The national prospect evaluators haven't caught on to him yet, but the Dbacks have a fast rising infield prospect that just isn't getting the attention he deserves. Second baseman Jamie Westbrook just put up a season in the High A California League that puts him in some pretty elite company as middle infield prospects go.
I pulled a list of comps for middle infielders 20 or younger who put up a wRC+ of greater than 125 (200 PAs or more) in any High A League and you only get 14 players who matched that season in the past 10 years. That list of 14 is pretty impressive and I'll pick one name from that list who really matches up. Here's the list.
Hard not to get excited about that list. So if we look inside the numbers what stands out to us that might suggest this is fantasyland? There's a couple things of concern though not major concerns.
1. He played in the California League, which is not unknown to inflate one's statistics. How many others on this list of 14 played in the Cal League? Exactly 8 ... so more than half and it includes Seager, Correa, DeShields, Robertson, Russell, Odor and Owings.So it's tough to discard him on that basis. His 2014 season in A ball on paper doesn't look that impressive with a sub-.700 OPS. But look closer and you see he had one abysmal month or he would have been in the mid .700s in a notorious pitcher's league. His 2014 season was just fine.
2. He has a very low walk rate. This is a legitimate concern. A walk rate of 4.6% just doesn't cut it. You can see it was actually lower than Chris Owings' walk rate, which is always scary. On the plus side his K rate was also very low at 13.2%, significantly lower than some of the really big names on the list. Plus, his walk rate in 2014 was 6.8% and 9% the year before that. So we're not going to throw him out for this but we will be keeping an eye on it. You want to see a better OBP at this level and the low walk rate is a negative.
3. Most of these guys are shortstops with only 5 being second baseman. You're more valuable if you're a shortstop. Westbrook was drafted as a shortstop but was immediately shifted to second base. He also played DH in 30 games in 2015. I don't want to read too much into that but his defensive skills are somewhat unknown to me at this time so that's a little bit of a red flag. We'll assume he's average for the time being and since it's unlikely he can be expected to play shortstop, he gets a downgrade there.
4. It's not addressed in the chart to save space but he's not an elite base stealer or anything. He stole 14 bases last year so he's not a detriment there and should probably be a very competent base runner, but he's not in the same realm as a couple of these other guys and ranks in the bottom third of the list. In general his speed is neither a positive or a negative. it's probably good enough that he could be an outfielder at some point so maybe some positional flexibility could be in play. He has only played second base so far so it remains to be seen if he qualifies as a potential utility guy.
1. The low K rate is very promising. Only 2 players on the list struck out less, Peraza and Betts. Not a lot of swing and miss in his game. A little improvement in the walk rate and he'll get plus grades for command of the strike zone. He already shows good bat control obviously.
2. The power emergence is really exciting. We'll take a few homers away due to the thin air in the Cal League but an ISO of .192 for a middle infielder is very, very good. That puts him right in the middle of the pack of this elite group.
3. He didn't turn 20 until mid June so he's only a half year older than some of the 19 year-olds on here. We're not cheating the age group one way or the other. He's a full year younger than Swanson and has already spent an entire year at High A whereas Swanson will already be 22 before he even starts at that level. Several of these players were in the Big Leagues holding down full time jobs the very next season after posting these numbers and others at least made their debuts. We haven't really acknowledged that Westbrook could be a candidate to play for the Dbacks as early as 2016 but maybe we should!
WHO IS HE CLOSEST TO?
He's not Mookie Betts or Corey Seager that's for sure so let's not give him super elite prospect status. But outside of those two you could sure make a case at least that he's in the ballpark of anyone else on the list. Not being a shortstop I guess we'll hold off on comparing him to Correa or Bogaerts as well.
The guy he looks most like to me is Rougned Odor of the Texas Rangers. Those seasons are nearly identical and they were both done in the same league. Similar walk rate, similar K rate, similar average, similar OBP, better OPS, better ISO, similar BABIP and similar wRC+.
What did Odor do the very next season after this one? He was handed the starting second base job for Texas and played 114 games putting up a .698 OPS and a 93 OPS+. He followed that up with a .781 OPS and a 107 OPS+ playing 120 games at the age 21.
Uhhhh, that looks pretty good to me. There's almost no difference between these two players. Odor is a couple inches taller and about 20 pounds heavier, so he could be better built for handling the rigors of the majors leagues. That's not an insignificant difference. But outside of that Westbrook measures up to him in every way.
So why isn't Westbrook in the second base conversation right now? We have a huge need there. Other players with the same numbers are doing it. I suppose Owings and Drury should get first crack but they should also be on short leashes. If Westbrook goes to Mobile and continues to rake and we still are getting sub-standard production from the position, Westbrook should be right in line.
And finally, the point of my headline is that Westbrook's emergence is what made Swanson expendable. I'm not prepared to make an argument about whether or not Westbrook is actually BETTER than Swanson but the numbers don't lie about how good he is. I wouldn't be the least bit surprised if Swanson exceeds the kind of season that Westbrook just put up, but how much higher can he go? Is he Corey Seager? I'm not sure about that.
My point is you actually know what you have in Westbrook right now. Swanson is still a bit of an unknown. So from that perspective dealing Swanson to help acquire a front line pitcher does not empty the prospect cupboard by any stretch of the imagination and makes good sense to trade from surplus to acquire what is in short supply. He'll be missed, but his replacement is already in the fold. I'm excited to see him get his opportunity sooner than later.