Stocking Your Scout Team: Third Base
You know the drill by now. I’m here to talk about prospects who will probably be undrafted in your league but who have a chance to either log productive, low-upside plate appearances in 2015 or ride some helium up prospect rankings.
Giovanny Urshela, Cleveland Indians
Urshela has been considered a glove-first prospect since signing out of Columbia in 2008 but his bat has developed nicely over the course of his minor league career. 2014 represented his biggest step forward yet, with a .280/.334/.491 triple-slash across two levels that included a career high 18 home runs. He lacks the prototypical power you look for in a third baseman but compensates for that shortcoming with bat-to-ball skills that are above-average for the position. He’s a free swinger, evidenced by a 53.4 percent swing rate that was eighth highest in the International League among players with 300 plate appearances. His 82.0 percent contact rate was 36th best in the league.
Urshela added a leg kick to his swing in 2014 and the difference in results from 2013 to 2014 was dramatic. Here are his extra base hits from 2013, courtesy of mlbfarm.com:
With the exception of a few doubles down the right field line, he did nearly all of his damage to the pull side. Now here are his 2014 extra base hits:
The home run power is still almost exclusively to the pull side but now we’re seeing the doubles start to spread out from gap to gap. The leg kick allows a hitter to see the ball deeper and seems to be giving Urshela the opportunity to take the ball the other way more often.
(Side note – Those blue dots are triples. There is some miscategorization here because there are eight dots and Urshela hit six triples. In any case, it’s a bizarre outcome for a player who had five triples and 13 steals previous to 2014. Speed is not part of his game.)
One other big difference from 2013 to 2014 was Urshela’s batted ball mix. His 2013 ground ball rate was 42.3 percent and his fly ball rate was 40.7 percent, which included an infield fly ball percentage that was 13th highest among qualified hitters. In other words, he made a bunch of weak contact. In 2014, he shifted about five percent from both his ground ball rate and his infield fly rate to his outfield fly rate. The ten percent increase led to an outfield fly ball rate that was fifth highest in the International League. That’s no good for his batting average but you might be willing to make the tradeoff if the result is a sustained power gain.
Urshela raked in Venezuela this winter, hitting three homers and posting a .398 batting average in 108 at-bats that would have easily led the league if he qualified. He has never ranked in Baseball America’s top 10 for the Indians and only recently registered on Baseball Prospectus’ list, ranked as the eighth best prospect in the organization. That tells you something about his ceiling but if you’re buying any shares here you’re paying for potential opportunity, not ceiling. Lonnie Chisenhall was horrendous at the plate in the second half of 2014 and was also one of worst defensive third basemen in the league. The Tribe have a decent shot at dethroning the Tigers in the AL Central this season and it’s not difficult to imagine them turning the third base gig over to Urshela if Chisenhall struggles in April.
Taylor Sparks, Cincinnati Reds
Sparks was plucked in 2014’s second round after his junior season at UC Irvine. He appeared on the draft radar after a huge sophomore season where he hit .360/.388/.581 and was named a third team All-American. He followed that up with an outstanding summer performance with the USA Baseball Collegiate National Team, outhitting everyone on a roster that featured Kyle Schwarber, Michael Conforto, Trea Turner, and Bradley Zimmer.
Relative to those successes, his draft year at Irvine was somewhat of a disappointment. His numbers slipped across the board, as he hit .308/.389/.506, hit half as many home runs as his sophomore year, and was caught stealing as many times as he was successful. Most troubling was a spike in his strikeout rate from 16.7 percent to 23.6 percent. On the bright side, his K/BB rate dropped significantly because of an increased willingness to take a walk but the raw strikeout total is a red flag.
The numbers back up scouts’ opinions that his hit tool is bel0w-average and may prevent his plus raw power from playing up in games. Here’s a video from his time with USA Baseball. In these few cuts, you can see that his he has a tendency to be all arms and not get his lower half synced up.
Here’s another, this time from after the draft. Granted, it’s from batting practice and there are still a couple instances of him whipping the bat without using the rest of his body but there are also some examples how hard he can drive the ball when the timing is correct.
Like Urshela above, Sparks grades out as a 55-60 defender, which will keep him at the hot corner. He hit .232/.350/.490 in 55 Pioneer League games after the draft and while that batting average is ugly, his 24 extra base hits included 10 homers and he swiped 14 bases while getting caught only once. The strikeout problem followed him to the professional ranks and his 35.0 percent strikeout rate was second worst in the league, despite being old for the level. Sparks will likely be assigned to low-A to open 2015, where he can continue to work on his mechanics with the hope that he’ll eventually hit enough to get his glove and power in the lineup in Cincinnati.
Jhoan Urena, New York Mets
The Mets signed Urena out of the Dominican in 2011 and 2014 was his first year in a state-side league. As a 19-year-old, he hit .300/.356/.431 and led the New York-Penn League with 20 doubles. Urena is a switch hitter who hits the ball to all fields from both sides of the plate. He is more of a hitter with power than a power hitter and there is optimism that some of those doubles will turn into home runs as he continues to turn some of his bulk into strength.
There is some question regarding whether Urena can stay at third base. His foot speed and range are fringe-average but he does have a good arm. His body type leads some to believe a move across the diamond is inevitable but positive reports about his makeup and work ethic provide hope that he can stay at third. His bat will play regardless of where he winds up and Urena is a prospect that could explode up rankings in his first full-season ball assignment.