Identifying players who seem primed for future success is a point of pride for our MLB Pipeline team, much like it is for every Major League organization.
Looking at last year’s list, nine of the 30 players we identified as breakout candidates now rank among MLB Pipeline’s Top 100 prospects, and there are four players from last year’s group who already have reached the Major Leagues.
And while the nature of the 2020 season has made our annual exercise more challenging this time around, there still are countless prospects who possess helium heading into the 2021 season after strong performances in the Major Leagues, at alternate training site and/or during fall instructional league.
Below, our MLB Pipeline has picked one breakout prospect from each organization for 2021:
AMERICAN LEAGUE EAST
Blue Jays: Gabriel Moreno, C (No. 8)
Signed out of Venezuela for $25,000 in August 2016, Moreno batted .280/.337/.485 with 12 homers at Class A Lansing during his 2019 full-season debut and continued to make improvements on both sides of the ball past this summer as a standout at Toronto’s alternate training site. He was added to the Blue Jays’ 40-man roster after the season and has a big up arrow next to his going into 2021.
Orioles: Gunnar Henderson, SS (No. 6)
The Orioles player development staff could hardly contain its excitement about Henderson over the summer at its alternate site and then at instructs. He was the youngest player at the alternate site and caught up to the competition quickly, showing off all five tools with a Corey Seager-like ceiling.
Rays: JJ Goss, RHP (No. 15)
Goss’ stuff has taken a step forward since the Rays signed him for $2.1 million as a supplemental first-round pick in 2019, as the 20-year-old righty showed more velocity during fall instructional league, touching the mid-90s with his fastball, and paired it with a hard slider that could be a plus pitch. He’ll need to develop a consistent changeup, but Goss has the size, stuff and mechanics needed to become a big league starter.
Red Sox: Nick Yorke, 2B (No. 11)
Yorke was the biggest surprise of the 2020 first round, but the Red Sox plucked him 17th overall because they believe he has the tools to become an elite hitter. The California prep product has the sweet right-handed swing, bat speed, pitch recognition and discipline to potentially become a .300 hitter with 20 homers per season.
Yankees: Oswald Peraza, SS (No. 4)
Peraza played low Class A one month after turning 19 in 2019 and has some of the best bat-to-ball skills in the Yankees’ system. Signed for $175,000 out of Venezuela in 2016, he also offers plus speed, arm strength and defensive ability at shortstop.
AMERICAN LEAGUE CENTRAL
Indians: George Valera, OF (No. 5)
One of the best hitting prospects in the 2017 international class, Valera has played just one real season since signing for $1.3 million out of the Dominican Republic because he broke the hamate bone in his right hand in 2018 and the pandemic wiped out his 2020 campaign. Scouts rave about his pretty left-handed swing and his ability to drive the ball to all fields.
Royals: Alec Marsh, RHP (No. 25)
The Royals took Marsh in the supplemental second round of the 2019 Draft out of Arizona State — making him the first of six college pitchers taken in the top 10 rounds. He had a brief pro debut after signing for slot value, then opened eyes at Kansas City’s alternate training site, where the 22-year-old right-hander operated with improved velocity and sharper overall stuff en route to multiple strikeout-filled outings.
Tigers: Parker Meadows, OF (No. 13)
Representing Detroit in this article for a second straight year, Meadows, a 2018 second-round pick, showcased high-end athleticism and multiple impact tools in his first full season — most notably, a power-speed combo that has the Tigers excited for the 21-year-old’s future. He was a late addition to the Tigers’ alternate training site in Toledo but impressed once he got there, with the 6-foot-5, 205-pound outfielder making the most of his time in the uniquely competitive environment.
Twins: Keoni Cavaco, SS (No. 7)
After the Twins made Cavaco the No. 13 overall pick in the 2019 Draft, the infielder didn’t exactly light the world on fire during his debut, with a .470 OPS in the Gulf Coast League. He used the time during the shutdown to fine-tune his body, showing up leaner and more athletic. The Twins worked with him to tweak his swing path and he was making more consistent hard contact during instructs, a sign of things to come.
White Sox: Matthew Thompson, RHP (No. 7)
The White Sox have invested heavily in high school right-handers in the last two Drafts, beginning with paying Thompson $2.1 million in 2019’s second round. The Texas prep product has an extremely quick arm and flashes a mid-90s fastball and a plus curveball, though he’s also inconsistent (no surprise for a 20-year-old with two pro innings).
AMERICAN LEAGUE WEST
A’s: Robert Puason, SS (No. 2)
When you sign a player for $5.1 million, you really want to see him go play. Unfortunately, that’s yet to happen officially for Puason, who signed in July 2019 and then had the pandemic wipe out his 2020 debut. He was, however, the youngest player at the A’s alternate training site this summer, and while he understandably didn’t put up huge numbers given his age and experience, the organization feels the experience was more valuable than a summer of games in the Rookie-level Arizona League, creating a strong foundation for a big 2021 debut.
Angels: Jordyn Adams, OF (No. 3)
Adams had made strong strides in performing well during his full-season debut in 2019, showing a better feel to hit than people thought he had when he was a two-sport star taken in the first round of the 2018 Draft. His 80-grade speed works on both sides of the ball and he showed the ability to make quick adjustments at the plate against a much higher level of competition at the team’s alternate training site this summer, with his raw power starting to show up more consistently.
Astros: Hunter Brown, RHP (No. 6)
Brown matched Anthony Bass as the highest pick ever (fifth round) out of NCAA Division II Wayne State (Mich.) in 2019 and quickly has become one of the Astros’ top pitching prospects. He entered pro ball with a mid-90s fastball and a mid-80s slider, and he has since refined a power curveball to give him a third bat-missing weapon.
Mariners: Noelvi Marte, SS (No. 7)
After signing for $1.55 million in July 2018, Marte certainly put his name more on the map by leading the Dominican Summer League in total bases and RBIs in 2019 while homering nine times and swiping 17 bases. He took some lumps at the alternate training site, but used those lessons to excel at instructs, getting everyone excited for his United States debut in 2021.
Rangers: Maximo Acosta, SS (No. 6)
Signed for $1.65 million in July 2019, Acosta has yet to make his pro debut. Often compared to fellow Venezuelan Gleyber Torres, he’s a potential 20-20 shortstop with advanced hitting ability and the quickness and arm to make an impact on defense as well.
NATIONAL LEAGUE EAST
Braves: Freddy Tarnok, RHP (No. 11)
Tarnok took a nice step forward in 2019 in terms of workload, topping 100 innings for the first time, and his command, slashing his walk rate as the year went on. A solid athlete on the mound with an ideal 6-foot-3 frame, there’s still more in the tank as he adds strength and learns more about his craft after not pitching a ton as a high schooler.
Marlins: Nasim Nunez, SS (No. 20)
Perhaps the best defensive shortstop in the 2019 Draft, Nunez signed for $2.2 million as a second-rounder out of a Georgia high school. He’s also a well-above-average runner and the Marlins are encouraged by how he has added strength since batting .200/.327/.238 in his 2019 pro debut, when he topped the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League with 28 steals and finished second with 35 walks.
Mets: Jaylen Palmer, IF/OF (No. 17)
Palmer showcased some of the loudest tools in the Mets’ system at Rookie-level Kingsport in 2019, finishing among the Appalachian League leaders with seven home runs (tied-seventh), 63 hits (tied-fifth) and 100 total bases (tied-fifth). He also led the circuit in strikeouts, fanning 108 times in 62 games. The 22nd-round pick (2018) has big raw power to go along with premium athleticism and speed that enabled him to play third base, shortstop, center field and right field during fall instructional league.
Nationals: Yasel Antuna, INF (No. 10)
Although injuries including Tommy John surgery in August 2018 have limited Antuna to just 138 Minor League games since Washington signed him in July ’16 for $3.9 million, a franchise-record bonus for an international amateur, he has long been viewed as a potential impact hitter and was perhaps the most advanced bat the Nats had at their alternate training site over the summer. Viewing Antuna as someone who can impact their Major League roster in the future, the Nats added him to their 40-man roster in November. Now, the 21-year-old switch-hitter just needs to get at-bats.
Phillies: Francisco Morales, RHP (No. 4)
Morales took a nice step forward during his full-season debut in 2019, missing a ton of bats and improving his command. He was even sharper at instructs this fall, with a fastball consistently up to 97 mph, an impossible-to-hit slider and a rapidly-improving changeup. He was added to the 40-man roster this offseason and he could start moving up more quickly.
NATIONAL LEAGUE CENTRAL
Brewers: Antoine Kelly, LHP (No. 7)
A fourth-round pick in 2019 out of Wabash Valley (Ill.) CC, where he led all JUCO hurlers in K/9 (19.1), Kelly had immediate success in his pro debut, posting a 1.26 ERA and 41/5 K/BB over 28 2/3 Rookie-level Arizona League innings. He did so pitching almost exclusively with his mid-90s fastball, too, which is why the Brewers were thrilled to see the 21-year-old southpaw improve on all fronts this year at the alternate site, as everything from the quality of his secondary pitches to his overall understanding of pitching progressed.
Cardinals: Ivan Herrera, C (No. 4)
Herrera, 20, is quietly developing into one of the better young catching prospects in the Minors. After slashing .284/.374/.405 between Class A Peoria and Class A Advanced Palm Beach during the 2019 regular season and then standing out as a 19-year-old against older competition in the Arizona Fall League, Herrera continued to surge forward with his development at the Cardinals’ alternate site, making his biggest gains on the defensive side.
Cubs: Yeison Santana, SS (No. 17)
The only one of the four prospects acquired from the Padres in the Yu Darvish trade who has made his pro debut, Santana hit .346/.429/.494 in the Rookie-level Arizona League in 2019. Signed for $300,000 out of the Dominican Republic in 2017, he’s a twitchy shortstop with at least solid hitting ability and speed.
Pirates: Quinn Priester, RHP (No. 4)
The Pirates’ first-round pick in 2019 pitched well enough in the Gulf Coast League during his pro debut to earn a late bump up to the Short Season New York-Penn League. This summer, he was a late attendee to the alternate training site in Altoona, but was one of the most impressive pitchers there once he arrived. He continued that good work at instructs, where he was averaging 97 mph with his fastball while showing his usual good feel for pitching.
Reds: Rece Hinds, 3B (No. 9)
The Reds went above slot to sign Hinds in the second round of the 2019 Draft, banking on his incredible raw power. He didn’t get to show it after he signed, playing only briefly before a quad injury ended his summer debut. A shortstop in high school who has moved to third, he showed improved athleticism and the power was showing up regularly during instructs this fall.
NATIONAL LEAGUE WEST
D-backs: Wilderd Patiño, OF (No. 11)
Arizona signed Patiño for $985,000 in October 2017, after his reported $1.3 million agreement with the Rangers in July had been voided because he required elbow surgery. The Venezuelan outfielder reached the Rookie Pioneer League as an 18-year-old in 2019, batting .319/.378/.447 with 11 extra-base hits and 14 steals across two levels overall. He made some changes to his swing during the shutdown and then showed more pop during fall instructional league, where he furthered his reputation as a potential five-tool player.
Dodgers: Michael Busch, 2B (No. 4)
The Dodgers knew Busch could hit for average and power while controlling the strike zone when they drafted him 31st overall in 2019. They’ve been pleasantly surprised by how much he has improved his quickness and arm strength since he turned pro and believe he has a real chance to stick at second base.
Giants: Alexander Canario, OF (No. 7)
The Giants have an exciting crew of young Latin American talent, headlined by shortstop Marco Luciano and also including Canario, third baseman Luis Toribio and outfielders Luis Matos and Jairo Pomares. They signed Canario for just $60,000 out of the Dominican Republic in 2016, and he fits the right-field profile well with some of the best power potential in the system and a strong arm.
Padres: Mason Thompson, RHP (No. 15)
While Tommy John surgery may have wiped out most of Thompson’s junior and senior years of high school, it didn’t stop the Padres from giving him a $1.75 million signing bonus — above his slot’s $1 million value — as a third-round pick in 2016. He battled injuries in each of the next three years, totaling just 147 1/3 innings from 2017-19, before emerging as a hard-throwing reliever this year during San Diego’s instructional camp. Featuring upper-90s velocity that he pairs with a power slider, the 22-year-old righty is poised to make an impact out of the Padres’ bullpen in 2021.
Rockies: Helcris Olivarez, LHP (No. 16)
While he’s yet to pitch above Rookie ball, Olivarez was invited to the Rockies’ alternate training site and was the top pitching prospect there, sitting 95-97 mph with his fastball and flashing plus secondary offerings. He’s added strength and there could be more to come and even though he’s yet to throw an inning in full-season ball, the Rockies added him to the 40-man roster this offseason.
Jim Callis is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow @jimcallisMLB on Twitter. Listen to him on the weekly MLB Pipeline Podcast.
Jonathan Mayo is a reporter for MLBPipeline.com. Follow him on Twitter @JonathanMayo and Facebook, and listen to him on the weekly MLB Pipeline Podcast.
Mike Rosenbaum is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter at @GoldenSombrero.