Ariel Sandoval is arguably the biggest wild card and might draw the most eyebrow raises in this year’s Dodgers prospect countdown. Only four other players can match or exceed his ceiling grade in the top 20, yet he also earned the lowest floor score of the same group of prospects. I will try to convince you that I’m not being controversial, and that Sandoval is a live-bodied athlete that could be a significant contributor to both sides of the ball if everything clicks.
Sandoval followed up a strong Arizona League season in 2015 with an impressive power display during the harsher months of the Midwest League. While his struggles in a call up to the California League showed just how far he still is from the major leagues, he nonetheless offers a tantalizing set of tools.
The first thing that stands out to me in watching Sandoval is his twitchy athleticism and build. Sandoval is a listed 6’2 and 180 lbs. with an impressive frame and room to fill out. He moves freely and has a looseness to his actions that suggest plus body control and overall athleticism. Sandoval is a good runner and should have the range to play any outfield position, though he could slow some as his lower half fills out.
Sandoval has a loud and unconventional set up at the plate, pointing his leading elbow high toward the mound before settling into his load. Ariel’s bat speed is quite impressive and despite his strikeout totals, he shows signs of solid bat-to-ball skills. While his hit tool is suppressed by his swing at everything approach, he has the looseness in his swing to cover the entire plate and make up for guessing wrong on breaking balls.
To tap into his hit tool, Sandoval will have to make significant gains in pitch selection and plate approach. Sandoval is a free swinger and will both chase pitches out of the zone and offer early at pitcher’s pitches in the zone. The physical tools and swing are sound, and Sandoval is the type of athlete that should be able to make the physical adjustments needed. Whether he can or is capable of improving his batting eye will be the difference in a fringe hit tool and an above average one.
Improvements there would also bring improvements to his already plus power. Sandoval’s whip like swing, strength, and bat speed are all conducive to power and he can produce impressive home run displays. His power production plays heavily to his pull side, but Sandoval’s raw power plays to all fields. He has the upside of a 25- to 30-home-run hitter at the big league level.
Sandoval also has the tools to be a plus outfielder, though his reads appear to be raw in the present. Sandoval has spent time at all three outfield positions and has the speed to handle center field as well as the plus arm to handle right field. As he matures physically, I expect him to settle into right field. Though he has not been an effective base stealer in the minors, Sandoval has the speed to steal 15 to 20 annually as a pro.
From contact to outfield play to base running, so much of Sandoval’s game is still raw and he’s largely getting by on the back of his loud tools. It would be an easier case to make for Sandoval if he were younger, but Sandoval needed two years to clear the Arizona League and has some late bloomer tendencies. He will still be just 21 for his return season to the California League, but he will need to take full advantage of the offensive environment to keep his high ceiling grade.
Whether Sandoval ranks this high next year or falls all the way out of the top 30 rests on the adjustments he makes to the better talent he faces in High-A. He has the physical upside and raw tools of a top-15 talent, but he has to begin refining his raw game this year or his shortcomings in instincts might look too glaring to overcome.
This ranking could very well turn out to look far too optimistic by year’s end, but I remain far too impressed right now with Sandoval’s athleticism to lower his ceiling grade. He has some physical similarities to a more mature Carlos Gomez (younger Gomez had elite speed and stolen base production) and right handed power is highly sought after in today’s game. Whether this ranking looks prescient or foolish will come down to how much improvement in baseball acumen Sandoval can make from the end of last season to next fall.