We should be focusing on the baseball meant to be coming next week. Instead, this additional layoff gives us even more time to reflect on that baseball that already came.The 2010s was a fascinating decade for the Minor Leagues and prospects across the baseball landscape. The period began with the
We should be focusing on the baseball meant to be coming next week. Instead, this additional layoff gives us even more time to reflect on that baseball that already came.
The 2010s was a fascinating decade for the Minor Leagues and prospects across the baseball landscape. The period began with the likes of Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper as the hot young talents on the scene (and both in the Nationals system, no less) and ended with Washington capturing its first World Series title (even without Harper). Wander Franco was all of 8 years old on Jan. 1, 2010, and he ended the decade as the game's budding superstar. Prospect coverage, aided in part by rebuilding efforts by organizations across baseball, has blossomed to the point in which, more often than ever, fans have questions and opinions on Minor Leaguers several rungs below The Show on the professional ladder.
Of course, the Minors provide a wide array of talents. For every player that zooms to the Majors, there are many, many more still trying to prove themselves at every level. Consider this Toolshed to be a snapshot of what the Minors encompassed from 2010-2019. These are the statistical leaders across all the affiliated Minor Leagues (excluding the Mexican League) from the past 10 seasons. For non-counting stats, the minimums used were 500 plate appearances and 250 innings, thus acknowledging those who may have moved so quickly their Minor League samples were low, but also cutting out any extremely small-sample sizes.
0.93, Montana DuRapau, WHIP: The 5-foot-10 right-hander was a 32nd-round pick by the Pirates out of Bethune-Cookman University in 2014, and pitchers at that level have much to do to prove themselves worthy of sticking around in time to see the higher levels. DuRapau cleared that bar by keeping opposing hitters off the basepaths at a great rate as a reliever with a four-pitch mix. He posted a career-best 0.51 WHIP across three levels in his first full season in 2015 and was almost as stingy with a 0.76 WHIP over 46 1/3 frames for Triple-A Indianapolis last year. Appropriately, he made his Major League debut for Pittsburgh last season and appeared in 14 big league games for the Bucs before being outrighted off the 40-man roster in November. Still, doubting the 28-year-old's ability to get back to the bigs would be a fool's errand given how he went from a low pick to the game's top level.
1.67, Tony Cingrani, ERA: The 30-year-old left-hander, now a free agent, has been a bit of journeyman, having pitched for the Reds and Dodgers in the Majors before getting moved to the Cardinals as luxury-tax relief last July. But let this serve as a reminder of just how dominant he was early in his career. The 2011 third-rounder out of Rice posted a 1.73 ERA combined over his first two Minor League seasons before debuting with Cincinnati in September 2012. He had a 1.15 mark in six starts at Triple-A Louisville in 2013, a 1.82 for the same club over nine appearances in 2015 and hasn't allowed a Minor League earned run in his last 10 1/3 frames during rehab appearances since 2017. Cingrani's low-90s fastball and good slider only earned him bullpen looks at the top level, but that repertoire was plenty good enough to push him quickly through the Minors. Out of the 2,759 Minor League pitchers with at least 250 innings from 2010-2019, only one other (Enosil Tejeda, 1.94) had an ERA below 2.00.
2.27, Shane Bieber, FIP: Bieber is known to many now as the de facto ace of the Indians with Mike Clevinger hurt and even a potential American League Cy Young dark-horse candidate for the 2020 season. Anyone who followed Bieber's Minor League career might consider him a control god. The 2016 fourth-rounder walked only 19 batters over 277 innings during his time in the Minors. That's an 0.6 BB/9 or a 1.8 walk percentage, depending on which one you prefer. Keeping walks low is a big piece of FIP, as is keeping the ball in the yard, which Bieber did by giving up only 12 homers in his three Minor League seasons. The 2016 fourth-rounder was never a Top-100 prospect and needed a serious velocity spike in the Majors to get to his current level, but all the other statistical pieces were in place to get him his chance in Cleveland.
3.0, Nick Madrigal, K%: The current No. 4 White Sox prospect's elite contact ability has never been in question, and this seals just how elite it was. It's also kind of incredible how he nipped famed contact-maker Willians Astudillo out for this spot just at the end of the decade. Consider the numbers:
Madrigal: 21 strikeouts/705 plate appearances=.0298
Astudillo: 73 strikeouts/2,354 plate appearances=.0310
The gulf in sample size arguably makes Astudillo's 3.1 percent look all the more impressive, but Madrigal cleared our plate-appearance minimum pretty clearly. Both clearly bucked the current trend of taking strikeouts as a tradeoff for power and were in their own world in doing so. No other qualified Minor Leaguer struck out less than 5.4 percent of the time.
.459, Brandon Belt, OBP: Belt was a fifth-round pick in 2009, and three years later, was the starting first baseman for a World Series-winning Giants club. Why? The guy could reach base. The left-handed slugger posted a .455 OBP across three levels in his first full season in 2010, thanks to a .352 average and 93 walks, and picked up right where he left off with a .461 mark between Class A Advanced and Triple-A in 2011. He returned to the Minors only once after that -- 2018 for a Triple-A rehab assignment. With no 20-homer seasons to his credit in the Majors, Belt hasn't been the stereotypical slugger at first base, but his overall hit tool and ability to take walks (including 104 in 2016 alone) made him a key cog of several Giants contenders over the past decade.
1.085, Kris Bryant, OPS: Bryant's time in the Minors is largely remembered now for the seven games he spent with Triple-A Iowa in 2015 at a time when he was clearly ready for the Majors. (He later filed a grievance against the Cubs, saying it was service-time manipulation, but an arbitrator decided against him this offseason.) But it's important to remember just how dominant the slugger was leading up to that time. The 2013 second overall pick needed only one-and-a-half seasons in the Minors to show his Major League readiness. His Minor League crowning achievement was his 2014 campaign in which he led the Minors with 43 homers and finished with a .325/.438/.661 line over 138 games between Iowa and Double-A Tennessee. With Bryant's 1.078 OPS the season before, he put in enough work to keep his Minor League OPS lead across the decade, finishing with a .017 advantage over Belt (1.068). Bryant also finished tops with his .661 slugging percentage, beating out teammate Kyle Schwarber (.619). It helped that all three played in the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League.
189, Cody Decker, home runs: Everything above has been a rate stat. This, of course, is a counting stat, meaning it takes a lot of games to rise to the top. It also takes prodigious power. Decker got plenty of both in the 2010s, racking up 974 games across the Padres, Rockies, Royals, Red Sox, Mets and D-backs systems while accruing those 189 blasts. The 2009 22nd-rounder out of UCLA got plenty of looks for his power with 20-plus homers on four different occasions and finally earned an eight-game Major League cameo with San Diego in 2015. Of his 1,033 Minor League games, 568 were played at Triple-A with multiple organizations bringing him in for help at catcher/first base and as a veteran presence in the clubhouse. (His Twitter videos are still the stuff of legend across Minor League social media.) Decker retired last July. His last at-bat: a two-run walk-off homer on July 10 in Reno's 10-9 win over Sacramento.
198, Juan Soto, wRC+: The Nationals outfielder has yet to find a place he couldn't hit, and so far, that includes the Majors. But before he reached The Show as a 19-year-old in May 2018, Soto torched the Minors, never playing for a single Nationals affiliate for more than 45 games (and that was the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League club in 2016). He finished with a .362/.434/.609 line over 512 plate appearances in the Minors -- leading all qualifiers in average -- and that allowed his wRC+ to soar to even higher levels because he never played in a major hitters' league like the PCL or California Leagues. (Bryant finished second at 191.) It's possible he could have reached Washington even quicker or put up even higher numbers had he not been limited by ankle and hamstring injuries in 2017. All the same, the Nats didn't wait long to push Soto, and he showed at every level that his bat was up to the task.
382, Billy Hamilton, stolen bases: Probably the easiest category leader to guess on this entire list. Hamilton set a Minor League record with 155 steals between Class A Advanced Bakersfield and Double-A Pensacola in 2012. Sandwiched around that was a 103-steal season in 2011 and a 75-theft campaign in 2013. A lack of a bat has caused the 29-year-old to move around in recent years between the Reds, Royals, Braves and now Giants, but it's his running ability (and defense in center) that keeps him earning him looks. If you ever needed a pinch-runner at any level in recent memory, chances are Hamilton would be your guy.
575, Jon Singleton, walks: There are any number of ways to remember Singleton. The multi-time Top-100 prospect. A key piece in the 2011 deadline deal that sent Hunter Pence to the Phillies. The slugger who signed a five-year Major League contract worth a guaranteed $10 million before he played a Major League game, only to finish with a -1.2 bWAR over two seasons at the top level. For now, let's remember him as an elite walker. No matter the status of the rest of his game, Singleton could always take free passes, so much so that he hit .256 in his Minor League career, but finished with a .376 OBP. Adding to the impressiveness of the feat, Singleton didn't appear in a Minor League game in 2018 or 2019, but had built up enough of a lead in the walks department that he still held off Ty Kelly by one in the category. Let that be of some solace
1,098, Breyvic Valera, hits: Have hit tool, will travel. Valera started out his career in 2010 in the now-defunct Venezuelan League and finished with 1,001 games in the Minor Leagues, in part because he can always hit for a decent average. Valera is a career .299 hitter in the Minors, having spent time in the Cardinals, Dodgers, Orioles, Yankees, Blue Jays and Giants systems, and he has walked more times (347) than he has struck out (315). That hit tool recently carried him to the Padres organization, which claimed him off waivers in February. It hasn't quite translated to the Majors yet, but that ability to keep the ball in play, pick up knocks and play multiple positions keeps getting the switch-hitter looks across the league.
1,101, Paolo Espino, strikeouts: Espino was an All-Star only once last decade -- in 2010 with Double-A Akron in the Indians system -- so let this be his honor for longevity and consistency across the upper levels of the Minors. The 33-year-old right-hander was the only Minor League pitcher to reach quadruple-digits in strikeouts for the decades, and he beat that mark by 101. Espino picked up at least 100 K's in eight of his 10 seasons last decade. Of the two in which he didn't reach that milestone, one was his only Major League season of 2017, and during the other, he moved to the bullpen part time in the Rangers and Brewers systems in 2018. He finished out the decade on a stronger note, fanning 102 over 96 2/3 innings in the Nationals system last season, and he was a non-roster invitee to Washington's big league camp this spring. With a high-80s fastball and a four-pitch mix, Espino doesn't have the killer stuff to stand out on a scouting sheet, but the Panama native's ability to keep upper-level hitters off balance has kept him in baseball since 2006.
1,204 1/3, Jake Buchanan, innings pitched: Innings eaters (and ones with histories of solid results) tend to find roles over time, and that was the case for Buchanan, who made the Majors with the Astros, Cubs and Reds and also saw time in the D-backs, A's and Nationals systems in the past decade. The 30-year-old right-hander ended up playing both starting and relieving roles over that time, but he notably topped 140 innings on six different occasions, including most recently in 2018. Buchanan didn't rack up the amount of pitch-heavy strikeouts that would limit his starts through his career, and his elite ground-ball rates only helped his value at a time when most hitters were trying to get the ball in the air. Buchanan signed with High Point in the independent Atlantic League this offseason, but not before leaving his innings-heavy mark on Minor League mounds.
4,324, Ty Kelly, plate appearances: Norfolk. Tacoma. Memphis. Buffalo. Las Vegas. Lehigh Valley. Salt Lake. That's not a Hank Snow song. It's each of the Triple-A destinations Kelly called home since he first reached the Minors' highest level in 2012. The switch-hitting utilityman played every position but catcher during his career (including pitcher on three occasions) and finished with a wRC+ above 100 in nine of his 11 seasons. That ability to feature at multiple spots while still bringing Triple-A offensive value as a switch-hitter led to a lot of calls, even if Kelly only mustered a .203/.288/.323 line over 188 plate appearances in the Majors. He retired this offseason but is expected to be a part of Team Israel's Olympic team in Tokyo next summer.
Sam Dykstra is a reporter for MiLB.com. Follow and interact with him on Twitter, @SamDykstraMiLB.