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May 2, 2008

Future Shock

April Awards for Hitters

by Kevin Goldstein

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For too long, it's been one of the hidden gems on our website. I'm guessing many readers had no idea that we have minor league stats, including Davenport Translations and the usual BP metrics. It's a wonderful tool for looking at the numbers and getting some balance, and to celebrate their more prominent new position on our statistics home page, let's hand out some hardware with some BP Hitter of the Month awards using our own metric, Equivalent Runs.

International League

Hitter of the Month: Mike Hessman, Toledo (Tigers), 24 EQR
In the running: DeWayne Wise, Charlotte (White Sox), 23 EQR; Jeff Larish, Toledo (Tigers): 23 EQR

A 30-year-old in his 13th pro season with a trio of big league callups in his past, Hessman does two things well--hit home runs and strike out. Last year he led the International League in both categories with 31 and 153 respectively, and this year he's hitting .276/.333/.643 while once again leading the league in round-trippers with eight, while his 28 whiffs are just six short of the league lead. In another time, another organization, with more hype than the 15th-round pick that he was, he might have been a Dean Palmer type.

Wise is another 30-year-old career type, but at least Larish is definitely a prospect. The former Arizona State star is batting .268/.360/.577, but at 25 he doesn't offer much more projection than as a second-division first baseman who tries to make up for a low batting average with excellent secondary numbers.

Pacific Coast League

Hitter of the Month: Nelson Cruz, Oklahoma (Rangers), 28 EQR
In the running: Jeff Clement, Tacoma (Mariners), 25 EQR; Terry Tiffee, Las Vegas (Dodgers), 24 EQR

Cruz may be the ultimate 4-A hitter. Given 145 games in the big leagues, he's squandered the opportunities they represent by hitting .231/.282/.385. When he didn't make the team in spring training, nobody was interested in the 27-year-old as he passed through waivers and returned to Triple-A, where once again he's mashing, batting .380/.537/.785 in 23 games. With the Rangers' injury problems, he might get another shot or two, but he's seen more as a player who already got his chances, or chances, and failed. That's a very hard rap to recover from.

Clement got called up with Wladimir Balentien as part of the Mariners' sudden youth movement that doesn't just make games more interesting in Seattle, but also makes them a better team. Tiffee is a former semi-prospect with the Twins as a third baseman, but is now a 29-year-old journeyman. Nonetheless, he's taken advantage of a great home park to hit an absolutely ridiculous .486 in his first 26 games, going 51-for-105. He's not a prospect, but he is why Adam LaRoche is returning from his injury a rung down, at Double-A Jacksonville.

Eastern League

Hitter of the Month: Luke Hughes, New Britain (Twins), 26 EQR
In the running: Mike Carp, Binghamton (Mets), 22 EQR; Wilkin Ramirez, Erie (Tigers), 21 EQR

A 23-year-old Aussie who has been beset by injuries throughout his career, Hughes is one of those gritty/gutsy types whose maximum-effort style allows his average tools to play up. Still, his .354/.430/.677 April with eight home runs in 99 at-bats is one heck of an outlier, especially from a guy with a career batting average of .263 and a career-high in home runs of nine. This one screams fluke, but the power surge is so notably fluky that it can be considered at least some kind of step forward.

Carp's season is a definite bright spot for the Mets. He struggled in Double-A last year (.251/.337/.387) as a 20-year-old, but he's off to a blazing start this year thanks to a much shortened swing. One always has to be leery of first-base prospects, but Carp has at least put himself back on the radar. Ramirez is also someone to watch; the Tigers have always loved his tools, but his performance has always been hampered by a horribly impatient approach. Just 22, he's hitting .324/.355/.629, but the 31 strikeouts and just five walks in 105 at-bats makes it look like a bit of a BABIP mirage.

Southern League

Hitter of the Month: Mat Gamel, Huntsville (Brewers), 26 EQR
In the running: Juan Gonzalez, Jacksonville (Dodgers), 22 EQR; Ivan DeJesus, Jacksonville (Dodgers), 21 EQR

Gamel has always hit, and if anything, he's doing it more than ever, batting .379/.448/.680 in 26 games, including, strangely enough, five triples. The bat has never been a question; it's his glove work at third that remains questionable. After getting charged with 53 errors last year, Gamel's eight errors represents improvement, but not nearly enough, leading teams to evaluate him as a first baseman or corner outfielder.

Gonzalez is a 26-year-old Venezualan who has bounced around the minors; this is just a fast start for a veteran and nothing to make a note of. The exact opposite can be said of DeJesus, who continues to see his stock rising, and whose hot start was covered in a recent Ten Pack.

Texas League

Hitter of the Month: Jesus Guzman, Midland (Athletics), 25 EQR
In the running: Drew Sutton, Corpus Christi (Astros), 20 EQR; Max Ramirez, Frisco (Rangers), 20 EQR

Signed in the offseason out of the Mariners system, Guzman hit .301/.370/.539 last year at High-A High Desert, while finishing second in the California League in both home runs (25) and RBI (112). All of that was mitigated by the fact that High Desert was a demotion after a pair of poor seasons at Double-A, and the fact that High Desert's home park is a pinball machine. At .422/.447/.647 in 26 games for the RockHounds, Guzman leads the circuit in batting, slugging, hits (49) and RBI (33), and at just 23, he has an outside chance of upgrading his reputation from that as simply and organizational player.

Almost 25, Sutton is a second baseman who hits line drives and draws walks, but probably doesn't do enough of either to ever start in the big leagues. One of the less-publicized prospects netted during the Rangers trade-fest last summer, Max Ramirez is still a bit of a project behind the plate, but his bat has taken yet another step forward. At .357/.444/.643, he's continuing to hit for average and draw walks, while beginning to tap into his power potential as well.

California League

Hitter of the Month: Pablo Sandoval, San Jose (Giants), 34 EQR
In the running: Eric Sogard, Lake Elsinore (Padres), 27 EQR; Sean Doolittle, Stockton (Athletics), 22 EQR

Maybe I'm the only one out there he likes Sandoval a little bit, ranking him ninth in a weak system, but what's not to like about a switch-hitting catcher? Sure he's a little fat, and doesn't receive very well at all, but he cuts down the running game and is making a bid for a quick move up to Double-A with a .453/.500/.895 line after 21 games that includes 15 doubles and seven home runs. He's way underrated in my book.

Sogard is a little second baseman from Arizona State who's low on tools but high on fundamentals and makeup, and he draws a ton of walks and rarely strikes out. The second-round pick from last year's draft is absolutely raking for the Storm right now, batting .388/.496/.553 in 27 games, and should be in Double-A by midseason. Doolittle's very real power surge was covered last weekend.

Carolina League

Hitter of the Month: Jim Negrych, Lynchburg (Pirates), 23 EQR
In the running: Joe Dickerson, Wilmington (Royals), 22 EQR; Gorkys Hernandez, Myrtle Beach (Braves), 20 EQR

Negrych is another Sogard type, but with fewer tools, another year of age, and one mediocre full-season debut in his rear-view mirror. He's looking to make up for lost time with a .400/.467/.516 start, and like Sogard, he should be moving up sooner than later.

A fourth-round pick in 2005, Dickerson is a well-rounded talent who doesn't have that one tool that sticks out, but he has a little juice in his bat, runs pretty well, and has a very good approach, all of what has led to a .337/.434/.530 start with the Blue Rocks. Hernandez' hot start was detailed last week, but again, he's going to miss a good chunk of time with a hamstring injury. Some offdays leaves him off of this list, but Baltimore catcher Matt Wieters actually leads the league in EQA, with a mark of .355.

Florida State League

Hitter of the Month: Chris Valaika, Sarasota (Reds), 25 EQR
In the running: Drew Stubbs, Sarasota (Reds), 23 EQR; Logan Morrison, Jupiter (Marlins), 21 EQR

Valaika was one of the best hitters in the Midwest League during the first half of last season, but he crashed and burned a bit during the second half following a promotion to the Florida State League. Back in High-A, he's mashing to the tune of .384/.398/.589 with five home runs, after hitting just two for Sarasota last year in 57 contests. The issue with him remains a question of defense; few think he can stay at shortstop, but most think he could provide enough offense to be a solid second baseman.

With 28 strikeouts in 95 at-bats, Stubbs has made some progress on his contact issues, but not enough to maintain a .337 average. In addition, the new focus on bat control has seemingly sapped him of his power, as he went 23 games before hitting his first home run of the year. In a system that lacks hitting prospects in a major way, Morrison is a ray of sunshine; signed in 2006 as a draft-and-follow, Morrison has advanced hitting skills and above-average raw power. He's currently batting .330/.370/.505, and he'll be a strong contender for next year's Marlins' prospect list.

Midwest League

Hitter of the Month: Ian Gac, Clinton (Rangers), 31 EQR
In the running: Todd Frazier, Dayton (Reds), 24 EQR; Corey Brown, Kane County (Athletics), 23 EQR

Gac has been absolutely hammering Midwest League pitching, batting .395/.485/.802 in 23 games with nine home runs, but at the same time nobody is overly impressed. This is the Midwest League, and this is Gac's sixth season as a pro, and his fourth tour with the LumberKings. He'll need to do this all the way up to Double-A before he converts many believers, and he turns 23 in August.

Many saw Frazier as a first-round talent last year, and while he lasted until the 34th overall pick last summer, he's already looking like a steal, batting .304/.396/.630 for the Dragons. Few thought he could stay at shortstop however, and he is starting to see some time at first and third base of late. He profiles best at the hot corner, and the bat will certainly play. An intriguing power/speed combination, and a difficult player to evaluate, I profiled him recently in a Ten Pack.

South Atlantic League

Hitter of the Month: Mike Jones, Greensboro (Red Sox), 25 EQR
In the running: Matt Cusick, Lexington (Astros), 24 EQR; Darin Holcomb, Ashville (Rockies), 23 EQR

For lack of a better term, Jones is a bit Gac-esque, as he was signed in 2005 and is only just hitting his stride in Low-A ball (.415/.477/.606). He's a left-handed hitter with a little bit of a David Ortiz resemblance both physically and facially, but he's a long, long way from being the next Big Papi.

Although he's batting .379/.439/.644 for the Legends, you can dump Cusick into the same group with Sogard and Negrych, because he's the same kind of player. They're all the rage these days and every team has one or two, but very few are going to turn into Dustin Pedroia, very few. Holcomb could be a nice sleeper in the Rockies system; a short, squat third baseman with the rare combination of plus contact abilities and plus raw power, he hit .360/.418/.660 in his first month of full-season ball, and is earning some early praises from scouts for his hitting acumen.

This weekend: The same, but with pitchers.

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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