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Minor League Barometer: Conforto's Coming

Jesse Siegel

Siegel covers college football, college basketball and minor league baseball for RotoWire. He was named College Sports Writer of the Year by the Fantasy Sports Writers Association.

It’s hard to remember a season with more impact prospects getting their first taste of the big leagues. This week saw the promotions of Byron Buxton of the Twins, Francisco Lindor of the Indians and Kyle Schwarber of the Cubs. Schwarber is going to be the DH while the Cubs play in AL parks and then could be sent back down, but the other two prospects are likely here to stay. Buxton was the top prospect in all of baseball prior to last season, but an injury-riddled 2014 campaign halted his estimated time of arrival. After a slow start in 2015, he came on strong of late, hitting .421 over his last 10 games with Double-A Chattanooga. Buxton has been billed as Mike Trout-lite; he has elite speed but is not quite the power prospect Trout was. Still, the ball jumps off Buxton’s bat, and he should be able to hit for average too. He is a huge fantasy prospect that should be owned in all formats.

Lindor, meanwhile, should get to play every day, but his future fantasy prowess is a bit more muddled. He is helped by being at a thin fantasy position, but the Indians prospect is revered much more for his glove than for his bat. Still, it’s not like he can’t hit at all. In 2014, Lindor batted .276 with 11 home runs and 28 stolen bases between Double-A and Triple-A. Through 57 games this season, Lindor was hitting .279 with two home runs and eight steals. In other words, his average will likely be no higher than .275 in the bigs, though he should provide a decent source of stolen bases. At shortstop, he’s definitely worth an add, but it would be wise not to expect him to be the type of impact offensive prospect that Buxton should be.

Who else could be on the MLB horizon? Let’s take a gander in this week’s Minor League Barometer.

UPGRADE

Robert Stephenson, P, CIN – After spending nearly two full years at Double-A, the hard-throwing Stephenson finally appears to be tapping into his enormous potential. He has allowed three earned runs or fewer in eight straight outings. That included back-to-back starts at the end of May in which he recorded double-digit strikeouts. Opposing batters are hitting just .200 against the 22-year-old, who has fanned 76 batters in 65.1 innings. He is still prone to wildness, though, as witnessed by the fact that he has walked at least five batters in three of those last eight starts. However, he's missed even more bats this season, and the Reds could move him to Triple-A before the year is finished. Stephenson finally looks the part of one of the top pitching prospects in baseball.

Jake Thompson, P, TEX – The 21-year-old righty has been lights out of late. Over his last five starts, Thompson has allowed just five earned runs. Over that span, a period of 34 innings, he has a 34:6 K:BB ratio. Traded to the Rangers last summer as part of the Joakim Soria deal, Thompson mixes four pitches, the most devastating of which is his slider. His fastball sits in the low-90’s, and his changeup is improving. With Chi Chi Gonzalez in the majors, Thompson is easily the top pitching prospect left in the minors for the Rangers. In fact, other than Nomar Mazara, he is probably the best prospect the Rangers have right now. With the Texas rotation in shambles, it is not outside the realm of possibility that Thompson could see the big leagues by the end of the year.

Mallex Smith, OF, ATL – Smith often gets overlooked, largely because he’s not a power prospect. He was one of four prospects traded to the Braves in the Justin Upton deal, and even in that trade, he was arguably the least talked-about player. However, he swiped 88 bags last season between Low-A and High-A, while hitting .310 with a .403 on-base percentage. The athletic 22-year-old has been equally impressive in 2015, batting .338 with a .415 OBP. Smith has also stolen 21 bases this season. Smith has all the tools of a prototypical leadoff hitter; he can hit for average, draw a walk, and steal a base. With a skill set comparable to Michael Bourn's, Smith is worth keeping on your radar, particularly if he continues to get on base at such a high clip.

Michael Conforto, OF, NYM – Conforto was decent, if unspectacular, at High-A to begin the season, and the 2014 first round selection slashed .263/.350/.462 with seven home runs and 28 RBI. Something has clicked since his promotion to Double-A though, and he has caught fire. In 14 games with the Binghamton Mets, Conforto is batting .362/.500/.639 with two home runs, 11 RBI and one stolen base. Perhaps most impressively, he has accumulated just as many walks (13) as strikeouts (13). It will be interesting to see what the Mets decide to do if Conforto continues to stay hot. The team has struggled to generate runs over the last month or so, and there have been rumblings that one of the team’s highly-touted pitching prospects (Steven Matz or Noah Syndergaard) could be dangled for some offensive help. Would the Mets give Conforto a chance to provide a lift before making such a huge move? He’s more likely to see the big leagues in 2016, but if the Mets are desperate for offense and still in the hunt late in the season, his ultimate ascension should not be completely ruled out.

CHECK STATUS

Bobby Bradley, 1B, CLE – Bradley has had no trouble flashing his power through 38 games for Low-A Lake County, and the 19-year-old has tallied 11 home runs and 35 RBI over that span. He has been particularly potent of late, smacking five home runs and knocking in 12 runs over his last 10 games. Not surprisingly for a young hitter, though, Bradley has battled strikeout issues. He has fanned 56 times in 38 games, including 15 times during his last 10 games. Yet somehow, he's still hitting a crisp .378 during that time period. Bradley won the Arizona Rookie League Triple Crown, and could profile as the team’s future DH, or even play first if the Tribe decides to move Carlos Santana back to catcher eventually.

Grant Holmes, P, LAD – Holmes has enormous strikeout potential, as witnessed by his 61 punch outs in just 46.1 innings for Low-A Great Lakes. A first round pick last year, the 19-year-old is still harnessing his command. He yielded a plethora of ground balls in 2014, but that has simply not been the case in 2015. The lack of ground balls has not hurt him, though, as opposing batters are still hitting just .229 against him. However, his walk total has doubled from a season ago in the same amount of innings. As a result, his ERA currently sits at 3.69. The ERA is certainly not bad, but is merely evidence of a learning curve that Holmes will have to push through. The upside is tantalizing, but Holmes likely won’t hit the big leagues until 2017 at the earliest.

Ryan McMahon, 3B, COL – McMahon has been hot recently, hitting .341 with nine RBI over his last 10 games at High-A Modesto. Though he is currently situated in a hitters’ haven, his future home games would also be in the friendly confines of Colorado. While McMahon is slashing .302/.390/.502 through 61 games, questions remains. Can he hit for enough power? While he did drive in 102 runs last season, he hit only 18 home runs. He has six dingers through 61 games in 2015. Likewise, where will he play if he reaches the big leagues with the Rockies? Nolan Arenado is the future at third, and the power question once again comes into play if the Rockies even think about putting McMahon at first. He has also fanned 71 times this season, and the strikeouts become a bit more bothersome with the lack of power. At just 20 years of age a power spike could still develop, and McMahon remains a stellar overall hitter. However, whether he projects as an elite talent or simply a solid major leaguer is the real question.

Jeff Hoffman, P, TOR – Hoffman is just five starts into his minor league career, so there is no reason to panic. Still, the East Carolina product has looked rather pedestrian at High-A Dunedin with a 4.30 ERA, having allowed three home runs in those five outings. This is a bit worrisome, given that Hoffman lives down in the zone as highlighted by his 1.56 GO:AO ratio. Still, opposing batters are hitting .305 against him. Perhaps even more curious, he has a 15:7 K:BB ratio in 23 innings. This is likely just a blip on the radar for Hoffman, who is just getting his feet wet in professional baseball following 2014 Tommy John surgery. Still, the Blue Jays had obviously hoped the polished college product would be up to the task, having had him skip Low-A outright.

DOWNGRADE

Andrew Heaney, P, LAA – Heaney cruised through the minors and looked destined for stardom until he got blown up during his first few starts in the majors with the Marlins in 2014. He has since been traded to the Halos, but hasn’t looked quite right since. Pegged to be the No. 5 starter to begin the season, he was simply atrocious in spring training and was sent to Triple-A, where he has only been mediocre. The 24-year-old lefty has still shown the stellar control that vaulted him up the prospect ranks; Heaney has a 72:24 K:BB ratio in 73.2 innings. However, he may be catching a bit too much of the plate, as opposing batters are hitting .283 against him. Though he is pitching in the hitter-friendly PCL, an ERA of 4.40 is still too high.

Nick Gordon, SS, MIN – Flash Gordon’s other son oozes potential, but is having some growing pains this season, his first full year in the minors. The teenager is batting just .239 with a .314 OBP at Low-A Cedar Rapids. Gordon is never going to hit for much power, but his stolen base total is not as crazy as some expected either, and he has 14 steals in 55 games. He has drawn 20 walks over that span, an obvious plus sign for a future leadoff hitter. However, he has also fanned on 45 occasions, a number that must and should go down as he matures. Gordon is a monstrous talent, but he won’t be seeing primetime for quite a few years.

Jorge Alfaro, C, TEX – The news went from bad to worse for Alfaro and the Rangers, who have had their share of prospects make their way to the majors in 2015, and will not join the likes of Joey Gallo, Rougned Odor and Gonzalez on the big club as Alfaro suffered a significant left ankle injury that will require season-ending surgery. Arguably the top catching prospect in baseball, he was having a substandard 2015 campaign even prior to getting hurt. The 22-year-old was slashing just .253/.314/.432 with five home runs, and his poor plate discipline was particularly disconcerting as he fanned 61 times in 49 games, while drawing just nine walks. As such, it was a mostly lost season for Alfaro, who will attempt to heal up and make his MLB debut in 2016.

Miguel Almonte, P, KC – The prospect star has faded for Almonte, who looked like a rising star at the lower levels of the minors, but has been stunted as he has reached the higher levels. Most notably, his strikeouts have taken a nosedive. During his spectacular 2013 breakout campaign, he fanned 132 batters in 130 innings at Low-A. Last season, Almonte still struck out 101 hitters in 110.1 innings, though his ERA ballooned to 4.49. In 2015 at Double-A, he has compiled only 38 strikeouts in 53 innings. The 21-year-old has lost the plate a bit; he is on pace to shatter his career-high in walks. He's also given up a greater amount of home runs in three successive seasons, and is on pace to make it a fourth. Almonte’s stock certainly appears to be trending in the wrong direction.