Wednesday, February 17, 2010

2010 Top Prospects pt. 6: Corner Outfielders

A significant portion of the best power hitting prospects in baseball are corner outfielders. It is a position where you need to bring some thunder with bat if you expect to be an asset for your team. That is not to say the position is completely devoid of athletes. While there are a few hulking mashers destined to be a defensive liability, there are also a ton of well rounded players, particularly at the top of the list. I am grouping left and right-fielders together because the only thing that generally separates them is arm strength, however where they end up playing in the majors is often a product of the team that they play for, as much as it is the individual.

Pt. 1: Catchers
Pt. 2: First Baseman
Pt. 3: Second Baseman
Pt. 4: Shortstops
Pt. 5: Third Baseman

1. Jason Heyward - Braves (2)

The consensus top hitting prospect in baseball, Heyward is the total package. He slipped to the 14th overall pick in the 2007 draft partially because so few scouts had a chance to see him at his best. Everybody could see the incredible natural strength but few realized just how advanced and polished he was as a player. The Braves have a history of drafting kids from Georgia and happily continued the trend when Heyward was available. As soon as he took the field as a professional Heyward's talent was apparent.

In his first full season, 2008, Heyward was solid but in retrospect we were only seeing a glimpse of what he was capable of. He began 2009 in high-A as one of the younger players in the league, and played like an all-star from day one. He earned a promotion to AA where he posted an insane slash line of .352/.446/.611 while walking significantly more than striking out. Although his slugging percentages were high, most scouts believe he has only begun to tap into his raw power, and could easily post over 30 home runs a season in the majors. He has the speed to occasionally steal bases and is an asset in right field. The one downside to last season was that he missed time, including some in the Arizona Fall League with nagging injuries.

Heyward is very close to the majors already and should be there before his 21st birthday in August. The Braves corner outfield spots are currently manned by average at best players and Heyward could be their best right-field option as soon as opening day. Because he has such an advanced approach at the plate, and great eye, he should be able to survive a rushed promotion, unlike former Atlanta top prospect Jeff Francoeur. There is no hitting prospect in the minors that boasts Heyward's all around potential, combined with the refinement that makes everyone believe he can reach exceedingly high expectations.

2. Domonic Brown - Phillies (13)

Brown was drafted in the 20th round of 2006 as an extremely raw athlete. His development since then has been nothing short of spectacular. Every year he has translated more of his prodigious tools into production on the field. Perhaps most surprising is that he has developed a keen batting eye and very polished approach at the plate, something incredibly rare for a player with so few baseball skills at the time he was drafted. Brown was the player Toronto coveted most in the Roy Halladay negotiations but Philadelphia refused to part with him.

Brown took the next step in developing into an excellent major-leaguer in 2009 when he started to tap into his raw power. He is 6'5 and has more than enough strength to hit 20+ home runs a year, but is only beginning to drive the ball effectively. He had 44 extra-base hits last year, easily a career high, and added 23 steals for good measure. He has the speed and arm to play a plus right-field but is still a little rough in the routes he takes to fly balls.

Although Brown is starting to hit home runs, there should be plenty more to come. After spending a little over a month in AA last year, it seems like he would benefit from more time at that level. Even though Brown's eye has advanced significantly, the more advance pitchers there did expose a few holes in his swing after the promotion. In the last two years, Brown has stood out amidst many other toolsy prospects because he has an innate ability to learn from his mistakes and improve his game. He probably needs another full year in the minors before he can be an asset to Philadelphia, and with their current outfield depth, they should have plenty of time to develop him.

3. Michael Taylor - Athletics (15)

Taylor and Kyle Drabek were the two big pieces Toronto ended up acquiriring for Roy Halladay; they were already flush with young corner outfielders and traded him straight up to Oakland for 3B/1B Brett Wallace. Taylor is a very different player from his former teamate Domonic Brown. Taylor doesn't have the tools to match Brown, but he is a very cerebral player who is a nearly finished product as a hitter. Because he is 6'6 and over 240 lbs. Taylor will never be the defensive asset Brown has the potential to be.

For somebody with such a prodigious strike zone, Taylor has little trouble making consistent, solid contact. He is aggressive at the plate but has not been hurt by it much yet because of his excellent hand-eye coordination. Taylor has already slugged plenty of doubles and home runs, with over 50 extra-base hits each of the last two years, but probably will hit even more as he gets comfortable against advanced pitching. He continued to display an arm that is more than adequate for right-field and average range.

Taylor got a taste of AAA ball near the end of 2009 and handled the assignment well, showing that he is on the doorstep of the majors. Going to Oakland should provide an excellent opportunity for Taylor as neither corner spot is currently patrolled by someone as talented as Adam Lind or Travis Snider (who he would be behind in Toronto). He could probably do an adequate job in the majors out of spring training but might benefit from a couple of months in AAA.

4. Mike Stanton - Marlins (19)

Stanton boasts more power than arguably any prospect in the minor leagues. A multi-sport athlete, the Marlins grabbed him in 2007's second round and he has tantalized the franchise with his upside ever since. He stands 6'5 and has the physique of a linebacker. In his first full year of professional ball he slugged 39 home runs as an 18-year-old in low-A and has been considered among the game's elite prospects since. Some scouts rate Stanton as a top 3 prospect among all minor leaguers, and nearly everybody has him in the top 10, but he has one major flaw that I have not been able to completely overlook yet.

Stanton followed up his debut by mashing high-A for two months, quickly earning a promotion to AA where he struggled for the first time as a pro. He played in 79 games after his promotion and although the power was still there (he had 33 extra base hits including 16 home runs) he struck out far too often. Stanton has had limited baseball experience but was so strong and athletic that his rough edges did not get shown until he faced more advanced competition. He struck out in essentially 1/3 of his at-bats in AA but, because he was only 19, there is plenty of time for him to fix the problem. In addition to incredible power, Stanton also has all the making of a plus defender in right, where he takes advantage of his above average speed and arm.

Already being compared to Dave Winfield, the sky is the limit for Stanton. Florida really pushed their last high ceiling outfield prospect, Cameron Maybin, and he fell on his face a little bit so do not be surprised if they take things a bit slower with Stanton. He should start 2010 back in AA. He is so strong that he should be able to tone down his approach some without sacrificing any pop. It remains to be seen whether Stanton's contact issues will hold him back in a manner similar to former top prospect Brandon Wood or whether he will figure it out and take off. If he can even cut his strikeouts down to only 1/4 of his at-bats, expect him to be in the top 10 on this list next year.

5. Fernando Martinez - Mets (27)

It only feels like Martinez has been on the prospect radar forever. Still only 21, Martinez has been a frustrating player for many Mets fans to follow due to his inability to stay on the field. When he signed, Martinez was projected to be a center-fielder with some pop and premier athleticism. A questionable work ethic and countless nagging injuries have robbed him of his speed and relegated him to a corner spot, however he has shown more power than most scouts expected.

2009 was a microcosm of Martinez' career in many ways. He started the year in AAA, when AA would have probably been a better fit, and hit the ball better than he ever had in his career. He was among the International League leaders in slugging before a rash of injuries in New York prompted his premature promotion to Queens. He got into 29 games, and struggled badly, before another injury, this time his right knee, ended another season far too soon. Defensively he showed average arm strength but was very inconsistent with accuracy, and average range for a corner outfielder.

The injuries have not been solely a product of bad luck for Martinez, who has had his dedication to the game questioned by people both inside and outside the Mets organization. Perhaps it is merely the burden of too many expectations being placed on a player too young to handle them, but the biggest thing preventing Martinez from realizing his all-star potential is maturity. His brief time in AAA last season showed that the talent is still in there and it is easy to forget how young he still is. Michael Taylor split his age-21 season between college and short-season ball (where he was awful by the way) just for comparison. While it is clear that Martinez will never be the Carlos Beltran clone many envisioned, he still has a chance to be an Adam Lind type player (who did not play a single game in full-season ball before his 21st birthday by the way).

6. Thomas Neal - Giants (28)

Neal's route to top tier prospect status has not been an easy one. Selected as an unheralded 36th rounder, San Francisco signed him as a draft-and-follow for $220,000. His career got off to a very slow start when he struggled mightily in 2006 at short-season ball and then injured his shoulder in 2007. He recovered well from surgery and retook the field in 2008, where his rust was evident, but so was his talent. He has impressive strength and as his confidence grew in his shoulder, Neal's power started to return.

Coming into 2009 Neal was, what I would describe as, "a player to keep an eye on." It is hard to think of anybody that improved their stock more over the course of last season. He showed everything you could want in a hitter, power, contact and a surprisingly good eye. He batted .337 and had 67 extra-base hits at high-A as a 21-year-old, numbers made only more impressive by the fact that his home park actually favors pitchers. He was also able to take the outfield again, and although his range is average at best, he has enough arm to handle right field.

2010 will be all about building on his monster season for Neal. The Giants are starved for hitting and although he is not close to ready yet, Neal has a chance to provide a huge boost when he does arrive. He should begin the year at AA but it would not surprise me if he made it to AAA quickly because of his rare combination of power and contact skills. Although still largely unknown to the general public, Neal's bat has nearly as much potential as anyyone else on this list.

7. Michael Saunders - Mariners (48)

Saunders has improved his stock each year by improving his plate discipline and developing his power. When Seattle signed Saunders he was a raw and lanky teenager from Canada who had played one season of community college ball in the states. Even though he has consistently been given aggressive assignments, he has handled each surprisingly well. He is an excellent athlete with the speed to steal bases and enough range to handle centerfield in a pinch.

Saunders got off to a hot start in AAA to begin 2009 and with Seattle really struggling to score runs, he made his big league debut in July. It proved to be a little more than he could handle but his struggles in Seattle should only be a minor speed bump in his development. Although Saunders' AAA stats were impressive his plate discipline still had a ways to go and he still has not proven he can handle left-handed pitchers. Although he failed to homer in 46 games, he has surprising strength in his wiry build and should offer average power in the majors eventually.

It is difficult to know how much Saunders' rough second half hurt his confidence. The Mariners have acquired a couple of players capable of handling left-field and may let Saunders rebuild some steam at AAA to begin 2010. With Franklin Gutierrez recently extended, Ichiro entrenched in right-field and the just drafted Dustin Ackley in the organization, Saunders runs the risk of being squeezed out of a spot in the outfield if he does not establish himself soon. Although Seattle is toying with the idea of trying Ackley at second base because of Saunders, it is too soon to see if that idea has any chance of working. In a best-case scenario, Saunders wins the left-field job in spring training and starts to deliver on his 20-20 potential this year.

8. Jaff Decker - Padres (51)

At 5'10 and over 200 lbs. the soon-to-be 20-year-old Decker does not exactly give the impression of a professional athlete. Perhaps that is why he has been continually overlooked, by major league teams in the draft, and by scouts in the evaluation of prospects. The Padres took him 42nd overall in 2008 and it is hard to imagine a player doing more offensively to begin his career. He signed quickly and lapped the field in rookie ball, setting the stage for high expectations leading into his full-season debut.

The Midwest league is generally considered a pitcher's league, where teenage hitters often struggle mightily, but you would never know that looking at Decker's numbers. He hit .299 with an ISO over 200, but the most impressive thing was his .442 on-base percentage. If Decker played for any other team he likely would have spent at least half the season in high-A but San Diego is painfully conservative with their prospect assignments. He does not run well but has a strong arm.

Decker looks like a Brian Giles clone, another player who was continually undervalued until given an everyday job in Pittsburgh as a 28-year-old. Because of his stocky build and below-average athleticism, Decker will continue to have to prove himself as he moves up the ladder. Often compared to Matt Stairs, another player who did not stick in the majors until his late 20s, Decker would probably benefit from a challenging assignment to AA but that is unlikely given San Diego's tendencies. He missed time in 2009 with a back injury and although it is not a long-term concern yet, he cannot really afford to lose even more athleticism and must put in his gym time.

9. Nick Weglarz - Indians (75)

The bulky Weglarz is one of the least athletic people on this list, but still rates as an excellent prospect because of his keen batting eye and raw power. One of the most patient hitters in the minor leagues, Weglarz has racked up 246 walks in 380 games as a professional. Unfortunately, because of his poor athleticism, below-average arm and inability to avoid nagging injuries, he seems destined to be a DH at the major-league level.

Weglarz' always unspectacular batting average plummeted to .227 last year although he did post a .377 on-base percentage. His .249 BABIP last year does seem flukishly low, but it was at least partially due to his propensity for hitting fly balls and inability to beat out anything on the ground. For a player who consistently works very deep counts and does swing for power, he has always kept his strikeouts fairly in check.

Because of his flaws, it is possible that Weglarz will develop into a clone of Jack Cust, and never be anything more than an average major leaguer, but the potential for so much more does exist. He will never provide any value with the glove, but he has enough contact ability to keep his batting average above .260 in the majors and has a chance to develop 30+ home run power. Several of the Indians hitting prospects, including Beau Mills and Wes Hodges, have really fallen off in recent years, and Weglarz represents their best bet (other than Carlos Santana) of getting a player with plus power into the majors. He should spend most of 2010 in AAA but may get a chance in Cleveland before the year is over. With a similar player in Matt LaPorta in front of him already, Weglarz could end up as trade bait.

* Grant Desme - Athletics (79*)

Desme recently retired from baseball to pursue a career as a priest. He would have ranked 10th among corner outfield prospects and 79th overall because of his rare combination of power and speed. Desme outplayed everyone in the Arizona Fall League and seemed on the right track after several serious injuries had held him back. It remains to be seen whether his retirement is in fact permanent, and if it is, the Athletics will certainly miss him.

10. David Lough - Royals (93)

David Lough was never supposed to appear on any prospect lists when he signed as an anonymous 11th round pick out of a division II college. He was more of an athlete than a baseball player, as he attended that college on a football scholarship. Even though he is a very good runner, Lough features no other flashy tools and relies on a well-rounded game. He is an aggressive line drive hitter with a .299 career average as a professional.

Lough had limited baseball experience and, without any plus tools, was expected to hit a wall in high-A last year. Instead he ripped the cover off the ball, batting .320 and was promoted to AA mid-season and actually posted even better numbers. It was only 61 games, but he hit .332/.372/.517 in AA and finally started to be taken seriously as a prospect. He has the range for center but a left-fielder's arm and would probably fit more comfortably there. He is a little over-aggressive at the plate but the approach has worked for him so far.

Although Lough projects to top out at 20 home runs and does not draw many walks, he is Kansas City's best hitter in the upper-minors and may get big league action this year. Because his game still has so many rough edges, Lough should probably start 2010 back in AA and prove that last season was not a fluke before getting his feet wet in AAA. He is already 24 and has done a good job making up for lost time so far, but age is not exactly on his side. Whenever a prospect with such humble beginnings starts to gain steam there is always a healthy dose of skepticism as to how legit his potential is; 2010 should show whether or not Lough can be a productive major-leaguer.

11. Chris Heisey - Reds (100)

Speaking of humble beginnings, Heisey was a 17th round pick in 2006 out of a Division III college. His career got off to a strong start when he had a nice debut in the Midwest League and then improved in 2008 at high-A. Heisey's production stems from average tools across the board. He has some pop and makes consistent contact while drawing a fair share of walks. Like David Lough, he can handle center, but is a better fit in the corners, although he does have just enough arm to stick in right.

In 2009 Heisey significantly bumped up his production. His 22 home runs more than doubled his previous career high and he maintained a solid batting average as well. He split the year between AA and AAA, and did hit a few speed bumps after the promotion. His normally excellent BB:K ratio fell apart a bit as he faced veteran pitching for the first time. Still, for a player less than a year removed from A-ball, Heisey's 2009 was a huge success on every level. The scouts who always doubted his hitting ability started to admit that he looked like a major-league player.

Heisey has always reminded me a bit of a poor-man's Hunter Pence. He has more speed and power than you would think and really has no weaknesses despite not always looking particularly smooth. The Reds have really struggled to find offense the last couple seasons and although fellow youngster Drew Stubbs appears to have the center-field job locked down, left is available. Heisey will probably enter spring training in a battle with Wladimir Balentien and Chris Dickerson for the starting job. Heisey does not have Balentien's power but he is probably the best all-around player of the three. Even if he does not win the job outright, it would not be the worst thing for Heisey, who could use some more time in AAA getting experience against veteran competition.

12. Mitch Moreland - Rangers

Moreland often gets lost in the crowded Rangers prospect landscape but he can really hit. A career .321 hitter in the minors with power, Moreland's biggest obstacle in getting to the majors is his defense. He is well below average in left and may be forced to DH in the majors. An excellent Arizona Fall League performance only improved his stock and if Moreland can find a position, he has a good chance at being in the top 50 on this list next year.

13. Josh Reddick - Red Sox

Reddick made his debut in Boston last year well before he was ready and struggled mightily. He is far too aggressive at the plate but is wiry strong and has surprising pop to go with plus speed. He could handle center in brief stints but is much better suited to a corner, where he is a real asset with the glove. Reddick probably needs a full year in AAA to tighten up his strike zone, after which Boston will have a good idea whether he will eventually succeed either Mike Cameron or J.D. Drew in the Red Sox outfield.

14. Trayvon Robinson - Dodgers

Previously a very raw but toolsy prospect, Robinson took a major step forward in 2009 when he showed the ability to drive the ball for the first time. He is an exceptionally fast runner and would easily be able to handle center if he took better routes to balls and did not have a well below-average arm. It remains to be seen whether 2009 was a breakout year for Robinson that he will build on or merely a fluke, 2010 should help answer that question.

15. Jose Tabata - Pirates

A former elite prospect, Tabata has only shown flashes of potential in the last couple of years. Even though he is still very young, it is getting harder to find scouts that truly believe in Tabata. At the moment he seems like an over-aggressive hitter who struggles to drive the ball and has makeup concerns. Admittedly he has maintained a high batting average, but he needs a major overhaul in his approach and swing if he expects to produce in the majors. The potential is probably still in there somewhere but I am very skeptical at this point.

16. Marc Krauss - Diamondbacks

The 2009 draft had very few corner outfielders to get excited about. In fact, Krauss is the only one that makes this list at all. Since the summer of 2008 he has simply been just about the most productive college hitter. He destroyed the Cape Cod League then posted a 1.375 OPS as a junior. A below-average athlete, all of Krauss' value will come from his bat, which does have a chance to be special.

17. Ben Revere - Twins

Revere was a shocking first round selection in 2007 but has consistently shown the ability to put the ball in play and be a threat on the bases since signing. Unfortunately he has no power whatsoever and an arm that limits him to left-field. It is hard to figure out exactly where Ben Revere fits in at the major league level. He does not have the power one would expect in a corner outfielder and does not walk nearly enough to be a leadoff hitter. He currently looks a little like the second coming of Jason Tyner, but you cannot ignore a player with a .337 career average as a professional.

18. Sean Doolittle - Athletics

Doolittle appeared to be in the midst of a breakout season last year after a transition to right-field from first base and showing more power, but an injured knee ended his season in May. He has an advanced approach at the plate, hitting line drives to all fields while showing a good eye, and enough pop for an outfield corner. Doolittle will have to bounce back from the injury quickly or risk getting buried in Oakland's outfield depth.

19. Andrew Lambo - Dodgers

Lambo had a breakout season in 2008 although there were obviously some flaws in his game. The most glaring of those flaws, plate discipline, reared its ugly in in 2009 and he had a tough year at AA. Lambo still has a lot of raw power in his bat that is yet to emerge, and if he is able to improve his selectivity, expect a big jump in his offensive numbers.

20. Roger Kieschnick - Giants

Kieschnick had an impressive professional debut at high-A last year playing alongside Thomas Neal. However, he has a lot of holes in his swing and is at best an average defender. He did strike out a lot in 2009 and will probably get exposed at higher levels, significantly lowering his ranking. If Kieschnick can prove he has the ability to adjust and hit advanced pitching, the Giants may have 2/3 of their future outfield in AA this year.

21. Allen Craig - Cardinals

Craig has turned himself into a prospect after being an 8th round pick as a senior, at the University of California, by consistently hitting for power. He has a lot in common with Chris Heisey, but lacks Heisey's athleticism and plate discipline. He has played all four corner spots as a pro, but is no better than average at any of them. He will see time in the majors this year and has a shot at winning the third base job out of spring training.

22. Cody Johnson - Braves

Johnson has tremendous raw power, but sacrifices everything for the long ball. He has an all-or-nothing approach that leads to massive strikeout totals (478 K's in 350 pro games) without the benefit of walks. He is also at best an average defender in left, and it remains to be seen whether more advanced pitchers will take advantage of his long swing as he moves up the ladder.

23. Jon Gaston - Astros

Gaston is nearly the same player as Cody Johnson, but the power does not come as easily for Gaston. Although he has walked more than Johnson, because he does not have as much strength and is much worse defensively in left, he rates below his fellow strikeout machine.

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