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Examining the AL Central farm system needs as the draft approaches

Three AL Central teams have top-five picks in this year’s draft. What approach will they take as they look to improve their farm systems?

MLB: Spring Training-New York Yankees at Minnesota Twins Photo by Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

As we approach the 2019 MLB Draft, we’re going through each division here at MLB Daily Dish and profiling each team’s farm system, determining which areas they need to address and improve in the upcoming draft. Today we take a look at the AL Central, where it could be argued that every team in the division is undergoing some form of rebuild or organizational restructuring. Three teams in the division — the Royals, White Sox, and Tigers — have top-five picks, so they’ll have particularly significant opportunities to improve their farm systems this June. Here’s a look at the state of each organization (with all prospect rankings based off MLB Pipeline’s lists):

Indians (No. 24 overall pick)

Three Top 100 prospects: Triston McKenzie (RHP, 37), Nolan Jones (3B, 60), Tyler Freeman (SS/2B, 96)

It’s not like they’ve really gotten burned for it, but the Indians have certainly given up a lot of young assets over the last half-decade in their various bids to end their 71-year championship drought, the second-longest in professional sports. Clint Frazier, Justus Sheffield, and Francisco Mejia were all considered elite prospects before being dealt in trades that brought back established big-league relievers Andrew Miller, Brad Hand, and Adam Cimber, and they’ve given up countless other mid-level prospects in late-season depth moves over the past few years. On top of that, guys who they hung onto, such as Bradley Zimmer, Rob Kaminsky, and Brady Aiken, haven’t really developed as anticipated after once being considered top prospects. They’ve still done a good job of identifying, drafting, and developing talent — their three top-100 prospects, none of whom were top-30 picks, are evidence of that — but their system definitely isn’t as deep as it once was.

Really, with the Indians’ organizational talent being pretty evenly spread across all positions, they can afford to take a pure best-player-available approach, with a particular eye on fast-rising college talent who can help backfill the roster as they brace to lose several key members of their core (Jason Kipnis, Trevor Bauer, Corey Kluber, Francisco Lindor) to either free agency or trade over the next three years.

Royals (No. 2 overall pick)

One Top 100 prospect: Brady Singer (RHP, 50)

If there’s one thing this Royals front office has done really well under Dayton Moore, it’s been turning overlooked prospects into useful contributors — Salvador Perez, Jarrod Dyson, Kelvin Herrera, Greg Holland, Whit Merrifield, Nicky Lopez, Ryan O’Hearn, and Jakob Junis are among the notable examples. Unfortunately, they’ve had much less success with high-profile first-round selections. Since Moore and company selected Luke Hochevar — an underwhelming yet useful bullpen piece on their 2015 championship club — and Mike Moustakas and Eric Hosmer, their corner-infield duo on their back-to-back pennant-winning teams in ’14 and ’15 with three straight top-five picks from 2006-08, they’ve struggled with early first-rounders. Christian Colón, the No. 4 overall pick in 2010, had the game-winning hit in the decisive game of the ’15 World Series but played in just 125 regular-season games with the Royals over four years with the Royals, posting a .652 OPS. Though he’s having a strong season at Triple-A, 2011 No. 5 overall pick Bubba Starling was outrighted off the 40-man roster over the winter and still has never played in a big-league game. Kyle Zimmer — the No. 5 overall pick in 2012 — finally made his major-league debut this March but has had his career ravaged by injuries, went through waivers last spring, and probably projects as a fringe reliever at best moving forward. And though Hunter Dozier, the No. 8 pick in 2013, has been one of the best hitters in the AL so far this year, he’s just begun to establish himself as a major-league regular in his sixth full professional season — much later than expected for a guy picked out of college.

All that is to say that with the No. 2 overall pick this year, it’d be in the Royals’ best interest to actually hit on a high pick and end up with an elite prospect for the first time in a while. Really, they could stand to add high-end talent in any area, though the greater need may be for pitching right now, considering that they have five players 17 years old or younger in their current everyday lineup and have four 20-year-old position players among their top six prospects according to MLB Pipeline. And while they took five college pitchers in the first five rounds of last year’s draft — all of whom have performed well so far this season — they still don’t have enough intriguing young pitching depth to feel optimistic about their staffs in future seasons, so they’d be well-served to go the pitching route again this year. It’d be particularly helpful if they could find some more advanced college arms that can reach the majors quickly and supplement their already-blossoming crop of intriguing young position players.

Tigers (No. 5 overall pick)

Four Top 100 prospects: Casey Mize (RHP, 6), Matt Manning (RHP, 48), Franklin Perez (RHP, 71), Isaac Paredes (SS, 93)

The Tigers’ massive sell-off over the past two-plus seasons at least seems to be bearing some fruit, as they got Perez in the Justin Verlander trade and Paredes in the Alex Avila/Justin Wilson deal. (No. 5 prospect Daz Cameron also came in the Verlander deal, while No. 7 prospect Willi Castro was acquired last July for Leonys Martin.) With that said, they’ve quite literally emptied the cupboard as far as big-league talent over the last couple years and really don’t seem to have any young position players on their major-league club who have the potential to be transformative, so they’ll definitely want to try and add some high-upside hitters during the draft’s early rounds this year. In particular, if they can add some advanced infielders capable of helping the big-league club in short order, that’d be a major plus, as three of their four primary starting infielders this year are over 30 years old and the majority of their infield prospects (aside from Paredes) project as glove-first utility players at the major-league level.

On the other side of the coin, no organization can ever have too much pitching depth, but the Tigers seem to be much better off from a pitching standpoint than they are with young hitters right now. Top starter Matthew Boyd and 2016 AL Rookie of the Year Michael Fulmer are both under club control through 2023, rookie Spencer Turnbull is thriving this season and under Tigers control through 2025, and the organization has three starting pitchers among the top 75 prospects in baseball with Mize, Manning, and Perez. Despite that depth, if a pitcher is the best player on the board whenever they’re on the clock, they should absolutely look to add to that abundance of talented young arms and make their organizational pitching depth as much of a strength as possible as they look to become competitive again.

Twins (No. 13 overall pick)

Three Top 100 prospects: Royce Lewis (SS, 7), Alex Kiriloff (OF, 12), Brusdar Graterol (RHP, 61)

Though they don’t have the most top-100 prospects, the Twins very arguably may have the deepest farm system in this division, with a steady stream of talent at virtually every position and a few guys, such as Nick Gordon, Steven Gonsalves, and Yunior Severino, who have faced some adversity but still have a chance to be really good major-league players. At the moment, with their big-league core primary being anchored by young position players such as Miguel Sano, Byron Buxton, Jorge Polanco, Eddie Rosario, and Max Kepler — and the two premium prospects in the organization both being position players — it’d seem to be in their best interest to put an emphasis on adding pitching depth in this draft (with the caveat, as in any baseball draft, that the talent has to be there when they’re on the clock). With a big-league staff that’s been very good so far this season and a few solid pitching prospects at each level of the system, they really can’t go wrong however they decide to approach their search for more pitching depth. But with Jose Berrios being the only member of their current rotation who figures to stick around for the long haul and guys like Graterol, Gonsalves, and Fernando Romero still being question marks at the big-league level, their safest move might be to pursue high-floor college arms who have a better chance of reaching the big leagues quickly.

White Sox (No. 3 overall pick)

Five Top 100 prospects: Eloy Jimenez (OF, 3), Luis Robert (OF, 18), Michael Kopech (RHP, 20), Dylan Cease (RHP, 22), Nick Madrigal (2B, 44)

Despite all the impressive prospects that they’ve added during their rebuilding process, the White Sox still have a rather unbalanced farm system, with 10 of their top 13 prospects being position players, including seven outfielders. Two of the three pitching prospects among that group are Kopech and Dunning, both of whom are recovering from Tommy John surgery this season, so despite the fact that pitchers make up 13/17ths of the rest of MLB Pipeline’s top 30 organizational prospects list, they’re still in need of more high-end young pitching talent. (The obvious caveat here is that two of the most talented and polished prospects they acquired as part of their rebuilding process, Lucas Giolito and Reynaldo Lopez, have already been in the big leagues for a while and have exhausted their prospect status, but neither one looks exceptionally likely to be a truly impactful front-of-the-rotation starter at this stage.)

There are very few, if any, situations where MLB teams should target a specific position early in the draft rather than just taking the best player on the board. For that reason, it’s very likely that we’ll see the ChiSox take a hitter with the No. 3 overall pick in this year’s position-player-heavy draft. On the other hand, they’d likely have an opportunity to take the best pitcher in the draft (widely regarded to be TCU lefty Nick Lodolo) and give themselves a high-upside future ace, rather than adding another position-player prospect to a collection that features more highly-regarded hitters than they could ever use in a big-league lineup at once. On the other hand, they can always package some of those young position players to acquire an established big-league starter or two once they decide to make an honest effort to compete again, so there’s still a very strong case to be made that they should take a position player at No. 3 overall and deal with the potential surplus at a later date. Beyond the first couple rounds, though, it’d definitely make sense for them to seek out some high-upside pitching prospects and see if they can develop some valuable contributors to a staff that has been holding them down since they traded away Chris Sale following the 2016 season.