Drafted out of the University of Florida, Nolan Fontana signed quickly with the Astros. The Astros aggressively placed him at A ball with the Lexington Legends, Fontana showed us why the Astros drafted him in the second round of the 2012 draft, with their third pick.
In 222 plate appearances with the Legends Fontana hit .225/.464/.338 in 49 games. That .464 on base percentage comes with an absolutely ridiculous 29.3% walk rate. It's pretty safe to say that walk rate will come down, but I've never seen a player put up that kind of on-base percentage in the Minor Leagues before. The only prospect I could liken him to is J.B. Shuck, who has walked more than he's struck out, but even he never posted an on-base percentage above .400 or even a walk rate that high, in his Minor League career.
One of the other positives about Fontana's offense is his base running which appears to be a plus. In 14 chances this season Fontana stole 12 bases. In about half a season worth of at bats that's pretty good and likely means he has 20-30 stolen base potential, with a very sabermetric friendly stolen base percentage.
Walking and running aside, the batting average and slugging percentage are concerns, but it was an aggressive placement by the Astros, so it's not surprising that he's struggled to hit for average, and he was never going to be a power guy anyway. At best he was pegged as a doubles power hitter, and nothing he's done so far changes that assessment. Another year of Minor League data will give us a clearer picture regarding what type of offensive player Fontana can be for the Astros. For the time being, we can be encouraged by the on-base percentage and base running ability.
There's been mixed reviews regarding Fontana's defense. Some have suggested he'll need to move to second base, while others think he'll do well enough at shortstop. Watching him during this years college season I thought he had a chance to stick at short. After seeing him in person I've adjusted my assessment of his defense a bit.
I got to see him towards the end of July when the Lexington Legends took on the Greenville Drive. He looked okay at the position, but had a couple miscues. On one play in particular he struggled to handle a tough bounce, while on another he airmailed a throw into the stands, on a routine grounder.
This is only one game though and I was informed by Bryan Trostel of Astros County, who went to the same series, that he looked a lot better in the other games. So for the time being I'll stick with him at short, but I'm beginning to see why there's some mixed reviews about his defense.
Statistically speaking, Fontana was given six errors in 233 chances this season with the Legends at shortstop.
Conclusion and Where To Go From Here
Nolan Fontana is not a top 10 prospects with all the new found talent in the system, however, it's fair to say that he's a top 20 prospect. He's already excelling at two areas in walk rate and base running ability, which is refreshing to see after watching so many "toolsy" players fail in the Astros farm system. He's a low ceiling, high floor prospect, meaning he has a good chance to make the majors but likely isn't going to be a superstar. Still that's not a bad player to have in the system.
It'll be interesting to see where the Astros decide to place Fontana, either Lancaster (A+) or Corpus Christi (AA). Jonathan Villar is likely heading to Oklahoma City next year and with Jiovanni Mier struggling with injuries this past seasons it's possible that Mier stays at Lancaster and Fontana leap frogs him to AA. Then again the Astros may want to see Fontana hit before they challenge him at a higher level. Either way, barring injury, I expect Fontana to be in AA before the Minor League season is out next year.