Keith Law has written for ESPN since 2006, with a primary focus on scouting and the draft. A graduate of Harvard with an MBA from Carnegie Mellon, Law previously wrote for Baseball Prospectus and was employed by the Toronto Blue Jays for four years where he held various scouting capacities and was involved in player contract negotiations.
One of his biggest tasks is his annual ranking of the top 100 prospects in baseball along with individual rankings of all 30 teams. In case you’ve skipped his introduction to all his articles, Keith compiles the list through his interactions with a wide range of scouts, baseball executives and has seen most of the players either as amateurs, at spring training or in minor league games.
As in the past, Keith was kind enough to take a few minutes to expand upon his view of the San Diego Padres, whose farm system he ranked as the best in the game.
One final note; this interview will be vastly more enjoyable if you shell out the five dollars a month for ESPN+ and read Keith’s rankings and commentary. The pitch is the same as a subscription for MadFriars; put the coffee down for two days instead of one and become more informed about your favorite team.
MadFriars: So much has been written and reported on Fernando Tatis, Jr. How were the Padres able to get the White Sox, who had signed him for $750,000 out of the Dominican Republic, to include him in the James Shields trade?
Keith Law: I think the White Sox didn’t quite realize what they had while the Padres, who A.J. Preller had scouted him as an amateur and his San Diego’s scouts had seen him on the backfields in Extended Spring. I’m not quite sure Preller and his staff thought Tatis would turn into the player he is now, but he was their target.
So, when he was traded [along with White Sox pitcher right-handed pitcher Erik Johnson] I think it may have been the case of information not really flowing up through the White Sox organization – but that is speculation on my part.
What progress has Tatis made defensively in the past two years?
Keith Law: Repetition, he has become much more consistent in the past two years. We have now had two full years of watching his physical development – which was also a concern with Carlos Correa when he was coming up – and we now know that he is not going to outgrow the position.
He has not gotten substantially bigger or slower, which I initially thought could be the case, and in fact, he has gotten stronger and faster. I am confident he will be a shortstop for at least the first half of his career. At six-foot-four he is at the bigger end for shortstops, I think only Corey Saeger at six-foot-five and 230 pounds is bigger, but Tatis is a little more agile and that’s not a knock on Corey.
Tatis really wants to play there and is not only aware of what he needs to do to stay there but has shown that he is willing to put in the work.
You are higher on Francisco Mejia than Austin Hedges as the everyday catcher. Do you have any concern about Mejia being able to control the strike zone on the big league level and will he be close enough defensively to Hedges?
Keith Law: Hedges can’t hit. He never really has hit, but he does have some power. I think what we are seeing now is what he is; a great defensive catcher with the ability to hit 12 to 15 home runs a year.
I’m not really worried about Mejia controlling the strike zone. I think what we saw last year is that he has great power potential and with his offense, he just has to be adequate defensively. I think he needs to be in the big leagues catching major league pitching and receiving major league instruction. More time in Triple-A is not going to help him get to where he needs to be.
I do know the Cleveland people loved how much he worked. He didn’t speak much English when he first came over, but he’s gotten better. There is still some question about whether he will be able to catch every day. If there wasn’t a question on his being a regular catcher, he would have been a top ten overall prospect for me.
As you wrote, there have been some questions about the athleticism and upside of the 2018 first-round pick Ryan Weathers, but you are still high on him. He doesn’t look like the most athletic player – and I know this isn’t fair – especially when compared to MacKenzie Gore.
What are we missing?
Keith Law: In my pre-draft rankings I had Matthew Liberatore higher, but there were some questions on what he was asking. I’m not sure whether that did or didn’t affect San Diego’s pick.
As for Weathers, he is a better athlete than he looks. His high school in Tennessee, although it was the lowest classification in the state, won the state tournament in basketball where he was the tournament MVP. He has a real advanced feel for pitching and fits into the mold of the type of players that A.J. has been taking; players that are athletic but also have a feel for the game.
Weathers has a much higher floor than a typical high school kid and should move a little faster through the system. If you have one of the first ten picks in the draft, you don’t want a kid that is going to take five years to get to the big leagues. Gore won’t, and neither should Weathers.
We saw quite a bit of Cal Quantrill this year and came away with the same opinion that you had. Ours was mainly based on him not being able to command his fastball and the lack of a consistent breaking pitch.
What were your reasons?
Keith Law: I am relying more on reports. The ones that I was getting had his velocity at around 90-92, with no great deception or spin. I thought he could be more efficient in getting more deception, but he was hitting 96 his first year so that wasn’t an issue. That is not the case now.
Look at it this way, Chris Paddack was touching 96 this summer with a wipeout change and he really knows how to use both pitches. Right now, his curve is fringe, but he probably will eventually figure something out with it. With Quantrill, the velocity and fastball quality are not there, and he can’t get to the changeup. He’s not making the best use of his body, so there are a lot of different elements involved on why it’s difficult to see him as a starter particularly with the depth that the Padres have. I think a move to the bullpen to regain some velocity could help and you can always revisit putting him back as a starter.
Josh Naylor dropped quite a bit of weight in the offseason. If he has lost a significant amount of weight how much would that change your evaluation of him?
Keith Law: Not substantially because what does that make him? There has always been a little concern about his makeup from his Miami days along with his ability to make contact. With the weight loss he is still a left fielder, maybe he can play some right, but this isn’t suddenly going to move him to center.
Naylor is close to being ready and if the weight loss is real it gives him a better future with the Padres. San Diego has two first basemen in Wil Myers and Eric Hosmer, neither of whom are very good, but that is another story. I’ve always thought he was a decent athlete for his size and in just about any other system he is a top ten prospect – just not in this one.
The Padres have the top farm system in baseball and when we talk with them they always speak of their desire to stay in the middle of the field. They are very deep at positions like catcher, shortstop and second base but are they missing out on the quintessential big banger corner outfield type, which seems to be a weakness in the system?
Keith Law: I think they have tried to get some bangers, but they just haven’t hit. Jorge Oña, who they signed in 2016 out of Cuba comes to mind. I don’t know if the organization would have taken Hunter Renfroe, who fits the description of an athletic player with huge power but still can’t hit a slider. Also, it could be that they haven’t gotten the type of player that fits that description in the right slot in the draft.
Hudson Potts, whom I like but don’t love, kind of fits that description of a corner guy with a low on-base percentage that could hit 20 to 25 home runs. This year’s draft is not great, so I’m not sure if they will find it this year either.
Overall though, I think it’s the right strategy, stay in the middle of the field because quality players that can play there are much more difficult to find than a power guy.
Last year you really nailed it having Tucupita Marcano as a sleeper – you graciously gave the Padres credit for that – who is your sleeper this season?
Keith Law: You know there are just so many. Even though he didn’t have a great year, I love Michell Miliano’s stuff and I think he has great arm action. Another pitcher Efrain Contreras may have one of the best nicknames in baseball, the “Embalmer” because his family in Mexico works in the mortuary business. He’s only about five-foot-ten but can throw in the mid-90s with a power slider.
Joey Cantillo, a left-hander from Hawaii, is another interesting pitcher. Guys don’t pick the ball up out of his hand, good stuff. I’m not sure about the delivery but he’s another young guy whose stuff might tick up a bit. I know your readers know about him, but I also think Luis Campusano is a quality receiver who if he can hit the ball up in the air a bit more has All-Star upside.
In the end, I wrote quite a bit about so many players in the Padres’ system I finally had to stop. It’s a really deep system.