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Of Prospects and Rosters, Part II: Position Players

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If Arizona’s farm strength is in the pitching, then what does the hitting actually look like?

Midland RockHounds v Amarillo Sod Poodles Photo by John E. Moore III/Getty Images

Today, the focus is on the position player prospects in the Arizona farm system. Some of these names are already contributing (or at least trying to). Others are a ways off. The first section will be devoted to identifying each of the players, with quick reviews of some of the more important names to take note of. The second part of this will put those names and their performances into context, especially when it comes to rating the system against the Diamondbacks’ NL West peers.

Just as a recap, we will be looking at three general categories, impact, MLB-caliber, and fringe. For bats, we are roughly looking at 25 years and younger with 50+ at-bats and a wRC+ over 120. There will be some wiggle in these categories (as there always is with prospect evaluation), but that will define the general buckets of players and any deviation will be fully covered.

That list of Diamondbacks players can be found here.

Diamondbacks Minor League Hitters

Future Impact Players

Daulton Varsho (MLB)

Varsho is the first of the two names that make the cut. He began the season in the Majors and struggled enough to be sent down to AAA-Reno, despite there being a number of indicators that he would not learn much there. Varsho did exactly what one hopes he would do when being sent down, he stepped up and raked. This eventually got him brought back up. Once again, he has struggled, though his playing time has been less than it probably should be at this point. These struggles though, are not entirely surprising. Varsho’s weakness is identifying MLB-caliber breaking pitches early enough to identify them. The only place Varsho is going to see those with enough frequency to improve the skill of identifying them is on the MLB roster. This is why he should be playing as often as possible. Yes, it will mean the team suffers as he struggles to hit somewhere between .180 - .210. But, it is either watch him struggle now, in a lost season, with the hope that he improves and is ready to be better next year, or watch him continue to struggle next year as well while he continues to fight for extra looks at such pitches. His athleticism and his baseball savvy are going to get him to and keep him in the Majors. His floor is that of a typical MLB backup catcher. His ceiling is that of a borderline all-star talent if he sticks behind the plate and his bat comes around to where some project it. (Both of those are highly questionable, but neither is all that improbable.) The development questions are, how long until he is finished cooking, and how much struggling is the Arizona front office willing to stomach in order to finish that cooking? Varsho’s future position is still uncertain. Some still think he can be a catcher. Others feel he should play in the outfield.

Seth Beer (AAA)

Seth Beer is a hard one to pin down. Initial reports were that he had 70+ grade power but was a defensive liability anywhere on the field, including first base. Yet, the on-field performance has not matched this. At the plate, the reality has been that Beer’s power grade is closer to 55 or 60. On the other hand, Beer’s first base defense is far from the butcher levels reported and the Diamondbacks have been seeing good signs out of his time working in left field, where he may yet prove to be viable. While Beer is not putting nearly as many balls in the seats as first expected, it is still fair to say his back contains significant pop. ^5% of his hits as a professional player have gone for extra bases. Limiting that to just this year, when he wasn’t facing the lowest levels of competition, he is still hitting for extra bases more than 53% of the time. For being such a big swinger, Beer controls his strikeouts admirably. He also understands the value of a walk. Beer’s floor is essentially Christian Walker, though that assumes the defense holds up. With the DH inevitably coming to a NL near you, that may not matter much longer anyway. Beer’s ceiling, on the other hand, would put him on par with Jose Abreu.

Alek Thomas (AA)

Alek Thomas is pushing all the right buttons and doing all the things one wants to see a prospect doing in order to move quickly through the system. If not for the lost season of 2020, it is likely Thomas would be vying for MLB at-bats already. Currently, Thomas is only in AA. There, he is hitting for average and for power while walking at well above average levels and controlling his strikeouts. He is playing plus defense in the outfield as well. The last player to perform this well for the Diamondbacks at this level for any extended period was in 2011 when some eighth round free swinger named Paul Goldschmidt stopped by for a cup of coffee. That’s not to say Thomas is the next Goldy. Goldy hit for considerably more power than Thomas will. It should though, put things in a bit of perspective. This is a young man doing the right things to put his name on the lists of highly accomplished players. Thomas is still only 21 and he is knocking on the door of a Major League audition. Short of something going terribly wrong, Alek Thomas has the floor of a regular 4th outfielder. If everything goes right, Alek Thomas is an all-star caliber left fielder. He won’t hit for Juan Soto’s power, but he will still hit for average, show plenty of pop, and be a true threat defensively and on the bases. There is still a ton of value to be had in 45 doubles, even if he only hits 20 HR.

Drew Ellis* (AAA)

Drew Ellis gets the asterisk because when the last segment was released, I talked about how he just missed the cut for this group. Well, he had a good night, which was enough to push his numbers from just below the line to just above the line. The practical side of me still puts him squarely in the next category down. However, as things stand right now, he makes the cut to be here. Ellis has easy raw power, that he has actually improved upon since being drafted. He has also improved his defense from fringey at third to slightly better than average. His arm is strong enough that it plays anywhere. If this 2021 version of Ellis is to be believed, he really could be the franchise third baseman for the next five years. Even if he isn’t a 4-5 win player, locking down such an expensive position to fill for the foreseeable future is incredibly valuable (if he can manage it).

Honourable Mention

Corbin Carroll (A+) and Kristian Robinson (Restricted)

To begin with, neither of these players has advanced beyond the lower levels. Carroll was on pace to, but his prodigious output landed him on the table getting season-ending surgery. That’s an awful lot to come back from and he is, at best, a late 2023 contributor now with no definitive idea of what he will bring to the table once he is healthy again. Robinson has the best upside in the system, but has real issues with his strikeouts and is now facing mental and legal issues that take priority over his baseball development.

MLB-Caliber Players

Andrew Young
Josh VanMeter
Stuart Fairchild
Pavin Smith*
Josh Rojas*

Four of these players are currently on the MLB roster, though only two of them are getting any sort of significant playing time. Torey Lovullo is bending over backwards to find ways to get Pavin Smith’s bat into the lineup and Josh Rojas is quietly turning into an MLB regular with each passing game. The biggest challenge for Rojas will be finding where he fits on the field. The final one, Fairchild, is inexplicably fighting to claw plate appearances away from some non-relevant players in Reno.

Fringe/AAAA

This is nearly where Josh VanMeter winds up. Some might claim the same for Andrew Young. Young’s future is tied to the DH and whether or not he can cut down on his strikeouts. VanMeter’s future is all about cutting down on strikeouts on breaking pitches and he needs to get the ball off the ground more often. These are adjustments that he is proving repeatedly can only be made at the MLB level. Unfortunately, time is running out for him and he may not get enough looks to make the necessary adjustments (if he is even able to ).

Jake McCarthy

McCarthy stands alone among players above the low minors that could potentially be a contributor but has not already been covered, unless one looks to some of the truly long shots.


How Arizona Stacks Up

In part one, the closing segment looked at the number of Arizona hitting prospects compared to those of the other teams in the NL West. The initial look was not a terribly good one for the Snakes, showing them to be lagging behind the other teams in the division, most especially the juggernaut Dodgers, a team they are going to have to figure out how to contend with while not having an unlimited checkbook to rely upon. Just looking at the list of Diamondbacks prospects though, it is readily apparent that there is more to be gleaned by taking a closer look across the board. For one thing, as has already been identified, Arizona’s farm strength is still in the lower minors. The very short list of players above is testament to that (and that the organization is stronger on the pitching side). Then there is also the matter of roster construction and promotions. In a typical, healthy season, on a team not filling half the roster with veteran place-holders, it is quite likely that Josh Rojas, Pavin Smith, and Daulton Varsho are all still in AAA fighting to be given a chance at the MLB level, rather than already being looked to for significant contribution. That skews the scales even more as, instead of being dynamic prospects in the upper minors to bolster the system, they are MLB talents still trying to find their way.

The jump to AA ball is considered by many evaluators the most difficult jump in the sport. This is one of the reasons so much attention is focused on prospects at AA and above, not just because of how close that makes them to debuting, but because it means they have already weathered the big step. Keep that in mind as we make our way through four farm systems.

So, how do the Diamondbacks actually stack up against the rest of the NL West?

Dodgers Player list

Of the players that make the cut, there are only two prospects who are both a top-30 prospect in the Dodgers system and playing above A+ ball. The first would be Miguel Vargas, the team’s #10 overall prospect and a product of Cuba whom the Dodgers were able to sign back in 2018. Somewhat telling is that the team’s $4 prospect, Kody Hoese, is competing at the same level, is sporting a dismal 28 wRC+, and is still considered the superior prospect and more likely to reach the Majors.

The other name of note on this list is Kiebert Ruiz, the team’s top prospect. He was signed as an international free agent out of Venezuela way back in 2014. He has already had his MLB debut and is now sitting around on the 40-man roster waiting for an opportunity to rejoin the parent club. Overall, he projects to stay behind the plate, but otherwise is not far off from the same projection as Arizona’s Daulton Varsho. Again, this is the team’s top prospect and he looks very much like the player that many Arizona fans are already getting tired of seeing struggle at the MLB level while he learns about hitting offspeed pitches. (Which, incidentally, is something Ruiz struggles with as well.)

The rest of the Dodgers’ system of impact type hitters are all still in the lower minors. Yes, the Dodgers have a higher quantity in the total farm, but they lack any significant immediate impact bats. In fact, Arizona has just as many of those waiting along with some more cutting their teeth right now.

Giants Player list

There are three names of note on this list, though only two fall under the previously defined parameters.

The first name is really the only name that truly matters - Joey Bart. He is the team’s #2 prospect and is rated as a top-50 prospect in all of baseball by just about every outlet worth a damn. He doesn’t walk quite as much as some would like and strikes out a bit too often, but his bat still provides plenty of impact. This is exactly what one would expect from the second overall selection of the 2018 draft. If not for Buster Posey having discovered the Fountain of Youth, putting up arguably one of the two or three best seasons of his entire career, there is every possibility that Bart would already be on the MLB roster. This young man is for real.

The other two names are Thairo Estrada, who has likely already reached his ceiling by sitting on the bench as a backup to Donovan Solano, and LaMonte Wade Jr. Wade is 27, so not part of the “in crowd” for this list, but is nonetheless important. Wade’s AAA numbers got him a promotion to the Majors and he is now one of the big reasons the Giants lead the division. Wade is/was a non-prospect who was part of a quantity over quality trade that the Giants made with the Minnesota Twins. He is now experiencing a late breakout and in vying for the chance to be an everyday starter. Whether or not he will hold up under the extra workload remains to be seen, but he’s one of those players that every team lucks into once in a while. For the Diamondbacks, the last such was probably David Peralta.

The Diamondbacks do not have a prospect to match up with or keep up with Joey Bart. Of course, it’s been eight years since they have had the opportunity to select that level of talent out of the draft and, in that year, there was no talent of that caliber to be had. Beyond Bart, San Francisco has a ton of role players, journeymen, and low minors prospects. The team’s #1 overall prospect, Marco Luciano, is still in A-ball. He also cost the Giants $2.8 million as an international free agent in 2018. This would explain him being ranked as the #8 prospect in all of baseball. He’ll certainly be one to keep an eye on. Fun fact, Kristian Robinson has a lesser pure hit tool, but matches or exceeds Luciano’s grades across the rest of the board. This would explain why so many are also high on Robinson.

Padres Player list

The Padres have either promoted or traded away anyone worthy of note on this list. The list does have three names that met the stated criteria. The first, Dwanya Williams-Sutton, is an old for his level non-prospect who was raking in A+ ball until recently. The promotion to AA ball has resulted in a 41% strikeout rate. The second name, Tucupita Marcano, another non-prospect, has already seen a fair amount of MLB time this season as the Padres weathered some injuries. His time in the Majors went about as well as Josh VanMeter’s has been going. In fact, they are very similar players, except that VanMeter has been the far superior minor leaguer. The last name, Allen Córdoba, is yet another slightly old-for-his-level non-prospect steadily making his way through the system. His age might be forgiven due to the COVID-19 pandemic, so we won’t hold it against him much. Still, that he doesn’t even sniff the team’s top-30 prospects, or the top 5 middle infield prospects, says something about his perceived ceiling, as does the fact that he continues to crawl through the minors.

Rockies Player list

Bueller... Bueller… Bueller?

The Rockies do have one name that makes the cut, a non-prospect named Sean Bouchard who, if all goes very well for Bouchard and for the Rockies, just might find a way onto a Major League roster in the next two years. He’s a corner infielder, so the competition will be steep. But, there’s some potential there. At the plate, he matches up well with Jake McCarthy of the Diamondbacks, who was recently promoted from AA to AAA. McCarthy is better at walking, Bouchard hits for more average. McCarthy has more pop and is a more athletic dfender.

The Rockies organization, from top to bottom, is a hot mess.As bad as things are for Arizona, it is almost impossible for a team to be more dysfunctionally wrecked than the Rockies are at the moment.

TL/DR Recap

Despite the scary looking numbers presented in part one of this series, the Diamondbacks actually stack up quite well against the rest of the NL West when it comes to their position players/hitters. This is actually rather encouraging, given that Arizona’s strength is on the pitching side and in the lower minors. No, Arizona is not as well off as the Giants in terms of total upside. That comes from the Giants having much deeper pockets and also being more recently terrible, like really terrible. The number of premium impact prospects who have already made the jump to AA in the division, ranking notably better than what the Diamondbacks are presenting, is two; Joey Bart and Keibert Ruiz. Neither player has developed from an opportunity which was also available to the Diamondbacks.

In fairness, the results are a bit skewed because the San Diego Padres promoted all the best talent or traded it for top-tier veteran talent. That’s because the Padres are in win-now mode.

Player-for-player, the Diamondbacks are holding their own as far as hitters go when looking above AA-ball. The real challenge is now getting those prospects to take the last step and develop into quality, average or better MLB players. Josh Rojas and, to a lesser extent, Pavin Smith, have the team off to a good start in that department.

Next up: Part III: Pitchers