Biggest hitting surprises in the Minors (so far)
By Sam Dykstra
We’ll be the first to admit it. We entered the year with some expectations for certain players based on their histories and other things you can read in a scouting report. But now that we’re about a month into the season, it’s fun to look through the stat sheets and see who is off to a better start than most of us could have imagined. So with the caveat that there is plenty of season left and that we’re only looking at these players through the lens of the first 30-plus games, here’s who we think has been the most surprising with the bats at this early juncture.
International League: Josh Thole, catcher, Buffalo — The 27-year-old didn’t do much damage with the Mets last season (.234/.294/.290, one homer, 21 RBIs in 104 games). After being sent to the Blue Jays organization in the R.A. Dickey deal and losing out on his new team’s backup catcher job this spring, he’s found a bit of a resurgence with the bat in the early going with Buffalo. His .420 OBP ranks third in the IL while his .940 OPS is ninth. His four homers in 27 games already represent his highest total since 2008 when he went deep five times for Class A Advanced St. Lucie. Even with the demotion, no one expected Thole to thrive quite like this with the bat.
Pacific Coast League: Dean Anna, second baseman, Tucson — A lot of 26th-round picks don’t even make it as far as Triple-A, but the Tucson second baseman is thriving in his debut at the Minors highest level. His 14 doubles in 37 games almost match his 129-game total of 16 from last season at Double-A San Antonio while his five home runs are half the 10 he blasted last year over a much smaller span. If he were to continue at his current rate, Anna’s .321 average and .537 slugging percentage would be 41 and 97 points higher respectively than his career highs entering the season.
Eastern League: JR Murphy, catcher, Trenton — The 22-year-old backstop is showing flashes of breakout potential with the Thunder in the first month-plus. His four homers put him on pace to break into double-digit territory for the first time while he continues to flirt with a .300 average. The trick for Murphy will be maintaining his level of production at this or the next level. He’s split leagues each of the last two seasons, winning All-Star honors (FSL in 2012, SAL in 2011) at the first stop before failing to put up an OPS higher than .714 at the next level.
Southern League: Nick Evans, first baseman, Mobile — The Nick Evans Redemption Tour started in Mobile after the 27-year-old lost almost the entire 2012 season in the Pirates system due to broken bones in his left hand and signed and was cut by the Dodgers this spring. The former Met latched onto the D-backs and has been one of the BayBears steadiest hitters ever since, leading the team in homers (5) and OPS (.865) while playing 36 games. The former Met needed to prove his health, and with that settled, the next goal will be showing his new organization that he’s more than just organizational depth.
Texas League: Reymond Fuentes, outfielder, San Antonio — Fuentes was highly touted when the Red Sox took him in the first round of the 2009 Draft and then shipped him to the Padres in the Adrian Gonzalez deal two years later. But a few wayward years with the bat, including last season with the Missions when he put up a .218/.301/.302 slash line, dropped him down a few pegs. So far, a year repeating the Texas League has done him some good. The 22-year-old ranks third in the circuit with a .336 average, fourth with a .413 OBP and second with 17 steals. Given his age, there is still time for Fuentes to emerge as a prospect, and with the numbers he’s put up this year, he could be back on track to do just that.
California League: Zach Borenstein, first baseman, Inland Empire — When Angels No. 3 prospect C.J. Cron moved up to Double-A Arkansas, it seemed the 66ers would have pretty big shoes to fill at first base. Instead, it looks like Borenstein’s busted his way through that pair. The 20111 23rd-round pick from Eastern Illinois leads the California League with 11 homers and a 1.087 OPS and ranks second with a .344 batting average. He’s currently riding a nine-game hitting streak, during which he’s 17-for-34 with three round-trippers and seven RBIs. It’s time to start paying attention to the first base spot at Inland Empire again.
Carolina League: David Rohm, outfielder, Lynchburg — You can read more about Rohm’s struggles with an injury and Carolina League pitching in our notebook here. But in the meantime, here’s an update on some of his stats. His 13 doubles lead the circuit, his .387 OBP seventh and his .864 OPS fifth. Pretty good for a guy who had to come off the bench for the Hillcats in last year’s playoffs.
Florida State League: Andy Burns, shortstop, Dunedin — The former University of Arizona infielder has shown an ability to do it all in his second pro season. He owns a .333/.419/.545 slash line for the Blue Jays and has stolen 13 bases in 35 games, trailing only teammate Jon Berti (19) for the team and league lead. For Lansing in 2012, those respective numbers sat at .248/.351/.464 and 15 in his full-season debut.
Midwest League: Rock Shoulders, first baseman, Kane County — While the rest of us are busy looking at his Moniker Madness-winning name, Shoulders has been putting together quite a start to the season for the Cougars. He’s batting .316 with eight homers and 27 RBIs in 36 games, all the while becoming one of the better power hitters in the circuit. His .973 OPS is fifth among Midwest League batters and almost 200 points higher than the .789 figure he put up for Class A Short-Season Boise a year ago.
South Atlantic League: Tom Murphy, catcher, Asheville/Micah Johnson, second baseman, Kannapolis — You’re excused if Murphy or Johnson’s name didn’t look familiar at the start of the year, but they sure are doing their best to change that. Murphy is batting .357 with eight homers and 29 RBIs for the Tourists and leads all Minor Leaguers with a 1.245 OPS. He’d have this space to himself if Johnson wasn’t literally running away (well, not literally literally, but you know what I mean) with the stolen base lead. His 35 steals tops all professional players and are seven more than his closest competitor in the Minors, San Antonio’s Rico Noel, who has 28 thefts.