Friday, February 12, 2010

2010 Top Prospects pt. 5: Third Basemen

Third base has traditionally boasted some of the best hitting prospects in baseball and this year is no exception. While there is, in my opinion, one player in particular that stands out, there is also substantial depth at the position, both in terms of high-probability prospects and pure upside players. I also have several players listed as third baseman even though they do not currently play there. This is because many players outgrow the middle of the infield but have too much athleticism to waste at first base. In the end though, third base is an offensive position. You have to be able to hit in order to play third base in the majors, and all of these prospects have a chance to do that.

Pt. 1: Catchers
Pt. 2: First Baseman
Pt. 3: Second Baseman
Pt. 4: Shortstops

1. Pedro Alvarez - Pirates (8)

Alvarez was a candidate to go first overall in the 2008 draft after putting up some big seasons at Vanderbilt. However, in the year leading up to the draft he injured his wrist, missed some time and was clearly not 100% when he did play. Even though his production was solid, some doubts lingered leading into the draft. Pittsburgh did not care and was happy to take Alvarez second overall and he instantly became by far the best prospect in their system. Contract talks between Alvarez' agent, Scott Boras, and the Pirates did not go that smoothly but were resolved before spring training in 2009.

Alvarez reported to camp last year out of shape and after the difficult contract negotiations it was not the best time to make a poor first impression. Alvarez was already large and many believed he lacked the athleticism to stay at third base long-term anyway. He started the year in high-A and struggled in the first half while he slowly got himself into game shape. He caught fire mid-year and Pittsburgh moved him up to AA where he continued to rake. By the end of the season Alvarez was pretty close to his college weight and was again being talked about as one of the best hitters in the minor leagues.

Alvarez has two major flaws in his game at this point. Even though he showed impressive power late last year he still was striking out far too often. He looks destined to go over 100 strikeouts a year in the long run but should produce enough for that to be acceptable. The second problem is his defense, which was below average last year. He is not a bad athlete for his size and improved as the year went on but it seems unlikely he'll ever be more than adequate. Even with his shortcomings, Alvarez' bat is one of the best in the minors; he was not at his best last season and still hit 27 home runs in his first professional year. Expect him to spend most of 2010 in AAA and reach the majors some time after the all-star break.

2. Josh Bell - Orioles (26)

Bell was drafted in the fourth round of 2005 by the Dodgers, who have had more success turning high upside projects (like Bell) into productive big-leaguers than most. He was developing slowly leading into 2009, showing glimpses of the raw power he demonstrated during batting practice. He entered 2008 as a prime contender for a breakout, but a knee injury kept him off the field and led to him gaining some weight.

2009 proved to be the awaited breakout for Bell. He rededicated himself and was in the midst of by far his best season when the Dodgers traded him to Baltimore in the George Sherill deal. After the trade, Bell's power spiked even more as he slugged .570 to close out the year. The extra power did cost him some plate discipline but he should be able to find the proper balance in the coming years. Bell's defense improved to average status as well, and he should be able to handle the position long-term.

Because Bell is still a bit raw the Orioles wisely signed Miguel Tejada to hold down the position for 2010. Still just 23, Bell should spend all of 2010 in the minors and the Orioles will develop him carefully because he is the only impact hitter in their system. Baltimore is flush with young pitching and already has an excellent lineup. Bell should be ready to contribute in the big leagues by 2011. Baltimore has quietly developed a lot of impact talent in recent years and Bell might just be the piece that pushes them over the edge if his bat continues to improve.

3. Tim Beckham - Rays (36)

Although he was drafted one spot ahead of Alvarez in 2008, first overall, Beckham slots in well behind him at this point because of a disappointing debut. Beckham was compared to Justin Upton coming out of high school because they were both shortstops at the time and had huge potential with the bat. Like Upton, Beckham seems unlikely to stick at shortstop because he lacks adequate range and his footwork has been sloppy as a pro. He has a strong arm, and third base seems his mostly likely destination, although he will never play there for the Rays because of Evan Longoria.

The comparisons to Upton continued when Beckham had a rough first year as a pro. However, Beckham's year was actually far worse and even more worryingly, scouting reports have been critical of him as well. His athleticism has apparently slipped and the ball was not jumping off of his bat the way it did in high school. As a 19-year-old in full season ball, he was probably a bit over his head, but the fact that he showed little plate discipline and minimal power is disappointing for a first overall pick.

For all the criticism Beckham has gotten in the last year, particularly because of how some other players in the draft have developed, he will play all of 2010 as a 20-year-old. Beckham should remain at shortstop for now but if his defense does not improve significantly he will not be there for long. Upton followed up his underwhelming year by torching high-A and AA, eventually ending up in the majors for 43 games. That kind of run is essentially impossible to repeat, but a little better production would go a long way to improving Beckham's stock.

4. Lonnie Chisenhall - Indians (42)

When Cleveland took Chisenhall out of a small community college at the end of the first round in 2008 it caught most people off-guard. He was a shortstop at the time, but obviously in need of a position change, and had shown minimal power. Further complicating things was the fact that there were makeup concerns because of a prior arrest and many teams did not have the chance to scout Chisenhall sufficiently, mostly due to where he played. Cleveland did their homework and thus far has been rewarded with one of the most promising prospects in baseball.

Chisenhall is a pure line-drive hitter who also should hit 20-25 home runs when he finishes developing. He has a very level swing that results in easy contact and low strikeout totals. He was a bit aggressive at the plate last year and drawing a few more walks would greatly enhance his offensive value. 2009 was Chisenhall's first shot at third base and he showed the ability to handle the position, although consistency was not his strong suit. He made a lot of errors, mostly on throws but is athletic enough to improve with experience.

Chisenhall got a taste of AA to end last season and struggled, not unexpected for a 20-year-old. He should return there to begin 2010. There is little doubt in Chisenhall's ability to hit at this point and once he is able to tighten up his strike-zone a bit he will be ready for the majors. Defensively all he needs is time and patience. He should get his first taste of the majors at some point in 2011 and has a chance to rate much higher on this list next year.

5. Mike Moustakas - Royals (56)

Moustakas owned most of the California high-school home run records when he was drafted second overall by Kansas City in 2007. A shortstop in high school, he has played predominately at third since signing, where his plus arm is an asset. Because of his thick, powerful build, Moustakas' athleticism is limited and most of his value will be in his bat which has developed slowly.

2009 was a repeat of 2008 for Moustakas who continued to show solid power for a young player, but he was far too aggressive at the plate. He has the ability to make contact with almost any pitch, but because of his poor selectivity he hits far too many weak ground balls on pitches out of the zone. When Moustakas gets a pitch in the middle of the plate he can hit it as far as almost anyone. Defensively it remains to be seen whether he can handle third base. He has the body-type and arm of a catcher, but Kansas City appears to have never even entertained the idea of moving him there.

Moustakas remains a prime candidate for a breakout. His bat has a chance to be special, but because of his limited defensive value, it may have to be if he is going to stick in the majors. He has 100 extra-base-hits combined in the last two seasons, a very high total for a young player in tough environments so the power is clearly there. If Moustakas ever figures out what pitches he should be offering at, expect him to fly up the rankings.

6. James Darnell - Padres (78)

Up until recently, San Diego has been one of the most conservative organizations in terms of both drafting and developing prospects. Darnell perfectly fits the type of player they would target, a polished college hitter who knows how to work the count. However, Darnell does have upside, and has a chance to hit over 20 home runs a year in the majors some day.

Darnell began 2009 in low-A, a surprising assignment for a 22-year-old with an advanced approach. He destroyed the league, as expected, and moved up a level mid-season. High-A also proved easy for Darnell as he continued to pound much more raw opponents. His defense was also solid all season. Darnell's above average athleticism was an asset in the field but it is unlikely that it will translate stolen bases in the majors.

Darnell will start 2010 in AA, where he probably should have been last year. He has a similar offensive profile to current Padre Chase Headley, although he is a better defender than Headley was at the same age. Because Darnell's power is only above average, PetCo Park may prove a difficult place for him. Headley only slugged .392 last year, but actually had a very nice season that was masked by the park. Darnell's power may be obscured in similar fashion but because of his eye he should provide excellent value. He should be ready for the majors at some point in 2011.

7. Alex Liddi - Mariners (88)

Signed out of Italy, Liddi has always been an interesting prospect, but before last year's breakout was never seriously discussed as a future major-leaguer. He had the size and athleticism to be an effective hitter but was so raw that it was never evident during game action. Although not a great runner, Liddi is a solid athlete and an above-average defender at third base.

At 6'4 Liddi has long arms and generates a lot of leverage in his swing. He played last season in one of the best hitting environments in baseball and that certainly contributed to his breakout. His OPS was almost 300 points higher at home than on the road, but even his road numbers were a drastic improvement over past years. More importantly, scouts across the board agreed that his swing looked better and that he added muscle, leading to more home runs.

Liddi is still far from a finished product and because of his poor production prior to last season, as well as the friendly hitting environment he had, there are plenty of reasons to remain skeptical. If the bat is for real, he is one of the better all around prospects in the minors. Seattle has been the best run organization in baseball for the last year but they have also gotten lucky on several fronts as well, Liddi's breakout being a prime example. He should spend all of 2010 in AA and by the end of the season we should have a much better idea of just how special a prospect he is.

8. Wilmer Flores - Mets

Right now Flores is an extremely raw 18-year-old shortstop. He is a lock to outgrow the position in the next couple of years and his bat is all projection at this point but most scouts swear that he is going to hit. The Mets gave him a full-season assignment in 2009 and he was obviously over his head the whole season. He should return to low-A for 2010 and may still be the youngest player in the league.

9. Miguel Sano - Twins

Sano has more upside than anyone on this list except possibly Alvarez. Signed for 3.15 million out of the Dominican Republic last summer, the 16-year-old Sano is an excellent athlete with huge raw power. He is already 6'3, and strong, so even though he's a shortstop most do not expect him to stay there. We may not get a chance to see him play full-season ball until 2012 but his potential is off the charts.

10. Matt Dominguez - Marlins

The best defensive third baseman in the minors, Dominguez' bat prevents him from being one of the best third base prospects. He actually has some power but really struggles with pitch recognition and takes a lot of ugly hacks. His hand-eye coordination is also excellent so if his eye ever improves he will be an excellent big-leaguer.

11. Josh Vitters - Cubs

I think I am the low man on Vitters; He ranked outside my top 10 third base prospects last year and remains there this season. If not for his pedigree as a third overall pick and all of the glowing scouting reports I probably would not have ranked him at all. He swings at everything and has not shown much ability to lift the ball yet but his swing has a lot of raw power and yet is very compact. Vitters is an enigma and I'm not sure if he'll ever figure it out but because of how strongly many scouts rate him I felt he warranted inclusion somewhere.

12. Logan Forsythe - Padres

The quintessential Padres Prospect. A polished college hitter with limited upside who has not been challenged enough by the organization. Unlike Darnell he lacks the raw power to project as an above average hitter and is merely an interesting prospect at this point.

13. Brent Morel - White Sox

Morel is an overachiever who may not have enough power to play third base in the majors. He has a quick swing that leads to a lot of contact and is an excellent defender.

14. Danny Valencia - Twins

Valencia is a near finished product with above average power, although it has mostly shown up in doubles rather than home runs. He is a little below average at third base but remains the best third baseman in Minnesota's system, a position they have struggled to fill in recent year.

15. Juan Francisco - Reds

Francisco is a lottery card. He has 70 power but swings at literally everything and is very rough defensively at third base. He probably needs to move to a corner outfield spot and obviously has to develop his plate discipline. He is destined to a Wily Mo Pena type of career if he never figures it out.

16. Carlos Triunfel - Mariners

Although he has played almost exclusively in the middle of the infield this far, Triunfel's limited range and big arm seem to fit best at third base. He has always been very young for his leagues and has a lot of pop in his bat, but he will not make my top 100 prospects until he shows he can stay healthy and produce at some level.

17. David Freese - Cardinals

Freese is probably the oldest player I will write anything about but still deserves a mention because he could probably hit 20+ home runs in the majors in 2010. He does not walk much and is average at best defensively but should be the Cardinals starting third baseman in 2010, after missing out for a chance on the job last year due to a foot injury.

18. Bobby Borchering - Diamondbacks

A 2009 first rounder, Borchering is a switch hitter with easy power. He is probably too young to rate at this point, but was one of the best pure hitters among high schoolers in last year's draft.

19. Matt Davidson - Diamondbacks

Another 2009 Arizona first-rounder, Davidson has more power than Borchering but has less feel for hitting and projects to have less defensive value.

20. Dayan Viciedo - White Sox

Viciedo had a lot of buzz after being signed out of Cuba last year but was a major disappointment. He spent all year in AA where he was out of shape and undermined by an awful approach at the plate. There is upside in his bat but he is extremely raw and will need to rededicate himself, both on the field and off to succeed.

21. Matt Tuiasosopo - Mariners

Tuiasosopo got a big bonus to sign out of high school in 2004 but has struggled to live up to the expectations that contract created. Health has been an issue for him but the biggest problem is that his bat is a bit slow and his swing has way too many holes in it. He has some power but does not make consistent enough contact to project as a major-leaguer.

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