The Tigers selected Justice as a raw high school player, playing the odds that he would attend junior college for a year. As Justice chose to attend Lake Sumter Community College, the Tigers were afforded an extra year to evaluate him. After a breakout season for LSCC, Justice was certain to be drafted much higher than the 31st round, and the Tigers put on a full court press to sign him prior to the 2004 draft. After signing, Justice reported to Oneonta for a difficult test of his abilities. His raw abilities proved unready for such a challenge, as he mustered only a .216/.262/.359 line for the O-Tigers.
Despite such struggles, Justice was promoted to the Midwest League to start the 2005 season, and his difficulties continued. From April to July, he battled against much more advanced players, notching a low .595 OPS in 78 games. The Tigers recognized that he was over-matched, and sent him back to Oneonta to close out the campaign. In a 46-game return trip through the NYPL, Justice performed much better; driving in 35 runs and posting a .275/.384/.438 line. Every facet of his game saw improvement while at Oneonta, and the he closed the season on a high note.
Once again, the Tigers tried promoting Justin to the Midwest League in 2006; this time with significantly more success. While spending the entire season playing alongside Cameron Maybin in the ‘Caps outfield, Justice broke out in a big way. As his tools began to translate to baseball skills, he posted a .295/.358/.435 line, and finished 2nd in the league in triples (9). During August, Justin helped thrust the Whitecaps toward the playoffs on the back of a .364/.423/.591 stretch, and took home TigsTown West Michigan Player of the Month honors.
Justice has plenty of tools, it's just a matter of them turning into legitimate baseball skills and applying them on the diamond. He has an enticing package of offensive skills, highlighted by above-average speed, and burgeoning power. Justin lacks top-end speed, but he does move quickly on the bases. His instincts are progressing, and he should successfully swipe more bases as he gains additional experience.
Justice doesn't project to have tons of home run power, but he should drive the ball from gap-to-gap with regularity. He has the ability to hit for a good average, and is improving his ability to make routine contact. His pitch recognition skills have improved over his three professional seasons, and subsequently his walk and strikeout rates reflect this progress. He is likely to strikeout a fair amount throughout his career, but if he maintains his progress in plate discipline, he should walk enough to offset that problem.
Defensively, Justice's speed plays well. He has the ability to cover center field in even the biggest of parks, but he is better suited to left field in the long run. His instincts are solid, but his routes lack consistency and quality. He worked extensively with the coaching staff at West Michigan to improve his route running, and progress could be seen. His arm is above-average with tremendous carry and solid accuracy.
Justin has a good work ethic, and a strong desire to be a big league player. His raw tools suggest he could attain that lofty goal, but he'll need to make strides to polish his overall game in the next couple of years. With moderate progress, Justice projects as a solid big league left fielder, but the more likely scenario at this time is a very good 4th outfielder that can play for longer stretches if necessary.
Performance Level Team AB AVG 2B HR RBI SO BB OBP% SLG% A
Justice has been largely healthy throughout his professional career. His work ethic is strong, and should enable him to remain in peak physical condition.
After spending the 2006 season in a pitcher's heaven, Justice will get a chance to hit in a slightly more favorable environment this season. He will call Joker Marchant stadium in Lakeland, Florida his home this season, and again playing alongside Cameron Maybin, I expect a dynamic outfield duo that should thrill Flying Tiger fans.
There is little need to rush Justice through the system, which is good for both parties. He won't be eligible for the Rule 5 draft until December 2008, which affords the Tigers two more years of progress and evaluation; before having to make any 40-man roster decisions with him. Look for Justice to make continued progress towards reaching his ceiling this season. His homeruns and doubles totals should start rising this season, and I expect his defense to take another step forward.
Mark Anderson covers the Tigers' minor league system and all of minor league baseball for TigsTown.com. He can be reached at Mark@TigsTown.com.