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Examining the NL Central farm system needs as the draft approaches

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Just one NL Central team has a top-10 pick, so the others will largely be left to search for diamonds in the rough.

MLB: Game One-Pittsburgh Pirates at Cincinnati Reds Photo by Aaron Doster-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’ll take a look at the NL Central, which is a particularly interesting division right now considering that every team is making at least a semi-legitimate effort to compete for a playoff spot, and because every team except the Reds (No. 7 overall) will be picking in the back half of this year’s first round. That means these clubs will have to take a more creative approach as they look to improve their farm systems, identifying players who can be impactful major-leaguers despite not being at the top of the draft board. But for that matter, the front offices who can do that generally end up being the most successful ones, right?

Here’s a look at the state of each organization (with all prospect rankings based off MLB Pipeline’s lists):

Brewers (No. 28 overall pick)

Two Top 100 prospects: Keston Hiura (2B, 15), Corey Ray (OF, 90)

Thanks to the trades of Brett Phillips, Luis Ortíz, Lewis Brinson, and Isan Díaz and the graduations of guys like Orlando Arcia, Josh Hader, Corbin Burnes, and Brandon Woodruff (plus the impending graduation of Hiura), the Brewers’ farm system is significantly less eye-popping than it was a few years ago — as soon as Hiura loses his prospect status, their highest-ranked prospect will be Ray, a 24-year-old who has been somewhat of a disappointment as a professional and who has been toiling on top prospect lists since he was selected No. 5 overall out of Louisville in 2015. As they look to take full advantage of their competitive window while also seeking to keep the organization competitive in future seasons, the Brewers are in a situation where they pretty much have to take a best-player-available approach right now. They need high-end prospect talent in whatever area they can get it, and if a guy ends up getting blocked at some point, they can always include that player in a trade package as they look to improve the major-league club more quickly. (On another note, GM David Stearns has been really creative with moving players around in order to get his best hitters on the field, so players being blocked shouldn’t be too much of an issue as long as he’s in charge).

Milwaukee has a noticeable lack of respected pitching depth in the lower minors, so if there’s a virtual tie on the draft board, high-upside high-school or junior-college pitchers might be worth placing an emphasis on. Overall, though, their main focus should be keeping their farm system after seeing so many of their coveted prospects either leave the system or join the big-league club over the last 18 months.

Cardinals (No. 19 overall pick)

One Top 100 prospect: Nolan Gorman (3B, 35)

Much like what the Brewers are going through right now, the bad news for the Cardinals is that with prospects like Alex Reyes, Dakota Hudson, and Tyler O’Neill graduating off of top prospect lists over the past year, their farm system doesn’t look nearly as intriguing as it did a year or two ago. The good news is that St. Louis’ M.O. since the turn of the centry has been turning undervalued prospects into meaningful contributors — Yadier Molina, Matt Carpenter, Paul DeJong, Harrison Bader, and Jordan Hicks were all drafted in the third round or beyond, and all currently play major roles on the Cardinals’ big-league club. If they can continue doing that, their farm system should be just fine over the long haul, and in order to do so, they’ll likely be using a strict best-player-available approach again.

In particular, the Cardinals seem to have achieved their greatest success in recent drafts by selecting college players (DeJong, Bader, and first-rounders such as Hudson, Kolten Wong, Michael Wacha, and Luke Weaver), so it wouldn’t be surprising to see them target collegiate players again in the early rounds — though as core guys like Molina and Carpenter reach the end of the line, they may be more open to seeking out high-schoolers who they believe can be transformative, especially since that strategy seems to have worked out well in recent years with guys like Gorman and Jack Flaherty. Though this is somewhat of a testament to the organization’s ability to fast-track pitchers through the minor leagues, their lower-level pitching depth is very much lacking at the moment — they only have two pitchers at levels below Double-A on MLB Pipeline’s top 30 list — so this might be a point at which it’d make sense for them to go after some high-upside pitching prospects, even if they’re guys who might not be exceptionally polished. They can afford to take their time with young pitchers at this point, and if they can end up with an ace-type arm — rather than having the glut of No. 3 and 4-type starters that they have right now — it might be for the best.

Cubs (No. 27 overall pick)

Two Top 100 prospects: Nico Hoerner (SS, 64), Miguel Amaya (C, 81)

Aside from David Bote, the Cubs don’t have a very good track record of developing guys who weren’t early first-rounders into impact big-leaguers under the current front-office regime. Hoerner, the No. 24 overall pick in last year’s draft, could change that trend sooner than later (and to their credit, they’ve done a pretty good job in the international market), but the Cubs are really in a spot where they need to start turning some less-heralded draft picks into major-leaguers if they’re going to keep making a strong push for the NL Central title on a yearly basis. While Chicago’s farm system is watered down enough right now that they’d really be well-served to add a high-end prospect at any position, they at least have enough mid-level pitching depth right now that they can afford to put an emphasis on adding position-player depth if there’s a close call between a hitter and a pitcher on the draft board — and once they get into the rounds where there’s a greater focus on addressing positional needs. They’re going to face tough financial decisions on several members of their current position-player core (namely Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant, Javier Báez, and Kyle Schwarber) over the next few offseasons, and if they can select and develop some prospects who would make the idea of letting one or a couple of those players walk more feasible, it’d be a major plus for the organization. Since they’re still a few years away from having to make those decisions, they can afford to take risks and bet on low-floor, high-ceiling high school prospects if they so choose. That might be an especially prudent course of action considering that the college players available at the end of the first round are much less likely to turn into potential core players than the high schoolers available at that point — especially if they can wow a prospect with signiability concerns who might scare off teams picking earlier in the round.

Pirates (No. 18 overall pick)

Five Top 100 prospects: Mitch Keller (RHP, 21), Ke’Bryan Hayes (3B, 41), Travis Swaggerty (OF, 73), Oneil Cruz (SS, 84), Cole Tucker (SS, 99)

The Pirates may be the most confusing organization in baseball right now — they have a lot of good, young players, and you have to respect them somewhat for at least making somewhat of an effort to compete every year rather than outright tanking. With that said, there’s not a player in the Pirates organization right now (and there hasn’t been since Andrew McCutchen was in his prime) who is going to make Pittsburgh a division favorite and enable them to really push the Cubs, Cardinals, and Brewers. Unless the Pirates get really lucky with a mid-round pick this year (hey, it could happen — Mike Trout was the 25th overall pick), that’ll probably still be the case following the draft. For that reason — and because Pittsburgh’s farm system is pretty solid across every positional group right now — it’d seem logical for the Pirates to just take a best-player-available approach. With that said, they dealt longtime ace Gerrit Cole prior to last season and highly-regarded pitching prospect Tyler Glasnow in July, replacing them with the comparably less intriguing duo of Joe Musgrove and Chris Archer. If they feel that there’s a starting pitcher available at pick No. 18 — whether it’s a high-ceiling high-schooler or a more polished college arm — who is capable of being a future ace, it’d be hard to fault them for pursuing that type of prospect.

In addition, while they don’t have to (and probably shouldn’t) do it in the first round, it’d be smart for the Pirates to add some catching depth, seeing as their current starter Francisco Cervelli is a free agent after the year and has had his career compromised by concussions, his likely replacement Elias Díaz is already 28 years old, and they don’t have a single catcher ranked among their top 30 prospects according to MLB Pipeline. High-schooler Ethan Hearns and Fresno State backstop Carter Bins are catchers with starter potential who could be logical second or third-round targets for Pittsburgh.

Reds (No. 7 overall pick)

Four Top 100 prospects: Nick Senzel (CF, 4), Taylor Trammell (OF, 19), Hunter Greene (RHP, 33), Jonathan India (3B, 49)

The Reds have really taken advantage of their persistent losing in the draft: This is the fourth straight year they’ll have a top-10 pick, though it’s the first time they’ll select outside of the top five during that stretch. Though one can understand why they might want to avoid betting big on pitchers after they whiffed on first-round starters like Robert Stephenson, Nick Travieso, Michael Lorenzen, and Nick Howard during the early part of the decade, it’s honestly quite astounding that the Reds have taken just one pitcher (two-way-player-turned-full-time-pitcher Hunter Greene) with the six first-round picks they’ve had since 2015. The result has been a Reds team that has an extremely competitive lineup, but a pitching staff that has turned over a ton in recent years and now has just one starting pitcher (Tyler Mahle) that the organization drafted and developed. On the bright side, trade acquisitions Luis Castillo, Tanner Roark, and Sonny Gray have all been very good this season, but nevertheless, their mission remains clear: They need more to acquire more legitimate starting pitching prospects.

Considering that the Reds already have quite a few young hitters who are already contributing in the majors and ready to make an impact for the next half-decade — most notably Eugenio Suárez, Nick Senzel, and Jesse Winker — they should try to capitalize on their window as soon as possible, and for that reason they’d be wise to target college pitchers who can get to the majors quicker. With guys like Senzel and Winker graduating to the majors over the past year-plus, it also couldn’t hurt for the team to seek out some high-end position-player prospects during the early rounds, though they’ve already protected against their farm system from thinning out — at least to a certain degree — by selecting Trammell and India in recent years.