It’s a common saying in the minor league world that “there is no such thing as a pitching prospect,” or TINSTAAPP, for short. Of course, that’s said largely in jest–nobody would claim Matt Moore is not one heck of a prospect, for example. However, it does serve as a reminder of how prevalent attrition in young arms can be.
Like that saying, the title of this article is, of course, quite an exaggeration. However, there’s probably no position in baseball that has anywhere near as few true “prospects” as first base.
Invariably, when discussing first base prospects, it’s always brought up that “the offensive bar is set very high at first base.” Indeed it is–MLB as a whole hit .255/.321/.399 in 2011, but first basemen hit .271/.345/.452, good for a 121 OPS+. Just to be an average hitter at first, a player has to be 21% above-average (at least, in terms of OPS) for the league as a whole. That’s pretty daunting.
That point has been rehashed again and again, and if you’re reading this site, you’re probably familiar with it, so I don’t need to spend much more time explaining it. Instead, I want to approach the challenges of first base prospectdom from another angle.
In discussing Twins prospect Brian Dozier and ranking philosophy earlier this week, I brought up the idea that any given minor league class ends up, at its peak, occupying about one third of the roster spots in MLB.
On face, that means that first base prospects are fighting for ten first base jobs and perhaps five DH spots. But that’s really not the case. To illustrate why, here’s a list of the top 30 first basemen (sorted by games played at first base) in 2011, along with when they moved to the position.
Joey Votto (moved from catcher in A-ball at age 19)
Prince Fielder (Always 1B)
Freddie Freeman (Always 1B)
Adrian Gonzalez (Always 1B)
Carlos Pena (Always 1B)
Gaby Sanchez (Spent considerable time at C and 3B in minors, not full-time 1B until reaching majors at 26)
Miguel Cabrera (Moved from SS to 3B to LF, broke into majors as 3B/LF, moved in sixth MLB year)
James Loney (Always 1B)
Ryan Howard (Always 1B)
Mark Trumbo (Always 1B)
Mark Teixeira (3B in minors, moved to 1B in majors)
Casey Kotchman (Always 1B)
Albert Pujols (3B in minors, played all four corners in majors until moving to 1B full-time in fourth season)
Eric Hosmer (Always 1B)
Aubrey Huff (3B in minors, played mostly 3B and RF until age 30)
Todd Helton (Always 1B)
Derrek Lee (Always 1B, although he did try 3B out for much of his first full pro season)
Paul Konerko (Moved from catcher as 20-year-old in Double-A, but then moved to third after one year at first; moved back in majors at 23)
Adam Lind (OF prospect, moved to DH in majors at 25, 1B at 27)
Lyle Overbay (Always 1B)
Justin Smoak (Always 1B)
Mitch Moreland (Mostly a RF prospect, though he did have some 1B time; still plays OF occasionally)
Matt LaPorta (College 1B moved to OF in pro ball, moved back in majors in 2010)
Brett Wallace (3B prospect, moved to 1B in Triple-A at 23)
Mike Morse (SS prospect who gradually moved down the defensive spectrum; still plays some OF)
Carlos Lee (3B prospect, longtime MLB OF, moved in late portion of career)
Carlos Santana (C prospect, still plays there a lot)
Daric Barton (C prospect, moved to 1B in A-ball at 19)
Justin Morneau (C prospect, moved to 1B in A-ball at 19)
Jesus Guzman (2B/3B prospect, moved to 1B/LF in majors)
That’s 13 guys who were always first basemen, plus a few more (Votto, Barton, and Morneau; to a lesser extent, Sanchez, Konerko, LaPorta, and Moreland) that were “1B prospects” at some point. So, basically, somewhere between half and 2/3 of major league first basemen were minor league first basemen. A quick perusal of the top 15 DHs (we might as well say 15 instead of 14, since going forward, there will soon be 15 spots there) reveals that few of them were 1Bs either:
Billy Butler (3B/OF prospect, later 1B in MLB)
Vladimir Guerrero (Longtime RF)
David Ortiz (1B)
Johnny Damon (Longtime CF/LF)
Victor Martinez (Longtime C)
Hideki Matsui (Longtime OF)
Bobby Abreu (Longtime RF)
Jorge Posada (Longtime C)
Travis Hafner (1B)
Adam Dunn (OF-turned-1B)
Jim Thome (3B prospect, mostly 1B in majors)
Edwin Encarnacion (3B)
Michael Young (Has played everywhere on the INF but 1B for long stretches)
Jack Cust (Longtime OF)
Paul Konerko (Covered in the first list)
That’s two guys, Ortiz and Hafner, who were 1B prospects, along with Konerko, who was sort of a 1B prospect (and only sneaks onto the bottom of this list because I included a 15th DH; he only played 37 games there).
So, really, 1B prospects aren’t fighting for any of the 45 MLB 1B/DH spots, due to just 1/3 of the spots being available to any given wave of prospects. They also aren’t fighting for the 12-15 spots the 1/3 idea implies. It looks like the number of first base prospects to play a significant role in the majors in a season is somewhere between 15 and 22 or so. One third of that range is…5-8.
It is then quite possible that only five or six of the first basemen currently in the minor leagues will have much of a major league career. And that’s to say nothing of the quality of that career. After all, players like Barton, Trumbo, Smoak, Overbay, LaPorta, Loney, and Moreland have hardly made huge impacts in their careers. By definition, half of any group of players is going to be average or better, and half is going to be average or worse–if there are only 5-8 MLB regulars among any class of minor league first basemen, then there are probably only 2-5 above-average regulars.
First base prospects are thus in a bind. A player at any other position has many more possible jobs available to him; shortstops can usually learn second, third, or even the outfield corners, corner outfielders have both corners, first, and DH, center fielders can move to the other outfield spots, and so on. Pitchers can move to relief, and teams always need pitching. Teams always need catchers, as well, and that’s the one position that always needs a backup, so players can have steady and productive careers behind the plate without ever being a starter.
The notable thing about all those other positions is that they all have first base and DH as an option, too. That’s clearly evident in the above lists, especially the DH one, which reveals the modern DH position to mainly be a way for aging guys like Thome, Matsui, Abreu, and Guerrero to prolong their careers.
In a sense, DH and 1B can often become sort of a “parking ground” for players that have proven they can hit well. Albert Pujols and Mark Teixeira probably had the athleticism to play third or the outfield much longer than they did, but their teams found other guys to play those positions and moved them to first, knowing they could crush the ball even by 1B standards, play great defense there, and lower their injury risk by playing an easier position. Of course, that sort of move inflates the standards of offense at the position even more for first base prospects.
Obviously, this sort of analysis has tremendous bearing on my ranking of first base prospects. The way I look at it, they’re all fighting for 5-8 spots. I figure there’s going to usually be 8-10 true first base “prospects,” and half of them will work out, and then all the other minor league first basemen combined will produce two or three unpredictable sleepers who go on to a major league career. Two or three of the true “prospects” and one of the sleepers then go on to actually become above-average at the position.
This year, I ranked the following first basemen on my top 100 prospects:
Interestingly, that’s about as high of a ranking of Catricala as you’ll see anywhere–however, he’s not really a first baseman, being a converted 3B who will probably spend 2012 in the outfield. Singleton is probably about where you’d expect on the list. Alonso is way below the rankings of most others, because it’s tough to get too jazzed about a soon-to-be 25-year-old who’s never slugged .500 or hit 20 homers in a season. Sure, he’s a nice hitter, and he’s ready to step into the big leagues, but given the standards of the position and the rarity of guys who exceed those standards, is this a guy you’d really bet on to be much above average there?
The same goes for somebody like Anthony Rizzo, who didn’t make the list entirely and would probably rank somewhere around 140 for me. Rizzo has some strikeout issues, and he’s also never slugged .500 in a non-inflated environment. Add in his complete ineptitude in his first try in the majors, and there’s just not enough certainty there.
Catricala, on the other hand, hit .347/.420/.632 as a 22-year-old in Double-A last year, ripping 43 extra-base hits in 62 games in a pretty neutral environment. He even went 9-for-10 on the bases there, and stole 17 bases overall, counting his first half in High-A. He walks a lot, doesn’t strike out too much, and he isn’t only reliant on homers but hits plenty of them. There’s somebody I’m comfortable with as a hitter. But even then, he ranks 59th on my list.
On a team-by-team level, this means that at any given time, the vast majority of teams do not have a real “first base prospect.” Take my favorite team, the A’s.
The A’s don’t really have a good first baseman right now, with Daric Barton, Kila Ka’aihue, Brandon Allen, and Chris Carter all set to battle for the position. Other than Barton’s 2010, those guys have never put much together in a major league season, but they all have destroyed Pacific Coast League pitching in several different campaigns. All four of them have ranked probably in the top dozen first base prospects at some point in their careers. Barton and Carter were once among the top prospects in all of baseball, even. And yet, Carter–who posted better Triple-A numbers in 2011 than Alonso, mind you–is probably right on the back edge of the “true prospect” group of first basemen.
Below that quartet is Michael Spina. Spina, an 11th-round pick in 2008, was compared to Kevin Youkilis by the A’s, mainly because he was a big third baseman from Cincinnati with some secondary skills. Spina has ultimately been moved to first, but he put up a somewhat Youkilis-esque .282/.380/.422 line in Double-A last year. But this is a 24-year-old righthanded-hitting first baseman who hit ten homers. On paper, I’m tempted to evaluate him with a “Hmm, interesting OBP, nice sleeper guy,” but really, is anybody betting on him to be one of the half-dozen minor league first basemen to have a career?
The same can be said for Anthony Aliotti, who hit .276/.392/.396 in High-A last year, turning 24 midseason. Aliotti’s a bit of a Doug Mientkiewicz prototype, with a great glove at first but well-below-average power for the position. If you put up a .120 ISO in the Cal League at 23/24, you probably don’t have a future as a first baseman, no matter how great your glove is or how patient you are.
Low-A first baseman Josh Whitaker hit .326/.402/.556, which again, looks really great, but then you realize he’s older than Rizzo is. If there’s a lot of reasons to be skeptical about Rizzo, who’s several months younger and four levels ahead, then Whitaker is, at best, in “keep his name filed away and see what happens when he makes the jump to Double-A” status.
The A’s also acquired first baseman Miles Head this offseason. At age 20, Head hit .338/.409/.612 in Low-A, and then .254/.328/.405 in High-A. Even then, he’s really just a fringy prospect, as he’s a defensive liability even at first (which makes the A’s apparent plan to move him to third a rather odd proposition) who teed off in a RH-friendly ballpark.
It bears stressing that these players all do add up to provide the A’s more first base prospect depth than the average organization. Head or Whitaker would be the top first base prospect in many organizations, and even Spina and Aliotti could earn that designation in a few places. But the likelihood that any of the four, or even five (if you include Carter) start 200 games at first base in the major leagues is quite small, certainly below 50%; it’s even less likely that any of them will post an OPS+ above 121 with that playing time.
True first base prospects are quite rare. Most organizations have at least one player at the position who puts up intriguing numbers, but don’t jump onto the bandwagon of that player as a future impact bat unless they come with a very high draft pedigree (a la Eric Hosmer) or put up ridiculous numbers at a reasonable age in the upper minors (a la Catricala, or Paul Goldschmidt). The TINSTAAPP saying may be said more often, but nowhere does the “There Is No Such Thing As a (_______) Prospect” apply more strictly than first base. It’s really not even close.