Keeping Up With the NL Central’s ProspectsEric Longenhagenon October 19, 2020 at 1:00 pm

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, which has just gotten underway, 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, AL East, and Central. Below is my assessment of the , 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 Cubs

The Cubs didn’t have much prospect action in the big leagues until late in the year, when Adbert Alzolay returned from the alternate site with a new slider and Brailyn Marquez made his big league debut. I’m leaving a relief projection on Marquez, so he’ll be toward the back of the Top 100 this offseason. Big league starters are very often more athletic and have better touch and feel than Marquez does, and they’re not usually as full-framed at age 21 as he is. The Cubs are among the worst franchises at updating their players’ public measurables and have him listed at a laughable 6-foot-4, 185 pounds.

Alzolay’s two late-September starts — with a new slider in tow — went very well. This is the fourth time in three years that Alzolay has displayed a seismic shift in pitch usage. A fastball/curveball guy in the minors, he threw many more changeups than I anticipated during his 2019 debut stint, then went back to the curveball to start 2020 before adding the slider late this year. Amid those changes, Alzolay’s general profile has remained the same: He has a big arm and can spin a swing-and-miss breaking ball, but may not have the command to start.

Cincinnati Reds

Just one change here (I’m still big on Jose Garcia and am leaving him in the Top 100, despite his struggles) as Tejay Antone moves into the 40+ FV tier as a valuable multi-inning relief piece.

Milwaukee Brewers

Lately, the quest for better placement of pitchers on the Future Value continuum has included a re-examination of relievers, especially those I’d perhaps previously undervalued because of their age and/or injury histories. Remember that Future Value maps the 20-80 scale to WAR production during pre-free agency years, and a relative lack of innings means relievers are penalized by this methodology. But the Nick Anderson and Pete Fairbanks trades saw the Rays ship players who were Top 100 prospects at the time away in exchange for one relief pitcher who was nearly 30 years old and another who was well into his mid-20s and had already had two Tommy Johns. The Rangers/Brewers Alex Claudio deal illustrated how a competitive club might value a big league-ready reliever, even one of the middle-innings variety, relative to a draft pick who often results in a 45 or 40+ FV prospect.

I don’t assume that every team thinks that way but those deals were instructive to me. This, plus ongoing changes to pitcher usage, indicate that I need to make some WAR-independent adjustments to better fit relievers in among the other prospects. It suggests that years of team control are a much more significant consideration for teams than either the idea that older players are at risk of hitting their decline phase sooner — perhaps at any moment — and/or that their injury histories made them riskier in a way that impacted where they fit on the FV continuum. The 2020 crop of Brewers rookies presents several cases like these, which I’m approaching with this in mind. Before I get to the players, here’s a reminder of where I place imminent relief roles on the FV scale. Keep in mind most elite closers, like Aroldis Chapman and Liam Hendriks, are failed starters and probably fall higher on a Top 100 prospects list projected as one:

Typical Reliever Future Values
FV Bullpen Role Recent/Current Prospect Examples
50 High-leverage James Karinchak, Brusdar Graterol
45+ High-lev stuff with control/injury issue J.B. Bukauskas, Jonathan Loaisiga
45 Traditional set-up type, 2nd bullpen banana Pete Fairbanks, Seranthony Domínguez, Chad Green, Codi Heuer, Génesis Cabrera
40+ Multi-inning 3rd banana, or set-up stuff with control/injury issue Enoli Paredes, Ray Black, Zack Burdi, Andres Muñoz, JoJo Romero, Tejay Antone
40 Steady middle-inning
35+ Up/down reliever

Let’s start with Devin Williams, who graduated from prospectdom this summer and won’t appear on offseason lists, but who merits discussion. Williams graduated as a 40+ FV due to his injury history, but that’s too low. Someone with his level of stuff, especially that changeup, needs to be on either side of the 45+/50 line. Guys with that kind of stuff are pitching high-leverage innings in the postseason, and it’s much harder to acquire someone with that sort of talent than it is to acquire a 40+ FV talent who is totally healthy. Besides, Brusdar Graterol’s medical was bad enough to stall the Mookie Betts deal for a moment and yet he’s on my Top 100, so Williams belongs there or close to it.

Like Fairbanks, righty reliever Drew Rasmussen is 25, has had two surgeries, throws in the upper-90s and has an upper-80s slider with late, downward break. Rasmussen more or less scrapped his changeup after a few 2020 outings, and his slider consistency improved and he threw it more often as the year went along. He can take a little off and throw a low-80s curveball, too. Yes, Rasmussen’s delivery is violent and his injury history is scary, and I think those things impact where he sits among other prospects, but he also has unteachably nasty stuff that fits in with what you’re seeing during big playoff innings so those issues should just slide him behind his similarly-talented peers rather than several tiers below them.

Lastly, there’s 29-year-old low-slot righty Justin Topa, an Indy Ball kickback reliever who has also rehabbed from two TJs and now has a fastball that sits in the upper-90s and features significantly divergent movement from his slider. He’s a decade older than hundreds of players on The Board but has as much roster flexibility and years of control as any of them because of how and when he signed. His delivery is a little stiff, but Topa has a frame that portends athletic longevity so I don’t think he’s on the cusp of physical decline.

What do I mean by divergent movement? Topa’s slider has a lot of glove-side break, and his low arm slot creates a lot of tailing action on his fastball in the opposite direction. Those two pitches move away from one another almost as much as any sinker/slider pair in baseball:

Complementary Pitch Horizontal Movement
Name Team X-Sinker Mvmt X-Slider Mvmt Sinker/Slider Gap
Kyle Crick Pirates -9.6 12.7 22.3
Ryan Weber Red Sox -10.9 10.3 21.2
Chaz Roe Rays -7.7 12.6 20.3
Sergio Romo Twins -11.2 9 20.2
Josh D. Smith Marlins 10.3 -9.5 19.8
Justin Topa Brewers -10.5 9.1 19.6
Ryan Thompson Rays -9.4 10.1 19.5
Brad Hand Indians 10 -9.3 19.3
Adonis Medina Phillies -8 11.3 19.3
Adam Ottavino Yankees -8.6 10.5 19.1
Eric Yardley Brewers -9.8 9.3 19.1
Alec Mills Cubs -9.3 9.6 18.9
Trevor Bauer Reds -8.2 10.2 18.4
Corey Kluber Rangers -9.5 8.8 18.3
Jake Diekman Athletics 10.3 -7.7 18
Taylor Rogers Twins 10 -8 18
Tyler Lyons Yankees 8.1 -9.8 17.9
Shane Greene Braves -9.2 8.6 17.8
Aaron Bummer White Sox 7.8 -9.9 17.7
Jesse Hahn Royals -9.5 7.9 17.4
Trevor Kelley Phillies -10.6 6.8 17.4
Sonny Gray Reds -7.4 9.8 17.2
Steve Cishek White Sox -9.5 7.6 17.1
Brooks Raley Astros 8.7 -8.4 17.1
Sean Gilmartin Rays 7.7 -9.3 17
Chris Martin Braves -8.6 8.4 17
Tanner Houck Red Sox -8.9 8 16.9
Chris Bassitt Athletics -8.7 8.1 16.8
Jared Hughes Mets -8.9 7.8 16.7
Lucas Sims Reds -8.3 8.3 16.6
Andrew Miller Cardinals 9.3 -7.3 16.6
Aaron Barrett Nationals -9 7.5 16.5
Oliver Pérez Indians 10.4 -5.9 16.3
Cesar Valdez Orioles -10.5 5.7 16.2
Carlos Martinez Cardinals -9.5 6.7 16.2
Jakob Junis Royals -7 9.1 16.1
Jordan Yamamoto Marlins -5.9 10 15.9
John Schreiber Tigers -7.1 8.8 15.9
Ryan Sherriff Rays 10.2 -5.7 15.9
Brad Peacock Astros -9.4 6.4 15.8
Geoff Hartlieb Pirates -8.9 6.9 15.8
Zac Grotz Mariners -10.4 5.3 15.7
Jhoulys Chacín Braves -8.1 7.6 15.7
Stephen Tarpley Marlins 8.4 -7.3 15.7
Adbert Alzolay Cubs -8.8 6.7 15.5
Adam Morgan Phillies 10.9 -4.6 15.5
Matt Wisler Twins -9.1 6.4 15.5
Walker Buehler Dodgers -7.9 7.5 15.4
Josh Lindblom Brewers -6 9.3 15.3
Edwar Colina Twins -8.4 6.8 15.2
Andrew Kittredge Rays -9.8 5.2 15

These numbers comes from the Pitch Info leaderboard for horizontal movement, with the absolute values (as a way of dealing with handedness) of sinkers and sliders simply added together. This “sub leaderboard” is full, as you might expect, of low slot relievers, including several who the Rays used to treat their rash of pitching injuries. Topa is the only one among them who throws really hard.

I’ve put him in the 40+ FV tier. It’s possible his command is worse than what we saw in his brief big league stint (it certainly was when I saw Topa during spring training), but he has huge velocity and an interesting movement profile, and I think there’s a chance he becomes a dastardly middle-inning weapon for Milwaukee.

Pittsburgh Pirates

Ke’Bryan Hayes was once a 60 FV who I slid back into the 55 FV tier when he had gotten well into his 20s but hadn’t yet developed a swing that produced more lift and power. Hayes’ swing still cuts downward at the ball like Manuel Margot’s and Yuli Gurriel’s do, but this enables power in certain parts of the strike zone (especially down-and-in) and Hayes’ mature approach helps it actualize in games. It may not mean tons of homers, but I think Hayes’ approach, bat control, and situational power will result in him spraying something like 40-plus doubles into the gaps and down both baselines annually. That kind of offensive production paired with Gold Glove-caliber defense is a star-level player, so he’s a 60 again, and has moved up from 23rd overall to 15th.

In a bite-sized five innings, Nick Mears’ velocity was down compared to 2019 (from 93-98 touch 100, to 94-96 t98), so I slid him down a bit within the 40+ tier but not all the way into the 40s. JT Brubaker has developed better command than I anticipated and, with a well-demarcated four- and two-seamer, now has five pitches. He moves into the 40+ FV tier and would have been a 45 FV had his velo not slipped as the season went along.

I’ve also added Taiwanese righty Po-Yu Chen to the Pirates page on The Board; his scouting report can be found there. He was ranked 22nd on the 2019-2020 International Amateur Board.

St. Louis Cardinals

I’ve made no changes to Dylan Carlson’s preseason evaluation.

I’ve updated Johan Oviedo’s breaking ball grades to reflect his slider having moved ahead of his curveball. He’s now a 45+ FV as a high-variance potential mid-rotation starter/late-inning reliever and I think you can make a case for him being ahead of some of the pitching toward the back of the Top 100, so his standing may be subject to more change this offseason as I take a step back and consider him within a broader context.

Kodi Whitley’s velocity did not return to its 2019 heights but I think his changeup has a chance to be a third bat-missing pitch, so he’s moved up into the 40+ FV tier as a potential impact reliever, too.

Roel Ramirez slid from the 40 FV tier to the 35+ FV tier.
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