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June 21, 2011

Prospects Will Break Your Heart

Positional Primacy: First Base

by Jason Parks

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Not so long ago, the minor leagues were stacked with Michelin star level first basemen, prospects with first-division ceilings and middle-of-the-order offensive prowess. The current crop of talent is more pedestrian, looking more like buffet fare than fine dining, but for several involved, the developmental process could still produce a fantastic dish. That’s four food references in the first paragraph, for those scoring at home.

Similar to the process of projecting relief pitchers, projecting first basemen often has a foundation in deficiency; it’s a position that openly welcomes the athletically inferior. However, to enter the position’s warm embrace, the athletically inferior must qualify for the love by showing the requisite offensive mastery. Let’s face it: If you can’t hit, you won’t be manning first at the highest level.

For this article, I talked to scouts about players currently at the position and players who might end up at the position, and tried to sort them accordingly. Like the article on relievers, if a source didn’t offer information on a player, I didn’t force their name. Instead of trying to determine the position’s “best” prospect, let’s do the cute little tier thing [read: thang], ranking the best of the buffet, the best of the “currently playing another position” crop, and the Arizona Diamondbacks’ 2009 draft class, which could produce as many as five first-base prospects.

Currently at the Position: Buffet Fare Division
Mathew Adams (Cardinals)
TCF: This abnormally large human continues to rake in the face of skeptics who question the sustainability of said raking. I have to admit, I’m one of the skeptics. Adams has a terrible body, and I just can’t envision that body producing a swing that will play at the highest level. A scout told me that the swing is surprisingly sound, and the power will play at the major-league level, so what do I know?

David Cooper (Jays)
TCF: Cooper lacks the middle-of-the-order power most teams desire at first base, but he has a mature approach and some gap-to-gap pop, which gives him a chance to become a second-division regular. The 24-year-old doesn’t offer much to dream on, but could carve out a major-league career if the hit tool takes a step forward.

Clint Robinson (Royals)
TCF: Another abnormally large human and overachiever, Robinson continues to defy expectations by hitting for average and power at Triple-A. Seen by most as a classic Quad-A player, Robinson will have to prove he can hit major league-quality pitching before that label is removed. Of course, you have to be given the opportunity to face major league-quality pitching before you can prove yourself against it, but that’s another story.

Joe Mahoney (Orioles)
TCF: This abnormally large human has plus-plus raw strength and some contact ability. Mahoney’s big strength doesn’t always translate to big in-game power, but the bat has enough potential to play at the position. He has second-division projection, but at 24 years old, the future has to arrive soon for Mahoney. [Insert clever “Police Academy” joke here.]

Chris Marrero (Nationals)
TCF: Once a top-tier prospect at the position, Marrero has lost his shine in recent years, looking more like a platoon bat than a major-league regular. Marrero can still flash plus power potential, but his offensive contribution this season is centralized in his home park (.387/.447/.613), while reports of his shaky performance on the road are confirmed by the numbers: (.207/.268/.300).

Lars Anderson (Red Sox)
TCF: Only a few years ago, Anderson was considered the top prospect in the Red Sox organization, and the likely heir to Boston’s first-base throne. While he still has the tools to become a major leaguer, the future role has slipped from first-division regular to likely platoon bat, as Anderson’s inability to hit lefties continues. The hit tool still shows some promise, but let’s not pretend that his performance in Triple-A is promising. The power that was once projected in his swing has gone from suck to blow.

Telvin Nash (Astros)
TCF: Nash has plus-plus raw power potential, but the hit tool doesn’t receive the same love, projecting to be fringe-average at best. He’s only 20 years old, but his body is already mature he has below-average speed. Nash will need to mash to survive the minors, and his hit tool will have to cooperate to get the raw power to translate to game action. If the bat develops, Nash could be a second-division starter and have enough power to have value at first.

Tyler Townsend (Orioles)
TCF: Townsend is an aggressive hitter with plus power potential and a smooth left-handed swing. His approach needs refinement, and his swing can get lengthy, but scouts I spoke to like the offensive skill set. As a 23-year-old in High-A, Townsend will need to prove himself at a higher level before we start to take him seriously.

Currently Playing Another Position, but Let’s Not Rule Out an Eventual Move to First Base Division
Jesus Montero (Yankees)
TCF: This is kind of cheap; Montero was born to be a designated hitter, and I doubt he gets the opportunity to play first base for the Yankees. However, as a prospect who could technically find a home at the position, Montero deserves to get his day in the sun.

Montero could be special at the plate, with the ability to hit for a high average and produce well above-average power numbers. In other words, the bat is good enough to have value despite the obvious defensive deficiencies. Montero could have been a major leaguer last season, and should have been at the major-league level to start this season, but regardless of when his time arrives, his bat will carry the burden of success. He is by far the best hitter on this page.

Chris Carter (Athletics)
TCF: Carter is an abnormally large human with plus-plus power potential and a mature approach at the plate. He can handle the outfield now, but the 24-year-old isn’t exactly gaining athleticism, and his future home will probably be at first base. Carter has the power to profile as a legit middle-of-the-order masher at the major-league level, but he’s never going to make enough contact to hit for a high average.

Yonder Alonso (Reds)
TCF: Currently masquerading as an outfielder because of the MVP ahead of him on the depth chart, Alonso has the natural athleticism of a designated hitter but is a capable defensive first baseman. With a plus hit tool and a mature approach at the plate, the 24-year-old projects to hit for a high average while reaching base at a healthy clip. The power is more gap-to-gap than over-the-fence, but he does show some home-run pop, projecting to hit 15-20 per season at the major-league level. Alonso looks like a solid-average regular in the majors, but not a first-division starter.

Edinson Rincon (Padres)
TCF: Scouts love this 20-year-old Dominican’s offensive potential, but his ability to stick at third base is in question. Rincon has the arm for third, but the athleticism isn’t a plus attribute and the speed, which currently grades as a 30 on the 20-80 scale, is trending down. Rincon projects to be a plus hitter with at least solid-average power, but he would need to hit those projections to have value at first base. If he doesn’t lose athleticism during the physical maturation process, left field is always an option as well.

The 2009 Arizona Diamondbacks Amateur Draft Division
Paul Goldschmidt
Requirements: Drafted in the eighth round (2009)
TCF: Goldschmidt  is one of the strongest individuals in the minors who uses his elite raw strength to punish balls with his torque-heavy swing. I’m still not sold that his bat speed will play against better pitching, but the 23-year-old product of Texas State has taken a step forward this season, and some scouts think the output is legit and sustainable at higher levels. Again, I’m not sold because I question the bat speed, but I’ve been wrong about Goldschmidt before and I’ll probably be wrong again. I’d like to label him a Texan, but he was born in Delaware, so if you are looking for my bias, that’s a good place to start.

Matt Davidson
Requirements: Drafted in the supplemental first round (2009)
TCF: This 20-year-old has plus power potential and some contact ability. His swing can get long, and his approach can get too aggressive, but the middle-of-the-order offensive tools are there to develop. Davidson’s arm is also strong, but the athleticism is average and the body isn’t going to help matters as he ages.

Bobby Borchering
Requirements: Drafted in the first round (2009)
TCF: Borchering is a switch-hitter with plenty of pop in his bat, but an aggressive approach and lengthy swing (especially from the left side) open up avenues for exploitation. Borchering is currently playing third base but lacks the tools to stay at the position long-term, thanks to his fringy arm and iffy athleticism. If moved to first, he has more than enough offensive projection to have value at the position.

Marc Krauss
Requirements: Drafted in the second round (2009)
TCF: Krauss has a lumbering swing with plenty of power but is long to the ball. His hit tool is below average, and he relies on raw strength to leverage the ball out of the park. Krauss, who currently plays in the outfield, profiles better at first base, where his well below-average speed and below-average arm aren’t as limiting. Because of the defensive liabilities, Krauss’ value is tied to his bat, and the fact is that his bat isn’t good enough to hit in the middle of a lineup. He has legit power, but the swing isn’t conducive for consistent contact, and his inability to hit lefties could make him a platoon option at best.

Ryan Wheeler
Requirements: Drafted in the fifth round (2009)
TCF: Wheeler brings a good combination of solid-average tool projections to the plate, but nothing that is going to look sexy in the middle of a lineup. Wheeler currently plays third base and stands a better chance than his contemporaries of sticking at the hot corner, but his defensive tools aren’t anything to write home about. His ultimate value is tied to his bat, and his bat looks to be solid but not special.

The “Just Because I Can” Division
Riann Spanjer-Furstenburg (Braves)
TCF: He lacks a major-league ceiling, but that’s a plus-plus name. Let’s celebrate this attribute.

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Make sure to check out the other articles in Positional Primacy series:

Jason Parks is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Jason's other articles. You can contact Jason by clicking here

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