Around The Office: The Decision At No. 1 On The Top 100 Prospects

We had a very interesting debate as we settled on who would be the No. 1 prospect on this year’s Top 100 Prospects list, largely because a very good case could be made for any one of three prospects: Ronald Acuna, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Shohei Ohtani. This is a year with a bounty of qualified candidates. With that in mind, our second Around The Office discussion looks at the case for each of the top three prospects.

JJ Cooper: Ben, you were the leader of the Ohtani faction (which I was a part of as well), why do you think Ohtani could be No. 1?

Shohei Ohtani (Photo by Bill Mitchell)

Ben Badler: Typically, the top of my prospect rankings are heavy on position players. The historical track record on hitters who rank in the top 10-25 prospects in baseball is outstanding. You’re usually looking at players with a great combination of relatively lower risk and high reward. I don’t think we’re that smart, it’s just that their talent is so obvious. It would take an unusual, special pitcher to be the No. 1 prospect in baseball.

Well, that’s Ohtani. He’s a mutant. He has the talent to be a No. 1 starter—right now. And he’s a two-way player who has a chance to add value with his bat. I’m not sure how much impact he’s going to have as a hitter—I know scouts who think he can be an everyday guy as a hitter, others who are more skeptical—but we can’t just evaluate him him as a traditional, elite pitching prospect because the upside here goes even beyond that.

I love Vladimir Guerrero Jr. I think he’s going to be a star and be in MVP conversations one day. But he’s also 18 years old. And I’ve been on Ronald Acuna since his days in the Gulf Coast League, but I think there’s even a good chance Victor Robles ends up having a better career than Acuna. If I owned a team and you told me I could pick one of those players, all with the same service time left, I would pick Ohtani.

JJ Cooper: I came into the meeting with Ohtani No. 1 on my list as well. I talked to front office officials who had told me that to them it wasn’t close.

And I get that. For big league teams, especially ones in contention, Ohtani has more value right now than Acuna or Guerrero Jr. Even if hitting ends up being something that devolves into the occasional pinch-hitting appearance, Ohtani’s ability to step into a front-of-the-rotation role, and do that for a major league minimum salary makes him a big league team’s dream. In Ohtani’s favor, there is the relatively consistent track record of top Japanese pitchers coming to North America and his unique ability as a two-way player.

But the more we discussed it in our Top 100 meeting, the more I came around to the viewpoint that this is yet another position player vs. pitcher prospect debate. And in those, if it’s close to equal, I’m going to almost always side with the hitter.

In 2018, with what we know now, I do believe that for a pitcher to be the No. 1 prospect in baseball, he has to be both an excellent prospect, and it has to be a year that lacks a standout hitting prospect.

We don’t lack for standout hitting prospects this year. Eloy Jimenez ranks No. 4 on our list, but if we could compare where Jimenez is now to where last year’s No. 1 prospect Andrew Benintendi was at this time a year ago, I’d be inclined to say Jimenez is a better prospect. Benintendi was/is a better defender, but Jimenez has a similar hit tool with more power. And Jimenez ranks fourth this year. It’s that good of a year for prospects.

So when we have two truly special position prospects and one special pitching prospect, I’m comfortable having a hitter at the top of the list. It’s easy to see a path for Ohtani, Acuna or Guerrero to be regular all-stars. But Acuna and Guerrero have a lot less injury risk as hitters.

Kyle, you seemed to lean the Acuna. What gave Acuna the edge for you?

Kyle Glaser: I had the opportunity to really, really dig deep with scouts, front office officials, coaches, teammates and opponents on Ronald Acuna when writing our Minor League Player of the Year feature. Three months later I dug similarly deep on Ohtani with ex-MLB players who faced him in Japan, getting the entire scouting report on him and what his strengths and weaknesses really were, as opposed to what was just hype.

Because of that, to me, Acuna vs. Ohtani was more of a classic position player vs. pitcher debate. Ohtani can be a No. 1 starter and one of the premier pitchers in the majors. As a hitter, after everything I’ve heard from the pitchers and players who faced him, I’m more skeptical. He never faced inside fastballs in Japan, and American pitchers who weren’t afraid to bust him inside had a lot of success against him. I think he will pop a few home runs and do some exciting things at the plate in small spurts, but at the end of the day I expect his hitting to end and for him to become a pitcher only.

With that, history is pretty instructive in this debate: always take the position player over the pitcher. The ability to impact 162 games instead of 32-33 and the hugely different injury risks make for a much higher likelihood the hitter has the better, longer, MLB career when all else is equal. There are very few hitters I’d say were equal to a potential No. 1 starter, but a 19-year-old center fielder who got better at every level, including crushing Triple-A, and whose output as a teenager compares favorably in context to Mike Trout and Alex Rodriguez, is that guy. If Acuna had yet to surpass A-ball (as is the case with Guerrero) I’d feel different. But when you take into account the talent he possesses with the track record he’s delivered at upper levels, you are talking about a comparable talent. And in that case, I trust history and went with the hitter over the pitcher.

Matt Eddy: As the only person at BA to vote third baseman Vladimir Guerrero Jr. for No. 1 prospect in baseball, I will make the case for the Blue Jays’ precocious teenager.

I valued both Guerrero and outfielder Ronald Acuna slightly higher than righthander Shohei Ohtani for two reasons: (1) they are blue-chip position players with all-star potential, and that demographic tends to be less volatile than pitchers, and (2) Ohtani is coming off a season of five starts and 25 innings in Japan, a situation compounded by an ankle injury and post-signing revelation of an elbow sprain.

As to Guerrero, I think he is so advanced offensively that he will reach the majors as a 19-year-old in 2018. I would bet that he won’t even be eligible for the 2019 Prospect Handbook because he will have too many big league at-bats. That’s because Guerrero has proven to be the rare prospect who is even better than advertised with the bat. The top prospect on the international market in 2015 and the No. 1 prospect in the Rookie-level Appalachian League in 2016, he surpassed expectations in 2017 by acing two Class A levels with a .323 average, 13 home runs, a .425 on-base percentage and more walks than strikeouts. At age 18!

Guerrero earned the highest combined future grades in the Prospect Handbook for hitting (80) and power (70) on the 20-80 scouting scale. If he reaches his ceiling, he would be one of the very best hitters in baseball—if not the best—which mitigates concerns (for me) about below-average speed and a possible position switch to first base.

Not only could Guerrero earn a 2018 callup on his own merits, but the big league club’s situation could play a factor. Toronto had the oldest lineup in baseball in 2017, and if things go south for the Blue Jays this season, they could begin looking toward the future after the All-Star Game. That could entail trading pending free agent third baseman Josh Donaldson or first baseman Justin Smoak (for whom they hold a team option for 2019), which would create playing time on the infield corners for Guerrero—assuming that he continues to mash at Double-A and/or Triple-A.

If Guerrero were to exhaust his prospect eligibility in 2018, that would put him in the elite company of fellow 19-year-olds of recent vintage Ken Griffey Jr. (1989), Ivan Rodriguez (1991), Edgar Renteria (1996) and Bryce Harper (2012).

J.J. Cooper: Matt, I agree that Guerrero is the one of these three who has the highest upside. If he doesn’t exhaust his prospect eligibility this season and produces the same kind of numbers in Double-A and Triple-A that he did in 2017, he could be a 75/Low or even the impossible 80/Low in our BA Grades next year. Hitters just don’t do what he’s done at his age. Guerrero could have a Miguel Cabrera/Albert Pujols-level impact at the plate, which makes me really care little about where he plays defensively, but his ability to stay at third base for now is a nice bonus.

(An aside. As great as Pujols was, his age 20 season in the low Class A Midwest League wasn’t as good as Guerrero’s low Class A/high Class A season as an 18-year-old. Cabrera’s age 18 and age 19 seasons don’t come close to comparing to Guerrero’s 2017 season.)

The biggest knock against Guerrero is he’s only faced Class A hitters at this point. That’s a pretty small blemish, as he was at an age where most hitters aren’t ready for low Class A, much less high Class A. But when he’s being compared with a big league ready front-of-the-rotation starter and a center fielder with an advanced bat who reached Triple-A, that’s the narrow margins that matter here.

Kyle Glaser: I think there is every reason to believe Guerrero will be an impact major leaguer when his time comes. For me, doing something at higher levels is always more attractive, and seeing the success Acuna had at Triple-A and what Ohtani did in NPB—which, let’s be clear, is the best level of baseball in the world outside of MLB—justify having those two over Guerrero at this point in time. That said, if Vlad Jr. ends up having the best career of the three when all is said and done, no one should be shocked (I feel the similarly about Eloy too, FWIW).

Ben Badler: If Ohtani is a No. 1 starter, he could be a 5-6 win pitcher in his prime, with a chance for more in a peak year. If he can add another 2 wins with his bat, we’re talking about a level of upside that a traditional prospect—even an elite one—doesn’t match. And that’s without accounting for the possibility that Ohtani—who hit .322/.416/.588 in 382 plate appearances as a 21-year-old in Japan—might be even more valuable than that as a hitter.

I understand if there’s skepticism about Ohtani’s bat—I share some of it—but I don’t think it’s fair to operate as though there’s only a slim probability of him being able to make an offensive impact or that he will only be able to pitch in MLB. There are adjustments Ohtani will have to make, but he is an excellent athlete with huge power, he runs well, has a swing that should work and a good track record at a young age in a league comparable to the upper minors.

In an odd way, Ohtani’s hitting ability does add risk to his profile. If he’s in the lineup and rolls an ankle or pulls a hamstring running out a grounder, the Angels are going to be without a frontline starter for two months. Like Matt said, that situation has already played out before, and all the usual injury and attrition risks with pitchers apply to Ohtani as well. If I thought Guerrero or Acuna were Trout or Harper-level prospects, I would put them above him them. As much as I love Guerrero—who I think is No. 2 in this trio—I just don’t see either of them in that tier. All three of these players have their own risk factors. Ohtani’s risk level and super high reward potential put him at the top for me.

JJ Cooper: I think 5-6 WAR per season for Ohtani as a pitcher is unrealistic. In the past six years, I find three pitchers who managed to average five WAR a season: Clayton Kershaw, Chris Sale and Max Scherzer. Lower it to averaging 4.5 WAR a season and the list grows to eight pitchers. How about if Ohtani ends up being Yu Darvish as a pitcher? That would be more than living up to expectations to me. Darvish was our No. 4 prospect in 2012 (behind Bryce Harper, Matt Moore and Mike Trout, it was a pretty stacked list). Darvish has four all-star appearances in his first six seasons sandwiched around a Tommy John surgery. He’s been excellent, producing 19.3 bWAR in six seasons (3.2 WAR per season). But that pales in comparison to Harper’s somewhat injury-plagued 26.1 bWAR over the same six seasons, and let’s don’t even start comparing him to Trout and his insane 55.1 bWAR over six seasons. I’m not saying Acuna or Guerrero will be Harper or Trout, but it does sum up how the durability issues pitchers face make it tougher for them to match the value of productive hitters. And Darvish made a full recovery. Other pitchers have had serious injuries and not made it back to their pre-injury form.

Josh Norris: I rode the Acuna train with Kyle, mostly because I was hearing about the legend of Acuna from the day I first got to spring training in late March. I headed to Lakeland that day to see the Braves’ A-ball clubs play against their counterparts with the Tigers, thinking that Acuna would be somewhere on one of those fields.

He was with the Double-A group that day, which meant he was in Orlando instead of Lakeland. After a pretty nondescript day on the backfields, I got a text message on the way back to my hotel: Acuna had homered twice.

The debate of Acuna versus Guerrero versus Ohtani was fierce, of course, but what put Acuna at the top of my list was the way he responded to every challenge he faced last season, when he spent the entire year as a 19-year-old. He opened the year as the youngest player in the high Class A Florida State League and earned a promotion to Double-A after just 28 games.

Now playing as the youngest not only in the Southern League, but in all of Double-A, Acuna continued to excel. Not only that, he improved. In 57 games with Mississippi he put up an .895 OPS that included 14 doubles, nine home runs and 19 stolen bases. He also made it to the finals of the SL’s Home Run Derby, where, he finished as the runner-up after three overtime rounds.

But he wasn’t done. His numbers got even more impressive when he was moved to Triple-A Gwinnett at season’s end. In 57 games (his longest stint with any of his three clubs), Acuna produced a .940 OPS that included a sublime .343 on-base percentage in a league filled with veteran arms, some of whom were more than a decade Acuna’s senior.

But he wasn’t done yet. All he did in the Arizona Fall League was lead the circuit with seven home runs—tied with Yankees catcher Gary Sanchez for the most in the league since 2012—and win the MVP.  

Four levels, plus a workload of more than double his previous career high, and he was spectacular from start to finish. His five-tool talent and the production at his age earned Acuna my nod for No. 1 prospect in baseball.

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