Name: Nolan Arenado
Position: Third base
Notable 2011 Stats: .298/.349/.487 with 32 2B, 3 3B, 20 HR, 53/47 K/BB, and 2-for-3 SB in 134 G with Modesto (High-A)
Why He’s This High: Arenado put together a big season in the California League. The notoriously hitter-friendly environment has produced plenty of gaudy statlines, but Arenado showed several positives that transcend the easy ballparks.
First off, he was just 20 years old the whole season, so he proved to be more than up to the challenge of facing pitchers who were often 22, 23, or 24 years old. Second, his batting average certainly isn’t a mirage–he struck out just 53 times all year. That’s just 9.1% of his at-bats, and meant that he was able to hit .298 even while sustaining a BABIP below .300.
Arenado’s high contact rates came with very few walks prior to the season, but his walk rate jumped from 4.8% in 2010 to 8.0% this season. Overall, his K/BB went from 52/19 in 92 games in 2010 to 53/47 in 134 games this season, a huge improvement.
With that sort of approach, Arenado should hit for a high average in the majors, with a ton of singles and doubles. He also has 20-HR power, so he looks to be a complete hitter who could produce .300/.360/.490 batting lines.
Why He’s This Low: Arenado’s defense at third base isn’t horrid, but it’s spotty and likely will never be more than fringe-average at the big-league level. He may be best-suited defensively at first base, which obviously raises the bar for his offense quite a bit. Certainly, he projects to be able to hit enough for the position, but it’s not hard to see him settling in the 2011 Michael Cuddyer tier of first basemen rather than elevating himself into the top group of well-above-average starters at the cold corner.
The Cal League does some wonky things to offense, and while it does seem that he made some substantial improvements in 2011, Arenado still has much to prove offensively. Double-A Tulsa, his next stop, is probably the most neutral offensive environment in a Rockies chain that is understandably rife with hitters’ havens, so he’ll need to show that all of his skills stay more or less intact at that level. If he does end up moving to first base, after all, Arenado can’t afford to lose any of his offensive skills.
Conclusions: Arenado is a prospect I’ve been lukewarm on for much of his career, and I’m probably still underrating him compared to the mainstream, much like #94 prospect Christian Yelich of the Marlins. Still, though, I’m having fewer worries about him nowadays than I did, thanks to his big upgrades in the contact and plate discipline departments. The best-case scenario here is that he manages to stay at third, add more power, and hold his impressive strikeout-to-walk ratio, in which case he’ll be a star. But his position, his power (assuming a neutral environment), and that strikeout-to-walk ratio have yet to really settle in an obvious area. Think about it:
–Reports still aren’t thrilled about him at third, but aren’t quite in “HE MUST MOVE” territory;
–His power looks to be about average for a corner guy, but he’s never been in a fair park; he’s just 20 and could grow into more, but his body isn’t projectable
–He’s had one “low K, low BB” season (2009), one “medium K, very low BB” season (2010), and one “low K, medium BB” season (2011)
Give him the best outcome of all three of those questions and he’s a 4.5 win player (imagine 2011 Adrian Beltre with average defense instead of great, or Aramis Ramirez with average defense instead of bad); give him the worst and he’s a 1.5 win player (a righthanded James Loney, basically). Take the average, of course, and you have a three-win player–a player who has plenty of positives but lacks the one knockout ability (35 HR power, .400 OBP ability, good defense at a premium position) to make him a star. A year from now, we’ll obviously have a better idea of which path he’s headed down.
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