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Prospect Projections: AL Central rookies

Robert ready to put on White Sox; Royals, Tigers need patience
Luis Robert ranked second among Minor League full-season qualifiers with a 170 wRC+ in 2019. (Ken Inness/MiLB.com)
January 21, 2020

This is the third 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 2020. The system bases its forecast on 600 plate appearances for position players, 450 plate appearances for catchers, 200 innings for starting

This is the third 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 2020. 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. All players included in the team tables below are ranked prospects who either played at Double-A or above in 2019, sit on their organization's 40-man roster or are placed among MLB.com's Top 100. Projections for American League East. and National League East rookies can be found at those links.
It's not official until it's official, but it's basically official. Luis Robert is a Major Leaguer.
The No. 3 overall prospect in baseball started the new year by signing a six-year, $50-million contract and while there are plenty of ramifications from such a deal going to a player with no Major League experience, the most immediate impact is that it enables Robert to be on the Major League roster right away. Robert's new contract (which includes two team options) puts exact dates on his free agency instead of relying on his service-time clock to do that. No service-time clock means no fussing about spending a couple weeks in Triple-A.
And make no bones about it. Robert is ready now, and he has the projections to prove it.

The top White Sox prospect is coming off a 2019 season in which he won the MiLBY as Top Offensive Player. Robert hit .322/.376/.624 with 31 homers and 36 stolen bases over 122 games between Class A Advanced Winston-Salem, Double-A Birmingham and Triple-A Charlotte. At the Minors' highest level, he produced a .297/.341/.634 line with 16 homers in 47 games. He and Astros outfielder Kyle Tucker were the only two members of the Minor League 30/30 club in 2019.
It's that power and speed combination that should look most electric on a Major League diamond for Robert. Steamer600 believes he would be a 20-20 player immediately at the top level, projecting him to hit 27 home runs and steal 24 bases if given 600 plate appearances in 2020. Only nine such players meet that 20-20 projection standard, and the other eight put Robert in some fantastic company.

PROJECTED 20-20 PLAYERS IN THE MAJOR LEAGUES

Robert obviously has a way to go before he puts himself in the discussion with Yelich and Acuña among Major League outfielders, but Steamer likes his chances to give Chicago an outfielder with a quality akin to Marte before he even sees the Majors. The White Sox, who have gone to real lengths this offseason to build a competitive roster for 2020, would take that alongside former top prospect Eloy Jiménez and trade acquisition Nomar Mazara at the corners.
As a reminder, this projection also comes in without taking defense into account. On that end, Robert is considered a plus defender in center field with an arm that also rates as plus. It's not difficult to imagine him adding even more value on that end of the game, pushing up his final WAR total.
if there's anything that could hold the Cuba native back in his rookie season, it's his contact rate. Robert can get chase-happy at times, especially on breaking balls, and Steamer projects him to strike out in 25.3 percent of his plate appearances in 2020. The K-heavy modern game dilutes how much that could hurt Robert's potential, but it's worth noting only Tucker (.315) has a lower OBP projection than Robert's .317. Luckily, Robert has other tools to rely on, but that ability to hit could be the difference between making the White Sox outfielder a good rookie in 2020 and a great one.

 Chicago White Sox


HITTERS

PITCHERS

Most ready: Robert. But let's add one other name here. Madrigal was featured last week in a Toolshed last week about prospects affected by this offseason's moves. To keep it succinct, the White Sox have made several deals, including signing Robert, that push them into contention in the AL Central. Madrigal -- possessor of one of the Minors' best hit tools and an extremely difficult batter to strike out -- would help the White Sox in their pursuit of a division title right away. Steamer backs that up. Madrigal's 96 wRC+ and 2.1 WAR projections are well above the 79 and 0.6 assigned to Leury García, his most immediate competition at second base. If the Padres and Mets were willing to open 2019 with prospects without service time on the Major League roster, the Sox should do the same with Madrigal in 2020.
Give it time: The White Sox will welcome Michael Kopech's blazing fastball and plus slider back with open arms at some point in 2020, but it'll still be some time before that happens. The No. 17 overall prospect sat out all of the 2019 Minor League season after undergoing Tommy John surgery the previous year. He did return in time for fall instructs in Arizona, so it's promising that he might not need much rehab time to open 2020. But Chicago will want to be fully confident in the 23-year-old right-hander before making him a regular member of the rotation, so he might have to show more than health before jumping back in. His 10.3 K/9 and 2.0 WAR projection are promising in the meantime.
Wild cards: One of Chicago's biggest offseason acquistions was catcher Yasmani Grandal. The veteran automatically becomes the starter on the South Side, pushing back even James McCann following an All-Star season. Another victim would seem to be Collins, the club's No. 9 prospect and a 2016 first-rounder. From the day the former Miami star was taken in the Draft, it was debated where he would end up defensively. In 2019, he logged more time at first base, and Steamer even gives him a projection there with 600 plate appearances. His hitting wouldn't be quite up to snuff, but a 94 wRC+ certainly would work for a backup catcher. The first-base route is also blocked by Jose Abreu and Edwin Encarnación, so Collins might have to really mash to show he's worthy of being more than a backup first baseman/third catcher/left-handed pinch hitter off the Chicago bench this summer.
Top-100 talent: Vaughn was taken third overall last June out of California, and his combination of hit tool and plus power could send him surging through the White Sox ranks a la Madrigal a year earlier. Steamer didn't see much from his 55 games in the Minors last year, but Chicago fans can expect a lot more from the 21-year-old first baseman in his first full pro season.

 Cleveland Indians


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PITCHERS

Most ready: It's not incredibly exciting to say a relief prospect is the most prepared to impact the Majors, but in Cleveland's case, it very well might be that. In fact, double that excitement. Karinchak was one of the statistically impressive relievers in the Minors last season, striking out 74 over 30 1/3 innings (mostly at Triple-A Columbus), and he also happens to have the stuff to back it up with a plus-plus fastball and plus curve coming out of a tough high arm slot. Steamer believes the 24-year-old right-hander, who made five Major League appearances in 2019, would be the Tribe's most effective reliever right away with a lower ERA and FIP than established closer Brad Hand (3.68, 3.79 respectively). Karinchak's 12.6 K/9 also sits as the fifth-highest projection among all pitchers behind Josh Hader (14.6), Edwin Diaz (13.5), Aroldis Chapman (13.1) and Dellin Betances (12.7). If Karinchak can find the strike zone with a little more regularity, he has the chance to enter the upper echelon of Major League relievers rather quickly in 2020. Also, Steamer makes a strong case for Clase -- he of the triple-digit heater with good movement -- to make an impact with his new club. The 21-year-old right-hander posted a 2.31 ERA in 21 appearances with the Rangers last season and was dealt to the Indians this offseason in the Corey Kluber trade.
Give it time: Jones has all the makings of becoming the next big infielder headed toward northeast Ohio. The No. 37 overall prospect has promising raw power from the left side and takes plenty of walks, having led the Minors with 96 free passes in 2019 between Class A Advanced Lynchburg and Double-A Akron. Steamer is a fan, projecting Jones would have the sixth-highest WAR among Cleveland position players at 1.7, but that won't be enough to give the 21-year-old third baseman an early move to the Majors. For starters, Jose Ramirez has a hold on third base, and after an uneven 2019, he's still projected to be worth 4.8 WAR in 2020. So Jones will head back to the upper Minors, either at Akron or Triple-A Columbus, and he'll have to show he could be a little more than a 92 wRC+ hitter when he does get the call. 
Wild cards: The Indians outfield situation is still very much up in the air, and that could leave an opening at some point for Johnson. Cleveland's No. 16 prospect was added to the 40-man roster in November after batting .306/.371/.496 with nine homers and six stolen bases for Triple-A Columbus. He also helped the Clippers win an International League title. Johnson's biggest skills are his speed, which Steamer gives him credit for, and his big arm from the outfield, which it doesn't quite yet. Without his defensive value established, Johnson sits further down on Steamer's outfield depth chart for the Tribe, but a strong spring or an impressive opening back in the IL could send him surging toward the Majors if the Indians don't acquire more established players on the grass by then.
Top-100 talent: McKenzie (No. 79) is a wild card even for the Minors after missing all of 2019 with a back injury. The 22-year-old right-hander was added to the 40-man back in November because he has three potentially above-average pitches in his fastball, curve and change, but health will be the primary goal of 2020. Freeman (No. 97) derives a lot of his value from his plus hit tool and ability to make a lot of contact. After finishing up at Class A Advanced in 2019, he's still at least a season and a half away from Major League consideration.

 Detroit Tigers


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PITCHERS

Most ready: The easy play would say Skubal -- who ranks fourth in WAR projection among Tigers starting pitchers -- or Paredes -- who ranks second in WAR projection among Tigers position players -- would be the most ready of this prospect bunch. The reality is nobody on this list is likely to get an Opening Day call for a Major League team that still seems at least one year away from moving out of rebuild mode. Even Rule 5 pick Rony Garcia is ticketed to be below replacement-level, making his dreams of sticking an uphill battle. It's much more likely that Skubal and Paredes -- both of whom have yet to see Triple-A ball -- are eyeing second-half debuts, and that's if they really push the envelope in the first few months of 2020. Skubal, in particular, will be building on momentum that shot him into the Top-100 ranks for the first time, and it'd be something if the 2018 ninth-rounder beat Mize, Manning and Faedo to the bigs.
Give it time: The Double-A Erie rotation certainly was exciting with Mize, Manning, Skubal, Faedo and Wentz headlining by season's end. Those are three Top-100 prospects, a 2017 first-rounder and the 2016 40th overall pick. With fans in the Motor City clamoring to get a glimpse of the future rotation, Steamer pours some cold water over those prospects. Skubal, as previously discussed, is the closest to helping while Wentz is the furthest. In between, Mize and Manning don't have projections that match their high ceilings, meaning they still have some time for seasoning even after showing promising results in the Eastern League. (That especially goes for Mize, who missed time with shoulder problems last summer.) There could come the day when the Detroit starting five is fully homegrown, and that day looks closer now than it did 12 months ago. But it's not here yet.
Wild cards: Rogers' line to the Majors got a little bit more difficult when the Tigers picked up Austin Romine this offseason. The No. 7 Detroit prospect earns raves for his defensive work behind the plate, but he really struggled offensively in a Major League look last season, hitting .125 with 51 strikeouts in 35 games. Rogers will need consistent playing time to get his bat right, meaning a return to Toledo seems in the cards, because the glove is already there to provide Detroit with value. Elsewhere, Cameron, who joined the Tigers in the same Justin Verlander trade as Rogers, will try to elbow his way into the outfield conversation. Like Rogers, Cameron's defense will provide value Steamer doesn't give him credit for, but his bat is still far from forcing the issue, even after 120 games at Triple-A in 2019. If he can show even an average bat, there will be a spot waiting for him on the Detroit grass.
Top-100 talent: Greene is the only Tigers prospect among the Top 100 yet to be discussed and for good reason. The 19-year-old outfielder was taken fifth overall last June out of a Florida high school. The No. 46 overall prospect showed promising offensive tools in his first taste of the Minors while swiftly climbing to Class A West Michigan, but he'll have to move even quicker to get a Major League look before 2022.

 Kansas City Royals


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PITCHERS

Most ready: The Royals are in a similar predicament to the Tigers. Sure, Singer's 1.8 WAR projection stands out among this group and sits fourth among potential Kansas City starters. But in truth, the 2018 first-rounder is still a few months away from making a Major League debut, having only played half a season at Double-A Northwest Arkansas. The ranked prospect perhaps most likely to help the big club right away is Staumont, who made 16 appearances for Kansas City in 2019. The 26-year-old right-hander's potential for strikeouts is high, but as Steamer shows, his lack of control would keep him from being more than a replacement-level reliever. Even for him, a return to Triple-A Omaha might be in the cards to open 2020.
Give it time: Also like Detroit, Kansas City's Minor League system has strength in arms and is dreaming about the day its next Major League contender boasts Singer, Lynch, Kowar and sixth-ranked Kris Bubic, who didn't qualify for the list because he's yet to see Double-A, but did lead the Minors in strikeouts in 2019. The fact that Steamer is higher on Kowar than Lynch is notable right now since most prospect evaluators have it the other way around, but that is just a reminder that these projections deal in the near term while prospectphiles deal in the long term. In any case, look toward 2021 as the time when the big-time Royals pitchers can be talked about more seriously at the Major League level.
Wild cards: Coming off a Double-A season in which he swiped 53 bags, Lee's basestealing prowess will bring him to The Show at some point, but it'll be up to the rest of his offensive profile to get him there quicker. Kansas City's No. 4 prospect batted .264/.363/.372 in the Texas League last season, and Steamer thinks that would get him to just a 79 wRC+ in the Majors right away. Lee has his believers in his raw power from the left and getting that to play in games could give his candidacy the biggest boost.
Top-100 talent: Last year's No. 2 overall pick Bobby Witt Jr. did not receive a Steamer600 projection. The 19-year-old shortstop hit .262/.317/.354 with one homer and nine stolen bases in the Rookie-level Arizona League and remains several seasons away from making his presence felt at Kauffman Stadium.

 Minnesota Twins


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PITCHERS

Most ready: What do the Twins want Graterol to be? If it's a dominant reliever, there's evidence he'd fit here perfectly. If it's a good starter, then that development track will take more time. The No. 53 overall prospect jumped to the Majors in a relief role in 2019 and put up a 4.66 ERA with 10 strikeouts and two walks in 9 2/3 innings down the stretch. His plus-plus fastball, which averaged 98.9 mph at the top level, and his plus slider give him enough good options right now to keep that experiment going. It's also notable that he's thrown more than 100 innings only once since 2015 due to various injury problems. Still, if the Twins decide to give him one more chance at starting in Triple-A Rochester, then he moves down the ready list while he proves he can handle pitching every fifth or sixth day with success.
Give it time: The Twins system is a fun one because of the high-ceiling talent at the top of the list, and in several other systems, fans might be clamoring to see when No. 9 overall prospect (Lewis) and No. 15 (Kirilloff) can reach the top step. Minnesota fans might know a little better considering Lewis struggled offensively at Class A Advanced Fort Myers and Double-A Pensacola during the regular season and Kirilloff's power dipped following an early wrist injury. Steamer takes all of that into account, and neither looks to be pounding down the door to the reigning division champs, as expected. But there is good news on the horizon. Lewis showed an impressive offensive turnaround in the Arizona Fall League, where he was named MVP, and the further Kirilloff gets from his wrist issues, the more likely he will be able to tap into the pop that helped him lead the Minors in extra-base hits in 2018. The ceiling for both remains high, even if it isn't evident here yet.

Wild cards: Jeffers may not have the instant name recognition of some of the other big names in this pipeline, but don't sleep on the 22-year-old backstop who received the highest WAR projection among ranked Twins prospects. The 2018 second-rounder was a solid hitter in his first full season with a .264/.341/.421 line and 14 homers between Class A Advanced and Double-A. His pop in particular stood out, and Steamer thinks he could be an OK hitter in the Majors right now, especially for his position. That said, Alex Avila, Mitch Garver and Willians Astudillo received higher WAR projections, and all three are solidly ahead of Jeffers on the catcher depth chart at present. The biggest question mark remains Jeffers' ability to stick behind the plate, but if he continues to show solid defensive growth, he could push past that trio before long.
Top-100 talent: Balazovic (No. 76) and Larnach (No. 77) bring additional flash to an organization clearly on the rise over the past 12 months. Larnach looks closer based on projections, which is no surprise considering he got 43 games in at Double-A last season. The former Oregon State slugger's power should take another jump in 2020 as he acquires more experience away from the pitcher-friendly Florida State League. Balazovic only reached Pensacola during the Southern League playoffs and will need more time following an otherwise breakout 2019 campaign. The 21-year-old right-hander would be below replacement-level right now, but could figure into the middle of the Minnesota rotation some day with three solid pitches and above-average control.