On Closer Inspection: Javier Herrera, OF

Javier Herrera entered the 2005 season on a wave of good feeling. After recovering from a scary neck injury caused by a horrific collision with an outfield wall in 2003, Herrera opened up a lot of eyes with an MVP season in the Northwest League in 2004. However, a steroid suspension got Herrera's season off to a bad start in 2005 and, while he had a good season, it wasn't as spectacular as the year before. We take a closer look at his season to see what could be in store for his 2006 campaign.

Javier Herrera's 2004 season was, in some ways, straight out of the story books. One year earlier, there was some fear that Herrera would never play baseball again when he crashed headfirst into the outfield wall trying to make a spectacular catch during Arizona Rookie League play. However, Herrera worked hard to get himself back on the field and the results paid off.

A classic five-tool player, Herrera showcased all of his talents for the 2004 Vancouver Canadians. He hit .331 with a 941 OPS and 23 stolen bases in 24 chances. He also showed solid, if not spectacular, range in both center and right field. He was named the Northwest League's Most Valuable Player and was considered by many to be the A's best outfield prospect.

A's fans were eager to see Herrera perform at the next level at the start of the 2005 season. Herrera was assigned to the low-A Kane County Cougars and, at age 20, was one of the youngest players on the Cougars' roster. However, his anticipated debut at Kane County was derailed right before opening day when it was announced that he had failed a steroid test. He was suspended for the first 15 days of the season and didn't make his first appearance until April 23.

Not surprisingly, the sting of the suspension seemed to carry over into Herrera's play during that first month of the season. At the end of the day on May 11, Herrera was hitting only .186 through the first 63 at-bats of the season. However, on May 12, Herrera put together a spectacular day that seemed to get his season back on-track. He went 4-4 with a triple, a walk and three stolen bases. That day raised his average to .238 and it would never reach those depths again for the rest of the season.

In fact, until a late-season wrist injury sapped him of his strength in September, Herrera would post numbers reminiscent of those he put up for Vancouver in 2004. From May 1 until August 31 (313 at-bats), Herrera hit .288 with 12 homers and 56 runs batted in. He also added 25 stolen bases in 30 chances. These stats don't include a five game cup of coffee in May with the AAA-Sacramento River Cats, in which Herrera went 5-12 (.417) with a homer, a double, three runs batted in and a stolen base.

Perhaps more impressive were Herrera's numbers with runners on-base. Throughout the season, the Venezuelan native hit better with runners on than he did with the bases empty. With the bases loaded, Herrera hit an even .500 with one grand slam and 20 RBI over 14 official at-bats. With runners in scoring position, Herrera hit .292 with nine extra-base hits in 106 at-bats. In addition, Herrera seems to have the ability to "bear down" with two-outs. He hit .311 with three homers in 61 at-bats with runners on-base and two outs. He also hit .289 with runners in scoring position and two-outs. Conversely, Herrera hit only .259 with the bases empty.

Herrera is a right-handed hitter, but in 2005 he hit markedly better against righties than he did against lefties. In 272 at-bats against right-handers, Herrera hit .283 with 11 homers and 36 walks. Conversely, in 88 at-bats against lefties, Herrera hit only .250 with two homers.

As is the case with many young sluggers, Herrera struggled with his strike out totals throughout the season. On the year, Herrera struck out 110 times in only 360 at-bats in low-A. However, he did draw a respectable total of walks (47) and posted a solid .376 on-base percentage for the year. Despite his speed, Herrera appears to be best suited for hitting in the middle of the order rather than in the top two spots. He was a very productive run producer for the Cougars, driving in 62 runs in 94 games. That put him third on the team in RBIs behind Myron Leslie (68 RBIs in 131 games) and Tom Everidge (66 RBIs in 114 games), despite playing only two-thirds of the season.

At the end of the year, despite the disappointment of the steroid suspension and the time missed with the wrist injury and his brief trip to AAA, Herrera still got to add some hardware to his trophy case. He was named a post-season Midwest League All-Star. He also represented the A's organization as a member of the World Team in the MLB Futures Game in July. He joined Daric Barton as the only two A's farmhands to play in the prestigious showcase game.

Outlook

Herrera is still a raw player, although his skills are more refined than fellow five-tool prospect Richie Robnett at this point in his career. Herrera will likely begin the 2006 season in high-A Stockton where he could put up big numbers in the hitter-friendly California League. With the A's set in centerfield through the 2007 season, Oakland will probably take their time developing Herrera, who will play the 2006 season at age 21.

Herrera needs to cut down his strikeouts and improve his routes to the baseball in centerfield. However, the rest of his game is pretty well defined and should only get better as he gets older and grows more into his body. He isn't tall (5'11''), but he has room on his frame to add more muscle, which should help his power numbers improve. He is arguably the most effective base-stealer in the A's system and recently won the Venezuelan League regular season stolen base title in his first season playing in the Venezuelan Winter Leagues.

Herrera will have to continue to prove that his 2004 and 2005 numbers weren't a result of whatever supplement he was taking that caused him to test positive for steroids at the start of the season. However, with each solid season he adds to his resume, the more the sting of that positive result will disappear. A's fans will get a chance to see Herrera at spring training this year, as he was added to the team's 40-man roster this off-season. He could improve his stock considerably with a solid showing against the major leaguers this spring. As it stands, Herrera enters this spring as the A's best outfield prospect.


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