TigsTown Analysis: Breakout Hitting Prospects

Every year, a few prospects in every Major League system decide to wake up and start posting numbers that every scout envisioned they someday could. Last year, The Tigers were fortunate enough to have players like Chris Maples, Virgil Vasquez, Ramon Garcia, Jair Jurrjens, and even the much ballyhooed Cameron Maybin break onto the scene with impressive performances. Who might explode in 2007?

First on the docket are two players that on the surface have already established themselves as serious prospects, but under the thin veneer of their brief careers, there might just be evidence that an even bigger season is in store. Jeff Larish and Mike Hollimon are linked as fellow 2005 draftees, separated by eleven rounds and a lot of bonus money, but both could be poised for an explosion at Double-A Erie this year.

Larish ended his 2006 campaign by ranking in the Florida State League top ten in 7 key offensive categories, leaving one to question how he has not already broken out. Throughout last season, Jeff's strikeout rates remained quite consistent, while his walk rates increased throughout the season; presumably as he settled into the professional game.

Possibly more important is Larish's improvement against lefties as the season progressed. Despite struggling against southpaws overall, he managed to begin controlling the strike zone and hitting for a bit more average against them as the year wore on.

Combining those promising trends with the more hitter friendly environment of Jerry Uht Park in Erie, and Larish could threaten several of the Seawolves more prominent single seasons records; such as homeruns (34 – Kurt Airoso, 2004), RBI (102 – Eric Munson, 2001), doubles (35 – Eric Munson, 2001), and even slugging percentage (.578 – Mike Rivera, 2001).

Similarly, Mike Hollimon is coming off a season at West Michigan that saw him rank in the Midwest League top ten in seven different categories, all while leading the ‘Caps to the 2006 Midwest League crown. Hollimon was surprisingly consistent throughout the 2006 season, but towards the tail end, he demonstrated a better ability to consistently drive the ball with authority. That combined with his progressively decreasing strikeout rate, are prime harbingers for future success.

Hollimon's overall power numbers were killed by his home park last year, losing nearly forty points of slugging and 25 points of OPS at home. His park adjusted numbers suggest a player capable of posting a .900+ OPS; extremely good production for the middle of the diamond. With a move to the organization's most hitter friendly park at Erie, he could be in line for a monster season at the keystone.

As it always seems true, some players just happen to come out of nowhere to post surprising numbers; and the Tigers may have just such a player in DSL second baseman Elvin Soto. His size and instincts for the game suggest a player with immense potential on the field, and his progressive performance throughout 2006 suggests he might just begin approaching that potential.

At only 17-years old, Soto struggled early on during his first exposure to professional ball, but he quickly began improving in all facets, driving the ball more consistently, working counts in his favor, and simply making more and more contact. Soto's game improved throughout the entire 2006 season, leaving him primed to make an impact this year; whether that comes in the DSL or stateside in the Gulf Coast League.

The 2006 season was a lost year for a lot of players at Double-A Erie, including speedster Vincent Blue. His .232/.316/.271 line is certainly pretty ugly, but take his .272/.361/.328 line from July 1st on, and things look much better. Looking deeper than his overall line, Blue's second half walk and strikeout rates both settled at levels a touch above his career numbers, and his success rate in swiping bases even made large strides; bumping up to 74% from his previous career norm of around 60%.

After a first half that saw Vincent try to crush every pitch thrown his way, he began getting back to what made him an intriguing prospect; his ability to make contact and run really fast. With a more potent lineup surrounding him in 2007, and some encouraging early reports that he has maintained his approach for the second half of 2006, Blue appears poised to post a very promising season in his return tour through the Eastern League.

The final offensive player to highlight is outfielder Justin Justice. After finally putting things together for a solid season at West Michigan in 2006, is it possible he could be ready to make "the leap" to the next level of prospects? Justice made many significant strides last season, including some solid improvement against left-handers, continued improvement in both walk and strikeout rates, as well as a translation of his off-field speed to game action.

As with most of the ‘Caps hitters, Justice was hurt by his home ballpark, striking 16 of his 22 doubles, and 5 of his 6 homeruns away from the "friendly" confines of Grand Rapids. With a move to a more neutral park at Lakeland this season, he should see a much more representative surge in his power numbers, as well as a general improvement in his overall line. While his .316/.387/.500 road line from '06 may be a bit of a stretch, it's a much better indicator of what he is capable of posting, if given the opportunity.

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