Home runs are down nearly twenty percent from their 2004 peak, and scouts have made it clear that, based on what they are seeing in the minors, the downward trend is going to continue. With Nationals outfielder Bryce Harper in the big leagues and Seattle's Jesus Montero beginning the year there, all of a sudden there are precious few power hitters in the minors. While there are plenty of theories as to the cause, there's no obvious answer as to why.
The knee-jerk reaction is that this is one result of the end of the PED era, but that's a simplistic argument that ignores other trends we are currently seeing in the minor leagues. “If it was PEDs, then explain to me why I can't turn my head without seeing some kid throwing 95 mph,” quipped an American League assistant general manager, with an AL scouting official adding, “Everyone is going to want to say we're coming out of the steroid era as it relates to power hitters, but arm strength isn't affected? I've never seen anything like the power that is coming out of pitchers in terms of velocity at every level.”
Another team official believes that teams have learned their lessons in some ways when it comes to finding hitters. “There hasn't been a lot of power in the draft since 2008, but at the same time, we've gotten away from the gorilla ball mentality,” he explained. “Those old college bats fooled us on a lot of players, so now there's an emphasis on premium positions. Our collective mindset has shifted more to developing all-around games, and finding better defenders and guys who can run, and I think overall it's a good thing and leading to better decisions.”
Yet in Latin America, there's been a reversal in those trends. “All of a sudden, teams are seeing power in Venezuela and the Dominican Republic, and they're paying for it,” said an international scouting official. “We used to only pay for athletes in Latin America, with the slugger-only types never getting big money.”
Chances are we'll still get our sluggers, as an American League scout made a point about surprises. “David Ortiz, Robinson Cano, Curtis Granderson, Nelson Cruz, David Freese, Pablo Sandoval,” he listed. “How many of those guys looked like they were going to be in the middle of a lineup when they were prospects?” Surprises are hard to predict, and while there are few players who currently project as future sluggers, here are three prospects a poll of scouts determined as the most likely to become middle-of-the-order run producers.
1. Miguel Sano, 3B, Twins (at Low-A Beloit)
For one scout, “the list begins and ends with Sano.” Signed out of the Dominican Republic for $3.15 million in 2009, Sano hit 20 home runs in 66 Appalachian League games last year. As one of the youngest players in the Midwest League—the toughest offensive circuit among full-season leagues—expectations, at least statistically, were tempered. Nobody told Sano, however, who leads the Midwest League in home runs (11) and total bases (85) while hitting .287/.406/.625 in 38 games. He just turned 19 over the weekend, and for players this young, power is usually overwhelmingly on the projection side of the ledger, as we haven't see this kind of in-game power from a player so young in Low-A since Giancarlo Stanton was known as Mike.
2. Oscar Taveras, OF, Cardinals (at Double-A Springfield)
Taveras was pushed to Double-A as a 19-year-old (he turns 20 in June) after flirting with .400 at Low-A Quad Cities and holding his own in the Arizona Fall League, but like Sano, nobody was expecting a breakout. Despite a controlled yet extremely violent swing—one that has brought some very loose comparisons to the swing mechanics of Bryce Harper—Taveras hit just eight home runs in 308 at-bats in 2011, but he already has 10 in 143 for Springfield this year, while batting .315/.364/.643 in 36 games. Still, he's more of a hitter than a slugger, but one scout indicated that in and of itself might be indicative of something. “Are we in an era where pure hitters develop more naturally into hitters with power?” he asked.
3. Wil Myers, OF/3B, Royals (at Double-A Northwest Arkansas)
Myers falls into the Taveras group as well, as he's a fantastic hitter who has somewhat suddenly added significant power to his game. After an injury-plagued 2011, Myers retained his status as the top hitter in the system with a monstrous showing in the Arizona Fall League, and he's suddenly turned into the Texas League's version of Josh Hamilton by hitting seven home runs in his last 12 games to lift his season averages to .343/.414/.731 in 35 games. While he's played all three outfield positions and a little bit of third base this year, he ultimately projects as a prototypical right fielder with All-Star potential.
A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider .