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August 16, 2011

Prospects Will Break Your Heart

Positional Primacy: Right Field

by Jason Parks

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Well, friends, this is it, the final installment in the series (although I am planning on doing a recap article, so I guess that’s not entirely true). It’s been an exercise within an exercise, and by this point in the minor-league season, the initial lists in the series are obsolete. I’d hang myself with the arbitrary noose of the process, but I thought it was fun to compile, and the constant [read: pestering] correspondence with my sources strengthened my willingness to correspond with my sources. Let’s call it professional growth.

Throughout the 11-part series, I’ve tried to put a spin on traditional rankings by mixing up the formula, either by manipulating the display or profiling players based on characteristics other than their present skill level. At times the waters were murky, but I’m a lake man, so I prefer the dangerous swill of that liquid to the pellucid waters of the norm. I wanted to create conversation and consternation, rather than consensus and contentment. One of my biggest pet peeves is the need to make everything black and white, right or wrong, good or bad. Baseballs might come in a box, but the end result should never fit comfortably back into one, so I try to encourage the debate that stems from dissatisfaction, even when the debate is firmly rooted in general ignorance and internet chest inflation.

I receive countless e-mails from readers (mostly very positive), but occasionally a reader (or listener) will take great offense to my thoughts, taking to the keyboard to pontificate on my blatant errors. I actually enjoy this part of the process because it’s emotional and raw, and even though it’s often delivered in a confrontational manner, the passion bleeds through the page and I respect that. I’m not perfect, nor do I claim to be, and neither are my sources in the industry. Everybody sees the game through a unique lens, and if you disagree with something to the point where it prompts an emotional reaction, I’m all for it.

With that said, this series has been a great experience and I already miss the process of compilation. OK, what I miss most is studying reports on every player at every position and bothering my baseball brethren to the point of professional embarrassment. I’m not sure what prospect series is next, or if I’ll write another “Jason goes on an adventure, has an anxiety attack, and finds his way back” type of article, or if I’ll go in a new direction altogether. I’m not sure where I will end up or what it will look like, but one thing is for sure: I look forward to finding out. Let’s go out with a bang.

Leader of the Pack (Present) Bryce Harper (Nationals)
The case for: This shouldn’t be a hard sell. Harper is a generational talent, and if the projections prove to live in reality, he could go down as one of the premiere players of the modern era. Of course, all of this is very conceptual, but Harper’s progress so far has exceeded even the most bullish prognostications.

Let’s start with his power, which is already an 80-grade tool and should make Harper a perennial home-run champ. If everything clicks, he’ll put up video-game numbers. Some within the industry describe Harper’s hit tool as having “average” potential. (The word “average” caused the prospect tide to roll back and the moon to turn black.) With such overwhelming all-fields power in the bat and the ability to reach base at a high clip, Harper could hit .275 every season and still be an offensive behemoth. For Harper, an average hit tool will be enough to let the power beast out of the cage.

On defense, Harper’s arm has easy 80-grade strength, but it’s still raw and needs refinement, so it doesn’t grade out at the elite level… yet.  His game speed and quickness are currently above average, allowing for plus range in right field. Some scouts have suggested his defensive tools could find a home in center for several years before a move to a corner is necessary. The glory rests on the bat, but Harper should develop into an above-average defensive player as well, making him a weapon on both sides of the ball.

Harper’s “makeup issues” seem to get more water-cooler minutes than Walter White’s latest escapade, as his on-field attitude often blurs the line between what is seen as confidence and what is seen as cocky. I’ll take a little of both without much complaint, especially from an 18-year-old who has been anointed the next deity of the diamond; given the pressures associated with the crown, I think Harper is holding it together better than he gets credit for. Being a jerk might be an unattractive quality (I should know, right?), but I’ll take the talented jerk over the talentless sweetheart every time, and so would every team in baseball.

Harper can change the game if he reaches his ceiling, and that’s a lot of weight to carry on such young shoulders. Not to belabor the point, but Harper’s mature on-field ability often distorts the reality of his emotional immaturity, which lags behind the accelerated development of his physical tools. As observers, it’s easy to lose perspective, as we see the man in the uniform, yet fail to see the teenager underneath it. We also have a tendency to tear down what we build up, and our lofty standards are often tied to our own pedestrian failures. We can’t relate to Harper’s extraordinary ability, so it’s natural to amplify his faults or weaknesses to feel more comfortable with our own. I get it. Why do you think I’m so unsympathetic when it comes to Cristiano Ronaldo’s failures? Nobody should bethat good-looking.

My point: Let’s talk about Harper’s “makeup” in a negative light when his actions start affecting his performance negatively. Perhaps that is already the case, and if so I’ll stuff the makeup argument back into my overly-agape mouth. But at present, I don’t feel like I’m in a position to make that call, so I’m not going to suggest it’s an issue until I actually see it becoming one.

Harper will be a major-league regular before he turns 20, and should impact the game on multiple levels before he reaches his first arbitration season. The ability to fail and adjust, both on the field and off, will decide how far his tools can take him. His ceiling is a bust in Cooperstown, and his floor is that of a very good major-league regular. Can’t-miss talents often find a way to miss, but it’s hard to envision a scenario where Harper fails to become something worth the price of admission.

The case against: Harper wasn’t born in Texas. That’s the only thing I can think of.

Leader of the Pack (Future): Michael Choice (A’s)
TCF: Choice was born in Texas, and that along with his monster power potential puts him next in line for the right-field throne (even though he is currently playing in center). Choice, who physically resembles Marlon Byrd, has the type of power potential that makes scouts transform into children, putting sevens and eights on the future potential and then playing hopscotch with Fun Dip coursing through their veins. Choice has enormous raw strength and a leveraged swing that can send balls over any outfield fence. His hit tool is the question, as there is lots of swing-and-miss in the bat, and despite an advanced approach, he is always going to rack up high strikeout totals. He’ll need to adjust his swing path and plane against more advanced pitching, but the bat speed itself is very impressive, and Choice has already shown the ability to make some of those adjustments.

Choice is athletic with good speed, but most people see him moving to a corner spot before he reaches the majors. Right field is a good fit because his arm is strong enough for the position and his glove is more than adequate. Defense isn’t going to be Choice’s calling card, but his versatility will give the A’s options.

Choice has a chance to be a middle-of-the-order force, with the on-base skills and in-game power to pardon the high strikeout totals and low batting average. The severity of the latter will determine his ultimate value, but if he can make enough contact to utilize the well above-average power in his bat, Choice will become a first-division slugger. Oakland could use that, right?

The case against: Choice swings and misses a lot, and some question the future utility of his hit tool. The numbers look great, but mature college bats are expected to thrive in the friendly California League, so the jury is still out. Some scouts are pessimistic, fearing a Mendoza line hitter with too much miss and not enough mash. I’m with the optimists; I see a first-division player, even if the contact rates aren’t overly impressive.

High-Ceiling Division
Wil Myers (Royals)
TCF: Myers has plus potential hit and power tools, an advanced approach at the plate, pitch recognition skills, and patience. I’ve seen Myers on numerous occasions, and his hands at the plate have always impressed me; he can trigger his swing at the last second, controlling the bat head once he’s in the zone. The former third-round selection is only 20 years old, and projects to hit for average and plus power, with on-base skills and defensive ability in right field. That’s an all-star level combination of skills, but some scouts wonder when the in-game power is going to show up, and if the inconsistencies with his swing mechanics will allow for average. I’m still a big believer in Myers. He could have easily been the one anointed as the Leader of the Pack (Future), had Choice been born in another state.

Jake Marisnick (Jays)
TCF: Marisnick is the poster boy for the modern prospect: He has size (6-foot-4, 200 pounds), plus athleticism, present tools, and polish to go with future projection and ceiling, not to mention a name that just sounds like it belongs in the game. If I could say with confidence that Marisnick could stick in center as he matures, I’d be tempted to call him a top-tier prospect, as the reports on the tools (especially at the plate), have been that good. His ceiling is still abstract, but he could develop into a first-division major leaguer, with a balanced offensive attack (power/patience/contact), plus range and a plus arm in the corner, and enough speed to steal 20-plus bases per season. There’s a long way to go before this 20 year-old becomes his projection, but that’s a crazy-good player if he does.

Oscar Taveras (Cardinals)
TCF: This 19-year-old Dominican has pure hitting skills, showing advanced bat control and the ability to barrel balls to all fields. Taveras has some pop, but doesn’t have crazy power projections; his projected range varies between 40 and 60. Taveras isn’t especially athletic, but his average speed and solid arm should play fine in right field. Opinions on his ceiling run the gamut; some suggest his current polish with the bat disguises his average potential, while others love the offensive tools and suggest a first-division ceiling is in the cards… um, for the Cards.

Bryce Brentz (Red Sox)
TCF: I wasn’t impressed with Brentz last season, coming away from a three-game stretch thinking his swing was too long, his approach too aggressive, and his in-game power not in-game enough. After a shaky professional debut in 2010, Brentz’s bat exploded in full-season ball, dominating the Low-A level and showing major league-quality power following a promotion to the pitcher-friendly Carolina League. His swing still has some length, but his overall approach has taken steps forward. His power is legit, with some scouts suggesting his bat has middle-of-the-order potential. I’m still not sold on Brentz—the bad taste of 2010 no doubt influences my position. But those I trust seem to be sold on Brentz’s power, and if the power plays, the player stays.

Prospects-I-Wanted-to-Include-but-Couldn’t-Because-of-the-Depth-at-the-Position-and-My-Inability-to-Write-in-a-Succinct-Manner Division
Oswaldo Arcia (Twins)
Rymer Liriano (Padres)
Drew Vettleson (Rays)
Eddie Rosario (Twins)
Yorman Rodriguez (Reds)

In the Shadows: Domingo Santana (Astros)
TCF: Santana has tremendous offensive upside, but he still resides in the shadows because the swing-and-miss aspect of his game stands out. The 19-year-old Dominican is already a very large man, standing 6-foot-5 with a frame that currently holds at least 200 pounds, and will hold more as he continues to mature. The raw strength and explosion in Santana’s swing are substantial enough to make the power potential aficionados quiver with anticipation, but his approach is ultra-aggressive, and he needs to refine the bat control necessary to recover from bad guesses. Santana is athletic for his size with a very strong arm, and should develop into a solid-average to plus right fielder with more seasoning. The young righty masher has the type of offensive upside you remain patient with, but if Low-A pitchers are finding the holes, you have to fear the level of exploitation that will come at a more advanced level. Adjustment is the name of the game, and if Santana can take developmental steps forward with his approach, the Astros could have a top-tier prospect on their hands.

In the Dark: Ariel Ovando (Astros)
TCF: The case for Ovando is all about projection, as the 17-year-old Dominican’s offensive future is very bright, but also very far away. Signed in 2010 for a reported $2.6 million, Ovando has already made his stateside debut, spending the 2011 season with rookie level Greenville in the Appy League. His power is years away from manifesting itself in game action, but scouts I spoke with didn’t hesitate to put future plus grades on it, with lofty praise coming from one source in particular, saying that he thought about throwing an 8 on the future power based on five minutes of batting practice. It’s easy to gush over projectable 17-year-old prospects with bat speed, top-shelf power potential, and plus arms, and I tend to encourage such gushing by hyping (overhyping?) such prospects with reckless abandon. I don’t care. Prospects like Ovando have the potential to turn into stars, and left-handed power bats don’t grow on trees. At present, Ovando has more weaknesses and question marks than actualized skills, but if you are going to dream, dream big.

I Just Don’t Get It: Tim Wheeler (Rockies)
TCF: An underwhelming prospect coming into the 2011 season, this former first-round pick finally started to show the offensive promise that made him the 32nd overall selection in the 2009 draft. Despite the breakthrough season and the enhanced prospect status, Wheeler lacks the major-league projections that his minor-league numbers might suggest. On the surface, Wheeler looks like a center fielder with power and on-base ability, which could make him a big-league star. The reality is closer to a second-division right fielder, with tweener characteristics in the skill set that limit his overall value. The scouts I spoke with seem to doubt his ability to stick in center long-term, and the same scouts questioned how much offensive punch he will pack in right field. Wheeler is still a very good prospect, with versatility in the outfield and some offensive depth, but a fourth outfielder/second-division starter is the realistic outcome.   

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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