Prospect .300 Club
...we like our nice, round numbers. The world of baseball even embraces them more than society at large. Oh, there are certain numbers not ending in a zero that resonate with baseball fans like no others. ... The truth of the matter is that we like to put players in nice, neat boxes. At the assembly line of statisticians, you can hear them packaging 40-HR seasons here and 50-HR seasons there (although Brady Anderson's 1996 campaign may have a hard time getting past the folks in quality control). Does anybody care that Gehrig and Harmon Killebrew each hit 49 dingers twice? I didn't think so.
In his article entitled "Baseball as Numbers," Rich Lederer had it exactly right about the importance of round numbers in baseball. One number he didn't mention, however, was three hundred. Many baseball fans could tell you that the legendary Ty Cobb hit .300 nineteen different times during his career. But how many could tell you that while Harold Baines did it five times, he was within ten percentage points six other times? Or how about the next Sandberg-type Hall of Fame argument, Jeff Kent, who has only two .300 seasons, but six .290 years?
Just like 100 RBI or 40 home runs, a .300 batting average is another bench mark to a good season in baseball. Despite the many problems batting average has, baseball fans old and new, sabermetric or old school respect a .300 hitter. So, in honor of USA's over-commercialed upcoming "4400 club" TV series, I decided to look at the ".300 club" in the minor leagues.
While well over one hundred hitters are batting over .300 from low-A to AAA, I am only counting those that are solid prospects, say, C+ grade or better. The list proves to be very eclectic, with prospects we've known since before they began professional baseball, to some that I was introduced to yesterday. A .300 average during a minor league season is a good way to get noticed, to end up in a prospect book, to get a full-time Major League job. 45 prospects fit the mold, and we will talk about each today, attempting to discover which players are flukes, which will stay atop prospect lists, and which players will be next.
Arranged in order of (what else but) their average, here is the list of the ".300 club":
1. Eric Patterson, 2B, Cubs (MID): .397
Quick take: Unfortunately a trip I made to see the Peoria Chiefs was during Patterson's time off with a hamstring strain, an injury that still could not slow the red-hot Patterson. Eric has all the skills that add up to being the Cubs next leadoff hitter: contact, speed, patience. His one problem is that Patterson is a hitter too advanced for the league the Cubs have him in.
2. Chris Snelling, OF/DH, Mariners (PCL): .389
Quick take: Or, should I call him Doyle? And yes, since Mr. Zumsteg started this little experiment, Snelling has been the prospect that he should have been years ago. Since Chris has the type of raw power that neither Shin-Soo Choo nor Jeremy Reed has, Snelling is the favorite for the future left field Mariner spot. Health allowing, of course.
3. Conor Jackson, 1B, D-Backs (PCL): .385
Quick take: This season, amazingly enough, Conor Jackson has either walked or doubled in more than 25% of his plate appearances. On the other hand, Jackson is striking out in about 5% of his strikeouts. Jackson profiles to have equal power and better patience than Lyle Overbay, probably the subject of many Doug Melvin calls this week given Prince Fielder's hot streak.
4. Matt Murton, OF, Cubs (SOU): .379
Quick take: Murton is not a .400 or even .379 hitter, in fact far closer to .289 (his last 10 games to go below .400), but he still is a solid prospect. Even with the fantastic contact-patience combination that Murton offers, he'll still need power to be more than a blip on Jim Hendry's radar.
5. Howie Kendrick, 2B, Angels (CAL): .373
Quick take: The first middle infielder on this list, Kendrick will also prove to be one of the most legitimate. Kendrick is both a fluid player and one good with the bat, and the combination often proves to be a good one. Kendrick currently has the label of second in the Angel everchanging middle infield struggle, but he'll have to prove himself in the Texas League before Stoneman starts doing anything drastic.
6. Andre Ethier, OF, Athletics (TEX): .367
Quick take: Before becoming a Billy Beane second round pick in 2003, Andre Ethier was quite the hitter at ASU. In 2002, Ethier hit .363/.459/.538 with the Sun Devils, followed by .377/.488/.573 in his final campaign. Dustin Pedroia, on the other hand, had OPS numbers of .849, 1.051 and 1.113 at ASU. This means that Ethier profiles to have less contact and power skills than Ethier, even with a bit of a patience boost.
7. Eddy Martinez-Esteve, OF/DH, Giants (CAL): .360
Quick take: EME has quickly become one of my personal favorites in the minors, as he could be the one given the job of replacing Mr. Barry Bonds. All this kid does is get on base, and also has some power that could even increase after returning to full health. I'm worried that EME will even be a liability in left field, and will need some sort of Carlos Lee-type improvement to even be sustainable.
8. Denard Span, OF, Twins (FSL): .353
Quick take: For each of the last two years, Span has proven to be a .270/.350/.310 hitter. That isn't good for a former first-round pick that drew the inevitable Torii Hunter comparisons back in 2002. Span is either a slow learner or an overperformer, and I'm starting to lean towards the latter. Nothing is saying that he can't be a good 5th outfielder somewhere, but he still profiles to be little more than that.
9. Billy Butler, 3B, Royals (CAL): .348
Quick take: He's good. As I've said before, Jim Thome good. Like Thome, Butler is going to make the slide across the diamond to first base. Whether that is for Teahen or Gordon remains to be seen, but it will be done. Plain and simple, cerebral and young hitters like this don't come around often, so the Royals should be counting their lucky stars. And learning their lesson, as they see Chris Lubanski flail his arms in the same lineup.
10. Justin Huber, 1B/DH, Royals (TEX): .346
Quick take: From Jim Thome to Mike Sweeney, if Butler moves to first it will push Huber to DH. He will hit enough for that position, which makes Mr. Baird look even smarter for finding a way to get him for Jose Bautista. Huber will actually take over for Sweeney in due time, assuming the oft-rumored first baseman eventually gets dealt. Expect Huber to become one of Buddy Bell's favorites quickly.
11. Andy LaRoche, 3B, Dodgers (FSL): .343
Quick take: This one I got right. LaRoche has broken out and more this year, taking the minor league home run lead and on pace to top the forty mark. If he keeps this up he'll push the Dodger 3B train each up a level, and has the potential to make Joel Guzman move to yet another position eventually. Simply put, LaRoche is a few walks from being one of the game's most elite prospects, and he's certainly putting pressure on Ian Stewart.
12. Delmon Young, OF, D-Rays (SOU): .342
Quick take: It wasn't long ago, May 4 to be exact, that Delmon was hitting .293. Since then he has been on a tear, continuing to hit both for power, and unexpected speed. Young truly is the entire package, and should actually get the move to Durham soon so he can be ready for a September call-up. If I were Chuck Lamar, arbitration situation be damned, I would name Delmon Young my 2006 starting right fielder soon.
13. Asdrubal Cabrera, 2B/SS, Mariners (MID): .338
Quick take: Another breakout pick that looks to be succeeding. In his last 43 at-bats, worth about 1/3 of his season, Cabrera has just nine hits. Luckily for Cabrera, he had a .402 average before that, so there was a lot of room left to fall. Cabrera isn't going to offer much more than solid contact skills and great defense, but that would be enough for some offenses.
14. Hunter Pence, OF, Astros (SAL): .337
Quick take: Product of the Astros recent draft-em-from-Texas strategy, Pence was chosen one pick ahead of Pedroia in last year's draft. In fact, given that Pedroia, Kurt Suzuki and EME were all soon after him, hopes are high for Pence. He is fulfilling them so far in the South Atlantic League, making people quickly forget that Mitch guy that broke some short-season record last year. The Major League scouting bureau said of him, "very tall...good strength and arc in swing for power. Swings bat with authority." Sounds good to me.
15. Javier Guzman, SS, Pirates (CAR): .337
Quick take: People love the young, quick little shortstops that hit for high averages in A-ball. And while Guzman isn't a household name yet, like Pablo Ozuna and dozens of others have been, it probably won't take long should he continue streaks like what he is currently hitting. Guzman has some solid talent and good speed, but seems very similar to Ozuna in my mind, with little upside beyond the bench at upper levels.
16. Matt Moses, 3B, Twins (FSL): .333
Quick take: Another Twin late bloomer, Moses looks to be the former top choice that will stick on prospect rankings. Moses, unlike Span, has had a good excuse for some poor numbers, which was an ailing back. Those problems seem to be taken care of, and Moses is hitting well in a tough pitcher's park. People that hit there consistently tend to move on to good things, so expect Moses to solve Minnesota's hot corner problem before too long.
17. Chris Shelton, 1B/DH, Tigers (IL): .331
Quick take: Called up yesterday, Shelton looks like he will go down being a fantastic Rule 5 selection. His catching days are long over, but like Matt LeCroy, still has a chance at carving out a good career. With frustrations mounting about incumbent Carlos Pena, who hits from the left side by the way, expect a platoon to be implemented soon. For now though, the Tigers have given Shelton a brief look at the full time job while Pena hones his skills as a Mud Hen. Look for Shelton to try and take advantage of the small window of opportunity he's been given.
18. Reggie Willits, OF, Angels (TEX): .331
Quick take: Probably my least ranked prospect on this list, Willits was a no-name Sooner chosen in the 7th round before his early season heroics. Still, this is a guy with no power and reminiscent of last season's Josh Anderson, who made everyone notice his gaudy average and big stolen base numbers. A ton of speed and some line drive luck won't do you much more than a paragraph in an article like this...nowhere near legit prospect rankings.
19. Mitch Maier, 3B/OF, Royals (CAL): .330
Quick take: Chosen as the last pick in the first round a couple years ago -- a pre-draft deal because the Royals felt they could land Miguel Vega later -- Maier is starting to pay dividends after years of defensive confusion. His future position still remains in question, as Maier was never seen as a catcher, and his play at third was reportedly atrocious. Those stolen base numbers from last year are down, making me think Maier can't play center, and should start taking notes from Eli Marrero now.
20. Carlos Quentin, OF, D-Backs (PCL): .327
Quick take: He's good, and even with a fairly big drop-off since his silly good early season numbers, Quentin profiles to be playing right in the BOB before long. The Diamondbacks' quick turnover from basement feeder to division contender is admirable, and now new ownership has to juggle a team in the thick of things that also should be in rebuilding mode. Jackson, Quentin, Stephen Drew, Justin Upton. The faces around this offense will be changing for the first time in a long while soon, and Arizona must be ready to handle challenges thrown their way.
21. Ryan Doumit, C, Pirates (IL): .325
Quick take: Pirate catchers at the Major League level currently have an aggregate OBP of .287, so a little improvement is needed. Still, the club is getting enough in the CS and ISO departments to justify letting Doumit return to his real level. Still, I believe that Doumit -- even with his defensive issues -- will still be a better catching regular than Humberto Cota.
22. Dan Johnson, 1B, Athletics (PCL): .324
Quick take: An atrocious April led many to wonder if Johnson had simply been an overhyped, one-time wonder. Wrong they were, as Johnson has proven not to be some Graham Koonce or Jeff Liefer-type, and has legimiately proven that he's a better option than Scott Hatteberg. Expect Billy Beane to make some drastic moves with his team so far at the bottom, and by August, expect Dan Johnson to be playing in Oakland.
23. Dustin Pedroia, 2B, Red Sox (EL): .321
Quick take: So much has been said, and it is all correct. Pedroia has the heart of David Eckstein, but the bat of Jeff Kent. His defense is as steady as they come, and all signs point to him being an All-Star up the middle. Cliff Pennington has Pedroia to thank for his early selection this year, as teams are realizing good numbers from good conferences can sometimes be a sign.
24. Rickie Weeks, 2B, Brewers (PCL): .320
Quick take: Starting to get a little crazy, the hype is, considering Junior Spivey's struggles and Weeks' recent excellent play. The former second overall choice has salvaged what was looking to be a repeat season, and given Doug Melvin reason to consider immediate promotion. The Brewers brought up Gary Sheffield about 15 years ago, and the club now is lucky enough to have his second coming up the middle.
25. Clint Sammons, C, Braves (SAL): .318
A bit of an odd selection in the seventh round last year, Sammons is just another example that Roy Clark knows what he is doing. The Braves live and die in Georgia, and Sammons addition to the catching carousel makes three good prospects plus Johnny Estrada. That, my friends, is what they call surplus. But Sammons, a defensive specialist, looks more like a back-up than anything, possibly handling the duties for Brian McCann down the line.
26. Josh Willingham, ?, Marlins (PCL): .317
Quick take: At the very least, I hope Josh Willingham has Lenny Harris type opportunities off Major League benches for the next fifteen years. In the best case scenario, Willingham becomes a Mr. Fix-It for the Marlins, spelling Carlos Delgado at first, a corner outfielder, Mike Lowell, and even Paul Loduca on certain days. Willingham has enough power to hit it to Cuba, and not allowing him a batting practice to show that off of would be a horrible decision.
27. Wily Aybar, 2B/3B, Dodgers (PCL): .317
Surprisingly named to Baseball Prospectus' prospect lists, Wily Aybar has gained a small amount of fame in sabermetric circles. But, much of this fame was lost after Aybar was moved full-time to the hot corner, a position in which he cannot match Joel Guzman or Andy LaRoche offensively. His hope is to transform into Edgardo Alfonzo over night, and eventually supplant Jeff Kent at second.
28. Adam Jones, SS, Mariners (CAL): .315
This is what the California League does, it just chooses some middle infielder at random, and gives the kid some insane stats. Ask Josh Barfield or Erick Aybar what can happen with one too many Cal League at-bat, as prospect evaluators start to sing your praises all over the place. In an organization as stockpiled in the shortstop department as these guys, it's a shame to see this bit of success will delay Jones' inevitable return to the pitching mound.
29. Alcides Escobar, SS, Brewers (SAL): .315
Quick take: To succeed when moving from the low-A and high-A leagues, you need to walk. Alcides Escobar, despite having a bevvy of skills, does not walk. He is going to become overrated and overhyped, as people talk about his fluidity, his speed, his wrists. But Escobar does not have a good enough power to be frugal with the walks, and not enough walks to be frugal with the power. And in this scenario, there simply is no middle ground.
30. Felix Pie, OF, Cubs (SOU): .312
Quick take: Maybe it's the Cubs fan in me, but I just believe that we are seeing Felix Pie put all of his tools together. This is what a complete baseball player is supposed to like, especially one that will replace Corey Patterson in 2006. Patterson received his share of bad press in Chicago, and LaTroy Hawkins can attest how quickly that can get you out of the Windy City. If Felix Pie continues to be in this club, as well as hit for power, speed and show his typical good defense, it's embarassing Pie wasn't always the Cubs top prospect.
Prospects 31-45, withholding comments:
31. Hanley Ramirez, SS, Red Sox (EL): .311
Sometimes it's the park, sometimes it's the age, sometimes it's the league, and sometimes it's just luck. Batting average without context in the minor leagues can be a poor tool. Fluctuation will likely see many players leave the .300 club at one point or another during the year, and they can only be so lucky to return. But so many times the context and the means don't matter, the end result will be enough to get noticed.