April 17, 2007
Wait 'Til Next Year
The Midwest Code
I walked into my first game of the spring in Cedar Rapids, Iowa on Sunday with 1.3 million reasons for high expectations. Having read reports by Kevin Goldstein, I knew the youngest offensive phenom to ever play in the Midwest League was in town. Carlos Triunfel, Wisconsin Timber Rattlers shortstop and the best prospect in Seattle's system since King Felix, and A-Rod before that, has a reputation beyond his years--all 17 of them.
My already high expectations for what I'd see watching Triunfel's fifth professional game were to be exceeded from a scouting standpoint. Despite an 0-for-4 effort from the plate, I was happy to see many of the positives that have been used to describe Triunfel. He already has a well-developed body, with thick legs and forearms that should lead to big power. While I didn't see batting practice to vouch for it, he hit a fly out about 380 feet the opposite way, certainly a positive sign. It also said a lot about his plate approach, even if he swung at the first five pitches he saw on the day. Most impressive was his very gifted throwing arm, which will certainly allow him to move to third if he outgrows shortstop in the minor leagues.
Triunfel must continue to meet a high bar of expectations all season--it goes with the territory for someone who, with a 1990 birthday, was 2006's fourth-largest international bonus baby. From a scouting standpoint, Triunfel must meet a high bar this year. From a statistical standpoint, however, the bar is far lower. I have a specific statistical goal for Triunfel, and it certainly doesn't appear to be asking as much as my eyes called for on Sunday:
On first view, that's not too demanding a set of statistical expectations, right? Even if 40 extra-base hits sounds a bit high, it's hard to go too far south of this production while staying high on the "Very Good" prospect radar. However, I'm withholding information here. The reason for my being this specific is a simple average of six different seasons from recent up-the-middle prospects in the teenage Midwest League: Josh Barfield, Reid Brignac, Miguel Cabrera, Adam Jones, Justin Upton, and Brandon Wood. As a sextet, that's far beyond Very Good--that's Pretty Damn Excellent.
This is certainly good news for Triunfel, who will have his apologists regardless of the numbers he puts up. These six great players collectively produced at that level while averaging 18.5 years of age--what does that say about someone far younger? If Triunfel only has 30 extra-base hits in a full season of work, Mariners fans could relax, knowing Miguel Cabrera did the same at 18. If he strikes out 131 times, he would only be matching Reid Brignac, two years older than Triunfel during his Midwest League stint.
We should also read these numbers as context for Justin Upton's season--perhaps it wasn't as disappointing as is universally recognized. While scouts harping on Upton's effort and makeup reflect reasons for genuine concern, Upton did show the tools of a top ten prospect, while learning a new position, no less. When Cabrera struggled in 2001 to meet the hype that went with being Venezuela's highest bonus baby, his tools were enough to rank behind Josh Beckett as Baseball America's second prospect in the Marlins system in 2002.
Even while Alex Gordon and Ryan Zimmerman make the Diamondbacks look foolish for their draft selection in 2005, we must look at context and remember one thing: teenagers don't hit in the Midwest League. Since 2000, I have 138 names on register as teenage position players in the Midwest League with more than 50 plate appearances. Such a low cutoff dilutes the numbers a bit--players between 50 and 200 plate appearances hit .226/.291/.312--but it adds 26 players and nearly 4,000 at-bats to our study. In the end, for those not named Daric Barton or Prince Fielder, the results are pretty weak:
Hardly the numbers of a top-flight prospect, without question, but more than 30 members of the study have reached the Major Leagues, with more certainly on the way. The list has just one player's age-17 season--Roman Cordova in 2002, who hit .200 over 165 at-bats; he was even worse the next season. Triunfel is in uncharted territory this season; he will be the first player his age to pass the 200 plate appearance threshold.
It should also be noted that the group is mostly comprised of 19-year-old players (81 percent). Upton, at the age of 18, was six percent better than the average while under the spotlight the top choice always commands. Hurting Upton's credentials is the context of 2006 specifically, a historic season for the league. To quote Jim Callis, "the MWL never has seen outfielder talent to match what it had in 2006." Upton was outshone by three teenage outfielders unlike anything the league had ever witnessed: Jay Bruce, Cameron Maybin, and Colby Rasmus, who combined to hit .300/.371/.495.
I don't think there is a reasonable explanation for why these three were so good, so young--maybe they really are this good, as Brad Nelson is really the only player ahead of them in OPS who has not reached the Major Leagues. This season will be telling in that regard, but for now we should treat them as anomalies. In doing so, their 2006 seasons affected our perspective in regard to somebody like Justin Upton, and could do the same for 2007 teenagers like Triunfel.
Currently, 33 players in the Midwest League are in a teenage season, twenty of which are position players. Travis Snider is probably the league's best pure hitter since Prince Fielder, and is joined by 2006 first rounders Chris Parmelee, Hank Conger, and Preston Mattingly. If there was a leaderboard in tools, West Michigan's Gorkys Hernandez would be atop that list, trailed by Gerardo Parra, Alex Liddi, and Greg Halman as exciting international talents. And, of course, we have short-season stars from last year like Cedric Hunter and Matt Sulentic.
Many thanks to Clay Davenport for his help in this column.