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A (Christian) Colon examination

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How has the former first-round pick done in the big leagues?

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From 2004 through 2009, the Kansas City Royals, helmed first by Allaird Baird and then Dayton Moore, owned a bevy of high first-round picks due to the team's perpetual losing.  During that time, their initial picks were pretty good.  Billy Butler, Alex Gordon, Luke Hochevar, Mike Moustakas, Eric Hosmer, and Aaron Crow were those picks.  All six contributed positively to the organization. Gordon is a legitimate star.  We are witnessing the new duo of Hosmer and Moustakas follow in Gordon's hallowed footsteps.  Hochevar's late turn into a shutdown reliever has been a nice boon for Kansas City, and  Crow did have a couple of good seasons in the bullpen (and was an All-Star, of course).  Butler has only been one of the best hitters in Royals history.  This sextet of players all ascended to One Royal Way quickly and became a core part of a number of Royals teams.

Since then, Moore's draft picks have been more or less a no-show group.  Brandon Finnegan did debut last year in the very year of his draft, but he is the only guy that has impacted the Royals in any capacity whatsoever. Foster Griffin, Hunter Dozier, Sean Manaea, Bubba Starling--none of the other first-rounders have even made it to AAA Omaha, and none are remotely close to doing even that right now.

The poster child for Moore's recent inability to cull talent from the amateur draft has been 2010's fifth overall pick, Christian Colon.  Moore chose the Puerto Rican-born shortstop over both Matt Harvey and Chris Sale, both of whom would be taken withing eight picks, both of whom made an All-Star Game before Colon even made it to the majors.  Fortunately for the Royals, Colon finally debuted last year and scored the winning run in the Wild Card Game against Oakland.

Colon is still a rookie technically, and with injuries to Alcides Escobar and Omar Infante as well as Mike Moustakas' trip to the bereavement list, Colon has gotten to play at least a handful of games at every position throughout the infield.  So how has Colon done, and what is he likely to do?

Let's begin with a few scouting reports and evaluations from his pre-draft and early minor league career.  From bbprospectreport.com:

When you look at Christian Colon’s overall package, you don’t find any one tool that blows you away. What you do find is a player who does a lot of things well, which gives him the potential to fit in for years to come.

...He won’t have above-average power, but his spray approach should get him doubles. He wasn’t a burner when I last saw him and he worked hard to rehab from a broken leg suffered in 2009, but he should be a solid average runner. He’s the kind of player who might not wow you, but if you give him a full season, you’ll look up and see a solid season of contributions at the pro level.

From Baseball Prospectus (Jason Parks):

I actually thought Colon was going to develop into a solid-average major-league regular, but at second base—not shortstop. Colon has a mature approach at the plate, with a short-to-the-ball swing that allows for contact. There isn’t much power potential, and his legs aren’t going to do him many favors at the plate or in the field. Speaking of which, Colon can handle the actions of shortstop just fine, with good fundamentals and the necessary body control. His arm can make the standard throws, but anything ranging to his right requires a full-body, max-effort throw to cover the distance, which makes some scouts question the overall utility of the tool. Colon is an instinctual player and a total gamer, but one that doesn’t have any above-average tools and doesn’t have the ceiling you would normally associate with a top-tier draft selection. His projection is still a solid-average major-league regular, but there is a debate whether he can climb to those heights.

From Minor League Ball:

Nothing about Colon's minor league career stand out from a fantasy standpoint, as he doesn't hit for power, or steal many bases, but the fact that he owns an elite eye at the dish should result in a solid batting average and on base percentage once he gets the call up by the Royals. He could slot in the second, eighth or ninth spot in the Royals lineup, with the potential for double digit stolen bases and an above average batting average at the position as he gains experience at the highest level.

The question for Minor League Ball readers is: Will Colon get the call up in 2013, or will the Royals give Johnny Giavotella another year to establish himself at the big league level?

(The answer to that last question is neither. Dayton Moore and Ned Yost would have rather consumed 14 Kauffman Stadium hot dogs apiece if it meant that Giavotella would not play in Kansas City)

From ESPN.com (Keith Law):

Fullerton shortstop Christian Colon has been, in the scouting vernacular, "a guy" since he was a high school senior, when he was one of the better players on the summer showcase circuit but went to Fullerton due to signability and concerns about whether a player as slow-footed as he is could play shortstop in pro ball. Since then he's established himself as a likely first-rounder in 2010 because he has shown he can play the position despite his lack of foot speed - he's a 30 runner - with good range and great hands to make up for the lack of quickness.

At the plate, Colon is usually pretty short to the ball with below-average power and a sound approach, although he occasionally gets into trouble when he lengthens his swing to get coverage on the outer half, at which point he's more likely to hit the ball in the air instead of spraying the field with line drives.

...He could be their (Royals) starter in a year and offers above average defense, on-base skills and power, relative to the position. I like the pick, despite it being a slight reach in terms of raw talent.

To summarize, scouts and industry members saw Colon as a guy with no true strengths but also no true weaknesses.  Offensively, his limited power was balanced by his good eye and hit tool.  Defensively, his solid foot and glove work was balanced by a limited arm and concerns about long-term viability as a shortstop. Colon was also supposed to be a MLB-ready guy, a player who could ascend the system quickly and make an impact quickly.

Unfortunately, Colon was a slow mover, a problem considering his status as an older college player.  He was 25 when he debuted with the Royals last year and turns 26 next week.  Unlike Hosmer, Moustakas, Gordon, Butler, or Salvador Perez, who were all 23 or younger when they made their MLB debut, their isn't much built-in upside on aging. Colon is near his physical peak, and it's pretty unlikely he randomly adds more power to his swing or something.

Colon was drafted as a shortstop, but possesses the technical skills to play all of the infield positions.  Last year (and this year) Colon has been used as the utility infielder, a position well suited to a former first-round pick making the league minimum.

Defensive numbers for Colon at this moment are like Whose Line is it Anyway: everything's made up and the points don't matter.  Well, they matter a little, but since defensive numbers take multiple years to truly stabilize it is silly taking anything to heart for a guy with 40 games played in the majors.  For what it's worth, here's what his career numbers at each position look like:

Second base: -1 DRS, 7.2 UZR/150 in 122 innings

Shortstop: 1 DRS, 20.1 UZR/150 in 87.2 innings

Third base: 2 DRS, N/A UZR/150 in 59 innings

It's here where we turn to our eyes to determine what he looks like in the field.  Colon has made a number of impressive plays at all three infield positions.

From third base: 5/10 vs. Detroit

Colon cleanly plays a short hop and quickly makes a perfect throw to Salvador Perez. This double play basically saves the game.

From shortstop: 5/5 vs. Cleveland

David Murphy hits a liner to the gap between short and third, and Colon makes a few steps to his left, dives, and robs Murphy of a hit. Colon had a fair amount of time to react, but a nice play nonetheless.

From second base: 4/19 vs. Oakland

Here, Colon both dives and throws on an extremely nice play to his left. He makes a smooth movement from laying on the ground to the ball in his hand to a measured, non-rushed throw.

From my amateur scouting eye, Colon looks most comfortable at second base.  His arm strength (or lack thereof) at second is irrelevant, and he looks most comfortable making plays from there.  Colon looks pretty good at shortstop as well, though has made some weird errors.  It's third base where Colon looks uncomfortable; it's there where it is pretty apparent that he's just not in sync with the throws he has to make while over there.

Offensively, Colon has been about what you'd expect from a prospect with unspectacular numbers in the minors.  Colon is currently rocking a wRC+ of 85, meaning he's hitting 15% below league average.  For a utility infielder, that's actually not bad at all.  Remember, the Royals have employed Willie Bloomquist, Pedro Ciriaco, Jamey Carroll, Irving Falu, Tony Abreu, and Yamaico Navarro as utility infielders in recent years.  Colon, even if he is only ever a league average hitter with good-but-not-great defense, is significantly better than any of those names.

And there we come to the real question: should Colon even be a utility infielder?  Or should he be starting in place of Omar Infante?  Infante has been truly awful in his time as a Royal; this year his OBP is a mere .255.  Infante has accumulated 0.3 fWAR in 103 plate appearances.  Colon has accumulated 0.2 fWAR in 65 plate appearances.  If Colon ever gets a little hot--he's yet to hit a home run and his power potential is probably not this bad--he could start to make the case way more interesting.  Of course, the reverse is also true--Infante was a 3 win player as few as two years ago.

Colon and average are two words that are often put together.  For many, that seems like a bad thing.  It's not.  Average has value--average is why the Royals are paying Jeremy Guthrie a disconcerting amount of dollars and why they went out to get Jason Vargas, Omar Infante, and Alex Rios in free agency.  If Colon is merely an average everyday second baseman, that's a win for the Royals.  If only the Royals had that three years ago.