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September 11, 2007

Wait 'Til Next Year

Peak Translation Sleepers

by Bryan Smith

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Kevin Goldstein is doing a great job presenting the subplots of the 2007 minor league season for the 30 organizations, identifying the players who took a Great Leap Forward and those who took Two Steps Back. Between those poles, however, there's plenty of space to talk about additional players who've helped themselves. Bland seasons can look far more interesting when placed in the right context. In that vein, I want to look at the players that merely took Two Steps Forward in 2007.

To help with this analysis, I turned to the minor league translations done by BP's Clay Davenport. I've come to really like Clay's minor league "peak translations." For the definition, let's go straight to the author:

It applies a typical aging pattern to the regular translation, to try and assess how good the player will be at his peak. Peak generally means somewhere around age 27; however, since the components of offense don't age at the same rates (speed decays earlier than power, for instance), and since players don't have the same mix of those components, the actual peak age has some variability, as early as 25 for pure speedsters and as late as 30 for sluggers. The adjustments for pitchers are considerably more sketchy; the very idea of a typical aging curve relies on predictable, steady changes in performance, while pitchers' tendencies are dominated by essentially unpredictable point impacts, most commonly either injuries or developing a new pitch. All in all, though, the peak translation is an important tool for me to assess prospect status.

So I combed through Clay's peak translations for all levels of A ball, and found two players in each league that Clay's system liked more than the player's regular-season numbers would suggest. Of course, the player had to be a prospect with legitimate potential, one that entered the season with expectations of some sort. In the end, we have ten players who inched forward this season.

Midwest League
Peter Bourjos, CF, Angels
2007 Season: .274/.335/.426
Low-A peak translation: .283/.344/.455, .272 EqA.

Bourjos was a favorite of his revered manager, Tom Kotchman, in the Pioneer League last season. Given the large bonus ($325,000) he received, Bourjos was expected to emerge as the Angels' leadoff hitter of the future this season. However, as hitters often do in the Midwest League in April, Bourjos struggled, hitting a mere .229/.325/.348. After Bourjos began to hit in May, he ruptured a ligament in his left ring finger, costing him two months of playing time. Upon returning, Bourjos was finally everything he was thought to be and more, slugging .452 in the second half. One of the fastest and best defensive outfielders in minor-league baseball, Bourjos was not nearly as effective on the bases as he should have been, stealing 19 in 28 chances, but that skill should come with age. Bourjos' second-half power kick really enhances his projection, as long as the polish comes later.

Honorable Mention: Josh Wall, RHP, Dodgers. A seemingly rare Logan White disappointment entering the season, Wall was fantastic in the second half (3.14 ERA) and keeps the ball in the park well enough (0.6 HR/9) to have hope for future success going into 2008.

South Atlantic League
Clayton Tanner, LHP, Giants
2007 Season: 3.59 ERA, 9.8 H/9, 2.9 BB/9, 6.9 K/9
Low-A peak translation: 3.69 DERA, 10.0 H/9, 2.8 BB/9, 6.0 K/9

By pitching two more times at the end of the season, Tanner turned a fantastic debut season into a mediocre one. That's because in his final two outings, spanning six innings, Tanner gave up 19 hits, 13 earned runs, three walks and didn't strike out a batter. His ERA jumped 74 points as a result, and his H/9 skyrocketed past nine. Prior to that, Tanner was fantastic. An Australian southpaw with a low-90s sinker, Tanner drew groundballs on 58.5 percent of the balls put into play against him. Tanner's breaking stuff is inconsistent, and with it so are his strikeouts, but Clay's system gave Tanner the best Equivalent RA peak translation of any starting pitcher in the South Atlantic League, merely on the basis of Tanner's great sinker generating all of those groundball outs.

Honorable Mention: Logan Morrison, 1B, Marlins. A bit of a sleeper, Morrison was a 2005 draft-and-follow from Albert Pujols' alma mater. Morrison hasn't hit lefties yet (.195/.246/.398), but he nevertheless showed fantastic power, and Clay's system doesn't mind his peak: .268/.347/.460, .276 EqA.

California League
Chris Tillman, RHP, Mariners
2007 Season: 5.26 ERA, 9.4 H/9, 4.2 BB/9, 9.2 K/9
High-A peak translation: 4.28 DERA, 7.9 H/9, 2.7 BB/9, 7.2 K/9

The Mariners entered the year with high expectations for Tillman and Tony Butler, both of whom had impressed the organization following their signings a year ago. But while Butler struggled with injuries and command problems (although he did finally put up a 1.78 ERA in his last five starts), Tillman came out firing, and the Mariners promoted him immediately. It was an odd decision, but characteristic for an organization known to believe that failure is a better developmental tool than success. So, they sent Tillman into the seventh circle of pitchers' hell known as High Desert. Eventually, Tillman adapted, posting a 3.52 ERA and striking out 10.6 batters per nine after July 1, a span covering his final 13 starts. If Tillman had remained in the Midwest League with his 2006 draft contemporaries, perhaps his season would have rivaled that of someone like Trevor Cahill.

Honorable Mention: Vince Mazzaro, RHP, Athletics. While he still has to admit to a 5.21 ERA in 273 career innings, Mazzaro did make improvements this season. A total of 53.7 percent of the balls put in play were on the ground, so it seems as he may improve statistically as the defenses behind him do qualitatively.

Carolina League
Jamie Romak, OF, Pirates
2007 Season: .252/.380/.483 in the Carolina League, after a .275/.393/.551 20-game stretch in the Sally League
High-A peak translation: .240/.355/.451, .276 EqA.

I know, I know, it's impossible that John Schuerholz may have traded away a good prospect. We've all heard it before, but perhaps this time the Braves picked the wrong low-level longshot to give away. Romak continued to show the skill set of a future True Three Outcomes star, generating 20 home runs (with the power potential for more), 64 walks and 114 strikeouts combined between two levels. Perhaps the Braves didn't realize the value in that, because while his career minor league batting average is just .241, his OPS is 809 and improving annually. Oddly, it seems Romak's last skill he must develop is hitting southpaws, as he's shown a consistent reverse platoon split. Hopefully new Pirates management re-signs Jason Bay, because a Bay, McCutchen, Romak outfield could actually win the Bucs some games.

Honorable Mention: Shelby Ford, 2B, Pirates. Two Pirates on one list? A good list? Before being shut down with a lower back strain, Ford was completely coming around, showing the pure offensive game that led the Pirates to take him in the third round. Do you think the Pirates would be alright with a second baseman that Clay's system peak-translates to .277/.341/.469? Me, too.

Florida State League
Mark Hamilton, 1B, Cardinals
2007 Season: .290/.348/.520 in the FSL before his mid-June promotion to Double-A Springfield, where he hit .250/.318/.383.
High-A peak translation: .286/.347/.589, .304 EqA.

I feel like I've been comparing Hamilton to Ryan Klesko for ages, and I'm not taking off that tag yet. Like Klesko, Hamilton has power in spades, a trait he has shown at every level; it's a skill his peak translation warms to. Like Klesko, contact skills and the ability to hit left-handed pitching will define whether he remains the platoon player Klesko started off his career as, or the everyday player that he eventually became. Hamilton struggled a bit in the Texas League-Clay's peak translations drop to .257/.323/.415-but the power was still there. Teams need to test the Cardinals this winter, because if the presence of Albert Pujols significantly reduces Hamilton's value to the organization, he'd make one helluva throw-in.

Honorable Mention: Mat Gamel, 3B, Brewers. Gamel's run at 50 errors (which he exceeded by reaching 53) overshadowed a really good year at the plate, which Clay peak translates to .285/.365/.470. Since the Brewers have their third baseman of the immediate future, Ryan Braun, already at third, Gamel could start learning the outfield as soon as possible.

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

Related Content:  Logan Morrison,  The Who,  Peak,  The Atlantic

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