There's a good amount of subjectivity regarding baseball prospects. With the evaluation of talent being in the eye of the beholder, finding consensus is often difficult. Even Jim Callis and Jonathan Mayo of MLBPipeline.com don't always see eye to eye. They discuss their viewpoints regularly in a feature called Pipeline Perspectives. Submit a topic for them to debate.
The Padres got more speed than any other club out of the 2012 First-Year Player Draft.
They spent their first two selections on pitchers; Max Fried at No. 7 overall in the first round and Zach Eflin at No. 33 in the supplemental first. With their next sandwich pick, they grabbed Stony Brook outfielder Travis Jankowski, whose speed grades as a 70 on the 20-80 scouting scale. In the eighth round, they got someone just as quick in Kentucky outfielder Brian Adams, who also doubled as a wide receiver for the Wildcats.
In his first full pro season, Jankowski topped the high Class A California League with 71 stolen bases, ranking fifth in the Minor Leagues. Yet neither he nor Adams is the fastest player whom San Diego drafted in 2012.
Instead, that distinction belongs to outfielder Mallex Smith, a fifth-round pick from Santa Fe (Fla.) Junior College. Smith, whose speed rates as an 80, also won a stolen-base title in his first full pro season. He paced the low Class A Midwest League with 64 swipes, tying him for eighth in the Minors.
I forecast even greater heights for Smith in 2014. He's my choice to lead the entire Minors in steals this season.
Smith has all of the attributes necessary to run wild on the basepaths. He has the speed, and he has the know-how, as he has succeeded on 80 percent of his pro attempts. By point of comparison, the otherworldly Billy Hamilton was safe on 82 percent of his steal tries in the Minors.
Smith's on-base ability is equally important. He posted a .367 OBP in 2013, no small feat for a 20-year-old getting acclimated to pro ball in one of the more pitcher-friendly leagues around. At 5-foot-9 and 155 pounds, Smith understands that his role is to be a tablesetter, not a slugger, so he focuses at working counts and putting the ball in play on the ground.
Smith showed the ability to make adjustments in the Midwest League last year, improving his OBP from .350 in the first half of the season to .381 after the All-Star break. Not coincidentally, his steals also rose from .49 per game to .66 per game. Both of those numbers should continue to trend upward in 2014.
Because the Padres have a logjam of outfielders ready for high Class A, and Smith won't turn 21 until May, he'll open this season back in the MWL. Players repeating levels tend to fare better the second time around. And when San Diego finds room for him in the Cal League, he'll benefit from one of the friendliest hitting environments in the Minors.
Another factor that plays in Smith's favor is that he'll spend all or most of this season in Class A. The previous eight Minor League stolen-base kings -- Micah Johnson, Hamilton (twice), Delvi Cid, Anthony Gose, Everth Cabrera, Ovandy Suero, Eric Young -- all did the same. In the last 23 seasons, only Todd Donovan (2005) won a stolen-base crown while in the upper Minors.
For that reason, I'm not betting on Johnson to repeat. That's also why I'm not going with Jankowski, Mayo's choice, even though he had more steals than Smith last year and is a better overall prospect. The same is true of Athletics outfielder Billy Burns.
None of them can match Smith's combination of tools, skills and 2014 destination. Neither can anyone else. That's why Smith will lead the Minors in steals this season.