any level in the minors in each of the previous three seasons. Davidson does have the bonus of still not being blocked by anyone special at the big-league level, but that's not going to matter if he can't bring his average up to respectability. The White Sox won't give up on Davidson yet, but his stock has clearly taken a nosedive in one short season.
Eddie Butler, P, COL - The Rockies simply could not find anyone to consistently take the ball every five days. Butler was considered more polished and MLB ready than the above-referenced Jon Gray, after being one of the biggest risers from the 2013 campaign. In 11 starts for Double-A Tulsa to begin the year, Butler posted a 2.49 ERA, and the big club eventually selected his contract. His premiere with the Rockies was a disaster, though, as Butler gave up 10 hits and six earned runs before leaving the start with a right shoulder injury. He was sidelined for over a month, but was once again pegged to join the Colorado rotation upon his return. However, he was bombed in his Triple-A tune-up for seven runs on eight hits, and instead was sent back to Double-A. In six starts since that time for the Tulsa Drillers, Butler has allowed 20 earned runs. Twelve of those earned runs came in his last three outings. The 23-year-old righty has fanned 21 batters since returning to Double-A, but also issued 12 walks over that span. In sum, the second half of Butler's 2014 season could not have gone much worse.