First Base Prospects: Looking Forward (and back)

Each week I will look back at my prospect rankings from last year and examine the top performers, as well as those who did not live up to my lofty expectations. In every case, it’s not my rankings that were wrong, but the player who did better or worse than they should have. I’m kidding of course; I’ve got my share of hits and misses, but this series is really about looking forward and what players to target and who to cash in on if you can.

Last year’s top 25 first base prospect list did not produce many major league regulars this year, but a couple of big names are just on the horizon. First base prospects are nearly as boring as their catcher counterparts that I looked at last week. Often it is defensively-challenged third base and outfield prospects that head this way as they near the major leagues. Many of last year’s top 25 are organizational depth or extremely young upside plays, and this year’s list won’t be a lot different. There weren’t any huge climbers on the 2015 list, just a couple of players that I ranked, expecting them to take steps forward that did. Here’s a look at the movers and shakers.

The Graduates (2015 rank in parenthesis)

(5) Greg Bird, Yankees: Bird was brought up to the Yankees to fill in for an injured Mark Teixeira in the middle of August, and he hit 11 HR with 26 R, 31 RBI, and a .261 AVG over 46 games. Quick math would tell you there is a chance Bird could really put up some decent numbers over a full season, especially as a LHH in Yankee stadium. For the month of September, Bird was the 4th best first baseman in baseball with a .404 wOBA. Looking at Bird’s track record, he hit 20 HR in 2013 as a 20-year-old, 20 in 2014 (6 of those in the Arizona Fall League) and now 23 HR in 2015 across three levels. Scouts everywhere have put a 60 grade on Bird’s power, which equates to about 25 home runs per year, meaning the power is legitimate. Bird’s hard hit rate was especially great coming in at 44.8% for the year, while the top qualified hitter was Chris Davis at 41.4%. The spray chart shows the power to LF, but also shows his ability to hit the opposite way.

Source: FanGraphs

The obvious red flag for Greg Bird is his 30% K rate, but he had just a 15.7% mark across two levels in the minors this year after two seasons of 23%. His contact rates and swinging strike rates weren’t terrible; in fact they were very similar to Mitch Moreland who finished with a 23% K rate. I liked Bird heading into 2015, but even ranked at #5, I underestimated his potential, particularly as he looks to become the Yankees long-term option at first base.

(17) Justin Bour, Marlins: I’m not sure why exactly I didn’t trust in Bour’s power last year, but it’s there in black and white. I was completely wrong as Bour has good HR power as shown by his 23 HR in just 409 at bats as a Marlin this year. He hit all of them against RHP and had 7 of them over an 11 game stretch in September. Against LHP, Bour hit just .221/.293/.271, numbers that could find him in a platoon role moving forward. With that obviously against him, as well as a poor BB/K ratio, it would be nice to find some more encouraging data. That can be found in his spray chart. With game power and the ability to hit to all fields, Bour may surprise with even more home runs in the future, even if he only sees 400-500 at bats.

Source: FanGraphs

Other Graduates: (12) Kyle Parker, Rockies; (24) Adam Duvall, Giants.

The Risers

(4) A.J. Reed, Astros: Reed was ranked aggressively heading in to 2015, and he went on to hit 34 HR and 121 RBI while hitting .340 across two levels. Those numbers were enough to put Reed second in the Minor League Player of the Year Award voting, behind SP Blake Snell of the Rays. Reed is a big man (standing 6’4″, 240 lbs) who obviously has huge HR potential. His walk rate was 13.8%, and he struck out 19.6% of the time, which is pretty respectable for a big power bat. Easily one of baseball’s best hitting prospects, Reed will start next year in AA or AAA and could make an impact as soon as late 2016 with the Astros. (video courtesy of minorleaguebaseball)

(11) Dominic Smith, Mets: I hedged my bets a little last year with Smith, as he had shown next to no power up until that point. It was his athleticism and strong approach at such a young age that kept me hopeful. One year later, Smith hit 6 HR for High A with a .305/.354/.417 line and was named the Florida State League Player of the Year. He’s still a few years away from seeing the major leagues, but the path got a little surer with this year’s performance. 

The Fallers

(1) Matt Olson, Athletics: It’s almost unfair to call Olson a faller, but 2015 was not as kind to the slugger after he set the prospect world on fire with 37 HR and a .291 ISO in 2014. This year, Olson hit just 17 HR, albeit in a tough hitters park in AA Midland. Steve Carter wrote an excellent piece on Olson for us in June, and there is definitely still a lot to like; I may have just over-ranked him last year by a couple of spots. What Steve wrote I still hold to be true, leaving a wide range of possible outcomes for the big left-handed hitter.

(20) Felix Munoz, Marlins: Munoz had a big year in 2014, hitting .300 with 16 HR in A ball, but I was concerned about his age as well as the hitters environment that he excelled in. Fast forward a year and it looks like I should have been even more worried. Munoz, now 23, hit just 5 HR with a .237 AVG in high A and had his K rate climb, while his BB rate fell nearly in half. There’s nothing to see here. 

(25) Andy Wilkins, Orioles: Being ranked #25 on a first base prospect list is not really as glamorous as you would think. I noted Wilkins’ power potential, but was concerned that his lack of a solid hit tool could be his undoing. I’m not sure if being released by 3 clubs in one year qualifies as coming undone, but it should. Now with the Orioles, Wilkins will bring some organizational depth but little else for fantasy players.

The New Faces

Josh Naylor, Marlins: The top-ranked first baseman from last year’s draft was chosen #12 overall by the Marlins. While Naylor is just 18 years old, he has the potential to be a big power-hitting force down the road, but it is a long road. Naylor played on the Canadian National Team at just 14 years of age and became the highest-drafted Canadian ever last year. Naylor is an elite talent and is likely already owned in deep dynasty leagues. (video courtesy of Fangraphs)

Cody Bellinger, Dodgers: Bellinger cracked 30 HR as a 20-year-old in High A ball in 2015 as he starting to tap into some of his power potential. Not your typical first baseman, Bellinger (with his athleticism) has seen time in center field this year. He struck out at a 27.6% rate, and while he played in the explosive California League, he was the 5th youngest player there last year. Standing 6’4″, there is plenty of room still for him to grow into his frame which should help him maintain his new-found power. Not a sure thing (none are), Bellinger has upped his stock tremendously this year. (video courtesy of ProspectPipeline)

Jake Bauers, Rays: Bauers was acquired by the Rays as a part of the Wil Myers package from San Diego. He has a solid approach at the plate to go with some developing power. Last year he hit 5 HR and 18 doubles in 257 AA at-bats, as a 19-year-old competing against players 5 years older than him. With strong defense and a great approach at the plate, Bauers is looking like at least a solid bet to be a major league regular. He’s ticketed to play in the Arizona Fall League where he’ll compete against the best prospects in baseball. It looks like he may be maxed out physically, perhaps limiting his future offensive ceiling.

Chris Shaw, Giants: Shaw was drafted 31st overall last year out of college by the San Francisco Giants. He went straight to short season Salem-Keizer and hit 12 HR in just 178 at bats. Shaw is a huge LH-hitter, standing 6’3″ and weighing 248 lbs. He was the compensation pick for losing Pablo Sandoval, and he may just have Giants fans forgetting Panda before too long. Here is some excellent footage from Moore Baseball.

Next week I will take a look at second base prospects, where there were plenty of fallers, but not so much luck with risers.

Prospects: Looking Forward (and back)
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Paul Hartman

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Fantasy Baseball player since 1987. Creator of Fantasy Assembly, yet just fortunate enough to be a part of it.