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August 3, 2006
Position Breakdown: Corner Outfielders
Corner outfield spots tend to go to the sluggers, and there are a good number of them here. The top five players on this list are among the best bats in the minors, and number six would join them if not for extenuating circumstances. This is an impressive group that will become even better when some of the center field prospects play their way into a corner.
1. Delmon Young, Devil Rays
Age: 20.9 Hitting: .341/.366/.513 in 59 G (AAA)
Yes, he threw a bat at an umpire. Yes, he has an annual mean-spirited quote about not being up in the majors yet. Forget all of that stuff. Look at the numbers, look at the level, and look at the age. Think about Carlos Gonzalez, who's an absolute stud and ranks third on this list. Delmon is basically the same age and raking in Triple-A. What would Young be hitting right now if he were playing in the Southern Division of the California League? Is .400 out of the question? That said, he's not a perfect player--it took a while for his power to show up this year, he could use a little more patience, and most of his home runs come against righties--but that's all nitpicking; this is the best hitter in the minor leagues. Period.
2. Jay Bruce, Reds
Age: 19.3 Hitting: .310/.380/.547 in 103 G (Lo A)
The 12th overall pick in the 2005 draft, Bruce's season has been a revelation. He's among the Midwest League top five in all three Triple Crown categories and leads the circuit in extra-base hits and slugging percentage. When it comes to Bruce, Gonzalez and Tabata, you could put all three in a hat and however you pull the names out might be the right ranking. I give Bruce the edge because he has more present-and-accounted-for skills, as his OPS is equal to Gonzalez' and he's doing it in a far tougher offensive environment. The average numbers of runs scored in a game played by Gonzalez's Lancaster Jethawks is a whopping 12.31, while a game played by Bruce's Dayton Dragons averages 8.94. That's a highly significant difference. There are no weaknesses in Bruce's offensive game, 58 of his 119 hits have gone for extra bases, and if you believe in the axiom of doubles turning into home runs, Bruce has 39 of them to show you. His plate discipline is solid, and he even has 18 stolen bases. There's nothing not to like here.
3. Carlos Gonzalez, Diamondbacks
Age: 20.8 Hitting: .310/.367/.566 in 95 G (Hi A)
When talking to scouts about Gonzalez, one word comes up in every conversation: easy. Gonzalez just makes everything look incredibly simple. His swing is fluid and looks seemingly effortless--with plenty of power already, and more to come in the future. In the field, he's has the defensive instincts to play center in a pinch, but is better suited for right field because of his average speed and strong arm. There are some concerns that he's become a little too aggressive at the plate, as his walk rate is down from last year and with 91 strikeouts in 364 at-bats, he's already eclipsed last year's total of 86 whiffs. Nonetheless, this is a five-tool player with the stats to back it up, and he's still nowhere near done improving.
4. Jose Tabata, Yankees
Age: 18.0 Hitting: .303/.383/.427 in 84 G (Lo A)
Tabata is a ridiculous raw talent. Playing in a full-season league at 17 is an arduous task that Tabata has passed with flying colors, as he's shown a patient approach, solid contact skills and gap power. Tabata's bat speed is among the best in the minor leagues, and he projects to hit for a high average with plus power. While Tabata's ceiling is easily equal to that of Bruce and Gonzalez, I rank him right behind because there is such a wide gap between what he is and what he can be. Exactly how much power he'll grow into is the subject of some debate. Some see him as a bit undersized, with the ability to hit 20+ home runs with his wrists alone, while others compare his size and lightning-fast bat to a young Eric Davis, but with better contact ability, projecting him as a true middle-of-the-order force. Nobody questions his star potential, we're just not sure what kind of star he'll turn into yet, and we probably won't know for another two or three years.
5. Billy Butler, Royals
Age: 20.3 Hitting: .320/.376/.477 in 104 G (AA)
Butler has moved very quickly since the Royals took him with the 14th overall pick in the 2004 draft. It was seen as an overdraft at the time, and Butler signed for under the recommended slot; at this point, it looks like the bargain of the century, as he reached Double-A in his first full season and has put together a solid campaign there this year. A remarkably mature hitter, Butler has hit .300+ in every full month he has played as a pro except one, when he hit .291. While Butler combines enormous strength with excellent hand-eye coordination, his secondary skills have taken a disturbing dip this year. After slugging 30 home runs last year and drawing 49 walks in 491 at-bats, he's slipped to 12 and 36 this year in 419 at-bats, but his performance is still remarkable when compared to most 2004 high school draftees, as among the first 100 picks in that draft, Seattle's Matt Tuiasosopo is the only other prep hitter in Double-A, and he's hitting just .179/.260/.197 for San Antonio. Then there is the glove. Originally drafted as a third baseman, where one scout once referred to him as, "the worst defensive pro player I've ever seen," Butler's move to left has not been anything close to a success, as he almost makes Ron Kittle look nimble out there. First base is the next likely stop, but designated hitter could be the final destination. No matter where he ends up, the bat will play.
6. Elijah Dukes, Devil Rays
Age: 22.1 Hitting: .293/.401/.488 in 80 G (AAA)
What to even do with Dukes was the subject of much self-imposed debate. Recently suspended indefinitely by the Devil Rays after a run-in with an umpire, Dukes' list of behavior-related incidents could fill a book, and some suggested leaving him completely out of the rankings, as he's not even playing right now. At the same time, his talent is obvious to anybody who's seen him play, and I've ranked him here purely on talent. Dukes' on-the-field abilities are undeniable. At 6-foot-2 and 225, Dukes is built like an NFL strong safety and has plus power and speed to go with an excellent feel for hitting. In 283 at-bats this year, he's has nearly as many walks (44) as strikeouts (47), and his approach is as controlled as his anger is not. Now let's talk about the real world for a moment, where Dukes' troubled background and behavior are also undeniable. Despite anger management classes and numerous attempts by the Devil Rays to harness Dukes' emotions, disturbing on- and off-the-field incidents continue at an alarming pace and any future in baseball at all is in doubt. According to multiple sources, the Devil Rays spent time during the trade deadline offering Dukes to multiple teams for very little in return with no real takers. His talent ranks just behind the elite five ahead of him, but his chances of reaching his potential seem to dwindle by the day. When it comes right down to it, it's just kind of sad.
7. Hunter Pence, Astros
Age: 23.3 Hitting: .296/.358/.572 in 68 G (AAA)
Dear Mr, Pence: I was wrong. After hitting .327 with 30 home runs last year, I said you were old for the league (well, you were!) and had a funny swing (well, you do!) and questioned your ability to hit at the upper levels. Meanwhile, PECOTA was quite high on you. I was wrong. It might be unorthdox, but it works for you, and the ability to hit and hit for power are very real. I apologize for underestimating your abilities.
8. Travis Snider, Blue Jays
Age: 18.5 Hitting: .315/.384/.515 in 34 G (R)
Snider was arguably the best high school hitter in this year's draft, combining bat speed and leverage generated by a sturdy, compact frame to project for plus hitting skills and plus-plus power. He's been very impressive in his pro debut, ranking fifth in the Appalachian League in total bases when many scouts thought he'd take a while to adjust to a high level of competition after playing his prep ball in Washington. He's no more than adequate in the field and on the basepaths, so the bat will have to carry him throughout his career. Here's betting that this won't be a problem.
9. Adam Lind, Blue Jays
Age: 23.1 Hitting: .312/.368/.540 in 97 G (91 AA, 6 AAA)
A third-round pick in 2004, Lind entered the year as a solid hitting prospect with no more than average power, but that has changed this year as he was challenging for the Eastern League Triple Crown before getting promoted to Syracuse last week. With 19 home runs in 365 at-bats, Lind has more than doubled his home run rate without making any sacrifices in batting average. His swing is pure and easy, and he's realized that he doesn't have to put anything extra into his load or become pull-conscious to hit the ball out of the park. While he's not as big as Snider, he has the same weaknesses--below-average speed and defensive skills--but reviews of the bat have gone from good to very good.
10. Travis Buck, Athletics
Age: 22.7 Hitting: .320/.385/.521 in 84 G (34 Hi A, 50 AA)
The first thing that stands out when you look at Buck's numbers are the doubles. He has 39 of them in 338 at-bats, or roughly one for every two games played. Then you talk to scouts about the doubles and they tell you that these are not line drives down the line, these are balls ripped into the gap that are bouncing off the wall. While he has just seven home runs, he projects to hit 20+ annually and his ability to make contact projects him as a .300 hitter as well. Currently on the disabled list with a groin strain, Buck could be pushing for a big league look by mid-2007 and reminds some of former Rangers star Rusty Greer.
11. Ryan Sweeney, White Sox
Age: 21.5 Hitting: .300/.355/.643127 in 90 G (AAA)
Sweeney has been pushed through the White Sox system aggressively, and he's held his own--it's hard to find 21 year-olds who can hit .300 in Triple-A. That said, the power has simply never come for the 6-foot-5 outfielder with long arms and good extension. There has been some progress this year, as Sweeney's nine home runs already establishes a new career high, but there's still a long way to go as corner outfielders in the majors are expected to be run producers unless they are leadoff men. There's still time and projection in him, but expectations have been lowered somewhat.
12. Joel Guzman, Devil Rays
Age: 21.7 Hitting: .297/.353/.464 in 85 G (AAA)
One of two prospects sent to Tampa Bay on Monday in the Julio Lugo deal, Guzman's star has fallen dramatically in the last 12 months. When he signed for a Dominican record $2.25 million in 2001, the Dodgers envisioned a big, athletic shortstop, but Guzman was just 16 at the time and continued to grow, turning into a 6-foot-6, 250 pound behemoth. Because of this, he's moved from one end of the defensive spectrum to the other. If you look at his career statistics, they're very impressive for a shortstop who has been consistently young for the league. As a first baseman or left fielder... not so much. Despite a world of tools, he's only hit over .300 once, at High Class A Vero Beach in 2004, and he's never had a home run rate better than 1 per 20 at-bats at any level. Guzman is ranked here because he's played more games at left field than anywhere else this year, but the Devil Rays say he'll be mixed in at first and third base as well at Triple-A Durham. Age is still on his side, but he's not going to be the player we once thought he would be, or anything close to it.
13. Brandon Jones, Braves
Age: 22.7 Hitting: .265/.332/.455 in 95 G (59 Hi A, 36 AA)
Jones is difficult to assess, as he turns 23 at the end of the year, yet is still raw in many aspects of the game. Still, he's made excellent progress in translating his athletic abilities into baseball abilities this year, including a .286/.338/.507 line in 38 games since a promotion to Double-A Mississippi. 16 of his 40 hits in the Southern League have gone for extra bases, as he's beginning to learn how to recognize pitches he can drive. He's pretty good now and has the potential to much better, but the sizeable gap is easier to deal with when you are talking about a teenage prospect. He's an interesting case.
14. Chris Parmalee, Twins
Age: 18.4 Hitting: .308/.375/.637 in 28 G (R)
No state produces baseball players like California, and Parmalee was the best of this year's prep class. Despite being just 18, he already has plenty of power, as evidenced by seven home runs in his first 100 pro at-bats in the Gulf Coast League, which has a league-wide home run rate of one per 89 at-bats. The reason Parmalee lasted until the 20th overall pick is that he's only 18, but he already kind of has "old player skills." He's a patient hitter with power, but not especially athletic, and might end up at first base in the end.
15. Nolan Reimold, Orioles
Age: 22.8 Hitting: .257/.394/.450 in 89 G (Hi A)
Reimold got off to a great start this year but is mired in a two month slump. After batting .301 over the season's first two months, he's hit just .197 since. A big, athletic player who led the NCAA in slugging last year, Reimold has fantastic secondary skills, as he's drawn 64 walks in 308 at-bats, 33 of his 79 hits (including 14 home runs) have gone for extra bases, and he's amassed 13 stolen bases. Still, only Lind and Pence are older than him on this list, and he's yet to hit Double-A. We'll have a much better feel for his abilities once he's tested there.
Next Thursday: Center fielders.