Sunday, January 23, 2011

Up and Coming Third Basemen: Part 1

Last year when I started Central In Focus, one of the first series I ran covered the American League Central's quartet of promising young catchers. I wrote about Alex Avila of the Tigers, Tyler Flowers of the White Sox, Wilson Ramos of the Twins, Carlos Santana of the Indians. And I never even mentioned the Royals Wil Myers who exploded onto the mega-prospect scene after demolishing two levels of A ball during the 2010 campaign in his introduction to full season baseball.

One year later Santana appears to be headed for the stardom that so many expected, and no one would be surprised to see Ramos win the opening day job in Washington after his mid-season trade. Avila remains a platoon option at catcher for the Tigers and with Victor Martinez's presence, that's unlikely to change for the next year or two. Flowers unfortunately saw his persistent problems with strikeouts catch up to him at AAA this year. He remains a prospect but will need to make fundamental improvements to his offensive game if he's ever to become a viable Major League backstop.

This year the Central heads toward 2010 sporting another impressive area of strength, this time at third base. A recent article listing their Top-10 third base prospects had the top three spots, four of the top five, and five of the top ten filled with AL Central talent. It's an incredibly impressive layout and all five Central teams are represented. It only seems right that such a talented group of players deserves the same kind of coverage the catchers got last year. Just like last year I'm going to go ahead and run through the five players, in reverse order by the rankings given in the article.

Nick Castellanos

That means we're going to go ahead and lead off with Nick Castellanos of the Tigers. Castellanos was widely considered one of the top overall talents in the draft and quite possibly the top prep player in the land. A big kid coming out of high school at 6’4” 200lbs, he slipped all the way to the 44th pick due to his strong desire to honor his scholarship and play at the University of Miami. The signability concerns that arose because of that desire drove him out of the first round entirely. Thankfully, the Tigers weren’t dissuaded and were able to  entice him to sign at the 11th hour with a massive 3.45m signing bonus.

Because he signed in enough time to make his professional debut, the Tigers and sent him to Rookie ball where he got his feet wet in 29 plate appearance. Obviously that tells us precisely nothing about how his immense talents will eventually translate to pro-ball, but no need to worry, we’ll get a taste of that soon enough.

In the meantime, Tigers fans should take solace - and opposing pitchers take heed - of his impressive raw talents. Castellanos brings a repeatable, level swing that’s built for lashing line drives and his fantastic hand/bat speed combined with a solid frame project above average power. How far above average is something we wont know for quite some time because power is typically one of the last components of a players game to fully develop. But that's no fun, so lets say that conservative estimates would suggest he’d be good for at least 20 home runs per season should his development stay on track, and there's certainly room for plenty more in his frame.

Defensively, the Tigers are going to try and keep Castellanos at third base but he’s already pretty ideally sized for the position and he’s only going to fill out more over the next few years. That's good for his power, but probably not for his defensive game. With range that’s considered fringe/average for the position right now, that likely means a position change could be in his future. If he can advance through the minors quickly however, I wouldn’t be surprised to see him debut as a third baseman.  But that doesn't change the fact that I’m skeptical about his ability to stick at the position long-term. While his range isn’t ideal, his arm plays nicely and he could slide to a corner outfield spot in the future if the Tigers think it’s for the best. I'm thinking of another right handed third baseman with a lethal bat and a scholarship to the University of Miami who couldn't stick at the hot corner. Unfortunately the name alludes me.

An important word of caution here - because teasing you with a comp. like the one above is too nice, it's time for your bucket of cold water:

One thing that’s important to consider with Castellanos - as well as the next player in the countdown, Miguel Sano - is that they’re young. Very young. Neither player has considerable professional experience and every player develops differently. While I’m expecting great things from his bat (as are most people) and while I'm a bit hesitant about his defense, that could change dramatically over the next few years as he grows and develops under the tutelage of the Tigers coaching staff. The great thing about players like Castellanos and Sano is that right now, they're nothing but big buckets of tools. Toolsheds. They have all the talent in the world and we can therefor project our dreams upon them. But that shouldn't mean that we take the greatest upside possible and call it our expectation. While both players have raw talent to become perennial all-stars, it's far more likely they don't fulfill all of that potential.

It’s also worth mentioning the Tigers process here. The Tigers franchise under GM Dave Dombrowski has routinely made aggressive plays for prospects other teams were scared off by - Jacob Turner and Rick Porcello fit the mold - over signability concerns. That aggressiveness in the draft has paid off and the Tigers have been rewarded with three high-end prospects that other teams could’ve easily taken ahead of where they ended up being picked up by the Tigers. They’ve been bold moves that could’ve easily gone the other way (as so many prep picks do) but strong scouting and some negotiation room chutzpah has paid dividends.

I ripped you yesterday Dombrowski but today I praise. So if you’re reading his Dave (and let's be honest, what else would you be doing?), just know I’m not biased against you. I just call’em like I see’em.

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