Name: James Darnell
DOB: February 24, 1986
Selected in the second-round of the 2008 draft, Darnell signed just two days prior to the August 15 deadline. A late start didn't preclude him from shining in short-season Eugene.
"If Darnell would've been there instead of only the last 14 games, if he'd been there for 14 games prior to that, played 25 games, we'd have probably won by three or four games, our division, ‘cause he can really play and he can hit," Eugene manager Greg Riddoch said.
Darnell hit .373 across 16 games for the Emeralds, collecting a knock in all but one game. The third baseman registered nine multi-hit games and had a six-RBI game on August 27.
"He is a good athlete, has good size, life in his body and is a good defender," Padres vice president of scouting and player development Grady Fuson said. "He didn't play that many games because he signed late, so I wasn't that surprised to see him put up the numbers that he did. If he did it for the whole summer, then, yeah, that would have surprised me.
The California native mashed nine extra base hits in his short stint and finished the campaign with 15 RBI. He also had 11 walks compared to 12 strikeouts for a .462 on-base percentage.
A right-handed batter, Darnell hit .420 off right-handed pitching and .235 off lefties.
The South Carolina alumnus has been considered an RBI machine because of his ability to hit in the clutch. He proved that analysis true during his Northwest League run. He swatted .462 with runners in scoring position with a .548 on-base percentage.
Darnell learned a lot playing in a strong SEC and has five-tool potential. He is an athletic specimen that has room to grow. Power, the ability to hit for average, solid defense and tremendous makeup are all within range.
"I think he's got a tremendous athletic body," Riddoch said. "He's the only guy I've ever seen with two sets of thighs, two above and two below the knee. ‘Cause he's built like a rock."
The former Gamecock has good separation with his hands and a solid foundation at the dish. He is able to turn on an inside fastball or extend his arms to get pitches on the outside corner.
With a relaxed approach and solid mechanics, Darnell can pummel pitches to different parts of the field. He has opposite field power and regularly hits the gaps.
"I just liked his attitude," Eugene hitting coach Eric Peyton said. "I thought he was a great kid. He also asked a lot of questions. He asked a lot, so he was very inquisitive about the swing, the mechanics of the swing. And then he kind of realized where his swing was. He also made an adjustment when he got here.
"One of the scary things for me is for me to say, ‘Hey, I'm not here to change your swing.' I'm just here to say, ‘Hey, look what you can do better.' And he saw that, and he worked with it, and he drove in some big runs, he battled, and for him only having that many ABs, he did pretty good."
A solid batting eye helps him hone in on his pitch. Quick wrists send his bat exploding through the zone and a level swing allows his bat to stay in the hitting zone for a prolonged period of time.
Powerful legs help drive the ball to the opposite field, as he is able to use his whole body in his swing, incorporating his lower half and torso.
Darnell did have trouble adjusting to the breaking ball and would chase them outside of the zone. It was a point of emphasis for him during the Padres Instructional League. He has done a better job of allowing the ball to travel deeper and hitting it the other way, helping him recognize the break and take advantage if it lands inside the hitting zone.
He has a studious approach to the game. He watches the opposition religiously and is always looking for an angle that will give him an edge. Sitting in the dugout, Darnell remains focused on how pitchers are attacking hitters and what their tendencies are.
"I was so impressed the first day that he got there and the other team was warming up - and I'm on them all the time about watch the other team's warm up, watch batting practice, see what they're tendencies are, watch what the pitcher does in the bullpen while he's warming up for a game, and here he is, without me even mentioning it to him, he's down at the end of the dugout outside with his bat timing every pitch of that guy warming up, a la Tony Gwynn," Riddoch said. "And so I just told him, I said, ‘You know, you've had good tutelage, you better thank the people along the way that have helped you establish this routine that you have cause it's going to create success in your future because you do have a plan when you come to the park every day.' And that kid does.
"James Darnell got to see these players in front of him and they're giving him a good chance for instructional league and for next season," Peyton said. "He already got to see what he needs to do to make a little bit more of an adjustment. The rotational is the biggest thing for college players to make an adjustment to. Once you've been through it – they need to go through this so they can say, ‘Hey, I need to make a little bit of an adjustment mentally,' and my work ethic is maybe going to improve my swing."
Defensively, Darnell has the arm and athleticism to play third base. He moves well laterally, maintains good balance and makes accurate throws. It is conceivable that he could move to the outfield and see success as well.
"Great personality, great make-up, good third baseman, good range, accurate arm, plenty of arm," Riddoch said.
Conclusion: People have already made the connection between Darnell and Chase Headley – noting that Darnell is more advanced than Headley was at the same stage in their development with Darnell also having a higher ceiling. For Darnell to reach that, he will need to add some weight to the upper half of a frame that can handle the additional muscle.
Darnell already has power to all fields but would be buoyed by the weight his frame can handle. It will make him a formidable force in the middle of the order. Darnell could move quickly with the potential to be a perennial top prospect.
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