Image credit: Ronaldo Hernandez (Photo by Zach Lucy/Four Seam Images)
Though we are still six weeks or so from the minor league season, it’s never too early to dream. Now that our annual preseason Top 100 Prospects list is live, it’s time to make some educated guesses about which teams will open the year with the most scintillating clusters of talent.
Last season, this list was topped by Triple-A Round Rock, which had righthander Forrest Whitley, outfielder Kyle Tucker and first baseman Yordan Alvarez on its roster. Whitley’s season didn’t go as planned, but Tucker put up one of the minors’ two 30-homer, 30-steal seasons and Alvarez crushed his way to the big leagues and the American League Rookie of the Year award.
This year’s top group is comprised of a few of the players who began 2019 with low Class A Bowling Green, which we ranked as the fourth-most intriguing roster to open 2019. Wander Franco, the game’s top prospect, heads the group, but he’s hardly alone. The uber-talented teenager will be four more members of the Top 100 as well as a catcher in Ronaldo Hernandez who could easily slug his way back onto the list.
As always, these are just predictions. Things can and will change drastically between now and Opening Day, but there’s a pretty good chance that the initial rosters for the 10 clubs highlighted below will look something like what we’ve dreamed up in the waning days of February.
1. Double-A Montgomery (Rays)
Unsurprisingly, the game’s best farm system will also have the game’s most must-watch team. The headliner, of course, is Franco, who laid waste to the Class A levels in 2019 and could push his way to the big leagues if he does the same at the upper levels. He’ll play all season as a 19-year-old and will look to show the same type of preternatural plate discipline that he displayed between low Class A Bowling Green and high Class A Charlotte a season ago. Franco will be joined by a pair of fellow up-the-middle talents in Vidal Brujan and Xavier Edwards. The latter was acquired from the Padres over the winter and, along with Franco, was one of just two players in the minors last year who swung and missed at a rate lower than 4.3 percent. The pitching staff will be powered by fastball-heavy Joe Ryan— whose 183 strikeouts were second in the minors—and lefty Shane McClanahan, who whiffed 154 himself.
2. Triple-A Toledo (Tigers)
The livelier baseballs at Triple-A vexed pitchers from coast to coast in 2019. With one of the nastiest projected rotations in the minors, Toledo might be able to keep the ball in the yard the old-fashioned way: By throwing past hitters over and over again. The Mudhens’ starting five should be fronted by 2018 No. 1 overall pick Casey Mize, who was dominant at two levels before his shoulder started barking. He’ll be backed up by athletic fireballer Matt Manning, upstart lefty Tarik Skubal and righty Alex Faedo, who bounced back in a big way in 2019. With Erie, the trio combined to whiff an astounding 364 hitters in 291.1 innings. Skubal alone racked up 82 strikeouts in just 49.1 innings, good for an eye-popping rate of 17.9 strikeouts per nine innings … as a starter. That group will look to get some offensive support from a lineup led by infielder Isaac Paredes, who has hit at every level and checked in at No. 100 on BA’s 2020 preseason Top 100 Prospects list.
3. Triple-A Gwinnett (Braves)
With Ronald Acuña Jr., Ender Inciarte, Marcell Ozuna and Nick Markakis, the Braves’ big league outfield appears to be set. If one of those four should get injured, however, the next wave is one call away at Gwinnett. Pache has gone from a light-hitting player with a sterling glove to a well-rounded player who can provide value on both sides of the ball as a slam-dunk center fielder. Waters followed a stellar 2018 season at the Class A levels with an equally impressive encore at Double-A and Triple-A. Waters finished 2019 with the second-most hits in the minors, just two behind No. 2 overall prospect Luis Robert. Anderson, Muller and Davidson should form an excellent trio at the top of the Stripers’ rotation and will give the Braves plenty of options throughout the season.
4. Double-A Amarillo (Padres)
Gore ranks as the game’s top pitching prospect for good reason. The precocious lefthander has used a four-pitch mix to handcuff opponents for the last two seasons, stopped only by bouts of blisters in 2018. In a year’s time, he could join Chris Paddack near the top of San Diego’s rotation. Patiño isn’t far behind Gore. The loose-armed Colombian righthander brings easy gas and nasty breaking stuff that allowed him to whiff 11.7 hitters per nine innings between high Class A Lake Elsinore and Double-A Amarillo. Trammell was added to the organization in a midseason deal and instantly made an impact when he clubbed the go-ahead grand slam that gave Amarillo the margin of victory it needed to clinch the Texas League championship. Campusano is among the game’s best catching prospects and has been coveted in trades this offseason.
5. Double-A Pensacola (Twins)
Lewis’ 2019 regular season was underwhelming. He struggled to hit, due in large part, scouts believe, to his complex swing mechanics. Between high Class A Fort Myers and Pensacola, he posted an OPS of just .661. Still, he was impressive during the Futures Game and then again in the Arizona Fall League, where he was the MVP of the regular season and the Fall Stars Game. Nobody doubts his athleticism or ceiling, but there are plenty of questions about whether he’ll hit enough to realize all of his potential. Lewis is likely to be joined in Pensacola by two of the organization’s top two pitching prospects—Balazovic and Duran—who were impressive in 2019. Balazovic earned a Futures Game invitation with an improved fastball and Duran flummoxed hitters with his hard, nasty split-finger/sinker hybrid. Quietly, Jeffers put up one of the best offensive seasons from a catcher in the minors.
6. Double-A Northwest Arkansas (Royals)
If the Mudhens have the best (projected) rotation in the minors, the Naturals are a close second. The Royals’ group of high-end arms has powered its Class A affiliates to championships in each of the past two seasons. Two of those arms—lefty Daniel Lynch and righty Jackson Kowar—cracked the preseason Top 100 Prospects list. Two more—righty Brady Singer and lefty Kris Bubic, the latter of whom led the minors with 185 punchouts—were on the precipice of the list. The rotation should be rounded out by southpaw Austin Cox, who led the NCAA in strikeouts in his draft year and then racked up 132 in his first full season as a pro. Keep an eye out, too, for dynamic outfielder Kyle Isbel, who should bring a power-speed combination to the top of the lineup.
7. High Class A Palm Beach (Cardinals)
Reunited … and it feels so good. High school friends and 2018 first-rounders Liberatore and Gorman became pro teammates this offseason when the Cardinals swung a deal with the Rays that sent Randy Arozarena and Jose Martinez to Tampa Bay. Now, the pair will try to move up the ladder together as Cardinals. Gorman showed big-time power in his first full season as a pro in 2019 but has some corrections to make to become a complete hitter. Liberatore was excellent in the Midwest League and has the makings of a solid mid-rotation starter. Fellow southpaw Thompson was impressive in short bursts after a long college season with Kentucky, and Herrera has high upside behind the plate.
8. Double-A Jacksonville (Marlins)
The only organization to place two teams on this list, the Marlins have quickly rebuilt their system into something that should continue to stock their big league club in 2020. The gem of this club should be Cabrera, author of one of the stealthiest stellar seasons in the minors. The righthander pairs a 70-grade fastball with a plus slider and an average changeup and finished the season with a ratio of 3.74 strikeouts to walks between high Class A and Double-A. He’ll be joined in the rotation by southpaws Rogers and Garrett, each of whom have the upside of big league starters. Chisholm will look to maximize his power-speed potential by making more contact than he did in 2019.
9. Low Class A Kane County (D-backs)
Robinson was long thought of as one of the toolsiest prospects in Arizona’s vastly improved system. He showed off those tools as one of the youngest players in the short-season Northwest League, where he ranked as the circuit’s clear top prospect. At just 18 years old, Robinson made a quick cameo with Kane County and could be a true five-tool talent if he develops as the D-backs hope. Carroll was as pure a hitter as could be found in the 2019 draft class, and was regarded highly enough to earn a shot in the typically college-heavy NWL toward the end of Hillsboro’s championship season. Frias was the NWL’s most dominant pitcher, overpowering hitters with a mix of hard stuff from an intimidating frame.
10. Triple-A Wichita (Marlins)
Finding talent on the initial Wind Surge roster should be a breeze. The team—which moved from New Orleans over the offseason—should open its new park with a rotation fronted by fireballing righty Sixto Sanchez (the headliner of the J.T. Realmuto trade) and a lineup topped by dynamic outfielder Jesus Sanchez (pried from Tampa Bay last season in the deal that made Nick Anderson a Ray). Diaz (acquired from the Twins for Sergio Romo) rode an improved body to a breakthrough season and has begun to show the markings of a classic slugging first baseman. Harrison (part of the Christian Yelich deal) will try to sharpen up his game in order to earn extended big league time.
OTHERS TO WATCH: Low Class A Augusta (Giants), low Class A Columbia (Mets), low Class A Greensboro (Pirates), low Class A Lake County (Indians), low Class A Lansing (Blue Jays).