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February 20, 2007

Lies, Damned Lies

PECOTA Takes on Third Base Prospects

by Nate Silver

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The PECOTA prospect rankings for second basemen (published last week) and shortstops (next up on the docket) will undoubtedly be the most controversial part of this series, as they differ most substantially from conventional wisdom. Third basemen, then, represent something of the eye of the storm. PECOTA likes a great number of third basemen a great deal, and they'll be joining a formidable crop of young major league talent that should make the hot corner the glamour position of the next decade.

Excellent Prospects

1. Alex Gordon, Royals (23)          276.4
2. Evan Longoria, Devil Rays (21)    206.8
3. Kevin Kouzmanoff, Padres (25)     154.2
4. Andy LaRoche, Dodgers (23)        144.0
5. Billy Rowell, Orioles (18)        120.5

There is probably an upper boundary on just how good a prospect can be. I say this because, given the "win now" mentality engendered by the wild card era, a prospect who sufficiently dominates Triple-A will usually get called up to the majors. Alex Gordon is fairly close to this upper limit. You'll find a few young major leaguers with higher Upside ratings than Gordon has, but he's the best prospect in baseball by a wide margin. If the Royals had been anywhere close to the playoff chase last year, he might already have lost his rookie status.

Gordon had an essentially flawless year at Double-A Wichita, hitting for power and batting average, drawing walks, stealing bases, and playing excellent defense. There are only two small caveats to be worried about. Firstly, Gordon will probably not have a George Brett-like ability to hit for average. His strikeout rates are fairly high, and he's a little bit bulkier than Brett was at this age; Gordon will probably spend most of his career in the .280-.290 range rather than the .300-.320 range. Secondly, Gordon's skill set is already very mature and may not get a whole heck of a lot better. There are some exceptions like Frank Robinson on his comparables list, but more typical are players like Mark Teixeira and Pat Burrell that didn't have a ton of growth between ages 23 and 27. Let's keep this in perspective, though: there's perhaps a 50-50 chance that Gordon winds up being a perennial All-Star, and even the downside scenarios involve him being an above-average major league regular.

Evan Longoria's profile greatly resembles that of Ryan Zimmerman, complete with the great wood bat debut, the advanced defense at third base, and the relatively low walk rate. PECOTA isn't terribly worried about the walk rate; it figures that Longoria had an easy enough time hitting minor league pitching that he didn't really need to get cute at the plate--his strikeout rates were fairly low--and that his isolated power will eventually translate into plenty of "respect" walks. On the other hand, it's perhaps going a little bit haywire in evaluating his defense. Longoria is not Alex Gordon lite--he's two years younger and a lot less polished--but the upside (lowercase 'u') might be just as high.

I feel like we're beyond the point where I have to spend a great deal of time justifying Kevin Kouzmanoff's high rating. He hit the absolute tar out of the ball last year, probably having the best season of any position player in the organized minors. While it's likely that this represented a career year of sorts, he retains plenty of value even if you regress him to the mean a fair amount. Kouzmanoff isn't young--the Indians moved him slowly because he was drafted out of an obscure college program (Nevada-Reno) and he lost half a year of development time in 2005 due to injuries. However, he wasn't repeating his levels, as last year featured his first prolonged exposures to both Double-A and Triple-A, not to mention his splashy big-league debut.

Andy LaRoche is your prototypical stud third base prospect, with good offensive skills across the board. Garrett Atkins and Aubrey Huff provide some reasonable precedents, but LaRoche's defense looks like it should be more solid than either of those players.

Billy Rowell was a player that nearly broke PECOTA. It's rare to find players who perform toward the top of a professional league at age 17, but there were three guys in that class last year, with Rowell joined by outfield prospects Fernando Martinez and Jose Tabata. Such players are necessarily going to be very sensitive to any tweaks in assumptions we make to the system, and there were versions of PECOTA during our beta tests this year that had Rowell looking like the next Mickey Mantle. We toned those down, but he's still a very bright prospect; while Rowell did not play as high as Martinez or Tabata, he outperformed both of them in EqA, and almost certainly has the most advanced bat of the group. Although Rowell was most notable for hitting for some high batting averages last year, his late-count plate approach and large stature suggest someone who will probably do most of his damage for extra bases.

Very Good Prospects

6. Ryan Braun, Brewers (23)       94.0
7. Ian Stewart, Rockies (22)      84.3
Akinori Iwamura, D-Rays (28)      76.2
8. Whitney Robbins, Twins (22)    62.8
9. Josh Fields, White Sox (24)    50.5

I've been talking a lot in this series about how tough the Southern League is. So how then does Braun, a player who crushed the Southern League to the tune of a .303/.367/.589 line, wind up with such a lukewarm PECOTA score? Some of the answers are fairly obvious. Although the Southern League is tough, Braun's home in Huntsville is a cozy little yard that's conducive to power hitters, and Braun's performance was not quite so impressive during his time in the Florida State League. His defense leaves something to be desired; it's fairly unlikely that he'll be able to handle third base in the majors for any length of time. Another more subtle problem is that PECOTA does not seem to be thrilled with his plate approach, as both his strikeout rate and walk rate are relatively poor (140 K's against 52 unintentional walks in his minor league career). PECOTA doesn't seem to mind if one or the other of these skills needs some development, but if both the K rate and the walk rate are below average, it thinks you could have some developmental problems, particularly if you have little value outside of your bat. Braun could be very good, but a Mike Pagliarulo career path is also a very plausible outcome.

Ian Stewart's disappointing year in 2005 was written off to injuries, but last year wasn't much better, and his star has fallen considerably now that it looks like his park-inflated campaign in Asheville in 2004 might have been the outlier. In fact, Stewart might have gone from being overrated to underrated; he was playing in Double-A last year in his age-21 season, his defense is very good, and he comps out pretty well, with names that include some late-bloomers like Adrian Gonzalez.

Keeping in mind that I said that I'd list Japanese Leaguers, but not rank them, Akinori Iwamura has hit for some huge power numbers in Japan, averaging 35 home runs per in his three previous seasons, but Japanese ballparks are so small that his stateside numbers will probably look something more like Tadahito Iguchi's. He's almost certainly a quality major leaguer, but probably not a star.

Whitney Robbins' bat did not bloom until his junior season at Georgia Tech. Because of that, his good debut at Beloit last year got a bit overlooked in the Twins' strong system. Josh Fields, on the other hand, probably gets too much attention since he's one of the brighter lights in a weak system. You can make a case for him, but it rests upon his development--especially with his glove--being a bit late on account of his football background.

Good Prospects

10. David Freese, Padres (24)        47.8
11. Scott Moore, Cubs (23)           45.8
12. Ryan Malone, Cubs (22)           44.0
13. Eric Campbell, Braves (21)       39.8
14. Eric Duncan, Yankees (22)        33.4
15. Kory Casto, Nationals (25)       29.2
16. Matt Moses, Twins (22)           28.9
17. Michael Costanzo, Phillies (23)  28.6
18. Brian Barden, D'Backs (26)       25.6

There's not much to look at in the leftover bunch. I thought PECOTA would like Eric Campbell a bit better than it does, but he loses some points because Clay's system did not think highly of his defense. Scouting impressions of his glove are more favorable, which would move him up into the next tier.

Average and Marginal Prospects

(Players Ranked in Kevin Goldstein's Positional Top Ten or other noteworthy names with Upside scores below 25)

Nobody, really. If you're wondering where Andy Marte is, he scores at an 86.4, but he got too many at-bats in the majors last year to hold onto his rookie status. Marte still gets a couple of good comps like Ron Santo, but after a few years of flat development, PECOTA is not nearly so bullish on him as it once was.

The Big Picture: Rankings Combined With Non-Rookies 25 Years Old Or Younger

1. David Wright, Mets (24)             379.7
2. Miguel Cabrera, Marlins (24)        379.4
3. Ryan Zimmerman, Nationals (22)      367.2
4. Alex Gordon, Royals (23)            276.4
5. Evan Longoria, Devil Rays (21)      206.8
6. Kevin Kouzmanoff, Padres (25)       154.2
7. Mark Teahen, Royals (25)            147.0
8. Andy LaRoche, Dodgers (23)          144.0
9. Billy Rowell, Orioles (18)          120.5
10. Edwin Encarnacion, Reds (24)       107.9

I tried to find a precedent of three first-ballot Hall of Famers who all played the same position and all came up at about the same time, since that's the sort of possibility that we're looking at with the Wright-Cabrera-Zimmerman group. The best one probably involves third base itself, where Eddie Matthews, Harmon Killebrew, and Brooks Robinson all debuted between the years of 1952-1955.

As for whether the sudden abundance of good young third basemen is merely a cyclical thing or part of an emerging trend, here is one interesting piece of evidence: the number of third base prospects listed in the Baseball America Top 25 for each year since 1990.

image 1

I don't know how many third basemen will make BA's list this year, but the over/under is probably 4.5, with Gordon, Longoria, LaRoche, Braun, Rowell and perhaps Kouzmanoff all being plausible candidates. In any event, the trend should continue. Perhaps the reason is that ballplayers tend to be getting bigger, and third base, which places a premium on arm strength rather than mobility, is a position that a big, strong player is seen as capable of playing. The average height and weight of the ten third basemen in our "Big Picture" rankings, for example, works out to 6'2" and 205 pounds.

We'll try and pick up the pace from here on out, turning our attention to shortstops later this week.

Nate Silver is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Nate's other articles. You can contact Nate by clicking here

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