‘Polished’ prospects, prospects that probably don’t need a lot of seasoning in the minor leagues, are a mixed bag. On the one hand, few things in baseball are more coveted than polished elite-level talent (think Stephen Strasburg). On the other, many ‘polished’ players are so described because they are already at or near their ceiling as players. Mike Leake may have gone straight to the majors, but it’s questionable whether he’ll ever be anything more than a 4th starter.
Mikie Mahtook is one such ‘polished’ player: he came out of LSU after his junior year having been named a 1st team All-American and was drafted 31st overall by the Tampa Bay Rays. He then proceeded to club three home runs, steal five bases and hit .338 in the Arizona Fall League (AFL), leading to projections that he would race through the minor leagues and join the Rays sooner rather than later. Mahtook’s star was rising.
Forty-one games and 153 at-bats into the season, Mahtook finally hit his first home run of 2012 Monday night. Given his status as an advanced college prospect, first-round pedigree and performance in the AFL, Mahtook’s year thus far has to be somewhat underwhelming for the Rays. Mahtook hasn’t been bad—a .280 average and 9 steals are nothing to sneeze at—but a .707 OPS and 106 wRC+ at High A is surely not what Rays fans were envisioning when they drafted Mahtook as “a potential All-Star caliber player.”
Scouts have mostly positive reviews of Mahtook’s future—John Sickels of SB Nation thinks he could be a 20-20 player and most everyone agrees that he was a steal at pick thirty-one in the draft. The nice thing about polished players is that, while they make not have the same upside as the buzzy high school pitchers that scouts love, they are fairly projectable. Chances are the scouts’ guesses at Mahtook’s future potential are accurate, but he will need to start hitting better if he wants to reach that potential.
Mahtook apologists can take solace, however: there are some positive indicators. 157 at-bats is far too small a sample size to draw any overarching conclusions, good or bad, but despite the lukewarm start his strikeout rate is low at 16%. Mahtook has also come alive in the past week plus. Of his eleven extra base hits this season, eight—seven doubles and the homer—have come in the last ten games, over which he carries a .921 OPS. A hot streak may be imminent. It’s not as if Mahtook has been getting eviscerated at the plate—he hasn’t performed up to expectations, maybe, but he has held his own.
Mahtook is about one-third of the way into his first full professional season. He’s getting adjusted to a new lifestyle and new reality. And he has one great advantage: himself. One of the young Ray’s universally lauded traits has been his character—his zeal for playing the game and his all-out style. Mikie Mahtook is much more Ernie Banks than Hanley Ramirez attitude-wise, and that can only bode well for his future.