Prospect Watch: First Base Sleepers

Each weekday during the minor-league season, FanGraphs is providing a status update on multiple rookie-eligible players. Note that Age denotes the relevant prospect’s baseball age (i.e. as of July 1st of the current year); Top-15, the prospect’s place on Marc Hulet’s preseason organizational list; and Top-100, that same prospect’s rank on Hulet’s overall top-100 list.

Preston Beck, 1B/OF, Texas Rangers (Profile)
Level: High-A   Age: 23  Top-15: N/A   Top-100: N/A
Line: 291 PA, .277/.392/.446, 7 HR, 46 BB, 41 K

Beck’s all-around profile merits consideration.

Preston Beck is, in a lot of ways, a sabermetric sleeper prospect personified. There’s nothing he does that will rocket him to the top of prospect lists, but he has a broad skillset that could turn him into a valuable player down the line.

One look at his statline this year shows that one skill Preston Beck has in spades is the ability to avoid making outs. He has a robust .392 on-base percentage that is legitimized by his better than 1:1 K/BB ratio. It’s tough for a guy to be worthless when he brings that to the table, and if Beck can maintain control of the strike zone at anywhere near this rate as he advances, he’ll be a very nice major leaguer.

The reason why the former fifth-rounder isn’t more highly valued in prospect circles likely has to do with the fact that he’s a 23-year-old first baseman in High-A who has yet to show remarkable over-the-fence power (career .377 SLG, .118 ISO, and 13 HR in 239 pro games). “Underpowered first baseman” is rarely a profile that elicits positive reactions, and for good reason; Beck adds to that skepticism by being a bit old for his level.

While a cursory/statistical evaluation of Beck may lead one to those negative conclusions, there are several factors to keep in mind that, for me, largely allay those concerns. First is that Beck is playing at the cold corner more due to organizational need than personal limitation. He was mostly a right fielder prior to 2014, and many consider him to have the best outfield arm in the Rangers organization. I’ve never seen it unleashed in my viewings of him as an outfielder, but I can vouch that he has solid range in the pasture and there’s no reason he can’t be at least an average defender in a corner. It just so happens that they have a glut of speedy outfielders at the High-A level with no real first baseman, so Beck’s pushed to first more often than not given the makeup of the Myrtle Beach roster.

Of course, right field is still a high-offense position, but the other reason to be optimistic about Beck is that he might have more power in the tank than his numbers show. Watching the Myrtle Beach team take batting practice in early May, I was stunned to see Beck, whom I hadn’t ever seen do much more than hit line drive singles in many 2013 viewings, hit more than twice as many batting practice homers as anyone else on the squad (including the vaunted trio of Joey Gallo, Nick Williams, and Jorge Alfaro). His power numbers have made a big jump from 2013 (.347 SLG, .096 ISO, 3 HR) to 2014 (.446 SLG, .169 ISO, 7 HR). His home park is not friendly to lefthanded power, and he’s hit .308/.453/.504 on the road this season. Beck is unlikely to ever bring cleanup-type power to the ballpark (not that he’ll need to in Gallo’s organization), but it’s not hard to imagine him coming up with 15-20 bombs and solid doubles totals annually.

With that solid power output, good on-base skills, and ability to play competently at first, left, or right, Beck could be a versatile lefty hitter in the Seth Smith/Matt Joyce mold. He’s a bit of a late bloomer with his power output and is exactly the sort of player who sneaks up on people, particularly in a Texas system that remains fairly deep in position player talent.


Felix Munoz, 1B, Miami Marlins (Profile)
Level: Low-A   Age: 22   Top-15: N/A   Top-100: N/A
Line: 337 PA, .309/.382/.510, 11 HR, 39 BB, 48 K

He’s not just a park creation, and Munoz has some significant offensive talent.

Greensboro’s NewBridge Bank Park is a haven for lefty hitters. It has a short porch in right and the ball carries well to all fields. As an example of what that stadium can do for a hitter, take the statistics of the Grasshoppers’ 2013 first baseman, Viosergy Rosa, from 2012-2014:

2012 (SS-A Jamestown): .279/.413/.386, 3 HR in 61 G
2013 (Greensboro): .252/.362/.452, 23 HR in 133 G
2014 (High-A Jupiter): .288/.358/.400, 5 HR in 77 G

Rosa’s not without talent–he consistently gets on base, doesn’t strike out an absurd amount, and has some raw power, but his 2013 power output is way out of line with everything else he’s done. And, well…

2013 (Home): .309/.394/.589, 18 HR in 69 G
2013 (Away): .187/.330/.297, 5 HR in 64 G

That’s perhaps more dramatic of a split than it really should be (meaning, there’s some luck thrown in there), but in the overall context of Rosa’s career, it’s clear what these numbers show. And so, when he moves up to Jupiter and is replaced by another relative unknown named Felix Munoz (.301/.367/.427 in short-season in 2013), and Munoz then puts up a .309/.382/.510 triple-slash through the end of June, perhaps it’s fair to question whether Munoz is worth any prospect consideration or whether he’s destined to see his power numbers deflate to the (unacceptable for a 1B) low-.100 ISO range as soon as he leaves the cozy environs of the Grasshoppers’ downtown stadium.

I’m not here to tell you that we should all suddenly get on the Felix Munoz, First Baseman of the Future bandwagon, but to me, it’s quite clear he should be taken more seriously as a prospect than the Rosas of the world.

First off, you can’t credit the ballpark for Munoz’s breakout. He’s hit seven of his eleven home runs there, yes, but only eight of his other 24 extra-base hits. Overall, he’s actually hitting .342/.405/.544 away from Greensboro while managing just a .259/.344/.469 clip at home. Again, there’s a lot of luck in there, but Munoz’s production clearly hasn’t relied entirely on his home field.

Further, Munoz has a lively bat. He has solid bat speed and utilizes a swing that is fairly short but high-effort:

At times, Munoz’s tendency to aggressively stride into the ball gets him caught out on his front foot against good offspeed pitches, but he’s still managed to control the zone well this year (48/39 K/BB). If he can make moderate improvements in pitch recognition, he could project to hit .270 or so in the big leagues with an OBP in the .335/.340 range.

At 6’1″ and maybe 200 pounds or so, Munoz isn’t a particularly big guy, and without a big, leveraged swing or massive bat speed, he doesn’t really project to have outright plus power. He’ll likely slot into the 15-20 homer range at maturity with plenty of doubles on top of that. Given that he has a fairly athletic frame, I wonder if left field might be an option for him at some point. He did play there some in the DSL in 2009 and 2010 but hasn’t played anywhere but first base since. In a case like this, if Munoz keeps forcing his way into the picture offensively, he may eventually get moved to left field to get his bat in the lineup. It is worth noting, however, that while he has a smaller, more athletic frame than most first basemen, he has yet to record a stolen base in four U.S. seasons–he’s hardly a burner out there.

The next step will be crucial for Munoz, already 22, to gain legitimacy as a prospect–he’ll need to adjust well to High-A, particularly in maintaining his power. If he can continue to improve his pitch recognition and drive the ball with some regularity against better pitchers, he has a chance to get on the prospect map and emerge as a quietly effective hitter.

Danny Hayes, 1B, Chicago White Sox (Profile)
Level: Low-A   Age: 23   Top-15: N/A   Top-100: N/A
Line: 313 PA, .298/.403/.461, 6 HR, 44 BB, 74 K

A polished college bat who is proving too much for Low-A pitchers.

I’ve talked about home/road splits an unusually large amount in this piece already, but they need to be trotted out again in the case of Danny Hayes. Hayes, you see, is a strapping 6’4″, 210-pound first baseman that the White Sox took out of Oregon State in the thirteenth round last year. As you might expect from a guy drafted after four years at a big college program, Hayes has promptly acclimated to low-minors pitchers, hitting .267/.354/.431 in Advanced Rookie ball last year and now .298/.403/.461 this year.

That last triple-slash is particularly intriguing–any time a player’s OBP climbs over the .400 mark, it might as well set off sabermetric alarm bells, and for good reason. But Hayes is also a 23-year-old first baseman in Low-A; in fact, he turns 24 in September. And six homers in 74 games? Again, you’ve got the age, position, and (relative) lack of power as demerits, and so Hayes is far off the prospect radar.

Except it’s really tough to hit home runs in Kannapolis. Hayes is one off the Intimidators’ team lead this year, and the player above him, third baseman Trey Michalczewski, has two inside-the-park jobs to his credit. Last year, outfielder Jason Coats was the only Kannapolis player to reach double digits in homers (12); the year before, Chris Curley (11) was the only one to accomplish the feat. None of the dimensions are friendly at CMC-Northeast Stadium, and the ball just doesn’t seem to carry at all. Of the eight stadiums I visit regularly, it’s hands-down the toughest place to hit.

You probably know where this is going.

Danny Hayes, CMC-Northeast Stadium: .262/.366/.427, 2 HR, 13 XBH (32 G)
Danny Hayes, All Other SAL Parks: .329/.431/.493, 4 HR, 16 XBH (40 G)

That’s one of the two homers. Here’s a hit that would probably have gotten out of any other SAL park (not that I’ve been to all of them, but I’d be surprised):

Clearly, Danny Hayes has a lot of raw power, at least a 60 on the 20-80 scale. He’s a strong kid with a lot of leverage in his swing, and the ball carries well off his bat. He also, like Beck and Munoz, works the count well and can get himself on base via the walk. His swing does have a fair amount of length to it due to his load, and he has some vulnerability against offspeed pitches, especially from lefthanders, as a result.

You get a good look at Hayes’ running ability in the second video, and it’s clear that he’s a below-average runner but not a baseclogger. He’s reasonably athletic and coordinated for his size and is a solid-average first baseman with soft hands. As with any first baseman who isn’t a bottom-of-the-scale athlete and isn’t obviously qualified for MLB’s offensive standards at the position, it’s fair to wonder whether Hayes could play somewhere else, though it’s very questionable whether Hayes could really get to defensive adequacy at either third base (where he has some experience as an amateur) or left field. As with Munoz, he’ll probably have to hit further up the chain for the organization to start considering a position change, anyway.

What all this adds up to is that Hayes will likely start to clear fences more often when he leaves Kannapolis, a move that should happen sooner rather than later. That doesn’t necessarily make him a prospect of any more merit than, say, fellow organizational first basemen Dan Black and Andy Wilkins (the latter of whom has a very similar skillset), but you could do worse than a player with 60 raw power, 55 first-base defense, and a good approach at the plate with a 13th-round selection. Hayes is a longshot to make the big leagues, but he does have some legitimate skills and isn’t just beating up on less experienced players; expect him to be a steady organizational producer up into the upper minors.

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Nathaniel Stoltz is a prospect writer for FanGraphs. A resident of Bowie, MD and University of Maryland graduate student, he frequently views prospects in the Carolina and South Atlantic Leagues. He can be followed on Twitter at @stoltz_baseball.

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