Prospect Defense And The Dilemma Of Versatility vs. Mastery

There are some "old school" beliefs that still drive a lot of thinking around minor league prospects, and maybe those beliefs persist because they are correct. One is that you leave a player in the most difficult position (SS over 3B, 3B over 1B, CF over LF) until he proves "beyond a reasonable doubt" that he can't handle it, even if the "writing on the wall" suggests a move is probably inevitable. Another is that you don't relegate a young player to DH even if it appears to be by far his best defensive position.


It's pretty common that when a player is drafted, their scouting report reads something like, "...SS, but scouts believe he'll eventually move to 3B," or "...CF, but scouts expect his best position will be COF..."

My concern is that if a player will eventually need to move, better to move him early and actually allow him to master the "less useful" position rather than moving him there later and watching him settle for proficiency over mastery. Let's take a look at a few of the A's current and recent prospects, and the dilemmas Oakland has faced.

Miles Head

To me, this is one of the toughest calls, because you would hate to give up on Head playing 3B if there's any decent chance he can handle it at the big league level. Yet if a move to 1B is inevitable, I'd like to see him get tons of reps there and mold himself into a really good defensive 1Bman, rather than losing that time preparing to be a marginal 3Bman and winding up only "proficient" at 1B.

Mark Teixeira is a good example of someone who just wasn't ultimately going to make it at 3B, but who has developed into a very good 1Bman, and as far as I can tell, Teixeira's and Head's body types are also somewhat similar. Jason Giambi, Albert Pujols and, ironically, Miguel Cabrera, were other former 3Bmen whose body type correctly predicted that the sooner they moved to 1B they better off they and their team would be. However, body type alone is not always the ultimate indicator -- Scott Rolen is a bit "unsvelte" and is also a bit awesome at 3B.

My bottom line is this: I want the A's, now, to make a really shrewd assessment of Head's future at 3B and if they know it's a real stretch to think he could ever start there at the big league level, I'd like to see him at 1B full-time with the goal of making him a really good defensive 1Bman, not just an adequate one. To me, this is an essential part of minor league scouting -- the A's need to be able to assess now, after watching for a 1/2 season, whether it really makes sense for Head to keep playing 3B and if not don't bounce him around: Put him at 1B full-time and go for mastery. Of course if he can make it as even an average defensive 3Bman, then the right move is to keep him at 3B and give him the best tutelage available.

Grant Green

Drafted as a SS, moved to CF, shifted over to LF, and then moved to 3B (but only put there about once/week), Green is now being groomed as a "super-utility player". He might be the type of player for whom this role makes sense, in that his bat projects as promising enough that he could be a useful big league hitter, yet it does not project strongly enough for him to make it as a full-time LFer or 3Bman -- especially one without "defensive chops".

If you have a player who can't master any position, and can't hit enough to be worth hiding out there as an everyday butcher somewhere, the next best thing is for him to be so-so at a bunch of positions. Green has one important advantage which is that among the positions he can play -- even if it means standing there with a glove and only being "serviceable" at it -- is SS, so he could potentially serve as the A's main utility infielder while also getting some time in the OF. Nice to have your backup MIF, backup OFer, pinch hitter and pinch runner, all take up just one roster spot.

Chris Carter

Stone hands, tremendous power, and a minor league track record of hitting and not fielding. To me, the A's have missed two opportunities to go for "mastery" instead of "blindly trying to see if something might work". Carter has always been a shaky 1Bman -- even when he is looking more competent in general, you have to hold your breath when he settles under a pop fly and can't exhale until he doesn't drop it, and a smart tip to the other infielders is always not to bounce any throws to 1B.

Carter doesn't "play" 1B so much as he "tries to survive it" and so the A's moved him to LF for a while. It turns out that the inability to track fly balls and the inability to catch baseballs in general persists in LF. Fail.

I wish the A's had, if they were determined to keep a glove on Carter's hand, left him at his "best" (least worst) position in order to get the reps, but fortunately the LF experiment was as brief as it was ugly. What I really wish is that the A's had, and would, put Carter at DH because as Seth Smith can tell you, DH is also a position that needs to be learned, and it happens to be Chris Carter's best position. By far. It is, in fact, the only position I expect he might play regularly in the big leagues, because I expect that his defensive deficiencies will offset his hitting too much for him to stick at 1B.

If this is the case, the sooner Carter gets comfortable with the DH role, the better off he and the A's will be. I would have liked to see him DH more at Sacramento and I would like to see him as Oakland's full-time DH right now. 25 is only "too young to DH" if the player has a future as a position player. I don't think Carter does, and I fully subscribe to the notion that "DH is a position you need to learn".

Overall

In regards to assessing a player's capabilities early, and going for mastery over versatility or "leave him there too long until he fails like we knew he would eventually," the A's may be moving in the right direction. It looks like the A's are prepared to be more decisive with teenage draft picks Addison Russell (ticketed to stay at SS) and Daniel Robertson (believed to be ticketed for 3B), and to me that's a good sign. Head has played exclusively 3B since his promotion to AA Midland, and you just hope it means the A's really believe he can stick there and that they have made a savvy assessment, not a wishful one. Time will tell with Carter.

What do you think? Do you like the age-old practice of leaving a player at a harder defensive position as long as you can, even if scouts, observation and data suggest that a move is probably inevitable? Do you object to viewing DH as a position and letting younger players learn it if they are clearly unskilled defenders?

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