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On February 22, we’ll release our 2005 Top 50 Prospects list. Leading up to that announcement, we’re providing a peek into the process of assembling the list, the discussions that took place in December amongst BP staffers. You can read the first of these, about catching prospects, here.

Today, the right side of the infield…

First Basemen

Rany Jazayerli: Casey Kotchman, 22, fell flat on his face in a brief trial with the Angels, and there’s no job waiting for him. Nevertheless, you don’t hit .368 in Double-A and .372 in Triple-A at age 21 without some skills. He’s got enough secondary skills that even if he doesn’t hit for power, he’ll be Mark Grace. When Grace’s career is your downside, you’re a top-10 prospect.

Nate Silver: Kotchman’s five-year WARPs: 2.9, 3.6, 3.5, 4.2, 4.8, with comps that include Ed Kranepool, Keith Hernandez and Eric Chavez.

There is the Kranepool scenario here, in which Kotchman’s power doesn’t develop, but more often than not it will, and you get an outstanding hitter. There are also names like Dave Winfield and Vlad Guerrero on his list. There are very few reasons not to like Kotchman, and the low strikeout rate speaks well to his ability to maintain a high batting average.

Clay Davenport: Kotchman projects from my future DTs to .311/.382/.499, .300 EQA, plus good defense. He’s a fairly easy #1 pick among first basemen.

Chris Kahrl: I disagree. A good player, yes, but if, throughout the entire minors, there aren’t now a couple of first basemen who can outhit Mark Grace over their careers, then I’ll start believing in the talent drain thesis. Also, I believe Grace showed more minor league power relative to his big league career, but that’s just a memory.

RJ: The Prince Fielder (Brewers) train quieted down a little this year, but he’s still a terrific prospect. He was 20 years old, played the whole season in Double-A, and still hit .272 with 23 homers and 65 walks. Apparently he’s faster than an anvil: he stole 11 bases this year. Given what we now know about his awful home situation–papa Cecil basically pissed away the family’s entire fortune gambling, and son and father are no longer on speaking terms–his performance is even more impressive.

If Daric Barton (A’s) were looked at solely as a first baseman, I’d comfortably slot him right behind Fielder. But even if we give him a few points for his catching skills, it strikes me that maybe he’s more a second-tier than a first-tier prospect. Something to keep in mind as we get closer to the final list.

NS: Fielder’s power and walk rate are very impressive for a hitter this young, and it’s a combination that PECOTA likes, projecting five-year WARPs of 1.9, 2.6, 3.6, 3.6, 4.3. His comps include Hee Seop Choi, Justin Morneau and Jesus Cota.

He’s not 100% guaranteed to develop. The impact of his weight is hard to assess; PECOTA may be mistaking fat for muscle.

CD: I have Fielder at a .292 EQA on a line of .289/.369/.491, with poor defense. I’d move him down.

RJ: I’d like to see what Nate says about the Phillies’ Ryan Howard. Sick power, but he’s old and sort of a one-trick pony. His cup of coffee was impressive.

NS: Howard:

WARP: 2.6, 2.3, 2.1, 2.0, 2.3
Comps: Josh Phelps, Sam Horn, Daryle Ward.

The comparables here are not terribly flattering, although there are some more encouraging names like Carlos Delgado and Jay Buhner slightly farther down the list. Power really is his only plus skill at this point, and guys with just one big skill tend to be boom-or-bust prospects.

Derek Zumsteg: How often do guys with huge strikeout problems succeed in the major leagues? Even successful hack-o-matic major leaguers had measurable plate discipline and could make contact in the minors.

James Click: The best comps I could find for Howard based on power and strikeout rates were Russell Branyan, Jack Cust and Joe Borchard–not very encouraging. I have a hard time liking a 24/25-year old first baseman in Double-A who strikes out every third time up and is stuck behind Jim Thome because he can’t play defense anywhere else. Yes the power is ridiculous. Yes, he draws just enough walks, and yes, he managed to maintain very similar performance rates through brief stints in Triple-A and the majors this year, but those strikeouts still bug me.

I’ll defer to the PECOTA comps on this one, but I’d vote lower for him.

CD: My routine doesn’t like him at all: .271 EQA, .259/.331/.466. His 2004 was a lot better than his ’03 and ’02 seasons, despite not doing anything about his ~.3/PA strikeout rate; his Arizona Fall League numbers were in line with those previous years, when he had EQAs of 260-265. I think he just had his career year, and frankly don’t see a whole lot of difference between him and Walter Young.

RJ: Michael Aubrey (Indians) is a very safe prospect, but I’m not sure how much of an upside he has.

NS: Aubrey is younger than Howard and his offensive game is much better rounded; the batting average can develop if the power does not. The five-year WARP projection: 2.0, 2.1, 2.7, 2.8, 3.2. Comps include Jay Gibbons, Rich Chiles and Steve Garvey.

CD: FutureDT likes Aubrey a little better than Fielder right now, and a lot more than Howard: .297 EQA, .297/.369/.510.

CK: I really think Aubrey and Howard rate closer than this. Jaw-dropping power vs. all-around offensive skills and the advantage of relative youth, and Aubrey has a better job opportunity and happens to be in an organization that knows he’s good.

RJ: There are other candidates–Adrian Gonzalez (Rangers), Brad Eldred (Pirates), Dan Johnson (A’s)–but you can toss their names in a hat for all I care. I do think James Loney‘s age needs to be respected despite his awful season. It wasn’t that long ago that he was the talk of camp, and a broken finger explains a lot of his struggles this year.

NS: PECOTA on Loney:

WARP: 0.1, 0.7, 1.1, 1.4, 1.5
Comps: Adrian Gonzalez, Justin Morneau, Ed Kirkpatrick.

What upside he has left is mostly just a matter of his youth; I don’t think he’s Top 50 material based on his performance record.

CK: I really think Loney doesn’t rate a mention. Flat-out suckitude at an early age doesn’t outweigh flat-out suckitude, and having a great camp once upon a time has about as much business being cited as his minty fresh breath.

CD: I have Loney with a FutureDT of .283, .295/.362/.469. He’s trending downwards: he projected to .310 EQA in ’02, .284 in ’03, .268 this year. Lots of injuries along the way. He can certainly come back, but I’d like to see it happen before I jump.

CK: I like Jason Stokes (Marlins) and Joey Votto (Reds), perhaps more than Johnson and Eldred, but I’d have to agree that there isn’t a lot of reason to start trumpeting one over the other. I would peg Garrett Jones (Twins) as a worthwhile HM, and wonder why Ryan Shealy (Rockies) doesn’t get similar consideration.

RJ: So Kotchman is the consensus #1 prospect at first base.

Among Fielder, Howard and Aubrey, the consensus seems to be that Aubrey’s ability to hit for average and to actually make contact in more than two-thirds of his at-bats trumps Howard’s power. I’m very comfortable with that, especially when you factor in the age difference. The consensus is ambivalent between Fielder and Aubrey; I think the fact that Fielder is two years younger and had better numbers in Double-A last year outweigh any concerns about his weight or defense.

Frankly, you could argue that no other first baseman deserves to be in the Top 50. Based on everyone’s opinions, if I had to pick two, it would be Stokes and Johnson, in that order. I’d still like Loney for HM, if only because his awful season in Double-A last year was injury-related. This is his last free pass, no doubt.

Second Basemen

RJ: There are no standouts at this position, which isn’t surprising given the nature of second base. The Astros’ Chris Burke isn’t young (25), but he has a broad base of skills, including power, average and speed. His walk rate is probably his weakest asset, and he’s still at over a walk per 10 AB. He’s also moving into a nice ballpark. If he’s guaranteed the second-base job in Houston, you could argue he should be ranked pretty highly.

WC: If the worst case scenario is that he’s going to be blocked by Jose Vizcaino for a couple months, getting some time in New Orleans, that’s not so bad. His OBP is climbing as he advances–probably not sustainable at the major-league level, but PECOTA puts him at .344, making him a possible leadoff guy for a slugging lineup.

NS: PECOTA doesn’t particularly buy the power development at New Orleans, and looks at Burke more as a slap hitter who has enough secondary skills to be a solid major-league regular for a few years:

WARP: 2.4, 1.6, 1.6, 1.9, 1.6
Comps: Doug Flynn, Manny Alexander, Jerry Hairston Jr.

I think the star potential is low, however, especially considering his age.

RJ: Rickie Weeks (Brewers) is still a good prospect, in my opinion. You have to remember this was his first full pro season, and he spent it in Double-A. His secondary skills look a lot better when you factor in the 28 hit-by-pitches. A lot of players struggle a little in their first full season, especially when it comes in the high minors.

WC: I’m not sure what was going on in Huntsville, but people in Milwaukee are discounting Weeks’ performance there slightly. Everyone seems to have slightly underperformed. Fielder’s problems are known, yet he had the best season (still, under expectations). I think PECOTA comps on Weeks will be very telling.

NS: His numbers were disappointing but they translate to a .249 EqA, which is not horrible for 21-year-old second-base prospect with a reasonably well-balanced skill set. The main concern, I think, is his defense, as Clay gave him a -14 rating at second base. There’s a good chance that he follows a Darnell Coles career path, hitting just enough to make his defense a headache.

WARP: 2.7, 2.1, 2.6, 3.5, 3.5
Comps: Clete Boyer, Chris Gomez, Jeff Blauser

RJ: On the other hand, Weeks’ numbers weren’t that much better than those of Josh Barfield–who had a disappointing season of his own–and Barfield is actually three months younger.

Jonah Keri: It’s an open question as to whether Barfield will stick at second base. The Pads think he’ll hit anywhere, they haven’t been impressed with his work at second, so he could be headed to an outfield corner. The guy is a line-drive machine, but if he ends up a LF as has been discussed at various times, that diminishes his value. Consider this an argument for him not going above #30.

NS: PECOTA on Barfield:

WARP: 1.9, 1.6, 2.1, 2.5, 2.5
Comps: Clete Boyer, Glenn Hoffman, Scott Hairston

He plays better defense than Weeks, but his offensive skills translate as notably worse across the board. This is a good example of why to be wary of prospects who post big seasons based on high batting averages.

CK: I guess I see Barfield as rating higher than Weeks, not just because of the power, but because whatever defensive considerations exist for Barfield, his numbers at second base were pretty good, where the considerable concerns about Weeks’ defense were reflected in his continued “lapses.”

Untranslated fielding data from Clay, so they’ll drop as they rise to the majors…

Burke +2, 102
Weeks -11, 91
Barfield +7, 105, and his numbers keep trending better

RJ: You could argue that Burke, Weeks and Barfield are the only three second-base prospects who should make the list. I do think that Willy Aybar gets short shrift in prospect circles. If memory serves, he got one of the highest signing bonuses of all time for a Latin player, which I believe has colored his pro performance negatively, especially when compared to fellow Dodger uberprospect Joel Guzman. But Aybar, like Barfield and Weeks, played the whole season in Double-A at age 21, and his performance was almost identical to theirs.

NS: PECOTA, which prefers guys with developing ISO/BB, thinks Aybar could make a decent major leaguer:

WARP: 1.7, 2.2, 2.5, 3.3, 3.5
Comps: Clete Boyer, Dale Berra, Rowland Office

That Clete Boyer sure is popular, isn’t he? Aybar’s defense rated quite well in his first year at second base.

CK: Per Clay: Aybar +15, 112 (and in the past, he was an outstanding third baseman).

I don’t see any reason to rate Weeks ahead of Barfield and Aybar, with Weeks possibly dropping off the list altogether. Let’s face it: he’s not much of a second baseman, either in terms of performance metrics or scouting reports, and he runs in ways that make you wish he wouldn’t. Yes, he hit for some power and patience, and we like those things, but if he’s bumped to the outfield, he’s a poor man’s James Mouton. There’s nothing to indicate he can play second base beyond the Brewers wishing it was so.

NS: How I’d rank them: Weeks, then a gap, then Aybar, Burke and Barfield.

RJ: Nate doesn’t even rate Burke as the best second baseman on the list, which is probably the biggest surprise in our discussion to date. On the other hand, some people don’t think Weeks–Nate’s #1–should be as high as he is. I respect the fact that Clay’s numbers put Barfield’s defense so far ahead of Weeks’; on the other hand, the disparity in their EqA projections is much more substantial than I would have expected.

Much to my surprise–but certainly not to my disappointment–people seem to think that Willy Aybar ranks ahead of both of them. I love taking calculated gambles on prospects that the rest of the minor-league community frown upon.

I don’t think anyone else at this position even merits an HM.

Thank you for reading

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