MLB prospect watch: 10 players ready to explode in 2021

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(RADIO.COM Sports) Hope springs eternal in the early days of training camp with baseball at long last returning from its winter hibernation, with players taking to Florida and Arizona for a much-needed month of warmup reps ahead of Opening Day. It’s onward and upward for MLB’s 30 clubs — dwelling in the past won’t get you far in this racket. If the recent emergence of young talents like Fernando Tatis Jr. and Juan Soto have taught us anything, it’s that the future of MLB is in extremely capable hands. Each year brings a new batch of fresh-faced prospects ready to take the sport by storm. So which highly anticipated up-and-comers will make their big league presences felt in 2021? Here are 10 players who might match that criteria.

Ian Anderson, RHP, Atlanta Braves

Braves hurler Ian Anderson
Photo credit Bob Levey/Getty Images

If you’re looking for a rags-to-riches narrative, you won’t find one here. Save that Disney, zero-to-hero stuff for someone who needs it. Anderson, 22, is a 6-foot-3 right-hander with a lethal three-pitch mix (fastball, curve, changeup) that has always stood out. His dominance on the prep circuit (he first rose to prominence at Shenendehowa High School in upstate New York) propelled him to national recognition, and the spotlight has been on him ever since. Drafted No. 3 overall in 2016, Anderson steadily climbed the Braves’ minor league ranks, eventually debuting in Atlanta’s rotation last year. He was as good as advertised, compiling a breathtaking 1.59 ERA with an 11.47 strikeout-per-nine innings rate over 10 combined regular-season and postseason starts. Classifying Anderson as a “prospect” feels dubious, though he’s technically still a rookie, having thrown just 32 1/3 MLB innings. Regardless, Anderson boasts all the familiar trappings of a top-of-the-rotation ace and, barring injury, appears ticketed for sustained big league success.

Randy Arozarena, OF, Tampa Bay Rays
Arozarena’s ascension from late-season call-up to playoff god — he set postseason records for hits (27), home runs (10) and total bases (64) — was nothing short of remarkable. It feels strange and bordering on disingenuous to label the 25-year-old Arozarena — who you could argue just had the greatest individual postseason of all time — a prospect, but somehow he remains rookie-eligible after logging just 64 regular season at-bats in 2020. Insanely clutch with rare power (especially for his relatively slight, 5-foot-11 170-pound frame), the Cuban-born Arozarena oozes swag, commanding the room with his daring baserunning, thunderous home runs, animated reactions and penchant for swinging at most anything. A former Cardinals farmhand, he still has his skeptics — MLB.com had the gall to slot him 34th in their annual prospect rankings. But after seeing Arozarena flip the sport on its head last fall, don’t count me as one of them.

Dylan Carlson, OF, St. Louis Cardinals
Under normal circumstances, the 22-year-old Carlson would've shed his prospect label last season, but the unusual, COVID-abbreviated nature of 2020 keeps him within that purview. After experiencing slight growing pains in the lower levels of the minor leagues, the light bulb went on for the switch-hitting Carlson in 2019, who torched Double and Triple-A pitching to the tune of a .292/.372/.542 batting line, socking 28 homers along the way (he threw in an even 20 steals for good measure). Carlson’s first month in St. Louis was a struggle but he redeemed himself late in the season, sprinting through the finishing tape with a robust .323 average over his final 10 showings (playoffs included). Six of his 10 hits during that span went for extra bases (four doubles, one triple, one homer), a testament to Carlson’s 60-grade power. Slated for an everyday role in right field, Carlson -- a 2016 first-rounder -- will look to take his game to another stratosphere as he embarks on his first full season in MLB.

Ke’Bryan Hayes, 3B, Pittsburgh Pirates

Pirates infielder Ke'Bryan Hayes
Photo credit Justin Berl/Getty Images

Hayes didn’t tiptoe into the majors like some players might have. He headed straight for the rooftop with a megaphone and set that bad boy to maximum volume, announcing his monumental presence with a blistering opening month. As the 24-year-old Hayes’ mammoth September would attest (.376/.442/.682 with five homers in 85 at-bats), he isn’t going for subtlety. Hayes, who arrived in Pittsburgh as the 32nd overall pick in 2015, is a man on a mission, and that mission is to become one of baseball’s premier sluggers. He’s well on his way too. The son of former MLB journeyman Charles Hayes (who shared a clubhouse with Hall of Famers Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera as a member of the 1996 Yankees' World Series championship team), the smooth-swinging Hayes went ballistic in his introduction to the big leagues, catching fire down the stretch last year by hitting .516 over his final eight contests. The Pirates are going to be a tough watch this season — FanGraphs projects them to finish with MLB’s worst record (65-97) — but Hayes’ development will still be worth following.

Michael Kopech, RHP, Chicago White Sox
Kopech, a first-round pick of the Red Sox in 2014, has been popping up on top prospect lists for the better part of a decade now. He can clock triple-digits on the radar gun, but rest assured, Kopech’s jaw-dropping velocity is more than a mere parlor trick. Kopech, who landed in Chicago from Boston as part of the return package for ace Chris Sale in 2016, hasn’t pitched a regular-season game in more than two years, missing 2019 in its entirety following Tommy John surgery before opting out of 2020 amid lingering COVID fears. Kopech, 24, may have underwhelmed statistically in his first MLB action (he had a 5.02 ERA over four starts in 2018), but we know he can miss bats with the best of ‘em, as evidenced by his sterling 11.69 strikeout-per-nine innings in the minor leagues. Kopech is set to open the season in the bullpen, but it's only a matter of time until he cracks Chicago’s rotation.

Nick Madrigal, 2B, Chicago White Sox
Chicago erased a 12-year playoff drought with its wild-card berth in 2020, putting the up-and-coming White Sox arguably ahead of schedule. With four inclusions in MLB’s top 100 prospects, the White Sox are set up to be a dominant force for years to come. Madrigal, who was actually a teammate of Carlson’s at Elk Grove High School (when did Sacramento become such a hotbed for MLB talent?), showed promise in his debut 2020, posting a .340 average with just seven strikeouts in 109 plate appearances. The 5-foot-8 Madrigal is largely devoid of power (just four homers in 705 minor league plate appearances), but even without that skill in his arsenal, Madrigal is still well-equipped for big league success, boasting an elite contact rate (92.4% last season) with superb wheels and a feathery touch at second base (five errors in 147 minor league games). If not for the presence of table-setter Tim Anderson, a one-time batting champ and recipient of the American League Silver Slugger at shortstop in 2020, Madrigal would be a logical choice for the White Sox’s leadoff spot.

Casey Mize, RHP, Detroit Tigers

Tigers starter Casey Mize
Photo credit Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

One of five Tigers represented among MLB’s top 25 prospects, Mize admittedly took his lumps in his big league introduction last season, limping to a gloomy 6.99 ERA over seven winless starts. Detroit treated him with kid gloves all year, only allowing him to pitch past the fifth inning once. Drafted No. overall out of Auburn, the 6-foot-3 Mize breezed through the minors, barely breaking a sweat in 26 rotation turns on the farm (2.71 ERA, .209 batting average against). The Tigers fast-tracked him to the majors, allowing Mize to bypass Triple-A en route to the Motor City. Mize’s command can be spotty at times, and Detroit would be wise to nip his home run habit in the bud -- he served up seven long balls in 28 1/3 innings last year -- but the stuff is there. With three plus offerings — his fastball, slider and splitter are all lethal — Mize boasts as tantalizing a repertoire as you’ll see, and his arsenal is still growing with a sinker and a curveball both in development.

Cristian Pache, OF, Atlanta Braves
Last year, Pache experienced the rare phenomenon of logging more at-bats in the playoffs (22) than he did during the regular season (four). He wasn’t terribly productive in that span (five combined regular and postseason hits), though he played a mean center field and looks like a future Gold Glover at that position. Pache’s exceedingly rare 80 fielding grade from scouts is further proof of his defensive prowess. And while Pache didn’t wow anyone on the farm with his bat (.283/.331/.401 across all levels), he can fly on the basepaths, as evidenced by his 58 steals in the minor leagues. The return of Marcell Ozuna no doubt complicates the 22-year-old Pache’s path to regular playing time in 2021, but his defensive wizardry and underrated power should give him the inside track over injury-prone Ender Inciarte in center field.

Nate Pearson, RHP, Toronto Blue Jays
A JUCO prodigy at the College of Central Florida, Pearson lived up to his considerable hype and then some in pit stops at Dunedin, New Hampshire and Buffalo, showing little mercy in his brief-but-memorable minor league foray (2.19 ERA, 10.65 strikeouts per nine innings, .173 batting average against in 34 starts). Pearson is 6-foot-6 and powerfully built at 245 pounds, and he could easily pass for an NFL tight end. He showed rare poise in his MLB debut last summer, holding his own in an entertaining duel with Nationals ace Max Scherzer -- he took a no-decision, scattering two hits and a pair of walks over five shutout frames. Pearson, 24, isn’t a finished product by any means. He had trouble locating the strike zone at times last year, submitting an embarrassing 13 free passes in just 18 innings. But when Pearson is painting the corners with triple-digit cheese -- he has touched as high as 104 mph on the gun -- and buckling knees with his ruthless 12-6 curve, he's tough to beat.

Sixto Sanchez, RHP, Miami Marlins

Marlins ace Sixto Sanchez
Photo credit Todd Kirkland/Getty Images

Sanchez, one of three prospects dealt in a trade that sent All-Star catcher J.T. Realmuto to Philadelphia two offseasons ago, made a strong first impression in 2020, seamlessly transitioning from the relative low stakes of Double-A to the Marlins’ starting rotation. The 22-year-old Sanchez admittedly fizzled down the stretch, but his first month was brilliant and bordering on otherworldly, with Sanchez solidifying his big league credentials over five glorious turns in which he went 3-1 with a 1.69 ERA. There’s more where that came from too, as his glowing, minor league track record would attest (2.58 ERA, .223 batting average against in 68 appearances). Polished as the Dominican hurler may appear, Sanchez enters his sophomore campaign with plenty of room for growth. His walk rate could use a little massaging (11 walks over his final 15 final innings), and Sanchez needs to batten down the hatches with runners on base (opponents hit .283 against him under those circumstances last year). But in terms of raw potential, Sanchez has all the tools, and he’s not afraid to use them.

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