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Prospect Projections: NL Central rookies

Cards should give Carlson long look; Keller ready for Bucs role
Dylan Carlson produced a .914 OPS across the top two levels of the Minors last season. (Memphis Redbirds)
January 28, 2020

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 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 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 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, National League East and American League Central rookies can be found at those links.
The Cardinals had a logjam of outfielders. The relevant word there being "had." St. Louis dealt José Martínez and Randy Arozarena to the Rays on Jan. 9 and then lost Marcell Ozuna in free agency 12 days later when he signed a one-year deal with the Braves. The group on the grass beneath the Gateway Arch is looking a little less crowded these days, and it just so happens that the Cardinals boast a top prospect who is an outfielder. Is the way officially clear for Dylan Carlson to spread his wings?
According to Steamer600, the answer is a complicated yes.

First, a little background. Carlson was the 33rd overall pick in 2016 coming out of a California high school. St. Louis became enamored with his ability to switch hit, his potential to play the outfield (even though he'd been a first baseman in high school) and his life as a baseball rat playing under his father as a coach. It took some time for those pieces to come together in the pros. In 2018, Carlson hit just .246/.348/.390 with 11 homers and eight steals in 112 games between Class A Peoria and Class A Advanced Palm Beach. Part of that was due to playing most of the season in the pitcher-friendly Florida State League. Part of it was his age -- just 19. But it wasn't the dominance typically shown by top prospects on their way up through the Minors.
As it turned out, that dominance came through with a flourish in 2019. Carlson was the MiLB.com staff pick for the Breakout Prospect MiLBY award. He batted .292/.372/.542 in 126 games between Double-A Springfield and Triple-A Memphis. His 26 homers trumped the 21 from his first three Minor League seasons combined. He more than doubled his career stolen-base total with 20 thefts in 28 attempts. Never mind that it was his first 20-20 season, it was the first time he had achieved double-digits in both main categories. What's more, Carlson played all three outfield spots but continued to show enough potential up the middle shown primarily in center field. 
In its recent Top-100 rankings update, MLB.com moved Carlson to the No. 17 spot, fifth-best among outfield prospects. His power and fielding tools received plus grades with his hit, run and arm all grading out above-average. There's real five-tool potential here, even if it isn't top of the line in each category. 
With Ozuna out of the picture and Martinez and Arozarena moved on, Carlson's combination of potential and current skill level could put him in the driver's seat to take over in left field in St. Louis alongside defensive wizard Harrison Barnes and veteran Dexter Fowler (who is owed $33 million over the next two seasons) in right. At least that's what Steamer believes. This is how Carlson's projections line up next to the Cardinals' other outfield options:

Cardinals outfield options

On projections alone, Carlson would be St. Louis' second-best outfielder if given a full Major League season right away. With a 94 wRC+ projection, his bat would be right there alongside the more veteran players, and even though Steamer doesn't credit him for defense yet, it's a good bet he could only add to his value on that end.
Now this does get a little tricky. Edman was included above because as a rookie, he saw time on the grass and was even the club's starting right fielder for much of the playoffs. However, most of his playing time came on the infield at second and third base, making him an option all over. The Cardinals could give Edman the starting third-base job over veteran Matt Carpenter coming off a down year, and that would leave the opening for Carlson in the outfield. If they decide to give Carpenter a little more rope to rebuild himself, then Edman likely moves into a corner, complicating matters for St. Louis' top prospect. 
It doesn't get any easier for Carlson when considering his roster status. He is the only Cardinal in the above table not currently on the 40-man roster. His service-time clock has yet to begin, and he only played 18 games at Triple-A last season. (Worth noting: he hit .361/.418/.681 in that sampling.) Even with the options dwindling in recent weeks, St. Louis could give one of its other 40-man options a look in left until Carlson proves he's absolutely ready to take over. Then again, Carlson looks ready now, the projections back him up and the NL Central looks tighter than ever with the Brewers, Cubs and Reds in place to compete this summer. To keep pace, the defending NL Central champs should consider fielding the best team they can, and according to Steamer600, that includes Carlson.
Keep an eye on the Cardinals complex in Jupiter, Florida, in the coming weeks. And maybe bring shades when you do.

 St. Louis Cardinals


HITTERS

PITCHERS

Most ready: Carlson
Give it time: Fernandez has long been known as a fireballer in the Cardinals system, and he used that upper-90s gas to achieve his best Minor League season yet in 2019, his second as a full-time reliever. The 22-year-old right-hander posted a 1.52 ERA with 80 strikeouts and 30 walks over 65 innings across the top three levels of St. Louis' system. He was called up in August and again in September to aid the big league bullpen, but couldn't quite find the same level of success (5.40 ERA, 5.27 FIP in 11 2/3 frames). That leads to a relative tame Steamer projection, one also driven by Fernandez's control issues, dating back to his days as a starter. If he can iron those out in Memphis (where he made 18 appearances in 2019) and keep the K's coming, he should return to St. Louis at some point in the first half. That "if" is easier written than said, however.
Wild cards: Yadier Molina made waves last week when he suggested he would either re-sign with the Cardinals before or when his contract is up at the end of the season or he would retire. St. Louis' half of that equation could depend on Andrew Knizner's development in 2019. The 24-year-old made his Major League debut last June, but couldn't quite get off the ground with the big club, batting just .226/.293/.377 in 18 games. Still, Steamer gives him a better wRC+ projection than Molina (90) and recently signed backup Matt Wieters (83). It helps to be a career .303 hitter in the Minors. Knizner's defense and early offensive struggles in the Majors hold him back from slotting back into St. Louis right away in 2020. He should force the issue back with Memphis, but if he doesn't, folks should get used to seeing Yadi a little longer.
Top-100 talent: Beside Carlson, No. 47 Gorman and No. 58 Liberatore are the other Top-100 prospects in the Cards system. Both have yet to reach Double-A and received well below replacement-level projections as a result. Both should target the 2022 campaign as the season in which they could become Major League rookies.

 Chicago Cubs


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PITCHERS

Most ready: Not exactly a difficult call here. Hoerner, who enters 2020 as the No. 51 overall prospect, played 20 games in the Majors with the Cubs following a September callup and held his own with a .282/.305/.436 line and three homers. The 2018 first-rounder missed a good amount of time during his first full season with a hairline fracture in his left wrist, but when he was on the field, he stood out most for his ability to make a good amount of contact, a skill he transferred to the Majors. Steamer still pegs him to be a below-average bat right away, but he has the bat-to-ball skills upon which to build and beat that projection in his second Major League season. The biggest dilemma is finding him a defensive home. The 22-year-old played 17 games at shortstop with Chicago, but that came at a time when Javier Baez was out injured. Baez's return likely portends Hoerner's move back to second, where he saw some time with Double-A Tennessee. He also got in 11 Southern League starts in center field, giving him another route to Wrigley. As it stands, Hoerner has David Bote and Daniel Descalso as his biggest competition at second, but neither would bring the bat of Hoerner on Opening Day, even if they are more veteran options.
Give it time: Nobody thinks Marquez should be competing for a job on the North Side this spring, but few won't admit it's at least tantalizing to think about what a 6-foot-4 left-hander with a high-90s, touching-triple-digits fastball could do in the Majors right now. Steamer tempers the enthusiasm, saying Marquez would be a replacement-level starter right now over a full season's workload. The biggest thing holding the 20-year-old back at the moment is his control as he walked 50 batters over 103 2/3 innings between Class A South Bend and Class A Advanced Myrtle Beach in 2019. So as enticing as it would be to see Chicago get a farm-developed pitcher to Wrigleyville as soon as possible, Marquez still has a ways to go in the lower levels to make that happen. But do keep an eye on that velocity in his attempt to eclipse 100 innings for the second time in his career.
Wild cards: Garcia was one of the most fun stories of the 2019 Minor League season. His last appearance in the Minors was in 2013 before the Cubs signed him off the Italian national team in October 2018. He proceeded to hit .284/.369/.586 with 27 homers between Double-A Tennessee and Triple-A Iowa and also got in 31 games with Chicago following a July 3 Major League debut. The power certainly plays everywhere -- he went deep five times in those 31 games -- and Steamer pegs him for 29 dingers in 2020, tied for third among Cubs sluggers with Anthony Rizzo. It's the rest of the offensive profile Steamer isn't buying yet. In particular, it believes he would strike 213 times over 600 plate appearances. Then again, Steamer doesn't have many examples of players with such wide gulfs between their Minor League playing days. Garcia has versatility going for him, having played five different positions in the Minors in 2019, and if he shows last season's breakout was no mirage, he has the chance to be more than just a switch-hitting option off the bench for first-year manager David Ross.
Top-100 talent: No. 78 Davis, a second-round pick in 2018, jumped on to the Top 100 for the first time this offseason by showing above-average potential in all five tools at Class A South Bend last season. No. 95 Amaya sticks among the group for his defensive prowess behind the plate, though he showed there is room to grow offensively at Class A Advanced Myrtle Beach in 2019. Both players shouldn't expect to see the Majors before 2021 at the earliest.

 Cincinnati Reds


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PITCHERS

Most ready: One quick look at the above tables might explain why the Reds have been such heavy players on the free-agent market this offseason. Cincinnati doesn't have many top-level prospects ready to make an impact in 2020. In fact, the club had only two Top-100 prospects in MLB.com's update over the weekend -- No. 48 Nick Lodolo and No. 53 Greene. Neither has pitched above Class A ball yet. For the purposes of this category, one could point out Gutierrez has the highest WAR, but even that ranks seventh among potential Reds starters. It's also a full win behind Reiver Sanmartin (2.1) in sixth place. The Reds saw an opening for contention in the NL Central, and these types of projections speak to why they have decided to pursue that window on the free-agent side instead of internally.
Give it time: Santillan has his believers, in part because he's shown he's capable of touching as high as 98 mph while showing an above-average to plus slider. There are worse pitcher profiles from which to work. The problem: he took a step back statistically in 2019, finishing with a 4.84 ERA, a 1.60 WHIP, 92 strikeouts and 54 walks in 102 1/3 frames at Double-A Chattanooga. The loss of control was especially worrisome, and in the second half, he walked as many batters as he struck out (21) over 30 1/3 innings. All of that results in a replacement-level projection by Steamer. The good news: the right-hander only turns 23 in April. A return to the Southern League should do him some good, and if he can find the zone more regularly, he will stay on track to join the Cincinnati rotation at some point. Just not immediately.
Wild cards: There is some buzz around Stephenson entering his probable first season at Triple-A, and the Reds do lack a standout catcher with Tucker Barnhart, Curt Casali and Kyle Farmer acting as options going into 2020. But Stephenson's 75 wRC+ and 0.7 WAR projections aren't exactly knock-down-the-door numbers, and it's notable that the 23-year-old has played 100-plus games during the regular season only once in his past four seasons in the Minors. Stephenson picked up for some of that lost time with a strong Arizona Fall League campaign, hitting .347/.418/.490 in 13 games, and he deserves some credit for a strong defensive game that doesn't appear in the Steamer projections yet. If he can get regular playing time in Louisville and continue to show positive signs of both sides of the plate, then it's possible Stephenson could get a quick call. He'll have to show these projections were low on him first, though.
Top-100 talent: Greene will be returning to Minor League mounds in 2020 after missing all of last season due to Tommy John surgery. Lodolo did not receive a Steamer projection after throwing only 18 1/3 innings between Class A Dayton and Rookie Advanced Billings.

 Milwaukee Brewers


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PITCHERS

Most ready: MiLB.com's Farm System Rankings will be revealed throughout February and into March, but it's not much of a spoiler to say the Brewers system won't rank highly. In fact, Milwaukee is the only organization without a Top-100 prospect in the offseason update. The sense of the system doesn't get any better with the 2020 projection. For the sake of the category, it's worth pointing out Williams has already made his Major League debut and fared fairly well, posting a 3.95 ERA with 15 strikeouts and six walks in 13 2/3 innings out of the bullpen. But last season's move to a relief role proved to be a breakout, and Steamer -- which includes Williams's previous rough goes as a starter -- isn't ready to call him more than a replacement-level arm just yet. Still, the 25-year-old right-hander, who can touch triple-digits, should enter the spring in the Major League 'pen conversation, even if he could use a little more proving time at Triple-A San Antonio first.
Give it time: Ray's roller coaster of a career continued in 2019, no thanks to hand and wrist injuries that limited him to 53 games at Triple-A. In part because of the injuries, he never showed the production that made him the 2018 Southern League MVP and finished with just a .188/.261/.329 line and seven homers at the Minors' top level -- numbers that obviously hurt his 2020 projections. Milwaukee still added him to the 40-man roster in November as protection from the Rule 5 Draft, and the 2016 first-rounder should be one call from helping the big club when he returns to San Antonio this spring. That said, he'll have to be healthy for a lengthy amount of time and cut down the strikeout rate from his 29.8 percent career average to get the most out of his above-average power potential and plus speed.
Wild cards: Speaking of roller coasters, Drew Rasmussen's seems to be going the other way. The 2018 sixth-rounder returned from his second Tommy John surgery last season and zoomed up the Milwaukee system quickly. He pitched primarily at Double-A Biloxi, where he finished with a 3.54 ERA, 77 strikeouts and 29 walks in 61 frames while throwing a plus-plus fastball and above-average slider. Because of the former Oregon State hurler's limited pro career, Steamer doesn't have much to go on for Rasmussen, giving him a replacement-level reliever projection. But as the 24-year-old showed last season, he's capable of much more and could give his renewed stuff a showcase in the Majors at some point this summer, given his current line of ascent.
Top-100 talent: The Brewers don't have any Top-100 prospects.

 Pittsburgh Pirates


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PITCHERS

Most ready: Keller's projection might be a little eye-popping for anyone who witnessed the 23-year-old right-hander posting a 7.13 ERA over 11 Major League starts last season, and their eyes might get a little bigger when they see this. Keller's 3.3 WAR projection is the highest given to any rookie pitcher heading into 2020, just ahead of Brendan McKay's 3.2. Why is that? Well for starters, Keller's 3.19 FIP was much better than his ERA, and he also averaged 12.2 K/9 during his Major League stints last season. His peripherals were just too good for Steamer to overlook. Add in his 3.56 ERA and 10.7 K/9 over 103 2/3 innings at Triple-A Indianapolis, and there are some real reasons for optimism here. 
Give it time: Hayes played 110 games at Triple-A last season, is MLB.com's second-ranked third-base prospect and could have the third-base job in Pittsburgh whenever he's ready, based on the strength of his defense alone. So what's the holdup? For starters, his power. Scouts have long believed the 22-year-old could tap into some pop in time, but he managed only 10 homers in the hitter-friendly Triple-A level last season and even that was a career high. His average (.265) and OBP (.336) didn't much make up for the difference. If Steamer included defensive data for Minor Leaguers, Hayes' value would certainly jump. But as it stands, he's not quite a one-win player yet. An improved bat would push him to the Steel City in the first half without much of an issue.

Wild cards: For all of its deficiencies, the Pirates' Major League roster at least seems set when it comes to the rotation. Chris Archer, Joe Musgrove and Trevor Williams seem set in their spots, and Keller, Steven Brault and Chad Kuhl are options for the final two. (Based on projections alone, Keller and Kuhl would have the inside track there.) But don't rule out Bolton steamrolling his way into the discussion at some point, even this early in his career. The 2017 sixth-rounder has a fan in Steamer, which projected him to have the eighth-highest WAR among potential Pirates starters. That might not scream Major League potential, but depth is important, especially for a club entering a rebuild. Bonus: Bolton was healthy for all of 2019 after missing time due to forearm issues the year before and shows good sinking action on his four-seam and two-seam fastballs.
Top-100 talent: The arrow on Cruz continues to point up as he matures in the Pittsburgh system. Notably standing at 6-foot-6 and listed at shortstop, the 21-year-old possesses a plus-plus arm and plus power from the left side. Steamer doesn't have the latter translating to the Majors just yet, but after ending 2019 at Double-A Altoona, a late 2020 promotion could be in the cards, should he be healthy and continue to surge. The trick when that happens will be finding him a long-term position, possibly in right field.