Are You For Real? LaRoche, Pearce, Barton
Continuing last week's theme of September roster expansion, we will continue to examine some of baseball's best prospects, with an eye toward 2008 and beyond.
Labeled the Dodgers' "third baseman of the future" for seemingly forever, LaRoche has earned some starts in September, but a back injury and the return of Nomar Garciaparra has stamped out his short-term value. But can he be penciled into the 2008 lineup and produce?
Adam: Unreal. This unreal is more of a testament to the lack of faith I have in the Dodgers' management than LaRoche as a player. LaRoche has once again had a superb minor league season, putting together a .309/.399/.589 line in Triple-A at age 23, but he put up similar numbers at the same level a year earlier. He was widely considered major league-ready to begin this season, yet has seen few significant at-bats. That's because the Dodgers seem committed to playing veteran retreads such as Nomar Garciaparra and Shea Hillenbrand, and Garciaparra still has one year and $8.5 million left on his contract, with no-trade protection. (If this sounds familiar, it'd be for a good reason -- James Loney and Matt Kemp were treated the same way.) And there are other concerns about LaRoche as well. How much were his Triple-A numbers inflated from the high-octane hitting environment of the Pacific Coast League? Will he be able to stay healthy? I will remain tepid on LaRoche until the Dodgers show some commitment.
Will: For Real. Like the Twins and any Lou Piniella-managed team, the Dodgers don't trust anyone under age 30. Adam's point about players like Kemp and Loney is a good one; the club's philosophy just makes certain guys' transition to everyday-player status more gradual. It has been the same with LaRoche, who is one of the best hitting prospects in the game. But this guy is indeed major league-ready now and should have a great deal of value in 2008 even if he doesn't top 350 at-bats.
Pearce bopped 26 home runs last season but was a 23-year-old in Class A. With 20 combined home runs over Double- and Triple-A in just 412 at-bats, Pearce has made himself part of the Pirates' future and has started 11 games since being called up in early September. What's the outlook?
Adam: For Real. Pearce was just an eighth-round pick in 2005, and his advanced age relative to the minor league levels he was playing meant he didn't get much respect. But he has kept hitting everywhere he has been, and eventually you have to look past the concerns -- the size (5-foot-11, 209 pounds), age and lack of a defined position (Adam LaRoche mans first base in Pittsburgh for the foreseeable future) -- and view Pearce as a professional hitter. He has impressive power, but he also can hit for average, hitting .334 in Double-A and .320 in Triple-A this season. Ten of his 11 major league starts have come in right field, and with a new progressive-thinking Pirates management coming in, Pearce should be able to earn a major league starting job and become one of the more underrated prospects in the game.
Will: For Real. Pearce hit 40 doubles and 26 home runs last season at two different Class A levels, but didn't receive much attention because, as Adam points out, he was old for his leagues. Now that he's clubbed Double-A and Triple-A pitching for more than 400 at-bats this season and held his own in the majors, Pearce must be taken seriously. Given his solid power and contact ability, the Pirates will find a place for his bat. I'm not sure if I'd call him underrated anymore, but this guy definitely looks like a major league regular to me. He should have a place in Pittsburgh in 2008, and eventually either Xavier Nady or LaRoche will be moved to make room for him.
It seems like Barton has been a top prospect forever, first at catcher and now at first base. But he's only 22, and he just wrapped up his first full season at Triple-A. With Dan Johnson turning in a second straight disappointing season, Barton looks like the A's starting first baseman on Opening Day 2008. How much potential does Barton have?
Adam: Unreal. There are two types of elite prospects: (1) ones who are seen as big-league regulars but lack true All-Star upside; and (2) ones who have a wider variation of major league outcomes, from superstar to average major league to flameout. For better or worse, Barton is the former. Barton has netted double-digit home runs at a level just once in his minor league career, and he projects to hit only 15-20 home runs. Playing in Oakland doesn't help, either; the home park doesn't artificially boost batters' numbers, and the A's rarely have great offenses. That said, he's nearly guaranteed playing time -- the Daric Barton Era has officially begun. He has started each of the past five games -- and has years ahead of him to shed his light-hitting label.
Will: For Real. Barton's game lacks only power -- the rest of his offensive game has elite potential. He's a high-average hitter with a polished approach, doubles power and exceptional strike-zone judgment. Barton's minor league track record is very similar to that of Kevin Youkilis, except that Barton was younger than Youkilis at each level. Whether he develops into a 10-12 homer guy or a 15-20 home run guy is really the only question. Either way, he'll be a very productive major league regular, and the A's are the kind of organization who will appreciate the value of his career .414 on-base percentage. He'll be a successful major league regular for a long time, starting immediately.