This is the first in a six-part Toolshed series that uses FanGraphs' Steamer600 projections to look at how prospects would fare over a full Major League season in 2019. The system bases its forecast on 600 plate appearances for position players, 450 plate appearances for catchers, 200 innings for starting pitchers and 65 innings for relievers -- taking into account age, past performance and previous Minor League levels, among other factors.
Welcome to 2019, or, as prospect fiends everywhere know, the Year of Vladimir Guerrero Jr.
MLB.com's top overall prospect is widely expected to arrive on the Major League scene early during the 2019 season, and when he does, it will be one of the most highly anticipated debuts in recent memory. At age 19, Guerrero flirted with the .400 mark for most of the 2018 season before finishing with a .381/.437/.636 line, 20 homers and a 37/38 K/BB ratio over 95 games across four levels, mostly Double-A New Hampshire and Triple-A Buffalo. It was nearly unprecedented in terms of Minor League hitting production by a teenager.
Anybody could guess that Steamer would like a prospect with those credentials. But it's surprising just how much the projection system loves Guerrero -- which is to say: a lot, perhaps even more so than the prospect community at large.
The following illustrates where Guerrero's projections compare not just to the top potential rookies in baseball but to the sport's best overall position players, according to projected Wins Above Replacement.
That's right. According to Steamer, if Guerrero received the same amount of plate appearances as everyone else in baseball, he would be the game's seventh-most valuable position player right away. Not only that, his 138 wRC+ would tie for 11th-best in the sport, right next to Shohei Ohtani and Kris Bryant. That's without having played a single Major League game yet.
What's even more amazing is that Steamer and other systems are typically conservative with projections, but especially so when it comes to rookies. The jump to the Major Leagues is statistically hard on players, and projections systems try to reflect that. Yet Steamer expects Guerrero to be an MVP candidate right out of the chute. The AL Rookie of the Year race is even more his to lose; Eloy Jiménez of the White Sox is the rookie with the next-highest WAR projection among position players, and he checks in at 3.3.
What Steamer doesn't do a great job of taking into account, however, is Minor League defense. Without widely used advanced data for fielding, prospects without Major League experience are typically given a neutral 0 in that department, which can keep their WAR projections from dipping on their gloves alone. That could help Guerrero. The third baseman, who turns 20 in March, has received rough marks for his work at the hot corner, with some believing he belongs either at first base or in left field in the long term. The offensive threshold at both of those positions is higher than third base, so if he does move, his WAR would drop. If he does stick at third and perform at low levels there, his WAR would similarly drop. It's possible that Guerrero meets even these lofty offensive projections but sees a WAR closer to 3 or 4 over something close to a full season because of defensive issue.
But even in that scenario, it's tough not to get excited about what conservative projections believe the game's top prospect could do with the bat in the Majors this year. The fire of anticipation surrounding Guerrero was already burning bright enough. Steamer has added some gasoline.
Toronto Blue Jays
Most ready: Vlad Jr.
Give it time: Guerrero isn't the only young Blue Jays infielder that Steamer seems to love. The projection system is also a fairly big fan of Bo Bichette, Toronto's No. 2 prospect and No. 11 overall in MLB.com's Top 100. The 20-year-old shortstop hit .286/.343/.453 with 61 extra-base hits and 32 stolen bases in 131 games at New Hampshire, and with a 93 wRC+, Steamer believes he could be something close to average right away. In fact, that projection is second-best already among potential Toronto shortstops; only Lourdes Gurriel Jr.'s 96 is better. That's a solid feat for someone who won't be 21 until March. But the Jays won't want to bring up Bichette when he's close to the best option; they'll do so when he's clearly surpassed Gurriel and all other potential shortstops. Given the way his bat has developed over three seasons in the Minors, that may not take much time, but it will at least require a stint with Buffalo.
Wild cards: The Jays made one of the most surprising picks of the Rule 5 Draft when they took Elvis Luciano from the Royals despite him being an 18-year-old who hasn't played above Rookie ball. The right-hander was Rule 5-eligible after having an early contract voided and, although raw, he does have a high ceiling with the potential to show a plus fastball and an above-average curve. A Rule 5 pick isn't a huge investment, and Toronto was willing to roll the dice. That said, Steamer doesn't like Luciano's chances to stick. Even in a relief role, the projection system expects him to strike out 40 and walk 52 over 65 innings while sporting a 6.47 ERA. He may have the stuff to be worth stashing for the entire season while getting extremely low-leverage innings, but the projections suggest he'd be too much of a detriment to take up a 25-man roster spot from April to October.
Top 100 talent: In any other organization, Danny Jansen would be in the "Most ready" slot, and for good reason. MLB.com's No. 65 overall prospect was MiLB.com's catcher for the 2018 All-MiLB team after hitting .275/.390/.473 with 12 homers for Buffalo, and he also handled himself well in the Majors, hitting .247/.347/.432 with three homers in 31 games. Steamer pegs him for a 108 wRC+ and a 2.8 WAR over 450 plate appearances -- good for sixth and fifth among all Major League catchers, respectively. He should be Toronto's Opening Day starter behind the plate. Nate Pearson (No. 90) didn't receive a projection since he's thrown only 21 2/3 career innings over his first two Minor League campaigns.
Most ready: The Adam Jones era is likely over in Charm City, but the next big Baltimore outfielder may not be far behind. Diaz, acquired at the deadline for Manny Machado, spent the 2018 season with two different Double-A affiliates, and still, Steamer counts him as the second-best outfielder in the system right now. His 1.5 WAR projections trails only Cedric Mullins' 1.7 among Orioles outfielders, ranking ahead of D.J. Stewart (1.1) and Trey Mancini (0.9) -- each of whom get dinged for their defense. With four tools earning above-average grades, Diaz has a chance to make a real impact in Baltimore in 2019. But even if he stands out this spring, he's still likely going to be at Triple-A Norfolk until midseason as the rebuilding O's prioritize control and cost.
Give it time: The Orioles have question marks all over the field, but some of the biggest are in the rotation. No returning starting pitcher posted an ERA below 4.88 last season. There will be plenty of opportunities for pitching prospects to seize in 2019. Dean Kremer -- another prospect picked up in the Machado swap with the Dodgers -- should be one of those to get some chances, as Steamer shows. Kremer's 184 strikeouts in 200 innings is the second-highest projection among Orioles starters behind Dylan Bundy's 190, and his 1.1 WAR projection is tied for third. After all, he did lead the Minors with 178 strikeouts over 131 1/3 innings last season. However, only 52 1/3 of those frames came as high as Double-A, so it's possible the 22-year-old righty opens 2019 two stops from the Majors. His plus fastball and above-average curve could carve his way to the Majors early should Baltimore really need arms, but it's more likely he'll be waiting at least as long as -- if not longer than -- Diaz.
Wild cards: The Orioles made two Rule 5 picks -- Richie Martin and Drew Jackson -- last month, and both will compete for starting jobs in the middle infield this spring. Steamer doesn't have a hot take on which player has the clear upper hand right now with the OBP, SLG, OPS and wRC+ differences all razor-thin. Even the stolen-base projections are exactly the same. If these projections carry into the spring, the difference could come down to defense. Martin is a better all-around defender with the glove and the arm, though Jackson has received plus-plus grades for the latter tool. No matter what, both are expected to get long Major League looks as Baltimore tries to hold on to as much as young talent as it can.
Top 100 talent: This is definitely a system on the upswing, but right now, it boasts only two prospects ranked among MLB.com's Top 100: Diaz and Ryan Mountcastle. A 21-year-old third baseman, Mountcastle has long been believed to be the future of the hot corner in Baltimore, and after 102 games at Double-A Bowie in 2018, he'll likely be one step from making that a reality, starting at Norfolk in 2019. The right-handed slugger has a chance to show an above-average hit tool and above-average power by the time he matures. However, he's not there yet, according to Steamer. With an 83 wRC+, Mountcastle would be a below-average Major League hitter, and with below-average fielding grades, he wouldn't have added value. He will need to mash his way to the Majors in 2019, and that will take some time.
Boston Red Sox
Most ready: With only nine of their 30 top prospects qualifying for this list -- the lowest amount of AL East farm systems -- the defending World Series champs don't have a big wave of young talent surging toward the Majors. That's no surprise, given the way Boston moved all in by exchanging prospects for Major League-ready talent in recent years. But if there are holes that can be filled by the farm, they're in the bullpen -- Joe Kelly signed with the Dodgers and Craig Kimbrel's potential departure via free agency looms. The club found success with Ryan Brasier emerging as an internal option in 2018, and even if it adds a free-agent reliever like Kimbrel or Adam Ottavino, bullpen depth will still be an issue. Bobby Poyner looked like a solid left-handed option after posting a 3.22 ERA with 24 strikeouts and three walks in 22 1/3 in the Majors, but Steamer expects those numbers to drop big-time in 2019. The best option might be Chandler Shepherd, who pitched exclusively as a starter in 2018 with Triple-A Pawtucket (3.89 ERA, 107 strikeouts, 34 walks in 129 2/3 innings). The 26-year-old righty pitched out of the bullpen in his first three Minor League seasons, and despite his solid International League starting numbers, he was still given the seventh-best projection for a potential Boston reliever. Shepherd has two above-average pitches in his fastball and curve, and it might be time to see how they play against Major League bats.
Give it time: There were plenty of reasons to get excited about Bobby Dalbec's 2018, most of them related to his plus power. The No. 6 Boston prospect hit 32 homers between Class A Advanced Salem and Double-A Portland, tied for fourth-most in the Minors. He also slugged .558 between those two stops and finished with a .919 OPS. Steamer definitely smiles on those power numbers; his 27 projected home runs are second among potential Red Sox sluggers behind only J.D. Martinez's 36. His .432 slugging percentage would rank ninth, ahead of established Major Leaguers Eduardo Nunez (.424), Jackie Bradley Jr. (.421) and Brock Holt (.375). The rest of that slash line, however, isn't great, and with a 91 wRC+, Dalbec would still be a below-average Major League hitter right now. The big issue, as ever with the third baseman, is contact rate. Dalbec's projected 216 strikeouts over 600 plate appearances is tied for the most among Red Sox hitters; the player he's tied with (Ramfis Berroa) has played only 12 games with a full-season affiliate. Dalbec has a chance to be the game's next big three-true-outcome slugger, but he's still got some development left with the bat, Steamer shows, before he's pressing for a spot in Boston's crowded lineup.
Wild cards: Denyi Reyes got protected from the Rule 5 Draft with a 40-man roster addition in November. Josh Ockimey did not but went unselected. For the latter, the projections make that look like a good decision by other clubs. Ockimey's strength is in his bat, and on that alone, he wouldn't be much more than a replacement-level player in 2019. Reyes would actually be below that, but even so, he's yet to receive a Double-A start. As good as his numbers were (1.97 ERA, 0.91 WHIP, 19 walks in 155 2/3 innings), it's difficult to jump from half a dozen appearances at Class A Advanced to the Majors. The Sox protected Reyes because of the possibility of another team falling in love with his elite control, which they saw as greater than the likelihood of someone overlooking Ockimey's faults. The first baseman who finished 2018 at Triple-A is closer right now, but Steamer projections alone don't explain 40-man protections.
Top 100 talent: At No. 69, Chavis is Boston's lone Top 100 representative. His Steamer numbers indicate near Major League readiness, and it's interesting just how close he and Dalbec are, at least offensively. The wRC+ and WAR differences are fairly negligible, but with Chavis (who is on the 40-man roster) expected to open 2019 at Pawtucket and Dalbec likely headed back to Portland, it might be a few months before the logjam at third base comes to head on the farm. In the meantime, Rafael Devers, Nunez and Holt are likely ahead of those two on the depth chart right now.
New York Yankees
Most ready: The beauty of Steamer600 is that it assumes perfect health. And health may be the only thing keeping Jonathan Loaisiga from being a major part of the Yankees rotation right away in 2019. The 24-year-old righty has jumped to the No. 66 overall spot in MLB.com's rankings after posting a 2.89 ERA with 67 strikeout and eight walks in 56 innings across three Minor League levels. He made four starts in June and July, when he had a 3.00 ERA with 21 Ks in 18 frames, but was sidelined with shoulder inflammation. He returned to the Majors in September but only as a reliever. By WAR, Steamer thinks he'd be New York's fourth-best starting option behind James Paxton (4.8), Luis Severino (3.6) and Masahiro Tanaka and ahead of J.A. Happ (3.0) and CC Sabathia (1.9) -- both of whom were re-signed this offseason. Because Loaisiga hasn't thrown more than 80 2/3 innings in a Minor League season yet, the Yankees will want to see him built up a little more in the spring before handing him a rotation spot. But as things stand, Steamer strongly suggests that at full health he could handle the assignment.
Give it time: Michael King's numbers made him one of the shiny new things in the Yanks system last season -- his first since being traded from the Marlins in November 2017. The 23-year-old right-hander led the system in ERA (1.79), strikeouts (152) and WHIP (0.91) over 161 1/3 innings across three levels, finishing at Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. That may lead fans to wonder how quickly he can put those numbers to the test in the Bronx. Cue a cold bucket of water from Steamer. Even with a reliever projection, Steamer thinks King would be below replacement-level and post a 4.70 ERA over 65 innings. Reports on King's stuff back up the projections; only his sinking fastball receives anything more than an average grade, and it'd be fairly easy for Major League hitters to sit on that. King will have the chance to show he's got the stuff to outperform the projections when he returns to the IL.
Wild cards: On the one hand, the Yankees infield is a little bit of an enigma at the moment. Didi Gregorius will miss a good chunk of the season, Troy Tulowitzki was signed but brings his own injury concerns and Machado-mania lives on. At No. 15, Thairo Estrada is the organization's highest-ranked middle-infield prospect, and he also happens to be on the 40-man roster. On the other hand, the 22-year-old only played 18 games in 2018 after being shot in the hip in Venezuela and suffering a back injury in May. With so much missed time, Steamer doesn't think he'd be of much service to the Yankees in 2019. But if the club doesn't bring in Machado or another infielder this offseason, Estrada could be pressed into some action because of his roster status. He's two years removed from hitting .301 with a .745 OPS over 122 games with Double-A Trenton in 2017.
Top 100 talent: Estevan Florial (No. 45) and Albert Abreu (No. 85) each missed a chunk of 2018 with injuries but showed flashes of potential with Class A Advanced Tampa. Abreu could be a replacement-level player right now, while Florial -- hurt by contact issues -- would be well below that mark. Both are more likely to debut in 2020 than 2019, though Abreu is on the 40-man and could climb quicker should he stay healthy.
Tampa Bay Rays
Most ready: Prepare for a run on Lowes here. Brandon Lowe, a 2015 third-rounder, enjoyed a breakout 2018 that saw him hit 22 homers with a .949 OPS at the top two levels of the Minors and hold his own with a .233/.324/.450 line and six homers in 43 Major League games. He also showed versatility by splitting time between second base and both corner outfield spots, and that's something the Rays clearly value. Steamer has him as the Rays' third-best hitter by wRC+ and third-best overall position player by WAR projection. It might be difficult to find him playing time, however, with Joey Wendle taking off at second and Tommy Pham and Austin Meadows holding down the corners. That could lead to an opening assignment to Triple-A Durham, but if the projections are on the mark, Tampa Bay should find a spot for Lowe's bat one way or another.
Give it time: Nathaniel Lowe was arguably the Rays' most productive Minor League slugger in 2018, hitting .330/.416/.568 with 27 homers across three levels, and the offseason departures of C.J. Cron and Jake Bauers mean Tampa Bay is lighter at first base than it was at the end of the season. Steamer likes his bat, projecting him for 22 homers, a .781 OPS and 115 wRC+. That last number is actually second-best among Rays projections, behind only Pham (118). That said, Lowe doesn't stick out yet relative to his position. Yandy Diaz and Ji-Man Choi seem set to split time between first and DH for now, and it'll take a little more mashing for Lowe to prove he's Tampa Bay's best option at first base.
Wild cards: It's fun to wonder what the Rays could have been in 2018 had Brent Honeywell been healthy. Could he have given them another legit starter, allowing the club to hold off on the opener strategy one fewer time every five games? Right now -- even after the missed year due to Tommy John surgery -- Steamer likes his chances. The 23-year-old right-hander's 2.4 WAR is fourth-best among potential Rays starters, behind Blake Snell (4.6), Charlie Morton (3.8) and Tyler Glasnow (2.9). Glasnow might be the only of the one of the bunch that would be served by "starting" in the second inning, and if that's the case, Honeywell could be the No. 3 starter when he hits his stride. MLB.com's No. 28 overall prospect began throwing in July and shared another video of him in a bullpen in December, so it may not take long for that to happen. But as is the case with most Tommy John recoveries, nothing is definitive until Honeywell can show his health for much longer stretches.
Top 100 talent: Brendan McKay only received a pitching projection, but even there, Steamer thinks he's a ways away from influencing the roster. Jesus Sanchez would be replacement-level if he got called up now -- not a huge surprise since he only reached Double-A in August. As for Wander Franco, his 2019 Major League possibilities are best left to the stuff of dreams.
Sam Dykstra is a reporter for MiLB.com. Follow and interact with him on Twitter, @SamDykstraMiLB.