Following the World Series, and before the major league free agent market opens up, the list of minor league free agents is released. Oftentimes this can result in a shuffling of organizational soldiers and career minor leaguers, but on occasion potential late-start major leaguers slip through the cracks and end up available as well. One of the intriguing names on this year’s list is former Astros farmhand Brooks Conrad. The 27-year-old Arizona State product struggled through most of 2007 during his third go-round at Triple-A, and failed to crack the majors this time around due to those struggles and also the ceremonial season-long Craig Biggio Death March, not to mention the signing of Mark Loretta. What can Conrad provide to a new employer in 2008 and beyond, and is he anything more than a solid Triple-A lifer?

Brooks Litchfield Conrad played for Arizona State University, with one very productive season and a second less satisfying campaign:

Year Team                  AB   AVG/ OBP/ SLG  XBH%  ISO  2B+3B   BB%    K%
2000 Arizona State(NCAA)  226  .336/.442/.575   40% .239   20    12.9%  16.9%
2001 Arizona State(NCAA)  216  .278/.403/.431   37% .153   18    13.3%  12.2%

The 2000 campaign is the more obviously strong season, with the quality Isolated Power and lofty batting average. Without the .391 BABIP that supported his first campaign, his 2001 stint saw a decrease in both average and power, though his control of the strike zone improved. The dip in stats hurt his draft status, and the Astros took him with their eighth-round pick. The switch-hitter signed shortly afterward, and was assigned to Pittsfield in the New York-Penn League:

Year Team             AB   AVG/ OBP/ SLG  XBH%  ISO  2B+3B   BB%    K%
2001 Pittsfield(A-)  232  .280/.375/.444   39% .164   21     9.3%  18.5%

Though his strikeout rate jumped, Conrad’s professional debut went well, as he replicated his production from Arizona State. Conrad also managed to steal 14 bases while only getting nabbed twice on theft attempts. Baseball America did not mention Conrad in their top 30 organizational prospects for the Astros, which is not all that surprising given his low draft stock following a few years of college ball. Conrad was considered an undersized player, much like last week’s profile, former Arizona product Dustin Pedroia. Chris Burke, drafted the same year as Conrad, profiles similarly as well-both are listed at 5’11”. Unlike Conrad, Burke had a few more obvious tools, while Brooks was considered more of an overachieving hustler. Like Pedroia, Conrad has surprising gap power for his size, and aims for the lines and corners with his liners.

Conrad spent the entirety of his 2002 campaign in the Midwest League playing for Low-A Michigan, seemingly a pretty ignominious assignment for a college-tested player, but the Astros didn’t have a High-A affiliate. Conrad’s performance was solid enough:

Year Team          AB   AVG/ OBP/ SLG  XBH%  ISO  2B+3B   BB%    K%
2002 Michigan(A)  499  .287/.368/.477   37% .190   39    10.7%  17.7%

With the jump in power-an ISO close to .200 for a middle infielder is noteworthy, especially with patience like that-Conrad was able to sneak onto prospect radars. His batting average and slugging were not particularly high, but he did have 53 extra-base hits along with 62 walks while stealing 18 bases. Overall, this was more impressive than his half-season debut in the pros. Baseball America responding by ranking Conrad at the 29th rung in their rankings of the Astros’ prospects heading into the 2003 season:

Every organization is looking for its own David Eckstein these days, and Conrad is Houston’s. He’s a short second baseman who doesn’t have any overwhelming tools but gets the job done, exuding hustle all the while. In his first full pro season, Conrad led the Midwest League in runs and triples. He was a catalyst for Michigan in the number-two spot in the order. A switch-hitter who’s better from the left side, Conrad gets on base and has surprising gap power for his size. His pure speed is average, but he runs better than that because he goes all out and has tremendous instincts. Defensively, he’s a little stiff at second base and has a so-so arm. He needs to build up his stamina after fading in August.

Baseball Prospectus 2003 included Conrad as well, with a mention of a future position change:

Conrad fell to the Astros in the eighth round in 2001 after a disappointing junior year at Arizona State. The switch-hitter generates good power from a compact frame, and is the get-dirty, aggressive type of player the organization loves. Though Conrad can handle second base defensively, he’s probably going to be tried at third base or left field this year to increase his versatility.

Both publications seemed to be onto the idea that the Astros would make him a utility player, but Houston never got around to it. For the 2003 season, Conrad would split the year between Single-A Lexington and High-A Salem, as the Astros brought him along really slowly, instead of challenging their later draft pick in order to see what they had. Conrad would start out poorly at Lexington before picking up his production after a promotion:

Year Team          AB   AVG/ OBP/ SLG  XBH%  ISO  2B+3B   BB%    K%
2003 Lexington(A) 140  .186/.288/.314   39% .128    7    10.6%  15.5%
2003 Salem(A+)    345  .284/.369/.467   39% .183   27    10.5%  15.0%

What is odd about his stint at Lexington is that his control of the strike zone improved, and he managed to get on base at a solid rate relative to his batting average. The .205 BABIP doomed his production, though the rebound at Salem made up for that loss, and it was done with just a .318 BABIP. In addition to his unsurprisingly solid line, Conrad also went 11-for-14 on stolen base attempts, though he made 22 errors defensively between the two levels. When you don’t have much range or a strong arm, high error totals stick out more than usual.

Baseball America was not impressed, and dropped Conrad from their organizational rankings, though he remained on the second base depth chart, behind only Burke. Baseball Prospectus 2004 warned that Conrad would need to show something soon if he didn’t want to stick in the minors forever:

The flip side to Chris Burke, Conrad is a stopgap defensively, but an intriguing hitter with extra-base power. He’s not a big guy, but he may have the kind of short, powerful swing that allows his bat to carry to third base. A graduate of Arizona State-Barry Bonds once called an ASU education the equivalent of spending four years in a Coppertone commercial-Conrad’s clock is ticking. He needs a good showing at Round Rock and another bump in his power numbers to emerge as a viable candidate for a starting corner job.

Conrad would put up the same kind of lines at Double-A Round Rock that he had before, which was a good sign considering it was his initial, belated entry in the upper levels:

Year Team            AB   AVG/ OBP/ SLG  XBH%  ISO  2B+3B   BB%    K%
2004 Round Rock(AA) 480  .290/.365/.475   41% .185   44    11.2%  18.7%

His .348 BABIP was high, but 57 extra-base hits from a second baseman is good stuff, especially when combined with that nifty walk rate and decent strikeout totals. This is where things get interesting, as the Burke versus Conrad debate got just a bit of traction it had previously lacked. Conrad jumped back onto Baseball America’s rankings, this time at 23, still far behind Burke’s status as the system’s top prospect overall:

Though Conrad hasn’t cracked the 40-man roster the last two years and drawn nary a nibble in the Rule 5 Draft, he has two team MVP awards and two league all-star selections in four seasons of pro ball and seems destined to scrap his way to the majors. He’s not pretty but finds a way to get the job done, and he has winning makeup. A switch-hitter, Conrad gets on base and has surprising pop for his size. At times he’ll get too much loft in his swing or too much length in his right-handed stroke, but he made progress in both areas last year…Defensively, he won’t always show the best reads or footwork, but he has sure hands and makes plays.

I think of all the teams that have started offensive ciphers at second base the past few seasons, and cringe at the thought that no one scooped up Brooks Conrad in the Rule 5 draft. If PECOTA would cringe, it would be doing it right now, as it forecasted Conrad to outperform Chris Burke, starting in 2005:

It’s worth mentioning that PECOTA sees better things in 2005 for Conrad than it does for Burke, with the former’s power and walks carrying the day. They’re the same age, both taken out of college in the 2001 draft. Conrad has trailed Burke largely because he started in the New York-Penn League, while Burke debuted in the Midwest. Conrad is good trade bait, someone who could end up starting for your team in September.

Burke received the call to the majors and hit just .249/.309/.368 for the Astros in what would be just his first year of being jerked around from position to position, with Conrad taking his place at now Triple-A Round Rock, following a short stint at Double-A Corpus Christi. Conrad held his own at Triple-A despite a low batting average:

Year Team             AB   AVG/ OBP/ SLG  XBH%  ISO  2B+3B   BB%    K%
2005 Round Rock(AAA) 418  .263/.347/.481   42% .218    25   10.8%  21.5%

Baseball America rated Conrad at the lowest rung of their top 30 prospects in the Astros’ system heading into 2006, and said that his defense and lack of versatility held him back from the majors and kept him from being scooped up in the Rule 5 draft for the third consecutive year. Baseball Prospectus 2006 openly criticized the Astros’ approach to handling college hitters:

One of the Astros’ more annoying habits is the snail-like pace with which they promote advanced college hitters. Conrad starred at Arizona State, but he’s had to spend two full seasons below Double-A. At that pace, some guys would be better off skipping affiliation and just signing with the indy leagues, because at least there they might attract attention instead of watching their careers slowly wither on the vine. Conrad’s a better right-handed hitter, but between some speed and power and underrated defensive skills, he’d make a decent temp for a team in need of a second baseman. Having seen his career stagnate with this organization, he’d be lucky to get the opportunity.

PECOTA forecasted Conrad for a .249 EqA, and Burke for a .258; both would be going into their age-26 season, and the two players had been brought up relatively slowly, with Burke now playing out of position in the majors and Conrad watching his major league window slip by in Triple-A. The 2006 and 2007 seasons would be very different from one another for Conrad, as he led the minors in extra-base hits one year, and then hit .217 the next:

Year Team             AB   AVG/ OBP/ SLG  XBH%  ISO  2B+3B   BB%    K%
2006 Round Rock(AAA) 532  .267/.332/.534   57% .267    55    9.0%  22.5%
2007 Round Rock(AAA) 530  .217/.303/.419   52% .202    38   11.1%  23.6%

A .256 BABIP derailed any hopes of a decent batting average when combined with Conrad’s strikeout rates, and with that showing he may have mercifully ended his tenure with the Astros. Given his other recent performances and his trend towards a very consistent hitting line at each level, Conrad’s 2007 should be overlooked given the cost of a deal versus the opportunities his signing presents. A look at his minor league batted-ball data suggests that Conrad pops up much too often, another reason his batting averages are as low as they are; with fewer flyballs heading to the outfield, there are fewer opportunities for hits. Combined with his strikeout rates, that’s a significant roadblock towards better production at the higher levels of professional play. This is more than likely due to Conrad’s swing getting occasionally long or lofty, which keeps him from putting solid contact behind the pitch. When his swing is on, he’s a dangerous hitter with gap power; Conrad needs to shorten his swing or avoid attempting to loft pitches he cannot do anything with in order to sustain a higher batting average. With the right hitting coach, this may be possible.

Prior to this year’s disappointing campaign, PECOTA forecasted Conrad for 20.3 VORP as a major league second baseman in 2008. Now that he’s going to be 28, he’ll be starting to come down out of his prime years, but as a discount-rate minor league free agent. There are plenty of teams who could use a second baseman at the major league minimum, both rich and poor, especially one with the gap power Conrad can offer. It’s not a guarantee that he’ll grab a major league job this winter, especially given the lack of interest in him during the Rule 5 draft all the years that Houston never put him on their 40-man roster, but this is the kind of player someone like the Cardinals or Twins should look into, given their budgets and keystone situations.

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