Jose Garcia is out to an outstanding start this spring for the Cincinnati Reds. The 21-year-old prospect is hitting .417/.400/1.250 with one walk, no strikeouts, two sacrifice flies, a stolen base, a double, and three home runs in 15 plate appearances. Small sample size alarms aside, he’s turning some heads. The shortstop isn’t just hitting, though, he’s also shown off his defensive chops several times in his seven games played, too.
This past offseason when I was creating the Cincinnati Reds Top 25 Prospect list, one of the tougher decisions for me was who to rank third and who to rank fourth on the list. It came down to Tyler Stephenson and Jose Garcia. Both guys had a bit of a breakout year – though Garcia’s was more of a breakout given his 2018 season – and both guys have plenty of the tools you want to see from players at premium positions. Stephenson performed in Double-A and his track record is a little bit longer, so he got the edge for me, but it was pretty close and there wouldn’t be much argument at all if anyone wanted to flip the two of them in their own rankings. They’re both very good, Top 100 caliber prospects in my view.
But that view didn’t always align with some of the national publications. Among the five major national lists – Baseball America, Baseball Prospectus, Fangraphs, MLB Pipeline, and The Athletic – Jose Garcia only made two of the lists, and Tyler Stephenson only made one of them. There’s always going to be some disagreements among scouts on who is a better prospect than who – for example, I heard a report from one scout who had seen the Daytona squad this summer who had a player that I don’t have in my Top 25 rated as the teams best prospect. That’s an extreme example, of course – but that’s the opinion of someone paid by a Major League Baseball team to evaluate talent, who had someone I didn’t even consider for my own Reds Top 25 list rated ahead of Jose Garcia and Jonathan India.
On Monday afternoon Garcia came into the Reds game against the Los Angeles Dodgers as a replacement, taking over at shortstop for Alex Blandino. Garcia only got one at-bat, but he singled. I noted in a tweet that he still had not struck out this spring, and that last August he had only struck out 10 times (in 108 trips to the plate). And that things could get really interesting if he’s going to make contact at an elite rate. A user on twitter responded with a question of “Is he the best shortstop prospect for the Reds since Barry Larkin?”
It was a question that I had a quick answer for. No, he’s not. But that is only speaking directly to prospect rankings for the answer rather than looking at the player himself. Let’s take a look back at the Cincinnati Reds shortstop prospects going back to 1990 – among those who rated in the Top 100 Prospects at Baseball America. That’s just after the “Barry Larkin era” began in Cincinnati, so it should cover every true shortstop prospect since. The 1990 date is also important because that’s when Baseball America had their first Top 100 list, so from a true comparison standpoint, that’s as far back as we can go when it comes to rankings.
The Cincinnati Reds have had eight different shortstops rank as Top 100 Prospects since 1990 – though several have been in the Top 100 multiple times. Pokey Reese, for example, was a Top 100 prospect FIVE different times. Here’s the list, in order of the players highest ranking in the Baseball America Top 100:
There are a few caveats with the above list. Billy Hamilton moved to center field in the Arizona Fall League following the 2012 season, but he was a shortstop prior to that point and was on the Top 100 prospects list. Todd Frazier was sort-of-kind-of a shortstop, but not really. David Espinosa (he’s now an international cross checker in the Reds scouting department) was a shortstop in 2001, but then didn’t play the position again for nearly a decade while playing independent league baseball. Everyone else, though, stuck around at shortstop for a while after appearing on the list.
When looking at who remains, Didi Gregorius and Zack Cozart stick out. They both put together careers that will have lasted at least a decade in Major League Baseball. Cozart will log his 10th season this year, while Gregorius will reach that mark in 2021. Both players have also logged 16 career WAR (Baseball Reference version).
The other three players all reached the Major Leagues. Gookie Dawkins spent parts of four years in the big leagues, but struggled – hitting .163/.241/.204 in just 110 career plate appearances. Pokey Reese played in parts of eight seasons in the majors from 1997 through 2004. His best season came in 1999 with the Reds in that magical, out-of-nowhere year where he hit .285/.330/.417 (which with context of baseball at the time was actually well below-average with an OPS+ of just 86). He racked up 3138 plate appearances in the big leagues with a .248/.307/.352 line. And then there was Damien Jackson. He saw action in parts of 11 seasons in the majors between 1996-2006, accumulating 2509 plate appearances and a .243/.323/.356 line.
It’s easy to look back and see the end result of the careers for the latter three guys mentioned. We know what did and didn’t work out for them. For Jose Garcia, we don’t really know how his career will play out. And even for the two guys still active, while we don’t know how their careers will ultimately wind up – they’ve both put together strong big league careers to this point.
Let’s take a look back, though, at how each player was performing at age 21. That’s the most recent performance baseline we have for Jose Garcia – his performance last season in Daytona.
Now, let’s first note that this is the line for each player during their age 21 season, and not necessarily their line during their top ranked season. With that said, Jose Garcia not only outhit everyone, he did so by a whole heck of a lot at the same age. It’s worth noting, though that he was at a lower level than most of these guys – and also that Zack Cozart posted that line directly out of the draft in full season ball.
Among that entire group, only Garcia and Reese were even better than league average hitters in their age 21 seasons. The others, sans Cozart, were close, though. Only Garcia played in a pitcher friendly environment during his age 21 season, and he out-slugged everyone, and did so by an enormous amount for several of them.
But shortstop, even today, is considered more of a glove-first position. It’s the special ones that can both field and hit at shortstop. Now, let’s first start off with me saying flat out that defensive statistics that are publicly available are garbage for infielders. They are a little better than that for outfielders – but they still aren’t great. But for infielders you may as well use RBI to tell how good an infielder is if you’re going to use defensive stats (ok, this is a slight overreaction – but defensive stats suck all kinds of awful for infielders).
Jose Garcia appears to be a good defender. You don’t need to be a professional scout to tell that if you’ve seen him play. But even if you are one, well – it’s easy to see. He’s got range, good hands, and a big time arm. He passes the tests on the scouting reports.
How do the other guys stack up on that end of things? Let’s work our way backwards from most recent to least recent on the lists. Didi Gregorius was regarded as the best defensive shortstop in the organization while he was still in the organization, drawing high grades for his arm, athleticism, and his range. Zack Cozart has solid grades on the defensive side of things – known more for solid range, a solid but very accurate arm, and very good hands. Those two were the only ones I was personally able to see in person. Everyone else I’m simply relying on reports from the Baseball America Prospect Handbooks of the past.
Heading back to 2000 we have Gookie Dawkins, who among those who remained at shortstop, was the highest rated Reds shortstop ever – coming in at #21. Defensively he had range, outstanding quickness and speed, soft hands, and plenty of arm to stick out at shortstop. He was described as having Gold Glove potential in the write up following that 1999 season.
Two years earlier Damian Jackson was the #61 prospect in the game. The tools seemed to be there for Jackson at shortstop, but the consistency in using them wasn’t according to the writeup following his 1998 season. He showed a big arm and was considered to be an outstanding athlete. Cincinnati traded him before the 1999 season to San Diego.
In 1994 it was Pokey Reese with his highest spot on the Baseball America Top 100 list, coming in at #41. He also rated at #75, #48 (two different times), and #60 on the list. Unfortunately I don’t have the Handbook for that year, and none of the scouting reports from his time on the lists are available online with an easy google search. But we do all know how good he was at the Major League level once he got there, too. And he was good. Really good. While he would spend a larger chunk of his career at second base because he was on the same team as Barry Larkin, Reese picked up two Gold Gloves at the position.
When it comes to the whole package, it honestly feels like Jose Garcia matches up well with all of these guys. He performed significantly better at the plate than all of them at the same age, and while it’s possible he’s not quite the elite level defender that Reese was, or perhaps Dawkins was said to be – he’s still pretty good at shortstop.
So that brings us back to the original question: Is Jose Garcia the best Reds shortstop prospect since Barry Larkin? Hindsight skews things a little bit, but it seems that we can make a reasonable argument that Garcia at least matches up quite well with any of these guys from this list.
But let’s take a look at Hall of Famer Barry Larkin. He was drafted by the Reds twice. In 1982 they selected him out of Moeller High School in the 2nd round, but he decided to go play at Michigan. Three years later he would go 4th overall to Cincinnati and he would jump straight into Double-A after the draft. He hit .267/.331/.345 with 12 steals – only being caught once – and he walked more often than he struck out. The power didn’t show up immediately that season, but everything else seemed to. He was the same age then that Garcia was in 2019.
The next season he saw action in both AAA and the Major Leagues. Larkin tore up Denver and the American Association, hitting .329/.373/.525 – good for a 139 OPS+. He’d also hit .283/.320/.403 at the big league level that year. It still drives me insane to think how there were people who saw Larkin and Kurt Stillwell as an uncertain decision, who at no point in his career at any level beyond rookie ball that he was any sort of hitting threat. It would be one thing if Larkin were a terrible fielder with no chance at all to play the position, but we clearly know that wasn’t the case. Hindsight and everything, but yeah – I’ll never understand that one.
Back to Jose Garcia and Barry Larkin, though. To match up with Larkin at age 22 it’s going to take a huge season for Garcia. Larkin just raked at that age and he did so in Triple-A – a level higher than where Garcia is expected to begin his age 22 season. Of course, we all know that Larkin has gone on to do great things in his career. Hall of Famer, 12-time All-Star, 9-time Silver Slugger winner, 3-time Gold Glove winner, league MVP – yeah, he was pretty good. It’s not really a fair comparison. And it shouldn’t be. Larkin’s an All-Time great. He’s got a plaque to prove that.
Jose Garcia’s a heck of a prospect, though. His start to this spring is certainly elevating the conversation around his name and his game. People that normally wouldn’t be talking about him, or even know who he is – they are talking about him and they are asking questions about the young shortstop. He stacks up quite well with the crop of elite shortstop prospects the organization has had in the last 30 years. And while he may not rank quite as highly as some of them have, at least not yet, you can easily argue his skills and performance last year put him there with any of them.