With the minor league season winding down, prospects have about four more weeks to make a lasting impression on their organization. Hitters in the upper minors still have a chance to make an impact down the stretch, whether it's as a September call-up or possibly even in the playoffs if they get the call in August—players added after August 31st do not have playoff eligibility.
Prospects could also get bumped up a minor league level so their organizations can gauge their readiness prior to next season. It's not uncommon for even the best prospects to struggle upon arriving at a higher level. There is normally an adjustment period.
A pair of top shortstop prospects, Marcus Semien of the White Sox and Corey Seager of the Dodgers, were recently promoted—Semien from Double-A to Triple-A; Seager from Low-A to Hi-A—to levels where they'll likely remain at the start of the 2014 season. But they'll already have a month of games under their belt at the level.
Here are eight hitting prospects—two from each full-season level—that are on the rise or struggling to prove they belong in professional baseball.
Jaff Decker, OF, San Diego Padres
Season stats: .293 BA, 9 HR, 38 RBI, 23 2B, 53 BB, 84 K, 4 SB in 99 games
Since two brief big league stints in June, Decker has been on fire in Triple-A. The 23-year-old is hitting .352 since July 1st with three homers and 11 doubles in 29 games.
He's almost certain to get a September call-up, possibly sooner if the team were to deal away pinch-hitting specialist Mark Kotsay in August or if injury-prone Carlos Quentin lands on the disabled list. While his future appears to be limited to a fourth outfielder's role, he could get a chance to prove he can be more if the Padres are well out of the race and Quentin's knees continue to keep him out of the lineup.
Tim Wheeler, OF, Colorado Rockies
Season stats: .260 BA, 3 HR, 33 RBI, 11 2B, 3 3B, 25 BB, 71 K, 11 SB in 81 games
Considering the Rockies have used 10 different players in the outfield, it's surprising that Tim Wheeler isn't among that group. That is, until you realize how badly he's struggled since a breakout season in Double-A two seasons ago (.900 OPS, 33 HR, 21 SB in 138 games).
A fractured hamate bone suffered last April was thought to have contributed to his power decline last season (2 HR in 92 Triple-A games). But not only hasn't it returned in 2013 (3 HR in 81 Triple-A games), his overall numbers are also on the decline (.673 OPS; .768 OPS in 2012).
Mark Canha, 1B, Miami Marlins
Season stats: .272 BA, 11 HR, 45 RBI, 22 2B, 44 BB, 84 K, 5 SB in 103 games
The Marlins have been aggressive promoting prospects from Double-A (Derek Dietrich, Jake Marisnick, Marcell Ozuna, Christian Yelich), which has to be good news for first baseman Mark Canha, who is making quite an impression with his recent performance.
In his last 30 games, the 24-year-old is hitting .367 with five homers, six doubles and 13 walks. Canha has an .895 OPS against left-handed pitching, and he's also played third base, outfield and even one game at catcher during his minor league career, making him a strong candidate for a bench role in 2014. He could get an audition in September.
Leon Landry, OF, Seattle Mariners
Season stats: .209 BA, 6 HR, 29 RBI, 12 2B, 21 BB, 63 K, 20 SB in 90 games
When the Mariners acquired Landry from the Dodgers at last year's trade deadline, the switch-hitting center fielder was tearing up the High-A California League with a .917 OPS and 20 stolen bases in 80 games. His Cal League hot streak continued as he finished with a .385 batting average and five homers in 24 games with Seattle's affiliate.
A move to Double-A in 2013, however, would be the real test in determining if the 24-year-old Landry was being underrated as a fringe prospect. It turns out the scouting reports probably weren't far off. He's getting overmatched in his Texas League debut and there have been no signs of progress as he has just 11 hits in his last 88 at-bats.
Jonathan Rodriguez, 1B, St. Louis Cardinals
Season stats: .304 BA, 14 HR, 64 RBI, 31 2B, 41 BB, 81 K, 18 SB in 100 games
Twenty-four-year-old first basemen playing in A-ball aren't guys you can typically count on getting to the big leagues. If they don't put up big numbers, however, they'll likely find themselves out of the game in no time. So what Jonathan Rodriguez is doing is ensuring another year in pro ball and a chance to prove himself in the upper minors.
In his last 30 games, Rodriguez is hitting .383 with nine homers and 34 runs batted in with 15 walks and 17 strikeouts. He'll be in Double-A soon enough because of his bat. I'm also guessing the Cardinals will want to test his versatility to see if he can be a future bench player in the big leagues. He's played third base and the corner outfield spots during his minor league career.
Courtney Hawkins, OF, Chicago White Sox
Season stats: .190 BA, 18 HR, 59 RBI, 13 2B, 21 BB, 132 K, 5 SB in 78 games)
The 13th overall pick in last year's draft, Hawkins was impressive in his late-season stint between rookie level Bristol (.716 OPS in 38 games), Low-A Kannapolis (.983 OPS in 16 games) and High-A Winston-Salem (5-for-17, HR, 2 2B). The Sox were aggressive with the 18-year-old, who had just graduated from high school, and he was up to the challenge.
Now at age 19, he's still much younger than his competition and he's struggled to adjust in his first full season of pro ball. Aside from his ability to frequently hit the ball out of the park (18 HR in 78 games), Hawkins' lack of plate discipline (21 BB, 132 K) shows that he's probably not quite ready to continue climbing the ladder to the big leagues.
Michael Reed, OF, Milwaukee Brewers
Season stats: .311 BA, HR, 35 RBI, 21 2B, 11 3B, 52 BB, 89 K, 22 SB in 95 games
With a struggling big league team and a farm system considered to be one of the worst in baseball, the Brewers will take any bright spots they can get. And Reed, the team's fifth-round draft pick in 2011, is one of those.
The 20-year-old is considered a "tweener" because of his lack of power and corner outfield profile, but it's hard to not get excited about the season he's having with Low-A Wisconsin. Reed has seven multi-hit games in his last nine starts to boost his average to .311 on the season.
Jose Vinicio, SS, Boston Red Sox
Season stats: .218 BA, HR, 25 RBI, 4 2B, 12 BB, 89 K, 20 SB in 91 games
The Sox knew Vinicio had a lot of catching up to do offensively before he could become a legitimate shortstop prospect. While the skills are there, especially on defense, he's showing that his bat is still nowhere close.
After posting a .691 OPS in Low-A last season, the plan was to have him repeat the level and hopefully show some improvement at the plate before a move to High-A. But he's gone backwards.
In his last 28 games, the 20-year-old is hitting .220 with three extra-base hits, one walk and 29 strikeouts. The question is no longer whether he's ready for High-A. It's whether he needs to be demoted back to short-season ball.