Keeping Up with the AL Central’s Prospectson September 21, 2020 at 7:01 pm

Keeping Up with the AL Central’s Prospects

Without a true minor league season on which to fixate, I’ve been spending most of my time watching and evaluating young big leaguers who, because of the truncated season, will still be eligible for prospect lists at the end of the year. From a workflow standpoint, it makes sense for me to prioritize and complete my evaluations of these prospects before my time is divided between theoretical fall instructional ball on the pro side and college fall practices and scrimmages, which will have outsized importance this year due to the lack of both meaningful 2020 college stats and summer wood bat league looks because of COVID-19.

I started with the National League East, then completed my look at the American League West. Below is my assessment of the AL Central, covering players who have appeared in big league games. The results of the changes made to player rankings and evaluations can be found over on The Board, though I try to provide more specific links throughout this post in case readers only care about one team.

Chicago White Sox

Jonathan Stiever‘s promotion was instructive because we got to see his velocity coming off of the forearm soreness that ended his spring. He sat 91-94, which is a little below his peak 2019 breakout when he would touch 6’s and 7’s. His changeup looked good, though, and it was a stabilizing force during a jittery first start. He’ll need to locate his slider more consistently for it to be effective, and the same goes for his heater if it’s going to live around 93. Stiever also incorporated his secondary stuff more often in his second outing — that’s probably the long-term strategy if this is where his fastball velocity is going to live.

You’re probably aware that Garrett Crochet made his major league debut over the weekend, becoming the first 2020 draftee to reach the majors and the first since Mike Leake to skip the minors entirely. He made just one pre-draft start this spring sandwiched between a February injury and March’s shutdown, so he was barely seen by teams this year, if at all, which is why some clubs were hesitant to draft him early in the first round. I’ve updated The Board to include his pitch data now that I have it, but neither his Future Value nor ranking has changed yet (45 FV is a late-inning reliever). He currently has the hardest fastball in baseball, and Crochet joins Zack Burdi and Codi Heuer as White Sox rookie relievers who have among the top 20 fastest heaters in the game. He’s yet another weapon in a bullpen that I consider dangerous enough to carry the Pale Hose deep into October.

There’s been no change to Nick Madrigal‘s evaluation. He’s tracking like a David Fletcher sort, which I think is an above-average player even without power production. I’m tempted to move Dane Dunning into the Top 100 on the strength of his first few starts but most of them have come against Kansas City and Pittsburgh, so I’m going to wait. He’s pitching with below-average velocity but plus command, which has enabled his slider to dominate.

Cleveland Indians

As Tony Wolfe outlined in greater detail, James Karinchak has been as advertised, which is to say he was an elite reliever immediately. Because of the timing of our season, Karinchak can’t exhaust his rookie eligibility this year because a) it’s impossible for a reliever to throw the 50 innings required to exceed it in just two months and b) he couldn’t accrue the 45 pre-September roster days needed to graduate in a season that started in late-July. That means Karinchak could be among the top Rookie of the Year vote getters both this year and next. He’s done it despite his fastball velocity falling a little bit.

Speaking of diminished velocity, Triston McKenzie‘s average fastball velocity has fallen in each of his subsequent starts. It’s something to watch and might be a short-term problem in the playoffs, but in my opinion, it’s not a reason to alter his projection at this time.

Cam Hill has also lost some velocity and is now living in the 91-94 range rather than last year’s 93-96. I still have him evaluated as an up/down reliever, though if his velocity bounces back and he continues throwing strikes at the rate he has thus far, perhaps he grabs hold of a more consistent role. That may also depend on whether hitters can consistently differentiate his fastball from his breaking balls out of the hand, which, based on his release variability, seems possible.

Detroit Tigers

In the Tigers pre-season prospect list, I mentioned that last year Tarik Skubal was attacking minor league hitters with fastballs at a rate much higher than is typical for a starting pitcher and that, for him to fully actualize, he’d need to more liberally incorporate his secondary stuff. Across six terse starts averaging under four innings per outing, Skubal has indeed curbed his fastball usage down to 60%, that compared to his 70% rate in the minors last year according to my sources. That 60% is still among the highest rates for a starter; since 2018, only 10 qualified starters have used their heater 60% or more of the time. Skubal currently has the fourth-hardest lefty starter fastball in baseball (Blake Snell, Yusei Kikuchi, and Jesus Luzardo are ahead of him) so he should throw it a lot, and his changeup seems to be coming to the fore among the secondaries. He remains among the higher 50 FVs. His ceiling is higher than that, but Skubal has to refine his secondaries and command to get there, and it appears that will take some time.

Casey Mize hasn’t been dominant, and it is important for him to locate more precisely than he has if his stuff, especially his sinking/tailing fastball (which has less margin for error in the zone than heaters with vertical movement), is going to play like we collectively hope. But it’s not as though he’s had bouts of game wildness like Skubal has; Mize has just been a little loose with location and had some bad HR/fly ball luck. He’s still generating either an average or slightly above-average whiff rate on all his pitches except his two-seamer. Perhaps more importantly, he’s remained healthy while many of the other top pitching prospects in baseball have not.

That includes Matt Manning, who ranked ahead of Mize on the Tigers pre-season list because the latter had multiple injury issues in the years leading up to this one while Manning had been totally healthy. That changed this year when Manning was shut down with forearm soreness. Unlike some of the other pitchers I’ve slid due to chronic or severe injury, this is Manning’s first bump and it isn’t a shoulder, so he’s just sliding within the 60 FV tier rather than moving down into another one. The same goes for Alex Lange, who has also been shut down and swapped spots on the Tigers list with Zack Hess.

Also sliding in this org is Daz Cameron, who, even at age 23, doesn’t appear to have developed big league physicality. He’s even being torched by mediocre fastballs in the middle of the zone in a way I find very disconcerting, so he’s sliding all the way down from the 45 FV tier (a good platoon outfielder or second division regular) to the 35+ FV tier. I’m now hoping he turns into a Guillermo Heredia-type of extra outfielder.

Kansas City Royals

Brady Singer graduates as a 45+ FV rather than a 50 FV in the top 100, even though his last several starts were excellent, because he has yet to develop a third pitch. I guess you could argue that it’s very encouraging he was able to carve up Cleveland and Detroit with just two pitches and that he seems to have found a way to increase the carry on his fastball, but I still have Kris Bubic, who has three big league quality pitches, a little ahead of Singer long-term. That said, they’re both excellent and clear long-term rotation stalwarts in Kansas City.

Minnesota Twins

Ryan Jeffers has now been up in the big leagues for about a month. He’s framing pitches well and hitting for enough power to offset his strikeouts and provide offensive value, especially for a catcher. He has moved into the top 100. His defensive skills might be less important in a couple of years when electronic strike zones are put in place, which could mean catching on one knee becomes a thing of the past so catchers can be more mobile.

Reliever Jorge Alcala has added a changeup and increased his slider usage. He hasn’t thrown the change often but it’s been effective when he has, and I’ve moved him and Cody Stashak up within the 40 FV tier ahead of role players who appear like they’re going to take a couple years to develop.

Other Odds and Ends
Several of the Players to Be Named Later from the trade deadline period have been named and a few other deals have been struck. The Pirates have been at the center of several of those. First, they sent upper-level reliever Joel Cesar to the Phillies (Hi- and Double-A in 2019) to complete the Austin Davis trade. Cesar, who is not part of the Pirates player pool, sat 93-97 and touched 98 with his fastball last year. It is of the sinking/tailing variety. He has an average, slurvy breaking ball that often finishes too high in the zone. Cesar is upper-level relief depth, the sort who appears on the honorable mention section of the prospect lists.

The Pirates also sent left-hander Domingo Robles to the St. Louis Cardinals, and right-hander Connor Loeprich to the Baltimore Orioles in a separate deal for international pool space. Robles is a lower-slotted sinkerballing lefty who used to throw pretty hard for his age, but he was 88-93 in 2019. Loeprich is the opposite. He sat 89-92 last year but with an abnormally high spin rate (2,450) for a fastball that slow. It has almost pure backspin, giving it carry in the strike zone. He generated a 13% swinging strike rate on that fastball in 2019 despite it having below-average velocity. He’s an interesting sleeper.

The Orioles also acquired several very young PTBNL from their deadline deals, some of whom have already been added to their player pool. 17-year-old infield prospect Victor Gonzalez comes over from the Mets as the player to be named later in the trade that sent Miguel Castro to New York. Physically-projectable outfielder Mishael Deson was acquired from the Rockies to complete the trade for Mychal Givens, and shortstop Isaac De Leon was acquired from the Marlins as the player to be named later from the trade for left-hander Richard Bleier. I have very little on this group right now, but it is interesting that Baltimore is putting an emphasis on acquiring such young players.

Boston acquired right-hander Jacob Wallace (40 FV) from Colorado to complete the Kevin Pillar trade. He has been moved to the Red Sox page on The Board.

The Mets completed the trade that brought Ariel Jurado over from the Rangers by sending upper-level sidearm reliever Steve Villines to Texas. He sat 83-86 last year and I consider him a “look” relief prospect, as in he has a chance to outperform expectations by way of deception and mechanical funk.

Rangers relief prospect Ricky Vanasco needs Tommy John surgery and has slid down from the 40+ FV tier to the 40 FV tier, a harsh drop since the timing of the surgery means he’ll likely miss all of next year, too.

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