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August 7, 2007

Wait 'Til Next Year

Minor League Leadoff Hitters, Ranked

by Bryan Smith

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Every June, the minor leagues are flooded with a new group of small, fast, up-the-middle players. Scouting directors take flyers on leadoff types in droves annually, and all the players have one thing in common: speed. However, the success rate of these players is especially poor, so over two previous articles, I have explored the traits beyond speed that good leadoff hitters have shown most often in the minor leagues. The quick five:

  1. College numbers shouldn't cloud perspective on a player's tools; big programs have bad success rates with producing leadoff hitters.
  2. The development of power is essential for a leadoff hitter to be good, so showing the capability for muscle growth at a young age is a must.
  3. While power should be developed, it should also be somewhat apparent at a young age, with one home run per 200 at-bats (or less) in Low-A a worthwhile cutoff.
  4. A player should increase his ability to make contact as he progresses through the minor leagues, and players shouldn't whiff in a quarter of their at-bats even in the minors.
  5. Speed shouldn't overshadow a player's ability to draw a walk, as Doug Glanville types aren't very different than the players that made up my "Ugly" group.

With these rules in mind, I dove into the deep current crop of leadoff hopefuls in the minor leagues to try to predict those who will sink and the few who might swim. Here are 15 prospects, listed in alphabetical order, with their corresponding 2007 numbers and commentary about how their skill sets could fall into one of our pre-designed traps.

Peter Bourjos, CF, Angels, 20

Level(s)         AB       AVG        OBP        SLG       K       SB       CS
A-              131      .260       .329       .389      32       14        4

Last season I ranked Bourjos as the Pioneer League's sixth-best prospect on the heels of a campaign in which he showed elite speed and defensive skills as well as impressive gap-to-gap power. Bourjos has the body for the position--at 6'1", 175, there is room for him to add muscle to his frame--and he already hits for some power. The problem in 2007, as it was in the Pioneer League, is that Bourjos too often gets long with his swing. I'll overlook slightly below-average patience for now and focus on a strikeout rate that will need a significant jump downward for Bourjos to stay on our leadoff list.

Emmanuel Burriss, SS, Giants, 22

Level(s)        AB        AVG        OBP        SLG       K       SB       CS
A+,A-          415       .267       .323       .316      59       56       14

Given the Giants' long-running problems developing impact bats, I think it might be a good idea for Matt Nerland to stop focusing on leadoff hitters so prominently in his drafts and instead target sluggers. This season the Giants' first hitting choice was Wendell Fairley, and last year, the club took Kent State product Burriss in the supplemental first round. Burriss has been awful this season, and he's a very bad bet going forward--he's small with little chance of gaining weight, he has zero home runs in his professional career, and he doesn't have the best batting eye. He's as good of a bet for a leadoff bust as any on this list.

Alexi Casilla, MI, Twins, 22

Level(s)        AB        AVG        OBP        SLG       K       SB       CS
AAA            320       .269       .345       .344      50       24       12

The Twins believe that Casilla can be a shadow of Luis Castillo, but projecting players this small as success stories is going to end in failure more often than not. Casilla will play at 160 pounds next season, 22 pounds lighter than the average success story from my study. It's little surprise, given his weight, that Casilla has seven career home runs and a .076 isolated power in 1383 professional at-bats. Casilla might be able to hit for a high average in his career, but are the Twins really interested in betting their leadoff future on a guy that projects towards .300/.360/.360?

Trevor Crowe, LF, Indians, 23

Level(s)        AB        AVG        OBP        SLG       K       SB       CS
AA             405       .247       .342       .331      58       22        6

Obviously, something was missed in Crowe's profile. In his final two seasons at Arizona, Crowe posted OPSs of 992 and 1192, prompting a selection in the first round. Crowe then built his prospect resume by hitting .330/.452/.472 in 60 games in the Carolina League last season. However, Crowe struggled in a second-half promotion to Double-A last season, and his numbers have been similarly poor this year. Despite very good patience, Crowe doesn't hit the ball with enough force, and seems to be the latest example of a big college leadoff star fading in the higher levels of the minors.

Jacoby Ellsbury, CF, Red Sox, 23

Level(s)        AB        AVG        OBP        SLG       K       SB       CS
AA,AAA         333       .315       .389       .423      42       36        6

Crowe's 2005 first-round companion, Ellsbury ended all questions about who was the better prospect of the two with his April performance in Double-A. Upon moving to Pawtucket his numbers have leveled off, and while I'm confident the former Oregon State star could replace Coco Crisp, there are reasons for concern. Ellsbury's power numbers have taken a significant dive in Triple-A, and his current 713 OPS at the level would not be acceptable in the majors. I'm confident his patience and contact skills will allow for a solid career, but given his low slugging projections, tempered expectations are in order.

Darren Ford, CF, Brewers, 21

Level(s)        AB        AVG        OBP        SLG       K       SB       CS
A-,A+          410       .298       .361       .439      99       60       16

The Brewers loved draft-and-follows when that option was available to them. After Ford showed great leadoff skills at Chipola JC in 2005, the Brewers signed him and moved him right into the Pioneer League. Now in his second full season in the minor leagues, Ford has established himself as one of the minor leagues' fastest players. He mixes his speed with both average-to-plus power and patience for his position, which is a good sign. However, Ford has one noticeable flaw: strikeouts. After whiffing 133 times in 491 at-bats in Low-A last year, Ford has 99 strikeouts in 401 at-bats this season. His current 681 OPS in the Florida State League shows that if a leadoff hitter isn't hitting for a good average (.257), he needs a lot better power and patience than Ford offers.

Brett Gardner, CF, Yankees, 23

Level(s)        AB        AVG        OBP        SLG       K       SB       CS
AA,AAA         266       .286       .382       .387      42       23        4

As a junior at Texas A&M, Jason Tyner struck out just nine times and stole 39 bases. The Mets overlooked that he had just 14 extra-base hits with the Aggies and took him in the first round. Tyner reached the majors quickly after putting up minor-league averages of .307/.370/.361. As a junior at the College of Charleston, Brett Gardner struck out just 18 times, and he stole 38 bases. The Yankees overlooked that he had a paltry .124 ISO and took him in the third round. Not far from the majors, Gardner has a .291/.388/.378 line in the minor leagues. Gardner is both a little more patient and a little more powerful than Jason Tyner--does that make him valuable?

Gorkys Hernandez, CF, Tigers, 19

Level(s)        AB        AVG        OBP        SLG       K       SB       CS
A-             378       .288       .339       .384      54       42        9

Hernandez will not turn 20 until this September, and his line as a teenager in the Midwest League is quite impressive. Hernandez is an absolute speedster with good baserunning skills and great defense in the outfield. Hernandez has projectability, and given his tough hitting environment, I think we can excuse his .096 ISO. He has decent patience for a teenager, but it will need work going forward. Hernandez' best attribute is a good contact rate, which is a great place to start. The Tigers will have to be delicate with his development, but Gorkys has the All-Star leadoff tool set.

Austin Jackson, CF, Yankees, 20

Level(s)        AB        AVG        OBP        SLG       K       SB       CS
A-,A+          403       .300       .361       .467      86       26        9

Warning: this paragraph is going to read very similarly to Darren Ford's. A high-profile signing (the Yankees stole Jackson from the college basketball ranks), Jackson made his debut in Low-A last season with unimpressive results. His return to Charleston was headed down the same path this season until Jackson caught fire in June, and he hasn't looked back, dominating the Florida State League. Jackson has more power than most on this list, and he'll take a walk when he needs to. The question will be contact. Jackson deserves some credit for cutting down on his strikeout rate from last year--when he whiffed 152 times in 134 games--but I'm not sure I buy it completely. Jackson has just 27 strikeouts in 168 at-bats in Tampa, but can we count on such a torrid streak continuing? Jackson's strikeout rates in 2008 will be the best indicator of his future.

Desmond Jennings, CF, Devil Rays, 20

Level(s)        AB        AVG        OBP        SLG       K       SB       CS
A-             384       .318       .404       .469      51       45       15

Now this, friends, is what a leadoff hitter should look like. Jennings is a tall guy with room to grow. As a 20-year-old in Low-A, he already is hitting for power (.151 ISO). Jennings has drawn 45 walks in 98 games while striking out just 45 times. While his caught-stealing rate is a bit high, many of the best leadoff hitters in my study posted lower than 75 percent success rates in the low minors. Based on the numbers, Jennings is the most likely player on this list to be successful.

Andrew McCutchen, CF, Pirates, 20

Level(s)        AB        AVG        OBP        SLG       K       SB       CS
AA             411       .253       .323       .377      77       15        1

McCutchen, on the other hand, is the most likely player on this list to be successful from a scouting standpoint. Two levels higher than Jennings at the same age, McCutchen has struggled to a 700 OPS in his aggressive Double-A assignment. The tools are there, with a bit of power, a lot of speed, good patience numbers and a decent contact rate. Seeing McCutchen in person you can appreciate just how slender he is, but there is undoubtedly room for him to grow. The Pirates made a large mistake in assuming McCutchen's High-A numbers last year were indicative of mastery of that level, and his development has been hurt as a result. (Note to the Yankees: Austin Jackson should start next season in Tampa). The pieces are all there, though, and he is more complete than any player on this list.

Jerry Owens, CF, White Sox, 26

Level(s)        AB        AVG        OBP        SLG       K       SB       CS
AAA            232       .284       .361       .366      37       23        8
MLB            171       .251       .297       .292      24       13        3

Sox hitting coach Greg Walker wants Owens hitting atop the White Sox order next season, but I'm just not convinced that it's a good idea. Owens, very simply, violated the third rule: in Low-A, he hit just one home run in 418 at-bats. The next season, just two in 522 at-bats. In total, Owens has just 11 home runs in his career, with a slugging percentage just north of .360. While these players can blossom into Tony Womack--who really wasn't that good--their downside can really hurt a franchise. Like Casilla, Owens is a far better option off the bench than in the starting lineup.

John Raynor, OF, Marlins, 23

Level(s)        AB        AVG        OBP        SLG       K       SB       CS
A-             405       .328       .419       .501      93       51        6

Without question, Raynor is the hardest guy to read on this list. By the numbers, I should love him: more power than anyone on the list, an amazing success rate on the bases, and look at that on-base percentage! But I don't love him. Raynor has 93 strikeouts in 401 at-bats in Low-A, which would be acceptable for a teenager, but is not for a four-year college player. While I can't fault the Marlins for taking Raynor in the ninth round--I've argued that accomplished college players of his caliber belong in those middle rounds--I can emphasize his numbers should be taken with a large grain of salt. Raynor is your best bet in the minors to go Trevor Crowe on us when he hits Double-A. That, or he'll make me look like an idiot.

Marcus Sanders, MI, Giants, 21

Level(s)        AB        AVG        OBP        SLG       K       SB       CS
A-             242       .264       .360       .347      44       24        5

With Sanders, I think the question is always going to be, "what could have been?" A draft-and-follow, Sanders hit .300/.407/.400 at the age of 20 in Low-A two years ago, showing some power and a lot of speed and patience. After a throwaway year in 2006, partially lost to injury, Sanders has not been the same player this season. He's not hitting the ball with any power, resulting in a lower BABIP and slugging percentage. His speed isn't quite as good, either, with his stolen-base numbers way down from even last season. I think he might be able to be a versatile bench player at the highest level, but an injury was all Sanders needed for his size (170 pounds) to catch up with him.

Eric Young Jr., 2B, Rockies, 22

Level(s)        AB        AVG        OBP        SLG       K       SB       CS
A+             440       .286       .358       .420      80       61       15

Young makes it easy for a guy to lose judgment. First of all, he's the son of a good, extremely likable ex-major leaguer. Second, he's in the Rockies system, which up and down has the minors' most offense-oriented stadiums. So excuse me, but I didn't really buy .295/.391/.409 last year, and I'm not really buying Young's numbers this year, either. His patience and contact numbers have been worse this season, and while you have to like his pop for such a little guy, I think his slugging percentage might erode a bit in higher levels. Scouts aren't on Young as much as his numbers might suggest they should be, and in this instance, I'm going to side with them.

Now really, what good would an article analyzing similar minor leaguers be without a ranking at the end? Here's my ranking of the 15:

1. Andrew McCutchen
2. Desmond Jennings
3. Jacoby Ellsbury
4. Gorkys Hernandez
(Break)
5. Austin Jackson
6. Darren Ford
7. Alexi Casilla
8. Brett Gardner
9. Jerry Owens
10. Marcus Sanders
11. Peter Bourjos
12. Trevor Crowe
13. John Raynor
14. Eric Young Jr.
(Break)
15. Emmanuel Burriss

For questions on other leadoff hitters, e-mail me or drop a question into my chat today, scheduled for 2:30 ET.

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

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