Aug 14, 2012; Toronto, ON, Canada; Toronto Blue Jays third baseman Adeiny Hechavarria (3) bats against the Chicago White Sox at the Rogers Centre. The White Sox beat the Blue Jays 3-2. Mandatory Credit: Tom Szczerbowski-US PRESSWIRE

Prospect Positional Primer: Middle Infield


Late last fall, with inspiration from Jason Parks of Baseball Prospectus, I began writing a series of articles which I titled “Positional Primers”. I broke down the Blue Jays system into seven categories; catcher, corner infield, middle infield, corner outfield, centerfield, right handed pitcher, and left handed pitcher. In each article, I highlighted a number of players at the position being discussed, talked about what they’ve done and where they stand, and what to possibly expect moving forward. The lists weren’t prospect rankings or a depth chart, they were simply another, broader way of looking at some players in the system who are interesting, but won’t necessarily be included on my top 30 prospect list later this year.

In terms of page views and feedback (both positive and negative, but thankfully mostly the former), the series was one of the most popular things I’ve done in my two-ish years of writing about the Blue Jays. As such, I’ve decided to break down the system once again, and hopefully another year of experience and knowledge will make the list that much more thorough and interesting to the readers.

The third part of the series will look at the middle infield positions. I have combined second base and shortstop, as most “second base prospects” are simply shortstop prospects who couldn’t handle the defensive demands in professional baseball. Fielding ability is the most important tool for a middle infielder, as Baseball America ranks it as the top priority for shortstops, and number two priority for second basemen. Arm strength is obviously supremely important for shortstops, ranking as second priority. On the other hand, second basemen make the shortest throws of any position, so arm strength is their least important tool. As second basemen are usually failed defensive shortstops, their offensive game needs to be a notch above. The hit tool is the highest priority, with power ranking third. Quickness is more important than raw speed, grading out as the second least important tool for both positions.

The King in the North

Adeiny Hechavarria – 2012 team(s): Triple-A Las Vegas, Toronto
(AAA) 443 AB, .312/.363/.424 (.788 OPS), 20 2B, 6 3B, 6 HR, 63 RBI, 8 SB, 38/86 BB/K
(MLB) 126 AB, .254/.280/.365 (.645 OPS), 8 2B, 0 3B, 2 HR, 15 RBI, 0 SB, 4/32 BB/K

Adeiny Hechavarria is the best middle infield prospect Toronto has developed since Aaron Hill, but that speaks more about the barren wasteland J.P. Ricciardi had for a farm system than his pure talent. The Cuban signed a four year Major-League deal back in April of 2010, and with 10 million in total value, he’s the most expensive International acquisition in Blue Jays history. Before players like Alex Rodriguez, Nomar Garciaparra, and the Derek Jeter revolutionized the position in the mid-to-late 1990’s, the shortstop’s top priority was run prevention, not run generation. Things have changed, as while defense is still important, shortstops are now expected to carry some weight on the offensive side as well. Adeiny Hechavarria has more in common with the shortstops of old, and his ultimate value will depend upon how well he can modernize his offensive game.

As Blue Jays fans saw over the final two months of the 2012 season, there is a bit of offensive potential to dream on. At the plate, Hechavarria looks like a capable hitter. His stance is very simple and calm, with his front side bordering on closed. He holds his hands low, as his swing is more conducive to line drives than shear power, and he wants to be as quick to the ball as possible. When Hechavarria swings, he quickly pulls his hands through the zone with good bat speed and just the slightest of uppercuts. It’s a significantly different swing than what we saw in the past, as Las Vegas 51s hitting coach Chad Mottola worked wonders with him this season. Previously, Hechavarria was wild and overaggressive at the plate, creating a long swing path with way too many exposable holes. He can still be a bit undisciplined, but his approach is further along than I had expected. His power potential isn’t enormous by any means, but 10-12 home runs annually aren’t out of the question.

Throughout his minor league career, Hechavarria had played 332 games at shortstop and just eight at second base. Despite this, in his 41 games in Toronto, he received only 13 starts at his natural position. It was five fewer starts than he received at third base, where he had never previously played in his career. To top it off, he sprinkled in another eight starts at second base for the Blue Jays. His raw defensive ability was resoundingly clear, as regardless of position his actions were smooth, his reactions were quick, and his throws were strong and accurate. Hechavarria’s footwork is exceptional, as his first step almost always seems to be the correct one. Even when he makes a mistake, his athleticism usually allows him to recover in time to make the play. His best position was shortstop, and he proved surprisingly strong at third base (though his bat would never work there). Some issues crept up at second base, however. On plays that required him to turn his back to the play – usually setting up double plays – he got a bit backwards and his footwork often led to either inaccurate or mistimed throws. It could be a concern if the Blue Jays expect him to play second base in more than a pinch.

His immediate future is a bit clouded, as while second base is likely to have an opening next season after Kelly Johnson’s departure, both his presently below average offense and footwork problems make that an imperfect fit. Hechavarria is much better suited for shortstop, but that would require Yunel Escobar to be elsewhere. Given how busy this coming offseason is likely to be, that’s well within the realm of possibility, but is anything but a guarantee. If things don’t play out in his favor, he’ll likely start the year down in Triple-A Buffalo, waiting for the call.

On the Rise

Christian Lopes – 2012 team(s): Rookie-Bluefield, Low-A Vancouver
223 AB, .278/.339/.462 (.801 OPS), 17 2B, 6 3B, 4 HR, 33 RBI, 6 SB, 17/40 BB/K

Christian Lopes playing for Team USA (Image via MLBDraftCountdown.wordpress.com)

Had Hechavarria played a few more games and lost his rookie (and therefore prospect) eligibility, Christian Lopes would have been the top dog in the middle infield category. As it stands, he’s only a step or two behind anyways. Lopes came from the 2011 draft, and like Matt Dean on the corner infield primer, he was paid a bonus well above the number suggested by the Commissioner’s office for his slot. A seventh round pick, Lopes received 800 thousand dollars to forgo his scholarship to USC and join the Blue Jays organization. He was signed on deadline day, and as such his professional debut was delayed until this past summer. On a Bluefield squad riddled with top prospects, Lopes took off and began separating himself from the pack.

Lopes was drafted as a shortstop, but the Blue Jays have already shifted him over to second base almost full time. Of his 58 games played, 43 came at second base. He still played in ten games at shortstop and another five at designated hitter, but it’s resoundingly clear where his future lies. The reasoning behind the move is that, despite a very normal sounding build at 6-feet and 185 pounds, Lopes is left a bit wanting in the athleticism department. He has some quickness, but his raw speed is below average leading to sub-par range. Furthermore, his arm strength is a very iffy tool as well. You can get away with that at the high school level, but in professional baseball, that’s simply not going to cut it at shortstop.

Fortunately, his bat is more than playable at second base, and is the main reason some draft experts thought he could go as high as the first round prior to a disappointing senior season at Edison High School. Lopes faces the pitcher with a very open stance, allowing him to track pitches well as they approach the zone. He’s very quiet at the plate, holding his hands low before gearing up for the swing. He double taps his front foot – something that may eventually need to be cleaned up – before striding and spinning his hips with nice weight transfer. Lopes has excellent bat speed, and despite only just turning 20 he has a very mature plate approach. He works the count, has a good two-strike approach, and isn’t afraid to use the opposite field if the pitch dictates doing so. The power should continue to develop as he matures physically, with the potential for 30+ doubles and 15+ home runs over a full season being very reasonable expectations.

He only played 10 games for Vancouver at the end of the 2012 season, but I’d be a little surprised if Lopes wasn’t pushed to full season ball with Lansing in 2013. The Midwest League can be a rough environment in which to hit, but Lopes has the bat skills to handle such an assignment. Another year in short season ball would be wasted development time. There are no strong middle infield prospects in the levels directly ahead of him, so the speed at which he advances is fully dependent upon his performance.

The Question Mark

Dickie Thon Jr – 2012 team: Rookie-Bluefield
149 AB, .221/.331/.309 (.640 OPS), 5 2B, 1 3B, 2 HR, 14 RBI, 7 SB, 19/34 BB/K

Dickie Thon Jr at minor league camp during the spring of 2012 (Photo credit: John Lott of The National Post)

Ever since the Blue Jays selected Thon in the fifth round of the 2010 draft, his career has been a tumultuous one. Shortly after the draft, rumors surfaced that Richard Thon, Dickie’s father, was hoping to see his son selected by his former team, the Houston Astros. Furthermore, not only did he involve himself in the negotiations a little more than he likely should have, but he also made some aspects of their discussions open to the public when they should have been kept behind closed doors. Hurt feelings were prevalent, as apparently the Thon family was expecting Dickie to go higher than the fifth round. Leading up to the signing deadline it looked unlikely a deal would get done, but the team managed to find a way to get him under contract; an agreement that would include a hefty 1.5 million dollar signing bonus. That kind of money was usually reserved for mid first round picks, so one can quickly surmise just how highly the organization thought of the Puerto Rican high school player. Despite the hype he had a shaky 2011 debut, which was particularly surprising given the conservative Gulf Coast League assignment. Thon’s walk rate and athleticism were impressive, but his contact and power generating abilities were less than stellar. Some of that could be blamed on health, as a blood disorder during the spring sapped him of much of his strength. Questions about his long term future are really beginning to creep in after yet another rough showing for Bluefield in 2012.

Thon’s best trait is his athleticism, which is evident just by looking at him. Everything he does is smooth. His stance at the plate is relaxed, with his feet shoulder width apart and his front side slightly open. When Thon swings, he drops his front shoulder, strides forward, and follows through with a controlled swing designed for line drives. He has quick hands and a great eye at the plate, which makes his offensive struggles mind boggling. Thon is more fundamental than flash on defense, but has proved more than capable of handling shortstop at the professional level thanks to soft hands and good footwork. His arm is on the iffy side, but is not a liability. Thon’s struggles this season have really blurred his future, as while a .640 OPS doesn’t scream promotion, is a third year in short season ball (after he didn’t play in his draft year) really the best move? If the Blue Jays still think he’s a legitimate prospect, they’re almost forced to see if he’ll sink or swim in Lansing.

Remember the Name(s)

Franklin Barreto – 2012 team: N/A

Barreto was the highest rated international free agent in 2012, and agreed to terms with the Blue Jays on July 2nd (Photo by Alexander Mendoza)

Not only was Franklin Barreto the Blue Jays top acquisition during the 2012 International Free Agency period, he was the best player available according to expert Ben Badler of Baseball America (though some may reconsider that if Jairo Beras were brought into consideration). Toronto had reportedly been sniffing around Barreto for a long time, and once the signing period officially opened on July 2nd, they wasted no time in getting their man. The 16 year old was signed out of Venezuela for 1.45 million dollars, taking up a significant portion of the Blue Jays 2.9 million dollar IFA pool as per Major League Baseball’s new amateur talent regulations. Barreto has been in the spotlight for years, as his international tournament career began at the age of 10, and he’s won MVP after MVP in various 12-and-under and 14-and-under events over the years. Now that he’s officially under contract, the Blue Jays are hoping he can carry over that success into professional baseball in 2013.

Barreto is a shortstop now, but his long term future may be second base or in center field. It’s not due to lack of speed or arm strength, as he’s exceptional and solid in the two categories respectively. The problem lies with his defensive actions. Unlike Hechavarria and Thon, Barreto’s a bit rough at shortstop. His footwork and first step aren’t efficient, which creates problems even plus speed can’t make up for. Still, at just 16 years of age, there’s plenty of time for him to work things out. Fortunately, he has more than enough offensive game to be a legitimate prospect at second base or center field if such a move is inevitably required. Barreto has quick hands with a short swing and excellent pitch recognition, and could develop into an above average hitter with solid power potential. He’s an advanced enough hitter that I expect the Blue Jays will start him off in the Gulf Coast League next season, with the possibility of a late season promotion to Bluefield or Vancouver within the realm of possibility.

Dawel Lugo – 2012 team: GCL Blue Jays
170 AB, .224/.275/.329 (.604 OPS), 2 2B, 5 3B, 2 HR, 20 RBI, 5 SB, 7/25 BB/K

Dawel Lugo playing in the Dominican Republic (Image via DPLBaseball.com)

Dawel Lugo is yet another prospect who joined the organization through International Free Agency. He was a part of the rich – both in terms of talent and money – 2011 crop, the final period that, for all intents and purposes, was unregulated. Lugo received a 1.3 million dollar contract, which fell just short of Roberto Osuna for the highest bonus given to a Blue Jays acquisition that summer. Signed out of the Dominican Republic, the now 17 year old Lugo made his professional debut stateside in 2012. It’s a bit surprising, as often times Latin players so young will spend a season in the Dominican Summer League, getting adjusted to the professional regime while remaining in a culture they’re comfortable in. Instead, Lugo skipped the DSL altogether and was assigned directly to the Gulf Coast League in Florida. His statistics were modest, but little weight should be placed upon complex league numbers by such a young player, particularly in Lugo’s circumstances.

Lugo is in a similar position to Barreto in that while he’s currently playing shortstop, he’s very, very raw at the position. His arm strength is a huge asset to him, so if does eventually slide down the defensive spectrum, third base is a legitimate option. He was signed for his bat, however, and has the offensive potential to be an above average regular at third base if not a star at shortstop. Obviously that’s a long ways off and the uncertainty is tremendous, but he has the type of swing scouts love. His hands are lightning fast, and his plate coverage is off the charts. That often works against him, however, as he’ll swing at pitches he really shouldn’t because he knows he can put them in play anyways. As he matures as a baseball player and gets further exposed to North American coaching, that aggressiveness should be reeled back, allowing his contact ability to really shine. Lugo has power potential as well, as he already has a strong 6-foot-1, 185 pound frame at just 17 years old. Depending upon how he looks in extended spring training, Lugo could wind up at either Bluefield or the Gulf Coast next summer. As with every big name International Free Agent there’s a ton of risk, but he’ll be a name to remember next year and beyond.

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Tags: Adeiny Hechavarria Christian Lopes Dawel Lugo Dickie Thon Jr. Franklin Barreto