In a lot of ways, Opening Day assignments for the game's most promising prospects can be a predictable game. If a player succeeded the year before, he's likely to move up one level for a new test. If there remains a lot to work on, they'll likely repeat the level in hopes of building confidence. There are many variables and possible scenarios, of course, but by and large it's usually not difficult to trace the straight line of development that is a prospect's ascent up the ladder.
That is, until the surprises come.
Unexpected assignments fall into two basic buckets. Sometimes, organizations think a prospect has shown enough that they can get aggressive and allow the player to skip an entire level. Other times, the results indicate that a player appears ready for the next challenge, but instead the parent club decides it wants to see more.
Below are some of the most and least aggressive prospect assignments to begin the 2017 season:
1. Kolby Allard/Mike Soroka, Braves starting pitchers, Double-A Mississippi: Only two pitchers appeared in the Southern League during their age-20 seasons in 2016: Birmingham's Spencer Adams and Biloxi's Luis Ortiz. Allard and Soroka will only be 19 for the majority of the 2017 season, yet both will start at Double-A. One must go back to 2014 with Jackson's Victor Sanchez to find the last teenaged pitcher to get significant time on a Southern League mound. The promotion of the Braves' Nos. 3 and 4 prospects isn't as crazy as it might seem, however. The Class A Advanced Florida rotation was already going to be loaded with No. 10 prospect Luiz Gohara, No. 11 Touki Toussaint, No. 19 Ricardo Sanchez and 2016 third-rounder Drew Harrington headed to the Florida State League, meaning someone was likely to be pushed. The plan was to do that with Max Fried, who got time in big league camp as a member of the 40-man roster and is now with Mississippi, but the Braves have always been big believers in Allard and Soroka, taking the pair with the 14th and 28th overall picks in 2015. Allard is the better of the two right now with fastball command and a curve that are both lauded by anyone who has seen him, but Soroka has three above-average offerings of his own and held up well over 143 innings at Class A Rome. The Braves are developing a history of pushing their best talent, having put Ozzie Albies at Missisippi and Triple-A Gwinnett in his age-19 season -- and with good results. It will be interesting to see how Allard and Soroka handle the leap.
2. Dakota Hudson, Cardinals right-handed starter, Double-A Springfield: Of all the players taken in the first round of the 2016 Draft, only two are starting 2017 at Double-A or above. One is No. 26 pick Zack Burdi, a White Sox reliever who played at four levels during his debut season last summer, including Triple-A Charlotte, where he is now. The other is Hudson, a starter who threw only 13 1/3 innings (mostly in relief) in the Gulf Coast and Florida State Leagues before tossing 1 1/3 frames in the Texas League playoffs. This spring, the Cardinals said those stops were mostly to give him a quick taste of those levels, but it still seemed like he'd be going to Class A Advanced Palm Beach for a longer look in his natural role (which is what happened with fellow first-round college arms A.J. Puk, Cal Quantrill, Justin Dunn and Cody Sedlock). Instead, the Cards decided to push the 22-year-old straight to the Texas League, and like the Braves, they have some history of this as well. Michael Wacha, a 2012 first-rounder out of Texas A&M, started 2013 at Triple-A Memphis. Hudson is not as advanced as Wacha at the same stage, but St. Louis' No. 9 prospect has the stuff to hold his own at Double-A with a heater that can hit the upper-90s with movement and a plus slider. Cardinals director of player development Gary LaRocque said this spring that the organization prefers to test players by having them enter a league below the average talent level and adapting as the season progresses. They've certainly done that here with Hudson, so even if he stumbles out of the gate, the Cardinals have planned for that. Watch more to see how he does in June or July, as opposed to April or May.
3. Ian Happ, Cubs second baseman/outfielder, Triple-A Iowa: There's a lot of hype around Happ following a big Cactus League campaign in which he hit .383/.441/.750 with five homers and 21 RBIs over 29 games. But Happ is on this list because even he said on this week's Minor League Baseball podcast that he wasn't expecting to open 2017 in the Pacific Coast League when he started spring, but that he believes his performance helped show the Cubs he's ready. After all, the 22-year-old switch-hitter didn't have a great finish to his time at Double-A Tennessee, where he hit .230 with a .649 OPS in 58 games from July 1 onward. (He did, however, perform much better in the Arizona Fall League last autumn with a .778 OPS in 19 games.) Given all the top-level talent they have in the field, the Cubs could've been forgiven for wanting to see Happ dominate the Southern League the same way he did the Cactus before bumping him to the Minors' highest level. Instead, they chose to keep the 2015 first-rounder on a fast track, and now the prospect community can contemplate how long it will take before he's banging down the door to Wrigleyville, now that he's only one step away. Continuing to show offensive consistency and defensive capability at multiple positions will be the keys to getting Happ on the big stage, but if there's an organization that knows how to put the finishing touches on a position player, it's the Cubs.
1. Braxton Garrett, Marlins lefty starter/Delvin Perez, Cardinals shortstop, extended spring training: Both the Marlins and Cardinals are taking it slow with their 2016 first-round picks, and that's OK as they get their careers going, even if both could be ready for full-season ball. (Garrett was taken seventh overall, Perez 23rd.) With the southpaw, the Marlins may have learned some important lessons from the story of 2014 second overall pick Tyler Kolek, who began 2015 with Class A Greensboro and threw 108 2/3 innings before needing Tommy John surgery the following spring. (Kolek is expected back in late May or early June.) The Fish didn't have Garrett on a professional mound at all in 2016, outside of some work in instructional league, and are looking at a later assignment to either Class A Short Season Batavia or Greensboro later in the season. With three above-average pitches and good control, the 19-year-old southpaw should be ready for either level when the time comes. By comparison, Perez has already played 43 games in the Gulf Coast League and held his own with a .294/.352/.393 line while playing impressive defense at short. Instead of jumping to Class A Peoria, he'll get more work with former Cardinals third-base coach Jose Oquendo, now a special assistant to GM John Mozeliak, and that could go a long way in the long run, even if he could've done fine in the Midwest League now. With both Garrett and Perez at extended, there's a good chance the two could face each other a fair amount this spring in their clubs' adjacent facilities in Jupiter.
2. Zack Collins, White Sox catcher, Class A Advanced Winston-Salem: This might be picking nits because everyone agrees Collins needs more work behind the plate before he can be put on a fast track to the South Side. But unlike fellow 2016 first-rounder Hudson, Collins showed he was ready for a new challenge over an extensive period with Winston-Salem last season, posting a .418 OBP with 13 extra-base hits and 33 walks in 36 games. His 151 OPS+ was sixth-highest among Carolina League hitters with at least 150 plate appearances, behind top prospects such as Andrew Benintendi (164) and Yoan Moncada (156) and ahead of big names like Happ (147) and Francisco Mejia (140). A return to Winston-Salem allows Collins to focus on his work as a catcher without allowing potential offensive slumps to get in the way, but a push to Double-A Birmingham could've helped take his offensive game even further. Don't be surprised if that jump comes quickly, especially if more performances like his 3-for-4 game Thursday night come in the next few weeks.
3. Tim Tebow, Mets outfielder, Class A Columbia: Hear us out here. The Mets had shown every indication of pushing Tebow into a sink-or-swim situation. They sent him to the Arizona Fall League, where the competition is somewhere around the Double-A level. They gave him nine games of Grapefruit League play. That's atypical of a player usually headed to Class A. But instead of throwing him in the deeper waters of Class A Advanced St. Lucie or even Double-A Binghamton, the Mets placed Tebow at Class A Columbia, the equivalent of putting him in five feet of water where he can just stand without sinking or swimming. Yes, the former Heisman winner and NFL quarterback hadn't played baseball since high school, but organizations don't sign 29-year-olds to take the slow road through the Minors. (By the way, the second-oldest position player to appear in the South Atlantic League on Opening Day was Kannapolis infielder Grant Massey, who is almost a full five years younger than Tebow.) Even if his three strikeouts Thursday were more indicative of how he'll play against Sally League pitchers than his homer was, the case remains that the Mets should've pushed harder to see what they have in Tebow, who will turn 30 in August, and those types of tests don't happen to players his age in Class A ball. If they thought he was ready to leave extended spring training, a higher assignment would've provided that test.