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June 26, 2014

BP Top 50

Albert Almora vs. Stephen Piscotty

by Chris Mellen, Jeff Moore and Nick J. Faleris

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Links to Other BP Top 50 Debates

Tim Anderson vs. J.P. Crawford | Daniel Norris vs. Jose Berrios

The Rules
Rather than re-printing the BP Prospect Team Midseason Top 50 debates—much of which involves discussion of multiple players at the same time—we thought it would be interesting to call out some of the more interesting pairings among players in consideration for the #BPTop50 and allow an advocate for each to make his case for why that player should be ranked ahead of the other.

In each case, the BP Prospect Team member advocating on behalf of a prospect may or may not ultimately prefer that prospect, but in any event has agreed to argue that prospect’s case for purposes of this series. It’s a good reminder that the differences in value between players on these rankings is sometimes quite small, and in most cases a strong case can be made for ranking players in any number of combinations.

Nick Faleris serves as a quasi-moderator for the debate, introducing the players and leading a question-and-answer session to help tease out the arguments for and against each player.

Introducing Almora and Piscotty
Entering the 2014 season, Albert Almora (OF, Cubs) and Stephen Piscotty (OF, Cardinals) ranked 25th and 66th, respectively, on the Baseball Prospectus Top 101 Prospects list, with each ranking third on his respective team’s Top 10 Prospects lists (Cubs Top 10 Prospects here; Cardinals Top 10 Prospects here). The profiles are about as varied as you can get when comparing two outfielders, from offensive game, to age, to future position and projected defensive value. Still, the two find themselves in the same conversation revolving potential inclusion and placement on the Midseason BP Top 50 list.

After a largely successful 2013 campaign in the Midwest League, Almora was promoted to High-A Daytona to start 2014, and will play his 2014 season as one of the youngest players in the Florida State League (he turned 20 in April). The production has not quite met expectations, with the largest concerns surrounding his apparent lack of a structured approach at the plate. The walk rate has decreased significantly (from 6.3 percent to 2.5 percent), as has the slugging (from .462 to .340), though reports have the other aspects of Almora’s game—namely his advanced feel in center and on the bases—still showing impressive refinement.

While Almora has struggled some in this first half of play, Piscotty continues to rake his way through the minors, posting a .307/.368/.435 slash as of publishing, while maintaining a 7.1 percent walk rate that is right in line with his production last year at High-A Palm Beach and Double-A Springfield. Piscotty hasn’t seen the jump in power some evaluators had hoped for, but the overall production has been impressive, and at age 23 he is knocking on the door in St. Louis, waiting for an opportunity to present itself. –Nick J. Faleris

The Case for Albert Almora
When it comes to natural baseball skills, instincts, and a feel for the game, Albert Almora ranks as highly as anyone. The 20-year-old plays with that special look of ease that makes you jealous because in reality we know the game is so hard. Let’s talk about the hit tool. Almora possesses the innate bat-to-ball ability that produces the truest form of contact to all fields. I’m not stretching to say the potential is there for him to hit .300 in multiple seasons. While his secondary skills are still in the process of being shaped, they’re likely to catch up as the experience continues to build. Huge home run totals will not be the draw here, but good hitters who put the ball in play with backspin hit their fair share with age.

The separation from Stephen Piscotty really shows when weighing in the defense. Piscotty, a converted third baseman, is still refining his game in right field to get to an average level. The calling card is the bat, and if there is any slip or seasonal regression the overall impact takes a big hit. Almora already brings a plus glove to center field, and has room to get better. Sure, there’s some concern about losing a little speed, but his caliber of instincts and reads allow it to play up a notch. For me, Almora is the better prospect, and I’ll take the risk and lead time for a potential third place hitter in my lineup playing a premium position. —Chris Mellen

The Case for Stephen Piscotty
Piscotty might be the most under-the-radar player in consideration for the Midseason BP Top 50 list, primarily as a result of his existence in a fantastic Cardinals farm system that churns out hitters. If he were in a Oscar Taveras-less org, Piscotty would get the appropriate level of hype for a player with a legitimate 70 hit tool and enough power to handle right field, where his plus-plus arm can be showcased as well.

Albert Almora, is a fantastic prospect with loads of potential, but it is, at this point, nothing more than potential. Piscotty, on the other hand, has backed up scouts’ evaluations of his hit tool by hitting over .300 at the minors' highest level. The two players in question here fit different profiles, but they have similar ceilings even if they get there in different ways. Additionally, Piscotty's floor is significantly higher than Almora's, and he is almost certain to put together a productive major-league career in some capacity, something we can't say with any certainty about any 20-year-olds in the Florida State League.

With two players destined to offer roughly the same amount of value, how can we not select the player who is knocking on the door of the major leagues, a full two levels above his opponent? –Jeff Moore

NF: Let's begin with Mellen and Almora, who I think have the hard data working against them in this debate. Almora stood side-by-side with Carlos Correa (SS, Astros) and Byron Buxton (OF, Twins) as a teen putting up impressive numbers in full season ball last summer in the Midwest League. This year we've seen him exposed some in the Florida State League. Or is it more accurate to say we've seen his approach exposed some? His strikeouts increasing while the walks and power decreasing. Are we seeing bad luck (.269 BABIP) or an aggressive player who has yet to figure out how to go about taking professional at bats day in and day out?

CM: I agree that Almora has been exposed some in regards to his approach and knowledge of his own strike zone this season. That's not uncommon for a young developing hitter, and also not a bad thing. Just about everyone hits resistance in some shape or form. It’s part of the development process. And it’s happening earlier in the cycle where it leaves a lasting impression and is experience to draw on when things only get tougher up the chain, and beyond.

This is a kid that carries himself with confidence that crests into a certain level of swagger. I like it. It's an early learning experience that if you dive into the clues gathered on the player points to he's going to do something about. In addition to the raw talent, the drive to be successful burns strong, and that's what pushes the ability to consistently adjust.

NF: Moore, I think it's easy to look at Piscotty's numbers and feel confident he is going to be adding value at the major-league level sometime in the near future. But is proximity alone enough to push his value above Almora's? Almora is progressing about two years ahead of Piscotty, and is doing so with projection remaining in both the tool set and the body. The defensive comparison skews heavily to Almora, and while Piscotty can drive the gaps I don't know that we yet have firm evidence that the power ceiling is any better than Almora's. Does your argument rest mostly on the fact that Piscotty is closer to the bigs? Is that a convincing argument?

JM: It is when you pair it with a 70 hit tool that's a much surer thing than any of Almora's offensive tools. There is no argument about the defensive profile when compared to Almora, but despite getting their value in different ways, Piscotty is going to get his nonetheless.

When it comes to prospect rankings, we look at ceiling, but we also have to look at value to an organization. The Cardinals can make plans for their future based on Piscotty. Almora is nowhere close to allowing the Cubs to do the same. Success at the highest level is the closest assurance we have to future major-league success, and Piscotty is having that. If he were a marginal player, no, that wouldn't be a convincing enough argument. But we're talking about a potential career .300 hitter who is ready when called upon. That's a heck of a prospect resume.

NF: Sticking with Moore, 41 spots separated Almora (25th overall) and Piscotty (66th overall) on the preseason BP Top 101 prospect list. If Piscotty is the better prospect today, is this a case of us overrating Almora and/or underrating Piscotty entering the season, or has that much changed for these two over the last three months?

JM: I don't know that we overrated Almora, given his tools and what he had done last season, but I do think we underrated Piscotty. Our lists tend to gravitate towards young, toolsy, athletic players with loads of potential. Piscotty does not fit that mold. Our lists tend to lean towards players with a lot of growth left in their game. Piscotty does not fit that profile.

What Piscotty does do, however, is currently hit a baseball better than most prospects, including many of the players above him on our off-season list. That gap was too large, and in the time since, Piscotty has proven that his hit tool plays at the highest level while Almora has struggled in his next step. That's enough to close the gap and compare the two more directly, at which point I'll take the track record and certainty.

NF: Something that jumped out to me last year towards the end of the MWL season (and something Parks commented on during AFL play) is that Almora is getting stronger. It's a broad frame and he's hanging "good" mass on that frame. As of the end of last year the increased size was helping him to manifest power, and had yet to negatively impact his center field play, though he's always been more of an average foot speed guy. Two part question for Mellen: 1) Is the added size eventually going to slow him enough to force a move to a corner? 2) Is there enough power developing that a move to a corner wouldn't kill his value?

CM: There is always the chance that added size has a tangible impact on speed that it forces a move. It's also inevitable over the course of a career that a player slows down due to aging. Is Almora a burner? No, but he does run well in the grand scheme of things. Given the instincts and feel for the position, I don't see a reasonable increase in size forcing a move. Sure, if Almora explodes into a physical monster, that would push him, but is that what we foresee? I don't.

As far as the power if he were to move to a corner, I do think there would be pressure on the bat to perform at or at least close to plus levels. It would probably result in a cut in average and a mindset to sell out for power. It is something that can be achieved, but would obviously involve further evolution.

NF: Jeff, it seems like "probability" is carrying a large portion of your argument. At what level would Almora need to show success in order for his total profile (upside plus probability) to surpass that of Piscotty's?

JM: The biggest test along the developmental path has always been the transition to Double-A. That's where the pitchers can locate and use their breaking and off-speed pitches more effectively and attack hitters with more of a plan. You can't completely disregard everything that happens before that, but there is a major distinction between the upper (Triple and Double-A) and lower (High-A and below) minors and success at the former carries a significantly higher level of certainty than the latter.

If Almora was killing it in the Florida State League (a notorious pitcher's league), that might be enough to overtake Piscotty, but the two-level separation is big enough that I'd have to see something pretty impressive to overlook it, and it's just not happening right now.

It’s always fun to debate two talented prospects, but even more so when they hail from rival organizations like the Cardinals and Cubs.

I have always been a big fan of both Almora’s and Piscotty’s game, having seen a lot of them as amateurs and a fair amount of Almora during his first pro season in Low-A Kane County. The timing of the Midseason BP Top 50 list is interesting in that it catches Almora dealing with his first real minor-league struggles, while Piscotty seems to be building momentum toward an inevitable taste of major-league action this summer. I think Chris and Jeff did a great job highlighting the case each player has in ranking above the other, and found this to be one of the more interesting debates we had, considering the drastically different profiles.

As was the case yesterday, we will keep the convo going in the comments section and hope you will join in with questions and critiques of yourown. Who is the better prospect right now, Almora or Piscotty? Will the second half see a big jump in production for Almora, or are we seeing significant chinks in his offensive armor? How much of Piscotty’s 2014 production is a result of a hitter-friendly PCL, and will there even be room for him in St. Louis any time soon? Check in tomorrow for our next entry in the Midseason BP Top 50 Debate Series, and of course make sure you’re here when the list drops next week!

Chris Mellen is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Chris's other articles. You can contact Chris by clicking here
Nick J. Faleris is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Nick's other articles. You can contact Nick by clicking here

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