I’d like to begin with a quick retrospective to count our blessings despite the stark reality that hitting pause on minor league baseball made 2020 anything but a prospector’s dream.
The decision brought some hidden benefits, though I feel kinda funny saying the temporary demolition of a couple thousand young men’s dreams was not without upside for the fantasy baseball player. Wasn’t even without upside for the real-life player if he found positive ways to invest his time like Luisangel Acuña reportedly has, packing pounds of muscle onto his developing frame. When MLB increased the playoffs from 8 to 16 teams, the entire prospect landscape changed. Suddenly, Baltimore, San Francisco, Toronto and more had incentive to push for wins on the margins. One could argue they had even more incentive to rush their prospects up to the majors just to keep them playing games. We saw more players jump AA and AAA in 2020 than any season I can remember. The expanded playoff format is not solely responsible for that, but it has been a crucial element in breathing some aggressiveness and unpredictability back into our game. I’ll be mildly shocked if MLB doesn’t retain both the 16-team playoffs and the universal DH.
The stage is set in the American League. Tampa Bay, Oakland, Minnesota, Cleveland, New York, Houston, Chicago, and Toronto are all officially playoff teams.
Tampa Bay OF Randy Arozarena was kind of the inciting incident for this article focused on at least one guy from each team who should be flat-out fun to watch this October.
Just today I saw a top 100 list without a spot reserved for Randy Arozarena. Plenty of room for teenagers who haven’t played this year, but none for a guy hitting in the middle of the lineup just about every day on a team that’s locked up the #1 seed in the circuit. If Randy Rose keeps hitting against the game’s elites, he’ll infuse winter conversations around him with the kind of hope we all need these days. Could find himself inside the top 100 picks for 2021 redraft leagues and maybe even crack a few echo chamber prospect hundreds.
Oakland’s best starting pitcher is rookie LHP Jesus Luzardo. I’m curious about how commonly this occurs. He was their best last year, too, but that was just a wild card, play-in game they lost to the Rays despite Luzardo throwing three scoreless innings. October turns promising young arms into aces in the court of public opinion, and that’s definitely on the table here. He’s been more solid than good this year with a 1.27 WHIP and 4.12 ERA, but solid is good for a rookie in the time of COVID, and Luzardo has flashed truly dominant stuff, painting with 99 on the black. I won’t be shocked if he hits triple digits this autumn.
Minnesota handed the primary catching gig to rookie Ryan Jeffers after Ryan Doumit turned them down. Kidding, but they would’ve been scrambling in a sign-Doumit way if they didn’t have a solid prospect like Jeffers waiting behind the backstop. Starter Mitch Garver and sexpot Willians Astudillo spent most of the season hurt or not hitting. No matter: Jeffers hit .288 with three home runs in 59 plate appearances across 25 games. Garver is back and catching full games, so we should get a look at the club’s 2021 plans for the position if the Twins sustain a deep run.
Cleveland built on its well-earned pitching mystique with the dominant debut of Tristan McKenzie, the brilliance of James Karinchak, and the continued success of rookie Aaron Civale and sophomore breakout Zach Plesac. If they’re going to make a push for the World Series, it won’t be their offense carrying them, but they might not need it if the youngsters shove.
The Yankees always find value in the depth of their system, and 2021 was no different. RHP Deivi Garcia has been good for the bombers down the stretch, but I’d be negligent if I didn’t mention my joy that RHP Miguel Yajure made the playoff player pool, a 40-man unit for each squad. The four-pitch control artist got a little lucky in his five regular season innings (6.58 FIP, 1.80 ERA), but I think contact management will prove to be a strength of his in the long term. I’m excited at the possibility of seeing him throw meaningful innings against good hitters. I think his cutter looks really good but was his least thrown pitch (11.9 percent) in his brief debut.
Houston RHP Luis Garcia has gotten a lot of ink in these pages since I started last September, and I’m excited to see him but not certain he’ll get many chances. It’s Jose Urquidy who’s nearing his big glow up. The rookie righthander brings a 1.01 WHIP and 2.73 ERA into the playoffs despite striking out just 14.7 percent of the batters he’s seen. I think it’s more likely the strikeouts catch up with the ratios than the other way around, and I think Jose makes a great pick in a postseason fantasy league.
Chicago has the best collection of young talent the Midwest has seen since John Wayne was Marion Robert Morrison. Or maybe Field of Dreams if we’re counting ghosts. And like ghosts, they’re mostly impossible to watch (hunt) without an overpriced cable package unless you’re happy to wait until 90 minutes after the game ends. At least for anyone anywhere near the Midwest, which really stinks considering Benetti and Stone might be the best announcing team in the business. All eyes will be on La Pantera to see if dynamic outfielder Luis Robert can refine his plate approach under the brightest lights. He’s mired in the worst slump of his stateside career but has taken four walks across his past five games and could correct course in the nick of time for his big moment.
Captain Alejandro T. Kirk is the talk of the galaxy around Toronto, but the return of rookie fire tank Nate Pearson should have more impact on the team’s ultimate fate. Can’t wait to see him amped for October. Here he is hitting 101.5 on the gun in his first game back from elbow trouble.
I think the Blue Jays will play it pretty safe, but you never know—the risk/reward math gets very interesting if they survive the first round. In my opinion, these guys all get hurt, so if he’s throwing well, I say deploy him aggressively in the playoffs. Might not make it back anytime soon. Live in the moment.
Thanks for reading!
I’m @theprospectitch on Twitter.