Prospects lists are starting to make there way into print and on the internet again. The one generating the most buzz last night was MLB Network's Top 100, which featured 3 Cubs in the top 50.
- #16: Javier Baez
- #39: Albert Almora
- #42: Jorge Soler
There were two players: 1B Dan Vogelbach and RHP Arodys Vizcaino, who very likely garnered significant consideration for the list but for various reasons, they missed the cut.
Listing so many prospects and ranking players of different talents, ages, and level of development is more of an exercise in entertainment than it is in science. Of course, that doesn't mean it isn't fun to read and talk about.
So that is what we'll do here.
However, we won't report and rehash what MLB Network said. After all, there isn't much new there. This is a site that puts a lot of emphasis and analysis on evaluating prospects, so I thought I'd take a look at the 3 prospects, plus the 2 that didn't make the cut, and dig deeper into why they ranked (or didn't rank) where they did.
We'll start at the top with Javier Baez and we'll profile the others in the coming days. I thought the best way to examine the Baez ranking is to compare him to one of his closest peers...
Javier Baez vs. Francisco Lindor
On the Importance of Physical Projection and the Certainty of Positional Value
It seems Javier Baez will be linked often with Francisco Lindor, who was picked one slot ahead of Baez by the Cleveland Indians in the 2011 draft. It makes for an interesting debate because it is a study in contrasts. Once again, Lindor slips slightly ahead of Baez in the rankings at #14. If you look at the statistics, you wonder how this could even be possible. Lindor hit .257/.352/.355 (.707 OPS) with 6 HRs in the same league in which Baez hit .333/.382/.596 (.979 OPS) with twice as many HRs (12) in half the PAs. If Lindor does have offensive advantages, it's better current strike zone discipline and more speed, but those things alone wouldn't be enough to overcome that statistical chasm.
The difference is defensive certainty at a premium position. Lindor will be a SS at the MLB level as long as he hits and, though, he won't hit at Baez's level, there are indications that he will become a better hitter as he physically matures and gains strength. The tools are there. Futhermore, because he will stick at SS, the offensive bar for him is lower than it is for Baez. Lindor won't have to hit like Gary Sheffield to be a superstar.
This isn't to say that Baez himself cannot stick at SS, but from a physical standpoint, he is different than Lindor. Lindor is slender and loose-limbed, possessing the type of athleticism that gives him natural fluidity in the field. He has the type of actions and instincts that you see in some of the best defensive shortstops in the game. They flow through the ball and everything seems to go in one easy motion. Think about past shortstops like Ozzie Smith, Omar Vizquel, Tony Fernandez (who was one of my personal favorites growing up). Elvis Andrus of the Texas Rangers is a modern day example.
Baez plays SS in a different style. He plays it with much of the high energy and aggression we associate with his approach at the plate. He attacks ground balls like he does juicy letter high fastballs. However, he does it with surprising body control, good hands, and great instincts in the field. It's not the prototypical SS approach, so he's not as universally loved as Lindor in the field, but one veteran scout told me without hesitation early last year that there was no question that Baez could be an MLB SS. He was the first professional I heard who said it with that kind of confidence and, as the season went on, I started to hear more and more scouts echo the same sentiment.
So while there is a greater familiarity and comfort level with Lindor's style of SS play, it doesn't mean both cannot succeed at the position as things currently stand. The greater issue with Baez may be one that I alluded to earlier: the physical differences between the two shortstops. As I mentioned, Lindor is slender and loose-limbed. He stands 5'11" and weighs 175 lbs. He has above average speed and figures to retain that as he progresses through the minors.
Baez's build lends itself to less certainty. He's 6'1", 205 lbs. with a thicker, stronger frame than Lindor. He isn't as fast and he lacks the same kind of range. That in itself isn't a big issue. Not many SS in the minors have the kind of range that Lindor does. That's no knock on Baez by any stretch of the imagination. Rather the bigger question is this: Baez just turned 20 and is almost certainly not done growing. How that growth manifests itself will go a long way toward determining whether the stays at SS or has to change positions. If Baez fills out his thicker frame and loses range, it could force a position change despite all the things he does well in the field. The bottom line, after all, is that you have to make plays, and if Baez's physical maturity ends up costing him speed and range in the field, then the question becomes whether he can make enough of them to be considered a true shortstop from a defensive standpoint.
This brings us back to Baez's most exciting tool, the one where he is potentially head and shoulders over Lindor -- his bat. Both his hitting and power rank as at least a 70 on the 20 to 80 scale for most scouts. That kind of offensive potential makes him a potential superstar if he's able to play SS at even just an average MLB level. The potential offensive production at SS would more than make up for any potential shortcomings even if he loses a bit of range in the field, and perhaps one day vault him past the more traditional Lindor as the best all-around SS in the game. If not, then Baez possesses the instincts, athleticism and bat to play just about anywhere and still be an offensive and defensive asset on the baseball field. Where Baez lacks Lindor's defensive certainty, he has, by far, the higher offensive ceiling.
For now, though, it seems that more certainty in terms of long term positional value have scouts hedging their bets ever so slightly toward Lindor, but Baez defensive play last season closed that gap tremendously with more than a few favoring Baez long term. The two SS are likely to start the season in advanced A ball this season with the natural abilities to progress rapidly throughout the season. It'll be interesting to see how these two very talented but different players emerge, not just in 2013, but throughout their careers.