August 10, 2007
Positional Rankings - Shortstop
Shortstop is normally the crown jewel of the prospect kingdom, but that doesn't seem to be the case this year. Making things worse is a 2007 draft class that was among the worst in years for the position. I know there's a lot of negativity in this introduction, and while I'm hoping outfielders and pitchers bring things up a bit, I'm getting the feeling that this just ain't a great year for prospects.
Sure, he's not having the season many expected, but let's look at some quick facts. The gimme is that, of course, this ain't the California League anymore, and while he hit .300 in a brief stint for Montgomery last year, his isolated slugging, walk rate and strikeout rate are all better this year, that despite the lower average. He's still not great defensively, but he's definitely better, and he's easily the one player on this list with the best chance of being a shortstop who hits third, fourth or fifth in the lineup.
The defense was always there, along with a modicum of hitting skills, but all of a sudden Hu's bat has taken a major step forward, and scouts think it's for real. Hu has become a more aggressive hitter, attacking the ball early in counts and focusing on lacing line drives all over the field. It's worked wonders for him, and he has the bat speed and hand-eye coordination to hit .300 in the big leagues without many home runs, but plenty of doubles, and without too many walks, but few strikeouts either. In the field, he's as good as it gets in the minor leagues, with one observer describing his glovework as "just absurd." He's as good as Rafael Furcal right now, and way cheaper.
This kid is definitely the flavor of the month, and as a 17-year-old more than holding his own at High-A, it's easy to see why. Obviously this is a special talent, or he wouldn't rank third, but let's focus on some negatives, if only because nobody else seems to want to talk about them. In 290 at-bats he has no home runs, and just 17 of his 91 hits have gone for extra bases. In those same 290 at-bats, he's drawn 11 walks. In 75 games, he's made 30 errors at shortstop. He's got a pretty thick lower half that's only going to get thicker, and he probably won't stay at the position in the end. It should be noted that six years ago I could have said similar things about Miguel Cabrera. I'm not saying Triunfel is the next Miggy, but again, he is a special talent.
Lillibridge has been especially hot of late, going 23-for-47 in his last 13 games with five doubles, two triples and three home runs. His showing at Triple-A has more than made up for his slow start in the Southern League. Power is the only tool for Lillibridge that rates as below average, although he's anything but a weakling with 11 home runs overall in 431 at-bats. He's a plus-plus runner with 36 stolen bases this year, a solid hitter, and a very good defensive shortstop to boot. He's nearly ready, and it will be interesting to see if the Braves make some room for him in the offseason.
Lowrie had a tremendous career at Stanford, but he always struggled as an amateur with wood bats, and scouts may have held that too much against him in the 2005 draft; they''re sold on him now that he's enjoying a breakout season. Lowrie is probably a better hitter than Lillibridge, with a little more power and a far more patient approach. He has nothing close to Lillibridge's speed though, and while stolen bases may be overrated, defense isn't, and Lowrie is still a bit short there, lacking the first-step quickness needed to project as a player with enough range to stay on the left side of the infield. He looks like more of an offensive second baseman at this point, but the Red Sox will keep him at shortstop for now as Dustin Pedroia has second base locked up for what looks like a long time.
Gomez has now accomplished what Chris Nelson could not: built on a strong debut with a solid showing in his first taste of full-season ball. Gomez already has gap power, and projects for more once his rail-thin frame fills out a bit. He also possesses excellent defensive tools, with the speed for plus range and a very good arm. However, even with the physical ability to be an excellent shortstop, Gomez is still rough around the edges. He needs to improve in nearly all fundamental aspects of the game--including pitch recognition--while improving both his footwork in the field and the accuracy of his throws. Very young, very high ceiling, and very far from The Show.
The ninth overall pick in the 2004 draft, Nelson hit .347/.432/.510 in the Pioneer League after signing, but then put together back-to-back disappointing years at Low-A Asheville, although he was dealing with some injuries. He's starting to put things together once again this year. Nelson adds a knack for contact to above-average power for the position, plus speed and a patient approach. While he has the athleticism to play the position, his actions are stiff and mechanical, which could lead to a switch over to second base sooner rather than later. With Troy Tulowitzki putting together a solid rookie campaign, that probably works best for the organization as well.
A third-round pick last year, Donald never lived up to expectations in college, but he's been the most pleasant surprise in the Phillies organization this year. Donald is one of those players who is more valuable than the sum of his parts. The are no real weaknesses in his offensive game, as he hits for average with gap power and draws his share of walks. Defensively, it's much of the same, as he rarely makes the spectacular play, but he's fundamentally sound and consistently converts every ball he gets to into an out. He's a solid but unspectacular talent with no real career path within the organization due to the presence of both Jimmy Rollins and Chase Utley.
Scouts still love the tools, but the high praise for Andrus as a player is down from where it was two years ago, when he was the talk of the Gulf Coast League. Yes, he's exceedingly young, but at the same time, he's never put up good numbers. His approach is advanced for his age, and he's a very good runner, but he's shown almost zero ability to drive the ball, and scouts no longer speak of any kind of power projection. Defensively, he has excellent range and a rocket arm, but is still prone to the usual inconsistency one finds in teenage infielders, being charged with 28 errors on the season. Andrus has always been the subject of much hype--some of it justified, some... not so much.
Bixler is another one of those solid guys who doesn't get a lot of attention, and maybe doesn't deserve a ton, but at the same time, he's nearly major league-ready and a pretty safe bet. In the big leagues he projects as a .280 hitter with enough speed to rack up impressive totals in the triple and stolen base departments, but reviews are mixed on him defensively, with some wondering if he's the type of talent that makes for an excellent utility player, but a below-average everyday player.
Gonzalez represents Washington's big step into the international amateur market, and so far he's been as good as advertised. Gonzalez's glove is his calling card, and he's gone error-free in all but three games, a rare feat for the Gulf Coast League. At the plate, he has bat speed and a shockingly mature approach with excellent pitch recognition. He's not a burner, and he doesn't have a lot of power (or projection for it), but there's no reason he can't turn into an ideal number-two hitter with a high on-base percentage to complement his defensive wizardry.
Some quick facts: Plouffe is younger then Reid Brignac. Plouffe is a better defender. Plouffe is at the same level as Brignac. Plouffe has a nearly identical slugging percentage, and higher OBP. That said, Plouffe's projection keeps him ranked here. His power comes mostly in the form of doubles, and he'll likely be good for just 10-15 home runs annually. Basically, Plouffe and Brignac are very similar players when it comes to "right now" value, but Plouffe is what he is, and Brignac offers plenty to dream on. That's a huge difference.
Unlike most years, the 2007 Draft wasn't deep in shortstops. There was a decent chance that none would be taken in the first round, but the Cardinals ended that possibility by selecting Oklahoma high school star Peter Kozma with the 18th overall pick. He's an interesting comparison to the next big high school shortstop, Justin Jackson, who went 45th overall to Toronto. Kozma is all polish and fundamentals, while Jackson is all tools and raw ability. Call me crazy, but I'd rather take a shot at the latter. The first college shortstop to go off the board was Mississippi's Zack Cozart (Reds, second round), and like fellow second-round pick Danny Worth (Tigers), he's a defensive stalwart with hitter's skills that have come into question. On the opposite side is Oakland second-round pick Josh Horton, who can rake, but might not be able to stay at the position.
Ivan DeJesus, Dodgers: The son of a 15-year veteran big leaguer, DeJesus combines on-base skills with plus defense, but neither speed nor power will be part of his game.
Keep An Eye On
Marcus Lemon, Rangers: Yes, this is Chet Lemon's son, who signed for $1 million as a fourth-round pick last year. He has tools and athleticism and makeup, and after a slow start at Low-A Clinton, Lemon is still hitting just .260/.347/.339, but you can up that to .293/.370/.378 in his last 60 games.