In an off-season full of action, one constant has been the fact that Arizona seems content with playing Paul Goldschmidt at first base on a near-everyday basis, with occasional protection from a tough right-hander from of Lyle Overbay. However, with just 177 plate appearances under his belt, it's reasonable to wonder just how much he'll provide Arizona in 2012. On one hand, Goldschmidt looks like a certain upgrade over the Juan Miranda (91 wRC+) and Xavier Nady (70 wRC+) duo that manned first for much of last year, but, more precisely, what kind of numbers can Arizona expect from their young slugger? After all, it was just a few short months ago that Goldschmidt slotted into the final spot of Baseball America's Midseason Top 50 Prospects List, and Goldschmidt barely missed qualifying for the end-of-season list, where he probably would have slotted somewhere in the 50-75 range.
This brings me to the approach I'm taking with this post: to try to give us an idea of what to expect from Goldschmidt, I'll be sorting through previous BA Top-100 lists to see what kind of production past top first base prospects have contributed to their teams in their respective first full pro seasons.
For the purposes of this post, I'll be looking strictly at offensive value, for two reasons. The first reason is that we're dealing with one-year samples here, so defensive metrics are typically unreliable in this size sample. The second reason is that I don't think defensive metrics portray first basemen properly even in significant enough samples. As just one small example of this, hearken back to the days of Adam LaRoche turning Mark Reynolds into a non-terrible defender. Yet, even in that year, LaRoche's mere 5.2 UZR wasn't what represented the value he provided - rather, it was the fact that Reynolds posted the only positive UZR of his career, +1.7, compared to a second "best" full-season mark of -11.0. In other words, digs and stretches aren't attributed in full to the first baseman when they probably ought to be.
Still, I would be remiss to not at least acknowledge the fact that the two worst UZR totals by qualifying first basemen in 2011 came from highly-regarded rookies: Eric Hosmer and Freddie Freeman, who combined for a -19.6 UZR. I don't put much weight in it, but others might and it's at least worth mentioning for those who want to consider those one-year samples as indicative of possible defensive woes.
The offensive numbers I will be using for this post are the basic triple-slash line (batting average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage), home runs, isolated power (slugging minus batting average), wOBA, and wRC+ (park-and-league-adjusted wOBA). This will help to give us an idea of not just overall productivity, but of what kinds of skills we might expect to see from Paul in 2012, as well as what skills we might have to wait a bit longer to see.
For prospects who appear on multiple lists, I'll be using the most recent ranking, as this will get us rankings that coincide with a similar point in the development curve of each prospect listed - after all, it doesn't do us a lot of good to compare Goldschmidt to Freddie Freeman's pre-2009 #87 rank when that rank came after Freeman finished his full-season pro debut in the Sally League (Low-A) as an 18-year-old, with Freeman eventually rising to #17 on BA's pre-2011 list. Thus, by taking the most recent rankings for each prospect, we get a general sense for what the industry felt about each prospect as they were higher up in the system. Yes, this does mean that some prospects who were highly-ranked in the low minors and fell off the lists altogether as they reached the upper levels will filter in and skew the results, but we'll make note of those cases later on.
Ready for an enormous table?
|Pre-2011||BA Rank||1st Full Year||Age||GP||BA||OBP||SLG||ISO||HR||wOBA||wRC+|
|Pre-2010||BA Rank||1st Full Year||Age||GP||BA||OBP||SLG||ISO||HR||wOBA||wRC+|
|Pre-2009||BA Rank||1st Full Year||Age||GP||BA||OBP||SLG||ISO||HR||wOBA||wRC+|
|Pre-2008||BA Rank||1st Full Year||Age||GP||BA||OBP||SLG||ISO||HR||wOBA||wRC+|
|Pre-2007||BA Rank||1st Full Year||Age||GP||BA||OBP||SLG||ISO||HR||wOBA||wRC+|
|Pre-2006||BA Rank||1st Full Year||Age||GP||BA||OBP||SLG||ISO||HR||wOBA||wRC+|
|Pre-2005||BA Rank||1st Full Year||Age||GP||BA||OBP||SLG||ISO||HR||wOBA||wRC+|
|Pre-2004||BA Rank||1st Full Year||Age||GP||BA||OBP||SLG||ISO||HR||wOBA||wRC+|
|Pre-2003||BA Rank||1st Full Year||Age||GP||BA||OBP||SLG||ISO||HR||wOBA||wRC+|
|Hee Seop Choi||22||2004||25||126||.251||.370||.449||.198||15||.363||125|
|Pre-2002||BA Rank||1st Full Year||Age||GP||BA||OBP||SLG||ISO||HR||wOBA||wRC+|
This gives us 25 "first full season" lines to look at, as well as 18 prospects listed who have failed to play 100 games in a single season thus far in their respective careers (five of whom were all still prospects a year ago). As a side note, the simple arithmetic average line of the 25 first full season lines is: BA Rank of 33.8, age (calculated by B-R as of June 30 of each year) of 23.9, 135 games played, .270/.346/.458 BA/OBP/SLG, .188 ISO, 19.4 HR, .346 wOBA, 110.4 wRC+. However, going a bit deeper into the list will likely be more informative, so that's what I'd like to do.
The following table breaks down the group into a series of tiers based on position on the list: the groups are those ranked 1-5, 6-15, 16-30, 31-50, 51-75, and 76-100. The rationale behind outlining the different tiers in this way is that the talent at the top of the list - the truly elite talent - is rarer than the solid-yet-unspectacular talent near the end of the list, so the top portions of the lists should be broken into smaller segments than the bottom portions of the lists. This is rather unscientific and imperfect, but reasonable.
All but one of the entries are simple averages across the set of players who completed a full season in the major leagues within each category. The lone exception is the average BA Rank of all players listed, which uses a simple average for each player on the entire list. Non-Qualifier Rate is the number of prospects from each category who have thus far failed to record a 100-game season in the major leagues.
|BA Rank||Age||GP||BA||OBP||SLG||ISO||HR||wOBA||wRC+||Non-Qualifier Rate|
|w/ Full Year||33.8||23.9||135.0||.270||.346||.458||.188||19.4||.346||110.4|
What can we glean from this list? Well, for starters, the prospects who rank in the far upper reaches of these lists tend to provide similar, perhaps even slightly inferior, current level of skill, more probability of panning out, and more youth - i.e. upside - than those further down on the list. However, the non-qualifier rate for the latter parts of the lists grows substantially compared to the higher parts of the lists. Let's take a closer look at each tier and see what we can derive. (Listed numbers are the season prior to which the player most recently appeared on a Baseball America Top-100 list.)
Qualifiers: Carlos Pena (2002). Non-Qualifiers: N/A.
Pena was rather egregiously overrated when he was listed as the fifth-best prospect in the game prior to the 2002 season, the earliest list used in this data compilation. He was already 24 at the time, and while his minor-league numbers were solid, they weren't much better than Goldschmidt's. A player's bat has to be nearly flawless at a very young age to merit such a high ranking as a first base prospect, and I imagine Pena's age would have pushed him down the list if BA could use today's tools and studies at that time to re-do their list.
Qualifiers: Eric Hosmer (2011), Justin Smoak (2010), Prince Fielder (2006), Casey Kotchman (2005), and Nick Johnson (2002). Non-Qualifiers: N/A.
What defines this group is rather simple: they made it to the upper levels of the minor leagues - and subsequently to the major leagues - at very young ages, which earned them their top-15 spots on BA's lists. This youth gives greater credence to the possibility that these players will see their bats continue to improve across the several years of team control up to their peak years, giving them greater chances of being bona fide stars and difference-makers. In short, more youth = more upside, even if the present skills that can be seen aren't dramatically superior to other first base prospects around. The bad news is that Goldschmidt is not likely to have the upside of players like Fielder, Smoak, or Hosmer. The good news, of course, is that if we're looking strictly at 2012, Goldschmidt is as good a bet as any prospect around to put up quality numbers.
Qualifiers: Freddie Freeman (2011), Logan Morrison (2010), Brett Wallace (2010), Matt LaPorta (2009), Conor Jackson (2006), Ryan Howard (2006), Justin Morneau (2004), and Hee Seop Choi (2003). Non-Qualifiers: Brandon Belt (2011), Chris Marrero (2008), and Brian Dopirak (2006).
Here we start to see a bit of blending between the younger prospects with projection left in their bats (i.e. Freeman, Morrison) and older prospects expected to have an immediate impact (i.e. Howard, Choi). With the exceptions of lower-level busts Chris Marrero and Brian Dopirak, these prospects combine upper-level success with just the occasional concern here or there - a lack of power, lower perceived ceiling, higher age, scouting reports and statistics not matching up, etc. With Brandon Belt's arrival in the major leagues delayed only by the twin masterminds Sabean and Bochy, the only players listed here to truly flame out in the minor leagues were those in the lower-levels of the minor leagues upon last ranking, Marrero and Dopirak, so an upper-level player in this tier is a safe bet to at least have some major-league impact.
Qualifiers: Joey Votto (2008), Daric Barton (2008), James Loney (2007), Travis Hafner (2003), and Xavier Nady (2002). Non-Qualifiers: Jonathan Singleton (2011), Angel Villalona (2009), Kyle Blanks (2009), Michael Aubrey (2005), and Brad Nelson (2004).
With this tier, we start to see some people who reached the upper levels of the minors leagues, yet still have been unable to get in a full season of everyday big-league work. Now, among the non-qualifiers, there are some notable exceptions, such as Singleton, who is still prowling the minors, and Villalona, whose career was halted by a serious criminal case. However, Blanks posted a .918 OPS for Double-A San Antonio as a 21-year-old in 2008, yet hasn't established himself as a big-leaguer in the three years since, even spending some time all the way down in Double-A in 2011. Blanks isn't a lost cause, but as a 25-year-old with fewer than 500 career big-league plate appearances, he's certainly underwhelmed. Meanwhile, both Aubrey and Nelson split time between Hi-A and Double-A in the seasons that preceded their respective inclusions on BA's lists, yet both have completely flamed out.
Still, there have been some immense successes on this list, beginning with Votto and Hafner, two of the older first basemen to appear in this tier, and the average first-full-season production is still on par with the higher-ranked prospects from the first set of tiers. As far as immediate returns are concerned, it doesn't appear to be a significant drop-off from the higher tiers to this one provided that you avoid a complete bust.
Qualifiers: Ike Davis (2010), Chris Davis (2008), Adrian Gonzalez (2004), Adam LaRoche (2004), and Lyle Overbay (2003). Non-Qualifiers: Yonder Alonso (2011), Anthony Rizzo (2011), and Jason Stokes (2004).
Finally, we arrive at the tier that Goldschmidt would most likely fit into were he still eligible for prospect status. Encouraging note #1 is that two of the three non-qualifying prospects are still highly-regarded, with Alonso likely to be the Opening Day first baseman for San Diego in 2011, and Rizzo likely to have the same title for the Cubs. However, given Alonso's history of significantly higher rankings on prior lists, it's hard to say he hasn't disappointed. On the bright side, Stokes' rankings came while he was still in the A-ball levels of the minors - he was actually as high as #15 on BA's pre-2003 list.
In the end, the best comparables for Goldschmidt are the set of qualifiers here. These prospects give us players who reached the upper levels of the minor leagues and were relatively highly regarded, yet were not considered elite for a variety of reasons - too old, lacking scouting reports, lack of star potential, substandard scouting reports, et al - yet reached the major leagues shortly after receiving those 51-75 range rankings. Additionally, despite their flaws and lower rankings, they performed at a shockingly-similar average rate to the overall group of top-100 first baseman prospects in their first qualifying seasons.
Qualifiers: Kendrys Morales (2006). Non-Qualifiers: Chris Carter (2011), Lars Anderson (2010), Beau Mills (2008), Steve Pearce (2008), Chris Parmelee (2007), Justin Huber (2007), and Eric Duncan (2007).
In the lowest tier, we have a shocking rate of attrition. Part of this is because a lot of these prospects appeared on BA's lists while in the lower minors due to upside, but couldn't stick on BA's lists in the upper minors as they were unable to keep up their prolific hitting. Additionally, we see a few early draft picks here who were rather over-hyped immediately after being drafted, then disappeared from the list after they were exposed in pro ball (i.e. Parmelee, Mills). However, part of this is also because they simply weren't as good of prospects to begin with. We've seen how attrition rates have risen through the tiers, and it's not surprising to see the highest rate of attrition here in the lowest tier. At this point, it seems that the only non-qualifier here with a chance of breaking through in the majors is Chris Carter, who could see significant PA's in 2012 as Oakland's DH.
So what does it all mean? Well, when I broke up this set of first baseman prospects into these tiers, I was expecting to find that first-year performance declined from the highest tier to the lowest tier. To my surprise, this is far from the case, as performance is somewhat constant between the tiers, and the only thing that significantly changes from tier to tier is attrition rate. It seems that the tiers are largely separated by age and long-term projection rather than the expected level of immediate impact. This makes sense, in a way, as no position player prospect should really ever be judged based on short-term hopes, as there is almost always a need for an adjustment period to adapt to the challenges of major-league-caliber pitching.
Another thing to notice is that most of the non-qualifiers that appear here are prospects that were most recently ranked on BA's lists without any upper-level (i.e. Double-A or above) success. This isn't to say that lower-level first base prospects don't belong on these lists, because many of the prospects that originally appear on BA's lists in the lower levels go on to also rank on BA's lists in the higher levels, and thus their appearances in the lower-levels don't make an impression on the data we've collected However, what can be said is these prospects who showed glimpses of prospectdom in the lower-levels but flopped and were off of the lists by the time they reached the upper levels aren't particularly useful comparables for Goldschmidt, who has already had immense success in the upper levels of the minors.
The likes of Chris Marrero, Brian Dopirak, Michael Aubrey, Brad Nelson, Jason Stokes, Lars Anderson, Beau Mills, Chris Parmelee, and Eric Duncan all fit under this umbrella of players who were highly-regarded in A-ball but were seeing their prospect stock rapidly on the decline in the upper-levels. This significantly shortens the list of strong comparables for Goldschmidt - prospects who were ranked highly on BA's lists while in the upper-minors - mostly trimming some of the non-qualifiers from the list. In this case, the comparables for players who had solid results in the upper-minors, but truly failed to register a qualifying first-season in the big-leagues are Kyle Blanks, Chris Carter, Steve Pearce, and Justin Huber. This means that there are certainly still examples of prospects completely flopping that are legitimate cause for concern, but the list certainly shrinks when you consider Goldschmidt's upper-level success.
This isn't to say that every "qualifying" player experienced success. There are some notable flops on the list, like Choi, Kotchman, Loney, and Chris Davis. However, this isn't meant to be a predictor of whether or not Goldschmidt will ultimately be a success or a flop. It's simply meant to ask what we can expect from him in 2012 - after all, even Choi posted a 116 wRC+ in his first season of over 100 games played, notching 10.6 runs above average at the plate in 416 plate appearances. We've limited the horizon and averaged out all of the results, and across-the-board, whether you're a top-15 prospect or in the bottom 50, it seems that a ~110 wRC+ is a reasonable expectation.
Moving on, it should be pointed out that a 110 wRC+ isn't spectacular for an everyday first baseman. It would be better than just six qualifying first baseman, according to Fangraphs. However, it would also be far from a total disaster. After all, the two qualifying first baseman with 2011 wRC+ totals between 100 and 110, James Loney and Mark Trumbo, each had 2.3 fWAR seasons with the help of some solid defensive ratings. If Goldschmidt can contribute solid defense and baserunning to go with that level of offensive production, he could be a minimum-salary solid everyday regular player for Arizona, which is an incredible value. Additionally, that 110 wRC+ would be the third-highest total among 2011 D-backs with at least 200 plate appearances in sedona red, behind just Justin Upton (140) and Miguel Montero (116), and ahead of Gerardo Parra (109), Ryan Roberts (107), and Chris Young (102).
Further, that 110 wRC+ would represent an enormous upgrade over recent D-backs first basemen. Rather than write out all of the painful details of recent Arizona first baseman failures, I'll simply lay it out in a table for all to understand. Here is the combined offensive output of all D-backs players as first baseman at any point from 2008 to 2011 (I don't believe pinch-hit plate appearances and plate appearances while playing another position are counted) (link to additional data here).
A 110 wRC+ and hopes of an average regular aren't exhilarating at face value. However, when you consider that the only performance Arizona has seen out of its first basemen over the past four seasons combined that tops that 110 mark comes from an Adam Dunn rental, a few spot starts from Lyle Overbay, and half a season of the man in question, Mr. Goldschmidt, it starts looking like a godsend.
In the end, I suppose my biggest conclusion is this: regardless of what various projections are telling you, try not to expect too much from Paul Goldschmidt in 2012. History simply tells us that although such expectations might be met, the odds of this happening are quite slim for first-year first basemen. He'll take his bumps and bruises as the league adjusts to him and he's forced to re-adjust to the league, and he likely won't be the instant savior he was made out to be. Nonetheless, even if his overall offensive efficiency slips a bit from his brief 2011 big-league stint, he'll still be a solid value for Arizona, and a significant upgrade on the generally mediocre play seen at first base during 2011 prior to Goldschmidt's arrival, and that should be celebrated and appreciated.