Prospects in Proper Context, Pt. 4: AA Texas League

Earlier this week, we tore through A-ball and illuminated the best and the brightest farm products in the Florida State, Carolina and California Leagues. Now, it’s time to take a step up the organizational ladder and begin our examination of some of the more promising batting prospects at the Double A Level. You’ll notice two additional bits of information added to the player profiles since our look at the California League: a Park Adjusted Line (PAL), which neutralizes a player’s stats, and a Major League Equivalency (MLE), which gives us a rough estimate of how that player projects to the big leagues at this point in time. Both figures are from Minor League Splits, an invaluable resource for prospect statistics. Let’s kick off the Double-A phase with the Texas 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. A 200 PA cut-off was used for the list.)

1. Dexter Fowler, Rockies: .423 wOBA (.335/.431/.515)
Age: 22
Position: CF
2006-2008 Park Factor (Tulsa): Runs (1.02), Hits (1.01), Doubles (1.05), Home Runs (1.08)
Park Adjusted Line (PAL): .333/.429/.504
Major League Equivalent (MLE): .260/.360/.379
Baseball America Texas League Ranking: 1st overall (1st hitter)

Long considered a five-tool force by the scouting community, Fowler managed to stay healthy and cobble together his best professional season in 2008. The switch-hitter was selected by Colorado in the 14th round of the 2004 draft- he would have gone much higher, but teams were scared off by scholarship offers to play basketball at Harvard and baseball at the University of Miami. The Rockies stepped up and inked Fowler for $925,000, and the above-slot bonus looks like a huge bargain at this point. After dealing with an ankle injury in 2006 and a broken hand in 2007, Fowler stayed on the field this past season and tapped into the power supply portended by his lanky 6-4, 175 pound frame. A plus center fielder, Fowler has impressive speed but hasn’t translated that to the base paths quite as well as one would like: he’s swiped 100 bags in his minor league career, but his 67.6% success rate needs some work. Just 22 and possessing a very professional approach at the plate (he drew a walk 13.4% of the time at Tulsa, and has a career .393 OBP), Fowler made a brief cameo in the majors in 2008 and is very close to becoming a key contributor for the Rockies.

2. Elvis Andrus, Rangers: .339 wOBA (.295/.350/.367)
Age: 20 (19 during ’08 season)
Position: SS
2006-2008 Park Factor (Frisco): R (0.99), H (0.99), 2B (0.95), HR (1.05)
PAL: .296/.351/.371
MLE: .235/.292/.290
BA Texas League Ranking: 5th overall (4th hitter)

As was the case with Seattle’s Carlos Triunfel, Andrus’ raw numbers don’t scream “future superstar.” However, one has to consider that the Venezuelan played essentially the entire 2008 season at the age of 19, yet managed to hold his own at the AA level. At a more age-appropriate level, it’s likely that Andrus would have experienced considerably greater success with the bat. The former Braves farmhand is not an especially large fellow and doesn’t project to hit for much power, but he has years of development time remaining. If he ends up providing league-average offense at the shortstop position and couples that with continued base running prowess (he stole 54 bags with a 77% success rate in ’08), then Andrus should be a pretty valuable player. On top of that, he might end up bumping curious Gold Glove selection Michael Young off of shortstop. While Young has improved from atrocious (he was over -20 runs per 150 defensive games in 2004 and 2005) to just below-average with the leather, it would probably be for the best if he shifted to the hot corner. For more on Andrus, see new Rotographs writer Ryan Glass’ piece on the young Ranger here.

3. Kyle Blanks, Padres: .408 wOBA (.325/.404/.514)
Age: 22 (21 during ’08 season)
Position: 1B
2006-2008 Park Factor (San Antonio): R (0.93), H (0.99), 2B (1.00), HR (0.84)
PAL: .331/.408/.535
MLE: .261/.338/.399
BA Texas League Ranking: 3rd overall (3rd hitter)

Blanks is an extremely large human being. Standing 6-6 and tipping the scales at 280 pounds, Blanks was snagged as a draft-and-follow selection in the 42nd round of the 2004 draft. With a career .393 OBP, Blanks has proven that he knows how to work the count, and he has put a charge into the ball over the past two seasons by reaching or surpassing the 20 home run mark. Blanks smashed 24 homers and slugged .540 in the California League last season, but his 20 homer, .514 slugging season in 2008 was likely more impressive, once one considers that he moved up a level and played his games in a less hospitable offensive environment. Just where Blanks fits in with the Padres remains to be seen. He’s not the sluggish athlete that his XL frame suggests, but it seems unlikely that he could handle a corner outfield spot. And while the Padres are thin on premium talent, first baseman Adrian Gonzalez is a tremendous player signed to an incredibly team-friendly pact (according to Cot’s Baseball Contracts, Gonzalez will make $3M in ’09, $4.75M in 2010 and has an obvious $5.5M club option for the 2011 season). Whether the Fathers keep Gonzalez under those friendly terms or leverage that deal in a trade is uncertain. But Blanks should be a solid contributor in the majors sometime soon, be it with San Diego or elsewhere.

4. Maximiliano Ramirez, Rangers: .474 wOBA (.354/.450/.646)
Age: 24 (23 during ’08 season)
Position: C? 1B? DH?
2006-2008 Park Factor (Frisco): R (0.99), H (0.99), 2B (0.95), HR (1.05)
PAL: .354/.450/.638
MLE: .277/.377/.465
BA Texas League Ranking: 9th overall (6th hitter)

It’s pretty rare for a career .314/.414/.521 minor league hitter to exchange hands twice before he really even gets his feet wet at the major league level, but that’s precisely what has happened to Max Ramirez. Originally signed by the Braves out of Venezuela, Ramirez was shipped to the Indians in July of 2006 for “Proven Closer” Bob Wickman, then found himself switching zip codes again the next summer when the Indians sent him to Texas for Kenny Lofton. Ramirez’s long-term position remains a mystery (catcher seems exceedingly unlikely, given his scouting reports and the presence of Taylor Teagarden in Texas), but Max should mash wherever he ends up. He terrorized the TL on his way to Arlington, posting a .292 ISO and leading the circuit in wOBA.

5. Aaron Cunningham, Athletics: .397 wOBA (.317/.386/.507)
Age: 22
Position: OF
2006-2008 Park Factor (Midland): R (1.02), H (1.02), 2B (1.04), HR (0.91)
PAL: .316/.385/.514
MLE: .249/.320/.384
BA Texas League Ranking: 11th overall (7th hitter)

Like Ramirez, Cunningham has also switched organizations twice before really getting acclimated to the big league level. The White Sox originally plucked the Everett Community College alum in the 6th round of the 2005 draft, but the Pale Hose made a rare prospect-for-prospect swap with the Diamondbacks in June of 2007, exchanging Cunningham for second baseman Danny Richar. Cunningham would again change uniforms in December of ’07, as he was part of a massive prospect haul acquired by the Athletics in the Dan Haren swap. Cunningham turned in a pretty solid season in the Texas League, posting a .190 ISO and drawing a free pass about 10% of the time. His strikeout rate did climb to 26.5%, however. The 5-11, 195 pounder does not look like a future star, but he should provide solid production for the A’s in a corner spot sometime in the near future.

We hoped you liked reading Prospects in Proper Context, Pt. 4: AA Texas League by David Golebiewski!

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A recent graduate of Duquesne University, David Golebiewski is a contributing writer for Fangraphs, The Pittsburgh Sports Report and Baseball Analytics. His work for Inside Edge Scouting Services has appeared on ESPN.com and Yahoo.com, and he was a fantasy baseball columnist for Rotoworld from 2009-2010. He recently contributed an article on Mike Stanton's slugging to The Hardball Times Annual 2012. Contact David at david.golebiewski@gmail.com and check out his work at Journalist For Hire.

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