This is the fourth 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.
The Reds are going for it.
Cincinnati has finished in the cellar of the National League Central for four straight seasons and hasn't made the playoffs since 2013, but the organization is making moves in an effort to break those streaks. The Reds added Yasiel Puig, Alex Wood and Matt Kemp in a salary-heavy move last month, traded for starting pitcher Tanner Roark a few days before that, and on Monday acquired Sonny Gray in another rotation-boosting transaction. These are not the moves of a rebuilding club or one content on treading water and picking up high Draft picks.
Like the White Sox in last week's Toolshed on the AL Central projections, the Reds' desire to make waves coincides with the perceived readiness of their top prospect, and one of the game's best at that -- Nick Senzel.
Cincinnati selected Senzel with the second overall pick in 2016, and the Tennessee product hasn't disappointed. He's a career .314/.390/.513 hitter over three seasons in the Minors and has yet to post an OPS below .887. In 2017, he collected 57 extra-base hits in 119 games between Class A Advanced Daytona and Double-A Pensacola. Last year, he was set to dominate at the plate again at the Minors' top level and potentially force his way to Cincinnati before health concerns made that impossible. He missed 26 days in May due to vertigo problems and his season came to an end in June after he tore a tendon in his right index finger, an injury that required surgery. The Reds hoped to send Senzel to the Arizona Fall League, but he needed another procedure in October to remove bone spurs in his left elbow. He finished with a .310/.378/.509 line, six homers and eight stolen bases over 44 games in his abbreviated stint with the Bats.
But Steamer -- a projection system based on numbers and not medical history -- doesn't care about the time missed or the sour note on which Senzel's season ended. It cares about the data, and the data looks pretty good for MLB.com's No. 6 overall prospect.
Steamer600 says if Senzel got 600 plate appearances in the Majors next season, he would hit .276/.339/.448 with 18 home runs and 14 stolen bases. Assuming neutral defense, he would be worth 2.7 WAR, fourth-best among Reds position players behind the projections for Eugenio Suarez (3.2), Puig (3.2) and Joey Votto (3.1). That's impressive and all, but the biggest statistical projection to stand out might be Senzel's 109 wRC+. That particular stat boils down offensive performance to a single number wherein 100 is considered league average, taking into account era and park effects. The fact that Steamer expects Senzel to be 9 percent better than an average Major League hitter right away is no small thing. Here's the entire table of rookie-eligible players to receive a wRC+ projection of 100 or above from Steamer heading into 2019:
Prospects projected to produce 100 WRC+ or above
That's a list of 15 rookies who would be above-average Major Leaguers right from Opening Day 2019. Of the 15, eight are Top-100 prospects, and another eight have already played in The Show. (Yes, there is some overlap there.) Even among those who qualify, only Guerrero, Jimenez and Jansen are projected to be worth more WAR over a full season than Senzel. If he can stay healthy, Senzel should be a rare rookie indeed.
Now, where to put him?
The Reds drafted Senzel as a third baseman, and that's where he's made 195 career starts in the Minors. But as the 23-year-old has gotten closer to the Majors, the closer he's gotten to bumping into Suarez at the hot corner. With Suarez becoming a four-win player at that position over the past two seasons, Cincinnati isn't about to disrupt one of their most productive players with a position change. The Reds have long raved about Senzel's athleticism and started to get him reps at shortstop last spring. He became more of a second baseman with Louisville, getting 28 starts at the keystone compared to 14 at third and one at short. Cincinnati also wanted to get Senzel time in the outfield in the AFL before his latest surgery cut that short. That dream could be revived this spring. The Reds notably non-tendered center fielder Billy Hamilton this offseason, leaving an opening that's likely to be filled by Scott Schebler, who Steamer thinks would be a 1.1 WAR over a full season in 2019. If Senzel can become even just average in center -- and he's got the above-average speed and plus arm to possibly make it work -- then he could plug a hole in Cincinnati's defensive plans, adding to his value.
Even if he sticks in the infield, Senzel's bat should be good enough to make him an NL Rookie of the Year candidate and cornerstone in Cincy for years to come. When a prospect like that arrives, it's a good time to build a solid roster around him, and that's just what the Reds have been trying to do this offseason.
Below are rookie projections for each of the five NL Central clubs. To be considered, a prospect must be ranked among MLB.com's top 30 in the organization and must have spent a significant portion of the 2018 season at Double-A or above or be on the 40-man roster. (Exceptions were made for some Top-100 overall prospects, consistently the subject of "When are they coming up?" questions.)
Most ready: Senzel
Give it time: There's already been a good amount of movement in the Cincinnati rotation with the additions of Gray, Wood and Roark this offseason, and that should give Vladimir Gutierrez some more development time, even if he is head and shoulders above other prospects here. The Reds' No. 7 prospect posted a 4.35 ERA with 145 strikeouts and 37 walks in 147 innings while showing a plus fastball and plus curveball last season for Double-A Pensacola. It's enough of a package to give him a starter profile, but not quite enough to break through. Even before the acquisition of Gray, his 1.5 WAR projection was sixth-best among potential Cincy starters, thanks to a lower strikeout projection than his peers. He'll get a chance to miss more bats with his first move to Triple-A Louisville.
Wild cards: At No. 11 in the system, Jimmy Herget runs away as Cincinnati's top relief pitcher prospect. He was added to the 40-man roster in November after spending all of 2018 at Triple-A. He should be a big option for the Reds bullpen entering camp. Steamer, however, isn't quite as high on his chances. The projection systems think he'd be replacement-level over a full Major Leaguer, thanks to pedestrian numbers in ERA, FIP and BB/9. With a plus fastball and slider, he could at least average a strikeout per inning. If that part of his game translates into other areas (like bringing down his 3.47 ERA at Triple-A), then the Reds won't hesitate to bring his stuff to the Majors. There's still some work to do yet, though.
Top 100 talent: Taylor Trammell (No. 17) and Hunter Greene (No. 22) spent all of 2018 at Class A Advanced Daytona and Class A Dayton respectively. Both are well below replacement-level if tossed into the Majors now and will spend 2019 working on becoming cornerstones in the Queen City for the long-term future.
Most ready: Dillon Maples was enough of a strikeout fiend at Triple-A Iowa to earn nine Major League appearances last season, and even if those didn't go well -- especially from a control standpoint -- the Cubs' No. 28 prospect is still the most likely of the bunch here to contribute at Wrigley Field this upcoming season. Maples, who also pitched in the bigs in 2017, gets plus to plus-plus ratings for his upper-90s fastball and impressive slider, and those offerings helped him strike out 42.4 percent of the batters he faced over 38 2/3 innings last season at the Minors' highest level. Only Bobby Wahl (42.7 percent) had a higher K rate among Triple-A pitchers with at least 30 innings pitched in 2018. But the 26-year-old right-hander also issued free passes to 39 over that span for a walk rate of 22 percent. Major League batters took advantage of his inability to work in the zone, scoring seven earned runs and walking five times over 5 1/3 innings during Maples' two stints in the Majors. Steamer is still somewhat of a believer that his control can be reined in enough. His 3.36 ERA projection is the lowest for any Cubs pitcher and his 0.4 WAR projection is second-highest among Chicago relievers. That might be optimistic, but Maples could use some optimism if he's going to avoid being an up-and-down arm for the third straight season.
Give it time: As the only Cubs prospect to receive a WAR projection above 1.0, No. 23 prospect Zack Short ought to stick out a bit, even if he won't be on the radar this spring as a potential player to crack the Opening Day roster. That said, Short does some things that Steamer always likes -- namely walking a ton and showing decent pop, especially for a shortstop. The 23-year-old was third among all Double-A hitters with 82 walks in 124 games for Double-A Tennessee last season, resulting in a .356 OBP despite just a .227 average. Also thanks to a 54.9 percent fly-ball rate (in line with the launch-angle revolution), he whacked a career-high 17 homers with the Smokies. Combine that with his relative proximity to the Majors, and you get a decent projection for a player without Major League experience. It's still not enough to put Short immediately into the Wrigley conversation, but if he can keep up those trends in his first trip to Iowa, a 2019 debut at some point isn't out of the question.
Wild cards: Adbert Alzolay entered 2018 as the Cubs' top prospect and likely would have made his way to Wrigleyville had he not suffered a lat strain after eight Triple-A starts. He's expected to be back and ready to go for 2019, but Steamer is bearish on how much he could help right away as a starter with a projection that would make him barely better than a replacement-level player in that role. However, many believe the 23-year-old right-hander, with his plus fastball and curve but lackluster changeup, would be better in the bullpen anyway. If Chicago ends up needing an arm -- and given the current state of the bullpen, it might need a few -- the organization could press a healthy Alzolay into that service rather quickly if they agree with Steamer's assessment of his starting chances.
Top 100 talent: Miguel Amaya (No. 87) is the Cubs' only Top-100 prospect. The 19-year-old catcher hit .256/.349/.403 with 12 homers in 116 games at Class A South Bend and has been praised for his defensive work with both his glove and arm. Pay no mind to the lowly projection here. He'll be in Class A Advanced Myrtle Beach in 2019 and remains two years away from being ready to help the big club.
Most ready: The Brewers are trying to build off an NL Central title and a trip to the league Championship Series, and after signing Yasmani Grandal to man the catcher position, there aren't many holes on the roster, except for maybe at second base. It also just so happens that the club's top prospect is a second baseman. And the same second baseman received the highest WAR projection of any Brewers prospect, despite only getting a half season of Double-A experience. That may speak to the current state of the Milwaukee farm system, but it also speaks to how good Hiura has been offensively since he went ninth overall in the 2017 Draft. The 22-year-old batted .293/.357/.464 with 13 homers and 15 stolen bases in 123 games between Class A Advanced Carolina and Double-A Biloxi -- numbers that Steamer think would get him to an 86 wRC+. That's well below Hiura's ceiling of showing a plus-plus hit tool, but it still beats the offensive projections for Cory Spangenberg (85) and Hernán Pérez (81). If elbow issues stay in the past, Hiura should move quickly to the Majors if the Brewers really want to put their best nine on the field and push to repeat as division champs.
Give it time: It's easy to get caught up in Corey Ray's 2018 season -- 27 homers and 37 stolen bases for Biloxi -- and wonder what he could do with that pop and speed combo in the Majors. Steamer backs that up some by projecting Ray to be the only Brewer to post a 20-20 season over a full Major League campaign. But the fuller picture reveals that the rest of Ray's offensive output wouldn't be nearly enough to push him into an outfield that already boasts Christian Yelich, Lorenzo Cain and Ryan Braun. For starters, Ray would strike out in 180 of his 600 plate appearances and would bat just .226 with a .286 OBP. That would barely make him more than a replacement-level player right now. That's not to say the 2016 first-rounder can't be more down the line. He'll just have to work more on his ability to make contact when he moves to Triple-A San Antonio in April.
Wild cards: Mauricio Dubon could have worked his way into Milwaukee's second-base discussion last season had he not suffered a torn ACL in early May. The 24-year-old middle infielder was batting .343/.348/.574 with 15 extra-base hits and six steals in his first 27 games with Triple-A Colorado Springs before the devastating injury. He's tweeted workout videos this offseason that seem to indicate he's ready for a full spring, and Steamer says he's right there with Hiura in terms of potential value. He'll have to show that health in camp first, and with so much value tied up in his speed, it might take him some time before he's prepared to hit his ceiling as a Major Leaguer. What he does have going for him is that, unlike Hiura, he is already on the 40-man so he's more of a lock to open the season one step from the Majors.
Top 100 talent: Hiura (No. 30) is Milwaukee's only Top-100 prospect.
Most ready: The Pirates got Nick Burdi in the Rule 5 Draft last season, but their No. 20 prospect remains under Rule 5 rules in 2019 as he didn't stay on the active Major League roster for 90 days while recovering from Tommy John surgery. He did finally make his Major League debut over a two-game stay in September, setting up a return to the bigs out of the gate this spring. While the 20.25 ERA doesn't look great in that small MLB sample, Steamer backs up Burdi's chances to stick with the Bucs. His 0.3 WAR projection is tied for fifth among potential Pittsburgh relievers, and one of the others at that projection isn't on the 40-man (Nik Turley) while the other is a left-hander that won't compete for Burdi's spot (Steven Brault). Burdi was back to averaging 96.6 mph with his heater when he got to the Majors, and that could take another jump the further he gets from surgery. With his plus slider also in the arsenal, he's got the stuff for the Pirates to keep him around at least until his Rule 5 requirements are up.
Give it time: Mitch Keller should see the Majors at some point in 2019 after finishing up with 10 starts at Triple-A Indianapolis last season, and Steamer believes MLB.com's No. 16 overall prospect could be of some use to the Major League club right away. The system thinks the 22-year-old right-hander (and his 1.6 WAR projection over 200 innings) would slot into the No. 4 spot in the Pittsburgh rotation behind Chris Archer (3.9), Jameson Taillon (3.5) and Joe Musgrove (2.8). (Chad Kuhl would be fourth if not for Tommy John surgery.) But the Bucs won't want Keller to simply be an OK option when he arrives in The Show, and after he put up a 4.82 ERA in 52 1/3 innings in the International League, some additional seasoning was going to be needed anyway. Keller's 3.22 FIP with Indy was much lower though, so it might not take up as much time as traditional stats would indicate. If the Pirates can stay afloat in a crowded NL Central, they might push up Keller's timeline. Otherwise, another half-season at Triple-A makes sense at this point.
Wild cards: There was a time when the Pirates outfield seemed awfully loaded. Andrew McCutchen, Starling Marte and Gregory Polanco had star potential, and Austin Meadows was waiting in the wings as a top-20 prospect. Now Marte will be the only one on the roster come Opening Day with McCutchen in Philadelphia, Meadows in Tampa Bay and Polanco likely on the disabled list following shoulder surgery. Alex Dickerson and Lonnie Chisenhall likely will handle the corners, but this could leave openings for Bryan Reynolds and Jason Martin. Steamer is a bigger fan of Reynolds, who hit .302/.381/.438 with seven homers in 88 games at Double-A Altoona last season. However, it's Martin who's on the 40-man after he was hot at Altoona (.325/.392/.522 in 68 games) and cold at Indianapolis (.211/.270/.319 in 59 games). Both probably will be in the same IL outfield to open 2019, so they'll get to prove who's more ready right from the start.
Top 100 talent: Ke'Bryan Hayes (No. 48) is the type of player for which Steamer can undervalue because so much of his worth is tied to his elite defense at third base. Without a fielding projection, Steamer can only rely on what it's seen out of Hayes' bat, and his 89 wRC+ and good baserunning is good enough to get him to a 1.4 WAR projection. That's not far from Colin Moran's 1.6, which he gets from a better bat (100 wRC+) but below-average defense. If Hayes can come close to reproducing his .293/.375/.444 line from Altoona at Indianapolis, it won't be long before his more rounded package unseats Moran at the hot corner.
St. Louis Cardinals
Most ready: This is a projections-based column, so it's best to stick to that here first. Steamer thinks Alex Reyes would be a really good Major League pitcher right now. His 3.0 WAR projection stands with Jack Flaherty's as the highest among Cardinals starters, and his rate of 10.2 K/9 is tied for 13th-best among all potential Major League starting pitchers. That's all good news and not unexpected after the way Reyes has dominated the Minors and put up a 1.44 ERA with 54 strikeouts over 50 innings in the Majors. (With one more out recorded, he'll officially graduate from prospect status.) The bad news: Reyes already missed all of 2017 after undergoing Tommy John surgery, and he was out from late May onward after needing shoulder surgery. Both Reyes and Cardinals president of baseball operations John Mozeliak said this will be a "huge" season for the 24-year-old right-hander, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, and added Reyes has started throwing again this month in hopes he can be ready for Spring Training. If Reyes is healthy, he has the stuff to be a real force as Steamer shows. It remains a big "if" until the Cardinals get more answers this spring.
Give it time: After Carson Kelly's move to the D-backs in the Paul Goldschmidt swap, the Cardinals only have one catcher on the 40-man roster in Yadier Molina. That could lead a few to rush to conclusions that St. Louis is ready to give Andrew Knizner an immediate shot at being the legend's backup behind the plate. In reality, the Cards signed Francisco Peña to a Minor League deal to fill that role, meaning Knizner is headed to Triple-A Memphis, where he played only 17 games last season. It might not take much time for the 23-year-old to overtake Pena, however, in the pecking order. Knizner continued to shoot up prospect boards in 2018 after batting .313/.368/.430 with seven homers in 94 games between Memphis and Double-A Springfield, and Steamer believes he'd be a better catcher than Pena right away with Knizner beating out the vet by 1.3 in the WAR department if both received 450 plate appearances. Knizner, a former third baseman in college, still has room to grow defensively, and that will be the point of emphasis before he gets a real look, likely around the All-Star break.
Wild cards: Ramon Urias hit his way into a 40-man roster spot with a .300/.356/.516 line, 13 homers and 28 doubles in 90 games between Memphis and Springfield, and as someone with experience at all four infield spots, he could be a nice addition to the Cardinals bench at some point in 2019. Steamer already thinks he'll be as good a hitter as Yairo Muñoz (91 wRC+), and Jedd Gyorko's 1.5 WAR projection is lower than Urias' because of defensive issues. A hot return to Memphis (or even a hot Grapefruit League) could put the 24-year-old further into the bench mix. Over in the bullpen, Giovanny Gallegos came over to the Cardinals from the Yankees in late July in a trade for Luke Voit, and there's a chance both sides could come out looking good there. Steamer believes Gallegos would be St. Louis' second-best reliever behind Andrew Miller, both in terms of ERA and WAR. The 27-year-old right-hander showed Major League readiness by putting up a 2.64 ERA with 57 strikeouts and 10 walks in 44 1/3 innings between two Triple-A clubs last season and made six Major League appearances between New York and St. Louis. With a plus fastball and plus curve to go with above-average control, he should be given every chance to crack the bullpen this spring.
Top 100 talent: Dakota Hudson (No. 93) was the Pacific Coast League Pitcher of the Year after posting a 2.50 ERA and a 1.30 WHIP with 87 strikeouts in 111 2/3 innings for Memphis, but with his reliance on the ground game, he was used exclusively out of the bulpen with the big club. He's likely to stay in that role coming out of the spring. However without many K's on his resume in the Minors or Majors, Steamer doesn't think the 2016 first-rounder would be much above replacement-level even as a reliever. With a plus-plus fastball and a good slider, he's got the stuff to prove the projections wrong, and it wouldn't be a surprise if he still works his way into the rotation at some point in 2019.
Sam Dykstra is a reporter for MiLB.com. Follow and interact with him on Twitter, @SamDykstraMiLB.