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July 13, 2006
Position Breakdown: Second Basemen
Much like first baseman, second base is a destination, as opposed to a place where prospects begin their career. Many of the prospects on this list started elsewhere on the infield, and many of the top shortstop prospects in the game will be eventually joining them, as second basemen drafted in the first-round like Todd Walker and Rickie Weeks are the exception and not the norm. Just a clarification: when choosing these prospects, the pool of players to select from is defined as players in the minor leagues right now who have played the majority of the year at the position.
1. Howie Kendrick, Angels
An obvious choice. Kendrick is the best pure hitter in the minor leagues right now, threatening .400 at various times throughout the year and showing unprecedented power--43 of his 106 hits have gone for extra bases, including 13 home runs in 287 at-bats. He'll never be more than an average defender, but his hitting skills in no way warrant criticism. His hand-eye coordination is off the charts and he can hit any pitch, anywhere. He doesn't walk much, but it's hard to walk when nearly every pitch you see is one you can drive. See Guerrero, Vladimir. A lot has been made of late about the failures of former uber-prospects Casey Kotchman, Jeff Mathis and Dallas McPherson, and people are now questioning if Kendrick is next in line to dissapoint. I don't think so. While they are admittedly a minority, I can find scouts who were just so-so on Mathis, I can find scouts who thought McPherson's swing was just too long, and I even know of one scout who was never high on Kotchman. As far as Kendrick goes--I've looked long and hard, and I can't find a scout who doesn't love him.
2. Blake DeWitt, Dodgers
The Dodgers first-round pick in 2004, DeWitt hit .283/.333/.428 last year in the South Atlantic League, and while his numbers are highly similar, he's moved up a level and gone from a hitter's league to a pitcher's league, so this is a slight step forward. Still, and this might sound odd for a guy ranked second overall, DeWitt has yet to really live up to scouts' expectations, or his own reputation as the best high school hitter in the 2004 class. Scouts still project him to hit for average and power when all is said and done. Drafted as a third baseman--where he played last year--his transition to the middle of the diamond hasn't been perfect, as scouts have called him unpolished at his new position, but he does possess the athleticism to become at least average there.
3. Alberto Callaspo, Diamondbacks
As a middle infielder, Callaspo was in the wrong system with the Angels, but one would think they could have gotten more for him in a trade than Jason Bulger, who admittedly has power stuff, but is also 27 years old with a history of injuries and control problems. The most contact-oriented hitter in the minor leagues, Callaspo has struck out 128 times in his career, which now spans 2,527 at-bats. After batting just .222 in April, Callaspo has hit .360 since, and in the month of May--when he hit .371 in 116 at-bats--he whiffed only once. Expressed as a ratio, that's one strikeout for every 116 at-bats--and you guys thought I was just the scouting guy with no statistical skills. The best defensive second baseman on this list, Callaspo was moved to second base by the Angels in deference to Erick Aybar, but he has the skills to play on the left side of the infield and has even seen time at third base this year. Adding to his prospect status is 43 walks, which is already just four off his career high with seven weeks remaining in his season. Where he fits into Arizona's plans is up in the air, but he could be an inexpensive upgrade over Orlando Hudson.
4. Elliot Johnson, Devil Rays
Johnson has had a breakout campaign in 2006, already establishing a new career high in home runs (13) and leading Double-A Montgomery in nearly every offensive category. While his power and speed make him an intriguing prospect, Johnson still has some work to do in his approach, as he can get too aggressive at times and his newly-found power has created some pull-conscious moments, leading to 76 strikeouts in 322 at-bats. He's also a little rough defensively, particularly on his double-play turn. The rarest of rares, Johnson went undrafted out of high school, but instead of playing at a college or JUCO, he signed as a free agent on the recommendation of scout Craig Weissmann, who deserves mad props for finding this diamond in the rough.
5. Tony Abreu, Dodgers
Abreu won the Florida State League batting title last year, and has put together a solid campaign at Jacksonville in 2006, including a .339 mark since June 1st. Abreu's greatest strength is his lack of weaknesses. He hits for a good average, has gap power, is a good defender, and runs well. At the same time, his greatest weakness is a lack of that one tool that grades out more than just above-average. The cliché here is solid but unspectacular.
6. Alexi Casilla, Twins
I admit I'm sticking my neck out on this one, but there are some people out there who have my back, as he received surprisingly strong reviews from some scouts in Florida. Like Callaspo, Casilla was buried in the Angels' ridiculous infield depth, and the team seemingly had no idea what to do with him, as he played at every level in the system in his first three years, but hit .325 with 47 stolen bases in 78 games for Low Class A Cedar Rapids once they let him stay in one place. Traded in the offseason for J.C. Romero, Casilla has continued to rake in the Florida State League, showing off a line drive bat and plus speed. A switch-hitter who is equally adept from both sides, Casilla has no power (three career home runs), and will never develop any, but he's beginning to draw comparisons to Luis Castillo. Increasing his value as a prospect is the fact that the Twins have moved him to shortstop this week, where the reviews remain glowing.
7. Eric Patterson, Cubs
Patterson was the Cubs' minor league player of the year in 2005, and while he hasn't approached the success of last year's .325/.400/.517 campaign, that wasn't necessarily a realistic expectation, as he was far older than most of his Low A brethren last year. While he's nowhere near the athlete that his brother Corey is, he's fundamentally a far better baseball player who has a more patient approach and is a superior base stealer (28 SB) despite being a step slower than his brother. Taking advantage of young pitchers' mistakes to hit 13 home runs last year might have been the worst thing to happen to Patterson, who needs to recognize that his future is as a top-of-the-order hitter and eliminate his tendency to overswing. While not especially rangy, he's a solid defender who has made only 20 career errors in over 200 games.
8. Hernan Iribarren, Brewers
If you take away Iribarren's month-long slump, when he hit .247 in May, he has hit .354 in 50 games, including a .404 mark in his last 24 contests (36-for-89). He's similar to Casilla in that he has plus speed, a great feel for contact and nearly zero power, but Casilla's approach and defensive abilities (not that Iribarren is any kind of stiff with the glove) give him the edge.
9. Yung-Chi Chen, Mariners
Chen broke out this year, leading the California League with a .342 average before earning a promotion to the Texas League at the All-Star Break. He'll need to maintain that kind of average to project as more than a utilityman, as he doesn't offer much in the way of power or patience, but his slightly above-average speed has allowed him to swipe 22 bases this year. California League explosions should be understandably treated with some trepidation--we'll know much more after seeing how he fares in the Texas League during the second half.
10. Kevin Melillo, Athletics
A fifth-round pick in 2004 out of South Carolina as a college senior, Melillo led the Oakland organization with 24 home runs in his full-season debut, but his first season in an advanced league has proven more difficult. Melillo has plus power for the position, projecting to 15-20 home runs annually while also drawing his far share of free passes. He's not a great athlete, doesn't run well, and is no more than an average fielder, so his bat will have to carry him, as he doesn't have the option of developing into a utility player.
Next Thursday: Third Basemen.