Name: Mike Baxter
DOB: December 7, 1984
At the All-Star break, Baxter finds the stroke that has eluded him during the first half of the year and begins to stroke the ball like he is capable.
During the months of April, May and June, however, things have not worked out quite as well. In 2006, Baxter struggled from the outset and was hitting .223 on July 3 with the Fort Wayne Wizards. He exploded down the stretch, hitting .325 over his final 29 games.
Last year with the Lake Elsinore Storm, the outfielder was hitting .239 on June 24 before turning on the jets and hitting .321 over his final 48 games.
"It was soul searching with Baxter," 2007 Storm hitting coach Max Venable said. "He has all the ingredients to be a good player. It might be one of those things that he is a guy that starts off kind of slow. Some guys do that – start off slow and end strong. Baxter fits into that category.
"As you go, you try and come up with some solution – ‘got to get you off to a better start than you have in the past because we know at the end you are going to have a much better season.' Guys tend to fall into certain categories. Whether you start off slow and end up strong or start strong and peter out at the end."
"This kid is a true professional," Storm manager Carlos Lezcano said. "He works hard every single day. I was not surprised to see him improve because of his work ethic – an outstanding work ethic."
A strong start is something that Baxter vows to have in 2008, and given his tremendous work ethic it seems likely that he breaks the hex.
Baxter has a little bit of loft in his swing, often hitting the top half of the ball, creating topspin and a line drive output that sails over second and does a quick dip before the outfielders can make a play.
When Baxter is swinging the stick well his stroke is quick and compact, lacking a lot of movement that could make it high maintenance.
"He has a nice swing," Lezcano said. "This kid is going to hit. He has a very pretty swing. At times he gets a little bit late starting and that hurts him a little. Everything together, he did a great job because of his ability and hard work."
He will get into bad habits with his head and feet, pulling off the ball and tapping his foot as he comes forward. That causes him to try and hit the ball out in front of the plate rather than allowing it to get deep. It also messes with his ability to recognize the pitch. Staying back on the ball should net more power, as he is able to come forward and swing in one fluid motion rather than losing power as he drifts.
His power numbers, particularly for a power position such as the outfield, has been lacking. Baxter needs to start sending more balls out of the park regularly to make a statement as a prospect.
"He is a tweener guy," former Padres minor league field coordinator and current major league scout Bill Bryk said. "He lacks the power for the corner and the defensive ability and speed for centerfield.
"He has improved, he has good makeup. There is something there. He hasn't shown enough just yet."
Blessed with good hand/eye coordination, Baxter often gets good wood on the ball but weak grounders occur when his balance is on his front foot and not evenly distributed with an explosion towards the front foot at the end.
He has a good eye but when his mechanics are off he is late reacting to the ball and will strike out. He should improve his walk totals this year with a consistent approach.
"He keeps a book on pitchers religiously," Lezcano noted. "He has that book out everyday. He is a very consistent guy. If you want to learn more in this game you have to be that way. You can't be up or down – he is even-keel and comes to work everyday earlier. To me, he was the hardest worker. You knew he was going to give you 100 percent every day."
His focus this off-season has been on hitting the ball the other way with authority and letting the ball get deep, allowing his swing to do the work rather than just his hands.
Baxter's contract stipulated an invite to Spring Training prior to the 2007 season. He and Grady Fuson, the Padres vice president of scouting and player development, agreed to hold off for another year. That could be a blessing in the long run, as he might have been overmatched a year ago after just completing a year in Low-A Fort Wayne. After a solid campaign in Lake Elsinore, Baxter will be in Spring Training this year, understanding the expectations much better.
Baxter is usually one of the first ones to hit the field and is always willing to take extra batting practice to improve his game. His makeup is routinely touted as among the best at every stop he makes. That willingness to put forth the effort has the Padres believing he will make strides in the coming year.
Baxter has good speed, running a 6.68 60-yard dash last spring – the seventh-best mark on the club. He is able to turn doubles into triples and is a savvy baserunner when taking an extra base or tagging up. His first-step quickness is not as evident and it takes him a little longer to gain top-end speed, making his basestealing prowess less than ideal.
Defensively, Baxter has made tremendous strides with his reads off the bat and ability to play multiple positions in just his second year playing the outfield. He spent nearly half the year in right, splitting the rest of the season between centerfield and left. Baxter has a good arm and what he lacks in arm strength he makes up for in accuracy. He is still learning the nuances of where to throw the ball and hitting the cutoff man but has made himself into a solid defender.
"He is learning the outfield and did a nice job in left field and in right field," said Lezcano. "He needs to work a little on his jumps."
ETA: The 2008 season will important to Baxter. He gets a taste of big league pitching in spring and must start the year with a bang and maintain a consistent approach throughout. If he continues to do well flipping around in the outfield and hits for more power, he could make a run at as a fourth outfielder late in 2009.