It’s here! The Diamondbacks top-10 prospect list is ready. After a ton of debate, checking my own thinking, re-reviewing the stats, checking my notes on guys I’ve seen, and talking to scouts and evaluators, the final ten are set. And let me say for the record: this top-10 was harder than any other. There’s legitimate argument for who should be #1 overall, and it doesn’t get any easier from there. It’s a matter of weighing upside and certainty, tools and performance, the known and the unknown. Disagreement is expected, not because I took wild chances, but because everyone’s preferences are different. So it goes…
But before getting to the prospects themselves, there’s something else to consider.
The strengths of the D-backs’ minor league system played down in the lower levels of the organization in 2018. There were a ton of exciting guys in short season ball, some good ones in High-A, just a couple in Double-A, and then there was a big void. The Diamondbacks’ system lacks consistency as trades and poor drafts have resulted in very little depth from Double-A and beyond.
So consider this: the Diamondbacks have trade assets now that they will surely cash in this winter. Maybe not all of their chips, but some of them will be on the move. I would expect them to target that void, looking for either MLB-ready players with control remaining and/or guys that are close to MLB-ready in return. Since that’s where the biggest hole is, that’s where you’d expect them to look to add. Doing so will give those guys who played at High-A and Double-A a bit more time to mature before forcing them to the majors and extend the window for those who played down even further in 2018.
Add the fact that the team has seven picks in the top-100 picks next June. SEVEN. Here’s how that breaks down:
- 1st Round: picks 16 and 26 overall (pick #26 is compensation for failure to sign last year’s first rounder — Matt McLain who went to UCLA instead)
- Free Agent Compensation: pick 34 overall (pick #34 is compensation for losing Patrick Corbin to the Nationals)
- 2nd Round: pick 55
- Compensation Round B: pick 75 (this pick could move up a few, but won’t move back, depending on the deals that free agents sign)
- 3rd Round: pick 93
- To Be Determined: either pick 35 if A.J. Pollock signs for $50 million or more, or a pick in the 75-80 range if he signs for less than $50 million
[EDIT: you can throw in another pick in the 76-78 range with today’s Paul Goldschmidt trade, care of the St. Louis Cardinals, making eight total picks inside the top 100.]
Put that all together and you can see that the D-backs are primed to add a bunch of young talent to the system, just as they did a year ago. With the current wave already down in the system and moving up quickly, the organization will replace them immediately. With only a handful of graduations expected, one can see a clear path to the overall depth and talent of the farm system improving rapidly after next June’s draft. Pepper in another good July 2 international signing class and, well, things are clearly looking up in terms of systematic talent and value.
I would expect that this year’s farm system rankings will place the D-backs in the #22-#26-ish range. That’s not great, but it’s not nearly as bad as things were just a short time ago. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see that ranking rise quickly should the team get good value in trades this winter and draft/sign well next summer. While the quality of play on the major league field will likely take a bit of a dip this season, the overall strength of the organization is expected to trend upwards. Undoing the damage done by Stewart and Company was always going to take time, but it’s happening now.
Let’s get on to the good stuff…
#10) Pavin Smith, 1B
- Opening Day Age: 23.2
- 2018 Level(s): High-A Visalia
- Games: 120 games
- Acquired: 2017 Draft, Round 1
- Risk: Medium
Smith’s first full season in professional baseball was a disappointment. As an advanced college hitter, he didn’t exactly burn it up in his debut at Hillsboro, then was aggressively promoted to High-A where he frankly didn’t produce. He hit too many ground balls despite adding some leverage to his swing and failed to make quality contact with consistency. The California League is traditionally a hitter’s paradise, but the first baseman slugged just .392. After an abysmal start to the season, he did pick things up a bit in July and August, hitting nearly half of his extra-base hits in those two months. During time in the Arizona Fall League, he looked either tired or overmatched or both. He’s stuck at first base and without more power output, it’s hard to see him surviving. But he also showed enough ability to be picked 7th overall just a year and a half ago, so perhaps these are the growing pains. Either way, Smith’s stock is trending down at the moment and evaluators haven’t been especially pleased with what they saw from him in 2018 (video).
#9) Taylor Clarke, RHP
- Opening Day Age: 25.8
- 2018 Level(s): Triple-A Reno
- Games: 27 starts
- Acquired: 2015 Draft, Round 3
- Risk: Low
Clarke appeared ready for a big league audition last fall, but the team wasn’t forced to move him to the 40-man roster just yet and likely didn’t want to turn to a rookie who set a season-high in innings pitched with the season on the line. But he’s ready now and will be in the mix for a rotation spot next spring. The repertoire isn’t wildly exciting, but there’s reason to believe he can put together three average offerings. His command is fine, but not a true strength and for it to take a step forward, he likely needs to face MLB hitters. He is a fly ball pitcher, which causes a some concern, but with the humidor installed at Chase, his stuff may play a bit better than before. Clarke looks the part of a back-end starter that can chew up some reliable innings, even if he’s not a strikeout monster. While he’ll turn 26 next May, he remains a valuable asset (video).
#8) Jake McCarthy, CF
- Opening Day Age: 21.7
- 2018 Level(s): Rookie Arizona League, Short Season Hillsboro
- Games: 58 games
- Acquired: 2018 Draft, Comp Round A
- Risk: Medium
McCarthy is a lefty-hitting center fielder with the speed and chops to stay in center. He missed time his junior year with injury at the University of Virginia, but looked fully healthy in 55 games at Hillsboro. He’s a chiseled athlete with speed to burn and he’s the kind of dynamic talent that scouts love. There were times at Hillsboro where he’d get aggressive and swing a bit wildly, which is part of the development process. At other times, he’d work counts and rip the baseball. He showed an ability to stay on pitches from left-handed pitchers, riding the ball the other way and showing some feel to hit. There’s enough strength and projection to expect some reasonable power output, but UVA is known for coaching a flat swing, the kind that produces plenty of ground balls. That can work for a runner like McCarthy, but expect to see him make some adjustments and show a bit more leverage in the future. He has the makings of an everyday center fielder if things hold up and a solid fourth outfielder type if he doesn’t maximize the tools (video).
#7) Alek Thomas, CF
- Opening Day Age: 18.9
- 2018 Level(s): Rookie Arizona League, Rookie Missoula
- Games: 56 games
- Acquired: 2018 Draft, 2nd Round
- Risk: Medium
The Diamondbacks went back to the well in drafting another center field prospect in Thomas after selecting McCarthy with their previous pick. Thomas is the son of White Sox Director of Conditioning and former pro player, Allen Thomas. The younger Thomas is a fantastic athlete that has the speed and skill to stick in center field. At the plate, he’s an advanced player for his age, showing more polish than is typical for an 18-year old first-year pro. He shows a feel to hit, manages the strike zone and generally seems to know what he wants to do in the box. Adjustments will be forced upon him as he faces more advanced pitchers, but he was clearly up to the challenge at Missoula where he was young for the level and hit .341/.396/.496 in 28 games. The power projection will always be a little on the light side, but he has gap power at present and will eventually put a few more over the fence. He’s a lefty-swinger that could move relatively quickly given his feel for the game. He’s a potential table-setter at the plate and should open 2019 in full season ball at Kane County (video).
#6) Taylor Widener, RHP
- Opening Day Age: 24.5
- 2018 Level(s): Double-A Jackson
- Games: 26 games, 25 starts
- Acquired: 2018 trade from New York Yankees (Souza/Drury/Banda trade)
- Risk: Medium
Widener was once considered a reliever, but his stuff ticked up in a big way and he transitioned to the rotation in 2017 and hasn’t looked back. His fastball-slider combo is deadly, but his changeup has gone from an afterthought to a serviceable third pitch. Widener gets plenty of movement on the fastball and slider, leading to plenty of strikeouts (176 in 139.1 innings in 2018). He didn’t walk many batters last season either, showing enough command to leave him in the rotation discussion. Of concern, he does generate plenty of fly balls and that’ll always be an issue pitching in the NL West. Still, the Diamondbacks did well to obtain him along with Souza 10 months ago. He should get looks in Spring Training next spring and could be considered for the rotation at some point in 2019. He’s a MLB-ready pitcher as a reliever right now, but with the Diamondbacks’ timeline being pushed back some, expect him to continue pitching in the rotation and added to the 40-man roster when the team give him the call. He has the looks of a #4 starter with a chance for more if the changeup comes along. Alternatively, he could move to the back of the bullpen should the organization decide to push him back to relief (video).
#5) Geraldo Perdomo, SS
- Opening Day Age: 19.6
- 2018 Level(s): Rookie Arizona League, Rookie Missoula, Short Season Hillsboro
- Games: 57 games
- Acquired: 2016 International Sign (Dominican Republic)
- Risk: High
No one in the Diamondbacks’ system had more helium in 2018 than Perdomo (and that’s saying something). He hit .322/.438/.460 across three levels, going from facing teenage pitching in the AZL to seeing college-aged pitching in Hillsboro without seeming to notice the difference. He’s a twitchy, switch-hitter with loads of energy in the box and sweet, smooth mechanics with his swing. Reports started to surface in June when he was still playing in Arizona and he popped up on the radar. Two promotions later, I got eyes on him in Hillsboro where he showed well and played with both electric athleticism and effort. Perhaps most impressive, he plays a silky smooth shortstop and can make all of the plays there with soft hands, good range, physical tools, and plenty of arm. He made plays that simply don’t get made in short season ball and even surprised his first baseman a time or two by getting to balls and making throws when others would have just eaten the opportunity. In short, Perdomo made a big impression in 2018 and looks like a difference-maker in the box and in the field at a premium position. The tools are loud, he’s a premium athlete and he produced accordingly. He could debut in Kane County in 2019 where the offense would be tested. The key will be making the necessary adjustments that come with facing better pitching (video).
#4) Jazz Chisholm, SS
- Opening Day Age: 21.2
- 2018 Level(s): Single-A Kane County, High-A Visalia
- Games: 112 games
- Acquired: 2015 International Sign (Bahamas)
- Risk: Medium
Chisholm missed key development time in 2017 to a knee injury that abruptly ended his season. He showed some rust in 2018 as he was eager to get back on track. He stalled a bit in the summer, but the team challenged him with a promotion to High-A and Chisholm took the opportunity and ran with it. He totaled 25 home runs across two levels and hit a combined .272/.329/.513. Those are the kinds of numbers that are more common for a corner infielder, but Chisholm impressed enough defensively to convince most that he’ll stay at shortstop where he’s capable, though not a true defensive wizard. He can rush plays at times, but he did speak openly about trying to slow himself down some in the field and in the box and how being a bit more patient has worked for him. That kind of maturity is needed because he can pile up the strikeouts at times. He was electric in the Arizona Fall League (albeit in limited action), suggesting that the best is yet to come. He’ll play all of 2019 at 21-years old and should open the year in Double-A Jackson with a late-season shot at the majors within reach, though I’d expect the organization to try and push that off to 2020. If Chisholm can continue to grow in his ability to manage the strike zone and prove adept enough to stay at short, he can be an impact middle infielder. If either (or both) of those things give some, he may still prove a low-end everyday regular with power as the calling card (video).
#3) Daulton Varsho, C
- Opening Day Age: 22.7
- 2018 Level(s): Rookie Arizona League (rehab), High-A Visalia
- Games: 83 games
- Acquired: 2017 Draft, Comp Round B
- Risk: Low
The Diamondbacks may not have struck the lottery with their picks of Pavin Smith and Drew Ellis in 2017, but Varsho may save the day. A broken hammate bone robbed him of some time in 2018 and zapped him a bit upon return. Still, Varsho hit .286/.363/.451 at Visalia with 11 home runs in just 80 games. He’s a max-effort player with well-above average speed for a catcher and profiles as a dynamic athlete who should hit for average, reasonable power and get the most out of his tools. Most importantly, he’s improved enough defensively to convince evaluators that he’ll stick as a catcher. He lacks a cannon arm, but gets the ball off quickly enough to remain effective at limiting opposing base runners. With offensive bar for catcher as low as it is, Varsho could turn into a standout. Consider that the average MLB catcher (min. 300 PAs) produced a below-average offensive line in 2018 and it’s not hard to see Varsho as an above average hitter from behind the dish, something the Diamondbacks have lacked for the better part of a decade. Catchers that can hit are rare, but Varsho profiles as that kind of player, a clear asset. He should open 2019 in Double-A Jackson and is not far from the majors (video).
#2) Kristian Robinson, CF
- Opening Day Age: 18.3
- 2018 Level(s): Rookie Arizona League, Rookie Missoula
- Games: 57 games
- Acquired: 2017 International Sign (Bahamas)
- Risk: High
Get this: when Robinson was starting his 2018 pro debut, he was the same age as kids transitioning between their junior and senior year in high school. Instead of starting his senior year, he was busy hitting .300/.419/.467 against much older and more experienced competition in Missoula. The production is one thing, but consider that Robinson was transitioning to life in the states at the same time. He’s an uber-physical athlete at 6’3 and 190-pounds with tremendous speed and growing strength. He is far and away the most exciting prospect in the system and possesses the greatest upside as a power-hitting center fielder with five average or better tools. These types of players simply don’t come around often. Full stop. Best of all, it’s not just all raw ability with Robinson. He has impressed evaluators with his feel for the game, and while that’s still developing for the 17-year old, he’s more than just a pipe dream. He remains a long ways off and given his age, don’t look for the organization to rush him. He’ll take some time to mature and put his standout package to full use, but if he can manage to do that, he’s an organization-changer. At best, he’s a regular All-Star type. If he struggles some, he’s still a viable big leaguer in some capacity. He’s only second on this list because of his short track record. If this were a list of players with the brightest upside, he’d clearly be first (video).
#1) Jon Duplantier, RHP
- Opening Day Age: 24.7
- 2018 Level(s): Rookie Arizona League (rehab), Double-A Jackson
- Games: 16 starts
- Acquired: 2016 Draft, 3rd Round
- Risk: Medium
Duplantier is an established name at this point. He has a chance for four average or better pitches with the fastball and slider being the standouts. He missed some time this summer with right biceps tendonitis, but his shoulder and elbow held up for another season, helping to ease some of the concerns that have followed from his college days at Rice. He ran a 2.69 ERA in 14 starts for AA Jackson and struck out better than a batter per inning, and while the walks did creep up on him at times, he managed them well. Duplantier has a prototypical pitcher’s frame and is capable of generating an above average number of ground balls — he allowed just four home runs in 67 AA innings. His delivery is a bid unique, but it’s served him well and has helped take some of the load off of his previously-injured shoulder. He continues to look the part of a mid-rotation starter that strikes out his share and keeps the ball on the ground — a good combination for the NL West where big ballparks can wreak havoc. He’ll be firmly in the conversation to join the Opening Day rotation for the D-backs, but he’s unlikely ready to handle a full season’s worth of work as his current high in innings was just 136 in 2017. Still, if he remains healthy, he should see Chase Field at some point in 2019. While he’s not the most exciting prospect in the system, he remains the safest bet to make an impact at the major league level. His health remains the biggest concern, but the stuff and pitchability appear ready (video).
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