Wednesday, June 4, 2008
At first, take your pick
By Jerry Crasnick
For years, Major League Baseball teams have had a fascination with first basemen who can rake, and a corresponding reluctance to select them early in the draft.
Nothing captivates scouting directors more than a polished hitter with tape-measure capability. But red flags have an extended shelf life in the scouting world, and old adages tend to linger for a reason.
Talent evaluators agree that hitting is the most challenging skill to assess, and the risks are magnified at first base. Make the right call, and you might wind up with a cornerstone-type player like Todd Helton to anchor your lineup for years to come. Choose the wrong bat, and you could be stuck with an immobile, defensively challenged drag on your franchise's ambitions.
Let's pause to reflect on the 1982 draft, which featured Steve Stanicek, Franklin Stubbs, Jeff Ledbetter and Sam Horn among the top 26 selections. That's four first base-DH types who amassed a total of 855 major league hits -- 602 of them by Stubbs.
"The bat is the hardest thing to scout," said Mike Rizzo, Washington Nationals assistant general manager. "But at least if you make a mistake on a shortstop and he can't hit, he could become a really good defensive shortstop or a utility player on your club. If you miss on the bat at first base, you've got nothing."
If there's a theme to the 2008 MLB draft, it's the surplus of high quality, left-handed hitting first basemen available. How stacked is this group? Some talent evaluators compare it to the 2005 third base crop, which featured Alex Gordon, Ryan Braun and Ryan Zimmerman.
ESPN.com's Keith Law predicts that six first basemen could go in the first round, and Baseball America projects seven first basemen among the top 36 picks.
"I've never seen anything like it -- this many good, college, left-handed hitting first basemen out there," Rizzo said. "It's really remarkable. Some years, you have to go out and grab that big power college bat. This year, there are enough of them to go around."
The list includes:
• South Carolina's Justin Smoak, a switch-hitter and strong defender who has drawn the obligatory Mark Teixeira comparisons. He hits for average, hits with power and has soft hands and nimble feet around the bag. The complete package.
• Florida high schooler Eric Hosmer, a lefty with power, athleticism and a 95 mph fastball when he stows the first baseman's mitt and takes the mound. Hosmer is a Scott Boras advisee and has the leverage of a scholarship offer from Arizona State, so he won't come cheap.
• Miami's Yonder Alonso, a Cuban émigré with gaudy numbers and a patient, professional approach at the plate. Alonso opted for college after Minnesota drafted him out of Coral Gables (Fla.) High School in the 16th round in 2005, but now he's poised to make a splash.
• California's David Cooper, a third-team All-America and a semifinalist for the Golden Spikes Award and Dick Howser Trophy. He hit 19 homers and posted a .682 slugging percentage this year for the Golden Bears.
• Arizona State's Ike Davis, the son of former Yankees and Twins reliever Ron Davis. He came back from wrist surgery to slug .778 this spring, which raised his profile. Because of his strong arm, Davis is a candidate to shift to a corner outfield spot down the road.
• Arizona State's Brett Wallace. He leads a strong Sun Devils team with a .414 average, 21 homers and 81 RBIs. Wallace has played third base in college, but he's listed at 6 foot 1 and 245 pounds, and some scouts project him as a first baseman in the pros.
• Wake Forest's Allan Dykstra. A San Diego native, Dykstra led the Demon Deacons in batting average, homers, runs, RBIs, on base percentage and slugging. He also drew a ton of walks after pitchers took a look at that 6-foot-5, 240-pound frame and decided they wanted no part of him.
In reality, the first base position has hardly been a wasteland in recent years. Prince Fielder, Adrian Gonzalez, Casey Kotchman and James Loney have all gone in the first round since 2000, and their current employers have absolutely no reason to complain.
When the Milwaukee Brewers chose Fielder with the No. 7 overall pick in 2002, Cecil's kid was praised for his hitting acumen and routinely derided for his weight. Five years later, Fielder has a 50-home run season and a Hank Aaron award on his résumé. His example could prove instructive to Arizona State's Wallace, who has heavy thighs and has been described by some as a "good athlete trapped in a bad body."
Milwaukee scouting director Jack Zduriencik was fervent in his pursuit of Fielder, even though the Brewers had two other first basemen, Corey Hart and Brad Nelson, in the minor league pipeline at the time. Hart has since shifted to the outfield, and Nelson is currently playing first base for Nashville in the Pacific Coast League.
"I said it back then, and I've always felt this way: In our opinion, Prince Fielder was the best hitter in the country, and he happened to have big-time power," Zduriencik said. "We thought one day he'd hit .300 with 40 home runs, and he's already exceeded one of those [projections]."
When Rizzo was a southeast scout for the White Sox in 1989, Chicago drafted Auburn first baseman Frank Thomas with the seventh overall pick even though the Major League Scouting Bureau ranked Thomas in the 80-90 range among prospects. During his tenure as scouting director in Arizona, Rizzo chose California third baseman Conor Jackson 19th overall with the intention of moving him to first.
As long as there's baseball, players will gravitate to first from other spots on the field. Cleveland's Ryan Garko and Minnesota's Justin Morneau are former catchers. Houston's Lance Berkman broke into the majors as an outfielder, and St. Louis's Albert Pujols and Boston's Kevin Youkilis both have experience at third.
If anything has changed, it's the expectations at the position. While Philadelphia's Ryan Howard fits the profile of the classic old-time belter, the Cubs' Derrek Lee is a smooth defender who's closing in on his 100th career stolen base.
"The old adage is, 'If you draft a third baseman, someday he'll become a first baseman. If you draft a left fielder, someday he'll become a first baseman,'" Rizzo said. "But today's game is a lot different. There are a lot more good two-way players at first base."
Some draft analysts regard the 2008 first base onslaught as a one-year aberration. After eight high school pitchers went in the opening round last year, the 2008 prep contingent is decidedly weaker. These things typically go in cycles.
But Logan White, the Los Angeles Dodgers' assistant GM for scouting, thinks we might be on the verge of a trend for two reasons: (1) Baseball teams love "run-and-throw" guys, but the pure athletes have turned more toward football and basketball in recent years; and (2) with so many teenagers playing for select travel teams and receiving private hitting instruction, offensive skills are advancing by leaps and bounds.
"You have kids who aren't the athletic, Ozzie Smith-types in the middle of the diamond, and they're going over to the corners," White said. "And they can hit. They can mash."
And as long as baseball values offense, the kids will get picked early in the draft and reap the benefits. The demand for mashers has always existed. This year, there's plenty of supply to meet it.
Jerry Crasnick covers baseball for ESPN.com. His book "License To Deal" was published by Rodale. Click here to order a copy. Jerry can be reached via e-mail.
The old adage is, 'If you draft a third baseman, someday he'll become a first baseman. If you draft a left fielder, someday he'll become a first baseman.' But today's game is a lot different. There are a lot more good two-way players at first base.
--Mike Rizzo, Nationals assistant general manager