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Top prospects to watch as minor league baseball season gets underway

USA TODAY SPORTS logo USA TODAY SPORTS 2 days ago Steve Gardner, USA TODAY
a baseball player is getting ready to catch the ball: Mar 5, 2020; Peoria, Arizona, USA; San Diego Padres pitcher MacKenzie Gore against the Seattle Mariners during a spring training game at Peoria Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports © Mark J. Rebilas, Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports Mar 5, 2020; Peoria, Arizona, USA; San Diego Padres pitcher MacKenzie Gore against the Seattle Mariners during a spring training game at Peoria Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

With no minor league season in 2020, prospect-watching became a much more difficult task for baseball fans. While many of the game's top prospects have already seen time in the majors this year, others have been anxiously biding their time at their parent club's alternate training site for more than a month.

With the minor league regular season set to begin, we thought it might be a good idea to look back at our annual list of 100 Names to Know for 2021 and see which of the current crop of minor leaguers could still make an impact in the majors this year.

Players are listed with their opening day minor league assignment.

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RHP Nate Pearson, Blue Jays

What we said: "Easily one of the game’s most promising young arms, Pearson – 6-foot-6 and 250 pounds — needs to stay healthy to reach his maximum potential." 

Update: After dealing with a groin injury this spring, Pearson was activated off the injured list and assigned to Class AAA Buffalo. 

a baseball player throwing a ball: Right-hander Nate Pearson pitched in five games for the Blue Jays in 2020, with a 1-0 record and 6.00 ERA. © Jonathan Dyer, USA TODAY Sports Right-hander Nate Pearson pitched in five games for the Blue Jays in 2020, with a 1-0 record and 6.00 ERA.

RHP Spencer Howard, Phillies

What we said: "The Phillies’ top pitching prospect ... has a chance to be an impact pitcher in the rotation this season but the team could put an innings limit on him."

Update: Howard made three relief appearances for the Phillies in April, but will begin the minor league season at Class AAA Lehigh Valley to be stretched out as a starter.

RHP Kyle Wright, Braves

What we said: "While he has struggled through growing pains, the Braves still believe he will have a good season."

Update: Wright made a spot start April 16 for the Braves, but struggled with his control. He'll look to improve at Class AAA Gwinnett.

OF Jarred Kelenic, Mariners

What we said: "Kelenic, 21, is one of the top prospects in baseball. Plus power plays in-game and should be a weapon early on. He ... has a chance to reach the majors by the summer."

Update: With the Mariners off to a fast start, the pressure to promote Kelenic could increase considerably. He'll be only abut 30 miles away if/when the M's need him at Class AAA Tacoma.

a baseball player swinging a bat at a ball: The Mariners' Jarred Kelenic hit .300 with two home runs and a .440 on-base percentage in 25 plate appearances this spring. © Rick Scuteri, USA TODAY Sports The Mariners' Jarred Kelenic hit .300 with two home runs and a .440 on-base percentage in 25 plate appearances this spring.

RHP Deivi Garcia, Yankees

What we said: "This slight (5-foot-9) yet promising 21-year-old started the 2019 MLB Futures Game and went 3-2 with 33 strikeouts over 34 ⅓ innings as a starter in 2020."

Update: He made one spot start April 26 and was optioned immediately afterwards. There's no room in the big league rotation right now, so he'll take his regular turns at Class AAA Scranton/Wilkes-Barre.

INF Nick Allen, Athletics

What we said: "The 22-year-old is a gifted defender but the organization will want to see his bat catch up this year."

Update: Oakland’s trade for Elvis Andrus made sure Allen wouldn't have to make the leap from High-A to the majors. He's expected to start at Class AA Midland.

RHP Logan Gilbert, Mariners

What we said: "Gilbert, who is 6-foot-6, has showcased four pitches in the minor leagues. He could be part of Seattle’s rotation soon if he cruises through Class AAA."

Update: The M's would like to see Gilbert pitch the bulk of his innings in the second half of the season, ideally in Seattle. Expect his workload at Triple-A Tacoma to be limited.

LHP Brailyn Marquez, Cubs

What we said: "(T)he lanky left-hander gets plenty of swings and misses on his upper-90s fastball. Marquez, 22, could make an impact ... if his secondary pitches continue to improve."

Update: Having never pitched above Class A when he made his MLB debut on the final day of the 2020 regular season, Marquez will begin this season at Class AA Tennessee.

RHP Josiah Gray, Dodgers

What we said: "The Dodgers have a ton of depth in the rotation, so there’s no need to rush the 22-year-old who has never pitched above Class AA."

Update: That Dodger pitching depth is noticeably thinner than it looked this spring. With Dustin May, David Price and Tony Gonsolin currently on the injured list, Gray could get a quick call-up with a strong start at Class AAA Oklahoma City.

SS Jose Garcia, Reds

What we said: "Garcia, 22, looks very much like the Reds’ shortstop of the future. The problem is, they don’t seem to have their shortstop of the present."

Update: Shortstop is still an issue in Cincinnati with longtime third baseman Eugenio Suarez getting the majority of starts. If Garcia hits well at Class AAA Louisville, he could be up soon to take that spot. 

LHP Matthew Liberatore, Cardinals

What we said: "It’s way too soon to say the Cardinals got the short end of the trade that sent (Randy) Arozarena to Tampa Bay, but it will appear that way at least until Liberatore, 21, makes his MLB debut."

Update: The Cards' top pitching prospect was quite impressive this spring. He will begin at Class AA Springfield.

3B Nolan Jones, Cleveland

What we said: "The club’s top position-player prospect, Jones, 22, can afford to smooth out his offensive edges while Jose Ramirez holds down third base."

Update: Jones' bat will be his ticket to the majors, so if there's a need (or an injury) in Cleveland he could get the call. He'll open at Class AAA Columbus.

LHP MacKenzie Gore, Padres

What we said: "Gore is considered one of the top left-handed prospects in the game and has drawn comparisons to Clayton Kershaw due to his delivery."

Update: The 22-year-old needs to ramp up his stamina before he'll be ready to make his MLB debut with the Padres, but it's coming soon. He's the likely opening day starter for Class AAA El Paso.

a person wearing a baseball uniform throwing a ball: MacKenzie Gore was the third overall pick in the 2017 draft and was on the Padres' taxi squad during last year's playoffs. © Mark J. Rebilas, USA TODAY Sports MacKenzie Gore was the third overall pick in the 2017 draft and was on the Padres' taxi squad during last year's playoffs.

2B Jeter Downs, Red Sox

What we said: "Downs hit 37 home runs between his first two full seasons in the minors (2018-19) and was a non-roster camp invitee before the shutdown in 2020."

Update: The Red Sox have gone through several second basemen already this season. Downs could be the answer later this summer if he performs well at Class AAA Worcester.

SS Wander Franco, Rays

What we said: "Franco is widely considered the top prospect in baseball. He is expected to make his major league debut this season, but the timing remains uncertain."

Update: The 20-year-old phenom has yet to play a game above High-A, but the Rays have him opening the season at Class AAA Durham. Willy Adames is a capable MLB shortstop, but Franco could be something special. 

Follow Gardner on Twitter @SteveAGardner

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Top prospects to watch as minor league baseball season gets underway

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