Print and Go Back ESPN.com: SweetSpot [Print without images]

Saturday, July 16, 2011
Prospects must play musical gloves

By Conor Dowley

A very common theme in the prospect world is the question of where will a player ultimately play? While every prospect has a position that he played primarily in high school or college, the picture for him once he becomes a professional is rarely so black and white. One team won't see a player's end position the same way as another. So how does a team determine where a guy winds up?

At first, you'll see a player stick to the position they were playing when they entered the organization. This lets the player get comfortable and it also allows the team a more in-depth, everyday look at his skills in the field. Once a team feels like they have a good feel for a player's defensive talents, they'll start making judgments on where he fits best.

Obviously, different positions require different skills and this is rarely more obvious than in the infield. Shortstop is the most demanding of all the defensive positions. It requires good range, a strong arm, good instincts on what to do as soon as the ball comes off the bat, and physical fluidity. Third base needs the instincts and the arm, and to a lesser extent, a shortstop's range. Second base needs the range, especially moving laterally, and good physical actions, if not the fluidity of a shortstop.

So where does that leave a player like Brett Lawrie? A top prospect in the Toronto Blue Jays' system, thanks to what could be a premium bat, Lawrie had been a second baseman while with the Milwaukee Brewers. His defense, however, rarely received more than a tepid review. He's not a bad athlete, but his stiff actions and poor lateral movement left him as a well-below-average defender at second. The Blue Jays promptly moved him to third base, where his strong arm fit better, and the impact of his weaker physical actions and range was minimized. He's still only viewed as an average defender at third at best, and many see him eventually moving to right field, where his arm and athleticism ought to play well.

The Seattle Mariners made an interesting decision almost two years ago. Dustin Ackley played first base in college while recovering from Tommy John surgery, but he was viewed by many as an outfielder thanks to his athleticism and instincts. He could possibly have even been a center fielder -- a premium defensive position. The M's went in a different direction, moving Ackley to second base at the start of spring training in 2010, seeing his athleticism and bat playing well there. The adjustment has been a long and difficult one for Ackley, with many cringe-inducing reports of his defense coming out last year.

While the reports were better in 2011, it was rarely said that he would be an average second baseman. Now that he's in the majors, however, the pressure for him to push and impress defensively seems to be off, and that freedom seems to have given him a boost in the field. While Ackley still only seems like a decent defender, if he can maintain his recent performance at second, it should be sufficient to let him become a better-than-average bat at the position in Seattle’s lineup.

That brings us to the final point: a player's offense. While physical skills would ideally be the only determining factor when deciding a player's role, the reality is that teams expect different levels of offense from different positions. Shortstop and catcher are glove-first positions, and it is not unusual to see below-average bats at those spots -- especially in the lower levels of the minor leagues. On the other end of the spectrum is first base and, to a lesser extent, left field. Those are considered bat-first positions -- sometimes even bat-only at first base. So projected offense is much more important at those positions when a team is evaluating a prospect's future. In order to be taken seriously as a prospect, a guy who is limited to first base has to project as a middle-of-the-order hitter and be an impact bat.

A good example of this is the debate we saw in some circles surrounding two first basemen in Triple-A Omaha for the Royals: Eric Hosmer and Clint Robinson. Hosmer was widely acknowledged as a premium prospect, but Robinson was actually outhitting him. But while Robinson was doing well in Triple-A, he was the type of “professional” hitter that at his age should be doing well in Triple-A. At the same time, he did not project well at all in the majors. These guys often wind up falling into the “Quadruple-A” player category: too good for the minors, but not good enough for the majors. Now Hosmer is in the majors, and Robinson is still toiling away in Omaha, and doesn't seem likely to get a shot because he's a limited defender without the projection to make an impact with his bat.

So when you're looking at your favorite prospect of the moment, and wondering how he could fit in your organization's plans, keep in mind that there are a lot of determining factors. Some involve his physical skills in the field, some with the bat. The picture isn't always as clear as it might appear, and often requires multiple looks from multiple perspectives, and even then, sometimes even the best get it wrong.

Conor Dowley writes about the Mariners for the SweetSpot Network at ProBall NW and about their minor-league system at Mariners Farm Review.  You can follow him on Twitter at @c_dowley.