We knew that leaving Brett Lawrie off our 2011 top 100 prospect list would surprise some people. How can a good athlete who just held his own at the plate as a 20-year-old in Double-A not be one of the game's top prospects?
First off, we do view Lawrie as an elite prospect, just not top 100 elite. He would have been inside our top 125 if we published a longer list. But we realize that 101-125 is still a lot lower than the top 30 through 60 rankings he's gotten elsewhere.
I've been bouncing around message boards and responding to emails with my opinion on Lawrie for the last month, which I'll summarize below. Additionally, I asked over a half dozen of my most trusted scouting sources for their takes on Lawrie. I've included some of their opinions below.
Starting with his plus bat speed, Lawrie has a lot going for him. He does a good job bringing his hands to the ball and could develop average to slightly above-average power. His body is chiseled and big-league-ready. Light on his feet, he runs well and is a natural athlete. He has the good face.
"Ideally you have a .280/.340/.480 type who can provide adequate defense at second base. But the fear is that the bat falls a little short and you're left with no real defensive fit for the offensive production. It's essentially the same questions we've had since the draft. Shifting to catcher was a long shot, and he still hasn't found a niche that works. I think he can still realistically slot into an outfield corner with maybe a 50 hit tool and 50/55 power, but probability is very much a concern." - Nick Faleris, Diamond Scape Scouting
"I think he will hit a lot and he has a chance for power. He has plus, plus bat speed but not a ton of leverage in his swing. He could be a close to average -- if not a tad under -- defensive right fielder given time. He's athletic with a strong arm. His hands are a problem on defense. The ball doesn't stick in his glove; it will pop out." - Anonymous scout 1
"I like the body and speed. And he looks like a hitter. Watching him take infield practice at third base, my impression was 'He is OK and not as bad as some have said.'" - Anonymous scout 2
"He's got good hands and can fight pitches off, but there's always going to be some length in his swing, so he'll rack up the strikeouts. I like his bat, think it's going to be solid. But if the defensive reports are true, he's not going to have a ton of value." - Steve Carter
If Lawrie appeared to be an average defensive second baseman, he'd be a top 30 prospect for me. Even without putting much weight into questions about his desire to want to be a good defender, I think the point that Anonymous scout 1 brought up about Lawrie's hands is valid.
I've included three clips of Lawrie taking grounders to the right. He's clearly nimble and even a little flashy at times. But even when taking these soft grounders, he has some moments where he looks like it's his first day playing defense. Aside from the botched efforts, when he does catch the ball, he doesn't consistently glove it in the middle of the pocket.
At third base, he'll have less time to react than he did at second. Concerns about his defense at second have had more to do with his hands and footwork than his range. Sometimes you can take a guy who doesn't have up-the-middle range and get him to stick at third. I think the same weaknesses that held Lawrie back at second will prevent him from being a reliable defender at third.
Though a case can be made that he could turn into a hitter with average patience, Lawrie hasn't walked a lot in the minors. At his best, I think he's an aggressive line-drive hitter who puts a charge into the first ball he can. He may not chase a lot of pitches out of the zone, but he's not really someone who looks to work the count. I don't mind aggressive hitters if they play up-the-middle defense, hit for a lot of power or make regular contact. Lawrie may not end up having any of those things going for him.
Steve Carter described Lawrie as a bit of a front-foot hitter, which goes along with Anonymous scout 1's comment about his lack of leverage. Lawrie doesn't sit back and wait for the ball to get deep in the zone. He attacks it once it's within striking distance. This approach has led to high ground-ball rates in each of his minor league seasons. He has the bat speed to leave the park, but his open, crouched stance is more conducive to hitting sharp line drives and grounders than long fly balls.
Lawrie is hitting from a more upright stance this spring than years past, however, a change that could help him improve his power and contact rate. He had been hitting from a deep crouch, limiting his ability to get his hips through the ball. He'd also pop up as he swung, which can make it difficult to track the ball.
Power often doesn't fully arrive for hitters until they reach their mid-20s. Physical maturation can aid in turning gap power into home-run power. In Lawrie's case, he already is very physically mature. He's going to get a bit bigger and stronger, and added wrist strength could allow him to become an annual 20+ home run hitter. But I don't see him hitting more than 25 home runs a season in his prime.
It's very difficult to discern which young hitters will be able to turn their raw abilities into polished skills. I see Lawrie as a guy who has gotten by more on raw ability than skill. He's not a calm hitter in the box. He waves his barrel around as he readies and isn't short and direct to the ball. I think he's going to be streaky and, like Steve Carter brought up, someone who strikes out fairly regularly.
Lawrie was pretty good in Double-A last year, but he didn't set the minors on fire. Believing in his bat means projecting a fair amount of growth. I think there's a good chance that he improves significantly less than many people expect him to. With big-league defenses, even if he replicates his Double-A contact rates and makes some slight power improvements, Lawrie may be a below-average offensive corner outfielder.
A lot of people believe in Lawrie's bat and some think he can stick in the infield. He's being represented as a strong bet to turn into an average or better big leaguer by a number of outlets. While those outcomes aren't out of his range of possibilities, his odds of becoming that type of player may be much lower than many people realize. If you're banking on Lawrie turning into an above-average regular, we'd caution that with those kinds of expectations come a high probabilty that he ends up being a bust.
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