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.
The case against: The injury elephant. If you assume health, Rendon was arguably the top player available in the 2011 draft, a polished dual threat on the fast track to the majors. But the medicals obviously scared some teams off, and the health component [read: the ability to stay on the field] will be a concern until it isn’t. That’s as reductive as you can get, but it’s really that simple. A healthy Rendon has the potential to be a well above-average major leaguer, but he’s not going to stay on the top of any tier if his body isn’t ready for the physical challenge.
Leader of the Pack (Future) Miguel Sano (Twins)
The case for: Sano has a ridiculously high ceiling, with the offensive projections to hit in the middle of a championship-level lineup. His raw power is just stupid, and he has all the necessary components to develop into a premier power threat; his hands and hips work well, and he is able to generate tremendous leverage in his swing. His immature approach shows that Sano’s hit tool has a long way to go, but it projects to be another above-average tool, and should allow the power to transfer at the very least.
In the field, Sano’s arm is borderline elite and his glove is sound, but his body is gaining mass by the hour, and his fringy speed isn’t doing his range any favors. Sano is only 18 years old, but his tools create an ultimate projection that is unmatched on this list. At his developmental peak, Sano could hit 40 homers without selling out for the power, which would make him one of the premiere offensive forces in the game. He has quite a journey in front of him, and it might take a few steps back before we get to see a big step forward, but the dream is more than just a fantasy. Sano could be special.
The case against: Sano just turned 18, and as I mentioned, his body is quickly transitioning from lean teenager with room for physical development to muscular man that can be classified as an abnormally large human. Originally signed as a shortstop, Sano has already shifted to third (obviously, right?), and whispers that his final destination is right field are starting. As with any young prospect, the Alan Thicke-approved growing pains can take the shine off a prospect, and traditional prospect rankings take into account production as well as promise. But for this exercise, I’m ignoring his short-season stats and looking at the big picture. Sano might hit a few bumps during the developmental process, but as long as progress is being made (whether it’s quantifiable or not), the tools are impressive enough to keep him in the mix for Leader of the Pack (Future), regardless of where he ends up on the diamond.
Nick Castellanos (Tigers)
TCF: Castellanos entered professional baseball with $3.45 million worth of expectations attached to his promise, but the promise is already transitioning to production. With two plus-potential tools in his offensive skill set, Castellanos could hit in the middle of a major-league lineup. With a quick stroke from the right side, he gets into the zone faster than his long arms would suggest; his trigger and path are fluid and efficient, allowing him to generate bat speed and reach extension upon impact. The hit tool itself could produce a .300-hitter at his peak, but Castellanos will most likely develop into a consistent 55/60 hitter, though some contact may be sacrificed as his power takes over his game. Because of his bat speed, swing plane, and raw strength, Castellanos could end up with plus in-game power, with 20-plus home runs a season and 30-plus doubles. The glove and arm will be fine at third, but his body could always push him off the position, as he will no doubt end up as an abnormally large human at physical maturity.
Caleb Cowart (Angels)
TCF: Cowart is a fascinating player, as many still view him as a legit prospect on the mound and at the hot corner. As a third baseman, Cowart has all the offensive projections necessary to become a first-division starter, with plus-plus power potential and a hit tool that shows promise from both sides of the plate. Though he’s nothing special in the field, Cowart does possess a very strong arm and shows enough with the glove to stick at third base. After years of playing both positions, Cowart is intensely focused on developing as a position player, and his ceiling is higher as a switch-hitting power threat at third base.
Cheslor Cuthbert (Royals)
TCF: One of my breakout candidates coming into the season (if you don’t believe me, you can read about it here), Cuthbert has so far proved that my eyes (and other scouts’) weren’t duped into love by his 60-plus grade name alone. Cuthbert has exceptional hands at the plate, and could pull a ball thrown behind him. More physically developed than most 18-year-olds, he uses his strong body well, showing an all-field approach and present pop that should develop into plus power down the line. Cuthbert shows a knack for contact and some of the best barrel awareness I’ve seen in a teenager. His defense is average, as his overall athleticism is average, but his actions are sound and his arm is strong enough to make all the throws from third. At his peak, Cuthbert could develop into a plus hit/power hitter with the chops to stick at third and the intangibles to exceed his physical limitations. The kid is a gamer.
Edward Salcedo (Braves)
TCF: Salcedo is another large-bodied teenaged shortstop that has already been pushed to the hot corner, but he has the offensive tools to develop into a first-division starter at the major-league level. His hit tool has solid-average to plus projections, with an aggressive approach but sound swing mechanics and a good feel for hard contact. The power potential could be Salcedo’s ticket to the top; his impressive bat speed (well above-average raw strength/torque) and backspin ability have already started producing some in-game power. At his peak, the 19-year-old Dominican could hit for some average and produce 25-plus homers per season. He’s not going to develop into a top-tier defensive force at third, but his arm is strong and the glove will be more than adequate.
Lacks the Ultimate Ceiling of the “High-Ceiling” Division but Still Packs a Serious Prospect Punch Division
Matt Dominguez (Marlins)
TCF: This is almost cheap, as Dominguez is only a few offensive steps away from being the top player on this list; that alone should warrant his inclusion in the former tier, right? While it’s true that Dominguez is the finest defensive third baseman in the minors, and his all-around defensive skills at that position will put his name on a short list once he reaches the big stage, I don’t believe Dominguez will even reach his modest offensive projections at the level. With the glove, Dominguez is a borderline 80-grade defender, with the pure actions and instincts only possessed by a chosen few. His glove is so good, in fact, that he is going to be a very valuable major leaguer even if he hits .250 with some doubles power. I think those offensive benchmarks are possible. However, if Dominguez could become a solid-average hit/power offensive force, a player that could hit .270 with 15-20 bombs, he could be a star. I don’t see that happening. The glove might be special, but the bat’s high-water mark is average, and even that looks like a lofty projection. It should be noted that scouts I spoke with still believe in the 50/50 hit/power dream. They also believe pleated khakis are flattering, so believe what you want.
Mike Olt (Rangers)
TCF: Olt, a supplementary first-round pick in 2010, was considered a vanilla pick by most casual fans. It’s a good thing draft hype isn’t a prerequisite for a successful transition into professional ball; Olt is one of the top positional prospects in a very deep Rangers system, and before a season-halting injury, was in the running to be one of the game’s top 100 prospects. At the plate, Olt has great hands and a leveraged stroke, sending ropes to all fields and projecting to hit for plus power at the major-league level. His hit tool isn’t above average and his taste for fastballs leaves him susceptible to quality off-speed stuff, but his overall approach allows him to reach base, and he could develop into a .270/.350/.475 type of hitter at maturity. His glove is above average, and his actions at third are shortstop-like. His arm is plenty strong, and he projects to be a 60-grade all-around defensive player at the hot corner. However, Olt is blocked at the position in Texas, and a shift to left field is possible, though it would be instigated by the logistics of organizational depth rather than deficiency in Olt’s skill set. He’s not a star, but will be a solid-average major leaguer at third, with a chance for a first-division future if his hit tool allows for more average and more in-game power transfer.
Jedd Gyorko (Padres)
TCF: Gyorko is a mature all-around offense-first prospect, with a good hit tool, good approach, and good power potential. Gyorko did things to the Cal League that only SVU detectives are qualified to detail, with 55 extra-base hits in only 81 games. (Yes, I understand it was the Cal League. It’s still impressive. A total of 124 hits in 340 at-bats? That impresses me.) Gyorko isn’t the best third baseman in the world (defensively speaking), because he’s not really athletic and his body leaves a lot to be desired. (Not exactly the model for blue jean sales.) But Gyorko has instincts with the bat, which should allow him to develop into a solid-average all-around hitter, although not a player with an enormous ceiling.
Will Middlebrooks (Red Sox)
TCF: There is lots to like with this prospect, starting with his being a native Texan and followed by his solid-average offensive skills and above-average defense at third. At the plate, he has huge strength, but his swing has some miss in it, and his aggressive approach doesn’t put him in many favorable hitting counts. His raw power is above average, but some scouts question the overall utility of the tool, envisioning more doubles than homers. Middlebrooks isn’t going to hit in the middle of a major-league lineup or make the fantasy players fantasize about his value, but I can see a .270 hitter with doubles power and the potential to hit 15-20 home runs per year at his peak. In the field, his glove is very smooth and his actions are fluid, despite being an abnormally large human, and his arm is very strong, giving him all the necessary components to develop into a solid-average to above-average defensive third baseman. Special talent he is not, but Middlebrooks has solid-average regular written all over his skill set.
In the Shadows: Xander Bogaerts (Red Sox)
TCF: This paragraph was easy to write, as most of the reports I received on Bogaerts were glowing; scouts rave about his hands, especially at the plate, where his crazy natural strength prompted some say his power has plus-plus potential. On defense, he has all the tools to develop into a quality defender, but his body [read: the physical development of the body] should eventually push the 18-year-old off third. It’s not all sunshine with Bogaerts, as he is still a young, unrefined talent, with some miss in his swing and an immature plate approach. But the offensive potential is legit, and a move off third won’t present a problem in terms of positional value or defensive requirements. Keep an eye on this prospect.
In the Dark: Renato Nunez (Athletics)
TCF: Prospects who receive $2.2 million as amateurs aren’t normally classified as “in the dark.” However, Venezuelan third baseman Renato Nunez is barely more than 100 at-bats into his professional career, has yet to make his stateside debut for the less-than-global Oakland A’s, and did I mention he was born in 1994? That’s why he’s in the dark. Nunez is a dream, but the dream has a happy ending, as the 17-year-old’s offensive ceiling is exceptionally high; both his hit and power tools project to be plus attributes, with some in the industry throwing 70s on his future power. Nunez isn’t especially toolsy on defense, but he has a chance to stay at third if his body cooperates, as his glove and arm are of positional quality. He’s a lifetime away, but his ceiling is worthy of the present attention.
I Just Don’t Get it: Zach Cox (Cardinals)
TCF: The next scout I talk to that loves Zach Cox and sees a frontline starting third baseman at the major-league level will be the first. The $3.2 million major-league deal sets the bar high to begin with, not to mention the accelerated timetable and subsequent pressure the specifics of such a deal must put on the organization and Cox himself, but let’s not sugarcoat this because of the expectations involved. Scouts continuously pointed out that Cox doesn’t look like a big-league hitter. Academically speaking, he could be a plus-plus hitter with some pop and enough athleticism to handle the defensive rigors of third base. However, at present, Cox looks like a fringe hitter with limited pop and shaky athleticism. He’s a mess right now, but Cox isn’t this bad, and he still has plenty of time to find his place in the baseball world. (Remember: Cox is only 22 years old and failure is a part of the process.) Let’s see how he adjusts before digging the grave, but here are some shovels. I picked out a nice plot of land, and I prepared some words, and I look sharp in black… you know, just in case he doesn’t develop as the Cardinals envisioned.