Prospect #1: 3B Will Middlebrooks
Background with Player: My eyes; industry sources.
Who: Middlebrooks, a fifth-round selection in the 2007 draft, has slowly worked his way up the professional ladder. Thanks to trades and general attrition, he has become the de facto top prospect in the system. His ceiling isn’t going to bewilder people with its towering presence, but his floor is high and steady; the end results should be at least a solid-average player for a decade.

The 23-year-old Texan is quite skilled with the leather at third; he has good actions and instincts to go along with a very strong arm. At the plate, the hit tool is fringy and batting average will be a challenge at the highest level, but the developing power is legit and will eventually grade out as a plus tool. Middlebrooks has a good baseball face and the grit of a scrawny utility type, only in the package of an athletic 6-foot-4, 200-pound first-division type.

What Could Go Wrong in 2012: As I mentioned, the hit tool is fringy and doesn’t project to develop beyond, at best, solid-average. Middlebrooks’ swing mechanics are sound, although he can extend early and get a little long. Maiddlebrooks will struggle to make consistent contact against pitchers who work inside; add to the cocktail an aggressive fastball approach, and quality sequence can lead to exploitation.

Middlebrooks isn’t going to hit .300 at the highest level, but if he can manage about .260 with 20-plus homers, his well above-average defensive profile at third base will give him value to spare. The approach needs more patience, and the swing needs more hit and less miss, but after another season in the high minors, Middlebrooks should be ready for the hot corner in Fenway by 2013.

Prospect #2: SS Xander Bogaerts
Background with Player: My eyes; industry sources.
Who: Bogaerts, who signed out of Aruba in 2009, crushed the Dominican Summer League in 2010 and then showed in-game power at the full-season level in 2011, despite being only 18 years old and playing against more experienced talent. Bogaerts is athletic and strong; has precocious power generated from his core and delivered from the bat to the ball through his explosive hands. The swing is very free and easy, with lots of bat speed and natural loft. The hit tool is underdeveloped and the approach aggressive, but the power is already alive and kicking, leading some in the industry to project the tool to near-elite levels.

In the field, the shortstop lacks the necessary quickness and high-end actions to project as a solid-average defender at the position. Bogaerts’ remaining physical projection almost assures that he will slide over to third base at some point.

What Could Go Wrong in 2012: Bogaerts will be moving to the offense-suppressing Carolina League in 2012, where his swing’s weaknesses could limit his overall offensive output. Bogaerts’ tendency to drop his back shoulder and send the bat through the zone on an exaggerated plane gives pitchers avenues to exploit by limiting the amount of time the barrel has in the zone. He struggled to make swing adjustments against two-plane offerings, failing either to recognize early or adjust for contact late. Those are minor nitpicks given his age and actualized power, but advanced A-ball pitchers will look to prey upon them.

I don’t have a strong feeling either way about this player, but I look forward to seeing him more in 2012. The fluidity of the swing and the easy eruption of power remind me of watching a young pitcher throw serious gas with very little effort. Sometimes those arms turn out to be aces, and sometimes those arms just make you think they can be aces because of how easy it looks. I need to spend more time watching Bogaerts before I feel comfortable standing next to a high-ceiling prognostication.

Prospect #3: RHP Matt Barnes
Background with Player: My eyes; industry sources.
Who: Barnes, the 19th overall selection in the 2011 draft, emerged as one of the top arms in the draft, but fell because of secondary arsenal concerns. He’s a hard-throwing collegiate arm, but he isn’t the prospect darling his electric fastball suggests is possible. The righty has excellent size and a fastball that works in the 92-96 range and features late life thrown on a downhill plane.

Barnes’ delivery is relatively easy and fluid, and his arm works well from start to finish, with good drive and a clean follow-through. The fastball is a plus offering with more in the tank; he holds plus to plus-plus velocity deep into games and maintains quality action on the pitch. The curve was once considered his second-best offering, a tumbling, big breaker that was hit and miss, depending on whether he could stay over the pitch. He experimented with a harder breaking ball; the pitch showed more bite and Barnes a better feel for location, but like the slower curve, the breaker was also hit and miss.

Barnes successfully deploys his changeup off the fastball. The change flashes above-average potential, with plane, arm-speed consistency, and a little fading arm-side bite. The pitch needs work, but it’s not as nascent as some have suggested.

The total package is a 6-foot-4, 205-pound righty with an easy, electric fastball that he shows some feel for command over, a potentially plus changeup that partners well with the heater, and a breaking ball that has shown multiple faces—neither of which has been all that intimidating.

What Could Go Wrong in 2012: Barnes’ résumé and maturity lead to expectations of a jump into full-season ball to begin his professional career. That assignment shouldn’t offer much trouble for the 21-year-old. His present fastball and feel for command mean his jaunt at Low-A will feature a lot of swings-and-misses, especially if the changeup of old is the changeup of new.

The biggest area of concern is the development and establishment of a quality breaking ball, whether it’s a mid-70s curve or a harder two-plane slider. The curve might work best with his delivery and arm, but the slider might be an easier pitch to throw for strikes. Barnes’ electric fastball should dominate Low-A hitters, but a quality breaking ball is paramount for success in the rotation. The real test will come when the college arm jumps to a more advanced assignment, where sequencing has a higher priority and the development of the secondary arsenal is necessary for survival.

The fastball could be a 70-grade pitch, with velocity, movement, and location, but it lacks deception. Barnes also has a tendency to fall in love with the heater, mostly due to his lower confidence level with his secondary stuff.

If everything comes together, Barnes could develop into a quality number-two starter with a plus-plus heater, a plus changeup, and at least an average breaking ball, to go along with his strike-throwing ability and arsenal stamina. That’s a damn fine package to find with the 19th overall pick.

Prospect #4: 3B Garin Cecchini
Background with Player: My eyes; industry sources.
Who: Cecchini had more than enough tools to get first-round consideration, but an unfortunately-timed knee injury in spring 2010 lowered his stock and allowed the Sox to money-whip him in the fourth round for a reported $1.31 million. This kid can hit; I’ve seen it in person. He has lighting-fast hands, a preternatural feel for putting the barrel on the ball, and a cool demeanor. The power isn’t there yet, and some think the tool is average at best. Given the characteristics of the swing itself and the strength involved, it’s entirely possible that Cecchini adds plus power to a résumé that already includes a plus hit tool.

On defense, Cecchini isn’t as promising; he shows awkward actions at third and footwork that will require lots of repetition. The arm is plenty strong and the athleticism is there, so I’m hoping the rust fades as comfort and familiarity overtake the muscle memory. There is a deep queue of third basemen in the system, and Cecchini has the tools to stand alongside them. The good news is that he is one level behind Xander Bogaerts, so he can make the jump to full-season ball in 2012 without pulling a Karl Hungus and logjammin’ the position.

What Can Go Wrong in 2012: If 100 percent healthy, Cecchini has the tools to emerge as a top prospect in this system. Any 20-year-olds with natural hitting ability stand out in short-season ball, but Cecchini really stood out until a broken wrist put him back on the shelf. His approach will be tested as he moves up to full-season ball and faces more advanced pitching. Cecchini rarely faced electric stuff in the New York-Penn League; the league was a little light when it came to power arms, and that allowed quick-trigger hitters like Cecchini the luxury of time. Cecchini’s approach will be put to the test against pitchers with stuff, as he will be in a much better environment for evaluation, particularly as it pertains to that quick trigger and overall advanced approach. It’s much easier to have a quick trigger when you are facing 88 mph over the heart of the plate versus when you face 95 mph and it’s loose.

I think he’ll struggle against the more intense pitching, but he’ll adjust and use his coordination and easy swing to start barreling balls to all fields again. The power might not show up for a few seasons, and that’s fine. The hit tool can hold down the prospect fort until the power arrives, and with a plus arm and enough athleticism to eventually shine at third base, Cecchini has the makings of a first-division talent.

Prospect #5: C Blake Swihart
Background with Player: Industry sources.
Who: Swihart, the 26th overall pick in the 2011 draft, was seen as one of the best pure hitters in the high school class; he was awarded bonus points for profiling as a catcher. After signing at the deadline for $2.5 million, Swihart snuck in six at-bats in the Gulf Coast League, enough to give the 19-year-old a taste of game action before being thrown into the fire during the Instructional Leagues.

At the plate, the switch-hitting catcher has a quick and easy swing from the right side; he projects to hit for a high average with solid pop. From the left side, he is balanced with a quick swing despite having some leverage. Right now, his power lives in the pull side for now, but it will grow to work to all fields as he finds more comfort with his swing and adds strength.

Swihart’s tools behind the plate are just tools, as he’s in the early stages of development. His arm is quite strong and his actions are coordinated, but his receiving skills and footwork are still raw and will only improve through repetition.

Swihart’s bat is the calling card here, with a hit tool that could eventually climb as high as 70 on the 20/80 scale, and power that will play at least at solid-average. Whether he is a catcher or an outfielder long-term, the bat is the game-changer.

What Could Go Wrong in 2012: Swihart is going to climb up prospect lists because he can really hit, and he’s going to prove that early in 2012. He might not hit for much power, but he’s going to make a ton of contact from both sides of the plate.

His main developmental hurdle will be the extra focus required to refine his tools behind the plate, a task that can take years of instruction to gain command of. It’s very difficult to ask a young player to work on both his offensive game and to refine his skills at a premium defensive position, one that requires knowledge of both pitchers and hitters alike. Catchers are the generals on the field, but they are also supportive friends, psychologists, and coaches. In addition to the responsibility of hitting from both sides of the plate against advanced pitchers, that’s a lot to put on the plate of a 19-year-old kid.

Swihart could fail because of the demands of the workload and the pressures associated with being such a heralded draft selection. In the end, I doubt he fails or falls; rather, I bet he stumbles at times and steps forward at others, and will emerge as both a legit hitter and a legit catcher before the year is out. If you want to develop catchers that can hit, you have to be patient with the development of the former even when the development of the latter suggests otherwise. 

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Thanks for the informative read. Is there something with Middlebrooks' setup or hands that can help with good fastballs in? Or should he just focus on improving pitch recognition and how a pitcher may use his pitch sequence?
He could be faster to the ball by staying short and extending at the contact point. He gets a bit long when he extends early and keeps that front arm barred, which limits his effectiveness against velocity on the inner-half. Not a major problem, though, He's a very good hitter, he's just not a great hitter.
avg, above avg or plus power with Swihart?
It's hard for me to say. I've heard that the power profiles as average and I've heard that it has a chance to be above-average. Depends on how the body/swing evolve. The bat (hit tool) should end up a plus tool at maturity, with the ability to make consistent hard contact from both sides of the plate.
Sounds like you think (from what you have heard) Swihart is mentally and physically ready to handle a full season behind the plate? Obviously, it's a case-by-case situation with HS catchers. My expectations are low, so to give him time to make adjustments during a long season. I wouldn't be against some more instructional time, but I don't know the kid.
I realize it will take a few years to settle the question of whether Swihart can stick at C or not, but for those of us eyeballing him in upcoming fantasy drafts, do you think there are any organizational indicators/biases that can illuminate the question of how patient a given team will be? I'm asking specifically whether Boston will be more or less willing to indulge that process than, say, KC was with Wil Myers, but I'm also interested in general to know if different organizations will handle this type of situation differently. Sorry for the convoluted question.
It's a good question, one that only the organization can answer with any conviction. I think it all comes down to the bat. If the amateur reports are true, Swihart is going to rake and rake early. When the bat proves ready for an accelerated developmental schedule, often times the development of the glove is a casualty and suffers as a result. The good news is that if the bat develops as some believe it will, the position becomes a secondary concern, as a 70 hit tool and at least 50/55 power from a switch-hitter can find a home on the diamond. Swihart isn't a burner, but he's a good athlete with a strong arm, so RF is always a possibility. I assume the Sox would like to see Swihart developed as both a quality hitter and a quality catcher, and will make every effort to keep him on that path as long as possible. If the bat proves to be too sexy, well, you just bite the bullet and move the player to another position and carry on.
That's a lofty Lebowski reference you snuck in there, Profe. Really tied the article together.

Re: Bogaerts back shoulder drop--is that tendency just a tendency, or an attempt to generate loft in his swing?
I think its just natural at this point, although it does achieve loft in the swing. It will smooth out over time, especially when the swing starts getting exploited. It can stick around if the results are promising. Look at Ian Kinsler. He drops that back-half and swings up at the ball, but the results are still promising. Lots of pop-ups and lots of power.