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Ask the Experts: Nolan Gorman and Second Base

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Gorman is working out at second base. Let’s hear from some prospect experts on whether he can stick there.

When the Cardinals acquired Nolan Arenado, it immediately brought into question the future of another Nolan – Nolan Gorman, one of the top third base prospects in the minors.

With Arenado likely occupying the hot corner for most of the next decade, the common belief was that Gorman should just hang out at third in the minors and, when his bat showed he was ready for the majors, the club would surely be able to find a place for him in their lineup. That could be third or first in the unfortunate event of an injury to Arenado or Goldschmidt, the outfield (where the Cardinals might have needs), or even the DH if it comes to stay in 2022.

Immediately after the trade, Gorman joked that he would have to start working out at 2b!

Ha! What a funny guy with a great sense of humor!

And then this happened:

Huh. So, he wasn’t joking?

No, he wasn’t. Instead, he sought permission from the front office to head down to Jupiter early and start working out at the keystone position with Jose Oquendo.

We have images to prove it:

Could Nolan Gorman actually learn to play acceptable defense at 2b?

There really was no way for me to answer that question without considerable research that I was ill-equipped to do on short notice. Fortunately, I learned long ago that you (me) don’t have to be an expert on everything. If you don’t know something, ask those who do know. The greater Cardinals blogging community has some really smart prospect analysts who do the hard labor of binging minor league baseball, scouting exciting young prospects, and sharing their thoughts with us. We have a couple of them right here on Viva El Birdos!

I thought it might be interesting to do a quick survey of some of the prospect analysts that I routinely follow to get their thoughts on Gorman and a possible move to 2b.

Before I even dig into their responses, I want to say a huge thank you to all of these guys for taking the time to give me their honest opinions. Click on their links. Follow them on Twitter. Read their material. If you are interested at all in minor league development, they are all worth following.

What I’ll do here is present their comments with minimal commentary, then we’ll dig into some common trends and some stats.

Let’s start internally. Our own resident prospect guru, A.E. Schafer, provided a lengthy write up for us:

A.E. Schafer: “Gorman was a shortstop in high school, but his frame and lack of foot speed pretty much always pointed to a corner infield spot being a better choice than an up-the-middle position. That being said, second is less demanding in terms of range and pure arm strength, so it’s at least a possibility. He would probably need to play it in a specific way, probably playing deeper than most in order to augment his range and then rely on his quick release and stronger arm than most second base types to make up for playing so deep. Basically, though, what you’re talking about is a situation where you sacrifice defense for the bat, and Gorman’s bat could absolutely be special enough to make that tradeoff worth it. It was worth it early in Matt Carpenter’s career, and it was certainly worth it for Jeff Kent’s entire MLB tenure, which is the guy I would put forward as both the best-case scenario for that kind of tradeoff and also a pretty damned good physical comp for Nolan himself.

(More relevant material from the Red Baron: A.E.’s Draft write-up from 2018; A.E.’s 2020 Top Prospects List)

Kyle Reis is one of my favorite prospect analysts over at Birds on the Black. He’s always been willing to answer questions for me. On his most recent version of “Prospects After Dark” (I’m sure you can find it through your preferred Podcast service), he lauded Gorman for his athleticism and arm strength in a potential move to the outfield. He thinks some of those traits could help him play 2b:

Kyle Reis: “Well, my initial thought is that if Mike Moustakas can do it then Gorman should be able to as well. I just think when he was drafted out of high school everyone thought that he would have to move to first but he worked hard enough that he looked like a sure-fire third baseman on an average to potentially above level for a couple of years at least in 2019. So I feel confident that he has the athleticism and the drive to be as good as he possibly can there. I would prefer him in the outfield over second base, and I’d actually love to see him play some shortstop in spring, but I get why that’s where he would stick. The rumor is he likes the infield better than the outfield and that’s why [he’s] at second base instead of the outfield anyway”

Twitter came through with several valuable, though brief reactions. Here’s what VEB contributor Trevor Hooth had to say:

And also the excellent @mdthompFWFB from Prospects Live:

Maybe you noticed some common points in their reactions. Let’s focus on three:

1. This could work.

This was a subtle but important point that everyone agreed on. Gorman possesses enough of the right kinds of skills to make a move to second at least worth trying. He has a strong arm. He moves well enough. He has the athleticism and work ethic. Those traits that make him into an average or better third base prospect defensively should help him survive across the diamond.

In my opinion, I just don’t see much downside here. I’ve always believed that a prospect should stay at the hardest position on the defensive spectrum that they can handle while in the minors regardless of the roster situation at the major league level. Players can always walk down the spectrum if that’s what it takes to get them PAs once they reach the show.

2. Expect Gorman to be average or worse at second.

While the analysts think Gorman should try this, none of them believe that his skillset and body-type will allow him to be better than average at the position. Three players were cited as comparables: Mike Moustakas, Matt Carpenter, and Jeff Kent. Let’s take each in turn.

Mike Moustakas: Moose has been primarily a third baseman in the majors. His defensive profile is somewhat mixed: -5 DRS and +15.3 UZR career. Spread over 10 seasons’ worth of data, that points toward Moustakas as an average defender at third.

In 2019, at the age of 30, Moose was shifted to 2b by the Brewers. The Reds did the same thing the next season. He has 603 IPs at 2b with a -3/-.1 DRS/UZR overall at the position. Not great… but also not terrible, especially considering his age and his lack of experience at the position.

Matt Carpenter: Carpenter also arrived as a third baseman, but need and his own versatility motivated the Cards to be flexible with him defensively. Here are the results:

3b overall: 5333 IP, +8 DRS, -14.4 UZR
2b overall: 1688.2 IP, -13 DRS, -7.9 UZR

2013 accounts for 1100 of those 2b innings, and that year, at age 27, Carpenter was -2/.3 DRS/UZR. That’s in the range of average and remarkably close to Moustakas.

Jeff Kent: Kent played over 17,000 innings in his career at 2b. We have advanced defensive stats from 2002-2008, his age 34-40 seasons. In those 7 seasons, Kent had a -52 DRS and a -30.6 UZR. Most of the damage, though, was done in his last four seasons, when he was in his upper 30’s. From ’02-’04, Kent had a -5/+7.9 DRS/UZR. Even with a poor defensive reputation, Kent wasn’t that far from average at the position.

The point? Overall Moose and Carpenter were a little worse at second than they were at third, but the difference is not all that extreme. Both players were significantly older than Nolan Gorman when they transitioned to second. Kent, on the other hand, has the reputation of being a bad defender but was probably still performing at a more-than-acceptable level there considering his bat until his mid-30s.

If Gorman lands anywhere in the range of these players, he’s probably going to be playable at the position. Average probably is his upside based on these comps, but that doesn’t seem as far out of reach as one might imagine.

3. His bat should make it worth it.

Let’s look a little deeper at Kent. In ’03, Kent was average or a little worse defensively. He had a good but not elite 120 wRC+. That translated into an attractive 3.3 fWAR. The next year UZR rated him higher, he was about the same on offense and was a 4.2 fWAR player.

In 2013, Carpenter had his best overall season. He was average or worse defensively, provided a 146 wRC+ and an MVP-caliber 7.2 fWAR.

Moustakas had his most 2b innings in ’19 and provided one of his better career fWARs – 2.8 with just a 114 wRC+.

Those performances should help put Gorman’s value as a 2b’man in context. It really won’t take that much offensive production for Gorman to provide starter-caliber production (2.0+ fWAR.) If Moustakas is a fair enough defensive comp, then Gorman would just have to provide around a 100 wRC+ to do that. If he can’t reach those offensive levels, then all of this becomes moot anyway.

If he exceeds that level of offensive performance, then his defensive deficiencies at second will likely become irrelevant. If he consistently lands in the the 120+ wRC+ range, Gorman would probably make a few All-Star teams as a second baseman all while playing Jeff Kent/Matt Carpenter 2b defense. I think most analysts would agree that a 120’ish wRC+ is within Gorman’s hitting abilities, though not a sure thing.

That means that what has always been true for Gorman remains true regardless of where he plays on the field: he has to hit! And if he hits, he’ll play.

If nothing else, this will make for a great conversation this spring. Hopefully, it goes well and Gorman can continue the experiment into the minor league season. I can’t wait to see if he gets time there at games during Spring Training!