EL season preview: Five prospects to watch

Stewart, Devers highlight bevy of big names in Double-A circuit

Christin Stewart collected 30 home runs between Class A Advanced and Double-A in 2016. (Tom Hagerty)

By MiLB.com Staff | April 4, 2017 10:00 AM ET

The Double-A Eastern League gets underway Thursday, April 6, with a full slate of six games. The action begins at 6 p.m. ET on MiLB.TV as the Portland Sea Dogs (Red Sox) host the Reading Fightin Phils (Phillies). 

Below are some of the biggest and brightest prospects expected to open the season in the Eastern League: 

Christin Stewart, LF, Erie SeaWolves (Detroit Tigers)

Spending most of last season in the pitcher-friendly Florida State League did not have much effect on Stewart's powerful bat. Including an August leap to Double-A Erie, the Tigers' top hitting prospect led the system with 30 homers and ranked second with 87 RBIs. While that power comes with a propensity to strike out, it doesn't mean Stewart can't show patience at the plate. The 34th overall pick in the 2015 Draft ranked sixth in the Minors with 86 walks.

"Christin is a well-rounded hitter in that he is mature [and] has a good idea of what he wants to try to do at the plate," said Dave Littlefield, the Tigers' vice president of player development. "He's obviously shown impressive power and yet works the count fairly well and is able to get on base as well as have power. Like any young player, there is room for improvement, but he's off to a very good start."

In the outfield, Stewart has committed just five errors in 174 career games, spending all of his time in left. If the 23-year-old gets off to a good start with the SeaWolves this season, there's a possibility fans could see him play at Comerica in September.

"For a guy who's just out of his first full season, he is showing strong signs that he's got a chance to be a real nice offensive player in the Major Leagues," Littlefield said.

Rafael Devers, 3B, Portland Sea Dogs (Boston Red Sox)

Upon Andrew Benintendi's prospect graduation, Devers will slide into the top spot of the Red Sox prospect ranks -- and for good reason. MLB.com's No. 17 overall prospect is slated to begin 2017 at Double-A Portland at just 20 years. Only three position players -- Amed Rosario, Richard Urena and Wendell Rijo -- received more than 100 plate appearances during their age-20 seasons in the Eastern League in 2016, but none of them began the season at the Double-A level.

What's more, the 20-year-old, left-handed-hitting third baseman enters 2017 with plenty of wind at his back after he hit .326/.367/.539 with seven homers, six triples and 24 doubles in 65 games for Salem over the second half of last season. Only Scott Heineman (40), who played his home games in the offensive haven of High Desert, had more extra-base hits at the Class A Advanced level than Devers' 37 over that span.

"I think picking up where he left off at the end of last year, he's really brought that momentum into Major League camp, continuing to improve defensively," said Red Sox vice president of player development Ben Crockett. "He did a great job of that in 2016. Going into 2017, he's going to be focusing on continuing to refine his approach and repeat his swing. Thus far, he made a nice adjustment last year to do that efficiently. ... That allowed him to better recognize and attack pitches he could drive."

Francisco Mejia, C, Akron RubberDucks (Cleveland Indians)

Our Indians Prospect Primer pegged Mejia as a breakout candidate a season ago. The 21-year-old delivered beyond any reasonable expectation. Mejia put together the fourth-longest hitting streak in Minor League history with a 50-game run between May 27 and Aug. 13. He kept hitting into September while amassing a combined .342 average, 11 homers and 80 RBIs between Class A Lake County and Class A Advanced Lynchburg.

At Akron, he'll have a chance to build on an equally impressive showing this spring. In 11 Cactus League games, he went 8-for-19 with a pair of homers. The native of the Dominican Republic has little to prove offensively after last season. With a stellar arm behind the plate and improving game-calling skills, his defensive game may not be far off either. Indians catchers hit a combined .182 during the 2016 regular season, so the path should be clear for Mejia to be the club's catcher of the future.

"I thought the time here [in big league camp] was really good for him," Cleveland manager Terry Francona told MLB.com. "He got to be with [first base coach and catching instructor Sandy Alomar Jr.] for a month. He got to catch some of the Major League pitchers. I think he knows that his skills, although he has some developing to do, that it can translate into helping a Major League team." 

Gleyber Torres, SS, Trenton Thunder (New York Yankees)

The No. 3 prospect in baseball was outstanding in Spring Training, hitting .448 with two homers and nine RBIs in 19 games. The fact that the 20-year-old saw that much Grapefruit League action tells you how highly New York regards the infielder. Torres, who came over from the Cubs in the Aroldis Chapman trade last summer, hit .270 with 11 homers, 66 RBIs and 21 steals in 125 games between the two organizations, all at the Class A Advanced level. He was the youngest player to ever win the Arizona Fall League's batting title and MVP award last year. Torres, by the way, hadn't even been born when the Yankees' last huge shortstop prospect, Derek Jeter, won his first World Series ring in 1996.

"We've been very excited about this young kid ever since we've had him," Yankees manager Joe Girardi told MLB.com. "He went out and played at a very, very high level with kids that are older than him [in the AFL], with kids that played at a higher level than him. He was one of the kids that really shined. I think that really bodes well for us."

Yankees vice president of player development Gary Denbo agreed, calling Torres an "advanced" hitter.

"We saw some real good things when he was playing for the Florida State League," Denbo told MiLB.com earlier this month. "For his age, he's very advanced as a hitter. He seems to pick up pitches very well, recognizes pitches. He knows his strengths and weaknesses. He uses the entire field to hit."

Kevin Newman, SS, Altoona Curve (Pittsburgh Pirates)

Newman propensity for making contact is truly impressive. The 2015 first-round pick burst on the scene last year by hitting .320 in 102 games with Class A Advanced Bradenton and Altoona. What may have been less noticeable was that he almost never struck out. In 61 Eastern League games, Newman fanned 24 times, a nine percent rate that ranked sixth-best among all Double-A hitters with at least 250 plate appearances. While he doesn't register much in the power department, the 23-year-old's hit tool alone might be enough to get him to the big leagues.

"I think there's a real high ceiling there," said Pirates director of Minor League operations Larry Broadway. "His work ethic is tremendous, his commitment in the batter's box. I think part of what separates the guys who are pretty good hitters and the really good hitters is their awareness of who they are and their commitment to knowing their role. [He has] a commitment to knowing what his strengths are as a hitter, knowing, 'I don't have to be the guy who hits home runs. I'm the kind of guy who knows what pitch I need, I'm going to get that pitch and I'm going to put the barrel on it.'"

This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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