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July 3, 2014

BP Top 50

Byron Buxton vs. Carlos Correa

by Nick J. Faleris, Jason Parks and Ron Shah


Links to Other BP Top 50 Debates
Tim Anderson vs. J.P. Crawford | Daniel Norris vs. Jose Berrios |
Albert Almore vs. Stephen Piscotty | Austin Hedges vs. Blake Swihart vs. Jorge Alfaro |
Hunter Harvey vs. Kohl Stewart | Taijuan Walker vs. Lucas Giolito

The Rules
Rather than re-printing the BP Prospect Staff Midseason Top 50 debates—much of which involves discussion of multiple players at the same time—we thought it would be interesting to call out some of the more interesting pairings of players who have been in consideration for the #BPTop50 and allow an advocate for each to make his case as to why that player should be ranked ahead of the other.

In each case, the BP Prospect Staff member advocating on behalf of a prospect may or may not ultimately prefer that prospect, but in any event has agreed to argue that prospect’s case for the purpose of this series. It’s a good reminder that the differences in value between players in these rankings is sometimes quite small, and in most cases a strong case can be made for ranking players in any number of combinations.

Nick J. Faleris serves as a quasi-moderator for the debate, introducing the players and leading a question-and-answer session to help tease out the arguments for and against each player.

Introducing Byron Buxton and Carlos Correa
Byron Buxton (CF, Twins) and Carlos Correa (SS, Astros) will forever be linked as, respectively, “the guy the Astros passed on” and “the guy the Astros took” in 2012 with the first overall selection in the First-Year Player Draft. Barrels of virtual ink have been spilled in discussing both the merits of the Astros’ approach to that draft and the fact that the Astros elected to pass on a player who, within a year of starting his pro career, established himself as a true five-tool talent and the top prospect in the game.

Buxton entered the year at the top of the Baseball Prospectus Top 101 Prospects list, with Correa just four spots behind at fifth overall, and each player topping his organization’s Top 10 Prospects list (Twins Top 10 Prospects here; Astros Top 10 Prospects here). After a monster 2013 that saw Buxton triple-slash .334/.424/.520 over 125 games and 574 plate appearances split between Low-A Cedar Rapids and High-A Fort Myers, 2014 has not gone according to plan. Between injuring his wrist prior to the start of the season and then reinjuring it after just five Florida State League games, Buxton is now going on two months without appearing in game action and has logged just 20 plate appearances this year. He has resumed some baseball-related activities, but the Twins have not yet announced a firm timetable for his return.

While Buxton struggled with his wrist, Correa was torching the High-A California League to the tune of a .325/.416/.510 triple-slash line as a 19-year-old. Reports of his inevitable switch to third base have softened some, with a number of evaluators now buying into the talented Puerto Rican prep product at least beginning his major league career at the six spot. Correa was selected to the 2014 All-Star Future’s Game World Roster in the middle of June and, almost immediately thereafter, suffered a season-ending fibula fracture while sliding into third base. He appeared poised to reach Double-A Corpus Christi this spring, with a chance to take the fast track to the majors at some point in 2015. Those plans will be reevaluated after Correa returns to action, either during instructs or in the Arizona Fall League.

One note while reading this debate: The Correa injury took place while the debate was developing, so you will see a shift in the discussion as the news of the injury comes out.

The Case for Byron Buxton (Jason Parks)
Buxton has the most intense collection of physical tools in the minors, giving him a paper projection of a superstar, a true franchise-altering talent that you simply can’t find on the open market. Along with the physical gifts, Buxton has shown a highly impressive display of on-the-field execution, a combination rarely found in the “raw” athlete-first, skills-second profile that he was too casually cast in coming into professional ball.

With Buxton, it all starts with his speed, a three-way tool that will make him a weapon in the field, on the bases, and coming out of the box. The raw tool grades out as an 80 on the 20-80 scale and should remain in the double-plus range for a healthy part of his early career. The overall profile in the middle of the diamond sets the bar for his value, with a combination of speed (range), glove, and arm that should make him a perennial Gold Glove candidate in center field and a baby blanket for flyball pitchers who require pole-to-pole defenders to record outs.

But what makes Buxton an elite prospect is the offensive potential that exists in his profile; this isn’t a run-first defender who gets the bat knocked out of his hands by velocity. Buxton can flat-out rip at the plate, with plus projections on both the hit and power tools, making him a legit five-tool talent with Mastodon-playing-in-a-small-club level volume and intensity pumping from his skill-set.

The Case for Carlos Correa (Ron Shah)
No prospect in baseball possesses a higher ceiling than Carlos Correa, a potential perennial All-Star at shortstop. Not only will the Astros build their roster around him for years to come, but he could one day be the face of Major League Baseball. To get a quick idea of the type of player Correa could become: Prognosticators are invoking the names of generational talents such as Alex Rodriguez and Troy Tulowitzki when making player comparisons for Correa. The hype is well deserved, as Correa checks off all the boxes one would expect from the game’s top prospect.

The offensive ceiling is All-Star caliber, largely because of Correa’s ability to take advantage of his strength and size while minimizing the negatives that come with it. For example, Correa is amazingly quick and short to the ball in spite of his long arms, but he creates a great deal amount of leverage to go with his bat speed. Once he learns how to lift the ball for home runs, the power numbers will become gaudy. But what makes Correa an outlier, like the aforementioned superstars, is standout defense at shortstop. While he isn’t a burner, his quick-twitch muscles and lean, athletic build paired with elite baseball instincts allow him to play a remarkable shortstop that is largely undersold. If Correa can glove it, he’ll make the play (many) more times than not with the aid of his near-elite arm strength.

NF: And we’re off! So the obvious question, Jason, is Buxton's health. He injured his wrist in spring training diving for a ball, then re-injured the same wrist sliding into a base in May. Are these injuries cause for concern? Even if the wrist itself isn't a long-term issue (which remains to be seen), these would seem to be potentially formative reps that Buxton is missing.

JP: At this point, Buxton appears to be the victim of bad luck with the wrist injuries, but until he returns to the field in full health, you have to at least entertain the thought that the injury is something that could retard aspects of his developmental process. But even a lost year on the field can't diminish his prospect status in this moment, as the tool-based ceiling and overall profile are too remarkable to discount.

What shouldn't be lost here is the logic behind Buxton over Correa, and how it's a preference for one player and not a critique of another. Having seen both, it's quite easy scouting: Both are likely all-stars at the highest level; both are franchise faces in the making; both can impact the game in multiple ways from premium positions. I'm rolling with Buxton because of the tool noise, which I believe plays louder on paper and projects to play louder on the field.

Also, I disagree with the first sentence of Ron’s opening argument. Although he’s not in the mix for this spot, Javier Baez has a higher tool-based ceiling. No offense to Correa, but it's hard to challenge a shortstop with 40 home run potential. Correa has pop, but his bat doesn't project to those power heights. Baez isn't the top prospect for obvious reasons, but I don't think his ceiling is disputable.

I will argue later that Buxton's tool-based ceiling is also higher than Correa's.

NF: I think this is something readers would like to hear, so let's go with Jason’s question, but let's bring it back to Correa/Buxton. The crux of Jason's critique seems to be that as good as Correa is, he doesn't have quite enough impact potential to boast "highest ceiling in the game" status. So, Ron, does your characterization of Correa's ceiling stem more from the aggregate of his tools or is Jason maybe a little light on individual tools (e.g. power)?

RS: My belief stems from the aggregate of his four impact tools and what I like to call the "sixth tool," his 80-grade makeup. The makeup allows the tools to play up to their fullest capacity. I see a player who controls the game; he doesn't let the lows get to him; it’s incredibly difficult to find an at-bat in which he gives up, beats himself, or makes the same mistake twice.

But the talent comes first, and that includes an easy-to-see All-Star profile at the plate. Even if someone is of the belief that Correa will outgrow the shortstop position, when will that be? How many years of stellar defense at shortstop will he have played by then? The defensive and positional value give Correa a considerable edge over Buxton, as expectations for center fielders have been raised considerably in recent years.

NF: Jason, it's hard to pick nits with Buxton's overall performance when he's been on the field. One question I often get from readers is, "What's Buxton's ultimate power ceiling, and what is his likely production?" This is a kid who can obviously drive the ball and has the speed to leg out doubles and triples without issue. You put a potential plus label on the power, but is the over-the-fence pop really closer to a 14-18 home run bat with a much larger portion of the slugging coming from extra bases in

other forms? Are the swing and approach geared more to drive the gaps, or is the answer something as simple as being patient and waiting for the man strength to fully emerge?

JP: Before I address Buxton's power potential, I want to return to something Ron stated about Correa's defensive superiority, which I believe to be false. While I am of the belief that shortstop should be more highly valued than center field in a positional vacuum, there’s a big difference between a fundamentally sound defender at short with a weapon arm and a centerfielder with elite defensive potential. You simply can't argue that "The defensive and positional value give Correa a considerable edge over Buxton" without first ingesting psychotropic drugs that come with Astros logos on the packaging.

It's simply not believable, regardless of the existing bar at either position. In Correa, we are talking about a highly skilled player with more than enough chops to handle the position with the glove but legit questions about his long-term home on the diamond because of his physical logistics and subsequent range limitations. In Buxton, we are talking about a Torii Hunter defender for the next decade. You can make a case for Correa over Buxton as a prospect, but I don't think you can use his defensive superiority as a key argument.

As for Buxton's power potential, I think his raw is every bit as impressive as Correa's—if not more so—and his combination of bat speed, balance, and strength will eventually allow him to find above-average utility with the tool. I've spoken with several scouts who have suggested Buxton has the raw power to produce 30 home runs if everything clicks, which is a little too rich for my tastes but speaks of his enormous potential with the bat. I really like his swing on a fundamental level, and I think that as he matures he will learn how to drive the ball out of the park with more exaggerated loft without sacrificing too much contact ability.

Because of his speed and bat control, he's going to be a high-average hitter. But if he can add plus game power to the resume, he would blossom into one of the best all-around players in the game, a future .300 hitter with high-end extra base hit potential, elite speed, and at least double-plus grades on his defensive package at a premium up-the-middle position. Who else in the minors can boast such a skill-set?

NF: I want to return to the injury question now that we have confirmation that Correa is out for the year. It’s been about two months since Buxton last appeared in High-A action, and Correa, we assume, will start in the Cal League in 2015. We have legit top-five or top-10 prospects performing at Triple-A (Kris Bryant, Javier Baez) and Double-A (Addison Russell, Francisco Lindor), and the BP Prospect Staff hasn't shied away from adjusting "snapshot" valuation in cases of significant injuries, with Giolito and Bundy being the most obvious examples. True, we’re not dealing with the elbow of a pitcher, but the wrist and ankle seem like areas that could dramatically affect these players’ ability to reach their potential—Buxton with the stick and Correa in the field. Am I overreacting? Even if we expect Buxton or Correa to jump back to the top of the heap once healthy, shouldn't the snapshot ranking show one of Bryant, Baez, Lindor, Russell, etc. as the best prospect in the game as of today?

JP: For all the reasons previously described, Buxton remains the top prospect in the game despite the injury. Losing a season of development (or half a season in Correa's case) is never a good thing, but the nature of the injury and rehab required to return to previous form has to be taken into account, and I don't think Buxton's injury and subsequent recovery will cloud his future in the same manner as an elbow surgery to a pitcher. He's the top prospect in baseball. Period.

RS: I think Jason hit the nail on the head. The injuries are disappointing and will slow these prospects’ progressions down their developmental paths, but stating that this will dramatically affect their ability to reach their potential may be a bit much. Correa should be back in time to get reps in at the Arizona Fall League, helping him make up for lost plate appearances. Regardless, Correa still figures to move as quickly as the Astros choose to move him. Before the season began, he was regarded as the best shortstop in the Astros organization, but Houston didn't have much incentive to move him quickly, because the big-league team wasn’t expected to compete.

Given what we know about Correa's makeup, this injury shouldn't change anything. I'm not a fan of turning prospect lists into a game of survivor, especially for positional players. We have seen a similar situation recently, as ankle problems limited Oscar Taveras to 47 games in 2013, but he still ranked third on the top 101. We aren't ranking stats, but talent, which hasn't changed.

NF: Thanks for indulging my fixation on the injuries, guys. One last question on a less depressing topic. Jason, if you could take one of Correa's attributes and give it to Buxton, what would it be? Same question to you, Ron.

JP: There isn't a single physical attribute I would transfer from Correa to Buxton, as the latter is already stacked with elite physical gifts that most players at the major league level would be envious of. But for all his positive attributes, Buxton doesn't receive the same Jeter-esque makeup comments from industry sources that Correa does; in fact, there isn't a player in the minors who gets the makeup love like Correa. It's borderline idolatry. Even though Buxton has the necessary makeup to fail/succeed/adjust in the majors, the love he receives for his physical tools far outweighs the intangible superlatives that flow from lip to lip whenever Correa is mentioned.

RS: If I could give one of Buxton's attributes to Correa, it would undoubtedly be Buxton's speed. It’s the one tool that Correa doesn’t possess at an impact level, and for obvious reasons, never will. The possibilities of what Correa could be if he possessed Buxton's true 80-grade speed from the right side would be limitless. As an evaluator, I'm a fan of speed—as long as it isn't the one tool a player brings to the table—because it plays in all three phases of the game. Singles become doubles; doubles become triples; times on base lead to steals; more real estate can be covered on defense.

Wrap
A really interesting debate that, unfortunately, has to occur under the shadow of injury. Hopefully we will see Buxton back on the diamond sometime soon, with Correa to follow this fall. These players are so young and talented that I tend to agree with Jason and Ron that these injuries will ultimately serve as blips in Buxton’s and Correa’s respective careers. Still, until I see them back in action, a part of me is going to worry that we will look back 2014 as the summer that robbed us of two ultra-high ceilings, even if both players continue to progress to the majors.

We will keep the conversation going in the comments section and hope you will join in with questions and critiques of your own. How do you feel about the injuries and their potential impact on Buxton and Correa? Setting the injuries aside, whom would you rather have in your system?

This is the final entry in this Midseason BP Top 50 Debate series. I hope you enjoyed reading as much as I enjoyed moderating. Make sure you’re here when the list drops on Monday!

Nick J. Faleris is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Nick's other articles. You can contact Nick by clicking here
Jason Parks is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Jason's other articles. You can contact Jason by clicking here
Ron Shah is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Ron's other articles. You can contact Ron by clicking here

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