Tuesday, February 09, 2010

2010 Top Prospects pt 4: Shortstops

It is a bit of a down year for shortstop prospects, meaning both middle infield positions are not exactly overflowing with high potential guys. Shortstop is, in my opinion, the most demanding position for a prospect, even more so than catcher. So many players sign as shortstops and then have to move to a less important defensive position. Shortstops need a strong arm and also have to be quick, agile and consistent. It also helps if they can hit a little. Of all the 2010 top shortstop prospects, I only see one player who has a good chance to make an impact with both the bat and the glove, not surprisingly, he ranks first.

Pt. 1: Catchers
Pt. 2: First Baseman
Pt. 3: Second Baseman

1. Starlin Castro - Cubs (18)

The Cubs have done a terrible job developing hitting prospects for a long time now but recently there have been signs of progress. Both of their middle infielders and catcher are home grown and while they are all basically average players, that is an improvement. Castro has a chance to be that special player that they have previously had to look outside the organization for. He is an excellent defender and while the bat is not there yet he has shown constant improvement the last couple of years. He also has surprising strength, leading most scouts to believe that some of his stinging line drives will go over the fence down the road.

Castro began 2009 as an interesting but fairly unknown player and ended it as the top shortstop prospect in baseball. He will not turn 20 until March but split last year between high-A and AA. The Cubs have been overly aggressive with hitting prospects in the past and it has come back to haunt them, but Castro relished the challenge and performed admirably. He capped off the season by hitting .376/.398/.475 in the AFL while scouts in attendance drooled over his potential.

Castro should start 2010 in AA where he only got 111 at-bats last year. He is aggressive at the plate but not a hacker and has always had low strikeout totals. Defensively he has all the skills teams look for but just needs to be consistent from play to play, after making 39 errors last season, mostly from trying to do too much. Castro probably needs at least another full year in the minors to tighten up his strike-zone and get more comfortable in the field. The time should also help him figure out exactly what pitches he can drive for home runs as he continues to fill out. Although still very young, Castro is clearly on the right path to developing into a true double threat at shortstop.

2. Alcides Escobar - Brewers (32)

Escobar has long been considered a defensive specialist who might not hit enough to be a regular in the majors, but every year his bat gets a little bit better. He now profiles as an Omar Vizquel type player who will not hurt you at the plate and can be dangerous when he does get on base. The Brewers have developed some outstanding hitters in the last five years, but Escobar is the first who has a chance to be an asset with the glove at a premium defensive position.

Escobar spent most of last year in AAA as a 22-year-old and was better than expected at the plate. He spent the last month and a half with Milwaukee and played well enough to lock up the starting shortstop gig for 2010. He hit .304 in 125 at-bats but had only five extra-base-hits and four walks. Because he is a very aggressive hitter and does not have much power his ceiling is limited, but the Brewers will gladly take whatever he can give them with the bat.

I would not be surprised to see Escobar have a season similar to what Elvish Andrus did in 2009. Escobar lacks the offensive upside Andrus has, but is even better defensively and is certainly capable of matching the offensive numbers he posted in 2009. Milwaukee has had a great offense lately but has really struggled in the run-prevention department and Escobar is the perfect player to help bring balance to the franchise.

3. Grant Green - Athletics (37)

Before the 2009 college season started Green was thought of as a candidate to go in the top 5 overall because of an impressive performance in the Cape Cod League. In a draft where there were very few college hitters that played in the middle of the infield Green stood out as the only one who could handle shortstop and be an above average hitter.

Green struggled for USC in 2009. Most were expecting a breakout similar to Gordon Beckham's at Georgia in 2008, but Green only managed four home runs. Still, the Athletics liked him enough to draft him 13th overall and and signed him to a hefty 2.75 million-dollar bonus. After drafting second baseman Jemile Weeks as a first rounder in 2008, Oakland appears determined to build a double play combination through the draft.

Green spent 5 games at high-A to close out the season last year and will probably return there to start 2010. If he hits the ground running, expect a quick promotion to AA where he would have a chance to play alongside Weeks and begin to develop a rapport. It remains to be seen whether Green's 2009 season was an aberration or his showing in the Cape Cod League was a fluke. Oakland will be expecting more than four home runs this season.

4. Devaris Gordon - Dodgers (43)

The son of big league pitcher Tom Gordon, Devaris played very little organized baseball growing up, but the Dodgers decided to select him in the fourth round of 2008 after an impressive workout. Gordon quickly reported to rookie ball where he showed that the Dodgers made a wise investment. He plays like a Jimmy Rollins clone, spraying line drives all over the field with more pop than you would expect. On the bases he is a terror, one of the most dangerous runners in all of baseball who is always looking to take an extra base. He also has more than enough athleticism and arm to play short although he is very raw defensively right now.

Gordon was expected to need a lot of development because of his inexperience, but he was one of the better players in the Midwest League last season and the Dodgers may now be tempted to put him on the fast track. With 75 steals and .301 average with some idea of the strikezone, Gordon looked like he had the potential to be a dynamic leadoff hitter. He has not shown more than gap power at this point, and probably never will, but he has already come so far, it would not surprise me if it developed down the road.

Los Angeles continues to find gems after the first couple rounds of the draft and Gordon is the one player on this list with arguably more upside than Castro. Even though Gordon has shown a more advanced feel for the game than expected, he is still very raw and needs much more time in the minors. I expect him to move up one level to high-A at the start of the season with a chance to end it in AA.

5. Chase D'Arnaud - Pirates (47)

D'Arnaud is still very unknown in prospect circles and it is not hard to see why. He was drafted in the fourth round of 2008 after three solid but unspectacular years at Pepperdine and does not have any flashy tools. His greatest asset is perhaps that he has shown no real weaknesses at this point. He is average with the glove and has enough arm for short but will not wow anyone with his defense. Offensively his greatest strength is his discipline, as he has always posted excellent BB:K ratios. He has enough power to keep pitchers honest but is not a true home run threat.

2009 was the perfect example of how the sum of D'Arnaud's abilities are greater than his individual attributes. He hit .289/.393/.453 between two levels of A-ball with 31 steals. He hit only 8 home runs but 43 combined doubles and triples. He showed average range and an average arm with good hands in the field. Basically he did everything you could want in a shortstop but as is often the case, his all around game fell through the cracks a bit.

At 6'2 and just under 200 pounds, D'Arnaud has the strength to turn some of those doubles into home runs, and if that happens expect him to rocket up other prospect lists. Right now he looks like a great candidate to bat first or second in a lineup where his on-base skills and above average speed would be an asset. Expect him to spend all of 2010 in the minors with a probable shot at the big leagues in 2011.

6. Reid Brignac - Rays (65)

It has been an odd development path for Brignac. Drafted in the second round of 2004, Brignac was thought of as an offense-first shortstop who would easily hit his way to the majors but may have to move positions down the road. While he still has some good pop in his bat, an undisciplined approach at the plate has sabotaged some of his offensive potential. Surprisingly, he has made up for that by becoming one of the minors' best defenders. Although not as rangy or flashy as Alcides Escobar, Brignac gets to a lot of balls and has an excellent arm.

Brignac really struggled with the bat in 2008 but rebounded some last year and most now think he can hit enough to be a regular in the majors because of his defense. He got a little over a month of playing time in the majors last year and held his own. Although it feels like Brignac has been on the prospect radar forever, he is still only 24 and another season in AAA may do wonders for his hitting.

Although his glove is ready for the majors, the Rays appear committed to Jason Bartlett and Ben Zobrist in the middle of the infield for the time being. This is actually a blessing for Brignac who should start the year in AAA. By the end of the season I would not be surprised to see him in the majors as a utility infielder or traded to another team that wants to give him a starting job. If he ever improves his discipline at the plate, Brignac could become one of the better all-around shortstops in baseball, but it seems unlikely to happen at this point.

7. Jiovanni Mier - Astros (68)

The Astros followed up their first solid draft in many years (2008) by grabbing Mier at 21st overall in 2009. In a draft that was considered a desolate wasteland for up the middle players with plus hitting potential, Houston made a sneaky smart pick in Mier. Although very young, he projects as an above average defender with a solid bat, although most do not expect him to develop power.

After signing quickly, Mier torched the rookie-level Appalachian League, hitting .276/.380/.484 and rated as the best defensive shortstop. While stats in a league at that level are mostly meaningless, scouts also loved what they saw in Mier, as he stood out more than any other 2009 draft picks.

While it is easy to get excited over Mier's potential, he is still very young and a long way from the majors. His excellent rookie-ball numbers show that he is probably ready for a full-season assignment in 2010. Mier has all the tools needed to be an excellent shortstop and it will be interesting to see if he can develop the way many are anticipating.

8. Jurickson Profar - Rangers

Because he signed with Texas, Profar will inevitably be compared to Elvis Andrus, another very high profile teenager signed out of Latin America. However they are very different players. Most of Profar's potential lies in his bat and it is still way too soon to figure out if he is legitimately a shortstop or will outgrow the position. His potential is off the charts but we may not see him in a full-season league until 2011.

9. Ian Desmond - Nationals

Until last year Desmond had been little more than a source of frustration for the Nationals who drafted him in the third round of 2004. He has premium tools but has never made consistent contact and has always been an erratic defender. It all came together last year though and after starting the year at AA he ended it with an impressive cup of coffee in September. If it has actually clicked for him, Desmond has a chance to be an excellent player, but it is hard not to be skeptical after such a long track record of mediocrity.

10. Hak-Ju Lee - Cubs

In addition to Castro, the Cubs also have Lee and several other very interesting middle infield prospects (who did not get write ups because they are really just all projection at this point). Lee is the best of those prospects in the low minors because he is an excellent defender and has also showed some advanced hitting ability. He is, however, still extremely thin and has not seen full season ball so it is difficult to figure out exactly how he will develop.

11. Hector Gomez - Rockies

Gomez is a scout's dream, showing premium tools across the board, but he has never been consistently healthy and really needs some time on the field to iron out his rough edges. At 22, his upside is still enormous, yet far away because of how much development time he still has in front of him. Many are starting to doubt he'll ever get there.

12. Jose Iglesias - Red Sox

Similar to Profar, Iglesias has not played in a professional league yet and is being rated only because of his potential. Unlike Profar, however, Iglesias is viewed as an excellent defender with an iffy bat. The Red Sox will hope that he follows the Alcides Escobar career path and learns to hit enough to be an asset in the majors.

13. Danny Espinosa - Nationals

Coming off a big season in 2009, it is unclear whether Espinosa's bat is quick enough to catch up with the better pitching he faces down the road, but he is a very sound defender who should be able to handle shortstop at any level.

14. Ruben Tejada - Mets

The Mets are probably the most aggressive franchise with how they treat their prospects, and while I do not generally agree with the assignments they hand out, Tejada survived AA as a 19-year-old. A flashy defender, it is difficult to see how much upside there is in his slight build, but he has excellent hand-eye coordination and the tools to be a standout with the glove.

15. Zach Cozart - Reds

The Reds have really struggled to find an adequate shortstop lately, recently signing Orlando Cabrera to a one-year deal for 2010. Cozart may be an option for 2011. He is an over-achiever with minimal tools but spectacular instincts in the field that help him be an asset with the glove. He has a good approach at the plate but minimal power and projects as a below-average hitter.

16. Brandon Crawford - Giants

An excellent defender, Crawford has the tools to hit but is way too aggressive at the plate and has serious holes in his swing. The Giants challenged him with a AA assignment in 2009 and it backfired a bit as he struggled significantly.


Brian said...

Wow, this is a very underwhelming crop of prospects here.

Question for you though: How come Ruben Tejada is ranked so low? For a guy who projects strongly defensively to hold his own in AA at 19 is super impressive.

Let's say he repeats AA at age 20 and posts an OPS of 800 with good defense - wouldn't that make him as good or better of a prospect than the majority of this list?

(I am sure you find this unusual, since I am usually talking Mets prospects DOWN instead of UP.)

James Esatto said...

The simple explanation for Tejada is that it is hard to find anyone who think he will actually add power and very few prospects improve their walks rates significantly as well. He's young so that it certainly could happen, but scouts don't seem to like his chances.