Seeing prospects in person is my passion. In 2012, I was fortunate enough to visit parks in five different leagues — collecting information and video on 200 legitimate prospects or more. The lists released over the next few weeks will highlight the best prospects I’ve seen in person at each position during the 2012 season. The rankings will be adjusted based on projected position at the major league level, not present position (in italics if ranking includes position shift). After writing the first three lists, I realized there’s really no way to keep statistical information out of the equation completely and focus on scouting/projection alone. This has caused me to hedge my bets a bit on high ceiling talents and focus more on the complete player. Additionally, understand this is not meant to be a complete list of the best prospects at each position across all of Minor League Baseball, but the best of what I’ve seen.
1. Byron Buxton, Minnesota Twins
For all of the prospect chatter about “five tool players”, few actually live up to those expectations in person. Buxton did and then some. In batting practice, he tattooed baseballs like few others I’ve seen and flashed elite defensive tools in outfield practice. He struggled in game action, striking out and tallying three, 6-3 ground outs, but I had already seen enough. In terms of ceiling alone, he’s up there with the best prospects I’ve scouted in person. My one concern is that prospect followers will lose faith if his power doesn’t play immediately. Based on his flat plane swing and line drive display in BP, tapping into his power potential will take time.
2. Yoenis Cespedes, Oakland Athletics
Once these pieces have included, I may wind up sliding Yoenis Cespedes into the top spot on my corner outfielders list. Until that time, he ranks as the second best center fielder seen in person this season. At 26, comparing him to a teenager (Buxton), is a bit of an apples and oranges argument. But if Cespedes is a 3-4 win player through his prime, then I’ll take Buxton as I perceive his floor to be similar due to added value from defense and speed. In the spring, my “Yoenis Cespedes: Instant Legend” piece was a bit tongue-in-cheek, but his progress throughout the season was remarkable.
3. Billy Hamilton, Cincinnati Reds (SS)
The most exciting player in minor league baseball, Hamilton ranks third due to the floor his speed and defensive potential allow for. I’m not sure how much Hamilton will hit at the Major League level, but if he can post an OBP of .330 with scratch defense, he’s a 2-3 win player with the potential for additional value. Never have I seen a player literally steal runs on a baseball field like Hamilton. Add to this his high OBP at the upper levels and I’m left no choice but to rank him higher than both Williams and Kepler — Players who I believe to have higher offensive ceilings.
4. Mason Williams, New York Yankees
Williams has a higher ceiling than anybody on this list not named Buxton, but a ranking on floor alone would leave him out of the top-5. At his peak, Williams could be a plus defender with 15 home run, 30 stolen base potential and contact skills strong enough to offset so-so plate discipline. That’s an impact player in terms of WAR value. However, shoulder surgery and questions about temperament force me to question the likelihood of his being able to max out his potential.
5. Max Kepler, Minnesota Twins
If I were certain Kepler’s future lies in center field, the temptation to rank him in the top-3 may have been too great. After watching him take batting practice, I came away extremely impressed with his swing and potential to hit for both average and power. Unfortunately, Kepler is already filling out meaning he may have to move to a corner at some point. After three season in short season baseball, Kepler will make his full season debut. I can’t help but wonder if his seemingly having been around forever already will negatively affect his prospect value. I’ve seen worse players this season who will crack a number of top-100’s.
6. Leonys Martin, Texas Rangers
Martin’s single best quality is he has a balanced set of skills and won’t hurt an organization in any area. If he pushes .280/.340 at the Major League level with 10-15 home runs and steals, that’s a pretty good player — Especially if his defense is in the average range. If Michael Brantley and Alejandro De Aza produced 2.7 WAR seasons in 2012, then I’m comfortable calling Martin a 2.5-3 win player at the Major League level through his prime.
7. Bubba Starling, Kansas City Royals
Given my serious reservations about Starling’s swing, his ranking wound up being much lower than readers will expect. To be clear, the Royals prospect is not a top-100 guy for me, nor is he a guy I’d aggressively push to acquire via trade if in a competing organization. However, if he can peak as a Chris Young lite, through his prime, then Starling is still an above average regular. In truth, Starling is the center field version of Tim Beckham for me. When I first saw the Rays product in 2009, I didn’t understand the hype surrounding him at all. The same can be said for Starling as far as I’m concerned.
8. Glynn Davis, Baltimore Orioles
For me, Glynn Davis had seven figure tools nearly as impressive as those of Mason Williams. However, his baseball skills were significantly less refined. Speed and athleticism are Davis’ calling cards, and influence everything he does on a baseball field. With reps and experience the hope is Davis’ baseball skills catch up to his tools and allow him to excel, instead of survive off of tools alone. If these rankings were based off of the ratio of signing bonus-to-tools, Davis and his $100,000 bonus would occupy the top spot.
9. Ryan Lamarre, Cincinnati Reds
I’ll be the first to say, “I just don’t see it” when discussing Lamarre’s potential to become a viable starter at the big league level. But for me to completely ignore the fact he was better than a league average hitter with some secondary skills to boot would be unfair of me. To be clear, he’s not a player I’d be looking to acquire, but he’s yet another guy with fourth outfielder possibilities. When that can be had on the cheap, it does have value.
10. Ben Gamel, New York Yankees
Gamel possesses the classic fourth outfielder profile of speed, left-handedness and the ability to play all three outfield spots. I’ve fielded questions about whether Brett Gardner and Gamel are a good comparison, but it just doesn’t work for me. Not only does Gardner walk twice as much at the game’s highest level, but his speed is significantly better as well. Without those traits, Gamel is more of an extra outfielder at the Major League level or strong organizational player.
11. Zach Cone, Texas Rangers
My infatuation with Zach Cone as a prospect is somewhat illogical, I admit. The Rangers prospect has above average raw tools, but presents as a bit stiff in his baseball movements. At 22, a 17 home run, 10 stolen base campaign in the South Atlantic League is fine on paper, but Cone was older than my personal cut off for prospects at the level. Regardless, I’d take a shot on him having seen Cone in both 2011 and 2012. In my first run through, Cone was ranked inside the top-10, but I was forced to drop him due to poor WAR values of backup outfielders with low average/moderate power skill sets.
12. Matt Lipka, Atlanta Braves
To Matt Lipka’s credit, his performance improved in the Carolina League after a disappointing full season debut in Rome. His best tool is speed, but the rest of Lipka’s game lags behind — Especially power where his inability to drive the baseball is his greatest negative. At present, the former first rounder is a fringe prospect with limited upside.
Friend in baseball, Jonathan Mayo, was kind enough to let me list and link back to his top-10 outfield prospects for FanGraphs readers to use as a frame of reference. Players I’ve seen will be bold/italicized. As this was a reader request, let me know if this is something you’d like to see added to previous “Newman’s Own” pieces as well.
Jonathan Mayo’s Top-10 Outfield Prospects
1. Wil Myers
2. Oscar Tavares
3. Christian Yelich
4. Bubba Starling
5. Byron Buxton
6. Jake Marisnick
7. Jackie Bradley
8. Mason Williams
9. Albert Almora
10. George Springer