As my colleague Jerry Crasnick focuses on some big-name prospects who might be up in the majors soon in his Starting 9 column, here are a couple of under-the-radar names to think about ... and one name who could become an impact hitter in the big leagues earlier than many expected.
Justin Smoak, 1B, Rangers: While Hank Blalock had his contract option picked up this season and has hit 10 homers thus far, don't expect the Rangers to keep him around after this season. The team needs to make room in the lineup for Smoak, 22, by moving Chris Davis to designated hitter.
The 11th overall pick in the 2008 draft out of the University of South Carolina, the switch-hitter has drawn immediate comparisons to Mark Teixeira in terms of his offensive ability.
Smoak has a fluid swing with good bat speed, and strong hands and wrists. He has well above average power from both sides of the plate and the potential to be a 40-homer hitter in the big leagues. He is patient, waits for pitches he can drive, is short to the ball, stays inside it well and will go to all fields. There's very little not to like about his swing.
He signed in time to get in 14 games in the Midwest League at the end of last season, hitting .304 with six extra-base hits, and then impressed in the Arizona Fall League, despite being on the taxi squad for much of the time, which limited him to one or two starts per week. Aggressively promoted to Double-A to start this season, Smoak is proving that decision to be wise, as he has destroyed Texas League pitching. Through his first 36 games, Smoak is hitting .338 with six homers and more walks than strikeouts (resulting in a .461 on-base percentage) and is slugging .534. Not bad for 50 games into his professional career.
"I've really focused on shortening up my swing," Smoak said. "Just trying to 'see ball, hit ball.' In college sometimes, I got too big with my stroke and tried to hit homers more than I should have. Now I'm just worrying about it seeing it and hitting it, and if it goes out, it goes out."
At times, he flies off the ball a bit from the left side, as he could use his hands a bit more in that swing like he does in his right-handed stroke, but I'm nitpicking. He also gets overly anxious on off-speed stuff at times, and it throws his swing off balance. Major league pitchers will be sure to test him in that regard.
"For me, it's just staying behind the ball," Smoak said. "I get in trouble when I start jumping to the ball and trying to do too much. It's just relaxing and staying behind the ball."
Defensively, Smoak has decent hands but is a little stiff with limited range, thanks to his thick lower half. However, he's a perfectly good first baseman who won't need to eventually move to DH.
Given Smoak's otherworldly production thus far and Blalock's injury history, it's not out of the realm of possibility that Smoak will make his big league debut this season, and not as just a September call-up. Keeper league players need to be ready to snatch him up.
Eric Young Jr., 2B/OF, Rockies: While Young's speed is what really demands attention, he also appears to have the ability to get on base, which is necessary if he is to use his speed. The switch-hitter, who will turn 24 next week, continues to get it done even as he advances up the ladder and faces better competition.
A 30th-round pick in 2003 as a draft-and-follow, Young announced his presence as a player to watch by swiping 87 bags in low Class A in 2006. For an encore, he stole 73 bases at high Class A in 2007, losing just 11 points off his previous season's OPS. Promoted to Double-A in 2008, Young stole 46 bases despite missing a month of the season with a broken hamate bone. That earned him an invitation to the Arizona Fall League, where his .430 batting average, .504 on-base percentage and 20 steals all led the league. He's carried that momentum into Triple-A to begin this season, hitting .289 with a .360 on-base percentage and 22 steals in 34 games for Colorado Springs. He hasn't hit any roadblocks thus far.
Blessed with raw speed that grades out as a 70 on the 20-80 scouting scale, Young complements his wheels with good instincts on the basepaths and an ability to get to top speed quickly. More than one scout has mentioned to me that they feel he's a similar player to his father (who had three seasons of more than 50 steals in the big leagues) but with a better natural feel for the game and a bit more raw strength.
Young does have a somewhat unorthodox stance at the plate from both sides -- very open, with his hands away from his body -- but he makes it work for him.
"I've messed around with lots of swings and stances for as long as I can remember," Young said, "but it's all a matter of feeling comfortable at the plate. My biggest thing is making sure that it's comfortable and feels right, so as long as it feels that way, it doesn't matter what the position is. A more open stance allows me to see the pitcher a little longer and helps with my timing."
Young is tough to pitch to because of his crouch in the box. He has good bat control and bat speed, can go to the opposite field, is a good situational hitter and bunter, and has a little more pop in his bat than given credit for, enough to keep defenses honest in the gap.
On the negative side, he still expands the strike zone a bit too much at times, although he is improving.
"My strike zone discipline is getting there," Young said. "It's about laying off certain pitches and understanding my swing and knowing if I can take a bigger cut in certain situations or taking a smaller swing with two strikes. I struck out over 100 times in 2007 but cut it down [to 77] last year. It's a big thing for a leadoff hitter."
He studies a lot of film and thinks an area of his game that has improved a lot over the past year is his approach, allowing him to sustain his success at advanced levels.
"Fine tuning, working on my approach and understanding what pitchers are trying to do to me are what I'm working on," Young said. "It's about preparing mentally and studying your opponents."
A second baseman by trade, Young has stiff actions there but certainly is playable. He obviously has the speed to chase down a lot of balls when he plays center or left, but his arm is below average. He doesn't have a good release and isn't always accurate. However, the overall package is enough to get the job done.
Fantasy owners always are on the lookout for speed, and Young actually has a little bit of an offensive skill set to go along with it. Given some extended at-bats at the big league level, he could bring thefts in bunches, and his versatility could help keep his name in the lineup.
"The position doesn't really matter," Young said. "Whatever gets me to the big leagues. If I have to be a super-utility guy, if that gets me up there, I'm OK with it."
With a number of Rockies infielders struggling at the moment, it's conceivable Young could see some big league time at some point this season, so his progress bears close watching.
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