Prospects: Hitters for 2009

With the September callups now relegated to the archives, it's time to look forward to 2009. While last week's American League and National League columns covered many prospects and their potential for value both in '08 and '09, there are still a number of prospects out there who weren't called up and are of intrigue for next year. I'll cover the hitters here today, then look at a grouping of pitchers later in the week. The season will be capped by a review of my Rookie of the Year predictions from back in April.

Position Players to Watch for 2009

Julio Borbon - OF Rangers - A supplemental first rounder in the 2007 draft out of the University of Tennessee, Borbon had a brief debut after signing and then jumped right to High-A to start 2008. He ended up splitting the year between High-A and Double-A, playing reasonably well for both clubs and finishing with an overall line of .321/.362/.425 and a 62/29 K/BB. Fantasy leaguers will take the most notice of his 53 steals in 71 attempts (75%), and Borbon's game looks like your prototypical old school leadoff type.

A good defender in center field, Borbon could make his way into the Rangers' outfield midway through 2009. He's likely as good as he's going to get, so a brief stint at Triple-A should be enough final preparation for the majors. Borbon supplies nothing but an empty batting average at the plate, and his overall production closely resembles that of Juan Pierre. Like Pierre, he'll have to maintain a high BABIP, while keeping his strikeouts under control, by consistently pounding the ball into the ground to have value. However, I think he's got a good shot at doing so. Borbon profiles best as a good fourth outfielder, but Josh Hamilton's defense is best suited for a corner outfield spot and I thus expect the Rangers will give Borbon a starting gig in the relatively near future.

Recommendation: A must claim once he has a full-time job. A part-time one could open first, making him a potentially undervalued acquisition.

Wes Hodges - 3B Indians - A second round pick out of Georgia Tech in 2006, Hodges has put up solid back-to-back seasons for the Tribe. The 6'2", 180-pound right-hander hit .288/.367/.473 for High-A Kingston last year, then put up a .290/.354/.466 mark for Double-A Akron this season. Hodges doesn't have much upside as a hitter, but his quick line drive stroke and above average plate discipline make one confident he'll hit for a high average. Power is likely to come in the form of doubles, with 15-20 homer power during a standard year.

With Andy Marte looking like less and less of a long-term option, the Indians could be looking for some competition at third base if Marte fails to show improvement early next season. A free agent signing or a trade this winter is possible, but the Indians are on a tight budget and likely prefer to give him one more shot. Hodges will open the season at Triple-A and will be that fallback option. He's a reasonable bet to have some AL-only league value next season as a result, though expectations should be kept modest.

Recommendation: Worth watching in AL-only leagues for signs of an opportunity.

Luke Hughes - 3B/2B Twins - One of the breakout players of the season, Hughes went from relative obscurity to a player who has a shot at a starting job in the majors. Hughes' career-high OPS up until this season was 794, but he exploded in a tough hitters' park at Double-A New Britain with a .319/.385/.551 mark in 70 games played to start the 2008 campaign. His 70/28 K/BB in 70 games was nothing special and a .380 BABIP was doing a lot of the work, but Hughes 15 doubles and 15 homers were impressive. A promotion to Triple-A Rochester followed, with Hughes' batting average dipping to .283. He also hit only seven doubles and three homers in 106 at-bats, good for a .283/.325/.453 line.

Hughes' average isn't going to remain near .319, but I expect the now 24-year-old's power breakout was for real. I see him as a potential .270 hitter with 20 homers if things break right. He's played primarily third base in the minors, and since he's played it poorly the club has also tried him at second. None of Alexi Casilla, Nick Punto, or Brian Buscher is going to hold back a good prospect, but Hughes isn't a lock to be even an average major leaguer and I suspect he'll need an injury or some very poor performances from his competition to garner much playing time. The Twins will have a longer leash with Casilla than the other above players, so Hughes' best bet is likely third base.

Recommendation: Worth watching in AL-only leagues for signs of an opportunity.

Austin Jackson - OF Yankees - A talented basketball player who was more tools than baseball player coming out of high school, Jackson was drafted in the eighth round of the 2005 draft and then given a record (at that time, for that round) $800,000 bonus. His early career production was what one would expect out of a raw player such as Jackson, but then things came together for him in the second half of 2007. Promoted to High-A Tampa despite a 710 OPS in Single-A, Jackson exploded with a .345/.398/.566 mark that included 31 extra-base hits in 67 games. His K/BB was also reasonable at 48/22, though his plate discipline was still a work in progress. The breakout was credited to improvements in Jackson's swing, particularly that it was quicker and more balanced. However, since it was only over 67 games, more needed to be shown.

The 21-year-old was moved up to Double-A Trenton to begin 2008, and his production predictably tailed off. He ended the year with a solid .285/.354/.419 line that included 33 doubles and nine homers. His K/BB ratio in April was the best of his career at 21/16, but it regressed to 61/37 from May to July and then evaporated to the tune of 30 strikeouts against just three walks in August. There was no clear progression as the season went on this year, but instead simply flashes of talent.

Jackson was just 21 and in Double-A, so his performance is still encouraging. That said, he's not an elite prospect yet, but a solidly above average one who has star and bust potential. The Yankees still view him as their center fielder of the future, but many fans' previous expectations of him taking over in 2009 are unlikely. Maybe he'll get hot to start next year and the Yankees will eventually give him a shot, and the lack of quality alternatives ahead of Jackson certainly helps his cause. However, the odds are that he won't be ready for the majors until 2010.

Recommendation: Keep stashed away for 2010.

Matt LaPorta - 1B Indians - One of the best hitters in the 2007 draft, LaPorta jumped from Single-A to Double-A to begin the 2008 campaign. He didn't disappoint by batting .288/.402/.576 with 20 homers and a 63/45 K/BB in 84 games. LaPorta was then sent to the Indians in the C.C. Sabathia trade, and he surprisingly struggled after joining their Double-A affiliate in Akron. It was only 14 games, and then LaPorta was off to the Olympics. He struggled with Team USA, though that's hardly something to be looked down upon considering the tough competition they were facing.

Despite the late-season struggles, LaPorta remains one of the game's top power prospects. He'll be limited to first base, but he's still an elite prospect thanks to his game-changing bat. I expect he'll move up to Triple-A to start 2009, then join the Indians in May or June. Ryan Garko's presence shouldn't hold anyone back, and an injury could also open up an opportunity. Given his advanced discipline, experience, and top-notch power, I expect LaPorta will translate quickly. I'd go as far as to stash him on my bench in deeper AL-only one-year leagues.

Recommendation: Stash away in all AL-only leagues next spring; mixed leaguers will want to monitor his progress and an potential opportunity.

Andrew McCutchen - OF Pirates - The 11th overall pick in 2005, McCutchen had a disappointing 2007 campaign at Double-A. However, a strong 17-game finish at Triple-A convinced the Pirates to move him up to begin the 2008 campaign. Still just 21 years old, McCutchen got off to a hot start with nine doubles, five homers, and a 14/14 K/BB in April. His average was just .279, but he had hit just 38 extra-base hits in all of 2007 and his plate discipline had yet to look like a strength. Unfortunately, McCutchen's 2008 campaign tailed off from there; he hit just 24 extra-base hits the rest of the year, his average remained a modest .283 and his stolen base percentage of 64% (34-for-53) was poor.

McCutchen did show progress in recognizing pitches as his 87/68 mark was his best since Rookie ball. Combine that with the fact that McCutchen won't turn 22 until October, and he's still a very good position prospect. However, like with Jackson, expecting fantasy value in 2009 is asking too much. Maybe he'll flip the switch and turn into a high-average leadoff hitter with above average power, but it's more likely that he spends another year in Triple-A and gets a late audition with the big club. That he wasn't called up to the majors this September shows that the Pirates don't have him in their immediate plans.

Recommendation: Watch for a breakout in Triple-A, but keep in plans for 2010.

Colby Rasmus - OF Cardinals - I was very high on Rasmus entering the year and thought he had as good a chance of supplying 2009 value as Jay Bruce did. Unfortunately it didn't turn out that way, as Rasmus posted sub-700 OPSs in April and May for Triple-A Memphis before catching fire with a .333/.431/.535 mark in July. He went back to struggling for 24 at-bats in early July and then missed most of the rest of the season with a sprained knee. While Rasmus' early season struggles were disappointing, I'm not that worried about them long-term. He eventually bounced back and it seemed more than anything to be just a prolonged slump. Rasmus is still the same player who had 69 extra-base hits with a 108/70 K/BB in 2007 and he still has the same powerful, lofty swing that could turn him into the second coming of Jim Edmonds. He remains an elite prospect.

The Cardinals are suddenly awash with corner outfield options thanks to the breakout of Ryan Ludwick and a solid season from Skip Schumaker. Chris Duncan will also be in the mix and is a good candidate for a rebound assuming his back is right, so Rasmus will have to earn his way into the lineup. Perhaps an injury will open something up, but Rasmus is still just 22 and a full season in Triple-A wouldn't be a bad thing. The most likely scenario is that he debuts with the big club some time in August, but he's too talented not to monitor.

Recommendation: Keep stashed away for 2010, but monitor for an opportunity in 2009.

Nolan Reimold - OF Orioles - A 2005 second round pick out of Bowling Green, Reimold played in just 59 games during 2007 due to a strained oblique. Most of those were at Double-A, and he finished the year strong with eight homers in August and then six more in the Arizona Fall League. The Orioles started Reimold back at Double-A Bowie to begin 2008, and surprisingly kept him there all year despite a solid .284/.367/.501 line that included 29 doubles and 25 homers in 507 at-bats. Also of note was that Reimold struck out just 82 times, or just 14% of his plate appearances. He had been at over 20% in each of his previous minor league stops.

In part due to last year's strained oblique and in part due to the Orioles' lack of aggressiveness, Reimold is already 24 and has yet to play in Triple-A. He was certainly qualified for a mid-season promotion and I fully believe he would have succeeded there, so I'm not too worried about it. Reimold will certainly begin 2009 in Triple-A, and likely be the first bat promoted to the majors when one is needed. Nick Markakis, Luke Scott, and Adam Jones are locked into starting gigs for the long-term, but first base has an opening for 2009 and Aubrey Huff will depart either this off-season, at the trading deadline, or next winter. Maybe Luis Montanez will take one of the open spots and I have a feeling the Orioles will make big bids on both Mark Teixeira and Adam Dunn, but Reimold is a good bet to find a starting gig at some point in 2009. A potential .280 hitter with 25-homer power, he'll be worth a claim in AL-only leagues one a job opens up.

Recommendation: Worth watching in AL-only leagues for signs of an opportunity.

Gaby Sanchez - 1B Marlins - A 6'2", 225-pound right-hander who dominated the low minors, Sanchez had more trouble with High-A pitching in 2007. His .279 average and nine homers were both disappointing, but he was playing in the Florida State League and his 40 doubles were a positive sign. Moved up to Double-A Carolina for 2008, Sanchez reestablished himself as a top prospect with a .314/.404/.513 mark that included a fantastic 70/69 K/BB. That line included 42 doubles and 17 homers, and he also stole 17 bases in 25 attempts (68%). Sanchez turned 25 in September, so his production has to be discounted somewhat. However, scouts have always liked his potential and injuries and a suspension his junior year in college had more to do with his current assignment than anything else.

With Mike Jacobs and Jorge Cantu just two of a host of Marlins due for pay raises this winter, I expect at least one of them will be traded before the winter is out. The club will then give Dallas McPherson and Sanchez a look in the spring. Even if Sanchez doesn't win the job then, he'll head to Triple-A and be first in line to take it if McPherson struggles. Given Sanchez's advanced age and the presence of one of the game's best hitting prospects in Logan Morrison behind him, the Marlins need to find out what they have now. I suspect Sanchez will end up getting a lengthy look as a result, and his high average and solid power potential make him a recommended target in NL-only leagues.

Recommendation: Watch closely next spring in NL-only leagues; monitor for opportunity thereafter.

Jordan Schafer - OF Braves - A dark-horse candidate for 2008 value entering the season, Schafer played in just four contests before being suspended 50 games for using human growth hormone. He was inconsistent and showed decreased power after returning, but got hot with six homers and 16 extra-base hits in August to finish with a .269/.378/.471 mark with an 88/49 K/BB in 297 at-bats for Double-A Mississippi.

The question with Schafer becomes how much the human growth hormone mattered, if at all. Studies are inconclusive, but if so many players are taking it than one would assume it has some value. His late power surge is a strong indicator that he's still the same prospect he was before the suspension. If that's the case, Schafer is a potential 20-25 homer threat from center field who will add plenty of walks and 20 steals annually. He's probably only a .260-.270 hitter, but both the Braves and fantasy leaguers will live with it given everything else he offers. Schafer will likely start the year back at Double-A, with the Braves either going with youngster Josh Anderson in center or signing a stop-gap veteran this winter. An expensive long-term veteran seems unlikely, so expect Schafer to push aside Anderson or the veteran during the middle of next season.

Recommendation: Take a flier on if he has a strong spring and isn't blocked by a veteran. Otherwise, monitor closely for a big league opportunity.

Brett Wallace - 3B Cardinals - Despite being one of, if not the, most advanced bats from the 2008 draft class, it's still surprising to see Wallace's presence on this list. I raved about the former Arizona State stud in this year's draft review column, ranking him the tenth best fantasy prospect. I gave Wallace the clich‚d but incredibly complimentary 'pure hitter' tag, and called him a future .290-25HR type of player. I expressed some doubts about his homer power with wood due to a poor showing with Team USA and a favorable hitting environment in college, but I was confident in his ability to hit for average, draw walks, and smack doubles.

Wallace has had the best debut of anyone from the 2008 draft class, performing well against Single-A pitching for Quad Cities with a .327/.418/.490 line in 41 games. A late season promotion to Double-A ensued, and Wallace looked even better with a .367/.456/.653 mark that includes five doubles and three homers in 49 at-bats. Wallace hasn't been striking out much with just 39 whiffs, but his 19 walks in 202 at-bats is lower than expected. Still, it's hardly something to worry about, especially considering how well he's doing when swinging the bat.

While Wallace is progressing quickly, the Cardinals don't have a place to play him. Albert Pujols is obviously entrenched at first, and Troy Glaus has another year left on his contract at third. There's a small chance the Cardinals could do something radical and trade Glaus, using the savings to invest in other areas, but it's certainly a long shot. The thought of Wallace in the outfield is a scary one and more seasoning is probably a good idea, so he'll have to wait. That said, Glaus is far from a sure thing to stay healthy and Pujols is going to undergo Tommy John surgery this winter, and Wallace will be next in line should a spot open up. Since he could be a fantasy starter immediately, Wallace will need to be monitored despite the lack of a clear path to a starting gig.

Recommendation: Claim immediately if a job opens up.

Matt Wieters - C Orioles - The fifth pick in last year's draft, Wieters utterly dominated the minors this season. He hit .345/.448/.576 in High-A, then .365/.460/.625 in Double-A. His OPS versus lefties was 1186, versus righties it was 998. His home/road splits are almost identical, he hit equally well with runners on base, and his OPS was over 1000 in every month except one (a 938 in June). Overall he ended up with a .355/.454/.600 line that included 22 doubles, 27 homers, and a 76/82 K/BB in 437 at-bats. Perhaps as impressive as the raw performance was Wieters' consistent production in all types of settings, and he's now the top prospect in baseball as a result.

It's always insane to compare a minor leaguer with zero at-bats even in Triple-A to successful big leaguers, and it's downright blasphemous to compare them to stars or Hall of Famers. That said, Wieters' statistical profile is quite similar to a standard Mike Piazza season, right down to the remarkably high average for a catcher and incredible K/BB ratio. It's too much to expect that kind of production, but Wieters has that type of ceiling and is among the favorites to be called the best catcher in baseball from the moment he is anointed a big league starter.

The presence of Ramon Hernandez, a free agent after 2009, clouds things in the short-term, but he's a serious trade candidate this winter or next trade deadline. How Wieters does this spring could affect that decision, but either way he'll take over at some point in 2009. That Wieters isn't already on the 40-man roster is the reason he wasn't promoted this September, but the Orioles certainly could have found room if they wanted to. Since they didn't, it seems more likely they'll delay Wieters' service time and call him up mid-season.

Recommendation: Treat him as a top 10 catcher the moment he has a starting job. He'll also be worth stashing away in redraft leagues even if he doesn't open the season in the majors.

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