28. Ezequiel Tovar (65 points, 6 ballots)
The last time we did this ranking, I was the only person to put Ezequiel Tovar on my ballot. This year, I’m pleased that some of the electorate has joined me in highlighting the 19-year-old shortstop prospect (who began as a switch-hitter but now swings righty only). Signed out of Venezuela for $800k in August 2017 on his 16th birthday, Tovar quickly showed he was on an advanced prospect track.
After a strong debut season in the Dominican Summer League in 2018 — Tovar hit .262/.369/.354 (115 wRC+) against pitchers who were 1.8 years older on average — he made his stateside debut in June 2019 with the Boise Hawks in Short Season A (a level that no longer exists). It’s incredibly rare for a 17-year-old like Tovar to be playing in the Northwest League against mostly college draftees — indeed, Tovar was 3.8 years younger than league average during the season. Not only that, but Tovar was the starting shortstop, flashing the tools that have led some observers like MLB Pipeline to declare him the best defensive player in the system, a no-doubt shortstop prospect defensively despite 17 errors in 2019.
Without the context of his youth and defensive utility, Tovar’s batting line with the Hawks was hardly distinctive: .249/.304/.313 with 13 steals in 243 plate appearances (80 wRC+). With that context, it turns more prospect-worthy. Tovar was transferred to Rookie ball (another level gone to us in 2021) Grand Junction in mid-August, where he was still 3.6 years younger than league average and still played shortstop. With Grand Junction, he improved with the bat to the tune of a .264/.357/.347 line in 86 PAs (94 wRC+), buoyed by a 11.6% BB%. Again, not a noteworthy line until you remember the position played and the youth.
“He’s a special defender,” Wilson said. “And he’s gotten stronger and came in swinging the bat well. He’s impressed for a 19-year-old who hasn’t played at all this year.”
There isn’t a lot of video out there on Tovar right now, save for this 2017 peak posted by the Rockies before Tovar abandoned switch hitting:
Tovar is currently ranked 25th in the system by MLB Pipeline:
The good news is that, defensively, Tovar is just about ready to play at any level. He makes everything look easy at shortstop and has the chance to play the premium position for a long time in the big leagues. He’s not just flashy, making the spectacular plays; he makes the routine ones, too, with easy actions, plus hands and an easily plus arm. He’s perhaps a tick above-average speed wise and will likely end up being an average runner in the future, but his instincts and great first step put him on a different plane than others defensively.
There’s more question about just how much his bat will play. Initially a switch-hitter, Tovar is now focusing on only hitting right-handed, which gives a better chance at success. He has a decent lower half, but lacks strength in his upper half, so there hasn’t been much impact with his swing. With his glove, he doesn’t have to hit a ton, but if he can add some strength and find some gap-to-gap ability, he could develop into a defensive-minded regular.
As you would expect by reading that description, Tovar’s profile is headlined by plus (60) grades on his arm and fielding ability. The offensive profile (45 hit, 35 power) is less enticing.
That sentiment is echoed by Fangraphs, who ranked Tovar 23rd in the system last year with a 40 FV grade:
Tovar is a complete defensive player, both instinctive and fundamentally sound, as well as flashy and acrobatic. He’s already ditched switch-hitting and is severely lacking in strength at the plate, which needs to improve dramatically if he’s going to be a big leaguer at all, let alone some kind of regular. There’s risk that he only develops into a Dixon Machado type of player, but he has a real carrying tool in the defense.
I’ll grant you this: a defense-first player is not the kind of profile that gets the imagination going. Still, there’s a lot of value in being able to play shortstop well in the big leagues, and Tovar has it as a teenager. The bat still needs to be playable though, and that’s where we’ll see if Tovar can develop into a serviceable offensive player. I ranked Tovar 21st on my personal ballot with a 40 FV grade — I’m obviously encouraged by the defensive utility and how aggressively the Rockies have pushed Tovar so far, but the bat has to show well against advanced pitching for him to make it to The Show and stick.
Tovar’s 2021 assignment will be interesting — as mentioned above, the two levels he played at in 2019 no longer exist and a spot in the complex league team seems like a step back, but a jump to full season ball might be a bridge too far. The decision the Rockies make with Tovar will be a good bellwether about how quickly they think he can be a big league contributor.