With the unveiling of the top 500 players in baseball, ESPN.com is launching Triple Play, a weekday feature that will run throughout the season and include three ESPN contributors answering three topical questions. For now, the feature will focus on the top 500 rankings, but Triple Play's concentration will shift to the daily MLB buzz once the season begins.
Today we'll look at Part 3 of our ESPN 500 series, which focuses on players who rank from 351 to 400. Feel free to chime in on Twitter with the hashtag #ESPN500.
1. Jeff Francoeur (No. 306): Too high, too low or just right?
Molly Knight (@molly_knight), ESPN The Magazine
If we're solely basing this on last year, it's actually a little low. The trouble with Francoeur is that he's defined by the potential he never reached. He hit 62 home runs before his 24th birthday and then fell off the face of the earth. He actually had a decent season for the Royals last year, but was hurt by the fact that people care about OBP now. (His was a meh .329.) Also, his last name is really hard to spell, so maybe the other rankeratti were lazy about looking up his stats. Not me, though. I looked up every one because I have no life.
Franklin Rabon (@fjrabon), Capitol Avenue Club
That's about right. Defensive rating systems are really split on him, but I'd say he's a top-10 defensive right fielder. His swing is too long and his plate approach isn't good, but he provides decent pop offensively. He's a poor baserunner, and I'd expect regression from last year, when he was pretty good. But given the players he's ranked around, I can't say it's too high.
Player A: .285/.329/.476 20 HR, 87 RBI, 47 2B, 22 SB
Player B: .314/.370/.502, 22 HR, 97 RBI, 38 2B, 8 SB
Player A is Francoeur and Player B is Hunter Pence. The extra OBP makes Pence a bit more valuable, but there is not a huge difference here, even though I'm guessing Pence is ranked a lot higher on this list. In other words, Frenchy is probably a bit too low.
2. Which young shortstop will have a better career: Ian Desmond, Dee Gordon or Alcides Escobar?
Knight: I'm going with Gordon on this one, because he's the fastest player I've ever seen on a baseball diamond. The dude took second on a walk (!) this spring and there wasn't even a throw. If he figures out how to draw more walks and hit the ball on the ground all the time, he's going to be an absolute nightmare for opposing pitchers.
Rabon: Dee Gordon. He has elite speed, a good glove and a good arm, giving him all the ingredients needed to become an elite defensive shortstop. He's a legitimate 50-steals guy with a bat that might develop gap power. Escobar will always be a good-glove, no-bat guy, and Desmond won't even approach being an average MLB shortstop.
Worn: Speed is always exciting, and while exciting doesn't always translate to on-field success, I see Gordon having a better career than Desmond or Escobar. In the last three years as a professional, Gordon has stolen at least 53 bases in each season. He doesn't strike out too much and has averaged a .353 on base percentage in his minor league career. As Peter Brand tells us in "Moneyball": "He gets on base".
3. In 2013, the player in this group who will make the top 100 is ___?
Knight: Anthony Rizzo. This kid absolutely murdered the ball in Triple-A last season, and he'll get a fair shot to start this year at age 22 since he's playing for a GM (Jed Hoyer) who has a big man-crush on him. Hoyer was part of the organization that drafted Rizzo (Boston Red Sox) and then traded for him as a GM, twice. Plus, the former Padres farmhand has been rescued from a career of warning track fly outs at Petco Park. He's going to like Wrigley a lot.
Rabon: I like Justin Smoak as the best of this bunch to make a leap forward. He's been held down by injuries that shouldn't be recurring. Even at spacious Safeco Field, he should be a very good offensive player next year. You put a healthy Smoak in Arlington or Great American Ballpark, and he could be an MVP-type bat one day; in Safeco, he will "merely" be considered very good.
Worn: Anthony Rizzo (No. 346) has the most upside of any name on this list, even though his prospect status was damaged a bit last year thanks to a disastrous 49 games in San Diego. If you believe in hitter's parks, sweet lefty swings and a Triple-A OPS of 1.056, you can believe in Rizzo.