Curtis Granderson finished second in Division I in batting average as a junior, hitting .483. However, since it came at Illinois-Chicago he slid to the third round of the 2002 draft. He remains the only player from the school to reach the majors.
Granderson was assigned to the short-season New York-Penn League that summer, where he won MVP honors after leading the league with a .344 average. He hit just three home runs, however, leading to this scouting report from Baseball America: "Granderson has a quick, compact stroke and drives the ball hard from gap to gap. He has yet to flash a lot of power, but organization officials see that coming. The Tigers love Granderson's makeup. He's a hard worker and a team player. He's neither very fast nor very athletic, and his arm strength is ordinary."
The report goes on to say that the Tigers envision him as a left fielder. The most interesting notation is about the lack of speed; considering this is a guy who would go on to hit 23 triples one year in the majors, it seems weird in retrospect.
Anyway, the concerns about power and the apparent lack of athleticism led BA to rank Granderson just 18th among Tigers prospects entering 2003. Outfielders ranked ahead of him were Nook Logan, Brent Clevlen, Cody Ross and Andres Torres.
Granderson spent 2003 at Lakeland of the Florida State League and hit .286/.365/.458, with 11 home runs, 10 triples and 29 doubles in 476 at-bats. His strikeout/walk ratio was 91/49 -- not terrible, but a potential red flag. He ranked 11th in the league in OPS (just ahead of Joe Mauer, although Granderson was two years older). The Florida State League is a tough place to hit home runs and the 11 Granderson hit actually placed him eighth. It all led BA to move Granderson up to eighth among Tigers prospects entering 2004: "He has no glaring weakness in his game. He has gap power, runs OK and can play all three outfield positions. Though Granderson doesn't have any big holes, his only standout tool is his hitting. He's not a big home run threat or stolen base threat. ... It remains to be seen whether he'll be a solid big league regular or just a good fourth outfielder."
Granderson's stock climbed after a big 2004 at Erie in Double-A, a season which earned him a late-season nine-game appearance in the majors. He hit .301/.405/.513, improving his plate discipline with 80 walks while striking out 95 times. Baseball America finally came around, declaring him Detroit's No. 1 prospect and 53rd overall in the majors. They once again cited his excellent makeup and started believing more in his other tools: "Granderson isn't going to produce big-time power. He benefited from playing his home games at Erie's cozy Jerry Uht Park, although 13 of his 21 homers and 27 of his extra-base hits came on the road. Another rap on Granderson was that many scouts considered him just a fringe-average runner who lacked the speed of a true center fielder. Now there are just as many scouts who say that knock is overstated, however, and that his speed may actually rate a tick above average."
Granderson hit .290/.359/.515 at Triple-A in 2005, although his strikeout/walk rate worsened to 129/48. He played well in the majors late in the season, hitting .272 in 47 games and took over as Detroit's center fielder for 2006. Since he would be turning 25 during his first full-season, few projected stardom in his future; most stars have already put up big numbers by age 25.
While Granderson led the league in strikeouts that year, he continued to build his game and quiet the skeptics, hitting 19 home runs and 31 doubles. The next season was remarkable: He hit .302 with 38 doubles, 23 triples and 20 home runs; nobody has hit more triples in a season since 1926. Not bad for a guy who was once labeled as not very fast.
Proving the makeup that scouts cited, Granderson has also seemingly conquered his demons against left-handers. The guy who hit .183 with two home runs against left-handers just two seasons ago is hitting .269 with 11 home runs against them in 2011 -- the most of any major leaguer against lefties.