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December 4, 2012

Prospect Push

On the Brink of Elite

by Jason Churchill

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Among the seven clubs covered in the 2013 Top 10 before yesterday's talent-rich Royals rankings are 70 ranked prospects. Within that group, there are a few dozen very strong prospects that project to be above-average regulars with the potential for more. There isn't one truly elite prospect among them—despite several with superstar upside, the best of them lack the track record and probability of a premium prospect—and there aren't going to be many in the next 23 sets of by-team rankings either.

There are, however, a number of talents who have the combination of tools, legit baseball skill, and makeup to wear such a tag at this time next year. Using the 70 players already ranked as the canvas, here is a painting of a few I have identified that could join the ultra-small crop of elite prospects in 2013.

Francisco Lindor, SS, Cleveland Indians
Lindor lacks the power upside of a superstar bat, but his makeup is off the charts, he's a plus defensive shortstop, and he has no glaring weaknesses. He brings versatility to the table in terms of his ability to switch hit effectively, and he is a plus runner (though not a pure speed burner). He makes consistent contact and works counts well, and despite being a major home run threat in high school has shown a disciplined approach as a pro.

Lindor is a mature player with a great work ethic and polished game for his age, suggesting he's a candidate to develop above and beyond in some areas. He could reach the majors before he turns 22, and if the hit tool is one of those skills that develops, the Indians could have a perennial All-Star on their hands.

Lindor's power upside tops out in the average range—a 50 on the 20-80 scouting scale—but as he matures physically, some of the gap doubles could turn into long balls, potentially producing 15-18 home runs per season in a manner similar to that of current Tribe shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera.

A shortstop with a plus glove that hits .280 or better with 15-plus home run pop, 25 stolen bases, and a .340-.360 on-base mark—from both sides of the plate—is a superstar, and that isn't out of reach for this 2011 first-round draft pick.

Jorge Soler, RF, Chicago Cubs
Soler's chances at superstardom depends on his ability to max out his power potential and find a way to hit for enough average for his power to show up in games with regularity. Soler already shows plenty of athleticism to be an asset in right field, including a 60 throwing arm.

The swing is sound and engineered for power; Soler has shown an ability to create consistent loft and good pop to right-center field during batting practice. The 20-year-old could reach the 30 home run mark in his prime, but progress in terms of plate coverage and using the whole field are two key factors in his development.

If he's to reach elite status, all areas of his game have to show more consistency and become reliable facets of his game, starting with his ability to hit for average. A strong 2013 highlighted by strong contact rates by power-hitter standards, consistent at-bats, and polish to his defense and baserunning could change his profile a year from now, possibly even to elite status.

Byron Buxton, CF, Minnesota Twins
Buxton already has the superstar upside, but many of the tools are raw and his power is untapped. The no. 2 overall pick last June can answer some questions in 2013, starting with the transition to the wood bat. He’ll also need to prove he can produce at the plate against good competition, something he didn't get much of a chance to do as a prep.

Buxton has all the tools to be a plus defensive player and is an 80 runner with an 80 throwing arm—he often hit the mid-to-upper 90s from the mound in high school—and the bat speed is there for 20-25 home runs.

Buxton’s showing in 2013 will go a long way in suggesting what kind of prospect he really is—a very good player led by speed and defense with an outside shot to be an above-average bat or one that projects in the upper half of the batting order. If he ends up anywhere near the latter, the Twins will have another star center fielder on their hands and perhaps even one that challenges for an MVP some day.

Carlos Correa, SS, Houston Astros
Correa is as raw as Buxton, but his power comes easier thanks to a more sound power swing and easier bat speed. While he's unlikely to stick at shortstop—the chances vary between zero and fifteen percent, depending on which scout is asked—Correa possesses every tool necessary to handle third base well.

Like Lindor, Correa's hit tool is the key to his future status, but also like Lindor, his baseball acumen and work ethic strongly suggest he has a good shot to hit at least .260 with above-average on-base marks.  There's a lot of work to do mechanically, but it's mostly below the hands, including the occasionally-happy lower half and a tendency as a prep to peel open early and get out on his front foot.

How much he develops his ability to make contact and hit for average will determine whether or not he joins the elite club, because it appears Correa may back into 20 home runs per season and could approach, or even exceed, 30.

Lance McCullers, RHP, Houston Astros
McCullers drew rave reviews last spring for making enough mechanical adjustments to quiet some criticisms and alter his projection from surefire reliever to having a decent chance to develop into a front-line starting pitcher.

The fastball and curveball are future plus pitches—the four-seamer already shows plus-plus velocity—with the biggest questions coming in terms of consistent delivery and the high effort with which he goes about his business on the mound.

These issues have resulted in control and command problems, but McCullers is a good athlete and could continue his improvement in these areas as a pro if given the chance to start and log some valuable innings.

He's the longest shot on this list, but it's difficult to ignore a potential 80 fastball for a starter (especially when it comes with a 60 power breaking ball) despite the lack of a weapon versus left-handed hitters. McCullers should get the necessary opportunity to change the minds of Astros brass before they toss the starter development program and start grooming him as their future closer.

Xander Bogaerts, 3B, Boston Red Sox
Bogaerts is unlikely to remain at shortstop—I contend there is nearly a zero chance he plays as average or better at the position long term—but his power potential and advanced hit tool keep him in this conversation.

The 20-year-old carries a better profile at the same stage than did Will Middlebrooks, who broke out in the big leagues in 2012. Bogaerts brings more athleticism to the field than Middlebrooks, suggesting a move to third base will be seamless. His top-drawer bat speed leads many scouts to believe he will continue to hit for power through the minors and into the major leagues.

He's closer to elite status for me at present than any other player on this list and could create an interesting dilemma next winter; should he prove himself in 2013, the Red Sox may consider trading Middlebrooks to open up the hot corner for Bogaerts. How the Aruba native handles Triple-A pitching will determine his ETA in the big leagues. If he takes another step forward this season, Bogaerts may be considered one of the elite prospects in baseball.

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Scouting the Draft: Co... (12/04)
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