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March 21, 2006
California, Here They Come
Of the 14 teams that have their Low Class A affiliate in the Midwest League, eight have their High Class A affiliate in the California League, a very different offensive environment for young hitters and pitchers. The dramatic change in the California League leads to plenty of performances which look like growth, owing the the way the League as a whole inflates offense. Taking a step back and looking at the broader picture, however, shows that one needs to evaluate more than just raw statistics to determine the difference between a true offensive breakout season and one that is a product of the California League.
To start, let's take a look at the 2005 California and Midwest Leagues in a modified form of seasonal notation, where I've balanced the league totals to 600 plate appearances.
LG AB R H 2B 3B HR BI BB K AVG OBP SLG CAL 530 87 152 33 5 15 80 53 112 .286 .357 .452 MWL 528 77 138 28 4 11 69 55 108 .261 .336 .389
The differences may not look huge at first, but with a 25 point difference in batting average and an advantage in power across the board, the average California League hitters amassed a whopping 84 point differential in OPS. Players moving up from the Midwest to the California League in 2005 followed this basic trend. Last year, there were 22 players who had 300 or more at-bats in the California League who also had 300 or more at-bats in the Midwest League in the 2004 season. Here's how their offensive numbers benefited from the jump.
YEAR LEAGUE HR/100 OPS 2004 Midwest 2.25 .732 2005 California 3.37 .817 Increase 49.4% 11.6%
This generally follows the league averages we looked at above, and it shows us that to a significant level, increases in raw production for players moving from the Midwest to the California League can be attributed solely to the change of environments. To illustrate this point, let's look at an individual player who at first glance made marked improvements in his overall game, but upon closer inspection, was a product of the scenery switch. This is Angels catcher Bobby Wilson's 2004 season at Cedar Rapids, and last year's numbers at Rancho Cucamonga, where he set new career-highs nearly across the board:
YEAR LG AB R H 2B 3B HR BI BB SO AVG OBP SLG OPS 2004 MWL 396 45 106 23 0 8 64 30 55 .268 .320 .386 .706 2005 CAL 466 66 135 32 1 14 77 30 61 .290 .333 .453 .786
A major step forward? Not really. Assuming we knew Wilson would get 466 at-bats and that he would make the average progression in skills to compete in the more advanced California League at the same level he competed in the Midwest League (and not taking park factors into account), we would have expected an 11.6% increase in his OPS, and a massive 49.4% increase in his home run percentage. So let's do some math.
2004 HR/100: 2.02 Expected 2005 HR/100: 3.02 (2.02 + 49.4%) Expected HR in 466 ABs: 14.1 Actual Home Runs 14 2004 OPS: .706 2005 Expected OPS: .788 (.706 + 11.6%) Actual OPS: .786
So as we see, Wilson's season looks like a significant jump, but in reality it is exactly in line with expectations. Using these same measurements, Brandon Wood would have been expected to hit 18 home runs last year, which I believe still would have created a significant jump in his prospect status, while in reality, if Wood hit 18, it just would have simply been the expectation. Wood, of course, hit 43, and is now considered (and with good reason) one of the top prospects in the game.
So with this in mind, let's look at the eight teams moving players from the prairies to the coast and identify which ones could be headed for breakout seasons to be excited about, and which ones could put up big numbers that should be viewed with skepticism.
Who is coming in 2006: South Bend won the Midwest League title last year, mostly thanks to an offense that led the league with 122 home runs and 800 runs scored. Those players moving en masse to Lancaster could create a team that approaches 1000 runs scored, despite the 140 game season. Outfielder Carlos Gonzalez is the big name here, and he has a chance to put up the most impressive raw numbers in the minor leagues this year. At just 19, the toolsy Venezuelan was the Midwest League MVP in 2005, batting .307/.371/.489 in 515 at-bats with 18 home runs and 92 RBIs. Just assuming the natural progression discussed earlier, 27 home runs in the same number of at-bats and a .962 OPS would be just the normal expectation. Throw in the park factors, and the fact that Gonzalez has the ability to make a major step forward on the pure skills side of things, and we could be looking at this year's Brandon Wood. 1.000+ OPS? Easily in reach. 35+ home runs? A distinct possibility. On the other end of the spectrum is first baseman Cesar Nicolas, who had a monster full-season debut at South Bend, batting .302/.428/.594 in 91 games. Nicolas could put up some ridiculous numbers at Lancaster, but he's also a player who spent four years in college and will be 24 two weeks into the year, so take his "improvement" with a grain of salt. Third baseman Augustin Murillo (.296/.368/.480 at South Bend) and infielder Mark Reynolds (.253/.319/.454) also fall into Nicolas' category, where because of their ages, any performance should not be judged until the player is able to repeat any success at Double-A. The wild card here is 2005 No. 1 overall pick Justin Upton. Upton will most likely begin the year at South Bend, but as one Diamondbacks official told me, "He'd hit wherever we put him." He could be on the fast track and could only build on his already-glowing reputation with a big second half at Lancaster.
Kansas City Royals
Who is coming in 2006: High Desert is basically the Coors Field of the minors. Last year, the Mavericks hit .314/.386/.539 at home as a team, and .285/.349/.464 on the road, for a difference in OPS of 112 points. Unfortunately, last year's Burlington squad was almost devoid of any true hitting prospects. The Bees hit just 69 home runs last year as a team, the second lowest total in the Midwest League, and the lowest of any team moving players to the California League. The best bet for a season that will give Royals fans false hopes is outfielder Brian McFall. McFall is a big guy with plenty of raw power (14 home runs in 364 at-bats last year), and 25-30 home runs is a reasonable expectation. However, his inability to make contact (.234 batting average with 113 strikeouts in 364 at-bats last year) prevents him from being a real prospect.
Los Angeles Angels
Who is coming in 2006: While the Angels system is unquestionably loaded with talent, that talent was not at Cedar Rapids last year, so don't expect another Brandon Wood/Howie Kendrick duo raking at the top of the lineup. Outfielder Andrew Toussaint tied for third in the Midwest League with 21 home runs and is an interesting sleeper with some skills. More intriguing is shortstop Sean Rodriguez. A 2003 third-round pick, Rodriguez struggled at Cedar Rapids in 2004, but rebounded to an eye-popping .338/.486/.569 when sent down to the Pioneer League. Returning to the Kernels in 2005, Rodriguez hit just .250, but his secondary numbers were outstanding as he drew 78 walks (.371 OBP), slugged 46 extra-base hits including 14 home runs (.422 slugging) and stole 27 bases. With just standard progression, 20 home runs and an .850 OPS could better open some eyes to Rodriguez' all-around game.
Who is coming in 2006: With Gonzalez my clear choice for a 2006 explosion, outfielder Javier Herrera is my backup selection. At Kane County last year, Herrera hit .275/.374/.444 in 94 games with 13 home runs and 26 stolen bases. With an overall package of tools maybe exceeding those of Gonzalez, he could approach the rare 30-30 season in the minors. 2005 supplemental first-round pick Travis Buck hit .341 at Kane County, but had just one home run in 123 at-bats. The Athletics think he has 20+ home run potential, and a major step forward in power at Stockton is not just expected, but almost mandatory if Buck is going to make it as a corner outfielder. My sleeper here is second baseman Gregorio Petit. A good defensive shortstop who has moved over to second base to accommodate 2005 first-round pick Cliff Pennington, Petit hit .289/.349/.446 at Kane County last year, and could get into the 15-20 home run range with a full season at Stockton.
San Diego Padres
Who is coming in 2006: Nobody to write home about, as Fort Wayne didn't have any power prospects to speak of in 2005. The Wizards' home run leader was Aussie import Lach Dale, who hit 12 home runs in 89 games, but was released because he also hit .189 with 108 strikeouts in 328 at-bats. The only Wizards player who got to double-digits in home runs last year and should be on the Lake Elsinore roster is infielder Sean Kazmar, a gamer who has a chance to be a decent utility player. 2004 No. 1 overall pick Matt Bush will be interesting to watch, and the natural increase in production achieved by simply moving to the California League could be just what the doctor ordered for Bush's confidence.
Who is coming in 2006: Catcher Jeff Clement is the big name to know. The No. 3 overall pick in last year's draft, Clement set a national high school record for home runs (75) at Iowa and followed that up with a University of Southern California freshman record 21 dingers in 2003. Injuries and the fact the pitchers stopped giving him pitches to hit caused him to hit just 25 over the next two years, but don't be mistaken, Clement has massive power potential thanks to a quick bat and the much-desired natural loft. He hit six home runs over 113 at bats (hitting .319/.386/.522 overall) in his pro debut at Wisconsin, and should be poised for a big start in the California League; a quick promotion to Double-A is in his future if that happens. After hitting a disappointing six home runs last year at Wisconsin, $2.29 million bonus-baby Matt Tuiasosopo could be poised for a breakout campaign--the power is certainly there in a major way during batting practice. Keep an eye on outfielder Michael Wilson. An athletic specimen who had multiple Division I football scholarships offers out of high school, the Mariners played it safe with the raw Wilson after selecting him in the second round of the 2001 draft, having him spend his first three years in short-season leagues. Finally unleashed in 2005, Wilson hit .266/.360/.464 with a team-leading 19 home runs at Wisconsin, and just as important, surprisingly solid plate discipline (57 BB, 107 K in 463 at-bats.)
Tampa Bay Devil Rays
We don't really have a Midwest-to-California track record with Tampa Bay, as prior to 2005, their low A affiliate was in the South Atlantic League. One of the first beneficiaries should be shortstop Reid Brignac. A 2004 second-round pick who didn't turn 20 until January, Brignac hit a team-leading 15 home runs for Southwest Michigan last year, and could easily be looking at 20+ for Visalia. Though scouts are still mixed as to his ability to stick at shortstop, he's staying there for now and has plenty of bat if he needs to slide over to third base. Southwest Michigan's top offensive player last year was John Jaso, who hit .307/.383/.515 in 92 games while dealing with some nagging shoulder issues. While nobody questions Jaso's ability to mash, he's still a player without a position who has struggled to establish himself behind the plate defensively.
Who is coming in 2006: Really not much to get excited about, as last year's Clinton roster was anything but a prospect-watcher's dream. 23-year-old Emerson Frosted led the team with 16 home runs, but is being converted to catcher, and therefore may be returning to Clinton. Once a somewhat highly-regarded hitter at Georgia Tech, Brandon Boggs (13 HR last year) is already 23 himself, and while he possesses solid secondary skills, he has demonstrated little ability to hit for average (.246/.353/.437). Best chances for a 'false promises' season is first baseman Ian Gac, an enormous physical specimen who hits the ball very hard...on the few occasions he actually hits it. 2005 first-round pick John Mayberry, Jr. has tremendous power potential, and his 11 home runs in his 71-game pro debut was three more than he hit in his final year at Stanford. He'll start the year in Clinton, but could move to Bakersfield by the second half.
Top Five Prospects Moving From The Midwest League To The California League Who Could Have Legitimate Breakout Seasons:
Top Five Prospects Moving From The Midwest League To The California League Who Could Have "Breakout Seasons" Where The Use Of Quotes Is Very Important:
1. Cesar Nicolas, Arizona