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 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.
It's now 2020, and it might finally be time to find out what type of Major Leaguer Brendan McKay will be.
The No. 12 overall prospect was a two-way star at the University of Louisville, where he won the Golden Spikes award as a junior, and the Rays grabbed him with the fourth overall pick in 2017. With a good bat from the left side and three above-average pitches (along with plus control) on the mound, McKay received looks in both roles as a hitter and a starting pitcher through his first two years in the Tampa Bay system at a time when Shohei Ohtani was making the two-way route popular again.
Results seemed to favor one way over the other, but Steamer's projections make it pretty definitive. The projections say McKay should be a full-time starting pitcher.
This shouldn't come as a full-blown surprise to any Rays fan who has followed the 24-year-old's career in its early stages. The southpaw was one of the most dominant pitchers in Minor League Baseball in 2019, posting a 1.10 ERA and a 0.81 WHIP with 102 strikeouts and only 18 walks in 73 2/3 innings between Double-A Montgomery and Triple-A Durham. His Major League numbers weren't nearly as rosy (5.14 ERA, 1.41 WHIP) and his struggles limited him to 49 innings in The Show, one below the mark to surpass rookie eligibility requirements. But even then, his 4.03 FIP, 10.3 K/9 and 2.9 BB/9 didn't tell the story of a pitcher incapable of making an impact at the top level.
Because of that Minor League dominance and Major League peripherals, Steamer is a fan of McKay playing a large starting pitching role for the Rays during their pursuit of a third straight 90-plus-win season in 2020. While it's widely known that Tampa Bay -- the developer of the "opener" strategy -- doesn't utilize starting pitching in the traditional sense, these would be the club's best starting pitching options if healthy for 200 innings next season.
Again, healthy is an optimal word there, as it will be constantly during this series on Steamer600, and that fifth name on the list will be discussed more later. But it's still clear to see how comfortably McKay slots in behind the Rays' Big Three in the rotation. In fact, Pirates right-hander Mitch Keller (3.3) is the only rookie pitcher to receive a higher WAR projection from Steamer600, and McKay's 3.2 projection is equal to that of more established hurlers Mike Soroka, David Price and Robbie Ray. Most Major League rotations would love to have any of that trio in the No. 4 spot, and that's what Tampa Bay is poised to have in its No. 2 prospect.
As for the hitting side, Steamer didn't give McKay an offensive projection. That makes some sense considering he got only 10 at-bats during his time in the Majors and hit just .200/.298/.331 with five homers in 43 games in the Minors last season. The projections at the plate wouldn't be pretty, even if McKay did show some flashes with the stick.
For his part, Rays manager Kevin Cash made it sound like the organization still wants to keep McKay on a two-way track.
"I think we owe it to Brendan, let's let him hit," Cash said at the Winter Meetings last month. "He was the best collegiate hitter in baseball the year he was drafted, and the little bit that he's hit doesn't prove anything good or bad. Let's let him go get some reps and get [at-bats], and if we need him on the mound in the big leagues, we know we have a good pitcher."
Cash's comments could be influenced by the coming rule changes in 2020. Major League rosters are expected to expand to 26 players this season. Of those 26, a maximum are allowed to be pitchers, though that cap has not yet been announced. However, players can receive a two-way designation (and thus not count toward the pitcher max) if they have 20 innings and 20 games as a hitter in that or a previous season. Keeping McKay available two ways would give Tampa Bay increased roster flexibility, but he'll have to prove his bat is worthy of playing those 20 games in the first place. Cash's comments could portend a move back to Durham to open 2020 to allow McKay more development time with that bat.
But one thing is for sure -- Steamer600 thinks McKay belongs in the Rays rotation right away.
Tampa Bay Rays
Most ready: McKay.
Give it time: Ryan had the type of promising season that put him on a few prospect boards and also placed a 2020 debut somewhat into view. The 2018 seventh-rounder finished with a 1.96 ERA, an 0.84 WHIP, .173 average-against and 183 K's over 123 2/3 innings at three levels, finishing at Double-A Montgomery. Strong stuff, but not enough to get him a starting-pitcher projection or a reliever one that would put him in the Major League conversation, at least come Spring Training. Ryan will be given plenty of rope to prove his 2019 campaign was no mirage, and if anything comes close to duplicating that performance at the upper levels, that projection will pop just like his profile.
Wild cards: This is where Honeywell gets his due mention because he's the ultimate wild card for an AL East club going into 2020. The right-hander was one of the game's premier pitching prospects, but hasn't been on a Minor League mound since the Triple-A National Championship on Sept. 19, 2017 because of Tommy John surgery in 2018 and another procedure to fix a fractured right elbow last year. Honeywell dominated whenever he was on a Minor League mound, and this projection comes as a result of that dominance. But Steamer doesn't take into account injury history (other than the missed time), and it's a big question of what kind of pitcher Honeywell can be coming off such big procedures. If he can return, make the Majors and put up numbers anywhere close to those above (outside the innings), that will be a huge win for him and the Rays.
Top-100 talent: The Rays have seven Top-100 prospects, the most of all 30 organizations. As exciting as that may be for Tampa Bay fans, it's worth noting McKay and Honeywell are the only two of the seven to reach Triple-A. Brujan has the most upper-level experience with 55 games at Double-A, but his projection is of someone who isn't quite yet demanding to see The Show. Franco's projection doesn't quite pop either for a No. 1 overall prospect, but it's still incredibly good for a teenager who has yet to play above Class A Advanced. A 2020 debut is far from a sure bet at this point, but absolutely no one should be betting against the switch-hitting shortstop given his track record.
Most ready: Hays would have been the easy answer no matter what, considering he first appeared in the Majors in 2017. Shoulder and ankle injuries kept him from heading back to the bigs in 2018, and thumb and hamstring problems also limited him last season. But Hays made sure to leave his mark as a September callup, hitting .309/.373/.574 with four homers in 21 games. As a result, Hays received the second-highest WAR projection among O's position players, behind only Trey Mancini (1.8). That's not saying a heck of a lot, given the current state of the Baltimore Major League roster, but it's notable all the same when it comes to Hays' chances of being Baltimore's Opening Day center fielder.
Give it time: The Orioles rotation is a big question mark heading into 2020. John Means and Alex Cobb seem to have two jobs sewn up for now, leaving a potential competition for the final three openings -- one that could last all season long. The projections would indicate Kremer has as good a shot as anyone to claim a spot out of camp; his 1.0 WAR would rank third behind those two previously mentioned. But in reality, Baltimore isn't going to bring up its No. 8 prospect when he's only likely to put up an ERA in the 5's. What's more likely is that the 23-year-old right-hander heads back to Triple-A Norfolk, where he posted an 8.84 ERA in four limited starts, while other options such as Kohl Stewart, Asher Wojciechowski, Keegan Akin and Rule 5 picks Brandon Bailey and Michael Rucker try to claim the openings.
Wild cards: Harvey is the ultimate wild card in Charm City. Once a promising starter, a series of injuries have moved the 2013 first-rounder into the bullpen likely for good. Steamer doesn't see him being much above replacement-level even in that role, though his strikeout rate shows promise. If Baltimore is going to take anything from these numbers, it would be the 65 innings. Harvey has only hit that mark once since 2014 and that was last season at 82 frames between the Majors and Minors.
Top-100 talent: Mountcastle performed well enough to earn a September promotion in 2019. He was the International League MVP and finished with a .312/.344/.527 line and 25 homers over a full season with Triple-A Norfolk. Steamer believes he could be a Major League-average bat right away, but that doesn't bring a ton of value for a player likely to stick to first base. With Baltimore still giving at-bats to Chris Davis, Mountcastle will really need to force the issue this spring or else head back to the Minors' top level. Elsewhere, Rodriguez and Hall are the future hopes of the O's rotation, but are both at least 18 months away. Rutschman is the face of the franchise at this point in his status as the 2018 No. 1 pick, but he doesn't have enough Minor League experience for Steamer to give a rosy projection just yet. Check this space next January.
Boston Red Sox
Most ready: Dalbec may appear third among Red Sox position-player prospects above and his WAR projection may be tied for fourth among ranked Boston farmhands, but he's likely the one closest to Fenway right now. First base is slated to be covered by Michael Chavis, coming off his uneven rookie campaign, and Dalbec's power potential could push him over the edge at some point. That pop would make Dalbec a close to average bat right away, says Steamer; his 28 homers project to be third-most among Red Sox sluggers, tied with Mookie Betts. Even Chavis and his Major League experience project for a slightly lower wRC+ -- 95 vs. 94. The strikeouts, of course, could be an issue with Dalbec slated to fan in 30 percent of his alloted 600 plate appearances. But the dearth of other options could get him to Boston at some point in the first half.
Give it time: What Boston's rotation will look like in 2020 is anyone's guess. Eduardo Rodriguez is the closest to a sure thing among potential starters with Chris Sale, David Price and Nathan Eovaldi all coming off injury-riddled 2019 seasons. The organization brought in Martín Pérez and Chris Mazza as options this offseason, though neither is an earth-shattering addition. And yet behind all six of those names mentioned, Mata receives the next-highest starting pitching WAR projection. Being that behind in the pecking order urges caution, as does the fact Mata doesn't turn 21 until May. But there are reasons for genuine excitement, starting with his mid- to upper-90s fastball, plus slider and solid changeup. What once looked like a relief prospect now has real starting potential -- potential he'll have to show back at Double-A to open 2020.
Wild cards: What is Houck? That's not a philosophical question. The Red Sox are still trying to figure out the answer. Boston moved the 2017 first-rounder into the bullpen at Triple-A Pawtucket, hoping he could be a relief option down the stretch, but later pushed him back to the rotation during his trip to the Arizona Fall League. Steamer isn't a huge believer that Houck could be a viable starting option right now -- he sits right behind Mata in the rotation projections, but the 0.4 WAR gulf is a noticeable one -- and it'd be interesting to see what his relief projection would have looked like instead. His fastball-slider combination could work there, but it might be a few more months before Boston gives up on the starting potential for good.
Top-100 talent: Casas is Boston's only Top-100 prospect. Ranked 85th, he hit .256/.350/.480 with 20 homers in 120 games, 118 of them at Class A Greenville. His power potential from the left side makes him the organization's first baseman of the future. But that future won't be 2020.
New York Yankees
Most ready: All the tea leaves seemed to indicate Garcia would get a Major League look coming off his breakout 2019. The 20-year-old right-hander fanned 165 batters over 111 1/3 innings and finished out the season at Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre by making his final six regular-season appearances out of the bullpen, where he would have been used in the Bronx. The call never came, but it very well could in 2020 and potentially even in the rotation. Garcia's 1.3 WAR projection is fifth-best among potential New York starters. While he's likely headed back to the International League to open 2020, Garcia's ceiling is certainly above other fifth-starter competitors J.A. Happ, Michael King, Nick Nelson and Jordan Montgomery. His biggest obstacle to an early-season start could be some other offseason move by Brian Cashman and company.
Give it time: The Yankees were busy in November, adding seven players (including Garcia) to their 40-man roster ahead of the Rule 5 Draft. They even cut loose Jacoby Ellsbury and Greg Bird to make two of those moves happen. Among the protectees were hard throwers in Gil and Medina. Both are capable of hitting triple digits, and it's that type of stuff that some pinstriped fans might salivate at the thought of seeing next to Aroldis Chapman's heater as soon as possible. Steamer pours a lot of cold water on that, as does basic common sense. Both have major control problems, and Medina -- in particular -- would walk more Major League batters than he would strike out. Roster status aside, it's not happening for either this season. One other quick note: Whitlock was included above but is likely to miss much of 2020 after undergoing Tommy John surgery in July.
Wild cards: Schmidt's career has been one of fits and starts. Drafted in the first round in 2017, the former South Carolina right-hander had to wait until June 2018 to make his Minor League debut because of Tommy John surgery. He was prepared for a fuller season in 2019, but again spent six weeks on the injured list. He was solid when on the mound and especially dominant at Double-A Trenton, where he posted a 2.37 ERA with 19 K's and only one walk in 19 innings. Schmidt possesses three above-average pitches in his fastball, curveball and changeup and has the control to stick in a rotation as well. Steamer gave him a relief projection because he's a little down the SP chart at the moment, but if he stays healthy in 2020, he should do more than just provide starting depth for the organization.
Top-100 talent: Florial is the only position player to appear here, and he does so only because he's the No. 82 overall prospect and was added to the 40-man as Rule 5 protection in November. He played exclusively for Class A Advanced Tampa in 2019 and didn't show much offensively (.237/.297/.383, eight homers in 74 games), though he was limited by a wrist injury. His run, arm and fielding tools make him a solid prospect, but until the bat turns around, he'll continue to get rough Steamer projections.
Toronto Blue Jays
Most ready: Danny Jansen would seem to enter 2020 as the Jays' starting catcher after taking on that role as a rookie, but McGuire could make it an interesting competition this spring. The 24-year-old backstop came up for good in late July and made a solid impression, hitting .299/.346/.526 with five homers in 30 games while sharing duties with Jansen. Combined with his 2018 time in the Majors, McGuire is only two at-bats shy of graduation. The offensive uptick in late 2019 is notable because the former Pirates prospect has typically been praised most highly for his defensive work. Steamer gives him credit for both here with his 2.3 WAR projection, which falls shy of Jansen's at 3.4. The Jays and Yankees are the only two clubs with two catchers to receive a 2.3 WAR projection or above.
Give it time: The system has come way down since Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Bo Bichette claimed the top two spots, but the Jays still boast a high-ceiling prospect in Pearson, the No. 10 overall prospect. Even while limited, the 2017 first-rounder showed great potential last season by posting a 2.30 ERA with 119 strikeouts and 27 walks over 101 2/3 innings across three levels. He finished with three starts at Triple-A Buffalo, and that would put the hard-throwing right-hander with other above-average pitches in his slider and curveball on the Major League radar. Pump those brakes right now. Because of his limits in 2019 and relative lack of Minor League experience, Pearson's projections don't match his potential, and he'll return to Buffalo to build up innings and show what he can do when he faces Triple-A bats multiple times. It might not take long for him to prove his readiness with Toronto's rotation still not a strength, but he still needs some time.
Wild cards: With Pearson unlikely to open 2020 in the Toronto rotation, that leaves the competition open for other prospects, most notably Zeuch and Kay. The latter has the slightly higher ceiling long-term, but it's actually the former who put up slightly better numbers in their Major League looks last season. Therefore, Zeuch receives the higher WAR projection here, and he seemingly has the upper hand. Zeuch also has the advantage of being a heavy ground-ball pitcher at a time when limiting homers has even more value. Barring another free-agent signing along the lines of Hyun-Jin Ryu, both should enter spring in competition for a rotation spot while trying to fend off Pearson and others.
Top-100 talent: Groshans is the club's only other Top-100 prospect. The 2018 first-rounder got off to a fast start with Class A Lansing but suffered a left-foot injury after 23 games and didn't return the rest of the way. His 2020 focus will be exclusively on staying on the field, never mind the Majors.
Sam Dykstra is a reporter for MiLB.com. Follow and interact with him on Twitter, @SamDykstraMiLB.