Jake Marisnick, pictured during Spring Training, has received the promotion to Double-A New Hampshire (John Lott / National Post)

Prospect Positional Primer: Centerfield


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 fourth part of the series will look at the centerfield position. Centerfielders are my absolute favorite prospects to discuss, because more than any other position, they’re required to be proficient both at the plate and in the field. To prevent a move to an outfield corner, the centerfielder is required to be an exceptional defender. As such, Baseball America ranks fielding as the highest tool priority for the position. Speed is important as well, ranking third, as while having great reads and lines on balls is crucial, a certain level of athleticism is also required to give the player the necessary range. Arm strength is the least important tool, because as long as the player can run down fly balls heading towards the gap, teams can live with a lack of outfield assists. Hitting ability and power rank second and fourth respectively, which agrees with the suggestion that offense is just as important as defense when discussing a centerfield prospect. More so than any other position, when a centerfielder puts all the tools together, you can have a generational talent in the mold of a Ken Griffey Jr. or Mike Trout.

  • Top centerfield prospect to reach MLB (last 5 years): Anthony Gose
  • Centerfielders in 2012 Top 30: 3
  • Centerfield WAR leaders in MLB (last 5 years): Vernon Wells (5.2), Colby Rasmus (0.9)

The King in the North

Jake Marisnick – 2012 team(s): High-A Dunedin, Double-A New Hampshire
489 AB, .249/.321/.399 (.720 OPS), 29 2B, 10 3B, 8 HR, 50 RBI, 24 SB, 37/100 BB/K

Entering the 2012 season, Jake Marisnick was easily the best center field prospect in the Blue Jays system. Anthony Gose had a great season for Double-A New Hampshire, but Marisnick’s combination of tools and in-game production gave him a decisive edge. A year later, it’s a vastly different story. At least it was, until I realized Gose had surpassed the maximum at-bat threshold to retain his prospect eligibility. That made the decision a clear one once again, but for all of the wrong reasons. Jake Marisnick did not have a great season, and while he kept his head above water in the Florida State League, the elite pitching prospects of the Eastern League forced him under. His enormous success with Lansing during the 2011 season may have raised expectations unrealistically high a bit too soon, because in reality, we’re still seeing the transition from athlete to baseball player. Marisnick was 21 years old for the duration of the season, and many players his age are either in college or A-ball. Some struggles in the upper minors not only should be accepted, they should have been expected. Unfortunately, once the hype train gets going, it’s near impossible to stop.

If you look at his abilities on a baseball field, the reasoning behind the hype becomes readily apparent. When someone in sports describes a catalyst, they’re talking about a player like Jake Marisnick. He stands an imposing 6-foot-4, and with 200 pounds of lean muscle across his frame, he’s athleticism embodied. He has broad shoulders, and his legs are so long he looks like a gazelle once he gets underway. Marisnick takes excellent reads in the outfield, and uses his plus speed to cover a vast amount of outfield grass. His arm strength is yet another plus tool, totaling 10 outfield assists in 118 games last season – an excellent number for a centerfielder. In addition to having outstanding pure speed, Marisnick is an exceptional base runner as well. In 307 career minor league games, he’s been successful on 81% of his stolen base attempts (84/104), and frequently takes the extra base whether it be going first to third, or stretching a double into a triple.

What makes Marisnick a true five tool prospect is the potential in his offensive game. His rough summer in New Hampshire rubbed the shine off a little bit, but Marisnick still has the potential to be a dynamic, fear-inducing threat in the meat of the order of a playoff caliber lineup. He faces the pitcher with a slightly open stance and a very wide base, and readies himself quickly. Once he’s in the set position, Marisnick calms down, looking almost statuesque. He holds his hands just above the shoulders, and as the pitch is delivered, he strides forward, drops his hands, and quickly pulls them through the zone generating plus bat speed. His swing is line drive oriented, as he has enough raw power in his frame to avoid needing to cheat with an uppercut. Marisnick will take bad pitches and even borderline fastballs, but in his short time in New Hampshire he was overwhelmed by the quality of the breaking balls. It’s not a glaring concern, as it is all part of the transition from athlete to baseball player. Above average breaking balls are few and far between in the low minors, but in Double-A and above, they’re a requirement for survival.

After the conclusion of the Arizona Fall League where he’s currently playing, Marisnick will have the offseason to look over the tape of what happened in Double-A, and begin to make adjustments for the upcoming season. The last time he struggled with a late season promotion, he came back the next year to produce an .888 OPS and be named to four separate All-Star teams. Hopefully that maturity and focus will return to him, as big things will be expected when he returns to New Hampshire next spring.

Question Mark

Dwight Smith Jr – 2012 team(s): Rookie-Bluefield, Low-A Vancouver
222 AB, .212/.279/.315 (.594 OPS), 9 2B, 1 3B, 4 HR, 29 RBI, 1 SB, 17/33 BB/K

Dwight Smith Jr. heading to the batting cage during minor league spring training, 2012 (Image via MLBProspectPortal.com)

When a team selects a high school hitter in the first round, they accept there’s going to be some risk involved. So when the Blue Jays selected Dwight Smith Jr. in the supplemental first round of the 2011 draft, they knew there were absolutely no guarantees. Working in their favor, however, was that Dwight’s father was a career .275/.333/.422 hitter across parts of eight Major League seasons. Having “baseball genes” is a huge bonus, as not only does the player have inherent physical abilities, but they grew up around the sport, making the transition from the amateur ranks into the professional game an easier adjustment. Thus far, that hasn’t been the case with Smith Jr. His contract with the team wasn’t finalized until deadline day, which when combined with a hamstring issue during his senior high school year, made it logical for him to sit out the remainder of 2011. Smith’s debut came with Bluefield (and later Vancouver) during the 2012 season where he struggled mightily, producing a sub-.600 OPS across 59 games. He’ll only be 20 years old on Opening Day 2013, but with such a strong outfield depth chart in the low minors, Smith needs to come back strong to avoid getting lost in the numbers.

The results were particularly disappointing when considering that an advanced bat was supposed to be his strongest trait. The plate approach showed up at least, as despite poor batting numbers, he maintained strong strikeout and walk rates, showing excellent zone control with two strikes. You can see how he focuses on that aspect of his game, as at the plate, he chokes up on the bat to ensure his swing is clean and quick to the ball. Even in a fresh count, you can see an inch or two of handle between his bottom hand and the knob of the bat. Additionally, Smith faces the mound with an open stance, further augmenting his ability to pick up and react to pitches. He’s a bit too active in the box for my liking, as he both wiggles his bat and sways back and forth from a crouched position. His timing mechanism is a huge front step, something he learned from his father and has used for years. After the stride, Smith Jr. follows through with average bat speed from a slightly uppercut swing plane. Despite a bit of a stocky frame he’s not a big power guy, with the tool grading out as average.

Smith isn’t fast, but he’s a good base runner thanks to a natural talent of reading pitchers. It’s much of the same in centerfield, as while he doesn’t have as much range as the other centerfielders on this primer, he has an excellent first step and takes highly efficient routes to the ball. His arm strength is fringe-average, but he makes up for it with plus level accuracy and a great release on his throws. The scouting report on Smith Jr. is usually based around the phrase “excellent instincts that play up average tools”, but he’s going to need to rely less on the former and more on the latter if he hopes to get his career moving in the right direction. Other than “short season ball” it’s hard to surmise where exactly he’ll open next year, as each of the next three centerfielders on this list will also be looking for playing time. It may come down to who looks the best during extended spring training,

On the Rise

D.J. Davis – 2012 team(s): Gulf Coast Blue Jays, Rookie-Bluefield, Low-A Vancouver
228 AB, .250/.355/.386 (.741 OPS), 10 2B, 3 3B, 5 HR, 18 RBI, 25 SB, 27/70 BB/K

D.J. Davis was Toronto’s number one pick in the 2012 draft (Image courtesy PerfectGame.org)

When the Toronto Blue Jays selected D.J. Davis with the 17th overall pick in the 2012 draft, a kid named Corey Seager was still on the board (the Dodgers took him immediately afterwards with the 18th overall pick). For that, I may never forgive them, but in just under a half season worth of games this summer, Davis did enough to sooth some of the pain. There was a lot of criticism towards the new Collective Bargaining Agreement and its impact on amateur talent acquisition – and rightfully so – but one thing it did correctly was moving the draft signing deadline forward a month. From a macroscopic view, the Davis pick wasn’t particularly surprising, as under General Manager Alex Anthopoulos, the organization has made a clear shift in philosophy towards high tool athletes. The risk is certainly greater when you draft a player with a “developing” hit tool, but because of their athleticism there’s no doubt that the upside is significantly higher should they put the total package together.

Davis’ lack of polish is exemplified when looking at his swing mechanics, which appear to change between at-bats. Finding some consistency will be key moving forward, as it’s impossible to improve something if what you’re trying to improve upon is always in a state of flux. The raw talent is there, however, as regardless of his swing path it’s coming from, the bat speed is quite impressive. He starts from a narrow base, but takes a big stride forward as he transfers his weight. Davis has good hip rotation, but he’ll need to get his swing under control, as he’s prone to spinning on his heels. His hands are low and his bat is quick to the ball, as Davis understands his best weapon is his speed, not his power. His chances of success are much greater with a groundball or line drive than with a fly ball, especially when considering he’s a left handed hitter. He’s not without power, but Davis’ ceiling in that regard is limited by his slim 6-foot-1 frame.

Baseball America has compared his raw speed to that of Billy Hamilton – yes, the guy who stole a record 155 bases last season – but that seems a bit absurd to me. Davis has 80 caliber speed, sure, but when discussing Hamilton’s speed, many people rank him as a 90, which is literally off the scale. Regardless, Davis has the potential to be a 70+ stolen base guy, so long as he can maintain a healthy on-base percentage. Like the offensive aspect of his game, Davis’ defense is more raw than polish at this point. His speed allows him to make up for many mistakes, but he often has poor reads or takes an inefficient path to the ball – reminiscent of current Blue Jays outfielder Rajai Davis. Thankfully, D.J. just turned 18 in July, and has more than enough time to smooth things out and remain in centerfield. His arm strength is below average, but as I mentioned above, it’s the least important tool for a centerfielder.

It will be interesting to see how the centerfield depth chart in the low minor leagues unfolds, as four centerfielders will be fighting for three spots between Lansing, Vancouver, and Bluefield. The Blue Jays are likely to play it cautious with Davis, as while he has heaps of upside, he struck out 70 times in 60 games in short season ball last season. A second go-around with Vancouver should be in store, with the possibility of a late season promotion to Lansing if he proves himself capable.

Dream on Me

Anthony Alford – 2012 team: Gulf Coast Blue Jays
18 AB, .167/.250/.333 (.583 OPS), 0 2B, 0 3B, 1 HR, 1 RBI, 4 SB, 2/4 BB/K

Anthony Alford playing for his high school baseball team (Image courtesy PerfectGame.org)

According to Baseball America, Alford was rated as the 36th best player in the 2012 draft, but many teams didn’t even bother ranking him on their board. At the time, Alford had a strong commitment to play football at Southern Mississippi, and even went as far as to tell teams he wasn’t interested in playing baseball. We may never know if the front office had an inside scoop, but the Blue Jays chose to call his bluff, selecting him in the third round. When combining the football angle and the sheer number of high upside players Toronto chose in the first three rounds, few gave the Blue Jays much of a shot at landing the two-sport athlete. Come deadline day, however, the Blue Jays inked Alford to a professional contract worth 750 thousand dollars, with the kicker that they would allow him to play football for Nebraska in the fall. The contract received mixed reviews, as while some applauded the team for doing the near impossible, others felt it was a waste of money, as players who don’t focus solely on baseball often fall too far behind the development curve. We likely won’t know which side is correct for years, but there’s certainly no questioning the boldness of Anthopoulos and his draft team.

Alford’s athleticism is off the charts, and while his speed is a notch below that of D.J. Davis, his power upside is the highest of any of Toronto’s centerfield prospects. In terms of raw power it’s some of the best in the system, though players like Travis d’Arnaud have vastly superior in-game power thanks to years of baseball development. Standing 6-foot-1 and weighing in at 210 pounds, Alford has a muscular and highly toned build, a lasting benefit of his football career where he plays quarterback in an option style offense. At the plate, he has an open stance with his hands up by the ear hole of his helmet. When he swings, he taps his lead foot, keeps his front shoulder closed, then explodes through the ball with a short stroke and electric bat speed. Alford transfers his weight through the swing very well and has some uppercut, which helps create the plus power projection. It’s a shame he felt the need to play football, as with only a couple of years focusing on baseball he could be an offensive beast.

For a quarterback, Alford’s arm strength is surprisingly mediocre. I really expected more, but given that his football team utilizes him more for his legs than his arm (he’s thrown 89 times compared to 76 runs thus far this season), it’s understandable. His outstanding speed allows him to cover tons of ground, but like most high school outfielders he relies too heavily on his athleticism to make up for misreads. It’s something that Alford will need to work on, but unless he can improve it significantly, a move to left field may eventually be in store. Outfielders who take bad routes and have a weak arm simply can’t survive as centerfielders for long.

Given his poor personal numbers and Southern Mississippi’s 0-7 record thus far, one has to wonder if Alford is beginning to regret his decision. The Blue Jays would welcome him with open arms if he chose to play baseball fulltime, and it would certainly be a boon to his development. As it stands it’s certainly a unique situation, as while the organization wants him to get reps, preparation for the college football season begins in August. Another short season assignment might limit him to just a month’s worth of games, but is Alford ready for a full season league where he would play baseball for five months? I don’t have an answer, as I can’t recall the last time a baseball prospect was also playing college football. Needless to say it’ll be a situation to watch, as Alford has the physical tools that baseball scouts love to dream on.

Remember the Name

Dalton Pompey – 2012 team(s): Low-A Vancouver, Rookie-Bluefield, Single-A Lansing
70 AB, .286/.375/.429 (.804 OPS), 4 2B, 3 3B, 0 HR, 8 RBI, 5 SB, 10/14 BB/K

Dalton Pompey running fielding drills during minor league spring training, 2012 (Image via MLBProspectPortal.com)

The fifth and final name on the centerfield primer is Dalton Pompey, a native of Mississauga, Ontario. Pompey was drafted in the 16th round of the 2010 draft, and with a signing bonus of just 150 thousand dollars, he’s easily the lowest profile prospect on the list. He was extremely young at the time of his selection – just 17 years, 6 months old, which has allowed him to play in short season ball for parts of three years before he turns 20 later this winter. Pompey made his season debut with Vancouver – one of the few noteworthy prospects to begin the year there, but after a hot start that saw him hit .294/.442/.441 in 11 games, he went down with a broken hand. It was originally thought to be a season ending injury, but Pompey showed a lot of resolve to fight his way back and play in another nine games between Bluefield and Lansing to close out the season.

Coming out of the draft, many scouts labeled Pompey as a “tweener”, which is to say, he’s not fast enough for centerfield, and not strong enough to play an outfield corner. It’s hard to argue the latter, as at just 6-foot-1 and 170 pounds, Pompey’s build is more lean than muscular. He’s quickly dispelled the former, however, as in just 91 career games he has five triples and 32 stolen bases (at an incredible 91% success rate). The Blue Jays have tried him out in left field and right field in the past, but last season he moved to centerfield almost exclusively, making 17 of his 19 starts there. His speed allows him to cover a lot of ground, but he’s still a little rough around the edges when it comes to taking proper routes. He’ll need to continue to improve upon that, as his average arm couldn’t handle right field well, and it’s hard to establish yourself as left field prospect without monster offensive upside.

Pompey’s game isn’t solely based around speed, however, as the switch hitter is a legitimate threat at the plate. He’s not a tall player, but he uses his length well, standing high in the box with an open stance. His lower half is quiet, but his hands can get busy while he waits for the pitch. When the ball is delivered, he strides forward, pulls his hands back, and swings through with solid bat speed. One concern is that Pompey has some bat wrap, which can be a huge problem if not corrected. Bat wrapping leads to a longer swing, and while it can boost power, it drastically reduces swing timing and can be crippling against a smart pitcher who mixes speeds. One of his better traits is his plate approach, as Pompey is a mature pitcher who will wait for the pitch he wants. Unless he bulks up substantially – which might be unwise – his power is never going to be a plus tool. Pompey’s ultimate ceiling in that regard may be 10-15 home runs, but ample doubles and triples should help maintain a solid to above average isolated power.

The hamate injury really messed with Pompey’s development timeline, as he was on track for an August promotion to Lansing where he would have closed out the year in preparation for his full season debut in 2013. Even with the hiccup, he’s the most qualified of the four centerfield candidates listed on this primer to make the leap. The game action has been more limited than everyone would like, but he’s taken part in three years of fall instructional action (the end-of-summer equivalent of extended spring training), which is important for development and something none of the three prospects above him can boast. On an always talented Lansing squad, Pompey will definitely be one of the names to watch.

Tags: Anthony Alford D.J. Davis Dalton Pompey Dwight Smith Jr. Featured Jake Marisnick Popular