I’m about as optimistic as it gets when it comes to the minor league system of the Chicago White Sox, which is to say I think it may not necessarily be the worst system in baseball. Still, though, there’s absolutely no arguing that even after the acquisition of several new faces in the offseason, it isn’t a particularly inspiring bunch.
I wrote up the White Sox system yesterday, and in that piece, I said the top three outfielders in the system were Trayce Thompson (the consensus top outfielder in the system), Keenyn Walker (the 47th pick in 2011), and Tyler Kuhn (a 25-year-old utility player who hit .333 in the upper minors).
Kuhn almost never shows up on prospect lists. Neither do a number of the guys I put in the “Best of the Rest” section of that writeup. And yet they all snuck onto the list ahead of a player that still intrigues many–former first-round pick Jared Mitchell. My esteemed colleague here at S2S, Wally Fish, has told me he believes Mitchell will be a breakout player in 2012. Why don’t I believe in the toolsy outfielder?
Well, Jared Mitchell strikes out a lot. In fact, that’s an understatement. He struck out 33.8% of the time in 2011–183 times in 129 games. Yikes.
It’s not like he brought a whole lot else to the table, either. He walked 52 times and cranked 31 doubles, but hit just nine homers and stole 14 bases, hardly espousing the power-speed dynamo he was supposed to be when he was picked 23rd overall in 2009.
Of course, Mitchell has an excuse. He had a traumatic ankle injury that kept him out for all of 2010, and was then dropped straight into the Carolina League for 2011, having never played a game in full-season ball.
So, Mitchell’s backers say, just playing in 129 games was a success. He also was apparently instructed to work on his batting eye, which led to a lot of deep counts and strikeouts. See, there’s context!
It’s not impossible to overcome a lot of strikeouts in High-A. Paul Goldschmidt struck out 161 times in 138 games there last year; the next year, he crushed Double-A and showed well in the big leagues. Goldchmidt, though, had nearly double the Isolated Power, and his strikeout percentage was a full seven percent lower than Mitchell’s.
In order to get a decent feel for the possibility of Mitchell turning into anything, I looked at all players from 2006-2011 who struck out at least 30% of the time in High-A (250 at-bats) at age 22 or older who had an ISO under .200. There were 29 such players, including some that were regarded as bigtime prospects at one point, like B.J. Szymanski and Tim Battle. Of the 29, only Cole Garner has made it to the majors (and that was for a token appearance in 2011), and the careers of most of them are already over or near-over. However you slice it, players that put up these numbers face long odds.
As far as the context goes for Mitchell, two things:
1) He played in the 2010 Arizona Fall League, which indicated he was healthy enough to play half a year before the 2011 season started. By making it through 129 games, he also showed that he wasn’t hurt. That means his struggles are largely due to performance.
2) If he was instructed to work deep counts and take pitches, it seems odd that his walk rate was significantly lower than the ridiculous 16.5% walk rate he put up in 2009. And his strikeout rate was 28.8% that year. Rather than his Ks being a casualty of being shoehorned into a new approach, it seems that they’re just a byproduct of the same approach he was comfortable using in 2009.
To put Mitchell’s possibilities in perspective, take Yankees prospect Cody Johnson, himself a former first-round pick. Johnson has true 80-grade power, such that when he first was in High-A, he broke the Myrtle Beach record for homers in a season in July. Johnson, however, also struck out 34.7% of the time–a rate very similar to what Mitchell did in 2011. Except Johnson was two years younger. In fact, he’s just a few weeks older Mitchell now, two years later. So Mitchell is faster and a better defender, but Johnson has more power.
In Johnson’s case, even though he was much younger and had a power advantage, he simply couldn’t figure out Double-A. In parts of two seasons there, he struck out over 43% (!) of the time, eventually getting traded from the Braves to the Yankees for basically nothing. He ended the 2011 season back in High-A, where he put up an absurd .514 (!!) BABIP in 39 games but continued to strike out at a ridiculous pace.
So there you have it. Johnson was two years younger and far better (and in the toughest hitting environment in the CL, whereas Mitchell was in the easiest) than Mitchell, and the jump to even Double-A was too much for him.
Yes, Mitchell’s probably more talented than the average extremely-strikeout-prone 22-year-old. But everyone has a reason for their struggles. Back when I wrote for Scout.com and got to read all sorts of quotes from minor league coaches about prospects, I realized that most of the time the “context” they add just serves to inflate prospect status, and it’s difficult to differentiate the wisdom from the spin and hyperbole. Every prospect in the minors is working on something, and every prospect has a reason why the numbers aren’t reflecting his “true” ability. While Mitchell may have more of a valid excuse than other prospects with his injury and skipping Low-A, I just don’t see enough in his profile to believe that he’s going to come anywhere close to digging himself out of this hole.
The odds are simply too high. Injuries that linger for 18 months don’t suddenly heal, and strikeout problems of this magnitude that persist for an entire season (and perhaps more damningly, an entire career) don’t suddenly vanish. At this point, I’d be very, very surprised if Mitchell has a more significant career than Dewayne Wise.
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