While Wednesday after the MLB All-Star game is traditionally considered the slowest day in sports, the Triple-A All Star game is becoming must-see-TV for Dodgers fans. If you tuned in last season, you got a taste of Joc Pederson months ahead of taking the league by storm. This year, a trio of Dodger bats take center stage in Omaha, highlighted by Corey Seager, and all three might shape the Los Angeles Dodgers' post-season bid in one way or another. Using Baseball Prospectus' PECOTA forecasts and my own observations of the players, we can take a look at what we might expect from these guys in the second half and just how they may contribute to the big league club in the near future.
A surprising omission (by design it seems) from the Future's Game, Corey Seager has been generating the most press of any Dodger prospect this season, with many calling for him to receive a second half call-up to replace Jimmy Rollins.
Before looking at what he could do for the Dodgers, let's look at what he is doing right now. Corey Seager's approach at the plate is one of controlled aggression. He uses his large frame to create excellent extension and will take a violent hack at any pitch in the zone. Despite the swing length and violence, Seager has been tough to strike out throughout his minor league career, and has exceptional pitch recognition. He will still need to develop some pitch selection, as contact comes easy for Seager and he will offer at pitcher's pitches early in the count when he should wait for a better pitch to drive.
Seager's power comes more from his line drive stroke than it does from raw power and tremendous loft, ala Joc Pederson. He's still capable of 20+ home runs across a full season, with 30+ home run seasons capable in his near future. Seager has the potential to be a highly productive second or third hole hitter at the major league level, with plus to plus plus hit tool and plus power potential.
Defensively, Seager can make the routine play from short, and can also extend his range behind the strength and accuracy of his arm. Seager's hands are quiet and soft, but his footwork is a little atypical at the position and largely is a result of his large frame. We only have Baseball Prospectus's Fielding Runs Above Average statistic to quantify his minor league defense, where his 2015 combined number of -1 puts him in the lower spectrum of the "Average" category. (For argument's sake, I prefer the defensive measurements that can be found on Fangraphs that are zone based. FRAA considers Joc Pederson a below average centerfielder, while Defensive Runs Saved and Ultimate Zone Rating see him as above average.)
While Seager is rightfully, in my opinion, atop the prospect hierarchy, it's still debatable as to just how much Seager can be an improvement over Jimmy Rollins right now. Rollins has underperformed just about every projection for his 2015 season, and though that might typically signal a rebound, it's also entirely possible that the 36 year old shortstop is continuing his age decline. PECOTA suggests a median forecast of .237/.300/.364 with slightly below average defense for Rollins' second half.
That's not a terribly high bar for Seager to reach to represent an improvement in the lineup and on the field for the Dodgers. We'll assume that defensively it would be a push and that Seager likely wouldn't be an improvement on Rollins at short. Offensively, PECOTA forecasts a median second half of .240/.280/.398 in the majors for Seager, essentially a wash in all categories, save for maybe power. Those numbers tend to belie Seager's prodigious tools, and an optimist might suggest Seager is more likely to reach his 70th percentile projection of .258/.300/.429 in the second half, which creates a larger gap on Rollins in power.
Is that enough to make a move with the veteran Rollins? How much value should we place on Rollins' character in the clubhouse? I think there's enough of an intangible gap to place Seager in "Break Glass in Case of Emergency" mode, not entirely expecting him to see big league time this year, but not ruling it out should Rollins continue to struggle or get injured. Seager has taken time to adjust to every level he reaches, and the last thing the Dodgers need is their top prospect struggling to find his footing at the major league level in a pennant run. There's always the chance that Seager's natural ability could take over at the big league level and he continues to hit at his minor league rates, but there's enough caution here to preach patience on an eventual call up.
Barnes has already had a brief taste of big league life and is arguably the most big league ready prospect in the Los Angeles' system. The problem for Barnes hasn't been any of his doing, but more the players ahead of him on the big league roster. Yasmani Grandal has put injury issues behind him to become an elite catcher (when you factor in both WAR and pitch framing statistics, I'd put him second behind Buster Posey in all of baseball), while A.J. Ellis caddies the best pitcher in baseball, and has seen a recovery in both his pop and pitch framing numbers to continue to tread water as a capable backup.
Barnes, like Seager, gets away with a long swing thanks to superb pitch recognition. He walks more than he strikes out and knows what pitches he can drive, with his power coming primarily to his pull side. As mentioned, Austin Barnes takes a pretty healthy cut for a 5'10 190 lbs. player. His swing produces more loft and backspin than his frame would suggest he's capable of, and he gets the most production he can out of his tools.
Defensively, I came away awfully impressed watching Barnes catch. He has a low crouch, quiet set-up and natural hands. He has caught on quickly to the nuances of framing and should be above average in that department at the big league level. Barnes' arm strength is average but his release is quick and his accuracy is above average. Barnes runs better than average for a catcher, but is more quick than fast.
Because he's relatively new to catching, there's not a rush to get Barnes to the majors, where playing time would be limited. Similar to Seager-Rollins, Barnes' PECOTA forecast doesn't show a tremendous advantage to replacing Ellis as the number two catcher on the roster, though I feel his tools might also outproduce his median projection.
Perhaps the best plan of action with Barnes would be to call him up just before September to caddy alongside Ellis, allowing Don Mattingly to play the hotter hand down the stretch and perhaps in the playoffs. The Dodgers have thus far shown an unwillingness to mess with pitcher-catcher chemistry, which will give Ellis the leg up down the stretch, however, Barnes should be the preferred option in 2016 and beyond. Barnes upside to the Dodgers is as an upper tier number two catcher, though his skills suggest he could become a starter on a team that doesn't also employ Yasmani Grandal.
Sweeney looked far from All-Star quality for the first two months of the season, but since June he's arguably been the hottest hitter in the Dodgers' system. Also notable over that recent span is that he's spent roughly two-thirds of that time in the outfield. While Sweeney is listed on the All-Star roster as an infielder, it's in the outfield where he might hold the most value for Los Angeles in the future.
Sweeney's offensive profile remains fairly unchanged from past seasons. While he is striking out more and walking less than last season, the numbers aren't outside the norm of his minor league career. Similar to Barnes, Sweeney gets the most out of his frame to produce average power from either second base or centerfield. His follow through can be long and slow Sweeney out of the box, taking away from his plus speed.
While I haven't seen Sweeney play the outfield, his defensive game is built on his athleticism over technique. As a second baseman, Sweeney's quickness gave him range, but his hands are a little stiff and his throwing can be erratic. The outfield should allow Sweeney to take full advantage of his speed.
Sweeney still switch hits and doesn't necessarily show a platoon split, but his spray chart shows a surprising amount of soft contact toward the right side of the infield while batting right-handed. I'd like to examine more at bats to see if Sweeney has been pulling off the ball from the right side to produce the weak contact, which would explain the lower average from the right side .
Sweeney's immediate path to the big leagues still looks blocked, though his move to the outfield improves his outlook some. Projection systems are still unkind to his potential, and he doesn't have enough power to accept a high strikeout total at the next level.
I still believe Sweeney's greatest value to the Dodgers is as a trade chip, where his proximity to the big leagues might make him appealing to a team hoping for immediate return after dealing away big league talent. Sweeney might require more time to find his footing at the big league level, but if a team will be patient with him, he has the chance to start in centerfield as a switch hitter with great speed and average power.
Time: 5 p.m. PT
TV: MLB Network