Prospect Battles Lead To Some Tough Calls




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CHICAGO—One of my favorite tasks is putting together my personal Top 50 list for our annual Prospect Handbook.

Doing so means that our signature book is nearing completion. And it also forces me to make tough calls stacking up similar prospects against one another.

Some of the more difficult decisions from this year:

Wil Myers (Rays) vs. Oscar Taveras (Cardinals): Which outfielder has the biggest impact bat in the minors?

Myers won Baseball America's Minor League Player of the Year Award in 2012, when he became the first 21-year-old to hit as many as 37 homers in a minor league season since 1963. The pitching-needy Royals used him as the centerpiece of a trade for James Shields in December. Meanwhile, Taveras skipped a level to Double-A at age 19, won his second straight league MVP award and batting title and bashed a career-high 23 homers.

I'll go with Taveras, because he's a better pure hitter and controls the strike zone better than Myers. Taveras doesn't have quite as much raw power, but he's not far behind and he's still getting stronger. As a bonus, he has a little more speed and a better chance to stick in center field, though both of them probably will wind up on a corner.

Gerrit Cole (Pirates) vs. Jose Fernandez (Marlins) vs. Shelby Miller (Cardinals): Which righthander is the game's second-best pitching prospect, behind Dylan Bundy (Orioles)?

In an upset, I'll take the guy with the 4.74 ERA in Triple-A last year (Miller) over the No. 1 prospect in the Class A Florida State and South Atlantic leagues who also led the minors in WHIP (Fernandez), or the top overall pick in the 2011 draft who breezed to Triple-A in his pro debut (Cole).

Once he fine-tuned his mechanics and stopped thinking too much on the mound, Miller dominated in the second half and during a September callup. He'll have the best combination of a three-pitch mix and command in the long run, and he's also slightly more athletic, giving him a better chance to maintain his delivery and health.

If Fernandez blows through Double-A and Triple-A competition as he did with lower-level hitters, move him ahead of Miller. I've flip-flopped on the subject of the best college pitcher from the 2011 draft, now putting Cole ahead of former UCLA teammate Trevor Bauer (Indians), though the former still gets hit a little more than he should considering the quality of his stuff.

And in case you couldn't tell from my analysis of these first two prospect showdowns, the Cardinals have the best farm system in baseball.

Javier Baez (Cubs) vs. Xander Bogaerts (Red Sox) vs. Carlos Correa (Astros): Who's the best shortstop prospect after the minors' top talent, Jurickson Profar (Rangers)?

Baez broke into pro ball by hitting .333/.383/.596 in low Class A. Bogaerts is just two months older (age 20) and tore up Double-A pitching to the tune of .326/.351/.598 in August. Correa was the No. 1 overall choice in the 2012 draft.

Bogaerts is the best of this trio. He needs better plate discipline but controls the strike zone better than Baez and Correa. He has accomplished more at higher levels, smacking 20 homers as a teenager in the mid-minors last year. His athleticism and body type give him a slightly better chance to stay at shortstop.

Baez may have more bat speed than any player in the minors, and he has the highest offensive ceiling of this group, though he'll need to tone down his wild approach. Correa has just a bit more raw power than Baez, and he has the strongest arm of this trio.

Bogaerts and Correa are taller than the typical shortstop and Baez has a thicker lower half, but all three have a reasonable chance of sticking there. While they don't have the defensive chops of Francisco Lindor (Indians), their offensive potential is much higher.

Travis d'Arnaud (Mets) vs. Mike Zunino (Mariners): Who's the top catching prospect in baseball?

Once Jesus Montero (Mariners) and Devin Mesoraco (Reds) opened 2012 in the majors, that mantle fell to d'Arnaud, who responded by batting .333/.380/.595 in Triple-A before the Blue Jays sent him to the Mets in December's R.A. Dickey trade. Zunino, who capped a fabulous amateur career by winning the Golden Spikes and BA's College Player of the Year awards before going No. 3 overall in the 2012 draft, entered the debate after hitting .360/.447/.689 and zooming to Double-A in his pro debut.

They have similar tools. They both project as solid hitters with plus power and get the job done with their throwing and receiving skills. Distinguishing between them is really just nit-picking, but the choice here is Zunino.

The game just seems to come a little bit easier to Zunino, whose father Greg played in the minors and has scouted for more than two decades. D'Arnaud's medical history is also a little troublesome, as he has played in just 252 games in three seasons since the Phillies included him in a deal for Roy Halladay. D'Arnaud has missed time with back, concussion, thumb and knee issues.