Minor Matters: Unlisted Hitting Prospects Worth Knowing

We’re just six weeks into the minor league season and it’s already time to throw away your favorite “Top Prospect” lists from this past winter. Young players can mature significantly during the offseason, when they rest nagging injuries, play in fall or winter leagues, grow an inch or add a few pounds, and work with new coaches in the spring. Consider the status change that Angels prospects Brandon Wood and Dallas McPherson experienced last year. One player’s reputation plummeted after 50 games in the major leagues while the other player suddenly looked like one of baseball’s top three young hitters.

The list that follows includes 10 prospects who are off to great starts this year but didn’t appear on many “top prospect” lists this winter for a number of reasons. I believe all of these players are candidates for future “top prospect” lists. A couple players are obvious longshots, but I think they are all worth following closely this season.

Hunter Pence
Outfield | Houston Astros
Last month, I suggested Pence could hit 40 home runs this year. He has not disappointed so far:

YEAR     LVL      AB      AVG      OBP      SLG     HR     XBH     BB      SO
2006      AA     141     .340     .394     .702     11      25     12      26

Pence plays his home games in a very large park, but his performance there has been quite good. His production away from Corpus Christi, however, has been outstanding. He recently launched four home runs in three days at Arkansas and had similar success against pitchers at Midland last month.

Many scouts and analysts have downplayed Pence’s performances in the past because he has an unusual swing and has been older than his competition for much of his career. If he continues to hit well at this level, he could emerge as a consensus top 10 prospect by the end of the year.

Jay Bruce
Outfield | Cincinnatti Reds
He just turned 19 years old last month.

YEAR     LVL      AB      AVG      OBP      SLG     HR     XBH     BB      SO
2006     A       136     .287     .342     .559      7      21     12      32

That kind of power is rare for such a young player. Let’s suppose he finishes the year with an ISOP (slugging percentage minus batting average) over .220. Here is a list of 19-year-olds who have done that over a full season in the Midwest League during the past seven years:

2002 Brad Nelson
2001 Wily Mo Pena
2000 Austin Kearns
1999 Corey Patterson

That’s not a bad list.

Matt Kemp
Outfield | Los Angeles Dodgers
Kemp played a role in a nasty game that resulted in a forfeit, but his bat has been just as newsworthy. The athletic outfielder hit 27 home runs last year, but the majority of those home runs occurred at the Florida State League’s most hitter-friendly park.

YEAR     LVL      AB      AVG      OBP      SLG     HR     XBH     BB      SO
2006      AA     150     .360     .439     .607      6      23     16      25

Early result suggest he can also hit for power outside of Vero Beach. Kemp’s approach at the plate is frequently described as “raw”, and he really has not walked much throughout his minor league career. This year is no exception; one quarter of his free passes have been intentional. Still, it appears Kemp’s bat is for real. In another year, Kemp could be beating out Joel Guzman and Andre Ethier for a role in the Dodgers’ outfield.

Reid Brignac
Shortstop | Tampa Bay Devil Rays

YEAR     LVL      AB      AVG      OBP      SLG     HR     XBH     BB      SO
2006     A+      126     .343     .392     .538      6      15     12      24

Brignac has a batting average of balls in play near .450, so his batting average and on base average won’t look so good a month or two from now. Still, this young hitter has demonstrated some serious power for a 20-year-old shortstop. His struggles against left-handed pitching have continued this year, however. That could be a real problem when he finally reaches the big leagues, but it won’t stop his star from shining for now. Expect Brignac to be a consensus top-50 prospect in baseball by this time next year.

Nolan Reimold
Outfield | Baltimore Orioles

YEAR     LVL      AB      AVG      OBP      SLG     HR     XBH     BB      SO
2006     A+      118     .322     .430     .559      5      18     21      33

He’s still striking overy often, but there’s some improvement there over last year’s numbers. He had five doubles and a home run over the last week while walking in seven trips to the plate and only striking out six times. The Orioles seem determined to set up Nick Markakis for failure, so Reimold could emerge as the team’s top hitting prospect this year.

Kala Kaaihue
First Base | Atlanta Braves
The former catcher is now a full-time first baseman. The results are promising:

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.
YEAR     LVL      AB      AVG      OBP      SLG     HR     XBH     BB      SO
2006      A      112     .304     .451     .580      8      15     27      36

The Hawaiian slugger has demonstrated outstanding on-base skills and good power. He’s striking out a lot and is a little old for the league, so he’ll need some success after a promotion or two before fans start to really get excited. Oh, he also has a brother who is pretty good, too.

Kurt Suzuki
Catcher | Oakland Athletics
The guy who passed Landon Powell on Oakland’s depth charts last year is still hitting well:

YEAR     LVL      AB      AVG      OBP      SLG     HR     XBH     BB      SO
2006      AA     106     .321     .424     .481      3      10     17      17

Like most Oakland prospects, Suzuki knows how to get on base. His batting average is bound to drop off a little as the year progresses, but he is such a skilled contact hitter that he has a good chance at maintaining a .290 – .300 batting average and .400 on base average for Midland this year. His defense has received mixed reviews in the past, but he has thrown out a high proportion of runners and has only made one error this season.

Some highly-touted catching prospects (such as Jarrod Saltalamaccia) have gotten off to slow starts while others (such as Russ Martin and Jeff Mathis) have been promoted to the big leagues. Suzuki could join guys like Jeff Clement and George Kottaras as one of baseball’s elite catching prospects by the end of this year.

Sean Rodriguez
Shortstop | Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
Last winter, I noted that Rodriguez was one of few Angels prospects who knew how to take a walk. Well, forget all about that. Rodriguez isn’t walking much these days. Instead, he’s striking out at a Brandon Wood-like rate and showing some respectable power in the hitter-friendly California League.

YEAR     LVL      AB      AVG      OBP      SLG     HR     XBH     BB      SO
2006     A+      126     .325     .370     .508      5      12      5      36

The Angels have a lot of shortstop prospects, don’t they? Rodriguez probably won’t stick there, but he has a good arm and could make a transition to third base or the outfield next year.

Jeff Natale
Second Base | Boston Red Sox
Natale was the 978th player taken in the 2005 draft, is much smaller than the average ballplayer, and he played college ball at a relatively unknown school in Connecticut. He’s under the radar for obvious reasons, but his production is impressive. He rarely strikes out, gets on base at an outsanding rate, and has shown unexpected power:

YEAR     LVL      AB      AVG      OBP      SLG     HR     XBH     BB      SO
2006      A      119     .345     .481     .563      6      14     27      14

Natale is already 23 years old, so most prospect analysts are quick to dismiss his numbers until he faces more age-appropriate competition. Natale is in the South Atlantic League so that he can work on his defense with Greenville manager Luis Alicea, but he should get a chance to show what he can do in Wilmington or Portland later this year.

I also don’t think his performance in the South Atlantic League should be completely dismissed. I searched my database for 22- or 23-year-old middle infielders with comparable contact rates, walk rates, and isolated power (SLG-BA) against class-A pitchers. Here are the five most similar players:

Year	Player		 K%	BB%	ISOP
2005-06 Jeff Natale	 8.2%	14.9%	.218
2005	Kevin Melillo	11.7%	15.5%	.171
2004	Ian Kinsler	14.1%	9.8%	.290
1998	David Eckstein 	 8.6%	14.7%	.098
2002	Scott Hairston	15.8%	12.4%	.231
2000	Nate Espy	18.7%	18.0%	.219

In general, the comparison players seem relevant to Jeff Natale. Many of these players seem destined for productive major league careers even though they were not blessed with outstanding “tools.” David Eckstein and Ian Kinsler in particular stand out as guys who were dismissed as undersized overachievers early in their careers. I suspect Natale will join those two players in the big leagues two or three years from now. And here’s a fun fact: if Natale can earn a starting job in the big leagues, he could challenge a Craig Biggio record some day. Natale has been hit by a pitch 18 times through 80 games with Greenville.

Jake Fox
Catcher | Chicago Cubs
Some people might describe him as a designated hitter, but Fox is still working on his defense and catching five or six games each week for Daytona. He had a decent year at the plate last year and didn’t get much respect among prospect analysts. It’s going to be more difficult to ignore him this year:

YEAR     LVL      AB      AVG      OBP      SLG     HR     XBH     BB      SO
2006     A+      131     .328     .403     .618     10      18     14      29

Fox is leading the Florida State League in home runs. Daytona is a pretty cozy hitters’ park and Fox’s home/away splits are generally extreme, but half of his home runs have occurred on the road. If he stays healthy, Fox could be on the Josh Willingham track as an underrated but legitimate big league hitter.

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