August 10, 2006
Position Breakdown: Center Fielders
The 2005 draft is looking like it could go down in history as the year of the centerfielder. Half of the 12 players listed here were selected in the first round of last year's pickfest, and two of the five honorable mentions were selected later on.
1. Cameron Maybin, Tigers
Age: 19.4 Hitting: .320/.401/.477 in 79 G (A-)
Drafting sixth overall this year and tenth overall in 2005, the Tigers have been able to add lefthander Andrew Miller and Maybin to the system because where other teams see signability problems, Detroit's front office sees an opportunity to move up. While Detroit knew they were getting a top-of-the-line athlete in Maybin, they've been pleasantly suprised by the maturity in his game. Maybin is a natural hitter who draws walks and knows how to utilize his plus speed on the basepaths, as he's successful in 25 of 28 stolen base attempts and has been clocked at 4.1 seconds to first base despite a sizeable 6-foot-3, 200 pound frame. Maybin's still learning how to hit breaking balls and his swing can get long, as evidenced by 94 strikeouts in 300 at-bats. While he hasn't shown much power yet, he's capable of mammoth shots in batting practice and scouts are nearly universal in believing that the power will begin to show up in game situations once he learns how drive pitches. The definition of a five-tool talent, Maybin is already very good and only going to get better. Detroit makes it hard to get excited on a statistical level about prospects as they are nearly always in pitcher's leagues and pitcher's parks, but don't be fooled. This is an elite talent by any measurement.
2. Chris Young, Diamondbacks
Age: 22.9 Hitting .276/.366/.542 in 92 G (AAA)
With Brian Anderson's struggles, one gets the idea the White Sox would be a better team right now without Javier Vazquez, and with Young patrolling center field. After being hampered by a wrist injury early in the season, Young has found his power stroke, blasting 20 home runs in his last 74 games. A dynamic power/speed combination, Young has 30-30 potential in the big leagues and is a very good defensive center fielder, though his arm is a tick below average. While he'll never hit for a high batting average, Young more than makes up for it with outstanding secondary skills. More than half of his 102 hits have gone for extra bases, he's drawn 49 walks in 369 at-bats and he has 14 stolen bases in 18 attempts. He should be handed the Arizona center field job in spring training and has strong Rookie of the Year chances.
3. Justin Upton, Diamondbacks
Age: 19.0 Hitting: .268/.350/.430 in 92 G (A-)
Every time I look at Upton's statistics this season, I'm reminded of Kevin Kline's character in A Fish Called Wanda. Disappointed! Expectations for the No. 1 overall pick in last year's draft were through the roof after an impressive spring training, but Upton's season has been marred by an inability to sustain any kind of hot streak, as he's yet to hit over .286 or total more than three home runs in any single month, though he has already launched three in eight August games. There's nothing glaringly wrong with Upton's numbers, as 11 home runs is pretty impressive for an 18-year-old in the Midwest League, and he's shown a patient approach and stolen 12 bases while looking solid defensively in his transition from shortstop to the outfield. Upton's raw tools remain among the best in baseball, but scouts who have seen him play this year have described his style of play as flat and uninspired. With so many center fielders having outstanding seasons, it's hard to see him as one of the top three or four prospects in the game, as after nearly 100 pro games, his reputation is only worth so much when compared to his performance.
4. Matt Kemp, Dodgers
Age: 21.9 Hitting .330/.410/.531 in 70 G (48 AA/22 AAA)
Kemp went from good prospect to great one in about two months, as he entered the season having never played above Class A, but found himself in the majors by the end of May, where he hit .304 with seven home runs in his first 92 at-bats before going back to Triple-A in mid-July when the Dodgers got a little healthier and Kemp went into a slump. While he's hit for average at Las Vegas, his power shortage has continued as he's gone homerless in his last 81 at-bats. Kemp has struggled with plate discipline in the past and stopped hitting in the majors when pitchers began to take advantage of his free-swinging ways, but his minor-league walk rate is a much-improved 32 in 288 at-bats. That's been the only real weakness in his game, though at 230 pounds, Kemp's plus speed could dissipate quickly, forcing a move to a corner. He'll likely get an opportunity to earn a starting job in spring training.
5. Fernando Martinez, Mets
Age: 17.8 Hitting: .333/.386/.532 in 51 G (1 R/45 A-/5 A+)
Martinez was the big prize in last year's international signing period, as the Mets won a bidding war for his services with a $1.4 million bonus. Point No. 1: 17-year-old players are not supposed to be ready for full-season leagues. Point No. 2: 17-year-old players are certainly not supposed to be good enough to earn a promotion to High Class A by getting a hit in every three at-bats. Martinez is a ridiculous offensive talent with ability well beyond his years, but he still has room for improvement. He's coming into his power, which should at least be average, and while he's a free swinger, he gets away with it because of tremendous plate coverage. The only knock against him is his defense. A slightly above-average runner now, his instincts in center are lacking, and he'll almost assuredly need to move to a corner in the not-so-distant future. This is a still remarkable season for such a young player, and over the next couple of years we will figure out if he develops into an ideal number two hitter, or a middle-of-the-order power threat.
6. Andrew McCutchen, Pirates
Age: 19.8 Hitting: .294/.360/.454 in 110 G (A-)
Selected 11th in last year's draft, in between Maybin and Reds uber-prospect Jay Bruce, McCutchen's scouting reviews are outstanding and while his numbers are very good but not remarkable, what I like about them so much is that they are at the very least solid across the board, so the building blocks for real stardom are there, as there is no current weakness in his game. He's hitting for average, he's third in the Sally League with 198 total bases, he's drawn 42 walks in 436 at-bats with a reasonable strikeout rate and he's stolen 21 bases with a 75% success rate. There's just nothing to criticize here, so that's quite a set of skills to build on.
7. Trevor Crowe, Indians
Age: 22.7 Hitting: .324/.435/.456 in 74 G (2 A-/60 A+/12 AA)
While the 2005 draft was loaded with high school center fielders, Crowe was the one of the college models, and he's quickly established himself as one of the top pure (read: old school) leadoff prospects in the game. An on-base machine who has gotten to first (or better) 146 times in 75 games, Crowe has yet to go more than two games without reaching base, and only has three two-game streaks of not getting on all season. A switch hitter with more walks (54) than strikeouts (53) in 277 at-bats, Crowe's approach is major league ready, and while he lacks raw power, he does have the ability to sting one into the gap on occasion. Crowe is just average in center and his arm is weak, so if he's forced to move into a corner it will greatly reduce his value.
8. Felix Pie, Cubs
Age: 21.5 Hitting: .273/.332/.416 in 114 G (AAA)
It's been a frustrating season for Pie at Iowa this year, but in his defense he's been rushed through the system, is young for the league, and has been showing signs of life in the second half with a .327 batting average in 37 games since July 1. Pie is blessed with tremendous tools and athleticism, and he's just beginning to reach his potential. With 10 home runs, he's just one off his career high and could be good for 20+ home runs in the majors once his power matures. Pie's approach remains incredibly immature, though. He's an impatient hitter who is prone to chasing pitches outside the strike zone, and the veteran hurlers of the Pacfic Coast League have responded by feeding him a steady diet of breaking balls, which has led to 104 strikeouts. While he's a plus-plus runner, he's not a good base stealer, with a career success rate of just 62% (94 for 150). He'd be best served by another season of Triple-A to polish his rough edges, but the Cubs current outfield situation might not allow for it.
9. Carlos Gomez, Mets
Age: 20.7 Hitting: .287/.347/.431 in 93 G (AA)
The Mets don't have just one toolsy outfielder moving quickly through their system, they have two. The organization has always loved Gomez's long body and outstanding tools, but strating him this year at Double-A seemed curious, if not downright wrong. Only 20 years old at the start of the year and coming off an uninspiring .275/.331/.376 campaign at Low Class A Hagerstown, his performance didn't merit skipping a level, and he was overmatched in the first half of the season, with his batting average sitting at .211 at the end of May when he hit the disabled list with a back injury. Whatever happened during that time off changed everything, as Gomez now has pretty respectable numbers thanks to a nifty .406 (41-for-101) average in July. While Gomez hasn't shown much power, scouts believe it's in him, and he's very close to establishing new career highs in doubles, triples and home runs with almost a month still to go in the season. He's a plus-plus runner with 95 stolen bases in the last two years, and he covers a ton of ground in the outfield while featuring a strong, accurate arm. Gomez still needs to refine his approach, as with 73 strikeouts and just 17 walks in 344 at-bats, he doesn't work well at the top of the order, and his speed has less value at the bottom. The Mets can afford to slow him down a little, and he might repeat Double-A next year.
10. Colby Rasmus, Cardinals
Age: 20.0 Hitting: .282/.353/.465 in 113 G (78 A-/35 A+)
Rasmus was the 28th overall pick in last year's draft, and he comes from a talented family, as his younger brother Cory, a righthanded pitcher, was the 38th overall pick this June by the Braves. After beginning the year at Quad Cities with a 2-for-28 slump, Rasmus hit .335 onwards before earning a July promotion to the Florida State League, showing plus power and speed while dramatically reducing the strikeout rate from his 2005 pro debut. Like all first-round high school center fielders, Rasmus is a great athlete with tremendous tools, and his early ability to translate those tools into baseball skills portends well for the future. While he's struggled at Palm Beach, he's still a few days short of his 20th birthday, and he's in the perfect system for his skills, as he's the only bigtime outfield prospect in the St. Louis organization and Jim Edmonds isn't getting any younger.
11. Jacoby Ellsbury, Red Sox
Age: 22.9 Hitting: .303/.374/.408 in 87 G (61 A+/26 AA)
Yet another 2005 draftee, Ellsbury had a storied career at Oregon State and hit .317/.418/.432 in his pro debut with Lowell in the New York-Penn League. He's done many things well this year--reaching Double-A while keeping his average above .300, drawing a decent number of walks and stealing 35 bases. Ellsbury's power is a cause for concern, as 83 of his 107 hits this year are singles, and with just 14 doubles and four home runs, there is little to project in that department. He's a good center fielder with an average-at-best arm, but he'll need to ramp up his on-base skills to profile as an everyday leadoff man.
12. Dexter Fowler, Rockies
Age: 20.4 Hitting: .282/.359/.439 in 77 G (A-)
Fowler was one of the top athletes in the 2004 draft, but he dropped to the 14th round, as most teams believed he would attend college. The Rockies took a chance on him, and were able to buy him away from that higher education nonsense with a nice fat check for $925,000. While remaining incredibly raw, Fowler has shown gap power, a decent approach and a nearly shockingly good feel for contact this year--after striking out 73 times in 220 at-bats last year in the Pioneer League, he has a relatively tame 61 whiffs in 323 at-bats this season. He's going to require patience, and while he's not nearly there yet, his potential falls into the special category. He's definitely one to keep an eye on.