Who tops the tool charts? Who was the big story down on the farm in 2011?
Best Tools (Present Utility y Projection) Speed: Billy Hamilton (Reds) TCF: Well, he’s fast. Really fast. He’s 100 on the 20/80 scale fast. His speed inflates his prospect status, as I question how effective he will be against superior pitching. But Hamilton’s speed tool is elite, and it makes him a catalytic player, at least at this stage of his career. He stole 103 bases this season, which is an impressive accomplishment, regardless of his offensive projections (which I question and others champion). Hamilton should put up better [read: more impressive] numbers in the hitter-friendly California League in 2012, which should enhance the shine on his prospect star. I’ll remind people to be cautious despite the numbers, then Hamilton will probably develop into a top-tier talent at a premium position and I’ll look like a fool. Thanks, Hamilton.
Arm: Christian Bethancourt (Braves) TCF: With a handful of legit 80 arms in the minors, I decided to go with the catcher, because I like catchers, especially 20-year-old catchers that can pop in the 1.7 range. That’s just ridiculous, by the way. 1.7? I had a scout tell me he clocked him at 1.65. I just assumed the scout was on mescaline. Regardless, Bethancourt has an elite arm, and the utility of that arm is slowly gaining on the raw strength; his release is Usain Bolt quick, with clean throwing mechanics and improving accuracy. Bethancourt’s bat is his ticket to first-division status, but his defensive skills behind the plate will carry him a very long way. 1.7? Not even #TheLegend can hang with that.
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With the rankings now complete, is our resident prospect man about to turn his back on who he ranked at the top of each position?
Right-Handed Starters Shelby Miller (Cardinals) The Case For: First and foremost, Shelby Miller is a Texan, and therefore already has an advantage over his competition for this title. I’m open about my bias. See the second rule.
From a scouting perspective, Miller has everything I look for in a future top-of-the-rotation arm. With prototypical size (6-foot-3, 195 pounds) and room for additional strength, Miller has the body and the delivery to log innings and maintain his stuff deep into games. His fastball is a legit plus pitch, and can show plus-plus velocity, as he touches the upper 90s at times. The curveball is another above-average offering, flashing plus more than it flashes the potential to be plus, with excellent depth to the break and a tight spin. As with most young power pitchers, Miller’s changeup was underdeveloped in relation to his other offerings when he was drafted, but it has quickly emerged as another plus-potential pitch. It plays well off his fastball with good weight and some arm-side fading action.
A rare breed of player can stay at an up-the-middle position, and many of these center fielders have loaded toolboxes.
The minor leagues are stacked with quality center-field prospects, and some might even end up being quality center fielders at the major-league level. But the truth is most minor-league center fielders lack the necessary skill set to play the position in the majors, making the value of said skill set even more, um, valuable.
This was a difficult list to compile, as I use a mixture of industry opinion and my own eyes to sketch the report, and opinions were extremely varied. I’m incredibly fortunate to have a national platform that encourages industry correspondence and reciprocation [read: people actually return my e-mail] more than discourages it, and I’m thankful because most industry types aren’t influenced by my 70-grade smile. For this article, I polled 10 people employed by major-league teams; some were scouting directors, some were scouts, some were even higher on the food chain. I asked them a simple question: Who are the top 10 center-field prospects currently in the minor leagues?
Though left field may be where players head when they can't play anywhere else on the diamond, there are still some solid prospects at the position.
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.
Just because many third basemen are failed shortstops does not mean there isn't an abundant supply of talent at the hot corner.
Leader of the Pack (Present): Anthony Rendon (Nationals) The case for: Even though he has yet to play a professional game, Rendon’s combination of tools and polish make him the face of the position. At the plate, the native Texan (another plus attribute) is able to generate tremendous bat speed; his hands and hips work at near elite levels, and his raw strength is above average. Rendon’s hit tool projects to be plus-plus (70 grade)—which should allow him to become a perennial .300 hitter—with the overall approach to work counts, set up favorable hitting counts, and reach base at a high clip. His power potential ranges from average to plus, with a swing that some believe is better suited for gap-to-gap power, rather than a swing with the necessary loft and backspin to produce 25-plus homers per season without selling out his approach.
In the field, Rendon projects as an above-average defender at third, with both the leather and arm grading out as plus tools, and the instincts necessary to bring the physical package together. Speed isn’t a part of Rendon’s game, but his feet aren’t heavy, and he shows good first-step quickness and reactions. Despite not being a physical force, Rendon has all the attributes necessary to become an All-Star talent at the hot corner, with the ability to hit for average, reach base, hit for some power, and play above-average defense. It remains to be seen if Rendon ends up at third base for the Nationals, but that’s a byproduct of organizational depth, not a developmental deficiency in Rendon’s skill set.
Shortstop is a huge weakness on many major-league teams, but is there about to be an infusion of talent through the pipeline?
I’m going to curb my desire to craft a cute narrative about the importance of the position. (As is often the case, I’m going to satisfy my desire of cuteness delivery by assembling cute prospect tiers.) If you read Baseball Prospectus, you are already ahead of the baseball knowledge curve, so I don’t need to get didactic about the inherent skill set required to play the position, or the overall value a quality shortstop brings to the table. If you really want to read my take on what it takes, you can always check out my “U Got the Look” series and read 12,000 words of meandering scouting patois presented with a perfectly striped bow of instability.
For this exercise, I turned a blind eye to the substance offered by the middle-class prospects at the position, focusing instead on those with high ceilings, those with flashy leather and questions with the stick, and those who find themselves the targets of positional deficiency whispers. The tiers are self-explanatory, but not comprehensive; it would take three more editions to include all the names in my notes, and frankly, you don’t want to read four articles discussing every shortstop prospect in the minors. Actually, I take that back. You probably do. Let me rephrase: I don’t have the sanity it would take to write four articles breaking down every shortstop in the minors. I have to monitor my sanity reserves; after all, I’m heading back to Arizona for a lengthy scouting trip. Give me strength. Let’s get started.
Are these guys failed shortstops, or is there more to the prospect than meets the eye?
I had to go the dreaded creative tier route with these rankings, because let’s face it, the talent at the position is plenty deep, but it’s not plenty sexy. (Unless you find general on-the-field competence attractive. If that’s the case, well, you probably spend quiet evenings at home alone in a provocatively lit room, with a bottle of wine and a collection of Tom Emanski’s finest on the ready. Fundamental fetish.)
Who are second basemen: Failed shortstops? Tweener outfielders with athleticism? Players who fail to eclipse the vertical heights of 5-foot-9? The answer is yes. It’s a position cast with inherent deficiency, but not a position that has a high tolerance for deficient tools. First and foremost, keystoners of modern vintage need to pack an offensive punch. Defense is great and we all love it, but the position will face judgment based on the quality of the stick over the quality of the leather. If a second baseman’s defense is worth the price of admission, I’d question why he wasn’t playing shortstop. Again, defense is more than icing on the cake, but let’s not pretend that all-glove, no-bat types are in high demand at the position, or that they are top prospects solely because of their defensive merits.
You have to mash a ton to break into the first-base ranks, but right now, there's only a mish-mash of prospects.
Not so long ago, the minor leagues were stacked with Michelin star level first basemen, prospects with first-division ceilings and middle-of-the-order offensive prowess. The current crop of talent is more pedestrian, looking more like buffet fare than fine dining, but for several involved, the developmental process could still produce a fantastic dish. That’s four food references in the first paragraph, for those scoring at home.
Similar to the process of projecting relief pitchers, projecting first basemen often has a foundation in deficiency; it’s a position that openly welcomes the athletically inferior. However, to enter the position’s warm embrace, the athletically inferior must qualify for the love by showing the requisite offensive mastery. Let’s face it: If you can’t hit, you won’t be manning first at the highest level.
#TheLegend is alive and well in a crop of talented youngsters who don the tools of ignorance.
Leader of the Pack (Present):Devin Mesoraco (Reds) The Case For: Mesoraco is showing a middle-of-the-order bat from a premium defensive position, which basically makes him one of the most valuable prospects in the minors. At the plate, the soon-to-be 23-year-old has plus power, with a leveraged swing and plus-plus raw strength. Seriously, Mesoraco is an incredibly strong man. He can sell out a bit when looking for the power stroke, but his contact ability hasn’t suffered this season; in fact, he is barreling the ball like a plus-plus hitter. The hit tool itself is sound, meaning I think he can hit for average, but I don’t foresee a .300 hitter at the major-league level. Mesoraco is aggressive at the plate, and he likes to take cuts, but he isn’t immune to working the count in his favor or taking the free pass, which adds another dimension to his offensive game.
Behind the plate, Mesoraco is slowly improving, but he’s never going to be a special defender. His arm is in the 60/65 range, and his release and accuracy make him a good weapon in controlling the running game. With enough athleticism to become a solid-average defender, and the ability to stick in the middle of a batting order, Mesoraco is the current Leader of the Pack among his catching brethren, and given the value attached to his position on the field, you can make a case that Mesoraco is one of the top-tier talents in the minors. He’s ready for the next challenge.
Examining what it means to have a hit tool, and a look at why it is so difficult to project power.
Because of my ego and this convenient link drop, I’m going to assume you read my previous article, which, at least on an academic level, attempted to set the table for what I look for when scouting a hitter. In the closing paragraph of that piece, I offered up this nugget of forced profundity: “While it’s true that the body and the mechanical profile start the process, the product is what ultimately makes the prospect.” Yes, I just quoted myself. I’ve become that guy. Please bring me a chilled Apollinaris with a lime wedge and a warm cloth. Jason needs to have some Jason time.
As we’ve discussed, hitting is the product of many components, ranging from the strength required to create bat speed, the hand-eye coordination required to make contact, and the comfort and fluidity in the mechanics that allow the other components to exist in sweet, blissful harmony. Let’s move away from the possibilities exposed in the batting cage and move forward to the realities that are on display in game action. Let’s break down how the hit tool is graded, how approach and maturity at the plate can influence the utility of the raw tools at play, what makes a power hitter a power hitter, and, finally, I’ll explain where babies come from.
Diving even deeper into the Texas farm, you'll find prospects with huge potential who haven't yet made their stateside debuts.
In part one of this series, I profiled three lower-level prospects in the Texas Rangers’ minor-league system, two of which have a chance to emerge as national names during the 2011 season, and Jorge Alfaro, who is already #TheLegend. For part two, I’m going to venture deep into the bowels of the farm to introduce you to three more prospects worth keeping an eye on this season. Keep in mind that this is Mariana Trench-level depth we are about to explore; of the three, only second baseman Odubel Herrera has stateside experience.
These players are below the players that are under-the-radar, so think how cool you are going to be when you can boast that you knew them back in April 2011! Most people don’t realize this, but when I go to bars and strike up conversations with slightly intoxicated, slightly attractive patrons, I often bring up Dominican Summer League players that are about to make their stateside debut. “Really? You have seen Victor Payano pitch? I’ve always dreamed of meeting a man who monitors the progress of teenaged athletes.” Darlin’, you know it.