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May 2, 2008

Lies, Damned Lies

PECOTA Takes on Second Basemen

by Nate Silver

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When we last ran an installment of the PECOTA Takes on Prospects series, gas prices were nearing $4.00 a gallon, the Democratic primary looked like it would never end, and the stock market was more jittery than Will Carroll on his fourteenth cup of coffee. All right, so perhaps not all that much has changed. But let's get back on track by tackling second basemen.

Excellent Prospects


Player (Age)                            Upside
Alexei Ramirez, White Sox (26)          111.2
Eric Patterson, Cubs      (25)          100.5

The Ramirez projection requires a major asterisk; making forecasts based on Cuban data is difficult enough, but in Ramirez's case, the last Cuban data we had on hand was for 2005. What we had to do was to take those statistics and age them by two years, and then re-run his PECOTA based on those revised numbers. Of course, I am inclined to make excuses for this projection now that Ramirez is hitting .121/.147/.182 thus far on the season. On the other hand, that's over just 33 at-bats, and Ramirez looked quite strong in spring training, when he posted a .358/.375/.582 batting line against Cactus League competition. The one thing that's abundantly clear at this point is that Ramirez is not going to take very many walks--not that PECOTA really expected him to. However, the batting average will improve, and he should hit for at least modest power. The basic template here is that he might be a very, very poor man's Alfonso Soriano--which is not such a bad thing if Ramirez can be an average defender at either second base or center field. Worst case, he can be a very, very fun utility player--but the White Sox might need to give him a little time in Charlotte to get a better sense of his strengths and weaknesses.

On the other side of Chicago, we have Eric Patterson of the Cubs. PECOTA is slightly more tepid on Patterson than it has been in the past, but that's really just because he aged another year without getting a major league opportunity--Patterson's .261/.327/.405 equivalent batting line in Iowa last year was perfectly decent, and he's off to a strong enough start this time around. Though he has very strong baseball speed, Patterson is not regarded as a terrific athlete, and as such PECOTA thinks that Patterson is as good right now as he's ever going to be. Nevertheless, I think PECOTA nails it with Patterson's #2 comparable--this is the Ray Durham skill set, and some team is going to figure that out and come knocking on Jim Hendry's door.

Very Good Prospects

Chris Coghlan, Marlins (23)              84.1
Matt Antonelli, Padres (23)              70.1
Damon Sublett, Yankees (22)              69.4
Eric Young Jr., Rockies (23)             66.0
Michael Hollimon, Tigers (26)            61.3
Craig Stansberry, Padres (26)            60.0
Jarrett Hoffpauir, Cardinals (25)        55.5

Maybe it's the alliterative thing and the Marlins connection, but I can't think of Chris Coghlan without thinking about Craig Counsell. The two players are similarly built and have broadly similar skill sets, with sound plate approach and good speed tending to compensate for some deficiencies in the power department. If your emphasis is on All-Star "upside" rather than PECOTA's definition of it, Coghlan might not be your guy (such things are often the case with second base prospects), but he does have Kelly Johnson and, somewhat oddly, Curtis Granderson further down his comparables list, so there's some possibility that he'll be a late bloomer.

Matt Antonelli had some superficially very intriguing numbers at Lake Elsinore and San Antonio last year, where he maintained an untranslated .400+ OBP between the two levels. But the problem here is what I've sometimes referred to as "empty walks." A polished hitter at Wake Forest, Antonelli has done a very good job of exploiting minor league pitching, he does not yet hit for quite enough power to deter pitchers at higher and especially the major league level from feeding him a steady diet of strikes, and his strikeout rates are not fantastic. He could have a run as a solid major league regular, although he's off to a poor start at Portland this year.

The next two names on this list are the two that I personally find much more intriguing. Damon Sublett absolutely murdered the ball at Staten Island last year, hitting for an untranslated .326/.426/.531. While PECOTA has had a couple of issues in the past with the Staten Island ballpark (I hope that I never hear the name Wilmer Pino again), Sublett's game was extremely well-rounded, as he showed off the whole trio of contact hitting, power hitting and plate discipline--albeit with a rather high strikeout rate. Sublett also doubled as a pitcher at Wichita State, so his arm strength in the infield will not be a problem. He's one to note with a mental bookmark.

Meanwhile, if you're in some kind of fantasy league where Eric Young Jr. isn't owned, stop reading this article and put in that waiver claim now. It's not that Young is going to be a particularly wonderful major leaguer, but he's stolen 160 (!) bases between his previous two minor league seasons, and he should be able to post batting averages in the .290s at Coors Field. Young is off to a strong start in the Texas League this year, and considering the present state of the Rockies' second base situation, there's a chance he could be in Denver by the All-Star Break.

The last three names from this group are older players, which is fairly often the case with second base prospects. Of the three, Michael Hollimon is the most intriguing name; he's a guy who has overachieved throughout his minor league career after having been just a 16th-round pick. His skills are unconventional for a second baseman, more in the Jose Valentin mode with good isolated power coupled with a high strikeout rate. The question is whether he'll be patient enough to wait until 2010 to take a crack at a major league job, when Placido Polanco's contract expires.

Good Prospects

Jayson Nix, Rockies (25)             49.1
Adrian Cardenas, Phillies (20)       47.0
Emilio Bonifacio, D'backs (23)       45.4
Matt Tolbert, Twins (26)             40.0
Brooks Conrad, A's (28)              39.6
Jeff Natale, Red Sox (26)            38.9
Eugenio Velez, Giants (26)           35.7
Scott Sizemore, Tigers (23)          35.5
Callix Crabbe, Padres (25)           33.3
Shelby Ford, Pirates (23)            32.3
Hernan Iribarren, Brewers (24)       29.8
Kevin Melillo, A's (26)              28.3
Luis Valbuena, Mariners (22)         27.9
Elliot Johnson, Rays (24)            27.6
Tug Hulett, Rangers (25)             25.3

What we really have here is sort of a purgatory for marginal prospects from the past--remember Kevin Melillo or Hernan Iribarren? So let's focus on the two players on this list that actually have some youth going for them. Adrian Cardenas is a talented prospect who has plenty of time to develop a major league-quality bat, but he may not have a position: while his DT translations suggest he handled second base competently last year, the scouting reports don't yet match that. He's got a little bit of Jose Vidro in him, who happens to be his #13 PECOTA comparable. It's hard to see what PECOTA likes about the Mariners' Luis Valbuena, who hit just .239/.311/.378 at West Tennessee last year, but if you give him a pass on the low batting averages, the secondary numbers were reasonably intriguing for a 21-year old in a tough league in Double-A, and he's off to a very strong start this year.

As for Jayson Nix, what you need to know about him is that he was placed on waivers and nobody bothered to make a claim. While his defense is exceptional--25 runs above average according to the DTs last year--there is less tolerance for all-glove, no-hit players at second base than there is at shortstop, and Nix's bat will look inadequate anywhere outside of Coors Field.

Other Notables

German Duran, Rangers (23)           21.6

Duran is the only name from Kevin's positional rankings not to make any of the lists above; he also recently made his major league debut. There's not any one real red flag with Duran, but his defense is below average, and PECOTA is suspicious of guys who bloom late when they don't have a strong pedigree (Duran was a sixth-round JuCo pick in 2005).

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

1.        Robinson Cano, Yankees (25)         285.6
2.        Dustin Pedroia, Red Sox (24)        220.4
3.        Howie Kendrick, Angels (24)         160.7
4.        Rickie Weeks, Brewers (25)          131.6
5.        Alexei Ramirez, White Sox (26)      111.2
6.        Eric Patterson, Cubs (25)           100.5
7.        Tony Abreu, Dodgers (23)             88.8
8.        Chris Coghlan, Marlins (23)          84.1
9.        Jose Lopez, Mariners (24)            75.7
10.       Matt Antonelli, Padres (23)          70.1

Over the winter, I had started to tout Robinson Cano as "the first underrated New York Yankee in the history of the known universe." For a player to have put together three definitively above-average major league seasons before his 25th birthday is very special. And no, I don't have any more idea than you do about what's wrong with him this year; maybe he caught whatever bug Philip Hughes seems to have acquired. It does not appear to me to be some kind of a correction resulting from marginal plate discipline; Cano has always done a good job of avoiding strikeouts, and he improved his walk rate last year to the point where it was adequate. Meanwhile, has Dustin Pedroia come full circle, to the point where he's overrated by just a smidge? That's not to say that he won't continue to be a valuable major leaguer to the Red Sox for a very long time, but this could also be one of those cases where his rookie season turns out to be his best one.

Nate Silver is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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