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.
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.
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.
The 2009 season put Darnell in Fort Wayne to begin the year. He spent 66 games with the TinCaps, making the All-Star game, before moving up to Lake Elsinore. Before reaching the California League, Darnell posted a .329 average with a scintillating .468 on-base percentage. His .402 BABIP was the best mark in the league amongst all players with at least 270 plate appearances, as was his .449 wOBA and .986 OPS. Despite playing only half a year in Fort Wayne, Darnell had a 26.5 wRAA (weighted Runs Above Average) – sixth best in Midwest League play.
"When he got here, he had a tendency to roll over on contact," Fort Wayne hitting coach Tom Tornicasa said. "What was happening was the barrel ends up flipping over the top of the ball and he ended up hitting a lot of ground balls. We spent time with him and he understood the concept. A little bit of work and he improved."
At the time of his departure from the Midwest League, Darnell was leading the entire minors in walks with 57 – six more walks than strikeouts. He notched 26 extra-base hits, including seven homers, while driving in 38.
Moved up to Lake Elsinore, Darnell hit .294 across 60 games with the Storm. The California native notched 33 extra-base hits, including 13 homers, recorded 43 RBI and scored 40 runs. He also had a 30-to-38 walk-to-strikeout ratio.
"What impressed me the most was that he controlled the strike zone, and this is a guy that was a very aggressive hitter in college and not someone I would expect to walk 80 times this year," former Padres vice president of scouting and player development Grady Fuson said. "He had a really good idea of how to work the count, of where his hot zone was, and how to spin on pitches. I think there was a correlation to how fast his power numbers rose."
His .311 cumulative average ranked fifth in the system and his 20 homers were tied for second. His 81 RBI was fourth best.
Darnell netted a 30-game on-base streak during his time with the Storm, the seventh best mark in the league. He also had a 13-game hitting streak.
Through his first year and change, Darnell has posted a .428 on-base percentage and .970 OPS with 68 extra base hits in 142 games.
"He has outstanding power," Lake Elsinore manager Carlos Lezcano said. "He's a competitor. Offensively, he did a very good job for us, getting on base, average; pretty much the whole package."
Darnell worked hard on improving his ability to hit the breaking ball at the end of last year and into 2009. He struggled adjusting to the pitch in Eugene, but his approach and ability to allow the ball to travel deep gave him the necessary tools to improve in that area.
"I think he does okay with the breaking ball because he doesn't miss any of the fastballs," former Fort Wayne and current San Antonio manager Doug Dascenzo said. "That's one way people look at it. So, here' a guy who, I don't know where he finished in the rankings, but at the time, I think he was in the top five in all of baseball and on-base percentage or something within the halfway point along with Logan Forsythe. One way to conquer the breaking ball is not miss the fastball, and he can do that. So that just comes with time.
"I think if you're concerned, you might want to be careful when you start talking about guys that can hit the breaking ball because what happens is they start to swinging at it, and the higher you get up, the better breaking balls you see, and then maybe they're not hitting as well. So I think you have to be careful when you start looking at saying either someone's a good breaking ball hitter or not a good breaking ball hitter because we're more concerned with dominating a fastball and getting a good pitch to hit. That's what he can do and he did it all year this year."
One of the issues that Darnell had to overcome early in 2009 was rolling over on pitches. With a level swing, Darnell was cutting the ball on contact and hitting more ground balls than expected. He worked with hitting coach Tom Tornicasa on gaining elevation and backspin on his balls through contact. It was a minor adjustment that will lead to more extra-base hits.
"He's had a very flat swing," roving hitting coordinator Tony Muser said. "A very strong, quick swing but very flat. There was no loft in his swing, and his contact point was a little bit deep where he'd be a little bit late to the fastball but had some success because his swing was flat.
"Now that he's starting to understand extension, and moving that contact point out a little bit farther, it has freed him up to loft. His contact point is out front more, where when he's catching it out front he knows he can loft a baseball. He's still a line drive hitter, but there' a little bit of loft in his swing, and he's starting to create an extension to his swing and now starting to drive the ball out of the ballpark."
Knowing his zone and laying off tough pitches also gave him an advantage. Even when he was rolling over on pitches, the third baseman was making hard contact.
With tree trunks for legs, Darnell drives with his whole body through the ball. He is not just a hands hitter. Getting his foot down with separation, Darnell has easy power that will continue to grow as he matures.
Little movement in his hands and arms during his setup means Darnell is not prone to inconsistent swings. His foundation is simple, making adjustments only minor things that need tweaking.
"He has real good power - as good as anybody we've got who's hitting to center and right center," Muser said. "Very good power, strong kid, but because his contact point is starting to creep out in front a little bit he can take a breaking ball, a slider or a changeup and hurt you to left field with some loft. So he's made subtle adjustments to his swing."
Darnell has some speed but won't be a major threat on the bases. His game is based more on power and his ability to hit than stealing bags. He swiped seven during 2009 and that would be the height of his prowess.
Defensively, Darnell has the arm and athleticism to stick at third base. Most of his 30 errors across two leagues were on rushed throws that went errant. With more experience, Darnell should lower that total. A lot of it begins with having balance when he throws and a slight crouch to get leverage. He has soft hands to pick balls and is excellent at fielding bunts on the run. There are some who believe he may move off third base but that is not currently in the cards.
"A good defender that had a little trouble with his throwing," Dascenzo said. "He made a few errors throwing, but who doesn't in A-Ball? These guys are going to make errors but he has a plus arm, had power, knows how to hit, get on base – what more do you want?"
"On third base he did improve from the last time I saw him," Lezcano said. "We'll go from there on his defense, but his defense did get better. My only concern is whether he can play third base at the higher levels, but he did better and we'll see how much it progresses in the coming years."
"I think he can stay at third base. He has a chance to become a very good third baseman and I love him," roving infield coordinator Gary Jones said. "Darnell has the physical size, talent, arm, and he is going to have power. I just think he has a chance to be a real good third baseman at the major league level."
"Defensively, the feet and hands are good, but the throwing comes and goes," Fuson said. "When he starts to learn pace and timing, not trying to unload on every throw, he's going to be good."
A Cal Ripken type work ethic, Darnell is studious in his approach to the game. He studies pitchers and looks to pick up anything that might help his game.
"Tremendous young player in all aspects of the game," Dascenzo said. "Really above average. On-base – tremendous. His walks were up really high and he had plenty of RBI."
Conclusion: Darnell is an impact bat that can bat anywhere from 3-5 in a lineup. He controls the bat and the strike zone with power. Given his meticulous approach to the game, Darnell is one of the surer bets to reach his ceiling, which is considerable. He could be a 30-homer threat and possibly more as his upper half catches up with his powerful lower half.
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