Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Talking Astros Prospects with John Manuel of Baseball America

Last week I caught up with John Manuel of Baseball America by phone to talk about the recently released Baseball America 2013 Prospect Handbook. Our conversation was wide-ranging as he helped me fill in the holes in my knowledge of several players, prospects and non-prospects alike. But there were four players who were the focus of much of our conversation.

Earlier this month, I posted a consensus Astros top prospect list which averaged rankings from Baseball America, Baseball Prospectus, FanGraphs, Jonathan Mayo of MLB.com and John Sickels of Minor League Ball (SBNation). One thing that stood out from that list was the complete agreement on eight of the top ten prospects:

SS Carlos Correa
1B Jonathan Singleton
OF George Springer
RHP Lance McCullers
RHP Mike Foltynewicz
2B Delino DeShields
RHP Jarred Cosart
3B Rio Ruiz

All five sources ranked these eight individuals in their Top 10 list without exception. After that the lists started to diverge. And not surprisingly, that divergence proved to be the focus of my discussion with Manuel. The next four prospects as ranked by Baseball America were:

RHP Nick Tropeano
SS Nolan Fontana
OF Domingo Santana
SS Jonathan Villar

We embarked on our discussion of these four players when I commented on his projected 2016 line-up. He showed Tropeano as the fifth starter and I remarked that a rotation with Tropeano as the fifth starter would be a very strong rotation in my opinion. Manuel isn't sold on Tropeano's breaking ball, but admits that he's a sucker for Trope, "I probably shouldn't be as high on him as I am, but the change-up, the body, the increased velocity ... he's got a little moxie. Tropeano has a starter's mentality, a starter's makeup."

Nick Tropeano - Lancaster August 2012
Photo by Jayne Hansen

Manuel admitted that one could have ranked Tropeano, Fontana, Santana and Villar in any order, but ultimately it came down to ranking the lower risk players (Tropeano and Fontana) over the higher ceiling players (Santana and Villar), "That Top 12 is a very stout Top 12, but the guys at nine and ten - Tropeano and Fontana - are much safer bets than the guys at 11 and 12 so that's why they made the Top 10."

Fontana was the hardest of the four for Manuel to grade and slot into the rankings, but ultimately Manuel noted, "I happen to think that Nolan Fontana will be the safest college player in the draft. I have zero doubt that he'll be a big league player. I should probably have some doubt because he only hit .225 but the .464 on-base mattered a lot more. Sure hands, all those kind of things."

Of Santana, Manuel says, "My biggest question is his feel for hitting and his athleticism." He is somewhat concerned about Santana's strikeout rate and wonders if playing in hitter-friendly Lancaster has skewed his numbers, but admits that Santana's ceiling is high. "He looks the way you want a right-fielder to look. If he had grown up in the U.S., he'd probably be an outside linebacker or a defensive lineman or maybe an offensive lineman because he's mammoth." But what it may very well come down to, according to Manuel, is whether or not Santana proves to have the athleticism as a right-handed hitter "to see right-handed breaking balls and respond to them and lay off of them or hit them."

We also discussed Jonathan Villar at length, mainly because of my personal concerns about Villar based on his level of development thus far. Manuel certainly understood my skepticism, "You'd like to see him be adding a little more polish considering his experience level now. I think the reason we're skeptical is there's a lot of swing and miss there. He hasn't really toned that down too much. His strikeout rate was a little bit better last year in terms of Double A than it was the first year."

But Manuel also knows that it depends greatly to whom you talk about Villar, "Some of the guys who saw him right before he got hurt thought he was turning the corner, thought he was making more consistent contact and [were] liking his swing better. The reason I dropped him from four [in 2012] to 12 [this year] was my increased skepticism in the bat." Manuel knows that the Astros front office would disagree. There is "no question" that the Astros consider Villar a Top 10 prospect.

Manuel went on to say, "The tools are pretty outstanding in every other way. He can help a team without being even an average offensive player. He has better defensive tools than anyone else on the 40-man roster who's an infielder. Better quickness, quick feet, arm strength, range to both sides." His defense can be erratic due to his tendency to speed up the game too much, but Manuel doesn't seem too concerned with that aspect of Villar's game.

When all is said and done, it is encouraging that the Astros system depth has grown to the point that experts are having trouble squeezing all of the talented lower risk and higher ceiling prospects into the Top 10. That is a problem that I can live with. I would encourage anyone interested in minor league prospects to buy a copy of the Baseball America 2013 Prospect Handbook which includes organization overviews and rankings, as well as the Top 30 prospects for each organization, complete with scouting reports.

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