We're now three weeks into our unveiling of this year's AZ SnakePit Top-30 prospects list, and into the top-20. Although one might expect the names to get more recognizable as the list progresses, this is actually the first of the three updates we've unveiled thus far to not include a prospect who saw time at the big-league level in 2011. However, today's quintet includes four prospects who have real chances of making an impact in the big-leagues in 2012, and two of the highest-upside and most tool-heavy bats the system.
As it turns out, though, there is a significant drop-off between the top-15 to this group of prospects - in my opinion - with the top-15 each receiving "grades" of B- or higher from me by John Sickels' system, while the remaining prospects on the list are more in the C+/C tier (prospect #16 is on the fringes of B-/C+). That's not to say that these five players don't have impressive strengths, but they have more pronounced flaws that keep them from being on the same level as those who will appear on next week's installment of the list.
For those who have yet to check out how this list was created, refer back to the preview for all of the details.#16 - RHP Evan Marshall
Dan: 16 / Michael : 21
Picked in the fourth round of the 2011 draft, Marshall skyrocketed through the system in his pro debut. Beginning his pro career at Short-Season Yakima, Marshall found himself closing out games for Double-A Mobile in the Southern League playoffs by the time his year was done. After putting up a combined 1.16 ERA and 31:7 K:BB ratio in 31 innings between Yakima (12 IP), Hi-A Visalia (17 IP), and Mobile (2 IP) during the regular season, Marshall replaced Mike DeMark in the BayBears' ninth-inning role as Mobile entered post-season play. Marshall worked five times in the BayBears' playoff run, throwing six additional scoreless innings with a 7:2 K:BB ratio, bringing his overall line including playoff work to 37 IP, 0.97 ERA, 38:9 K:BB. The guy is good.
The scouting reports back it up, too. He worked mostly in the upper-80's when he was in the rotation at Kansas State, but started sitting 93-94 on the radar gun according to BA's report when he moved to full-time short relief work and occasionally hitting 96 mph. His slider is a plus pitch, and working in relief has helped mask his lack of a quality change-up. He doesn't have closer-level stuff or a closer's frame (think J.J. Putz and the immense downward plane Putz gets on his fastball), making him yet another D-backs relief prospect who profiles as a set-up man. In rocketing through the system in half of a season with flawless peripherals, though, he's already shown himself to be the most polished of the group, and I fully expect him to pitch at Chase Field sometime next year.
#17 - 3B Ryan Wheeler
Dan: 23 / Michael : 16
Wheeler was one of the top prospects in a weak D-backs system before the 2010 season after mashing in his pro debut for Short-Season Yakima, but struggled throughout 2010 as he dealt with a move across the diamond from first base to third base. 2011 has been a massive bounce-back year for Wheeler at the plate, as he has thrived in the pitcher-friendly environment of the humid Southern League. Despite turning just 23 years old in July and playing in a league where the average hitter's age was 24-and-a-half years, Wheeler impressed at the plate with a .294/.358/.465 line and 104 wOBA+ according to StatCorner. There haven't been a ton of rumblings from scouts proclaiming Wheeler to be a future above-average everyday player, but with such good age-relative-to-league numbers, it doesn't completely out of the question.
The primary question with Wheeler is whether or not he'll be able to capably handle third base on a regular basis. If Wheeler can muster even slightly below-league-average defense at the hot corner, I see no reason why a reasonable projection of his bat couldn't be something around a .270/.330/.410 line with plenty of doubles and 10-15 home runs per year. A .740 OPS isn't going to set the world on fire, but it's plenty good for an average everyday player at third base making minimum salary.
However, a Keith Law chat at ESPN recently included a question about Wheeler's glove at third, and Law wasn't optimistic about his progress at third, saying "he has to move to 1b for me." If his defense at third is suspect, Wheeler's bat probably won't carry him to an everyday role at first base in the big leagues due to the extreme offensive demands of the position. As such, Wheeler likely would be limited to a role as a bench bat and reserve corner infielder who could be used as an occasional lefty-hitting platoon option to cover right-handed pitchers for the likes of Paul Goldschmidt, Ryan Roberts, Matt Davidson, and Bobby Borchering. If Wheeler could carve out a career similar to Eric Hinske - an admittedly lazy comp as a right-handed thrower & left-handed hitter who spots for right-handed hitters at the corner infield and outfield positions while providing some pinch-hitting thunder - that would be a remarkable return on a fifth-round pick investment.
#18 - OF Ty Linton
Dan: 17 / Michael : 23
Just as Ty Linton's season was starting for Rookie-level Missoula, the injury bug struck twice, taking away much-needed in-game repetitions to refine his swing and utilize his plus raw power. Despite solid speed and good overall athleticism as a two-sport star in high school, Linton doesn't have particularly advanced outfield instincts and is not great at making reads, so he profiles as a corner outfielder and has already moved to left field in pro ball, allowing Justin Bianco to take reps in center field for the Osprey in 2011. Still, if the bat gets the reps needed and his power translates to in-game situations, he could turn into an absolute masher and above-average regular in left despite the negative positional value.
While his .257/.322/.434 line looks okay for his first extended taste of pro ball, it's important to remember that the Pioneer League is very hitter-friendly. It's no Cal League, but the Missoula lineup had eight regular hitters with better OPS totals than Linton in 2011. Linton isn't exactly a spring chicken, either, spending all of 2011 at 20 years old. The missed time in 2011 isn't devastating, but what it does mean is that Linton will either have to make the jump to full-season ball at South Bend after fewer short-season reps than the D-backs had initially hoped he'd get, or that he'll arrive in full-season ball older than most prospects of his caliber after returning to short-season ball to begin 2012. Still, unless Bobby Borchering somehow is able to prowl left field capably despite his lack of speed - I think a move to first base is still likely - Linton remains the best chance Arizona has at producing a true slugger at the position from their farm system, still sporting a much higher probability of panning out than Wagner Mateo.
#19 (tied) - OF Marc Krauss
Dan: 26 / Michael : 17
Yes, my rank is awfully low for Krauss, and it's no secret that I've never been a huge supporter of him. While my opinion of Krauss after 2010 may have been backed up by questionable reasoning (for all I know, I could have been spot-on or completely off-base, I just don't have enough experience with that type of data) with my qualms about his batted-ball distribution, what we know as fact is that the transition to Double-A has been harder for him than any of our highly-regarded bats that have made the jump at some point in 2011. Paul Goldschmidt, A.J. Pollock, and Adam Eaton all made the jump fairly easily, while Krauss had an incredibly sluggish year at Mobile, hitting just .242/.340/.439 in 125 games of action, an underwhelming 101 wOBA+, only dominating in spurts.
Krauss can't afford to consistently be so streaky at the plate, since all of his big-league value is wrapped up in his bat. Krauss' poor defense in the outfield and lack of experience at first base could mean that Krauss' big-league value for the D-backs is as a bench bat (and as a DH in the AL). Last time I checked, there isn't a huge demand for super-streaky bench bats (or DHs) - if you are in the big leagues because of your bat, teams want you to hit consistently. Krauss' lack of any real defensive position naturally makes him a bit of a misfit in Arizona's system, given our National League ties. If there's an AL ballclub out there whose scouts believe in Krauss' bat and think that Krauss' streakiness can be ironed out, he's a strong trade candidate in the off-season, although the return would likely be more of a role player than a difference-maker at this point, a steep drop in trade value from a year ago.
#19 (tied) - CF Keon Broxton
Dan: 19 / Michael : 24
There isn't a position player in the D-backs system with a higher ceiling than Keon Broxton's, and only the "big four" can match his ceiling among the team's pitching prospect group. His physical tools suggest the capability to be one of the elite center fielders in all of baseball - he runs like a gazelle in center field when tracking down fly balls, has a strong arm, and has excellent raw power that could make him a two-way force. With regards to Broxton's defense, a note from my game journal says it best: "Keon Broxton is fun to watch in CF." He even has a good deal of patience at the plate, showing some baseball skills to compliment his raw athleticism. The problem is that most of these tools have yet to show up on the baseball field, particularly at the plate.
The handful of times I saw Broxton play with the Silver Hawks early in the year, he looked lost. Broxton has plenty of pop in his bat when he squares up the ball and gets it in the air, but the few times he managed to put the ball in play in front of my eyes, it usually was pounded into the ground. After leading South Bend in strikeouts in 2010, he showed little improvement through the first part of 2011 back with the Silver Hawks. At times he also seemed to take his patience too far, being overly passive at the plate. It made sense for Broxton to try to work himself into good hitter's counts while slumping, but taking fastballs right down the middle simply put him in protect mode at the plate, causing him to swing at off-speed offerings as they dived out of the strike zone.
Still, the organization clearly had planned on promoting Broxton to Hi-A Visalia about a month into the year regardless of his production for the Silver Hawks, and they stuck to it. After putting up a .231/.294/.282 line for the Silver Hawks in 20 games - good for a 95 wOBA+, believe it or not - Broxton was sent to Hi-A Visalia when Adam Eaton missed a few games due to a minor injury, and remained with the Rawhide after Eaton recovered (pushing Eaton to a corner outfield spot). Broxton's raw batting line improved with the promotion, as he hit .251/.349/.362 (with a 142:62 K:BB ratio) in 110 contests for Visalia, but that translated to a drop in wOBA+ to 91.
On the bright side, Broxton saved his best full month for the end of the year, hitting .286/.379/.476 in 28 contests in August, with 22 extra bases (four doubles, two triples, four home runs). However, that was also the month in which Broxton had his highest monthly strikeout total at Visalia, whiffing 42 times in August and having his slash line supported by a ~.441 BABIP (no monthly sac fly data available, so this number is approximate). Sure, there's undoubtedly some luck factored into that line, but with the spike in extra-base totals, it's also probable that Broxton, for whatever reason, was simply hitting the ball harder in August than he had all year long and not pounding it into the ground like he did at South Bend. Broxton will likely return to Visalia in 2012 to hopefully improve upon his K:BB ratio, and at just 21 years old, there's still plenty of time for him to live up to the promise of his tools.
With that, we've now sorted through the portion of the list that I refer to as the farm system's "depth," and next week will dive into some of the premier prospects of the system. Things are going to get very pitcher-heavy from this point on, as the organization's primary strength starts to truly shine through in the upper tiers of the system.