My wife and I made our third trip of the season to Lake Elsinore this past weekend to catch some California League action. The hometown Storm (Padres) took on the Lancaster JetHawks (Astros) on Saturday night. No seats were available in our preferred spot, so we sat in Section 107, just off to the third base side, looking directly down the right field line. Still a great view and still a ridiculous bargain at $9 a pop.
Several of the Padres’ top prospects play for the Storm, including many members of the 2008 draft class. Jaff Decker is the best of the lot.
Decker appeared in various top prospect lists before the season. MLB.com ranked him the No. 50 prospect in baseball, Baseball Prospectus had him at No. 74, and Baseball America had him at No. 82. Our own Matt Hagen ranked Decker second among Padres prospects.
I didn’t do my own Padres list this year, but in the Ducksnorts 2009 Baseball Annual, I ranked Decker No. 4. Here is some of what I said about him back then:
Although Decker split time between left and center field in his debut, his short, squat body (he has been compared to Matt Stairs) portends an eventual move to a corner spot. This won’t affect Decker’s prospect status—his bat will play anywhere.
Decker then made me look smarter than I am by proceeding to destroy the Midwest League. As a 19-year-old, in his first exposure to full-season ball, Decker hit .299/.442/.514 in 455 plate appearances (the league hit .256/.329/.373).
After missing the first month of 2010 due to a hamstring injury, Decker finally made his Cal League debut this past week and made an immediate impression, homering in his second game.
I’ve identified Stairs as a comp, but I’d also heard John Kruk‘s name mentioned in discussions of Decker. I’d assumed those comparisons were made on the basis of body type, but now that I’ve had a chance to see Decker in person, two things are clear:
- Decker ain’t that big, not even close
- Decker’s batting stance is reminiscent of Kruk’s
Decker has an open stance and holds his hands high before dropping them into hitting position. His swing is compact, efficient and uncomplicated. It looks (to someone who is far from an expert in hitting mechanics) like the type of swing that should be repeatable.
Decker batted four times in this contest, and… well, he wasn’t quite what I’d expected. With the caveats that anything can happen in a single game (As I’ve noted before, I once saw Felix Hernandez in his only bad California League start) and that Decker is returning from a long layoff and so may not be at peak form, his aggressiveness surprised me. He swung at (and didn’t do much with) the first pitch in three of his four trips to the plate.
As for his defense, he played left field and wasn’t challenged, although he did almost overrun a fly ball hit in front of him and to his left.
At this point, all I can say with any degree of confidence about Decker is that he looks good in the batter’s box and that concerns about his body appear to be overstated. I’ll need to see Decker a few more times before making a more complete assessment.
Others from my 2009 Top 30 Padres prospects list that made an appearance on Saturday night include Allan Dykstra (No. 8), Drew Cumberland (No. 11), Cole Figueroa (No. 19), Blake Tekotte (No. 22), and Anthony Bass (No. 23).
Dykstra, a local product, was the Padres’ first pick in 2008 out of Wake Forest. His size and power elicited comparisons to Jim Thome, but so far, Dykstra’s production hasn’t justified such talk. Through Saturday, he owns a career line of .226/.386/.380, with 142 strikeouts in 700 plate appearances.
The Padres have retooled Dykstra’s swing, which still looks long to me (although he did knock a three-run opposite-field double that gave the Storm the lead and fans in Section 111 free Double-Doubles at In ‘N’ Out, which is pretty clutch). Also, his only defensive position is first base, where he is stuck behind All-Star Adrian Gonzalez and Kyle Blanks, who is less than a year older than Dykstra but light years ahead in development.
Dykstra was considered an overdraft at the time. The available evidence seems to support that theory.
A 2007 supplemental first-round pick out of a Florida high school, Cumberland has been somewhat enigmatic as a pro. Part of the problem is that he hasn’t been able to stay healthy (he has yet to log as many as 350 PA in a single season). Then there’s the fact that it’s not clear whether he’s really a shortstop. He’s got decent range, but the arm isn’t always there.
Still, even if Cumberland ends up at second base, he could be useful. He makes solid contact and runs well enough to be a potential top-of-the-order threat.
The first time I saw Cumberland this year, he committed three errors and made some sloppy throws. He fielded his position much better on Saturday but didn’t do anything at the plate. Cumberland’s current offensive performance (.375/.418/.563 in 122 PA through Saturday) is unsustainable, but he’s got legitimate ability (.311/.383/.419 in 814 PA for the career, with 55 stolen bases at an 83.3 percent success rate).
The main points in Cumberland’s favor are youth (he’s 21 in High-A), athleticism, defensive utility, and good strike-zone judgment (career .811 BB/K ratio). On the downside, he has no power, nor is he likely to develop any. Still, he possesses enough other skills that, assuming he avoids further injuries, he could end up having a productive big-league career a la Craig Counsell.
Figueroa, whose father (Bien Figueroa) played briefly for the Cardinals in the early-’90s, was selected in the sixth round of the 2008 draft. The University of Florida product drew comparisons to former Blue Jays infielder Russ Adams at the time.
To accommodate the more highly regarded Cumberland, Figueroa has played mostly second base for the Storm this year, although he is also capable of handling shortstop. He’s played about 80 games at each position as a pro and proven to be reliable at both.
Figueroa’s main strengths on offense are good on-base skills (.417 OBP in 163 PA this year through Saturday, .392 OBP in 670 PA for the career) and usable speed (8 for 10 in SB this year, 30 for 41 as a pro). If Figueroa makes it to the big leagues, it will be as a utility infielder.
Another of former Vice President of Scouting and Player Development Grady Fuson’s prototypical draft picks, Tekotte, selected in the third round in 2008, controls the strike zone, runs well, has gaps power, and plays a legitimate center field. That last point is key, as the position has been an organizational black hole since Mike Cameron‘s departure after the 2007 season.
Incumbent Tony Gwynn Jr. is a fourth or fifth outfielder on most clubs. Former center fielder of the future Cedric Hunter has seen his star fade. Other Fuson draftees at the position, Brad Chalk and Danny Payne, haven’t done anything. Donavan Tate is the latest hope, although injuries have stunted his development so far.
That leaves Tekotte, and although he’s off to a strong start (.286/.387/.451 in 106 PA through Saturday, 10 for 11 in SB), he’s also a 23-year-old in A-ball. Tekotte looks like a future fourth outfielder, with an upside of Mark Kotsay light.
Saturday marked the third time I’d seen Bass pitch (second this year). Although his unorthodox delivery has evoked comparisons to that of San Francisco’s Tim Lincecum, Bass doesn’t have anything close to Lincecum’s stuff. Bass’ fastball sits in the low-90s but he locates it well and backs it with a breaking ball that gets hitters out on their front foot. Bass occasionally loses his feel for that latter pitch and will go through stretches of bouncing it in front of the plate.
The 2008 fifth-round pick out of Wayne State gains points for his poise on the mound. Even when he struggles with the breaking ball, he stays with it until the pitch starts doing what he wants it to again. There is no apparent panic, no outward evidence that he might be losing confidence in the pitch. Obviously I have no idea what’s happening inside Bass’ head, but it’s good to see a guy trust his stuff.
Bass isn’t a soft-tosser, but neither does he rack up strikeouts (6.13 K/9 in 47 IP this year, 7.11 K/9 in 205 IP for the career). Although he’s enjoying success with that approach so far (3.64 ERA in 2010, 2.72 ERA for the career), the inability to put the ball past hitters may catch up with him at higher levels. Pitchers are an unpredictable lot, but Bass looks to me like someone who could develop into a No. 4 starter.