Jacob Anderson during the Perfect Game event at Tropicana Field (Image courtesy PerfectGame.org)

Prospect Positional Primer: Corner Outfield

Late last fall, with inspiration from Jason Parks of Baseball Prospectus, I began writing a series of articles which I titled “Positional Primers”. I broke down the Blue Jays system into seven categories; catcher, corner infield, middle infield, corner outfield, centerfield, right handed pitcher, and left handed pitcher. In each article, I highlighted a number of players at the position being discussed, talked about what they’ve done and where they stand, and what to possibly expect moving forward. The lists weren’t prospect rankings or a depth chart, they were simply another, broader way of looking at some players in the system who are interesting, but won’t necessarily be included on my top 30 prospect list later this year.

In terms of page views and feedback (both positive and negative, but thankfully mostly the former), the series was one of the most popular things I’ve done in my two-ish years of writing about the Blue Jays. As such, I’ve decided to break down the system once again, and hopefully another year of experience and knowledge will make the list that much more thorough and interesting to the readers.

The fifth part of the series will look at the corner outfield positions, of which the blueprint is very simple: generate offense. According to Baseball America, for both left and right field, the two highest priority tools are power and hitting ability. The only difference between the two positions is the defensive demands, as with all other things being equal, you want the stronger arm in right field. Elite defenders play centerfield, average or worse defenders with a strong arm play right field, average or worse defenders with an average or worse arm play left field; it’s a very clear cut path down the defensive spectrum in the outfield. Speed is the least important tool, as while it’s a valuable asset to have, it’s not a necessity.

  • Top corner outfield prospect to reach MLB (last 5 years): Travis Snider
  • Corner outfielders in 2012 Top 30: 4
  • Corner outfield WAR leaders in MLB (last 5 years): Jose Bautista (21.3), Alex Rios (7.2)

King in the North

Jacob Anderson – 2012 team: Rookie-Bluefield
191 AB, .194/.271/.304 (.575 OPS), 10 2B, 1 3B, 3 HR, 13 RBI, 3 SB, 11/72 BB/K

The King in the North classification is a more than generous label for Jacob Anderson after the stinker of a 2012 season he produced while playing in Bluefield. Unfortunately, the competition for the top spot was severely lacking, allowing a prospect with a strikeout rate of 33.5% to take the fictional crown. My expectations were extremely high entering the season, as not only did he receive a few Jake Marisnick comps, he has the imposing physical projection that scouts love, and he took the Gulf Coast League to task during his brief two week debut in August of 2011 (.405/.476/.622 in 9 games). I ranked the California native and former supplemental first round pick as the 10th best prospect in the system last winter, and at least part of me thought I was being too conservative even then.

To understand the enthusiasm that I and many others felt, you need only watch Jacob Anderson step into the box for batting practice. He doesn’t look like the traditional baseball player: he has the body of wide receiver. He has broad shoulders and thick, muscular legs that just scream power projection. Anderson sets a wide base with a slightly open stance, and readies himself with a tightly closed front shoulder and high hands. He uses his height (6-foot-4) to create leverage in his swing, and once the pitch is delivered he toe taps, spins his hips, and pulls his hands through the zone with authority. One clear similarity he carries to Marisnick is that both choose to keep a level swing path, using their physical gifts to generate powerful line drives as opposed to targeting fly balls with an uppercut. Prior to joining the Blue Jays, he had a reputation for getting overly aggressive and chasing breaking balls, which proved to be a very legitimate problem. As his struggles compounded last season, both his confidence and swing mechanics completely fell apart, leaving him even more vulnerable than before.

The Blue Jays have utilized Anderson almost exclusively in right field since he signed, which is a peculiar decision to me. Of his 66 career games, 54 have come in right field, with 11 at designated hitter and just one in left field. Anderson’s natural athleticism and above average speed gives him plenty of range in either of the outfield corners, but his arm is far better suited to left. His throwing mechanics aren’t pretty, he doesn’t set himself up well, and his raw arm strength is average at best. As a top prospect, Anderson will often be given the benefit of the doubt over non-prospects with perhaps better defensive abilities, but as he ascends through the minor league levels I imagine he’ll eventually get moved over to the more logical position.

I’d love to be a fly on the wall in Alex Anthopoulos’ office when he’s discussing what to do with Jacob Anderson. Expectations were high, yet the final result was worse than what even the most pessimistic of prospectors could have foreseen. The organization is all but forced to make him repeat the rookie level, which is exactly what an organization doesn’t want to do with one of their supposedly elite hitting prospects. The best case scenario for all parties would be for Anderson to get off to a hot start next season, rebuilding his confidence, and allowing the Blue Jays to justifiably move him up to Vancouver where they probably wanted him to be in the first place. The hit tool is obviously a step behind where originally thought, so while that will make the road a bit bumpier, there’s still plenty of potential to dream on moving forward.

The Question Mark

Chris Hawkins – 2012 team: Single-A Lansing
491 AB, .269/.331/.332 (.663 OPS), 17 2B, 4 3B, 2 HR, 43 RBI, 11 SB, 46/78 BB/K

Chris Hawkins at a Perfect Game showcase event (Image courtesy PerfectGame.org)

Chris Hawkins became a popular name late during the 2011 season after he put on a hitting display with the Blue Jays rookie level affiliate in Bluefield. The production didn’t come out of nowhere, as Hawkins was highly regarded as a third round pick in the 2010 draft. He received a well-deserved promotion to full season ball with Lansing this past spring, but after a good start to the year, his performance fell off dramatically. The disappointment culminated with a .217/.284/.255 slash line between August and September. When a player has an on-base percentage nearly equal to his slugging percentage it means one of two things; first, that he’s an absolute machine at getting on base, or second, that he’s swinging a pool noodle at the plate. Unfortunately, Hawkins’ line fell into the latter category. His 23 extra base hits in 123 games translated into a 63 ISO, which is bad for a middle infielder, let alone a corner outfielder. Comparatively, he had 26 extra base hits in 70 games in 2011, for a 171 ISO. Where did the power go?

His power had always been more projection than realized, but no one could have expected him to move backwards in that regard. Hawkins generates good bat speed, so that’s not likely to be the culprit. He doesn’t look like a lumberjack trying to chop down a tree, but he’s also not just gingerly slapping at the ball. Mechanically, his swing is very clean and simple, and he uses all fields. Diminished bat skills aren’t the problem either, as while the .269 season average isn’t the most attractive number, he hovered between .280 and .320 from the beginning of the season until August when his year really took a nose dive. Hawkins remained disciplined as well, actually improving upon both his walk (8.5%) and strikeout (14.4%) rates from his breakout 2011 season.

The power may have vanished, but Hawkins has continued to improve defensively. Originally drafted as a shortstop, he has since moved to third base, then left field, and now right field. It’s not that he’s a poor defender, he simply doesn’t have the smoothness and grace required of an infielder. In the outfield, however, he can fully utilize his athleticism and serve as an above average defender. Hawkins’ arm has really impressed, as he recorded 14 outfield assists for Lansing last season. The arm strength isn’t elite, but he sets up well for his throws and makes accurate strikes to the infield. He’s proven to be a strong base runner as well, taking 11 bases last season without being caught, upping his career totals to 33/40 (83%) in 239 career games.

While his performance was certainly disappointing, particularly in the second half, there’s no chance the Blue Jays will consider holding Hawkins back for a second season in the Midwest League. Instead, he’ll be ticketed for High-A, where he’ll have to rediscover his power stroke in the heavy air of Dunedin and the Florida State League. As Jake Marisnick, Marcus Knecht, and Michael Crouse would surely attest, the adjustment isn’t an easy one. Hawkins still has some time to figure things out as he has youth on his side, but corner outfielders who can’t hit for power don’t remain prospects for long. The next year or two are going to be huge for Hawkins, so hopefully he can provide some definitive answers to the questions that are beginning to creep up.

On the Rise

Kevin Pillar – 2012 team(s): Single-A Lansing, High-A Dunedin
499 AB, .323/.374/.439 (.813 OPS), 28 2B, 6 3B, 6 HR, 91 RBI, 51 SB, 40/70 BB/K

Pillar batting for the Dunedin Blue Jays (Image courtesy battersbox.ca)

Through the first four prospect primers, the On the Rise classification was usually reserved for young players who had a breakout season in the low minors. That’s not quite the case with Kevin Pillar. The outfielder is already 23 years old – he’ll be 24 on Opening Day – and just finished his first year of full season ball. As a four year senior at a low tier college, Pillar wasn’t a highly sought after commodity, falling to the Blue Jays in the 32nd round of the 2011 draft. He signed quickly and made his debut with Bluefield, turning heads with a .347/.377/.543 batting line in 60 games. The organization jump-started him with a Lansing assignment in 2012, where he crushed it for 86 games, earning a promotion to High-A Dunedin. Despite limited time there, he was still named as the Midwest League MVP. Some may attribute his success simply to his age, but it appears the Blue Jays found their needle in the haystack.

Pillar has taken the organization by storm with his surprisingly advanced bat skills. He’s calm and confident, always ready to swing without overexposing himself. Pillar’s stance is simple, with a wide base and his weight on his back foot. He makes a smooth weight transfer from the load position to his follow through, and while his home run potential is limited by his lack of physical projection, he still makes solid contact with a line drive oriented swing. He’s disciplined at the plate, as he’ll wait out his pitch, and won’t cheat himself with a half hearted swing when it arrives. With that being said, it would be foolish to claim his age isn’t a factor while playing in A-ball, as he has a vault of experience from which to draw upon that his competition simply don’t have.

The 51 stolen bases look mighty impressive on paper, but Pillar’s speed is closer to average than elite. Instead, he uses his baseball instincts, getting good reads on pitchers when they fall into predictable patterns. Much like Dalton Pompey on the centerfield primer, Pillar doesn’t really have a clear defensive home. He’s an average defender on the corners, and his arm is decent enough to handle right field. Unfortunately, the offensive demands on corner outfielders are extremely high, and it remains to be seen if Pillar can live up to them as he begins to face opposition his age. His best defensive position may end up being “fourth outfielder”, which shouldn’t be taken as an insult. Every major league roster needs a player who can handle all three defensive positions for short stretches, and Pillar can do that with some offense and base running skills added in as well. I read a Reed Johnson comp for Pillar, and I actually think it fits really well. For a 32nd round pick, that’s amazing value.

With his continued success serving as a “taxi squad” player in the Arizona Fall League – the classification allows him to only play a couple of games per week, barring a roster injury – I wouldn’t at all be surprised if the Blue Jays gave Pillar a Double-A assignment next spring. Some of his peripherals, namely his walk rate, took a dive after his promotion to Dunedin, but he maintained a .323 average despite a career low .342 BABIP. Batting average obviously isn’t the most reliable statistic, but there’s something to be said for a hitter who, level after level, makes strong, consistent contact. As previously mentioned, he’ll be 24 years old when camp breaks, so there’s not going to be a slow developmental path from here on out. Sink or swim, the Blue Jays should learn precisely what they have in Kevin Pillar next season.

Remember the Name

Wuilmer Becerra – 2012 team: Gulf Coast Blue Jays
32 AB, .250/.359/.375 (.734 OPS), 4 2B, 0 3B, 0 HR, 4 RBI, 0 SB, 4/7 BB/K

Wuilmer Becerra got the Cardona treatment and jumped right to the United States. (liderendeportes.com)

Between the centerfield and corner outfield primers, we’ve looked at nine outfield prospects. Wuilmer Becerra is the first and only to hail from Latin America, as the region is better known for its dynamic shortstops and electric pitchers. The Blue Jays acquired Becerra during the bountiful 2011 International Free Agency period, handing the Venezuelan a hefty 1.3 million dollar signing bonus. That bonus was tied with Dawel Lugo for the second largest given out by the organization that summer, behind only Roberto Osuna and his 1.5 million. The recently-turned 18 year old made his professional debut in the Gulf Coast League this past summer, but saw his season cut short after he was hit in the face by a pitch and suffered a broken jaw. It was an unfortunate turn of events, as Becerra had looked very strong in extended spring training and may have been poised for a breakout season.

The key to Becerra’s game is his potentially dominant combination of speed and power. Standing a lean 6-foot-4, he takes full advantage of his length when running. Scouts have timed his 60 yard dash at 6.6 seconds, which is 70-grade speed. While that athleticism gives him monstrous range in the outfield, it doesn’t translate quite as well onto the base paths. It takes him a few strides to get up to full speed, leading to merely above average times from home to first, and first to second on a stolen base. Like many Latin American prospects – and all baseball players, really – Becerra’s career began at shortstop, but that was never viewed as viable in the long term. Beyond the obvious problem with his ever increasing size, he just didn’t have the hands or footwork required to play an infield position. Furthermore, his arm is a below average tool, so while he may splash in some right field or even centerfield here and there while in the low minor leagues, his future appears to be as a rangy left fielder.

Becerra’s power should allow him to remain a viable prospect regardless of the defensive position he settles at, as the leverage and bat speed in his swing creates very impressive raw power. He accentuates the tool by utilizing an uppercut, but can sometimes take it too far when he starts wrapping the bat while in the load position. Becerra is a batting practice monster; the debate is whether or not he’ll be able to translate that showcase power into game action. At times his plate coverage looks good, but the holes in his swing really open up when he lengthens and sells out for power, making scouts unsure where he’ll end up on a wide spectrum of offensive possibilities. This type of situation isn’t unique; however, as very rarely is there a consensus ceiling on a 16 or 17 year old prospect.

Despite the lost time due to injury, the Blue Jays are likely interested in getting Becerra past the complex league next season. Bluefield is the most logical destination, as the organization has used that affiliate as a launching pad for second year prospects who either missed their first year entirely (often due to signing late), or missed extended time due to injury. From there, his developmental path with be based entirely upon how he looks and performs. The organization has shown no reluctance in promoting players up to Vancouver during the year, and late season leaps all the way to Lansing, while not common, have become a possibility for those who earn it. Wherever he ends up, with his combination of power and speed, Wuilmer Becerra will be a name to remember when short season ball rolls around next summer.

Tags: Chris Hawkins Jacob Anderson Kevin Pillar Wuilmer Becerra

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