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September 21, 2006

Future Shock

The Great Lubanski

by Kevin Goldstein

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I'd like to introduce you to a pair of outfielders. Both are in the same organization, and both were drafted out of high school in the first round of the 2003 draft based on an athletic frame and plus-plus speed. Both received bonuses ofo more than two million dollars and had high expectations attached to them. The pair has both moved through the organization one level at a time, but their development has been very different:

Player A:

LG  AGE  G  AB   R   H 2B 3B HR RBI BB  SO SB CS  AVG  OBP  SLG  OPS
R   18  52 212  40  64  6  6  6  28 16  54  2 10 .302 .356 .472  828
LoA 19 128 482  62 116 16  6 14  46 48 112 16  8 .241 .310 .344  655
HiA 20 126 514  80 130 30  4 32 104 38 146 12  0 .253 .305 .514  819
AA  21 136 506  50 120 32  4 10  50 60 116 12  4 .237 .317 .375  692

Player B:

LG  AGE  G  AB   R   H 2B 3B HR RBI BB  SO SB CS  AVG  OBP  SLG  OPS
R   18  54 230  42  80  2  6  2  26 20  46 16 10 .348 .405 .435  840
LoA 19 126 484  66 150 36  8  4  66 38 104 16 14 .310 .361 .442  803
HiA 20 126 548 102 190 46  0 24 136 38 116 16  2 .347 .390 .562  952
AA  21 138 542 136 176 36 18 20  90 84 108 10 10 .325 .414 .568  982

Both had very good debuts in Rookie ball, and while Player A showed power, he really never developed into a good hitter, with poor averages and plate discipline bringing his overall numbers down. This year in Double-A it caught up to him and he hit a wall, with his big home-run season in High-A looking like a product of the high-octane offensive environment of the California League.

Meanwhile Player B blossomed into a remarkable hitter with MVP quality numbers in each of the last two seasons. Surely he's one of the top prospects in baseball.

Now the reveal. Player A?

Royals outfielder Chris Lubanski.

Player B?

Also Chris Lubanski.

Player A is what Lubanski has done in the first half of the season at each level, while Player B represents his second- half performance. I multiplied each by two (and you didn't think I was statistically inclined) to make them look like full seasons.

Here's Chris' actual career:

LG  AGE  G  AB   R   H 2B 3B HR RBI BB  SO SB CS  AVG  OBP  SLG  OPS
R   18  53 221  41  72  4  6  4  27 18  50  9 10 .326 .382 .452  834
LoA 19 127 483  64 133 26  7  9  56 42 104 16 11 .275 .336 .414  750
HiA 20 126 531  91 160 38  8 28 116 38 131 14  1 .301 .349 .554  903
AA  21 137 524  93 148 34 11 15  70 72 112 11  7 .282 .369 .475  844

Lubanski is one of the hardest prospects in baseball to evaluate, not only because of the Jekyll and Hyde numbers he's put up within each season, but because he's turned into a very different player than what was expected.

Let's take a look at everything we know.

2003

Lubanski did not come from a baseball hotbed. He starred at Kennedy-Kenrick High Schoool in Schwenksville, Pennsylvania, a small town of less than 2,000 that lies about 30 miles northwest of Philadelphia. Lubanski was long considered one of the top players in the country, spending his summers playing on USA Baseball's junior teams. In his senior year, he hit .528 with 10 triples and 20 stolen bases in just 72 at-bats. He won a national player of the year honor, and Baseball America ranked him as one of the top ten players in the draft, and the second-fastest prep player. However, he was more than just a burner. At 6-foot-3, he had an athletic frame to go with a smooth stroke from the left side, and many scouts saw him as a prized power/speed combination in center field.

I caught up with one scout who saw him as an amateur, and his reports on him saw a much different future--one that looks like what Lubanski is now. "I didn't think he'd be a base stealer," said the veteran scout. "He had a big body and was a straight-line runner as opposed to being an explosive quick-step guy. I bet he still runs a good 60-yard dash, and people think those guys will be burners, but that's 60-yard-dash speed, not baseball speed."

While most projected Lubanski to go somewhere in the 8-12 range of the first round, the Royals pulled a late surprise and selected him fifth overall. It proved to be a bit of a signability pick, as his $2.1 million bonus fit more into the 8-10 range. His quick signing allowed him to play in the Arizona Rookie League, where he had a very good debut and earned praise for his game-changing speed, though his defense was considered a little sloppy.

2004

Lubanski's full-season debut in the Midwest League was, as all of his seasons since his debut have been, a mixed bag. He seemed to figure things out in the second half; much of that was credited to a lineup change, as the Royals moved him from leadoff man to their number three hitter. One scout who recalled seeing Lubanski during his stint at Burlington recalled being surprised at what he saw. "It just wasn't what I was expecting," recalled the scout. "He was bigger than I thought he'd be, and he was certainly not a burner--just a slightly plus runner." His defensive reviews also continued to decline. "He was bad in center field," said the scouts. "Got very bad reads of the bat, often broke the wrong way off the bat and his routes were pretty circular."

The season was generally considered a disappointment, but certainly not the end of the world, and there was good news in his future, as he was about to head off to the California League to play in High Desert--the best hitting park in the minors. A breakout campaign was anticipated.

2005

Was 2005 a breakout or not? It was another great second half, and his playoff performance bordered on historic: while the Mavericks were ousted in three games, Lubanski went a remarkable 13-for-15 with a double, triple and three home runs.

Despite the gaudy totals, Lubanski still had plenty of naysayers, many of which pointed at Lubanski's home/road splits. You think his first half/second half numbers are wacky? Check this out:

      G   AB   R   H 2B 3B HR RBI BB  SO SB CS  AVG  OBP  SLG   OPS
Home  63 262  57  94 21  5 19  71 25  60  7  1 .359 .416 .695  1111
Away  63 269  34  66 17  1  9  45 13  71  7  0 .245 .281 .416   697

By this point, Lubanski's scouting reports began to border on the bizarre. His defense was now universally panned, and almost all evaluators agreed that a move to left field was in the not-so-distant future. The bat however received widely-varying marks. Some saw developing power, others saw holes too numerous to count and a horrible approach. The 2006 season to come would be the big prospect test, as he moved to the upper levels at Double-A Wichita.

2006

While he didn't do it with flying colors, Lubanski certainly at least passed the test this year. He had a very good season overall, and once again put up a tremendous second half, but one significant difference changes everything in his profile. The Royals finally conceded that Lubanski would not work in center field and moved him to left, where offensive expectations rise significantly.

Scouting reviews remain mixed. "The first thing I noticed this year is that he's bigger," said one scout who also saw Lubanski at High Desert. "He's put on a good ten pounds, and in a good way, but I still see all of those holes in his swing." Another scout had nothing but praise for his 2006 campaign. "You know, Alex Gordon and Billy Butler are considered elite, but Lubanski is younger than Gordon, had a better walk rate, had a better strikeout rate and hit just as many home runs as Butler."

The Future

Lubanski will likely begin 2007 in Triple-A, and will likely see the major leagues next September at the latest. But what are his long-term prospects? Once again, opinions vary wildly.

Scout No. 1: "He's a fourth or fifth outfielder for me. He's a tweener type now because he can't play center field. He's kind of like Shane Costa with more tools and less polish."

Scout No. 2: "He's changing my opinion on him for the better. He still has physical tools, talent, and he has great makeup and works hard--you can't discount him."

Scout No. 3: "I think he's one of the most undersold guys in the minors. People bitched about his power and he's shown power, people bitched about his walk and strikeout rates and he went out and improved them. He's only 21 and he's in Double-A. I don't know what else people need to see."

If the trend continues at Omaha next year, and he's batting .235 in June, yet finishes the year with solid totals, I get the feeling that we'll remain just as confused.

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

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