Everyone agrees that Garin Cecchini can hit.
"Excellent hand/eye coordination; natural bat-to-ball skills; hit tool could end up well above average," says Baseball Prospectus.
"He showed he could really hit, projecting as a consistent .300-plus hitter whose future hit grade is a 65 or a 70," states Keith Law.
"Cecchini has what one evaluator called a 'magic barrel' that allows him to send liners up the middle and to left-center field," writes Baseball America.
The consensus is in -- something rare in the ever-more-popular field of prospect evaluating -- and the consensus tells us that Cecchini is adept at hitting the ball and at reaching base. And while scouting minor-league numbers can lead to improper evaluations, one glance at Cecchini's stats from last season tells you he can hit, too.
Cecchini hit .322/.443/.471 in 557 PA nearly equally split between High-A and Double-A in 2013, in what was his age-22 season. He walked more than he struck out, did not slow down after a mid-season promotion to Portland, and is now largely considered the third-best prospect in Boston's system, behind only the immortal Xander Bogaerts and Jackie Bradley Jr.
Yet despite the glowing reviews of Cecchini's hit tool, his insane 2013 season and his proximity to the majors, it's hard to find a source that thinks Cecchini is going to be a star. We hear "average major leaguer" or "potential role-6" tied to Cecchini quite frequently, but he's never cited as among the best prospects in the game.
When you consider just how rare an elite hit tool is, I'm not sure that's fair.
There are holes in Cecchini's game, to be sure. The first knock you'll hear against Cecchini is that he lacks prototypical power for a third baseman, and this is true. Cecchini has hit just 14 homers in 1,216 professional plate appearances to this point in his career, although his 83 doubles have elevated his career slugging to .457. Some scouts hold out hope that Cecchini will blossom into a 20-homer threat in his prime, but his swing is designed for contact, not pop, and as one scout I asked put it, Cecchini's body is already maxed out, making it less likely he'll add power in the future.
Cecchini's defense is also routinely and fairly criticized. He possesses good instincts and a passable arm at the hot corner, but his actions are stiff and his ceiling is as an average defender there. He lacks the range to play shortstop, does not project as a plus defender as a corner outfielder, and his profile would be even more out of place at first base, where power is practically a prerequisite to playing time.
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These flaws, plus the Red Sox organizational depth, muddle Cecchini's big league future in Boston. If Will Middlebrooks can even average out his 2012 and 2013 campaigns, he should not be moved from third base. He's a superior defender to Cecchini, and 25-homer power from the right side of the plate is an increasingly rare commodity in today's game.
The Red Sox have an abundance of corner outfield options right now, with Shane Victorino firmly entrenched in right and Daniel Nava, Johnny Gomes, Mike Carp, and perhaps even Grady Sizemore vying for time in left field. And with Mike Napoli signed for the next two seasons, Cecchini is also blocked at first base, where he'd profile quite strangely anyway. This still figures to be the case in late-2014 or early-2015, when Cecchini will likely be ready for the majors.
But at a certain point, the Red Sox should consider making room for Cecchini, as his skill set -- reaching base -- is the one most conducive to scoring runs on a regular basis. Just 37 players hit above .300 last season, and just 79 posted an OBP better than .350 (min 100 PA). Those benchmarks aren't just attainable for Cecchini -- he could surpass them with regularity in his prime.
Third baseman last season hit .256/.317/.398 for a wRC+ of just 97 last season. Left fielders hit .252/.320/.399 with a wRC+ of 99. Even first baseman, who play the most hallowed of offensive positions, hit .254/.332/430, with a wRC+ of 110 -- a high standard, to be sure, but hardly unattainable.
Find a scout who thinks Cecchini will hit worse than .275 or reach base at a lower clip than .330. Good luck with that. And while Cecchini's power is indeed a question mark moving forward, it's not as though he's a lock to fall short of the .400 plateau thanks to his penchant for hitting doubles and potential to hit 12-15 homers with added selectivity and strength.
The hit tool is the most important tool for a minor-league hitter to possess. Without the hit tool, power is useless and speed can't be leveraged. Without a hit tool, excellent defenders are left only as late-inning replacements. And without a hit tool, even the most disciplined batters will have difficulty reaching base, unable to rely on the walk alone to get the job done.
Cecchini has one of the better hit tools in the minors, and for that reason alone he deserves more respect.