It’s hard to judge someone solely on a 15-16 game sample. I mean, after all, we’re not even a month into the Minor League season yet, so to judge players solely on a hot or cold start is not only premature, but also a bit unfair as well.
Still though, some hot and cold starts will naturally jump out more than others, especially when it comes to prospects who come with high merits. Two prospects who have struggled out of the gate to begin the year are Hak-Ju Lee, the top position prospect in the Tampa Bay Rays system, and Gary Brown, the consensus best prospect in the San Francisco Giants organization. While they still have time to rebound at the plate, their struggles against Double-A pitching to begin the year have a lot of scouts and analysts wondering about their futures, especially considering many felt they were ready to make the jump to the Big Leagues as soon as this year.
Let’s take a look at Lee and Brown and their starts individually.
Seedlings 2 Stars Ranking: No. 27
Current Team: Montgomery Biscuits (Double-A, Southern League)
2012 regular season numbers: .164 average, .263 OBP, .194 slugging, .457 OPS, seven runs scored, two stolen bases, nine walks, 15 strikeouts in 76 plate appearances (through 17 games).
How is Lee Struggling to Begin 2012?
Lee is widely considered the top position prospect in the Rays system and was a candidate to move quickly in the Rays system this year due to Reid Brignac‘s offensive struggles at the plate the past couple of seasons. However, once considered a candidate for a possible mid-to-late season callup, Lee has displayed a lot of flaws at the plate that have a lot of scouts and experts worried about his potential as a prospect.
After being acquired from the Cubs (along with pitcher Chris Archer) in the Matt Garza deal, Lee tore up the Florida State League, posting a .318/.389./.443 slash in 454 plate appearances. He also added 11 triples and 28 stolen bases to his stat-line in High-A, and the Rays responded to his impressive numbers by promoting him to Double-A after 97 games in the FSL. However, his gaudy numbers struggled to transition to the Southern League, as he posted a .190/.272/.310 slash over 114 plate appearances in Montgomery. While his BB/K ratio and contact rates did regress in the move to Double-A (his BB/K ratio fell from 0.58 in Charlotte to 0.50 in Montgomery and his contact rate went from 82 percent to 78 percent), he did show a little bit more power, as his extra base hit percentage rose from 24 to 32 percent in the move from High-A to Double-A.
Though he came highly merited by many analysts, the Rays decided to keep him in the Southern League to begin the 2012 season. So far, the results have not been good, as Lee is posting a meager .164/.263/.194 slash in 76 plate appearances. While Lee is making better contact in Montgomery to begin the year (80 percent) than he did in the Southern League in 2011, it hasn’t done much good, as Lee has been a groundball out machine who has only two extra base hits so far this season. According to the numbers by Minor League Central, Lee is posting a GB/FB ratio of 3.20 and a GB percentage of 51.6. Add that with a meager .226 BABIP, and one can see why Lee is struggling so mightily to begin the year.
Can Lee Regroup After This Slow Start?
Lee’s power tool has never been graded as average by any scouts, but with his speed, he shouldn’t be a sub-.200 slugging percentage hitter. While he may lack the ability to hit the ball over the fence, he has the speed and ability to turn a lot of singles into doubles and doubles into triples (as evidenced by his 11 triples last year). In fact, with his ability to make contact and patient eye (his BB/K ratio is 0.60 so far this year), he shouldn’t be struggling as much as he is to begin the 2012 campaign. However, a plethora of groundballs and a sub-.250 BABIP is going to hurt the statline, and that has rang true so far this year with the Korean infielder.
To make matter worse, it seems as if the offensive woes have affected other areas of his game, especially in the field. He has already committed four errors (he committed only two in 24 games in Montgomery last year), and his fielding percentage of .942 is his worst percentage since his 2010 campaign in Peoria. That being said, while the errors aren’t great by any measure, Lee’s glove is still rated as “Major League” ready by most scouts and analysts.
While the slow start at the plate is concerning, the 17 game start is still a small sample, and at 21 years old, Lee still has time to develop. Furthermore, the struggles of Tim Beckham in Durham to begin the year also works in Lee’s favor, since Beckham is also a candidate to succeed Brignac at the Big League level. However, most of Beckham’s value as a prospect comes on the offensive end, and with Beckham’s early-season struggles and lackluster defense (Lee is rated as a far superior defender), Lee is most likely still in the driver’s seat in terms of holding off Beckham as the Rays shortstop of the future (though to be honest, Beckham most likely will move off the shortstop position “B.J. Upton“-style.)
Lee probably is not on the “fast track” to the Big Leagues like many analysts initially thought going into 2012, but Lee still holds vast potential as a prospect. While the power probably won’t come around as well as hoped (I think he’ll be a sub-.400 slugging hitter at the next level unfortunately), his plus defense, good speed, nice eye at the plate, and strong ability to make contact at the plate should bode him well for a future at the Big League level.
Seedlings 2 Stars Ranking: No. 76
Current Team: Richmond Flying Squirrels (Double-A, Eastern League)
2012 regular season numbers: .207 average, .304 OBP, .259 slugging, .563 OPS, five runs, two stolen bases, four walks, 10 strikeouts in 70 plate appearances (through 15 games).
How is Brown Struggling to Begin 2012?
Though rated conservatively on this Web site (It befuddles me that Eric Surkamp is graded more highly than Brown), the 23-year-old outfielder for the most part is the consensus Top Prospect in the Giants system according to most publications. Rob Gordon of the Minor League Baseball Analyst rated Brown as the 24th best prospect in baseball going into 2012, and Jim Callis of Baseball America rated him as the 29th best prospect. With a solid season in 2011 in the California League, and a speed tool that has been routinely rated as an 80 on a 20-8 scale by scouts, it makes sense why Brown comes with such high merits going into 2012.
While some regression was to be expected with the move from the Cal League to the Eastern League, Brown’s slow start is especially concerning for a variety of reasons. Brown currently is posting a slash of .207/.304/.259, and the burgeoning power he displayed last year in San Jose (he posted a 32 percent extra base hit last year) has been remarkably absent so far in Richmond (he has only two extra base hits this year: one double and one triple). While the power was expected to regress in the transition from the hitter-friendly CL to the pitcher-friendly EL, the lack of extra base hits is a bit disappointing, especially considering his highly rated speed tool.
Speaking of speed, Brown’s biggest issues on the basepaths last season were his instincts and jumps in terms of stealing bases. While he did steal 53 bases in San Jose last year, he was caught 19 times. This year hasn’t been much better, as he has been caught four times on six attempts. Brown may have the second best speed tool in the Minors (only the Reds’ Billy Hamilton is graded higher by scouts), but right now, until he garners better instincts on the basepaths, he most likely will never live up to those 80 speed grades from scouts.
Can Brown Regroup After this Slow Start?
Brown is starting to show signs of life at the plate (his average was under .200 until he boosted it up the past couple of days), and the reports of his defense in center field have been stellar so far (he has a range factor of 2.47 and hasn’t committed an error this year). While his BB/K ratio has taken a step back from 2011 (it currently sits at 0.40), he is still displaying a strong ability to make contact despite facing better pitching (his contact rate is currently at 83 percent, which is only a three percent regression from San Jose). The lack of walks (only four in 70 plate appearances) is an issue of course, but it has always been an issue for Brown since he was drafted in 2010. That being said, his ability to make contact and not strike out has made up for the lack of walks since college, and that has been the case this year, which bodes well not only for this season, but his overall future as well.
It hasn’t been a great start for Brown, but on the bright side, he isn’t looking overwhelmed at the plate and he is starting to piece things together slowly. The Eastern League is always a challenge for hitters, and this slow start may be a matter of Brown simply adjusting to the environments and pitchers of the EL. Even his struggles on the basepaths to begin the year might just be an example of him going some through growing pains, as the catcher and pitchers in the EL are far better than ones in the CL in terms of arm strength and holding runners on, respectively.
Brown has the tools to be a successful player at the Major League level, and I do feel he hasn’t hurt his chances to be the Opening Day center fielder in 2013. He did go through a slump after the All-Star break last year, but he still managed to post solid overall numbers for the year, so this may be a matter of him going through his slump earlier than usual. May will be a crucial month for Brown though. One bad month is one thing, but two bad months in a row will be harder to stomach. If Brown doesn’t show progress by May, the Giants will have to think really hard about extending Angel Pagan and Melky Cabrera at the end of the season, which would block Brown’s chances to progress quickly in the Giants system.