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Mike Soroka, RHP, Atlanta Braves (Low-A Rome)
Perhaps calling Soroka a “positive surprise” is slightly misleading. After all, he was drafted 28th overall last year. First-round picks often succeed. It’s why they’re first-round picks.
But Soroka wasn’t exactly lighting up public draft boards in early June 2015. He was seen by many as a potential high-round pick, but 28th overall seemed like a bit of a surprise, at least to me. Leave it to the Braves to find the pitching talent.
Soroka started the season working mainly with two pitches in a low-90s fastball with late arm-side run and a two-plane curveball with wipeout ability. By the end of the season, he was showing a feel for three pitches at the same time, which was something he worked to achieve. Now, he’s featuring a two-seamer with plus sink in the low-90s, a plus-potential curveball and average changeup, all from a deceptive arm angle and strong, durable frame.
In the span of a year, Soroka has established himself as a mid-rotation-caliber starter who could eat innings and generate a ton of weak contact. He did this while continuing to work with his developing body as an 18-year-old. He’s also a very impressive kid who wants to learn everything about the game and has excellent makeup. Soroka is proving to be quite the pick for the Braves. —David Lee
Back in the spring I wrote a fairly glowing report about Toles after he came (pretty literally) out of nowhere to shock the scouting gallery at Rancho Cucamonga with how absurdly intact his baseball skills remained after a season and a half of inactivity against professional competition. In addition to the lost developmental time, I noted, the disciplinary history was such that he made for an absurdly high-risk prospect. But the talent that had at one point made him a potential first-round pick was clear, from excellent speed which he utilized on the bases, to the aggressive discipline of his approach and quick stroke that allowed him to drive pitches from gap to gap. I wasn’t necessarily surprised that Toles advanced up the chain and continued to find success when he did. I was surprised that success exploded across two more levels of the high minors and culminated with a to-date absurd 106-plate-appearance debut in the big leagues. This kid can play, though. And while the top-line numbers aren’t likely to remain in the clouds, his is a well-rounded skillset absolutely capable of producing average-regular value as a reasonable outcome, with room for more if he succeeds in counter-adjusting to the inevitable scouting book being written in real time. —Wilson Karaman
Alec Hansen, RHP, Chicago White Sox (Low-A Kannapolis)
Ahead of the 2016 draft Hansen was in the conversation to go first overall thanks to a fastball that works 94-97 and a devastating slider. His junior season was a disaster from the outset as he completely lost command of the strike zone and he was relegated to a relief role as he battled the strike zone. Hansen finished the year with 39 walks in 51.2 innings but the White Sox took a risk and selected him in the second round of the draft. He worked primarily in Rookie Ball at the start of the season where he made significant strides with his command. Hansen walked 16 in 43.2 innings of work in the AZL and the Pioneer League, eventually earning a brief promotion to Low-A Kannapolis where he made two starts and threw 11 innings with 11 strikeouts and four walks. There is a long path for Hansen to traverse if he is to tap into his potential as a starter. College pitchers frequently do dominate the lower minors but with Hansen a significant drop in his walk rate is an encouraging sign. —Mauricio Rubio
Robert Gsellman, RHP, New York Mets
Coming into the season, Robert Gsellman ranked as the ninth-best prospect in the Mets system. The eighth-best prospect, Wuilmer Becerra, went unpicked in the Rule 5 draft. It wasn’t a tremendously deep system, and Gsellman was tagged in our write-up as a role 45, a fifth starter. He was on the 40-man, so he wasn’t that far from The Show in one sense, but he spent much of the season muddling through a groin injury and then the unfriendly confines of Cashman Field in Triple-A Las Vegas. Yet now we are at the end of the season, and Robert Gsellman is not just the third starter on a team likely heading for the playoffs, but he’s probably already a third starter in the sense we mean when we say third starters.
What led us to get here? In short, a little bit of opportunity through copious injuries to the Mets pitching staff, and a lot of improvements to Gsellman’s profile all converging at once. His velocity has spiked a few ticks, without sacrificing the great movement on both his four-seam and two-seam fastballs that caused him to be somewhat interesting to begin with. Like many other recent Mets prospects, he picked up a hard slider in the high-minors that quickly became a plus offering in the majors. The command has tightened up a bit, and put this all together and it looks a lot more like a good major-league starter than it ever did before. In 38 ⅔ innings in the middle of a pennant race, he’s put up a 2.56 ERA and 35/14 K/BB ratio while allowing only one home run. That’s quite a surprise given where Gsellman started 2016. —Jarrett Seidler
David Dahl, OF, Colorado Rockies
I was lower on Dahl than the rest of the prospect team coming into 2016. He repeated Double-A after an injury-marred second half in 2015 and looked like a completely different player. He was trying to pull everything which led to more swing-and-miss, but also a lot more power. I was more enthused after that Summer look, but did wonder if major-league arms would be able to exploit that approach. Sample size caveats aside: they sure haven't so far. The athletic tools were always tantalizing, but Dahl put it together faster in the majors than I expected. He should be a fixture in the Rockies outfield for years to come, and not in the mere Role 5 capacity I prognosticated before the season. I could handwave my miss here by saying that I never really saw a fully healthy Dahl in 2015, and that might even be true. But this is a good reminder that when it clicks for a player with this kind of athleticism, it can come together very quickly. —Jeffrey Paternostro
Luis Urias, IF, San Diego Padres (High-A Lake Elsinore)
When a prospect you've heard almost nothing about ends up showing one of the best hit tools in minor-league baseball, I think that has to qualify as a pleasant surprise. Urias has unreal bat-to-ball skills, making a ton of contact with minimal swing-and-miss. It's one thing to just make contact, but much of it for Urias is of the hard variety, as his strong wrists and quick effortless stroke allow him to shoot the ball all over the field. There are questions about where he's going to play and the power tool probably doesn't get above 35, but Urias can flat out hit, and deserves your attention in the coming years. —Christopher Crawford
Magneuris Sierra, CF, St. Louis Cardinals (Low-A Peoria)
Sierra came into 2016 with several big questions to answer including whether the bat would take a step forward and if he could rein in his athletic ability in the outfield. By the end of the year Sierra answered both of them in the tough hitting environment that is the Midwest League. In his first stint at Peoria in 2015 he had a tough go of it hitting .191 and looking lost at the plate, but he started to flash the ability to work counts and look for pitches he could drive in 2016. Many factors contributed to this, but among the most important were the toning down of his pre-pitch movement and an improved eye for breaking balls. While the swing path still has some uppercut in it, he has recognized that he won’t be much of a power threat and he focused on putting the ball in play and letting his speed work. While still considered raw at the plate, Sierra is showing the natural ability that will allow him to hit at the top of a big league order in the future.
Defensively Sierra was prone to lapses of concentration in the outfield as well as attempting to make plays he shouldn’t. While he still committed eleven errors in 2016, he has improved his reads off the bat and while he still has the athleticism to make all of the plays in center, he shows the wherewithal to know when he should let a ball drop in front of him instead of attempting a diving catch. Frankly this is a case of a young player starting to come into his own as a ballplayer and the sky is the limit for the tooled up center fielder in 2017. —James Fisher
Reynaldo Lopez, RHP, Washington Nationals
It’s not like I didn’t already know about Lopez’s prodigious talents. It was (and is) one of Tucker Blair’s favorite topics of conversation. Still, it’s not hard to find reasons to cast doubt on a six-foot pitcher with effort in his delivery, and wonder how effective he’ll be if he remains in the rotation. A 30 percent strikeout rate over 76 innings in Double-A was less of an answer to my questions and more of a thundering demand to never speak again (sorry). The production fell off at Triple-A, and has been up and down in the majors, but the stuff is still high-end and his innings total (~150) will set him up for a full season in a (the?) rotation come 2017.
Whether Lopez can ride his big fastball, two-plane curve, and tumbling change to consistent success in the majors remains to be seen. But a dominant year at Double-A, and a debut in the majors is more than one could have hoped for heading into the season. —Craig Goldstein
Chance Adams, RHP, New York Yankees (Double-A Trenton)
When it was announced that Adams would be working as a starting pitcher, I was certainly surprised. After all, he was a dominant closer at Dallas Baptist, and was known as a fireballer with a wipeout slider. While he did start at Yavapai College, he seemed more comfortable as a closer. Needless to say, I was surprised with how effective he was and his overall arsenal. Adams certainly looked the part, he has a broad, muscular 6-foot, 215-pound body, a simple, repeatable delivery, and a smooth arm action with above-average arm speed. While starting, he still showed off the two plus pitches that got him drafted, but showed more feel for his changeup and curveball as the season progressed. His command also improved as the season progressed, having a better idea of where to locate and execute his pitches in specific counts. Next for Adams will be to see how well he is able to bounce back next year. His 127 innings this year was 33 more than he threw last year, between college and pro ball. While I don’t think durability will be an overall issue for him, it is just something to keep notice of for the following year. —Steve Givarz
Jacob Nix, RHP, San Diego Padres (Low-A Fort Wayne)
Coming into the season the Midwest League had a mix of a few hitters, and a lot of pitching. Having seen Nix last year in the AZL I had mixed feelings on him, seeing a lack of presence on the mound, and a fastball in the low 90s after hearing mid 90s with peaks higher than that. I saw him once each in April and May, and he looked great in both outings. His mound presence from last year to now has improved immensely, as he has confidence with his pitches and with himself. His stuff was also improved across the board with a much more natural and toned down delivery. The fastball sat in the 94-95 range, topping out at 97 with arm-side run. His curveball needs some more consistency but shows tight spin and break, with the ability to manipulate it to each side of the plate. His changeup was also improved, and showed as an average pitch that could become more as he gets more reps, as he has already generated swings and misses from lefties multiple times in viewings. Though not exactly surprise to see him do this, it was a positive season for Nix as his stuff took a step forward, calmed his delivery down without losing velocity, and showed a better feel for pitching. —Grant Jones