Prospect Heat Check: Vladimir Guerrero Jr. is going to be a star just like his dad

·MLB columnist
Vladimir Guerrero Jr.
Two scouts believe Vladimir Guerrero Jr. is going to be the best prospect in baseball by the end of 2017. (Tyler Marcotte/Lansing Lugnuts)

Nothing tantalizes and titillates baseball people quite like someone whose talent is so obvious, so preternatural that he defies every expectation of what he can and should be. And so with that in mind – and with a certain amount of caution but even more excitement – two scouts this week offered the same opinion: By the end of the 2017 season, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. is going to be the best prospect in baseball.

This is fascinating for any number of reasons. First is Guerrero’s age: He is barely 18 years old and playing for the Lansing Lugnuts, the Class A affiliate of the Toronto Blue Jays. Rare is the low-level teenage player who generates such widespread acclaim that he is even considered among the elite of the elite. Moreover, never has the son of a Hall of Famer – the elder Vlad fetched 71.7 percent of the vote this year, his first time on the ballot, and will be inducted in 2018 as a nine-time All-Star with a career .318/.379/.553 line – been this good.

Only 11 Hall of Famers’ sons have played in the big leagues, and the best of them – Eduardo Perez, Dick Sisler and Dale Berra – were average players. Vlad Jr. is not average. He is a 6-foot-1, 220-pound third baseman who impressed scouts last year in rookie ball and this season is causing regret for the other 29 teams that didn’t pony up the $3.9 million the Blue Jays paid to sign him in the summer of 2015.

Born in Montreal, reared at the Dominican academy of his uncle Wilton Guerrero, Vladimir’s brother, Junior is hitting .326/.414/.488. He has uncommon plate discipline for a teenager: 25 walks against 24 strikeouts. The worst thing one can say about him is that his body – never exactly his calling card – will force a move from third base. Idealistically, he’ll wind up at a corner-outfield spot. First base may be his ultimate destination.

While landing at first tends to erode a player’s prospect value, Cody Bellinger’s torrid start for the Los Angeles Dodgers this season reminds that a truly special bat carries immense value no matter the position.

It propelled Guerrero to the top of this season’s first Prospect Heat Check. It will ensure his place in plenty more. In the meantime, here are 29 more prospects worth keeping an eye on as the minor league season grinds into the summer months.

Bo Bichette, SS, Toronto, Low-A

Guerrero isn’t even the best-performing second-generation player on his team. While older brother Dante Jr. has stalled out in Double-A with the Yankees, the 19-year-old Bo is hitting .378/.454/.610 and drawing raves from scouts. One believes he’s more of a second baseman long-term but sees an All-Star bat there. Among Bichette, Guerrero and Anthony Alford, the Blue Jays have three of the most dynamic players in the minors.

Fernando Tatis Jr., SS, San Diego, Low-A

While on the subject of second-generation players, we’d be remiss not to mention Tatis, who, like Guerrero, is the rare full-season 18-year-old. Even if he’s not producing like Guerrero, a .259/.330/.418 line isn’t shabby, and between Tatis’ immense raw power and the price the Padres paid for him – he was the main return in the James Shields deal with the White Sox – getting him was one of general manager A.J. Preller’s finest moves.

Ronald Acuna, OF, Atlanta, Double-A

Might as well stick with precocious teenagers. The Braves, who are promoting players as aggressively as anyone, bumped Acuna to Double-A at 19, and all he has done in 21 games there is hit .396/.446/.626. An average on balls in play well over .500 helps, and that will normalize. Still, in an organization teeming with prospects, Acuna has the best chance to be a star. He’s got legs to match the bat. With 12 stolen bases at Double-A and 14 more in 28 games at High-A, his 26 swipes are second in all the minors.

Kolby Allard and Mike Soroka, LHP and RHP, Atlanta, Double-A

Two more teenagers at Mississippi who are doing things well beyond their years. The Braves took Allard with the 14th pick in 2015 when a back injury caused him to drop in the draft, and all he has done this year is put up a 2.56 ERA in a league where he’s the youngest pitcher at 19. Soroka is nine days older, taken 14 picks later by the Braves out of high school in Calgary, and has been every bit as impressive.

Joey Wentz, LHP, Atlanta, Low-A

The pride of Shawnee Mission East High in Kansas – currently home of freshman Robert Moore, the talented son of Kansas City GM Dayton Moore – went to the Braves last year for an over-slot bonus of more than $3 million. Wentz’s 3.18 ERA is all the more impressive considering balls in play are falling nearly 40 percent of the time. His peripherals tell a far better story: In 39 2/3 innings, he has struck out 42, walked eight and not allowed a home run. His fastball can run up into the mid-90s, and among the Braves’ deep cache of minor league starters, he may have the most upside.

Oswaldo Arcia
Outfielder Oswaldo Arcia hit 20 home runs for Minnesota three years ago. (Getty Images)

Oswaldo Arcia, OF, Arizona, Triple-A

Finally, someone of drinking age. The 26-year-old Arcia hit 20 home runs for Minnesota three years ago and looked to be a cornerstone of their rebuild. He plateaued there, bounced from Minnesota to Tampa Bay to Miami to San Diego last year and signed as a free agent with the Diamondbacks this year. With David Peralta and Yasmany Tomas patrolling the corners, there’s no room for him, but Arcia’s .366/.426/.752 line at Triple-A should earn him another big league shot somewhere.

Ketel Marte, SS, Arizona, Triple-A

It’s not just Arcia crushing in Reno. Marte has taken to the pinball machine that is Aces Ballpark and the Pacific Coast League in general, slashing .378/.418/.527 and giving the Diamondbacks hope that their return in the Jean Segura-Mitch Haniger deal will be more than Taijuan Walker. Still just 23, Marte was rushed to the big leagues at 21 and regressed last season. Marte’s bat control remains his hallmark, and even if he doesn’t hit for power, that and his glove should play at the big league level at some point, even if he is blocked by Chris Owings and Nick Ahmed.

Carson Kelly, C, St. Louis, Triple-A

Speaking of those blocked, Kelly is hitting .317/.399/.532 and has absolutely nowhere to play with Yadier Molina extended through 2020. Kelly’s trade value is immense, and the Cardinals will be players for any of the frontline talent on the market this July should they make him available.

Rhys Hoskins, 1B, Philadelphia, Triple-A

With Tommy Joseph hitting .302/.378/.616 in May, the calls for Hoskins have abated. Still, he is at .310/.406/.625 for the season, and his 18.5 percent strikeout rate is every bit as impressive. After a 38-homer season last year, Hoskins’ profile grew, and while at 24 he’s no spring chicken, he is the surest thing in the Phillies’ minor league system and will be a big leaguer sooner than later.

Brett Phillips, OF, Milwaukee, Triple-A

Following a subpar 2016 in Double-A, Phillips has rebounded with a .297/.366/.593 line at a higher level. The good: He’s still just 23, still comes with a cannon of an arm and still packs power. The not-as-good: It’s coming in the thin air of Colorado Springs and the PCL, and the 35 percent strikeout rate, while not a nonstarter, is alarming to say the least.

Amed Rosario, SS, New York Mets, Triple-A

The calls for Rosario to replace Asdrubal Cabrera have reached a fever pitch in New York, and it’s not just because Cabrera is three years past his sell-by date at shortstop. The 21-year-old Rosario, the second-youngest player at Triple-A behind Atlanta’s Ozzie Albies, is hitting .352/.392/.512 at Las Vegas. This is probably his last Heat Check appearance. With the Super 2 cutoff passing in June and guaranteeing Rosario doesn’t get a fourth year of arbitration, the Mets will have no reason to keep him down anymore

Luis Urias, IF, San Diego, Double-A

The 19-year-old Urias is one of the minor leagues’ most polarizing prospects. Scouts see a good player. Analysts see a star. Scouts see a 5-foot-9, 160-pound mite. Analysts see a .335/.427/.466 line with a 16.5 percent walk rate. Scouts see a player without a definitive position. Analysts see a bat that plays just about anywhere in the infield. He’s just one player, so it’s not as if his success is a litmus test for either party, but Urias is clearly a fascinating player on a fast track who prompted one analyst to offer the following comp: “Jose Altuve Lite.”

Michael Chavis, 3B, Boston, High-A

Chavis has gone from bust to bust-out over the course of 41 games. Not only has he cut his strikeout rate from over 30 percent his first full season to 23 percent, Chavis is hitting for the immense power that prompted Boston to choose him with the 26th pick in the 2014 draft. With a .347/.424/.677 line, Chavis has positioned himself alongside Colorado prospect Brendan Rodgers, the No. 3 pick in 2015, as the best hitters in all of High-A. The question: Is Chavis really a third baseman or a DH, where he has played more than half his games this season?

Victor Robles, OF, Washington, High-A

Right there with them is Robles, he of the .297/.396/.524 line and stellar glove in center field. Perhaps the most interesting part of his game is how Robles’ propensity to get nailed by pitches drives his on-base percentage. Robles has 11 HBP in 168 plate appearances this year, and in 1,146 minor league plate appearances, he has been hit 79 times – a rate once every 14.5 times up. The rate for the rest of the minor leagues this year: one every 84.1 plate appearances.

Dustin Fowler, CF, New York Yankees, Triple-A

For all of the hype Clint Frazier gets – and with a slugging percentage near .500 at Triple-A, it’s warranted – a number of scouts like Fowler even more. He doesn’t have Frazier’s pedigree. He doesn’t have Frazier’s tools, either. He’s a legitimate center fielder, though, he’s just 22 like Frazier and his .306/.341/.574 line is making those who believed his power would break out eventually look very smart. He’s either the Yankees’ center fielder of the future or an awfully appealing trade chip this July, and both options suit the Yankees quite well.

A.J. Puk
Oakland prospect A.J. Puk has struck out 69 batters in 44 2/3 innings. (Getty Images)

A.J. Puk, LHP, Oakland, High-A

At one point last year, Puk was the favorite to go first overall in the draft. He slipped to the sixth pick, and the A’s couldn’t be happier. Puk has struck out 69 in 44 2/3 innings and allowed just one home run, and in the Cal League, the latter qualifies as a miracle and the former simply impressive. He should be a quick mover, particularly if he harnesses his walks (four per nine innings) and continues to keep the ball in the yard.

Triston McKenzie, RHP, Cleveland, High-A

The 19-year-old McKenzie is the youngest pitcher at his level and one of the best, complementing a 2.65 ERA with 71 strikeouts in 57 2/3 innings. He runs his fastball into the mid-90s, and what’s scarier is that McKenzie barely packs 180 pounds on his 6-foot-5 frame. Once he grows into it, the velocity could grow as well, and McKenzie could go from one of the most intriguing pitching prospects in the game to perhaps the best.

Adbert Alzolay, RHP, Chicago Cubs, High-A

Breakout alert. Alzolay was something of a no-name coming into this season. Now he’s the guy everyone is going to be asking for this July. The 6-foot-1 right-hander is sitting 94-95 and topping out at 98 mph with a strong curveball, a solid changeup and enough feel to stick as a starter. He won’t lead a rotation at any point, but there’s immense value in mid-level starters, and scouts believe the 22-year-old Alzolay is just that.

Yordan Alvarez, 1B/LF, Houston, High-A

Breakout alert 2.0. The 19-year-old Alvarez signed with the Dodgers for $2 million last summer and less than two months later was traded to Houston for Josh Fields. While Fields himself has excelled with a 0.81 ERA for Los Angeles, Alvarez was the talk of Astros camp this spring and is off to a .383/.465/.583 start. Houston hopes he can stick in left field, though at 6-foot-5 and 225 pounds it’s no sure thing. His bat, on the other hand, is plenty if he stays at first base.

Vladimir Gutierrez, RHP, Cincinnati, High-A

Don’t let the 4.86 ERA fool you. The 21-year-old Gutierrez, signed last fall for $4.75 million (with a $4.75 million penalty) out of Cuba after his stuff ticked down from previous reports, looks like a potential steal. One scout said Gutierrez’s curveball was the best in the minors he has seen this season and pointed to the average on balls in play (.390) and low strand rate as reasons for the ERA. His peripherals suggest it will dip soon enough: 11.3 strikeouts and 1.6 walks per nine with just three homers allowed in 46 1/3 innings.

Chuck Taylor, OF, Seattle, Double-A

He’s quite the sneaker. Taylor had enthralled the Diamondbacks with his raw talent, even at 5-foot-9 and 190 pounds, but never produced after being drafted in 2012. Taken by the Mariners in the minor league portion of the Rule 5 draft this winter, the switch hitter is slashing .380/.474/.546 with a strikeout-to-walk ratio near 1-to-1 while canvassing left field with aplomb. This ends the awful-puns portion of the proceedings.

Marcus Wilson, OF, Arizona, Low-A

The Diamondbacks’ new brass stuck by Wilson, a second-round sandwich pick in 2014, in hopes he would fulfill his potential, and one scout who saw him recently was impressed. At .320/.419/.551, he is doing the average/patience/power thing, and his seven home runs more than double the three he hit in his first professional season. In an organization that could use some good prospects, Wilson is quickly jetting his way toward the top of its position-player list.

Kyle Tucker, OF, Houston, Double-A

Just promoted after hitting .288/.379/.554 at High-A, Tucker is the best hitting prospect in the Astros’ organization. At 20, he’s unlikely to force his way into a September call-up, though with Houston’s spot in October edging closer to guaranteed – even if they went .500 for the remainder of the season, the Astros would still finish 92-70 – the prospect of a big bench bat joining them for the postseason is indeed alluring.

Derek Fisher, OF, Houston, Triple-A

Fisher, on the other hand, is angling for a promotion sooner than that. The Astros chose him 37th overall in the 2014 draft as the rare raw college player. Those tools have started translating into skills this season, and even if his .341/.400/.615 line is PCL inflated, his glove could use work and his speed is not yet complemented by baserunning know-how, now more than ever Fisher looks like he’s going to be a competent big leaguer and another young piece for the Astros to add to their plethora.

Diego Castillo, RHP, Tampa Bay, Double-A

Final breakout alert. Multiple scouts mentioned Castillo as an under-the-radar bullpen star in the making. His fastball sits 96-98 and touches 100. His slider is a wipeout offering. The 23-year-old will head to Triple-A soon, and the big leagues shouldn’t be far behind.

Lucius Fox, SS, Tampa Bay, Low-A

When the Rays dealt Matt Moore to San Francisco at the trade deadline last season, Matt Duffy was the most well-known return piece. Fox was the one that persuaded Tampa Bay to make the trade. Signed for $5 million out of the Bahamas, Fox was hurt most of last season and still hasn’t experienced a full breakout. He still strikes out too much, and the power is emerging. He can hit and run, though, and as a true shortstop, the potential for stardom remains.

Jack Flaherty, RHP, St. Louis, Double-A

Another Cardinals development success story, Flaherty is the latest late-first-round pick of theirs to muscle his way toward the big leagues. Among Flaherty, Luke Weaver and Dakota Hudson, the Cardinals, pitching rich in the big leagues already, are stocked with near-major league-ready-quality guys in the minor leagues, and that’s after losing Alex Reyes to Tommy John surgery in spring training. Flaherty’s stuff backs up his 1.42 ERA, and at just 21, he’ll bake a little longer in the Cardinals’ player-development system until they unleash him.

Michael Kopech, RHP, Chicago White Sox, Double-A

Kopech is the same obscene talent with the same issues we wrote about during spring training. His fastball regularly touches 100 mph. He’s striking out 12.7 per nine and sporting a 2.38 ERA. Opponents are hitting .159 against him. All of this is what the White Sox expected when they acquired him in the Chris Sale deal. The issue is control: 31 walks in 53 innings is not going to cut it in the big leagues, and if Kopech wants to reach Chicago before 2018, he’ll need to remedy that and fast.

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