Let’s take a division by division tour around the league and highlight prospects that are expected to play big roles for the major league club.
Prospects to Watch: The Cubs have added some nice pieces to their system in 2018 with a strong draft that netted them Nico Hoerner, Brennen Davis and Cole Roederer, but I don’t expect any of them to see the big leagues this year, even Hoerner. I am intrigued by 2B Trent Giambrone. Giambrone flashed 50 power in the AFL, and has the ability to play all over the diamond. For 2019 he is an insurance policy for David Bote, and if Bote’s contact issues continue to be an issue you could see Giambrone fill that bench role. Jason Pennini ranked Giambrone 22nd on his Cubs top 30.
On the pitching side, it’s hard not to look at the upside of Dillon Maples and get excited. Maples was the rare 14th rounder that got a seven-digit signing bonus ($2.5 million). He averaged 97 mph on the fastball in his big league debut last year and he pairs it with a nasty slider. Problem is, he can’t consistently throw strikes. There are some questions in that Cubs bullpen though and Maples could steal a spot. Maples was the 26th ranked prospect on the top 30.
Others of note:
Duane Underwood Jr.
Position Battle I’m Watching: Albert Almora and Ian Happ are in a battle for the centerfield job, and I’ve always been intrigued by Happ. He’s got some thump and can run, and has combined for 39 homers and 16 steals over the last two seasons while striking out over 30 percent of the time. That’s obviously the problem, and more consistent contact is required here. His 63.5 Contact% was the lowest of anyone that received 400 plate appearances besides Joey Gallo. He’s not half the defender that Albert Almora is, but he’s got significantly more offensive potential.
Prospects to Watch: To be honest the Reds don’t have many Major League ready guys that are likely to contribute this year except for Nick Senzel. The Reds have a crowded infield and are giving Senzel run in centerfield this spring and the early returns have been good for the Reds top prospect. Unfortunately the outfield itself is also becoming quite crowded with Yasiel Puig, Jesse Winker, Matt Kemp and Scott Schebler all vying for playing time as well. Schebler has been having a strong spring and appears to have the advantage in centerfield thus far.
Senzel will likely start the season in Louisville to get more acclimated to center and come up for good a few weeks into the season. When he gets the call he brings a plus hit tool and above-average pop to the table, and will be an extremely versatile asset that can hit anywhere in the lineup and play anywhere on the diamond. He’s a six-win player at peak, the type you build franchises around. If it wasn’t for his myriad injuries, we would have already seen Senzel in the majors.
There are a few interesting young arms in the organization that could take steps forward in 2019, but unfortunately guys like Amir Garrett and Tyler Mahle are no longer prospect eligible. One guy that is and could carve out a late inning role in the Reds bullpen is right-hander Jimmy Herget. The six-foot-three righty throws mostly side-arm, and comes at you from a multitude of different arm angles. The fastball sits around 93, peaks at 96, and he compliments it with a wipe-out slider. He’s a tough at-bat for any right-handed hitter, and does have a change that can get lefties too. He’s a long shot to get save opportunities, but the Reds didn’t do much to upgrade the bullpen so he could sneak in the mix.
Others of note:
Position Battle I’m Watching: The outfield situation is certainly one to watch here. There’s an open competition for the center field and left field jobs as only Yasiel Puig is etched in stone in right for the Reds. Newly acquired Matt Kemp is battling with Jesse Winker and Scott Schebler for playing time in center, and the latter two are joined by Prospects Live’s number nine prospect Nick Senzel. Obviously the prospect hound in me is rooting for Winker in left and Senzel in center, but it’s looking like Scott Schebler is the favorite for the centerfield job after a strong spring.
Either way, Winker and Senzel are the two to roster here. I already talked about Senzel above, but Jesse Winker is a former top prospect himself. He’s known for his elite plate skills and walked more than he struck out in 2018 before a shoulder injury ended his season. He’s showing more power than he has in his minor league career though, and his exit velo numbers would’ve placed him in the top 50 in baseball had he qualified. His career big league OBP is .397 in 471 career plate appearances. Emerging power and elite on-base skills here.
Prospects to Watch: The Brewers have a strong lineup and the addition of Mike Moustakas to play second base took the air right out of my Keston Hiura balloon. We will have to wait a few months longer for the 2018 Arizona Fall League MVP to make his Brewers debut, but the prospect I think can have the most impact on the offensive side of the ball for 2019 is middle-infield prospect Mauricio Dubon. Dubon was flashing some power that we have’t seen from him before he tore his ACL early in 2018. Playing in Colorado Springs helped, but the added leg kick made him look like a different hitter. He might have had a shot to compete for the shortstop job with Orlando Arcia last season. This year, he reported to camp healthy and with no restrictions but then came down with an intestinal illness that sidelined him for a two weeks and forced him to get sent down. He’s an above-average runner with strong instincts and is a threat for 20 steals a season. He’s a positive defender and his ability to play short should get him to Milwaukee ahead of Hiura. Dubon was the number five prospect on the Prospects Live Brewers Top 30.
It’s unfortunate that Corbin Burnes, Brandon Woodruff and Freddy Peralta don’t count as prospects anymore and don’t qualify for this list because those three would all be the names for this section. Oh well, more on them later. The one prospect eligible arm I do want to talk about is righty Zack Brown. The former SEC arm has a strong three-pitch mix that misses bats and gets ground balls. His curveball has become his best pitch and has improved since his Kentucky days. His two-seamer gets grounders and he also throws a change. Brown will likely get introduced to the big leagues through the bullpen, like the parade of arms before him.
Others of note:
Troy Stokes Jr.
Position Battle I’m Watching: The competition for the Brewers rotation is a battle between a trio of talented arms in RHPs Brandon Woodruff, Corbin Burnes and Freddy Peralta for essentially one rotation spot after Jimmy Nelson returns from the Injured List. Burnes and Woodruff have the advantage over Peralta for me for a few different reasons. Peralta relies so much on his fastball (which was only around 90 mph as a starter) and it plays up due to some deception in his delivery. Limiting looks on guys like this is always a good thing. Peralta also has the shakiest command of these three and lacks an out pitch, specifically against lefties. I think his future role is that of a multi-inning reliever. Woodruff and Burnes both have the stuff to start in my opinion. They both miss bats and get ground balls. If both were eligible for my Brewers Top 30, I would have ranked Burnes second and Woodruff fourth. Woodruff has pitched better this spring, and Burnes stuff plays up out of the pen so I think it’s Woodruff by a nose right now. They’ll need two starters out of the gate though, so we will get a much clearer look in a few weeks. Both are worth drafting now.
Prospects to Watch: The Pirates have announced that Erik Gonzalez has won the starting shortstop job over prospect Kevin Newman. I’m uninspired and was hoping the post-Jordy Mercer era wouldn’t leave fans wishing for Jordy Mercer to walk through that door, but Gonzalez’s career .263/.292/.389 slash line with five home runs and four stolen bases in 275 plate appearances isn’t terribly inspiring. I don’t think it matters too much who the Pirates starting shortstop is on Opening Day because they are just keeping the seat warm for Cole Tucker. Tucker is ranked 93rd on our Prospects Live top 100 list, and that’s mostly because of the elite defensive skills. The Pirates take run prevention to the extreme, and prefer athletic defenders over offensive first prospects that other organizations covet. Tucker has elite range and a double-plus arm. His makeup is off the charts and people I trust were very complimentary of how he handled himself in Arizona. Offensively he should have an average hit tool with above average on-base percentages. He’s an above-average runner and could steal 20 bags due to his strong instincts and overall feel for the game.
Jordan Lyles is the fifth starter for the Pirates, but he’s just keeping the seat warm for Mitch Keller. The prospect shine of the last few seasons has worn off of Keller a bit, but he still has the big fastball and the minor league workload to come in and log significant innings for the Pirates in 2019. The curveball is an above-average pitch, but the changeup is a work in progress and may leave him a bit vulnerable against lefties if that pitch doesn’t improve. His delivery isn’t as athletic as guys like Walker Buehler and Jack Flaherty that have come up in recent years, but comparing Keller to those two is unfair. Keller is more of a solid mid-rotation arm, but he will be ready to go after about a month in Triple-A Indianapolis.
Others of note:
Position Battle I’m Watching: I already touched on the shortstop battle this spring, but the most intriguing infield battle is at the hot corner between Colin Moran and Jung Ho Kang. It appears Kang has won the job based on his power upside, but neither one is the long term guy with Ke’Bryan Hayes coming full throttle in the rear view. Kang is a nice fantasy sleeper though due to the power upside, and owns a career .274/.355/.482 line. Last year was a lost season for him as he was getting reacclimatized to pro ball after off the field issues that led to visa issues didn’t allow him to play stateside. His draft cost is about to spike after he was announced as the starting third baseman, but it’s still cheap.
ST. LOUIS CARDINALS
Prospects to Watch: On the hitting side the prospect I’m watching is Lane Thomas. Thomas is a strong defender in the outfield who runs better than expected, and has some power. Does that sound like anyone the Cardinals may have right now? He’s similar to Harrison Bader, but he gives up a little bit on the defensive side and has more power. He might be a stronger hitter also. It’s a crowded outfield in St. Louis with Marcell Ozuna locked into left, Bader in center, and Dexter Fowler, Tyler O’Neill, and Jose Martinez batting for some of those at bats in right. Tyler O’Neill will also get some looks in center. There’s significant depth ahead of him, but Thomas is already on the 40-man roster and will begin the 2019 season in Memphis. Don’t sleep on him.
I think if you put anyone other than the Prospects Live number 16 overall prospect in this spot you’re getting too cute. Alex Reyes is definitely the guy to watch here. He’s likely to start the 2019 season in the bullpen after recovery from a lat injury ate into the beginning of spring training. Hard to blame the Cardinals for wanting to get some major league returns on this kid as he builds up innings before inserting him into the rotation at some point in 2019. Reyes’ recovery from Tommy John transformed his body and he came away from that in the best physical condition he’s ever been. His absolutely disgusting tour through the minor leagues on his way back to St. Louis might have been the highlight of the Cardinals season as he struck out 44 hitters in 23 innings while not allowing a run. Adam Wainwright and fellow prospect arm Dakota Hudson make up the backend of the Cardinals rotation and neither one will prevent Reyes from sliding into the rotation when he gets fully stretched out. Until then he will start out working one inning at a time out of the Cardinals pen and gradually start working multiple innings. You can still roster this player in fantasy formats.
Others of note:
Daniel Ponce de Leon
Position Battle I’m Watching: The battle to watch is the right field job in St. Louis. Fowler had a lost season in 2018, and he was the clear favorite for a majority of the at bats at the beginning of spring, and I’d say that’s still the case right now. If the foot is healthy he will have a more productive season in 2019, but is that enough to fend off the upside of Tyler O’Neill and the bat that Jose Martinez brings to the table? I’m not sure that it is. I’m very intrigued with what I’ve seen from Tyler O’Neill this spring. He’s hit five homers which jumps out at you but other than that the numbers aren’t great. He’s walked more than he has on a per plate appearance basis this spring than he did at the big league level last year, so hopefully that is something that sticks. The Cardinals hired a new hitting coach, Jeff Albert, from the Astros, and he brings a new philosophy to the table. It’s geared more towards making contact and taking what is given to you, and O’Neill has shown significant power to the opposite field this spring which is a very encouraging development.