January 18, 2017
Los Angeles Dodgers Top 10 Prospects
The State of the System: The Dodgers graduated two of the top prospects in baseball, traded three pretty good ones, and still have a very good system. Meanwhile, somewhere in the South of France, Frank McCourt is spending too much for a 30-year-old midfielder. Living well is the best revenge.
The Top Ten
The Big Question: So what do the Dodgers do for an encore?
If you’ll pardon the intrusion, I’d like to begin by talking about football for a second, if I may. And not the kind that Paternostro speaks in tongues about on Twitter all the time. I mean the American kind. The New England Patriots clinched their sixth consecutive AFC championship appearance the other day, and it got me to thinking about sustained excellence and strategic execution. Bill Belichick is a defensive coach, first and foremost, and one of his fundamental strategic priorities over the years has been to design week-to-week defensive schemes built around limiting the contributions of his opponent’s best offensive skill player. His aim is to remove the opposition’s primary advantage, and in so doing force answers from his opposite number to an unpleasant question: how am I going to go about beating you without access to my biggest advantage?
Well, the Dodgers currently find themselves staring down the sleeveless barrel of that conundrum, at least insofar as it relates to talent pipelines and international spending. The new CBA drastically limits the overall pool of money designated to signing international talent, and places hard caps on per-team expenditures. This is, of course, bad news for teams with money to throw at international talent. And that makes it catastrophic news for the Dodgers.
I detailed the club’s recent pattern of international largesse last winter, and I noted the front office ramifications of their strategy in another piece around that time. The punchline to both is that the franchise was among the deadliest deadbeats in open revolt against the previous international spending system, advance-staffing in bulk and utilizing its financial girth to cyclically binge on massive amounts of raw talent—talent which played a significant role in building the club’s top-ranked system heading into this past season.
Fast forward to the present, and the carbon footprint from the team’s most recent pipeline adjustment is starting to set in the skies above, albeit with significant shape-shifting still to be done. Big-dollar investment has placed two players in the current top five, and the complex levels are overflowing with six-or-better-figure talent that already flashes top-of-the-system potential to sustain the run. After signing for more than $5.5 million combined on the first day of the 2015-2016 signing period, Starling Heredia, Ronny Brito, and Oneil Cruz, all turned heads at the team’s Dominican complex last summer, while switch-hitting outfielder Carlos Rincon flashed massive power in Arizona after migrating north mid-season. Meanwhile, $6 million Cuban man Omar Estevez flashed across-the-board skills in his own stateside debut. Hell, even Yaisel Sierra, whose $30 million price tag looks like a significant overpay, found velocity and effectiveness after a transition to the bullpen and now looks the part of at least a potentially useful big-league bullpen arm. The last hurrah may be a rager for the record books.
Then again…these Dodgers of today, they’re a smart bunch. And a rich bunch. And that combination can make for some difficulties in pinpointing primary advantage. The suggestion of international might as primary separator may not actually end up holding much in the way of water when we jump back up to 30,000 feet.
The early returns on the club’s 2016 Rule IV Draft, for example, look just delightful. Five of our 15 player write-ups below involve picks from last summer’s class. Even while acknowledging graduation and turnover, it is still somewhat of a remarkable testament to the depth of the Dodgers’ board that such digit ink should be spilled on newcomers to the reigning top system in baseball. The preceding draft, for its part, has produced two top-tenners of its own, along with the organization’s newly-minted minor league player of the year.
We are too far in the thick of it all to render proper judgment on any of these players, but the early returns on the club’s most recent drafting efforts are the good kind. And it’s enough to glean hope that the franchise’s player development process will remain well-positioned to succeed even with one of its greatest advantages neutralized over the run of the next CBA. — Wilson Karaman
1. Yadier Alvarez, RHP
The Good: Big arm, good athlete. Fastball has been up to 100, although the velocity can vary depending on when you catch him. Projects as an easy plus-plus pitch regardless and gets some plane and arm-side run when he gets on top of it from his high three-quarters slot. His mid-80s slider projects as plus—flashes there now—with good late bite. His feel for the pitch improved throughout the season. There’s still some projection left in his lean, athletic frame. Unlikely he adds much more velocity but some added weight/strength might help tone down some of the effort in his delivery and make everything more repeatable generally.
The Bad: He can fly open at times and struggle with his command. The slider is still inconsistent at present, and the velocity and shape will vary a bit in his outings. He struggles to maintain his arm speed on the change or get it to turn over, although the best will show some good tumble. Below-average projection on the pitch at present could limit his ability to go through a lineup multiple times. He played around with a curve for a different look but there isn’t much there yet.
The Irrelevant: Midland, MI is home to the Great Lakes Loons and one of the 90 remaining Big Boy restaurants in America. And 16 million bucks will buy a whole lot of Famous Slim Jims.
OFP 60—No. 3 starter or closer
The Risks: Alvarez’s fastball/slider combo gives him a potential high-leverage reliever fallback role, but there’s still some risk here. The changeup needs a grade jump to even have a chance to stick in the rotation, and it’s still a little unclear where the fastball will sit over a 180-inning workload. Also, he’s a pitcher (who throws really, really hard).
Major league ETA: 2019
Ben Carsley’s Fantasy Take: Alvarez is one of the more attractive young arms in the low minors. His floor is fairly low, as you can probably tell from the writeup above, but his fantasy ceiling is a little loftier than the SP3 we see in his prospect writeup thanks to his strikeout potential. He’s most certainly a top-75 prospect, and he’s got a chance to flirt with the top-50. Big fastballs are a wonderful thing.
2. Cody Bellinger, 1B/OF
The Good: Big kid, big raw, big leverage, big bat speed, big noise. 2016 proved he wasn’t just a Cal League mirage. Bellinger’s not a traditional corner masher either. He’s lean and athletic and has even been spotting Tulsa and OKC in center field from time to time. The power potential is plus-plus, He could win some gold gloves at first base if that’s his ultimate home.
The Bad: Bellinger can sell out to get to that big raw power, and there are potentially big strikeout numbers to go with the big dongs. Minor league arms will pitch around his big bat, but his actual approach lags behind the raw walk totals. He will expand the zone with two strikes. He’s not a center fielder, although he should be able to play some corner outfield as well.
OFP 60—First-division first baseman
The Risks: Normally this is the spot where I gravely intone about the profile issues with a first base prospect. How the power really has to play in order to achieve that OFP. And all that applies here as well. But man, it sure looks right.
Major League ETA: Late 2017
Ben Carsley’s Fantasy Take: I personally prefer Josh Bell because of his floor, but if you want to argue that Bellinger is the best first base prospect, I’ll listen. Bellinger has big-time power and big-time production, and while the strikeout issues are real so is the upside. He might only hit .240 or .250, but Bellinger could smash 30 bombs a year. That might come in the OF instead of at 1B, but if that’s the case you won’t be complaining.
3. Jose De Leon, RHP
The Good: Armed with an above-average fastball, plus change, and adequate slider, De Leon’s top virtue is his ability to pound the zone with any offering. His fastball rests in the 90-93 band with occasional tail. He can run it up as 96, though that’s rare. Hitters tend to react late to it, though there’s not a ton of deception in the delivery, his mechanics are free and easy which might fool them. The cambio is the best offering in his arsenal, featuring plenty of depth and tumble.
The Bad: The fastball tends to lose its wiggle at higher velocities, so when he reaches back for a little extra, it tends to be too true. He likes to pitch up in the zone with the fastball and while this nets him swings and misses, it makes him homer prone as well. De Leon’s slider plays more fringy than average, due to its inconsistency, and if he’s not missing bats with it, hitters can sit on the change. His propensity to be around the zone without premium stuff contributes to his struggles with the longball as well. He’ll show a curveball in the mid 70s here and there, but it’s more of an option for sequencing than an integral part of his arsenal.
The Irrelevant: When he was in Little League he had the nickname “Nomar” after Garciaparra. We can thank Vin Scully for that one.
OFP 55—Mid-rotation starter who misses a bunch of bats
The Risks: De Leon had a relatively extended major-league trial for a prospect, so there are few timeline issues. The risks are whether MLB hitters will pick up on his fastball better than minor leaguers did, and if he’s one of those guys who might be around the zone a little too much. The MiLB numbers are daunting, but the stuff belies more of a mid-rotation profile. He is, though, a pitcher.
Major league ETA: Debuted in 2016 —Craig Goldstein
Ben Carsley’s Fantasy Take: You know what? I like De Leon. Sure, he might just be a mid-rotation starter, but I think he’ll be a damn good one, and I think his floor is just fine, too. At the end of the day you need pitchers in fantasy (unfortunately), and while De Leon’s ceiling won’t leave you with vertigo, his floor will make you feel cozy and safe. It’s ok to like him. He won’t hurt you.*
Major League ETA: 2017
4. Alex Verdugo, OF
The Good: Verdugo has thrived despite being young at each level. He has an advanced hit tool that has a good chance to eventually grade out as plus, rarely striking out throughout his minor league career. He combines those bat-to-ball skills with a selective approach, resulting in limited strikeout totals. His gap power should play at major-league average for a corner outfielder, though given his youth, there’s time for him to develop more over-the-fence potential. Defensively, he has an absolute cannon for an arm—as well he should given his two-way status at draft time.
The Bad: He’s an average runner at present, and isn’t expected to contribute much on the base paths, and it push his ultimate home is in right field where the athleticism will play fine. There’s a chance the power doesn’t develop, making him more of a gap-to-gap doubles hitter with fringe power. His bat speed can leave evaluators wanting more at times, and he can rely too heavily on his bat-to-ball, leaving him as a slap hitter when he isn’t feeling it at the plate.
The Irrelevant: Per Google translate, Verdugo means "executioner" or "hangman."
OFP 60—Hit-first center fielder
The Risks: There are a lot of moving parts to his setup in the box, and while it hasn’t caused issues so far, it can’t yet be ruled out moving forward. His athleticism leaves him on the fringe of being able to stick in center, and the ceiling takes a hit if he shifts to right. If the power doesn’t develop and the hit tool takes a step back, he could profile more as a fourth outfielder. There’s some positive risk in the hit tool as well, as the arrival of some power paired with his contact rate could make him a dangerous hitter.
Major league ETA: 2018 —Matt Pullman
Ben Carsley’s Fantasy Take: I won’t lie to you; I’d underrated Verdugo’s hit tool to this point. There’s a chance he gets stuck in a tweener profile, and that would stink, but Verdugo has a solid enough bat and a good enough chance for nice power that we need to pay attention. If it all comes together, we’re looking at a high-quality OF3. If the pop never comes or the hit tool doesn’t play at the MLB level, you’ll be underwhelmed, but that’s pretty much true of every prospect. This isn’t the most illuminating fantasy writeup of all time, but honestly, there are so many potential versions of Verdugo that I don’t quite know what to make of him yet.
5. Yusniel Diaz, OF
The Good: Diaz shows across-the-board tools, highlighted by the ingredients for an above-average hit tool. He has outstanding wrist and hand strength, allowing him to thrash the barrel into the zone with above-average bat speed. Coupled with strong pitch recognition skills, the swing-and-miss is limited and he demonstrates advanced survival skills with two strikes. He showed an increased willingness and ability to add situational leverage to his stroke, syncing his lower half better and driving the ball pull-side as the season wore on. He’s currently an above-average runner, though he may ultimately settle in at average, and he possesses the physical tools to handle center field capably down the line. He gets high marks for his makeup and quick adjustment during his stateside debut.
The Bad: There aren’t a ton of holes to point to in Diaz’s game, though the present skillset is of the raw variety. His swing plane tends to stay on the flatter side, and while he showed improvement, he can still be vulnerable on the inner-third thanks to some bat wrap and length into the zone. His feel for timing and exploiting pitchers on the base paths isn’t there yet, and he struggles to get clean releases on stolen base attempts. He can lose his game clock and rush plays in the field, and his reads on trajectory in center are inconsistent.
The Irrelevant: There have been 25 men with the surname of Diaz to step between the lines in a big-league game, including three (Aledmys, Edwin, and Dayan) who made their debuts last season.
OFP 55—Above-average CF
The Risks: He retains some elements of risk on account of the remaining gap between present and future skill, but his broad base of tools and demonstrated growth and development as one of the youngest regulars in the Cal League lends significant cause for optimism regarding his probability as a future big-league asset.
Major league ETA: 2019 —Wilson Karaman
Ben Carsley’s Fantasy Take: At the risk of being too aggressive on lots of Dodgers prospects, I like Diaz. The tools are well-rounded, he’s got just enough impact potential to catch my eye and he performed well in his first professional season stateside. If we’re talking best-case scenario, Diaz is a five-tool contributor who hits for a good average and contributes meaningfully everywhere else. Worst case, Diaz is ... well ... a really boring modest five-category contributor, like, Dexter Fowler? You could do worse.
6. Walker Buehler, RHP
The Good: Buehler had a potential front-of-the-rotation arsenal as an amateur, and his first few pro appearances coming off Tommy John surgery showed it was still in there. He was up to 97 in short bursts and sat in the mid-90 with arm-side run. His curveball and changeup both project as above-average pitches, and his 11-5 breaker has a chance to get better then even that.
The Bad: We can quibble about his command of the stuff in 2016, but he’s a year off Tommy John surgery, so whatever. The bigger issue is he has a small, lean frame that may not hold up to the rigors of a major-league starter’s workload, and there’s already effort in the delivery now. As mentioned, he’s already got a major arm surgery under his belt at 22.
The Irrelevant: Walker is the fourth Buehler...Buehler...Buehler....Buehler...in pro baseball. None have made the majors so far.
OFP 60—No. 3 starter
The Risks: Buehler is only a year removed from surgery, we really don’t know if the stuff will come all the way back yet, although (very) early returns are quite good. The professional track record is limited. And he’s a recently-injured pitcher.
Major league ETA: 2019
Ben Carsley’s Fantasy Take: There’s some upside here, but Buehler’s recent injury history and potential future as a reliever conspire to limit his fantasy upside. I do love ceilings, so Buehler might be a top-100 guy, but it’ll be close, and I’d bet the under.
7. Andrew Toles, OF
The Good: Toles generates excellent early momentum into his swing, getting the barrel on-plane early, and driving into the zone quickly. His short stroke and quality barrel control produces hard contact against velocity, and he demonstrates an intelligent situational approach at the plate. While he lacks for a ton of loft in the stroke, he has sneaky strength to drive pitches with some carry. His foot speed pushes plus-plus, and he’s an instinctual base runner who draws full utility out of the tool when he’s on base. The arm is another asset, playing at least to plus (and with more consistent accuracy possibly above it) from left or center fields.
The Bad: Off-field issues have caused a ton of lost developmental time along the way, and his route-running and execution in the outfield wore some of those lost reps last year. He struggles mightily against left-handed pitching, becoming more of a slap-and-dash hitter and struggling to defend as well with two strikes. He likes to extend on the ball, and while he covers the outside corner well as a result there is some ensuing inner-third vulnerability.
The Irrelevant: Chipola College, where Toles wound up after getting kicked off his team at Tennessee, has produced an impressive amount of big-league talent over the years, with alumni tallying north of 18,000 big-league at-bats and hurling more than 1,400 innings. Toles has a long way to go to catch up with current all-time WARP leader Russell Martin, who is sitting on 55.4 as of this writing.
OFP 55—Above-average regular on the strength of his speed and defense
The Risks: Toles’ baseball skills were remarkably intact after his return from a year-and-a-half layoff from competition, and he kept right on producing at every stop up to and including Chavez Ravine. The long history of disciplinary issues remain branded to his Permanent Record, though last year’s successful reintegration to the game marked a very encouraging development. There are a couple holes in the offensive approach and enough questions about his defensive development that it is wise to continue keeping expectations in check, but he has already proven his worth as a “now” asset who should be able to fill a demonstrable role on the Dodgers’ 25-man roster all year, and if he can learn to hit lefties, there is some growth potential there as well.
Major league ETA: Debuted in 2016 —Wilson Karaman
Ben Carsley’s Fantasy Take: Toles is probably just a platoon outfielder, and it’s hard to make that terribly sexy in fantasy. You might want to own him over the next few years if he’s playing and your league is deep, but he’s not a franchise maker or breaker.
8. Willie Calhoun, 2B
The Good: Calhoun has outstanding pop for a guy his size. He utilizes a low center of gravity and a compact frame to generate double-plus bat speed, giving the ball a distinct sound off his barrel. He’s a selective hitter and uses his small strike zone and quick hands to his advantage, keeping his strikeout totals low.
The Bad: The combination of poor athleticism and an unpolished glove makes it a near certainty that Calhoun will provide limited defensive value. He doesn’t have a particularly strong arm, and can look awkward when forced to use it outside of routine plays. The lack of speed and poor physique will likely prevent him from contributing much on the basepaths, and his aging curve could be expedited as a result.
The Irrelevant: Kole Calhoun also went to Yavapai College, but they are not related.
OFP 55—High-end bat whose overall value is limited by defensive issues
The Risks: If Calhoun doesn’t hit, he’s not a major leaguer. There are additional concerns as to how well his body will age, so while the likely might feel conservative, it is taking into account significant downside-risk.
Major league ETA: Late 2017 —Matt Pullman
BenCarsley’s Fantasy Take: I really don’t know what to make of Calhoun. I hope he hits because he’s a ton of fun, but I’m worried that the defensive profile will prevent him from accumulating bats. Keep following him because he’s a fun story, and feel free to pull the trigger if you roster 150-plus prospects, but I can’t get more aggressive on him yet.
9. Gavin Lux, SS
The Good: Lux grew into his body from his junior year, adding speed and power to his frame, ultimately becoming the fourth-highest player drafted from Wisconsin. Lux excels defensively with a plus arm, plus actions, and soft quick hands. He could be a plus defender at the six, or any of the infield positions. He features plus bat speed and the loft to potentially slug double-digit home runs at the big-league level.
The Bad: He does have a hitch in his load, which was still present through his first year in pro ball. He is more an average runner, which means he isn’t likely to produce much in the way of stolen bases. The power, which showed up in spades this spring, is mostly projection to play to average in-game.
The Irrelevant: His uncle is Augie Schmidt, who was the second-overall pick in the 1982 draft and the Golden Spikes Award Winner at University of New Orleans.
OFP 55—Above-average regular
The Risks: Younger player, the power, which showed up in the spring wasn’t present in his first full-season. A cold-weather kid, he could have a longer developmental path than others. His body is somewhat filled out, leaving little room for overall projection.
Major league ETA: 2020 —Steve Givarz
Ben Carsley’s Fantasy Take: Lux is too far away to start pining over now, but he’s got the offensive tools we crave in an infielder. If you separate your watch list into tiers, put him in the first one.
10. Jordan Sheffield, RHP
The Good: Sheffield has a power pitcher’s arsenal. The fastball regularly bumped 96-97 in short bursts as a pro even after a long NCAA season at Vandy. It sat in the mid-90s as a starter in college and it’s a plus offering due to the velocity and some deception in his delivery. He pairs it with a low-80s curve. At its best the breaker will show late, two-plane break although it can show as a flatter, power slurve at times. Both versions are effective at inducing swing-and-miss, and it also projects as a plus offering.
The Bad: Sheffield has a TJ in his medical file already and ticks just about every other box for the “future reliever” tag. It’s a high-effort delivery that leaves him prone to command issues. His changeup has some projection due to its dive and velocity (high-80s), but it’s his clear third pitch at the moment. Sheffield’s fastball doesn’t have much in the way of plane or wiggle, and he may not be able to overpower pro hitters with it as easily as he did SEC ones.
The Irrelevant: Sheffield’s younger brother, Justus, is in the Yankees system. You may have heard of him.
OFP 55—Mid-rotation starter or late inning reliever
The Risks: He’s an undersized righty (I double-checked this time) with a checkered injury history and a high-effort delivery. Can’t quibble with the fastball/curve combo though, and he could move quickly through the minors if he stays healthy. Which he may not, because he’s a pitcher.
Major league ETA: Early 2018 as a reliever, late 2018 as a starter
Ben Carsley’s Fantasy Take: The Dodgers don’t have a great track record with these guys and the upside is very modest. Move along.
Others of note:
Dustin May, RHP
All of The 5:00 Power
Johan Mieses, OF
The Austin Barnes All Star
Will Smith, C
The Helium Potential
Mitchell White, RHP
Brock Stewart, RHP
There are only three Dodgers who qualify for the 25-and-under list who aren’t discussed in detail above, but they are a doozy of a trio. Seager followed up a dynamic September cameo with a full-season .320 TAv that led to 6.7 WARP in his first full season (despite a negative FRAA). The top-overall prospect entering the season, Seager claimed an All-Star appearance, a Silver Slugger Award, a Rookie of the Year Award, and finished third in MVP voting. He is, thanks to the free agent/service time relationship, one of the five most valuable assets in baseball at present. The only nagging question is that of how long he’ll last at his current position given his size (6-foot-5, 215 pounds), but better defensive positioning should help shore up any loss of range over the next few years, and the bat should be more than enough to carry the profile should he need to slide to third base.
Urias has progressed as linearly as we often tell you that prospects don’t, but still continues to confound. He set a career-high in innings pitched, he made his major-league and playoffs debuts, tied for the league lead in pickoffs (in only 77 innings), and generally was a grand success especially when taking age into account. That last part is relevant though. He’s now in the major leagues, and while his age relative to level matters when projecting him forward (to a degree), the results he gets in the here and now matter more than ever before, so his DRA of 3.97 should well be noted. It’s still an open question as to whether Urias can or will pitch a full slate of innings next year, and how his stuff will hold up to the effects of turning a lineup over a third time (something he largely avoided), how the league will react, and what the effect of a full(er) season will be on the quality of his offerings. He’s shown the ability to adapt and handle adversity though, and it’s fair to maintain high expectations for him. Even without the ace-level stuff of a Noah Syndergaard, Urias’ three-pitch mix and control should allow him to navigate the rigors of the majors well, as he continues to sharpen his fine command and sequencing.
By TAv, Pederson had the second-best offensive performance on the team. People will recall his post-derby swoon in his Jekyll-Hyde rookie campaign, but it’s worth noting the adjustments made over the course of the 2016 season. He slashed .260/.380/.520 in the second half of the season, and his FRAA jumped from -21 to -1, culminating in a 3.5-WARP season. Dave Roberts hid him against southpaws (only 77 plate appearances against LHP), which might have contributed to jump in his rate output but also provides a window into where his next area to improve lies. His .469 OPS against same-side pitching leaves a lot of room for growth, and even a jump to merely “bad” against lefties could make him an everyday bat. —Craig Goldstein
Jeffrey Paternostro is an author of Baseball Prospectus. Follow @jeffpaternostro