2017 Carolina League Top 20 Prospects
|Co-Champions Down East (Rangers) Lynchburg (Indians)|
|Best Record Lynchburg (Indians), 87-52 (.626)|
|Most Valuable Player Ademar Rifaela, OF, Frederick (Orioles)|
|Pitcher Of The Year Triston McKenzie, RHP, Lynchburg (Indians)|
To qualify for a Minor League Top 20 Prospects list, a position player must have one plate appearance per team game, a starting pitcher must have one-third of an inning per team game and a reliever must have 20 relief appearances.
This year’s high Class A Carolina League featured a trio of talented outfielders, led by the slam-dunk No. 1 prospect Eloy Jimenez.
Dealt from the Cubs to the White Sox at midseason as part of the package for lefthander Jose Quintana, Jimenez showed literal light-tower power at the Carolina League home run derby when one of his longballs busted one of the bulbs out of a light stanchion.
Behind Jimenez were two more outfield prospects in Potomac’s Victor Robles and Frederick’s Austin Hays. Robles picked up right where he left off last year in showing prodigious talent on both sides of the ball, and Hays began one of the minor leagues’ biggest breakout years. He continued mashing in Bowie and then became the first member of the 2016 draft class to reach the major leagues.
And although Carolina, in its first season as a Brewers affiliate, was loaded with prospects on Opening Day, its best talent didn’t arrive until midseason. Center fielder Monte Harrison made an instant splash for the Mudcats, showing five-tool potential and defense so dazzling that he made SportsCenter multiple times.
The Mudcats also boasted one of the circuit’s best pitching prospects in righthander Corbin Burnes, who used above-average stuff and command to rank third in the minors with a 1.67 ERA. The league also featured the top two strikeout artists in the minors: Winston-Salem righthander Alec Hansen and Lynchburg righthander Triston McKenzie.
The prize of the four-player package that the Cubs used to pry Jose Quintana from the White Sox, Jimenez had an easy transition from organizations. Myrtle Beach and Winston-Salem were playing each other when the trade went down, so he and teammates Matt Rose and Bryant Flete simply grabbed their equipment and switched dugouts.
Jimenez’s carrying tool is obvious. He has easy plus-plus raw power and at least plus in-game power. But he’s no one-trick pony. Jimenez can hit the ball 400-plus feet, but he can also rip line drives to all fields and projects to hit for average in addition to power. His approach is beyond what evaluators would expect for a 20-year-old, and his 18.9 percent strikeout rate is low for a power hitter.
In the outfield, Jimenez is average at best and some see him as a tick below-average thanks to his below-average speed, but he should be fine in a corner.
After rocketing to high Class A in his first full season, Robles returned to the Carolina League to begin 2017. The Nationals simply wanted him to mature. Robles shows tools that will eventually translate into skills—just needed to be refined. He will make mistakes, but those around him say he works hard to take the lessons to heart.
Tools-wise, Robles has a bounty. Most notable is his plus-plus speed, which he puts to work to change games on the bases and in the outfield. An outstanding center fielder, he is also capable in right field thanks to his above-average arm.
At the plate, Robles is best served slapping the ball around the diamond and using his speed to burn up the basepaths. Some evaluators see the topspin he produces and predict plenty of power as he matures.
3. Austin Hays, OF, Frederick (Orioles) Age: 22 B-T: R-R Ht.: 6-1 Wt.: 195 Drafted: Jacksonville, 2016 (3)
As an amateur, Hays was lauded for his all-around blend of skills. The Orioles found a way to alter his swing mechanics in pro ball to produce power, and he blitzed from high Class A to Double-A in a full-season debut that ended in the big leagues in September.
Carolina League managers saw above-average tools out of Hays in every facet. They liked his ability to punish both fastballs and offspeed pitches, and to hit balls out of the park to all fields.
In the outfield, Hays handled center field adequately but doesn’t have true plus speed. His above-average arm and power potential make right field his likely future position.
Tucker won BA High School Player of the Year honors in 2015 and quickly earned accolades in pro ball. He performed well offensively in a home park—Campbell’s Jim Perry Stadium—that tremendously depresses power. Of his nine Carolina League home runs, eight were hit on the road.
At Double-A, Tucker’s power became more pronounced. His 16 homers with Corpus Christi ranked third on the team and among the top 10 in the league despite playing just 72 games. Scouts saw a player who sweeps the bat through the zone as well as an occasional backside collapse, but his tremendous hand-eye coordination makes it work.
Tucker is an above-average runner and has an average, accurate arm in the outfield. He showed immaturity at times, especially when it came to putting bad at-bats behind him in the field.
The Astros sent a cavalcade of talented arms through Buies Creek in 2017, and Perez has one of the brightest futures. The Tigers required him as the centerpiece of the three-player package that sent ace righthander Justin Verlander to the Astros at the end of August.
At his best, Perez shows above-average command of three above-average or better pitches. His fastball reaches into the mid-90s, and he couples the pitch with a changeup, slider and a 12-to-6 curveball. He tweaked his slider grip later in the year to tighten the pitch and up its spin rate. His changeup sits in the low 80s and projects as above-average in the future.
Perez missed roughly a month with a knee injury (though he was never placed on the disabled list), and with his combination of pitches and polish he has a top-of-the-rotation starter ceiling.
The first thing scouts mention about McKenzie is his extremely slender frame. He’s long and lean with tantalizing present stuff. He struck out 186 batters this season to rank second in the minors and finished with a particular flourish, racking up 31 strikeouts in 20 innings.
McKenzie’s fastball rangers from 87-94 mph, and he parked the pitch at the higher end of that range in the early portion of his outings. He coupled it with a sharp 12-to-6 curveball that projects as a future plus offering. He’s also developing a changeup that the Indians think could be plus as well.
The biggest focal point for McKenzie is simply getting bigger and stronger, so he can hold his velocity deep into games.
Though Harrison has missed a boatload of time in his pro career, his tools showed well during his half-season with Carolina. He showed power at the plate and speed that translated both in the outfield and on the basepaths.
Harrison, who was a wide receiver in high school who committed to play football at Nebraska, tracks the ball with ease in center field. He also has an above-average arm that makes him an asset in right field on the days when manager Joe Ayrault played either Trent Clark or Corey Ray in center field.
Harrison’s power showed up in the Carolina League as well. He hit 10 home runs after being promoted to Carolina on June 23 and tied Salem’s Jordan Betts for the second-most in the league during that period. He’s a plus runner on the bases who shows the instincts to steal bases or take extra bases.
Burnes dominated in his full-season debut by recording a 1.67 ERA at Carolina and Double-A Biloxi that ranked third-lowest in the minors. He doesn’t pitch with particularly knockout stuff, but he commands slightly above-average stuff that features late movement.
Burnes’ fastball sits in the low 90s and can touch as high as 95 mph with natural cut. A shift in his delivery—from a modified stretch early in the season to a more traditional windup—helped him bump his velocity up a touch. He has a full complement of offspeed pitches—including a 77-80 mph curveball, a mid-80s slider and a high-80s split-changeup.
Burnes’ breaking balls are well ahead of his changeup at this point, with the slider the superior of the two offerings. Brewers officials are also particularly fond of how aggressive he is on the mound and compare him to system-mate Brandon Woodruff in that regard.
After a case of draftitis scuttled his junior season at Oklahoma, Hansen regained his confidence in pro ball. It all came together this season, when he led the minors with 191 strikeouts and made it to Double-A after starting at low Class A.
Hansen begins his pitch selection with a fastball in the 91-98 mph range with late life. He worked hard this year with Winston-Salem coaches to maintain a consistent downward plane during his delivery, which at 6-foot-7 would make his pitches play up. He also worked this year to keep his shoulders even throughout his delivery.
Hansen’s best two offspeed pitches are a 12-6 curveball than needs a little bit more consistency but can be plus at its best. He’s also throws a changeup that is at least average and a slider that is a clear fourth pitch at this point.
To acquire Adam Eaton from the White Sox last winter, the Nationals traded away righthanders Lucas Giolito, Reynaldo Lopez and Dunning. The White Sox sent Dunning to low Class A Kannapolis, but he earned a quick promotion to Winston-Salem.
At his best, Dunning dominates by commanding his low- to mid-90s sinker and slider and letting his defense work for him. The White Sox were encouraged by his willingness to throw his sinker to both sides of the plate, but they would like him to work on staying tall through his delivery and staying over his front side.
Dunning’s 12-to-6 curveball is a weapon in his arsenal, and he is working on continuing to develop his changeup. He struck out 135 in the Carolina League to rank fourth, despite not joining the Dash until May 2, and he ranked 11th in the minors overall.
After spending 2016 splitting time with Rafael Devers at third base at high Class A Salem, Chavis was on his own back there to begin this season. With everyday playing time came production and a quick return of some of the prospect sheen he’d lost.
Already praised for his ability to hit premium fastballs, Chavis worked hard with Salem to get better at doing the same to offspeed pitches. Specifically, he tried to reduce his tendency to drift forward early and get out in front of those pitches. He already shows well above-average power, and his 17 homers were fourth in the Carolina League despite playing just 59 games. He was also one of just nine players this season with more than 30 home runs.
Defensively, he has a chance to stick at third base with continued work. If not there then some evaluators suggested that the athletic ability that allowed him to play shortstop at high school could prompt a move to second base.
12. Willi Castro, SS, Lynchburg (Indians) Age: 20 B-T: S-R Ht.: 6-1 Wt.: 165 Signed: Dominican Republic, 2013
After a middling season as a 19-year-old in the Midwest League, Castro moved up a level this year and broke out. A switch-hitter, Castro showed aptitude from both sides of the plate and little if any discernable platoon split. His .290 average was good for fourth in the Carolina League.
Despite his slight build, Castro showed burgeoning power this season with 11 home runs. The total is one more than his career mark entering the season. His swing features a direct path to the ball and his extremely strong hands help him send balls out of the yard. He also improved his plate discipline this season. Specifically, he got better at laying off breaking balls out of the zone.
Castro is plus defender right now with a plus throwing arm, but will have to work hard to stay at shortstop. His hands and feet work together well, but he needs to improve his lateral range to avoid moving elsewhere on the diamond. He profiles as a pesky hitter at either the top or the bottom of the order who can do damage with line drives and his legs.
Collins has massive power down both lines. That much is not in doubt. He showed it as a collegian at Miami and he’s continued to show it as a pro. He’s also got one of the better batting eyes in the game, and his 87 walks this season ranked eighth in the minors.
Collins’ power and patience give evaluators confidence that he’ll produce enough offense to be a weapon in a big league lineup. Whether he’ll hit for average is another question. He has a pronounced bat tip at the top of his already long swing, and scouts think he could be tied up with hard, well-located fastballs on the inner portion of the plate as he goes up the ladder.
Some scouts believe Collins can stay at catcher, but he needs to continue to work hard. He has a strong, accurate throwing arm that can produce sub-2.0-second pop times on throws to second base. White Sox catching instructors were a constant presence at Winston-Salem this year to help him refine his currently below-average receiving and blocking, and he’s worked hard to get better at calling a game and reading hitters’ swings as well.
To illustrate Gatewood’s massive power, consider this: In a Carolina League home run derby field with monster masher Eloy Jimenez, Gatewood emerged victorious. He used that well above-average raw power to mash his way out of high Class A in early August. He got his eyes checked out this offseason and got contact lenses as a result.
With improved vision, Gatewood posted a .340 on-base percentage during his time with the Mudcats, a better figure than he’d produced at any of his previous stops. He moved to first base this year partially because of the presence of Lucas Erceg at third base and partially to increase his defensive versatility. He played sparsely at third base at Carolina and exclusively at the position once he was promoted to Biloxi.
A shortstop in high school, Gatewood still showed the athleticism and the arm strength needed to play at the hot corner, and his bat has the potential to profile at both corners. One evaluator even thought he’d be playable in the outfield in a pinch.
15. Lucas Erceg, 3B, Carolina (Brewers) Age: 22 B-T: L-R Ht.: 6-3 Wt.: 200 Drafted: Menlo (Calif.), 2016 (2)
Like most of the prospects on the stocked Carolina team, Erceg had an inconsistent season. He scuffled offensively in the first half, but really turned it around in the latter portion of the season. The Brewers were impressed enough that they sent him to Triple-A Colorado Springs for that team’s playoff run.
At his best, Erceg shows a patient approach with a strong, aggressive swing and enough power to profile at third base. The Brewers wanted him to work on taking more pitches and working deeper into counts to force pitchers to throw something in his zone.
Defensively, he was one of the best in the league. He had range to both sides and a well above-average arm that allowed him to throw 95 mph off the mound as an amateur. Some managers thought his arm was tied with Potomac’s Kelvin Gutierrez as the best they saw all year.
An under-the-radar signing out of Venezuela in 2013, Alzolay has improved his delivery and rhythm over the past two seasons and saw better results this year at high Class A.
He quickened his pace noticeably and started using his legs more in his delivery, and as a result he was able to sustain his mid-90s fastball throughout the duration of his outing. He coupled the pitch with an average curveball in the low 80s and a below-average changeup in the high 80s.
Alzolay’s quickened pace—he’s one of the fastest-working pitchers you’ll find in the minor leagues—has a twofold purpose. He doesn’t want hitters to get a chance to think about what’s coming next, and his coaches don’t want him to get a chance to overthink things either. As a 6-foot righthander who doesn’t generate a high groundball rate, he could be destined for the bullpen.
Evaluators in the Carolina League stressed two things about Mountcastle. First, he can really, really hit. Second, he’s not going to play shortstop. He was the seventh-youngest player in the league entering this season, and he was the only player to finish with a batting average better than .300 and led the league with an .885 OPS.
Some opposing managers saw in Mountcastle a tendency to chase pitches out of the zone, but he’d also hit those pitches a good amount as well. As he continues to refine his knowledge of the zone, scouts see the potential for a player who hits .300 with 20 or more home runs.
On defense, Mountcastle’s future likely lies in the outfield. His arm action will prevent him from playing either shortstop or third base (which he played after a promotion to Double-A Bowie), and his below-average speed won’t help either. Fortunately, his offensive pedigree will work out just fine in left field if and when he makes the transition.
18. Daniel Johnson, OF, Potomac (Nationals) Age: 22 B-T: L-L Ht.: 5-10 Wt.: 185 Drafted: New Mexico State, 2016 (5)
When Victor Robles was promoted from Potomac to Double-A Harrisburg, the P-Nats appeared to have lost a big part of the top of their order. Not for long. Johnson stepped into Robles’ spot atop the batting order and in center field and filled in admirably for the top prospect.
Johnson slugged 17 homers in low Class A before the promotion, then added five more with Potomac, including a ball that cleared the batter’s eye at Down East in dead center field. He generates his power with above-average bat speed borne from strong hands and forearms.
Defensively, Johnons is not the same slam-dunk center fielder as Robles but used his above-average speed and quick first step to make for what sometimes were suspect routes. The Nationals will leave him center field as long as possible but could move him to right field eventually (he has a plus arm) because they believe his power-speed profile—he was one of 11 players in the minors this year with 20 home runs and 20 stolen bases—will profile at the position.
19. Jorge Alcala, RHP, Buies Creek (Astros) Age: 22 B-T: R-R Ht.: 6-3 Wt.: 180 Signed: Dominican Republic, 2014
The Astros sent a stable of high-end arms through Buies Creek in 2017, including 2016 first-round righthander Forrest Whitley, since-traded righty Franklin Perez and Cuban lefthander Cionel Perez. The most unsung was Alcala, a live-armed righthander.
Alcala starts his arsenal with a fastball that sits in the mid-90s and can reach up to 99 mph with armside life when he gets it down in the zone. If he leaves it up, the pitch straightens and he can get hit. He complements his fastball with an above-average changeup in the 86-90 mph range with excellent sinking action in the lower realms of that velo band. He can throw it too hard on occasion and it will flatten as a result.
Alcala also throws a slider in the mid- to upper 80s that serves as his third pitch. Like most of the pitchers at Buies Creek, Alcala was used as both a starter and a reliever as part of the Astros’ piggybacking system. Like most young starters, Alcala needs to refine his command and work on repeating his delivery. Particularly, he doesn’t always get all the way over his front side and can leave balls up as a result.
Acquired along with righthanders Daniel Missaki and Carlos Herrera for Adam Lind in 2015, Peralta was one of the Brewers’ best performing pitching prospects in 2017. He was part of a piggyback partnership with fellow righthander Marcos Diplan, who had better stuff, but Peralta produced the better results.
Peralta starts his repertoire with a mixture of two- and four-seam fastballs in the 86-93 mph range that hitters simply do not see. Both pitches have late life at the end, and he gets deception from a crossfire delivery and a hip turn, which result in tons of swings and misses. In one start in early April, Peralta got 20 swigning strikes among his 57 strikes
Peralta complements his fastballs with a slider in the high 70s and a changeup in the low 80s. The slider is the better of those two pitches, while his changeup is a work in progress. The stuff doesn’t jump out at you, but the results certainly do.
2021 Baseball America MLB All-Rookie Team
One area of strength for the 2021 rookie crop was starting pitching.