Some players are on the verge of stardom, others are entering a crucial phase of their development and still others are getting their first tastes of full-season ball. With the 2019 season approaching, MiLB.com takes a look at the most intriguing prospects from each MLB organization.
Breakout prospect: Nolan Gorman, 3B
It could be argued that Gorman broke out during his pro debut last year, but having played in 63 games across two levels, what's to come should be even better. St. Louis' first-round pick out of Sandra Day O'Connor High School in Phoenix played like a man among boys, despite his age. The 18-year-old torched opposing pitchers in the Rookie Advanced Appalachian League, batting .350/.443/.664 with 22 extra-base hits -- including 11 homers -- 28 RBIs and 24 walks in 38 games for Johnson City. The Cardinals aggressively promoted their second-ranked prospect to Class A Peoria, where he was one of the youngest players in the Midwest League over the season's final month. To put his quick ascension into perspective, the 6-foot-1, 210-pounder became the seventh first-round pick out of high school to reach full-season ball in his debut year in the last decade.
Video: Peoria's Gorman homers
"He's a special talent," said Chris Swauger, who managed Gorman in Peoria. "He's got great power potential. Coming into the Midwest League against guys four or five years older and still being able to hit for power the way he did was very, very impressive. I think the most impressive thing about him is his maturity. He scuffled at times, but he was able to recognize that and make adjustments. I evaluate players on how they deal with adversity, and this kid is at the top of that list."
Although Gorman's numbers dipped during his 25 games with the Chiefs, the power remained a constant. Overall, the third baseman put together a .291/.380/.570 slash line while homering 17 times and driving in 44 runs. Considered one of the top sluggers in last year's Draft, St. Louis was thrilled to see he was still available with the 19th overall pick, and their gain may be the rest of baseball's misfortune sooner than later. While the prodigious power Gorman possesses does come with swing-and-miss tendencies, his bat speed and ability to barrel up the ball are undeniable. He'll turn 19 in May and will still be more than a full year younger than the average age for Midwest League players in 2018.
Full-season debutant: Luken Baker, 1B
A teammate of Gorman's with Peoria and fellow 2018 draftee, the very large -- 6-foot-4, 265 pounds -- Baker made a brief pit stop in the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League before moving on to the Midwest League. The 75th overall player taken in last year's Draft, he put together a strong collegiate career at Texas Christian University, hitting .347/.465/.561 with 28 homers and 129 RBIs in 145 games. Baker possesses power to all fields, and although that didn't translate to his first taste of pro ball, the 22-year-old adapted well, batting .288/.359/.417 with 12 extra-base hits and 15 RBIs in 37 games with Peoria.
Offseason MiLB include
"Luken was very productive for us," Swauger said. "He manages the strike zone well and has tremendous power, which he flashed at times during the season although it never fully translated. I still don't think we've seen the full depth of what he can be, so we're excited to see it play out. Just his presence alone and how hard he hits the ball is something to see."
Having appeared in barely five weeks' worth of games at the Class A level, the club's 24th-ranked prospect is a pretty sure bet to begin the year with Peoria. However, barring an unforeseen struggle at the onset of the season, a promotion to Class A Advanced Palm Beach shouldn't be far off.
Shining star: Alex Reyes, RHP
It's been a bumpy ride for the top Cardinals prospect since Tommy John surgery erased his 2017 season. Reyes established himself as a potential ace in 2015, and he shined during a 12-game cameo with St. Louis in 2016. After striking out batters at a prodigious rate in the Minors, he made a seamless transition to the Majors, posting a 1.57 ERA and fanning 52 in 46 innings. Expected to be part of the Cardinals rotation in 2017, the New Jersey-born right-hander instead tore the ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow during a bullpen session in the spring.
Fast-forward to last May 30 in Milwaukee, where MLB.com's No. 33 overall prospect made his return to the big leagues after showing no ill effects during a four-start Minor League rehab assignment. Reyes blanked the Brewers over four scoreless innings before a noticeable dip in velocity worried the Cardinals enough to remove him from the game. An MRI revealed a torn right lat tendon that required season-ending surgery in June.
Fully healed and still five months shy of his 25th birthday, Reyes has plenty of time to reestablish himself as the ace that St. Louis projects him to be. He'll break camp with the club for his first Opening Day as a big leaguer but will likely begin the year in the bullpen before transitioning to the rotation when the need arises. The only roadblock appears to be health, and having tossed 27 innings between the Majors and Minors since the conclusion of 2016, it's paramount he stays on the field. Should he succeed in doing that, he could take his place atop the Cardinals rotation at some point this year.
Video: Memphis' Reyes ties career best with 13th K
Major League-ready: Dakota Hudson, RHP
A job in St. Louis was Hudson's to lose after he turned in a terrific rookie campaign out of the bullpen last year following his promotion in late July. After establishing himself by winning 10 games while posting a 3.01 ERA with Double-A Springfield and Triple-A Memphis in 2017, the Cardinals' No. 4 prospect returned to the Pacific Coast League and dominated. Hudson won 13 of 16 decisions to go along with a 2.50 ERA in 19 starts for the Redbirds. Those numbers earned him the organization's Minor League Pitcher of the Year honors, despite not throwing a pitch down on the farm after July 25. As is St. Louis' custom with young hurlers, they brought the right-hander to the Majors and used him exclusively in relief, where he limited opponents to a .196 average and sported a 2.63 ERA in 26 appearances.
While the 24-year-old has a knack for holding opponents off the scoreboard, he does so more by inducing groundballs than via the strikeout. Hudson regularly hits the mid-90s with his fastball and pushed his sinker up to 98 mph during his time in the bullpen when max effort in short spurts was part of his routine. That late, hard sinking action resulted in a ground ball rate of 68.3 percent in the Majors -- last year's MLB average was 43.2 percent -- which mirrors what he's done in his Minor League career.
Despite his above-average velocity, the Tennessee native has averaged 6.5 strikeouts per nine in the Minors, numbers he reproduced during his 27 1/3-inning stint in the bigs. Hudson is slated to begin 2019 in the Cardinals' rotation, so it will be imperative for him to keep his ground ball percentage at a higher rate to offset the amount of contact he allows.
Back and healthy: Ryan Helsley, RHP
All things being equal, Helsley would probably be in the same situation that Reyes and Hudson currently find themselves: in the Majors. But shoulder fatigue ultimately sidelined the No. 11 Cardinals prospect for all but one rehab start after June 9, delaying what appeared to be an inevitable march toward Busch Stadium. Selected in the fifth round of the 2015 Draft, Helsley put together consecutive All-Star campaigns in 2016-17. The right-hander combined to go 21-5 with a 2.26 ERA, 1.09 WHIP and 246 strikeouts in 227 1/3 innings while moving from Peoria all the way up to Memphis.
Helsley was well on his way to another strong year in 2018 before his shoulder began barking in early June. Despite his relatively small stature -- he's listed at 6-foot-1 and 195 pounds -- the Northeastern State product sits in the mid-90s with his fastball and has graded out highly in regard to his spin rates on his curveball and heater. Whatever the reason, Helsley has proven extremely hard to hit as evidenced by his .212 opponent's batting average in 65 career Minor League appearances. The Oklahoma native is healthy and will begin the year in Triple-A, but his name could be among the first called when St. Louis inevitably needs an arm at the big league level.
More to keep an eye on: Yadier Molina has two years remaining on his contract, after which, as he has stated publicly, he'll retire. That should leave plenty of time to groom Andrew Knizner as the future backstop at Busch. The club's No. 3 prospect hit .313/.368/.430 in 94 games between Double-A and Triple-A last season -- right in line with his .310 career average. ... RHP Daniel Ponce de Leon has become a bit of a forgotten man among Cardinals pitching prospects, but the No. 17 prospect has done nothing but succeed in the Minors and during a short stint in the bigs last year. ... Third baseman Elehuris Montero, the organization's No. 5 prospect, also has the makings of a future star. The 20-year-old hit .315/.371/.504 with 16 homers and 82 RBIs between Peoria and Palm Beach in 2019.
2019 organization predictions:
Most home runs: Adolis Garcia
Most stolen bases: Tommy Edman
Most strikeouts: Johan Oviedo
Current prospect to get most Major League playing time: Hudson
Non-Top-100 prospect to end 2019 in the Top 100: Montero