It's always exciting when a blue-chip prospect finally makes his major league debut, but fantasy owners might be disappointed in the one debuting Tuesday.
No, that's not a reference to Stephen Strasburg, who makes his first career start surrounded by perhaps the most hype in big league history. Remember, the title of this column is "Hit Parade," and it's all about hitters, not pitchers. Besides, Strasburg is one of the most polished pitching prospects to ever break into the majors, and while there is all that hype, a significant amount of it is justified.
Tuesday's focus is instead on Florida Marlins outfielder Mike Stanton, the other top prospect making his first appearance in a big league game Tuesday. Like Strasburg, we've talked quite a bit about Stanton's prospects on these pages; both Eric Karabell and Jason Grey discussed him in detail Monday.
But while everyone is quick to point out Stanton's stellar Double-A statistics -- .311 AVG, 21 HRs, .726 SLG in 52 games -- they seem to fail to recognize his weaknesses. One stat in particular jumps off the page: 53 strikeouts in 190 at-bats, or one per 3.58 ABs. And that's only a marginal improvement upon the K-per-3.22 at-bat ratio of his minor league career, which includes all those games against softer, less-experienced pitching in the rookie-ball and Class A levels.
Folks, Stanton looks like a whiff king in the making, the kind of all-or-nothing approach that made Mark Reynolds a 44-homer -- but also a 223-K -- man as recently as 2009, but has also led to cold spells largely responsible for Reynolds' career-worst .215 batting average to date this year. Reynolds, so you know, is batting .186 (16-for-86) with four homers in his past 25 games, with strikeouts in almost half of his at-bats (40 K's total) during that span.
Raise your hand if you're willing to be patient through that kind of rough patch with a rookie, and I expect to see very few hands raised, based upon the itchy-trigger-finger style "should-I-drop" questions I read in the chats each week.
People are worried about Reynolds' slump, but Reynolds is 26 years old with nearly 500 games of big league experience under his belt, not to mention he averaged one whiff per 3.78 at-bats in his minor league career before becoming the whiff king he is today. To compare, Mike Stanton is 20 years old with only 131 games' experience at the Double-A level, and his minor league average, again, is one K per 3.22 at-bats.
The history books are littered with examples of all-or-nothing sluggers who endured lengthy struggles adapting to the big leagues, sometimes of significant length. To put this into statistical perspective, Stanton has averaged 45 home runs and 186 K's per 162 games during his minor league career, and in history, only 18 major leaguers have ever had a season with at least 40 home runs and 150 strikeouts. Let's take a painful trip down memory lane, in alphabetical order:
TOP 100 HITTERS
Note: Tristan H. Cockcroft's top 100 hitters are ranked for their expected performance from this point forward, not for statistics that have already been accrued.
Tony Armas Sr.: It took him three years to adapt, and in those three years he batted .236 with 26 homers and a K every 3.85 at-bats. Armas finished with a .252 career batting average, never finishing higher than .279 or lower than .213.
Jay Buhner: The trade to the Seattle Mariners helped, but in his first 48 games of his rookie year of 1988, some of which came with the Mariners, he batted .216 with five homers and a K-per-3.29 at-bat ratio. He finished with a .254 career batting average, never hitting higher than .279 or lower than .215.
Jose Canseco: A 29-game stint late in 1985 was positive and he was the 1986 American League Rookie of the Year, but that rookie campaign wasn't as positive as it sounds 24 years later. He batted .214 with four homers and a K-per-2.55 at-bat ratio in his first 15 games, then slumped badly after the All-Star break, hitting .196 with 10 homers and a K-per-3.66 at-bat ratio. Canseco batted .266 in his career, ranging as high as .307 and as low as .235.
Adam Dunn: One reader wanted to make a Dunn-Stanton comparison in Monday's chat, except that Stanton hasn't shown Dunn's level of patience so far as a pro; Stanton's 11.9 percent walk rate is probably more indicative of opposing pitchers' fear of his power than his own plate discipline. Dunn's willingness to take a pitch did allow him to make a somewhat instant transition, but his first 14 games were rough, including a .224 batting average, one homer and a K-per-3.63 at-bat ratio. Fantasy owners have certainly become familiar with his streakiness, too; he's a .250 career hitter who has finished as high as .267 and low as .215.
Jim Edmonds: Surprising to see his name on the list, as he's not your traditional "all-or-nothing" type, but he indeed had a 40-homer, 150-K campaign. In fact, he did it twice, in 2000 and 2004. Edmonds adapted slowly, hitting .269 with five homers and a K-per-3.98 at-bat ratio in 1993-94, and to date has a .284 career average, hitting as high as .311 and low as .235.
Cecil Fielder: "Big Daddy" had that 51-homer year back in 1990, but remember that he batted .243 with 31 homers and a K-per-3.51 at-bat ratio in four lackluster years with the Toronto Blue Jays in 1985-88 before requiring a year in Japan to get his career on track. He hit .255 for his career, ranging from .277 to .233.
Andres Galarraga: Through his first 100 big league games, he batted .234 with 10 homers and a K-per-4.10 at-bat ratio, and that's before he succumbed to knee surgery in July of his rookie year of 1986. Galarraga batted .288 for his career, and had a .370 season, but remember that many of his numbers were inflated by Coors Field. He also batted as low as .219 in a season.
Troy Glaus: This 1997 No. 3 overall pick debuted July 31, 1998, but batted .218 with one homer and a K-per-3.24 at-bat ratio in that rookie year, and .222 with six homers and a K-per-3.43 at-bat ratio in his first 93 big league games. He's a .256 career hitter (so far) who has hit as high as .284 and low as .240.
Ryan Howard: He's the slugger everyone hopes Stanton eventually becomes, but even the great Ryan Howard got off to a somewhat shaky start, batting .255 with four homers and a K-per-3.16 at-bat ratio in his first 39 big league games. Howard was also 24 at the time of his debut, with more experience and tremendous success at the higher minor league levels. Today, he's a .280 career hitter, turning in a year batting as high as .313 and one as low as .251.
Mark McGwire: You'll remember that 49-homer rookie year of his, but you might have forgotten his .185 batting average, five homers and K-per-2.70 at-bat ratio in his first 28 big league games. Even McGwire, a .263 career hitter, struggled; he did have a season hitting as low as .187, though he once hit as high as .312.
Mark Reynolds: He actually excelled initially, batting .426 with a 1.299 OPS and K-per-4.91 at-bat ratio in his first 15 games, though at the time few people really knew who he was. A hot pickup at the time for sure, he'd bat .194 with four homers and a K-per-2.54 at-bat ratio in his next 52 contests, demonstrating that a slump is always around the corner for this type of hitter. Reynolds is currently a .252 career hitter, ranging as high as .279 and low as .239.
Richie Sexson: Another slugger who adapted quickly, though he was held homerless through his first 20 games, batting .283 with a K-per-4.42 at-bat ratio. Sexson finished with a .261 batting average, ranging as high as .279 and low as .205.
Alfonso Soriano: He finally won a starting job in 2001 after brief stints with the New York Yankees the two previous years, and did bat .267 with 17 stolen bases in his first 53 games of that season. The problem: During that time he had 43 K's and only five walks, and a .657 OPS to boot. Soriano is a .279 hitter in his career to date, and has finished as high as .300 and low as .241 (last year).
Sammy Sosa: You remember all those home runs he hit around the turn of the century, but have probably forgotten that in his first three big league seasons, he batted .228 with 29 homers and a K-per-3.49 at-bat ratio. Bleagh. Sosa finished his career hitting .273, but had one year at .328, and another at .203.
Willie Stargell: A Hall of Famer! This one batted .195 with six homers and a K-per-3.19 at-bat ratio in his first 84 games of his rookie year of 1963. If Stanton becomes a right-handed Stargell, no one will complain except for this season, of course. Stargell had a .282 career batting average, ranging from .315 to .237.
Gorman Thomas: A classic example people use to criticize the strikeout, Thomas took four years to become the hitter people remember, which wasn't that great of one in the end anyway. He belted 51 homers in the minors in 1974, so he wasn't a toss-away prospect, either, yet he batted .193 with 22 homers and a K-per-2.94 at-bat ratio in several tries from 1973 to 1976. Thomas finished with an ugly .225 career batting average, once hitting just .157 and never higher than .259.
Jim Thome: He received a decent chance to play in 1992 but struggled in 1991-92, batting .228 with three homers and a K-per-4.30 at-bat ratio. Thome is a .277 career hitter, batting as high as .314 and low as .207 in a single season.
Mo Vaughn: He has the highest career batting average on the list, at .293, but struggled mightily in his first 45 big league games, batting .250 with three homers. Surprisingly, his K-per-at-bat ratio during that time was 6.00, not terrible. Vaughn hit as high as .337 in a season, but also as low as .234.
In addition, keep in mind that those are only the sluggers who did eventually realize their potential; the history books are surely littered with at least as many examples as those of slugging prospects who failed to even come close to registering a 40-homer, 150-K campaign. Anyone remember the names Eric Anthony, Hensley Meulens and Ruben Rivera?
Not that Stanton doesn't warrant a pickup. Players with his power potential are well worth the chance that their hot streak will come at the onset of their career, or at least somewhat early -- a la Dunn, Howard or Sexson -- but if you're buying the Stanton hype, there's one phrase you need to hold dear: You must be patient through his inevitable slumps.
Is patience your strong suit? Are you the type to seriously consider shedding such whiff kings as Reynolds, Jay Bruce or Carlos Pena every time they're in a funk? If so, a prospect like Stanton probably has more value to you as a trade chip to a more patient owner. He's got worlds of potential, but don't be surprised in the slightest if it takes him awhile to get acclimated, like, say, August
Or perhaps not even until 2011.
Robinson Cano, 2B, New York Yankees: Is there any doubt now that he's a top-25 overall fantasy player, with a legitimate case to crack the top 10? Cano has 12 multi-hit efforts in his past 19 games, batting .438 (35-for-80) with 21 RBIs during that span, returning him to the top five on our Player Rater. Imagine if he keeps up his history of improved second-half performances? Cano has a career OPS 105 points greater after the All-Star break than before it, and if he tacks 105 points onto his current 1.013 number, he'll have registered the sixth-highest OPS by any second baseman in baseball history. Only Rogers Hornsby, who topped a 1.118 OPS on five occasions (1922, '24-25 and '28-29), has finished with higher.
Rajai Davis, OF, Oakland Athletics: Thanks to a torrid 20-game hot streak during which time he has swiped 11 bases, Davis has captured the major league lead in the category with 23. He's batting .303 (23-for-76) during that span, putting his performance very much in line with his solid second half of 2009, when he batted .325 and stole 30 bases in 71 games. While speedsters like Chone Figgins, Nyjer Morgan and Juan Pierre continue to struggle in batting average, it's nice to see the speedy Davis, of any of them, picking up the pace.
Hunter Pence, OF, Houston Astros: He was so bad the first two weeks of the season, his cumulative batting average was .244 and his OPS .649 as deep into the season as May 22. But don't let that mislead you into thinking that Pence has been mired in a season-long funk, because since April 18 -- yes, April 18 -- he has batted .308 with eight home runs, 25 RBIs and six stolen bases. Project those numbers to a full season and he'd have .308-28-86-21 numbers, only the batting average falling short of his previous personal best.
Scott Rolen, 3B, Cincinnati Reds: It's not just current Toronto Blue Jays hitters who are clubbing home runs at an unreal pace; past Blue Jays seem to be doing it, too! Rolen already has 14 homers, more than he has had in any single season since 2006, and he's on pace for 41, seven more than he has ever had in a single year. A .189 home run/fly ball percentage is largely responsible, and hints that a pace of 30 might be more realistic, but that'd still be a performance akin to Rolen's prime years. Incidentally, to those who wonder when Rolen might cool off, be aware that his batting average dipped beneath .300 for only four days in 2009. If there's any reason to doubt him, it should be his health, not his talent.
Andruw Jones, OF, Chicago White Sox: So much for rejuvenation. Jones, whose nine home runs through May 5 were second-most in baseball, has seen his bat go almost entirely silent since. Only once in his past 18 games did he register multiple hits, and in total he has batted .154 (10-for-65) with one home run during that span. Most distressing is that he has sat out nine of the White Sox's past 22 games, which puts him only a step away from being demoted into a straight platoon role, one on which he'd be on the lesser-used side. Daily-league owners might still find value in Jones, but he can be safely set free in standard mixed play.
Adam Lind, OF, Toronto Blue Jays: Things seem to be going from bad to worse for Lind, one of fantasy's most exciting breakout performers from 2009. Since May 1, he's a .156 hitter (20-for-128) with four home runs, and most disturbing is his performance versus left-handers; he has .102/.156/.119 (AVG/OBP/SLG) rates against them in 64 plate appearances. That might make Lind a candidate to be dropped into a straight platoon before long, if the Blue Jays don't simply bench him outright. His performance versus fastballs appears to be the problem. Per Inside Edge, he's batting .212 versus the pitch, significantly down from 2009's .315.
Alfonso Soriano, OF, Chicago Cubs: Now this is the Soriano we all feared coming off his down 2009. He's batting just .219 (16-for-73) with two home runs and 21 strikeouts in his past 22 games, and most disconcerting is that 13 of those have been played at Wrigley Field, where Soriano excelled during the first six weeks of the season. A streaky performer, Soriano should have another hot spell left in his bat, but that career-high .336 BABIP suggests that further correction should be coming to his .290 cumulative batting average.
Ty Wigginton, 1B/2B/3B, Baltimore Orioles: The Orioles can hardly complain about Wigginton's contributions overall since Brian Roberts landed on the disabled list, but with the former slumping the past two weeks, Roberts' return couldn't come soon enough. Unfortunately, the Orioles have little choice but to keep riding Wigginton, in spite of his .175 batting average (7-for-40) and zero extra-base hits in his past 13 contests. If not for his newfound second-base eligibility, he might be more of a candidate to be dropped in mixed leagues.
Upgrade your roster
Add: Kurt Suzuki, C, Oakland Athletics
Drop: Rod Barajas, C, New York Mets
Following up on last week's topic of hot-starting catchers, which questioned Barajas' long-term fantasy potential, it might very well be time to upgrade him, assuming an upgrade such as Suzuki is available. Suzuki is out there in more than 50 percent of ESPN leagues, despite his No. 4 finish among catchers on the 2009 Player Rater or his No. 14 average draft position at the position this preseason. He's also on quite a hot streak since the calendar flipped to June, batting .323 (10-for-31) with three home runs and six RBIs in seven games.
AL-only pickup: Reid Brignac, 2B/SS, Tampa Bay Rays: With Jason Bartlett on the disabled list, Brignac has been receiving regular at-bats at shortstop during the past week. Not that the Rays weren't making every effort to get him playing time before that; he has appeared in each of their past 16 games and batted .353 (18-for-51) with two stolen bases and 10 runs scored. Remember, it wasn't too long ago that Brignac was considered one of the top prospects in the minors, and while his star has faded somewhat since, there's still plenty of time for him to carve out a role as a productive regular. After all, he's only 24 years old.
NL-only pickup: Andres Torres, OF, San Francisco Giants: Once a productive platoon partner, Torres appears to have captured an every-day role, thanks to significantly improved performance versus right-handers. He's batting .327/.398/.554 against righties, and has started each of the Giants' past 22 games, during which time he has hit .318 with seven steals and 18 runs scored. It's Torres' speed you want; remember that he averaged 53 steals per 162 games played during his minor league career, and had 15 in 164 big league games from 2002 to '09.
New position qualifiers
Twenty games: Mike Aviles (2B)
Tristan H. Cockcroft is a fantasy baseball analyst for ESPN.com and a two-time champion of the League of Alternative Baseball Reality (LABR) experts league. You can e-mail him here, or follow him on Twitter @SultanofStat.