Jesus Montero and MLB's Top 20 Young Impact Hitters

Matt TruebloodSenior Analyst IJanuary 14, 2012

Jesus Montero and MLB's Top 20 Young Impact Hitters

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    The Seattle Mariners and New York Yankees swapped Michael Pineda and Jesus Montero Friday night, in a trade that boiled down to a trade of two organizations' most polished future stars.

    It all began with a tweet, from Jerry Crasnick of ESPN: "The  are moving closer to a trade for a young impact hitter, two baseball sources confirmed."

    The details swirled forth relatively quickly from there, but for a few minutes, that left interested parties wondering: To whom could such a tweet refer? Who, in the game today, constitutes a "young impact hitter"?

    Every source one would consult on the issue might give a different answer, of course, but it seemed safe to assume that player would have some MLB experience, however small an amount, and obviously, that his ceiling would be as a top- or middle-of-the-order batter.

    Not that many such guys exist, of course; that's what makes Seattle's acquisition of Montero special. Of those who are out there, though, here are the 20 best "young impact hitters" in baseball today.

20. Yonder Alonso

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    Stuck behind Joey Votto for fully a year and a half after he was big league-ready, Alonso now has a first baseman's job all to himself with the San Diego Padres. With a powerful left-handed swing that promises to use the whole field, he should be able to put up numbers even at cavernous PETCO Park.

    Alonso comes with certain caveats. He is more pure hitter than top-notch slugger, and as a first base-only defender, he needs to reach or approximate his ceiling in order to be a star. Still, that .320/.410/.550 season is possible, if not probable, for this guy at some point.

19. Brandon Belt

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    Belt was supposed to break out in 2011, but his season instead boiled down to mismanagement, misfortune and maladjustment. He should get another crack at the fifth slot in the Giants' batting order in 2012, and this time, expect him to start lacing the ball.

    AT&T Park is nearly as discouraging to left-handed home-run power as is PETCO, but Belt has the right swing for it: He will shoot some out to right, but also send ringing shots off the brick facade out there. 

    The downside, again, is a lack of positional value. Belt might actually be able to play a corner outfield spot, but he would not be good there, so his contributions again boil down to how well he actualizes his offensive upside.

18. Cameron Maybin

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    None of the three previous guys have any special athleticism to complement their sheer swing and take skills. Maybin has nearly the opposite going for him.

    At 24 years of age, Maybin is starting to learn how to take advantage of tremendous raw tools. He cut way down on his strikeouts in 2011, from over 28 percent of all plate appearances to a more acceptable 22 percent. Given his speed, he would do well to make even more contact.

    Of course, that's easier said than done, and Maybin's swing features long levers and some raw power. Therefore, he might as well keep swinging the way he does, because he may run into 15 home runs per year.

    Maybin is messy and aggressive, but because he is so tremendously fast and has natural strength and lift in his swing, it works. He had middling raw numbers for the Padres last year, but after adjusting for his home park, he was a very good option. He also plays a very adroit center field.

17. Mike Moustakas

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    When a team mired deep in a losing season calls up a top prospect a bit ahead of schedule, they often look right past the aggregate numbers at season's end. The idea, after all, is not for the player to have an immediate impact, but for him to learn to deal with failure and to make adjustments to MLB pitchers.

    Witness Mike Moustakas. Called up alongside Eric Hosmer in mid-June, Moustakas, then 22, struggled brutally through his first 53 games. He had just one home run as of August 16, and was batting .182/.237/.227 with 34 strikeouts and 14 walks.

    From that day onward, though, Moustakas figured some things out. He batted .379/.412/.564 with four homers, eight walks and 17 strikeouts in 148 plate appearances over his final 36 games. 

    Moustakas has a world of upside, not least of all because he can pick it a bit at third base and has a cannon arm. He may have more failure in his future, but his ability to adjust and drive the ball should no longer be in doubt.

16. Jay Bruce

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    For myriad reasons, Jay Bruce has always lived in a bit of a shadow. He's only 24 and already has 100 big-league homers, but because he strikes out a lot, goes into long slumps on occasion and shares a diamond with Joey Votto, Bruce gets less notice than he deserves.

    If a corner outfielder can be an elite defensive asset, Bruce is one. He has terrific instincts despite below-average straight-line speed, and his arm is dangerous. Primarily, though, he is a slugger.

    Cincinnati's Great American Ballpark is highly conducive to left-handed power hitters, and Bruce's ability to draw walks and crush homers at a rate of one very 22 or 23 plate appearances makes him an elite right-field batter in the making, if he is not one already.

15. Logan Morrison

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    Here we have circled back to the Alonso-Belt model. Morrison has more upside because he has a more advanced approach at the plate and could reach base at a .400 clip down the road.

    Neither Alonso nor Belt has that sort of pitch recognition in their bag.

    Morrison is also a better athlete than Alonso, capable of playing the same shaky corner-outfield defense that Belt plays. That bumps him a step ahead of those guys, but it remains to be seen how well he can remain focused and improve in coming years.

14. Buster Posey

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    His home park may never allow him to demonstrate it fully, but Posey has a lovely and impressive brand of opposite-field power. His hands are so quick and so strong that he stays closed on the ball considerably longer than most batters can, letting his wrists snap at the last moment and so lessening the risk of swinging under the ball.

    It's an aesthetically pleasing and effective approach, but it's not coupled with elite power. Posey is more likely, in any given year, to bat .300 than to hit 25 homers. He does not walk a ton, so when the power doesn't show up, he's not elite with the stick.

    His impact does not hinge solely on staying at catcher, but boy, that would be nice, and after the gruesome leg injury that ended his 2011 season, it may not be possible much longer.

    All that said, this was the 2010 NL Rookie of the Year. Posey can hit, and with hands like those through the zone, he will always be able to hit.

13. Carlos Santana

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    Between Santana and Posey, the duel comes down to the better top tool. Posey is a more well-rounded batter, but Santana draws a ton of walks. Posey throws better, but Santana is a better pure receiver.

    Ultimately, Santana has a higher offensive ceiling because he has a better chance of swatting 30 home runs in a given year than has Posey of batting .315.

    Santana suffered a leg injury of a different kind but a similar proportion in 2010, cutting short a stellar rookie season, but he rebounded nicely in 2011.

    Though he has less value as a DH, the option to do that once a week might do wonders to keep him healthy as time goes by.

12. Matt Wieters

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    Any player who can catch will be asked to catch for some period, especially if he is a high-value offensive player.

    The fact that both Posey and Santana have been considered position-change candidates, then, is telling. They're catchers, but first and foremost, they are batters from whom their teams wanted to get maximum value.

    Matt Wieters is a catcher. In that respect, if only in that one, the early comparisons people made between he and Joe Mauer were legitimate. Wieters can hit, and started to prove it in a big way in 2011.

    In large part, though, he is an impact bat because he will not force the Orioles to ponder a position change for at least a decade. That's a rare complete package.

11. Starlin Castro

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    Starlin Castro needs to learn to recognize pitches sooner, and take more of them for balls. He needs to use right field more. He needs to find a timing mechanism that allows him to wait more on breaking pitches. He needs to improve defensively or else move off shortstop, despite the huge potential positional value there.

    Most of all, he needs to dodge prison in a thus-far uncertain but very foreboding sexual assault investigation of which he is the primary subject. That story is troubling, and so far under-reported. 

    If Castro were headed into his age-24 season, he would not look like a future superstar. However, owing to his having been 21 all year in 2011 and collecting 207 hits, he has yet a world of upside. All those adjustments can still be made.

    Castro will add more power to his game as he comes into his prime years, and could compete for batting titles for the next decade. He's not a finished product, and he's probably not a shortstop, but "young impact hitter" describes Castro to a tee.

10. Desmond Jennings

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    For all the rending of garments and gnashing of teeth over the long wait for Desmond Jennings, the Rays choice to slow-cook their best outfield prospect in years has turned out to be a success story in player development.

    Jennings had a huge impact on the AL Wild Card race last season, and projects as the annual Rays Quasi-Rookie You Forget to Account for Until He Bludgeons Your Team in April.

    Jennings has developed unexpected power, which may have been what the Rays were waiting for all along. He still has speed, hand-eye coordination and an aggressiveness in his game that mirrors departed predecessor Carl Crawford.

    Jennings should bloom into an above-average all-around player with top-of-the-order pop as a sweetener.

9. Carlos Gonzalez

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    I'll try to encapsulate Gonzalez in a short list of rhetorical questions. Ready?

    • Can you believe this guy only turned 26 years old in October?
    • Do his numbers look better than they really are because of Coors Field? Of course.
    • Does his perpetual drift around the outfield reflect a lack of defensive instincts to go with elite athleticism? Yes, it does.
    • Does his production and his thrilling skill set overwhelm those objections and make him an elite impact hitter for his age? You bet.

    Not bad, eh?

8. Mike Stanton

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    Baseball scouts grade players' tools on a 20-80 scale, whereby a 60 tool is a full standard deviation above league average, and an 80 tool is three standard deviations better.

    Those true 80s are rare. In any given year, you can count the number of guys who showed true 80-grade tools at the big-league level on one hand. 

    Mike Stanton has 80 power. He might have 85 power. Though strikeouts will follow where he goes and he might always be .250/.360 for batting average and on-base percentage, 30 homers in a full season would be a huge disappointment to Stanton.

    He's a corner outfielder, but he's a good one. This is not the lumbering slugger of yore; Stanton is a football player out there, able to run down many balls with good agility and first-step quickness.

    Combine that with his booming power and you have high-impact offensive talent.

7. Eric Hosmer

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    Guys Hosmer's size do not have swings this pretty. It just does not happen. He is a pure hitter with a pure left-handed swing, the kind that can generate a few majestic homers but many more lasers that split between being home runs and doubles.

    He's not a home-run hitter, per se. He simply beats the living snot out of the baseball, and when lift happens, it happens.

    Hosmer is a first baseman, so he has to have great offensive impact, but he does and he should continue to do so for years.

6. Mike Trout

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    Trout racked up five doubles and five home runs in his first 102 MLB plate appearances, the best part of which is this: Power is totally NOT his game.

    Trout has top-notch speed, should be an elite defensive center fielder, takes a mature approach at the plate and could consistently vie for OBP titles.

    He projects as the league's best lead-off man by 2013. That's a different kind of impact than most of the players on this list can have, but it might be the most valuable of them all.

5. Jason Heyward

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    Sophomore slumps are nothing new, and at age 21, they should not substantially affect a player's long-term prognosis. Jason Heyward is a strong man with a terrific batting eye and the instincts to be a Jay Bruce/Mike Stanton-style right fielder for a time.

    What sets Heyward apart from those two players is his OBP ceiling. He could well hit 35 homers during his peak years, but those guys will always have higher home-run ceilings. Heyward can have more value by coming in at .420 during his best seasons, whereas Stanton and Bruce will top out around .375.

    Heyward is also younger than either of those two players.

4. Jesus Montero

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    Edgar Martinez never had much trouble proving his worth to the city of Seattle, despite his laughable ineptitude when they insisted he play the field. Martinez was a DH, one of the three best hitters in Mariners history and he should be a Hall of Famer.

    For the same reasons as those that made Martinez valuable, Jesus Montero need not be a catcher to be an impact bat. His best season is going to read out something like .330/.415/.585, and someone with an offensive peak that high does not deserve to have their value dismissed for reasons of position.

    Montero could be a 70-bat, 70-power guy, according to Kevin Goldstein of Baseball Prospectus. That's a combination Posey can't match. Neither can Santana or Wieters.

3. Andrew McCutchen

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    Though he struck out an awful lot in 2011 relative to his previous years, McCutchen has been the picture of consistency during his time in the big leagues.

    In three seasons, he has posted OPS+ figures of 121, 121 and 127, meaning (after adjustment for park effects) he has been 21, 21 and 27 percent better than the average batter.

    His OBP consistency is eerie, as McCutchen has landed at .365, .365 and .364 in his three campaigns. He's fast, has plus instincts that will allow him to stick in center field even as that speed fades, and cracked 23 home runs in 2011.

    McCutchen just missed the cut this winter as a would-be Super Two player, so he'll be a league-minimum salary guy one more time. That's a dizzying return on investment.

2. Evan Longoria

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    Some dreadful luck on batted balls put Evan Longoria's MVP season on hold one more time. He was still 39 percent better than the average American League batter, but by virtue of hitting only .239 on balls in play, he actually fell short of what could have been.

    As it was, he hit 31 home runs, giving him 113 before his 26th birthday. Two of those bombs came on September 28, as he almost single-handedly put the Rays in the playoffs.

    For youth and offensive upside, he comes in a close second here, but there may not be an all-around player one would rather have for the next 10 years.

1. Justin Upton

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    If you think the Montero deal was big news, imagine if the Diamondbacks had followed through in November 2010, when they pondered trading Upton.

    At age 23 and in a down year for offense in the NL, Justin Upton posted an .898 OPS in 2011. He hit 31 home runs, stole 21 bases, cracked 39 doubles and isn't close to the fully finished product yet. He still has noise in his back half as he begins his swing, and when he learns to address the ball more directly and trust his strength to generate power, he could become the best batter in the NL.

    Upton has light-tower power, too, hitting high home runs that captivate and intimidate.

    Matt Trueblood is a Bleacher Report Featured Columnist on MLB, and a Loyola University Chicago graduate with a degree in journalism.