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June 28, 2011

Prospects Will Break Your Heart

Positional Primacy: Shortstops

by Jason Parks

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I’m going to curb my desire to craft a cute narrative about the importance of the position. (As is often the case, I’m going to satisfy my desire of cuteness delivery by assembling cute prospect tiers.) If you read Baseball Prospectus, you are already ahead of the baseball knowledge curve, so I don’t need to get didactic about the inherent skill set required to play the position, or the overall value a quality shortstop brings to the table. If you really want to read my take on what it takes, you can always check out my “U Got the Look” series and read 12,000 words of meandering scouting patois presented with a perfectly striped bow of instability.

For this exercise, I turned a blind eye to the substance offered by the middle-class prospects at the position, focusing instead on those with high ceilings, those with flashy leather and questions with the stick, and those who find themselves the targets of positional deficiency whispers. The tiers are self-explanatory, but not comprehensive; it would take three more editions to include all the names in my notes, and frankly, you don’t want to read four articles discussing every shortstop prospect in the minors. Actually, I take that back. You probably do. Let me rephrase: I don’t have the sanity it would take to write four articles breaking down every shortstop in the minors. I have to monitor my sanity reserves; after all, I’m heading back to Arizona for a lengthy scouting trip. Give me strength. Let’s get started.

High Ceilings: I Like These Odds Division
Manny Machado (Orioles)
TCF: Machado entered professional baseball as the third overall selection in the 2010 draft, carrying the lofty expectations attached to the high draft perch and the always provocative “five-tool potential” label. I love seeing that label; it’s like seeing Sherilyn Fenn walk into a room at any point from 1990 to 1993. You just know something awesome is possible.

Machado has acclimated to professional ball like most scouts thought he would, showing off a plus-plus potential hit tool, developing in-game power, a mature approach, and the defensive skills to excel at shortstop. He has yet to turn 19 and his tools still have a long journey to the height of their developmental arc, but if everything continues as planned, Machado will have an All-Star level ceiling, plus offensive tools, and above-average chops from a premium defensive position. He could always physically outgrow shortstop, but from what I can see, he looks like he can handle the part. He’s the Leader of the Pack (Present).

Hak-Ju Lee (Rays)
TCF: Lee is one of my favorite prospects in the game, and a player with the potential to be Leader of the Pack (Future) in this crazy deep talent pool. At the plate, the 20-year-old Korean has great hands and hand-eye coordination, which leads to heavy doses of contact. The power isn’t there, and it might not show up, but he can sting a ball; he’s not an empty hitter. I like his overall approach: It’s aggressive yet under control, giving him some on-base ability and high-batting average projections. The glove is flashy and slick, though he still needs refinement, which he will find through repetition; the actions for a plus defender are already present. The arm is plenty strong for the position and his quick feet, natural instincts, and plus-plus raw speed given him excellent range. The total package could be an All-Star with a plus glove, the ability to hit for a very high average (not empty average), and enough strength to work the gaps. He’s not going to hit 15-plus home runs per season, but you can’t put him in the speed/slasher box, either.

Jurickson Profar (Rangers)
TCF: The 18-year-old Curacao native might be the most confident player in the minors, and that’s not meant to be read as an insult. The difference between cocky and confident is a narrative crafted by performance, and Profar’s performance this season more than justifies his own belief in his skills. At the plate, Profar shows the approach of a seasoned major leaguer, which puts him in favorable hitting situations and allows for above-average on-base ability. His hit tool projects to be at least plus, with some scouts throwing 65s and 70s on its future. He is balanced from both sides of the plate, with a smooth swing and some loft, but his power potential isn’t as exceptional as the hit tool; some scouts and team personnel see plus power developing down the line, while others see 15-20 home-run potential at his peak, giving him only average power.

Profar can do it all in the field, with clean actions, preternatural instincts for the position, and an arm the majority of baseball wanted to see developed on the mound. He isn’t a burner, but he has quickness and instincts that allow his average-at-best raw speed to play up. Again, I can’t stress his instincts enough. He’s probably the most instinctual player I’ve seen at his age; it’s unreal how often he ends up in the right place at the right time. Profar lacks the tools to become an elite player at the highest level, but he could develop into a first-division starter with All-Star appearances in his future. Despite being only 18 years old and already playing (read: playing well) in full-season ball, Profar could no doubt handle a more aggressive assignment and should reach the majors before his 21st birthday.

High Ceilings: H.R. Pufnstuf Division
Dickie Thon (Jays)
TCF: First, Dickie Joe Thon is a great name, perhaps a legit 60 name. Lucky for the Jays, Thon could also end up being a legit 60 player. At the plate, the 19-year-old son of Dickie William Thon projects to hit for average and power, showing a right-handed swing that you could actually call “pretty.” His work in the field isn’t as projecatable, but he can hold his own; he has good fundamentals, clean actions, and enough arm to make the throws. He has everything you want in a premium up-the-middle player, with bloodlines as a kicker, giving him a first-division ceiling, with even higher projections if the bat reaches it’s potential.

Rosell Herrera (Rockies)
TCF: Herrera has a big offensive ceiling and the defensive tools to stick at shortstop as he climbs the professional ladder. After signing out of the Dominican Republic in the J2 window of 2009, the now-18-year-old has been a player scouts love to talk about: “Have you seen this kid yet? Damn. I think he’s going to hit. Also, stop calling me every night.”

It remains to be seen if Herrera can translate his raw tools into game action; he’s only a week into his stateside debut. If he lives up to his projections, Herrera could be a first-division regular with the ability to hit for average, reach base at a high clip, the strength/swing to produce at least average power (possibly more), and the defensive chops to stay up the middle, even if his body proves to be too much man for shortstop.

Matt Lipka (Braves)
TCF: Dennis Hopper from Apocalypse Now might find this dream too far out, but stay with me for a second. Lipka is having a bad year; he is struggling in all phases of the game and the level looks to be a bully his current refinement can’t stand up against. But let’s dream on the tools and what could happen if they come together on the field. Lipka is a well above-average athlete, with 70-grade speed and fast-twitch quickness to excel at either shortstop or center field. His arm has enough strength to play on the left side of the infield, giving him defensive versatility.

At the plate, Lipka has the bat speed to make scouts throw high projections on his hit tool, and the swing itself (and the raw strength involved) could end up giving Lipka average power at maturity. But Lipka isn’t very refined in the field, and his work at the plate isn’t exactly making people stand in line to champion him. He has a long, long way to go, but the raw tools create an environment to dream big. If everything hits—and it won’t—but if everything hits, Lipka could be a big offensive threat from a premium defensive position. He’s also a Texan, so I’m going to defend him to the death.

Could End Up at Second Base, but Don’t Freak Out because it hasn’t Happened Yet and it Might Not Happen in the Future, so Take a Deep Breath, it’s Going to Be Okay Division
Nick Franklin (Seattle)
TCF: I wasn’t on the Franklin bandwagon after last season’s Midwest power eruption. I wasn’t really on the bandwagon based on this season’s performance in High-A. I’m not really sure I’m on his bandwagon after his promotion and subsequent small sample size success in Double-A, but Franklin might make me look foolish for sitting on the sidelines.

Let me make a case to convince myself: The 20-year-old infielder can rake, and his defense at shortstop was incorrectly labeled as insufficient. The power explosion isn’t a sustainable fire, but he has legit pop in his bat, and the approach and ability to make contact are sustainable offensive qualities. In the field, Franklin has more ability than most scouting reports would have you believe (including my own), with good actions, good body control, and an arm that can make the throws. While it’s true that Franklin isn’t a defensive wizard and his arm isn’t strong enough to recover from error, he has all the necessary components to play the position at the major-league level. Franklin’s ceiling could be a first-division player, but even if he develops into a solid-average major-league regular, the Mariners would be pleased to pencil him into the lineup every day.

Billy Hamilton (Reds)
TCF: Hamilton has 90 speed on the 20-80 scouting scale—water cooler-worthy wheels—but the bat is a major question mark. The 20-year-old infielder projects to have contact ability at the plate, which should translate to a high batting average thanks to his insane speed, but his offensive game might be one-dimensional; his swing lacks punch, and power potential isn’t in the cards. Hamilton plays shortstop now, but his arm might force a move to second base, where his bat won’t have the same value. When Hamilton reaches base, he’s one of the more dangerous weapons in the game, but reaching base will be the challenge as he climbs the professional ladder.

Jean Segura (Angels)
TCF: I’ve seen Segura play numerous times, and I believe he can handle the position (defensively speaking); others aren’t sold, but his body is athletic despite a thicker build, and his feet are light. His arm is plenty strong for the position, and his range is above average thanks to excellent all-around speed and good reactions. At the plate, his hit tool projects to be an above-average weapon thanks to great hands and strength in his swing. He isn’t a big power threat, but has plenty o’ pop and should develop into a good doubles hitter who won’t be immune to some fence-clearing (10-15 homer range). Segura was set up to punish the friendly California League in 2011, so it’s a disappointing to see him falling below those expectations. That said, I don’t have any long-term concerns for the 21-year-old, and I think he could develop into a quality first-division starter at the major-league level.

Grant Green (Athletics)
TCF: I have to admit, when I first saw Green I wasn’t that impressed. The construct of the player was already built in my mind, and I expected to see a polished player not only worthy of being the first shortstop selected in the 2009 draft, but a player who was close to major league-ready out of the box. I was disappointed then, but I’ve come around on Green, mostly due to the positive reports that I continue to receive. Green’s path to the majors was always paved with his stick; it’s an above-average major-league tool that will allow for batting average and hard contact. His power isn’t developing as planned, but should play in the form of doubles rather than homers, as his stroke is more gap-to-gap than in-the-seats.

Question marks have surrounded Green’s defense since entering professional ball—more specifically, his ability to stay at shortstop at the highest level. While his glove is solid enough to play, his arm gets labeled as a “second-base arm,” which doesn’t inspire confidence in Green’s ability to make all the necessary plays at the position. Here’s the truth: His defense isn’t going to be above average, but it receives a passing grade, and his bat plays better at shortstop than at second. He will develop into a quality player at the position, but not a special talent and not a player that people will look back on a say, “You know, selecting Grant Green with the 13th overall pick and giving him $2.75M was a badass move.” Again, he’s a quality player, but not a prospect I see developing into a first-division regular.

Tony Wolters (Indians)
TCF: Wolters is a mature hitter with a good approach and instincts with the bat. He isn’t a special player; rather, he looks a solid-average player across the board with tools living in the 50-60 range, but nothing looks especially magnificent or deficient. Because his arm and overall athleticism fall at the lower end of his tool spectrum, a move to second base has started getting the whisper treatment. If he can stick at short, a position he appears to be quite comfortable playing, his solid-average bat will give him excellent value. Wolters could develop into a first-division player, but the more likely scenario will find him carving out a career as a blue-collar regular, lacking the flashy tools to hit a higher ceiling but offering a well-rounded skill set that is refined enough for everyday consumption.

Christian Colon (Royals)
TCF: The Royals were in a lose-lose situation drafting fourth overall in 2010. After the first three selections, the talent pool muddied, without a clear no-brainer next-in-the-talent-queue type of player. Colon was the choice, and it doesn’t look good now. I can say I was never a fan, but that wouldn’t be entirely accurate. I actually thought Colon was going to develop into a solid-average major-league regular, but at second base—not shortstop. Colon has a mature approach at the plate, with a short-to-the-ball swing that allows for contact. There isn’t much power potential, and his legs aren’t going to do him many favors at the plate or in the field. Speaking of which, Colon can handle the actions of shortstop just fine, with good fundamentals and the necessary body control. His arm can make the standard throws, but anything ranging to his right requires a full-body, max-effort throw to cover the distance, which makes some scouts question the overall utility of the tool. Colon is an instinctual player and a total gamer, but one that doesn’t have any above-average tools and doesn’t have the ceiling you would normally associate with a top-tier draft selection. His projection is still a solid-average major-league regular, but there is a debate whether he can climb to those heights.

The Leather is Nice, but What Else Did You Bring to the Party? Division
Jose Iglesias (Red Sox)
TCF: Perhaps the best pure gloveman in the game, Iglesias could become the next great defensive shortstop at the major-league level. He’s so good with the leather that scouts throw 80s around like 50s, telling tales of his magic as if his raw defensive ability had its origin in Greek mythology. The 21-year-old Cuban might be slicker than his contemporaries in the field, but his bat is well below average, and the light stemming from offensive respectability is slowly fading in the distance. OK, it’s not that bad. I just liked the line. But the bat is iffy, though Iglesias is still young and his swing showed some promise last season, with good contact ability and some doubles power. He’s never going to be a big offensive threat, but if he can hit for average (even if that average is empty), his glove is so good that he will have value as an everyday regular. His bat needs to take a few big steps forward to reach that eventuality, and I’m not sold he can pull it off.

Freddy Galvis (Phillies)
TCF: Galvis is a fantastic defensive shortstop, with clean actions, a plus arm, and instincts for the position. The bat was the big question mark of the overall skill set, but it’s starting to show signs of life in Double-A. Galvis is going to be a major leaguer on the strength of his defensive prowess alone, but if the hit tool continues to take steps forward (allowing for some contact and pop), he could end up being a starter at the position for a long time.

Adeiny Hechavarria (Jays)
TCF: Hechavarria is a legit top-shelf defender, with a very strong arm and very clean actions. Initially, I thought the bat had some promise, as the 22-year-old Cuban has some bat speed and the wheels to maximize simple contact. But 2011 hasn’t been a friendly year for his offensive projection, his contact ability and overall approach have regressed. Despite showing some wizard-like ability in the field, Hechavarria has to show more development at the plate to find a permanent home in the majors. He’s still young, and he has the raw components to become a fringe-average offensive player if everything clicks, but his defense isn’t good enough to carry the weight of a well below-average bat around for 162 games.

Andrelton Simmons (Braves)
TCF: Another prospect with a cool name, Simmons also has an 80-grade arm and a plus glove, which is even cooler. The bat has a long way to go, but you can see progress this season; Simmons is making regular contact and showing a little pop. It remains to be seen if he has the bat to play at the highest level, but kids with 80-grade arms find a way to stick around the game. I wonder if he can spin a breaking ball…

Jonathan Villar (Astros)
TCF: Villar is an ultra-flashy defensive shortstop with above-average glove potential, actions, and instincts, and well above-average arm strength and raw speed. Like others on this list, Villar’s offensive game is suspect in relation to his defensive abilities, but it’s not a lost cause; his hit tool shows some promise with some barrel ability, but his overall approach to hitting is aggressive enough to get called reckless; it limits his ability to make regular contact and use his legs to reach base. Villar is only 20 years old, so calls for refinement go without saying. He needs to polish up his high-wire act on defense, but he’s going to end up a top-tier gloveman when he reaches maturity. I can’t say I’m optimistic about his bat, but like his all-glove/no-bat cellmates, all he has to do is hit enough to stay on the field. Everything above “just enough” is gravy. Delicious cream gravy poured over a perfectly-made chicken fried steak. Villar isn’t a Texan, or I’d make the connection.  

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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