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Amateur Middle Infielders

April 15, 2008

Jemile Weeks
 I run a fantasy league that’s verrrry deep. It’s a keeper league  in which 14 owners keep 26 players from year to year. In  previous drafts we’ve seen college players go, no problem. In  our inaugural season of 2001, one team picked up South  Carolina pitcher Kip Bouknight, who the previous year had  gone 17-1 with a 2.81 ERA as a junior Gamecock and won the  Golden Spikes award. Gaudy statistics indeed. However,  Bouknight didn’t have great “stuff,” slipped a little in his senior  year at college (despite tying Jeff Brantley for the most wins of  any SEC pitcher ever), and slid to the Rockies in the 13th round  of the 2001 amateur draft, three months after our GM took him  in the 35th round. Bouknight has yet to pitch in the majors.

One round later, however, another GM snatched up Georgia Tech third baseman Mark Teixiera. That worked out significantly better.

They were the only amateur players taken that year, but seven years later it got me to thinking. I for one would generally bet on a Golden Spikes winner – or finalist – who was a position player making it to the bigs instead of a pitcher, mainly due to the litany of injuries and toll innings take on an athlete’s shoulder. Now, it may not be the Heisman, but the Golden Spikes is a good indicator of success: Bouknight is the only Golden Spikes recipient since 1982 to fail to make the majors – though 1983’s winner, Mike Loynd, barely had a cup a’ coffee – just 35 games, mostly in relief for Bobby Valentine’s Rangers. What’s more, Bouknight is the first Golden Spikes winner since Loynd not to be taken in the first round.

So the amateur draft, in this case, may have been prescient. And that got me to thinking about the first round of the amateur draft. I didn’t think it was surprising that the two “failed” Golden Spikes winners were both pitchers. But I did think it was surprising that despite their stats (and their competitive conferences), scouts didn’t place them in the top 150 amateur ballplayers in the country, let alone the first round.

So considering their failure, I looked at a decade’s worth of first-round picks, from 1993 through 2002 (2003 and later, there are players that could still become legit ballplayers), to see what percentage of them “made it.” By “made it,” I mean exceeded a rookie’s minimum of plate appearances.

And yeah, sure enough, only 46.2% of pitchers selected in the first round between 1993 and 2002 have made it to the bigs. (And that’s including Kelly Johnson, current second baseman, who was drafted as a pitcher in 2000 by the Braves.)
Compare this with outfielders, of whom 48.8% taken in the first round have made it.
Ok, that’s not appreciably different, considering the relatively small sample group numbers.

How about first baseman? Why, 60.9% of them have made it. Catchers? An even 60% (though some of them have switched positions, for obvious reasons). Third basemen top the group, however, with 64.7% (including the transplanted T-Rex) making it and sticking around for at least a little in the majors.

Guess what group’s dead last, though: Middle infielders. Only 44.9% of middle infielders – worse than pitchers – taken in the first round between 1993 and 2002 have made it to the bigs. For those keeping track at home, that’s 22 of 49 second basemen and shortstops.

So why do I bring this up? I’m getting there. This past year, my keeper league saw 14 amateur players taken: five pitchers and nine position players, all of whom will most likely go in the first 40 picks, except Dustin Ackley, the Tar Heel first baseman who’s not draft-eligible this year, much like Pedro Alvarez wasn’t last year.

As to be expected, there was a bit of mockery from the teams that had significantly better teams of the present. While the defending champion covered his bases by picking up spot starters with his late-round picks, GMs that were building for the future went after top prep and college players who may soon ascend to ‘top organizational prospect’ once signed. Seven of last year’s first round picks immediately became the top prospect in his organization’s farm system, according to Baseball America (though in the White Sox’s Aaron Poreda’s case, that’s faint praise), and most are on track to debut with their clubs sometime next year.

Of course this still runs smack into the stats I provided above, where a third base owner could hope for a 65% chance of his college player making it to the bigs, let alone having a fantasy impact. And taking them so early in their developmental process means keeping a seat warm on a 26-keeper roster for at least two seasons before seeing what kind of dividends even exist. And, again, this is all speculating on the future. Regardless of the proliferation of equivalency statistics designed by every MIT baseball fan, there’s no perfect way to tell how amateur players will fare when they’re thrown into professional ball. Though apparently in the case of Bouknight and Loynd, it’s a more exact science than, say, shamanism.

And it’s why baseball fans don’t pay attention to the draft or college ball. I consider myself a pretty, heh, avid fan and I stopped paying attention after like the 26th overall pick this past year. It’s a completely different level of play. Relievers are able to step in pretty quickly (Chad Cordero, Huston Street), but position players and starting pitchers need to hone their games quite a bunch before making the leap. Sure, John Olerud joined the big league Jays one week after signing following the 1989 amateur draft, as did Dave Winfield in the ‘70s. And Ryan Zimmerman made the big leap in 2005. And Ross Detwiler got an inning under his belt this past year. But by and large, the players need to play down on the farm for coaches to assess their tools.

Which leads me to my point. Finally. A lot of talk around MLB draft day when it comes to middle infielders is where they’ll end up playing; for many, there’s an immediate assumption that they’ll be moving to the outfield or the corners soon enough. Pete Kozma, taken by the Cardinals in the first round last year, was thought to have the best chance of any middle infielder at sticking at his position (shortstop), but he’s already – at the ripe age of 19 – being tried in the outfield. Mike Moustakas, the top Royals prospect, has probably about another year in the hole before they move him to wherever Alex Gordon won’t be.

(Sidebar: Kansas City will never allow a good bat at short: with the exception of one year from a juiced-up Jay Bell in the late ‘90s, they’ve been flat-out dreadful there. In 1985, their championship year, maybe we all remember the antics of Buddy Biancalana, but their actual shortstop was Onix Concepcion, who, over 131 games, batted .204 with an OPS of .500. Not that Biancalana, with his .188 BA and .538 OPS was any better.)

So, remember some paragraphs up, those 22 middle infielders selected in the 1993-2002 first rounds who “made it”? Of those 22, eight made it to the bigs in a different position – either outfield (like Chad Hermansen) or catcher (Michael Barrett) or third base (Kevin Orie).

Now, switching position matters less to a big-league club than it does to a fantasy club. If Hiram Bocachica is better at outfield than he is at shortstop, and he can make the team, well, that’s just fine. But to a keeper league owner who’s counting on Michael Cuddyer to live up to the expectations of a ninth overall pick and man the shortstop position for the next decade, well, 20 homers a year is a lot better coming from up the middle than the outfield.

Here are the middle infielders taken in the first round who made it to the bigs in the middle infield position from that ten-year sample:
A-Rod, Todd Walker, Nomar, Russ Johnson, Adam Kennedy, Adam Everett, Brian Roberts, Chase Utley, Chris Burke, Mike Fontenot, Bobby Crosby, Jayson Nix (giving him the benefit of the doubt this year), Khalil Greene, and Russ Adams.

Those 14 are a pretty good group, all told. In their prime I’d gladly take eight of those guys on my fantasy squad. I’d say chances are if your middle infielder makes it to the bigs and sticks at his/her position, he’s probably pretty special.

Here are the middle infielders taken in my keeper league’s draft on March 22nd (all of whom will presumably go in the first round of the amateur draft in June):
Jemile Weeks (Miami 2nd baseman), Tim Beckham (Georgia high school ss), Gordon Beckham (U of Georgia ss), and Harold Martinez (Miami high school ss-3b). And no, despite being an inch apart in height, and both being Georgian shortstops, the Beckhams are not related: Tim is black, Gordon’s white.

One of the reasons middle infielders switch positions is because they literally outgrow it, or have the frame to add strength – a lot more useful for a professional athlete. Mostly for that reason, Martinez, who’s listed at both second and short in high school scouting reports, is almost assuredly moving to third full-time.

Weeks, who isn’t considered to have the tools of his older brother, Rickie, is still thought to be able to last at second in the pros. He projects to be a leadoff hitter with a little pop; considering his size (5’9”, 160), he probably won’t be moving to the corners anytime soon. Gordon is considered to be a strong fielder as well – he has only one error this year. And while Tim is scouted as a solid, fluid fielder as well, he’s at a disadvantage, historically. Or at least any fantasy owners who are hoping he’ll be at shortstop are. Only two high school middle infielders taken in the first round of the 1993-2002 drafts made it to the bigs in their original position. Jayson Nix (who’ll debut this year, almost seven years after he was drafted) and A-Rod.

And while I’m betting that Tim Beckham is no A-Rod, there have indeed been a couple of top-of-the-draft middle infielders who’ve switched positions and gone to on to sweet fantasy careers: Gary Sheffield, Chipper Jones, and Dmitri Young (yes, that ridiculous man-sloth was a shortstop at one point). There have also been a couple of kids drafted since 2002 I was thinking about: The Upton brothers.

Oddly enough, the comps Tim mostly gets are with…the Uptons. But still, in this situation, I’m betting that Gordon Beckham has a better chance of becoming Michael Cuddyer than Nomar Garciaparra.

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One Comment
  1. Great writing and great information – I’m one of the prospectors that you describe trolling the HS, College and minor league ranks for future talent (drafted Alonzo, Weeks, and Beckham this year) – the statistics you mention will probably have me looking a little differently at deep prospects or at least evaluating them a bit differently – our leage is 15 owners up to 25 players kept from year to year – Have to build somewhere – thanks for the great article and drop me a message anytime to talk B.Ball – bob.baseball@gmail.com

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