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August 22, 2007
Positional Rankings - Corner Outfield
I'm separating corner outfielder from center fielders, not because of where they project to end up (which might be subjective), but rather where they've played the majority of the season. As discussed previously, corners are expected to mash, but luckily several of these prospects are up to the task. The usual caveats apply--one has to be in the minors, one has to be technically a prospect (fewer than 130 big league at-bats), and 2007 draftees are not eligible, but will be discussed separately.
1. Travis Snider, Blue Jays
Snider has been the top hitter in the Midwest League for much of the season, and is currently leading the circuit in extra-base hits and slugging. He has a solid approach, and his plus raw power is starting to show up in game time as well, with six of his 13 home runs coming in the last 20 games. While his hitting is his primary tool, he makes up for a lack of athleticism with a grinder's mentality, turning into an adequate right fielder with a slightly above-average arm. He's even better than these numbers indicate, and one of the best teenage hitters in the minors, period.
2. Chris Marrero, Nationals
Marrero went into the 2006 season generally considered the best high school hitter in the country, but he pressed during his senior year and fell into the Nationals' collective laps with the 15th overall pick. He has the skills to hit for average and power, but he lapses into bad habits at times still, becoming pull-happy when his natural power is more than enough to get a ball over the fence. A third baseman in high school, he's made a decent transition to left, not that it takes much. Marrero got off to a great start following his promotion to the Carolina League, but he's been in a month-long slump, which could be simply attributed to a player running out of gas in his first full season. The Nationals' system is looking better these days, and Marrero is one of the primary reasons why.
3. Carlos Gonzalez, Diamondbacks
Gonzalez' up-and-down season at Mobile looks like it's now permanently in 'up' mode, as the Venezuelan has hit .338/.393/.567 in his last 40 games. Early in the year, Gonzalez seemed to be going through the motions at times, but Justin Upton's brief tenure and the arrival of Aaron Cunningham may have been the reason for Gonzalez to step up his game. On a tools level, there's nothing to complain about, as Gonzalez has a smooth, fluid stroke, above-average power, good range in right field, and a cannon for an arm. If the effort remains at this level, Gonzalez could put up some monster numbers in the Pacific Coast League next year, and give Arizona more questions than answers when it comes to their outfield of the future. It's a nice problem to have.
4. Jose Tabata, Yankees
"Man or myth?" debates are starting to come up at times when talk turns to Tabata. Yes, the .300+ batting average is a tremendous achievement for a 19-year-old in High-A, but at the same time, what was already a highly-debated power ceiling has been even more scrutinized, as he has just 23 extra-base hits and 103 singles. The fact that he recently had surgery on his hamate bone is a mitigating factor, as that's exactly the kind of injury that can sap a player of his power. That said, Tabata is not an especially big guy, and even without the injury, it's hard to see where the 30-home run projections came from in the first place. Nonetheless, on a pure hitting level, Tabata is pretty special and should be a consistent contender for batting titles when he reaches the big leagues.
5. Brandon Jones, Braves
For the first time in his career, Jones is finally healthy for a full year and finally living up to the promise of a player with his kind of athletic ability. He's almost assuredly in the Atlanta outfield next year, but scouts still wonder about his ceiling, characterizing him more as a player who is solid across the board than one with impact potential. It's an accurate assessment, as Jones can hit for average, has a little power (but closer to the kind that cranks out 20-plus home runs annually kind than 30-plus), he draws a few walks and he steals a few bases. The whole is greater than the sum of the parts with a player like this, but it's hard to see him as a perennial All-Star.
6. Gerardo Parra, Diamondbacks
As another tools-laden outfielder from Venezuela in the Arizona system, Parra often gets compared to Carlos Gonzalez, but other than nationality, outstanding arm strength, and impressive minor league numbers, the comparison falls a bit flat. Parra is a little shorter and a little squatter, and more of a line-drive hitter, and while he lacks Gonzalez' power, he arguably has even better bat control. He's also faster than Gonzalez, currently holding his own in center field for Visalia. Even if he doesn't add plate discipline to his game--and it would be nice if he did--he could still be a very good number two hitter in a big league lineup.
7. Wladimir Balentien, Mariners
After hitting just .230 in the Texas League last year, Balentien has unquestionably had a breakout year, but the critiques of his overall game are for the most part unchanged. Between his bat speed and pure strength, Balentien's power ceiling ranks with anyone in the organization, but at times, it's also his greatest downfall. Things like shortening up with two strikes, moving the runner along or focusing on contact are seemingly foreign concepts to Balentien; if he's swinging, he's trying to hit the ball 500 feet. His power is hard to ignore, however, and he complements it with good outfield play and a very good arm. He's a big leaguer for sure, but it's hard to figure out where he fits into Seattle's future plans.
8. Aaron Cunningham, Diamondbacks
Now on his third team, when you add Cunningham's numbers up, they're pretty impressive: a .310/.371/.510 overall line in 114 games, with 27 doubles, 10 triples, 14 home runs, 42 walks and 28 stolen bases. That's really Cunningham in a nutshell; he can do a little bit of everything. His walk rate has taken a nosedive since being traded to Arizona, but at the same time, he's be playing center field for the first time since moving up to Double-A, and according to scouts, he ain't half bad there. This makes for yet more confusion in the Arizona outfield situation in the end; at the very least, Cunningham would get far more than Danny Richar in return should he be used as trade bait.
9. Nolan Reimold, Orioles
Reimold needed a bit of a rebound season after a slightly disappointing 2006, and now he's trying to make up for lost time after a severely strained oblique cost him most of the season's first half. He'll probably never be a .300 hitter in the majors, but he should have more than enough secondary skills to make up for it, as he's not afraid to take a walk and he absolutely crushes mistakes. He'll see less of those mistakes as he moves up--and he's already lost a step since his college days at Bowling Green--so he's now a corner guy or nothing. If he can keep up this pace next year at Triple-A Norfolk, he should be in Baltimore by mid-season.
10. Cody Johnson, Braves
Arguably the most surprising performer in the short-season leagues, last year's first round pick has 14 home runs and 34 extra-base hits in 213 at-bats, and looks to be a completely different player than the one who did next to nothing in his pro debut last year. Johnson has massive raw power, but many scouts thought he'd never be able to tap into it due to a long and loopy swing. With 61 strikeouts, there are obviously still holes there, but at the same time, he's made significant adjustments to just get this far. He's an average runner but is limited to left field due to poor instincts and an average-at-best arm. His full-season debut at Rome next year is already highly anticipated.
11. Chris Pettit, Angels
Last June, 581 players were drafted before Chris Pettit. It made sense at the time--Pettit could hit, but he was right-handed and not especially big or strong or fast, so there was little to project on. As it turns out, maybe not that much projection was needed. He put up some big numbers at Cedar Rapids in the first half of the season, but didn't really get much attention until the scouts started to confirm what the numbers were already saying: this guy can really hit. He's also a better athlete than people anticipated, with 18 home runs and 29 stolen bases in 120 games. It's hard to figure out what he's going to be, but one scout called him a right-handed Rusty Greer, which makes some sense.
12. Nick Weglarz, Indians
I'll be the first to admit a fascination with the guy, but a .313/.423/.591 line since the All-Star break doesn't hurt things. He's basically a 19-year-old with those oft-discussed old player skills: power and patience, but very little athleticism. I'm not sure if we hold that against him or not, but in any discussion, 21 home runs and 78 walks by a teenager in his full-season debut deserves recognition. The minors are filled with low-average home run hitters where people say to themselves, "if only he drew some walks, he'd be some kind of a prospect." Weglarz is that guy.
This year's draft will hardly be known for its outfielders. In fact, the first one drafted, Matt LaPorta (Milwaukee, sevent overall), never played a game there at the University of Florida, but is now learning on the job. His bat should play anywhere; the Brewers just think it has more value in left if he can merely become acceptable there. The first high school outfielder drafted was Jason Heyward (Atlanta, 14th), who has the tools to match any position player in the draft and projects as an elite-level right fielder. The next corner outfielder selected was Kellen Kulbacki (San Diego, 40th), who put up crazy numbers at James Madison, but has struggled to do so in the pros so far.
Brian Barton, Indians: He's good, but last year's breakout is beginning to look a tad flukish, and he's not getting any younger.
Keep An Eye On
Mitch Einertson, Astros: After he tied the Appalachian League record with 24 home run in 63 games in 2004, Einertson all but fell off the radar due to bad performance, injury problems, and personal troubles. Still just 21, he's having a comeback season at High-A Salem, batting .306/.365/.476 with just eight home runs, but 37 doubles. If one of the worst systems in baseball is looking for any good news, here it is.