Minors Not Short on Talent
One of the complaints that followed the former Devil Ray front office clan -- led by Chuck Lamar -- centered around B.J. Upton. Lucky enough to draft him in 2002 (thanks to a Pirates gaffe), Upton's bat predictably tore through the minors. Conversely, his glove played as if it had a tear down the center.
Entering the season, Upton's minor league line read: .304/.396/.474, in over 1,400 at-bats. By contrast, the Devil Rays' left side hit about .290/.350/.430 last year. Fans called for Bossman's promotion. Lamar and company pointed to his fielding record: 144 errors in 367 games. Fans called for a position change. The front office went silent.
While Lou Piniella had toyed with the idea of using Upton at the hot corner in 2004, last year Upton played in Durham while no one offered a direction. When the group was fired, Tampa fans reveled in the hope that Andrew Friedman and Gerry Hunsicker would bring Upton Blueprints.
Thus far, the two have been bailed out as Upton's bat has yet to warm up. In fact, the current Devil Ray SS line (.273/.360/.386) is better than Upton's in the International League. However, his patient approach and aggressive baserunning mentality (8/9 already this season) have left Tampa fans again salivating. But again, they remain disappointed, as all the focus has been on Upton's fielding: 7 errors in his first 11 games.
Despite the pessimism that Upton's fielding record produces, no one questions that his future is bright. They do question, however, the existence of a plan.
A long-term plan like the organization that B.J.'s brother was just drafted into. A prep superstar with a scouting report more glowing than his brother, Justin Upton was drafted listed at the most ideal position on the defensive spectrum. However, when he opens his season in a few weeks, Upton will be in centerfield, where the club believes it can best utilize Upton's arm. Once magnificently wild in high school, it will now be difficult for Justin to overthrow his target.
In addition to his mistake-prone issues at shortstop, the first overall pick was also moved thanks to foresight by the D-Backs' new front office. Like Tampa with Upton, Arizona was lucky on draft day to land their blue-chip shortstop -- Stephen Drew, who fell into the teens in 2004 thanks to signability concerns. Once signed, the path to the Majors was set into action for Stephen, who began his minor league career by tearing up the California League last season.
Now playing for Tucson in the Pacific Coast League, Drew is -- like Upton -- struggling in the early going. Fans have been put off by his .269 OBP, as well as a high strikeout percentage: 12 in 48 at-bats. However, there is a sign of the player chosen to lead Arizona into the next decade -- four home runs through his first twelve games. No one expected AAA to be easy for Drew, barely removed from AA, and he has plenty of time to be acclimated.
Craig Counsell signed with Arizona in December of 2004, months after the club had drafted Drew, months before they signed him. Now, the two-year contract to which Counsell was handed appears to be the perfect length, as Stephen will be given a full season to prepare for the Major Leagues. There will be no worries about player's catching him from the minors, or some veteran taking his slot. Drew is aware that on Opening Day, 2007, the shortstop job in Phoenix is his until he loses it.
This is what the Devil Rays need to provide Upton: a clear view at his future. With that weight off Upton's shoulders, it might be then that his potential is truly untapped. Once the undeniable best shortstop prospect in the minors, the Tampa front office has allowed Upton to lose that label.
Looking at the other top shortstop prospects in the minors...
As I said, Upton is no longer on top of the shortstop heap. Instead, at least on my list, Bossman currently ranks third overall. He's one slot behind Drew, the powerful man with the plan, a guaranteed job at a particular position. Ahead of both of them is Brandon Wood, also likely questioning the motives of his front office, currently in their second year of a four-year contract with Orlando Cabrera.
Wood is already putting pressure on the Angels to consider moving Cabrera, or even, move Wood to the hot corner. His power spike has not dulled in eleven contests, as Brandon has eight extra-base hits in 44 at-bats. However, before Wood holds Bill Stoneman's hands to the fire and forces him to make a move, the strikeouts need to decrease. With fifteen whiffs already in eleven games, Brandon is doing nothing to inspire projections of his future batting average. Even given his weaknesses and uncertainty, Wood's big-time power leaves him with an advantage over both Stephen Drew and B.J. Upton.
Looking at the second tier, I see three obvious names, with three more players looking to bang down the door. Last year's top ten pick Troy Tulowitzki leads the group, only an exit from Sample Size Theatre away from joining the first pack. I believe in Troy as a player, and sincerely believe Clint Barmes will be out of the organization or at second base in about a year. However, Tulo could inspire even more faith if he proved a bit more patient, added a bit of power (lots of gaps thus far), and toned down the strikeouts. Complaints in each offensive department, I know, but it won't take significant changes to make him a top 25-caliber talent.
While Tulo is close to spending most of his time in Coors Field, our other second tier shortstops are a simple injury or slump away. Dustin Pedroia needs to restore his own injury before Boston becomes a reality, but it isn't as if the Sox are too emotionally invested into Alex Gonzalez. Pedroia, a small player with limited upside but nearly guaranteed certainty, should be up by the trade deadline.
Erick Aybar should be in Los Angeles before then. Cabrera's contract be damned, Aybar is ready, currently hitting .348/.362/.543 in Salt Lake. It appears at this point that Aybar has certain flaws that we will simply have to deal with: a lack of baserunning instincts, no discernable plate discipline, and no great power. But given his good contact abilties, plus speed and great defense, Aybar has everything needed to become a Major League shortstop. Everything but a job.
As we move down our shortstop rankings, we find players far more removed from the Major League landscape. No talent better exemplifies this than Elvis Andrus, currently the Rome Braves starting shortstop at the tender age of 17. Andrus drew rave reviews from his short-season companions last year, but has hardly kept his name in the news this April. Showing pretty good patience and contact skills, complaints will almost certainly rally around his inevitable raw weaknesses: undeveloped power, baserunning ignorance, and fielding mistakes. The fact that Andrus could have three minor league seasons to improve in these areas before reaching 20 is what makes Elvis the most intriguing Brave prospect.
Readers know the players I find most intriguing -- the group I choose each season as my projected breakout players. One this season, Reid Brignac, has assured himself good early season statistics by hitting three home runs in a game earlier this season. Besides that, Brignac is off to a start that proves his potential. It is his ceiling that has me thinking Brignac might be a better prospect than Marcus Sanders, one of the two biggest Shortstop Slumpers of the early season. Since Opening Day, in which Sanders doubled and walked, the Giant prospect has reached base just three times, and never via the extra-base hit. Still, once the ball starts to find the holes, Sanders will start again wreaking havoc on the basepaths and proving his future as the projected Giants leadoff hitter.
On the next level there is a slew of players, easily broken in to a few groups. Predictably, one if filled with fantastic defensive players destined for bench careers or mediocrity in starting roles. Leading this clan in potential is Alcides Escobar, who has dazzled in High-A so far. While Kevin Goldstein pointed out yesterday that Escobar's plate discipline is on an upswing, the opposiote seems true with the White Sox' Robert Valido, walkless in 50 at-bats. At this point, neither he nor Tony Giarratano (.250 OBP, 1 walk) have proven to be anything more than defensive specialists.
Before diving into the world of 2005 draftees, there are four that don't fit into that category that merit mention. Two are first rounders from 2004, both of whom disappointed in low-A last year. The Twins moved Trevor Plouffe up to the FSL after his Midwest League disaster, and his .446 OBP certainly shows signs of life. A similar heartbeat has not been found in Chris Nelson, former top ten pick repeating low-A. Don't let the .295 batting average fool you, it's empty, his lack of power and patience are currently producing a .744 OPS.
While many pegged those two players for breakout seasons, I opted for Australian Brad Harman. Also in the FSL, Harman has shown nothing close to Plouffe's polish. Instead, Harman has been awful, hitting just .205/.289/.231 through his first 11 games. His struggles outshine even those of Eduardo Nunez, a PECOTA sleeper with a similar sub-.600 OPS in the Florida State League. Something must be in the water in the Sunshine State.
It's foolish not to trust scouts and scouting directors, to shy away from the rankings that these professionals created. In 2005, shortstops were drafted in this order, following Tulowitzki: C.J. Henry, Cliff Pennington, Tyler Greene, and Jeff Bianchi. Henry is now on the DL, a hamstring problem after struggling in his debut. Pennington has struggled like no one else in April, sporting a .114 slugging percentage as we speak. And Greene has been awful as well, striking out 17 times in his first 32 at-bats. Bianchi is rising up prospect lists simply by not playing, at this point.
Time to close this article out with a ranking of the top ten shortstop prospects in the minors right now:
1. Brandon Wood - Angels
2. Stephen Drew - Diamondbacks
3. B.J. Upton - Devil Rays
4. Troy Tulowitzki - Rockies
5. Dustin Pedroia - Red Sox
6. Erick Aybar - Angels
7. Elvis Andrus - Braves
8. Reid Brignac - Devil Rays
9. Marcus Sanders - Giants
10. Alcides Escobar - Brewers