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2021 Prospect Projections: NL Central rookies

Pirates' Hayes should factor into awards race in second season
Ke'Bryan Hayes' 1.6 fWAR ranked highest among National League rookie position players last season. (Ron Schwane/AP)
@SamDykstraMiLB
February 3, 2021

This is the fourth 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 fourth 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 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 among MLB.com's Top 100. The AL East, NL East and AL Central editions can be found at those corresponding links.

Last Sept. 27, Major League Baseball sent a memo to clubs addressing rookie eligibility requirements for the nearly concluded 60-game season. The main tenets of the requirements stayed in place. Players surpassed rookie status once they reached 130 at-bats, 50 innings pitched or 45 days on the active roster. But there were two changes instituted for the 2020 campaign alone. First, September counted toward the days of service standard since there was no customary roster expansion in that month. Second, Rookie of the Year winners automatically lost rookie status, even if they had not reached the appropriate levels of at-bats, innings or days.

That last part seemed most noteworthy. The possibility of a (gasp) repeat Rookie of the Year winner in 2020 and 2021 hovered over the season, at least for those following prospects and first-year players. Even before the memo was issued, that quirk seemed less and less possible as the Rookie of the Year contenders reached the appropriate benchmarks. Except for one, Pirates third baseman Ke'Bryan Hayes. And after falling short in 2020, MLB.com's No. 9 overall prospect is not only eligible to win the award in 2021; his Steamer600 projections make him an actual favorite to claim the hardware.

Pittsburgh first called the 2015 first-rounder up from the alternate site last Sept. 1. The Bucs were well on their way to a last-place finish in the National League Central (and the eventual worst record in the Majors) and wanted to give one of their top prospects one month to build his case for a long-term place in the coming rebuild. At the time, Hayes was known primarily for his glove at the hot corner with many evaluators believing it could be Gold Glove-worthy at the top level. The bat was more of a question. Even in a season in which Triple-A offense erupted, thanks in part to the use of the Major League ball, then-22-year-old Hayes produced a .265/.336/.415 with 10 homers over 110 games with Indianapolis in 2019, resulting in a below-average 92 wRC+.

The defense could mask some of the offensive concerns, especially if Hayes grew into a little more power as he continued to mature. But those concerns had grown louder the higher he climbed, and it seemed like Major League pitching would be a big test for the Texas native.

Hayes answered the bell quickly and decisively upon reaching The Show. The right-handed slugger doubled for his first hit in his Major League debut against the Cubs on Sept. 1 and tied the game, 6-6, with his first career homer in the eighth. That was one of nine multi-hit showings over Hayes' 24 games in the Majors in 2020, including a 5-for-5, three-double performance in Cleveland on Sept. 26.

The National League Rookie of the Year race once had seemed settled between Padres infielder Jake Cronenworth, Phillies third baseman Alec Bohm and Brewers reliever Devin Williams -- each of whom had been with their clubs for most of the 60-game season -- but Hayes' charge threatened to spoil matters. The Pittsburgh phenom finished with a .376/.442/.682 line, five homers, two triples and seven doubles over 24 games in the Majors. His defense lived up to the considerable hype with 4 Defensive Runs Saved over 198 1/3 innings in the field. The whole package resulted in a 1.6 fWAR that tied eventual AL Rookie of the Year winner Kyle Lewis for highest among first-year position players. Unfortunately for his own award push, that final sprint was too late for the narrative; BBWAA voters gave Williams (with his 0.33 ERA and 53 percent K rate) the NL award instead. Hayes finished sixth, receiving one second-place vote (from ESPN's Christina Kahrl) and two third-place tallies (both Pittsburgh voters).

If voters overlooked Hayes' finishing kick, Steamer600 certainly did not.

The third baseman's vast improvements at the dish have been well rewarded by the projection system. Steamer pegs Hayes to hit .281/.350/.462 with 19 homers if given 600 plate appearances in 2021. That results in a 111 wRC+, the same projected for Twins masher Miguel Sanó and one ahead of recently traded All-Star Nolan Arenado at the same position. Hayes' considerable defensive value leads to a 3.1 WAR projection, tied for 11th-highest among third basemen and higher than those given to Kris Bryant (3.0) and Yoán Moncada (2.7).

To put that back into an awards context, this level of projections should make Hayes the runaway favorite to claim the Rookie of the Year title that eluded him last year. Hayes' 3.1 WAR projection is highest among potential rookies, exactly half a win higher than Nick Madrigal and Ryan Jeffers, both of whom call the AL home. You have to go much farther down to Ha-Seong Kim and Dylan Carlson at 1.8 to find NL rookie position players with WAR projections in shouting distance of Hayes'. Instead, Marlins right-handed starter Sixto Sanchez (2.8) might be his closest competition, as explained in the NL East projections.

Beyond awards, here's what Pirates fans might want to hear most -- Hayes is expected to be Pittsburgh's best position player in 2021, and it isn't close. No one else on the club received a WAR projection higher than 1.9.

A youth movement is coming to Pittsburgh in the coming years as part of the club's rebuild. It already arrived when Hayes did in September, and it will continue during his true rookie season in 2021.

Chicago Cubs

Cubs POS PA HR SB AVG OBP SLG OPS wRC+ Fld WAR
Miguel Amaya (3)C450113.200.269.319.588540-0.3
Brennen Davis (2)OF600177.198.247.323.570470-2.9
Christopher Morel (13)3B60099.188.233.275.498280-3.5
Cubs IP ERA FIP WHIP HR K/9 BB/9 WAR
Adbert Alzolay (6)2004.854.941.43349.24.42.0
Cory Abbott (14)2005.165.271.47368.04.20.8
Keegan Thompson (30)2005.385.441.46397.13.40.5
Tyson Miller (26)2005.565.721.49406.83.80.0
Justin Steele (25)654.524.781.43108.94.4-0.1
James Norwood (27)654.654.781.46109.64.9-0.1
Brailyn Marquez (1)654.745.001.5298.65.1-0.2

Most ready: This is Adbert Alzolay in a walk. The Cubs' No. 6 prospect has made 10 appearances (six starts) over the past two Major League seasons, and 2020 was his most successful campaign yet. The right-hander sported a 2.95 ERA and a 1.17 WHIP with 29 strikeouts over 21 1/3 innings in the shortened season. So Alzolay is one of only two Cubs starters projected to be worth two or more wins over a full season in 2021. (Kyle Hendricks is the other at 2.6.) In reality, Alzolay probably will open closer to Chicago's fourth starter behind Hendricks, Zach Davies and Alec Mills, but with a plus heater and plus curve, he has the capabilities to carve out an even more prominent role in his third Major League year.

Give it time: Brailyn Marquez certainly has the most tantalizing stuff in the Cubs system, headlined by his triple-digit fastball. Chicago let the left-hander loose for one Major League appearance at the end of the regular season, hoping it could be an audition for a playoff bullpen spot, and it did not go well. Marquez faced seven batters, walked three of them, gave up two hits and was charged with five earned runs over just two-thirds of an inning. If that wasn't enough to convince anyone the 22-year-old needs more time in the Minors, let Steamer's projection be another data point for that case. Marquez is still a young pitcher who hasn't reached Triple-A or even Double-A. A full-time move to relief certainly would speed up the process, but the Cubs have dreams of making Marquez a dominant starter. That will take time.

Wild card: Jon Lester and José Quintana departed in free agency, and Davies and Trevor Williams have slid in to their places for now. But the Cubs should have ample starting opportunities for homegrown pitchers in a 162-game season, and Cory Abbott should be in place to earn some of those looks. The 2017 second-rounder has yet to stumble in pro ball and last posted a 3.01 ERA with 166 strikeouts over 146 2/3 innings at Double-A in 2019. The right-hander's strengths lie in his breaking pitches, so his low-90s velocity won't likely overpower Major League bats. But his history of success in the Minors points to a pitcher who could be a serviceable fifth option in the rotation pretty quickly. Seeing this, the Cubs added Abbott to the 40-man in November to protect him from the Rule 5 Draft.

Top-100 talent: Neither No. 61 Brennen Davis nor No. 89 Miguel Amaya have played above Class A Advanced yet, hurting their projections. Amaya is entering his second season on the 40-man roster, meaning a 2021 debut might be a little more likely for him. The 21-year-old backstop derives most of his value from his defensive play that wouldn't yet show up in Steamer projections -- something to keep in mind when diving into the numbers.

Cincinnati Reds

Reds POS PA HR SB AVG OBP SLG OPS wRC+ Fld WAR
Tyler Stephenson (4)C450142.239.313.395.708830.41.3
Jonathan India (5)3B6001810.228.306.385.6907700.4
Jose Garcia (6)SS6001210.240.283.363.64664-0.4-0.2
TJ Friedl (19)OF6001416.235.310.368.679760-0.7
Alfredo Rodriguez (18)SS600511.224.270.300.570460-1.6
Mariel Bautista (23)OF6001212.191.236.288.524320-4.0
Reds IP ERA FIP WHIP HR K/9 BB/9 WAR
Vladimir Gutierrez (16)2005.575.571.48417.53.50.6
Ryan Hendrix (21)654.624.711.47109.64.70.1
Tony Santillan (10)2005.95.981.57437.24.2-0.1
Joel Kuhnel (22)654.985.021.45118.43.8-0.1
Riley O'Brien (15)655.675.741.59127.74.8-0.6
Hunter Greene (2)2006.616.591.77436.75.7-1.2
Jared Solomon (27)2006.856.851.84436.06.1-1.7

Most ready: Tyler Stephenson is more than the guy who homered in his first Major League at-bat last year. The No. 95 overall prospect is a legit catching candidate who looks solid at the plate and even better behind it. He went 5-for-17 with two homers in limited Major League time last summer, and Steamer makes a strong case that he should play a more prominent role for Cincy this time around. His 83 wRC+ is about average for a catcher, and his 1.3 WAR projection would make him the fourth-most valuable member of the Reds, ahead of even established stars such as Joey Votto (1.1) and Nick Castellanos (0.4). Stephenson will battle 30-year-old Tucker Barnhart for playing time initially, but the job should be his to win as the summer rolls along.

Give it time: Jose Garcia popped up from Class A Advanced (and a star Arizona Fall League turn) in 2019 to debut in 2020, only to struggle offensively. The shortstop struck out in 38.2 percent of his 68 plate appearances and didn't manage a single extra-base hit. He certainly could have used more Minor League runaway to prepare for The Show, and Steamer's subpar projections confirm that should be the course of action again in 2021. One thing to note, however. Garcia draws significant praise for his defensive work at short, and he would likely get more credit for it over a full season than Steamer gives him here. The bat will be the focus when he returns to the Minors and works to win over a shortstop job that should be open for competition throughout 2021.

Wild card: The reports coming out of the Reds' alternate site were promising for 2018 fifth overall pick Jonathan India. He reportedly looked more like he did at the University of Florida, driving the ball all over the yard, than in 2019 -- when he hit only 11 homers and produced a .767 OPS between Class A Advanced and Double-A. Of course, Steamer doesn't know that. The projection system can only work with what India has done in actual game action. The Reds know that, however. India is blocked by Eugenio Suárez at the hot corner and Mike Moustakas at second, so playing time could be difficult to come by early. But if either is injured or moved in a trade at some point, don't be surprised if India ascends for his Major League debut and beats Steamer's projections.

Top-100 talent: Recent Draft picks Austin Hendrick and Nick Lodolo did not receive Steamer projections. No. 71 Hunter Greene will be returning to the Minors for the first time since 2018, following Tommy John surgery, and his Steamer projection reflects a pitcher with limited Minor League experience and a long layoff.

Milwaukee Brewers

Brewers POS PA HR SB AVG OBP SLG OPS wRC+ Fld WAR
Lucas Erceg (28)3B600185.212.272.359.631620-0.8
Tyrone Taylor (21)OF600197.230.282.390.67272-1.7-0.9
Mario Feliciano (4)C450123.192.241.314.555420-1.0
Payton Henry (15)C450113.185.238.298.536380-1.3
Corey Ray (10)OF6001613.195.261.332.593530-1.5
Tristen Lutz (5)OF600165.197.255.324.580490-1.8
Brice Turang (2)SS600612.199.267.271.539420-1.9
Brewers IP ERA FIP WHIP HR K/9 BB/9 WAR
Clayton Andrews (27)654.524.841.42109.34.5-0.1
Dylan File (25)654.945.101.36127.12.7-0.3
Zack Brown (14)655.055.221.52106.84.1-0.4
Alec Bettinger (24)655.065.241.39137.73.2-0.4
Aaron Ashby (6)655.585.921.68116.55.5-0.8

Most ready: Sometimes you have to shoot it straight. There isn't a prospect in this group we could deem ready based on the projections. Clayton Andrews has a bit of a case or at least the closest of anyone. Having fanned 131 batters in 92 1/3 innings in the Minors, Andrews gets pegged for a 9.3 K/9 that would play at the top level. The 24-year-old left-hander has a plus changeup and above-average curve to thank for that. The rest of the profile is considerably less strong, however, and since Andrews typically sits in the upper-80s with his velocity, that projection might not be far off either. His best value may be as a Michael Lorenzen-type considering his profile as a two-way outfielder, and that could help him beat the WAR projection at least.

Give it time: Milwaukee has high hopes for Mario Feliciano, and those were possibly kicked to a new level following his showing at the alternate site, where he displayed even more pop than at his earlier stops in the system. The 22-year-old backstop was an easy addition to the 40-man roster, even with only three Double-A games on his player page, and his power and arm -- both above-average tools -- give him the skills necessary to take over behind the plate for the Brewers some day. It just won't be at the outset of 2021. The position isn't a strength for the club, however, so a second-half debut should well be in the cards if Feliciano can keep the power show going at the top levels of the system.

Wild card: Tyrone Taylor made cameo appearances in the Majors in 2019 and 2020 and has yet to truly disappoint with the big club. The 27-year-old outfielder sports a .271/.340/.521 slash line with two homers across 53 plate appearances. That flatters his skill set in a small sample. Taylor's best skills are his above-average speed and ability to cover ground at all three outfield spots. He might be an average hitter at best with below-average power from the right side. (For example, Taylor had a 90 wRC+ over 90 games at Triple-A in 2019.) A utility outfielder if there ever was one, in other words. If he can show a little more with the bat, he could stick the whole season on the Milwaukee bench, spelling Christian Yelich, Lorenzo Cain and Avisaíl García when needed.

Top-100 talent: After what he exhibited at the alt site, No. 96 Brice Turang may have started 2021 even higher in the rankings had he been able to show four above-average skills in the Minors instead of behind closed doors. Instead, his most recent Minor League experience was at Class A Advanced, and considering he will be 21 for the entire upcoming campaign, Steamer still believes he'll have to do a lot more than keep up his 2020 momentum to get a Major League bow any time soon. No. 65 Garrett Mitchell has yet to play in the Minors and didn't receive a projection.

Pittsburgh Pirates

Pirates POS PA HR SB AVG OBP SLG OPS wRC+ Fld WAR
Ke'Bryan Hayes (1)3B600199.281.350.462.8121110.93.1
Oneil Cruz (3)SS6001311.245.301.381.6827800.8
Jared Oliva (12)OF6001124.253.313.377.69082-0.8-0.1
Travis Swaggerty (7)OF6001312.211.273.322.595570-1.2
Cal Mitchell (17)OF600154.210.261.332.594530-2.4
Pirates IP ERA FIP WHIP HR K/9 BB/9 WAR
Wil Crowe (21)2005.595.621.56366.54.10.1
Miguel Yajure (14)654.995.021.47106.83.5-0.2
Max Kranick (29)2006.246.271.66415.34.3-1.1
Luis Oviedo (27)656.226.361.83116.46.5-1.2
Jose Soriano (28)656.316.531.96107.28.2-1.3
Roansy Contreras (19)2006.506.551.75415.35.2-1.6

Most ready: Hayes is the runaway leader here.

Give it time: This is true of, well, the entire system. Hayes is the only ranked prospect projected to be worth more than one win over a full Major League season, and he is one of only three Steamer believes would be above replacement-level at all. There are some high-ceiling prospects here who don't appear in the table because of their distance to the Majors. Quinn Priester (No. 52) just popped into the Top 100 for the first time before he's thrown a pitch above Class A Short Season. Last year's top pick Nick Gonzales (No. 43) will make for a solid top prospect once Hayes graduates. Liover Peguero and Hudson Head could reach that status once they establish themselves at full-season levels for the first time. All of this illustrates that the core of the Bucs system is too far behind to demand that the group's best join Hayes in Pittsburgh soon. This is going to be a long-term rebuild.

Wild card: It isn't hard to envision a point this summer when two-fifths of the Pirates rotation is made up of starting pitchers acquired as prospects this offseason. Steamer likes former Nationals right-hander Wil Crowe the most of the bunch right now, even if his 0.1 WAR projection doesn't instill a ton of confidence. Crowe spoke on the Minor League Baseball podcast last month about changes the Bucs have identified that he hopes will make his 11 earned runs in 8 1/3 innings last season a distant memory. Meanwhile, Miguel Yajure should figure into the rotation plans at some point as well following his move from the Yankees for Jameson Taillon. The 22-year-old right-hander made three appearances out of the New York bullpen in 2020, resulting in a reliever projection here, but he has a deep enough arsenal to stick as a back-end starter. Establishing either hurler in the starting five for the long term would be huge for the Pirates' future plans.

Top-100 talent: No. 64 Oneil Cruz is the only other Pirates' Top-100 prospect to receive a meaningful projection. Steamer believes he could be of some service to the Major League club with a near-one-win projection, but the 78 wRC+ is far from what Pittsburgh should hope for from a 6-foot-7, left-handed slugger with plus power potential. The other question comes on defense. It's been long understood that Cruz eventually will move off short given his size, though his plus-plus arm is of good use there. If he moves to a corner outfield spot, the pressure on the bat to provide value will be heightened, and a 78 wRC+ would mean a lower WAR in the Majors. (Of note: Cruz was involved in a deadly car accident in the Dominican Republic this winter but has not been charged. He played in the Dominican Winter League following the incident.)

St. Louis Cardinals

Cardinals POS PA HR SB AVG OBP SLG OPS wRC+ Fld WAR
Dylan Carlson (1)OF6002013.250.320.425.745967.91.8
Julio E. Rodriguez (15)C450113.232.277.364.6416800.5
Evan Mendoza (28)3B600116.244.295.354.6497200.0
Justin Williams (17)OF600206.245.305.403.708860-0.2
Edmundo Sosa (20)INF600136.243.286.365.65071-0.6-0.3
Ivan Herrera (4)C45094.206.262.307.569510-0.5
Juan Yepez (22)UTIL600157.236.289.373.662740-0.8
Nolan Gorman (2)3B600185.200.252.336.588540-1.5
Luken Baker (21)1B600144.208.268.325.594570-2.6
Cardinals IP ERA FIP WHIP HR K/9 BB/9 WAR
Angel Rondon (13)2005.555.741.53386.74.1-0.1
Roel Ramirez (25)655.015.251.49117.54.2-0.1
Junior Fernandez (10)654.694.931.5198.24.8-0.2
Seth Elledge (24)654.764.971.49108.44.6-0.2
Kodi Whitley (14)654.985.171.47117.64.0-0.3
Johan Oviedo (11)655.565.721.63117.25.2-0.7
Matthew Liberatore (3)655.836.151.76105.75.9-1.0
Griffin Roberts (29)656.526.641.80124.65.4-1.4
Alvaro Seijas (30)2006.606.761.80404.95.6-2.0

Most ready: Carlson's a pretty easy call. The No. 13 overall prospect sits only 20 at-bats away from graduation and could have achieved that status in 2020 if not for a midseason demotion to the alternate site. The switch-hitting outfielder was much better upon his return (batting .278 with a .936 OPS over his final 12 games), and for that reason (along with his tool set and previous Minor League successes), he is much better than the .200/.252/.364 overall slash line that drove down his projection. At least Steamer sees value in Carlson's defense on the grass after he was worth 4 Defensive Runs Saved across all three positions. He'll likely open as the club's starting left fielder, and with his overall offensive potential, he should be a good bet to beat this projection and be an NL Rookie of the Year contender alongside Hayes.

Give it time: There is some real momentum behind Ivan Herrera these days. The 20-year-old catcher was added to the 40-man roster in November, and he put on a defensive show in the Mexican Pacific League this winter, throwing out 11 of 21 attempted basestealers. Even with Yadier Molina expected back in St. Louis and Andrew Knizner also around as a catching option, there could be questions about where Herrera might fit into short-term plans. Let Steamer apply some brakes here. Herrera may have a solid career .309/.397/.431 line in the Minors with lots of solid contact to match, but he has played only 18 games above the Class A level. Even with a 40-man spot, he needs lots of more reps as a team's No. 1 catcher, and that will come in the upper Minors in 2021.

Wild card: Right-hander Kodi Whitley should be right in the thick of the Major League bullpen discussion this spring after he whiffed five of the 17 batters he faced in The Show last season. Even with some good Minor League success before that, Steamer still isn't buying that Whitley can fight his way back to the Majors right away with a below-replacement-level projection. A deeper dive into the numbers proves the system might not be wrong. Whitley's 1.93 ERA in his brief Major League time looks much better than his 6.93 xERA (per Statcast) based on the quality of his contact allowed. In fairness, Whitley's velocity was down a touch to an average of 93.7 mph, and if he can hike that up a little over a more normal 2021, the results could follow.

Top-100 talent: No. 37 Matthew Liberatore and No. 38 Nolan Gorman make for a fun prospect pair given their friendship dating back to their younger days in Arizona. That partnership will likely continue in the Minors in 2021. Even after putting up good showings at the alternate site last year, neither is banging down the door just yet, as Steamer can attest. Gorman especially faces a new road block with fellow third baseman Nolan Arenado joining the organization.

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