TigsTown Analysis: Maybin's Case for #1

There is little doubt remaining in the baseball community that Cameron Maybin is one of baseball's elite prospects. What is up for debate is where he falls in that pecking order of elite prospects. Is he just another of the cadre of top kids, or is he battling for the top spot? There is a solid argument to be made for Maybin as the top prospect in baseball; but what exactly is that argument?

Nearly any discussion of prospects inevitably begins with talk of "tools." You know those things a player supposedly possesses that could someday place him alongside the greats in baseball's Hall of Fame? When speaking of Maybin's tools, there is little left to the imagination. He has nearly as complete a tool set as anyone you could find in baseball. Even when you expand beyond the five basic tools – hit for average, hit for power, speed, throwing arm, and defense – Maybin manages to "Wow!" you. His baseball IQ is outstanding; he has a tremendous passion for the game, and has a work ethic to rival anyone in baseball.

Getting back to his five-tool package, we'll start at the beginning. Cameron has hit for average at every step of his baseball career; as a professional, as a high schooler in South Carolina, even on the national amateur wood bat circuits. He continues to hit over .300 despite being one of the youngest players in his league both years as a pro. Hitting for average is already a plus tool for Maybin. In addition to his general batting prowess, he also possesses incredible power potential, capable of blasting mammoth shots to all fields, and consistently driving balls to the gaps. Much of his potential has yet to come to fruition in game action, but there is little doubt that his raw, wiry strength portends big time future power.

Maybin has speed to burn, not only ranking as the fastest runner in the Detroit system, but as one of the fastest runners in baseball. Keep in mind, I'm not just speaking of track star speed, but of actual game speed; speed that can steal bases with ease, track down shots to the outfield gaps, etc. His defensive abilities are aided by blazing speed and high baseball intelligence, but he also has great instincts in the outfield; reading balls correctly off the bat, taking proper routes immediately, and tracking balls with an ease rarely seen from such a young player. He compliments his defensive gracefulness with top notch arm strength, possibly the best in the system – an arm capable of playing very well in right field. Chalk up three more plus tools for the young Mr. Maybin.

Looking purely from a scouting perspective, there are few players capable of matching up with Maybin's combination of power, speed, defense, instincts, passion, and coachability. His tools alone garner him attention as one of the premier young players in the minor leagues.

I will be the first to admit, tools are not everything when evaluating prospects. How is a player performing? How old is he relative to his league? Are there signs of progress or regression? The only way to figure this out is to examine his professional statistics, and look for indicators of future success or failure. Maybin's debut as a teenager in the Midwest League could not have gone much better. Playing in a league historically known to suppress offensive numbers – particularly power numbers – Maybin excelled, earning praise as possibly the league's best player throughout the 2006 season. With the average age of his opponents hovering around twenty-two, Maybin was roughly three years younger than his competition, having never played professional baseball; posting numbers that would force anyone to take notice.

Maybin bested the league averages for batting average, on-base percentage, slugging, OPS, and stolen base success rate, by at least 19% in every category; notching a .304/.387/.457/.844 line while swiping bases at a 79% clip. He wasn't just holding his own in the Midwest League, he was killing the ball and the league's pitchers. His defense was rated as Major League ready by many opposing managers, and his enthusiasm was praised across the board. What more could anyone have asked for in a pro debut?

His 2007 season, though slowed by minor, nagging injuries, has seen much the same results. Again playing at roughly three years younger than his peers, Maybin's numbers have hardly changed despite the step up the minor league ladder. His current line stands at .303/.396/.466/.862 which once again places him at a clip 20% ahead of the league average or better in nearly every category (his batting average is only 17% better). Logic tells us that his numbers should/could suffer to some extent; instead Maybin has improved his on-base abilities, slugging, and OPS, while maintaining his average and stolen base rate. Again, what more can we ask of such a young player in a pitcher's league?

Heading into this season, Maybin ranked 15th in the Scout.com prospect rankings. Looking towards the conclusion of the 2007 campaign, there are many players both ahead and behind him that are likely to graduate from the list, losing their eligibility. This list includes uber-prospects like Daisuke Matsuzaka, Alex Gordon, Delmon Young, Phil Hughes, Homer Bailey, Yovani Gallardo, Matt Garza, Josh Fields, Carlos Gomez, Billy Butler, James Loney, and possibly Brandon Wood and Adam Jones. Based on the same list, the remaining top prospects from last off-season are Maybin, Carlos Gonzalez, Justin Upton, Nick Adenhart, Clayton Kershaw, Reid Brignac, Adam Miller, Andrew McCutcheon, Jose Tabata, Evan Longoria, and several others further down the list.

We have examined how Maybin is performing this year, but how has his prime competition fared this season? At 22-years old in AA, Arizona's Carlos Gonzalez has only mustered a .263/.303/.467 line. While still promising with his tools, his performance has lagged slightly behind. Also struggling to post the impressive numbers many prognosticators felt they could (or should) are Tampa Bay shortstop Reid Brignac and Pittsburgh outfielder Andrew McCutcheon. While both of the latter two prospects currently stand behind Maybin in the Scout.com rankings, Carlos Gonzalez is the third rated prospect remaining on the eligible list. It is hard to imagine that ranking holding steady.

Both young righties, Adam Miller and Nick Adenhart have been solid, if unspectacular this season. Both maintain plenty of interest as prospects, but have they done enough to warrant consideration for the top spot? I believe that to be unlikely at this time.

On the other hand, players like Upton, Kershaw, Tabata, and Longoria have continued to excel this year – right along with Maybin. Justin Upton's campaign has been truly sensational, having dominated both the California League and the Southern League, en route to a potential late season call-up to Arizona. Kershaw has been filthy since debuting in the Midwest League for the Great Lakes Loons, and Tabata and Longoria both continue demonstrate their hitting prowess. In addition, Reds outfield prospect Jay Bruce has gone crazy this summer; killing everything thrown towards him, and is now commanding attention as one of the top prospects in the game.

If we consider the crew of Upton (.316/.400/.534), Kershaw (7-4, 2.74, 120 K, 87.1 IP), Tabata (.310/.374/.393), Longoria (.299/.400/.513), Bruce (.318/.377/.587) and Maybin (.302/.395/.464) as the primary contenders for the top prospect billing, the debate becomes very interesting. Maybin, Upton, Bruce, and Tabata are all outfielders, with Upton and Maybin possessing superior and complete tool sets on par with each other, though Upton has looked more polished and ready to move more quickly. Bruce has nice tools and an incredible record of performance. Kershaw has displayed top of the rotation stuff and poise well beyond his years. While Longoria appears more than ready for a big league job, and possesses a well-rounded skill set that should make him an All-Star at the next level.

When the race appears so close, how do you choose which player belongs at number one? Is it a tossup at this juncture, or is there a fool proof way to make the right choice? Honestly, there is a defense for any of these four or five players being named baseball's top prospect. Maybin has a very strong case between his tools and on-field performance against older competition and the decision may come down to how he is able to finish the year. If he comes back from a brief stint on the disabled list to continue raking Florida State League pitching, his case will be cemented and it will be hard to deny his serious candidacy for the top slot.

The Tigers are fortunate to have one of the game's brightest young stars, and anyone that tries to convince you that Maybin doesn't belong in the same breath as Justin Upton, Clayton Kershaw, Jay Bruce, etc., doesn't have a proper appreciation for what he has showed the last two years. There is absolutely no doubt that Maybin figures in this discussion, and Tiger fans should eagerly look forward to his arrival in Detroit.

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