Four of the top five will likely end up playing a different position, if they aren't already at the start of the season, and several could end up in a different uniform in the next three years, but for now they are all shortstops, and for now they make up the best collection of shortstop prospects in the minors. The tough part for the staff at FutureBacks was not 'who is the best' but instead, 'where do we put them.' At least two of the five could have been the top prospect at a different position, and another could have been #2 at virtually any position. This is where they are now, and this is how they rank.
#1) Stephen Drew
Long holdout. Incredible contract demands. Scott Boras. For more than a year after the Diamondbacks selected Drew with the 15th overall pick in the 2004 first year player draft these were the buzz words around the younger brother of J.D. and Tim. Amid all the speculation and aggravation of getting Drew signed and into the system, somehow the pure talent of the youngest of the three Drew's to be selected in the first round (never before had three brothers all been first round picks) got lost.
Now, just seven months later, the buzz around Stephen Drew is so loud that the Diamondbacks were perfectly comfortable trading away Alex Cintron, even after it was revealed that the opening day shortstop, Craig Counsell, had a labrum tear in his throwing shoulder. It certainly did not take long for Drew to show that he was worth the wait, and the money. During his holdout Drew spent about a month with the A level Camden Riversharks of the Independent League, and hit a whopping .427 with four homers and 18 RBI in 19 games, but that was A ball, and there was still speculation that perhaps this Drew might not live up to the hype.
But once he was signed and moved into the Hi-A Lancaster JetHawks clubhouse, all that went out the window. In 38 games Drew hit .389 with 10 homers and 39 RBI, and though his first taste of Double-A ball was a bust (just .218 in 27 games) he was nursing a hamstring injury. He came to the Arizona Fall League healthy and proved that he could hit higher level pitching (.337 with 17 extra base hits and 17 RBI in 23 games) but more importantly he proved that the questions about his defense were blown way out of proportion.
"He made ever routine play, and got to a lot of balls that the reports were saying he couldn't get to," said a scout who watched every game Drew played in during the AFL, "His arm was strong and accurate, he looked steady, he'll have to work on his turn during the double-play, but what first year player doesn't need to work on that?"
Better yet, Drew has come to spring training ready to go, and dominated in a way that made D'Backs GM Josh Byrnes comfortable enough to trade Alex Cintron. His defense has remained steady, and his bat has remained red hot, with a .379 average, and even improvement in the one area where he might not have been top notch last year. In his three minor league stops Drew had struck out 67 times in 332 at bats in 2005, and then in the AFL he K'd 20 times in 89 at bats. This spring, just four strikeouts in 29 at bats shows that he's being more selective, and making better contact.
"He could be our starting shortstop, no problem," said a Diamondbacks player, "but he also knows that its Craig Counsell's job if he's healthy, and he's fine with that as well."
So, just to recap. The negatives (arrogant, unwilling to work on defense, strikes out too much) have all been thrown by the wayside, and the positives (he might be the most complete player likely to start the season in the minors) keep getting better. If Counsell's shoulder isn't 100%, Drew will get the call. If the Diamondbacks are out of it, Drew will get the call, and in 2007, Drew will be the D'Backs starting shortstop.
#2 Justin Upton.
Now things start to get a little crazy. Justin Upton was the #1 overall pick in the 2005 first year player draft. He, like Drew, is a true five tool player. He is also a shortstop. Since Upton was selected, both players have endured rumors about how they will not be shortstops at the Major League level. Drew turned 23 last week, Upton will turn 19 in August. Both players have the tools to play short, but both players have the speed to play any outfield position, the arm strength to play third base, and the range to play second.
So why is Drew ranked ahead of Upton? Because in less than a full year of pro ball, Drew has become a known quantity. He has handled the bright lights, big breaking curveballs, and travel schedule that come with pro baseball. Here's a secret though.
Justin Upton just might be better than Stephen Drew.
Upton has been called the best high school prospect since Ken Griffey Jr. He has been called the best raw talent ever in a Major League draft. While Drew has handled the spotlight of pro ball, Upton has had scouts and General Managers watching him since he was 14, and has been the 'next big thing' for three full years. The Diamondbacks have elected to start Upton in the Lo-A Midwest League, and if you're in the South Bend area, we at FutureBacks recommend getting tickets early in the season, because we do not expect him to be there long.
Why? Well, in limited action with the big league club this spring, all Upton has done is .500 with a slugging percentage of .857.
I'll allow a moment to digest.
Yes, those numbers come in just 14 at bats, and yes most of those at bats came against fringe Major Leaguers or outright minor leaguers. But did we mention he's only 18 years old? Because of Drew, and a slew of other minor league talent, the Diamondbacks have the ability to take Upton's development slowly, but try as they might, it seems unlikely Upton will be a minor leaguer for more than three years. He would like to remain at shortstop, but has stated publicly that he'll play where he's asked to play. The Diamondbacks know what they have, and they know that rushing the youngster makes no sense. Expect Upton to start in Lo-A, and to mash. Expect a promotion to Hi-A Lancaster by midseason, at the latest. Expect a cameo at Chase Field in September of 2007, and expect the experimentation to begin in 2008.
Assuming Drew continues to produce, both offensively and defensively, at shortstop, Upton will likely be asked to play in a different area of the diamond. With Chad Tracy firmly entrenched at third, and rising stars Carlos Gonzales, Chris Young and Carlos Quentin manning the outfield, look for Upton to start logging time at second base regularly in 2008. Some might say that putting Upton at second would be wasting his cannon arm (in high school he would occasionally pitch, and hit 94mph on the radar gun) but the first time he goes up the middle to backhand a ball, jump, turn, and throw in one motion and get his man by four steps those qualms will be put to rest.
For now though he's a shortstop, and a big time player. Much can happen in the two or three years it will take Upton to become a Major Leaguer, trades, injuries and ineffectiveness could alter this scenario in an instant, but one thing is for sure. Justin Upton is going to be a star in the big leagues.
In 2003 and 2004 Alberto Gonzalez, just 20 and 21 at the time, was a super slick fielding shortstop who looked like a stick figure and wasn't hitting. He had a future in the organization, as a utility infielder if nothing else. Entering 2005 Gonzalez was aware that the Diamondbacks had selected Drew, and it was becoming apparent that they would select Upton with the first overall pick. Apparently that, and the 15 pounds of muscle Gonzalez added in the offseason, were enough to convince the youngster that the time to hit was now.
His '05 stats were impressive, but even more so when compared with past performance. His .318 batting average in 2005 is nice, but the 80 points he raised it from '04 was what really opened eyes. That and his 35+ game errors streak at shortstop to open the '05 season.
"He makes every single play, he looks like Omar Vizquel, he's really as polished as that," one scout said.
Gonzalez will need to continue to hit to find a place on a Major League roster, and his first test will come this season as he will likely start the year in Hi-A Lancaster after two straight years in South Bend. Maybe Gonzalez's biggest challenge will be staying ahead of Upton on the organizational ladder, but his incredible defense could also be just what the doctor ordered for Upton. If the Diamondbacks elect to promote Upton this season it might make sense to move him to second base right away, allowing him time to develop with a shortstop who can go deep in the hole at third and also cover enough ground that Upton not be worried about cheating up the middle.
Clearly, with Drew and Upton, Gonzalez has an up hill battle to reach the big leagues as a starter, but he's already played some second base, and he has more than enough arm to play third, so his future might be that of a super sub on the lines of a Andy Green. Defense can be taught, but not this kind of defense, he is instinctive, seeming to always be positioned correctly, be moving to wear the ball will be hit, rather than wear it has been hit. That is a valuable commodity for any organization, and since he will turn 23 during the season, this could be a breakout year.
Drew is scheduled to start in Triple-A, with Upton behind Gonzalez in South Bend. Double-A Tennessee has shortstops, but there could be a spot there if he continues to make solid contact, and if he comes to camp with more muscle (he's listed at just 160 pounds, and even though most believe he's now closer to 175, he still has plenty of room on his 5'11" frame for another 10-15 pounds of power generating mass). It will be an important year for Gonzalez, but one that could solidify his future, either here or with another organization.
#4 Andy Green
"He hasn't put on the gear yet, but I'm pretty sure he would catch if we asked him to, and I'm pretty sure he'd be pretty good back there."
That's Triple-A Tucson Manager Chip Hale talking about Andy Green. Why? Because in 2005 with Tucson, Green played: center field, left field, third base, shortstop, and second base. He could play right, though his arm is probably not strong enough to play there everyday. He could play first base, but why waste his speed. And according to Hale he could catch. More to the point, according to Hale, he would catch, and that in and of itself is why Andy Green might be as valuable to the Diamondbacks as any player in the higher levels.
Green has toiled in pro baseball for a long time. Taken out of Kentucky in the 24th round of the 2000 first year player draft, Green has been too small since he started. He's generously listed at 5'9" tall, and some even contend that his 165lb listed weight might be over estimating, but one thing is for sure, Andy Green is a baseball player. He was drafted as a second baseman, and there is no question that his raw talent can not compare to any of the other four players on this list, but if you had eight Andy Green's starting for you, you would have a pretty competitive team.
Green has moved up through the organization by embracing challenge, and putting his body on the line. He is an above average runner, though not a pure blazer in the Marland Williams mold. He has a strong arm, but not the cannon of Carlos Quentin or Upton. He should not be making cameos in the big leagues, as he has done with the Diamondbacks in each of the last two seasons, but he is making cameos, and has the inside track on full time spot on the roster this season, because he works hard and has become a student of the game.
Want proof? Answer this question, who was the only player on the Triple-A Sidewinders last season to be in the top five on the team in seven different categories? That would be Green. His .347 batting average was second only to Conor Jackson, his 19 home runs and 80 RBI were second only to Carlos Quentin (and he did that hitting in the lead off spot for most of the season), his 46 doubles was tops, as was his 13 triples, and his 125 runs scored.
Andy Green gets the job done. Period. He will turn 29 this season, and calling him a prospect at this point in his career might be stretching the truth a bit, but he will be a contributor, and if Counsell's shoulder isn't at top shape, he will see a lot of time in late inning situations at shortstop, as well as time giving Counsell days off. But his biggest value to the Diamondbacks comes when you realize that there are only really three true 'bench' spots available. Eight everyday players, 12 pitchers, and a backup catcher take the first 21. Tony Clark is limited to first base, so that makes 22. Jeff DaVanon has claimed the backup center field job, so that's 23. Damion Easley will backup second and third, but at 36 his best years are behind him, and it seems unlikely that he would be able to play everyday if an injury dictated it.
Luis Gonzalez is coming off surgery, Counsell has the shoulder, Eric Byrnes has yet to match his tremendous rookie season, and Shawn Green is going to get days off. Andy Green's versatility, experience, and knowledge of the game give Manager Bob Melvin an incredible amount of flexibility, a must with the 25 man roster.
#5 Danny Richar
If Danny Richar could consistently make contact, he might be in the big leagues right now. He has power, speed, a strong arm and a passion for the game. Unfortunately Danny Richar stuck out one out of every four at bats before 2005. He had fallen off the top prospects list coming into the '05 season, but a funny thing happened on the way to 'What Ever Happened to' status.
Danny Richar settled down. Last season Richar had his best year as a pro. He has spent at least parts of every one of his five pro seasons in Lancaster, and last year was Richar's best. He shortened his swing, moved to second base full time after Drew signed, and things have started to come together.
"I think Drew's influence really helped him," said a player who spent last year with Richar in Lancaster, "he saw how Drew approached the game, how professional he was, and I think he took notice."
The stats seem to bear this out. After coming out of the box hot and hitting .311 in April, Richar slumped badly in May amid all the talk that he would lose his starting spot to Drew once the phenom signed. Richar did lose his shortstop job, but rather than benching him Lancaster Manager Bill Plummer moved Richar over to second, where the shorter throws drastically decreased Richar's errors, and the combination of less defensive pressure, Drew, and experience got Richar going in a big way. He hit .303 in June and .327 in July before getting homer happy in August and dropping to .274.
Richar is slotted to start the season back at shortstop in Double-A Tennessee, and the Diamondbacks would like to see him establish himself there, though a position change down the line is not out of the realm of possibility. Richar's work ethic and progression seem to have finally caught up with his raw tools, and in his second go-round at Double-A (he hit just .207 in 26 games at Double-A El Paso in 2004 before being moved back down to Lancaster) Richar seems ready to break out and re-establish himself as a prospect to watch if he can continue to make contact and improve on his footwork, something that Plummer and others in the organization have emphasized to him.
"He finally made that leap that a lot of people thought he'd make two years ago," a scout said, "and he could be a surprise this year. If he stays within himself good things will happen, because he might have as many tools as any infielder in the system outside of Drew and Upton."