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August 1, 2007

Future Shock

Positional Rankings - Third Base

by Kevin Goldstein

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We're living in a bit of a golden age for third baseman. Beyond the historically great Alex Rodriguez, young talents like Miguel Cabrera, David Wright and Ryan Zimmerman should leave the position stocked with MVP candidates for years to come, and Milwaukee's Ryan Braun has been arguably the best hitter in the majors since getting called up at the end of May. Also, if you've written off Alex Gordon, you're making a huge mistake. This year's list can't match that of previous years, but it's still pretty good, and the usual caveats apply: prospects only, in the minors as of this writing, and '07 draftees are ineligible, yet covered separately.

1. Evan Longoria, Devil Rays
Age: 21.8
Hitting: .307/.403/.528 at Double-A (105 G)

When sharing these rankings with one scout, he asked, "Is there any way to rank him higher than one?" Longoria is that good, playing at Double-A in his first full season and leading the league in home runs, RBI, and runs scored while ranking fifth in on-base percentage and third in slugging. There's no reason not to expect .300/.400/.500+ seasons from him in the majors, and he's a good defender to boot. The Royals not taking him with the first pick in the draft last year, already having Alex Gordon in the system, makes sense. The Rockies' last-minute decision to pass over him in order to take Stanford righty Greg Reynolds does not.

2. Andy LaRoche, Dodgers
Age: 23.9
Hitting: .317/.402/.606 at Triple-A (60 G); .211/.463/.263 at MLB (18 G)

LaRoche got off to a slow start this year, and struggled in a brief big league debut before going on the disabled list with some more shoulder woes. However, since becoming healthy, he's been as hot as anyone in the minors, batting .414 in July with 12 home runs in 87 at-bats. Offensively, LaRoche has the rare combination of plus power and a very high contact rate, striking out just 27 times in 221 at-bats. Defensively, he's acceptable, rarely making the spectacular play, but converting nearly every ball he gets to into an out. With Wilson Betemit moving to the Yankees on Tuesday, LaRoche's minor league career has likely come to an end, and the Dodgers will become a better team down the stretch because of it.

3. Chase Headley, Padres
Age: 23.2
Hitting: .347/.441/.638 at Double-A (88 G); .176/.300/.235 at MLB (7 G)

Headley entered the year as a solid prospect--not the greatest athlete, but a good hitter with on-base skills who played a solid third base while bringing an intelligence to the game that was hard to match. Every skill has taken a step forward this year, but none more than his power. After hitting just 12 home runs in the California League last year, Headley matched that total by June 6, and continues to roll. The Kevin Kouzmanoff era could be ending sooner than expected.

4. Angel Villalona, Giants
Age: 17.0
Hitting: .264/.352/.462 at Rookie (29 G)

Not bad numbers at all really. The average is just, well, average, but he's drawing walks, not striking out too much (20 in 108 at-bats), and showing power, with 13 of his 28 hits going for extra bases. Now look at the age, and realize he's still younger than most potential 2008 high school draftees, and that's a big time performance. Villalona's upside is absolutely through the roof, but the one thing that seems pretty clear is that third base is just a temporary assignment, as last year's top international free agent is already big and only getting bigger, while already being charged with eight errors in 29 games. His bat will have to carry him, but so far it looks like that won't be a problem in any way.

5. Neil Walker, Pirates
Age: 21.9
Hitting: .290/.358/.476 at Double-A (101 G)

A first-round pick in 2004, Walker battled through wrist injuries last year and was making little progress at catcher, so the Pirates decided to convert him to third base in order to concentrate on his offensive potential. That decision has paid off with a career-best season. A switch-hitter, Walker's power comes and goes (he's homerless in his last 26 games), but he should be able to hit for a consistently high average, while adding 35-40 doubles and 15-20 home runs annually. Walker is still a work in progress at third base; he's athletic enough for the position, but he's still working on his footwork, and has already been charged with 24 errors in 99 games. He's on pace for starting the 2008 campaign in Triple-A and making his big league debut by the end of the year.

6. Ian Stewart, Rockies
Age: 22.3
Hitting: .310/.388/.480 at Triple-A (103 G)

The 10th overall pick in the 2003 draft, Stewart put himself in elite prospect territory by bashing his way to a .319/.398/.594 line at Low-A Asheville in his full-season debut. The next year, he disappointed with a .274/.353/.497 line at High A Modesto, but was given a mulligan due to some wrist problems. Last year, with no excuses, he limped in with a .268/.351/.452 line in the Texas League. Don't kid yourself: this year's line is not a bounce back, it's a fabrication of playing in Colorado Springs, as Stewart is hitting .269/.350/.412 on the road. He's no longer elite, and he represents a significant drop off from the first five on the list, but at least he's the best of what's left and still profiles as a big league starter. One scout put it best: "I am perplexed by Ian Stewart."

7. Wes Hodges, Indians
Age: 22.9
Hitting: .299/.372/.465 at High-A (76 G)

A second-round pick last year who got first-round money (a cool million), Hodges has been impressive in his pro debut. He's a gifted hitter who should hit for a good batting average, but it will be the development of his secondary skills that defines his future value. Right now he draws an acceptable number of walks, and hits for a decent amount of power. If he can bring either of those pieces into the above-average range, he's far more dangerous. If he can improve both--and, according to scouts, the potential is there--look out.

8. Blake DeWitt, Dodgers
Age: 22.0
Hitting: .298/.338/.466 at High-A (83 G); .367/.371/.600 at Double-A (16 G)

At this point, maybe I should have a bumper sticker in my car that reads "I still believe in Blake DeWitt." DeWitt has always put up good-not-great numbers, but after crashing out at Double-A last year (.183/.241/.221 in 26 games), he was forced to repeat High-A at the beginning of this season--never a good sign. Once again, he put up solid numbers, and as you can see, he's exploded since moving up to Double-A Jacksonville. Like Hodges, DeWitt will surely hit for average, and is maybe even a surer bet than Hodges on that front, as scouts are universally enamored with his bat speed and smooth, fluid swing mechanics. However, his ability to consistently put his bat on the ball has hampered his development of plate discipline, and he'll likely never show more than average power.

9. John Whittleman, Rangers
Age: 20.5
Hitting: .271/382/.476 at Low-A (95 G)

A second-round pick in 2005, Whittleman was forced to repeat Low-A after suffering through a miserable .227/.313/.343 season in Clinton last year, and this year he passed the test with mostly flying colors, sitting among the league leaders in various categories before a horrific July slump dropped him down some. Whittleman is a good hitter with a patient approach, but finally tapping into his raw power has created some bad habits, as he's gotten pull-happy at times, leading to an increased strikeout rate. A bigger issue may be his defense, as Whittleman's strong arm lacks accuracy, and his hands are anything but soft, leading to 29 errors already this year after getting charged with 34 in 2006. Despite his slump, Whittleman will finish the year at High-A Bakersfield, and his performance there will play a huge role in his offseason rankings.

10. Billy Rowell, Orioles
Age: 18.9
Hitting: .276/.344/.413 at Low-A (58 G)

Rowell was the first high school hitter taken in last year's draft, and after hitting .328/.415/.503 in his pro debut, everything was going in the right direction for him entering the year. However, full-season debuts are when the hickeys first begin to show, and Rowell has his share. His start to the season was delayed by a strained oblique, and he's been less than impressive at the plate since his return. Scouts are surprised by how smooth and short his stroke is, but at the same time, they're wondering how a 6-foot-6 mammoth like Rowell could show so little power. In 420 at-bats, Rowell has slugged just eight home runs, and he creates surprisingly little loft or backspin with his level swing. Not even 19 yet, these are things that should come with experience, but it puts him in a hole at this point, as does his 6-for-45 (.133), 22 strikeout performance against lefties this year and a nearly universal assessment that he'll eventually have to move to first base. There is still a lot of potential here, but Rowell is much further from it than expected.

11. Chris Davis, Rangers
Age: 21.4
Hitting: .298/.340/.573 at High-A (99 G)

Davis got a detailed profile in a recent scouting notebook, and there's no reason to repeat that here. The additional information is that he's moving up to Double-A Frisco in order to accommodate Whittleman, yet it's interesting to note that neither player is seen as a third baseman if they get to the big leagues. They're both good, but as first basemen, neither is exactly looking like the next Mark Teixeira. But, then again, who is?

12. Matt Sweeney, Angels
Age: 19.3
Hitting: .259/.325/.452 at Low-A (93 G)

Sweeney's numbers might not blow anyone away, but they're actually pretty good for the Midwest League, and even better when you see that Sweeney is just 19. His 14 home runs rank fifth in the circuit and scouts think the average should improve, as his strikeout rate is manageable, and his swing has few holes. Sweeney is a pure projection call here, but like many above him, the one projection not in his favor is defense, as he's more than a bit rough with the glove. However, with his skill set, he's exactly the kind of player who could put up some monster numbers next year in the California League.

2007 Draftees

It was a great draft for third basemen, as two of the first three picks, Mike Moustakas (Royals) and Josh Vitters (Cubs) will both likely begin their careers as third baseman, as will 12th overall pick Matt Dominguez (Marlins), who already calls the position home. All three are currently unsigned, but talent wise, they'd all belong in the top half on this list. Cleveland's Beau Mills (13th overall) was a third baseman in name only, and is already spending half of his time at first base or designated hitter. Another high school shortstop, Toronto's Kevin Ahrens (16th overall), has recently been playing at the hot corner. That's four legitimate picks in the first 16 who could rank on the list above 12 months from now.

Honorable Mention

Josh Bell, Dodgers: His raw power matches anyone in the system, but he's a strikeout machine who's already committed 32 errors this year.
David Freese, Padres: By entering pro ball after five years of college, Freese is 24 in his first full season; so age isn't on his side, but hitting skills and raw power are.
Mat Gamel, Brewers: With a .301 batting average, 31 doubles and plenty of walks in the Florida State League, there's no doubt that Gamel can hit--unfortunately, with 46 errors on the year, there's no doubt that he can't field.
Scott Moore, Cubs: Pretty much a finished product, Moore has gone from bust with the Tigers to a player who should carve out a decent career as a reserve player/occasional starter who can fill in at both corners and provide lefty power off the bench.
Matt Tuiasosopo, Mariners: After a miserable '06, Baby Tui has shown off a line-drive bat, patient approach, and good defense at Double-A this year, but the power might never come.

Sleeper

Juan Francisco, Reds: A Midwest League All-Star who was just 19 when the season began, Francisco is a big guy with big-time power potential, and also surprising athleticism for his size. With 118 strikeouts and just 20 walks, he's still got a long way to go when it comes to his approach, but the bat could turn into something special.

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

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