Having a top farm system isn’t necessarily going to guarantee wins at the MLB level, as Diamondbacks General Manager Mike Hazen always alludes to when dealing with prospect trades. The reality for prospects are that they are essentially baseball’s equivalent of the stock market. You’re trying to find the right stocks, players who aren’t necessarily ready to play at the game’s highest level or haven’t reached their ceiling yet, in order to maximize your organization’s ability to win games in the future. General Managers’ livelihoods are decided by the organization’s ability to win at the MLB level, but a farm system gives them more flexibility to make moves to improve.
When Hazen inherited the top baseball decision making role in Arizona after the 2016 season, he inherited a farm system that had been stripped bare due to bad trades and previous top system prospects graduating. Over the past four years, the front office has steadily improved the farm system. While the drafts have been steady but not spectacular, the team has been able to produce at least one player from each year in consensus Top 10 lists. The team’s efforts in the Latin America field has been more of a quantity over quality approach, which can be an exploitable market inefficiency if you believe strongly in your Latin American player development program. Over the past four years, the system went from bottom five to top five in baseball.
To kick off this year’s farm system preview, here are the names to remember when they either reach the show or are inevitably traded due to payroll constraints in a “Win Now” move:
Top Five Position Players
OF Kristian Robinson (R/R), Age: 20, ETA: 2023, 2017 J2
Kristian Robinson is the biggest July 2nd signing in franchise history, inking a $2.5M signing bonus with Arizona as Mike Hazen’s first big amateur signing. Robinson has the highest ceiling of any player in the system, although he’s at least three years away from being an MLB regular. He’s got a massive 6’3” frame with room to add more muscle (~220 lbs when he fills out) that lends itself to plus-plus power down the road. That also will likely negatively affect his speed in the outfield, so he likely projects to a corner at the MLB level. He has the arm strength to handle right field, which is where he’d end up if the organization can develop his bat.
The biggest concern has to do with strikeouts, as Robinson punched out in more than a quarter of his trips to the plate in 2019. As he gets older and has a better idea of how pitchers are attacking him, he’ll need to reduce that rate towards 20-22% otherwise they’ll limit his offensive ceiling. The plus-plus power tradeoff, which projects to a 30+ HR threat in the middle of the order with enough patience to put up a potential league average OBP, is one worth gambling on because the team doesn’t have anyone in the system that combination of tools.
OF Alek Thomas (L/L), Age: 21, ETA: 2022, 2018 Draft (2nd)
Of the three youngsters in the outfield, Thomas is the most MLB-ready of the bunch. His ability to spray the ball, with authority, to all fields lends itself to high BABIP totals and possibly potential .300+ average seasons. In his first full year in pro ball, Thomas turned the Midwest League into his own playground as he hit .312/.393/.479 with 63 runs scored for the D-backs Low A affiliate. After a late-season promotion to Visalia, he struggled a bit with a jump in competition but was able to figure it out for Visalia’s championship run. His double would seal the California League championship for the organization’s High A affiliate.
Thomas doesn’t have the speed and instincts that Corbin Carroll has in center, so he likely projects to play in left field with both of them on the MLB roster. Another area of improvement will be cutting down on the outs he makes on the bases. His 2021 assignment will be telling if his debut will come in 2022 or 2023. While Thomas already has a high floor, just a slight increase in launch angle could catapult him into a 20/20 HR/SB threat. A potentially deadened ball may reduce that upside although he certainly has other ways to beat teams.
C/OF Daulton Varsho (L/R), Age: 24, ETA: 2021, 2017 Draft (CBB)
Varsho entered the 2020 season with high expectations, coming off a year that culminated in him winning the Southern League MVP and the organization’s Minor League Player of the Year. Varsho would start the year at the alternate training site, but would be called up in the middle of August. After struggling with inconsistent playing time, Varsho would end up playing a lot of center field and batted .188/.287/.366 while dealing with less than ideal conditions. He did have some nice moments, but overall struggled with the skill of opposing pitchers at the MLB level.
Entering the 2021 season, Varsho will be battling for a roster spot this Spring as an offensive-minded utility player who can catch or play the outfield. There is a non-zero chance he could get the bulk of the playing time in center given the lack of a clear option there. The lack of the designated hitter in the National League makes it tougher for Varsho to get everyday at-bats, so he may start the season with Reno so he can get those at-bats if they’re not available at the MLB level as well as get more defensive reps in the outfield. Varsho has a history of being a productive hitter as high up as AA, so I believe he’ll find his groove at the MLB level.
OF Corbin Carroll (L/L), Age: 20, ETA: 2022, 2019 Draft (1st)
The D-backs’ first round pick from the 2019 draft has done nothing but impress due to his bat speed, incredible batting eye, and plus-plus speed that works on the bases and in center. Fans only got to see Carroll once in 2020, as he hit a triple on a hard ground ball down the 1B line in a scrimmage. With a normal season, Carroll would have played at Low and High A.
Launch angle is the key to unlocking Carroll’s ceiling as a hitter, as he’s more of a line drive hitter that lends to more doubles and triples instead of home runs. He profiles as a potential leadoff hitter whose contact skills and elite batting eye projects for high on-base numbers. His speed and quick-twitch athleticism plays up on the bases, where Carroll is a potential 40+ stolen base threat. The last player to put up that type of production was A.J. Pollock in 2015, who stole 39/46 bags in 2015. In a couple years, Carroll could challenge for the everyday center field job.
INF Geraldo Perdomo (S/R), Age: 21, ETA: 2021, 2016 J2
Perdomo seemed like the D-backs shortstop of the future, but is now free to develop at his own pace when Nick Ahmed received a 3-year extension before the 2020 season. Perdomo is one of the best defensive shortstop prospects with a still developing bat from both sides of the plate. Perdomo has the requisite range and arm for the position, although I noticed a few errant throws in Spring. He doesn’t have the release or athleticism that Ahmed provides at the position (very few shortstops historically have), but will hold his own as his successor.
His swing is more developed from the left side, showing an increase in exit velocity and power numbers as he got more reps in 2019. His year ended with a very successful stint in the Arizona Fall League, which saw his EV jump up to 87 MPH after averaging 82 in Low A and 84 in High A. His elite batting eye has translated to quality on base numbers and he’s a very instinctive base stealer. His body type and development path reminds me a lot of current D-back Ketel Marte, although the latter had louder tools as a prospect.
Top Five Pitchers
Bryce Jarvis (RHP), Age: 23, ETA: 2022, 2020 Draft (1st)
The Diamondbacks made the fast-rising Duke ace their first round pick in last year’s draft, thanks to a fully fleshed out arsenal of pitches and ultra-competitive traits. Jarvis had learned how to pitch with lesser stuff as a freshman and sophomore at Duke before making a big change in his draft year. Ahead his junior season with Duke, Jarvis sharpened his breaking balls and added 20 pounds of muscle to push his velocity into the mid 90s. With those improvements, combined with arguably one of the best change-ups in the draft, Jarvis dominated college hitters for six starts including an epic pitchers duel with Florida State ace C.J. Van Eyk.
Jarvis projects to be more of a mid-rotation starter, with very little variance although I won’t discount top of the rotation potential, drawing comps to current D-backs young stud Zac Gallen. His delivery is very repeatable and mechanically sound, so he has considerably less injury risk than your typical pitching prospect. His ability to command four above-average pitches and intelligence on the mound should make him an uncomfortable at-bat for opposing hitters, as they won’t be able to guess what he’s throwing. He likely needs about a year and a half of experience in the upper minors (High A, AA) before he’s ready to be a part of the MLB rotation.
Blake Walston (LHP), Age: 19, ETA: 2023, 2019 Draft (1st)
Walston was the D-backs other first round pick in the 2019 draft as a projectable high school lefty who could spin the ball. Walston has already added 30 pounds since high school and his fastball tops out at 96. He’s very athletic with a low effort delivery, combining a high arm slot and plus-plus curveball to baffle hitters. He also features a slider and change-up, with a solid feel for both, but the fastball and curveball will be his carrying tools.
As Walston fills out to his ideal playing weight, he will need to learn how to set up hitters and have his pitches play off each other. Given his competitiveness and intelligence, I believe he will pick that up rather quickly.
Corbin Martin (RHP), Age: 25, ETA: 2021, Zack Greinke Trade (7/2019)
Martin was the centerpiece in the Zack Greinke trade and spent 2020 rehabbing from Tommy John surgery from the year prior. In his limited time with Houston, Martin featured the full arsenal of pitches and sat in the mid 90s with the fastball. In his limited MLB action, Martin was a fastball dominant pitcher (63%) and relied on his curveball as his main secondary offering. For 2021, he’ll likely be on an innings limit and probably start the year in the minors to build up his arm before being needed in the majors.
Martin will likely spend the first half of the year in the minors so he can finish his TJ rehab in games with less pressure about results. The team will closely monitor benchmarks like velocity, shape of his breaking ball, and his overall arm speed to make sure he’s getting closer to pre-surgery form. If his stuff remains intact after surgery, he’s at worst a middle of the rotation arm or a closer.
Luis Frias (RHP), Age: 23, ETA: 2022, 2015 J2
Frias converted from a third baseman to a pitcher, spending three years in short season ball to work on his pitches and command. He broke through in 2019, dominating the Northwest League with pitches that can be outright unfair when he’s on. At his best, he features upper 90s gas with a hammer spike curve and a split-finger grip change-up that both just completely fall off the table. His pitches come out of a vertical arm slot, something the current regime values, which gives him the ability to get his fastball and curveball to tunnel off each other. When everything is clicking, Frias looks like the next ace of the franchise.
His arm action is a bit long with a bit of a hitch before he delivers the ball, which presents potential injury and command issues moving up the ladder. With the amount of raw stuff he has, there is some potential outcomes for him to end up if starting isn’t in the cards for him. His stuff, body type, and delivery remind me a lot of a high upside pitcher on the Dodgers in Brusdar Graterol.
Levi Kelly (RHP), Age: 22, ETA: 2022, 2018 Draft (8th)
No player in the D-backs farm system did more to improve his ceiling than Levi Kelly did. He started out as an 8th round pick who was signed for just $350K out of high school and was meant to be developed slowly. After rebuilding his body to a better physique, he forced his way into full season ball and was one of the most dominant pitchers at the Low A level with 126 strikeouts in 100 innings and batters put up a measly .215 average against and only 4 long balls. He got a look in the scrimmages, retiring all six hitters he faced with four going down on strikes.
Kelly features a mid 90s fastball that’s mostly straight, but the velocity plays up due to his unhittable slider. The slider gets a lot of vertical and lateral movement, which gives hitters from both sides of the plate problems. He’s been also working on a slower breaking ball and adding a split-finger change to his arsenal to be less predictable, but his success greatly depends on his slider command. Very few pitchers succeed as a starter with a fastball slider combo, but we’ve seen guys like Randy Johnson and Dinelson Lamet do it before so it’s not unheard of. There’s still a lot of potential variance with Kelly, from staff ace to a multiple inning reliever in the bullpen as a potential role. He’ll likely be one of the first pitching prospects added by the current regime to get a look at the MLB level.