Major League Baseball is loaded with talented outfielders in their early 20s right now. The deep rookie class of 2009, featuring the likes of (among others) Dexter Fowler, Fernando Martinez, Cameron Maybin, Andrew McCutchen and Colby Rasmus, will only add to the riches in the future.
And the pipeline isn’t close to drying up.
Fans in Florida, in particular, are in for a treat. Two of the most promising outfield prospects in the minors, the Tampa Bay Rays‘ Desmond Jennings and Florida Marlins‘ Mike Stanton, are off to exceptional starts and continue to move up top prospect lists.
Jennings and Stanton were prominently ranked by most publications going into the season. Due to strong spring performances and matching scouting reports, each player has a realistic chance to rank even higher-perhaps in the Top 10-in 2010.
Jennings originally committed to play football at the University of Alabama. Due to personal troubles, though, he never stepped foot on campus; he ended up at Itawamba Community College. After his short juco stint, Tampa Bay selected him in the 10th round of the 2006 draft. The speedy center fielder then burst onto the prospect scene with a fine 2007 performance in the South Atlantic League, hitting .315/.401/.465 with a 10.4 BB%, 852 OPS and circuit-high 45 steals for the league-champion Columbus Catfish.
Jennings was slowed down by injuries during a nightmare 2008, however. Back issues relegated him to extended spring training, costing him the first two months. After reporting to the Florida State League in late spring, he injured his shoulder and was lost for good 24 games in. Despite his injury problems, scouts were so impressed with his tools and advanced hitting approach that he remained a top-80 prospect. He turned heads during his limited action in the Arizona Fall League, where, according to scouts, he “stood out like a sore thumb” on a tools level.
Jennings has stayed healthy so far in ’09, a plus in itself. Although many within the industry expected him to repeat High-A because of his limited game action last year, the Rays aggressively promoted him to Double-A Montgomery following a nice showing in spring training. In addition to staying on the field, he’s risen to the challenge.
Jennings is raking to the tune of a .355/.420/.569 line and .453 wOBA in 226 plate appearances; MinorLeagueSplits.com has his current neutral major league equivalent line at .295/.345/.454. The 22-year-old, one of the fastest runners in the minors, has also swiped 17 bases in 21 chances. And with six homers so far, he’s on pace to set a personal best; some scouts think he could eventually grow into some legitimate power.
If hitting for power never becomes part of his skill set, though, Jennings still projects to be an above-average leadoff hitter who offers plus defense at a premium position. If the scouting reports are accurate, the runs he’ll save with his glove alone will make him a valuable commodity.
“Jennings is a special athlete who knows what he’s doing out there,” says Hank Sargent, a former National Crosschecker with the Los Angeles Angels who now works as an agent at Jet Sports Management. “Even if the power doesn’t come, he’s going to be a great table-setter for that offense. And that’s what they need him to be.”
Jennings has little left to prove at Montgomery (see chart below), so expect him to jump a level come mid-summer. And if he keeps producing, the organization may have to make a decision on their outfield status for 2010: Carl Crawford, a tremendous left-field asset when factoring in defense, is due to make $11.25M if his option is picked up, recently promoted Matt Joyce has produced at Triple-A, and Fernando Perez will return from injury. Plus, incumbent center fielder B.J. Upton is expected to get expensive going year-to-year until free agency.
Jennings will likely begin next year at Durham, but he’s getting real close to being major league-ready. Regardless of how the situation unfolds, the Rays once again have excellent outfield depth.
Like Jennings, Stanton excelled at multiple sports growing up. A standout baseball, basketball and football player at California powerhouse Sherman Oaks High, he had plenty of options for continuing his athletic career after graduation, including a scholarship offer to play football at the University of Southern California. Pete Carroll even made a personal visit to Sherman Oaks, urging Stanton to come play tight end for the perennial national title contender. Luckily for the Marlins, he declined the offer to instead pursue a career in professional baseball.
Since Stanton never had a down season, he didn’t attend many national showcases and, though scouts loved his tools, was considered a raw baseball player. But Florida, impressed with his athleticism and power potential, selected him with its second pick in the ’07 draft.
Stanton, whom the Marlins refused to part with in a potential Manny Ramirez trade last July, is now widely considered one of the top power-hitting prospects in the game. He made his case by tearing up the Sally League in his first full campaign in ’08, hitting .293/.381/.611 with a circuit-leading 39 home runs, .318 Isolated Power, 993 OPS and .429 wOBA. Although his power display created quite a buzz, he struggled to make consistent contact; he struck out in 32.7 percent of his plate appearances (153/540). Aside from concerns about his strikeout rate, though, it was an exceptional debut for the 19-year-old outfielder.
“There’s some crudeness to his game,” says Sargent. “But the leverage he generates in his swing is extraordinary. When he puts the barrel on the ball, it jumps off his bat faster than nearly any player in the minors. The strikeouts last year were alarming-though he’s shown improvements in his approach this year-but you have to remember, he’s still raw. That was the first year of his life in which baseball was his primary focus.”
Stanton has continued to perform after his promotion to the pitcher-friendly FSL this spring, improving his status as an elite prospect. He’s hitting .295/.388/.578 with 12 homers and a .431 wOBA in 201 plate appearances for the Jupiter Hammerheads; his MLE line falls at .228/.295/.414. Most encouraging, he’s cut down on his strikeouts while displaying better strike zone awareness; his 25.4% strikeout rate is still high, but it’s been decreasing each month while his walk rate has improved. As he jumps to the higher levels and faces more advanced pitching, cutting down on the misses is critical.
Stanton ranks first in the FSL in homers and IsoP (.283), second in OPS (966), slugging percentage and wOBA, and 10th in BB%. Due to his 6-foot-4, 225-pound frame and production at such a young age, scouts have frequently compared him to Hall of Famer Dave Winfield; PECOTA listed Aramis Ramirez, Manny Ramirez and Danny Tartabull among comparables for him in BP ’09, forecasting a .220/.301/.405 MLB line.
“Stanton’s improving, and he wants it,” says Sargent. “He works as hard as anyone. With more at-bats under his belt, the trend should continue. Winfield went right from college to the majors, but the comparisons are fairly accurate. Had he gone to USC, Stanton would be the equivalent of Stephen Strasburg in his draft class a year from now. Head and shoulders above the rest. That’s how good he is.”
Considering his age and limited experience, the Marlins may take a conservative approach to handling Stanton. But, with his incredible first two months, he’s done plenty at Jupiter to merit a promotion.
Stanton, who played first base throughout most of high school, has made continuous improvements in his outfield routes. According to Sargent, he profiles as an above-average corner outfielder. “His value will come from the bat, but his defense will be more than enough. He’s just a special athlete.”
Jennings and Stanton are different types of players. Outside of the football, prospect and state ties, they don’t have much in common.
Stanton, however, has the higher upside. Before it’s all said and done, he could wind up as the top minor league prospect in ’10. And his ceiling is up near a star, MVP-caliber level, as his power potential is that rare; it’s like watching the 1999 Home Run Derby at Fenway Park when he takes BP.
Because he’s more raw and isn’t as good defensively, though, Stanton comes with more risk.
“Stanton has some areas where he needs to improve in regards to pitch recognition,” says Sargent. “But he could develop into a star if he can continue to refine his skills.”
Jennings, on the other hand, has a much higher floor and is closer to the majors. Even if he really struggles offensively at the highest level (which is unlikely), he’ll stay employed as a useful fourth outfielder who offers speed and excellent defense. Based on his numbers and what the scouts are saying, though, there’s a great chance that he’ll become a leadoff fixture for Tampa Bay if he can stay healthy.