In search of the next Jack Cust (Part 2)

Last week, we looked at the surprising success of A’s designated hitter Jack Cust, who rose from Triple-A obscurity to major league masher in early May after being acquired from the Padres for cash considerations.

Cust endured a cold spell after his torrid A’s debut, but appears to be back to on track after collecting nine hits in Oakland’s weekend series against the Cardinals. Through 116 at-bats, his line stands at .276/.425/.578, with an OPS just over the magical 1.000 mark. Not bad for a guy who had been written off completely by 29 other big-league teams just two months ago.

Cust’s success begs the question: How did five teams—including the A’s once before—give up on this guy? And how did the other 25 teams never even give him a sniff?

The answer to that question could be a full-length column in itself, but it boils down to the following:
1. Cust was promoted too aggressively, on the basis of small sample size successes and the eager anticipation that comes with being a former No. 1 draft pick.

2. He was then judged prematurely on the basis of poor performance in a small sample size, both in the minors and the majors.

3. It took him 10 years from the day he was drafted to get to this point. No team can afford that kind of patience when millions of dollars and front-office job security are constantly at stake. (This is in fact one of the best, and yet least-publicized, reasons for drafting college hitters instead of high schoolers. Four to five years after the draft, when a team eventually has to protect the best members of its draft class on the 40-man roster or risk losing them to other teams, it’s easier to “know what you have” with a 25-26 year-old than it is with a 22-23 year old. The uncertain, unforcastable future of players in their early-20s makes it difficult to evaluate them, and explains how a talented, raw player like Johan Santana gets left off the Astros’ 40-man roster and becomes a Rule 5 pick).

Baseball people used to really like Cust—the Diamondbacks made him the 30th overall selection of the 1997 draft—they just gave up on him a little too soon. A determination was made that 23-year-old Cust couldn’t hit big league pitching in 2002, and clearly that opinion was very hard to change. But a 23-year-old hitter is not yet what he will one day become, as the 28-year-old version of Cust can attest.

Which brings us back to our initial quest: to find a neglected player with a resume similar to Cust’s, who might duplicate his success given the opportunity. We discussed the parameters for our search in last week’s column, but the premise is simple: finding promising players whose dreams of becoming a major league regular have been quashed prematurely, before they honed their plate discipline and hit their late-20s physical peak.

Now, onto our subjects. Here is a short list of players who might be candidates to have a Cust-like impact. Remember, this isn’t to suggest that each or even any of these players would instantly post a 1.000 OPS over a six-week span in a major league lineup; in fact, they may not even represent the best of the neglected minor leaguers in the game. They are simply test cases, who have some similarities with Cust. The bigger lesson to be learned is to start keeping an eye on these types of players and giving more of them legitimate big-league opportunities. Cust, who will make approximately $400,000 next year and could conceivably provide league-average DH production or more, has proven that they can potentially become tremendous bargains, whereas once it was thought they couldn’t.
Shelley Duncan, OF, Triple-A Scranton Wilkes-Barre: Duncan, 27, has hit to the tune of .284/.372/.560 for the Yankees’ top minor league affiliate this year. He’s also seen his walk rate improve this season. He’s not on the Yankees’ 40-man roster, and probably not in their plans anytime soon, but perhaps he could provide quality, inexpensive outfield depth for a team with a need.

Mitch Jones, LF, Triple-A Las Vegas: Eye-popping numbers this far, but Jones is a great example of why early-season Triple-A stats don’t tell us enough of the story. He’s 29, and just last year he managed only a .234/.317/.447 line in Columbus. Jones doesn’t make enough contact in Triple-A to suggest that he could ever contribute to a big-league team.

Jason Botts, OF, Triple-A Oklahoma: Botts is an example of a guy who is doing well for his league, but perhaps not well enough for his age. Part of our goal is to predict future MLB success, and although Botts’ .307/.421/.490 line looks good, his numbers can’t afford the drop-off one would expect from a move to the next level. If he was 24, he’d be someone to be excited about, because it would be reasonable to expect him to improve upon those numbers. But a player Botts’ age probably needs to be absolutely dominating Triple-A pitching for us to hope that he’d ever contribute in the show.

Chris Shelton, Triple-A Toledo: It’s probably unfair to be bearish on Botts and not have the same outlook on Shelton, who’s experienced a similar power outage this year. The difference is that Shelton has already had two productive major league seasons at young ages for a power hitter (25-26) in ’05 and ’06, and he’s improved his walk rate this year. Unlike Jorge Cantu, he
hasn’t gone public with any hard feelings about being sent down to the minors, either, which suggests that he’s humble and willing to work at being a consistent major league hitter. Shelton, 27, could perhaps follow Carlos Pena’s path and fall off the radar for a while before rewarding a team that takes a chance on him in ’08 or even ’09.

Ryan Mulhern, 1B, Triple-A Buffalo: Good numbers (.308/.365/.540), and still young enough (26) to improve upon them. He doesn’t walk enough yet (65/19 strikeout to walk ratio), but if he can improve his plate discipline he could have a breakthrough within three years, probably for a different organization.

Ryan Raburn, OF, Triple-A Toledo: Raburn gets impressive power out his small frame, and has hit very well this season (.295/.401/.563). He’s done a terrific job of cutting down on his strikeouts this year without sacrificing power, and he’s continued to walk as well. With that success at 26, I’d expect a healthy big-league career. If he’s still not on the Tigers’ 40-man roster come Rule 5 draft time in December, a team would be wise to snatch him up.

Several readers emailed suggestions for players to discuss in this article:

Jorge Cantu, IF, Devil Rays: Cantu is intriguing because of his power potential: He slugged .497 and slugged 79 extra-base hits for the Devil Rays in 2005 at age 23. The problem both then and now is his lack of patience, and pitchers have adjusted accordingly, and as a result his numbers have suffered across the board. I consider it a caution flag that Cantu was publicly furious at being demoted at the end of spring training. Clearly, he had things to work on as a player both offensively and defensively, and a better response would be to simply take the demotion as a motivator. Yet he went down to Triple-A Durham and posted a .239/.295/.324 line to open the season. Somehow, that earned him a recall to the big club before the end of April!

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

The thing is, Cantu may be a future Cust at age 27 or 28. Instead, he’s burning service time unnecessarily at the big league level, when he obviously hasn’t gotten it all figured out. He began the season with 2.079 years of service, and if doesn’t get sent down again he’ll be arbitration eligible by the end of the year. At this rate, when he finally peaks (which appears will be in his late 20s), it will be for another team via free agency, and it won’t be for a bargain price anymore.

Given that the Rays aren’t in contention anyway, why not leave Cantu on the farm until he proves he can improve his walk rate and his defense, or post a 1.000 OPS season in Triple-A, as Cust did last year? If the Rays had taken that approach this year, they’d be more likely to preserve Cantu’s prime at a bargain price down the road. Nonetheless, he’s worth mentioning in this space, because he is a player that people have soured on at too young of an age. Twenty-five year old Jorge Cantu is probably not yet the player that he will one day be at 28-29. But he has been up in the majors long enough for baseball people to form a negative opinion of him, and that will weigh down his perceived value longer than it should, just as it once did for Cust.

Jonny Gomes, OF, Devil Rays: Gomes is a less egregious case than Cantu, because he’s slightly older and has actually done well this season. I don’t think we can include him in the discussion here, because he’s probably sticking in the league for good and it’s unlikely that his contributions would go unnoticed.

Craig Brazell, 1B, Triple-A Omaha: The 27-year-old Brazell has posted a very impressive .309/.337/.673 line for the Royals’ Triple-A affiliate after being promoted from Wichita early this season. His 27/7 strikeout to walk ratio isn’t pretty, however, and neither is the fact that just a year ago he put up barely a whimper (.247/.283/.463) in Double-A Jacksonville over a full season at age 26. Nonetheless, he’s obviously seeing and hitting the ball well now, and baseball is a game of streaks.

It would be interesting to see teams acquire more players like this on the cheap and immediately give them at-bats while they are hot, rather than trotting out players who are banged up or slumping horribly but making salaries that make it politically impossible to bench them. Brazell would be a low-risk acquisition that could be acquired for a pittance, and if he doesn’t hit, its an easy decision to release him.

Mark Saccomanno, 1B/3B, Triple-A Round Rock: Similar profile to Brazell: 27, late bloomer, terrific season thus far, alarming strikeout to walk ratio. Another case of a guy who would appear to be extremely low risk to provide a moderate reward for a team willing to give him at-bats. Easy to acquire, easy to cut, and yet the potential to catch lightning in a bottle while he’s hitting well and potentially fill a position many teams have struggled to get offense from this season.

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