Leon came to the Tigers on the recommendation of Brian Reid, prior to the 2004 amateur draft. After a standout freshman year at South Mountain Community College, a year that saw him post a .374/.461/.519 line, the Tigers popped Max in the 50th round. As a draft-and-follow candidate, Max returned to the Cougars for the 2005 season, and again impressed the Tiger brass. Though not as impressive as his debut campaign, Leon notched a .305 average with 19 extra-base hits in 44 games. During his freshman season, Max was named ACCAC 1st Team All-Conference and All-Region.
After signing, the Tigers sent Leon to extended spring training to continue refining his skills, and he would not make his competitive pro debut until the following season. In 2006, Max bounced all around the organization, playing 17 games with the GCL Tigers, 12 with Oneonta, seven with West Michigan, and even six games with AA-Erie. Through all of that movement and adjustment to different levels, Leon struggled to a .189/.280/.242 line.
During the winter, Max refined his skills by playing in the Mexican Pacific League, and his performance in 2007 clearly exhibited the additional work he put forth in the off-season. Spending the entire season at Lakeland, Leon was one of the Flying Tigers more consistent offensive threats. His .299 average and .364 on-base percentage were needed assets on a team that struggled to score runs. Despite the difficult hitting environment throughout the Florida State league, Max managed 16 doubles and two triples, and even swiped 14 bases in 15 attempts.
The Tigers promoted Max to Double-A for the 2008 season, giving him his first true test against advanced pitchers with deeper arsenals. In 66 games for the Erie Seawolves, Leon continued to hit for a good average, posting a .298 mark with 21 extra-base hits and 34 runs driven in. His best stretch of the season came in May, when he finished as the Runner-up in the voting for the TigsTown Erie Player of the Month award on the back of a .317/.349/.442 line. Max was promoted to Triple-A Toledo in June, and he continued to post solid numbers in his first exposure to the minor leagues highest level. He finished his 50-game Triple-A stint with a .278 average and .345 on-base percentage.
Leon is a solid minor league utility infielder, and he has some projection in the same role at the Major League level. His defense is solid at second, third, and even shortstop, though he fits in best at the keystone with his average arm strength and decent range. He stands in pretty well on the double play and has a quick transfer from glove to throwing hand. He can manage at third, but his instincts and arm play down there. Shortstop is a bit of a stretch for Leon, but he can manage there in a pinch.
Offensively, Max has tremendous hand-eye coordination, and the ability to make contact on pitches throughout the strike zone. He doesn't strike out much, and is willing to work counts and draw walks with some regularity. He lacks strength and can sometimes be over-powered by good fastballs, a pitch he is often challenged with early in at-bats. One scout even suggested big league pitchers might blow the bat right out of his hands unless he adapts more at Triple-A in 2009.
Overall, his hit tool is an above-average piece for him, and combined with his ability to draw walks, he can get on base at decent rates; though not necessarily enough to make up for his lack of pop or make him a candidate as an infield regular. Leon's value is going to come from a sound understanding of situational baseball, a scrappy style, and sound defense, all things that could get him a look at the big league level in time.
Performance Level Team AB AVG 2B HR RBI SO BB OBP% SLG% AA
Leon has avoided the injury bug pretty successfully throughout his professional career, only being bothered by some minor injuries here or there.
Spending the winter in the Mexican Pacific League once again, Leon is struggling big time with Culiacan, giving the impression that the progress seen at Erie this year hasn't completely translated yet. If he is to get a shot in Detroit at some point down the line, he must absolutely improve his defense at second and third, while also demonstrating an ability to hit over .300; otherwise his value is significantly diminished.
He's done well to make it to this point, but scouts are still very skeptical of his ability to adjust enough to be successful in the Major Leagues. There is little chance Leon sees Detroit in 2009, and with Will Rhymes, Brent Dlugach, Danny Worth, and eventually Michael Hollimon all vying for time around the Toledo infield, he may be destined to head back to Double-A to gain the refinement he needs. Max is eligible for the Rule 5 draft for the first time in the coming weeks, but there is almost zero chance he draws consideration from another organization.
Mark Anderson is TigsTown's Managing Editor and feature Minor League writer. He can be reached at Mark@TigsTown.com.