Can these young hitters turn it around?

Today I’ll start my annual examination of top prospects who experienced disappointing results during the first half of the season. A similar article last year resulted in moderately successful predictions, including an optimistic report on a Jarrod Saltalamacchia, who bounced back from a slow start to the 2006 season and is now slugging with the Atlanta Braves. This year, I’ll devote one article each to hitters and pitchers. Today we’ll look at five hitters who experienced disappointing starts to the 2007 season.

Elvis Andrus

Atlanta Braves | Position: Shortstop | 18 years old

The Braves’ toolsy shortstop prospect held his own as one of the youngest players participating in full-season ball last year, so his underwhelming results at the plate were not a concern. This year, the 18-year-old was promoted to the Carolina League and continues to struggle offensively, which is finally starting to inspire questions about his performance.

There is a lot to pick apart about his offensive performance; he’s striking out a little too often, he’s mostly pounding the ball into the ground when he makes contact, and his power production is nearly absent. These certainly are not good signs and in all likelihood Andrus won’t drive the ball enough to become more than an average major league shortstop.

On the other hand, you could have pointed out the same negative aspects of a performance when looking at a 19-year-old Grady Sizemore or a 20-year-old Alexis Rios early in their careers. Andrus won’t celebrate his 19th birthday until next month. There is plenty of time for him to develop strength and refine his approach at the plate.

Prognosis: Wait and see. Performance isn’t encouraging, but still far too young to write off.

Reid Brignac

Tampa Bay Devil Rays| Position: Shortstop | 21 years old

Expectations were high after Brignac slugged 21 home runs in the California League and had no trouble adjusting to the Double-A Southern League in 2006. This year, the results have not been pretty:

YEAR LEVEL  PA  AVG  OBP  SLG
2006    A+ 455 .326 .380 .557
2006   AA  121 .300 .355 .473
2007   AA  305 .239 .292 .387

His power numbers are down since he left his hitter-friendly high Single-A league, but you still can’t find any other legit shortstop prospect under the age of 22 who already looks like a regular 20-plus home run hitter.

Beyond the decreased power numbers, his performance only looks bad because of an ugly batting average. I doubt that will last. Brignac’s .262 batting average on balls in play (BABIP) is unusually low given his well above-average rate of hitting line drives. If he continues to make good contact, he will probably finish the season with a batting average closer to .280 than .240, and his on-base and slugging percentages will consequently start to look like those of a top prospect once again.

Prognosis: Good. Expect a full recovery

Trevor Crowe

Cleveland Indians | Position: Outfield | 23 years old

Crowe struggled in the second half of the 2006 season, but it was widely believed to have something to do with a temporary move to the infield. Crowe has returned to the outfield since then but the results at the plate have not been encouraging. He’s really not as bad as his .210 average indicates, but his struggles should not come as a complete surprise:

YEAR LEVEL Trevor Crowe League Average  
            LD  GB      LD  GB 
2006    A+  13% 52%     13% 48%
2006    AA  13% 48%     15% 47%
2007    AA  13% 54%     15% 47% 

Crowe is a groundball hitter who doesn’t hit enough line drives to maintain a high batting average or hit a meaningful number extra-base hits. He is a good example of why I worry about players in the lower minors who collect a lot of infield hits. In the first year or two of professional baseball, speedy prospects can mask poor contact by running hard enough to reach base safely or take an extra base on weakly hit ball in the outfield. It usually doesn’t work so well against better competition in the upper minor and major leagues. Wily Taveras is the exception to the rule. Perhaps Jacoby Ellsbury is as well?

Time will tell. Crowe’s patience and contact skills should still carry him to the major leagues, but he is projecting as more of a fringe corner outfielder or average center fielder at best.

Prognosis: Not good. Lower your expectations

Andy LaRoche

Los Angeles Dodgers | Position: Third Base | 23 years old

After a disappointing promotion to the Dodgers, LaRoche has struggled to put up results in the Pacific Coast League. He is only hitting .268 with three home runs. His mediocre performance sticks out because he was expected to put up big numbers in the hitter-friendly context of Las Vegas in the Pacific Coast League.

I think a more granular view of his performance yields plenty of encouraging signs. He’s basically the same type of hitter he was when he was dominating Double-A Jacksonville last year. His walk rate is well above-average, he continues to be among the league’s best at avoiding strikeouts, and he hits a lot of line drives. He was having a fantastic month of June before a diving catch led to a sore shoulder and week-long stint on the disabled list. He returned with a 3-for-4 effort including two doubles this weekend, and I think there is a lot to be optimistic about.

Prognosis: Good. Expect a full recovery.

Van Pope

Atlanta Braves | Position: Third Base | 23 years old

I described Pope as a breakout candidate earlier this year and I looked pretty foolish as he struggled to hit above .200 for the first couple months of the season. I believed he turned a corner with a strong second half performance in 2006, but it appears that he might just be a slow starter. His isolated power of .222 during the month of June was a promising sign, and I suspect he’ll find a way to finish the season with 15 to 20 home runs despite his poor start.

Additionally, he’s been among the minor league’s unluckiest hitters with a low batting average of balls in play. His first half could not have been much worse, and he’s bound to see better results over the next couple months.

Prognosis: Fair. Expect another strong second half.

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