Ranking the Best, Worst Minor League Seasons for Top Hitting Prospects
The hardest tool to evaluate when scouting prospects is hitting. There are so many layers that go into it, some easily quantified and others requiring a keen, veteran eye, you can get lost just looking at raw numbers.
Some players make it easy to see that they have what it takes in order to, at the very least, survive in the big leagues without embarrassing themselves. Usually these are the names you will see at the top of a prospect rankings list.
But at times, these things require more nuance and study. We are going to talk about the best of both worlds. With the 2013 minor league season over, it is a very prudent time to see which hitting prospects put their skills on full display and which ones still have work to do.
This isn't a thorough examination of the entire minor leagues, but a look at what some of the biggest/most notable names, 10 in all, did in 2013 and where they are going from here.
Note: Stats courtesy of MiLB.com unless otherwise noted.
No. 5 Worst: Mike Olt, 3B, Chicago Cubs
2013 Stats (Split Between Double-A and Triple-A)
107 G, .201/.303/.381 (75-for-373), 20 2B, 1 3B, 15 HR, 42 RBI, 55 BB, 132 K
Under normal circumstances, Mike Olt would rate much higher on this list. But his 2013 season was anything but normal. The 25-year-old missed time due to lingering eye issues caused by a faulty tear duct.
He is believed to be healthy now, but this basically turned into a lost season, and things never recovered after he was sent to the Cubs in the Matt Garza trade.
Appearing on virtually every preseason prospect list, including No. 23 on B/R lead prospect writer Mike Rosenbaum's Top 100, Olt has always been able to hit and transformed himself into a well above-average defender at third base.
Seeing Olt take batting practice at the Futures Game in 2012 was an experience because he was launching balls over the fence in center field at Kauffman Stadium, one of the biggest parks in all of baseball.
Olt has a long swing that will always give him problems against velocity but has enough bat speed, a good approach and tremendous raw power to project as an above-average offensive third baseman.
Yet now at 25 with a lost season, you have to wonder if Olt will ever be able to reach that ceiling even if he's with a new organization that can afford to give him MLB playing time in 2014 that wasn't available in Texas.
No. 5 Best: Javier Baez, SS, Chicago Cubs
2013 Stats (Split Between High-A and Double-A)
130 G, .282/.341/.578 (146-for-517), 34 2B, 4 3B, 37 HR, 111 RBI, 40 BB, 147 K, 20 SB
I didn't intend for this to turn into a Chicago Cubs extravaganza; that's just how things worked out with the first two slots on the list.
Cubs fans will surely wonder why Javier Baez isn't higher on this list. I mean, how do you argue against a 20-year-old who had 75 extra-base hits in a season and spent nearly half of the season in Double-A?
Well, as impressive as Baez's power numbers are, there are still some red flags to be concerned about. His inability to slow things down can work to his benefit but also serves as a detriment at times.
Baez is the kind of player who knows how good he is and wants to show you every single time. His bat speed, which is the best in the minors and arguably the best in all of baseball, allows him to get away with things in the minors.
The approach is still raw and good off-speed stuff is going to eat him alive. That's more of a note to eager Cubs fans who want him promoted to the big leagues right away.
I don't say all that to knock what Baez did this year because he was fantastic. Even more encouraging was the way he played in the second half, all of which was spent with Double-A Tennessee, with a .310/.363/.668 line and 17 walks in 184 at-bats.
He will get to Chicago eventually, probably as soon as the 2014 All-Star break, but don't rush him, or else he could turn into Corey Patterson 2.0.
No. 4 Worst: Billy Hamilton, OF, Cincinnati Reds
2013 Stats (Triple-A Louisville)
123 G, .256/.308/.343 (129-for-504), 18 2B, 4 3B, 6 HR, 41 RBI, 38 BB, 102 K, 75 SB
When we talk about Billy Hamilton, the first thing you think about is speed. That's also where the conversation ends when you shift the conversation to his offensive upside, because there isn't a lot else he can add.
The speed is electrifying and game-changing when it is being used, but the alarming thing about Hamilton's performance in Triple-A is that he wasn't even able to get away with just being fast to inflate his hitting numbers.
Stolen bases are always going to be there because he's so fast. But you need to have strength to drive the ball into the outfield. Hamilton doesn't have that because his frame isn't built that way. He's a slight 6'0" (at best), 160 pounds.
You would think Hamilton could use just his speed to beat out a ton of infield hits to keep the average around .280-.290 in the minors. That didn't happen, which is a big reason why the Reds haven't used him as much more than a pinch runner in September.
Hamilton's certainly made a difference for the Reds, especially in his first two appearances, but this was a season that really shined a light on just how far being a speed-only guy can carry you.
No. 4 Best: Francisco Lindor, SS, Cleveland Indians
2013 Stats (Split Between High-A and Double-A)
104 G, .303/.380/.407 (122-for-403), 22 2B, 7 3B, 2 HR, 34 RBI, 49 BB, 46 K, 25 SB
Francisco Lindor doesn't get talked about among the great hitting prospects in baseball because of his limited upside. Being 5'11", 175 pounds makes it difficult for the 19-year-old to put up huge power numbers.
But that doesn't mean Lindor is an empty vessel with the bat. He's much better than Hamilton offensively because he has more raw strength, much better bat speed and control, and the approach of a seasoned MLB veteran.
Think about this: As a 19-year-old starting the season in High-A, Lindor was the second-youngest player in the Carolina League. He put up a .306/.373/.410 line in 81 games before being promoted to Double-A, where the youngest player in the Eastern League at the start of the season was 364 days younger than him.
The point being that Lindor's ceiling may not be as high as, say, someone like Javier Baez. But his floor is much, much higher because his baseball skills are already close to being fully formed at 19. He also has some pop in his bat to hit 25-30 doubles and 10-12 home runs.
It also helps Lindor's case that he's guaranteed to stay at shortstop and play it at a high level.
No. 3 Worst: Kaleb Cowart, 3B, Los Angeles Angels
2013 Stats (Double-A Arkansas)
132 G, .221/.279/.301 (110-for-498), 20 2B, 1 3B, 6 HR, 42 RBI, 38 BB, 124 K, 14 SB
The Angels entered the 2013 season with one of the worst systems in all of baseball, but their was a bright spot in third baseman Kaleb Cowart coming off an impressive .276/.358/.452 line between Low-A and High-A as a 20-year-old.
Yet as the saying so often goes for minor leaguers, the first big test they will face is the jump from A-ball to Double-A. That is where you will see better off-speed stuff and pitchers with some semblance of command, so it is on you to adjust your style to hit well.
The biggest problem for Cowart might be his insistence on switch-hitting. He was respectable as a right-hander this year, putting up a .279/.328/.377 line in 122 at-bats. It's not a great line but certainly better than the .202/.263/.277 line as a lefty in 376 at-bats.
Cowart needs to figure out how to become a better hitter from the left side soon, or else the Angels should convince him to swing strictly from the right side because they really need him to get back to his 2012 form and look like the third baseman of the future.
No. 3 Best: Xander Bogaerts, SS, Boston Red Sox
2013 Stats (Split Between Double-A and Triple-A)
116 G, .297/.388/.477 (132-for-444), 23 2B, 6 3B, 15 HR, 67 RBI, 63 BB, 95 K, 7 SB
After St. Louis' Oscar Taveras went down with a foot injury, Xander Bogaerts immediately vaulted into the position of top hitting prospect in the minors. His natural feel and ability in the batter's box is incredible, especially for a 20-year-old.
Go back to the Futures Game and his first two at-bats. Instead of trying to sell out everything to showcase his power, which is magical, Bogaerts took two good pitches right back up the middle for singles.
To me, that is the kind of thing I want to see from a great hitter. I know that a lot of these players can crush the ball, but what separates the great hitters from great power guys is their willingness to work with what the pitcher gives them. You aren't always going to have a mistake to hit.
Bogaerts has the best hitting profile among elite prospects or is, at least, 1A alongside Taveras. He has tremendous bat speed and has improved his control in the zone to cut down on strikeouts. The approach keeps getting better, leading to more walks and more frequent hard contact.
It's no wonder the Red Sox called Bogaerts up at the end of August and why he could be a big part of their impending playoff run.
No. 2 Worst: Courtney Hawkins, OF, Chicago White Sox
2013 Stats (High-A Winston-Salem)
103 G, .178/.289/.384 (68-for-383), 16 2B, 3 3B, 19 HR, 62 RBI, 29 K, 160 K, 10 SB
One of the most unique stories of the year is the season that Courtney Hawkins, one of the few draftees in a depleted White Sox system with a high ceiling, had at High-A Winston-Salem.
On numbers alone, Hawkins' season is a disaster in every way. How do you put a positive spin on .178/.289/.384 when there really wasn't a serious injury that derailed him?
I am not going to completely absolve Hawkins, which should be obvious given that I have him No. 3 on the worst list, because at some point you want to see a player find a way to make some adjustments.
However, a lot of the blame here also rests with the White Sox. They pushed their 19-year-old 2012 first-round pick to High-A well before he was ready on the basis of 16 games in Low-A last year where he hit .308/.352/.631 and five games with Winston-Salem.
No one figured Hawkins was going to be ready for this level of competition yet because he was coming out of a Texas high school with a lot of tools, most notably the power, but was a very raw hitter with a long swing and lack of pitch recognition.
You don't put that kind of player in High-A for his first full-season test. It became apparent very early that Hawkins wasn't ready for this challenge, but to his credit, he was able to stick it out and did still hit 19 home runs.
No. 2 Best: Byron Buxton, OF, Minnesota Twins
2013 Stats (Split Between Low-A and High-A)
125 G, .334/.424/.520 (163-for-488), 19 2B, 18 3B, 12 HR, 77 RBI, 76 BB, 105 K, 55 SB
Full disclosure: Nos. 1 and 2 in the best category are separated by the slimmest of margins. The only reason Byron Buxton slots in here is because in my live viewings of the two players, the No. 1 hitter showed me a little more.
Throwing that out there, I can now ask, what do you say negative about Buxton? Everything you want to see from a 19-year-old with five-tool potential, you saw in grand fashion this year.
Everything scouts and evaluators thought Buxton could be coming into the 2012 draft he is—and then some. No one saw an explosion like this coming in his first full season. Do you want speed? Do you like power? Are you a fan of hitting? Who wants a center fielder with plus-plus range and a plus throwing arm?
Since we are just focusing on the hitting, that last question doesn't really apply. But Buxton is incredible. His off-the-charts ceiling is closer to being actualized than anyone could have predicted.
The scariest part is that Buxton could still get better because he's going to turn some of those doubles and triples into home runs. It also helps his case that the Midwest and Florida State Leagues favor pitchers.
Buxton's the kind of athlete you hated when you were in high school because everything looks so easy for him. There's no effort in that swing, yet the ball jumps off the bat. He's doesn't turn 20 until December and could be in Minnesota by the end of 2014.
No. 1 Worst: Trevor Story, SS, Colorado Rockies
2013 Stats (High-A Modesto)
130 G, .233/.305/.394 (116-for-497), 34 2B, 5 3B, 12 HR, 65 RBI, 45 BB, 183 K, 23 SB
There was an argument to be made before the season that Trevor Story was the best prospect in Colorado's system, one that my B/R prospect colleague Mike Rosenbaum made.
After all, what wasn't to like about a then-19-year-old shortstop who hit .277/.367/.505 with 43 doubles, 18 home runs and 15 stolen bases? Everyone is going to gush about that player, for obvious reasons.
But then you notice Story put up those numbers playing half of his games in Asheville, which is one of the smallest professional parks you will ever see. It's 325 feet down the left field line, 373 to center and 297 down the right field line, per LittleBallParks.com.
Then we fast-forward to 2013, where Story moves to the hitter-friendly California League (though not nearly as friendly as Asheville), and we see that he has all shorts of problems with the bat. He struck out 62 more times this year than he did in 2012, drew 15 fewer walks and hit six fewer home runs in eight more games.
Story did have some encouraging signs after a dreadful first half. He put together a solid .260/.340/.458 line in the second half, though I would caution getting excited because he still struck out 91 times in 253 at-bats.
I bought into the hype after 2012 because I saw enough raw tools that could translate to any field. The swing is pretty and there's bat speed to generate power. His 6'1" frame can still support more bulk than the 175 pounds he is listed at, and there's enough athleticism that he could stick at shortstop.
Unfortunately, 2013 was a huge setback in every way and leaves serious doubt about what kind of hitter he's going to become.
No. 1 Best: Carlos Correa, SS, Houston Astros
2013 Stats (Low-A Quad Cities)
117 G, .320/.405/.467 (144-for-450), 33 2B, 3 3B, 9 HR, 86 RBI, 58 BB, 83 K, 10 SB
Remember, we are talking about strictly the offensive performances I loved/loathed the most. I wouldn't put Carlos Correa at the top of a prospect ranking, nor would he be in my top five at the moment.
But looking strictly at what Correa, the No. 1 pick in the 2012 draft, did this season as an 18-year-old in the pitcher-friendly Midwest League, he was the most impressive hitting prospect I saw all year. I could be biased, living in the Midwest and seeing a lot more of this league than any other, but remember, I also saw Buxton too.
What struck me about Correa's hitting ability is the way he approaches an at-bat. A lot of players, especially 18-year-olds, are going to be swinging from their heels trying to show off for the cameras and justify being such a high draft pick.
Correa had one of the best at-bats I saw all year in the Midwest League All-Star Game. He was down in the count 1-2 and the opposing pitcher threw a very good breaking ball just off the outside part of the plate that would have been a borderline strike. He stuck his bat head out and punched it into right field for a single.
It wasn't a glamorous hit or one that most people will put a lot of thought into, but it showed how confident Correa is in his hitting ability.
On top of that, Correa had an .872 OPS with 45 extra-base hits as an 18-year-old. He will grow into more home run power as his body fills out, so a lot of those doubles will turn into homers over the next two years.
Buxton grabbed all the headlines among 2012 draftees—and deservedly so. He's a special, rare talent that can win MVP awards and be a superstar for years to come. But Correa will also be an impact player who plays in a lot of All-Star games and generates some MVP votes.
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