Prospects in Proper Context, Pt. 5: AA Southern League

Continuing our series examining some of the most highly skilled and promising youngsters in the minors, we’re going to shine the spotlight on the AA Southern League today. The Southern League featured a very deep pool of players for this list. Among those who tore the cover off of the ball but didn’t quite make the cut: “catcher” Angel Salome of the Brewers, first baseman Gaby Sanchez and second baseman Christopher Coghlan (Marlins), catcher Adam Moore and center fielders Michael Saunders and Gregory Halman (Mariners) and shortstop Ivan DeJesus Jr (Dodgers).

If you need a refresher on the methods used for this list or you haven’t had the chance to check out the overviews of the other leagues, here they are:

Florida State League
Carolina League
California League
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. The Park Adjusted Line (PAL) and Major League Equivalency (MLE) figures are compiled from Minor League Splits. A 200 PA cut-off was used for the list.)

AA Southern League offensive levels: Singles (0.96), Doubles (1.02), Triples (1.01), Home Runs (0.98)

1. Cameron Maybin, Marlins: .381 wOBA (.277/.375/.456)
Age: 21
Position: CF
2006-2008 Park Factor (Carolina): Runs (1.01), Hits (1.00), Doubles (1.13), Home Runs (0.95)
Park Adjusted Line (PAL): .283/.380/.467
Major League Equivalency (MLE): .232/.331/.362
Baseball America Southern League Ranking: 3rd overall (1st hitter)

Peter Bendix wrote about Maybin a few months back, and much of what he writes pertaining to 2009 is important to remember: Maybin’s “The Natural”-esque performance in 36 PA at the end of last season was just that: a 36 PA sample. He’s an outstanding prospect, but it wouldn’t be advisable to expect instant success based on a few dozen trips to the plate. While Florida’s major prize in the Miguel Cabrera/Dontrelle Willis swap could use some more development time (he struck out nearly 32% of the time in AA), he does have quite a bit going for him. Maybin has a sound approach at the plate that allowed him to draw walks at a 13.3% pace, and he coupled that patience with solid power (.179 ISO) and fairly efficient base thievery (21 SB in 28 attempts). To boot, the 6-4, 205 pounder is a plus defender in center field.

The Asheville, North Carolina native may well have tremendous long-term value to the ‘Fins as a Mike Cameron-type player. Keep an eye on his whiff rate, however: strikeouts certainly do not preclude a player from becoming quite successful, but in the short run that elevated K rate suggests that Maybin would be best served honing his game at Florida’s new AAA affiliate in New Orleans.

2. Matt LaPorta, Indians: .429 wOBA (.288/.402/.576)
Age: 23 (22 during ’08 season)
Position: LF/1B?
2006-2008 Park Factor (Huntsville): Runs (0.98), Hits (1.00), Doubles (0.96), Home Runs (1.07)
Park Adjusted Line (PAL): .291/.404/.573
Major League Equivalency (MLE): .236/.347/.437
Baseball America Southern League Ranking: 4th overall (2nd hitter)

Cleveland’s shiny new toy acquired in the CC Sabathia
swap, LaPorta possesses the secondary skills (walks and power) to become one of the most prolific hitters in the National League. The University of Florida alum entered his junior season as one of the most highly regarded prospects in the college game, but an injury caused his performance to drop, and his name wasn’t called until the 14th round of the 2006 amateur draft by the Boston Red Sox. LaPorta declined to sign, returned to Florida for his senior year and proceeded to rake. The following year, the Brewers came calling much earlier, selecting the 6-1, 220 pounder with the 7th overall pick in the draft.

At the time, LaPorta was viewed as something of an overdraft, and others questioned why the Brew Crew would take a defensively-challenged player like LaPorta when the club already had Prince Fielder in the fold. LaPorta is a terrific example of why major league organizations just plain don’t draft based on the composition of the major league roster. Milwaukee took the player whom they felt had the best chance of becoming an impact player in the big leagues, regardless of position or fit. And for that, they were rewarded with the necessary munitions to acquire a hired gun the caliber of Sabathia for the stretch run last season.

While LaPorta struggled a bit in a very small 60 PA sample after Cleveland acquired him, he put together a tremendous season for Milwaukee’s AA Huntsville affiliate. He’s no great shakes in the outfield (no surprise for a converted first baseman), but a guy who posts a .402 OBP and a .288 ISO can play anywhere. Check out LaPorta’s major league equivalent line: it suggests that he’s not very far away from contributing in Cleveland.

3. Jordan Schafer, Braves: .386 wOBA (.269/.378/.471)
Age: 22 (21 during ’08 season)
Position: CF
2006-2008 Park Factor (Mississippi): Runs (0.97), Hits (1.00), Doubles (1.00), Home Runs (0.83)
Park Adjusted Line (PAL): .272/.380/.483
Major League Equivalency (MLE): .221/.331/.372
Baseball America Southern League Ranking: 13th overall (7th hitter)

Schafer’s 2008 season got off to an inauspicious start as he drew a 50-game suspension for alleged use of Human Growth Hormone, but the rangy center fielder impressed once he did take the field. Schafer, who posted a .307 wOBA and a 6.8 BB% in 2006, continued his offensive improvement, working a walk 14.2% of the time while smacking 10 HR with a .202 ISO in a park that suppresses power. On the negative side, Schafer’s K rate jumped to 29.6%, and he managed a feeble .196/.306/.299 line against fellow southpaws in 107 AB. The lackluster performance against lefties was a continuation of a career-long trend: Schafer has batted .281/.349/.487 against righties, but just .236/.310/.331 versus same-side pitching.

4. Alcides Escobar, Brewers: .369 wOBA (.328/.363/.434)
Age: 22 (21 during ’08 season)
Position: SS
2006-2008 Park Factor (Huntsville): Runs (0.98), Hits (1.00), Doubles (0.96), Home Runs (1.07)
Park Adjusted Line (PAL): .336/.370/.440
Major League Equivalency (MLE): .281/.318/.361
Baseball America Southern League Ranking: 5th overall (3rd hitter)

Escobar has long been known as a premium defensive shortstop, but he showed some signs of life at the dish in 2008 as well. Sure, his year was certainly batting average-fueled, but the fleet-of-foot Venezuelan has the sort of speed (34 SB, 8 CS) that allows one to project a higher BABIP- he’s more likely to beat out some of those grounders than a plodding type. He’ll never be confused with a great hitter, but Alcides’ combination of contact, speed and excellent defense should be enough to make him a pretty valuable player.

5. Mathew Gamel, Brewers: .409 wOBA (.329/.395/.537)
Age: 22
Position: “3B” (corner outfield?)
2006-2008 Park Factor (Huntsville): Runs (0.98), Hits (1.00), Doubles (0.96), Home Runs (1.07)
Park Adjusted Line (PAL): .333/.399/.537
Major League Equivalency (MLE): .275/.345/.424
Baseball America Southern League Ranking: 7th overall (4th hitter)

At first glance, Gamel and the Brewers appear to be a perfect match. After all, what could the righty-leaning Brewers use more than a lefty-batting third baseman? Bill Hall has followed up a very nice 2006 season with an adequate 2007 (.317 wOBA) and a putrid 2008 (.297 wOBA). Gamel to the rescue, right?

While the Chipola Junior College product displayed a good deal of pop (though his overall line was aided by a .392 BABIP), Gamel very likely lacks the defensive chops to remain at the hot corner. In fact, some scouting reports peg him as downright Braun-y at third. While errors are a poor barometer of defensive skill, Gamel’s totals are pretty astounding. At High-A Brevard County in 2007, Gamel committed 53 errors in just 113 games. In 2008, he “improved” to 30 miscues in 126 games. Gamel probably isn’t all that far away from contributing offensively, but in all likelihood he will have to find a new position, lest the constant “E-5” ‘s on the scoreboard give Milwaukee fans “Hebrew Hammer” flashbacks.

We hoped you liked reading Prospects in Proper Context, Pt. 5: AA Southern 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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