This morning, ESPN.com MLB senior writer Keith Law appeared on a media call to discuss the top prospects of 2016. Top prospects by farm system, overall top 100, players outside the top 100 and top prospects by team have all been released.
Top prospects by position will be released Thursday, February 16 and the top impact prospects for 2016 will be released Thursday, February 25.
To listen, please click here.
Q.You have five future aces with Zack Wheeler in there. Do you include Matz in the same realm looking forward as what Harvey has become, what deGrom has become and what Syndergaard showed last year? Is he on that level or is he a little below that?
KEITH LAW: He’s a little below that, and there’s a couple reasons, but really the most important one is he has absolutely no history of staying healthy. I don’t think he’s ever thrown 150 innings in any regular season. I think if you start tacking on postseason from last year, you can sneak over 150, but he’s had so many injuries, knee, elbow, oblique. I think there was a back issue. It is very hard for me to look at a guy who was drafted in 2009, still has yet to reach that particular threshold ‑‑ you can say 150, 160, whatever the number, it can be arbitrary, but you have to pitch a full season despite being in pro ball for over six years, and given the nature of some of these injuries, I look at him as a guy who should be extremely effective but probably not over a full season of work, like a typical No. 3 or No. 2 starter’s workload. So he may pitch like a 1 or a 2 but handle a workload that you typically associate with a 4 or a 5, and I try to reflect that injury risk with every pitcher on the list. Any pitcher who’s had more than just one injury, I tend to slide them down the list because they are telling us something. We know that there’s some correlation at least between frequency of past injuries and future durability. It’s not perfect, but unfortunately it’s about the best we’ve got.
Q. The other question I had was about what you had said recently about the Phillies and the haul they got back last year for Cole Hamels. You compared it to the Herschel Walker deal back in the day with the Dallas Cowboys and the Minnesota Vikings. Why did you think that? Why did you say that? Is it because of the quantity? Is it the quality? Is it a combination? And can you compare it to any recent baseball trade that was one big player for a bunch of prospects and it helped turn a team around? Did any jump to mind when you were thinking about that deal?
KEITH LAW: Well, I love the Herschel Walker example, because one, I guess I wanted to sort of show my age, not that ‑‑ I don’t know why I’d want to do that, but I think you have to be of a certain age to understand that, and it changed the fortunes of two franchises, really, one going up and the other one going down.
It was ‑‑ I’m sort of mentally going through your question sequentially here. It was more about quantity than quality. They did get quality in return. They didn’t get the superstar prospect back, but they did get so much overall quantity that it helped move their system up substantially in my rankings. I think you could look at the Bartolo Colon to Montreal deal, which was obviously different circumstances, but it did change the fortunes of Cleveland by adding three prospects of value, Brandon Phillips, Cliff Lee, Grady Sizemore, to Cleveland immediately, and although Cleveland ended up squandering Phillips, they did add a substantial amount of talent that helped them to some playoff appearances later in the decade, and I think that the Phillies will become playoff contenders towards the end of this decade. It’s going to be a few years, but these pieces that they got back, Nick Williams, Jake Thompson, Jerad Eickhoff, Jorge Alfaro, whether he’s behind the plate or possibly in the outfield, these guys are going to be significant contributors, either directly or because they get traded for other pieces down the line.
Q. I just wanted to ask about your team ranking of the Braves, and if you could help me place some perspective on how far they have climbed in terms of farm system talent in just a short period of two years.
KEITH LAW: Well, they really did what they had to do. They tore everything down. They tore apart a big league club that was good but clearly not going to be good enough. They tore apart a lot of the front office when they got rid of Frank Wren, they got rid of sort of his cronies. He had really staffed the front office with a lot of people who were friends of his, relatives of his, rather than bringing in I think the best possible baseball people. They also added or boosted their analytics capabilities so that they could make a lot of better decisions and then were willing to go through this sort of ugly couple‑of‑year process of rebuilding, by trading away lot of big league talent, trading away players we didn’t think they were going to trade away, and then really changing their process in terms of the prospects they were acquiring back in terms of how they drafted. I thought last year’s draft was the best draft that Atlanta had had probably since before Frank Wren took over.
Now we’re seeing that they seem to be primed to spend a lot of money on the international market this July. This is all a 180‑degree turn from the way that they were doing things under Frank Wren. I think it really says something, too, that once Frank Wren was fired and John Coppolella took over as GM, you saw a lot of Atlanta employees choose to come back to the organization. Now Roy Clark is back and Brian Bridges takes over as scouting director and Tom Battista, who brought a lot of talent to the organization in his first go‑around, he decides to come back, and the one thing that is consistent I think with Atlanta’s history going back to the ’90s is they went back to that philosophy of building through pitches. You can just never have enough pitches in the system, and if you look at most of the organizations I have in my top 10 in my ranking of farm systems, most of those clubs in the top 10, they’re all either balanced between position players and pitchers or heavy with position players because I tend to prefer the security of predicting on a position player, kind of like my Steven Matz question earlier. Pitchers just get hurt a lot. We’re not great at predicting when they get hurt, but position players don’t, and so you always ask me, you’ve got this position player and this pitcher ranked about equally, who would you rather have. I’d rather have the position player. I’m a little risk averse like everyone else, but Atlanta has stockpiled so much pitching, it is hard for me to ever imagine them in a situation where they’re short of pitching down the road. In fact, it seems to me that they will have so much excess pitching that when they’re in a position when they need to go acquire the bat, they will have the young arms that they’re able to do so.
Q. Can you think of another example in your rankings, a jump from the bottom five to the top spot or even close to the top spot in such a short span?
KEITH LAW: Houston did it, and they did it even a little more dramatically by becoming 110‑loss team. They were in a situation where their Major League club was not even as good as Atlanta’s club was when Atlanta started to try to tear this down a couple of years ago, and Jeff Luhnow when he took over in Houston took the attitude that the Major League club was bad and the farm system club was barren, and I had Houston ranked fairly low at that time, too. Now, it turned out to be ‑‑ it turned out that I was probably too bearish on Houston, too, because a lot of the players who were in the system at the time didn’t look like they were going to pan out as prospects did end up becoming more valuable properties, but also they traded away anything of value, and they were scouting the low minors, acquiring players off of rookie league teams, acquiring players who were 17 years old that had just been signed out of the Dominican, and that was really rarely done before Houston started to make it a somewhat regular practice, and now you’re seeing Atlanta do the same thing, where they’re adding players who are not that far out of the draft or who are still several years in the Big Leagues because it is easier to get those guys in trade now than get the Major League ready prospect, and it also, I think, ties into their philosophy of re‑emphasizing scouting at all levels and taking advantage of a larger staff, a scouting staff that you can trust more and you can incorporate their opinions into your general manager’s decision making.
Q. I’m doing stuff on the Yankees and the Phillies. If you could start with the Phillies, you have their farm system ranked sixth obviously after a lot of the trades improved the stock. If you could just go over a quick overview of their system and the No. 1 pick, Crawford, what you like about him and what kind of ceiling does he have? Is he a guy you see with star potential, superstar? Is he a guy that can be better than Jimmy Rollins? If you could first go through the Phillies a little bit and talk about J.P.
KEITH LAW: Sure, J.P. is the one player in that system who I do think has a chance to be a star or even a superstar. He is a true shortstop. He can really run. He’s got a great approach at the plate. He really always has, since he first entered pro ball, he has shown the capacity to work the count, to take good at‑bats, to be willing to get to two strikes, not be afraid to hit with two strikes, to change his approach in those situations, and in the field, too, he shows that same high level of baseball acumen, so it’s not just that he’s a player with particularly great tools, and he is, hit, run, throw, glove, they’re all there other than power, but he’s got unbelievable feel for the game. He’s got great instincts. He really plays well beyond his years.
He is the one player in that system, like I said, who I think can be a star. Everything else in the system, all the players that I listed in their top 10, and they go way more than 10, these are all players who look like good Major League contributors but probably not that star upside, and I look at Jake Thompson as very emblematic is what’s in the system now. Jake Thompson, as long as he stays healthy, he is a big league starter. I feel very confident in that. He’s 90‑94, he’ll show you a slider, he’s got good feel for a changeup, nothing is really a plus, but the guy can hitch. He throws strikes. He pitches off his fastball. It’s an easy delivery, he can really repeat it, so he’s going to have command, but he’s probably never more than a No. 3 starter. That’s fine because you really don’t want to go out and spend $15 million a year to acquire a player like that in free agency, but at the same time you want to try to find your ace somewhere. You’re looking for your next Cole Hamels, and right now I don’t think that guy is actually in the system. It’s not really a criticism, it’s just what the shape of the rebuild has been so far. They’ve been able to acquire those good prospects, the quantity I was speaking about earlier in the call, without getting another guy like a J.P. Crawford in any of those trades.
Q. So you don’t think Nola is a true ace, either?
KEITH LAW: No, I don’t think so, and I liked Aaron a lot. But I think he’s more of a command righty. His curveball did get a little bit better when he got to the Big Leagues. That was very promising to see. I think his ceiling is probably that of a No. 2, more like he is a really good No. 3, provides you that lot of innings because he’s incredibly efficient. It’s sort of a weird, almost thinking like an ugly delivery if you watch it in slow motion from the side, it looks like his arm is going to separate at the elbow, but I’ve talked to Aaron about the delivery, too. The guy has been healthy forever. It’s sort of like Tim Lincecum. Well, it shouldn’t work but it does, and until the guy gets hurt, don’t change anything, because he’s really good.
Q. If I could switch to the Yankees really quick, the shortstop prospect the other day said he wanted to be the next Derek Jeter. We know that’s not going to happen, but obviously a good prospect, they have a good catcher with Sanchez. I know you have Judge ranked as your top Yankees prospect and they have a pitcher out of UCLA. Can you talk about the Yankees’ system and their top guys a little bit?
KEITH LAW: Sure, so the guys you mentioned, the four guys they have in the top 100 of the guys where I have kind of a higher level of confidence because they’re somewhat close to the majors, Judge could be a star in the middle of a lineup. I detailed some concerns I have with his plate coverage, which is not surprising. He’s 6’7″, he’s got long arms. It’s hard for him to cover both the inner third and the outside corner at the same time. It’s just an adjustment he’s going to have to learn to make. Sanchez really made huge strides this afternoon I think in his makeup more than anything else. He just was ‑‑ he was a player who I think showed a lot of entitlement his first few years with the size of his bonus, and he knew that he was rated as one of their best prospects and wasn’t putting in the work required to be a good catcher. He’s got MVP upside if he’s really willing to put in the work and become just an average receiver. He can really throw. He loves to show the arm off, he can hit and he’s got some raw power, so it’s not hard to see him becoming an All‑Star, but he’s got to put the work in, and this was the first year I think that he was really willing to do that.
The shortstop, I assume you’re talking about Jorge Mateo. He can really run. He’s a 70 or 80 runner on that 20 to 80 scale we use depending on when you see him. I think he’s certainly got the footwork, the quickness, the agility to stay at shortstop. I wish he made somewhat harder contact. That’s really my only knock on him, but he’s very young, and he already has performed in full‑season ball at an age when most players are probably still in short‑season ball, so that’s very, very promising.
Kaprielian was a guy who I really liked out of the draft. I thought it was a great pick by Damon Oppenheimer and his staff. A real ‑‑ kind of like what I was thinking about Jake Thompson, too, maybe not an ace, maybe not even an No. 2 starter but a guy who absolutely pitches in the Big Leagues and is fairly close to being Major League ready. As for the rest of the system, a lot of their value is all the way down in rookie ball and even still in the Dominican. That was the one club where I had to do extra work to learn about prospects I hadn’t seen who had been signed in Latin America. Remember a couple years ago they spent way over their allotted budget in the July 2nd free agent market and just signed a huge quantity of players in Dominican, Venezuela, Colombia, et cetera, and there’s a ton of athletic or physical talent there. There has not been a ton of separation yet, other than Wilkerman Garcia, who I ranked pretty aggressively. I still considered all that talent in ranking the Yankees’ farm system overall because you’ve got to figure out of those 15 to 20 kids, some of them emerge to become legitimate prospects once they come over to the United States. I just don’t feel terribly confident in telling you other than Garcia which of those kids are going to be the ones who break out. So I ranked them more sort of on the philosophy, well, if you take this whole group, there will be players out of there, just don’t ask me to put my money on any particular names.
Q. I see Mateo was ranked No. 1 for the Yankees by Baseball America. You have him a little lower. He had 30 errors last year, I know you can’t really judge errors in low A‑Ball, high A‑Ball, but was that a little bit of a concern on why he wasn’t ahead of Sanchez or Judge for you?
KEITH LAW: I think I had him between Judge and Sanchez, and I think he ‑‑ I don’t see any reason he can’t stay at shortstop. Honestly, I’ve watched him, and you nailed it about errors. I think Jeter had 50‑ish one season in the low minors, too. I think Mateo needs to work on the routine play. Often he’s a little too quick for his own good, so you’ll often hear coaches about just slowing the game down, how the best players are able to do that, how Jeter was often able to do that. But Mateo, his hands are fine, his feet are super quick, he’s got plenty of arm, not really worried about him eventually becoming not just an adequate shortstop but I think a good defensive shortstop. For me his ranking is primarily about the quality of contact that he’s making. It’s not just that he doesn’t have power, but he’s going to need to make much harder quality contact just to be able to hit for a high average because that’s the type of player I see him being, high average, good on base, lots of steals, not a lot of home runs.
Q. Last one for me, Mateo and Crawford, do they remind you of anybody?
KEITH LAW: Yeah, well, Crawford gets compared all the time ‑‑ I live around Philadelphia, so I hear it constantly. Everyone wants to compare him to Jimmy Rollins because of where he is. I think Crawford is actually ‑‑ he grades out a little better as a prospect than Rollins ever did because Crawford has got an approach at the plate, the kind of plate discipline and plan at the plate that Rollins, even as a good big leaguer, I don’t think ever really had for me.
Mateo, I’m trying to think of a current big league shortstop who really profiles like him. I mean, this is the type of player the Reds thought Billy Hamilton was going to be when it turned out he just wasn’t even adequate, even close to adequate at shortstop, but that type of game‑altering speed with the ability to put the ball in play without a lot of power, but I saw Hamilton as a young Minor Leaguer, and I never thought he was going to be able to stay at shortstop. I saw Mateo last spring in Tampa on the Minor League fields, and although he didn’t play great at shortstop, I also watched his action and his hands, and I thought, this guy should be able to learn to play shortstop. He’s going to have three years probably in that Minor League system because they have a good big league shortstop right now so they don’t have to rush Mateo. He’ll get the kind of coaching and the time and the reps that he needs in order to develop into a good big league shortstop.
Q. My question concerns guys like Willson Contreras and Oscar de la Cruz who pretty much came out of nowhere this year, at least weren’t high on anyone’s prospect radar, and I just was wondering, how much credit does that go to the Cubs’ scouting department to find something that other people missed, or how much is that development, and can good organizations turn marginal prospects into decent ones or decent Major Leaguers?
KEITH LAW: I would be inclined to give credit more to development on those guys, because I think most organizations will have players roughly that physical talent, because the general approach to scouting players, both the players you identified are Latin American, signed as free agents in Latin America, and most organizations will find athletes down there or they’ll kind kids who have good fastballs and don’t have a heck of a lot else.
In the case of Contreras, he was in the system for a long time actually, so I knew his name, and I even went back to my notes from the last couple of years from the Cubs’ system, which includes conversations with people in the Cubs’ front office. No one was talking about him or de la Cruz for that matter, but Contreras in particular, you think a guy who’s this good, his name would have come up at some point, even in the context of, hey, we have this really athletic catcher Willson Contreras, keep an eye on him, maybe someday he’ll turn into something, and this was the year where if you ask the Cubs’ people, too, they’ll say the same thing, that he really ‑‑ everything kind of clicked for him at once. It wasn’t so much that he wasn’t working before this year, but this was the year where all the work started to turn into real results.
And the one thing that I think he still needs to work on but something that can also improve with player development, is just the mechanics of receiving, framing, calling a game. He can throw. He can throw fine, and certainly he’s got a lot of energy behind the plate. But he is not a very polished receiving catcher yet.
But with everything else that he provides, even if he just becomes sort of a frenzied receiver but can do everything else, you’re still going to be really happy with him as your everyday catcher.
And the one thing I’ll say about both these players, too, is that the Cubs’ people across the board rave about both of these guys in terms of makeup, not just work ethic but intelligence in terms of the game of baseball, and I think that’s a huge separator and probably the hardest thing in the world to scout. How can you possibly know a kid that you haven’t signed yet well enough to say, this guy has got great acumen for the game. This guy has got a deeper understanding as a 16 year old than all these other 16 year olds we’re trying to talk to. I can’t possibly imagine how any international scout could make those decisions.
I think that’s probably why you see most teams really just scouting down there for athleticism and physical tools and projection, and you’re just rolling the dice on what kind of kids you’ve got.
Q. One other question I have is about Julio Martinez, and I was wondering what kind of a player do you think he’ll be, where would you start him out this year, and how far away is he from the Majors?
KEITH LAW: I saw him work out in the Dominican. Saw BP, saw him run, got to shake his hand, so I was physically close to him to see what the body looks like. If that were an American‑born kid in his third year of college, he’d be a top of the draft type of prospect because you just don’t see athlete like this. This is like with George Springer when he was coming out of college, we were all saying, we’ve never seen a toolsy college position player like this because they all sign out of high school. Martinez has a great swing. It’s very fluid. He’s got loft for power. I saw his BP obviously, but I saw him launching balls out and he’s certainly got the hand strength to do it, but he really hasn’t played a whole lot of games, organized games. His limited time in the Cuba Serie Nacional was not great, so I would be inclined to send him out to low A, let him go to low A, and if he just destroys it, you really haven’t lost anything. If he just goes absolutely nuts in April, okay, move him up. You’d much rather do that than be too aggressive, send him to high A or even Double‑A, which he might be ready for, but what if he goes there and he’s totally overmatched and then you’ve set everything back. I would be fine with him being conservative, let him race himself up the ladder, because nobody has any idea what kind of approach he has, plate discipline, pitch recognition. All these Cuban guys are just getting signed off workouts, and that’s fine, they don’t really have a whole lot else, but compare them to Yusniel Diaz who the Dodgers signed for all that money earlier this offseason, he at least had a season and change in the Cuban professional league where he performed like crazy.
So the Dodgers could at least point to that and say we have some data. It’s not a whole lot, but at least it’s something. With Martinez you don’t really even have that, and that’s part of why I left him off the top 100, even though I think he has top‑100‑level tools.
Q. I was wondering about Jamison Taillon. He’s obviously a guy who hasn’t pitched since 2013. Is there a precedent for a guy like him missing two full years and coming back, and if you’re the Pirates, how do you approach this season? Is it more about kind of watching the innings count, getting him geared back up to velocity? What’s the approach there, and is there precedent for a guy like him?
KEITH LAW: Steven Matz missed two years in the low minors. He had Tommy John, and then I believe on top of that had another injury. I don’t want to ‑‑ I’m not sure exactly which one ‑‑ he’s had a lot of injuries, so I tend to confuse which one was when, but he missed two full calendar years, and I think a tick more than that, and did eventually work his way back where now the last two seasons he’s been sort of healthy. Taillon had never had an injury before the Tommy John and then the injury this past year, I think it was hernia surgery, so it wasn’t really significant, it just cost him some innings that he would have otherwise had to at least allow the Pirates to start to build him back up.
So now 2016 becomes that year where you’re just trying to build back up some stamina, and I don’t know what their numerical target might be. Maybe it’s 75 innings, maybe it’s 100. Whatever it is, though, I think you’re focused more on getting this guy ‑‑ keeping this guy healthy while building him back up to work deeper and deeper into games, because he’s clearly a starter.
Anyway, that sets you up to call him up in August or September, because you figure you’re going to be contending, they’re clearly a playoff‑worthy team, maybe it sets you up that he can come up and be a spot starter or a long reliever at some point at the very end of the season. So you can still extract value from him without interrupting the development plan that’s also designed to try to keep him healthy and stretch him out and that it’s thinking more about 2017 and 2018 when he might actually be a part of your rotation.
Q. And I was also wondering about Austin Meadows. The Pirates have a pretty crowded outfield at the moment. That was some of the consideration with Josh Bell earlier. But do you see him as a Major League center fielder, and what are some things he does well?
KEITH LAW: If you’re sort of ‑‑ if you’re asking me to put a thousand dollars on an outcome for him, my guess is he ends up in right field. I would leave him in center for now because he does run well, his routes are pretty good. I think you’re typically looking for more from a center fielder than he’s going to be able to provide in terms of range, and obviously they’ve got other guys who can really play the heck out of center, too, which may influence their decision with him. It is not really a statement on Meadows’ individual talent.
What I love about him, he’s a tremendous athlete who has shown a really good feel for the strike zone at a pretty young age, coming into this year without a lot of pro experience because he was hurt almost all of 2015 ‑‑ sorry, all of 2014. 2015 he stayed healthy, showed a good approach, made a lot of contact.
What I do want to see from him is more power. And the Pirates do preach a lot of contact, too, so some of this is him and I think some of this is player development, but he does have a little bit of a tendency to get on top of the ball where I’d like to see him just drop the bat and come through the ball, make more solid contact, more backspin on the ball and potentially generate more power because he has the size for it, he can get the hip rotation to hit for power. I think it’s just a question of the position of his hands.
So I know the power is in there, but we really haven’t seen a lot of it yet, and in his defense, too, he spent the year in ‑‑ most of the year in Florida State League, which is also lousy for power. So to some extent I also just want to see what happens to him once he gets to the Eastern League, which is a little bit more of a neutral playing field for power hitters.
Q. One of the more difficult things you do is balancing sort of low‑floor guys close to the majors with high‑ceiling guys in the minors. To put sort of a Cardinals’ frame on that, you’ve got Marco Gonzales, Jack Flaherty and Junior Fernandez all around the same area, and I was just wondering how you reconciled that this year.
KEITH LAW: Yeah, you nailed it. It’s one of the more frustrating aspects of doing rankings, because I never want to give short shrift to the high‑floor guys like Marco. It’s a little easier with Marco because I’m just truly a fan. I could watch that guy pitch all day long. I saw him ‑‑ remember seeing him in college for the first time. First I saw him on Team USA, saw him take batting practice, like who the heck is this guy, he’s out‑hitting a lot of the hitting prospects, and then I saw him pitch the next spring, and I thought, I love this guy. I could watch that every day. A guy who’s got ‑‑ yeah, the fastball is a little short for you, but it’s the plus‑plus changeup, he’s got a breaking ball, he goes right after guys. He pitches like he’s built like Aaron Judge, and he’s the little guy who I’m sure has been underestimated his entire life.
You know, to compare that to a guy like Junior Fernandez who’s 18 and throws 100 and has secondary stuff and has feel and everybody loves him. How? How do you compare those guys? I mean, obviously if you’re saying I want the star, it’s very easy to just point to Fernandez and say, well, that’s what a star looks like at age 18. That guy is going to be a star if he clears all of these developmental hurdles and stays healthy, which we have no idea.
So the separator for those guys was just the difference in Major League readiness, whereas Marco could go right into a Major League rotation. Junior is so far away, it was easy ‑‑ I’m doing the air quotes here, to leave him off the list. Have him lower the Cardinals’ system and have him off the top 100. Junior Fernandez does everything exactly the same, making 25 starts from Peoria, then you have to put him on the list. Suddenly you’re a fool if you don’t have him on the list. You’ve got to separate ‑‑ you’ve got to lose some of that separation now because here’s the high‑ceiling guy and everyone is talking about him the way everyone was talking about Francis Martes in the Astros’ system this year, where he went from the throw‑in in the Jarred Cosart/Colin Moran trade to suddenly the best player involved and a top‑50 prospect in the entire game, and it was really just that distance from the majors was the only way I could easily separate the two, because I do favor the stars. I feel like a big part of my job is to identify future stars for the readers, whether you’re just a fan of a specific club or you’re a fantasy player and you’re trying to find the future stars to stash in your fantasy team’s farm system. It’s all the same. People want to know who are the next superstars. People are less interested in who is the next Marco Gonzales, but it’s still part of the job to identify those guys because they do have Major League value. Sometimes they turn into Mike Leake and they get these gigantic deals as free agents and end up contributing to playoff teams, so I’ve got to balance the two, but I will generally favor the future stars as long as they’re a little bit closer to the Big Leagues.
Q. Piggy‑backing on that with Fernandez, it seems like there’s a lot of guys like Carlos Alva (phon), at least in your top 10, that are sort of low‑experience guys like Fernandez, Sierra, Sosa, even Carson Kelly has only got a couple years at catcher. It seems like the Cardinals have a lot of prospects that could take big leaps forward this year. Is that something that we should look for?
KEITH LAW: Yeah, I agree with that, and it’s part of why they were ranked I think as low as I’ve had them in five or six years in my org rankings because there’s a gap, too, if you look at what was in Triple‑A and Double‑A and even to some extent in high A last year, it was pretty light. They’ve traded a lot of guys, they’ve promoted a lot of guys, they have a couple of high picks that just haven’t panned out, the Luke Weavers of the world who look like they’re relievers or maybe fifth starters. It’s created a little bit of a hole in the pipeline, but that could be quickly filled if Sierra and Sosa and Fernandez go to Peoria and all go off this year. We could be talking on June 1st about how Peoria is one of the best prospect teams in the minors. There’s certainly going to be enough talent there to have that conversation, but it’s a lot of guys who have got to show that they’re ready for that next level, whereas somebody like Sierra wasn’t last year, and all of those guys I think have certain questions, though, they’ll have to answer. I don’t feel like I could point to that group of guys or guys like Alcantara who’s got the golden arm and can’t hit the broad side of a barn. Every one of those guys there’s some question of whether they’ll perform right now at Peoria, and I feel like the jump to full‑season ball is one of those steps where, okay, now you’ve answered some questions, now I feel more comfortable assigning more value to you, because all these rankings, it’s about what do I think the value of this player right now, if you put this player in the ‑‑ if there were a stock market for baseball players, you put this player out there, what’s he worth as an asset. Well, they’re worth a lot more once they get to full‑season ball and start performing because then we know that the tools have started to translate.
Q. Is the handshake agreement between Kevin Maitan and the Braves a firm one, or is that something that the Cardinals could get into at some point?
KEITH LAW: I mean, obviously Atlanta denies that it exists. It’s also the worst‑kept secret in baseball, and part of why I keep talking about it, too, is that it’s an open secret and it just reveals how corrupt the whole system is down there, that a player who’s not eligible to sign or even have an agreement with a team clearly has an agreement with a team.
My understanding is that at one point Maitan and/or his representative broke an agreement with Atlanta, agreed to another number with a different club, and then Atlanta came in and offered more, and then they went back to the original arrangement just with a higher dollar figure. So it says to me if somebody calls tomorrow and says, hey, here’s $8 million instead of the four and change supposedly that Atlanta has offered, why wouldn’t Maitan and/or his people take that deal? They are not legally bound to anything right now. Major League Baseball cannot enforce an illegal agreement, so why wouldn’t they just switch it up if it’s that much more money? I don’t know if the Cardinals or anybody else would do that. I think I said in a chat recently, if I were a Major League GM because I sort of like lighting things on fire, I would do that. I would call and absolutely dare them to turn down $8 or $9 or $10 million because it sounds like he might be worth it. I’ve only seen video and it’s a hell of a swing, but I’ve also talked to many scouts who have seen him, and they all say in some way or another, hey, this kid is the real deal.
Q. Going back to the Yankees, could you give me a couple ‑‑ your quick view on the other prospects that you have in their top 10? You mentioned the top four, I’m looking at 5 through 10, you have Clarkin, Dustin Fowler, Garcia, Drew Finley, Kyle Holder and Tyler Wade, the shortstop.
KEITH LAW: Yep. Anything specific? Do you want me to just walk through those guys in general or anyone in particular?
Q. Yeah, just your general overview on the system and I’d like to have a couple quick comments from you on what kind of players you see them becoming.
KEITH LAW: Yeah, sure. I’m going to start with Finley because I probably know him the best of everyone else in the system. His dad is an executive with the Dodgers, so I’ve known him for a long time and I got to see Drew pitch a couple times as an underclassman as he was at other events. He is a super polished high school pitcher, pitches like a college guy with a great delivery, and the Yankees particularly love using TrackMan data, and Finley’s stuff graded out extremely well on TrackMan data, both his extension out over his front side on his fastball, spin rate on his curveball, and because the delivery is so good and so clean, he’s really got excellent command of it.
Holder was their second first‑round pick this past year. He is an elite defensive shortstop, probably the best in the draft class, and it’s just kind of a debate over what kind of hitter he’s going to be. I mean, I’ve talked to some scouts who say they don’t think he’s going to hit at all. Other scouts think he’s going to hit more than enough to be a big leaguer because the glove is just so good that it’s not going to take a whole lot of offense for him to turn out to be a big league regular at shortstop.
Fowler is a real tools player. He can hit. He can run. He’s coming into some power. He’s kind of a late‑round pick. I think he was a 17th or 18th round for not a lot of money, just a really nice job by that you are amateur scouting staff, but if the power comes you’ve got probably an above average regular, and it seems like he can stay in center field, I just got a brief glimpse of him at the end of last year, and the tools are pretty evident, and it seems like he’s coming into his own as a more advanced baseball player than anyone realized in college.
Garcia, I think I had mentioned earlier in the call, he was the one guy in that whole international market spending spree they had in 2014 who looks like he has separated himself. He’s a shortstop now, he’s going to move to third base. That was pretty universal amongst scouts I’ve talked to, but he’s got a good swing. He’s got a real good feel for the strike zone for a young kid. He’s got an idea of what he’s doing. That’s why he was in the Gulf Coast League this year, while all the other guys they spent all that money on were still in the Dominican summer league, which is normal for their age. What Wilkerman did was particularly impressive. Clarkin missed the whole year with an elbow injury, but then I was at I think it was his first or second Arizona fall league start, and he looked just like he did in high school. Fastball was above average, curveball was plus, delivery was good, everything was smooth. He’s supposed to be 100 percent healthy. This is a big year for him. He should be able to go out to I guess probably high A just based on his age, number of years he’s been in the system, but wherever they send him, it’s just about getting 22, 23 healthy starts out of him and making sure that he can maintain that velocity over the course of the season. I still see a potential mid‑rotation starter there.
And they’ve got a lot of other guys outside the top 10. You can see my board report on them went up today, but I mentioned the Latin American guys earlier, and guys like Ben Gamel, Mat’s younger brother, who finally kind of had the big breakout year that the Yankees people had been telling me for years, just watch this guy, he really can hit. He’s not super toolsy, but he’s got just a great feel for squaring up the baseball, and he finally had that season where now it’s easy to point to him and say, yes, at the very least that’s a big leaguer. He might be more than just an average guy, but he’s going to play in the Big Leagues every day for somebody, whether it be the Yankees or he’s trade bait and he gets there for somebody else. That’s a pretty valuable asset to have, and yet he couldn’t crack their top 10 because they have other guys with higher ceilings.
Q. You’re pretty optimistic about Ian Happ being able to make the transition to second base. I was wondering if you could elaborate why you think he could do that, and one other thing is what prospects do you think could be in Chicago this summer making an impact on the Major League level?
KEITH LAW: Sure. So on Happ, I actually saw him play shortstop for a portion of a game this spring, and not that I would ever say he’s a shortstop, but he was fine. I mean, he had plays he had to make, he was able to move laterally just fine. He’s not slow. He doesn’t look like a typical infielder. He’s kind of strong and a little bit thicker than your typical infielder, but he’s absolutely got the agility and the quickness to be able to play second base, and his hands are certainly fine. I know they ran him out there in center field this year just to see what it looked like, to try to create some positional flexibility, but they say they want him to be a second baseman. I see absolutely no reason that he can’t do it, because as you just sort of check off all the things you’re looking for, the quickness, the lateral agility, the hands, they’re all there, and his arm is fine, but you also don’t need a whole lot of an arm to be able to play a capable second base, so I’m very optimistic.
As for prospects getting to Wrigley this year, I’m not sure that there’s a spot for anybody. C.J. Edwards maybe wins a spot in the bullpen, but other than that, probably not until maybe the very end of the year, barring some highly unexpected injury that accelerates someone else’s timetable. But I just don’t see it. I went through the 25‑man rosters for all teams as I was doing the org reports, and they were one of the few where I felt like I could probably tell you 23, 24, maybe even all 25 guys, which meant that there weren’t a lot of opportunities, unless somebody comes to Spring Training and is throwing lights out and they decide they have to bring him north as one of the seven relievers, and Edwards was my guess because he’s closer, he’s been there a little bit. With the breaking ball you’ve probably got your swing‑and‑miss weapon.
Q. I just wanted to briefly ask you about Josh Bell. How close is he to ready as a Major League, potential Major League first baseman? Has he made that adjustment defensively yet? What are some things you look for in a guy that’s played outfielder, another position most of his entire life and then switches to that position? Are there any keys in particular?
KEITH LAW: I saw him last year, and he was kind of awful at first base, and also a bunch of scouts who saw him more, and nobody liked the defense at first base. He’s not a bad athlete, either, but he was very uncomfortable at the position, and I would say that makes him not ready for the Big Leagues now.
I think if you ‑‑ if the Pirates had a DH spot and could bring him up and just put him there and just let him hit, he’d probably hit for a pretty good average, get on base. You know, the criticism of him, the constant criticism has been the lack of power, and I don’t know if you’ve seen him up close, but he looks like he should hit for power, and when you watch the swing, too, if he gets something on the inner third, he can pull it. I remember seeing him do it in high school, and you’ll see him do it in BP, but during the game he is so geared to hit for contact that even with all that strength, it ends up becoming a lot of balls hit the other way. Hit hard, but not out of the ballpark, and I wonder to what extent Major League teams in general, independent of the Pirates, would look at that and say, all right, it’s a mediocre at best defensive baseman that doesn’t hit for power that’s just not the traditional profile or maybe you’d say the stereotype or a first baseman. If you play great defense, we’ll forgive the lack of power. If you hit for a lot of power, we’ll forgive almost anything else you do. But Bell kind of misses on both of those things.
The Pirates, though, do really favor guys who don’t strike out, which I understand, because in today’s game that’s a real rarity, and Bell does not strike out and I think will not strike out because his plate coverage is so good and his understanding of the strike zone is very advanced. That’s why I still have him rated high, despite the deficiencies I just mentioned, because the kid can really hit, he’s absolutely going to get on pace, and I don’t give up on the possibility that he will eventually come into some power, but he is going to have to get better defensively at first no matter what. What I saw from him in Double‑A last year was not going to play in the Big Leagues at all, but it was his first year at the position, too, so I’m trying not to be too harsh. In this case I’m saying, hey, this is what I saw, but I still think there’s some reason to be optimistic.
Q. And you mentioned kind of the Pirates favoring the lack of striking out. I think you have somewhere around 70 strikeouts in close to 500 plate appearances. How do you see guys developing that power? Do you see it being a jump for him just based on his physical attributes? How does a guy go about kind of their penning him as the guy who can potentially step in for Pedro Alvarez? Do you see any similarities between those two guys? Obviously they’re very different players, but how does a guy work on getting that kind of power?
KEITH LAW: I saw Pedro going back to his freshman year in college, and you always saw the power, but it was never really clear that he was much of a hitter, and he really struggled against better stuff in college, he struggled against lefties his whole life pretty much, and a lot of it was that his approach was selling out to hit for power, whereas Josh is the exact opposite. He almost refuses to sell out to hit for power, and I think in his case, because physically the power is there, he’s got the strength in his hands and his upper body, I have seen him in BP, I saw him in high school where he can get that hip rotation, get that loft in his swing and pull something, but he doesn’t do it. He doesn’t take that approach. If he gets something that’s even just kind of middle‑middle, he will still take it the other way because that’s really his entire approach at the plate, not speaking of the mental approach now but the physical approach. He is just geared to hit the other way. Dominic Smith in the Mets’ system who I also had rated high does that a lot, too, and in Smith’s case, he spent the last two years in terrible home run parks, particularly for left‑handed power hitters, so I can understand that, whereas in Josh’s case, it’s not really as clear why, and put it this way: If I were in Kyle Stark’s position, I would be saying to Josh, look, you get something on the inner third, let’s just start with the inner third, we want you to drop that bat head and pull it. That’s a pitch you can pull. You’re strong enough to be able to drive that out of the park. So this year we want you to focus on incorporating that into your approach. Anything middle of the way, you want to go the other way, fine, don’t worry about it, but be on the lookout, especially if you’re in a hitter’s count, for something that’s middle in that you might be able to pull and drive out of the ballpark, because physically it’s all there.
Q. Following up on the Maitan question, when you say offering $8 to $10 million, you’re talking about in actual dollars for the team, like 15 to 20, given the penalties?
KEITH LAW: Oh, yes, yeah. I’m saying offering him, and I’m just throwing numbers out there, because if whatever the agreement he has with Atlanta, and say that it’s about $4 million, I’ve heard $4.2. I don’t know if that’s actually accurate because no one is going to confirm that, but let’s say that that’s the number. Double it. Offer him some crazy amount of money. What I suggested in the chat a couple of weeks ago was offer him some amount of money that he would be out of his mind to turn it down, because then at that point you’ve sort of undermined the system. You’ve kind of proven that there’s an illegal agreement in place.
Now, I don’t know what consequences, if any, there would be, but I feel like to expose the system, the flaws in the system, someone is going to have to do that. Someone is going to have to try to blow the doors off on a prospect like this. This is the situation where it might make sense to do that, whereas with your typical $2 million prospect out of Santo Domingo, there’s no point in turning around and offering him $4 million because he’s probably not a $4 million player, but if Maitan is what people think he is, then he might really be the $8 million player or the $12 million player. He seems to be a real exception. He might, and again, I haven’t seen the guy, but he might be the best position player prospect in the non‑Cuban division since Sanó, and if that’s the case, then that’s the guy where somebody should just say, screw it, we’re going to ignore the convention, ignore the gentlemen’s agreements, and make a run at this guy because he’s that good, because it’s in your individual team’s best interest to be able to maybe break up that agreement and get the player.
Q. And then I didn’t ask any questions about Alex Reyes before because there’s a lot out there about him, but I’ve seen reports with his curve ahead of his changeup, you had his change ahead of his curve. What’s the differentiating factor for you?
KEITH LAW: That the curveball was more of a get‑me‑over pitch. It’s very hard. It did not seem to have especially tight rotation. I didn’t really see him manipulate it to get a lot of swings and misses out of the zone, whereas the changeup, he’s got great arm speed. He seems to have really good feel for it. I also talked to a bunch of scouts focused on the Cardinal system who agreed with that assessment and felt like the changeup had made huge strides this year, whereas the curveball, still a good pitch, but the curveball was much less consistent. He’s just got better feel for the changeup. And it’s part of ‑‑ I mean, not that you ever want to see a guy miss a bunch of games for a suspension, but it’s sort of ‑‑ think of all the games he could be out there working on greater consistency on the curveball that now he’s not going to get. It’s just unfortunate.
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