If you like toolsy, defense-minded shortstops who may never hit enough to be starters, you'll love the Red Sox minor league system. Jose Iglesias continues to embarrass himself at AAA and may even be getting worse (.278 slugging). Deven Marrero has looked all right at low A (.382 OBP), but he's old for the level, and he has no power. Likewise, Tzu-Wei Lin has shown that he can take a walk through his first 50 plate appearances (16.0% BB), but he'll find it hard to keep that up with a 0.48 ISO. (Xander Bogaerts, as we all know, is the best player in the history of baseball; alas, he probably won't stick at short.)
I sound skeptical, but I actually like the approach the Red Sox have taken. They are targeting super young, super athletic players who can field the position and then hoping at least one of them can learn to hit well enough to stay in the big leagues. My favorite of these super young, super athletic shortstops—non-Bogaerts division—is Jose Vinicio. He may have the lowest floor among Iglesias, Marrero, and even Lin, but he may also have the highest ceiling.
In this post, I want to provide an all-around look at Vinicio, with extra focus on what he brings to the table—and takes off it—offensively. My qualifications: I don't have any. But I watch more minor league games than I do major league, and even if it's mostly guesswork, everyone likes talking prospects. Also: .gifs! There will be .gifs.KEY NUMBERS
Jose Vinicio is listed at 5'11", 160 lbs, up from 150 lbs last year. However, as you'll see from the images and video provided here, he looks like he is 45 lbs. Vinicio is little. Thankfully, at the age of 19 (he looks 12), there is time for him to grow into that lanky frame.
Vinicio has hit .280/.322/.378 this year in A ball, where the average player is two years his senior. He's posted his highest walk rate in professional ball, but his strikeout rate has also spiked, and his power is down slightly (from bad to very bad). He has stolen 22 bases but been caught stealing a hilarious 11 times.
He throws righty, of course, but is a switch hitter. His numbers from the left side are actually much better: he's hitting over .300 against right-handed pitching, and nearly all of his power comes from that side as well (3 HRs, .400 slugging). Batting right, he's a disaster; he's hitting under .200 and has struck out 19 times in 66 at-bats vs. just 2 walks.
I'll talk more about all of these numbers as we go.
AT THE PLATE
As a hitter, Vinicio shows promise, but his approach and his swing can become overly loose. Get used to that adjective, as I will be using it more than once to describe him. His at-bats begin with a batting stance that has quite a bit of noise in it—he twirls and bobs the head of the bat—and I've seen a lot of inconsistency in terms of how much leg movement he displays while waiting for the pitch. You can see some of this movement below (I made the .gifs, but did not take the videos):
As Red Sox fans, we all had the pleasure of watching the deformed mutant baby that is Kevin Youkilis's batting stance, so I don't need to tell you that a batting stance does not reflect the value of the batter. But consistency does matter, and I especially worry about the amount of leg action for a hitter like Vinicio, who does not have amazing bat speed. He needs a very clean swing to be successful, and his batting stance leads into this.
When he's hitting badly, Vinicio's leg kick gets too high and too long, carrying him out in front of the plate and creating weak contact. This is especially problematic when he bats from the right side, where it sometimes looks like Vinicio is batting underwater. At his current strength level, there is no margin for error from that side of the plate, which is why his numbers against lefties are so atrocious.
When he's hitting well, Vinicio shows the potential to generate some extra-base hits using line drives and speed. Physically, he reminds me a ton of Juan Pierre, but they are different animals at the plate. Pierre is the classic slap-hitter who aims for groundballs and then races them to first base. Vinicio wants hard, line-drive contact. His best approach at this stage involves a slight double toe-tap and then a nice, even-planed swing. You can see one of these swings generating a rare homerun for Vinicio here:
You can get a better look at the quick toe-tap I'm talking about from this batting practice .gif:
I'll conclude this section by re-emphasizing Vinicio's left/right splits. The fact that Vinicio's overall batting line is dragged down by his numbers against lefties actually raises his floor quite a bit. We're looking at a just-turned-19-year-old shortstop in A ball who is hitting .300/.350/.400 against righties (i.e., the majority of pitchers he will ever face). That's impressive. Even if he never learns to hit lefties—I think he can, but it will be a long climb—you're looking at a player that you can platoon with someone like Mike Aviles (who is not that hard to find) for years of productive service.
ON THE BASES
This section will be short because the pros and cons here are simple: Vinicio is extremely fast, but he has no idea how to swipe a bag off of a left-handed pitcher. His leads off first base against lefties are just awful, and it often looks like he's completely guessing on when to run against them. This makes him pretty similar to a huge amount of major league baseball players, most of whom can't steal from lefties either. It also represents a perfect example of why we shouldn't take minor league numbers too seriously. In the major leagues, players who can't steal from lefties simply stop trying. In the minors, however, Vinicio's coaches are going to tell him to keep at it, because why not? As such, a whopping 10 of Vinicio's 11 failed steals have come against left-handed pitching. He has 10 steals and only 1 caught stealing against righties.
Vinicio's running form can get a little loose (told you I'd say that again); he's not of the Jacoby or Crawford mold, with their compact, explosive movements. But his speed will always be plus, even if he gets bigger. In other words, don't worry about his baserunning. He'll either get better at stealing from lefties or he'll stop trying it so often.
IN THE FIELD
Here at OTM, and assuming you've been following Ben's super helpful "Minor Lines" updates, you already know that Vinicio commits approximately 30 errors per game. Okay, not quite, but he has 24 this season, an improvement over the 29 he had the year before. We all know—hopefully—that errors are not the best way to evaluate a player's defense, and yes, they are somewhat misleading in Vinicio's case. He is very rangy, so some of his misplays are coming on balls that other players wouldn't even get to.
Still, that number of errors can't lie completely: Vinicio is a bit of a mess in the field. He has the speed and arm strength to succeed, but he gets—you guessed it—awfully loose in his approach to the ball. Some prospect analysts have questioned his arm strength, but I think the problem lies less in his arm strength and more in his transition from the glove to the hand. Vinicio is not fluid in this respect, and it looks to me like he's getting too much hand on the ball prior to the throw, which gives his tosses a kind of sink to them, or a change-up action. (For those of you who watch NESN, you've likely noticed that Don and Jery both love to point out when an infielder has accidentally thrown a change-up to first base.)
This didn't translate well to a .gif, but you can see an example of Vinicio's range and his change-ups in this video. Of course, the weak throw in this case is understandable considering that he's falling away from first base:
So, all the tools are there. A little more meat on his bones and a little more seasoning should do wonders. And to circle back to the errors, it's worth noting that minor league first baseman are incredibly, incredibly terrible at fielding their position. If you ever think playing first base is easy—and our current first baseman makes it look that way—just watch a few minor league games. If you make a bad throw, these guys will not save you. There's a world of difference between throwing to Adrian Gonzalez, who is better at scooping throws than anyone I've ever seen, and throwing to Vinicio's two targets: David Renfroe, who is a half-time 1B/3B and fields like it, and Boss Moanaroa, who has gotten better but is still bad. Vinicio would certainly have fewer errors throwing to a major league first baseman.
Vinicio has the potential to be an above average hitter for his position, one who uses his speed and athleticism to make up for a lack of power. His inability to hit lefties is one major roadblock to his becoming a full-time player.
Defensively, he has the range of a gold-glover, the arm strength of a solid regular, and the accuracy/consistency of a minor leaguer. He's added a lot of weight since he joined the Sox as a 16-year-old in 2010. It's difficult to gauge his defensive ceiling until his body stabilizes—right now, it's like he's playing with a different body every year. I'm optimistic, though, because the tools were there so early. He could spend two more years at A ball and still not be old for the level. Time, as they say, is on his side.