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May 22, 2008

Lies, Damned Lies

PECOTA Takes on Shortstop Prospects

by Nate Silver

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Excellent Prospects


Player (Age)                        Upside
Brandon Wood, Angels (23)           196.7
Chin-Lung Hu, Dodgers (24)          151.3
Mike Moustakas, Royals (19)         117.6
Brent Lillibridge, Braves (24)      117.1
Jed Lowrie, Red Sox (24)            108.3
Sean Rodriguez, Angels (23)         101.4
Reid Brignac, Rays (22)             100.9

PECOTA was skeptical about Brandon Wood before, so why does it seem to like him so much this season? The answer lies in our new Davenport Translations, which infer a steeper difficulty curve across the minor league ladder, and place more of an emphasis on performance at the higher levels. True, Wood's performance has stagnated a bit: he posted a .260 translated EqA in his monster year at Rancho Cucamonga in 2005, and then .264 at Arkansas in 2006, and .254 playing for Salt Lake last year. Nevertheless, he is coping perfectly well against the stronger competition, as by any reasonable standard a 22-year-old middle infielder who posts a .254 EqA is a pretty good prospect. Moreover, Wood has somewhat improved his strikeout rates; he struck out in 24.5 percent of his plate appearances in 2007 as compared with 28.5 percent in 2006 in spite of facing tougher competition. Although he's never going to be a great hitter for average, PECOTA still sees a fair amount of growth in his bat, and he qualifies as a mildly underrated prospect at this stage.

Chin-Lung Hu had been an under-the-radar PECOTA favorite for a long time, but he's particularly intriguing now that his bat has begun to show a little bit of development. We're looking at a guy with a broadly similar skill set to Rafael Furcal, but with somewhat fewer walks compensated for by doubles power. Lu's comparables, it should be noted, are not particularly flattering, but it's not clear that Asian imports have quite the same development curves as their American counterparts.

PECOTA took a bit of a risk on Mike Moustakas, based mostly off of his draft slot, build, signing bonus, and that he's a shortstop. Shortstops taken in comparable positions include B.J. Upton and Derek Jeter, but it also includes folks like Matt Tuiasosopo. So far, it does not appear to be paying off, as Moustakas is underwhelming the Midwest League to the tune of .244/.299/.369. Still, the Midwest League is a brutal hitting environment, especially in the spring months, and Moustakas has displayed just a little bit of pop, with 11 hits so far for extra bases.

Brent Lillibridge is off to an even worse start, hitting only .183/.244/.248 at Richmond. His plate discipline, a relative strength for him in the past, has been poor this year, with a 30/9 strikeout-to-walk ratio through 28 ballgames. Lillibridge spent most of the season in Triple-A last year and he's 24, so it's possible that this is a case of a guy who is getting frustrated and pressing as he's worried about his major league future; Kelly Johnson and Yunel Escobar would seem to have the middle infield positions locked up in Atlanta for the foreseeable future. Because of his age, Lillibridge does not have that much margin for error, and his projection is likely to take a significant hit next year unless these numbers begin to warm up, but he might also be a reasonable "buy low" guy for a team that's able to give him a change of scenery.

It's not quite proper to compare Jed Lowrie to Dustin Pedroia. While neither player is loved by scouts, Lowrie is bigger and more physical than Pedroia, and has more potential to hit for power, whereas he lacks Pedroia's superb bat control. Nevertheless, Lowrie was extremely impressive at both Double- and Triple-A last year, as well as in his first major league trial a couple of weeks ago. PECOTA thinks that he's essentially Julio Lugo's equal at this point, even after accounting for his slightly inferior defense.

Although PECOTA doesn't find this comparable, Sean Rodriguez has a little bit of the Jose Valentin skill set: a guy who will hit about .240 but can be a hidden asset at the major league level between his walks, isolated power, and his underrated defense. He hasn't been fantastic in his major league debut this season, but it's interesting that the Angels seem to be giving him first dibs over Brandon Wood. Players who hit for low averages are probably at more risk of their major league teams running out of patience with them, so the key thing for the Angels to keep in mind is that this is a player whom PECOTA thinks has a fair amount of development left in his bat, even if he's likely to underwhelm at the major league level now.

Finally, we have Reid Brignac, who probably deserves to be a couple of ticks higher on this list. What the Rays are most interested in right now is seeing how Brignac's defense progresses, and on that score he's off to a fairly strong start, with just five errors in 41 games at Durham. He's also hit for plenty of power, with 20 extra-base hits on the season. When Jason Bartlett was brought in this winter, it was neither intended purely as a stopgap to keep the seat warm for Brignac, nor as an effort to bury him; instead, the Rays were merely intending to keep their options open; if Brignac continues to perform well while Bartlett continues to struggle, the Rays will have an interesting decision on their hands as soon as this summer.

Very Good Prospects


Player (Age)                        Upside
Marcus Lemon, Rangers (20)          97.0
Alberto Gonzalez, Yankees (25)      92.3
Justin Snyder, Yankees (22)         88.6
Elvis Andrus, Rangers (19)          81.2
Hainley Statia, Angels (22)         80.0
Carlos Triunfel, Mariners (18)      79.0
Trevor Plouffe, Twins (22)          65.1
Todd Frazier, Reds (22)             54.4
Carlos Rivero, Indians (20)         54.4
Jason Donald, Phillies (23)         51.2

Things start to get weird from this point on. I'm not quite sure what PECOTA saw in Marcus Lemon, since there was superficially very little to be impressed with in his .261/.353/.364 batting line last year, but the combination of a strong walk rate and relatively good speed speaks to an interesting mix of skills and tools, a little bit like Jimmy Rollins demonstrated in the low minors. So far, PECOTA appears to be on to something, as Lemon is hitting .290/.405/.430 at Bakersfield thus far this year. Those are California League numbers, and so need to be discounted rather heavily, but if Lemon's defense comes through-and he's been rangy enough but error-prone in his career so far-he's a guy who could be on a lot of radar screens a year from now.

Then we come across perhaps the weirdest rating of the season, belonging to Yankee utility infielder Alberto Gonzalez (no relation to the discredited attorney general). What's especially strange about this is that PECOTA is not really anticipating any kind of offensive breakout-it has him hitting just .261/.304/.356 this year, with no real development thereafter. But Gonzalez does play strong defense, and PECOTA's philosophy is that if he lucks into developing a league-average bat, he could be quite a valuable commodity. The problem with this is that there's a difference between a guy who actually has a league-average bat, and a guy who looks like he has a league-average bat over a limited sample size. The way that PECOTA constructs its Upside rating, it gives credit for those branches on the probability tree where a player turns in a good performance, but does not deduct points when he struggles. In those years where Gonzalez hits .270/.310/.400, that would indeed be fairly valuable to a major league club. But the problem is that you're going to have to endure too many .220/.250/.280's in order to come up with those happier results. What PECOTA should ideally be doing when it generates its Upside scores is to distinguish genuine development (of the sort the 25-year-old Gonzalez is unlikely to have) from mere sample variance.

As for the rest of these players, the guy I'd draw your attention to is the Reds' Todd Frazier, who clobbered the Midwest League to the tune of .321/.402/.598 over 30 games and has already received a promotion to the FSL. Frazier has a little bit of Hunter Pence Syndrome going for him, in that his hitting mechanics are awkward and unorthodox (in fact, Pence is Frazier's top comparable), but there's a difference between a guy who doesn't have a skill and one who just goes about accomplishing things a little differently. Frazier is too bulky to play shortstop, and the Reds have not used him at all at that position since promoting him to Daytona, instead trying him at first, third, and in the outfield. I can't quite think of a case where this sort of skill set worked in a utility role-typically utility players are diminutive slap hitters. There's no reason that it couldn't work, and Frazier might very well have enough bat to stick at a corner.

Good Prospects


Player (Age)                        Upside
Oscar Tejeda, Red Sox (18)          47.7
Chris Nelson, Rockies (22)          45.0
Gregorio Petit, A's (23)            42.3
Brian Bixler, Pirates (25)          39.3
Hector Gomez, Rockies (20)          39.2
Pedro Lopez, Reds (24)              38.5
Paul Janish, Reds (25)              37.2
Emmanuel Burriss, Giants (23)       35.2
Cliff Pennington, A's (24)          34.6
Brian Friday, Pirates (22)          32.6
Garth Iorg, Tigers (22)             31.1
Justin Sellers, A's (22)            31.1
Jonathan Herrera, Rockies (23)      30.2
Sergio Santos, Blue Jays (24)       27.7
Joshua Rodriguez, Indians (23)      27.2

Shortstops are somewhat akin to pitchers in that they provide enough defensive value that you wind up something of a long tail as far as prospect potential goes. All of the players listed here are challenged either offensively or defensively, but retain some residual value on the mere off-chance that they might correct whatever deficiency they have.. Chris Nelson is the guy who gets the most plaudits from scouts, but his slow start at Tulsa is making his strong performance at Modesto last year look like a California League fluke. Cliff Pennington is another player with a pretty good pedigree, but his Rexrodian .260/.380/.309 batting line this year is not likely to translate well to the majors. None of these guys belong on your minor league taxi squad just yet, although the Pirates' Brian Friday is mildly intriguing in a Brent Lillibridge sort of way.

Other Notables


Player (Age)                        Upside
Esmailyn Gonzalez, Nationals (18)   18.2

Since our shortstop lists run about 25 players deep, our coverage is pretty comprehensive, and there is only one name that made Kevin's positional rankings last season but did not have an Upside rating above 25. That is the Nationals' Esmailyn Gonzalez, who received a huge signing bonus and displayed strengths in walk rate, speed, and defense last year in the rookie leagues, but whose other skills are years away from filling out. PECOTA can identify scores of other Latin American prospects who did similar things in the rookie leagues; now and then you get a Jhonny Peralta for your efforts, but most of the time you don't. Still, Gonzalez played last season at age 17, so it would be extremely premature to write him off.

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


Player (Age)                         Upside
 1. Hanley Ramirez, Marlins (24)     486.4
 2. Jose Reyes, Mets (25)            354.2
 3. Troy Tulowitzki, Rockies (23)    273.8
 4. Brandon Wood, Angels (23)        196.7
 5. Chin-Lung Hu, Dodgers (24)       151.3
 6. Asdrubal Cabrera, Indians (22)   149.3
 7. J.J. Hardy, Brewers (25)         131.4
 8. Mike Moustakas, Royals (19)      117.6
 9. Brent Lillibridge, Braves (24)   117.1
10. Stephen Drew, Diamondbacks (25)  110.7

I got a lot of nasty e-mail traffic last year when I rated Hanley Ramirez ahead of Jose Reyes on my 50 most valuable list, but now, even as he's enduring a mild slump, you could make a reasonable argument for Ramirez as the most valuable player in baseball. From a scarcity perspective, it's fundamentally much rarer to have a shortstop who can hit 29 home runs at age 23 than one with the Reyes type of skill set. True, Ramirez might not really be a shortstop (although he should have the athleticism to handle the position) but the bat is really not that far off from where Alex Rodriguez was at this stage of the game.

Nate Silver is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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