Note: Andrew did all the research for this piece and most of the writing.
First base is a really tricky position for prospects. A lot of the really good prospects start somewhere else, and get moved to first due to defensive limitations, so a minor leaguer that is already at 1B really needs to project to be a middle of the order threat in order to be a top tier prospect. Red Sox fans know that players can develop into middle of the order hitters relatively late, Kevin Youkilis is the prime example, but it is rare.
The two main prospects for the Red Sox are Lars Anderson and Anthony Rizzo. Coming into 2009, Lars Anderson was one of those rare, top tier 1B prospects. Baseball America pegged him as the #1 prospect for the Sox and spent most of their write-up gushing about his swing, plate discipline, make up, and power potential, thanks to his impressive .316/.426/.536 line in 133 AA at bats in 2008. To say that 2009 was a disappointment for Anderson is an understatement. Staying in AA, he managed a meager .233/.328/.345 line over 447 at bats. The drop-off stemmed from a large decline in batting average on balls in play and isolated power (slugging percentage minus batting average). The batting average on balls in play could be bad luck, but combined with the drop off in isolated power it indicates that Anderson was not driving the ball with authority last year. Anderson projects to be an average 1B with the glove, so he really needs to hit to have value. It’s hard to say what happened last season- Anderson didn’t have any injury issues that I am aware of, but next season will be a very important one for him. Anderson isn’t playing any winter ball, so we’ll have to wait until next spring to get another look at him.
While Anderson had an off year, Anthony Rizzo came back strong following chemotherapy for Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. While Rizzo’s raw offensive numbers weren’t nearly as impressive as Anderson’s were in 2008, Rizzo did hit .295/.371/.420 in high A as a 19 year old, less than a year after his chemotherapy finished. Currently, Rizzo’s best offensive tools are his plate discipline and gap power to all fields. At 6’4” and 210 pounds, Rizzo likely has some filling out to do; for comparison Justin Morneau is 6’4” and 235 lbs. Beyond physical maturation, Baseball America believes that when Rizzo learns to pull the ball more he could hit 20+ home runs a season and hit with a good average and great OBP. It’s very hard to project based on A numbers, without even addressing the recovery from cancer and chemotherapy. Needless to say, Rizzo is very hard to project. Between naturally filling out and Lester’s steady improvement in velocity in the 2 years following chemotherapy, you have to wonder what Rizzo will be capable of by the time he’s 22. Rizzo is also one of the best defensive first basemen in the minors, so he can get away with being less of an offensive force, unlike Anderson, although when all is said and done you need to hit to play 1B in the majors. .
So, where does this leave the Sox? If not for Anderson, the logical place for Rizzo next season would be AA. Some people think that Rizzo, by the virtue of being two years younger than Anderson, may have passed him on the organizational depth chart. Because Rizzo has only a half a season at High A I think he’ll start the season there and Anderson will repeat AA Portland. Before Anderson’s disappointing, many were predicting that he would force his way in to the Sox lineup some time in 2010, especially if there were an injury at either corner infield position. Now it looks like Anderson will need one more year in the minors, with Rizzo needing at least two more years. The good news is that the Sox are set at first base with Kevin Youkilis under contract until 2012 (with a 2013 club option) and Casey Kotchman arbitration eligble through 2011 as a backup, so the Sox can afford to wait and see how these two prospects do next season. Of course, with Mike Lowell’s contract expiring after 2010, if Anderson has a big year next year he might be penciled in at 1B for 2011, with Youkilis sliding back to 3B.