Stocking Your Scout Team: Shortstop
Keeper deadlines have passed, spring training games have begun, and fantasy owners are in the thick of draft season. Over the last couple weeks I’ve taken a look at some catcher and second base prospects who are probably unowned in your league but who are worthy of watching in spring and early in the 2014 season.
Today I tackle shortstop, the most beloved position among prospect watchers and rankers. There were 13 shortstops in both the Baseball Prospectus and Baseball America top 100, easily the most of the infield positions. Our consensus ranking of the position is loaded with talent but we omitted guys like Amed Rosario and Ozhaino Albies, who are good enough players to make top 100 lists from respected sources. There are plenty more shortstops behind those guys that could rise up lists quickly and become assets for your roster. Here are two, plus another who probably won’t but is fun anyways.
Alex Blandino, Cincinnati Reds
Blandino was drafted with the 29th pick in the 2014 draft following a junior season at Stanford that saw him hit .306/.396/.541 with an equal number of strikeouts and walks. The batting average was somewhat depressed by a .295 BABIP but more importantly, scouting reports were uniformly positive about his advanced approach and ability to make hard contact. Here is some video from the 2013 Cape Code League, where an impressive summer really raised his draft stock. Blandino’s body stays quiet through his compact swing and he uses above-average bat speed to drive the ball into the gaps.
Blandino spent most of his collegiate career playing third base and scouts believe he’ll end up back there or at the keystone, but he played exclusively at shortstop after signing quickly and playing 29 games in rookie ball and another 34 in low-A. Pioneer League pitchers were thoroughly overmatched by the polished college product but Blandino showed some signs of fatigue in Dayton, after the college season and the stint in Billings. Despite an uncharacteristically high strikeout rate there, he still managed a .261/.329/.440 line that included four long balls.
Blandino missed our consensus top 50 shortstops but ranked 45th on Bret’s list over at Baseball Prospectus and I agree with a ranking inside the top 50. Some scouts have his raw power potential as plus rather than the more prevalent fringe-average designation. The infamous inside-out Stanford Swing that emphasizes going the other way masked his raw power. Blandino’s approach is geared towards line drives but he pulled the ball more his junior season and hit 12 home runs and increased his slugging percentage by 80 points over his sophomore campaign. If you believe there’s some untapped over-the-fence pop, Blandino brings more to the table than a typical high-floor/low-ceiling college batter, a tag that most are likely to give him.
Blandino will open in high-A and could move quickly. Zack Cozart and Eugenio Suarez are ahead of him on the rebuilding Reds’ depth chart, which is just another way of saying that Blandino will be in Cincinnati as soon as he’s ready. His bat profiles well for the second slot in the batting order.
Andrew Velazquez, Tampa Bay Rays
Velazquez was drafted in the seventh round of the 2012 draft by the Diamondback and was sent to the Rays this offseason in the Jeremy Hellickson deal. He may always be best known for the amazing 72-game on-base streak he put together in 2014 but he also has real tools that place him somewhere between future utility infielder and everyday player.
Velazquez played 65 games at low-A in 2013 and repeated the level in 2014, improving dramatically on his way to a .290/.367/.428 line that included 42 extra base hits, despite a 5/8″, 175 pound build and a home park that is one of the least friendly to offense in the Midwest League. Some questioned why he spent the full season in South Bend but he was a high school draftee from a cold weather state and played most of the year at 19 years old, so I don’t share those concerns.
Fantasy owners should be aware that Velazquez stole 50 bases in 2014. He does possess plus speed but the lofty total was also a function of his above-average instincts. You can’t steal 50 bases by accident and instincts have value at the higher levels, but Velazquez’s raw speed points to a future total of 20-25 at his peak.
The Rays are rich with shortstop prospects and like Velazquez, Willy Adames is ready for high-A. Second baseman Kean Wong, younger brother of Kolten and the club’s 2013 4th rounder also had an impressive 2014 and is in line for a promotion to high-A himself. Velazquez began his career at second and that may be his most likely long-term home but it will be interesting to see what the Rays do with this middle infield logjam as 2014 opens.
JaCoby Jones, Pittsburgh Pirates
There’s a long list of things to like about JaCoby Jones – loud tools, ability to play multiple positions, a name that recalls the longest touchdown in Super Bowl history, and a completely unnecessary mid-name capitalization. Unfortunately, the ability to hit advanced pitching is probably not on the list.
The LSU product slashed .288/.347/.503 with a mouth-watering 23 long balls and 17 steals in Class A last season but is a prime example of why you shouldn’t scout stat lines. Jones was old for the level and most any scouting report you can find points out his pull-heavy approach, his aggressiveness and willingness to sell out for power, and his difficulty hitting anything that’s not dead red. The 26.3 percent strikeout rate puts a number on all of those issues. By all accounts, Jones is a player that would be lucky to hit .250 in the big leagues.
There’s also the matter of his eventual defensive home, which is probably not shortstop despite the Pirates’ attempt to develop him there. Jones can play any position up the middle and is best suited for center field.
So, here’s a prospect who doesn’t project to hit or stay at shortstop. Why am I writing about JaCoby, then? BeCause yOu neVer kNow wHat miGht hapPen wiTh a toOlsy 22-yEar-oLd.