Scouts spend countless hours watching and evaluating players, carefully considering the appropriate grade for each tool or each pitch a player offers. Throughout the course of the season and particularly throughout the course of ranking season, grades are tossed around with near reckless abandon. This player has plus power, and that player has a below-average fastball. This player offers above-average hit projection while that player buries hitters with a potential plus-plus curveball. It's easy to talk about the quality of an individual tool, but what does it all mean in the context of other players?
In the second edition of the annual Top Tools Series, the Baseball Prospectus Prospect Staff debated long and hard over how individual players’ tools stack up against those of their counterparts. Drawing upon our own eyewitness accounts and opinions from scouts across the league, the team debated and compiled the following ratings. The end result is a product that captures the oft-missing context of how individual player tools compare and who has the best of each tool in baseball.
Top Infield Defense in the Minor Leagues: Francisco Lindor (Cleveland Indians)
Lindor was the runaway winner in discussions with the Baseball Prospectus team as well as industry talent evaluators. Lindor has a grace and silky-smooth way about him on the field that cannot be taught. His defensive instincts are so pure that he often appears to make his initial break before the crack of the bat, allowing him to complete spectacular plays on a routine basis. His range plays to both sides and his hands are among the softest in the game. Even after getting to the ball and fielding it cleanly, Lindor continues to impress with flawless transfers, a quick release and a plus arm. He is the complete defensive package at a premium defensive position.
Other Players Considered: Miguel Rojas (Los Angeles Dodgers), Christian Villanueva (Chicago Cubs)
With the graduation of Jose Iglesias and Adeiny Hechavarria to the majors, the minor leagues appeared to lack premium defensive talents in 2013. Miguel Rojas could well earn a big-league job in spite of his anemic bat, thanks to a strong defensive profile. Rojas is a smooth defender who makes his work with the glove look easy. Villanueva might not play the toughest defensive position on the infield, but that hasn’t stopped him from drawing ample praise from scouts. He has hands that can rival those of Francisco Lindor and he moves well for the position, making every play necessary at the hot corner. Another defender who was not discussed during the original debates but now merits consideration for his list is Cuban shortstop Erisbel Arruebarruena, who was recently signed by the Dodgers. Arruebarruena earns rave reviews from international scouts for his defensive abilities, and he could be a serious player in these discussions next winter.
All-Time Tool: Ozzie Smith
How to Identify It: In baseball, there are few sights prettier than a plus defender making an extraordinary play that you know you will remember for years. The first things to consider when identifying an elite glove are instincts and reaction time. How a player reacts when a ball is hit speaks volumes about whether he will be able to field the ball or not. For example, players with plus instincts and first-step quickness, along with proper angle/path to the ball, are more likely to make the play than a player with a bit of a hesitation or bad angle to the ball. Once a defender does field the ball, you want to see swift movements and actions, along with balance, control, and proper footwork to make a strong accurate throw. The hands of a player are a huge factor when evaluating this tool. Good defenders have soft hands and are not mechanical when fielding the ball. They caress and cradle the ball into their glove before making a lightning-quick transfer to their throwing hand. The process from the original motion to throwing the ball should be fluid and smooth, resulting in a putout. —CJ Wittmann
Top Infield Arm in the Minor Leagues: Joey Gallo (Texas Rangers)
For all the praise Gallo receives for his immense raw power, his arm strength ranks right up there as well. As a high school pitcher Gallo showed the ability to pump mid-90s fastballs, and that arm strength translates to his defensive game at third base. Scouts who saw Gallo in 2013 were extremely impressed by his ability to unleash laser-like throws across the diamond, and many scouts noted improved accuracy on his throws as the season progressed. Gallo’s arm strength rates as near elite and could play to that level with improved consistency.
Other Players Considered: Javier Baez (Chicago Cubs), Carlos Correa (Houston Astros), Kaleb Cowart (Los Angeles Angels), Hector Gomez (Milwaukee Brewers), Dixon Machado (Detroit Tigers), Miguel Sano (Minnesota Twins)
Playing on the left side of the infield requires enough raw arm strength to make throws from deep in the hole at short or down the line at third base. Many players can make the necessary throws, but few do it with the jaw-dropping ease of this crop of infielders. Young shortstops Baez, Correa and Machado can rifle balls to first base from any spot on the dirt. All three players consistently earn plus-plus grades from scouts, and the occasional elite grade will pop onto the radar. Third basemen Cowart and Sano rate in much the same category as their shortstop counterparts, offering well above-average arm strength and the ability to make the toughest throws look relatively easy.
All-Time Tool: Shawon Dunston
How to Identify It: Seeing and identifying an elite arm might be easy, since they tend to stand out like a sore thumb, but there is some logic to apply when grading. When a player fields a ball in the hole, down the line, or up the middle, all scouts wait in anticipation to see what type of throw comes next. The trajectory of the ball is a telltale sign of arm strength. As with Gallo’s throws, you want to see that line drive type throw to first base, with accuracy. A ball traveling to first on a bit of an arc is a sign of a weaker arm. Going a step further, consistency must be considered. Players with plus arm strength and control show good mechanics and can make all the throws consistently. This leads to good accuracy and maximum velocity for throws completed on the run. It is easy to say “he has the strongest arm on the field.” What's difficult is differentiating between below-average, average, and above-average arm strength. All in all, opinions of arm strength may vary from person to person, but everyone knows what it's like to be in the presence of an elite arm. —CJ Wittmann
Article discussed and debated by the Baseball Prospectus Prospect Staff. Constructed and delivered by Mark Anderson.
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