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August 4, 2011

Prospects Will Break Your Heart

Positional Primacy: Left Field

by Jason Parks

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By the time my phone stopped ringing, and the text messages stopped being texted, and the e-mail stopped finding my inbox, I was left with over 100 outfield prospects with a vote of scout approval listed in my notes. That’s a sprawling canvas to work with, and the opinions were so varied that I needed to alter my approach to this article. So far in this sprawling prospect series, I’ve made every effort to narrow the positional class, usually starting with the “Leader of the Pack (Present),” continuing to the “Leader of the Pack (Future),” followed by the high-ceiling talents, the middle-tier talents, the sleepers, and finally the head-scratcher of the group, leaving a tally of 10-15 players, all of whom have legitimacy in their class. But the talent pool in left field is abstract, as it’s a position that is usually occupied with the deficient spoils of other positions, (center field, second base, etc.), and that opens the queue to a wide range of talent. That puts the onus of positional projection on those I asked, and those opinions were too varied to follow the established construct. So for this specific section of the Positional Primacy series, we have to take another road home.

Here’s my idea: Instead of trying to fit the collection of talent into the established tiers [read: those cute little aforementioned tiers], let’s just make it simple and present the prospects in two categories: “High-Ceiling Division” and “Not-Quite-the-Ceiling-of-the-‘High-Ceiling-Division’-but-Still-Packs-a-Prospect-Punch Division.” Let’s offer up the material in scouting snapshots rather than full-length scouting essays, and let’s free ourselves from the burden of listing every middle-tier prospect at the position, which would keep me here for the rest of my life, writing reports on players like Angelo Songco or Jake Smolinski, and basically drinking myself to death to dull the pain in my fingers. I had to make some choices.

Because of the nature of the beast, if a scout didn’t champion a player, or I didn’t seek out an opinion on a specific player, some names (probably your favorite player) won’t appear on the list. This isn’t an encyclopedia. I asked the industry and I asked my eyes, and the information obtained on left fielders alone could probably fill a book. I whittled it down, slapped it together, and tried my best to compile a competent and thorough list of players with major-league projections at the specified position, but I didn’t rank them in any specific order, so don’t read too much into that.

It’s not an exact science, as young talent will ebb and flow in the developmental process, with quality center fielders in the present making their way to left field in the future, or players with paper characteristics for one corner proving to be a better fit for the other, thus altering the list and highlighting the arbitrary nature of the exercise itself. But arbitrary exercises can be fun, and here at Baseball Prospectus, we enjoy charging people a yearly fee for arbitrary fun. So jump onboard and enjoy the fun today, because tomorrow’s developments could make the present rankings obsolete. Prospects can break your heart. Baseball poetry.

High-Ceiling Division
Guillermo Pimentel (Mariners)
TCF: It remains to be seen if Pimentel is a left fielder or a right fielder, as I’ve received mixed performance reviews at both positions. Regardless of which corner of the diamond his body ends up in (I’m going to guess left), his path to stardom is paved by the gargantuan power of his left-handed stroke. His approach is aggressive, his hit tool has its detractors, and his athleticism isn’t overly impressive, but his power has elite potential, and that’s enough to turn a blind eye to the other deficiencies in his skill set. The 80-grade power potential puts Pimentel in a special class, but the development process is going to take time, and you have to show patience when the payout is so extreme.

Josh Sale: (Rays)
TCF: Sale has a crazy-high offensive ceiling, with well above-average power potential and a hit tool that should allow that power to translate to game action down the line. Sale’s ticket will be punched with the stick, as his defensive skills will always struggle to reach the water line due to his limited athleticism, below-average speed, and a fringy-at-best arm.

Ty Linton: (D’backs)
TCF: Linton is a plus-plus athlete who has the rare combination of speed and strength. Some scouts doubt his hit tool, but his power potential and speed create the profile for a very high ceiling. Despite the athleticism, Linton looks like a corner outfielder, and has been playing in left field this season. He is raw, and it’s going to take time, but a first-division ceiling from the corner is possible if everything comes together at the plate.  

Christopher Hawkins: (Blue Jays)
TCF: Plus athlete, with above-average speed and plus (projected) offensive tools. Originally a shortstop, Hawkins has played all over the diamond, logging time at third base and in the outfield, and although some suggest his skill set might be a good fit for center field, I think he will end up in a corner. Hawkins is a first-division player if the hit and power develop to potential (which they rarely do), and he has the natural athleticism to buy extra patience during the rigors of the developmental process.

Jonathan Singleton: (Astros)
TCF: Singleton is a big, strong lefty with a thunderbolt in the stick, leading some scouts to suggest his future power could reach the 80-grade level. His overall approach and hit tool (future) will allow for power translation, although his bat will have to carry the weight of his rise to the majors. Despite being somewhat athletic and owning a solid arm, Singleton’s body might eventually cement his feet at first base, which is where the ‘Stros currently have those feet penciled in. Several scouts mentioned that he could handle the physical necessities of left field, but Singleton’s offensive ceiling will have value at any position on the diamond, so it might not matter. Because I didn’t include Singleton on my first-base rankings, as he was playing left field for the Phillies at the time, I’ve decided to include him on this list.

Christian Yelich (Marlins)
TCF: This silky-swinging lefty has a 60/65 hit tool (future) and enough pop to project at least solid-average power at maturity. Athletic and quick, but not a burner, Yelich has the tools to excel in left field, with good reactions and a solid arm. Yelich’s physical tools give him a first-division ceiling, and his mature approach to the game could push the limits of those physical qualities.

Aaron Altherr (Phillies)
TCF: An athletic late-round high school draftee in the Phillies organization? Shocking, I know. The Phillies collect athletes, and Altherr is another high-ceiling project from that pool. He has a long, lean frame, and first-division offensive projections, but he has a long way to go before that proves prophetic. At his peak, Altherr could hit for both power and average, while showing good game speed and a strong arm. Because of his physical gifts, Altherr can handle all three outfield spots (for now), but as he adds mass to his frame, his body will slow and should eventually push him to a corner spot. Altherr’s arm is strong enough for right, but some scouts see him as a future left fielder, where his skill set could make him an above-average weapon at the position. He’s still quite raw and has a long way to go in the developmental process, but the tool-based ceiling gives the Phillies reason to be patient with this 20-year-old.

“Not-Quite-the-Ceiling-of-the-‘High-Ceiling-Division’-but-Still-Packs-a-Prospect-Punch Division”
Max Kepler (Twins)
TCF: This 18-year-old German outfielder has a promising combination of size and athleticism, with a natural feel for the bat that could make him an above-average hitter. Because of the characteristics of his body and swing, Kepler projects to slowly add power to his game, with a chance of becoming a plus power threat at physical maturity. He has enough arm and athleticism to handle center field, but is a better long-term fit in left, where his bat should have enough value. He’s one of my favorite prospects in the game, and a player who could end up being the face of European baseball if he can find a way to actualize his physical tools. I don’t see a crazy ceiling because I question his bat, but if you look at all the factors involved, being a second-division regular could still make Kepler a star.

Trayvon Robinson (Mariners)
TCF: Robinson is a plus athlete and has the raw physical characteristics of a center fielder, but the baseball skills that are better suited for left field at the major-league level. While not quite the offensive force suggested by his performance for Albuquerque in the Pacific Coast League, Robinson does possess legit skills at the plate, with a good approach, some batting average potential, and at least average power. His swing has some miss in it, and his hit/power tools are closer to average than plus, but with four out of the five tools playing at 50 and above, Robinson has a chance to become a solid-average everyday player at the major-league level.

L.J. Hoes (Orioles)
TCF: Hoes is an excellent natural hitter with a good approach and the ability to barrel balls to all fields with authority. He’s not a big power threat, so his value will be tied to his contact ability and on-base skills. Hoes is athletic but not a freak, and has good game speed and a solid arm, but nothing that will distinguish him from his contemporaries at the highest level. His ceiling falls below a first-division starter, but a solid-average regular is possible, although his bat would have more value at second than in left.

Brandon Jacobs (Red Sox)
TCF: Built like a 6-foot-1, 230-pound bowling bowl, Jacobs possesses crazy power potential thanks to a long, leveraged swing capable of tape-measure shots. The utility of the bat itself has promise as well, but Jacobs’ swing can get long, and his aggressive approach could erode in good hitting environments as he faces better pitching. His defense is going to be below average, even in left field because of fringy speed and an arm that wouldn’t look good in a celebrity softball game. But the power potential is legit, and let’s face it, power potential is sexy. If his approach finds some refinement and his total offensive package actualizes, Jacobs could develop into a second-division player.

Jaff Decker (Padres)
TCF: Some people love Decker’s offensive future, but I don’t happen to be one of those people. His approach is very advanced, and Decker will no doubt find a way to reach base at a high clip at every stop. But his bat has a ton of miss in it, and despite having the leveraged swing and strength necessary to hit for power, I have doubts that his hit tool will allow the power to reach its game potential. Decker isn’t a poor athlete, but when you see him navigate ground in the outfield you don’t often say to yourself, “Man, there goes a graceful man.” He has the arm to handle right field, but a résumé with more experience in left and a body that suggests a better a position would be fullback. Either way, Decker’s bat is his ticket to the majors, and even though I just spent a paragraph selling his offensive deficiencies, his ceiling is still that of a second-division player and, as a result, he belongs on this list.

Chih-Hsien Chiang (Mariners)
TCF: There are mixed reviews on this recently-traded outfielder; some call for a second-division ceiling, while others call Chiang an up-and-down type. Scouts love tools, and having seen Chiang I can attest that he isn’t exactly a tools-horse, but he makes things happen, and you can’t ignore his production this season. I’m not sure what to expect going forward, but those that saw a second-division future said his hit tool is much better than people realize and his power will translate against quality pitching. His outfield tools aren’t anything to fantasize about, but he can wear a uniform in either corner even though he won’t shine in either role. If Chiang can develop into a second-division starter, I’m sure the Mariners would take that and smile.

James Darnell (Padres)
TCF: I didn’t include Darnell in my third-base rankings because the field was crowded with superior talent, and Darnell’s second-division ceiling couldn’t crack the list. Now as a player that is getting more looks in left field, Darnell remains a second-division talent, albeit one that will offer even less value at the position. He is a good-but-not-great hitter with a mature approach, good bat speed, and some pop. Darnell’s Double-A numbers painted him as a plus-plus hitter with substantial game power, and as a result, some were calling out his name in the throes of prospect passion. But the reality is that Darnell grades out as an average hitter at best, with enough strength in his swing to produce solid-average power numbers at the major-league level. That’s a nice player to have on the roster, but not a first-division type, and not a player that needs to be included in the throes of your passion.   

Jason Parks is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Jason's other articles. You can contact Jason by clicking here

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