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Jim Callis

Inbox: Prospects poised to break out after injury-plagued 2016

Jim Callis answers fans' questions about baseball's future stars

Inbox: Prospects poised to break out after injury-plagued 2016

As happy as 2016 was for the Cubs, this year began with some terrible news. Scout Stan Zielinski died suddenly on Jan. 5 at his home in Winfield, Ill.

Few scouts were as respected for their acumen and beloved for being a great guy as Zielinski, 64. He signed players such as Cliff Floyd for the Expos and Jeff Samardzija and Kyle Schwarber for the Cubs, and he also recommended the acquisition of Chris Archer in Chicago's Mark DeRosa trade with the Indians. The Cubs honored him as their 2015 scout of the year last January and he was inducted into the Midwest Scouts Association Hall of Fame last month.

Zielinski helps Cubs decide on Schwarber

Two weeks before his death, Zielinski called to make sure I kept an eye on Iowa Western CC left-hander Dan Tillo, who has the upside to go in the top two rounds of the 2017 Draft. That was typical Stan, trying to help someone else. He'll be missed.

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The first two guys who jump to mind are a pair of polished college right-handers selected in the first round of the 2015 Draft. Walker Buehler had Tommy John surgery less than a month after signing with the Dodgers as the 24th overall selection, but he returned last summer with a mid-90s fastball and three secondary pitches that could be above average or better. James Kaprielian, the 16th overall pick by the Yankees, missed most of last year with a strained flexor muscle but looked sharp in the Arizona Fall League with a solid four-pitch mix also highlighted by a mid-90s heater.

Among position players, Braves outfielder Ronald Acuna has five-tool potential that was mostly hidden in 2016 when he missed three months with a broken thumb. Others to watch include Brewers outfielder Trent Clark (hamstring), Reds catcher Tyler Stephenson (concussion, wrist surgery) and Cubs right-hander Oscar de la Cruz (forearm).

Top Prospects: Stephenson, CIN

Last January, there were six first-year players in the upper half of MLBPipeline.com's Top 100 Prospects list. Will there be anything close to that number this year? Who will be the highest-ranked first-year player?
-- Jake M., Toronto

We'll reveal our new Top 100 later this month, with completely updated rankings, scouting reports and grades, and videos. Jake is correct when he notes that the top half of our January 2016 list featured six players entering their first full seasons as professionals: Braves shortstop Dansby Swanson (No. 8), Rockies shortstop Brendan Rodgers (No. 12), Astros shortstop Alex Bregman (No. 22), Red Sox outfielder Andrew Benintendi (No. 25), Rangers right-hander Dillon Tate (No. 36) and White Sox right-hander Carson Fulmer (No. 38). Swanson, Bregman, Benintendi and Fulmer all rushed to the big leagues last summer, and Benintendi just came out on top when we recently asked front-office officials to identify the best prospect in baseball.

While we're still refining our current list, it looks like nine first-year players will crack the Top 50. That's more reflective of the fact that many players graduated off last year's Top 100 than an indication that the 2016 Draft class was superior to the 2015 crop.

The highest-ranked newcomer will be Phillies outfielder Mickey Moniak, the No. 1 overall pick last June. I'll list the other eight alphabetically: Marlins left-hander Braxton Garrett, Red Sox lefty Jason Groome, Mariners outfielder Kyle Lewis, Braves shortstop Kevin Maitain, Rockies right-hander Riley Pint, Brewers outfielder Corey Ray, Yankees outfielder Blake Rutherford and Reds third baseman Nick Senzel.

Top Prospects: Moniak, PHI

Do you see the Blue Jays' Vladimir Guerrero Jr. staying at third base long term? And has he made his way into your Top 50 yet?
-- Peter C., Chicago

Though it's unclear whether Guerrero can remain at the hot corner, he looked better than expected in his pro debut last summer. He possesses the arm strength for third base and has improved his range, but he still has a very thick lower half and may not have enough quickness or range once he's physically mature.

Guerrero, who signed for $3.9 million out of the Dominican Republic in 2015 -- his father got a mere $2,100 from the Expos 22 years earlier -- will be a star no matter where he plays. He has advanced hitting ability and massive power potential, and he easily handled the Rookie-level Appalachian League as its youngest regular (age 17). He easily cracked my personal Top 50 at No. 31 and I may rue placing him that low when I look back later this year.

Top Prospects: Guerrero Jr., TOR

Beer graduated high school early so he could attend Clemson last spring, and he dominated by batting .369/.535/.700 with 18 homers. The consensus national freshman of the year, he became the first first-year player ever to win the Dick Howser Award and the Atlantic Coast Conference Player of the Year award.

Assuming Beer posts similar numbers in 2017, he'll be an easy top-10-overall selection in a Draft light on college position players. Though he's an all-bat guy who's going to move from right field to first base this spring, it's a potential impact bat and there just aren't many of those available this year.

Jim Callis is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow @jimcallisMLB on Twitter. Listen to him on the weekly Pipeline Podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.