Toolshed: 19 lessons from the 2019 season

Key takeaways from an exciting year for prospects, farm systems

Top overall prospect Wander Franco posted an .872 OPS over 52 games in the Florida State League. (Mark LoMoglio/MiLB.com)

By Sam Dykstra / MiLB.com | December 23, 2019 10:00 AM

Before 2020 vision comes 2019 retrospection. 

With the calendar year coming to a close, Toolshed looks back on the last 12 months in Minor League Baseball and presents 19 prospect and farm system lessons fans can take away from 2019.

1. Wander Franco is the truth -- The switch-hitting shortstop entered his first full season at just 18 years old as MLB.com's No. 13 overall prospect. Months later, he sits on top of the throne. Graduations had something to do with that, but the point stands that Franco affirmed everything we believed about him during his 2019 season. He hit for a high average (.327). He showed incredible strike-zone discipline, fanning 35 times and walking 56 in 114 games. He was mature beyond his years, playing at both Class A and Class A Advanced. Throw in growing power, plus speed and a good arm, and it's clear why the teenager is no longer The Next Big Thing. He is The Big Thing, full stop.

2. The Orioles have their franchise cornerstone -- Say what you will about rebuilding efforts, but teams undergo them to get even a chance at acquiring a talent like 2019 top overall pick Adley Rutschman. The former Oregon State catcher is a switch-hitter who can impress with both his hit and power tools, and he also receives plus grades for his glove and arm. He's the type of player Baltimore can dream about putting behind the plate and being set at the position for the next 10 to 15 years. One prospect does not a farm system make, but with Rutschman in the pipeline and the No. 2 pick coming in 2020, the Orioles should be making the corner turn on their rebuild in the coming year.

3. This is the healthy Luis Robert -- The 2018 campaign was meant to be the White Sox outfielder's first full season. Instead, he was limited to 50 games, mostly due to thumb injuries. He didn't homer over that span. Thankfully, he was able to play 122 contests in 2019, and the No. 3 overall prospect showed the five-tool potential he possesses when he's not held back. Robert went deep 32 times between Class A Advanced Winston-Salem, Double-A Birmingham and Triple-A Charlotte and added 36 stolen bases, making him one of two 30-30 players in the Minors this season. He also finished with a .328/.376/.624 slash line. The Cuba native should head to Chicago early in 2020 and play a big part in the Major League club's expected bid to contend in the open American League Central.

Video: Robert blasts homer for Charlotte

4. And this is the healthy MacKenzie Gore -- The Padres left-hander was in some ways Robert's pitching counterpart. Gore threw only 60 2/3 innings in 2018 because of issues with multiple blisters. Those concerns subsided in 2019, and the 2017 third overall pick subsequently took off in his second full season. Gore finished with a 1.69 ERA, a 0.83 WHIP, 135 strikeouts and 28 walks in 101 innings between Class A Advanced Lake Elsinore and Double-A Amarillo, thriving on an arsenal that features four above-average pitches and impressive control. That is ace-level stuff, and while we were talking about the potential for that type of performance after 2018, we actually got to see it in 2019. Picking up from that...

5. The Padres are ready -- San Diego hasn't enjoyed a winning season since 2010, but at least lately, there had been talk of the club building up its farm system and making key signings (Manny Machado, Eric Hosmer) to put it on track for sustainable achievement. That time has come. Former top prospects Fernando Tatis Jr. and Chris Paddack spent the entire season with the big club and showed they should be long-term solutions. Fellow former Top-100 prospects Francisco Mejia, Luis Urias, Adrian Morejon and Michel Baez also contributed. Gore and No. 3 prospect Luis Patiño finished 2019 in the Texas League and look ready to bring something to the table at some point in 2020. No. 28 overall prospect Taylor Trammell, who spent his entire season at Double-A, was picked up from the Reds. The pieces are coming together for the Padres to go for it next season.

6. Playing prospects on Opening Day is great -- No one should forget Tatis, Paddack and Mets first baseman Pete Alonso all began their seasons on the Major League roster. San Diego and New York could have waited to call up their top prospects, thus delaying their service-time clock and thus holding off their free agency by a year. Instead, they brought them up when they were ready, putting the present needs of the big club above its far-off goals. The results: Tatis and Paddack looked the part of Major Leaguers right away, solidifying their place in San Diego's future, and Alonso only went out and set the Major League rookie record with 53 homers on his way to winning the National League Rookie of the Year award. Here's hoping they weren't anomalies and bring along similar moves by other clubs come Opening Day 2020.

7. The Marlins system is most-improved -- At this time last year, Miami's top prospect was Victor Victor Mesa. He now sits at the No. 13 spot after a down offensive year. So how did the Marlins improve? For starters, they added now-top prospect Sixto Sanchez in the J.T. Realmuto deal in February. Top-100 prospects Jesus Sanchez and Jazz Chisholm were picked up in other in-season trades and JJ Bleday (one of the best collegiate hitters in 2019) in the Draft. In total, Miami boasts six Top-100 prospects (Monte Harrison and Edward Cabrera were the others), putting them in second place behind Florida counterpart Tampa Bay with seven. Outside the top 100, first-rounders Braxton Garrett and Trevor Rogers looked effective now that they're healthy again, and the Fish also picked up breakout powerful prospect Lewin Diaz in a deal with the Twins. Back in January, this didn't look like a club that could rely on its farm system as constituted to bring success to South Beach. That look is much clearer now.

8. The Mariners system isn't far off -- Seattle scored Jarred Kelenic and Justin Dunn in the Robinson Cano/Edwin Diaz trade last December, so we can't give them full credit for those additions for 2019. However, we can give them credit for the development those players showed in their new system. Kelenic climbed three levels and brought his electric tools to each stop, making him the No. 13 overall prospect. Dunn, after some struggles early in his Mets career, solidified his place as a starting pitcher at Double-A Arkansas and ended up making four Major League starts before the season was out. Elsewhere, Julio Rodriguez made a powerful stateside debut, giving Mariners fans plenty to dream about in his potential place next to Kelenic. Logan Gilbert looked more and more like a top-of-the-rotation candidate in his first full season, and Evan White impressed enough offensively and defensively to get a Major League contract this offseason. Given the group as its presently constituted, it's not hard to envision the heart of the next Seattle contender coming from this farm system.

Video: Travelers' Kelenic goes yard again

9. The Tigers rotation could be scary some day -- Keeping things rolling with rebuilding clubs, Detroit fans spent a lot of time watching their Minor League affiliates in 2019, and they should have liked what they found for the most part, especially in the pitching department. The Tigers were thought to be pitching-rich coming in 2019 -- the first year of 2018 top pick Casey Mize -- and they lived up to that expectation. Mize battled shoulder problems at times, but still managed to finish with a 2.55 ERA, a 0.94 WHIP and 106 strikeouts in 109 1/3 innings between Class A Advanced and Double-A. Second-ranked Matt Manning was actually the better performer, winning Eastern League Pitcher of the Year honors with a 2.56 ERA and 148 K's in 133 2/3 frames for Erie. Alex Faedo seemed to turn things around nicely in his second full season, and left-hander Joey Wentz was a promising midseason addition from the Braves system. But what should have Detroit folks even more hopeful was the breakout of 2018 ninth-rounder Tarik Skubal, who fanned an organization-best 179 over 122 2/3 innings between Erie and Lakeland. The southpaw's developmental success story is the type rebuilding clubs need in large supply. All five pitchers should be back in the upper Minors to open 2020 with a Major League debut not far behind. It's at least possible that the 2021 Detroit rotation could be fully homegrown if this trend continues. That said...

10. Pitching prospects remain as risky as ever -- TINSTAAPP, as the kids say. (The kids being Baseball Prospectus' Gary Huckabay.) Or There Is No Such Thing As A Pitching Prospect. That's not fully accurate, but it comes from the nugget of truth that pitching can be one of the most difficult things in player development. Injuries happen. Loss of command happens. Pitches lose their effectiveness more easily. All of this can be difficult to predict. There were more than a few examples in 2019. Forrest Whitley entered the season as the closest pitching prospect to a sure thing, but he struggled massively at Triple-A, dealt with shoulder problems and finished the season back at Double-A. Kyle Wright once looked like a potential ace, but after bouncing back between Triple-A and the Majors, his future role is in doubt. Mitch Keller was a quality pitcher at Triple-A, but got rocked for a 7.13 ERA in 11 Major League starts. These are all examples to keep in mind with the Tigers crew or other high-ceiling arms like Gore. 

11. Triple-A is different -- What did a lot of those pitchers have in common? They pitched at the Minors' top level. Notably, this was the season that both Triple-A leagues started using the Major League baseball. A recent study commissioned by MLB reported inconsistent seam height had an effect on the drag of the ball itself. Less drag meant more homers. Combined with an added emphasis on launch angle and hitting for power, that could have caused the offensive jump across the Majors and Triple-A. What's definitely true is that runs per game vaulted from 4.2 to 5.2 in the International League and 5.0 to 5.9 in the Pacific Coast League. Meanwhile, there were 2,100 more home runs hit across the two circuits in 2019 than in the previous season at 5,752, up from 3,652. It's just one season, so this could be an extreme outlier, but it's something worth monitoring in the early days of 2020 as baseball tries to figure out how to judge Triple-A prospects in such hitter-friendly environments.

12. Development doesn't stop at the Major Leagues -- This isn't going to be a Vladimir Guerrero Jr. mea culpa. Yes, the former No. 1 overall prospect did arrive in The Show with a ton of hype surrounding his bat, and no, he didn't quite live up to it as a rookie. The Blue Jays third baseman was about league-average with a .272/.339/.433 line in 123 games. Guess what? He did all of that at age 20. He was the youngest position player to debut in 2019. It was rather incredible he could be even Major League average at that age. Just because Guerrero destroyed pitching everywhere else he played previously, that didn't mean he was going to do that automatically against the best arms in the sport. The right-handed slugger needs time for adjustments, and they may come later than initially forecasted. That's OK. Remember, Mike Trout had just a .672 OPS in his first taste of Major League ball too. He worked out OK.

13. The Dodgers' assembly line continues -- The secret to producing a 106-game winner isn't just by acquiring the best players. It's about developing them and having the right prospects ready to go when the Major League club needs reinforcements. It's no mistake that Los Angeles' best player in 2020 was former farmhand Cody Bellinger. Following in the NL MVP's footsteps in 2019 were Gavin Lux and Dustin May, who not only made their Major League debuts but also became among the top shortstop and right-handed pitching prospects in baseball. What's more, the Dodgers morphed Josiah Gray and Jeter Downs -- two players they picked up from the Reds last offseason -- into Top-100 prospects in almost no time flat. So even if anyone thinks this Dodgers system as constituted will take a hit when Lux and May graduate in 2020, the continual line of LA success stories would indicate otherwise.

14. Even injuries can't hold back Jo Adell for long -- The top Angels prospect received rough news in the spring when he suffered hamstring and ankle injuries in the Cactus League. He didn't make his season debut until late May, and if he needed more time to get back in the swing of things after those leg problems, then that could have been forgiven. Instead, Adell continued to show off massive tools when he returned and finished with a .289/.359/.475 line, 10 homers and seven steals in 76 games across three clubs, topping out at Triple-A Salt Lake. That last bit is important because Los Angeles' AL club has designs on getting back into contending position in 2020. (It's why Anthony Rendon was signed to a massive contract earlier this month.) Adding Adell to the outfield mix alongside Trout and Justin Upton and hopefully eventually Brandon Marsh would be a big boost toward that goal.

15. Dylan Carlson is here to stay -- The Cardinals' top prospect doesn't like calling 2019 a breakout year because he sees his previous seasons as buildup to his most recent successes. Fine, we'll do it for him. Carlson was named the MiLBY winner for Breakout Prospect this offseason after he set career highs with 26 homers and 20 stolen bases and hit .292/.372/.542 between Double-A and Triple-A. The 21-year-old switch-hitter's offensive growth, coupled with his above-average potential at all three outfield spots, comes at a good time for St. Louis. Marcell Ozuna has hit the free-agent market, and assuming he doesn't return, the Cards have several options on the 40-man roster to replace him. That said, none likely have the ceiling of Carlson, meaning the 2016 first-rounder may have played his way right into a more immediate Major League role than initially expected.

Video: Carlson goes yard for Memphis

16. The A's are coming -- Manager Bob Melvin said it himself at the Winter Meetings. This is as promising a pitching group as he can recall having since he started managing there in 2011. That's saying something considering the A's have made the playoffs in five of the eight seasons in which Melvin has been in the dugout full-time. Two big reasons for Melvin's words were the arrivals of A.J. Puk and Jesus Luzardo this past season. Both were dealing with their own health concerns -- Puk coming back from Tommy John surgery and Luzardo overcoming shoulder and lat issues -- but looked strong down the stretch for the big club. Both have top-of-the-rotation potential and should be able to compete for starting spots in the spring. If they win them, they should be throwing to a familiar face. No. 3 prospect Sean Murphy is expected to be the Opening Day catcher as things currently stand with the A's.

17. Nate Pearson is more than heat -- Triple digits are the first words that come to mind about Pearson. That's all well and good. The Blue Jays right-hander does regularly touch 100 mph and above with his heater. But the No. 10 overall prospect tells anyone who asks that he's happiest about the development of his breaking pitches and changeup. A fuller arsenal gives the 6-foot-6 hurler a better chance to start, and he thrived in that role in 2019, posting a 2.30 ERA with 119 strikeouts in 101 2/3 innings across three levels. The Blue Jays limited some of his outings to keep him healthy, but the points on effectiveness stand. Even after losing Guerrero and Bo Bichette to Major League graduations, the Jays look like they have another star prospect in Pearson.

Offseason MiLB include

18. Don't sleep on the D-backs -- If there's a farm system worthy buying stock in, it might be the one belonging to Arizona. The D-backs sneakily boast five Top-100 prospects (tied with the Dodgers, Twins, Braves, Mariners and Padres for third-most in baseball), and all five have the potential to grow in 2020. Alek Thomas, Kristian Robinson and Corbin Carroll are all toolsy outfielders who have yet to play above Class A Advanced. Seth Beer is an all-around solid hitter with plenty of pop who should settle in at first base. Daulton Varsho is unique as a speedy catcher and has shown an above-average hit tool from the left side at Double-A. That's not to mention other promising youngsters like Geraldo Perdomo or Liover Peguero or former Top-100 prospects J.B. Bukauskas, Corbin Martin or Jon Duplantier. Arizona isn't necessarily rebuilding right now, but they have the farm system of a club that is.

19. Jasson Dominguez looms -- The final word belongs to a prospect who didn't even feature in a Minor League game in 2019. The Yankees signed Dominguez for $5.4 million on July 2, using up a sizable chunk of their bonus pool to add the switch-hitting outfielder to their pinstriped mix. All reports on Dominguez are glowingly positive. The Dominican Republic native earns plus grades for his power, run and arm tools while his hitting and fielding from center field are both considered above-average. If all of that shows up in games next spring, he'll shoot up quickly from his current status as the No. 66 overall prospect. For anyone looking for The Next Big Thing now that Franco has moved off the mantle, Dominguez should be it.

Sam Dykstra is a reporter for MiLB.com. Follow and interact with him on Twitter, @SamDykstraMiLB. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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