So far, we've highlighted the top defensive catchers, shortstops, center fielders, second and third basemen in the Minors. Now we finish the task by taking note of the top first basemen and right fielders.
Identifying the best right fielders isn't unlike selecting the best second or third basemen in that all three positions are generally populated by players who failed higher on the defensive spectrum. The best right fielders should, realistically, be playing in center, but are stuck in a corner because there's less space to cover.
First base is a different beast. The 3-spot requires less range and athleticism than baseball's other positions, but other than catcher, first may require the most refined footwork and coordination. A talented first baseman can provide plenty of value with the glove, bailing out his fellow infielders with difficult scoops and needed stretches to make sure a highlight play ends in the out it deserves.
Dominic Smith, Mets: It's hard for a player to stand out for his defense at first base, the lowest position on Bill James' famed defensive spectrum. It's also rare that a teenager showcases the hands and polished footwork necessary to earn rave industry reviews at first.
In that way, Dominic Smith is a unique talent.
"Elite" is how a rival front office person described Smith's defense this offseason, adding he had the "potential [to win] multiple Gold Gloves."
The 18-year-old was the Mets first-round pick (11th overall) in 2013 primarily because of his offensive promise, but the left-hander's potential and polish at first is also a big part of the package. For starters, the Los Angeles native has some of the softest hands in the organization. During the instructional league last fall, it wasn't uncommon for Smith to compete against and best middle infielders in skills competitions that tested players' ability to field, transfer and throw a ball quickly and accurately.
"He'll be competing against the middle infielders with smaller gloves and he'll be there with his first-base mitt, and sometimes he'll beat those guys," Mets infield coordinator Kevin Morgan said. "He's really just one of those guys who naturally gets it with the glove. He has great hands, soft hands, and actually has a strong, accurate throwing arm. He has a lot to work with."
At first, those talents most clearly show themselves in his ability to scoop balls out of the dirt. Smith has also drawn reviews for his preternatural sense around the bag at first, making him the ideal target for infielders zipping balls across the infield in a hurry.
The goal this spring is to adjust Smith's pre-pitch setup to increase his range -- already a strength thanks to his first-step quickness. Morgan has identified some areas in Smith's approach before the pitch where adjustments could help the first baseman cover an elite amount of ground.
"If he gets to more balls, that'll make him even that much better," Morgan said. "That's where he is now. He's pretty gifted with the ability to catch the baseball."
Jordan Lennerton, Tigers: The first baseman was added to Detroit's 40-man roster this offseason, quite a feat for a player who hails from Langley, British Columbia, and has faced a difficult climb up the Minor League ladder. After playing for the Langley Blaze in the amateur British Columbia Premier Baseball League, Lennerton made his way from El Paso Community College to Oregon State and finally, as a 33rd-round Draft pick, into the Tigers' organization.
In the six years since, Lennerton has made a steady climb through Detroit's system, and his glove has played a major role. Late-round Draft picks like Lennerton have to attract positive attention in any way possible, and with his glove, Lennerton has done just that. With excellent footwork, good athleticism and quality hand-eye coordination, Lennerton could be one of the Major's best defenders at first when he gets there. The baseball world has begun to take notice, too, with Lennerton earning a Minor League Gold Glove for his efforts with Triple-A Toledo in 2013.
Stephen Piscotty, Cardinals: Like fellow Cardinal Patrick Wisdom, Piscotty was a 2012 first-round pick (36th overall) as a third baseman, but the Stanford product was moved to right field prior to the 2013 season. The 23-year-old's skillset plays better in right. He's roughly an average runner but lacked the first-step quickness for third. In right, the 6-foot-3 Piscotty can use his long legs to chew up more ground.
More importantly, though, Piscotty's rocket right arm is a terrifying weapon there.
"It's not quite a [Raul] Mondesi-type arm, but it's not very far from it," Rodriguez said. "When he lets it go, the ball really travels."
The consensus on his arm is that it ranks between plus and plus-plus, putting plenty of carry on the ball when he chucks it and with an improving feel for when to let loose and when to aim for the cut-off man. Beyond that, his reads and routes showed strong improvement in 2013. With more experience, Piscotty should be a well above average defender in right at the Major League level, and Rodriguez has considerable confidence the right fielder will get there because of his tremendous makeup.
"He just needs more seasoning," Rodriguez said. "If he's not there already, he's not very far from playing right at the big league level. His work ethic, again, it takes over when he needs to improve, and he's up to the challenge every day to work hard and work the right way."
Randal Grichuk, Cardinals: St. Louis' offseason pickup promises to play an impressive right field going forward, a testament to his work ethic and coachability. The Angels' 2009 first-round pick (24th overall) was considered a lackluster defender when he signed, but has "drastically improved" in the outfield, according to a rival front office person.
Grichuk set a career high with 11 outfield assists, punishing runners who tested him on reputation, unaware of his budding arm strength. His ability to chase down balls in right also improved, and his 12.3 Fielding Runs Above Average (per Baseball Prospectus) was second among all Minor League right fielders in 2013. Grichuk's efforts were rewarded with a Minor League Gold Glove award in October.
Other Big Arms to Know: Jorge Bonifacio, Royals; Domingo Santana, Astros; Hunter Renfroe, Padres; Jorge Soler, Cubs