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Toolshed: Reasons for NL systems to give thanks

Steps forward taken for farms' top tiers; more coming in 2021
The Marlins' Sixto Sanchez and the Braves' Cristian Pache made their Major League debuts in 2020. (Mark Brown/Getty Images, John Bazemore/AP)
@SamDykstraMiLB
November 24, 2020

Thanksgiving comes to the United States on Thursday. While there was no Minor League season in 2020, there are still plenty of reasons prospect fans can give thanks over the coming week. This concludes a two-part series in which Toolshed explains what fans of each of the 30 farm systems

Thanksgiving comes to the United States on Thursday. While there was no Minor League season in 2020, there are still plenty of reasons prospect fans can give thanks over the coming week. This concludes a two-part series in which Toolshed explains what fans of each of the 30 farm systems should be thankful for this offseason. Friday's edition looked at the American League. This focuses on the farm systems of the National League.

Arizona Diamondbacks -- 2021 can be what 2020 should have been: In a low-key manner, the D-backs possessed a system with arguably the most breakout potential in 2020. Kristian Robinson, Corbin Carroll and Blake Walston could have experienced seasons of 100-plus games for the first time. Robinson, in particular, might have had the potential to become a top-20 overall prospect, if he continued to flash plus power and above-average speed over the long term for a full-season affiliate. Alek Thomas and Geraldo Perdomo would have gotten their first tastes of the upper Minors and solidified their Top-100 statuses. Daulton Varsho was expected to take his athleticism and defensive versatility to Triple-A for the first time. With that growth and development in the can, Arizona could have gone from a group of solid prospects to a system with at least a few elite ones. Instead, Varsho was the only one of that group to see real game time in the Majors, and the others' breakouts -- at least in front of the public -- were put off until 2021. Even with the missed time this summer, the potential remains for Robinson and company to take off the next time they are on a Minor League field. The enthusiasm about the Arizona pipeline should remain as high as it was in early March.

Atlanta Braves -- The Pache you know: The outfield situation in Atlanta is in flux. The Braves struck gold on a one-year deal with Marcell Ozuna, and the slugger is prepared to cash in big as a free agent this offseason. Ender Inciarte's offense took a nose dive, and his defense isn't good enough anymore to even guarantee him a spot on the playoff roster. Nick Markakis, at 37, is a free agent once again. At least there's franchise cornerstone Ronald Acuña Jr., who is capable of playing any of the three spots on the Georgia grass for years to come. But beyond the superstar, the Braves also might have a long-term solution in top prospect Cristian Pache. The 22-year-old got brief looks during the regular season and then played all seven games in the National League Championship Series after Adam Duvall was ruled out with an oblique injury. Pache's glove is one of the most highly regarded in prospectdom, and his range would make for an easy replacement for Inciarte. He didn't look too far off with the bat either in the NLCS, clubbing a homer and adding a double over the seven games. The .182 average doesn't look great in the small sample, but the fact Pache wasn't completely overmatched marks a solid development for a player who had only 26 games of Triple-A experience coming into 2020. Second-ranked Drew Waters didn't get to debut this season, but the switch-hitter and 2019 Southern League MVP should get his chance next year, adding to the Braves' outfield depth options even after the potential losses this offseason.

Chicago Cubs -- Some legit gems: It's been some time since the Cubs system has felt strong. Years of contention, trades and low Draft picks will do that. The group still isn't there on the whole, but the four players at the top of the ranking could go toe to toe with those from most other organizations. Fireballer Brailyn Marquez gives Chicago an arm to lean on, and one fans in Wrigleyville have already seen (on television anyway) after Marquez came up for a brief Major League debut in late September. His average fastball velocity in the Majors: 97.9 mph. (He also walked three and threw two wild pitches in two-thirds of an inning, so there remains much room for growth in the control department.) Brennen Davis is a star on the position-player side as a 21-year-old outfielder with above-average potential across all five tools. Miguel Amaya has all the makings of a catcher of the future on both sides of the position. Chicago native Ed Howard was one of the stories of the Draft as he stayed home as the 16th overall pick, and the shortstop comes with impressive defensive skills and the hope he can show something offensively from his 6-foot-2 frame in the pros. So a pitcher, a catcher, an infielder and an outfielder. That's well-rounded with top talent and puts the Cubs in solid position for whichever direction the organization takes next under Jed Hoyer.

Cincinnati Reds -- Healthy Greene: Hunter Greene was as hyped as a second overall pick can get when he went to the Reds in 2017, in part due to his two-way status at the time, but mostly because of his 80-grade fastball. Unfortunately, he underwent some growing pains at Class A Dayton (where he posted a 4.48 ERA in 18 starts) and then some real-life pains when elbow issues led to Tommy John surgery in spring 2019. The good news came in 2020. The right-hander participated at the Reds' alternate site this summer and had his velocity back up to the upper-90s. Though his innings didn't come necessarily in a game environment, they were huge for a pitcher who has thrown only 72 2/3 innings in the Minors since he was drafted. The emphasis for Greene in the months and years ahead will be getting his off-speed pitches even somewhat close to the quality of his heater. If that happens, his ceiling is sky-high. Just making it through 2020 on the healthy side is a massive step toward Greene reaching that ceiling.

Colorado Rockies -- A steal in the Draft: There's always the disclaimer. Time will tell how Draft picks will sort themselves out. Colorado fans don't have to be taught that lesson twice after 2016 fourth overall pick Riley Pint didn't crack the 40-man roster last week ahead of his own Rule 5 eligibility. That said and put aside, Zac Veen falling to No. 9 feels rather fortunate for the Rockies. The left-handed slugger shows plus-plus raw power and is also considered a gifted hitter for average in games. He has center field on his resume but possesses the arm to move to right, where he's likely a better fit in the pros. Veen, who checks in at 6-foot-4, was the second prep player off the board in the college-heavy top 10, and it's possible a normal spring schedule could have put him out of the Rockies' reach. Instead, he became Colorado's top prospect and the club's only Top-100 representative at No. 49. Given a chance to show off in the Minors in 2021, Veen has the offensive helium to climb even higher than that when his skills are on display more regularly.

Los Angeles Dodgers -- Somehow, there's still more in the cupboard: A World Series run -- especially one happening without a Minor League season -- can be a good excuse to empty the system of prospects, both by trades and Major League graduations. The Dodgers indeed had a bit of both. The club let go of No. 40 overall prospect Jeter Downs to acquire Mookie Betts in the offseason. It graduated Gavin Lux, Dustin May, Tony Gonsolin, Brusdar Graterol and Edwin Ríos during the regular season. Yet after all that, Los Angeles still boasts two Top-100 prospects in Josiah Gray and Keibert Ruiz -- both of whom should be ready to contribute in the Majors in 2021 -- as well as alternate-site standouts Michael Busch, Kody Hoese and Bobby Miller and young international players/potential stars Luis Rodriguez and Diego Cartaya. The Astros, Red Sox and Nationals -- the last three World Series winners before the Dodgers -- are all dealing with farms in various forms of rough shape right now. L.A. isn't there yet and may not be for some time, if ever at all.

Miami Marlins -- They already know, part II: This was the same headline used for the Mariners section of the AL column, and we'll reuse it here with different reasoning. The Marlins were the most pleasant surprise of the abbreviated 2020 season, and a big reason for that was their reliance on young talent. (COVID-related roster shortages played a role in that as well.) Sixto Sanchez, Jazz Chisholm, Jesús Sánchez, Braxton Garrett, Trevor Rogers and Monte Harrison all made their Major League debuts in 2020, and those are just among the club's current top 10 prospects. JJ Bleday may not be very far away either, nor are 2020 first-rounder Max Meyer -- who could move quickly -- or fellow pitcher Edward Cabrera. Miami got to know the system's prospects quite well in 2020, and more waves are coming.

Milwaukee Brewers -- Mitchell in Milwaukee: At the beginning of the season, the Brewers ranked 30th in MiLB.com's Farm System Rankings. No Minor League season (i.e., a chance for prospects to improve) hurt Milwaukee's chances at improving that station, and the No. 20 overall pick in the Draft was far from a guarantee that the club could pick a Top-100 prospect when it didn't have any. Then UCLA outfielder Garrett Mitchell fell to the Brew Crew at that spot, and now the No. 59 overall prospect is the star of the system. Mitchell possesses plus-plus speed, can flash some power from the left side and is a potential plus hitter. He fell in part due to concerns over his Type 1 diabetes, but both the player and the organization aren't concerned that will hamper his chances of becoming an impact outfielder in the NL Central. There are some other bright spots in the organization, but there's no doubt the Brewers farm has its shining star in Mitchell.

New York Mets -- Lower levels: There is a lot of other Minor League Baseball business to wrap up before roster projection for 2021, but if Mets fans wanted to look forward already, they wouldn't be far off in thinking that New York's low-level affiliates might be the most stacked in the Minors next season. Of the club's top 11 prospects right now, only Thomas Szapucki has played above Class A. Some could get moved quickly. Top prospect Ronny Mauricio might skip a level and jump straight to Double-A, while 2019 top pick Brett Baty could do something similar if the team goes with a plan to keep him on the track he could have been on following a normal 2020. But Francisco Alvarez, Matthew Allan, Pete Crow-Armstrong, Josh Wolf, Isaiah Greene and Junior Santos all could be candidates for Class A or even Class A Advanced. The new ownership regime has plans to keep the system intact while it builds a contender in Queens, and those intentions should maintain focus on these lower levels.

Philadelphia Phillies -- Alright, alright, alright: The Phillies' best reason to be thankful to this season comes from three right-handed arms at various stages of their development. Spencer Howard, the club's top prospect, made his Major League debut, and while his 5.92 ERA won't stand out to anyone just looking at his player page, the stuff -- including a mid- to upper-90s fastball and three above-average off-speed pitches -- still shows plenty of potential to make him a dependable, if not special, starting pitcher in Philly for years to come. Francisco Morales was just added to the club's 40-man roster to protect him from the Rule 5 Draft. With a mid-90s fastball and slider with plus-plus potential, it's easy to see why the Phils don't want to let him go so easily. Mick Abel was the club's first-round pick in June on the strength of his size at 6-foot-5 and above-average control of a four-pitch mix that includes a plus heater and plus slider. It'll take some time before the three can entertain pitching in the same rotation, but the snapshot right now tells the story of that distinct possibility.

Pittsburgh Pirates -- On the clock: Sure, Ke'Bryan Hayes' rookie season or Nick Gonzales' addition to the system could feature here, and either would be worthy choices. But when it comes to being purely thankful, Bucs fans should look to the 2021 No. 1 overall pick. It was far from a sure thing that the club with the worst record in 2020 -- and at 19-41, the Pirates were that club -- would get the first selection in next year's Draft. In fact, the announcement didn't come until the regular season was over in October. Instead of going another route after the 60-game season, Major League Baseball stuck with the regular method of determining Draft picks, and the Pirates will benefit next July. The early favorite for the selection is Vanderbilt right-hander Kumar Rocker, who would instantly become the top pitching prospect in a system that tilts toward position players. That doesn't have to be settled for another seven months or so. For now, the Pirates will be able to take a big step forward in their planned rebuild at the 2021 Draft, and that's worth being thankful for in Pittsburgh, which hasn't fielded a playoff team in five years.

San Diego Padres -- Pitchers ready for next steps: The biggest news of the Padres' offseason so far has been Mike Clevinger's Tommy John surgery, which is expected to knock him out for the entire 2021 season. That's disappointing given how San Diego traded for the former Cleveland hurler at this year's deadline. That said, the Padres could be able to weather the storm internally ... and yes, that was a bit of a pun. Luis Patiño debuted at just 20 years old this summer, and while the bulk of his work was done out of the bullpen, the right-hander still has the ceiling of a Major League starter with his fastball-slider-changeup mix. Ryan Weathers was another surprise debutant when he was summoned in the midst of the Padres' postseason run. The southpaw is almost certainly headed back to the mid-Minors to open 2021, but the fact the big club was willing to bring him up, not only for a big game but after he'd yet to pitch above Class A was a strong indicator of what it thinks of his velocity jump and above-average off-speed stuff. Oh yeah, the Padres still also boast MacKenzie Gore, the most effective pitcher in Minor League Baseball in 2019. The 21-year-old left-hander may have been bypassed by Patiño and Weathers on the depth chart for now, but with four plus pitches and special control, he still has the highest ceiling as a potential ace. Without Clevinger, the Padres still could dip into their prospect depth to produce some big-time starters next season.

San Francisco Giants -- The next big name: If this column wanted to take a bet on a prospect outside the top 25 who could have jumped into the top 10 by season's end in a regular 2020, it would have been on Giants shortstop Marco Luciano. The 19-year-old hit .322/.438/.616 with 10 homers and eight stolen bases in 38 games across two short-season levels in 2019, showing off above-to-average to plus skills on his offensive tools. Anything close to those numbers over 100-plus games with a full-season club would have sent his stock skyrocketing. Instead, Luciano spent what would have been his age-18 season at the alternate site and instructs, where the Giants believe he took the necessary steps to develop in what could have been a lost year. Videos shared by the club's social media channels certainly didn't look like those of a teenager. Giants fans should prepare for the Luciano Bounce in 2021.

St. Louis Cardinals -- The Liberatore/Gorman partnership: It's no secret Arizona natives Matthew Liberatore and Nolan Gorman were good friends long before they went three picks apart in 2018's first round. Less than two years later, they were brought back together when the Cards and Rays pulled off a deal in January. (Some now may consider that the Randy Arozarena trade, but we'll put that aside for now.) There are human benefits to something like this. A familiar face can be huge in making the transition from one system to another. That's especially true in a weird year like 2020, when both Liberatore and Gorman took on the new task of performing at the club's alternate training site in Springfield. But the truth is both are really good prospects -- the two best in the system after Dylan Carlson reached the Majors. Gorman's power is famously prodigious from the left side, and he has the arm to stick to third base. Liberatore features three above-average pitches, can hit his spots and is the sixth-ranked left-handed pitching prospect in the game. The two 20-somethings are lucky to have each other to lean on, and the Cardinals are lucky to have them both in the same pipeline.

Washington Nationals -- Pitching, pitching, pitching: If it's been a while since you've checked out the Nationals' prospect rankings on MLB.com, go give them a quick review. What should stand out immediately is that the organization's top 10 prospects are pitchers. What's more, the first seven are of the right-handed variety. The prospect graduations of Carter Kieboom and Luis Garcia provide some context for how this happened, but it's noteworthy all the same. The Nats have high hopes that Jackson Rutledge and Curt Cavalli -- their two most recent first-rounders -- can help the Major League rotation someday in the near future, while Andry Lara, Eddy Yean and Mason Denaburg are a few years away yet. If you're going to have a strength in a bottom-10 system, it can be fun to at least be all in on that strength. Perhaps the likes of Drew Mendoza, Yasel Antuna and Jeremy De La Rosa can break through to give the upper rankings of Washington's system some position-player flavor before long.

Sam Dykstra is a reporter for MiLB.com. Follow and interact with him on Twitter, @SamDykstraMiLB.