This week, I will continue my position-by-position review of the game’s best players by examining young third basemen. The following list differs from traditional prospect lists in two ways. First, anyone under 25 is eligible. Second, I won’t give the false impression of precision by ranking players. Instead, I’ll group players according to their upside and closeness to fulfilling their potential and order them alphabetically.
When I describe “excellent” potential, I simply mean that the player has a non-trivial chance of being among the top five major leaguers at his position during multiple seasons. In other words, these are guys who could be perennial All-Stars. These players usually have all the skills to become complete hitters and at least average fielders at their position.
When I describe “good” potential, I usually am describing a player who has the skills to become a consistently above-average starter at the position. Often, these players will have at least one major limitation that probably will prevent them from becoming top-tier players. When I describe “average” upside, I usually am describing a player with more than one major concern or limitation that suggests he probably will become an average player relative to other starters at his position.
Players who are “close to their prime” usually are within a year of reaching a level of performance that will be among the five best seasons of their career.
I don’t have a crystal ball, so I rely heavily on quantitative analysis of hitting and fielding performance to group players. These are simply estimates—any of these players could be out of baseball at age 26 and any one could become a star. Mostly, I hope this list can help you identify exciting young players; there are many young third basemen with star potential, so these 15 are certainly worth watching.
Excellent Upside, Close to Prime
23 years old | Florida Marlins
Cabrera recently won a $7.4 million arbitration award and could surpass Alfonso Soriano’s record $10 million award in 2008. Nevertheless, Cabrera remains a good value for the budget-conscious Marlins. He was baseball’s most productive third baseman in 2006 and, at only 23, he probably still hasn’t put together his best season.
24 years old | New York Mets
While some see Wright developing into an elite power threat, his most recent performance raises doubts about that. His HR/Flyball ratio dropped to average levels as he suffered through three- and four-week homerless stretches during the second half of the 2006 season. Whether or not Wright can hit 35 or more home runs in a season does not detract from his outstanding knowledge of the strike zone and solid play at third base. He likely will be one of baseball’s best all-around third basemen for years.
22 years old | Washington Nationals
Zimmerman, the fourth overall pick in the 2005 MLB first-year player draft, is not as widely recognized as Cabrera and Wright but equally deserving of his status in this category. At only 22, Zimmerman already is one of the game’s best fielders at the hot corner and his projected offensive contributions are outstanding. I collaborated with David Gassko to build cutting-edge projections for The Hardball Times 2007 Preseason Book (coming soon!). We considered physical characteristics, performance trends and age to generate individual aging curves for more than 600 players, and Zimmerman’s age and set of skills suggest continued improvement in the near future. Here is his three-year projected performance:
YEAR AGE PA BB SO HR AVG OBP SLG 2007 22 549 43 95 18 .292 .349 .483 2008 23 539 43 91 19 .304 .359 .504 2009 24 530 42 87 17 .310 .365 .508
Zimmerman is not projected to improve on his 20-home run performance of 2006, but otherwise his age 23 and 24 seasons look remarkably similar to what David Wright accomplished last year. In a few years, Nationals and Mets fans could be having the kind of debates that Derek Jeter and Nomar Garciaparra inspired among Yankees and Red Sox fans several years ago.
Excellent Upside, At Least Two Years from Prime
23 years old | Milwaukee Brewers
Braun got better with each new challenge in 2006 and has as much power potential as any player on this list. His footwork and throwing at third base need more work, but the Brewers might ask Braun to learn at the big league level in 2007 due to Corey Koskie‘s uncertain status. Making the leap to Milwaukee after only half a season at Double-A is asking a lot of Braun, but he hasn’t disappointed following an aggressive promotion yet.
23 years old | Kansas City Royals
Gordon might begin the year at Triple-A Omaha, but at some point in 2007 the Royals will certainly move Mark Teahen to make way for their third baseman of the future. Gordon dominated the Double-A Texas League, finishing among the top four players in batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage, but he likely will disappoint fans who expect him to maintain his all-around offensive skills in 2007. Consider the following correlation:
SO/PA ISOP April 22.2% .283 May 14.2% .187 June 13.7% .123 July 22.8% .336 August 26.8% .346
When Gordon was really slugging the ball in 2006, he was also striking out far too often to be anything more than a .260 hitter in the big leagues. There is no question that he is among the game’s best prospects, but his inconsistent 2006 performance suggests Royals fans should temper their expectations for Gordon in 2007. It looks like he might be a high-average/high-on-base guy or a middle-of-the-order power threat in the short-term.
21 years old | Tampa Bay Devil Rays
The Long Beach State alum moved through four levels during his first three months as a professional in what can only be described as the best debut of any player in the draft. He appeared to abandon his plate discipline as he started launching home runs more frequently at Double-A Montgomery, but he finished his year with a series of heroic postseason performances. The Devil Rays infield situation is complicated, but Longoria might force his way into the big league lineup before the end of the 2007 season.
18 years old | Baltimore Orioles
The 6-foot-5 teenager steadily improved with the Rookie League Bluefield Orioles and held his own against older players during a brief stint in the New York-Penn League last year. He didn’t hit many home runs, but I wouldn’t worry about a teenager’s potential to hit home runs if he can launch 24 extra-base hits in the first 52 games of his professional career.
Good Upside, Close to Prime
23 years old | Los Angeles Dodgers
Adam’s brother is different from many other prospects in this list because his value at the plate derives from his ability to get on base. LaRoche’s power numbers have been assisted by the hitter-friendly home parks in the Dodgers system, but he is patient at the plate and his above-average contact skills suggest he will be an above-average third baseman in his prime.
22 years old | Tampa Bay Devil Rays
Despite his athleticism, Upton remains a defensive liability and nobody knows where he is going to play in 2007. Upton has demonstrated exceptional patience at the plate, so if the Devil Rays can find a way to let him play every day, he could be among their best at getting on base. When Upton reaches first base, he likes to run to second. He was 57-for-77 in stolen base attempts last year.
23 years old | Cleveland Indians
The Indians’ primary gain in the Coco Crisp trade has not realized the power potential everyone expected from him as a teenager. His .261/.321/.451 numbers at Triple-A Buffalo in 2006 looked like a step in the wrong direction. Marte is a hard worker and only 23, so he is as good a candidate as any to break out with a surprising .570 slugging percentage this year, the way Brian McCann did in 2006.
Good Upside, At Least Two Years from Prime
23 years old | Atlanta Braves
Pope is one of the minor leagues’ best fielding third basemen, and he’s a quick learner at the plate. He made steady improvements in his walk rate and contact rate in 2006 season. Pope also put some of his raw strength to use during the second half, when he hit seven home runs in August.
22 years old | Colorado Rockies
I wrote about Stewart’s struggles to live up to expectations six months ago, and since then he has shown some improvements. He stayed healthy during the second half of 2006 and his power production and fielding steadily improved after a terrible month of May. His 41 doubles are a good sign, and with a fully-healed and rested wrist, Stewart could re-emerge as one of baseball’s top prospects in 2007.
Average Upside, Close to Prime
24 years old | Cincinnati Reds
He hit only .234/.301/.425 away from his hitter-friendly home park in 2006, but Encarnacion’s power production and plate discipline suggest he could be an above-average third baseman in his prime.
24 years old | Chicago White Sox
Fields’ .304/.373/.513 statistics at Triple-A Charlotte are some of the more misleading numbers of the 2006 season. A spring power surge did carry throughout the season, and his unsustainable .395 batting average on balls in play (BABIP) makes it easy to ignore his significant strikeout rate. If Fields is going to strike out in more than 25% of his plate appearances at the big league level, he will need to show much more power than he has in the past to keep a regular spot. The former Oklahoma State quarterback is capable of becoming at least an average third baseman, but Joe Crede‘s presence in Chicago is a short-term obstacle that might require a position change.
Next week, I will break down baseball’s best young shortstops.