About eight years ago Major League baseball saw the influx of a host of high quality third baseman. The arrival started with the debut of players like Kevin Youkilis and David Wright in 2004 and continued with Ryan Zimmerman in 2005. The string of hot corner studs slowed after this stretch and was capped by the arrival of Evan Longoria in 2008.
Baseball is a cyclical game and the development of young third baseman has stagnated over the last several years. That trend may be shifting as the minor leagues play host to several players that have impact potential. The Nationals’ Anthony Rendon and the Rockies’ Nolan Arenado are two of the top hot corner prospects in the game, and they are joined by players like Miguel Sano, Nick Castellanos and Mike Olt, among others. These players appear poised to ascend upon the Major Leagues and become the next wave of great third baseman.
Focusing on Rendon and Arenado offers an opportunity to compare two extremely talented players. Heading into the 2011 college season Rendon was considered by scouts to be the top position player in the draft class and was arguably the top player available overall. After injuring his ankle the prior year, Rendon battled shoulder issues last spring, an injury that ultimately kept him from playing the field for much of the season. Concerns over his injury history and the overwhelming emergence of pitchers like Gerrit Cole and Trevor Bauer, combined with his Scott Boras affiliation sent him sliding in the draft. The Nationals popped him with the sixth overall pick and signed him to a Major League deal worth north of $7 million.
While Rendon was finishing up his freshman season at Rice in 2009, Arenado was shooting up draft boards as a high school senior. He was picked in the second round by the Rockies and signed for $625,000. He has moved steadily through the Rockies system since signing, peaking with an outstanding season in High-A last year where he hit .298/.349/.487 with 55 extra-base hits, besting his total from the year before in Low-A by one.
Both players are well-built though not considered monsters. Rendon (6-0, 190) has a strong, thick lower half that works with the rest of his game. Scouts noted his improved upper body strength throughout college and as he has approach physical maturity, his game has continued to improve. Arenado is slightly bigger, standing 6-foot-1 and weighing in around 210 pounds, a marked change from where he was in 2010 when he was much softer and pushing 230 pounds. At first glance, he now looks the part of an athlete with a well-proportioned body and noticeable strength throughout his frame.
When considered in passing, the idea that Rendon and Arenado are even remotely comparable prospects may seem farfetched to the casual fan. It is my contention however, that not only are the two players closer in status than many believe, but that both should be considered elite third base prospects with the potential to impact the big leagues for years to come.
Hitting ability is arguably the best tool in both players’ skill sets. Rendon employs exceptional pitch recognition skills and a keen knowledge of the strike zone to zero in on pitches he can drive. He has phenomenally quick hands that get the bat to the zone quickly and he also has the coordination to barrel the ball in all parts of the strike zone. Some scouts noted he will get a little pull happy at times, but at his best he uses the whole field well and can wear out the outfield gaps. It is not difficult to project Rendon to hit .300 at the big league level.
Arenado has a freakish feel for contact. He adjusts so quickly to the path of the ball that he can make contact on virtually any pitch thrown to him. With experience in pro ball he has refined his plate discipline and showed a tighter strike zone in 2011, allowing him to square up more balls. Arenado’s hands and wrists have outstanding strength. He generates plus-plus bat speed with nearly every swing and the ball jumps off his bat. He has a knack for taking what a pitcher gives him, roping line drives to all fields rather than trying to do too much and making weaker contact to the pull side.
The scouts I spoke with throughout the 2011 season were mixed on which player projected as the better pure hitter. Many evaluators were staunch in their support of Rendon early in the year, but began to change their tune as Arenado made adjustments throughout the season and began to show the potential to be a 70-grade hitter.
I had the opportunity to see both players on several occasions in 2011, walking away impressed on every occasion. While Arenado made strides in his plate discipline last year, Rendon’s Major League-caliber pitch recognition and willingness to work counts and take walks leave me with a touch more confidence in his long term hitting projection. In an extremely tight comparison, I think Rendon edges out Arenado as the better pure hitter by the slimmest of margins.
While consistent praise is showered on both players for their exceedingly natural hitting ability, there are open questions about how much power potential they actually own.
Rendon offers the bat speed and enough loft in his swing to elicit projections of at least 20-25 home runs annually. When his offense is in a groove, the power comes naturally and he doesn’t have to gear up for it as he did at times during his junior year of college. When he works from gap-to-gap, he has the pitch recognition skills to identify pitches he can turn on and hammer to left field. If that recognition remains intact at the big league level – and there is no reason to believe otherwise – then he should be able to add a strong power showing to his already outstanding hitting ability.
Scouts that question Rendon’s power ceiling see a guy that will likely be a doubles machine with average (15-18 home runs) power and maybe a few peak seasons better than that.
Even with the added physicality that Arenado brings to the table, his power projection remains a leap of faith for some. There is little room to question his bat speed or the strength in his swing, but his swing is far more conducive to screaming line drives than blasting home runs. With a flatter swing path through the zone and the absence of significant loft on the back side, Arenado doesn’t elevate the ball as well as some scouts would like. Believers in his power remain convinced that it will come as he continues to refine his approach and swing against more advanced competition. Even with his current swing mechanics, Arenado projects as a player capable of racking up 35 doubles and as much as 20 home runs a year.
I am a notorious sucker for the more physical player when it comes to long term power projection. That leaves me among the believers in Arenado’s projection. As he matures as a hitter and gains more experience, I think there will be added loft in his swing and the natural strength of his swing will result in plus power and maybe a tick more in his peak seasons. Ultimately, while I view the reasonable power potential of both in a similar light (20-plus home runs, 30-plus doubles), I think Arenado’s is likely to be more natural and has a slight chance to be a little louder in the end.
Neither player offers anything in the way of speed. Rendon’s speed has fallen from average to below-average due in part to his ankle injury in college. That declining trend could well continue as he maxes out physically. Arenado is also a below-average runner that will not be a threat on the bases.
Their work in the field is arguably the area of the game that separates these two players the most. Scouts consistently regard Rendon as a plus defender at third base. He has excellent reactions, a good first step and soft hands. He has a well-developed understanding of his positioning at third base, regularly moving himself on a pitch-by-pitch basis to give him an added edge.
The Nationals have toyed with Rendon at multiple infield positions this spring, including shortstop and second base in addition to his traditional third base. It is a stretch to believe he owns the range for shortstop and the same may be problematic at the keystone as well. His hands, footwork and instincts would all likely translate well, but it is far more likely that he remains at third base long term.
The report on Arenado’s defense has changed dramatically over the last year. In 2011 scouts reported improved reactions and footwork at third to go along with his now solid hands. While several scouts I spoke with last year tossed a future 55-grade on Arenado’s glove work, I was a little more cautious in my own assessment. I believe many of the gains seen last year were real but I still firmly believe he maxes out as a steady, average defender.
Rendon is the clear winner with the glove. He offers the ability to defend at a Gold Glove-worthy level and has a slim chance of succeeding at other positions higher on the defensive spectrum.
Arenado’s arm stands out on the field. He has a natural arm motion and the ability to fire throws from multiple angles with plenty of zip. His arm strength has graded as a plus tool on every report I have ever received, with many grades exceeding that level. His throws are consistently accurate, enabling his arm strength to play up even more.
Rendon’s arm is no slouch, though it lacks the same “mustard” that Arenado provides. His arm is solidly above-average with good carry and accuracy from third base. He’s not quite as adept as Arenado at making throws from various angles, but he holds his own.
As I alluded to at the beginning of this piece, I believe the gap between Rendon and Arenado is often considered larger than it actually is.
Both players offer the potential of premium offense, both in terms of average and in-game power. Rendon’s edge in hitting ability is slight and born as much out of his approach to hitting as his natural talent for it. The strides shown by Arenado in 2011 hint that he may develop an approach that could keep this difference from materializing, but that is not a leap I am willing to make at this time.
The projection of Arenado’s power gives him the slightest of edges in the other significant offensive tool. Similar to their hitting ability, the edge that I believe will exist long term may never fully materialize and the two players could end up slugging very comparably.
Where the biggest difference resides is in the field. There is little doubting Rendon’s ability with the glove and instincts for the position. He has always been a very strong defender and barring additional injuries that alter his defensive capabilities, he will remain the superior defender long term.
The polish of Rendon’s offensive approach and his defensive superiority outweigh the arm strength and slight power advantage held by Arenado. I have few reservations in projecting either player as an impact big leaguer, but I am slightly more comfortable projecting stardom for Rendon than Arenado. I believe firmly that both players will hit in the middle of a big league lineup and that they will head the next great class of All-Star third basemen, but with a gun to my head and the ability to select only one, I will opt for Anthony Rendon and be comfortable that a star is on the way.
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