Carolina League Top 20
By J.J. Cooper
Got questions? J.J. Cooper will answer them here
- 1Winston-Salem (White Sox) RHPNotes:
Age: 22. B-T: R-R. Ht: 6-2. Wt: 190. Drafted: HS–Milton, Ga. 2014 (6th round).
Cease has long had an outstanding fastball, but the slender righthander took a step forward in 2018 because his curveball and his changeup have become viable second and third pitches and he’s commanding his fastball better.
Cease’s 94-98 mph fastball is a little true, but he’s getting more plane and sink on it now and it demonstrated the late hop of a high-spin rate fastball. He’s started to throw his 12-to-6 curveball as a viable two-strike finisher. It has plenty of depth and power, and generates swings and misses. It’s still inconsistent, but it’s an average pitch now with a chance to be plus. He now has started to throw it with conviction after largely casting it with less feel in the past. He’s started throwing his changeup more often and considering the quality of his fastball, conviction and solid velocity separation is all he needs to make it an average pitch.
Cease also mixed in a slider every now and then, but it’s a distant fourth pitch.
9-2, 2.89 ERA
71.2 IP, 28 BB, 82 SO, 5 HR
- 2Potomac (Nationals) SSNotes:
Age: 20. Ht: 6-2. Wt: 190. B-T: R-R. Drafted: HS–Marietta, Ga, 2016 (1st round).
Kieboom was both one of the youngest shortstops in the league and one of the most productive hitters. After starting in the league’s all-star game, he earned a midseason bump to Double-A Harrisburg.
At the plate, Kieboom puts together consistent at-bats. He has good balance at the plate and plate discipline to go with solid average power, although at this age, his home run power is largely limited to clearing the left field fence.
A generation ago, Kieboom would have little chance to stay at shortstop, as he’s not twitchy or particularly rangy. But with the shifting and pitch-by-pitch positioning, he has a chance to stay at shortstop as an average defender with an above-average arm. It’s still more likely he’ll slide to second or third base long-term where he projects as an above-average defender, but he’s improved enough to make shortstop a possibility.
245 AB, 11 HR, 6 SB, 36 BB, 50 SO
- 3Potomac (Nationals) SSNotes:
Age: 18. B-T: L-R. Ht: 6-0. Wt: 190. Signed: Dominican Republic, 2016.
Garcia joined the league on July 4, less than two months after he turned 18 but he rarely showed his age, as he flirted with hitting .300 over the second half of the season. Garcia was one of the purest hitters in the league as he has excellent hand-eye coordination, quick hands and a simple, repeatable swing. He’s prone to over-aggressiveness right now, but he hits almost everything. Garcia’s power is limited to yanking the ball over the fence right now, but considering his age and frame, he should have at least average power eventually.
Managers and scouts were extremely impressed by how well Garcia understands the game at a young age. He soaks up instruction and shows an advanced feel for the nuances of the game.
There is more skepticism about Garcia as a long-term shortstop. After bouncing him between shortstop, second and third base in low Class A, the Nationals let Garcia focus on shortstop with Potomac. He has a thicker lower-half for an 18-year-old and doesn’t have a quick first step. But he has a plus arm and solid instincts and he takes instruction well–he was much better going back on balls in August than in April.
204 AB, 4 HR, 4 SB, 12 BB, 33 SO
- 4Carolina (Brewers) 2BNotes:
Age: 22. B-T: R-R. Ht: 5-11. Wt: 190. Drafted: UC Irvine, 2017 (1st round).
Hiura hit .320 while hitting the ball as consistently and as hard as almost anybody in the Carolina League, but the most encouraging aspect of his 2018 season was the fact that he returned to second base.
An elbow injury to his throwing arm had forced him to spend almost all of 2017 as a designated hitter. He returned to DH to start the season with Carolina, but he returned to the field in early May, alternating between second and DH for the rest of his time in the league.
For the few who saw him at second in his brief time there for Carolina, Hiura looked fine. He projects as an average defender, which will be fine if he hits like he’s expected to hit. Hiura catches up to most any fastball and drives the ball. His approach is geared to driving line drives to all fields, although his average power means some of those balls do clear the fence in left or right field.
206 AB, 7 HR, 4 SB, 14 BB, 47 SO
- 5Winston-Salem (White Sox) OFNotes:
Age: 21. B-T: R-R. Ht: 6-3. Wt: 200. Signed: Dominican Republic, 2013.
Adolfo didn’t get to show all that he could do in 2018 as he played the first half of the season with a torn elbow ligament that kept him from ever taking the field. Eventually he was shut down in early July so that he could have Tommy John surgery that should allow him to return to the outfield in 2019.
Adolfo showed some of the best power in the Carolina League. He hit some majestic home runs, and he can drive the ball out to all fields–he’s just a dangerous to center field as he is when he pulls the ball. He also showed that he’s developing a better plan at the plate. His pitch recognition has improved, as he’s less liable to chase breaking balls out of the strike zone and he’s started to take his walks when pitchers nibbled.
Adolfo is an average runner and before his injury, he has a plus-plus arm that fit in right field. If he continues to improve his selectivity, he is a prototypical right fielder.
291 AB, 11 HR, 2 SB, 34 BB, 92 SO
- 6Down East (Rangers) SSNotes:
Age: 20. B-T: L-R. Ht: 5-11. Wt: 188. Signed: Dominican Republic, 2014.
When Tejeda and Leody Taveras played together in Hickory in 2017, scouts largely considered Taveras the better prospect. A year later, that evaluation has flipped. Both have some impressive tools, but Tejeda’s power (and Taveras’ struggles at the plate) have separated them.
At shortstop, Tejeda’s plus-plus arm is a wonderful weapon that allows him to make plays going back and to his right on balls that most shortstops have to stick in their back pocket. His range and hands are average, but his athleticism and feel for the game along with that arm gives him a chance to be a 55 defender.
Tejeda is not a consistent hitter yet, as he chases too much, struggles to recognize spin and expands the zone. But he has plus power and he eats up righthanders. He has to hit lefties better, but his at-bats against same-side pitchers show signs of hope that he will hit them eventually.
467 AB, 19 HR, 11 SB, 49 BB, 142 SO
- 7Wilmington (Royals) OFNotes:
Age: 20. B-T: L-L. Ht: 5-10. Wt: 170.
In 2017, Lee was one of the surprises of the South Atlantic League season because of his newfound pop, as he hit 17 home runs. This year, playing in the graveyard that is Wilmington, Lee’s power disappeared, but he still impressed thanks to his patient at-bats, as he traded away power for increased contact and an all-field approach that made him a very useful table-setter.
Even though he hit only four home runs in 71 games, Lee has plus raw power that’s quite evident in batting practice. He lifts the ball in batting practice but shortens up to a level swing in games, which is how he cut his strikeout rate from 33 percent last year to 25 percent in high Class A while upping his walk rate.
Lee is an above-average runner whose speed plays both on the basepaths and in the field, where it allows him to make up for some meandering routes. The Blue Rocks played Lee in center field almost everyday. He can be average in center, but the Royals are a team that normally plays a plus defender in center. If so, his range and plus arm will make him a plus defender in the corners.
244 AB, 4 HR, 14 SB, 48 BB, 75 SO
- 8Salem (Red Sox) 3BNotes:
Age: 23. B-T: R-R. Ht: 6-4. Wt: 235. Drafted: Arizona, 2016 (4th round).
Dalbec was the best power hitter in the Carolina League. He led the circuit in home runs, slugging percentage, extra-base hits and home run rate (1 home run every 13 at-bats).
But scouts knew going into the season that he could crush a mistake–he has 70 grade raw power. What impressed evaluators was his steadily improving at-bats and solid defense. Dalbec has a 70 arm that helps him be an average defender. Dalbec’s range and hands are just average, but his arm allows him to get outs that other third basemen can’t.
Dalbec’s hitting ability will determine his ultimate future. No one expects him to be even an average hitter, but if he hits .240, he’ll hit enough home runs to be a productive regular. Dalbec has a hitch with his hands that leads to some of the swing-and-miss tendencies, especially against breaking balls.
344 AB, 26 HR, 3 SB, 60 BB, 130 SO
- 9Down East (Rangers) RHPNotes:
Age: 22. B-T: R-R. Ht: 6-2. Wt: 175. Signed: Dominican Republic, 2013.
Hernandez was the league’s most dominating starter until he was promoted to Double-A Frisco in early July. His 12.1 strikeouts per nine innings was best among all starters in the league. Hernandez blew hitters away with a 94-99 mph plus fastball that lacks much movement but had plenty of velocity.
Depending on the day, Hernandez has three secondary pitches that all show flashes. His low-80s curveball has a tight/short break. His inconsistent 86-87 mph slider is even harder with a short, late downward break. And on his best days he flashes a plus 83-86 mph changeup with late fade.
Hernandez isn’t always overpowering because his control and command are fringy. He finds the zone with his fastball, but doesn’t hit his spots and he especially struggles to locate his breaking balls. But there’s nothing in his delivery or effort level that would indicate long-term issues.
Hernandez has the stuff to be a front-of-the-rotation starter if he can make significant strides with his command, but even if he doesn’t, he is around the zone enough to be a back-end starter or high-leverage reliever.
4-2, 2.20 ERA
57.1 IP, 17 BB, 77 SO, 6 HR
- 10Winston-Salem (White Sox) OFNotes:
Age: 21. B-T: R-R. Ht: 6-3. Wt: 185. Signed: Cuba, 2017.
Robert’s long-awaited U.S. debut was slowed by a thumb injury that sent him to the disabled list for two months to start the year. He made it to Winston-Salem in late June, but re-injured his thumb and returned to the DL less than two weeks later. He finally got back on the field for good in August.
Robert could have used the at-bats and innings he lost, as scouts were surprised by how raw he looked at times. Some suggested he would have been better off being kept in the South Atlantic League. He struggled in center field because of slow reads and poor routes. He has plus speed so the tools are there to be a rangy center fielder. At the plate, he shows plus power in batting practice, but in games, he was trying to survive, making contact but rarely driving the ball.
Robert’s physical tools are still quite apparent. He is 30 pounds heavier than his listed weight with apparent strength to go with his speed.
123 AB, 0 HR, 8 SB, 8 BB, 37 SO
- 11Lynchburg (Indians) LHPNotes:
Age: 22. B-T: L-L. Ht: 6-6. Wt: 245. Drafted: HS–Arden Hills, Minn. 2014 (4).
One of the youngest players in the 2014 draft class, Hentges missed the end of 2016 and most of 2017 recovering from Tommy John surgery. He returned in fine form this year, leading all Carolina League starters with 9.3 strikeouts per nine innings and finishing second with a 3.27 ERA.
The big 6-foot-6 lefty has an excellent frame and a quality 91-94 mph fastball that touches 96. He generates solid plane with his fastball, and the development of a hard cutter this season elevated him as a starting pitching prospect. Hentges’ 88-90 mph cutter is an average pitch right now in some outings and has a chance to be above-average in the future. Hentges’ changeup shows potential as well thanks to late tailing action, giving him the third pitch required to start.
Hentges’ delivery isn’t ideal with his arm often catching up to his body, and his control (4.0 BB/9) needs to continue to improve. But, he has the frame and arsenal to be a solid No. 4 starter and now has a season of health to build on.
6-6, 3.27 ERA
118 IP, 53 BB, 122 SO, 4 HR
- 12Buies Creek (Astros) RHPNotes:
Age: 22. B-T: R-R. Ht: 6-3. Wt: 190. Signed: Dominican Republic, 2014.
Perez struggled early to maintain a repeatable delivery and, as often happens for pitchers with complex deliveries, his control wavered, leading most to believe the strong-armed righthander was destined for the bullpen. But Perez simplified his delivery as the season wore on, and in his final six outings with Buies Creek he upped his strike percentage from 56 percent to 66 percent.
Almost everything Perez throws is hard and when he’s not walking batters, he can be nearly unhittable. Working in the Astros’ tandem-starter system, Perez held Carolina League hitters to a .196 average. His mid-90s fastball touched 98-99 and his short, extremely hard upper-80s slider can bump 90 mph as well. Even his changeup is hard, and he throws a splitter that could develop into a plus pitch.
Perez pitched well enough to earn a July promotion to Corpus Christi and a late-July change of address when Blue Jays acquired him in the Roberto Osuna trade. Perez’s control will determine whether he starts or relieves, but his pure stuff is enough to get him a shot at the majors.
3-3, 3.84 ERA
73 IP, 40 BB, 83 SO, 5 HR
- 13Salem (Red Sox) LHPNotes:
Age: 21. B-T: L-L. Ht: 6-2. Wt: 245. Signed: Venezuela, 2013.
Under manager Salem manager Joe Oliver and the rest of his coaching staff, a number of the team’s top prospects got significantly better during the 2018 season. Bobby Dalbec and C.J. Chatham both made strides, but no one improved more than Hernandez.
Hernandez seemed destined for a quick move to the bullpen early in the season when he couldn’t control his delivery and failed to make it out of the second inning four times in 12 starts. But as the all-star break arrived, Hernandez slimmed down and found his control. After posting a 5.40 ERA in the first half, he went 6-1, 1.88 with an improved walk rate in the second half. His improved control came with a newfound ability to locate his fastball and an improved delivery that had significantly less recoil.
The new-and-improved Hernandez has a plus 92-95 mph fastball that touches 97, although he still needs to prove he can locate it to arm-side. His curveball also flashes plus but when he doesn’t finish his delivery he struggles to control it. His changeup needs further development. Hernandez could still end up in the bullpen, but his second-half improvement gives him hopes to start.
9-5, 3.56 ERA
101 IP, 60 BB, 124 SO, 1 HR
- 14Buies Creek (Astros) RHPNotes:
Age: 22. B-T: R-R. Ht: 6-1. Wt: 210. Drafted: Notre Dame, 2017 (11).
Buies Creek shuttled through 16 different starters this season. Bielak was the most effective of them, baffling hitters and impressing scouts with a combination of solid stuff, a hard-charging, aggressive approach and above-average control.
The Astros were able to get Bielak in the 11th round in 2017 because he had a horrible junior year at Notre Dame (5.55 ERA), but this year he posted the same 2.10 ERA for Buies Creek he had as a sophomore for the Fighting Irish and earned a promotion to Double-A in June.
Bielak attacks hitters with an above-average fastball and slider. His fastball sits 91-94 mph while he manipulates his low 80s slider, making it bigger or tighter depending on the count. He also throws an average changeup.
There are pitchers with better pure stuff than Bielak, but his combination of a well-rounded arsenal, a repeatable delivery and strong control made him one of the safest prospects among league pitchers.
5-3, 2.10 ERA
56 IP, 17 BB, 74 SO, 2 HR
- 15Salem (Red Sox) SSNotes:
Age: 23. B-T: R-R. Ht: 6-4. Wt: 185. Drafted: Florida Atlantic, 2016 (2).
Much like his teammate Darwinzon Hernandez, Chatham was a significantly better player at the end of the year than the start. Chatham’s actual offensive numbers weren’t tremendously different from the first half to the second, but multiple scouts noted he looked faster and had a quicker bat in the second half.
Chatham fits the bill as a tall, rangy, average defender at shortstop. His plus arm is his biggest asset defensively, but he also shows reliable hands and a solid understanding of positioning and a good internal clock. Offensively he consistently got the bat to the ball and sprayed it all around the field, finishing second in the Carolina League with a .315 batting average. He showed well-below-average power and rarely hit the ball over an outfielder's head, but his contact ability, efficient basestealing (10-14 SB) and shortstop defense made for a promising foundation.
Chatham’s low-energy demeanor turned off a number of evaluators and he isn’t particularly twitchy, raising concerns about his long-term athleticism. He’ll have to continue to hit and play good defense up the middle to keep rising, but he has the tools to do so.
362 AB, 3 HR, 10 SB, 21 BB, 72 SO
- 16Wilmington (Royals) CNotes:
Age: 21. B-T: L-L. Ht: 5-11. Wt: 220. Signed: Columbia, 2013.
Viloria went straight from the Carolina League to the major leagues in September. When the Royals traded Drew Butera at the end of August, it left them with Viloria as one of only three catchers on the 40-man roster. They brought him up when the rosters expanded on Sept. 1.
Viloria lacks a clear plus tool, but catchers with a lot of average tools often end up with very lengthy big league careers. As a big-bodied catcher Viloria cannot run, but his other four tools could end up as average. He shows a knack for making solid contact and, while he hasn’t shown average power yet, his strength and contact ability should allow him to run into double-digit home runs a year. Defensively, Viloria has an average arm and moves well behind the plate. He’s average defensively with solid footwork. While he’s not quite ready to stick in the majors, his ability to hit and play solid defense give him a chance to be up there for good in the near future.
358 AB, 6 HR, 2 SB, 40 BB, 75 SO
- 17Winston-Salem (White Sox) OFNotes:
Age: 21. B-T: L-L. Ht: 6-3. Wt: 195. Drafted: HS–Canoga Park, Calif., 2016 (1)-Yankees.
Winston-Salem Dash was loaded with outfield prospects during the year, including Micker Adolfo, Luis Basabe, Luis Gonzalez, Luis Robert and Joel Booker. All of them can do something better than Rutherford, but Rutherford was the best all-around player of the group.
Rutherford mostly stayed in the corners on a team with multiple center fielders, but he showed he’s an above-average outfielder who tracks balls very well, making up for his average speed. He also runs the bases well.
At the plate, ideally scouts would like to see more power and a quicker bat from Rutherford, but he works counts well, selects the right pitch to hit and drives the ball to all fields. There’s plenty of belief that Rutherford’s 25 doubles and nine triples are a sign of future home runs, but scouts generally like his above-average hit tool more than his fringe-average power. Rutherford is a very well-rounded player who can legitimately hit and play all three outfield positions, which gives him a chance at a lengthy big league career.
447 AB, 7 HR, 15 SB, 34 BB, 90 SO
- 18Winston-Salem (White Sox) OFNotes:
Age: 22. B-T: L-L. Ht: 6-1. Wt: 185. Drafted: New Mexico, 2017 (3).
A pitcher/outfielder at New Mexico, Gonzalez hit .300 in low Class A to earn a late June promotion to Winston-Salem. He hit even better with the Dash, leading all Winston-Salem hitters with a .313 average while playing all three outfield spots and hitting 40 doubles between the two levels.
Gonzalez was the Dash’s best defensive center fielder in the second half, showing above-average range and good athleticism. Now that he’s not pitching his arm is bouncing back, giving him an a potentially above-average arm that fits in right field.
Offensively, Gonzalez projects as a top-of-the-order table setter. His power is all pull-oriented right now, but he does take his walks and work counts to get on base. There are scouts who see Gonzalez as a solid fourth outfielder whose bat and glove aren’t quite enough to be an everyday player, but if he keeps hitting like he did in 2018, he can remove many of those doubts.
252 AB, 6 HR, 3 SB, 27 BB, 46 SO
- 19Buies Creek (Astros) OFNotes:
Age: 22. B-T: L-R. Ht: 6-0. Wt: 206. Drafted: Arizona, 2017 (2s).
The Astros believe in drafting bats and sorting out where they will play along the way. It was true when they drafted Tyler White (who has turned himself into a surprisingly versatile infielder), it was true when they drafted Seth Beer this year and it was true when they drafted Matijevic.
The chiseled Matijevic has strength and he can hit. He easily led Buies Creek with 19 home runs, fifth in the league, and finished fourth in the league with 42 extra-base hits. He showed all-fields power and a prototypical Astros’ swing that leads to lots of long fly balls. Some scouts worry he’s too much of a mistake hitter and his strikeout rate was a touch high, but he impacts the ball with authority when he connects.
Despite early discussions of trying him at second base, Matijevic has been largely limited to left field as a pro and he’s below-average there. He doesn’t run well and projects better as a first baseman for most observers. Matijevic might have the bat for it, but he’d be best served improving his outfield defense.
335 AB, 19 HR, 10 SB, 36 BB, 103 SO
- 20Frederick (Orioles) OFNotes:
Age: 21. B-T: R-R. Ht: 5-11. Wt: 185. Drafted: HS–Dover, N.H., 2015 (4).
It’s been a decade since the Orioles drafted a high school outfielder who made it to the majors. McKenna has a chance to end that drought. McKenna hit .377/.467/.536 in the Carolina League before a promotion to Double-A. He had twice as many multi-hit games (32) as hitless games (16) and led the league in most offensive categories before being bumped up in June.
McKenna is more of a well-rounded player than one with any loud tools. He impressed evaluators with his approach and swing, and showcased an excellent batting eye while improving his power in his three months in Frederick. He’s an average runner who projects as an average defender in center field with an average arm.
McKenna’s amazing first half was far beyond anything the fourth-round pick had ever done before and his production dipped dramatically after his promotion, so there is reasonable skepticism surrounding McKenna’s bat. His struggles at Double-A are a reminder that he projects as more of an average hitter with fringe-average power, but that might be enough to get him to the majors if he can stick in center field.
257 AB, 8 HR, 5 SB, 37 BB, 45 SO