Prospect three-day weekend

With a new baseball season upon us, it’s also time for THT to kick its prospect coverage back into high gear. This is the first in what will be a weekly segment posted on Fridays to get you ready for a nice long weekend of looking at prospects.

Of course, it is still February, so our format between now and the start of actual game action will vary from week to week, but what you will find here is an update on all the important prospect news you missed during the week, and the most important prospect action taking place over the weekend. For now, we’re going to get you caught up on the news from over the winter, and get you ready to watch prospects during spring training.

Position changes

Some of the biggest off-season news involved prospects switching positions on the diamond. We already knew that the Nationals moved first overall pick Bryce Harper out from behind the plate immediately after drafting him, labeling him as a right fielder and having him play there in the instructional and Arizona Fall Leagues. But then the organization designated the next seven years of right field play to free agent Jayson Werth, leaving Harper’s position future cloudy. Upon arrival in spring training, however, Harper will be seeing time in center field.

This move makes sense. Harper may not be able to play center for his entire career, but he has above-average speed, excellent baseball instincts, and an off-the-charts work ethic, a combination that should allow him to be a serviceable-at-worst center fielder. Much like Werth’s, Harper’s arm would be a waste in left field. Harper will likely see time in both center and right once minor league games start, and while the Nats have discussed Werth seeing time in center field in Washington, by the time Harper arrives in our nation’s capital to stay, Werth likely will be a corner outfielder position.

Essentially, the Nats have nothing to lose here. Moving from right to center won’t slow Harper’s development at all, and allows him to give the team potentially even more value. By the time he slows down enough to eliminate center field as an option, Werth may have done the same, making room for Harper to shift to right and Werth to left a few years down the road.

Also shedding the tools of ignorance is Kansas City Royals top prospect Wil Myers, one of the top hitters in the minor leagues, who has drawn comparisons to Werth and Dale Murphy as tall, athletic catchers who ultimately will need to move out from behind the plate. While most prospect watchers assumed Myers would be moved eventually, the Royals eliminated the drama of when the change would be made and announced that Myers would move to the outfield this season, beginning in spring training.

It’s another move that makes sense, given that Myers’ bat should be major league ready by next season at the latest, but his defensive abilities behind the plate would not. The Royals, with their stacked farm system and rapidly approaching window of opportunity, want to ensure that Myers is in Kansas City (and is affordable) at the same time as their other top prospects. Waiting for his defensive skills to develop might cause him to miss the window.

But it’s not just upper-echelon prospects who have made news by moving around the diamond. The Phillies shifted prospect Aaron Altherr to third base this offseason, bringing the raw but talented athlete in from the outfield where he had been splitting time between center and left field.

It’s not a terrible stretch; Altherr had been a shortstop in high school, and at 6 foot 5 has the build to play the hot corner for as long as his athleticism and reaction time allow. The team essentially has nothing to lose. What is the risk to the Phillies by trying Altherr at third base? Even if it’s a catastrophic failure, a move back to left field will do nothing to slow his development. Altherr, having just turned 20 this offseason, has yet to even reach full-season ball.

Debut points

The start of a minor league season offers us a chance to see many prospects for the first time, mainly those who were drafted the previous year but signed too late to play. The top three picks in the 2010 draft all essentiall will be making their professional debuts at the start of this season.

The beneficiary of this flood of talent? The Sally League.

The South Atlantic League (Low-A) will see an influx that includes three players who all would have been the first overall pick in most drafts had they not all been eligible at the same time. Harper, who played only in the instructional league and as a taxi squad player in the Arizona Fall League upon signing in August, will head to the Nationals affiliate in Hagerstown. Harper will get the chance to face off against the No. 2 pick from last year’s draft, Jameson Taillon, April 25-29, when the Pirates’ Sally League affiliate, the West Virginia Power, host the Suns in a five-game series. Taillon will be making his professional debut; his match-up with Harper will serve as good practice for his late-May duel against No. 3 overall pick Manny Machado, who will be assigned to the Orioles’ Sally League affiliate, the Delmarva Shorebirds.

Machado, still just 18, was the only one of the three to play any regular season games last year, but appeared in just nine games at the end of the New York-Penn League season. Machado’s Shorebirds travel to West Virginia almost exactly a month after the Suns make the trip, and two weeks after having hosted the Suns themselves, meaning that by the end of May, we will have seen all three top prospects square off against one another.

Prospects in spring training

Spring training is one of the few opportunities we have to catch a glimpse of prospects before they scatter around the country to their respective minor league affiliates, some never to be heard from again. Every team has prospects in camp, some many more than others. But not every prospect in camp is there for the same reasons.

There are three main types of prospects in camp: those who have a spot that is theirs to lose, those who have a chance to earn a spot, and those that have no chance, but are there just to get the experience of a major league setting.

The first category consists of guys like Freddie Freeman, for whom the Braves have cleared a path that leads directly to their first base job. Barring a major flop, he’ll be donning the tomahawk on Opening Day. We like seeing guys like Freeman, but we’re going to see lots of him this season.

The third category is fun, because it’s often our first glimpse of the really young guys like Shelby Miller of the Cardinals or Julio Teheran of the Braves, who have no chance of making their respective major league rosters. It’s great to see them for a week or two, but don’t blink, because they’ll be back in minor league camp before you know it.

But the really interesting prospects in spring training are the ones who fall into the second category, those who have a chance at breaking camp with their team but are in a legitimate position battle, typically with a veteran player.

Each of these battles has its own characteristics. Some prospects have a better chance than others. Sometimes the battle isn’t based on talent at all, but on whether the team is prepared to start the prospect’s service clock. Other times, it comes down to whether the team has a chance to compete this year.

We saw this last season in two instances, each handled differently. Entering spring training, Jason Heyward and Buster Posey were both clearly their team’s best options at right field and catcher, respectively. The Braves elected to start the season with Heyward, essentially giving up an extra year of player control in exchange for having him in their lineup the entire season. The Giants elected to send Posey down to the minors, and waited to call him up until they had delayed his service clock long enough to the point where they thought he would be theirs for an extra season. Both strategies appeared to work, Heyward came out of the gate hot and played a major role in why the Braves made the playoffs. Playing without Posey for the first part of the season did nothing to slow down the Giants, who went on to a World Series victory.

This season, there are a large number of prospects with a chance to stick, but a few big name ones who will give their teams a Heyward/Posey-like dilemma about a month from now.

Dustin Ackley, Mariners

This should be a no-brainer for the Mariners, considering Ackley is still learning a new, difficult position, and the team is not expected to be competitive, giving Seattle little incentive to start Ackley’s service clock. But a disappointed fan base and the potential for a stadium full of empty seats will cause a front office to do funny things sometimes, meaning that if Ackley can show any aptitude for second base and hits as expected, he could give the Mariners something to think about. In all likelihood, he should start the season in Triple-A, but a strong showing could have him in Seattle by Memorial Day by the latest.

Brandon Belt, Giants

The Brandon Belt bandwagon hit full steam last summer and hasn’t slowed down this offseason. The Giants would love to add Belt to their lineup, but his first base/corner outfield positions are a bit of a logjam in the Bay Area. Belt could easily hit his way into the Giants lineup this March, but GM Brian Sabean has already said that Belt will make the 25-man roster only if he can crack the starting lineup. That’s a wise decision. There’s no sense in letting him rot on the bench, playing two or three days a week.

Cracking the starting lineup could prove to be tough for Belt, with some combination of Aubrey Huff and Pat Burrell manning first base and left field, and Mark DeRosa and Nate Schierholtz in the mix as well. Belt may prove to be a better option than his competition, but as the Giants have shown, they’re not afraid to send a player back down and call him up later in the season. Belt will have to prove he’s significantly better than the next best option or someone will have to get hurt for him to have a better than average shot at grabbing a starting job in San Francisco.

Matt Dominguez, Marlins

The Marlins’ third base job is a prime example of a case when it’s not always the stature of the prospect that determines his fate, but more often the need of the team. Dominguez isn’t the prospect Ackley or Belt is, but he’s more likely to land a starting job this spring. The report on Dominguez is that his glove is ready for the bigs, but his bat may be a question mark. Others say that the potential in his bat isn’t high, and that it’s as good as it’s going to get right now. The Marlins aren’t handing Dominguez the job a la Freddie Freeman, but he does appear to be the front runner thus far. If he can show any consistency at the plate against major league pitching this March, he should be heading to Miami with the team in April.

Hank Conger, Angels

Coner is a longshot to grab the Angels’ starting catcher job, not because of talent or need, but rather manager Mike Scioscia‘s hesitancy to hand playing time to rookies and the high standard to which he holds his catchers.

With the departure of Mike Napoli, the catching job is up for grabs. Jeff Mathis is the veteran with the best chance, but frankly, he can’t hit. He’s there for his defense, which Scioscia holds in high regard. But Conger can hit quite well, and if he can show Scioscia that he can be a leader behind the plate defensively, he could force the Angels’ hand. Conger is another player, however, who won’t stick with the team unless it’s in a starting role, so it’s essentially an all-or-nothing quest.

References & Resources
http://mlb.mlb.com/news/article.jsp?ymd=20110211&content_id=16617640&vkey=news_was&c_id=was&partnerId=rss_was
http://kingsofkauffman.com/2011/01/23/wil-myers-moving-to-outfield/
http://www.kansascity.com/2011/01/28/2617602/royals-moving-prospect-wil-myers.html
http://mlb.mlb.com/news/article.jsp?ymd=20110130&content_id=16535710&vkey=news_kc&c_id=kc&partnerId=rss_kc
http://phuturephillies.com/2011/01/28/aaron-altherr-to-give-third-base-a-try/
http://www.mlbprospectwatch.com/mlb_prospect_watch/spring-training-prospect-invite-list-2011.html
http://www.mlbprospectwatch.com/mlb_prospect_watch/brandon-belt/

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