Teen Trio Presents Top 10 Challenge

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CHICAGO—Prospect season officially begins with this issue, which features Top 20 lists for each of the 16 minor leagues. Draft Report Cards are on the horizon, followed by our organization Top 10s, which feed into Top 30s for our annual Prospect Handbook.

Putting together a prospect list involves parsing through statistics and scouting reports, balancing performance and potential. What makes that process fun and exasperating at the same time is that there are few clear-cut answers.

It's easy to stack up, say, one power-hitting outfielder against another, but it's not that simple. Compiling a minor league prospect list involves comparing players with widely diverging skill-sets at different positions from different organizations.

It's not apples and oranges. It's an entire fruit stand.

Which brings us to the Midwest League. Here's a look behind the curtain at how the top of that list came together this year.

Fielderesque Power

I've been ranking MWL prospects since 2000. Some years have featured an obvious No. 1 prospect, such as Clayton Kershaw in 2007 and Mike Trout in 2010. This one had three candidates in Peoria shortstop Javier Baez, Beloit third baseman Miguel Sano and Lake County shortstop Francisco Lindor.

Baez has the chance to be a well above-average hitter for average and power, something the league hadn't seen since Justin Upton in 2006. Even so, his power takes a back seat to that of Sano, the circuit's most feared slugger since Prince Fielder nine years ago. While Lindor doesn't have that kind of offensive upside, he's no stiff at the plate and elicited more wows with his defense than any MWL shortstop since Ramon Santiago in 2000.

It's easier to compare Baez and Sano, because they're both offensive-oriented players and both of them could wind up at the hot corner. Now that Bryce Harper has graduated to the majors, Sano is the best power prospect in the minors, with his raw juice earning 80 grades on the 20-80 scouting scale from some evaluators, and he led the MWL with 28 homers, 60 extra-base hits and 238 total bases. He's also precociously selective at the plate, ranking second in the league with 80 walks as a 19-year-old.

"I'd take Sano over all of them," an American League scout said. "His approach is important. He has more selectivity than Baez. He swings and misses a lot but I didn't see him chase a lot."

Baez can't quite match Sano's pop, though he did slug .596 during his two months at Peoria. His incredible bat speed repeatedly draws comparisons to Gary Sheffield's, and he loves to turn it loose. He'll take ferocious swings at any pitch in any count, and he actually got hit by more pitches (10) than he had walks (nine) in 57 games, which also reflects how the 19-year-old's antics can infuriate opponents.

"His batting practice was the highlight of my summer circuit, just seeing what he could do to all parts of the park," a National League scout said. "You definitely made sure you were there early enough to see it. He has such ridiculous bat speed. I got a two-game look before his promotion, and every ball he hit was a home run or went to the warning track."

Different Types Of Shortstops

Though he still doesn't have any semblance of an approach at the plate, scouts believe Baez has more pure hitting ability than Sano and will hit .300 or better in the majors once he settles down. While defense isn't the most important part of their games, Baez comes out way ahead in that regard.

He surprised scouts with how well he played shortstop, and if Baez didn't have a thick lower half, they'd have no qualms about projecting him to stay there. The worst-case scenario is that he becomes a third baseman whose actions and arm give him Gold Glove potential. Sano had the MWL's strongest infield arm, but he's already 240 pounds and erratic at the hot corner, so most evaluators believe he's destined for right field.

Lindor is a different breed of player. MWL observers raved about every aspect of his play at shortstop: range, hands, arm, reliability, positioning and instincts. And though he was one of the younger (18) and smaller (5-foot-11, 175 pounds) players in the league, he hit the ball with authority in the first half before tiring after the all-star break.

A switch-hitter, he could produce good batting averages and on-base percentages with perhaps double-digit homers in the big leagues. Mark him down for at least a half-dozen Gold Gloves when he gets there.

"He's so impressive," Bowling Green manager Brady Williams said. "He's such a polished shortstop and makes plays look really easy. He squares balls up and is a tough out, too."

You don't have to dream hard to envision any of these guys growing into all-stars. In the end, I went with huge offensive ceilings over defensive brilliance. Baez's all-around game gave him the edge over Sano, with Lindor coming in third.