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August 11, 2011

Prospects Will Break Your Heart

Positional Primacy: Center Field

by Jason Parks

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The minor leagues are stacked with quality center-field prospects, and some might even end up being quality center fielders at the major-league level. But the truth is most minor-league center fielders lack the necessary skill set to play the position in the majors, making the value of said skill set even more, um, valuable.

This was a difficult list to compile, as I use a mixture of industry opinion and my own eyes to sketch the report, and opinions were extremely varied. I’m incredibly fortunate to have a national platform that encourages industry correspondence and reciprocation [read: people actually return my e-mail] more than discourages it, and I’m thankful because most industry types aren’t influenced by my 70-grade smile. For this article, I polled 10 people employed by major-league teams; some were scouting directors, some were scouts, some were even higher on the food chain. I asked them a simple question: Who are the top 10 center-field prospects currently in the minor leagues?

The answer(s) to that question resulted in nearly 20 different names; only six guys appeared on every list, while others were ranked surprisingly high on some but were absent on others. I believe this is what scouting is all about. Player evaluation is an art, and when projection is still in play, beauty is definitely in the eye of the beholder. As the process nears maturity, the subjective nature of the evaluations will erode, as the picture of the player becomes more representational. I still love the operation when development reaches that point, but to be honest, the conceptual sketches of the immature talent create a more exciting world; it’s a world where ceilings are still in the mind, and being “wrong” about a player still has a chance to end up being right.

This list might be “wrong” in two months—much less two years—and for some of you, it might be “wrong” in the next two minutes. I can’t say I agree with some of the industry opinion I solicited, though I know they are working with superior information. I’m stubborn, and there’s a reason of why I like particular prospects; titles can’t shake what my eyes believe. There won’t be a consensus on this list because it doesn’t exist.

Below represents the best collage of industry opinion I could construct, with my own thoughts casting the deciding vote. Given the nature of the position itself, most of the talent is high-ceiling, so the talent are ranked as is—no tiers. Are these the top center fielders in the minors, or just 10 center fielders who happen to be preferred by 10 random baseball minds (and my own)? Every list should be different, so here’s mine.

Mike Trout (Angels)
Solicited Response: Appeared on every list
The case for: Trout has an elite ceiling, armed with 80-grade speed, a hit tool that will eventually allow him to hit over .300 annually, enough pop in the bat for 15-20 homers per season (not to mention a ton of doubles), the glove and range in center to make him a plus-plus defender over time, and the makeup to push those physical tools to the limit. The player I just described might be the most valuable player in the game, and after a few more years of development, Trout could be just that. In my opinion, he’s the best prospect in the minors and on his way to becoming one of the best players in the majors. He just turned 20 years old. Drink that in.

Leonys Martin (Rangers)
Solicited Response: Appeared on every list
TCF: In early May, the Rangers gave this athletic Cuban defector a $15.5 million major-league deal, which included a $5 million signing bonus. Some reports at the time painted Texas as crazy; several scouts suggested Martin’s hit tool was too suspect to warrant the financial commitment. Others were in heated pursuit for the talented center fielder’s services, as the ceiling of his skill set suggested he was one of the top talents available on any market. After over 50 games of minor-league action (which is still a small sample size), the Rangers’ investment looks astute, as the 23-year-old has already reached Triple-A and is flashing the tools that could make him a special big-leaguer. While not a true burner, Martin has excellent baseball speed, going as fast as he needs to get the job done. Some scouts rave about his hit tool, although the doubters of its long-term utility remain vocal. His bat has more juice than just slap; Martin is quite strong and capable of being more than just an empty average. He has a mature approach and can sting the ball. His defense is still a work in progress, but the tools are there for an above-average defender—he has range, a good glove, and a very strong arm. The rust is also there, and the process of getting back into baseball shape after a long layoff takes time. But Martin looks like the Rangers’ future center fielder, with plus defense and a bat that was better than advertised. If things go as planned, Martin should compete for a major-league job during spring training of 2012.

Starling Marte (Pirates)
Solicited Response: Didn’t appear on every list, which I found to be puzzling
TCF: Marte has crazy good defensive tools, including plus-plus speed allowing for range, excellent instincts for the position, a very good glove, and a plus arm. Marte has a plus-potential hit tool and excellent contact ability, but his aggressive approach could limit the overall effectiveness of the tool, especially against top-shelf pitching. He’s not a true power threat, but Marte does have plenty of pop, and might be able to hit double-digit home runs at his peak. One scout said, “If Starlin Castro was a CF with Franklin Gutierrez's glove; that's his ceiling.” That praise is so high that Tommy Chong can’t handle it, but if Marte even scratches the surface of that praise, he’s a first-division starter. If he reaches his ceiling, he’s a superstar.

Aaron Hicks (Twins)
Solicited Response: Appeared on every list
TCF: The tools are there for stardom, but Hicks’ production has failed to live up to the hype; the Florida State League has helped suppress his batting average and power this season. I mentioned the tools, and the projections are Pavlovian; Hicks has the speed and glove to excel in center field, not to mention one of the strongest arms at the position in the minors—it gets borderline elite grades. At the plate, this switch-hitter has contact ability and some power potential, although it remains to be seen if his power is five o’clock or if it can manifest itself during live action. Hicks makes a pitcher work, drawing lots of walks and going down on lots of strikes, but the pitch-recognition skills are there to create good hitting situations. Next season will be the make-or-break year for Hicks, as he’ll be 22 and jumping to Double-A level, marking the biggest test for his unrefined tools. If it comes together, get the hell out of the way because Hicks could be a five-tool force with a game-changing arm from a premium defensive position and a good stick, approach, and above-average power for the position. If not, Hicks will flame out and we can all wonder why the tools didn’t develop as planned.

Gary Brown (Giants)
Solicited Response: Appeared on every list
TCF: There’s lots to like about Brown, though some industry voices weren’t as high on his offensive abilities as others, suggesting that 22-year-old college hitters should be able to produce numbers in the friendly California League. I’m on the fence with Brown; I love the speed (who doesn’t love players with 80s on the report?), and I like the above-average defensive potential in center field, but several scouts told me they question his approach going forward, despite the steps he’s taken in that regard this season. Basically, some scouts doubt he’ll develop into a legit on-base threat in the bigs. Brown’s feet will carry him to the majors, and his hands at the plate should make him a second-division player as a floor. But it seems some people aren’t convinced his offensive package is good enough to make him the star his defensive abilities and speed suggest is possible. Just like with any prospect, the jump to Double-A next year will be a big test for Brown, and should give us a better indication of what he’s going to be in the majors. Is he a back-of-the-order, empty .275 hitter with above-average defense, or is he a top-of-the-order, multi-dimensional .300 hitter with above-average defense? It’s not exactly boom or bust, but those two outcomes have quite the separation as far as value is concerned.

Anthony Gose (Blue Jays)
Solicited Response: Appeared on every list
TCF: Gose, one of my favorite prospects to watch in person, is an amazing athlete who has blinding speed, range for days in the outfield, and an arm that gets stronger every time I see it. But the bat isn’t special, although some scouts think the contact ability and speed combo will lead to the ability to hit for a high average at the major-league level. Gose can draw a walk and his bat has some legit pop, despite a swing that frequently misses its mark. Some believe he can develop enough approach to find a home at the top of a lineup. I’m not sold on that, but Gose has plenty of developmental room left in the tank; he just turned 21 and has already logged over 110 games at Double-A. The separation between his floor and ceiling is extreme, but the athlete is starting to develop into a baseball player. If Gose continues to develop, he’ll be Toronto’s answer in center field by 2013.

Reymond Fuentes (Padres)
Solicited Response: Appeared on the majority of lists
TCF: This 20-year-old Puerto Rican has plus defensive tools for center field, including well above-average speed to give him pole-to-pole range, and the fluid movements and coordination to make adjustments. Fuentes isn’t a great hitter, but his bat is better than his numbers suggest, and projects to develop into a solid-average tool in the majors. His approach needs to tighten, and despite having good strength and the ability to barrel with authority, I don’t see power being a major part of his game. Fuentes could become an above-average defensive outfielder with at least 70 speed, making him a weapon on base, and a hit tool that should allow for some average. Like several players on this list, the development of the bat will decide how valuable Fuentes can become. The defense and speed are going to be there, but the future of his bat is still very much up for debate.

Brett Jackson (Cubs)
Solicited Response: Appeared on every list
TCF: Jackson lacks the ceiling of every other player on this list, yet his name appeared on all solicited responses. He’s Mr. Solid-Average; he is a good but not great defensive center fielder, but he will be able to play the position in the majors because he has enough speed and quickness for range, his routes are improving, and his arm is at least average. At the plate, Jackson is a good but not great hitter, with some pop but some miss in the swing, though his approach isn’t wild and he’ll be able to reach base. Again, Jackson lacks the tools to be a star, but he’ll be Mr. Solid-Average at the major-league level, and that’s an extremely valuable commodity to have under team control for six seasons.

Jiwan James (Phillies)
Solicited Response: Appeared on half the lists
TCF: James is a plus-plus athlete with big speed, big defensive ability in center, and a lot of questions about everything else. Sound familiar? Despite the questions, James’ offensive skill set has promise; he has a good stroke from the left side (he’s a switch-hitter), can use the entire field, and has some pop. His power will never be special, but some scouts think he’ll be able to reach double-digit homers because of the raw strength in his swing. James is a converted pitcher still playing developmental catch-up, but his raw athleticism creates a big world of projection. I know James is a high-ceiling dream, but I was still shocked he appeared on so many solicited responses. That should give you a good indication of how the industry views his upside.

Mason Williams (Yankees)
Solicited Response: Appeared on three lists
TCF: Stop me if you’ve heard this before: Williams is a plus potential defender in center field thanks to 70-grade speed, at least a 60-grade arm, and good instincts for the position giving him (along with his plus-plus speed) excellent range. There were questions about his bat before the season, and despite hitting over .360 so far in short-season ball, some scouts still question it. The swing itself is sound, though I haven’t seen much pop in my limited in-person exposure. When I watched Williams, I saw a guy who could hit for average, but it looked empty, and it’s hard for me to project more dimensions in his offensive game. I don’t see the same offensive upside as the some of the other names on this list, and I assume the selected members of the industry I polled feel the same way. If comparing members of the same team, I personally prefer Angelo Gumbs in center, but nobody else shared my opinion, so Williams gets the spot. Williams is still a very legit center-field prospect, and if his bat does prove to be real, he not only belongs on the list, but he deserves to move up higher on it.

Other names receiving votes (in no particular order): James Baldwin, Slade Heathcott, Luigi Rodriguez, Xavier Avery, Matt Szczur, Donovan Tate, Rafael Ortega, Jordan Akins, Joe Benson.  

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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