by Rob Leibowitz
The outfield, on the basis of available openings alone, is generally the most likely opportunity for a minor league position player to have an impact at the MLB level. So, in the interest of time and protecting your eyes from information overload, I will be shifting gears to a team by team approach of possible outfield contributors.
The Orioles' upper levels contain three players of fourth outfield at best quality caliber in Xavier Avery, Matt Angle, and Kyle Hudson. All three have pretty good speed skills and are noteworthy for their ability to steal a bag (all three stole over 20 bases in the minors last season). Both Angle and Hudson, however, are lacking in the power department. Angle is a rather disciplined hitter who makes good contact and draws walks but may be overpowered at the MLB level. He is also quite a bit older of a prospect at age 26. Hudson, no spring chicken at 25 himself, has even less pop than Angle and while he has some patience, strikes out a bit more often. Finally, Avery has some gap power and is the youngest of the three at just 22 years of age, but has the worst approach at the plate of the group.
So in synopsis, Angle is perhaps the most likely to make an impact as a backup player while Avery has the most upside. Regardless, all three are FAAB wire short-term pickups. And those interested in giving Nolan Reimold another chance should do so; his competition other than these three players is limited to Endy Chavez and Jai Miller. He has to handle his end of the bargain (stay healthy and hit), but he has little pressure behind him too.
For now, Yanks chill in OF
The Red Sox have left field and center field locked up with the tandem of Carl Crawford and Jacoby Ellsbury. Right field may, however, provide some opportunities with Cody Ross, Darnell McDonald, Ryan Kalish (DL), and Ryan Sweeney all around, but not definite run-away with the job candidates. Actually, the most likely scenario would have the Red Sox dealing for another outfielder in the middle of the season if they are indeed in contention. That said there are three rookies who could also potentially contribute. Alex Hassan, who turns 24 on April 1, is a right-handed hitter noted for his excellent plate discipline. Because of those skills, Hassan does not have a distinct platoon split and can hit righties and lefties alike. Lack of overwhelming ability however places him in the tweener set as someone not good enough defensively to handle center field and not having enough power to be a typical corner outfielder. He has a chance to be slightly better than Sweeney if his teens-per season HR power translates to Triple-A and beyond.
Jeremy Hazelbaker offers a bit more excitement than Hassan given his speed skills (47 steals between two levels in 2011). The lefty too has mid-teens per season home run power and will draw walks, but on the downside fails to make contact roughly a quarter of the time and has limited upside in the batting average department.
Finally that brings us to Che-Hsuan Lin. This 23-year-old righty is quite comparable to Matt Angle as a very well disciplined hitter, sans power potential, but with 20+ stolen base potential. He looked a bit overmatched at Triple-A, managing just a .235/.325/.293 line and looks more like a fifth outfielder/pinch-runner at the moment than anything else.
Jordan Danks was once a highly coveted prospect, but has failed to dazzle at any level of play. He is now 25 and has repeated Triple-A. To his credit, the lefty improved in the power, speed, and patience departments, but struck out nearly a third of the time. He still had a chance at a platoon gig and given the departure of Juan Pierre and Carlos Quentin there may indeed be opportunities for him to showcase his talents (20-20 potential).
Brandon Short is not likely to be a significant pre-season challenger, but will advance to Triple-A with a chance at a mid-season promotion. He mid-teens per season level home run power and plus speed (21 stolen bases in 2011), but is a right-handed hitter who strikes out more than a quarter of the time and can be overly aggressive at the plate (6.2% walk rate). Short profiles best as a back-up outfielder or wrong-side of the platoon, platoon player.
If not for two trades the Indians might not have any near-MLB ready outfielders in their system. Last summer they acquired Thomas Neal from the Giants and this off-season they acquired Russ Canzler from the Rays. Canzler is one step shy of becoming a journeyman. He is more of a jack-of-all-trades and the outfield might be his best, though not only, positional path to the majors. He is right-handed, patient, and has high-teens to low-20s per season home run power. His handedness and strikeout rates make it unlikely, however, that he will be able to translate last year's .314 batting average to the majors. I think he could be a good weapon in a platoon role.
Neal, on the other hand, was held in higher regard prior to last season, though he struck me then and still does as having a Nate Schierholtz type upside. The 24-year-old is aggressive at the plate and at times has made a fair amount of contact, though that fell off upon his promotion to Triple-A, as did his power. Like Canzler he heads into 2012 with a need to prove (rediscover the skills he showed in 2009) he can be more than Triple-A roster filler. He has more upside than Canzler, but Canzler is probably the surer bet.
Jamie Johnson is currently on track to challenge for a MLB back-up role. The righty is a skills player who makes contact (85% of the time), gets on base (13% walk rate and .376 OBP in 2011), and has a tick above average speed. In other words, Johnson is quite similar to Matt Angle and Che-Hsuan Lin. The 25-year-old has probably already reached his ceiling in terms of tools, but there is enough skill here to warrant a modicum of attention if injuries occur.
Wil Myers experienced highs and lows last year but exited the Arizona Fall League on a definite high and his status as one of the top young hitting prospects in the game is still sound. Quite frankly as a 20-year-old in Double-A ball, he did quite well, showing plenty of plate discipline. He reminds me a lot of former Royal Mike Sweeney as a potential 20+ HR candidate who has enough plate discipline and contact making ability to hit for average as well. Myers' advantage in that department, however, is that he has pretty good legs and has been rescued from a career behind the plate. Given his age he will most likely repeat Double-A, though if he once again shows the power displayed in the AFL, a quick move up the ladder is likely too.
David Lough earned a mention in last year's column after having played an entire season at Triple-A in 2010. The call, however, never came. While there, Lough reinforced his primary attributes, making contact even more often at over 90% of the time and posting a .318/.367/.482 line. That said, Lough may be a Quadruple-A player or at a best a MLB back-up despite his hitting abilities as his other tools don't measure up as he lacks the power necessary of a corner outfielder and the speed necessary of a center fielder. Pinch-hitting might be an excellent filed for the lefty.
The Angels have the best outfield prospect in the game. Barely. Well, if they had kept Mike Trout up or played him just a little bit longer, he would not eligible for this article, but nevertheless, Trout remains a rookie for 2012.
Trout aside, the Angels have one other outfielder close to MLB ready as he will ever be in Jeremy Moore. He is a left-handed hitting tools guy with at least mid-teens per season raw home run power and 20+ stolen base per season potential. Unfortunately for the Angels, Moore has been hitting around .300 the last two seasons in the minors do largely in part to batting averages on balls in play close to .400, strikes out a quarter of the time, and has a too aggressive approach at the plate that limits his upside. Put him in the platoon player category.
Reddick now has a lot of backup
Right now the Twins' outfield contains two no-power speedsters coming off seasons with sub .320 OBPs. While one speedster can be useful, two may be detrimental to the team's long-term run-scoring ways. Enter Joe Benson. A right-handed hitter, Benson has 20-20 potential tools and draws the occasional walk. From the good news goes downhill for the 23-year-old and they are directly related to striking out more than a fifth of the time on a regular basis. As such, it is hard to see him as being much more than a .250s to .260s hitter at the MLB level despite his otherwise excellent offensive and defensive profile. Benson will still challenge for everyday playing time at some point, if not this spring training, but given zero experience at Triple-A, that would be his best destination.
The Yankees do not have any likely impact outfield prospects. The outfield of Brett Gardner, Curtis Granderson, and Nick Swisher is difficult to crack and it will also include Andruw Jones as a backup/DH. If injuries occur, things will be left to journeymen like Chris Dickerson and Justin Maxwell.
The Athletics have undergone an outfield transformation. After several years of having an outfield with limited upside, they have made significant changes outside of retaining Coco Crisp. As it stands right now, Crisp will open up in LF with rookie Yoenis Cespedes in center field, and Josh Reddick in right field. They also went out and acquired Seth Smith from the Rockies; he will man the DH spot and see some time in the outfield too until Manny Ramirez's suspension has been served.
Cespedes has a large deal in place, but no MLB track record, and it is difficult at best to identify just how disciplined or how consistent a contact hitter he will be. On the tools side, he has power to spare and plus speed, and the defense to handle center field. In other words, he has 30+ HR, 20+ stolen base potential. While he is indeed penciled in as the starting center fielder, he will have to earn it this spring and there is a slight possibility he could go to Triple-A to make his transition to the United States.
These moves put into question what will happen to Collin Cowgill, Grant Green, Jermaine Mitchell, and Michael Taylor. Early on it looked as if both Cowgill and Taylor might have the inside edge to starting jobs. Now they are likely looking at returning to Triple-A. Cowgill, 25, is no power hitter, but he provides doubles power and low to mid-teens home run potential, above average speed and stolen base ability, and most importantly the ability to get on base and the contact skills to hit for average. Cowgill is perhaps first in line to replace Crisp, in the event he gets injured, but quite frankly, might already be the better option which makes the re-signing a bit of a head-scratcher.
Taylor also has enough skills to warrant a shot in the majors. After spending much of 2010 injured, he experienced a small resurgence last year showing that he may yet have 20-20 potential and good enough OBP and contact-hitting skill to be a starter. However, it appears he has been passed over in this organization and his playing time here will rest on injuries or ineffectiveness of others. He may be in need of yet another trade. At 26, he is walking a thin line towards journeyman-hood.
Green will be advancing to Triple-A for the first time. The former shortstop has 20+ HR potential, but despite his consistent .290 batting average efforts in the minors, Green has made zero improvement in the plate discipline department. Yes he has successfully translated his aggressiveness to each level with success, striking out a fifth of the time while posting mediocre OBPs, but that is not something I get too excited about. His power was not as apparent in Double-A this year and I have become a bit more skeptical of his development. Though he rates higher in scouting circles than Taylor and Cowgill, his risk factor is higher and his upside as a fantasy player compared to Cowgill and Taylor, who both have some pop and speed skills, is less.
Finally this brings us to Mitchell, who made it all the way to Triple-A for the A's in 2011. He is the longest in the tooth of the group at 27 years old, but is coming off a break-through season that saw him shave 10% of his strikeout rate while translating that new contact-hitting ability up to Triple-A and not losing his long-held ability to get on base. That said, Mithcell has less power than Cowgill, but good speed. Right now he would make a lot of sense as a back-up and could start in a pinch.
I profiled Vinnie Catricala earlier in this series, but he perhaps is a better fit here than at third base. If you missed him, you can read about him here. Meanwhile, the Mariners acquired Chih-Hsien Chiang in the Erik Bedard trade and will be advancing him to Triple-A to start the season. The lefty had a breakout, hitting .340 with 18 home runs, but it was fueled by a .373 BABIP. He is average at best defensively and has limited speed. Most likely he is either Triple-A roster filler or a back-up, but there is a chance he could see some playing time this season.
The Rays gave Brandon Guyer some playing time last season, but right now he appears blocked and probably headed back to Triple-A for the time being. The 25-year-old has nothing left to prove in the minors. He makes contact, has low to mid-teens per season home run power, plays good defense, and has 20+ per season stolen base potential. He does not, however, have leadoff potential as he does not draw walks at a high rate and is more of a #2 hitter or lower half of the lineup type. Worth watching to see if an opportunity opens up.
Cuban outfielder Leonys Martin made it through the minors in just one season to a September call-up. At the very least he is a good defensive outfielder who makes consistent contact and has 20+ stolen base per season potential. His plate discipline, however, was up and down all season long from level to level and it has been a bit hard to get a read on whether he is a potential leadoff hitter or a potential ninth-hole hitter. He is not without power and may develop into a teens per season home run hitter.
Anthony Gose has long been a great tools threat. 2011, however, was a breakout year where we might be actually be seeing the emergence of an actual baseball player. He hit 16 homers and stole 69 bases in Double-A while walking 10% of the time as a 21-year-old. He is left-handed and still has time on his side to improve, though it remains difficult to see him as much more than a .250s hitter given his high strikeout rates.
Gose's toolsy teammate Moises Sierra will be joining him in Las Vegas in 2012. He is a right-handed hitter with 20-20 potential (but gets caught stealing too often making realizing the latter portion of the 20-20 unlikely). He is aggressive at the plate, but made improvements in his contact game, doing so more than 80% of the time as a right-handed hitter. Long-term he is probably a platoon player, but could get some opportunities to start if the stars align for him correctly.
Possible Draft Day Candidates
Possible Minor-League Phase Draft Candidates
Mike Trout, Wil Myers, Anthony Gose, Grant Green, Collin Cowgill, Michael Taylor, Jermaine Mitchell. Brandon Guyer, Leonys Martin, Joe Benson, Vinnie Catricala
Possible FAAB Candidates
Matt Angle, Russ Canzler, Kyle Hudson, Xavier Avery, David Lough, Thomas Neal, Jeremy Moore, Moises Sierra, Chih-Hsien Chiang, Alex Hassan, Jeremy Hazelbaker, Che-Hsuan Lin, Jordan Danks, Brandon Short, Jamie Johnson