After publishing scouting reports and data on Major League Baseball’s top pitching prospects this winter, we’ve shifting our focus to the MLB’s top hitting prospects. We’ve established our rankings and posted in-depth scouting information on the MLB’s eight best position prospects, BaseballNewsHound.com’s Ryan Kelley rounds out the top ten by offering his analysis on two particularly exciting young stars, the Cubs’ Matt Szczur and the Royals’ Bubba Starling.
Below, we’ve posted in-depth reports on Szczur and Starling, who rank ninth and tenth respectively in our Top 121 Hitting Prospects for 2012 spreadsheet. Both of these hitters receive “A” grades, and are considered only slightly less valuable than those in tier-one (those graded “A+”). These prospects have star power, and they boast elite-level athletic ability and an enviable endowment of intangibles. The extra risk and development time tied to their stock pushes them just-below the first tier, however.
Top MLB Hitting Prospects for 2012: The Best of the Best (The Top 4 Prospects)
Top MLB Hitting Prospects for 2012 Part II: Semi-Automatic Stars (Prospects Ranked 5-8)
Top MLB Pitching Prospects Spreadsheet and Scouting Data
Top MLB Pitching Prospects for 2012 The Cream of the Crop (The Top 4 Pitching Prospects)
Top MLB Pitching Prospects for 2012: Part II (Pitching Prospects Ranked 5-8)
The term “five-tool player” definitely applies to Cubs prospect Matt Szczur, though it doesn’t do justice to the twenty-two-year-old centerfielder’s talent. Drafted out of Villanova in the fifth round of the 2010 MLB Draft, Szczur turned down a monster signing bonus and full commitment to the Cubs to honor the agreement he made to his college football team. He instead opted for $100,000 and the freedom to return to Villanova for his senior football campaign.
Bravely gambling with his body, and facing the risk of incurring a career-jeopardizing injury, Szczur put together an incredible final season with the Wildcats. In spite of the grueling work that Division-I football demands, he didn’t hold back on the baseball diamond. He formally began his Cubs career that summer with an impressive 25-game pro debut. After capping off his amateur career appropriately, Szczur returned and inked a $1.5 million bonus with the Cubs in January 2011, fully committing himself to Chicago Cubs baseball.
Szczur’s gifts span well beyond his athletic prowess. Sure, he plays the game the right way– with guts, sportsmanship and all-out effort all-the-time. But more importantly, he’s a true hero and a role model off of the field. Taking part in the National Marrow Donor program, Szczur went under the knife to donate peripheral blood cells to a nineteen-month-old leukemia patient in the Spring of 2010. Before Szczur’s donation, the baby girl faced a 1/80,000 chance of finding a blood type match. Szczur sacrificed his body to save the girl’s life. He recuperated from the surgery well, but was forced to sit-out 10 games of his senior baseball season in the process.
Athletically speaking, Szczur put together an inspiring career at Villanova. On the football field, he was considered one of the top NFL prospects in the country. After racking up 2,239 all-purpose yards in the 2009 regular season, earning nods as Consensus First-Team All-American and CAA Player of the Year in the process, Szczur led Villanova to a National Championship victory. Against number-one ranked Montana, his 159 rushing yards and 270 all-purpose yards garnered him the game’s Most Outstanding Player award. He followed with a solid junior season and finished his Wildcats football career with 5,234 all-purpose yards and numerous awards. His incredible athletic gifts lent him to extraordinary versatility, and he was the only player to tally passing, rushing, receiving and kick-return touchdowns in the same season.
Szczur’s college baseball career was nearly as impressive as his accomplishments on the Wildcats gridiron. After red-shirting as a freshman, he led the team in batting average (.346) and five other offensive categories as a sophomore. He followed with an even better 2010 campaign, posting a monster .443/.487/.667 triple-slash line and 38 RBI while playing nearly flawless defense in centerfield. His .443 batting average led the Big East Conference and ranked sixth in the entire nation. For his performance, he was tabbed First Team All-Big East among many other awards. Szczur managed all of these incredible feats despite missing almost a fourth of the season recovering from his bone marrow donation procedure.
While at Villanova, though he focused a lot of his energy on football, Szczur is an advanced prospect and has had no trouble adjusting to the rigors of pro ball. In 2011, his first full pro season, Szczur was honored as a Midwest League All-Star and even earned a spot at the prestigious All-Star Futures Game. After watching him post an .879 OPS in his debut, the Cubs decided to send Szczur to the Midwest League to begin 2011. With Peoria, he hit .314/.366/.431, stole seventeen bases in 22 attempts and posted an impressive 21/28 walk/strikeout ratio. Following the Futures Game he was promoted to the Florida State League. He held his own with the Daytona Cubs, though the grind of juggling pro baseball and Division-I Football seemingly wore him down.
Szczur is one of the most gifted athletes and one of professional baseball’s fastest runners. His pure running-speed rates as an easy “8″ on the 2-8 scale. Running for NFL scouts, he officially clocked a blazing 4.35 40-yard dash time, and he’s capable of 6.4-second 60-yard dash times. His Villanova football coach has stated on the record that Szczur is the fastest player he’d ever seen, and even compared him to former First Team All-Pro NFL running back Brian Westbrook.
Considering his experience level, Szczur uses his wheels on the basepaths very effectively. He’s a smart, efficient baserunner who’s managed a near 80% stolen-base success rate in his short pro career. He’s adept at using his legs to maximize his line-drive hitting skills. He racks up extra-base hits. Whenever the ball hits the gap, he’s a threat for an inside-the-park homerun. Built more like a jaguar than a gazelle, he has tremendous core, thigh and calf strength. He uses his powerful legs to generate tremendous drive, allowing him to accelerate at a blinding pace and reach his top-speed much quicker than many of the game’s premier burners. He makes good base-running reads, and shows polished sliding fundamentals. Blessed with legitimate plus-plus wheels, he doesn’t always put his legs to good use and he can be too conservative. But, he should become more comfortable as he adds baseball experience.
At the plate, Szczur’s extraordinary body control and hand-eye coordination produce a sweet swing. Unlike most other recent college draftees, Szczur takes a quiet, level, line-drive stroke with a swing-plane that’s tailor-made for wood bats. He sets up with a wide, square base and takes a very subtle stride, transferring his weight quickly and smoothly. He starts his hands in a hitting position, loads swiftly and takes a short, direct swing and manages to keep the bat in the hit-zone for a large portion of his cut. He starts short, finishes long with a nice full, high follow-through. Szczur’s hands are lively and his elbows and triceps are strong and well-developed. The grip-strengthening and hand dexterity training he undertook for his play at wide receiver also appears to give him an advantage as a hitter. Combined with his plate vision, the added baseball muscle affords him tremendous bat control. His swing and approach give him an advantage in plate coverage as well. He’s willing and able to drive the ball up-the-middle and to the opposite field.
Szczur has the present strength and athleticism to develop in to an annual 15-homerun hitter — with room for more– in the big leagues. He takes a balanced swing, and he uses his sturdy trunk to generate power. His core rotation generates tremendous torque. His swing is geared toward plate coverage and hard contract rather than loft and bat speed, making him more of a doubles and triples hitter. However, he is capable of above-average bat speed, and if he gets better extension and learns (decides) to stay back a bit more, he could develop solid pull-power.
Szczur’s combination of a nimble swing, bat control and plate vision make him a masterful hitter. Once he gets his sea legs under him, his prowess will produce high batting averages and plenty of extra-base hits. He’s also very difficult to strike out. Taking his lack of experience facing premium pitching into account, his ability to control the strikezone and make loud contact is nothing short of exceptional. At Villanova, he struck out just 9 times in 191 plate appearances during his senior season. Last year, Szczur struck out just one time for every ten plate appearances. Despite his ability to manage his plate appearances and put the bat on the ball, he can be too aggressive, often settling for weak contact instead of working a walk. Like many young hitters, he’s strikeout anxious and therefore less apt to take a free-pass than he should be.
Though fatigue played a large part in Szczur’s second-half slide in 2011, he also ran in to some difficulties adjusting to more seasoned pitching. His slump wasn’t horrendous, and he didn’t look totally overmatched, but his age and experience-level began to show. He has the pre-requisites for top-of-the-order plate discipline, but he needs to work on his approach. His early success might encourage the Cubs to speed-up his development timetable too much, ultimately sacrificing polish for immediate production.
Szczur carries his background as an All-American wide receiver to centerfield. Like an NFL wideout, he’s capable of making an array of catches– against his body, over his shoulder, sliding, diving etc… His body awareness and agility allow him to use his top-of-line speed on defense; he’s capable of making acrobatic catches while running at top-speed. His tools allow him to play shallow, then use his remarkable body control and coordination to make over-the-shoulder grabs when necessary. Straight-up, the guy covers serious ground, bounding into the gaps with scary closing speed. His tremendous leaping ability is another asset, particularly for the highlight reel. His all-out style makes all of his tools play up, and he’s more than willing to sacrifice his body on full-tilt diving grabs. Maybe most important, he takes direct routes to fly balls and makes precise reads on line-drives, making him much more advanced than the vast majority of Double-A outfielders.
Though Szczur’s arm plays below-average, correcting an elbow drop and some minor mechanical flaws will make better use of his decent-enough arm strength and keep him from becoming a Johnny Damon-type centerfielder. He pushes the ball, sapping carry from his throws, but he’s accurate enough to compensate for now.
Szczur’s inexperience and demanding two-sport college career (that diverted focus from baseball) causes many scouts to view him as a typical high-risk/high-reward development project. That’s a flawed appraisal. Considering his advanced swing, polished defense and outstanding set of “intangibles,” it’s difficult to see Szczur becoming anything less than a career big-leaguer. This is the guy that willingly put a million-and-a-half dollars on the line to keep his word and return to play Wildcats football in his senior season. He’s also the hero that willingly passed on a Golden Spikes trophy to save a young girl’s life when many others would’ve passed the responsibility on to the next guy. He’s the rare six-tool prospect, gifted with athleticism and mental strength.
Player’s like Szczur are exceedingly rare. The disappointing baseball careers of flashy two-sport stars like Drew Henson, Elijah Dukes and Brandon Weeden— and Jeff Samardzija to a lesser extent— will always draw plenty of doubters. What separates Szczur from those other names is his ability to overcome adversity. He’s equipped with the guts and work ethic to succeed in the MLB. Baseball is a mental game. All professional sports require a strong backbone, but pro ball demands even more of its players. Each player is alone on the diamond, and it takes a bounty of courage to manage success and to overcome personal failure. Szczur is up to task.
Ballclubs are always starving for complete centerfielders. Finding candidates who make solid contributions at the plate, on the basepaths and in the field is difficult. Few clubs need an everyday centerfielder more than the Cubs, and Szczur plans to fill the void. Even if his plate discipline and power development stall, and even if he falls short of his star-level ceiling, he should still carve out a nice Garry Maddox/Coco Crisp-type career. If he hones his approach and his power does develop though, Szczur could be an All-Star centerfielder. In either case, it appears he will play an integral role for the Cubs’ franchise heading in to the next decade.
The fifth overall pick in last June’s MLB Draft, Bubba Starling broke a commitment to play quarterback for the storied Nebraska Cornhuskers to sign a minor league contract with the Kansas City Royals. A three-sport star at Gardner Edgerton (Kansas) high school, Starling’s tremendous athletic ability drew a wave of pre-draft hype. Widely regarded as his draft class’s top high school talent and one of the most exciting amateur athletes in recent history, Starling hired super-agent Scott Boras to help him decide between Division-I college football and taking his game to the big leagues. Only a couple of weeks after moving on to Nebraska’s campus, Starling accepted the Royals’ contract offer. Just before the August 15th signing deadline, the young phenom inked a monster $7.5 million signing bonus.
Starling put together a spectacular three-sport career at Gardner-Edgerton High School. On the football field, he led the Blazers to a 33-4 record duringt his three-season tenure as the team’s quarterback. As a junior, he led the Blazers to the Class 5-A State finals, passing for eighteen touchdowns and rushing for nineteen more while racking up 2,824 combined yards. He followed with an even better senior season, rushing for 2,377 yards and 31 touchdowns, and adding another 790 yards and eight touchdowns through the air. He led the Blazers to an 11-1 record that season, and took home the Simone Award and honors as the Gatorade Kansas Player of the Year. He was a first-team Class 5-A All-State selection and played in the US Army All-American Bowl.
Though he was regarded as one of the top football recruits in the country, Starling was the most sought-after baseball recruit in the nation. In his final two seasons at Gardner-Edgerton, he posted a batting average above .500 and totalled seventeen homeruns and 43 RBI. As a senior, he hit four home runs in his first nine games and finished the season batting .482 despite sitting out three weeks while nursing a quadriceps injury. Louisville Slugger, USA Today and the Baseball Coaches Association tabbed him a First Team All-American and he earned a place on Team USA Baseball’s (U-18 age group) roster. While playing both outfielder and pitcher for Team USA, he hit .339, belted three homeruns and struck out seven batters while tossing three scoreless innings off the mound. For his spectacular 2011 campaign, the Kansas City Metro Baseball Coaches Association named him small-class Player of the Year.
Starling didn’t get the chance to make his pro debut last summer, and missed most of the Royal’s Instructional League while nursing another quadriceps strain. In September, he was cited for underage drinking, though the Royals see that as a youth-related mistake rather than any sort of character flaw. With so much invested in the young star, they’ll handle his development with white gloves. No doubt, he’s an incredible athlete, but he’s a raw baseball player. He should spend the next two seasons in the low-minors polishing some rough edges.
Starling is an ideal fit for the scouting term “five-tool player.” He’s capable of running 6.5-second 60-yard dash times, throwing 95 MPH off of the mound, mashing moon-shot homeruns, running through linebackers and posting vertical jump measurements that would make half of the NBA jealous. How these tools will translate to professional baseball is a topic of debate, however. His amateur baseball career was filled with impressive stats, but was a little light on playing time compared to most top prospects. Though he did pass on Nebraska’s offer, he does hail from a football town, and there’s no telling how much he really wants to play professional baseball. In short, Starling is incredibly talented but also extremely raw.
Viewed as a future ace-pitcher by at least a few clubs heading in to the MLB draft, Starling’s best tool is his arm strength. In centerfield, his throwing mechanics relegate his 70-75 (graded on the 20-80 scale) raw arm strength to a still-weapons-grade “60″ in games. His arm is a cannon though, and has the makings of a game-changer. He needs to raise his elbow, get better extension and complete his follow-through in order to maximize carry and accuracy. Once he cleans up his mechanics, he should be an outfield sniper.
Defensively, Starling has the makings of a top-notch centerfielder. For his size, he has excellent body control and agility. His blazing speed already plays very well in the outfield and he shows great range toward either line. His routes to fly balls are a bit circular, considering his age though, his angles are actually quite impressive. He generally makes good reads and his coordination makes him very skilled at tracking tough line dives and flies fading away from him. Football training has alos left him with extremely quick feet and body awareness. As he fills out he may lose a step and his hips will probably get a bit stiffer; if Kansas City chooses to move him to right field, his arm and athleticism would make the transition painless.
At the plate, Starling shows immense raw power and plenty of bat speed. He has long, powerful legs, a strong core and excellent wrists. His rock-solid base affords him great balance and his phenomenal body control and hand-eye coordination help produce plus bat speed. With metal bats, he already showed he was capable of 400-500 foot homerun distance, and his level swing plane should transfer his power to lumber. He’s worked with the Royals coaching staff to start his hands higher, and in a better hitting position. The results have already been promising, reportedly mashing an instructional league homerun in his first at bat following the mechanical tweak.
Starling’s long arms and legs, and powerful back help him generate excellent leverage and torque. His raw power rates near the top of the scale. His strength and muscle coordination produce easy power, and the ball jumps off of his bat. He shows serious opposite field pop when he gets fully extended. His weight transfer and timing is less-than-ideal at the moment, as he tends to get out on his front foot and leave his hands behind far behind his momentum. However, his work ethic and surplus of baseball athleticism should help him clean up his swing mechanics with more experience.
Once he and his coaches address his mechanical issues and he learns to employ better hitting fundamentals, Starling should realize his potential as a big-league slugger. He already shows the necessary ingredients for a run producer– advanced pitch recognition, plus bat speed, a sturdy base, sharp plate vision/pitch tracking and excellent hand and wrist strength. Though his swing is a bit long, he has a great feel for hitting and he’s used professional coaching instruction to shorten his path to the ball. Especially considering his success despite a weak starting position, a still inconsistent weight-transfer and his lack of arm-seperation, Starling has great hitter’s hands. He takes a firm, level stroke and he’s skilled at using the opposite field. He’s aggressive and stands on top of the plate, and his plate-coverage should improve has he moves back in the box and fixes his footwork.
Like many other five-tool prospects before him, Starling has been the subject of prospect-hype. His incredible athletic ability warrants the attention, but he’ll need to avoid succumbing to the added pressure. He’s raw for a top-five overall pick, and the Royals will have to adjust his developmental timetable accordingly. He’s mentally strong, but early failure could compound into uglier demons if the Royals don’t protect him. Even in the Rookie Leagues or Low-A ball, he probably won’t race out of the gate. On the other hand, he’s a quick learner and has the luxury of an elite-level tool set, so he isn’t as far from the big leagues as most toolsy teenage prospects. . As long as Kansas City tempers their expectations and moves him along level-by level, Starling should develop in to a Vernon Wells/Torii Hunter-type centerfielder. Some early injury concerns draw resemblance to J.D. Drew, and his career might ultimately play-out similarly.