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Newman’s Own: Best First Basemen of 2012

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). Additionally, I’ll do my best to rank based on notes/video from the park and avoid adjusting for statistics after the fact. Keep this in mind when working through the lists and 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.

Previous Rankings:
The Catchers

With names like Pujols, Fielder and Gonzalez manning first base at the major league level, prospect followers generally assume the minor league crop of first sackers includes the next wave of impact performers. Nothing could be further from the truth. As evidenced by this list, it’s actually the thinnest position I’ve seen from a prospect standpoint this season. Hence, the inclusion of two second base prospects, a third base prospect and outfield prospect who project to move at some point.

1. Yonder Alonso, San Diego Padres

I’ve mentioned previously that Alonso has one of my favorite all-time prospect swings. After seeing him late in 2011 while a member of the Louisville Bats, I was pleased to see a leaner version of the young first baseman this past spring in Arizona. And while his 2012 will produce the WAR of an above average regular, statistical indicators point to current production being his floor. I fully expect his OPS to eclipse the .800 mark next season which should allow him to settle in as a 3+ win player — surprisingly stellar considering three wins is good enough to rank amongst the top ten first baseman in baseball this season.

2. Stefen Romero, Seattle Mariners (2B)

As indicated in the position introduction, compiling a full list of first base prospects worth mentioning requires a bit of finagling. The first of these positional movers is Mariners Stefan Romero. Across two levels in 2012, Romero combined for a .352/.391/.599 triple slash line while proving his hot first half was much more than California League magic. Against Chattanooga in the Southern League playoffs, I came away impressed with his bat speed and natural strength. A physical, but certainly not graceful player, Romero is unlikely to stick at second base long term, so why not first? If he can play second base, third base or left field in a pinch, even better. At some point, Romero is likely to force the Mariners hand.

3. Hunter Morris, Milwaukee Brewers

The left-handed hitter had a huge year in Double-A with a .303/.357/.563 triple slash line playing for his hometown Huntsville Stars. Morris has excellent bat speed and impressive power potential, but his swing-and-miss tendencies are a bit concerning. Improved plate discipline would help tighten Morris’ strike zone judgment, but one has to wonder if a player with three years of major college baseball and 1500+ professional plate appearances has much room for growth in that area if it hasn’t improved already. Additionally, Morris is downright bad defensively so the bat will have to carry him.

4. Nicky Delmonico, Baltimore Orioles (2B)

To my surprise, the Orioles organization did their best to turn Nicky Delmonico into an offensive-minded second baseman. By July, Delmonico was back where he belonged defensively. In game action. Delmonico presented above average bat speed and plate discipline, as well as an average hit tool and power. On defense, his hands were hard, but the Orioles wanting to challenge him defensively means they saw enough agility to push the envelope. The sum of the parts is unlikely to equal an impact talent, but Delmonico does possess a balanced set of skills not completely dissimilar to the leading man on this list.

5. Neftali Soto, Cincinnati Reds

At 23, Neftali Soto has accomplished enough to suggest he’ll be a big leaguer in some capacity. And while it will never be starting first baseman of the Cincinnati Reds for as long as Joey Votto is healthy, the near guarantee of major league service time holds a significant amount of weight considering the remainder of this list includes only two players with time above Single-A baseball (Poythress, Terdoslavich). In 2012, his .245/.313/.400 triple slash line was underwhelming, but his walk and strikeout rates were actually better than his breakout 2011. A bounceback 2013 may be in order.

6. Matt Skole, Washington Nationals (3B)

Over the past couple of years, I’ve had the chance to see Skole a handful of times between Georgia Tech and Hagerstown. Early in 2012, I could not help but notice how Skole’s physique had transformed into a true pro body. In game action, he slugged a long home run to centerfield, walked and booted a routine ground ball — a seemingly typical day based on his .291/.426/.559 triple slash line and my familiarity with his defense. As a 5th round pick, the Nationals have a steal in Skole, but don’t mistake his lofty numbers at an advanced age for true impact talent.

7. Harold Riggins, Colorado Rockies

To open the 2012 season, I found myself in Asheville watching a physically imposing first baseman field balls with quite a bit more grace than I was expecting. In batting practice, he flashed power and then belted a double in game action off the right field fence. That player was Harold Riggins, a seventh round pick out of North Carolina State University. Riggins strikes out too much, but his .302/.388/.546 triple slash line has me wondering if he’s a bit of a late bloomer. Unfortunately, we’re unlikely to learn much from Riggans in the California League, leaving Double-A as the big test.

8. Larry Greene, Philadelphia Phillies (OF)

Maybe I’m being too hard on Greene, but I was shocked by his lack of agility and all-around tools. Sure, he has some power, but it’s an extremely long swing path which left me wondering how much contact he’s going to make against quality breaking pitches. Ranking a guy like Greene against a number of college players is difficult considering the age difference, but I trust the hit tool of Skole and the overall athleticism of Riggins more than I do Greene. In 2013, I’ll receive a July look at Lakewood and will be eager to reassess and see if the profile works better than for me than it did initially.

9. D.J. Hicks, Minnesota Twins

In ranking Hicks over more established names, I’m going out on a limb a bit. However, Hicks has more raw power than most of the players on this list. In game action, I watched Hicks drop an absolute bomb to right-center field after putting on a show in batting practice. He’s a three outcomes player who struck out too much, but the ball explodes off Hicks’ bat. Plus, he should continue to draw free passes at a reasonable clip going forward. I pretty much know what the players below Hicks are in the end. I’m not 100% sure about Hicks, so he receives the benefit of the doubt in this instance.

10. Rich Poythress, Seattle Mariners

Now 25, Poythress’ second time through the Southern League was considerably more fruitful than the first. With a .304/.404/.439 triple slash line, he may wind up surfacing as a bench player at some point at the big league level. His transition from California League masher (.265 ISO) to Southern League spray hitter (.135 ISO) has been interesting on paper, but the on-field profile is more along the lines of quality organizational player at this point.

11. Joey Terdoslavich, 1B, Atlanta Braves

Similar to Poythress in some respects, Terdoslavich tanked at Triple-A before posting “tweener” numbers in the Southern League. For an organization relatively void of hitting prospects, Terdoslavich received much more publicity than he should have after his 2011 season. I know Braves fans are desperate to find organizational answers for Chipper Jones retiring, as well as outfield help, but Terdoslavich is not that guy.

12. William Beckwith, Atlanta Braves

Another Braves farmhand who appears better than he is due to the lack of punch surrounding him in the lineup, Beckwith enjoyed being the best bat on the Rome Braves. For a big man, Beckwith has surprising athleticism and I commend him for leaning up this season. However, he still has plenty of work to do to be considered a legit prospect within the organization as he presents with a long swing and fringe average defensive ability at best.