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Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Baseball's Youth Movement, Part Three: The Top 5

In the first two installments, we've seen some high-upside young players who figure to be impact players on their teams in the future.  You may have disagreed with some of the rankings, and you may think that some of these guys need more experience in the bigs before being on a list like this, but the reality of the situation is that getting a good body of sample size for a player 25 and younger is rare, as a lot of guys won't be rookies until they turn 23 or 24, and that's if they're developing at a good pace.  In these last five, there is a mix of super stud prospects well ahead of their learning curves, players on the brink of breakout, and a couple of guys who have already emerged as superstars and figure to be in the hall of fame discussion in about 20 years.  With that, let's look at the top 5.

5. Bryce Harper, RF, Washington Nationals
Believe it or not, this was the hardest individual to place on this list.  Without speculation that Harper might win the RF job out of spring training, I probably would have left him off the list due to him being so young and inexperienced.  However, Harper's once-in-a-lifetime upside  was simply too much to ignore on a list like this.  His intelligence and his playing ability had him graduate high school early in order to play for a junior college, where he flourished.  He's got everything: top-5 power, great patience, above-average speed, and good defensive skills (a rocket arm, mainly).  Harper had a couple minor injury issues and had a little bit of a slow start to his AA campaign halfway through the season, but his rates were great (he mainly suffered from BABIP issues).  Projecting Harper's value to the Nationals is dependent on when they decide to bring him up, but many scouts have said that he could be starting in the outfield every day in the majors right now, which is saying a ton for someone who will only be 19 by opening day 2012.  His ceiling knows no bounds, and if this guy pans out, we're looking at one of the best players to ever set foot on a baseball diamond.
Tools: Power, Defense
Weaknesses: Contact Ability
Notable stats: N/A (not enough playing time)

4. Mike Trout, OF, Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
It's hard to step on a field and make everyone else you play with look slow, but Trout manages to do it.  There are fast guys, there are really fast guys, and then there's Mike Trout.  102 SB (79% success rate) in about two years' worth of time in the minors.   However, elite speed alone doesn't get you into the number four spot on the countdown.  Trout also features good power, good patience, and relatively awesome defensive instincts.  Oh yeah, and he's also only going to be 20 years old next year, and I'm guessing he's earned himself a spot starting in the outfield for the Angels in 2012.  Trout was taken 25th overall in the 2009 draft, and he came into the 2010 season being rated #85 on BA's list of top 100 prospects.  However, rapid development occurred and Trout jumped up to #2 on BA"s list with the only prospect ahead of him being the aforementioned Bryce Harper.  So why put Trout over the once-in-a-lifetime prospect?  He's closer to the bigs, has a better track record, is closer to his physical prime, and when he got to AA ball, he didn't slow down...he got way better.  To sprinkle a bit of context, here's what Trout did in 2011 in his time in the minors:
412 PA/ .326 BA/ .414 OBP/ .544 SLG/ 33 SB (10 CS)(77% success rate)
Trout also found some glimpses of success after he was called up in September to the show.  He posted a nice .171 ISO, fielded his position extremely well (3.2 UZR and 0.5 dWAR in 40 games), and he swiped his first four stolen bases without being caught.  Trout's biggest shortcoming (not really that much of a shortcoming) is his strikeout to walk ratio in the bigs, but his numbers in the minors suggest that he'll be just fine, and when he overcomes the .247 BABIP (Bill James is expecting .343 for 2012), he should put up some rather elite numbers in the outfield.
Tools: Speed, Defense
Weakness: Swing-and miss (may prove to not be a weakness at all)
Notable stats: 106/133 SB in his professional career

3. Stephen Strasburg, RHP, Washington Nationals
Most of us are aware of Strasburg's debut against the Pittsburgh Pirates.  In case you aren't, here was his line:
7 IP/ 2 ER/ 4 hits/ 14 K/ 0 BB
Yeah, that's relatively insane for a guy who made his debut in his first season of professional baseball.  With Strasburg, it all starts with the stuff.  He's got an elite fastball with incredible movement that comes in anywhere in the mid-upper 90's (was 100s before his surgery), a devastating curveball with incredible drop, and a change up that flows in at an average of 89 MPH.  Unlike Aroldis Chapman, Strasburg's stuff moves a lot more (especially the fastball), and he has  elite control of all of his pitches.  Now, from a raw scouting report, that's just not even fair.  A guy who can hit 100 with that much movement and put it wherever he wants to?  Nope, not even fair, and we haven't even gotten to his other pitches.  In his first 92 IP in the majors, Strasburg has a 6.11 K/BB ratio, and he'll only be 23 at the start of next season.  If not for the surgery in 2010 (he came back looking better than ever), he would easily have been number one on this list, because he's got upside that very few pitchers in history have ever had.  In fact, in those 92 innings, he's already got 21.4 win shares of value on his pitches (11.2 wFB, 4.4 wCB, and 2.2 wCH).  Stuff wise, he's got one of the best 3-pitch combinations in the history of baseball, and he can control it.  He's still young, so there is a tendency to get a bit ahead of oneself when projecting Strasburg (and he does have injury concern), but it is impossible to ignore the potential he has.
Tools: Explosive FB with movement, Devastating off speed pitches
Weakness: Injury Concern
Notable stats: 3.7 fWAR in 92 innings pitched (that's 8.8 over 220 innings)

2. Justin Upton, RF, Arizona Diamondbacks
Back when the phrase "5-tool player" was more popular with scouts and individuals on the boards, Justin Upton was the iconic feature and the perfect description of what that kind of prospect is supposed to be.  He'll hit for good average, he'll hit for tons of power, he'll run down balls in the field, he's got great speed, and his arm is as strong as anyone's.  I was once skeptical of Upton's development, especially after a 2010 season where his power numbers dipped a lot (43 points of ISO in the wrong direction), but Upton's bounce-back 2011 showcased all of his skills:
Contact: K rate dropped to 18.7%/ .289 BA
Power: .240 ISO over 674 PA
Defense: 7.7 UZR (fluke dWAR rating in 2011)
Arm Strength: 5 outfield assists
Speed: 21 stolen bases
Now, Upton's end results were aided just a bit by the 19 pitches he was hit with in 2011, but they were also hurt by a 40 point drop in BABIP, which suggests that Upton will be a .300+ hitter next year, have an OBP around .380, and he could slug well north of .550.  His power is rare, as he hit a ball out onto the plaza in left-center field at Chase Field last year, which was more than 475 feet away from home plate.  With his normal defensive rating and  an improved BABIP, Justin Upton could be looking at an 8+ rWAR campaign in 2012, which would make him my front runner for Most Valuable Player.
Tools: Power, Speed
Weakness: Can be strikeout prone at times
Notable stats: 10.1% BB/ .211 ISO/ 11.7 UZR/ 11.3 BsR/ 14.6 fWAR/ 11.5 rWAR
Before we get to number one in the countdown, here's a compiled list of everyone 25-2:
25. Craig Kimbrel, RP, Atlanta Braves
24. Peter Bourjos, CF, Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
23. Jemile Weeks, 2B, Oakland Athletics
22. Aroldis Chapman, LHP, Cincinnati Reds
21. Ike Davis, 1B, New York Mets
20. Madison Bumgarner, LHP, San Francisco Giants
19. Devin Mesoraco, C, Cincinnati Reds
18. Brett Lawrie, 3B, Toronto Blue Jays
17. Buster Posey, C, San Francisco Giants
16. Jay Bruce, RF, Cincinnati Reds
15. Michael Pineda, RHP, Seattle Mariners
14. Eric Hosmer, 1B, Kansas City Royals
13. Jesus Montero, C/1B/DH, New York Yankees
12. Starlin Castro, SS, Chicago Cubs
11. Julio Teheran, RHP, Atlanta Braves
10. Dustin Ackley, 2B, Seattle Mariners
9. Mike Stanton, RF, Florida Marlins
8. Matt Moore, LHP, Tampa Bay Rays
7. Jason Heyward, RF, Atlanta Braves
6. Andrew McCutchen, CF, Pittsburgh Pirates
5. Bryce Harper, RF, Washington Nationals
4. Mike Trout, OF, Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
3. Stephen Strasburg, RHP, Washington Nationals
2. Justin Upton, RF, Arizona Diamondbacks
So what does it take to be number one in this countdown?  Well, we're looking for someone who is well ahead of his curve.  We want an individual who has blown past the minor leagues and already has established himself as a force in the majors.  With this kind of player, we don't have to play any guessing games: we know what the player can produce.  However, the player can't have already reached his best level of play, because then there would be nothing to look forward to in the near future.  What we need is a 23 year-old Cy Young winner.  What we need is Clayton Kershaw.

1. Clayton Kershaw, LHP, Los Angeles Dodgers
Kershaw is the perfect fit for the top spot in this countdown.  he has the potential to be the best pitcher in the game, he will only be 24 at the start of next year (so he's not the oldest player in the countdown), and he already has established himself in the majors by taking home the pitching triple crown and the NL Cy Young Award in 2011.  Kershaw's biggest weapon is his slider, which breaks very sharply and borders on impossible to hit.  However, the control and power by which he throws his fastball is remarkable as well.  To get an idea of how good these pitches are, here are the win ratings over the last three years for each (FB followed by SL):
2009: 30.2, 3.3
2010: 14.5, 16.2
2011: 19.8, 22.9
These numbers are staggering for someone who is so young.  However, Kershaw also throws a curveball and change up that are both improving and are turning into high quality pitches that he can use to get outs (though the slider is still his best out pitch).  Kershaw started out with some pretty significant control problems when he got the the majors, but he has made massive strides in taking his BB rate down to 2.08 from 4.79 in a matter of 3 years of development.  Each season, Kershaw has also increased the amount of innings he has thrown, with a steady increase from 171 to 204 to 233 innings last year.  Kershaw does a fantastic job of avoiding bats and hard contact, as he not only had great numbers by GB rate, K/9, and HR rate, but his well-hit numbers were the best in the league, as he had the lowest WH% against him by a wide margin.  Batters rarely make any contact and when they do, it is weak.  This leaves them only with the option of getting on base with weak hits and speed (or poor fielding) or getting on base by walking.  If Kershaw keeps his BB/9 down towards 2, hitters won't have any kind of advantage at the plate.  This is what makes Kershaw the prime candidate for number one on this list.  He's young, he's established as an elite player, and he still has room to grow.

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