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Los Angeles Dodgers

Burkhart: Los Angeles Dodgers Top 15 Prospects in 2017

February 27, 2016: Infielder Cody Bellinger #61 poses for a portrait during the Los Angeles Dodgers photo day in Glendale, Ariz. (Photo by Ric Tapia/Icon Sportswire)
(Photo by Ric Tapia/Icon Sportswire)

The Los Angeles Dodgers won the NL West for the fourth year in a row, overcoming an injury-marred rotation in so doing but ultimately falling short of the World Series. To get over the hump, the organization is relying on a wave of under-25 talent that began making significant contributions last year, with more reinforcements on the way.

Shortstop Corey Seager and left-hander Julio Urias were widely viewed as two of the top-five overall prospects in baseball at this time last year, and each have proven worthy of that billing with the former looking like a perennial MVP candidate and the latter showing the makings of a front-end starter. The Dodgers also got late-season help from outfielder Andrew Toles and right-hander Brock Stewart, both of whom retain their rookie eligibility heading into this season.

The farm got a big boost through last year’s draft, with the club’s first three selections – Gavin Lux, Will Smith and Jordan Sheffield – appearing on this list and fourth-rounder DJ Peters sneaking in at the back. The Dodgers also signed Jose Miguel Fernandez in mid-January after the 28-year-old Cuban prospect defected from his home country in December of 2015, adding another player to the pipeline brimming with position players who are nearly ready for primetime.

Previously published Top-15s:

NL Central: CHC, CIN, MIL, PIT, STL.

NL West: ARICOL


1. Yadier Alvarez, RHP

 

DOB: 03/07/96          Height/Weight: 6’ 3”/175         B/T: R/R         Signed: 2015, Cuba

Fastball: 70         Slider: 65         Changeup: 55         Command: 55         Overall: 70

Part of the Dodgers’ 2015 international spending bonanza, during which the club spent a total of $150 million in bonuses and tax penalties, Alvarez was the widely-considered top prospect in the class and signed for a $16 million bonus. The Cuban righty was a high-risk proposition since he came with basically no track record, but he’s since looked worthy of the investment after dominating the low Class-A Midwest League in his U.S. debut last year and answering some questions that came with his amateur scouting report.

Alvarez is a naturally-gifted righty with a chance to develop three plus pitches and pitch at the top of a rotation. Having badly struggled with control as an amateur, he made big strides in that area last year after learning to sync his athletic motion. In 59.1 innings, he allowed just one homer as he showed an ability to pitch down in the zone and challenge hitters inside while managing to not hit a single batter.

Standout arm speed and remaining physical projection are a recipe for his swing-and-miss stuff to advance even further. He throws a 94-99 mph fastball that breaks triple-digits and elicits soft contact on the ground when it’s not blowing past bats entirely, mixing a mid-80s, swing-and-miss slider with vertical depth and a changeup that also has above-average potential.

An uncertain venture at signing, Alvarez has dramatically minimized his risk profile with the adjustments he’s made and put himself in a select group of right-handed pitching prospects whose ceiling reaches to true No. 1 starter. Getting there will require more command, of which he has the athletic ability and demonstrated aptitude to achieve, but it looks like the whole package is starting to come together with time also on his side at just 20 years of age. He’ll pitch at high Class-A Rancho Cucamonga this year.


2. Cody Bellinger, 1B/OF

 

DOB: 07/13/95         Height/Weight: 6’ 4”/210         B/T: L/L         Drafted: 2013, 4th Round – Hamilton HS (AZ)

Hit: 50         Game Power: 60         Run: 45         Throw: 55         Field: 70         Overall: 60

Son of Clay who played parts of four seasons in the big leagues with the Yankees and Angels, Bellinger got a $700,000 bonus as a fourth-rounder to forego his Oregon commitment. His first two pro seasons were nondescript until his power broke out in 2015, since launching 56 home runs in hitting-friendly environs over the last two seasons and capping last year’s strong performance with a robust Arizona Fall League campaign.

Bellinger makes a strong case as one of the top-10 hitting prospects in the game and profiles as an impact bat who can anchor the middle of the order. Added strength and swing adjustments over the past two seasons have been the driving forces behind his ascendant profile. He’s made a deliberate exchange of contact for power that has resulted in a clean, balanced sweep with fly-ball loft, and a Dodgers official notes that Bellinger has done well to become more consistent with his load and improve his overall timing with more efficient swing movements.

Pitch tracking and zone awareness have been strengths for Bellinger dating back to his high school days, but a lack of plate discipline was the principle culprit behind a high strikeout rate in 2015. The lefty slugger also made adjustments in that area and the results fell in line, regardless of pitcher handedness.

Bellinger is a standout defender of Gold Glove caliber at first base. He’s significantly more athletic than his positional peers and has soft hands to go along with short-area foot speed that enable plus range. He’s also logged 61 minor-league games in the outfield, most of which were spent in center field, though it’s an unviable position because of his average speed and physical outlook, to make no mention of the other defensive options on the roster.

Bellinger has all the hitting tools and traits required to develop into an All-Star player; the key for him above anything else will be how successfully he’s able to build on his track record of adjustments at the plate against the best pitchers he’s ever seen. He received an invite to big-league camp this spring and will start 2017 with Triple-A Oklahoma City.


3. Andrew Toles, OF

 

DOB: 05/24/92         Height/Weight: 5’ 10”/185         B/T: L/R         Drafted: 2012, 3rd Round (TB) – Tennessee

Hit: 55         Game Power: 45         Run: 70         Throw: 60         Field: 60         Overall: 55

Toles was drafted by the Rays and released three years later as he struggled with anxiety issues, spending the 2015 season away from baseball and getting up at 3:30 a.m. to work the early shift at a Kroger grocery store. He was signed by the Dodgers after that season and has made the most his new opportunity, embarking on a four-level rise last year and appearing in 48 games for the big club, during which he slashed .314/.365/.505.

Perhaps the most athletic player in the system, Toles is a plus-plus runner with a chance to hit at the top of the order. A lack of patience at the plate is overshadowed by a high rate of hard contact, enabled by an efficient stroke with standout bat control and better hand actions than anyone on this list. He also has sneaky double-digit home run power that gets overlooked because of his size and the other strengths of his profile. He underwhelmed against lefties last year, but those struggles come with the caveats of limited sample size and the time he spent away from the game.

Toles can comfortably field all three outfield spots. He has easy range to the center field wall, accuracy and carry to his throws from the corners, and he’s been lauded for his instincts.

Toles’ bat-to-ball skills have prevented major league pitchers from getting an early book on him, but there’s probably going to be an adjustment period when they learn how to exploit a contact-first approach that’s light on discipline. I still think there’s too much pure hitting talent here for him to turn out as less than an average offensive player – particularly against righties – with the overall grade factoring in run-saving defense. Toles is expected to be the Dodgers’ starting left fielder on Opening Day.


4. Alex Verdugo, OF

 

DOB: 05/15/96         Height/Weight: 6’ 0”/205         B/T: L/L         Drafted: 2014, 2nd Round – Sahuaro HS (AZ)

Hit: 50         Game Power: 50         Run: 40         Throw: 65         Field: 50         Overall: 50

A two-way player in high school, Verdugo was mostly preferred on the mound for his low-90s fastball but told teams he wanted to hit and play every day. The Dodgers saw potential in the bat and took him in the second round, and he’s since rewarded their intuition by hitting at every rung through a strong campaign in the Double-A Texas League last year.

Verdugo is a physical player with a well-rounded skill set and the ability to hit for contact and power. He stands out for his timing and a line-drive swing that can use the middle and opposite fields. Over the past year, he’s reduced his vulnerability to offspeed pitches and sharpened his plate discipline, improvements reflected in last season’s elevated walk rate. With more strides in his approach and the efficiency attached to his above-average raw power, he could hit 15-plus home runs annually.

A below-average runner, Verdugo has a left-handed throwing arm approaching double-plus for its raw strength and accuracy. He’ll be a defensive weapon in right field with improved instincts for the position. Makeup concerns have dogged him since he was an amateur, but he earns praise from the organization for increased effort and the way he’s educated himself about optimizing his body for game action.

Verdugo lacks an impact offensive tool or trait, but the adjustments he made last season bode well for his continued adaptation to more advanced pitching and eventual development into an average regular. He’ll go to big-league camp this spring before heading to Triple-A Oklahoma City, where he’ll look to earn a promotion to Los Angeles by the end of the season.


5. Willie Calhoun, OF/2B

 

DOB: 11/04/94         Height/Weight: 5’ 8”/187         B/T: L/R         Drafted: 2015, 4th Round – Yavapai JC

Hit: 50         Game Power: 55         Run: 35         Throw: 45         Field: 40         Overall: 50

After a disappointing freshman season at Arizona that prompted his transfer to Yavapai JC, Calhoun hit 31 home runs in 61 games and to pace all Division I junior college hitters. He ascended three levels in his debut year, then spent all of 2016 carrying forward a strong, BABIP-depressed performance with Double-A Tulsa before capping his season with MVP honors in the Arizona Fall League’s Fall Stars game.

Calhoun is something of an albino tiger with unusual power for his stature. The cliché of the ball jumping off the bat applies here, with athletic movements and natural strength generating easy raw from the left side. His short-armed, compact stroke makes frequent contact all the while, though his overconfidence in that bat-to-ball ability can work against him and result in a softer quality of contact.

Calhoun is being developed as a second baseman and has played the position exclusively to this point in his career, but it’s a near-consensus opinion among evaluators that his actions, hands and range all fall short of adequate – concerns that were echoed with the club’s recent trade for Logan Forsythe. Calhoun also has a soft body type that will require attentive maintenance in order to retain the modest agility he does possess. A permanent move to left field seems likely.

An approach that’s more indiscriminate than the numbers suggest is preventing Calhoun’s contact proficiency from catching up to his power, but as the offensive profile stands now, it’s enough to meet the obligations associated with his likely defensive home. He’ll join fellow top prospects Cody Bellinger and Alex Verdugo at big-league camp this spring before heading off to Triple-A Oklahoma City.


6. Yusniel Diaz, OF

 

DOB: 10/07/96         Height/Weight: 6’ 1”/195         B/T: R/R         Signed: 2015, Cuba

Hit: 50         Game Power: 45         Run: 55         Throw: 55         Field: 50         Overall: 45

After defecting to the Dominican Republic, Diaz became the third major signee from the Dodgers’ 2015-16 international haul, signing for a $15.5 million bonus. He made his U.S. debut at high Class-A Rancho Cucamonga, where he missed some time with a minor shoulder injury but held his own as a 19-year-old.

Diaz has an all-around skill set with contact skills and a chance for more power as he fills out an athletic frame that tapers at the belt. There’s whip to a swing that can shoot both gaps, though his stiff lower-half movements subtract thunder from the bat and limit his zone coverage. The Dodgers are teaching him to drive with his hips more effectively, and if that comes to fruition, the game power could approach average with the natural strength he’ll add.

Diaz’s value hinges on whether he can stay in center field, where he spent most of last season and showed improved route-running ability with a better idea of how to use his shoulders and hips to become more efficient in his direction. He has an above-average arm that would do the job in right field if his physical maturation saps too much of his range.

Aside from the mechanical adjustments he’s being asked to make with his swing movements, game reps are the most important thing for Diaz, who has four tools that should settle in at around average and make him a productive regular with defensive versatility. There’s a chance he returns to Rancho Cucamonga to start the year before he earns a Double-A promotion.


7. Walker Buehler, RHP

 

DOB: 07/28/94         Height/Weight: 6’ 2”/175         B/T: R/R         Drafted: 2015, 1st Round – Vanderbilt

Fastball: 60         Curveball: 60         Changeup: 50         Command: 50         Overall: 45

Buehler’s draft year began with him missing his first two starts due to elbow soreness, likely contributing to his stuff backing up from his sophomore season as he slipped to No. 24 overall. He required Tommy John surgery after he signed, returning to the mound last year and pitching five innings.

A narrow-framed, four-pitch righty, Buehler throws a low-to-mid-90s fastball that he mixes with a primary curveball, a cutter and a changeup. He delivers from an energetic motion that contributes to timing issues and finishes with modest shoulder recoil, but nonetheless exhibited present control at Vanderbilt.

Buehler’s stuff is good enough to play in the middle of the rotation, but he’ll have to answer the durability concerns that scouts were attaching to his slight build even before the operation. He’ll likely open 2017 at low Class-A Great Lakes.


8. Brock Stewart, RHP

 

DOB: 10/03/91         Height/Weight: 6’ 3”/210         B/T: L/R         Drafted: 2014, 6th Round – Illinois State

Fastball: 60         Slider: 50         Changeup: 55         Command: 60         Overall: 45

Stewart played both ways at Illinois State, getting drafted as a reliever and then transitioning to the rotation the following year. There were some some speed bumps early in that process, but the righty hit his stride last year, pitching across four levels and making his major league debut before the All-Star Game.

Stewart has a starter’s package with plus command of a three-pitch mix. He sinks both his low-to-mid-90s fastball and deceptive changeup, though the offspeed can sometimes arrive with too much velocity separation. He also throws a short slider in the mid-80s.

There’s not much upside here because there’s no swing-and-miss pitch, but the combination of stuff and location gives him a profile of longevity. The Dodgers have plenty of options for the back end of their rotation, so Stewart will likely open the season in Triple-A and wait to be called upon as a stopgap for attrition.


9. Jordan Sheffield, RHP

 

DOB: 06/01/95         Height/Weight: 6’ 0”/185         B/T: R/R         Drafted: 2016, CB (A) – Vanderbilt

Fastball: 60         Slider: 60         Changeup: 55         Command: 40         Overall: 45

Sheffield, the older brother of Indians prospect Justus, had Tommy John surgery at the end of his senior year of high school and missed his freshman year at Vanderbilt. The live righty pitched primarily out of the bullpen in his return to the mound and then transitioned to the weekend rotation as a red-shirt sophomore, landing at No. 36 overall and pitching 11 innings for low Class-A Great Lakes in his pro debut.

After Alvarez, Sheffield has the best pure stuff in the system with three above-average pitches that include a fastball up to 98 mph and a late slider as his finishing pitch. Clouding his long-term future in the rotation is a high-effort delivery and control struggles dating back to high school. Improving the latter has been his primary focus since he signed, working with Dodgers’ coaches during bullpen sessions to land strikes and allowing his stuff to do the work.

Sheffield is never going to develop pinpoint command, but he doesn’t need it to be successful as a starter. If the control falls short of requisite, he could be a force at the back of the bullpen with his game-ending repertoire.


10. Keibert Ruiz, C

 

DOB: 07/20/98         Height/Weight: 6’ 0”/165         B/T: S/R         Signed: 2014, Venezuela

Hit: 55         Game Power: 35         Throw: 45         Field: 55         Overall: 45

Ruiz signed out of Venezuela as a 16-year-old for $140,000 and performed well across 44 Dominican Summer League games in 2015. He made his stateside debut last year, posting strong numbers in the hitting-friendly environs of the Rookie-level Pioneer League.

Ruiz has a starting catcher’s profile with a feel for the game on both sides of the ball. He has good hands behind the plate and is credited with being an advanced receiver for his age. His arm is presently below average, but the strength he’ll add through natural maturity should help.

A switch-hitter, Ruiz maintains a compact swing from both sides that produces a lot of contact. His strike-zone awareness could develop into the true strength of his game, though he’s light on power. He’ll likely make his full-season debut in low Class-A this season.


11. Jose Miguel Fernandez, INF

 

DOB: 04/27/88         Height/Weight: 5’ 10”/185         B/T: L/R         Signed: 2017, Cuba

Hit: 55         Game Power: 40         Run: 50         Throw: 45         Field: 45         Overall: 45

After defecting from Cuba in December of 2015, Fernandez signed with the Dodgers in mid-January of this year for $200,000. The 28-year-old came with a track record of performance after playing eight seasons in Serie Nacional, but he missed the entire 2015 season after being suspended by the Cuban government for having tried to defect earlier.

Fernandez is without an impact tool but has the on-base skills to make immediate contributions at the big-league level. He has good hands that cut a short stroke and stands out for his discipline, striking out just 10 times in 314 plate appearances during 2013-14, his last full season in Cuba’s top league. He has doubles power to both gaps.

Most of Fernandez’s pro experience has been spent at second base, though he’s mixed in some third base as well. The athleticism and fielding actions are sufficient, but he’s not a clean fit at either position, lacking the range for the former and the arm strength for the latter. There’s a chance he hits enough to forgive his defensive shortcomings, and with his experience and offensive polish, he shouldn’t be long for the minors.


12. Austin Barnes, C/INF

 

DOB: 12/28/89         Height/Weight: 5’ 10”/195         B/T: R/R         Drafted: 2011, 9th Round (MIA) – Arizona State

Hit: 50         Game Power: 40         Run: 40         Throw: 50         Field: 50         Overall: 45

Drafted by the Marlins and receiving a $950,000 bonus as a ninth-round pick, Barnes was traded to the Dodgers before the 2015 season in the seven-player swap that sent Dee Gordon to Miami. The 27-year-old has compiled an extensive track record of offensive results across his six pro seasons, playing multiple positions along the way and appearing in major-league stints each of the last two years.

Barnes may have the best zone awareness in the system, the byproduct of his experience level and a discerning eye that picks up on different pitch types, breaks and velocity differentials. He has a feel for getting the center of his barrel to the ball with a flatter path, showing an ability to use the middle of the field and turn on offspeed pitches he detects out of the hand. When he’s been challenged with inside heat by major league pitchers, he’s done damage.

Equipped with soft hands and an average arm, Barnes is at least an average defender behind the plate. He’s also spent considerable time at second base and sprinkled in some third base. On many other teams, Barnes would make a strong case to be the primary catcher, but he’s expected to open the season as Yasmani Grandal’s backup and provide some utility value when either Logan Forsythe or Justin Turner needs a day off.


13. Gavin Lux, SS

 

DOB: 11/23/97          Height/Weight: 6’ 2”/190         B/T: L/R         Drafted: 2016, 1st Round – Indian Trail HS (WI)

Hit: 50         Game Power: 40         Run: 55         Throw: 55         Field: 50         Overall: 45

Many scouts considered Lux – though young for the class and a consistent performer on the summer showcase circuit – a reach at the 20th overall selection in last year’s draft. The Wisconsin prep received a $2.3 million bonus to forego his Arizona State commitment and made a solid debut in the Rookie-level Arizona League.

Lux profiles as a solid, everyday shortstop, albeit one without a true impact tool on either side of the ball. His swing is direct and has produced frequent contact against good competition in spite of a hitch that’s been smoothed out since he entered pro ball. The Dodgers have asked him to focus on strengthening his lower half, which should help him get to average raw power eventually.

An above-average runner, Lux has enough range to stay at his position and overcomes mild stiffness in his fielding actions with quick feet, solid hands and an average arm that could tick up a half grade. He’ll make his full-season debut with low Class-A Great Lakes this season.


14. Will Smith, C

 

DOB: 03/28/95         Height/Weight: 6’ 0”/192         B/T: R/R         Drafted: 2016, 1st Round – Louisville

Hit: 50         Game Power: 40         Run: 50         Throw: 60         Field: 55         Overall: 45

Smith’s draft stock climbed throughout the spring last year as the bat leapt forward from his sophomore year, thrusting him into the first round as he became the third Louisville Cardinal to be drafted inside the first 35 picks. He signed for $1.7 million and advanced to high Class-A in his debut.

More athletic than the average backstop, Smith has enough tools on both sides of the ball to be a starter someday. He projects as an above-average receiver with lateral agility and soft hands to go along with plus arm strength. He appears set to travel the Austin Barnes developmental track, having also played 14 games between second and third base after he signed.

Smith has a direct swing with an ability to use the whole field and drive the pitches he likes. He exhibited good strike zone discipline throughout his college career, though he was challenged in that area in his first taste of the California League, where he’s likely to return to begin 2017.


15. DJ Peters, OF

 

DOB: 12/12/95         Height/Weight: 6’ 6”/225         B/T: R/R         Drafted: 2016, 4th Round – Western Nevada CC

Hit: 45         Game Power: 55         Run: 50         Throw: 55         Field: 50         Overall: 45

Peters was drafted three times, most recently in the fourth round last June when he signed for below-pick value. He posted outlandish numbers in his pro debut at Rookie-level Ogden, with the usual caveat attached to such a performance in the hitting-friendly environment.

Built like a tight end, Peters is an athletic player with solid tools across the board. His calling card is right-handed raw power approaching double-plus, and there’s some natural bat-to-ball ability here as well with hands that can start quickly from a subtle load, though the swing is timing-reliant and lacks efficiency.

Peters split his time with Ogden between center field and right field, projecting better at the latter due to his modest range and above-average arm strength. His makeup and competitiveness have made a good first impression on the Dodgers and give them confidence that he can turn his intriguing tools into skills. A full-season assignment to low Class-A Great Lakes is on tap.

 

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