Monday, February 22, 2010

2010 Top Prospects pt. 7: Center Fielders

The major leagues are already teeming with talented, young center fielders, but that does not mean the minors have run dry. Two of the top prospects in all of baseball roam center and while they do stand out from the crowd, center field also boasts some of the highest upside prospects in the low minors. Here is where you will generally find the best all-around athletes in baseball. Center requires the speed of a middle infielder, but also more impact with the bat and at least an average arm. The top center field prospect list is also very diverse in terms of skills. There are several players with big time home run potential, slap hitters and everything in between.

Pt. 1: Catchers
Pt. 2: First Baseman
Pt. 3: Second Baseman
Pt. 4: Shortstops
Pt. 5: Third Baseman
Pt. 6: Corner Outfielders

1. Desmond Jennings - Rays (5)

The Rays do not spend a lot of money but have really done a good job lately of figuring out the players who are worth an investment. Jennings was an over-slot 10th round pick in 2006 and immediately everybody could see his potential. Often described as a right-handed Carl Crawford who also takes his fair share of walks, the Rays did not get a real sense of how special he was until 2009. Jennings missed time in 2007 and then almost all of 2008 with knee, back and shoulder injuries, two of which required surgery. Last year he finally managed to stay on the field and delivered a big year.

It is difficult to figure out what was the most impressive part of Jennings' 2009 season. It could have been the .388 OBP in the high minors, a rarity for someone with as little baseball experience as Jennings. Or maybe it was the 50 extra-base hits, or possibly the excellent defense or the 52 out of 59 stolen base numbers. In the end, I think the most impressive thing was the 525 at-bats he racked up. Jennings always had the physical gifts to be a great player, and unlike most raw, toolsy prospects, his plate discipline was advanced as well. Injuries prevented him from realizing his skills and it was those at-bats that turned him into a top prospect.

Even though he only has spent a third of a season in AAA, Jennings is practically a finished product. He does not have big home run power, but will hit a lot of doubles and triples, and profiles as a top of the order bat. His combination of speed and plate discipline would look very nice atop the Rays order. The biggest hole Tampa Bay has right now is in right-field, but Jennings has only an average arm and when they do decide to give him a shot, it would probably be B.J. Upton that slid over to the corner, allowing Jennings to stay in center. He could probably handle the major league job right now, but Tampa Bay will want to stall his free agency clock and keep him in the minors until late May.

2. Dustin Ackley - Mariners (6)

Dustin Ackley, the second overall pick in 2009, was the best pure hitter to come into the draft in recent memory. He batted over .400 in all three of his college seasons and always walked more than he struck out. An elbow injury forced him to play first base for almost all of his college career, but before the injury he had above average arm strength. His range was always excellent so if the arm comes back he has gold glove potential in center.

Before last season, Ackley looked like a prototypical lead-off hitter who worked the count, put the ball in play and stole bases. However, he broke out with a power surge at North Carolina in 2009, knocking 22 out of the park, more than doubling his single season high up to that point. Although not bulky, Ackley is wiry strong and his big season hints that he might be able to approach 20 home runs a season in the majors when he finishes developing. Although he did not play for the Mariners after signing, he did get some at-bats in the Arizona Fall League and was solid.

It is difficult to figure out where Ackley will begin 2010, both in terms of what level and what position he will be playing. He has spent far more time at first base than anywhere else, and seems to profile best in center. However, Seattle seems to be toying with the idea of turning him into a second baseman, where he would not need his arm to fully regain its previous form. He certainly has the athleticism to handle second, and Franklin Gutierrez, Seattle's current center fielder, is one of the best defenders in baseball, so it makes sense to try Ackley elsewhere. If he has to learn a new position, Ackley probably would need more than a year in the minors, but his bat is so advanced, he may make an appearance for the big league club this year.

3. Aaron Hicks - Twins (29)

Hicks was the Twins first round pick in 2008 and so far Minnesota has taken things very slowly with him. One of the best athletes in the minor leagues, Hicks also has a very advanced approach at the plate. He has an outstanding arm and plus range in center to go with the raw strength to hit plenty of home runs once he puts it all together. Even with his excellent eye, Hicks strikes out too much right now and that is the biggest thing holding him back. Once he is able to center the ball more consistently, Hicks could rocket through the minors.

After an excellent season at the rookie level Gulf Coast League in 2008, Hicks surprisingly started 2009 in extended spring training. When he did finally take the field, Hicks slumped hard out of the gate, and while he did turn it around a bit as the year went on, 2009 was, overall, a disappointment. Although he played the entire season at 19, more was expected from a player with as much talent as Hicks. His defense was a bit erratic, but that is normal for someone his age and it should be an asset later on.

Hicks will probably begin 2010 in high-A where Minnesota will get a better idea at just how far his bat still has to come. Considering he already takes plenty of walks, it would be surprising if Hicks struggled again in 2010. He also has not shown much power yet but it should start to show itself soon. Hicks also needs to work on his base running after he was caught in nearly half of his attempts last season. He still has a long way to go, but Hicks has the athleticism and foundation of a potential all-star. 2010 will be a pivotal year in his development and he will need to increase his production to continue being regarded as one of the games best prospects.

4. Ryan Westmoreland - Red Sox (50)

Even though he was an outstanding athlete, few teams considered drafting Westmoreland out of high school in 2008 because of a strong commitment to Vanderbilt, but Boston took a flier on him in the 5th round. After getting to know him over the summer following the draft, and watching him destroy amateur teams as part of the Bayside Yankees, they decided he was worth a hefty investment. They eventually inked him with a 2 million dollar bonus. Westmoreland is a legitimate five tool player and has an advanced feel for the game even though he has limited experience.

Because he was so raw,, Westmoreland spent 2009 in the short-season New York Penn League. His bat lived up to the hype but he had to play at DH due to shoulder surgery in November. A broken collarbone ended his season early, raising some questions as to just how durable Westmoreland will be. While healthy he hit for plenty of power, took some walks and even stole 19 bases without getting caught. He struck out a bit more than you would like to see in a short-season league, but that should be expected considering his inexperience.

Westmoreland should get his first taste of full-season ball in 2010 and is expected to be fully healthy. He has more than enough range and arm to handle center but will need to spend a lot of time there to refine his routes to fly balls. Boston is excited to see what he can do over a full, healthy, season. Even though he was drafted primarily for his athleticism, in the brief looks Westmoreland has granted, he has shown excellent hand-eye coordination and impressive raw power. With his rare combination of speed and power it is difficult to figure out exactly how high his ceiling is, but Westmoreland has Boston fans hoping that they may have found their own Grady Sizemore.

5. Donavan Tate - Padres (57)

Tate was selected third overall in 2009 and was considered by most to be the top prep hitter available. Like Westmoreland, most of the excitement stems from his outstanding athleticism and potential five-tool ability. Tate's range in center field is spectacular thanks to his considerable speed. Also a football star in high school, Tate has a ton of strength for someone drafted out of high school and could develop 30+ home run power.

Tate's career got off to a rocky start. After a long contract negotiation that resulted in him getting the biggest bonus ever for a prep player, he suffered a sports hernia that required surgery. He also suffered an off-the-field injury to his jaw. Even with those two substantial road blocks, Tate should be healthy to start 2010. He never took the field after signing and the biggest question surrounding Tate right now is just how advanced his hitting ability is.

His athleticism and potential are off the charts, but Tate may need a lot of seasoning in order to realize it. Some teams questioned his bat going into the draft and were unsure he would ever make enough contact to be an elite hitter. It is true that Tate will require more development time than most third overall picks, but San Diego desperately needed to improve their athleticism and Tate did exactly that. For a system sorely lacking in players that can handle premium defensive positions, and also a parent club not expected to be competitive for a few years, drafting Tate makes a lot of sense. Now it is up to the Padres to teach him how to tap into his gifts.

6. Ryan Kalish - Red Sox (58)

Kalish is a very different player from teammate and fellow over-slot sign Ryan Westmoreland. He is a very polished player with above average tools and athleticism, but lacks the ceiling of others on this list. Kalish has incredible hand-eye coordination and laces line-drives from gap to gap. He has a good eye and has always had excellent strikeout to walk ratios. His range and arm in center field are adequate and might be better suited for left-field, but he lacks the raw power to profile there. Even though he does not have premium speed, Kalish will steal bases and looks like a prototypical number-two hitter.

Wrist problems hurt Kalish in 2007 and 2008, but he was finally at full strength in 2009 and re-established himself as one of the better outfield prospects in the minors. After easily outclassing high-A to start the year he was quickly moved up to AA and consistently improved as the year went on. Kalish will rarely wow people, but those that watch him regularly come away impressed by his all-around game. His excellent close to the season showed that he is not far away from being able to handle a major league assignment.

The Red Sox have two outfield prospects in the high minors in Ryan Kalish and Josh Reddick. Kalish has proven to have a more advanced approach and while Reddick may have better tools, it is Kalish who tends to provide better results. Neither should get much playing time in the majors this year but a big season by either in the minors, might persuade Boston to give them a shot at a 2011 job. Kalish will not be 22 until just before opening day and considering how much injuries have slowed him, it is very impressive how far he has come. His ceiling is as a 20-20 hitter with good plate discipline and an average glove in center.

7. Peter Bourjos - Angels (84)

A player with outstanding speed, Bourjos always projected to be an elite defender and base-runner. It was uncertain, however, whether he would ever learn to hit enough to be a major-leaguer. The Angels always believed in his potential and gave him a well above slot deal after selecting him in 2005's 10th round. Bourjos has now started to shown signs that Los Angeles was right to have faith in him.

Bourjos' game came a long way in 2009. In 2008 he managed only 19 walks to go with 96 strikeouts. After moving up a level in 2009 he bumped his walk total up to 49 while cutting his strikeouts to 77. Most impressively he did it without sacrificing power in a much more difficult hitting environment. Bourjos always had a chance to help a team out with his speed and defense, but if his approach at the plate continues to improve he will also be an above average hitter and potential lead-off man.

A pure center fielder, Bourjos will have to wait his turn in Los Angeles because Torii Hunter is under contract for a few more seasons. The time will help Bourjos because his bat, although improving, does need more time. He will never be a home run hitter, and Bourjos will have to show that he can drive the ball into the gaps more consistently. He should move up to AAA Salt Lake in 2010, which is a much more hospital environment than Arkansas, where he played in 2009. If he can maintain his improved approach at the plate while adding in a few more doubles and home runs, Bourjos will move well up this list next season.

8. Austin Jackson - Tigers (94)

Jackson received a hefty bonus from the Yankees after being drafted in the eighth round of 2005. Jackson had potential as a basketball player but the big bonus convinced him to focus on baseball. A premium athlete, Jackson had a breakthrough in 2007 when he began to hit the ball with more authority and his production started to catch up with his tools. Jackson always displayed a solid eye for a raw player but also did rack up his fair share of strikeouts. Detroit acquired him during the off-season as one of the key pieces that sent Curtis Granderson to New York.

2009 was a disappointing year for Jackson. He played the entire season at AAA, a very tough assignment for a 22-year-old who was not a full time baseball player until after high school. Even so, Jackson's plate discipline eroded on him and he hit only four home runs in over 500 at-bats, a poor showing for a prospect that was supposed to have above average raw power. It was not just his production that slipped, but scouting reports on Jackson no longer waxed poetically about his plus speed and athleticism. He still showed above average tools across the board, but it appears that as he has filled out, Jackson has lost a step and that has hurt his ceiling.

Jackson no longer looks like a potential star, but he should still be a solid major league player. Now with Detroit, there is much less blocking Jackson from playing in the majors. He has a good chance to start the year as Detroit's every day center fielder. He should be capable of playing at least average defense out of the gate but will probably struggle with the bat initially. Although Jackson is still an excellent prospect and has a very high probability of playing many years in the majors, his ceiling has dropped quite a bit and that is why he slides to the back end of the top 100 prospects in baseball.

9. Mike Trout - Angels

Trout had one of the best debuts of any prep player selected in the 2009 draft and already had many teams that passed on him regretting their decision. A premium athlete with an advanced feel for hitting and as much speed as anyone, the only tool Trout lacks is power. He has the strength to be more than a slap hitter and may develop into a top of the order batter.

10. Tyson Gillies - Phillies

Gillies was the best prospect acquired by the Phillies for Cliff Lee. He is one of the fastest players in the minors and works the count like a veteran. He has almost no power and may struggle as he moves up the ladder and pitchers become more willing to challenge him. If Gillies does not get the bat knocked out of his hands he could turn into an excellent lead-off hitter.

11. Tim Wheeler - Rockies

Wheeler had one of the most advanced bats in the 2009 draft class. He showed the ability to hit for both power and average in college while maintaining a disciplined approach at the plate. Wheeler also played solid defense in center and has a strong arm. Colorado typically moves their prospects slowly but Wheeler appears to have the skill set to allow a quick development path to the majors.

12. Jared Mitchell - White Sox

The White Sox love their athletes and Mitchell is another excellent athlete with a questionable bat. Mitchell strikes out far too much for somebody who does not have excellent power, but is an excellent defender and knows how to take a walk.

13. Slade Heathcott - Yankees

Heathcott has a lot in common with Donavon Tate. They are both potential five-tool players with plus power potential, but there were concerns about Heathcott's makeup going into the draft. The Yankees are in the market for stars, not solid players and they couldn't resist Heathcott's upside.

14. Brett Jackson - Cubs

Jackson consistently underperformed in college but has the tools to be an above average big-leaguer. He had a nice debut but the Cubs have a poor track record of developing hitters with questionable plate discipline.

15. Reymond Fuentes - Red Sox

Yet another 2009 draft pick, Fuentes has a chance to be a gold glove center fielder. He is more advanced with the bat than most prep position players and could move quickly through the minors. Fuentes lacks the raw power to be a true home run threat but should rack up plenty of doubles.

16. Michael Brantley - Indians

Brantley is one of the fastest players in the minors but has no power and is not as strong of a defender as his speed would indicate he should be. He has been one of the hardest guys to strike out in the minors but also probably does not walk enough to be a leadoff hitter. Brantley will have to prove he can be more effective with the bat before he sticks in a major league lineup.

17. Anthony Gose - Phillies

Gose is another in a long line of Phillies prospects that boast remarkable athleticism but minimal baseball skills. They failed to develop Greg Golson and thus far Anthony Hewitt has been a total bust but there is still hope for Gose. He stole 76 bases last year and has a high ceiling with the bat too, but needs to figure out what pitches to swing at.

18. A. J. Pollock - Diamondbacks

Pollock rates behind several other 2009 draft picks, including some that were drafted after him, because he has a lower ceiling than most of them. Pollock has a well rounded game, but it is difficult envision a scenario where he turns into anything more than a solid player, and because he has no professional track record it is hard to rate him over those with a higher ceiling than him.

19. Daryl Jones - Cardinals

Jones has always struggled to put his athleticism to use on the baseball diamond. Over the last two seasons he has continued to improve and now looks like he can stick in the majors down the road. He has never hit for much power and strikes out too often to bat at the top of a lineup so he may end up a tweener.

20. Scott Cousins - Marlins

Cousins has solid all around tools and is starting to translate them into games. He has a modest ceiling but has a chance to be an above average hitter while playing a solid center field. Cameron Maybin is in front of him right now but the Marlins changeover their roster so much he will probably get a chance somewhere in the outfield over the next two years.

21. Engel Beltre - Rangers

One of the toolsiest players in the minors, but Beltre swings at everything and even though he has excellent hand-eye coordination, the best he can do on pitches way out of the zone is weakly tap them to infielders. He is a lottery ticket that probably will never figure it out, but if he does he has a chance at being Alfonso Soriano with premium defense.

22. Greg Halman - Mariners

Essentially the same player as Beltre, Halman rates just below him because he is just as clueless about what to swing at, but Halman does rack up ridiculous strikeout totals.

23. Max Kepler - Twins

Kepler makes the last spot on this because he boasts five-tool potential. He is a 16-year-old and the first high-profile amateur hitter signed out of Europe (Germany) and it will be interesting to see how the Twins develop him. They have experimented with other oddities before (Loek Van Mil comes to mind) and will undoubtedly take their time with him. Kepler will probably need at least 5 seasons of development time if he ever does make it to the majors, and it would be quite a story if he did.

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