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April 8, 2014

Prospects Will Break Your Heart

Polling the Industry: Pick a Shortstop Superprospect

by Jason Parks and BP Prospect Staff

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The rise of the superstar shortstop prospect prompts preferential inquiries, as my email inbox, Twitter feed, and chat queues are continually maxed out with questions about Bogaerts, Baez, Correa, Lindor, and Russell, and if forced to choose, which one would I choose? The five chiseled heads on the modern Mount Rushmore of shortstop prospects (six if you go high on Mondesi) present a daily challenge of preference, a subjective exercise of forced selection tied to the realities of the present and the fantasies of the future, a tug-of-war we play with ropes made of tangible data, scouting memories of on-the-field motions, and the conceptual ideas of value and who will be most likely to achieve it.

For the sake of debate and discussion, I decided to pose the following hypothetical to 10 front office sources, which included General Managers, Scouting Directors, and Directors of Player Personnel: Assume you are starting a franchise, which current shortstop prospect would you choose to build your team around? For this particular hypothetical, I removed Bogaerts from the equation because of his major-league status, leaving the remaining Four Horseman of the Shortstop Apocalypse standing in full view of the selection committee. In addition to the front office sources—whose opinions will be documented but protected—I presented the same question to some of the highly valued talent evaluators on the Baseball Prospectus Prospect team, and those opinions will be documented and attributed when applicable. Let’s take a look at the results.

Industry Vote (10 total)

Pro Lindor:

“I go with Lindor. Potential gold glove SS with off-the-charts makeup, going to hit for average with doubles power and high OBP.”

“For me it's Lindor. I love the makeup, instincts and ease to the game and believe those are separators in a group of phenoms, some who share the same special qualities.”

“This is a great question and one that I think is interesting. I’m going to go off the norm and go with Lindor. The others are sexier and offer more bang or bust upside but Lindor is the one player in the group that is virtually guaranteed to stay at the position long term and provide sustained value at the position. He has some "it" factor on both sides if the ball. He is reliable. His bat is less impactful than the others but he can hit for avg and defend himself vs. both righties and lefties. Pure impact I'm taking Baez.....but the question of SS leads me to Lindor.”

“I would go with Lindor. I want the premium defense at that spot and I’m thrilled with also getting the switch-hitting ability along with it. Add in Lindor's solid makeup and high baseball IQ, and I am sold. I view him as a future leader in the infield and in the clubhouse.”

Pro Correa:

“I’m checking off Baez because I just don’t think he’s a SS. He’s going to be a really good 3B or a pretty good 2B, and he’s going to be a beast offensively. Still, he’s not a SS. I think you could argue he’s a better prospect overall than Correa. I might disagree, but I’d respect the argument.

Of the remaining, you have Lindor and Mondesi who are going to be easy plus or better defenders, with Lindor having a chance to be special. That said, everyone is going to be a 5+ or better defender in the group. I think Correa will end up 50-55 range, 60-70 hands/fundamentals and 70 arm. Basically a young Cal Ripken.

None of these guy are weak hitters but none of those three approach Correa in terms of offensive upside. Then you throw in makeup. Correa is off the charts, and Lindor is also outstanding. I think in overall value, Correa takes the cake, and with a decent margin to boot.”

Pro Baez:

“Baez - due to his combination of elite power/bat speed and the ability to stay in the middle of the infield. I believe part of the problem is some of the people may have never seen Baez in person. Once you have seen him in a game, there should not be much doubt about his elite skills.

Lindor is an exceptional prospect, but Baez' bat is so unique and such a game-changing skill that he cannot be on the same level with Lindor.”

Pro Russell:

“I'm taking Addison Russell because I think he's the best pure hitter of the group. Lindor is a better defender, Baez has more power if he can stay there, Correa has a higher offensive upside, but Russell is the best hitter. He might be Derek Jeter.”

Prospect Team Vote (14 votes)

  • Francisco Lindor: 7 votes
  • Javier Baez: 4 votes
  • Carlos Correa: 2 vote
  • Addison Russell: 1 vote

Pro Lindor:

“For me, there is only one name on the list that you can select with near 100% confidence that you have your shortstop for the next seven years. If you were able to look up "Lindor" in the dictionary, the definition would read (1) shortstop; and (2) insert whatever other descriptors you can think of. He lives and breathes the position, and goes about his business at the six spot the same way a concert pianist can mindlessly and effortlessly run through scales on the piano. The actions are now part of his being; second nature. He doesn't possess the raw physical ability of a defender like Andrelton Simmons, but his instincts and creativity at the position are on par with anyone I can think of at the same stage in development.

Baez is tempting. In this scenario, however, where we are picking a cornerstone for a franchise, he is the white whale. The prospect of a 40 home run bat at shortstop, under cheap team control for the next half a decade, is enough to keep any general manager awake at nights with visions of rings. But the allure of that rarest of talents has the potential to blind us to the reality that hitting a baseball day in and day out at the highest level is hard. Doing so with a wildly aggressive, borderline psychotic approach even more so. That devil-may-care attitude carries over to the field, as well, leading to mistakes of aggression and, for me, turning a fringe defender at the position to a slightly below-average producer with the glove. A 40 home run shortstop is incredible—it’s the holy grail of prospecting. A 25 home run swing-and-miss second or third basemen is a valuable player, but not the first piece in a championship team.

Lindor will never hit you 40 plus home runs. He'll probably never hit you 20 home runs. What he just might do is put up a .295/.375/.415 slash, steal you 20 bases with the ability to go first to third and second to home without costing you outs, and make the left side of your infield a groundball friendly zone for your staff. Not only is that a player I gladly build my team around, it's a player I hope I can convince to spend his entire career wearing my laundry.” –Nick Faleris

“My shortstop choice would be Francisco Lindor in the proposed scenario. First, he projects to stick at the position over the life of his career and is a natural defensive player. Just that defensive factor alone is huge over an assumed 10-year career. To have no real worries or have to deal with filling the position down the line allows you to focus on other key spots. Plus, Lindor projects as at the minimum an above-average defender and there's a legit chance he is Gold Glove caliber. That solidifies the infield defense, and also instills confidence in the pitching staff. I think that sometimes gets lost that when pitchers trust the players behind them, and the guy they are throwing to, it makes things a hell of a lot easier mentally.

Lindor is no slouch at the plate. Yeah, the power isn't going to be there, but if he hits .280-.300 in his peak with doubles power and the defense that's an All-Star. Everything I have heard indicates he controls the strike zone, too. Big sign for a player his age that has been accelerated. Javier Baez is the other strong candidate here for me, and the power, along with the middle-of-the-order potential is obviously huge. I didn't see him sticking at the position over the long haul. I wasn't even sure after watching him closely that you could hide him for a good chunk of his career as a limited defender with a huge offensive profile. Shortstop is hard to begin with, and baseball is too. Why put a guy in the situation to stress about it when you can make the part of his game that isn't overly natural (shortstop) easier and let him fully focus on what comes natural (punishing the baseball).” –Chris Mellen

Pro Baez:

“I'm going with Baez. There are an unusual number of great young shortstops and fine choices here, but Baez is the guy I'm most comfortable projecting as an impact bat. It's always difficult to find a solution at shortstop and I fully understand the team construction element at play here. I also understand Baez has perhaps more parts of his game that need polish and improvement than some of the other players. Ultimately, I see Baez becoming the best major leaguer of the group... so that's my answer. I don't even care that much where he fits—give me Baez and then I'll figure the rest of the team out.” –Al Skorupa

“I'll take Baez because he has the best chance to be a mother**cker at the plate. Like Mellen said, I'm not sure he sticks at SS or even makes the majors as a SS but how can you pass up a potential 40-homer bat? If he gets any plate discipline, then he'll be generational talent.” –Chris Rodriguez

Pro Correa:

Baez is a Gary Sheffield type player. The offensive ceiling is huge and every franchise would love a Gary Sheffield type player (if not a young Sheffield type personality) to build around. But the idea of his playing shortstop during his prime franchise years is the biggest stretch among the four. The body is going to continue to change and the emotion/offensive violence he brings to the game isn't ideal for a shortstop on a winning team.

Lindor simply doesn't have the offensive potential to be a franchise player for me. The Texas Rangers apparently love the idea of having Elvis Andrus (not an unrealistic Lindor comp, especially offensively) playing SS until 2023 and it's not a bad idea to have a consistent 4.5-5 WAR middle infielder in your lineup every day. But you better have better players around him if you are going to be playing in late October consistently.

Correa has the chance to that be that franchise player, though, for me. I still think he stays at shortstop in a Cal Ripken/Troy Tulowitzki manner due to his actions and arm strength, even when he's 6-foot-4/215. You aren't going to tell me that Hanley Ramirez or Corey Seager or any of those other big guys are better athletes/defenders than he is. And his overall offensive production can certainly match Baez's when everything is rolled together. But the extra variable that weighs in Correa's favor for me is that his entire persona speaks "franchise player" so loudly; he's an articulate leader, a "baseball player" who is bilingual in a bilingual market. If you are the Astros, you appreciate that George Springer can be an All-Star and Mark Appel and whoever they draft first this year (Hoffman!) can be rotation leaders and Folty can channel his 10 percent Verlander tendencies, but you're grooming Correa as your franchise guy because if he clicks, it's going to be a great thing for Houston.” –David Rawnsley

“If I'm choosing a player to build a franchise around I'm taking the one who has the highest superstar/perennial all-star potential, at least in my opinion. That's Carlos Correa of this group, although Baez is a close second. I'm just less certain about Baez's future position, but he could hit enough to play anywhere.

Great question though. Lindor, who I think is going to be a very good big leaguer for a long time, would be third.” –Patrick Ebert

Pro Russell:

The overall, no-weakness package of Russell edges out Lindor here for me. There's nothing flashy to his game (no elite tool)—Baez could hit 40 bombs, Lindor is a defensive wizard—so he gets underrated a little bit because of that, but sometimes not having a weakness is just as good. I'll have a luxury with Addison Russell when he's in the field and at the plate, without selling myself short (pun only slightly intended).

Russell might not be the plus-plus defender Lindor is, but he is a shortstop. At the plate, I love the hands; plus bat speed; uses all fields. Needs to shrink the zone a bit, and might always have a little swing-and-miss because he's an aggressive hitter, but it's a 6/6 future for me. He's got (at least) plus makeup as well. I don't know who in the world has played more baseball since signing than this guy. He got out to the minor leagues after signing, aggressive assignment with High-A in his first full season out of high school, AFL ball. But the best part about it is he is making such loud improvements and keeps getting better.” –Ron Shah

Total Vote (24 votes)

Francisco Lindor: 13 votes

Javier Baez: 5 votes

Carlos Correa: 4 votes

Addison Russell: 2 votes

Conclusions:

I was asked during the 2013 season which prospect I preferred: Javier Baez or Francisco Lindor? At the time, I proclaimed my love for Lindor, using his well above-average potential with the leather and better-than-you-think bat as my ammunition. Soon after this casual social media survey, Baez arrived at the Double-A level, hit 20 bombs in 54 games and became the darling of all bomb-fearing people. My stated preference for Lindor was soon called into question—perhaps rightfully so--and the prospect hypocrisy boiled over after we ranked Baez over Lindor on the offseason Baseball Prospectus 101. How could you prefer Lindor when you suggest Baez is the superior prospect?

While I can’t speak for those who cast votes for Lindor over Baez, I can echo the preference and explain my own choice, even if it comes off a bit skewed. I think Javier Baez is the superior prospect, a player who has dazzled me with his bat speed since he signed, and pushed me to the point of Baezmania this spring with his offensive firestorm. But to the specific question being asked, as much as I love Baez and his pornographic offensive potential, the player I would look to build a franchise around is Francisco Lindor, mostly for the reasons that were so aptly articulated by Nick Faleris and Chris Mellen. Give me the guy I can pencil in at shortstop for the next decade who brings near-elite defensive skills to the position, in addition to a switch-hitting profile at the plate with on-base potential and gap power.

As for the industry vote--even though its just a small sample of front office opinion—it does speak to the value baseball attaches to premium defenders at premium spots, as well as the intangibles qualities that are sought in a franchise face. While not always documented in specific detail, several of the debates and discussions with industry personnel and prospect team staff centered around the safety and security of Lindor’s profile as compared to the volatility and uncertainty of Baez’s—both in terms of baseball skill and makeup—even though it was universally acknowledged that Baez held the highest ceiling and most impact potential should he maximize his physical tools. Baez has the most “come back to bite you on the ass potential” of anybody in the minors, but when it comes down to it, the majority of people were willing to accept that possibility in favor of a more stable player, despite the lower ceiling.

What does this tell us about prospect value? As a collective, do we fall in love with projection to the point of ignoring what is staring at us in the present? Should safety be more sought-after than ceiling? I’ve been wrestling with these conclusions since the votes started trickling in, and even though I voted for Lindor and feel confident in my decision, I find myself confused as to why Baez wasn’t the overwhelming choice. How could you not want to build a franchise around the next Miguel Cabrera or Gary Sheffield, even if you aren’t convinced he can stick at shortstop for the foreseeable future? How could you pass on potential greatness? Because when it comes to attaching your name to a prospect—or building a team around a singular figure—the comfort of safety seems to outweigh the reward of risk, and at the end of the day, there is more stability and job security in that approach.

Which prospect would you build your team around?

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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