May 8, 2014
PECOTA Takes on Prospects
The Hard-to-Find First Base Prospect
First base is the safe haven of offense-only players who need a position. Of the league’s 30 current first basemen (the team leaders of PAs at the position), eight primarily played different positions in the minor leagues. They’re the usual bat-first players whose gloves demanded a move: Miguel Cabrera, Chris Davis, Mark Reynolds, etc. For prospects, relegation to first base means they have nowhere else to go. If their hitting drops off in the slightest, they’ll have nothing else to compensate with, and they’ll be out of baseball.
The prospects below are not only prevented from playing more premium positions thanks to their body type, handedness, or lack of athleticism, but they live on the fringe because of holes in their profiles. They all show power, but power alone won’t be enough to guarantee a major-league future. A secondary skill—whether it’s a good batting eye, hit tool, or a modicum of defense—separates the good from average.
Speaking of good and average, we computed UPSIDEs for over 260 first basemen, but just 44 of them returned a score above the “average prospect” threshold (you can find the rating scale here). Because first basemen incur a negative positional adjustment, prospects playing there suffer in UPSIDE compare to say, shortstops. The latter crop comes with fielding upside, thus bumping them up in PECOTA’s rankings and pushing the former down. Only 45 major-league starting jobs exist for these prospects, and several of them will be filled by failed outfielders or third basemen. For first base prospects to keep up, PECOTA expects outstanding offensive grades. Some prospects demonstrate them, but most haven’t realized their power to justify a high UPSIDE.
Very Good Prospects
Bird and Vogelbach define “bat-only prospect.” Not only are both big-power, high-walk first basemen, they’re also poor baserunners and fielders. Bird—who’s been sidelined so far this season with a bad lower back—posted a .347 TAv in Low-A Charleston last season, which propelled him onto prospect lists after two years of toiling between Rookie League and short-season A. That production included 59 extra-base hits and a 19 percent walk rate—numbers matched by only Joey Votto at the major-league level. Vogelbach’s power isn’t as impressive, but he makes up for that by hitting for more contact. As below-average fielders—Bird rated as the Sally League’s worst, per FRAA—they’ll need to retain 20-homer power to offset their deficiencies. With very traditional offensive profiles that draw favorable comps, PECOTA projects them to do so, albeit with sliding batting averages.
Singleton, the only first baseman on Jason Parks’ 2014 Top 101 prospects list, had a mediocre 2013 in Triple-A after his return from a marijuana suspension. His performance surprised scouts, but PECOTA did a double-take, too. Nevertheless, his pre-disaster track record stands out, and PECOTA has never been one to overreact to one-year collapses. Singleton has slugged well over .600 in the PCL this season, and PECOTA considers him a league-average hitter and a moderate power prospect going forward.
Telvin Nash gets the distinction of being one of PECOTA’s most incomparable first basemen, and not in a good way. In 2012, 61 percent of Nash’s plate appearances ended in a home run, walk, or strikeout. He repeated High-A in 2013 and downsized his strikeout rate by 21 percent, which doesn’t mean much given that he was still whiffing in over a third of his plate appearances. It turns out that PECOTA doesn’t project happy endings for 23-year-old first basemen with career minor-league strikeout rates of 35 percent and no Double-A experience. PECOTA compares his power and swing-and-miss combo to big leaguers like Mark Reynolds and Chris Carter, but even they hit for average as minor leaguers. Chalk up Nash’s UPSIDE rating to his extreme profile; PECOTA doesn’t know where else to go with his comparables, and acknowledges it in his 65 Similarity Index.
Kennys Vargas is a remarkably conventional prospect who’s produced consistent numbers for several seasons and ascended the minor-league ladder in accordance with his age. He began his career with three years in rookie league as a teenager and finished High-A in 2013, never posting a season with a TAv below .284. He hits for enough average and power to stick as a poor-fielding first baseman and doesn’t strike out at alarming rates. Thus far in 2014, he hasn’t had any trouble translating his skills into Double-A production. While he doesn’t project to be anything outstanding, he could carve out a career like Ike Davis’s, whom PECOTA links him to, partially because of their similar builds (Vargas is six-foot-five).
As a 19-year-old, Matt Olson hit 23 homers in the Midwest League. Past prospects who’ve done the same include Giancarlo Stanton, Mike Moustakas, and Billy Butler. Even better: Olson’s 13 percent walk rate (yes, he’s an A’s prospect) bests those predecessors. Here’s the bad news: none of those young sluggers played first base in the minors, and none hit for the low average Olson did (none was even around Olson’s .225, including those who failed to make the majors—Cody Johnson’s .252 in 2008 was the closest). Olson isn’t uncommon as a low-average, high-power prospect today—Lewis Brinson, Joey Gallo, and Miguel Sano are right there with him—but he must find a way to compensate for his lack of defensive value. PECOTA likens him to Anthony Rizzo, an apt comparison all around given Olson’s 6’4”, 236-pound frame. Olson bats left and struggles against lefties, too. He’s in his prime development years, though, so consider him the most interesting prospect of this bunch.
Notable Average/Marginal Prospects
As noted earlier, Professor Parks didn’t rank any first basemen besides Singleton in his top 101, so we’re left with those who made a team top 10. Cron, whom Ron Shah and Bret Sayre dissected in yesterday’s Call-Up column, is trying to replace Mark Trumbo in Los Angeles as the team’s power-hitting designated hitter/first baseman. With such a poor eye, though, PECOTA puts him in the bin of “easily exploited by major-league pitching,” much as Ron wrote.
Top 25-and-under first basemen
This might sound crazy, but PECOTA thinks Freddie Freeman has a tremendous future.