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2021 Prospect Projections: AL Central rookies

White Sox prepared to pounce again with a little prospect help
Nick Madrigal went 35-for-103 (.340) during his time with Chicago in the Major Leagues last season. (Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
@SamDykstraMiLB
January 27, 2021

This is the third in a six-part Toolshed series that uses FanGraphs' Steamer 600 projections to look at how prospects would fare over a full Major League season in 2021. The system bases its forecast on 600 plate appearances for position players, 450 plate appearances for catchers, 200 innings for

This is the third in a six-part Toolshed series that uses <a href="https://www.fangraphs.com/projections.aspx?pos=all&stats=bat&type=steamer" target="_blank" >FanGraphs' Steamer 600 projections to look at how prospects would fare over a full Major League season in 2021. 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. Because of the canceled Minor League season in 2020, all players included in the team tables below are ranked prospects who either played at Class A Advanced or above in 2019, sit on their organization's 40-man roster or are placed among MLB.com's Top 100. The AL East and NL East editions can be found at those links.

The White Sox made the playoffs last season for the first time since 2008 and haven't come close to resting on their laurels since, picking up impact players in Lance Lynn, Liam Hendriks and Adam Eaton on the trade and free-agent markets this offseason. One big reason why Chicago is so prepared to push its chips to the center of the table -- the club's big prospects are ready for The Show.

The South Siders currently possess four of MLB.com's Top 100 prospects as of the end-of-2020 rankings: No. 13 Andrew Vaughn, No. 18 Michael Kopech, No. 36 Nick Madrigal and No. 89 Garrett Crochet.

We'll start with Madrigal, since he has the most interesting Steamer case of the bunch. The 23-year-old second baseman was expected to compete for Chicago's Major League job at the keystone in 2020 and made that MLB debut on July 31 in the club's seventh game of the season. On Aug. 4, he suffered a separated left shoulder that kept him on the injured list for 25 days but did not hamper his production the rest of the way. Madrigal finished with a .340 average, .376 OBP, .369 slugging percentage, no homers and three doubles over 103 at-bats with the Sox (27 short of prospect graduation). In short, the former Oregon State standout fit his offensive profile to a T -- a tremendous hit tool punctuated by lots of contact with very little power behind it.

Steamer expects more of the same from Madrigal going into 2021, in the best of ways. At .304, he is one of only three Major Leaguers projected to hit .300 or above next to Luis Arraez (.311) and Juan Soto (.304). Only Arraez (168) is projected to pick up more hits among Major Leaguers than Madrigal's 166. Only Willians Astudillo (36) is projected to strike out less than Madrigal's 40 whiffs. When we say the White Sox second baseman is elite in the hitting department, the projections bare that out. At the same time, they don't expect much from his weaknesses with only eight homers and a .412 slugging percentage over the 600-plate appearance allotment. Altogether, that works out to a 106 wRC+, just a smidge below teammate Luis Robert's 107 projection with a much different profile. With plus speed and an impressive glove on the dirt, Madrigal has other assets that could help him beat his 2.6 WAR projection, but even that is a solid starting point for a player with his rookie status intact.

Moving over to the mound, it's been a while since White Sox fans have seen Kopech on the Major League bump. The 24-year-old right-hander last appeared in a game on Sept. 5, 2018. He later needed Tommy John surgery that wiped out his 2019 campaign and then chose to opt out of the 2020 season in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic.

Steamer doesn't hold that time off against the hard-throwing right-hander. The projection system still believes Kopech could pick right up and post a 4.56 ERA and a 1.35 WHIP with 225 strikeouts over 200 innings, if given the chance and he stays healthy in 2021. Only ace Lucas Giolito (235) is projected to punch out more batters than Kopech in such a scenario. It's tough to blame the system. When everything is working, the 6-foot-3 righty can regularly throw in the high 90s and touch triple-digits with ease while flashing a plus to plus-plus slider. Even after all the time off, he might be Chicago's No. 5 starter as things stand behind Giolito, Lynn, Dallas Keuchel and Dylan Cease, but with a 2.4 WAR projection, Steamer thinks he could slot in third among that group right away.

Vaughn and Crochet -- the organization's two latest first-rounders -- are more complicated from a projection standpoint. Vaughn was recently named MLB.com's top first-base prospect with a plus hit tool and power from the right side. But he has only 55 games of Minor League experience, and as such, didn't receive a Steamer projection this offseason. Crochet probably should have, considering he shot from 11th overall straight to the Majors in one summer, but the former Tennessee left-hander still only had five professional regular-season games on his resume -- too few to get a substantive projection. Considering both are good bets to start out 2020 at Double-A or even Triple-A, Vaughn and Crochet shouldn't be far behind Madrigal and Kopech in reaching the South Side. The only thing to determine will be their roles; Vaughn is stuck behind reigning MVP Jose Abreu at first base and might need to take on DH duties to break through. Crochet was used as a fireballing reliever in his Major League debut, but has the deeper arsenal to start as well.

The White Sox have done plenty in recent weeks to fortify their Major League roster in pursuit of pushing past the Twins and capturing the American League Central in 2021, but as Steamer can project, the prospects knocking on the door might just be as good as anyone else the club can bring in these days.

Chicago White Sox

White Sox POS PA HR SB AVG OBP SLG OPS wRC+ Fld WAR
Nick Madrigal (3)2B600821.305.353.413.766106-0.52.6
Yermin Mercedes (21)C450163.249.312.419.7309202.0
Seby Zavala (22)C450163.206.266.361.6286500.5
Luis Gonzalez (11)OF6001511.232.297.369.666773.40.0
Blake Rutherford (12)OF600119.228.282.342.623640-0.3
Micker Adolfo (8)OF600197.221.289.375.664760-0.4
Gavin Sheets (9)1B600194.237.302.387.689830-0.6
Andrew Vaughn (1)1B600196.212.278.355.633680-1.8
White Sox IP ERA FIP WHIP HR K/9 BB/9 WAR
Michael Kopech (2)2004.564.681.353410.13.92.4
Zack Burdi (15)654.424.601.381010.24.30.2
Tyler Johnson (23)654.304.491.36109.74.00.2
Jimmy Lambert (14)654.554.711.37119.13.70.1
Bernardo Flores Jr. (16)654.394.671.36106.92.70.1
Jonathan Stiever (6)655.285.441.43137.33.2-0.4
Wil Kincanon (28)655.395.611.69107.56.0-0.6
Konnor Pilkington (20)2005.966.241.66416.75.1-0.7

Most ready: See above.

Give it time: While the White Sox system is no doubt top-heavy, Jonathan Stiever represents the best of the rest after that impressive top tier. The 23-year-old right-hander is right there with 2020 second-rounder Jared Kelley for club's top prospect bragging rights come the end of the upcoming season. Of course, Stiever has already reached the Majors himself after making two brief starts last year, but considering his highest level before that was Class A Advanced, more development time is likely needed before he heads back to the South Side. Unfortunately, Steamer gives the Indiana product a reliever projection here, but others should expect him to continue to get long looks in a starting role.

Wild card: Yermin Mercedes is one of the most fun wild cards imaginable. There is no doubting the 27-year-old can hit. He last produced a .317/.388/.581 line with 23 homers between Double-A and Triple-A in 2019 before getting the briefest cup of coffee in one Major League at-bat last season. Steamer pegs him for a 92 wRC+ and 2.0 WAR over a full season -- strong enough numbers to put him in the MLB conversation once again. The trouble is positioning. Mercedes is a catcher by trade, but is far better suited as a DH type in a system with Abreu and Vaughn. In fact, that WAR is based on him sticking at catcher, which he isn't likely to do at the top level. Even in the Dominican Winter League this offseason, he has primarily been penciled in at DH. Mercedes might have a clearer path as Yasmani Grandal's backup backstop, but he'll need to show he can be capable defensively back there or else he'll need to turn on the offense even more to break up the 1B/DH depth chart.

Top-100 talent: Vaughn, Madrigal, Kopech and Crochet comprise the four White Sox Top-100 prospects.

Cleveland Indians

Cleveland POS PA HR SB AVG OBP SLG OPS wRC+ Fld WAR
Nolan Jones (1)3B600206.240.333.407.7409401.9
Owen Miller (20)SS/2B600117.257.309.376.6857800.7
Daniel Johnson (18)OF6001813.251.309.414.72386-0.40.4
Bobby Bradley (14)1B600323.224.295.455.75190-0.10.1
Tyler Freeman (2)SS600510.237.275.316.591520-0.7
Gabriel Arias (6)SS600126.218.256.320.576460-1.2
Cleveland IP ERA FIP WHIP HR K/9 BB/9 WAR
Triston McKenzie (3)2004.624.721.31369.23.22.1
Emmanuel Clase (21)653.563.641.26710.13.40.7
Nick Sandlin (30)654.244.3813799.84.10.3
Joey Cantillo (17)2005.305.581.60337.25.00.1
Scott Moss (26)654.735.011.43118.94.3-0.2
Sam Hentges (28)655.275.571.53127.54.5-0.6
Carlos Vargas (24)2006.756.821.86405.26.1-1.9

Most ready: Triston McKenzie was one of the most pleasant rookie surprises of the 2020 season. The 23-year-old right-hander missed all of 2019 with back issues, but was deemed ready for The Show in late August. He backed up that assessment with a 3.24 ERA, 0.90 WHIP and 42 K's over 33 1/3 innings. Steamer doesn't expect those numbers to hold up for a longer campaign in 2021, but it does believe McKenzie showed enough to earn another prominent role in the upcoming season. He ranks third among Cleveland starters in projected WAR, and the two ahead of him are reigning Cy Young winner Shane Bieber (5.7) and the well-established Aaron Civale (2.4). Expect McKenzie's injury history to be tested for a longer stretch since he also experienced a forearm strain in 2018. If he can stay out there every fifth or sixth day, he has the plus heater and plus curve to get Major League hitters as well as the projection to match.

Give it time: As the top prospect in the system, there is a natural inclination to wonder how close Nolan Jones is to the Majors, especially since he ended 2019 at Double-A. Steamer's projections are in line with what most have come to expect from the left-handed slugger. A good amount of walks, leading to a solid OBP. Some decent pop. A few too many strikeouts (a 29.5 percent K rate, in this case). It all adds up to a 94 wRC+, which is good but not quite where Jones needs to be if he's going to command playing time in Cleveland. A move to Triple-A makes the most sense to start 2021, and it should be interesting to see where he sees time on the defensive side. Jones has almost exclusively played third base in the Minors, but has started to get more and more looks in the outfield corners, where there is the greatest need at the top level.

Wild card: One of the hardest throwers in the game with his cutter, Emmanuel Clase made 21 appearances for the Rangers in 2019 before he was traded to the Indians last offseason. The right-handed reliever was suspended 80 games in May after testing positive for a performance-enhancing substance, meaning he has still yet to debut for his second club. What type of pitcher will he be when he does return? Steamer believes he'll pick right up where he left off and join James Karinchak as the two most dominant relievers in the Cleveland bullpen. Whether he's right back to averaging 99 mph with impressive movement should be something worth following this spring.

Top-100 talent: No. 92 overall Tyler Freeman's calling card is his hit tool as a career .319 hitter in the Minors, but without a game above Class A Advanced, Steamer believes he still has a ways to go before he can contribute in northeast Ohio.

Detroit Tigers

Tigers POS PA HR SB AVG OBP SLG OPS wRC+ Fld WAR
Isaac Paredes (6)3B600185.265.333.422.755981.42.3
Jake Rogers (12)C450163.208.286.375.661720.10.8
Zack Short (26)INF600147.214.303.350.6527300.5
Kody Clemens (18)2B600138.234.295.373.6687300.4
Daz Cameron (7)OF6001415.229.299.375.67476-0.9-0.4
Akil Baddoo (25)OF6001312.197.260.311.571480-2.1
Riley Greene (4)OF600147.188.234.294.528350-2.5
Tigers IP ERA FIP WHIP HR K/9 BB/9 WAR
Tarik Skubal (5)2004.504.551.33349.83.52.9
Matt Manning (3)2004.994.961.46338.03.92.0
Casey Mize (2)2005.215.151.43367.53.21.6
Alex Faedo (10)2005.555.601.43447.53.10.7
Joey Wentz (9)2005.555.691.54407.44.20.6
Paul Richan (29)2006.015.981.57425.83.60.0
Beau Burrows (16)655.315.371.47128.03.9-0.3
Franklin Perez (14)2006.606.471.76415.75.1-0.9

Most ready: If the Tigers played in another division, they likely would have been the main feature of this column. There are quite a few names to pick here. Tarik Skubal's 5.63 ERA in the Majors last season may not dazzle, but his 10.4 K/9 was a good sign. Steamer actually believes he would be the Tigers' best starter over a full 2021 season. His 2.9 WAR projection is tied with Matthew Boyd for best in the organization, but Skubal sports the advantage in ERA, FIP and K/9. On the other side, third baseman Isaac Paredes projects as Detroit's best position player, barely sneaking past 2020 breakout star Willi Castro, who is forecasted for a 2.1 WAR. That comes without Steamer factoring in Paredes' strong winter, in which he's hit .379/.480/.579 over 42 games in the Mexican Pacific League. The 21-year-old is a strong bet to improve on his Major League time in 2020 and could be an attractively sneaky option in fantasy leagues, based on recent results and projections.

Give it time: Casey Mize certainly wouldn't mind a redo of his first Major League season after finishing with a 6.99 ERA over seven starts (28 1/3 innings) in 2020. That rough opening hurt his Steamer projections, and now, the 2018 No. 1 overall pick is pegged as the fifth-best Major League starter in the system. What seems best for all parties is a first move to Triple-A -- where Mize would have debuted last season if not for the lack of a Minor League campaign -- and an opportunity to regain the form of the right-hander with one of the deepest arsenals among prospects today.

Wild card: There is no doubt Jake Rogers can catch. He is certainly in the conversation for best defensive catching prospect in the game right now. But he needs to hit if he's going to justify a roster spot, and he didn't accomplish that in 2019 with a .125/.222/.259 line over 128 plate appearances. Detroit didn't call him up at all in 2020. Now Rogers is one of only two catchers on the 40-man roster alongside Grayson Greiner, so opportunities should be more plentiful in 2021. Even without playing in 2020, Steamer still sees Rogers as the better option over Greiner (and his 70 wRC+ projection), and that should help his case with new manager and former backstop A.J. Hinch. But with Dillon Dingler now in the system, Rogers' time as the Tigers' catcher of the future could be up. He needs to be the catcher of the present.

Top-100 talent: Matt Manning would have been a Major League option in 2020 alongside Skubal and Mize, if not for a forearm strain that shut down his season at the alternate site. Perhaps because he didn't take the same MLB lumps as the other two, his Steamer projections are still indicative of a pitcher who was one of Double-A's most dominant aces two years ago. Now officially on the 40-man roster, he will get his share of looks, assuming full health in 2021. Riley Greene may have received a Steamer projection, but it isn't much of a helpful one considering he has played only 57 career Minor League games. Without any actual Minor League experience, Spencer Torkelson missed the cut.

Kansas City Royals

Royals POS PA HR SB AVG OBP SLG OPS wRC+ Fld WAR
Khalil Lee (8)OF6001327.247.328.383.7118800.5
Kelvin Gutierrez (24)3B6001211.243.304.363.66775-1.30.3
Lucius Fox (22)SS600624.234.306.329.6366900.1
Nick Heath (28)OF600840.226.300.324.624650.2-0.3
Kyle Isbel (7)OF6001414.220.267.341.608560-0.9
MJ Melendez (13)C450106.179.242.291.532370-1.0
Brewer Hicklen (18)OF6001622.219.277.350.628620-1.4
Nick Pratto (12)1B6001313.199.255.312.567460-3.1
Seuly Matias (14)OF600177.177.236.310.545390-3.2
Royals IP ERA FIP WHIP HR K/9 BB/9 WAR
Jackson Kowar (4)2005.085.101.48316.93.71.4
Daniel Lynch (3)2005.345.471.60316.04.40.6
Ronald Bolanos (17)654.714.811.4798.24.3-0.1
Carlos Hernandez (10)655.075.091.48117.84.1-0.2
Daniel Tillo (21)655.135.331.6685.44.8-0.4
Jonathan Bowlan (9)655.535.531.55115.83.7-0.5
Austin Cox (11)655.896.011.65126.14.8-0.9

Most ready: The Royals had no issues leaning on young pitchers Brady Singer and Kris Bubic in the shortened 2020 campaign, and both are likely to retain their rotation spots at the outset of 2021. So who does Steamer like to join them first? It's fellow 2018 pick (and former Singer teammate at Florida) Jackson Kowar. The Royals' No. 4 prospect is ticketed for a 1.4 WAR over a full Major League season, which places sixth among potential Kansas City starters. That's the perfect spot for Kowar to make his Triple-A debut -- he posted 13 starts at Double-A in 2019 -- and also be on call for a quick promotion if an opening arises. His plus-plus changeup and fastball with plenty of movement are near Major League-ready as it stands anyway.

Give it time: If Kowar is on the doorstep, third-ranked Daniel Lynch is a few steps behind. Even with a higher ceiling, the 24-year-old southpaw's highest level was Class A Advanced, where he made 15 starts in 2019, so it was always going to be an uphill climb in the projection department. That said, Lynch was an alt-site participant last season and still shows plenty of potential with a mid- to upper-90s fastball, plus slider and good changeup. He'll need a few more starts to show readiness at Double-A or Triple-A, but a first-half debut isn't out of the cards.

Wild card: Look to the outfield here. Khalil Lee and Nick Heath could be absolute menaces on the basepaths if given the chance to see significant Major League time. Seriously, only Adalberto Mondesi (51) is projected to steal more bases than either prospect among Royals position players. Both come with their downsides, however. Lee shows plenty of raw pop, but that hasn't translated into games yet due to a high ground-ball rate. Heath, who debuted last year, shows little power and uses his plus-plus speed as his key strength to reach base. If either becomes a more well-rounded asset offensively, they could be major problems in this division for a while to come.

Top-100 talent: Top prospects -- and the two most recent first-rounders -- Bobby Witt Jr. and Asa Lacy didn't receive Steamer projections. As a former college standout, Lacy has an outside shot at cracking the Majors in 2021 but will have plenty of other young arms to surge past in his attempt to reach the top.

Minnesota Twins

Twins POS PA HR SB AVG OBP SLG OPS wRC+ Fld WAR
Ryan Jeffers (6)C450184.263.325.448.773102-0.82.7
Trevor Larnach (3)OF600185.262.326.421.7489601.1
Alex Kirilloff (2)OF/1B600198.275.327.446.77310201.0
Travis Blankenhorn (17)UTIL600188.248.296.406.70282-0.11.0
Royce Lewis (1)SS6001315.239.291.372.6627300.8
Ben Rortvedt (26)C450103.225.292.354.6466900.8
Nick Gordon (16)INF600915.251.301.367.6687500.5
Brent Rooker (12)OF600264.240.312.441.75396-0.40.3
Gabriel Maciel (29)OF6001014.222.277.315.591560-1.0
Jose Miranda (21)INF600113.223.263.327.591530-1.2
Gilberto Celestino (14)OF6001210.211.258.314.572480-1.5
Twins IP ERA FIP WHIP HR K/9 BB/9 WAR
Cole Sands (18)2005.125.151.41377.73.31.4
Jordan Balazovic (4)2005.485.551.54377.54.50.6
Jhoan Duran (5)654.644.731.4698.14.20.1
Edwar Colina (15)654.604.771.45108.94.50.1
Bailey Ober (30)654.684.751.31128.02.70.1
Dakota Chalmers (23)2005.946.011.73357.16.0-0.3
Chris Vallimont (27)2006.096.171.66416.95.2-0.6
Blayne Enlow (10)656.376.391.74135.45.1-1.1
Josh Winder (28)2006.566.621.69455.64.7-1.4

Most ready: A catcher hasn't won a Rookie of the Year award since Buster Posey in 2010. You have to go all the way back Sandy Alomar in 1990 to find the last example in the American League. Twins backstop Ryan Jeffers has at least a fighting chance, given his Steamer projection. The 23-year-old backstop, who entered last year with only 87 at-bats at Double-A, was a solid contributor to the Twins as a 2020 debutant. He hit .273/.355/.436 with three homers in 26 games and showed off well-above framing skills behind the dish. Steamer believes he would be about a league-average hitter back in the bigs in 2021, and the defense would push him close to three wins above replacement. That well-rounded tool set -- and the potential for additional growth as he grows more accustomed to the top level -- could thrust Jeffers into award consideration, should he simply meet expectations.

Give it time: Minnesota non-tendered Eddie Rosario this offseason, and some believed this indicated the club was ready to give Alex Kirilloff the left-field job straight away. After all, Kirilloff did make his Major League debut in last year's postseason, and if the Twins were going to let him play when the stakes couldn't be higher, a prominent longer-term role couldn't be far off. Steamer pumps the brakes a bit. While Kirilloff's projections are almost identical to Jeffers', there is the added burden of being a corner outfielder, where there is a heavier offensive bar to provide value. Steamer doesn't take into account that Kirilloff has reached the Majors, even for a brief time, since it doesn't include playoff stats. This is still based on a player who hasn't been at Triple-A yet. But as his ascension last year indicates, Kirilloff showed off enough at the alternate site to be deemed Major League-ready by the fall, and it's possible, even likely, that he would have put up hitting numbers in a normal 2020 that would have sent this projection higher. Instead, we have what we have, which is Steamer saying Kirilloff would be a one-win player over a full 2021. Even if Kirilloff does win the left-field gig out of spring, he could need a little time to adjust to extensive looks at Major League pitching. Otherwise, a little more development at Triple-A could be in the cards.

Wild card: It isn't breaking news to say the Twins should be in the market for starting pitching. Jake Odorizzi and Rich Hill remain free agents, and only J.A. Happ has been brought in to solidify the rotation. But if there's a name to watch to potentially make an impact at some point in 2021, it could be No. 18 prospect Cole Sands. The 2018 fifth-rounder climbed three levels (topping out at Double-A) in his first full season, posting a 2.68 ERA with 108 strikeouts and only 19 walks in 97 1/3 innings. Steamer can be a sucker for pitchers with good control numbers, and that's the case here with Sands, whose 1.4 WAR projection puts him fifth among potential starters on the Twins roster. An impressive changeup, high-spin-rate breaking balls and a decent fastball make Sands a decent prospect, but the control will forever be his calling card. If he can hit his spots back in the upper levels, don't be surprised if he gets a few looks at the Majors in the summer.

Top-100 talent: No. 7 Royce Lewis is still coming off his down 2019 in Steamer's eyes and needs more time to show off that that season was a small blip, instead of being indicative of a bigger issue. No. 77 Trevor Larnach and No. 81 Jordan Balazovic ended 2019 at Double-A and don't quite have the projections yet of players banging down the door. (Note: Larnach's Steamer projection was that of a neutral player, not a Twins player. So his numbers might adjust slightly if he had been projected to be with Minnesota for all of 2021.)

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