What’s better, a high floor or high upside? It’s a discussion we have with ourselves in almost every aspect of life. Do you invest in that safe stock or the promising startup with big potential? Do you choose buy the property that will maintain its value over the next ten years or find a redone house with room to grow? Do I take the steady paycheck or put my resources into this new app I think might blow up? Heck, will I go to that new Mexican place or just stick to the consistency of Chipotle?
While these situations have varying degrees of importance, the answer to the risk vs. reward debate is one that’s not definitive. This is also true when evaluating prospects.
Many people that follow the game toss out the terms upside and floor. In other words, they want to know how good a player can get or how bad they will be at their worst? To me, the far more interesting question is which aspect provides more value: the chance to have all-star upside with additional risk, or the security of not worrying about a guy failing to meet expectations? Since only the best players combine the best of both preferences, we are forced to debate what’s better when it comes time for prospect ranking.
Seeing as we just released our midseason top 50, I noticed two middle infielders on the list who almost perfectly highlight this element of player evaluation. Fortunately, I’ve got the chance to see both up close and personal this year.
Brewers shortstop prospect Isan Diaz checked in as our 38th best prospect and is the most talented youngster on a stacked roster. Originally drafted 70th overall by the Diamondbacks in 2014, Diaz has steadily climbed his way up the prospect ladder and has continued to do so since he was traded to Milwaukee in the Jean Segura deal.
Scott Kingery, meanwhile, was the final guy on the top 50, thanks in large part to his tremendous start in Double-A Reading. The Phillies second base prospect now resides in Triple-A, where he’s continued to produce while awaiting his big-league break. Formerly a second-round pick, Kingery has shot his way through the minors thanks to consistent, dominant performances.
While both players may both be highly touted middle infielders, that’s basically where the similarities end. But before we jump to why both of these guys represent the upside vs. low risk debate so well, let’s dive into each of the players’ profiles.
Just looking at the numbers it’s clear who’s having a better season in the power department. Kingery has hit over 20 home runs combined at Double- and Triple-A, while Diaz has just reached the double-digit mark in the Carolina League. Current production notwithstanding, Diaz projects as more of a capable power hitter when all is set and done.
Diaz brings to the table incredibly loose hands that he uses to drive pitches all over the yard. In fact, when I saw his BP a few weeks ago, I was amazed just how much hard contact he was making, spraying the ball up the middle and to opposite field. There’s some swing and miss in his profile, given the leverage in his swing, but the hand looseness and ability to cover the plate with plus raw power makes Diaz’s pop project to above-average utility at maturity.
On the other hand, I wrote a few weeks ago that Kingery’s, “smaller frame coupled with a lack of leverage makes me think that he won’t hit for even close to this type of power moving forward.” He’s probably more along the lines of a 12-15 homer guy on the back of his average pull-side power. Kingery plays more to contact than power with his short stroke, and he’s been taking advantage of Reading’s homer-friendly park.
This brings us back to the risk vs. reward debate. Usually power is synonymous with upside due to the impact home runs and extra-base hits can have on a game. Hitting for solid contact seems safer by nature, seeing as how you seemingly have a better chance for producing consistently than a feast-or-famine slugger.
I normally lean more towards the dynamic swing and tools because while the raw numbers are nice, they really don’t mean too much as what you see and project. Those attributes are ultimately what landed Diaz ahead of Kingery, whose raw tools just can’t compare.
Defensively, there’s little risk involved with Kingery—you know he’ll play a capable second base. Diaz’s defensive home, on the other hand, is much more uncertain. Certainly shortstop is his ideal position, but as we noted in the list, he’s unlikely to stick there. That volatility means there’s more risk in Diaz’s profile, in addition to more upside if he is able to stick at short. There’s much less at stake here given offense usually carries more of the weight in these sorts of rankings, and any sort of stability advantage Kingery may have from being a solid second baseman is mitigated by the likelihood that Diaz will be amenable at the keystone as well.
Looking back to look forward
This dilemma certainly isn’t just pegged for just this list, it’s present multiple times in every Midseason Top 50. With that being said, looking to the past can sometimes tell a lot about the future and why the rankings are the way they are. Let’s harken back to the past five lists looking at a different position for each.
Similar to the most recent top 50, Torres’ raw tools got the nod over the consistency and plus hit tool of Kingery’s former college teammate, Kevin Newman. The Pirates prospect relies on a sound all fields approach, while Torres grades out significantly ahead in terms of raw strength and athleticism. Now the current Yankees prospect is a top-10guy with Newman falling off. There was a bit of downside to Torres’ profile given his strikeout numbers at the lower levels, but he’s obviously made considerable strides in the batter’s box over the last few seasons. This comparison is a perfect reason why better tools are often favored over a solid less risky profile. Verdict: Upside
Normally the toolsier guy gets the nod in terms of who they rank ahead of, however, BP opted for a college pitcher who threw in the low 90s with advanced control and a much better feel for his secondary stuff. Nola was close to major league ready at the time and is far removed from being a prospect. Glasnow just shed his prospect label after ranking as one of the top minor league arms in the 2017 Top 101. Still, the tall righty has yet to hone on his very high upside and high-90s fastball, continuing to walk batters at an extraordinarily high clip. Nola pitches much more within himself and seems like a better bet to stick in the middle of a rotation for a long time, even though his upside isn’t as high as other former top ten arms. Verdict: Floor
The former top prospect comes with outstanding defensive tools combined for an ability to hit for both average and power as he grows into himself. At just 22 years old, Buxton is still developing, but is probably causing some worry among Twins fans that expectations may have been set a little too. Meanwhile, Renfroe has been one of the relative bright spots on a poor Padres club. He’s hit for solid power in Petco and looks like he’ll be an above-average run producer in a corner outfield spot for many years to come. Granted, he doesn’t have Buxton’s immense potential (or defensive value), but I’m sure Padres fans are more excited with the way he’s been playing compared what the Twins have gotten from Buxton at the plate. The projectable high school bat vs. the low-risk college hitter is a debate that rages on in every draft room and it sticks when putting together these lists as well. Verdict: Push
As Jeffrey Paternostro likes to say, “Catchers are weird, man.” And they really are. Nobody expected Sanchez to scorch the league the way he did in the second half of last season. But it is clear when looking at the descriptions of each player mid-2013, that Sanchez clearly had the much greater upside between the two backstops. Hedges was described as an “elite defender with an average bat, which will make him a more valuable major league player than he is a minor league prospect.” As I said with Kingery, defense usually plays better for a player with a higher floor. However, at the time Sanchez was touted by BP legend Jason Parks as having, “high upside but equally high risk” because of his great raw tools and questions about whether he would stick behind the plate. The rankings were somewhat backward in that the safer prospect was ranked ahead, but there is no doubt that upside won out here. Verdict: Upside
Ah another tale of a younger, more projectable bat going up against a steady former college hitter who had a much lower chance of flopping. What’s incredible about this pairing is that both have pretty much played to their profiles. The difference lies in more of what you personally like to have in a prospect. Power and ability to drive the ball play much better for upside, but you have to deal with Sano’s strong swing-and-miss tendencies. Rendon’s ability to hit for average and avoid long slumps brings value to itself; it’s really just a matter of taste this that point. Verdict: Push
The Sano vs. Rendon debate reinforces how I feel about the high upside vs. high floor debate: there’s no cut and dried approach that’s going to win out every time—it’s situationally dependent. Teams have different needs and are made up in dissimilar fashions. Sometimes an organization might need that safer college bat; other times they may have the capabilities to lean more towards adding a high upside power bat with strikeout problems and defensive questions.
For the purposes of prospect lists, I tend to lean more towards upside and tools since those types are believed to be tougher to findâ€•that mentality bears out when you look at various lists year to year. Nonetheless, having a high floor has its perks, and while Diaz and Kingery boast different in terms of tools and stats, both still found a way onto our midseason list. That tells us something, right?