The Next Wave: 21 (and a half) AAA Hitting Prospects

The turning of the calendar to June brings about the crossing of the nebulous Super 2 deadline that often keeps big time minor league prospects down a little longer than their talent necessitates.  As such we have seen an influx of prospects recently including names like Mike Moustakas, Anthony Rizzo, Dee Gordon and Jemile Weeks.  They join a host of blue chip youngsters already up including but not limited to Moustakas teammates Eric Hosmer and Danny Duffy as well as Gordon teammate Rubby de la Rosa.

Though several highly anticipated players are up, “prospect season” is really just getting going and there are a lot of potentially high-impact players who could be called up in the coming weeks to help plug the holes of a fantasy team near you.  Depending on league format and roster size, you may want to roster some of these guys, trade for them or merely put them on a watch list and hope to anticipate their call-up just right to acquire them at the lowest price possible.  Some of them are further away, but you can never predict injuries so it is best to know these names for the summer.

First off, we will look at AAA hitters which offers 21 (and a half) names to keep an eye on.

Collin Cowgill (ARI, OF) – A mid-tier prospect within the D’Backs organization pegged as a 4th OF-type, Cowgill is embarrassing pitchers during his first tour of AAA.  He has been strong all year, but it is his white-hot start in June that is garnering attention: .524/.565/.857 w/8 XBH, 2 HR, 9 RBI, 3 SB and 13 R in 42 AB at AAA-Reno.  He may well be a product of the environment, but a .372 AVG and 1.053 OPS with 19 SB (in 21 tries) are impressive anywhere.

Honorable Mention goes to teammate in Reno, Wily Mo Pena.  He’s the “half” as he is no longer a prospect at 29, but he is a longtime favorite of mine and his .341 AVG, 1.106 OPS and 18 HR could earn a trip back to majors soon so I wanted to include him.  Gerardo Parra is playing some great D in left, but they might trade the D for a bat like that.

Lonnie Chisenhall (CLE, 3B) – Cord Phelps was called up to platoon with Orlando Cabrera, who can’t hit righties at this point and it is time to do the same with Chis and Jack Hannahan.  Unlike Phelps, Chisenhall has a sharp platoon that marries perfectly with Hannahan’s.  Chisenhall’s inability to hit southpaws shouldn’t keep him in the minors when a major league solution is so readily available, especially as Cleveland’s grasp on the division continues to rapidly slip away.

Jason Kipnis (CLE, 2B) – Another strong Indians prospects who continues to impress at every stop along the minor league trail.  His .830 OPS in 58 AAA games is his lowest mark at any level in three years a professional.  While it is great that the Indians are flush with major league ready prospects, it is unfortunate that none of them are on the pitching side which was always going to be the downfall of this hot start.

Yonder Alonso (CIN, LF) – I still think a trade is the best move for him as I don’t see how he deserves a shot in Cincinnati’s leftfield as an unproven prospect when Chris Heisey is already performing well above average and should be handed the job regularly.  All the talk of how mangled Cincy’s leftfield is boggles my mind as Heisey should play against righties and Jonny Gomes against lefties.  Problem solved.

Alonso, meanwhile, should be traded to shore up other areas on the team (pitching).  If he is dealt, there is little doubt that the trading team would bring him up immediately.  He has proven all he can in AAA with an .853 OPS in 159 games.

Zack Cozart (CIN, SS) – I’m not sure there is a level of excellence with the glove that Paul Janish could realistically reach, even at shortstop, to merit putting his bat in the lineup on most nights.  He has a 44 OPS+.  44!!!  Not only that, but Cozart has a strong glove so it’s not even a major hit.  He’s in the midst of his best season as a pro (.328 AVG, .870 OPS) and seemingly cannot be worse than Janish at this dish so a call has to be imminent, right?

Juan Francisco (CIN, 3B) – He’s not really a prospect at this point because he has been up each of the last three seasons including for nine games already this year, but all three samples are tiny (a high of 55 AB) so we haven’t really seen what he can do.  He has big time power potential, but he’s also very impatient and with Scott Rolen healthy, lacks a place to play.

Devin Mesoraco (CIN, C) – He’s also blocked at the big league level, but it’s by a 35 and 30 year old tandem so neither is the long-term solution and perhaps a trade of one could be imminent (to San Francisco perhaps?) opening the door to usher in the Mesoraco era slowly.  His prospect status was dimming before an explosive 2010 season that landed him 64th on Baseball America’s Top 100 list this preseason.  He has backed it up with a .330/.412/.569 line with 8 HR and 30 XBH (out of 65 total) in 197 at-bats.  Needs a trade (of one of the incumbents) or an injury, so he’s more of a wait-&-see unless you have a minor league roster in your league.

Clint Robinson (KC, DH) – The biggest problem with Robinson is right there next to this team in the those parentheses back there.  He’s already a DH.  That is a bit of a problem on just about any team, but apart from being locked behind David Ortiz on Boston or whichever of the two catchers in Detroit is DH’ing, he is on the worst possible team to be a DH-only player.  His former AAA teammate, Eric Hosmer, has gone up and grabbed the first base job in KC, but that squeezed incumbent Billy Butler to DH leaving nowhere for last year’s Texas League Triple Crown winner to go.

He isn’t quite winning the PCL Triple Crown, but his .349 batting average, 17 home runs and 50 RBIs are all near the top of all three categories.  He has maintained a steady 17-18% strikeout rate in his five years as a pro and he has improved BB/K each (save a dip to .44 in 2009) year from 0.45 in his first year to 0.79 this year.  Despite his giant season last year and a big start to this year, he is still seen as a middling prospect at best.

The best comp I can think of based on the reports I have read is a Jack Cust-type trading some of the power and walk rate of Cust for more batting average and fewer strikeouts all the while struggling to even get major league playing time.  I know full-well you can’t overrate minor league numbers, but damn his are good.  His best bet at this point is a trade out of organization, but somewhere in the American League so he doesn’t have to play the field.  (Pretty sure I just wrote the longest write up on the lowest ceiling of all the guys listed.)

Trayvon Robinson (LAD, OF) – Robinson is a perfect example of why you have to be careful with Pacific Coast League numbers.  He has already far exceeded his 2010 home run total of nine by clubbing 13 in the very hitter-friendly confines of Albuquerque.  He has a particularly odd split so far this year hitting to a 1.224 OPS in day games, but just .791 at night.  His speed is the more bankable asset in his arsenal as the power exists, but at a more modest level than his .538 SLG so far this year suggests.  His patience seems to have regressed significantly this year, too.  After a four year rise up to 0.58 BB/K last year (up from 0.27 in 2007), he’s back down to 0.26 this year.

Mat Gamel (MIL, OF) – The former 34th ranked prospect (2009) has become something of an afterthought having failed to top 96 games played in each of the past two years, but still just 25 he remains a huge power threat with an excellent hit tool (.303/.374/.522 w/11 HR in 228 AB this year).  The problem is that he might be a 25-year old DH.  Thought to be a Ryan Braun-lite based on his prodigious power and lack of defensive ability, the places where he could be hidden on the diamond are already taken, including one spot by Braun.  Thus his big league future with the Brewers remains cloudy.  Keep him on your radar.

Caleb Gindl (MIL, OF) – I liked what I saw out of him in the Arizona Fall League, although the three game sample was tiny, but the smallish (5’9”) Gindl packs a punch, especially against righties (.838 OPS; .917 v. RHP including all 6 of his HR).  He could feasibly play any of the three OF positions without embarrassing himself, but there isn’t a natural opening anywhere on the big league team with two big bats at the corners and Carlos Gomez’s exemplary glove essentially being his only value-add.  At 23, there is no rush so he might not get a shot until late this summer, if at all in ’11.

Kirk Nieuwenhuis (NYM, OF) – Probably more of a 4th OF long-term, Nieuwenhuis could get a shot sooner than later as he performs well at AAA (.298/.403/.505; best season as a pro so far) and Jason Bay struggles to hit his weight (.208 v. 210 lbs.).  Lucas Duda was first in line as he already has MLB experience and he’s up now, but if he doesn’t better his .611 OPS in 108 career AB, Nieuwenhuis should get a look.  He does a little of everything a la someone like Chris Denorfia.

Jesus Montero (NYY, C) – He’s gotten worse month-to-month in his second tour of AAA and some have suggested that perhaps he is bored a la Hanley Ramirez back in 2005 during his second go-round in AA in the Boston system.  Montero is hitting a decent .289, but there has been no patience and remarkably underwhelming power.  I would still keep a close eye on him because of the Hanley note.  I wouldn’t be surprised if he got the call to catch a bit and/or DH and then ended up catching fire right away.

Michael Taylor (OAK, OF) – Remember him?  The former top 30 prospect took himself off the radar with a rough 2010 season, his first full one in AAA.  Injuries exacerbated things, but he just couldn’t get right at the plate.  He missed April, but he’s back now and having a bit of a resurgence with a .297/.360/.440 line in 91 AB so far.  It wouldn’t take much for him to be an improvement over some of the outfield bats in Oakland so if he sustains himself, he could be up shortly after the All-Star break.

Adrian Cardenas (OAK, IF/OF) – The long-time infielder has become more an outfielder/DH-type in 2011 which definitely cuts into his value, but he is having his best season with the bat and that is all Oakland really needs to hear to be interested.  Plus with Jemile Weeks finally called up and Scott Sizemore traded over from Detroit, second and third base might finally have solutions that can push .700 OPS (which would be light years ahead of Mark Ellis’ .533 and Kevin Kouzmanoff .615 marks).  Cardenas has always been a .300ish hitter with a great batting eye and that has continued this year with a .329 average and 25 walks against just 20 strikeouts.  Hideki Matusi and David DeJesus are severely underperforming so Cardenas, still just 23 years old, could get a shot.

Dustin Ackley (SEA, 2B) – Ackley hates the month of April.  Not sure if there was some awful girl named April that wrong him or what, but he has hit .182 in 170 at-bats during April of his first two professional seasons.  In all other months, he is hitting a combined .305 in 594 at-bats.  I saw Ackley during Arizona Fall League in November and I was thoroughly impressed with his awesomeness, but a lot of outlets don’t see him as a high-impact hitter.

I’m not a professional scout and it was a small sample, but he looked great.  He could hit to all fields, had enough pop (mid-teens home run power, but a crapton of doubles) and of course absurd on-base percentage thanks to a tremendous eye.  I don’t care how good Jack Wilson’s defense is, he has a .528 OPS and Ackley should be playing second base for the Mariners, especially since they are in sorta-contention with their pitching staff.

Alex Liddi (SEA, 3B) – Liddi is a good example of why you can’t also focus solely on the numbers of a minor leaguer.  Context is so important.  He’s a 22-year old at AAA, which isn’t Jesus Montero-young, but still pretty young and he is holding his own.  He is having his best power season since his 2009 Cal League MVP, but his 34% strikeout rate is a career-high and would be problematic at the big league level.  He is an AL-Only pickup initially if he gets the call, but he has significant potential.  They did make a significant investment in Chone Figgins and it is hard to replace him because of the contract, but at some point a team cannot eat a .190 average and .494 OPS especially if you want to be a contender.

Thomas Neal (SF, OF) – It is merely an alphabetical coincidence that these last five players are all in offensively-starved organizations and Neal could benefit from the Brandon Belt injury.  Pat Burrell and Aaron Rowand aren’t impressing at all with the bat in left and the former is terrible with the glove.  Neal has shown power before, but it went from home run to doubles power last year and has been the same this year.  He isn’t a *special* prospect, but that doesn’t mean he can’t have plenty of value as an everyday player who can give something across the board.  Think Martin Prado from last year (.307, 15 HR, 5 SB, R & RBI depending on lineup spot) with a lower batting average until he establishes himself at the bigs.

Desmond Jennings (TB, OF) – OK, Tampa Bay, enough with Sam Fuld.  It was a fun 15 minutes, but now it is time to get your best hitting prospect on the field and contributing to your lineup.  Jennings languished a bit last year in his first AAA stint dealing with nagging injuries for most of the year, but this is another example of not basing everything purely on the numbers because despite a .756 OPS Jennings was still doing a lot of stuff well last year.

He looks great so far in 2011 already popping three times as many home runs (9) as all of last year with a healthy wrist, getting on base a ton and displaying his absurd elite-level speed.  His strikeouts have ticked up to a career high 18%, but his walk rate has matched his career mark of 11%.  He is likely owned in most leagues with a  bench, but on the off-chance that he isn’t go get him now.

Brett Lawrie (TOR, 2B/3B) – Similar to Belt in San Francisco, Lawrie had fantasy owners salivating at the possibilities of what he could do at the major league level and then he got hit in the hand with a pitch.  Now Belt was already in the majors, but Lawrie was set to come up within the next day or two when it happened.  Originally they thought he would avoid the disabled list, but he hit the minor league DL just over a week ago.  He should come to the majors almost immediately after his activation and then everyone can resume drooling.

I am cautiously optimistic about his potential, as he delivers across the board talent with a .354 batting average, 15 home runs and 11 stolen bases.  But it was in the remarkably hitter-friendly environment of Las Vegas and the PCL and then of course he is still just 21 years old.  He isn’t a guarantee to come up and Ryan Braun the big leagues.  So temper your expectations and the price you are willing to pay to roster him.  Remember, everyone went nuts over Jason Heyward (with good reason as he appears to be a star in the making), but he needed 142 games to hit 18 home runs and steal 11 bases and no one had Lawrie as a better prospect.

Want a better example?  Try Lawrie’s current teammate in Vegas Travis Snider.  In 2009, he hit .337 with 14 home runs in 48 games (Lawrie’s numbers have come in 52 games) before coming up to the majors to hit .241 with nine home runs in 77 games.  That is why I cannot stress enough that you need to temper expectations with the shiny new toy and also not do something stupid like cut a perfectly productive player to roster Lawrie or any of these other prospects.  If you have a bad player or an open spot, then by all means, but don’t hurt your team by getting rid of a sure (or at least more sure) thing just for the small chance at something greater.  (OK, this was longer than the Clint Robinson capsule.)

Matt Antonelli (WAS, IF) – Remember him?  This one-time top 50 prospect started with San Diego making his major league debut at 23 years old back in 2008.  Coming into 2008 he was seen as a 5-star prospect by Baseball Prospectus’ Kevin Goldstein thanks to a great 2007 (.307/.404/.491), but that year the wheels came off as he posted a .657 OPS at AAA before playing just 60 games over the next two years missing all but one last year thanks in large part to a hand injury.

Now 26, he has battled back and he has been raking in his first 22 games at AAA in the Washington organization.  He has a .358/.422/.531 line with two home runs (eight extra base hits in all), two stolen bases, six runs scored and seven driven in.  His strong batting eye appears to be intact as he has drawn nine walks against 12 strikeouts.  The only downside in this comeback story is that the three infield positions he plays are all blocked by cornerstone pieces of the future in Ryan Zimmerman, Ian Desmond and Danny Espinosa.  The latter two are struggling a bit in various areas of their game, but at 25 and 24 years old, respectively, they are going to be given a chance as the Nats aren’t going anywhere.

In that 2008 write-up of Antonelli, Goldstein mentioned he was going to get reps in the outfield that Spring Training mostly to see if that would be a fit for the future.  Well it’s the future and that could be avenue to explore to get his bat in the lineup if he reaches the big leagues in the near future.  Of course Laynce Nix is raking (against righties) and Jayson Werth isn’t going anywhere so maybe a trade is truly the best chance.

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2 Responses to “The Next Wave: 21 (and a half) AAA Hitting Prospects”

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