Matt Eddy: Let’s get started. While the talent level at the very top of the Southern League this years compares favorably with recent seasons, the depth does not. Also, if you see me ramble on about percentiles or percentile ranks, I am referring to the player’s standing in the SL among those who qualified for our Top 20 Prospects ranking. This encompasses batters with 140 plate appearances and pitchers with 46.2 innings. I also require pitchers for percentile ranking to average at least 15 batters faced per game.
Gary (Jackson MS): Where would Victor Caratini rank on your list if it were more than 20 players long? How did his defense behind the plate look to evaluators this season?
Matt Eddy: Cubs C/1B Victor Caratini intrigued me heading into the research phase, but I just didn’t find enough support among evaluators to justify a top 20 spot. He would ranks somewhere in the 21-30 range. Caratini finished sixth in the SL batting race and second with a .375 OBP, thanks to strong strikeout and walk rates that placed him in about the 75th percentile. Skeptics point to below-average defense behind the plate, not enough power for first base and even point out that the switch-hitter is weaker from the left side. This season he hit .271 with a .761 OPS versus righties. Catchers develop later than other position players, though, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see Caratini have a long career as at least a part-time catcher.
Ryan (Milwaukee): Are you still reasonably bullish on Jake Nottingham, despite his year? What does he need to improve upon?
Matt Eddy: Yes, I do like Biloxi C Jacob Nottingham’s potential. I tried hard to justify getting a catcher on this list, and he turned out to be the candidate with the highest offensive ceiling with a strong chance to stay behind the plate. The SL was just too advanced for Nottingham — a 21-year-old high school catcher — but that shouldn’t be the case next season when he repeats Biloxi. It’s going to be all about putting in the time behind the plate and improving his footwork to improve his pop times. Nottingham, who caught a league-leading 98 games, should be able to hit about .250 with average to above power. He’s a good buy-low for fantasy players.
Katie (Pensacola, FL): After Garrett, did any more of my Blue Wahoos make a case for your list? Thanks Matt!
Matt Eddy: Pensacola led the SL with a 1.22 WHIP, and the pitching staff beyond Amir Garrett has many arms who will pitch in the big leagues. My favorite are RHPs Tyler Mahle and Sal Romano. Mahle has steadily improved his velocity in pro ball and throws strikes. If he can sharpen one of his average secondary pitches, he could take off, but he already has a high floor as at least a No. 5 starter. Romano is going to be an excellent reliever one day because he throws a heavy fastball up to 100 mph. His repertoire, control and physical presence could make him similar to closers like Jeurys Familia or Jonathan Broxton.
Greg (ATL): Where do you stand on Sean Newcomb's future? Can he harness the control?
Matt Eddy: By ranking him where I did, I’m betting that Braves LHP Sean Newcomb can solve his control problems, but not everybody is so optimistic. History indicates that young power lefthanders often need a season or two in the majors for their feel to catch up to their stuff — see David Price or Clayton Kershaw or Scott Kazmir. They are accustomed to simply out-stuffing batters, but that doesn’t always work at the highest levels. Carlos Rodon is going through the learning curve right now in Chicago.
Eric (Chicago, IL): What happened to Brett Phillips, according to your sources? Is he still on your radar? How big of a hit did his stock take?
Matt Eddy: Biloxi CF Brett Phillips never has completely shed his “tweener” label, and it applied this year in the SL. He doesn’t hit, run or defend quite well enough to project him confidently to a starting center-field job, though his power might buy him an extended look in a corner for a non-competitive club. He struggles against lefthanders and his hips tend to leak, so I would bet at this stage that we’re looking at a productive fourth outfielder or platoon option.
Ben (Queens, NY): Eric Jagielo - prospect or suspect?
Matt Eddy: I’m inclined to say suspect, but it’s worth noting that Pensacola 1B Eric Jagielo reportedly is dealing with a chronic knee injury, so he doesn’t have a firm hitting base.
Larry (SD): Does Dustin Peterson project as a big league regular in a corner OF spot? How much power is in the bat?
Matt Eddy: Yes, I would project Dustin Peterson to an overall grade of about 50, meaning he’s not a lineup focal point but he’s not somebody you would be eager to replace. Mississippi plays as one of the worst HR parks in the high minors, so I would expect Peterson to have at least 15-homer power in a more neutral setting.
Steve (Orlando): Jake Bauers likely to end up at 1B or a corner OFer for Rays?
Matt Eddy: Unless the Rays want to commit Casey Gillaspie to DH, it looks like the club’s optimal lineup in 2018 will have Bauers in an outfield corner and Gillaspie at first base. Bauers is the superior defender at first base, but he’s also a littler farther away from Tampa Bay than Gillaspie and much more agile.
Wade (Seattle): Couple of M's questions - Did Paul Blackburn get any list consideration? Projected back-end SP, or future RP? And finally, where would Edwin Diaz have ranked if he'd qualified? thanks, Matt.
Matt Eddy: The Cubs parted with RHP Paul Blackburn when they acquired Mike Montgomery from the Mariners, but I confess I do not have updated info on him. Blackburn’s statistical profile suggests contributing groundball-oriented reliever as a ceiling. Jackson RHP Edwin Diaz, on the other hand, was mentioned as having impact potential by evaluators, and we saw during his big league callup, he can throw 100 mph and miss bats. He struck out 15.3 per nine, which was nearly a rookie reliever record. (Check my Twitter timeline for exact details.) If eligible, Diaz would have had a case for the top 10, based on relievers’ outsized importance during the postseason, but more likely I would have ranked him closer to No. 15.
Walter (Granville, OH): Carson Fulmer--starter or reliever?
Matt Eddy: Generally I don’t rule out starters who have “reliever deliveries,” but Fulmer just has so much trouble consistently throwing strike one and disguising his pitches that I don’t know that he’ll be viable as a candidate to face batters a second time in an outing. If only there were more middle ground between five- or six-inning starter and one-inning reliever. Who will be first to create a new class of two-inning reliever?
Josh (Bismarck): Matt, thanks for the chat! Did the Smokies pitching staff show anything remotely interesting this season? Zastryzny obviously moved thru AAA and pitched well in his brief ML stint. But Underwood was hurt during his stint there and Tseng didn't appear to show much, unless I'm focusing on numbers too much? Zach Hedges put up some excellent numbers across two levels, is he maybe the closest thing to a Cub pitching prospect at the upper levels now?
Matt Eddy: Yes, you highlighted RHP Zach Hedges, and he is an intriguing arm because of his presence and feel. A 26th-rounder from Azusa Pacific in 2014, he’s a sinker-slider starter who throws strikes and has advanced feel to change speeds.
Brad (Hawaii): Mike Marjama has hit well since coming to the Rays system. Does he look like a bat-first major league catcher, or is he doing well because he's much older than his league?
Matt Eddy: Montgomery C Mike Marjama, whom the Rays acquired from the White Sox in a minor cash deal, received attention for his defense, but it’s hard to say what kind of offensive ceiling he has based on his being 27 years old. Possible backup catcher seems to be his ceiling.
William (Pensacola, FL): What prospect profile do you find lacking in the Southern League overall this year ?
Matt Eddy: Righthanded starters, catchers, corner players with big-time power.
David F (Miami): How did the White Sox prospects fare in the league, any sleepers?
Matt Eddy: He’s not really a sleeper by the strict definition, but I wouldn’t write off Birmingham 3B Trey Michalczewski after a .226 year. The 21-year-old switch-hitter shows power and strike-zone control but has struggled to keep weight on all season. I like his chances to be a 3B regular once he matures, but you have to buy into the projection.
Lio (Atlanta, GA): What are your thoughts on Rob Whalen? Had a strong season at Mississippi and a few good starts in AAA before going to Atlanta. Seems to have a great sinker and decent enough secondary stuff mixed with command to potentially be a middle of the rotation starter (a bit surprised he didn't make the list). Also, potential slash line for Dustin Peterson as a starter in the Show?
Matt Eddy: The more I work on prospect lists like this, the more I bias my selection process toward pitchers with plus inputs rather than plus outputs. Rob Whalen is a good example. It’s hard to argue with a 2.49 ERA and 94 strikeouts in 101 innings — not to mention two healthy knees this year — but Whalen doesn’t throw a separating pitch, and most successful big league starters and relievers have at least one plus pitch. For this reason, Montgomery RHP Jacob Faria was the starter closest to making the grade. He throws a plus changeup and has missed plenty of bats for two seasons in a row.
Brad (Hawaii): Is Ryne Stanek's triple digit heater as flat as they say it is? Does that matter much when it's that fast?
Matt Eddy: Montgomery RHP Ryne Stanek has legitimate 100 mph heat out of the bullpen, but his ball doesn’t sink as much when he’s working that hot. Triple-A batters certainly didn’t have as much trouble squaring him up. Still, Stanek pitches at 98 mph with an excellent slider, so he should find work as a reliever.
John (Raleigh): So what do you think is going on with Sims' 'extremities' btw AA and AAA? I have some theories, but it's odd to see such striking differences across the two levels.
Matt Eddy: Feel free to share your theory with me on Twitter. Sims is a perplexing prospect. I think he has a great fastball but not one that he can pitch with exclusively. When he’s not locating or landing enough sliders for strikes, Triple-A batters are more than willing to wait him out for a walk or a fat 3-1 pitch.
Brad (Hawaii): Taylor Guerrieri finally pitched a full season, but results and peripherals took big dips. Does his stuff still look good? What happened there?
Matt Eddy: Montgomery RHP Taylor Guerrieri, the 2011 first-rounder and Tommy John surgery alumnus, has embraced a sinkerball mentality and recorded one of the highest ground/fly ratios among qualified SL starters this year. It’s just that he doesn’t miss bats or throw strikes at an above-average rate. Guerrieri is something of an anomaly in a Rays organization with very few groundball pitches. Montgomery had the lowest groundout/airout ratio (1.21) in the league — and the fourth lowest in the full-season minors. It’s not a coincidence. The Rays’ Low-A Bowling Green affiliate had the lowest ratio (1.12) among the 120 full-season affiliates, and High-A Charlotte ranked ninth lowest at 1.23.
Matt Eddy: Thanks for the great question. Find me on Twitter at @MattEddyBA if you have any more.