April 29, 2009
Prospectus Hit and Run
Catching the Next Wave
Back in the late '90s, the so-called Trinity at shortstop—Nomar Garciaparra, Derek Jeter, and Alex Rodriguez—provided the most memorable concentration of young talent at a position since Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle, and Duke Snider graced center field in the '50s. They also heralded a golden age for shortstops cut more from the Cal Ripken cloth (big, athletic, and offense-minded) than the Ozzie Smith one (small and speedy, with an emphasis on defensive skill). These days, the class of elite shortstops is much more thin—Hanley Ramirez and Jose Reyes might be Trinity-level talents, but from there it's a sizable step down to the likes of J.J. Hardy and Troy Tulowitzki.
Perhaps we should blame the Trinity. Consider for a moment the well-known Defensive Spectrum: 1B-LF-RF-3B-CF-2B-SS-C. The positions to the left are easier to defend but carry higher offensive demands, while those to the right prioritize defensive skill over offense. As players age, they tend to drift leftward; many a superstar was drafted as a shortstop but gravitated to a less-challenging position as his body and hitting skills developed. The success of the Trinity may have spurred more experimentation with big-bodied shortstops at the amateur levels, but not all could stick. "Everyone dreams of these big athletic shortstops as the next A-Rod/Nomar types, or even a more modern version like Tulowitzki," observes BP's in-house prospect maven, Kevin Goldstein. "What they often end up with is a third baseman, like an Evan Longoria."
Goldstein notes that only three players with the legitimate tools to stick at shortstop have been drafted over the past three years, and that the 2009 draft class isn't shortstop-heavy. Neither is his recent Top 100 Prospects list; of the nine shortstops on the list, Goldstein counts just four as likely to remain in position, including 20-year-old Elvis Andrus, who's already starting for the Rangers.
Instead, the high-end young talent appears to be concentrated in a couple of other right-spectrum positions, catcher and center field. One way to illustrate this is via PECOTA's Upside scores. While primarily used for assessing prospects—any player above 100 is an excellent prospect, with a strong chance of a long, star-caliber career, and prospects above 50 generally still have solid shots at stardom—the scores are handy for aggregating future contributions for all players along our forecasting system's six-year horizon. Upside credits players only for performance above league average at their position, including defense as well as offense. Among a player's top comparables, if one performed better than average, then twice his number of runs above average are counted toward his Upside. If he was below average, in the minors, or pounding sand somewhere else, his performance is counted as zero.
For this piece, I've defined "young players" as those in their age-26 seasons or younger, which is to say on the sunny side of their age-27 seasons. It's more accurate to speak of hitters peaking between the ages of 25 and 29, but drawing a line to include or exclude the entirety of that group is unwieldy, and in the end I simply gerrymandered the classification to include both Ramirez (25) and Reyes (26), whom PECOTA forecasts as having two of the four highest upside scores (677.1 and 517.4, respectively). That makes for a group of 57 young hitters with Upside scores above 100, and another 87 with scores in the 50-100 range. The distribution is striking when viewed in the context of the Defensive Spectrum, particularly among the upper tier:
Upside DH 1B LF RF 3B CF 2B SS C 100+ 2 3 3 8 8 11 4 7 11 50-100 0 10 6 10 11 13 10 16 14 Total 2 15 9 18 19 24 14 23 25
In a year where Matt Wieters trails only Ramirez with an Upside score of 623.4 to top our prospect list, it's not terribly surprising that the numbers confirm the notion that we're in a heady time for young catchers, particularly in the Senior Circuit. Last year, Geovany Soto (235.4) won the NL Rookie of the Year honors, Chris Iannetta (155.5) broke out after fizzling in 2007, Pablo Sandoval (177.4) enjoyed a scalding-hot cup of coffee with the Giants, and Jesus Flores (115.4) assumed the Nationals' starting job just one year after being plucked from the Mets in the Rule 5 draft. But that's without getting to the top of the crop: Brian McCann (321.4) and Russell Martin (270.4) score even higher among NL backstops. Admittedly, Sandoval's future behind the plate seems fleeting; he's currently starting at third base while backing up Bengie Molina, whose contract expires at season's end. The Giants organization also has Buster Posey, who ranked ninth on our prospect list despite just 45 professional plate appearances; Posey's 66.5 Upside score, merely a sketch based almost solely on draft position and bonus size, is only the tip of the iceberg, so expect him to score higher next time around. The American League boasts two-time batting champ Joe Mauer (344.9), Dioner Navarro (102.8), and Kurt Suzuki (a very close 98.6) among established starters, Wieters (who could arrive next month), and Jarrod Saltalamacchia (110.0); Salty's teammate, Taylor Teagarden, only scores 26.1. Beyond those fresh faces, the Yankees' 19-year-old Jesus Montero rates well (186.9), but is still far off in the distance.
The center fielders as a group are somewhat less established. Grady Sizemore (349.9) is the cream of the crop, but he, B.J. Upton (178.8), and Chris B. Young (147.6) are the only ones who entered 2009 with more than one full season in the majors already under their belts. Matt Kemp (228.9), Adam Jones (203.8), Jacoby Ellsbury (183.2), Carlos Gomez (178.5), and Lastings Milledge (151.8) are in their second full years, though the last was recently farmed out. Cameron Maybin (237.4) is starting for the Marlins, while the Cardinals' Colby Rasmus (97.2) and the Rockies' Dexter Fowler (82.3) are breaking in as part-time players. The Pirates' Andrew McCutchen (114.9) is expected to arrive this summer, while the Twins' Ben Revere (251.6) is still in High-A.
Third basemen and right fielders are better represented than either middle-infield spot, though both include converts from adjacent positions. Top-ranking David Wright (436.6), the aforementioned Longoria (317.6), and Ryan Zimmerman (224.9) all played some shortstop as amateurs; Zimmerman did so on the same traveling high school team as Wright, who manned the hot corner, and Upton, who played second base. Along with a trio often maligned for various shortcomings—Alex Gordon (135.6), Edwin Encarnacion (124.0), and former shortstop Mark Reynolds (115.8)—are migrant Royals prospect Mike Moustakas (149.8), who moved off short last year, and Cardinals prospect Brett Wallace (105.1), whose beefy build and lack of defensive prowess have gotten him dubbed "The Walrus"; His future lies at an easier position, goo goo g'joob. Among the right fielders, it's worth noting that Jay Bruce (214.0), Elijah Dukes (208.9), and Hunter Pence (126.8) all broke in as center fielders.
The middle-infield situation is slightly less dire than I initially presented. Among shortstops, Hardy (254.6) and Tulowitzki (188.6) score more than respectably, and one can safely pencil in the unrelated Beckhams, Tim of the Rays and Gordon of the White Sox, to at least join the above-100 tier, along with Jed Lowrie, Stephen Drew, and Yunel Escobar. Their situations are analogous to Posey, though Gordon Beckham may be bound for second base eventually.
As for the keystoners, it's actually not surprising to find them so sparsely represented since they're often regarded as damaged goods within the prospect sphere—lacking the arm to play shortstop or the bat to play third, and prone to premature aging, too. It's a long way from reigning AL MVP Dustin Pedroia (319.0) to the top tier, but nonetheless the oft-maligned trio of injury-prone Rickie Weeks (173.5), hacktastic Jose Lopez (160.7), and streaky Robinson Cano (156.3), and another sizable drop down to fragile Howie Kendrick (90.9), and would-be Indians shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera (85.6); had we drawn the line at second basemen in their age-27 seasons, Kelly Johnson and Ian Kinsler would have beefed this bunch up.
Which illustrates that there are plenty of inefficiencies here, including this accounting process. While we may not be blessed with an obvious Trinity, why worry when there's so much else to enjoy?
A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider .