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May 2, 2014 at 11:10 AM

Rankings Report: Debating the new number one prospect

Since July 20, 2012, the SoxProspects.com top prospect has stayed the same, and there was no debate necessary. With the graduation of Xander Bogaerts on Friday, however, that has changed and there was interesting discussion among the site’s management about who should be the new top prospect. Below is inside-look at that debate which included Editor-in-Chief Mike Andrews, Executive Editor Chris Hatfield, Managing Editor Matt Huegel, and Director of Scouting Ian Cundall. The four main candidates considered for the top spot were: Henry Owens, Mookie Betts, Garin Cecchini, and Blake Swihart.

Mike Andrews – Editor-in-Chief
While contemplating it for a good while, I chose Betts (pictured, right) over Owens because of Betts’ ridiculous consistency for the past 13 months, in four different leagues, all playing above his age level. I’ve also seen him quite a few times in that stretch, whether live or on MiLB.tv. It's already been established that he has a great plate approach and plays plus defense, and beyond the scouting the stats speak for themselves on offense. He really barrels up on the ball and laces it to the gaps. Betts has also been pesky on the basepaths over and above just stealing a lot of bases -- he's reminiscent of Jacoby Ellsbury in that vein.

While I also see big things for Owens, his command and control have been too inconsistent. I do think he’ll add some velocity and I love his secondary stuff, but without some refinement around the edges, the whole package will not fool advanced hitters as much once there is a book on him. That said, I see the possibility for that refinement and I still see Owens as a potential #2 or #3.

I think Swihart was in the running for top prospect as well. He keeps showing that he can withstand the rigors of catching every day without any outwardly visible ill effects. He's started all but six of Portland's games thus far, and the pitching staff has taken well to him. He's also raking at the plate, and I wouldn't worry about the lack of walks to this point. He could easily move up to the top spot in the not-so-distant future, making the first time there has been a multi-player battle at the top in quite some time.

Chris Hatfield – Executive Editor
I see it as a four-horse race between Betts, Cecchini, Owens, and Swihart. I hate to make calls like this based on one month of data, so I’ll begin by looking back. Entering the season, I had Owens-Cecchini-Swihart ranked at 3-4-5 behind Bogaerts and Bradley, with Betts at 8 behind Matt Barnes and Allen Webster.

Despite starting with that handicap, I am fully comfortable ranking Mookie Betts as the top prospect in the system right now. It mostly has to do with the questions each of these four prospects had entering the year, and how they’ve answered them:

Betts: Was his 2013 season a mirage? Would the power hold up?
Swihart: Can he hit for power and continue to improve as a receiver?
Cecchini: Can he hit for power, and can he play a major league third base?
Owens: Will the fastball play up? Can he improve his command? Will his secondary arsenal work at higher levels?

So far, Betts has answered his lingering questions most positively, and with authority at that. There is literally no part of his offensive game that is lacking right now. Swihart has had an excellent start to the year, and has already matched his 2013 home run total after escaping the power-sapping Carolina League. However, he continues to be weaker from the left side of the plate, an admittedly super-nitpicky criticism although it dates back to 2013, and his numbers just can't match Betts’. Owens’ first two starts were outstanding, but he has come back to earth in his last three starts, allowing 19 hits in 16 innings and a .302/.397/.571 line against. This suggests further issues commanding his fastball in the zone. Cecchini is hitting for average and is getting on base, which is his game, but he's still not hitting for power, sporting the dreaded “lower-slugging-than-on-base-percentage” slash line, and his defense at third has been merely passable.

For me it is more that Betts has come out and seized the top spot than that the others have fallen behind. He has not necessarily separated himself, but rather joined these four on one “tier” within the system, and nudged ahead within that tier. But that said, this is far from the sealed deal it has been since Bogaerts took over the top spot on July 20, 2012. Although we are typically methodical in switching out who is number one, for me, this could be a question that remains unsettled for most of the summer. For instance, if Betts hits a prolonged slump, and Owens has a stretch of dominance, it would be tough for me to say that the former should clearly be ranked higher. Same if Cecchini or Swihart go on a home run spree in such a situation.

In other words… stay tuned.

Matt Huegel – Managing Editor
For me it came down to Betts and Owens for the top spot, with Cecchini in the mix as well but slightly behind those two. In the offseason, I kept saying I wanted to wait before putting Betts too high to see if he could come close to repeating the results he had in A Ball once he made the difficult transition to Double-A. Through a month in Portland, not only has he repeated the results, but exceeded them. He has the tools to back up those results as well with no glaring weaknesses to his game. The only real negative is he is blocked at second base, but he has the athleticism to handle other positions so I'm not too worried about it. Compared to Owens, I dont see the tools as matching the results in the same way as Betts. I think that he will be a very good major league pitcher, but not likely a star. He will not be able to overcome poor fastball command by blowing it by hitters, so improving there will be key to his development. Overall, I see star-potential with Betts whereas I see more of a mid-rotation starter with Owens.

I also gave consideration to Cecchini (pictured, left), with the longer track record and having had success at every level now in the minors. I was high on Cecchini coming into the season, and I still think he's going to be a very good hitter in the majors, but I dont quite see the kind of upside I thought was possibly there earlier anymore. I thought his defense at third would be more improved than I've seen so far. Granted, it's a small sample size, but I've seen several plays this year where he just didnt look smooth, including unnecessarily rushing throws twice in one game allowing baserunners to take extra bases. The power numbers also have not progressed as many hoped they would so far this season. I think we're getting to the point where we know what they have with him, and thats a great pure hitter with top-notch baseball instincts who will likely be a starter in the majors, but who also has some weaknesses in other parts of his game.

Swihart has to be in the mix as well, but for me I still want to see more. I don't have a great feel for him yet, so I just want to see him continue to put up consistent numbers offensively in Double-A and show he can handle a more mature pitching staff day-in and day-out before I'd be willing to put him in the top spot. Catchers can be trickier to evaluate and take longer to develop, so I want to see him continue to refine the finer aspects of his defensive and leadership skills. I agree with others that he is one of the highest upside players in the system, and could easily be in the top spot before year's end.

Ian Cundall – Director of Scouting
For me it’s a two-horse race between Betts and Swihart, with Owens and Cecchini a tick behind. The fact that there are even four guys in the discussion shows the high-end depth the system has. At this point I’d go with Betts, but it wouldn’t surprise me if by the end of the year Swihart has the top spot.

Betts is an interesting case because when he was back in Lowell, I liked what I saw from him. In particular, he looked a lot more comfortable at the plate once he moved from shortstop to second base. Already in his first season, he showed off an advanced approach, excellent athleticism, and quick hands, but I had major questions about his size and how limiting it would be, especially in terms of his potential power projection. Jumping forward to today, he’s gone a long way to alleviate those concerns and exceeded even the biggest optimist’s expectations. The thing that stood out for me recently with him is how comfortable he looked in the box against advanced Double-A pitching so early into the season. I expected some sort of adjustment period would be necessary, but since he’s been in Portland, all he’s done is hit and hit the ball hard. He’s extremely loose at the plate, has plus bat speed, a mature approach, and a knack for hard contact to all fields.

His all fields approach really stood out in a recent game versus Binghamton (New York Mets Double-A) when Betts twice hit hard line drives to right side of second base for a double and a single. The double really stuck with me as in the previous at-bat Betts had struck out swinging on a 3-2 slider down and away. This time, with the count 2-2, Betts got that same slider. He recognized it early, stayed back on it this time and kept his hands back before lining it to right-center. It’s the little things like that with adjustments from at-bat to at-bat that can make the difference, especially against quality pitching.

Swihart has a slight edge for the two-spot for me over Owens (pictured, right). I like what I’ve seen out of Swihart this year both during spring training and up in Portland. He’s physically matured and continues to improve both at the plate and defensively. His upside as a potential dual-threat offensive catcher gives him the nod over Owens, who remains a bit of an enigma for me. Every time I’ve seen Owens his velocity has been in the high-80s and he’s topped out at 91 mph, but at the same time you can really see the deception in his delivery with the way he hides the ball. I know that he’s sat higher in other starts, but I haven’t seen it, and it’s clearly not something he can consistently do. Furthermore, he still has a ways to go with his fastball command, which is one of the most important attributes for a pitcher. For example, in the start I saw this year his command was off and he had little feel for his curveball. When his command is off and he’s leaving his fastball up like he was in this game, he is very hittable as he doesn’t have the velocity to get away with mistakes. Still though, he showed flashes and his changeup showed plus-to-better, eliciting some brutal swings. I’m not convinced, however, he profiles as anything more than a mid-rotation starter, which should not be taken as a knock on him, as mid-rotation left-handed starter is extremely valuable. I just don’t see him having the upside that some people have suggested and what his numbers seem to show. Thus, with both Betts and Swihart having first-division ceilings at up the middle positions, they get the nod for me.

Photo credit: Mookie Betts, Garin Cecchini, and Henry Owens by Kelly O'Connor

Ian Cundall is Director of Scouting for SoxProspects.com. Follow him on Twitter @IanCundall.