Recently, a reader who didn't follow rookies or prospects until last year asked me for an article about Colorado Rockies third baseman Nolan Arenado and how he was viewed as a prospect. We aim to please here at Minor League Ball, so let's take a look.
Nolan Arenado was drafted by the Rockies in the second round in 2009, from high school in El Toro, California. At the time, he was seen as an excellent hitter with a great throwing arm, but scouts weren't sure that he had the range or hands to remain at third base, which created enough doubt to keep him out of the first round. He signed without much trouble for $625,000 and went to Casper in the Pioneer League for his pro debut, where he hit .300/.351/.404, not showing big home run power but doing a good job making contact.
A groin injury limited Arenado to 92 games for Asheville in the South Atlantic League in 2010, but he performed quite well in those 92 games with a .308/.338/.520 mark with 41 doubles. His glovework was still doubted, but he tapped into his power more readily and continued to make solid contact, fanning just 52 times in 373 at-bats.
2011 was a breakout season: .298/.349/.487 with 20 homers, 122 RBI with a 47/53 BB/K ratio in 517 at-bats for Modesto in the California League. He followed this up by winning the MVP Award in the Arizona Fall League. Although the Cal League environment was ideally-suited for his talents, the general consensus was that his home run increase was not just a statistical illusion. He also made huge strides on defense, showing the range and arm strength to handle third base along with improved reliability, erasing doubts about his ability to fit positionally at the hot spot.
2012 presented more challenges. He got off to a decent start for Double-A Tulsa, but the Rockies were not impressed with his attitude or frustration at not being promoted, with Rockies GM Dan O'dowd making a public comment about Arenado's maturity level.
He immediately pitched into a deep slump following O'Dowd's comment (.165/.252/.272 in July), but rallied to finish the season on a strong note. His overall .285/.337/.428 line with 12 homers looked disappointing on the surface, but he did hit 36 doubles and still made solid contact. His defense continued to improve as well.
Most importantly, Arenado's 2012 line was actually better than what he did in 2011 when league/park context is considered. His wRC+ actually improved slightly in '12 compared to '11, going from 108 to 110.
Arenado got off to an excellent start in '13 (.364/.392/.667 for Triple-A Colorado Springs) and there were no more complaints about his attitude. Promoted to the majors, he hit .267/.301/.405 in 486 at-bats, distinctly below average production for the context. His glove was excellent, however, boosting his value to 2.4 fWAR. The bat improved slightly in 2014, then he exploded for 42 homers last season.
It is too soon in his career for historical parallels to mean much, especially given the distortions produced by Coors Field. Through his career thus far Arenado is a .310/.350/.571 hitter at home but just .250/.287/.440 on the road. The defense plays everywhere, of course, and he is still quite young, having turned 25 earlier this month.
Two key observations:
***Arenado has shown greatly improved plate management skills this year, with a near doubling of his walk rate while cutting strikeouts in half without any loss in power production. The sample size is too small right now to draw a broad conclusion, but that's something to watch.
***It's interesting that his glove was originally doubted, but defense has turned into his best present asset.