Midwest League Top 20 Prospects For 2019
Following up on their Midwest League championship season in 2018, Bowling Green once again managed to grab attention this season. The Hot Rods gave a clear cut example of the Rays’ organizational strength in developing pitchers, with a handful of top arms, including 2018 first-round lefthanders Matthew Liberatore and Shane McClanahan and 2017 first-round righthander Shane Baz coming through the MWL.
In addition to pitching, Bowling Green also played host to the top prospect in the game in shortstop Wander Franco, and while Franco was in the MWL for only half the season, it proved to be enough time to do damage and stand out to managers and scouts.
As good as Bowling Green was, South Bend swept it in first round of the MWL playoffs on the Cubs’ way to winning all seven playoff games to claim the league title.
Please note our chat discussing Midwest League prospects will be held on Tuesday, Oct. 15.
1. Wander Franco, SS, Bowling Green (Rays)
Age: 18. B-T: S-R. Ht.: 5-10. Wt.: 189. Signed: Dominican Republic, 2017.
After making his pro debut in the Appalachian League in 2018, fresh off his 17th birthday, Franco came as advertised in his first taste of full-season ball in the Midwest League.
“Wander is an animal,” one scout said. “He’s a baseball rat. He knows he’s good and he wants to win. (Like) Michael Jordan (he) wants to beat you at everything."
Coming from deep baseball bloodlines—his uncle is Erick Aybar—Franco’s advanced instincts at the plate meld with quick wrists, bat speed and enough raw power to project as a future .300 hitter with above-average power. Franco makes consistent contact from both sides of the plate, complementing his mental approach as much as his physical approach.
At shortstop, Franco’s hands, instincts and actions should allow him to stay at the position, but you can find evaluators who believe he will move to third base eventually.
2. Matthew Liberatore, LHP, Bowling Green (Rays)
Age: 19. B-T: L-L. Ht.: 6-5. Wt.: 200 Drafted: HS—Glendale, Ariz., 2018 (1).
Liberatore has a trio of present above-average pitches, but he is drawing as much praise for his poise as he is for his advanced offerings. Outside of dealing with some late-season back spasms, he had a nearly perfect first full pro season.
“For being 19 years old, that’s pretty polished,” one scout said. “He can pitch, he’s got feel and three offerings I really liked with a chance for four.”
Liberatore mixes a fastball, curveball, slider and changeup. His 6-foot-5 frame and movement from the left side make it difficult for hitters to stay on top of him. He needs to improve his fastball command as he matures.
Many evaluators view Liberatore as a potential mid-rotation starter with a chance to be better than that if he sharpens his command.
3. Brailyn Marquez, LHP, South Bend (Cubs)
Age: 20. B-T: L-L. Ht.: 6-4. Wt.: 185. Signed: Dominican Republic, 2017.
Even in today’s game, a lefthanded starter who can touch 100 mph is notable. Marquez is one the most electrifying southpaws in the minors, though he faces plenty of work ahead. At the end of the day, he has the pure stuff to be a solid major league starter—or dominating reliever.
“The stuff has always been there,” a scout said. “He sits upper 90s, averaging nearly 96 (mph). His curveball has come on and he’s working on his changeup. He’s still working on consistency and growing into his body. He’s not fully coordinated yet and still mastering his mechanics.”
Marquez will have his arm slot wander at times—he walked seven in 3.2 innings in one early-season start—but he also finished his Midwest League season by striking out 22 and allowing just two baserunners in his final 12 innings.
4. Shane Baz, RHP, Bowling Green (Rays)
Age: 20. B-T: R-R. Ht.: 6-3. Wt.: 190. Drafted: HS—Tomball, Texas, 2017 (1).
With one of the most electric fastballs in the Rays’ pitching stockpile, Baz has been focusing on pacing while his pure stuff continues to develop its identity.
“He’s a wild pony who needs to be maintained,” a scout said. “His pure stuff jumps at you, but he needs time. The arm is so big and so easy he just hasn’t needed to learn how to incorporate his lower body. That’s where consistency and command and release point come in.”
Baz works off an easy-effort, triple-digit fastball, and his slider can be devastating at times. And while there were moments of inconsistency this season, he displayed enough pure feel for his three-pitch mix to build a major league arsenal as he continues to learn his body.
5. Shane McClanahan, LHP, Bowling Green (Rays)
Age: 22. B-T: L-L. Ht.: 6-1. Wt.: 200. Drafted: South Florida, 2018 (1s).
McClanahan began the season as part of Bowling Green’s outstanding rotation. He finished it at Double-A Montgomery after showing steady improvement all season.
“He’s learned to slow himself down in the heat of the game,” a scout said. “Pure power. He has wonderful stuff, and now he’s learning how to control his body. That’s not an easy thing to do for some kids.”
McClanahan sits comfortably between 92-95 mph and can add a few more ticks when needed. He still is polishing his slider and changeup, which have improved thanks to sharper command.
“The ease with which he gets velocity and life created through zone is special,” a scout said. “He can blow dudes away with his fastball but can really spin a breaking ball. That’s a future plus offering. There’s a changeup in there, too.”
6. Xavier Edwards, SS, Fort Wayne (Padres)
Age: 20. B-T: S-R. Ht.: 5-10. Wt.: 175. Drafted: HS—Coconut Creek, Fla., 2018 (1s).
Pure athleticism and near-elite speed were key factors for Edwards in an eye-catching Midwest League campaign.
“His speed plays on both sides,” one scout said. “His speed will create extra-base power. Everything is going to be speed and on-base oriented. I don’t see any real power. But who knows with the way the ball is jacked up, anything is possible.”
Despite a lack of size, Edwards has a feel for hitting to all fields at the plate, and with his body still filling out could add more power. His athleticism has played to his advantage in the middle infield, but he hasn’t locked in a long-term home yet. Some see his speed playing better in the outfield.
“Whether he stays at shortstop or moves to center field, (Edwards) can do things,” the scout added.
7. Tyler Freeman, SS, Lake County (Indians)
Age: 20. B-T: R-R. Ht.: 6-0. Wt.: 170. Drafted: HS—Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., 2017 (2s).
Freeman ranked as one of the top high school hitters in the state of California and has done nothing but hit in a three-year pro career. He rocketed up prospect rankings with a loud 2019 season that began in the Midwest League.
With power at the plate scouts view as “surprising” for his 5-foot-10 frame, Freeman shows exceptional management of the strike zone, while his bat speed and thorough understanding of his body have canceled out concerns about his size. He uses the whole field with gap-to-gap contact, and is athletic enough to remain at shortstop.
“He’s going to be a special player. I just love him. I love his instincts and makeup,” a scout said. "The way he goes about his business, his approach, has fun out there. He barrels the ball and manipulates the bat head.”
8. Nolan Gorman, 3B, Peoria (Cardinals)
Age: 19. B-T: L-R. Ht.: 6-1. Wt.: 210. Drafted: HS—Phoenix, 2018 (1).
In high school, Gorman was known for his tape-measure power, and the same holds true in pro ball for the 19th overall pick in 2018. While power comes easy, consistency has not.
Gorman had racked up nine home runs by mid-May during the coldest stretch of the Midwest League season, but he would hit just six more in 92 games the rest of the way.
“He’s hitting balls as hard as big leaguers right now at 18, 19 years old,” one scout said. “If he makes consistent contact, can he hit enough lefthanded pitching to be consistent? I’ve seen him do it, it’s just doing it consistently.”
Defensive reviews of Gorman at third base improved this season. He expanded his range to complement an easy plus arm and faces many fewer questions about his future position.
9. Alek Thomas, OF, Kane County (D-backs)
Age: 19. B-T: L-L. Ht.: 5-11. Wt.: 175. Drafted: HS—Chicago, 2018 (2).
Thomas’ athleticism stood out even in a league full of prodigious talents, and his well-rounded profile demanded attention. Scouts used the word “gamer” when describing him.
“He’s an elite athlete and the fast-twitch (actions) is off the charts,” a scout said. “To see him run down balls in the outfield, he makes playing center field look easy. Looks like he’s shagging BP some of the plays he’s made.”
At 5-foot-11, 175 pounds, Thomas is viewed as slightly undersized, but his ability to muscle the ball overshadows that.
“He gets plus jumps on the bases and doesn’t look overmatched at the plate,” a scout said. “He has a very good ability to get his body in position to hit, and the ball jumps off his bat.”
10. Brennen Davis, OF, South Bend (Cubs)
Age: 19. B-T: R-R. Ht.: 6-4. Wt.: 175. Drafted: HS—Chandler, Ariz., 2018 (2).
A basketball star early in his high school career, Davis missed most of his senior baseball season because of a hamstring injury. Thus when the Cubs drafted him in the second round in 2018, he was viewed as a toolsy player who would need two years in Rookie ball before he was ready for the Midwest League.
Davis quickly sped up his timetable. He made it to South Bend in late May and proved to be one of the best hitters in his team’s lineup. Despite playing just 50 games—he missed a month with a finger injury— he still finished second on the team with eight home runs.
Davis impacts the ball, with the potential to deliver average and power.
“I thought he would go to (short-season) Eugene, but he bullied his way to South Bend,” a scout said. “He’s been on fire and exceeding expectations. Davis is not just a free-swinger. He looks like a polished hitter. He’s fine defensively and covers ground.”
Davis played center field as often as he played left, and his routes need some work, but his above-average speed and instincts give him a chance to stick in center.
11. Joey Cantillo, LHP, Fort Wayne (Padres)
Age: 19. B-T: L-L. Ht.: 6-4. Wt.: 220. Drafted: HS—Kailua, Hawaii, 2017 (16).
Joining the notoriously young ranks of the Padres' farm system as a 16th-round pick in 2017, Cantillo is seemingly doing everything he can to shed the late-round draft label and 2019 was no exception.
Now in his third minor league season and still only 19 years old, Cantillo impressed both coaching staff and scouts alike with a highly advanced understanding for working his pitch mix to his advantage against Midwest League hitters.
"Love him. That’s my guy,” one scout said. "He’s a big guy with touch and feel, has a really good changeup and he’s gonna throw harder. He can spin his curveball, just doesn’t throw it hard. He’s gonna throw it harder.”
Cantillo’s jump to high Class A Lake Elsinore wasn’t nearly as kind, but youth and projection both play to Cantillo’s favor, buying him time to put the pieces together as he continues to move forward.
12. Gabriel Moreno, C, Lansing (Blue Jays)
Age: 19. B-T: R-R. Ht.: 5-11. Wt.: 160. Signed: Venezuela, 2016.
Despite the fact that Moreno is on the younger end of the spectrum for Midwest League catchers, his maturity both beside the plate and behind it quickly gained him respect around the league.
Earning a promotion from Rookie-level Bluefield to Lansing in May, Moreno caught the eye of Lansing manager Dallas McPherson.
"(Moreno) is a really, really good looking prospect,” McPherson said. "He handles the bat really well for a young age. He has a really good feel for the strike zone and, again, a very low swing-and-miss rate.”
Moreno gains a step above his age group with sensational hand-eye coordination and excellent barrel control. Factoring in his size, Moreno’s hit tool is likely to overshadow his future power projection, but that’s not to say he won’t see double-digit home runs down the road.
Behind the plate, Moreno moves well thanks to solid athleticism with good transfer skills. There is work to do with his framing and blocking, but for his age, Moreno is already a step ahead of most. The Blue Jays appear to like his chances to stick behind the plate.
13. Geraldo Perdomo, SS, Kane County (D-backs)
Age: 19. B-T: S-R. Ht.: 6-2. Wt.: 184. Signed: Dominican Republic, 2016.
Signed for $70,000 during the international signing period in 2016, Perdomo has exceeded expectations with his development in the D-backs' farm system thus far.
Perdomo, 19, is gaining recognition for his work on both sides of the ball, drawing praise specifically for his stylish defense and labeled as "super smooth” in the field by one scout.
"He’s a joy to be around. He loves the game,” a scout said. "It’s a joy to watch him play. He has a chance to be a plus defender at shortstop in the majors. Plus arm, hands are soft, instincts are off the charts and his range is really good.
"He makes a highlight-reel play every single night,” the scout continued. "He works like a big leaguer, he looks like a big leaguer. At the plate, his strike-zone judgment is plus and better than the umpire awareness. Hand-eye coordination is unbelievable. It’s fast-twitch, he understands the zone. He’s one of my favorites.”
There is room for additional power in his 6-foot-2 frame, but his well-rounded profile will be demanding attention over the next few years.
14. Miguel Vargas, 3B, Great Lakes (Dodgers)
Age: 19. B-T: R-R. Ht.: 6-3. Wt.: 205. Signed: Cuba, 2017.
What began as a 22-year career for Cuban infielder Lazaro Vargas has since spilled over to watching his son, Miguel Vargas, begin a career of his own.
By the time they escaped the island in 2015, Miguel Vargas had established himself as a name to watch on the Cuban circuit, leading the Dodgers to sign a check for $300,000 in 2017 to secure Vargas.
At 6-foot-3, 205 pounds, Vargas has some natural raw power at his disposal and still being just 19 years old, his power numbers are expected to develop.
With fantastic hand-eye coordination, Vargas already shows a knack for controlling the strike zone but will need to learn to pull the ball a bit more, as his approach is very opposite-field oriented at this point.
Defensively, Vargas played third base with Great Lakes, but evaluators have expressed concern that a lack of quick-twitch athleticism could ultimately force a transition to first base.
15. Levi Kelly, RHP, Kane County (D-backs)
Age: 20. B-T: R-R. Ht.: 6-4. Wt.: 205. Drafted: HS—Bradenton, Fla., 2018 (8).
Selected in the eighth round of the 2018 draft, Kelly’s advanced pitch mix had people talking in his first full season with low Class A Kane County.
"He understands his body, which shows in the confidence he has behind his stuff,” one scout said. "He’s made things more simple since the draft, and the fastball command is getting better—could add a few ticks as he matures, could be a rotation piece there, if managed properly.”
With his mid-90s fastball and slider already sitting as plus offerings, it buys Kelly time to continue to hone in on sharpening his changeup. At 6-foot-4, Kelly is still learning how to get the most out of his body as it continues to fill out. With the improvement of his control, Kelly could be successful is shedding questions of his ability to stick in the rotation.
16. Ryan Weathers, LHP, Fort Wayne (Padres)
Age: 19. B-T: R-L. Ht.: 6-1. Wt.: 230. Drafted: HS—Loretto, Tenn., 2018 (1).
In his second season with the Padres' farm system, Weathers faced the injured list for the first time in his career and the starts that followed appeared to show some lingering discomfort. Regardless, the projection of Weathers, who is still just 19 years old, hasn’t appeared to be dampened in the eyes of evaluators.
"We saw him the very first game of the year, but he impressed me,” Lansing manager Dallas McPherson said. "He really impressed me. We only saw him once, but he was really good that day.”
Starting with a fastball that touches 95 mph, Weathers complements the pitch well with an above-average curveball and changeup. Outside of the natural feel, Weathers can get scattered at times and struggles to locate consistently.
With his bulldog reputation of attacking the zone, Weathers hasn’t come off-track, despite some consistency struggles this season.
17. Brice Turang, SS, Wisconsin (Brewers)
Age: 19. B-T: L-R. Ht.: 6-0. Wt.: 173. Drafted: HS—Corona, Calif., 2018 (1).
Another 2018 draftee to jump multiple levels in 2019, Turang impressed scouts and managers across the Midwest League in his first season.
"In the infield, I really liked Brice a lot,” Peoria manager Erik Almonte said. "He was really good.”
Working extensively at shortstop, the Brewers have also played Turang at second base on multiple occasions in hopes of expanding his infield versatility. Whether Turang will hold at shortstop has yet to be determined.
"He plays hard,” one scout said. "He’s going to develop power, I think. He has a chance for plus-hit, some on-base skills and runs a bit, but it’s going to come down to how good a defensive player he is. He’s not going to produce runs, so he’s going to have to stop runs. Does he stay at shortstop? That’s a tough one.”
Turang’s major league bloodlines give him a leg up in the realm of natural instincts, but ultimately he’ll need to take everything he does well and simply add polish to the right areas.
18. Otto Lopez, 2B, Lansing (Blue Jays)
Age: 20. B-T: R-R. Ht.: 5-10. Wt.: 160. Signed: Dominican Republic, 2017.
After seemingly working his way out of the shadows this season, Lopez even found a way to surprise his manager, Dallas McPherson.
"He's definitely been under the radar all year," McPherson said. "I mean, he was fighting for the league batting title and didn't even make the all-star team or the post-season all-star team. I think that's someone who has definitely been overlooked throughout the whole season and has been probably our most valuable player."
Lopez, 20, expertly managed the strike zone against Midwest League pitching, adding in deceptive power and a mature eye on the base path.
"I liked him a lot," a scout said. "I liked the way he moved, the way he played, and I like the bat. His at-bat quality has to improve a bit, but for me, he was one of the best athletes on the field. He's small, but he's got some power and I think he's going to grow into that power."
19. Riley Thompson, RHP, South Bend (Cubs)
Age: 23. B-T: L-R. Ht.: 6-3 Wt.: 205. Drafted: Louisville, 2018 (11).
While Thompson was among the older arms in the Midwest League, his work throughout his second season as a professional was eye-catching.
It’s been a steady process of simplifying his mechanics and finding his groove at the minor league level since the Cubs took Thompson in the 11th round of the 2018 draft out of Louisville.
"He has an easy plus fastball that sits 92-96 mph,” one scout said. "He has a curveball and changeup that have a chance to be solid-average with enough command and control that he could be in a rotation. His curve is average around 3,000 rpm. There are enough strikes there, and the command will continue to get better.”
The Cubs didn’t rush Thompson, holding him at the low Class A level all season. A move to high Class A Myrtle Beach in 2020 is to be expected to add more of a challenge.
20. Will Benson, OF, Lake County (Indians)
Age: 21. B-T: L-L. Ht.: 6-5. Wt.: 225. Drafted: HS—Atlanta, 2016 (1).
Benson had arguably the most pure raw power of any hitter to see the Midwest League this season, and now he's been faced with the challenge of channeling that muscle accordingly to balance out a strikeout rate that has continued to plague him.
Back for his second look at the Midwest League, Benson made some adjustments at the plate. And while there were improvements throughout his plate presence, the swing-and-miss issues haven't disappeared quite yet.
"I thought he made some adjustments,” one scout said. "Last year, I wasn’t sold and I’m still not completely sold. He swings and misses in the zone a lot, which is scary. Good athlete, and his defense was pretty good. He’s a right fielder but can play centerfield, if you need him too. He just has to clean up at the plate.”
The Indians banked on Benson’s power, taking him in the first round of the 2016 draft. Now 20 years old, Benson’s power is still a factor, but the whiff rate is continuing to cast a shadow.