For those that grew up watching the Tigers in the 1980’s, Sparky Anderson seemingly every year had one youngster that he would tout as the next big thing. One season it was Mike Laga. The next it was Chris Pittaro.Those days of putting youngsters into the Hall of Fame before their time are long gone, but every once in a while, we hear the more reserve Jim Leyland wax poetically about a player as well. In 2012, early in spring camp it seemed that prospect is outfielder Avisail Garcia.
The hope here is that Leyland being a tad impressed with Garcia doesn’t cast him into some netherworld of forgotten baseball players like the ghosts of Tigers prospects past. In all fairness, Leyland does tend to be more reserved than Sparky when it comes to prospects, and there is good reason for that. It’s tough to make it in this game of baseball.
As recent as a week ago, MLive’s Chris Iott posted an article discussing Garcia and his impressive physicality, and how he has been catching the eye of the current Tigers Manager. Garcia, who is listed at 6’4″ and 230 (now 245 according to the article) by Baseball Reference , is hard to miss given his impressive stature for a 20 year old. And for those that are prospect watchers like myself, we have been watching Garcia for a couple of years now, and it isn’t all about his physicality.
But let’s deal with expectations first.
It’s unfair at this point to assume that Garcia is going to become some sort of Major League star. There are definitely some blemishes on the young man’s game. For those that took Leyland’s words and ran with them….it’s time to slow down. I know it’s hard. After all, Garcia could be potentially the best outfield prospect the Tigers have had since Curtis Granderson. Ceiling and projectability are just that however, and he has a long way to go before putting those physical skills to good use on a baseball field on a daily basis.
Garcia’s main obstacle to reaching his potential is going to be his plate discipline. Last season in high A ball, Garcia walked just 18 times compared to 132 strikeouts. It’s hard to find a minor leaguer that has gone on to success in the majors with those kinds of ratios. In Garcia’s defense, he started the season at 19 years old in Lakeland, and was playing against guys mostly 3 to 4 years older than he is. He still managed to hit .264, and reached double digits in home runs with 11 for the first time in his career. It was also the 2nd straight year that Garcia improved his slugging pct and his OPS.
His offense hasn’t been impressive overall thus far, but depending on how you look at things when the glass is halfway filled, you could make a case either way. Stat geeks will point to his terrible BB/K ratios and say he hasn’t improved. An optimist will look at his BB/K rates remaining relatively static, despite the power increase, as a positive that he is learning.
Coming into this season, I suspect that Garcia is going to start off repeating at Lakeland. He is still 20 years old, and doesn’t turn 21 until June. This still makes him young for his league. If he follows on his same path, he is likely to strike out over 100 times, but I can easily see the home run total getting up to 15-17 this season. A .280/.320/.420 season from Garcia would be a tremendous step in the right direction, but I want to mention, even if he doesn’t improve his stat lines at all, it doesn’t mean anyone should just assume he won’t become a good player.
Some guys just take a little longer to develop.
One such major leaguer that I have made reference to when talking about Avisail is Nelson Cruz of the Texas Rangers. While, it is going to be a perfect comparison, there are some strong similarities. Cruz spent a good deal of time in the minors, despite being a pretty highly ranked prospect in the Oakland and Milwaukee organizations. Milwaukee gave up on Cruz, and now the Rangers are reaping the benefits of a multi-tooled RF that Tigers fans don’t remember fondly from last season’s ALDS.
Physically, Garcia and Cruz are strikingly similar. Both around 6’3″ and 240 lbs. Both hit from the right side, and both possess multiple tools that are valued in a prototypical RF. Garcia is a legitimate 5 tool talent, though the hit tool might suffer if he can’t improve the discipline at the dish. Cruz was also considered a 5 tool talent as youngster. A closer look actually shows that a case could be made that Garcia is on a faster track than Cruz.
At 21 years old in 2002, Nelson Cruz played in short-season Vancouver. In his 232 plate appearances there, Cruz hit only 4 homers and had an OPS of .713. He struck out 58 times, walking just 9 times. If you double his plate appearances at that age and level, those numbers would be very similar to what Garcia did in high A ball (2 levels higher) last season at almost 2 years younger. Cruz did however reach the 20 home run plateau the following year as a 22 year old, but again that was in the low A Midwest League, which Garcia has already put in his rear view mirror. With Garcia’s power starting to show a little more already, it certainly isn’t out of the question he could be hitting 20 bombs by the time he is 22 years old.
The plate discipline numbers for both players are rather similar as well. They both show a lack of plate discipline. Cruz didn’t really improve his BB rate until he was 23 years old (just around 6%), walking at rates of around 4 percent up until that point. It wasn’t until he was 25 that Cruz added taking a BB as a pretty regular part of his game in the minors and got over the 10% mark. Garcia walked only 3.8% of the time in his plate appearances last year, and a slight step in the direction towards 10% would continue to make this comparison a little more apt.
The career K rate for Garcia so far is at 25.7%, and this once again is similar to Cruz, who was also right around 25% for his minor league career. Cruz actually didn’t improve his K rates until he was 26 years old in AAA, and undoubtedly was important for him to make the next step in his career to the majors.
While the comparison isn’t perfect, given that the two players played at different levels when they were the same age, the skill sets of both players, and their physical frame are eerily reminiscent. With Garcia being so young, hopefully the Tigers can reap the benefits of a Nelson Cruz type career breakout before he turns 28 years old, when Cruz really started to make a name for himself.
Sometimes with 5 tool players, patience pays off. Sometimes, they never become what their organization hopes they can be. So despite Jim Leyland’s impressions of Avisail, don’t expect too much from Garcia in 2012, but watch carefully. You just never know when and if those impressive tools will come to fruition.