We’re reaching the home stretch in our “Prospects in Proper Context” series, as we turn our attention to the AAA International League today. It’s often said that Triple-A is more of a holding cell for veterans and Quad-A-type players than a level that truly promising youngsters spend a good deal of time at, and this list bears that out. As such, I broke one of my own rules for this list: I lowered the minimum AB necessary to qualify for the list from 200 to 150, to squeeze in a sweet-swinging right fielder for the Reds. The point of these posts is to get a grasp on who has the most potential once age and offensive environment are taken into account. Leaving off Jay Bruce would just be silly. The first two players profiled have the necessary skills to become championship-caliber assets, but the rankings thin out from there.
Here are links to the other six parts of our prospects series:
Florida State League
(note: 2008 league offensive levels are found courtesy of First Inning. Keep in mind that the league offensive levels are only from one season’s worth of data. Park factors are from 2006-2008 data compiled from Minor League Splits, posted on the Baseball Think Factory site. A park factor of 1.00 is exactly neutral. Anything above 1.00 favors hitters, while anything below 1.00 favors pitchers. The Park Adjusted Line (PAL) and Major League Equivalency (MLE) figures are compiled from Minor League Splits. A 150 AB cut-off was used for the list.)
AAA International League offensive Levels: Singles (0.91), Doubles (1.02), Triples (1.01), Home Runs (0.99)
1. Jay Bruce, Reds: .437 wOBA (.364/.393/.630)
Age: 21 (22 in April)
2006-2008 Park Factor (Louisville): Runs (1.05), Hits (1.03), Doubles (1.00), Home Runs (0.97)
Park Adjusted Line (PAL): .359/.388/.641
Major League Equivalency (MLE): .310/.333/.540
The amateur draft has justifiably been called a crapshoot. Despite the presence of highly talented and nuanced scouting departments that check and cross-check hundreds of players each year, there is a high degree of volatility in the process. Baseball’s draft just isn’t like those of its professional contemporaries, the NBA and the NFL; most players selected have plenty of development left and are years away from contributing at the highest level. Because of this, the amateur draft’s history is littered with high picks who just never refined their skills or ultimately had a flaw that kept them from reaching the lofty standards set by the player’s organization.
The outfield class from the 2005 draft, however, is shaping up to be an exception to the rule. Take a look at the absurd amount of fly-catching talent: first-round selections included Justin Upton (quickly moved off shortstop, Ryan Braun (sent to left field after a, ahem, bad year at third base), Cameron Maybin, Andrew McCutchen, Jay Bruce, Jacoby Ellsbury, Colby Rasmus and Travis Buck. Ellsbury looks more solid than spectacular and Buck has endured some injury problems, but Upton, Braun, Maybin, McCutchen, Bruce and Rasmus could all be described as organizational pillars. Teams could have played “pin-the-tail-on-the-outfield-prospect” and came away with a stud.
Bruce’s exploits have already been covered here in detail. Suffice it to say, a guy who posts a near-.200 ISO when he’s just barely old enough to drink deserves plenty of acclaim. I’ll leave you with this excerpt from the article:
“Bruce is obviously an extremely valuable long-term property. In keeper leagues, he should be near the top of your list. However, I would caution against going too hog-wild for him in 2009. He’s a very bright young player with star-caliber talent, but he also has some rough edges to smooth out in the plate discipline department. Select Bruce knowing that he has the ability to become a star, but also knowing that he might not quite reach that level this upcoming season.”
2. Andrew McCutchen, Pirates: .347 wOBA (.283/.372/.398)
Age: 22 (21 during ’08 season)
2006-2008 Park Factor (Indianapolis): R (0.99), H (1.01), 2B (1.00), HR (0.98)
As noted above, McCutchen was part of that ridiculous 2005 outfield crop. While the Fort Meade (FL) native might lack the punch of prospect contemporaries like Bruce, Maybin and Rasmus, McCutchen more than held his own as a 21 year-old in AAA. The 5-11, 175 pounder probably won’t hit for more than doubles power, though some (including ESPN’s Keith Law) feel that there might be more thump to come if he alters his swing:
“McCutchen has strong wrists and forearms and makes hard contact, but doesn’t get his lower half involved at all and thus hasn’t hit for the kind of power he’s capable of producing.”
Law also rightly points out that McCutchen has been pushed up the ladder pretty rapidly, skipping High-A ball entirely by jumping straight from the South Atlantic League to the Eastern League in 2006. McCutchen made excellent strides in working the count at Indianapolis this past year, raising his walk rate from about 8% in years past to 11.7%, while also cutting his K rate to 17%. An excellent athlete, McCutchen remains pretty raw on the base paths (he swiped 34 bags in ’08, but he was caught 19 times for a poor 64% success rate) but has shown plenty of range in the field.
His plus glove will likely move incumbent Nate McLouth out of center field sooner rather than later, a positive development despite McLouth’s odd Gold Glove selection. Both John Dewan’s Plus/Minus system (-40) and our UZR data (-15.1 UZR/150) suggest that Nate is stretched patrolling center. Moving McLouth to a corner and inserting McCutchen should aid a beleaguered Pittsburgh pitching staff.
For more on McCutchen, check out Peter Bendix’s article here.
3. Jed Lowrie, Red Sox: .350 wOBA (.268/.359/.434)
Age: 24 (25 in April)
2006-2008 Park Factor (Pawtucket): R (1.02), H (1.00), 2B (0.97), HR (1.18)
This switch-hitting Stanford product has made steady progress since the Red Sox selected him in the supplemental 1st round of the 2005 amateur draft. A career .281/.387/.446 minor league hitter, Lowrie has a discerning eye at the plate that helped him draw a walk 13.5% of the time at Pawtucket. Making his major league debut while filling in for an injured Julio Lugo, Lowrie performed admirably, batting .258/.339/.400 in 306 PA. Jed does not possess a whole lot of power in his 6-0, 190 pound frame, but his combination of walks and doubles power could make him an asset to the Sox. To boot, Lowrie’s defensive scouting reports are reading better these days, and his initial work in Boston rated well.
There are some negatives, though: at 25, Lowrie probably does not have a whole lot of development left in him, meaning what you see is what you get, and his strikeout rates have elevated as he’s ascended through the farm system.
In 2009, Lowrie will battle the incumbent Lugo for the starting shortstop gig. Lugo hasn’t really hit much since signing a 4-year, $36M deal with the Sox before the 2007 season. The 33 year-old has posted wOBA’s of .293 and 317 in ’07 and ’08, respectively. CHONE projects Lugo to post a .319 wOBA in 2009, compared to .335 for Lowrie. One could make the argument that Lugo’s glove makes the difference, but Lugo has posted two campaigns in negative UZR/150 territory over the past three seasons. Lowrie appears to be the superior player at this point, though it’s not a runaway win.
For more on Lowrie, check out Brian Joura’s article here.
4. Matthew Joyce, Rays: .384 wOBA (.270/.352/.550)
Age: 24 (23 during ’08 season)
2006-2008 Park Factor (Toledo): R (0.95), H (0.98), 2B (1.07), HR (0.90)
Before Joyce was shipped to Tampa Bay for Edwin Jackson in a rather questionable swap for the Tigers, he mashed for Toledo in the International League and more than held his own in Detroit. In the articled linked to above, Dave Cameron compares Joyce to a Jayson Werth-type player, and the comparison seems apt from this writer’s vantage point. Both are very rangy corner outfielders who absolutely mash opposite-handed pitching, while having some issues with same-side hurlers.
While Werth is a right-handed hitter demolishing southpaws, the lefty-swinging Joyce hammers righties. In his minor league career, the Florida Southern product has batted .294/.355/.475 versus right-handers, compared to .239/.328/.393 versus those pesky left-handers. In 2008, Joyce creamed International League righties to the tune of .286/.366/.610 and continued to treat them rudely in the majors (.255/.333/.509). Overall, the 12th-round selection in the ’05 draft posted a .355 wOBA in his first big league action, with an 11.4 BB%.
Joyce is certainly not a perfect player-he has issues with lefties and will swing and miss pretty frequently- but if properly utilized, he could be a large asset to both the Rays and fantasy owners alike. In his article examining Joyce, Peter Bendix summed it up perfectly:
“Matt Joyce is probably not a top tier fantasy outfielder, thanks to his struggles against left handed pitching. However, there are far more righties than lefties out there for him to face, and Joyce should mash against righties, and could supply 25-30 homers even if he’s platooned, thus making him a very valuable commodity late in drafts.”
5. Denard Span, Twins: .407 wOBA (.340/.434/.481)
Age: 24 (25 in February)
2006-2008 Park Factor (Rochester): R (1.00), H (1.00), 2B (1.03), HR (1.00)
Entering the 2008 season, Span was fighting for his prospect life. The 2002 first-round pick had been a perennial disappointment, posting a lukewarm .282/.349/.347 career line through 2007. In 2008, it was almost as if Span emerged as a new player, doing his best Kenny Lofton impersonation along the way.
While Span’s AAA work was batting average-fueled, his time with the Twins was pretty impressive: in 411 PA, he drew a free pass 12.6% of the time and compiled a .387 OBP. I took a look at Span earlier this offseason, attempting to figure out whether or not his ’08 showing was just a flash in the pan or a harbinger of things to come. While I wouldn’t go quite so far as to expect a repeat performance, I think that Span has made some legitimate changes that portend to long-term success:
“Ordinarily, one might regard Span’s season as a blip, a flash in the pan. How often does a career disappointment suddenly start raking in the majors? However, there are some reasons to think that Span made some legitimate improvements in his game this past season. He drew walks at a 12.6% clip for the Twinkies while keeping his K rate in check (17.3%). His contact rate was a healthy 88.7%, and he almost never strayed from the strike zone, with an OSwing% of just 16.7%. That was the 10th-lowest figure among batters with at least 400 PA. Span’s stolen base prowess improved somewhat, at least to the point where he wasn’t harming his team (using the .22 run value for a SB and the -.38 value for a CS, Span’s 18/25 season came out to a net positive of 1.3 runs).”
“It’s not that uncommon for a player to experience a single-season hike in batting average or power, but it’s far more rare for a batter to show much-improved plate patience and then give all of those gains back the following year. Span’s increased walk rate and very low O-Swing% paint the picture of a hitter who refined his control of the strike zone and took a more mature approach with him to the batter’s box.”
If Span retains the patient approach that he brought with him to Minnesota, he could be a valuable commodity as a high-OBP player with some speed.