The release of Baseball America’s South Atlantic League top-20 list is essentially Christmas for me, as much of my time is spent scouting the league. This season, I had the opportunity to see 11 of the top-20 prospects featured in person, which is actually a down year for me. Fortunately, the Greenville Drive, the Boston Red Sox “Sally” affiliate was well represented, with four players in the top-20, including two of the highest ceiling prospects in the system in outfielder Brandon Jacobs and shortstop Xander Bogaerts.
As two of the best hitting prospects in the league this past season, both Jacobs and Bogaerts deserve to be ranked highly on the list, and they check in 8th and 10th respectively. However, I was pretty surprised to see Jacobs edge out his teammate for a higher position on the list.
After a slow start to his professional career, Jacobs began making great strides offensively in instructs prior to the 2011 season. Chris Mellen of soxprospects.com noted,
A high-ceiling player and very raw when entering the system, Jacobs has begun to look more and more like a baseball player making strides honing his tools into the beginnings of a more polished package.
In seeing Jacobs both early, as well as later on in the season, his growth as a hitter was easily apparent. More comfortable hitting to the opposite field, Jacobs worked deep counts and chipped in a couple of two strike hits on pitcher’s counts leaving me impressed with his more professional approach. At 20, Jacobs is just beginning his development as a baseball player and has significant room for offensive growth.
Beyond what Jacobs does with the bat in his hand, he is the appropriate age for a prospect for the level playing the season as a 20-year old. In projecting Jacobs to advance one level per season, one can expect his ETA sometime in 2014-2015 as a 23-24 year old prospect. This allows me to envision Jacobs with 2-3 years of big league development before he enters his prime and comfortably project him as a “big league regular”.
Lessening his prospect value some is the fact he projects as a true left-fielder at this time. Yes, he’s an excellent athlete, but Jacobs reads the ball off the bat poorly and his arm strength would not play particularly well in center or right. This leaves Jacobs as a prospect who will have to slug his way into a big league lineup as a player with limited defensive value.
As for Xander Bogaerts, the young shortstop has shown significantly more power early in his career than the aforementioned Jacobs. And while Jacobs did outpace Bogaerts by a single home run this season (17 to 16), the outfielder also held 206 more plate appearances.
On paper, Jacobs’ triple slash line is also significantly more impressive than Bogaerts, but when considering his BABIP advantage of .381 to .291, regression to the mean would likely affect Jacobs to a larger degree.
In 2011, Xander Bogaerts played the season as a 18-year old and will turn 19 this Saturday. This leaves Brandon Jacobs with a 22-month age advantage, which may not seem like much for players in the big leagues, but is really an enormous gap when considering the full scope of age-versus-level and how low on the totem pole these prospects are. Additionally, using the same basic level-per-season development plan, Bogaerts should surface in Boston at age 20-21 leaving him a full 5-6 years of plate appearances before entering his prime. To review prospects who began their Major League careers at such a young age is tantamount a whose who of major league leader boards.
Additionally, Bogaerts currently plays a premium position in shortstop, although he may slide over to third base in time. However, the inherent value of a defensive position on the left side of a big league infield is significantly more valuable than that of a left-fielder.
David Laurila previously spoke with Red Sox Assistant Farm Director Ben Crockett who noted:
Xander has really impressed in his first season in the States, both with the bat and the glove,” said Crockett. “He’s made huge improvements defensively since the beginning of spring training and has consistently displayed his athleticism at shortstop. At the plate he’s shown an impressive ability to drive the ball to all fields and at times shows an advanced approach for his age. Overall, Xander has excellent tools that profile at the highest level.
As a believer in both prospects, their both being ranked in the top-10 is well-deserved and I commend Baseball America for it. However, to rank Jacobs above Bogaerts means the young outfielder is expected to profile as an elite power bat at the big league level with enough offense to offset the added value Bogaerts brings as a younger talent playing a premium position. This is extremely high praise for Brandon Jacobs and may set unfair expectations going forward – to justify this ranking, he’s going to have to really hit well, given his limited value in other areas of the game.
With Bogaerts, the fact that he was able to hold his own in a full-season league as a teenager is very encouraging, and his added defensive value means that we don’t have to be quite as aggressive in projecting the development of his offensive abilities. Of course each prospect is unique and the norm certainly does not always apply, but the fact that Bogaerts is significantly younger than Jacobs, and performed well at the same level, should be given significant weight. Putting Jacobs ahead of Bogaerts implies that there’s a large expected offensive gap between the two, but having watched them both in person, I’d argue that’s probably not the case, and if asked to pick one of the two Sox prospects from Greenville this year, I’d take Bogaerts.