With the end of the season nearing, it’s time to look back at some of the best performances of the season in the minors. I want to apply the way scouts grade specific players’ tools — for the bigger fans of the prospect game, you’re well acquainted with the 20-80 scouting scale — for a prospect performance of the year-type vibe.
Here’s the basic idea: Grade 50 is major league average for any given tool (fastball, hitting, fielding, etc.) and the scale runs three standard deviations up and down. One standard deviation is 10 points, thus 80 (the best grade) is three standard deviations better than a 50 (average).
I’ve always been fascinated by the concept of “better than an 80.” A scout would tell you it doesn’t exist, since they’re trained to know an 80-grade tool is incredibly rare (one of the best couple in the league) and also the highest possible grade. In reality, they know that there are some players a full notch better than the number that corresponds to the top of the scale — for example, Billy Hamilton’s speed at his peak.
So, what if we extend that concept to every player in the minors leagues, for a seasonal performance so good that it’s better than my wildest expectations?
By my math, there’s a little over 7,000 players in the minor leagues. Using a normal distribution, 0.28% of the sample will be higher or lower than the three standard deviation span, which brings us to almost exactly 20 players that can’t be contained by the 20-to-80 scouting scale.
Since I don’t want to focus on the ten players below a 20-grade season (it’s mostly just guys that got hurt) here are the ten 90-grade minor league performances (considering expectations, age and level) in the minors leagues this year.
Preseason Prospect Grade: 45 FV, breakout pick
I had high expectations for Chourio, grading him as a 45 FV (i.e. ranked between 150 and 250 overall) as a player that was just 17 years old with only 45 games of professional experience, all in the lower level of the minors (the Dominican Summer League). I explained this in his preseason report by naming him one of my breakout picks and added that I would round up on him because he’s exactly the kind of player teams are proactively trying to get included in deals before they have breakout seasons in Low-A.
What happened was outside of what I could’ve expected, as he torched Low-A and barely slowed down in High-A at 18 years old the entire season. More importantly, he posted the kind of twitch and high-end exit velocities that, in combination with his tools and performance, harkens back to the talent-level of Ronald Acuna Jr., Fernando Tatis Jr., and Yoan Moncada when they were teenagers with multiple plus-plus grades. He was eighth on my midseason update, which is a rise that happens once every year or two, along the lines of Juan Soto’s and Anthony Volpe’s historic breakout seasons.
Preseason Prospect Grade: 45 FV, breakout pick
If not for Chourio, Wood would’ve been the huge breakout story of the year — and he isn’t that far behind in a shocking turnaround. He started the year as a 45 FV (and a breakout pick for the Padres’ list) and was most recently 13th in my midseason update. Wood’s rise was a little easier to see coming as he looked like a mid-first round pick entering his senior season in high school in 2021, but he had a bad spring and received a late first-round bonus at the 62nd overall pick by San Diego. The Padres then included him — for some, as the headliner — in the Soto package on the heels of an incredible season.
At his best, Wood is a 6-foot-7, more athletic version of Kyle Tucker with a handsy, lefty cut that comes with power, patience, feel for the bat head and a deceptive speed/defensive package. We all knew that was possible, so it isn’t shocking that Wood turned it on. What’s shocking is that he was just OK as a high schooler and pro in 2021, and then was even better than the best version of himself in 2022.
Preseason Prospect Grade: 40+ FV, breakout pick
The Braves’ incredible run of producing young talent crescendoed in 2022 with long-term extensions for Michael Harris II and Austin Riley, as Spencer Strider and Grissom made a run at Harris for Rookie of the Year and they traded a prospect haul for Matt Olson. Grissom, a 40-plus FV entering the year and another breakout pick like Chourio and Wood, had shown better than expected contact and defensive ability in pro ball. He was seemingly on the verge of showing some power in 2022, but just enough to profile as an everyday infielder, not a star.
His power ticked up a bit in High-A and he was just as good in a quick look at Double-A, looking to many to be a surefire top 100 prospect at that point, with a chance to debut in 2023. Then the Braves surprisingly called him up and he posted 1.2 WAR in his first 26 games. I think he settles as a second or third base option long-term but the Braves are locked into Riley and Ozzie Albies there, with hopes to re-sign Dansby Swanson at shortstop. So, a utility/corner outfield spot seems like Grissom’s fit going forward in Atlanta.
Preseason Prospect Grade: 45 FV
Winn was a buzzy, exciting prospect in the 2020 draft, going 54th overall out of a Texas high school. He flashed 60-to-70 grade tools for speed, defense, arm strength, bat speed and power potential, along with fastball and curveball. He barely pitches anymore but could be a legitimate late-inning weapon if he tried to go down that path. As a hitter, he was still a little raw but certainly had the upside to be an above average hitter, grading as a 45 FV entering the year. This season as a 20-year-old, he torched High-A and spent most of the season in Double-A, where he was just above league average with the bat, landing 21st on my midseason list. That may not sound exciting, but while his prospect peers will largely be playing in college most of next season, Winn may be in the big leagues playing everyday for a contender — and standing next to the potential 2022 NL MVP, at that.
Preseason Prospect Grade: 35 FV
It’s become a joke in the industry to peruse the Guardians’ later-round college pitcher selections right after the draft and guess that the most generic strike-thrower will be sitting in the mid-90’s within a year. Well, it happened again and it’s Bibee this time. In 2021, he came back for a fourth season at Cal State Fullerton as a 22-year-old, sitting at 88-92 mph with more moxie than pure stuff. He threw 89⅔ innings with a 67-to-21 K-to-BB ratio. It’s a completely uninspiring statline for a crafty, softer-tosser that’s older than most of the hitters he’s facing, though it was a career-low strikeout rate.
The Guardians drafted him in the fifth round for a below-slot bonus. Early this spring, I heard Bibee’s impressive surface stats weren’t just from outfoxing younger hitters, but he was also now sitting at 94-97 mph, exactly as the joke predicted. As a 23-year-old, Bibee is still old for the High-A and Double-A levels relative to the best prospects, but he also struck out 153 while walking 23 (I’ll wait for you to scan the previous paragraph with his college numbers). I think his numbers would’ve been good if the Guardians put him in Triple-A, too. Bibee was a late cut from the Guardians preseason list and is now likely to land on the back third of the offseason top 100.
Preseason Prospect Grade: 45 FV
Painter was the 13th overall pick in 2021 and to be picked that high as a prep righty when every team is aware of the risks picking a prep arm that high, you have to check a lot of boxes. Painter (great pitcher name) had shown plus traits across the board for years, along with starter command. Often, in their first pro seasons, these types will be fastball command-focused with higher walk rates and lower K rates as they focus on first principles to ready themselves for the big leagues. Painter had other ideas, going from 92-96 mph for most high school starts to sitting at 95-99 and hitting 100 mph. Like Ricky Tiedemann below, this extra arm speed also helped the crispness of his secondary stuff. His command didn’t regress at all and he reached Double-A as a 19-year-old, dealing all the livelong day en route to landing at 32nd on my midseason list.
Preseason Prospect Grade: 40+ FV, breakout pick
I scouted Tiedemann at Southern California junior college before the 2021 draft and was intrigued by his three above-average pitches and starter feel from a low slot with a lively sinker. I noted that progressive, numbers-oriented teams seemed to like him the most as low arm slots became en vogue. I assumed he’d go around the middle of round two, but he somehow (I still don’t know why) slipped to the 91st overall pick, later in round three. Tiedemann was a young, 18-year-old, first-year JuCo prospect at draft time and he had physical projection in his 6-foot-4 frame, but I also didn’t think his velocity would spike this season from 89-93 before the draft to 93-96 mph this spring, peaking at 98 mph. His off-speed stuff got more lively with the added arm speed, his command didn’t recede at all and he reached Double-A as a 19-year-old, ranking 41st on my midseason list.
Preseason Prospect Grade: 50 FV (100th on the Top 100)
I ranked De La Cruz as the last player on my top 100 as a copout of sorts — I was terrified by the downside of his approach but knew I couldn’t leave the upside off of the list completely. The upside being Oneil Cruz-level stuff: He’s listed at 6-foot-5 but is taller than that, he’s a plus-plus runner with 80 raw power potential and has a shot to play shortstop. De La Cruz’s plate discipline in a 50-game sample at Low-A last spring (5% walks, 31% strikeouts) was a blinking red light to me that he was so far above his competition physically that he could bully them, but that approach wouldn’t work as is at higher levels, thus there may be some growing pains.
Well I’m the one that whiffed on that one, as De La Cruz raised his walk rate to about 8% while keeping his strikeout rate around the same level and hitting 28 home runs across High-A and Double-A as a 20-year-old. I’m still a bit scared of De La Cruz, like how despite Bobby Witt Jr.’s crazy tools and performance in Triple-A, his approach had undermined his MLB debut season. I also wondered if this would happen to Julio Rodriguez in his MLB debut and it did not at all; same goes for Acuna. Sometimes this stuff doesn’t matter and the story is the raw tools and ability to improve and adjust and De La Cruz may just have “it.” He was 20th on my midseason update and I think he’ll end up closer to 10th on my winter top 100.
Preseason Prospect Grade: 35+ FV
I had Rafaela at the lowest prospect tier on the Red Sox list entering the season. I had him as a standout, plus-plus defender but my only note on his offense is that he “swung too much,” while the offensive tool grades were fringy. He may still swing too much, as his walk rates hover around 5-6%, but it’s notable that Rafaela hit 20 homers, 9 triples and 32 doubles this season, evenly split across High-A and Double-A while young for the level at then-20 years old. Combine that with his plus speed and versatility (he can play basically any position at an above-average level) and he’s at least a top-tier utility type with more raw tools than you expect in the Ben Zobrist or Marwin Gonzalez-type profile. Though, he may be more of an Adolis Garcia or Cedric Mullins, with some similarities to another 2022 prospect breakout in Brewers’ utilityman Esteury Ruiz. The point is that he’s definitely something now, while before this season not many people thought that, especially me.
10. Christian Encarnacion-Strand, 3B, Cincinnati Reds
Preseason Prospect Grade: 40 FV
Encarnacion-Strand was traded from the Twins in the Tyler Mahle deal and there are a half-dozen others in the honorable mention who were also traded during the season, which seems notable. He was drafted in the late fourth round in 2021 due to strong exit velocities and he still has plus-power, but the contact ability and defense both immediately ticked up after signing. I made him a 40 FV last winter thinking there was a shot this arrow-up prospect could turn into a regular at some point, then he hit 30 homers this year while keeping his strikeout rate under 25% and succeeding at Double-A with his like-aged prospect peers. He’s now on the fringes of the top 100 conversation.
Angel Martinez, SS, Cleveland Guardians
Kyle Manzardo, 1B, Tampa Bay Rays
Samuel Zavala, CF, San Diego Padres
Ezequiel Tovar, SS, Colorado Rockies
Esteury Ruiz, CF, Milwaukee Brewers (traded from the Padres)
Connor Norby, 2B, Baltimore Orioles
Matt Mervis, 1B, Chicago Cubs
Logan O’Hoppe, C, Los Angeles Angels (traded from the Phillies)
Edgar Quero, C, Los Angeles Angels
Edwin Arroyo, SS, Cincinnati Reds (traded from the Mariners)
Spencer Steer, 2B, Cincinnati Reds (traded from the Twins)
Zach Neto, SS, Los Angeles Angels (drafted 13th overall from Campbell)
Cade Povich, LHP, Baltimore Orioles (traded from the Twins)
Gavin Stone, RHP, Los Angeles Dodgers
Nick Frasso, RHP, Los Angeles Dodgers (traded from the Blue Jays)
Alex Ramirez, CF, New York Mets
Gordon Graceffo, RHP, St. Louis Cardinals
Tink Hence, RHP, St. Louis Cardinals
Darell Hernaiz, SS, Baltimore Orioles
Griff McGarry, RHP, Philadelphia Phillies
Alec Burleson, RF, St. Louis Cardinals