Prospect Positional Primer: Corner 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 second part of the series will look at the corner infield positions. I have combined both first and third base because, in reality, true first base prospects are few and far between. Systems are lucky to have one, and creating a list of four or five would be near impossible. As such, the corner infield positional primer is going to be focused on the third base position, where Toronto has a wealth of talent in the lower levels. Baseball America ranks power as the number one priority in a third base prospect, and that’s something this list has plenty of. Like the catcher position, speed is deemed the least important, as the defensive plays a third baseman makes are reaction based, not range based. The middle three tools in order of important are hitting, fielding, and arm strength, though Major League Baseball front offices appear to be shifting towards the defensive priorities.

The King in the North

Mitch Nay – 2012 team: N/A

Mitch Nay poses at the 6th annual Power Showcase, representing Arizona in the home run derby that took place in Chase Field.

In reality, as he has zero professional at-bats under his belt, Nay should fall into the Remember the Name or On the Rise categories. Unfortunately, as last year’s top third base prospect took a huge step backwards in 2012, a void has been created that Nay is being thrust into. The Blue Jays drafted Nay near the end of the supplemental first round of the 2012 draft, agreeing to terms with the 58th overall pick to a contract that included an above-slot one million dollar bonus. Playing for Hamilton High School down in Arizona, Nay started off the year very slowly, with scouts of the belief he was trying to do too much for his team. As he settled down, he picked things up substantially leading up to the draft, earning the Gatorade Player of the Year award for Arizona, and receiving a first-to-second round draft grade.

Nay has a very wide base at the plate, and despite having ample length at 6-foot-3, he has a bit of a crouched stance. He stands slightly open to see the pitcher better, and holds his hands low. Nay has a substantial stride as he prepares his swing, and the huge power ceiling becomes evident when he follows through with excellent bat speed. He spins his hips well, boosting his power to the pull side, but the raw strength in Nay’s 195 pound frame allows him to go the opposite way with authority as well. Like many power hitters, he’s giving a little up in terms of plate coverage, and pitchers began to pick up on that during his high school career. They began to throw him more breaking balls and offspeed pitches, forcing Nay to make adjustments. He did just that, as with a 4.30 GPA in high school, he’s a smart kid who can recognize and resolve things quickly. Blue Jays fans will need to hope that he can maintain a healthy enough average to allow his game-changing power to come into play.

His defensive future is a little less clear, as while he has a great arm, he’s not overly athletic. Nay’s lateral quickness is acceptable, but his straight line speed is below average. He has a chance to stick at third base if he can improve his first step, but if not, a move to one of the outfield corners may be in store down the road. Scouts believe he could handle right field well thanks to his arm strength, but he’s a much more valuable prospect at third base. Given the Blue Jays history with handling high school hitters, Nay is all but guaranteed to see a low level short season assignment when he makes his debut in 2013. He won’t turn 20 until next September, and while that allows the Gulf Coast League to be a possibility, the organization appears to have found a nice launching pad for prospects down in Bluefield. High school draft picks who sign too late to play in their draft years have almost exclusively been assigned to Bluefield the following year, and I expect Nay to follow suit next season.

The Question Mark

Matthew Dean – 2012 team: Rookie-Bluefield
167 AB, .222/.282/.353 (.635 OPS), 8 2B, 4 3B, 2 HR, 24 RBI, 3 SB, 12/60 BB/K

Dean played for the Bluefield Blue Jays during the 2012 season (Image from Bleacher Report)

While Dean was just a 13th round pick in the 2011 draft, the slot wasn’t indicative of his true talent level. As a high school hitter with plenty of tools and a strong college commitment, many teams shied away when a bold move was in order. He continued to fall, at which point many front offices likely began to wonder if other teams knew something they didn’t about his signability, and round after round they continued to take a pass. That ended with Toronto, who, after selecting him, agreed to terms on a deal that included a signing bonus worth 737,500 dollars. Under the old draft regulations, that bonus is roughly in line with a 2nd round pick, which is where most draft pundits had him ranked based upon talent. With such a significantly over-slot deal, the Commissioner’s Office held back the contract announcement until deadline day, delaying Dean’s professional debut until this past summer.

“Colossally underwhelming” may be too feeble of a phrase to describe that debut, as Dean was completely overmatched for much of the year. The season started out on a positive note, as he hit .290/.389/.484 in nine June games. While perhaps a tad above what even the most optimistic fan could have hoped, it was roughly in the ball park for the type of production people thought he was capable of. Last winter I predicted a .290/.350/.480 line for Dean’s Bluefield season, and I was feeling pretty good about myself, at least until the calendar flipped to July. During Summer’s peak, Dean plummeted, with a .239/.280/.423 slash line in 21 July games. Contact became an increasing problem, as he struck out 27 times against just three walks. His confidence appeared to take a hit, as he closed out the year with a dismal .169/.229/.215 line in August.

Making contact was always a bit of a long term question mark for Dean, but to see those troubles become so emphatic in just Rookie ball is a bit disheartening. He meets the traditional third base profile quite well, as he generates a lot of power from his swing, grading out by most scouts as a plus tool thanks to unquestionable bat speed and an uppercut swing. He starts from a very even and level stance, with his feet square to the pitcher and a sound base in the box. Dean has just the slightest of toe taps for timing, which is a bit surprising given that many power-first hitters like to gear up with a big leg lift. He does have some bat wrap prior to his swing, which is something hitters do to sell out for more power. The drawback is that in lengthens your swing and makes you more susceptible to good breaking balls or high velocity fastballs, something the stat line above suggests may have taken place.

Dean has some defensive chops, as he played a lot of shortstop for his Texas high school. His lack of speed forced the move to third, but he carried over a plus caliber throwing arm. The transition is still a work in progress, as he’s learning how much less time he has a third base and how important the first step is. Dean’s 2013 assignment will be interesting, as the Blue Jays surely know how crippling it can be to have a prospect repeat a short season league. Despite his poor performance as the season rolled on, the organization is almost forced to push Dean up to Vancouver. Another bad season could all but seal his status as a non prospect.

On the Rise

Gustavo Pierre – 2012 team: Single-A Lansing
278 AB, .252/.302/.414 (.716 OPS), 14 2B, 8 3B, 5 HR, 28 RBI, 8 SB, 16/79 BB/K

Pierre, playing third base for the Lansing Lugnuts during the 2012 season (Image courtesy Tavora of “The Girl’s Guide to the Blue Jays”)

Gustavo Pierre was signed as an International Free Agent out of the Dominican Republic back in July of 2008. He received a substantial signing bonus of 700 thousand dollars, and while he has flashed potential, his career to date has been filled with frustrations. The 2012 season was Pierre’s second visit to Lansing, as after a brutal first half in 2011, he was demoted to Bluefield where he closed out the season. His second go-around started just as poorly, as he managed a futile .187 average through his first 22 games in May and June. The team stuck with him this time, and he rewarded them with a .276/.319/.458 slash line in the season’s final three months, carrying the offense for extended periods of time. Age is often neglected when discussing Pierre, as while it feels like he’s been in the system forever, he won’t turn 21 until after Christmas, and has always been young for the levels he’s played.

Pierre was originally signed as a shortstop, but his ever increasing size made the chances of that being a long term option slim to none. His defensive actions sped up the need for a move, as he simply didn’t have the grace or smoothness required to be an acceptable shortstop. Minor league fielding numbers are next to useless, but his 87 errors in 181 career games at shortstop speak volumes about his struggles. Pierre is still very raw, but his play style and physique match up much better over at the hot corner. While he had Tommy John surgery back in 2008, his arm strength has since returned to him, and making throws across the diamond has not been an issue thus far.

Pierre’s real potential lies in his bat, and if he can eventually reach his offensive capabilities, any defensive woes will be long forgotten. He has the ideal body size at 6-foot-2 and 185 lbs, and he has the quick twitch muscles that are so often found in baseball’s superstars. He’s long, lean, and athletic, and takes advantage of that on the offensive side of the ball. Pierre’s stance is very quiet, and he holds his hands high as he prepares for the ball. He keeps his weight on his back foot, but after tapping his lead foot for timing, his weight transfer is severely lacking. Often times he looks like he’s swinging off his back foot, which makes any kind of power generation extremely difficult. Pierre also has issues with breaking balls, as he can get over-eager and accidentally allow his front shoulder to fly open. Mechanical adjustments are absolutely needed – and likely were being implemented as the season wore on – but there is some serious power potential.

While you can’t ignore the first half numbers, Pierre did enough in the second half to warrant a promotion to Dunedin next spring. It will be a real test for him, as he’ll be expected to build upon the success he found this past summer. The environment won’t be much of a reprieve either, as the Florida State League has proven to be very pitcher-friendly.

Steady ‘til Stuck

Kellen Sweeney – 2012 team(s): Single-A Lansing, Low-A Vancouver
385 AB, .210/.318/.309 (.627 OPS), 17 2B, 3 3B, 5 HR, 41 RBI, 6 SB, 58/77 BB/K

Vancouver Canadians third baseman Kellen Sweeney works on the call to the pitcher during practice at Nat Bailey Stadium. Photograph by: Ward Perrin

I don’t want to say I’m emotionally invested in Kellen Sweeney, but he had such a rough start to his career that I couldn’t help but pull for him this season. Unfortunately, the production didn’t match my enthusiasm, as the former second round pick stunk it up over the first two months of the season. While playing for Single-A Lansing, Sweeney managed to hit just .179/.297/.207. While the walk rate was impressive, the contact and power numbers were abysmal. In 43 games, he totaled just two doubles and one triple, for a historically poor 28 ISO. For comparison, among Toronto’s regulars, Yunel Escobar had the lowest ISO at 91. Omar Vizquel, who is a 45 year old utility infielder, even bested Sweeney with a 46 ISO. That’s how little power he showed with the Lugnuts.

In reality, while he’s not a power hitter by any stretch of the imagination, he’s not that bad either. He showed as much after a demotion to Vancouver, where he had a much more respectable 138 ISO. Sweeney bats with an open, tight, and upright stance, holding his hands near the ear hole of his helmet. His body looks very stiff as he awaits the delivery, but as the pitch approaches he takes a lengthy stride forward and follows through with a level and controlled swing from the left side of the plate. He’s very patient in looking for his pitch, as he doesn’t have the raw bat speed to make a mid-swing correction if he guesses wrong. The bat speed and his thin frame combine to limit his power projection, though his athleticism and willingness to use the gaps should create plenty of doubles and triples to boost the slugging percentage. His baseball IQ and instincts are exceptional, and allow him to do things like advance from first to third on a single that don’t necessarily show up on stat sheets.

Those instincts also aid in his defensive play, as he has proven to be an above average defender at the reaction-driven hot corner. Arm strength is a bit of an issue with Sweeney, as like Pierre, he’s undergone Tommy John surgery in the past. Sweeney’s was done back in 2009, but even after three years of recovery his arm is still only a fringe-average tool. When looking at the whole package, it’s a bit curious why Sweeney is a third baseman at all, as his skill set jibes much better with the second base profile. I wouldn’t be shocked if the Blue Jays made such a move in the near future, as the system is significantly more clogged at third base than it is at second base. Getting a second chance did wonders for Gustavo Pierre, and I expect the Blue Jays to act accordingly with Kellen Sweeney. Injuries and poor results have stalled his development, so another disappointing showing at Lansing in 2013 could result in his career ending before it really even got started.