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Top 15 Hitting Prospects Update

Last week I took a look at how the pitching prospects have started the season. The pitching was, of course, the strength of the system entering the season, but from a performance standpoint one could reasonably argue the hitters have been better in 2011. Let's take a look:

(All stats through Sunday, May 15)

1. Desmond Jennings, OF: He opened the season with a bum wrist last year and never did seem to get on track at the plate. His power especially suffered with just three home runs all season and a slugging percentage of .393. He's topped that longball total this year with five already, and is hitting more in line with his breakout 2009 numbers (.888 OPS that season, .881 this year). He's striking out at the highest rate of his career, but given his history of plus contact skills I don't think it's a big concern. He's doing what's expected of a future leadoff hitter, with 21 walks (and a .404 OBP) and eight steals in as many attempts.

As important of all of that is the fact that Jennings has been healthy. With Sam Fuld officially out of magic pixie dust (let the record show his home run last night came after I wrote that), the only reason Jennings isn't patrolling left field in St. Pete is super-two concerns. Hopefully whatever date needs to pass comes soon because we all know how much the Rays could use offense, especially in the form of a spark plug at the top of the order.

2, 3, 5, 11, and 15. Josh Sale, OF; Drew Vettleson, OF; Justin O'Conner, OF; Ryan Brett, 2B; and Yoel Araujo, OF:
Best to handle the five players who didn't make full-season ball at once. We won't know where these guys are headed until sometime in June (neither will the players), but selfishly I hope that at least the first four are assigned to Hudson Valley. The Rays haven't assigned many high-profile players there lately, but the Sale/Vettleson/O'Conner/Brett quartet is probably more advanced than Todd Glaesmann and Jeff Malm, who were in Princeton for their first "full" season. These four plus perhaps a college draft pick or four in Hudson Valley would make for an insanely exciting Renegades club. As for Yoel Araujo, he'll likely play in the Dominican Summer League and come state-side next season, but there's a chance he plays with the Gulf Coast League Rays this summer.

4. Hak-Ju Lee, SS: Lee started the season a little late as he was too busy defeating chicken pox, but has hit like crazy since. In 25 games, he's sporting a .385/.453/.558 line to go along with seven stolen bases. Like Jennings, Lee has already topped last year's home run total, though it only took two to get that done. He's benefited from a BABIP north of .450, bouyed by a lot of infield and bunt singles. That's sustainable to some extent as he has at least plus speed, but certainly not to this current degree. His strikeouts are up slightly from last season, which could be a byproduct of a more powerful approach. Last season, 19.7% of his hits went for bases. So far this season, 25% (10 of 40) have. His walk rate is also up slightly.

We could, and probably will, talk about Hak-Ju Lee and Tim Beckham all day. Even without Beckham playing at double-A, Lee wouldn't be getting promoted after a month. The presence of Beckham, and the fact he's not getting promoted to triple-A as a 21-year-old, means that Lee can go ahead and get comfortable in Charlotte. He's only 20 years old, and is probably the frontrunner for the #1 spot on this list next season, though that's a very hard prediction to make without any pro data for Sale yet.

6. Ty Morrison, OF: Thought he was in line for a breakout season after steadily improving each month with Bowling Green last season, but an injury has left him stuck in extended spring training. I'm not sure if it's been reported what the injury is. I remain a fan, of course, but Morrison was quite raw when drafted and needs the playing time to refine things. Hopefully he joins up with Charlotte soon and doesn't lose too big a chunk of 2011.

7. Robinson Chirinos, C: Well, I could sugar-coat his season but I'm not sure sugar tastes very good on a turd sandwich. His offense has taken big steps back across the board at Durham as he's hitting an anemic .198/.267/.208. There was a lot of optimism surrounding Chirinos after a strong spring training, but he didn't carry that over to the regular season at all and should've been able to shake off an early-season slump by now. Chirinos has 19 hits and only one has been for extra bases. He's striking out more than once per game after whiffing 43 times in 92 games last season.

About the only thing that's gone well has been his defense, where he's thrown out 35% of basestealers. You don't want to conclude too much out of 24 games and fewer than 100 at bats, but time isn't on his side (he's 27) and is hitting so far below what was expected. Especially in contrast to how Jose Lobaton, who is younger than Chirinos, has raked. Unless Robinson totally mashes, his season line isn't going to look too great, but even a two-week-long hot streak would be water in the desert right now.

8. Brandon Guyer, OF: Along with Jennings and Durham lifer Justin Ruggiano, Guyer has helped form an outfield that can mash. In 32 games with the Bulls, Guyer's hitting .333/.395/.556 with six home runs. He added another in a weekend cameo with the Rays in Camden Yards. He's striking out more than he has in the past, but like Jennings and Lee has a history of making better contact. He's more a free-swinger than those two (especially Jennings), but Guyer's game is built on aggression and he's been very successful with it at the upper levels. He needs to steal 28 bases without being caught to equal last season's SB/CS ratio, which is of course unlikely, but he should wind up with 20-25 steals.

He sustained a minor shoulder injury but was in the line-up of yesterday's game which was rained out. The Rays definitely need an offensive talent infusion, and it's essentially a matter of finding spots for Jennings and Guyer, because they're both ready. There's no obvious spot for him in 2011 assuming Jennings becomes the starting left fielder soon, but Guyer can provide slightly above-average defense at all three outfield spots, so they'll find a spot for him. If B.J. Upton is traded in the off-season, it paves the way for a Guyer-Jennings-Joyce outfield in 2012.

9. Luke Bailey, C: He started out the year as hot as anyone, but has cooled off in May. His season line sits at .268/.326/.463, with the obvious problem being his 23/6 K/BB rate in 25 games. The power has certainly been nice with seven doubles and three home runs out of 22 hits, but he needs to tighten up his strike zone and swing at better pitches. He's been decent defensively, throwing out 35% of attempted basestealers (plus he's had to deal with Billy Hamilton, probably the fastest player in the minors, in two series already).

Nobody's ready to anoint him the catcher of the future, but even a statline like Bailey's is a welcome sight for a team that's struggled to develop hitting prospects. He seems to be fully recovered from his Tommy John surgery so now Bailey will take it a level at a time, and hopefully improve his plate approach as he goes.

10. Tim Beckham, SS: This is too low of a ranking. I'm not a true believer, yet, but he's hitting .299/.378/.401 as a 21-year-old in the Southern League and that's better than I expected. Just as my buying a Josh Hamilton baseball card turned his career around*, my podcast rant about Tim Beckham has clearly lit a fire under him. He's not hitting great for great power, but he's not slapping singles either. The strikeouts are a little bit high (33 in 36 games) but he's improved in May in that category.

*Back in high school, I was looking through a box of single cards in the local shop. Came upon... a Josh Hamilton double-A Orlando Rays card. Obviously I was going to buy it, and I brought it into school the next day to show off to my friends as a joke. In seventh-period Robotics class (aka waste time on the computers), I was looking at and saw a headline tucked away that the commissioner's office had cleared Hamilton to work out at team facilities. You're welcome, Josh.

I kind of feel like the Beckham debate has been done to death, so I won't write too much about it. I'll just say this: Reid Brignac played for Montgomery as a 21-year-old, just as Beckham is doing. Briggy's slash line was .260/.328/.433. Beckham is hitting .299/.378/.401 (and actually, as I write this he's 2-3 so this statline is short-changing him). From a purely statistical standpoint, give me door #2 every day.

12. Tyler Bortnick, 2B: He hasn't been as insane as his double-play partner Hak-Ju Lee, but there's certainly nothing wrong with what Tyler Bortnick has done so far. A .300 hitter with Hudson Valley in 2009 and Bowling Green last season, he's sitting at .310/.428/.429. He's had something of a power outage, yet to hit his first home run, but he's walked more than he's struck out and is a perfect 7-for-7 on the basepaths, a fine profile for a middle infielder. He doesn't have any sort of big-time ceiling, but his very solid performance all throughout his career obviously counts for something.

13. Todd Glaesmann, OF: Big on stature and tools, Glaesmann has finally had the first real prolonged hot streak of his career, hitting .361/.395/.694 in his last ten for the Hot Rods. The problem, just as it was last season with Princeton, is his K/BB rate. After walking 13 times against 70 strikeouts last year, he's drawn six walks against 40 strikeouts in 34 games this season. He doesn't have the pure hitting ability to sustain a .361 average, so it's really imperative that he starts doing a better job of waiting for a good pitch to hit. He can muscle up and drive the ball, but not if he's expanding his strike zone.

14. Derek Dietrich, SS: A pretty similar profile to Glaesmann, except Dietrich has a better track record and is a year older. Dietrich's hitting .286/.341/.536 for the Hot Rods with seven walks and 27 strikeouts. It's not as bad as Glaesmann's, but it's not exactly awe-inspiring. Dietrich isn't going to be a shortstop in the long run, so there's really not any worry about having Beckham and Lee ahead of him. If the Rays deem him ready for Charlotte around mid-season, he'll probably like slide over to 3B and bump Greg Sexton out. This probably means nothing, but Dietrich is hitting .347 at home and .348 in day games vs. .238 on the road and .270 at night.