A Tale of Three .400 Hitters
First rounders come in all shapes and sizes, from all different backgrounds, garnering all different types of expectations. In the end, though, all scouting directors are just dreaming of sample sizes like this. Five to fifteen game spurts in which the player is immune to the hardships of the Major League transition, and tantalize us with their potential. For that period, we see what the scouts once envisioned, and believed in enough to spend six/seven figure bonuses on.
These three players embody that thought process. Three outfielders with vastly different histories -- save their first round draft selections -- including radically different pro careers. Now they are brought together as three of the game's hottest players, following call-ups when expectations rivaled zero. Out to prove us wrong? Or their scouting directors right? Well, good job:
AB AVE W XBH A 30 0.433 0 6 B 27 0.481 5 2 C 15 0.467 1 1
Oh, how offseason negligence creates needs. John Scheurholz spent a winter forgetting about his outfield corner spots, deciding at the last minute to go with Brian Jordan and Raul Mondesi. After that time bomb went off, Scheurholz turned to Kelly Johnson and Ryan Langerhans. With the rest of the roster in flux, and the Braves entire minor league system in the Majors, the organization decided to bring up Jeff Francoeur. Thirteen hits later, Langerhans is suddenly jobless.
Jim Hendry also saw both of his outfield corners open up last Christmas, when Sammy Sosa was dealt to Baltimore, and Moises Alou became a free agent. The Cubs decided that, rather than re-sign the aging Alou, the money would be better spent in other places. Todd Hollandsworth and Jason Dubois could fill the position fine, right? On second thought, in need of making a statement a couple weeks ago, Hendry sent down the struggling Dubois and found another right-handed left fielder. Since then, Matt Murton has had two different games in which he reached base four times.
The Royals knew this season was going to result in failure. Even the Opening Day product forecasted a last place finish, when Jose Lima got beaten to death, and newfound left fielder Terence Long went 0-for-4. Long hasn't been horrific this season, but certainly isn't the answer to one of the club's corner spots, both of which he's spent time in. Allard Baird sensed a chance to find new blood when Mark Bellhorn got hurt in Boston, sending spare-part Tony Graffanino to the world champs for Chip Ambres. And like that, Baird may have stumbled onto a fan favorite.
I would certainly be lying if I told you these numbers do not surprise me. But given the small amount of plate appearances -- combined with considerable talent -- it also isn't unforeseen. What surprised me most about the trio is just how different each player's path has been to their current success. As if Roger clemens isn't already teaching us, now is just another example of how just about anything can happen in the game of baseball.
Of the three players, it isn't surprising that Murton had the most documented pre-pro past. The Cub is the only of the trio to attend college, playing baseball at Georgia Tech following a solid high school campaign. Murton's star began to shine in the Cape Cod League in 2001, when the Yellow Jacket hit .324 with 9 XBH and 18 walks in 145 at-bats following his Freshman season. The next year at the Cape, Murton hit .400 with seven walks and extra-base hits in just 55 at-bats. And while just one of those XBH were homers, Murton showed future power winning the league's home run derby.
He followed that up with a .344/.434/.536 final season at GTech, one where Murton also stole 20 bases and walked 36 times in 250 at-bats. The Red Sox drafted Murton 32nd that June, in between Adam Miller and Omar Quintanilla.
It should be said that while Murton's environment certainly trumps that of the two high school stars, both Ambres and Francoeur were very solid players, from solid programs. Ambres was a five-tool talent from Texas, while Francoeur a two-sport star from one of Georgia's best programs. Francoeur was seen as somewhat of a hard sign, as he had already committed to playing football at Clemson. In the end both players were drafted and signed, to the Marlins and Braves respectively.
If all of these players were in the same draft, I would have ranked them in the order of Francoeur, Murton and Ambres, with Murton very close to the top.
Many organizations believe in sending high school drafted players to short-season ball the year following their selection. The Cubs, for one, are promoters of this ideology, waiting an extra year to expose high draft choices Brian Dopirak and Ryan Harvey to full season ball. While this did not happen to neither Francoeur nor Ambres, the collegiate athlete was given the conservative treatment.
Instead, both high school players were assigned to short-season ball immediately after being signed, playing there for the rest of that season. For Ambres, his time was split evenly between the Gulf COast League and New York Penn League, neither of which posed a problem. Ambres hit .353/.453/.511 before his promotion, and .267/.392/.552 after it. All in all, the Marlin also walked 46 times, struck out just 44 times, and stole 33 bases in 40 attempts in only 244 at-bats.
Again, Murton was the surprising player of the trio at this level. Not only did he spend his entire 2003 season in the NYPL, but he also was unspectacular at the level. Murton hit *just* .286/.374/.397 following a highly praised career at a top college program. His power was non-existent, and only his 27/39 walk-to-strikeout ratio was approved of.
At this point, Murton fell to last, and Francoeur would edge out Ambres for the top spot, mostly because of pre-draft notions. It would have been close though, rivaling another argument with a different top Marlin draft pick and Francoeur.
Boston became more aggressive with Murton after his lackluster 2003 season, trying to figure out what kind of player they had drafted. With that in mind, the club had Murton skip the South Atlantic League entirely. We won't see him again until the Florida State League.
If Murton didn't play at this level, Ambres made up for him. In his first year of full season ball in 2000, Ambres struggled horrendously, with just a .709 OPS in 320 at-bats. Injuries plagued his season, but a poor batting average and little power did not help his case. The only positive sign at this point were his patience-speed combination that begged to be a future lead-off man: 52 walks and 26 steals.
In 2001, Ambres did not get in an entirely full season of health again, though he played better in his 377 at-bats. He hit .265/.360/.416 with 53 walks and 19 steals, showing improved all-around play, but a worse performance in the positive stats from year one. If he had combined the two, his star would surely have been higher.
Conversly, Jeff Francoeur barely had problems. The first-round football player hit .281/.325/.445 with the Rome Braves, also showing good defense and stealing 14 bases. His power potential was immense, and comparisons to Dale Murphy started to become commonplace. He was lacking a bit in polish, though, walking just 30 times in 524 at-bats. Still, there is no way this would have even given Ambres a chance to match Francoeur's star potential.
Murton joins us again, and this time with two different performances, as a midseason trade cut Murton's season into two. Before being dealt, Murton was beginning to show his one-time potential in Sarasota, hitting .301/.372/.452 with 42 walks in 376 at-bats. This, was the player the Red Sox drafted, especially when Murton won the FSL home run derby.
But they traded him at the same time Nomar Garciaparra was sent to the Cubs, as Murton replaced the spots previously held by Justin Jones and Brendan Harris on the Chicago minor league ladder. Murton disappointed a bit after the trade in 79 at-bats, hitting .253 with a pedestrian .367 slugging percentage. Still, Murton had struck out just 71 times all year, so the book was already written on him. "Very good contact skills, but likely lacks the power for an outfield corner."
There were no such worries about Francoeur, who managed a .508 slugging percentage in one of the minors most difficult stadiums. In Myrtle Beach of the Carolina League, Francoeur continued to build on the optimism that had been growing since his arrival into the system. Francoeur teamed his slugging percentage with a .293 batting average, and managed his strikeouts adequately, with 69 in 331 at-bats. The Braves then took a chance and allowed Francoeur to finish the season in AA.
As far as Ambres goes, he's just lucky the Marlins didn't make him repeat this level. In his first real full season, Ambres was terrible in every non-patience/speed category possible. A .236 batting average, .365 slugging percentage, and 98 strikeouts just were not what the Marlins thought they had drafted. At all.
From here on out, the order unquestionably goes Francoeur, Murton, and Ambres.
Our final stop, as this was the final minor league level in which both Murton and Francoeur played at before their recent call-ups. And while Francoeur still remained a better prospect than Murton, when they were brought to the Majors, Murton had certainly been more impressive in the Southern League.
In 2004, when the Braves let Jeff finish in AA, he struggled like he never had before. The former first-round pick hit just .197 in 76 at-bats, and in even more concerning fashion, did not draw one walk. Still, Baseball America praised Francoeur's season, and named him a better prospect than saber-fave Andy Marte. BA's thoughts have been validated a bit, as Francoeur proved his AA cup of coffee was nothing more than an aberration. Before becoming the Braves right fielder, Francoeur hit .275/.322/.487 in Mississippi. Nothing jaw-dropping -- the patience was still an issue -- but Francoeur's power potential was at an all-time high. Now, he has three doubles and three home runs in just 30 Major League ABs.
Murton was better than Francoeur, as mentioned, in a season that no one saw coming. But while Francoeur's season began with huge struggles, Murton started fantastically, hitting .400 well into the season. Of course, this cannot be sustained forever (as their Major League stats will find out), and Murton's average dropped to *just* .342. His walking was down a bit -- 29 in 313 at-bats -- but not concerning considering his strikeouts (just 42). His speed was also a part of his game again, as Murton stole 18 bases in 23 attempts as a member of the Diamond Jaxx.
Neither of the above player even played a full season in AA. Chip Ambres, however, played two. In 2003, the Marlin hit .258/.376/.439, vastly improved numbers on his Florida State League performance. He walked 72 times in 380 at-bats, but showed little speed, stealing just nine bases. While his stats were solid, they weren't good enough to warrant a promotion, and Ambres spent the 2004 season duplicating his previous campaign. Ambres hit .241/.352/.449 in what would be his final season with the Marlin organization. This was Florida's mistake, though, as they didn't see his rise in ISO, renewed speed (26 steals), and continued patience (76 walks).
Instead, they let him walk. And he did just that, going north to the champion Boston Red Sox. Signed to play in Pawtucket, Ambres' hopes of helping the Red Sox were squashed with the club's selection of Adam Stern in the Rule 5 draft. Instead, Ambres was destined to become an organizational player, unless something happened quick. And that it did, as Ambres began to tear the cover off the ball in his first season at AAA. The Royals hoped to acquire the player that was hitting .294/.401/.495 with 19 steals in 279 at-bats, not the aging bonus baby that entered 2005 with a career OPS south of .800.
Not only do I believe these players will suffer drops in their season statistics, but they also are in danger of not even working their way into the organization's long-term plans. This does not, of course, apply to Francoeur, who has been handed a spot in the Atlanta outfield since the day he was drafted. His performance the rest of the way will dictate his Opening Day 2006 assignment, although it looks more and more like that will be in the Majors.
Matt Murton and Chip Ambres, I'm afraid, will not have the same luck. Ambres is a center fielder stuck in an organization with David DeJesus, and is confident in DeJesus' abilities. While Ambres still shows signs of all five tools, he's best off playing in center and leading off somewhere. In that situation, expect about what the Cubs are getting from Jerry Hairston Jr.
But what will the Cubs get from Murton? That's the toughest question to answer, as Matt has still not proven to be a legit corner outfielder. His contact and patience skills are fantastic, but I'm afraid that singles will not do, even with a team leading the world in infield corner production. Murton must show power to ever have a hope of a full-time gig, and will even need to up his ISO to become a platoon player. Does it seem to anyone else that the Cubs and Royals should just switch players?
Each of these three players has a different considerable weakness, and each has a far different future ahead of them. This should hardly come as surprising news, given our trip through memory lane, going through vastly different pasts. But you can bet there are three scouting directors -- and thousands of fans -- that are ecstatic that these paths have crossed at this point, with these results.
Update (1:30 a.m.): Ambres did have a big game. 1/2 with a home run and two walks. Out to prove me wrong about being able to play LF at the Major League level. By the way, I really do like Jerry Hairston Jr. and Randy Winn as examples of his talent.
For those of you still reading, a few minor league notes below the fold.
While the buzz isn't exactly Felix-esque, expect it to grow with every at-bat, and with every day. This is the nature of young, fluid shortstops. They smack a huge batting average on us, causing prospect evaluators everywhere to drool. Speed, position and age can all make us lose sight of true credentials easily. Ask Pablo Ozuna.
Don't get me wrong, I am amazed at Andrus' performance this year. But before I fall in love, there is that .430+ BABIP staring back at me. And without a batting average, what is Elvis? Well, little more than an undeveloped, raw talent, better suited to spend 2006 terrorizing high school pitchers.
But because the closer closer quick path to the Majors is becoming routine, you have to root for Zimmerman here. Drafted in part for his hometown roots, imagine how quick Nats' fans will warm to a Gold Glove third baseman that ran through the minors in less than 90 days. Not without difficulty, mind you, as Zimmerman needed a recent rebound to bring his Eastern League numbers back to respectable levels. But he's done just that, and now has Will Carroll saying Zimmerman might be called up if Vinny Castilla goes down. We can only hope.
Uh-oh. How wrong I was. Four innings into his pro career, disaster has hit, as Neighborgall is sitting on an 18.00 ERA. His problem? Still not stuff, as he's allowed only three hits while striking out seven. But the control problems that have plagued him for years are not going away, as the big right-hander has issued 12 -- read it again, 12 -- walks already.
Maybe we can just replace anything I've ever written about Neighborgall with Kevin Whelan?
This idea wouldn't be a bad idea on some staffs, or when Brandon Webb is starting, but not the other four out of five days. The other members of the current rotation (Vazquez, Halsey, Gosling, Vargas) all have G/F ratios under 1.10. This rotation surrenders a lot of flyballs, which will force Green to cover more ground than he has in years. With full health for the first time in awhile, is this really the right risk to make?