Three Up, Three Down: Guardians, Tigers, Royals

Three Up, Three Down: Guardians, Tigers, Royals

This article is part of our Imminent Arrivals series.

As we all know, prospect development is not linear. Players who look to be the next big thing will have down years only to bounce back a year — or more — later, and prospects who looked like organizational depth become potential stars only to face regression the next season. A prospect list is just a moment in time, and those players very rarely remain stagnant in their respective spot. 

This week, let's take a look at the prospects who saw their stock rise — and some who fell — from the Guardians, Tigers and Royals. 

Cleveland Guardians

Three Up

Jaison Chourio, OF: In case you weren't aware, yes, Jaison is the younger brother of elite Brewers prospect Jackson Chourio. He doesn't have quite the same upside as big bro, but Jaison was impressive in 2023 while slashing .349/.476/.463 in the short-season Rookie League in Arizona, and he was able to finish the year with Low-A Lynchburg; impressive for a player who won't turn 19 until May. 

Level of optimism: High. Again, it's not the same type of (potential) superstar profile as Jackson, but the younger Chourio has a chance to hit for a high average with a quality feel for the strike zone, and he's a solid athlete who projects as a plus defender. There are some question marks about the power, but as he gets stronger he should be average in that category with a chance for better as he fills out his frame. It wouldn't be a surprise to me if he was a strong fantasy option by the end of the decade. 

Chase DeLauter, OF: The Guardians took DeLauter with the 16th pick of the 2022 MLB Draft. He was a player that scouts had wildly different opinions on coming out of James Madison. Those who believed in the left-handed hitting outfielder have to feel pretty good about him based on his 2023 season — even though it ended up being only 57 games due to injury — as he hit .355 with a .945 OPS while reaching Double-A. He also impressed in the Arizona Fall League with a .299/.385/.529 slash along with five homers in 87 at-bats in the AFL. 

Level of optimism: Moderate to high. I was one of those who was on the higher side on DeLauter coming out of the draft, and I believed he had one of the higher floors coming out of that class. There might be more upside than anticipated, as he has a chance for a double-plus hit tool and just enough power to project above-average. He's also a solid defender in the corner outfield, and he might be able to handle center at the highest level. The only reason I add a moderate caveat is there have been injury concerns, but in terms of talent, he's an easy Top 100 prospect who should be rostered in all eligible fantasy formats. 

Jonathan Rodriguez, OF: Rodriguez has been in the Cleveland system for seven years after being drafted by the Guardians with the 102nd pick in 2017, but because he was one of the youngest players in his draft class, he's still "only" 24 years of age. After a solid showing in 2022, he had easily his best professional season while reaching Triple-A with 29 homers and an .897 OPS over his 497 at-bats.

Level of optimism: Moderate. Rodriguez has big-time power from the right side, the type you see in hitters who consistently put up 30-plus homer seasons. He also has improved his approach at the plate and has a willingness to reach via walks, but there's a great deal of swing-and-miss in his profile that suggests he won't be a contributor in batting average. He's also not the best defensive player in the world, so the bat has to play, but there's no denying Rodriguez has the potential to be a thumper, maybe even next season. 

Three Down

George Valera, OF: Yep, another outfielder. While several Cleveland hitters saw their stock rise, the same can't be said about Valera. The former top prospect in the Guardians' system dealt with injuries to his wrist and hamstring — and also an ugly six-game suspension — that limited him to just 79 total games, and he registered a disappointing .746 OPS with 10 homers in his 256 at-bats over the summer/fall.

Level of concern: Moderate. The tools are all here for Valera to be a successful MLB player. He's a fine (if unspectacular) defender in the outfield with easy plus power from the left side and an eye that suggests he'll draw a good number of walks. He's also a player who has regressed statistically the last two years, and the hit tool has been the biggest culprit. I still think Valera has a bright future as a player that turned 23 on Monday (happy belated, George), but he needs to show some sort of consistency — and the ability to stay on the field — to justify those thoughts.

Daniel Espino, RHP: This one's pretty easy. Espino looked like the next big pitching star for the Guardians in 2021, but due to injuries to his knee and shoulder, he hasn't thrown a pitch over the last two seasons. A capsule tear he suffered while rehabbing in May will likely sideline him until the middle of 2024.

Level of concern: High. But if you were asking me what the level of optimism was, it'd probably be moderate or better. Missing two-plus seasons due to injury is obviously problematic. Having an 80-grade fastball, 70-grade slider and plus curve — with the ability to command those pitches when healthy — is the opposite of problematic. Unless you're a hitter facing him, of course. Espino still deserves a roster spot in dynasty/keeper leagues because you simply cannot replicate that kind of stuff, but unfortunately, there's just no way to know what he's going to provide in the coming years.

Kyle Manzardo, 1B: Manzardo's stock being down is a bit of a compliment to just how highly regarded he was coming into the season after he hit .327/.426/.617 in the Tampa Bay organization. Those numbers plummeted to .236/.337/.464 in 2023, and he was shipped off to Cleveland in the deal that sent Aaron Civale to Tampa Bay near the deadline. 

Level of concern: Low. This sort of depends on the level of expectation. If you're talking about Manzardo as one the best 25 prospects in baseball, my level of optimism for that is relatively low. But this is a hitter who still has one of my favorite swings, a strong approach at the plate and good-enough power to suggest he'll be a strong option at first base for a long time. It would be foolish to give up on Manzardo now based on one crummy year that also saw him miss time due to injury.

Detroit Tigers

Three Up 

Colt Keith, INF: Keith was given a $500,000 bonus in the 2020 draft to bypass a commitment to Arizona State — the same school from which the Tigers selected Spencer Torkelson first overall that year — and he looks to be well worth the investment. He was solid in 2022 with a .914 OPS, but things escalated in 2023 with a .306/.380/.552 slash, 27 homers and 65 extra-base hits all while finishing the season with Triple-A Toledo. 

Level of optimism: High. Keith had some ups and downs after being brought up to the International League, but did enough to finish with a .287/.369/.521 slash with the Mud Hens while showing off the plus hit and power tools that make him one of the better infield prospects in the sport right now. The only concern I have is defensively, as he's likely to end up at third base, and probably won't remind anyone of the better defenders at the hot corner with his middling athleticism. The bat is going to play anywhere, however, and Keith could be a Rookie of the Year candidate in 2024.  

Troy Melton, RHP: Melton was taken out of San Diego State in the fourth round by the Tigers, and he appears to be quite the find. The right-hander made 23 appearances in the 2023 campaign — 22 of those being starts — and posted a strong 2.74 ERA with a 94:24 K:BB in his first full professional season. 

Level of optimism: Moderate. Melton isn't a future ace, and he's going to need to max out in order to be a fantasy-relevant hurler. That being said, he can get his fastball up to 97 mph with some projection still left, and his cutter/slider has a chance to be a second out-pitch for the 22-year-old pitcher. If Melton can take another step forward — certainly possible given his age — there's a chance he's making starts for the Tigers by the end of 2024. 

Parker Meadows, OF: The younger brother of Austin Meadows, Parker just barely qualifies as a prospect as he reached 125 plate appearances for the Tigers in 2023. He held his own with Detroit as seen in a .232/.331/368 slash upon his promotion, and he was able to register an .811 OPS with Toledo prior to that call-up. Nice to see from a player many were labeling a bust a few short years ago. 

Level of optimism: Moderate. If we're being honest, the only player to really to be excited about in terms of substantial improvement is Keith; most of the prospects for Detroit (not all, but most) had down years, but Meadows does have a chance to be a fine MLB player with solid defensive skills and just enough offensive ability to be a competent regular. Just don't expect fantasy fireworks in 2024. 

Three Down 

Cristian Santana, INF: Santana entered 2023 as one of the top five or so prospects in the Detroit system. While there were some quality signs that we will talk about in a second, it's fair to say that hitting .156 while striking out 91 times in 308 at-bats is going to cause your stock to fall. That's especially true when you combine his low — low being an understatement — batting average with a .312 slugging percentage.  

Level of concern: Moderate to high. But at least some of the concern is mitigated when you draw 91 walks and put up a very respectable on-base percentage of .365, right? And then you have to consider that Santana was playing full-season baseball as a 19-year-old while showing a swing and approach that suggest he can hit for a high average if he can just keep the strikeouts to a dull roar. Add in that he can play shortstop and there's still reason for optimism with Santana, but there's a long, long way to go with an awful lot of risk based on his lack of success.

Dylan Smith, RHP: Smith looked to be on his way up the Detroit ranks after a solid but injury-shortened season in 2022. The only repeat in 2023 was the injury portion as he suffered a forearm strain that limited him to 37.1 innings of work, and he wasn't particularly effective in those frames with a 5.30 ERA and 1.61 WHIP.

Level of concern: Moderate to high. One of the reasons scouts like Smith is that he can give hitters so many different looks, and that's still true with four pitches that will flash at least average and a slider that could be plus. His fastball is just an average offering, however, and his control is ahead of his command, meaning he'll throw strikes but not always quality ones. There's time for Smith to rebound, but he looks much more like a backend starter at this point than one who could pitch in the first three spots in a rotation.  

Izaac Pacheco, SS: Pacheco was a favorite of many coming out of the 2021 draft, and it wasn't a surprise when the Tigers used the 38th pick to procure his services. The power potential he showed as a prep hasn't translated at the professional level at all, however, and he finished 2023 with a less-than-spectacular slash of .211/.283/.352 in 119 games for High-A West Michigan.

Level of concern: High. There's still a chance Pacheco does tap into his power in the coming years, as he does possess quality bat speed and a swing with natural loft. The problem is that he has significant issues making contact, with 160 strikeouts in 455 at-bats providing concrete evidence of those problems. Because of his age I could add a moderate to the level of concern, but there just haven't been enough flashes in his time with the Tigers to suggest he's more than organizational depth. 

Kansas City Royals

Three Up 

Nick Loftin, SS: In a year where many, many, many Kansas City prospects floundered, Loftin did the opposite. The 32nd pick of the 2020 draft out of Baylor produced an OPS of .820 in 88 games — 82 of those coming with Triple-A Omaha — and while the sample was only 62 at-bats, he certainly stood out in his time with the Royals.  

Level of optimism: Moderate to high. Hard to not go at least moderate when you hit .323/.368/.435 at the highest level, even if it was over only 62 at-bats. Loftin doesn't possess elite power or anything close, but he has good bat-to-ball skills, and once on base his plus speed makes him a good threat to run while also helping him on the defensive side. A future star he is not, but I think Loftin can carve out a nice little MLB career; one that could make him fantasy-relevant in the coming campaigns.  

Frank Mozzicato, LHP: Mozzicato is considered by many to be the best prospect in the Kansas City system in large part due to what he did in 2023 (when he was healthy enough to be on the mound). His 4.65 ERA isn't exactly inspiring, but he was able to fan 130 hitters in 97 innings while holding hitters to a .205 average against over his 22 starts. 

Level of optimism: Moderate to high. Mozzicato missed a month of the season, but it was due to a head injury rather than something arm-related. (Note: head injuries are obviously bad too. This is not an attempt to downplay that.) The 20-year-old has three above-average pitches at his disposal and could have a plus-plus fastball as he fills out, but his command is very much a work in progress as he walked 67 hitters in his 93 innings. There's work to be done, but in terms of just pure upside, Mozzicato is probably the best prospect in the Kansas City system. 

Chandler Champlain, RHP: The Royals picked up Champlain in the deal for Andrew Benintendi last summer, and it took less than a year for him to develop into one of their best starting pitching prospects. The 6-foot-5 right-hander spent most of the year with Double-A Northwest Arkansas, and in his time there and High-A Quad Cities he was able to register a solid 3.33 ERA with a 125:43 K:BB mark across 135.1 frames.  

Level of optimism: Moderate. Champlain doesn't have the stuff to be among the league leaders in strikeouts or anywhere close, so he's going to need a quality defense behind him. That being said, he throws three pitches for strikes, and all three of those offerings — fastball, slider, change — flash above-average. He won't win you a fantasy league, but he has good enough stuff and command to profile as a solid starter at the highest level if he continues his rise.

Three Down

Gavin Cross, OF: As mentioned above, the Royals had several prospects have disappointing seasons in 2023, and perhaps none more so than Cross. The ninth pick of the 2022 MLB Draft was only able to muster a .683 OPS as a 22-year-old who spent 94-of-96 games in High-A, and he whiffed in 115 of his 360 at-bats.  

Level of concern: High. There's a danger of having some confirmation bias in situations like this, but there's no denying that my level of concern is amplified by not being a huge fan of Cross coming into the 2022 draft. He made me doubt my ability to do this based on how he looked as a pro that summer, but the lack of a standout tool and lengthy swing proved problematic and then some this year. There's time to figure things out, but saying there's a long way to go is an understatement of understatements.

Erick Pena, OF: The Royals gave Pena a massive $3.8 million in 2019 as one of the top international prospects of that year. Kansas City understandably has taken things slow with a player that won't turn 21 until February, but after hitting just .150 with a .547 OPS with Low-A in 2022, he repeated the level with no improvement as seen in a slash of .133/.276/.296 with Columbia in 2023.  

Level of concern: High. I'll keep this one short. A scout told me that Pena right now is the perfect example of the idea of being a good baseball player compared to what one does in reality. There's a plethora of tools that suggest Pena can still someday reach his lofty ceiling, but its much more likely he's just organizational fodder right now.

Asa Lacy, LHP: The Royals have a star in Bobby Witt Jr. and some other young players in their core who give them a relatively bright future, but there have been several poor draft picks — at least in result — that have hurt the cause, and Lacy qualifies as one of them. He didn't throw a pitch in 2023 at any level, and in his 80.1 innings since being the fourth-overall pick, he's registered an ugly 7.09 ERA. 

Level of concern: High. You could honestly argue whether Lacy's stock even took a hit last year, as he was atrocious in both 2021 and 2022 with just 19 appearances since being selected with the fourth-overall pick out of Texas A&M in the 2020 draft. I'd love to be wrong, and Lacy won't turn 25 until June, but it'd be a mistake to continue to roster the left-hander in fantasy leagues regardless of format at this stage.

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Chris Crawford
Christopher Crawford has covered baseball, college football and a variety of other subjects for ESPN, NBC Sports and more.
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