Sunday, January 31, 2010

2010 Top Prospects pt. 2: First Basemen

As would be expected, first base boasts some of the best hitters in the minor leagues, although this group is not quite as strong as in previous years. In fact, I don't think it would be an exaggeration to say that 5 of the top 6 players on my list had disappointing '09 seasons, and that trend continued further down as well. Regardless there are a lot of sluggers here to get excited about. While there's no potential Prince Fielder or Ryan Howard in this group that is likely to be a dominating force very quickly, I do see several players that could easily become middle of the order hitters. The numbers in parenthesis show where the player ranks among all prospects in baseball, not just those at his position.

Pt 1: Catchers

1. Logan Morrison - Marlins (14)

Morrison has quietly been moving up prospect lists for the last couple of years thanks to his disciplined approach at the plate and intriguing raw power that he is only beginning to tap into. Currently more of a doubles hitter, Morrison should see his home runs steadily rise in the coming years because he has the strength and swing to produce plenty of big flies. He is also a fundamentally sound defensive first baseman.

2009 was expected to be a breakout year for Morrison and while it was in some ways, he missed time and managed only eight long balls in 278 at-bats at AA. However, Morrison still managed an outstanding 63:46 BB:K ratio and, as usual, picked up plenty of doubles. If his power never develops as expected, he still has a chance of being a John Olerud type player, but I do think he will eventually get to around 30 home runs a season in his prime.

Morrison is close to Major League ready and Florida does not exactly have any blocking him. Still, because he missed time last year expect Morrison to spend some time in AAA and reach the bigs around the All-Star break. Morrison's on-base skills and quick bat should translate well in the majors and help make the transition fairly smooth, even if he is a bit rushed.

2. Chris Carter - Athletics (20)

The powerful Carter has always had plenty of doubters but every year he seems to put up a monster season and those voices keep fading farther into the background. He has finally found a home at first base after spending time at third and both outfield corners with minimal success. Whether he is able to stay there or ends up a DH, Carter's bat will soon be an asset any team would love to have.

Although his home run total dropped to 28 in 2009 (after hitting 39 in 2008), it was still a year of incredible progress for Carter as a hitter. He was able to tone down his approach a bit, leading to more walks and fewer strikeouts. The tradeoff was worth it because even though his home runs dropped he set a career high with 43 doubles. Carter has also proven to be extremely durable, playing over 125 games in each of the last three years.

The Athletics traded Brett Wallace in the off-season because they had a glut of first baseman and seemed to prefer Carter's bat. Even with his improved patience and selectivity, Carter has a long, aggressive swing and will probably be moved slowly up the ladder. If he is able to handle AAA, expect him to make his big league debut around the All-Star break.

3. Justin Smoak - Rangers (21)

The switch-hitting Smoak has a lot in common with Morrison; they are both very disciplined hitters with high power potential who have not quite shown it in games yet. Smoak has been on the radar since his high school days and after hitting 62 home runs in three years at South Carolina, was selected 11th overall in 2008. He is one of the few players on this list who also shows gold glove potential as a defender.

Smoak's 2009 was a story of two halves. After impressing the team in spring training he torched the AA Texas League, earning a promotion to AAA and murmurs that he might be in the majors by August. However, in AAA he was plagued by some nagging injuries, bad luck, and a bit of a power outage. He maintained his disciplined approach through the struggles and his numbers would have looked better if not for a .297 BABIP after his promotion. Still, for a first baseman with his tools and strength, more than 10 home runs was expected.

While the second half took some steam out of Smoak he is still an elite prospect, and the most well-rounded player on this list. It is not inconceivable that a big spring training could have him starting the year in Texas, but it seems more likely he'll begin at AAA. Smoak has been compared to Mark Teixeira for both his offensive and defensive ability, and just like Teixeira he should be an established big-leaguer before his 23rd birthday.

4. Brett Wallace - Blue Jays (22)

Wallace was drafted two spots behind Smoak in 2008 and remains just barely on his heels. Still technically a third baseman, Wallace lacks the range to play there and is essentially guaranteed to end up at first eventually. He has been more aggressive than expected since making his professional debut, resulting in fewer walks and more strikeouts, but he has continued to lace line drives all over the diamond.

Wallace hit a respectable 20 home runs in 2009, a positive sign since scouts have questioned how much raw power he has. Although Wallace is a better athlete than his stocky build would indicate he is a little slow on the bases and is unlikely to ever be a plus defender, even at first. His bat will have to carry him and in order to be a premier hitter Wallace will have to tighten up his strike-zone.

After being drafted by the Cardinals, Wallace was traded to Oakland in the Matt Holliday deal, then to Toronto for OF prospect Michael Taylor. His path to the majors should be easier now that Albert Pujols is not in front of him and he does not have to compete with Chris Carter for playing time. Although Lyle Overbay had a decent 2009 Wallace boasts much more offensive upside and should get a taste of the majors this year.

5. Freddie Freeman - Braves (30)

Drafted in the second round out of a California high school in 2007, the 6'5 Freeman has always been young for his level in the minors but that has not stopped him from producing. Although very strong, Freeman is still growing into his power and has not put it on display in games with great frequency yet. He also tends to get a little overaggressive in his approach, leading to few walks, however his exceptional hand-eye coordination have kept his strikeouts in check.

Wrist problems slowed Freeman in 2009 but his line at high-A was still very impressive. Despite his size, Freeman is very agile and an asset in the field. He had been keeping pace with fellow Braves farmhand, and super-prospect, Jason Heyward until mid-season last year when injuries slowed Freeman and Heyward took off. He struggled a little during his limited time in the AFL as more advanced pitchers were able to make Freeman chase balls out of the zone.

The Braves signed Troy Glaus to play first base in 2010, and obviously consider Freeman to be the long-term solution at that position. Because of his approach, age and missed time last year Freeman will probably need all of 2010 and some of 2011 in the minors before he is ready for the majors.

6. Yonder Alonso - Reds (39)

It was a surprise to most when the Reds took Alonso over Smoak in the 2008 draft but they saw a player who averaged 70 walks in his final two years at Miami and valued that patient approach. That is not Alonso's only skill; he also hit 24 home runs in only 211 at-bats during his junior year and has sound hands and footwork around first base.

In the continuing theme of down years for first baseman in 2009, Alonso suffered a broken hamate that limited him to only 280 at-bats between high-A and AA. He still displayed his plus plate discipline but hit only nine home runs. While the home run totals were disappointing, the 24 doubles were a surprise for the slow-footed first baseman with an uppercut.

A healthy Alonso should move quickly through the high levels of the minors. Cincinnati will need to either move Votto to LF or trade him if they ever want to see Alonso play in the majors because he does not have the athleticism to move to another position. Although many, including me, thought the Reds made a mistake drafting Alonso so early, he looks like a safe bet to have an excellent career. If healthy, a 2009 debut seems likely.

7. Ike Davis - Mets (59)

Davis' value as a prospect has pin-balled around more than anyone in the last two years. The Mets took him 18th overall, after he had a big junior at Arizona State, because they were intrigued by his power potential. After hitting zero home runs in 215 at-bats in short season ball after signing, many wrote Davis off as a flop. Some even whispered that he might be moved to the mound quickly because he could touch the mid-90s, but luckily the Mets ignored all of that and continued to develop him as planned.

Davis bounced back with an excellent 2009 season, with 20 home runs and 31 doubles over 429 at-bats while playing excellent defense. Although he was stymied by left-handed pitchers all season he pounded the righties enough to post big numbers across the board. The arm that made some think he was a pitcher is a valuable asset that help him turn double plays with the best. The only concern that remains is Davis' slightly higher than desired strikeout totals.

Even after 2009, questions remain as to whether Davis will ever hit left-handed pitching or develop more than slightly above average power. Brian, on this website, compared him to Adam LaRoche at one point and that is, in my opinion, a great comp. Davis does not have the upside to be a star in the majors but he is clearly not a bust and has an outside shot at seeing time in New York this year.

8. Mat Gamel - Brewers (67)

Always considered to have a solid bat, Gamel's big 2008 season turned him into a border-line elite prospect. A long-time third baseman, Gamel's atrocious defense has finally become too much for Milwaukee to bear and they will have to move him. He does not really have the desired range to play the OF and is blocked in the corners by Ryan Braun and Corey Hart anyway. Even though first-base is also occupied by Prince Fielder, it is the best fit for Gamel meaning that a trade is probably going to happen at some point.

Gamel' development stagnated a bit in 2009 as he bounced back and forth between the majors and AAA. Although he showed power, Gamel's strikeout rate rose to unacceptable levels, leading to questions about how he will handle major-league pitching. In a 128 at-bat trial run last year, his slash line was fine, but unmaintainable because he struck out 54 times.

Gamel is at a crossroads in many ways. He has a potent bat but needs to make more contact. He needs to find a defensive home and a team with a spot to play him. Either way, 2010 will be a pivotal year for him as he tries to establish himself in the majors. Milwaukee is desperate for pitching and Fielder is getting expensive for them, so I would not be surprised if they dealt him for a couple of starters, opening a spot for Gamel.

9. Eric Hosmer - Royals (79)

The Royals drafted high-upside prep hitters second and third overall in the 2007 and 2008 drafts respectively. Hosmer was the latter, selected because of his near picture-perfect, left-handed, swing that scouts anticipate will some day produce over 30 home-runs per season in the majors. He is also smooth around the bag at first, surprising for someone so young and many believe he has gold glove potential.

Calling 2009 underwhelming would be an understatement. He was surviving in a tough low-A hitting environment when the Royals inexplicably promoted him and he collapsed. After 97 awful at-bats he was shut-down and diagnosed with a vision problem. After laser-eye surgery in August, Kansas City hopes that issue is behind him and he can get back on track this year.

A player with Hosmer's size, strength and swing should be able to hit more than the six home runs he managed all of last season, and he will eventually have to show some production. The Royals system features mostly pitcher friendly environments so expecting Hosmer to breakout with 20-30 home runs next year is optimistic, but 15-20 with a good BB:K ratio is an attainable goal. Hosmer's raw power is greater than anyone else on this list and Kansas City will give him all the time he needs to develop.

10. Brandon Snyder - Orioles

It has been a slow climb for Snyder since he was taken 13th overall in 2005 as a catcher. Snyder's plate discipline has always gotten the better of him, but he has improved it to acceptable levels. He also has just enough power to be interesting. An above average defender at first base, he may get a shot at the big-league job in the second half of this season.

11. Matt Sweeney - Rays

Acquired in the Scott Kazmir trade, Sweeney missed all of 2008 but re-established himself as an excellent power-hitting prospect in 2009 before injuries ended his season early again. He is a little rough defensively and obviously has major health concerns, but his bat has the potential to be dangerous.

12. Beau Mills - Indians

Originally drafted as a third baseman, Mills has been a disappointment so far for Cleveland. His defense has been bad at first as well, meaning he may be just a DH and his bat was nothing special in 2009. Mills needs to be more selective and regain the power-stroke he had in 2008 or could quickly become a forgotten man.

13. Chris Marrero - Nationals

Marrero bounced back a bit last year from an injury shortened 2008, but his ceiling has fallen significantly since he was drafted in 2006. He still has excellent power, but a long swing that may not be able to handle major-league pitching and subpar defense continue to hold him back.

14. Lars Anderson - Red Sox

The Anderson hype machine was in overdrive before 2009, but I never bought all the talk. Anderson's power still has not shown up and his strikeout rate remains a concern. He's a solid defender but has to drastically improve his hitting or risk losing the mantle of top first base prospect in the system to Anthony Rizzo.

15. Ryan Strieby - Tigers

Strieby is an over-achiever who continues to improve but got derailed by a wrist injury last year. His power is legitimate but he's a rough defender at first and blocked by Miguel Cabrera anyway. If healthy he could post big numbers in AAA this year.

16. Anthony Rizzo - Red Sox

Primarily a line-drive hitter with plus defense at this point, Rizzo has a chance to develop more power as he matures. Still only 20, he may start 2010 in AA, but more time in high-A might help him develop his power.

17. Brandon Allen - Diamondbacks

Allen was invigorated by a mid-season trade, posting huge numbers in AAA after being acquired by Arizona. He spent September in the majors, showing that he still had a long ways to go as a hitter. Allen has big power but swings and misses way too much to take advantage of it and is fairly brutal defender.

18. Mike Carp - Mariners

I was never actually a believer in Carp, who I always thought had a slow bat and not enough power to play first base, but he just keeps hitting. Although his ceiling is as an average MLB player, Carp may have earned some big-league time at first base with an impressive 54 at-bat cup of coffee last year.

19. Mark Trumbo - Angels

Trumbo was a project with huge power potential that is slowly developing for Los Angeles. He is still far too aggressive at the plate, but the power in his bat continues to be evident from the large extra-base totals he consistently produces.

20. Chris Parmelee - Twins

A player I have never particularly believed in, Parmelee has had back-to-back solid seasons while playing around some injuries. He does not make a lot of contact and looks like a three-true-outcomes type player, but has enough potential to keep track of.

21. Kila Ka'aihue - Royals

Ka'aihue has one of the best eyes in the minor leagues, but is very unathletic, even for a first baseman and does not appear to have a very high power ceiling. That said, he's probably the best first baseman currently on the Royals 40-man roster (if you consider Butler a DH) and I would be shocked if he did not get a shot at the majors in 2010.

22. Gaby Sanchez - Marlins

Sanchez almost won the first base job out of spring training in 2009 but was relegated back to AAA. He is a finished product with a good eye and average power. A team with playoff aspirations should probably look for someone better, but Sanchez can handle major league pitching right now, and like Ka'aihue, probably deserves a chance.

23. Rich Poythress - Mariners

After a banner draft year for first base prospects in 2008, 2009 had almost none that were noteworthy. Poythress is probably the best of the group, a polished college hitter with good pop. He doesn't have a big ceiling but had one of the most advanced bats in his class.


Brian said...

Jimmy, great work as always dude. This is really great.

I think you are too high on Davis -- I think everybody is -- but this is a great, thorough, well-reasoned list. I hope people get a chance to read it.

James Esatto said...

Well, like I said I don't think he's a star, but the guy had a real big season split in two appropriate levels, even though he can't really hit southpaws yet. I also think it's great he helps out with his glove, which is why I put him ahead of Gamel, a similar type of hitter.