Prospect Review: The Corner Infielders
Justin Leone, 3B
Age at end of 2004: 27
2003: .288/.405/.541, 21HR, 92 RBI, 38-2B, 7-3B, 92 BB at San Antonio
2004 Pre-season: No. 1 3B, No. 9 overall
2004: .269/.344/.597, 21 HR, 56 R, 51 RBI, 26 BB at Tacoma; .216/.298/.441, 6 HR, 15 R, 13 RBI, 9 BB at Seattle
Moving to the Pacific Coast League, Leone's raw power jumped singificantly and he hit as many home runs in 253 at-bats in Triple-A as he did in 455 at-bats in Double-A the previous season. He even managed to bring some of that magic to a power-deficient Mariners club, hitting six home runs in just 102 at-bats. His reputation as a run producer continued to build as his production in some areas outpaced his 2003 breakout season. The athletic third baseman also demonstrated an ability to play at shortstop or in left field, making him all the more valuable to the big league club as a potential piece of the equation.
At the plate, Leone wasn't as selective as he was during his tenure in San Antonio. Part of Leone's success when he was named Texas League Player of the Year was his plate discipline. Whether he got a hit or not, it was near certain the he would reach base in any given game. Leone didn't have the same patience this year, and the result was his walks nearly being cut in half and his strikeout rate climbing to what would have been a career worst, had he played a full-season. With the glove, Leone was solid up until his promotion to Seattle, when his throwing turned a bit wild. He had little opportunity to remedy these mistakes before a stray pitch broke his left hand and sidelined him for the remainder of the season.
To hammer the point into the ground, Leone needs to improve his eye at the plate. Throughout his minor league career he was a consistent power threat, though slightly erratic and prone to streaks as an overall hitter. The ability to take walks even when he's otherwise slumping makes his numbers look that much better, and a Leone who is taking walks regularly also has enough of an eye to avoid striking out as often. As for the throwing errors, they seem like more of an aberration given his first-half and 2003 campaign. They should improve with time and the steadying of nerves.
A.J. Zapp, 1B
Age at end of 2004: 26
2003: .278/.346/.496 25 HR, 92 RBI, 35-2B at San Antonio
2004 Pre-season: No. 1 1B, No. 13 overall
2004: .291/.365/.523, 29 HR, 101 RBI, 27-2B at Tacoma
Zapp came into 2004 with some high standards to live up to, playing the part of a key offensive cog in the offense of a record-setting 2003 San Antonio Missions team. Fortunately, the former first-rounder was up to the task and set career highs over a full season in the three major batting categories, as well as home runs and RBIs, while falling just one short of tying his record of 57 walks set in 2000. He did all of the above for the Rainiers offense while providing the same steady, Gold Glove-caliber defense that has been a calming influence on many a minor league infield.
One of the other categories Zapp set a career high in was strikeouts, biting the dust 184 times during the season, or roughly once every 2.8 at-bats. In an organization that appears to put a lot of weight on that factor, Zapp had strike one on him to start out. He also had the misfortune of heating his bat up at the wrong time. While Bucky Jacobsen and Justin Leone spent the better part of the first half trading places on the home run leaders chart, Zapp put up the brunt of his numbers towards the end of the minor league season. That's strike two. In addition to all that, the Mariners have a poor track record when it comes to utilizing power-hitting first baseman they've signed through minor league free agency, and they already made one out of character move with Jacobsen earlier in the season. Strike three, and Zapp's out of here.
Whatever Zapp did to get under the M's skin (apparently not taking to certain instruction in some areas), it's a moot point now and he's moved on to the Cincinnati Reds organization. If he can continue a similar line of offensive production, then there are few concerns for him other than strikeouts, and the Reds don't seem to be as critical in that department. He'll begin 2005 playing a lot closer to his hometown in Indiana and if he does manage to make the big leagues, it has the makings of a great story.
Greg Dobbs, 3B
Age at end of 2004: 26
2002: .365/.425/.542, 5 HR, 15 RBI at San Antonio .275/.338/.431, 16 2B, 10 HR at Wisconsin
2004 Pre-season: No. 3 1B, No. 24 overall
2004: .325/.373/.507, 14-2B, 25 R at San Antonio .271/.286/.416, 8 HR, 28 R at Tacoma .226/.250/.302, 1 HR, 9 RBI at Seattle
Let's face it- after spending an entire season on the bench with a knee injury, few things could be better for the old prospect ranking than just getting back on the field. That little note to his credit aside, Dobbs picked up right around where he left off with the Texas League. After he had proven his point, Dobbs made up for lost time with a promotion to Tacoma. He capped off his 2004 season with a promotion to Seattle and became the first Mariner ever to hit a home run in his first major league at-bat. After all was said and done, Dobbs had set new career highs in games played, hits, doubles, triples, and RBIs.
A year's worth of rust doesn't shake off so easily, and some aspects of Dobbs' game came off as a little sub-par. Defense was one of the major areas he took a step back, making ten errors in 51 games with the Missions and fourteen errors in 64 games in Tacoma. Another area where he significantly lost ground was his ability to draw a walk. After being promoted, Dobbs only took five walks in 255 at-bats. Not a problem if you can make consistent or hard contact with the ball, but Dobbs was doing neither and his game suffered because of it.
The defense is something that's likely to improve on its own with more time on the field, but the lack of walks remains a concern. Dobbs doesn't have the raw power some of his fellow corner infielders do, nor the raw athleticism to play multiple positions on the field, and even then his knee may have brought concerns about that. Therefore, Dobbs has to set himself apart with a high average and using what muscle he has to put a jump on the ball. The walks just help even out the flow of production.
Hunter Brown, 3B
Age at end of 2004: 25
2003: .248/.363/.436, 15 HR, 68 RBI, 34-2B, 3-3B at Inland Empire
2004 Pre-Season: No. 2 3B, No. 16 overall
2004: .286/.379/.435, 13 HR, 19-2B, 4-3B at San Antonio
Like Leone, Brown took the normally difficult transition from Advanced-A to Double-A and made it his breakout season. Playing both first and second until Dobbs was promoted, Brown was one of the few reliable batters in the Missions lineup. Over the course of the season, he set a new career high in hits, which led to an added boost to his batting average. Brown also cut down on his strikeouts, dropping from 102 in 2003 to just 80 this season. Add in twenty stolen bases from his attempt to make the most of his speed, and you have all the makings of a fine offensive season.
Brown's final numbers in runs scored and RBI weren't as impressive as in 2003 and not necessarily characteristic of the season he had. This may just be a product of the weak lineup the Missions ran out on a regular basis, but it is curious nonetheless. Despite hitting more often than he ever had previously, it wasn't necessarily reflected in his OBP, and his walks actually appeared to go down slightly. In addition, Brown wasn't necessarily making hard contact either; his slugging percentage was near identical to his 2003 season, despite a jump in batting average of nearly forty points.
With the ability to play three infield positions, Brown has already established himself as one of the better all-around players on the field. So far as his hitting goes, he'll need to establish his breakout as a fact and not an isolated incident. Brown could drive that point home if he puts up numbers that are a little more reflective of the power and batting eye that he has. That asset could make all the difference in how quickly he makes it to the big leagues.
Matt Hagen, 1B/3B
Age at end of 2004: 24
2003: .220/.309/.422, 21HR, 65 RBI, 28 2B at Wisconsin
2004 Pre-Season: No. 3 3B, N/A overall
2004: .231/.304/.401, 9 HR, 47 RBI, 30 2B at Inland Empire
Hagen adapted well to an early season position change that saw him moving across the diamond to first. Though he had little practice at the spot, he managed to make only 13 errors on the season while playing 97 of his games there. Moving from the cold of Wisconsin to the heat and dry air of California, Hagen managed to set a new high in doubles despite playing 25 games less than he did last season. He also improved slightly on his strikeouts and his batting average.
A jump from a league controlled by pitchers to one dominated by hitters is usually reflected in a significant jump in slugging percentage, but Hagen had no such jump. While he was able to leg out doubles with some regularity, his home run power practically disappeared. Since raw power is one of the better areas of Hagen's game, the drop will not reflect well on his status as a prospect. What steps he took forward were cancelled out by the ones he took back, and as the season wore on, Hagen was seeing less and less playing time.
This season was a lost effort for Matt Hagen and he'll likely repeat at Inland Empire to start 2004. He still might get a roughly equal amount of playing time considering the questions this year's Wisconsin team had at the corners, but to do that he'll have to set himself apart from the competition. That starts with a return of his usual power numbers, and would have to continue with a higher batting average. A tall order for someone with a career batting average of .238, but the numbers he put up in college indicate that anything's possible.
Next: Monday, November, 15: Troy Sowden turns the double play with the second basemen and shortstops.
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