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July 12, 2011

Future Shock

Trout vs. Harper

by Kevin Goldstein

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The highlight of Sunday's Futures Game was supposed to be a United States team outfield that included Washington's Bryce Harper and the Angels' Mike Trout. The pair is easily the top two prospects in baseball, but the 1-2 order has been the cause of much debate during the first half of the season. While Trout's call-up to the big leagues takes a tiny bit of luster off of what will still be a star-studded game, there's still plenty of time to keep the debate raging. The fact Trout is suddenly an Angel instead of an Arkansas Traveler doesn't change the player, so here's how scouts and team executives broke down the two prior to the call-up.

Hitting: Both players have impressed scouts with their raw hitting ability, as Trout has a career minor league average of .338 while Harper was hitting .318 in Low-A as an 18-year-old and is 5-for-14 in his first four Double-A games. Harper's ability to hit for average is especially impressive considering his power-focused approach and downright violent swing, but one National League scout sees it as legitimate, saying, "He makes all the right adjustments, not just from at-bat to at-bat, but from pitch to pitch. He just has a fantastic approach." Still, Trout projects easily as a .300-plus hitter in the big leagues, while Harper is expected to be more of a .280-.300 hitter once he's a part of the middle of the Nationals' lineup. "Trout's certainly the better pure hitter," said an American League talent evaluator. "He makes more contact, has fewer holes than Harper and a much simpler swing."
Advantage: Trout

Power: This is where Harper really shines. "It's just rare to see a player like this," said an American League executive. "I can show you plenty of young players with extreme raw power, but his ability to utilize it in games right now is special." While scouts are generally reticent to use the top score of 80 on any player concerning any tool, it's nearly impossible to find a scout who doesn't use the number to project Harper's power, indicating a consistent 35-40-plus home run hitter in the big leagues. Still, Trout is no slouch in this department. With nine home runs in 75 Texas League games this year, he already was showing an improved home run rate, and with his size and strength, scouts project him to be an above-average power threat as his game matures. "It's part of his game people don't talk about, but should," added an American League scout. "He's never going to match Harper in this department, but he's going to hit 20 home runs a year in his prime, and that might be low."
Advantage: Harper

Speed: This contest is similar to power, in that while neither is slow, Trout's top-of-the-line wheels give him a major edge. Scouts consistently clock Trout with sub-4.0 second times from home to first and he's an effective base stealer, with 28 stolen bases in 36 attempts in the Texas League. The only question is how long he'll maintain that speed long-term. Listed at 6-foot-1 and 200 pounds, Trout is built more like a defensive back than a classic speedster, leaving a National League scout to say, "It's just not what 80 runners look like, so I don't know if it will last forever." An American League scout was less concerned, saying, "It's not just speed, it's easy speed," and adding, "he'll steal 50 bases a year in the big leagues." Harper also surprises with average to slightly above speed, and already has 20 stolen bases this season. That said, few scouts think he'll maintain that speed into his prime. "I could see him stealing 15-20 bases when he gets to the big leagues," said an American League scouting executive, "but in the end, he's going to get bigger, slower and become more of a classic bat-first slugger."
Advantage: Trout

Field: A catcher in high school and his one junior college season, Harper has made a seamless transition to the outfield and projects as a solid right fielder. Unfortunately, that can't compare in value to a well above-average center fielder, and between his speed and instincts, Trout glides from gap to gap and covers plenty of ground. "We can talk all we want about the offensive potential of these two guys," said one American League executive, "but when one of them not only plays up the middle but plays the position extremely well, that's a huge difference in overall value."
Advantage: Trout

Throwing: Trout's throwing arm is his weakest tool, ranking merely as average. Harper's best defensive tool as a catcher was his plus-plus arm strength, and that's carried over to the outfield, where he's already registered eight outfield assists. He could potentially be a weapon in right field, but there are some concerns. "It's good, but I can't go further than plus because of his incredibly long release, which is an understated factor," said an American League scout.
Advantage: Harper

Makeup: This is the debate that could fill a book. Trout earns nonstop raves for his work ethic and high-energy style of play, while Harper's behavior has been well documented, including a recent incident in which he blew a kiss at the opposing pitcher following a home run. "Harper plays hard, but he's a total 'me first' guy," said one American League scout. But an NL evaluator wasn't as concerned. "I've seen plenty of stars that are real jerks," he said, "and I think Harper plays with what I call a positive arrogance." The fact there is any concern for Harper's antics gives the edge to Trout, who gets as much praise for his approach to the game as he does for his obvious skills.
Advantage: Trout

The final call: Industry professionals are understandably split evenly between the two.

"He's somehow more than I expected," said a National League scout of Harper. "He's like a 12-year-old playing on a high school varsity team," he added. "I realize Trout is in the big leagues, but there are plenty of organizations where Harper would be, as well. He's phenomenal and has a Hall of Fame ceiling."

An American League scout disagreed, summarizing, "Trout is going to be a .300-plus hitter with a .380-plus on-base percentage and 20-25 home runs with 50-plus stolen bases. He's a gold-glove middle of the diamond defender with plus-plus makeup and energy. That is a special talent, there is nobody with that package."

An American League scouting executive agreed, saying, "Harper is going to produce more runs than Trout, and be an MVP-level hitter, but Trout is going to do what he does as a center fielder, and when you take that into account, he's far more valuable."

A National League front office member went in the opposite direction. "Harper is younger, and has a higher upside," he said. "The only thing Trout does better is speed and defense and Harper is more than playable in those departments. It's Harper, it's not as close as you think, and I love Trout."

The debate rages on, and due to the age of the two top prospects in baseball, the discussion has the potential to continue into the next decade.

 

 A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider Insider.

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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