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September 7, 2011

Future Shock

Minor-League MVPs

by Kevin Goldstein

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The hot-button question on the intertubes of late is “What exactly makes one an MVP candidate?” Can we just use some single-number stat to decide? Does narrative play a role? In the minor leagues it's a different, and sometimes much more complicated, story. More often than not, if a player is doing exceedingly well (read: MVP-level performance) in a league, he doesn't stay in that league very long, and while prospect status does not matter for the awards, counting numbers do. The MVPs of 10 ten full-season league are a mixed bag of prospects and performers—there’s a difference—so here's a realistic look at the 10 who took home the hardware.

Triple-A International League: Russ Canzler, OF, Durham (Rays)
Canzler is a classic upper-level MVP, a 25-year-old former 30th-round pick by the Cubs who signed with the Rays over the winter as a free agent. He’s in his eighth minor-league season. As a bulky, slow first baseman who can also play left field, he's a good bat, but not good enough to everyday big-league play at either position. His right-handedness doesn’t help his cause. Canzler’s .314/.401/.530 line is impressive, but a high strikeout rate and merely average power will likely leave him as an up-and-down type.

Triple-A Pacific Coast League: Bryan LaHair, 1B, Iowa (Cubs)
On the surface, LaHair certainly looks like another Canzler type; he turns 29 in November and is in his ninth minor-league season. That said, it was a remarkable season: His .331/.405/.664 line for Iowa (yes, Iowa is in the Pacific Coast League) included a minor league-leading 38 home runs, as well as a minor-league leading 1070 OPS. A funny thing happened during the year; scouts began to warm up to LaHair, not just seeing him as a minor-league slugger, but as one who could get the job done in the big leagues. “If you gave him a full-time job in the majors, he'd hit .270-.275 with 20-25 home runs,” said one scout, while asking, “Most teams could use that, no?” Well, the Cubs for one.

Double-A Eastern League: Travis d'Arnaud, C, New Hampshire (Blue Jays)
d'Arnaud was the second-most important player to arrive via Philadelphia in the Roy Halladay trade, but with the complete collapse of Kyle Drabek this year, he's now the best prospect from the deal. Scouts have always been enamored with his athletic prowess, but he finally converted it to on-field results this year, batting .311/.371/.542 in 114 games. There are legitimate knocks against him, including an impatient approach, a need to improve his throwing mechanics, and a tendency to get hurt, but d’Arnaud is nearly universally seen as one of the top three catching prospects in the game.

Double-A Southern League: Paul Goldschmidt, 1B, Mobile (Diamondbacks)
Goldschmidt has been in the big leagues since August 1, but he did enough with the BayBears in his 103 games to walk away the award, hitting .306/.435/.626 with 30 homers and leading the minors in several categories when he got the call. While the first baseman has struggled with making consistent contact in the majors, he's also shown the ability to adjust; after striking out in nearly half of his at-bats in his first three weeks with the Diamondbacks, he's quieted his swing while trusting his hands and letting his natural power work for him instead of trying to yank pitches.

Double-A Texas League: Matt Adams, 1B, Springfield (Cardinals)
A 23rd-round pick in 2009, Adams hit .310/.355/.541 in the Midwest League during his 2010 full-season debut, but he was written off by most as an older player for the league with a bad body. He's still somewhere in the neighborhood of 275 pounds, but he's not dumpy anymore as much as he's merely big. After skipping a level and hitting .300/.357/.566 in 115 games with 32 home runs, people are taking notice. Hitting is his only skill, but with plus to plus-plus power to all fields and a surprising ability to make contact for such a huge man with an equally huge swing, Adams is not being written off as much as he's being discussed as St. Louis’ potential first baseman of the future should Albert Pujols depart via free agency.

High-A California League: Kent Matthes, OF, Modesto (Rockies)
Despite being a fourth-round pick in 2009, Matthes was all but off everyone's radar entering the year, as he played just 21 games in 2010 due to knee surgery, and hit .185/.261/.333 when healthy. At 24, he's a bit behind the age curve, but Matthes exploded in the hitter-friendly California League, mashing a .334/.378/.642 line in 93 games before his season ended thanks to a hit-by-pitch that broke a bone in his left hand. With more than half of his 123 hits going for extra bases, Matthes combines hitting ability with power, but he's a free swinger who offers few tools beyond a solid arm in right field. He's intriguing, but also the kind of player scouts want to see prove it's for real at the upper levels.

High-A Carolina League: Ian Gac, 1B, Winston-Salem (White Sox)
Gac earned MVP honors with a .279/.358/.535 line in 140 games. His 33 home runs were 10 more than any other player in the league, while he also led the circuit in runs, RBI, and total bases by a healthy margin. He's also 27 years old, in his ninth minor-league season, and has absolutely no business being at this level other than the fact that the White Sox needed a body. Non-prospect.

High-A Florida State League: Kyle Jensen, OF, Jupiter (Marlins)
A 12th-round pick in 2009, Jensen smacked 22 home runs in just 391 at-bats for Jupiter while hitting .309/.385/.535 in 109 games. The Florida State League is an impossible place to have fluky power, but for those doubters still around, he slugged five more in 80 Double-A at-bats at the end of the year. The problem with Jensen is that once you get past the power, there is little else to get excited about; he’s big, slow, barely a left fielder, and whiffs a ton. He's a fringy prospect after his big year.

Low-A Midwest League: Rymer Liriano, OF, Fort Wayne (Padres)
At first, you might want to take the bloom off the rose of Liriano's season, as he began the year at High-A Lake Elsinore, and was demoted after hitting just .127 in 15 games. Still just 19 when he was sent down (he turned 20 in June), Liriano turned into the league's most dynamic player, hitting .319/.383/.499 with 12 home runs and 65 stolen bases. At 6-foot and 215 pounds, Lirano is surprisingly bulky for a plus runner, but he'll likely slow down as he matures while the power grows, leading to plenty of 20/20 projections from scouts. This right fielder has a well above-average arm that has racked up 23 assists in 202 career games.

Low-A South Atlantic League: Jurickson Profar, SS, Hickory (Rangers)
It really can't be stressed enough: Profar is four months younger than Bryce Harper. He's also an up-the-middle player with above-average defensive ability at shortstop and as much polish as some scouts have ever seen in an 18-year-old. His .286/.390/.493 line is more really good than eye-popping, but with 23 stolen bases, 37 doubles, 12 home runs, and more walks than strikeouts, there is nothing he doesn't already do well. Again, he's just 18. Profar’s tools are more plus than of the monster variety, but an above-average glove at the position with on-base skills and 15-20 home runs annually is a superstar.

A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider Insider.

Kevin Goldstein is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Kevin's other articles. You can contact Kevin by clicking here

Related Content:  The Who,  Big League Debut,  The Atlantic

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