The Marlins haven’t made the playoffs in a decade or had a winning season since 2009; morever, their record has declined every season since they last broke even, culminating in a 100-loss season last year in spite of the presence of feared slugger Giancarlo Stanton and a solid pitching staff led by phenom Jose Fernandez. The spell of losing understandably puts pressure on Miami’s farm system to produce, and one member of their organization upon whom a considerable amount rests is 2013 first-rounder Colin Moran. A highly-touted college third baseman out of UNC, Moran was selected sixth overall in the past draft and was polished enough to immediately flirt with the .300 mark in full-season ball; he also was deemed polished enough for the Arizona Fall League after just 42 games of professional experience. In this piece, I’ll look at how Moran projects and if he can eventually help a Marlins team that hit just .231/.293/.335 this past season.
On face, Colin Moran has a bit of an unusual profile for such a highly-touted player. First, speed is not a part of his game–he stole only four bases in 179 college games, adding one in his 42 professional contests. Second, his power output in college fluctuated–he was never punchless, but after ripping a .205 ISO as a freshman, he declined to .129 in his sophomore campaign before bringing it back to .199 as a junior–he never even lead his college team in the statistic. As a professional, he just slugged .442 (.143 ISO) with Low-A Greensboro before wilting in the AFL (.230/.323/.264).
It seems a bit unusual for a position player with below-average speed and non-light-tower power to be selected so highly–the former precludes a player from both baserunning impact and the ability to play up the middle (except catchers, obviously), while the latter dilutes his potential offensive impact. As you might expect, though, the rest of Moran’s skillset holds up well, at least superficially. He walked 131 times in college while striking out just 82, including a 25/63 K/BB ratio as a junior, and was often touted as the best pure hitter among draft-eligible collegians in 2013, building on that reputation by immediately hitting .299 in Greensboro upon his entry into pro ball, albeit with a reduced 25/15 K/BB in 42 games. Moran also has a strong arm and shows good mobility at third base despite his lack of straight-line speed; further, his soft hands allowed him to field .927 in Greensboro, which is quite good for a 20-year-old third baseman.
On paper, that makes Moran sound something like Joe Randa–the sort of player who can hit .280/.340/.420 with above-average defense at third base. Randa only cracked the 3 WAR barrier twice in his twelve-year career, though, which underscores the limitations of a player without the athleticism to play up the middle or the power to hit in the middle of the order.
The interesting thing about watching Moran play, though, is that he doesn’t look like Joe Randa or his ilk. Moran is a big, strapping 6’4″ player with a big frame (listed at 190 pounds, he looks closer to the 215-220 range) with an imposing open stance that looks geared for pull power. Indeed, all four of his home runs were hit to straightaway right field. I witnessed two of them:
In both instances, the ball really jumped off Moran’s bat for a no-doubt round-tripper. Greensboro’s park is notably hitter-friendly, especially for lefthanded batters (LHB HR park factor of 178), which may lead one to look at the following numbers with suspicion:
Moran at NewBridge Bank Ballpark: .380/.422/.608, 4 HR
Moran on the road: .213/.282/.267, 0 HR
Except, well, small sample size (90 PA at home; 85 on the road). And this. And most of the difference is in the 4-0 homer split (his walks and doubles were both basically equal), and here we have two homers that happened to be hit at home that likely would have cleared just about any other fence in the SAL. High-A Jupiter of the notoriously difficult Florida State League will test Moran’s ability more than the Grasshoppers’ friendly confines did, but don’t expect an offensive collapse based on these flimsy road numbers.
As you can see above, Moran starts from a wide-open stance conducive to pulling the ball. He isn’t a dead-pull hitter, though, according to this chart from MLBFarm. He tends to pull grounders, and all four of his homers cleared right-field fences, but the rest of his contact is rather evenly distributed.
How does Moran strike out so little (14.3% of the time in Greensboro) with such a large strike zone, though? Much of the credit is owed to his natural hand-eye coordination and contact-based approach. Despite his natural strength and power potential, Moran doesn’t swing for the fences, focusing on making hard contact and letting the deep fly balls come naturally through backspin.
Moran doesn’t have the simplest hitting mechanics out there, with a lot of extraneous movement in the backswing and a fairly pronounced legkick, but he makes up for it with his natural hand-eye coordination, bat speed, and focus on contact. The inefficiencies in his swing likely preclude him from ever being the sort of John Olerud-esque approach maven that his reputation might suggest, though Moran will likely have better-than-average strikeout rates all the way up the chain barring a dramatic shift in his approach. Combined with his natural ability to barrel the ball, he could evolve into a .275-.290 hitter in spite of his lack of speed.
While Moran faced questions about his ability to stick at third base entering pro ball, he acquitted himself fairly well. Here’s a look at everything I saw Moran do in six games in 2013 (defensive plays first, then batting clips):
Moran makes a few miscues in the array of defensive clips, guessing wrong on whether a bunt goes foul, rushing a throw in an attempt to gun down speedy Felix Sanchez, and failing to come up with a slow tapper, but he demonstrates a strong arm, a feel for positioning, and a quick enough first step to project well in the long haul. He moves very well to his right to guard the line and is competent at charging bunts. With further refinement, he projects as a solid defender at the spot.
Third basemen who hold their own defensively while hitting .275 or better almost automatically can find work, especially if they hit from the left side of the plate (see Nick Punto, Alberto Callaspo, etc.). Third basemen as a whole hit .260/.324/.412 in MLB last year; if Moran can indeed hit .275, all he’d have to do is post a non-awful walk rate and a .137 ISO to meet the standards of the position.
It is these two elements, though, that will determine whether Moran approaches stardom or ends up as merely a complementary, Randa-esque player who oozes competence without ever threatening to become a major force. Power can often be the last of the tools to fully show up, and it’s far from unheard of for a hit-tool-oriented player to morph into a true over-the-fence threat as he reaches his mid-twenties. Moran certainly has the raw strength to start clearing fences more regularly if he wants to, though it remains to seen what effect a concerted effort to increase his power output would have on his contact skills. Further, though he was fairly young for a college draftee–he didn’t turn 21 until after the conclusion of the minor league season–Moran is already fairly filled out and isn’t the sort of player who projects to add a ton of strength and physical power. An increase in slugging, then, will have to come more from mechanical/approach refinement than physical development.
Likewise, the fall of his walk rate from 17.7% as a college junior to 8.3% as a South Atlantic Leaguer is a bit concerning–in many ways, more so than the drop from a .199 ISO to .143. The latter can be explained largely by small sample size, whereas approach stabilizes quickly. Moran certainly shows a reasonable batting eye in the video above, keeping a fairly consistent hitting zone and not being prone to chasing wayward breaking pitches, particularly against righthanders (Moran had a 12/10 K/BB in 107 PA vs. RHPs and a 13/5 K/BB in 68 PA against LHPs). Moran did walk twelve times in 22 Arizona Fall League contests, but that’s an insanely small sample, his strikeout rate climbed up to 18.3% in the showcase league, and his power completely vanished, so the walk increase was small consolation. Anyway, AFL stats don’t mean anything in the first place, right?
Another item of note is that Moran appeared somewhat fatigued and low-energy during his time in Greensboro, and reportedly even more so in the AFL. That’s pretty understandable, given that he arrived in pro ball after a grueling college campaign. Between UNC, Greensboro, and the AFL, Moran participated in 155 contests spanning almost the whole calendar year, a big jump from 41 games the previous season. To be fair, though, his Greensboro numbers don’t really fit the fatigue narrative–he started off 5-for-30 in his first nine contests before hitting .331/.377/.476 the rest of the way and then dropping off in the AFL. Still, it’s quite possible that he could post improved numbers after an offseason of rest–he would hardly be the first college draftee to undergo such a transformation.
On the whole, Moran is certainly an interesting prospect, a third baseman with good bat-to-ball skills, a sound approach, and some power potential. The most important thing to watch with him in 2014 is how his walk rate progresses in High-A–due to the aforementioned pitcher-friendliness of his home park (and league) at that level, any power breakout is likely to come down the line. It’s tough to say if, when, and where such a breakout might occur, so Moran is the sort of prospect who should be monitored closely and then quickly added once he shows signs of being able to consistently clear fences along with maintaining his contact ability. His on-base ability, on the other hand, should be relatively unaffected by the move to the FSL, so we’re likely to get a much clearer picture of how frequently to expect Moran to work bases on balls at the professional level in 2014. If he can get his walk rate soundly into double digits without seeing his strikeout fall into the average range, he’ll emerge as a high-floor prospect with Chase Headley/Matt Carpenter-style potential.
Overall, Moran has a slightly unusual package of skills for such a high draftee, and he’s a line-drive hitter trapped in a home run hitter’s body, but he remains on track to become a solid regular. His projection will get much clearer in 2014 with a full season of data following an offseason of rest. For now, he has perhaps enough loose ends dangling to keep him from elite prospect status, but he’s already one of the most intriguing third base prospects in the game, and he could find himself in Miami relatively quickly due to his polish and the aforementioned offensive struggles of the major league team. Even in shallow dynasty formats, he’s someone to monitor closely in 2014, because any statistical progress will indicate both solid potential and a likely fast track to MLB playing time.
Nathaniel Stoltz is a prospect writer for FanGraphs. A resident of Bowie, MD and University of Maryland graduate student, he frequently views prospects in the Carolina and South Atlantic Leagues. He can be followed on Twitter at @stoltz_baseball.