Name: Mike Baxter
DOB: December 7, 1984
A former first baseman, Mike Baxter was moved to the outfield full-time this past season, spending his second year in Low-A Fort Wayne (actually one and a half seasons since the draft and late sign).
"Mike's makeup is a big advantage for him," 2006 Fort Wayne manager Randy Ready said. "He comes ready to play and prepared to play day in and day out. Obviously, the power numbers – I wouldn't rule it out. There is some power to come. I don't know if it is going to be 30 to 40 if that is what you want from your corner guy but he has a lot of intangibles that can make up the difference as an every day player."
An invite to major league camp this spring could have been the best thing to happen to Baxter or the worst thing. Based on his current situation, he would probably agree, but the knowledge he could have gained from spring training with the big boys could light a spark in the outfielder.
Instead, he was sent to the early hitter camp and Will Venable took his place with the big league invite.
Last year, Baxter had a dynamite spring training, hitting the gaps with regularity.
On the season, Baxter hit .256 over 117 games for the Wizards. It was, however, his late surge that raised his average from .231 on August 10 to its resting spot on September 4.
A 15-game hitting streak that ended on the last day of the regular season was the result of hard work. Baxter battled through much of the year but to his credit he never wavered in his dedication, seeking extra work in the cages with hitting coach Max Venable.
His strength comes in hitting the gaps, turning singles into doubles and doubles into triples. His aggressive attitude to stretch a hit and take an extra bag showed in his 38 extra base hits, including 28 doubles and seven triples. Thirteen of those doubles came in August, though, and he didn't top four in any other month.
Early in the year, Baxter got away from what he does best, working the count and going with the pitch. He was pulling balls that he could have lined into left field and falling victim to ground ball outs.
He began to press as the slide continued for most of the year, hitting .229 over a 50-game stretch.
When August came around, Baxter was using all fields to get his hits and when he pulled a pitch it would drop into the gaps for a double.
"Bright kid," Padres' scouting director Bill "Chief" Gayton began. "More of a gap type guy. You can get him running down the line pretty good. He needs to get stronger."
He has a line drive swing that will produce some homers but profiles as a doubles banger. But, as an outfielder, Baxter must also show he can ship balls out of the yard more regularly.
Last year, the same concerns held. Still just 22, the Queens, New York native has room to grow and that was the formula for the off-season, get bigger and stronger.
"At the end of the season Mike said, ‘Max, what should I do in the off-season,'" Venable recalled. "I said, ‘You know what Mike, you didn't have a great year but you rebounded and had a adequate year.' Like you said, he didn't hit for power and sure we would like to see a little more but he rebounded and got really hot there. I told him, ‘Get in the weight room. Get stronger.' Those were my words to him.
"He has the ability to hit but if he is going to be playing right field or wherever in the outfield he is going to have to hit some balls out of the ballpark. My thing with him was to just get a little stronger."
"You can never rule that out but you have to learn how to hit before the power will come," Ready added. "Mike had a big spring and I think that is what got him off to a slow start. He used a lot of those extra base hits in spring training and when the season started it wasn't working out for him. He hit the hardest .230 in the league up until the last six weeks of the season when he ended up almost hitting .260."
Whether he packed muscle onto his frame or not may ultimately show the progress from what has to be considered a down year.
He is a tick above average in the speed department and swiped 13 bags in 18 attempts on the year. He gets good jumps on the pitchers and explodes out of the batter's box and comes to full speed quickly, giving him a chance at a number of triples.
"He is a hard-nosed player," former Vanderbilt teammate Matt Buschmann said. "He plays as hard as he can. If you ever see him running down the first base line it looks like he is not saying much but next time you are there keep your ears perked up because he is saying a lot. He will run down the line and get emotional – which is a good thing."
As an outfielder, Baxter spent most of the year in right field, occasionally pulling duty in left field and center.
With scant experience, Baxter was adept at reading the ball off the bat and taking solid routes to the ball. He also wasn't afraid to sacrifice his body to make a play. His arm was average and he would, at times, be inaccurate with his throws. Baxter did manage to register nine assists on the season.
Baxter has been praised for his outstanding makeup and willingness to learn and be a leader in the clubhouse. That can only take you so far.
ETA: Baxter will begin the year in Lake Elsinore and will be challenged again to thump the high wall in right field as often as possible. An increase in extra base hits is a prerequisite for a big season. He still has time to develop and this year could be the defining season that determines his future.