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July 20, 2006
Position Breakdown: Third Basemen
After ranking first and second basemen in the last two weeks, we get to the hot corner, which is just loaded with excellent prospects. The top seven players on this last all have All-Star potential on some level, but the position is also top-heavy, as the difference between No. 7 on this list (Ryan Braun) and No. 8 (Eric Campbell) is enormous.
1. Alex Gordon, Royals
It's funny, because Gordon is probably not living up to some lofty expectations, yet he's batting nearly .300, his on-base percentage is over .400, and his slugging is over .500. All of his stats would look better if not for a June slump caused by the most annoying type of wrist injury--one that's not bad enough to keep you out of the lineup, yet hampers your swing. Gordon is an offensive beast who can do it all: he has the hand-eye coordination to hit balls all over the field, and everything he hits is hit hard. Throw in very good pitch recognition and excellent base running (he has 17 stolen bases in 20 attempts), and there are no weakness to his game. He's average defensively with a plus arm. Think David Wright from the left side of the plate, and you just might have Alex Gordon. He's that good.
2. Andy Marte, Indians
In April and May, Marte hit .251 with two home runs in 49 games. Since then, he's hit .306 with 12 home runs in 39 games. Believe the recent evidence. Scouts who saw him early in the season believed he was pressing--feeling the pressure to perform after being traded twice in the offseason. Marte is a prototypical third baseman with the abilities to hit for average and power. His approach at the plate is an aggressive, so he's more of a .260-.280 hitter who will always rack up some big strikeout numbers, but he's patient enough to draw a fair number of walks. He's an excellent defender with good hands and a strong arm. Marte's thick build has gotten thicker with age, so he's not a good runner, and there are worries that it will eventually cost him some range at the hot corner. He's going to be a good one, but I'm just not convinced he's going to be a great one. We might find out soon, as the Indians are understandably tiring of Aaron Boone.
3. Andy LaRoche, Dodgers
Like Marte, LaRoche got off to a slow start, batting .226 with two home runs in 23 April games at Double-A Jacksonville. He hit .356 after that, earning a promotion to Triple-A Las Vegas, where's he's doing well after missing two weeks with a shoulder injury that was originally thought to be much worse. LaRoche hit 30 home runs last year, but 21 of those came while playing for Vero Beach in the Florida State League, a place where balls fly out of the park. At the upper levels, however, he has 21 home runs in 514 at-bats, which is for more indicative of his true power level--good, but not great. What LaRoche does exceedingly well however, and has improved every season, is get on base and make contact, including 51 walks in 287 at-bats this year, against just 42 strikeouts. Scouts see a .300 hitter in the big leagues with a .400 on-base percentage and 15-25 home runs annually. Defensively, he's average but not a liability, and the bat should more than make up for it. He's nearly ready now, and should be the opening day third baseman in Los Angeles next April.
4. Josh Fields, White Sox
As a two-sport athlete in college who has been dedicated solely to baseball for only the past two years, Fields is definitely who of those 'click guys.' You don't know if it's suddenly, or ever going to click for these type of players, but when it does, look out. After hitting .252/.341/.409 last year at Double-A Birmingham in his full-season debut, it seemed like Triple-A might be too much of a challenge for him, but he's dominated the league, hitting at least .300 in each month, and sitting among the circuit's top five in all three average categories. In the field he's still a little rough, though is arm is above-average. If the White Sox deal him, it will be have to be part of a blockbuster. If they don't deal him, he could be moving to the outfield, as he's ready, the White Sox need outfield help, and Joe Crede is still inked through 2007.
5. Evan Longoria, Devil Rays
The first position player taken in last month's draft, Longoria has gotten off to a tremendous pro start, mashing ten home runs in 94 at-bats, including one off No. 2 overall pick Greg Reynolds in the California League. Undrafted out of high school, and with only Long Beach State offering him a scholarship after a year of junior college, Longoria exploded with an MVP performance in the Cape Cod League, and carried that over with a very strong junior year. Longoria's plus-plus bat speed generates a ton of power, and he's a patient hitter who's approach needs no refinement. While he's capable of playing shortstop or second base in a pinch, third is his natural position. He has a good glove with an above-average arm. The only reason he's not ranked higher is that we don't have a long enough pro track record on him, but it wouldn't surprise me if he ranked first on this list next year.
6. Ian Stewart, Rockies
Stewart hit .319/.398/.594 in his full-season debut at Low-A Asheville, but since that, he's regressed. Expectations were high for him going into 2005, but he was unable to take advantage of the hitter-friendly California League, batting a disappointing .273/.353/.497 after missing the first few weeks of the season with a hamstring injury. Everything seemed to be back on track with a monstrous spring training this March, but his year at Tulsa has been a massive disappointment. With just seven home runs in 305 at-bats, Stewart's power ratios have nearly been cut in half, and just as worrisome is his walk rate, which has also dipped in each season, falling to just under the standard of one per ten at-bats for the first time this year. If there's any good news, it's that he's improved defensively, as a move to first base once was a common assumption, but he's worked hard to become adequate at the hot corner. His timetable has definitely slowed down some, and he'll likely begin 2007 in Triple-A as opposed to the major leagues.
7. Ryan Braun, Brewers
The fifth overall pick in last year's draft, Braun has also failed to live up to expectations after hitting .352/.393/.632 in his pro debut. He was moved up to Double-A at the halfway point despite the fact that he didn't dominate at Brevard County, but scouts still believe in his ability to hit. An excellent athlete, Braun is a toolsy power/speed combination with a very quick bat and above-average raw power. His plate discipline and defensive skills are what leave him ranked below the big six, with a potential move to right field still well within the realm of possibility. He has the potential to hit .300 with 20-20 possibilities, which should make him an attractive fantasy player no matter what position he ends up at.
8. Eric Campbell, Braves
A second-round pick in 2004 out of an Indiana high school, the Braves decided to keep Campbell in extended spring training in 2005, but he broke out at Rookie-level Danville, batting .313/.383/.634 while leading the Appy League with 18 home runs in 262 at-bats. His full-season debut has been solid, and in 55 May-June games, he hit .324 with 11 home runs. His offensive game does have some significant holes--he uses a grip-it and rip-it approach at the plate which can get over-aggressive at times, as he's only walked 15 times this year. His platoon splits are also a concern, as he's batting .350 with a .641 slugging percentage against lefthanders, but .257 with a .423 slugging against righties. He's a good athlete, a tick above-average runner and potentially a very good defensive player. There's a lot to like here, but a lot of room for improvement as well.
9. Kory Casto, Nationals
You want consistent improvement? Here you go:
YEAR LEVEL AB/HR AB/BB 2004 Low-A 30.2 15.6 2005 Hi-A 22.7 6.0 2006 Double-A 20.5 5.2
Nearly 25, Casto is a little old for a prospect, but he can clearly rake and is making constant progress in the two most important aspects of hitting--power and patience. While he's fully capable of playing third base, the Nationals have been mixing him up in the outfield lately, because Ryan Zimmerman isn't going anywhere. He could find himself included in any number of trades the Nats might complete before the trade deadline.
10. Kevin Kouzmanoff, Indians
At some point we have to ignore the fact that Kouzmanoff is 25 and doesn't have crazy tools, because the guy can just plain hit. He entered the season with career averages of .315/.380/.520, but at his age with only seven games above A-ball, it was hard to get too excited about him. This year at Double-A, he's been even better. The big concern is injuries. Kouzmanoff has missed more than 30 games this year with a pair of hamstring injuries, and has had back troubles in the past. He's behind Andy Marte on the Cleveland depth chart, and first base is his only other position, so he has no clear path to the majors without a change of scenery. First things first, he needs to stay healthy.