NL Central’s Top-50 Prospects

BP Milwaukee’s own Seth Victor recently raised the question of where the Brewers stand and how they might compete in a loaded NL Central that featured MLB’s three best records in 2015. St. Louis (100-62), Pittsburgh (98-64), and Chicago (97-65) paved the way, while Milwaukee (68-94) and Cincinnati (64-98) faltered.  

MLB’s 2013 realignment into six different five-team divisions, coupled with its decision to reward division winners by forcing two wildcard entrants into a one-game playoff, constitutes by far this century’s most important alteration to the game’s competitive structure. Fair evaluation of a team’s performance, therefore, requires close consideration of the divisional context. In 2015, for instance, the Brewers played the Cubs, Reds, Pirates, and Cardinals 19 games each for a total of 76 games. That’s 47 percent of Milwaukee’s schedule. By comparison, the NFL’s Packers face the division-rival Bears, Lions, and Vikings only six times in sixteen games, or 38 percent of Green Bay’s overall schedule. Divisional play, in short, matters more in baseball than in any other major professional sport. 

If fair evaluation of a team’s performance requires divisional context, then the same holds true when attempting to predict that team’s future fortunes. Prospect junkies love to talk about the best farm systems in baseball and compare organizations; it’s interesting and harmless good fun. For competitive purposes, however, it makes little difference how the quality of the Brewers’ system compares to, say, that of the Blue Jays. On the other hand, in light of divisional play and heavy intra-divisional schedules, comparing the quality of the Brewers’ system of those of the Cubs, Reds, Pirates, and Cardinals becomes not only interesting but essential to any forward-looking analysis.

For several years, the outlook on this front was bleak for Brewers fans. St. Louis, the NL Central’s perennial juggernaut, advanced either to the NL Championship Series or World Series every year from 2011-14.  Pittsburgh, downtrodden for two decades, has earned three consecutive wildcard berths.  And the Chicago Cubs, “lovable losers” for the better part of a century, appear poised to contend for division titles and more well into the future thanks to a remarkable rebuilding effort that has netted them perhaps the most enviable core of young hitters to arrive in the majors in decades.

That final phrase, however–to arrive in the majors–signals a change in how we should view the five NL Central farm systems. Many of the top prospects who made the Cardinals’, Pirates’, and Cubs’ systems so strong have graduated to the major leagues since 2012: Carlos Martinez, Kolten Wong, Stephen Piscotty, and Randal Grichuk in St. Louis; Starling Marte and Gregory Polanco in Pittsburgh; Kris Bryant, Jorge Soler, Addison Russell, Javier Baez, and Kyle Schwarber in Chicago. The question, of course, is what’s left? Do these contenders have enough remaining in their farm systems alone to sustain their success into 2017 and beyond?

For the non-contenders, in particular for the Brewers, 2017 is the key date. By trading Carlos Gomez, whose contract runs through the end of next season, the Milwaukee front office announced to the baseball world that it does not expect to contend in 2016. Adding the cheap and controllable starter Mike Fiers to the Gomez deal merely amplified the announcement; as solid as Fiers has been, he will turn 32 in June 2017, so the Brewers wisely chose to trade Fiers and his years of (likely) diminishing effectiveness in exchange for prospects.  

One way to compare these five systems is to rank the division’s best prospects regardless of affiliation. This, of course, is not the only available method, and it might not even be the best one, but it does offer a useful perspective, for it allows us at least to begin a conversation about which pipeline features the most impact-talent, which is deepest and most balanced, and which, therefore, gives its fans the best reason to hope for the future.  

Counting down from 50 to 1, here are my top 50 prospects in the NL Central, including age on Opening Day 2016 and the team they played for at the highest level they reached in 2015:

Nos. 50-41

50. Donnie Dewees, OF Cubs, 22, Eugene Emeralds (SS Northwest League)
49. Antonio Santillan, RHP Reds, 18, Reds (Arizona Rookie Lg.)
48. Junior Fernandez, RHP Cardinals, 19, Palm Beach Cardinals (A+ Florida State Lg.)**
47. Cody Ponce, RHP Brewers, 21, Wisconsin Timber Rattlers (A Midwest Lg.)
46. Willson Contreras, C/3B Cubs, 23, Tennessee Smokies (AA Southern Lg.)
45. Pierce Johnson, RHP Cubs, 24, Tennessee Smokies (AA Southern Lg.)
44. Edmundo Sosa, SS Cardinals, 20, Johnson City Cardinals (Appalachian Rookie Lg.)
43. Keury Mella, RHP Reds, 22, Daytona Tortugas (A+ Florida State Lg.)
42. Alex Blandino, SS Reds, 23, Pensacola Blue Wahoos (AA Southern Lg.)
41. Kevin Newman, SS Pirates, 22, West Virginia Power (A South Atlantic Lg.)

**Junior Fernandez appeared in two games with the Palm Beach Cardinals but spent most of the season in the rookie Gulf Coast League.

Another dozen-or-so players could make a case for inclusion on this list somewhere in the 50-41 range. Assuming he sticks at shortstop, which appears likely, and assuming his hit-tool develops as expected, Edmundo Sosa could have the highest ceiling of any player in this group.  

Cody Ponce makes the cut as the only Brewer in the list’s “bottom” 10. Projections on Ponce are all over the place. rates him the 29th-best prospect in the system, which, given Ponce’s excellent 2015 debut, would be good news for the system. Others, including some folks here at BP Milwaukee, are more bullish on the young righthander. He makes the top-50 and will ascend the rankings with a repeat performance at (likely) High-A Brevard County in 2016.

Nos. 40-31

40. Jake Gatewood, SS Brewers, 20, Wisconsin Timber Rattlers (A Midwest Lg.)
39. Magneuris Sierra, OF Cardinals, 19, Peoria Chiefs (A Midwest Lg.)
38. Harrison Bader, OF Cardinals, 21, Peoria Chiefs (A Midwest Lg.)
37. Harold Ramirez, OF Pirates, 21, Bradenton Marauders (A+ Florida State Lg.)
36. Luke Weaver, RHP Cardinals, 22, Palm Beach Cardinals (A+ Florida State Lg.)
35. Zach Davies, RHP Brewers, 23, Milwaukee Brewers (Majors)
34. Carl Edwards, Jr., RHP Cubs, 24, Chicago Cubs (Majors)**
33. Dylan Cease, RHP Cubs, 20, Cubs (Arizona Rookie League)
32. Kodi Medeiros, LHP Brewers, 19, Wisconsin Timber Rattlers (A Midwest Lg.)
31. Cole Tucker, SS Pirates, 19, West Virginia Power (A South Atlantic Lg.)

**Carl Edwards, Jr. appeared in five games for the Cubs at the major-league level but spent the majority of the season with the Triple-A Iowa Cubs.

Dylan Cease at #33 might seem like an aggressive ranking, but the former Vanderbilt commit, back from TJ surgery, has more upside than the other pitchers in this group–so much so, in fact, that Baseball America rated him the #2 overall prospect in the Arizona League after the 2015 season.

The 40-31 group includes three Brewers.  Jake Gatewood will not stick at shortstop, and he needs time to develop his hit-tool, but prodigious power alone keeps him on this list. Zach Davies always profiles as a back-end starter and always outperforms his profile. He’s the lowest-rated player on this list who has major-league experience, closed the 2015 season with back-to-back scoreless outings in Chicago and San Diego, and has the inside track on a 2016 rotation spot. Kodi Medeiros, the Brewers’ top pick (12th overall) in the 2014 draft, performed very well as a teenager in the Midwest League, where he started 16 games and averaged more than a strikeout-per-inning.

Nos. 30-21

30. Eloy Jimenez, OF Cubs, 19, Eugene Emeralds (SS Northwest Lg.)
29. Ke’Bryan Hayes, 3B Pirates, 19, West Virginia Black Bears (SS NY-Penn Lg.)
28. Marco Gonzales, LHP Cardinals, 24, St. Louis Cardinals (Majors)**
27. Jack Flaherty, RHP Cardinals, 20, Peoria Chiefs (A Midwest Lg.)
26. Jorge Lopez, RHP Brewers, 23, Milwaukee Brewers (Majors)**
25. Devin Williams, RHP Brewers, 21, Wisconsin Timber Rattlers (A Midwest Lg.)
24. Gilbert Lara, SS Brewers, 18, Helena Brewers (Pioneer Rookie Lg.)
23. Cody Reed, LHP Reds, 22, Pensacola Blue Wahoos (AA Southern Lg.)
22. Monte Harrison, OF Brewers, 20, Wisconsin Timber Rattlers (A+ Midwest Lg.)
21. Marcos Diplan, RHP Brewers, 19, Helena Brewers (Pioneer Rookie Lg.)

**Marco Gonzales made one start in the majors but spent the majority of 2015 with the Triple-A Memphis Redbirds.

**Jorge Lopez made two starts in the majors but spent the majority of 2015 with the Double-A Biloxi Shuckers.

Eloy Jimenez, one of most coveted players in the 2013 international class, makes the top-30 thanks to a combination of impressive raw tools and better-than-expected production in the Northwest League. Ke’Bryan Hayes, a 2015 draftee, earned praise for his advanced approach in the GCL.

Here, the mounting strength of the Milwaukee system begins to show itself: a whopping five Brewers appear in the 21-30 range. Distinguishing between these five, at least for the purpose of ranking prospects, is a true exercise in splitting hairs. Jorge Lopez, of course, is so close to the majors that he actually reached them in September 2015. Devin Williams had perhaps the best performance of the group this past season. The other three–Gilbert Lara, Monte Harrison, and Marcos Diplan–boast three of the system’s highest ceilings. Put them in whatever order you please, and it remains a strong contingent.

Nos. 20-11

20. Reese McGuire, C Pirates, 21, Bradenton Marauders (A+ Florida State Lg.)
19. Ian Happ, OF Cubs, 21, South Bend Cubs (A Midwest Lg.)
18. Demi Orimoloye, OF Brewers, 19, Brewers (Arizona Rookie Lg.)
17. Duane Underwood, RHP Cubs, 21, Myrtle Beach Pelicans (A+ Carolina League)
16. Josh Hader, LHP Brewers, 21, Biloxi Shuckers (AA Southern League)
15. Alen Hanson, 2B Pirates, 23, Indianapolis Indians (AAA International Lg.)
14. Tyler Stephenson, C Reds, 19, Billings Mustangs (Pioneer Rookie Lg.)
13. Amir Garrett, LHP Reds, 23, Dayton Tortugas (A+ Florida State Lg.)
12. Billy McKinney, OF Cubs, 21, Tennessee Smokies (AA Southern Lg.)
11. Jesse Winker, OF Reds, 22, Pensacola Blue Wahoos (AA Southern Lg.)

Billy McKinney and Jesse Winker had pedestrian seasons in 2015 but still could emerge as impact players for their organizations. A full season at Triple-A will determine their respective trajectories. The sleeper in this group is Tyler Stephenson, a big-bodied teenage catcher with some power who enjoyed a nice debut at Billings and projects to stick behind the plate.

Call me crazy, but I’m as bullish on this group’s two Brewers, Hader and Orimoloye, as anyone could be. Milwaukee stole Demi Orimoloye in the 4th round and then signed him to a reasonable bonus of $450,000. At 6’4”-225, the young Canadian outfielder offers a power-speed combo that could make him one of the steals-of-the-draft. His Arizona-League debut included a .292/.319/.518 split with 6 homers and 19 stolen bases in only 33 games. Josh Hader, meanwhile, entered 2015 as Baseball America’s reigning California League Pitcher-of-the-Year–no small feat. This past season, Hader threw 104 combined Double-A innings between Corpus Christi and Biloxi, compiled a 3.03 ERA, and struck out a whopping 119. One would like to see how the young lefthander performs with an increased workload, but it seems fair to evaluate him as a future starter until he proves he cannot start.  

Nos. 10-1

10. Jameson Taillon, RHP Pirates, 24, Injured–did not pitch
9. Trent Clark, OF Brewers, 19, Helena Brewers (Pioneer Rookie Lg.)
8. Brett Phillips, OF Brewers, 21, Biloxi Shuckers (AA Southern Lg.)
7. Gleyber Torres, SS Cubs, 19, Myrtle Beach Pelicans (A+ Carolina Lg.)**
6. Austin Meadows, OF Pirates, 20, Altoona Curve (AA Eastern Lg.)**
5. Robert Stephenson, RHP Reds, 23, Louisville Bats (AAA International Lg.)
4. Josh Bell, 1B Pirates, 23, Indianapolis Indians (AAA International Lg.)
3. Alex Reyes, RHP Cardinals, 21, Springfield Cardinals (AA Texas Lg.)
2. Orlando Arcia, SS Brewers, 21, Biloxi Shuckers (AA Southern Lg.)
1. Tyler Glasnow, RHP Pirates, 22, Indianapolis Indians (AAA International Lg.)

**Gleyber Torres appeared in seven games for Myrtle Beach but spent the majority of 2015 with the South Bend Cubs of the Low-A Midwest League.

**Austin Meadows appeared in six games for Altoona but spent the majority of 2015 with the Bradenton Marauders of the High-A Florida State League.

Two lost seasons have dulled Jameson Taillon’s luster, so his ranking here assumes a return to full health. Either way, Pittsburgh will have more impact-players arriving at PNC Park before long.

Once again the Brewers are well represented, and this is an important group in which to be represented. These are the players who have the potential to become first-division regulars, all-stars, and even franchise cornerstones. A frightening outfield injury notwithstanding, Trent Clark, Milwaukee’s top pick in 2015 (15th overall) enjoyed an excellent debut. Between Arizona and Helena he slashed .309/.424/.430, swiped 25 bags, and showed advanced plate-discipline. He should hit at or near the top of the Brewers’ lineup for many years. Brett Phillips’s numbers fell off once he left Lancaster’s cozy confines, but that happens with most prospects. His defense rates as plus across the board, but he must continue to hit in order to justify the Gomez-Fiers trade, of which he was the centerpiece.  The smart money says he will. Finally, Orlando Arcia enjoyed the best campaign of his young career, carried Biloxi to a first-half division championship, and cemented his status as one of the best prospects in baseball. If he continues to develop as he has thus far, he will take over as the Brewers’ starting shortstop no later than 2017 and will be one of the special young players around whom franchises build their teams. 

All told, the final per-club tally of Top-50 prospects looks like this:

Milwaukee 14
Pittsburgh 10
Chicago 10
St. Louis 8
Cincinnati 8

With four players in the top-10 and six in the top-20, Pittsburgh still has the most impact-talent in its system. A year ago, of course, the Cubs would have dominated that upper-echelon. It is fair to assume that those two teams will remain formidable at the major-league level even as their minor-league systems begin to appear less so.

Conventional wisdom holds that St. Louis always will develop pitching. With Alex Reyes in the fold, the cupboard is hardly bare. It is depleted, though, and that makes the future NL Central even more interesting

No doubt Cincinnati fans would like to see a few more names on this list. In fairness, however, the Reds have promoted many of their promising young pitchers, including Raisel Iglesias and Brandon Finnegan, and the minor-league system does have some impact-talent on the way.

So where does that leave Milwaukee? Sheer volume alone does not make a system strong, but it helps. Fourteen Brewers made this list; four others I considered did not. All eighteen have a better-than-average chance of making it to the majors, and most of those eighteen have a chance to make good careers in the majors. The organization appears strong at shortstop, strong and very deep in the outfield, and deep in starting pitching. It lacks corner infielders and a projectable ace. Buster Olney reports that new GM David Stearns will listen to trade offers involving anyone on the roster, so at this point it is difficult to project how the 2016 Brewers will look, let alone the team’s composition in future years. If, as reported, the new regime plans to cultivate the farm system’s strength by exchanging current major-league players for prospects who might fill some of the system’s gaps, then there is every reason to expect that Milwaukee’s prospect-pipeline, which at minimum has closed the gap on its division rivals in the past two seasons, will become the NL Central’s strongest system, if it has not already. Clearly, this bodes well for the Brewers’ chances to compete at the major-league level in 2017 and beyond.   

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