The Best Young Corner Outfielders of 2007

This week, I will continue my position-by-position review of the game’s best young players by examining corner outfielders. The following list differs from traditional prospect lists in two ways. First, anyone under 25 is eligible. Second, I won’t give the false impression of precision by ranking players. Instead, I’ll group players according to their upside and closeness to fulfilling their potential and order them alphabetically.

When I describe “excellent” potential, I simply mean that the player has a non-trivial chance of being among the top five major leaguers at his position during multiple seasons. In other words, these are guys who could be perennial All-Stars. These players usually have all the skills to become complete hitters and at least average fielders at their position.

When I describe “good” potential, I usually am describing a player who has the skills to become a consistently above-average starter at the position. Often, these players will have at least one major limitation that probably will prevent them from becoming top-tier players. When I describe “average” upside, I usually am describing a player with more than one major concern or limitation that suggests he probably will become an average player relative to other starters at his position.

Players who are “close to their prime” usually are within a year of reaching a level of performance that will be among the five best seasons of their career.

I don’t have a crystal ball, so I rely heavily on quantitative analysis of hitting and fielding performance to group players. These are simply estimates—any one of these players could be out of baseball at age 26 and any one could become a star. Mostly, I hope this list can help you identify exciting young players who are worth watching in the near future.

Excellent upside, close to prime

Billy Butler
20 years old | Kansas City Royals
Butler and Alex Gordon formed the most formidable 1-2 punch in any Double-A lineup last year. At only 20, Butler hit .331 with Wichita and demonstrated solid power with 33 doubles and 15 home runs. When he wasn’t raking for Wichita last summer, Butler was winning a Futures Game MVP award and launching a game-winning home run versus Brazil in the Olympic qualifying tournament. He is clearly one of the best hitters in the minor leagues.

Many scouts and analysts view Butler as a future designated hitter. His footwork in the outfield can most generously be described as a work in progress, but he really is working on it and he did improve his fielding last year. He might be the youngest player I have described as being “close to prime,” but there is little doubt that he can hit in the major leagues right now. The Royals will move him through the farm system as slowly as they can, but I would be surprised if Butler isn’t hitting near the middle of the Royals’ lineup by the end of the year.

Carlos Quentin
24 years old | Arizona Diamondbacks
The Stanford University graduate possesses an above-average ability to make contact, is more patient than most major league hitters, and is capable of hitting 20 or more home runs this year. He also is a quality defender with a strong throwing arm. In sum, Carlos Quentin is about as well-rounded as young corner outfielders get. His only weakness—if you want to call it that—is his propensity for getting hit by pitches. I suppose that makes him an injury risk, but he’s been very durable during his minor league career and the free trips to first base have only further contributed to his gaudy OBP numbers.

Excellent upside, at least two years from prime

Jay Bruce
19 years old | Cincinnati Reds
Bruce was the best hitter in a league that included players like Cameron Maybin and Justin Upton last year. The left-handed slugger lifted 63 extra-base hits in 2006 but his power production decreased while his strikeout rate slowly increased as the season wore on. Last season was Bruce’s first full year of baseball and a late-season drop-off in production is not uncommon among teenagers. He certainly looks good in spring training; the teenager hit a home run off Curt Schilling in a Grapefruit League game. Bruce split his time between center field and right field in 2006, but he probably will play right field exclusively in the upper minor leagues and major leagues

Fernando Martinez
18 years old | New York Mets
Martinez dominated South Atlantic League pitching despite his young age and thumb and knee injuries. He posted only a .193 batting average following an aggressive promotion to the Florida State League, but he made contact regularly and hit five home runs in 30 games against the much more experienced competition. He went on to become the youngest player in the Arizona Fall League’s history.

Martinez has significant power to all fields at a very young age, and he could emerge as one of baseball’s top five or 10 prospects in 2007 if he can stay healthy and productive. Although Martinez played only center field during the 2006 regular season, he is not an exceptional fielder and is likely to move to a corner outfield spot as his body continues to grow.

Jose Tabata
18 years old | New York Yankees
A thumb injury limited Tabata’s action in 2006, but not before he opened some eyes with his mature approach to hitting. Tabata hit more balls in the air to the opposite field than any other section of the outfield in 2006—a rarity among teenagers who are projected as power hitters. Tabata also improved his plate discipline over the 2006 season.

When he returned to the playing field in Venezuela last winter, he was second on his team with a 16% walk rate. Tabata is the victim of lofty comparisons with players like Manny Ramirez, but I wonder why he isn’t compared with well-rounded hitters with merely average power… like Bernie Williams?

Delmon Young
21 years old | Tampa Bay Devil Rays
Young was the consensus top prospect in baseball for much of his minor league career and he is finally ready for a full-time job in the major leagues. I still view him as far from reaching his prime, however. Young is a free swinger and even if he hits 30 doubles and 20 home runs this year, his poor on-base skills could limit him to merely average production for a corner outfielder. That probably will change over time, but I don’t expect it to happen soon.

Good upside, close to prime

Jeff Francoeur
23 years old | Atlanta Braves
His power production is outstanding and Francoeur made some adjustments to his batting stance over the winter that he believes will help him put the ball in play more often. His free-swinging ways, however, make him one of baseball’s most prolific producers of outs. Scouts have noted his lack of plate discipline since his high school days, so I’m skeptical of any change happening soon.

Here are projections for Francoeur from our season preview book:

YEAR    AGE   PA  BB  SO  HR   AVG  OBP  SLG
2007     23  609  26  123  25  .264 .304 .463
2008     24  598  26  118  25  .273 .313 .479
2008     25  588  26  113  24  .282 .321 .489

Jeremy Hermida
23 years old | Florida Marlins
Hermida was the best hitter out of high school in the 2002 draft and was one of baseball’s most talked-about rookies a year ago. Since then, hip and ankle problems limited him to 99 games and lackluster production during the 2006 season. Now, after slumping for much of spring training, Hermida is suffering from a sore right knee after fouling a pitch off his kneecap. When healthy, Hermida shows off above-average on-base skills and enough pop in his bat to suggest a Shawn Green-like career is still a possibility.

Jason Kubel
24 years old | Minnesota Twins
Kubel launched 22 home runs and 42 doubles as a 22-year-old in Double-A and Triple-A a couple of years ago, and he once was mentioned in the same breath as Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau. Knee injuries have stalled his progress since then, but Twins fans are hoping a healthy season will result in the kind of breakout campaign Morneau experienced in 2006. He’s a high-risk proposition, but the Twins are committed to giving him playing time as the designated hitter and he could be an above-average major league hitter if he can stay healthy.

Nick Markakis
23 years old | Baltimore Orioles
A lot of folks were griping about how the Orioles rushed Markakis when he was promoted to to the major leagues after only 124 at bats above Class A and struggling to hit last April, but Markakis got better as the season progressed. He hit .354 with 10 home runs during August and is now a lock to begin the 2007 season in the middle of the Baltimore lineup. The Orioles hear a lot of criticism these days and much of it is deserved, but this is one player they got right. They were one of the few teams who liked Markakis better as a hitter than as a pitcher when he was drafted out of high school.

Good upside, at least two years from prime

Carlos Gonzalez
21 years old | Arizona Diamondbacks
Gonzalez won the Midwest League MVP award in 2005 and he didn’t disappoint during his follow-up campaign. He hit .300 with 35 doubles, 21 homers and 94 RBIs with Lancaster of the California League, but that improved power can mostly be explained by his extreme hitter-friendly home park.

Gonzalez seemed to regress in 2006; his overall walk rate decreased and his strikeout rate increased. But there is reason to believe he will bounce back with a more well-rounded performance in 2007. Gonzalez has admitted his command of the strike zone needs improvement and he finished his 2006 winter ball season with 25 walks and 33 strikeouts.

Lastings Milledge
22 years old | New York Mets
Milledge suffered through more than a few missteps last year, and now he’s trying to balance a burgeoning career in music production with his campaign for a major league roster spot because, in his words, “I’ve learned everything I need to learn at the minor-league level.”

Well, he has learned a lot. Milledge focused on improving his strike-zone command in the 2005 Arizona Fall League and showed off his improved skills during the early part of the 2006 International League season. He walked in nearly 12% of his plate appearances and posted a .388 OBP despite being one of the youngest players in the league. He has hit only 19 home runs during the past two years, but his quick hands suggest more power will arrive with maturity. Despite above-average speed and athleticism, Milledge is not a significant base-stealing theat and was only 14-for-26 in stolen base attempts last year.

Average upside, close to prime

Melky Cabrera
22 years old | New York Yankees
Cabrera surprised just about everyone in 2006. He improved his contact rate, reached base more often than he ever did before, and did a reasonably good job of handling all three outfield positions. Here is his three-year projection courtesy of the THT 2007 Season Preview:

YEAR    AGE   PA  BB  SO  HR   AVG  OBP  SLG
2007     22  532  37  73  10  .267 .320 .395
2008     23  522  36  71  10  .275 .328 .408
2008     24  514  36  68   9  .283 .336 .418

His minor league numbers suggest he won’t repeat the kind of performance he had last year, but he still looks like a good fourth outfielder right now and at least an average corner outfielder in his prime.

Andre Ethier
24 years old | Los Angeles Dodgers
Ethier just qualifies for this list because he turns 25 in a couple of weeks. Although he didn’t get much seasoning at Triple-A in either the Oakland or Dodgers organization, he made an impact with a .308/.365/.477 performance last year. He probably won’t hit .300 again because he benefited from an above-average batting average on balls in play, but even if he is a .280 hitter, he is capable of average on-base skills and power production from a left fielder. Ethier might be much better than that if a sore shoulder affected him as much as he says it did last September, when he hit .143 with only one extra-base hit.

Adam Lind
23 years old | Toronto Blue Jays
Lind has gotten better with every promotion during the past two years, including a productive stint with Toronto during September of 2006. Lind’s .394 and .367 batting averages over short periods in Triple-A Syracuse and Toronto were buoyed by an unsustainable batting average of balls in play (BABIP). That means you shouldn’t expect Lind to hit over .300 in the near future, but he’s still a legitimate major league hitter.

Lind’s outfield defense needs a lot of improvement, but he will be able to refine his outfield play with Syracuse this April and is probably next in line for a promotion should any of the Jays outfielders suffer an injury.

Please remember that I considered only players under the age of 25 for this list. Some others considered include Michael Burgess, Shin-Soo Choo, Franklin Gutierrez, Justin Huber, Chris Parmelee, Hunter Pence and Ryan Sweeney.

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