A Lengthy Critique of Baseball America’s South Atlantic League Top 20

I feel compelled to write a little bit more about Baseball America’s very odd South Atlantic League Top 20 list ($) (non-subscribers, here).  For Mets fans, the biggest news is RF Cesar Puello at #13 and the omission of Wilmer Flores.   Jim Callis basically promised in a tweet that Flores would be on the FSL Top 20 list.

The money quote on the 19-year old Puello who hit .292/.375/.359 for the year and .346/.424/.430 in the second half:

“He’s an impressive guy,” Greenville manager Billy McMillon said. “He’s a big guy with speed and some power potential and maybe a .300 hitter. He has a very strong arm and he plays hard all the time. There’s a lot to like.”

Puello deserves his spot.

Our own Mike Diaz stopped by the chat and asked writer Bill Ballew “the Flores question:”

    Mike (MO): Did Wilmer Flores not qualify to make this list? If he is eligible, how did he not make this top 20?

Bill Ballew: Flores has the ability to hit for average and his defense is steady on balls he can reach. The problem is Flores does not run well and has very limited range at a key defensive position. He’s going to need to change positions, and with that position change his limited power will become a bigger negative. Flores is young (he turned 19 in August) and he plays easy with the ability to put the ball in play. In my mind, at least, the sum of his strong tools do not add up to an exceptional player at higher levels.

That’s not an unreasonable answer.  Most people think Flores will move off of shortstop eventually and yes, power will be at a premium wherever he goes.  However, it misses the fact that he has extraordinary contact ability and is going to hit for average.  The hit tool matters too.  It matters a lot.

There’s other weird stuff on the list, some weirder because, well, Flores didn’t make the cut.  I’m going to focus on the position player side.

1. Rockies LHP Tyler Matzek at #3.  I loved Matzek in July when he was touching 94 and sitting 92.  However, in his final start, in Savannah, he began 87-89 and then was throwing 85 after the third.  Baseball America wouldn’t know that because I don’t think there was a single professional scout at the game.  His breaking stuff wasn’t very good that night either.  Writing three (albeit short) paragraphs on Matzek and ranking him #3 in a 1-team league, without noting that he completely lost his velocity at the end of the year is simply bad.  Did Bill Ballew not know?  Not care?  Or choose to selectively use the early part of the year without acknowledging the scary finish?

2. Rockies 3B Nolan Arenado at #2.  I really like Arenado’s bat and I thought he was the best hitter combining power with contact ability among Gnats’ opponents who visited Savannah when I first saw him. The 19-year old hit .308/.338/.520 with 41 doubles in two thirds of a season.  The Gnats thought they could beat him in, but if the pitch wasn’t on the black, he punished it.  However, Arenado is all bat.  Ballew writes, that he has a “well above-average arm at third base, but his speed, range and lateral movement are below average” which matches my own observations and those of scouts I talked to: he’ll be a sub-par defender.  What happens when you slide Flores, who has superlative hands and arm to third?  Yeah, he’ll be better than Arenado.  So, to recap, Arenado is all bat (with more power), but Flores misses the list, while Arenado with suspect defense slots in at #2.

3. Two 23 (!) year-olds made the league top 20: J.D. Martinez (17) and Chris Dominguez (20).

Martinez is more forgivable, but a stretch.  The SAL MVP hit .362/.433/.598 with Lexington and then finished up with 50 games in the AA Texas League where he hit .302/.357/.407.  Yup, a guy who’s at best an average defensive LF with a 105 isolated slugging percentage at the age-appropriate level of AA made the list.

Dominguez, who turns 24 in November, simply has no business on the list.  Ballew quotes Augusta manager Dave Machemer on his own third baseman as saying in part, “He needs to shore up his strike zone, but he has average tools across the board with two that are off the charts.”  Mach was one of my favorite people I met this summer.  He’s a great storyteller.  I spent hours talking baseball with him, but he’ll be the first to tell you he’s not objective about his own guys.  He and I even had this precise conversation about Dominguez.  I don’t think there’s another manager in the league that would grade Dominguez’s tools that way.

Dominguez is a big guy who is at best an average defender at third, and probably will be worse than that if he ever reaches the big leagues.  Dude committed 32 errors, the second-most among SAL third basemen, without extraordinary range.

Alright, now lets move to the bat.  The chart below compares Flores and Dominguez.

Flores 277 77 18 2 7 23 37 .278 .342 .433 8.8 12.1 7.5
Dominguez 559 152 32 4 21 35 133 .272 .326 .456 9.4 21.9 5.8

Both players played their home games in pitchers’ parks and Dominguez showed a little more power.  However, Flores drew more walks and had a strikeout rate that was 55% of Dominguez’s AND he’s almost five years younger.

Bill, I’ll bet a steak dinner that Flores, even if he moves positions, will have a more valuable Major League career than Dominguez.   Use some total value metric like WAR, WARP or whatever.

4. Outside of Arenado and Cesar Puello, the other 19-year olds Ballew chose for the top 20 list all play up-the-middle, premium possessions, and own at least one plus defensive tool, but just didn’t hit.

#8 Jonathan Villar SS 371 101 18 4 2 26 103 .272 .332 .358 5.7 24.5 6.2
#9 Reymond Fuentes – CF 374 101 15 5 5 25 87 .270 .328 .377 6.0 21.0 6.0
#14 Christian Bethancourt – C 399 100 19 2 3 14 62 .251 .276 .331 5.7 14.8 3.3
#18 Slade Heathcott – CF 298 77 16 3 2 42 101 .258 .359 .352 6.0 28.8 12.0

- Villar was the key piece the Astros picked up from the Phillies for Roy Oswalt.  He’s supposedly superior defensively.  However, he’s all projection offensively.  After striking out in a quarter of his plate appearances in the SAL, the Astros shrewdly promoted him to advanced-A Lancaster where he was completely overmatched: .225/.294/.372 with 50 strikeouts in 32 games for a K/rate of 35%.  Flores, when promoted to advanced-A, hit .300/.324/.415 in 67 games in the second half with a 14% K/rate while playing in a much more difficult hitting environment than Lancaster.
- Fuentes has plus speed and plays a nice centerfield and steals bases going 42 for 47.  Those are tools that Flores doesn’t have.  However, Fuentes is another dude who strikes out a lot.  Ballew wrote: “Fuentes made some impressive adjustments during his first full pro season. He closed some holes in his swing and made better contact during the second half.”  Pre- All-Star Break: .277/.326/.402.  Post: .260/.329/.340.  Pre-Break: 21% K/rate.  Post break: 19.5%.  Monster improvement.
- Bethancourt’s arm is truly spectacular, at least a 70 if not 75 on the 20-80 scouting scale.  However, others I talked to didn’t think he did anything else particularly well behind the dish.  There were plenty of balls that got by and through him.  He’s going to the play in the big leagues, for his arm, make no mistake, but he might not hit.
- Sure, Heathcott walks, but he strikes out in 28.8% of his plate appearances.  No thanks.  Mike Newman of scoutingthesally.com was similarly critical of Heathcott earlier this week, while our own Mike Diaz was a little more optimistic in his assessment.

I get that Ballew likes defense from his youngsters, but he’s picking guys who have trouble making contact, which is a monster red flag moving forward at higher levels.

The list is internally inconsistent in its emphasis on defense, because it leads off with a 1B in Jonathan Singleton and a 3B in Arenado who might have to move to first if he loses more range while punishing Flores who can field a ground ball and comes equipped with a superlative arm.  The 19-year olds other than Flores showed massive holes in their swing combined with one or two plus defensive tools.

I can see ranking Villar (if you love the defense), Fuentes or Bethancourt over Flores, although you have to do some explaining for any individual.  However, I just can’t justify Heathcott, Martinez or Dominguez over Flores.  For the record, the only one of this group that I didn’t see on multiple occasions was Villar.