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Know Your Prospects: Melky Mesa, OF, New York Yankees

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If I had to describe New York Yankee’s prospect Melky Mesa in one word, it would be “polarizing.”

Those that scout him have routinely been blown away by his explosive raw power and simultaneously baffled by his superiorly under-developed and sophomoric plate discipline. To add to Mesa’s mystique, he looks like a ballplayer: at 6’1″, 165 pounds, his sinewy and lanky frame is fluid in the outfield and promising in the box.

Baseball America named him the No. 20 prospect in the South Atlantic League for 2009 and also included him in an August 2009 Helium Watch. On Pending Pinstripes, a Yankee’s minor league blog, however, Mesa didn’t even break the organization’s top 30 prospects.

But perhaps Mike Newman of Scouting the Sally said it best: Mesa is a “lottery ticket” with enough “red flags to fight back my adoration of his raw tools.”

Born Melquisedec Mesa, “Melky” was just 16-years-old when the Yankees signed him as a non-drafted free agent out of the Dominican Republic in 2003. He spent two years in the Dominican Summer League before joining the Gulf Coast League Yankees in 2006.

Initially, the Yankees suspected that they had a legitimate five tool player in Mesa: he could hit for average, he had great speed, a good power stroke, a cannon of an arm, and good defensive instincts. But how would these skills translate to a real game on American soil? Would the promising tools develop?

Mesa’s first professional season clearly and succinctly presented the answers to some of those questions: in just 40 games, Mesa struck out 45 times, batted just .201, and posted a subpar on-base percentage of .261. Despite his “world class speed,” Mesa stole just three bases and was caught three times.

He did, however, play great defense.

His 2007 stat line is peculiarly similar. Every positive improvement was hindered by an equally powerful negative. Improvements in on-base percentage, slugging percentage and batting average overshadowed a drastic upturn in strikeouts and a decreased walk rate.

With the New York-Penn League’s Staten Island Yankees in 2008, Mesa showed marked improvement in power. He finally flashed the pop that many thought he would develop, crushing seven homeruns in just 122 at-bats. His OPS jumped a notch over .700 for the first time in his career.

Mesa had found his calling card.

In his first full professional season with the Charleston RiverDogs in 2009, Mesa worked on harboring his game-changing, light tower power at the expense of plate discipline of any kind. He led the team with 20 homeruns, 74 RBI, and 24 doubles. He also, however, led the South Atlantic League with 168 strikeouts in 497 at-bats. He batted just .225.

Because of Mesa’s molasses-like offensive development, he has earned comparisons to Alfonso Soriano, another Dominican Yankee farmhand that didn’t wow anyone until he broke out at an advanced 25-years-old.

Having seen Mesa play a lot in 2009, I firmly believe the comparisons are premature.

At no point in his career has Mesa shown an ability to hit for average, posting measly batting averages of .201, .235, .221, and .225 from 2006-09.

Soriano, by comparison, never hit below .250 at any level he played more than 60 games at. One has to consider Soriano’s putrid playing in Japan a result of the conditions; he was so miserable overseas that he “retired” in order to get out of his contract with the Hiroshima Carp. Sure, it’s not an entirely fair conclusion to make, but clubs don’t usually offer $3.1 million to someone who really stunk it up in the Japanese Central League.

For a 22-year-old still toiling in the low A South Atlantic League, one would think Mesa would attempt to refine his hacking approach at the plate. Still, just once in his four-year professional career has he posted an on-base percentage over .300 (.309 in ’09). For someone who was pitched to “like [he’s ] Barry Bonds” this season, as RiverDogs’ manager Torre Tyson said, you’d think that number would be significantly, if not substantially, higher.

In 2009, the Yankees never promoted Mesa when it seemed most appropriate, when his numbers separated him so far from the rest of the league that it seemed imminent.

That’s a telling judgment of where the club thinks his development is. And it’s justified.

Mesa is Jekyll and Hyde act in the purest sense.

On May 9, 2009, Mesa crushed a game-trying homerun against the Asheville Tourists in the bottom of the ninth inning with two out. I remember the at-bat vividly. He patiently sat on a middle-in fastball and crushed it well beyond the wall in left field.

I also, however, remember a game against the Savannah Sand Gnats late in the same month where he struck out two times on consecutive breaking pitches. He reached into the left-hander’s batter’s box for both, something I’d seen him do multiple times before. He repeated the performance the next night.

Two different nights, two different players: one a five tool star, the other a lost cause.

One thing about Mesa is certain, however.

He is a premier defensive outfielder. His speed plays better in the outfield than on the basepaths and he has a natural knack for route running. His arm is well above-average and could be the best in the Yankee’s farm system (it was definitely the best on Charleston). His 19 outfield assists led the South Atlantic League in 2009.

Mesa is slated to begin 2010 with the Tampa Yankees of the high A Florida State League.

And the promotion should serve as a good barometer for Mesa’s future. Will he thrive in the pitcher friendly F.S.L.? Or will he regress?

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Know Your Prospects: Zack Wheeler, RHP, San Francisco Giants

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Sometime tomorrow, Baseball America will roll out its prospect rankings for the San Francisco Giant’s organization. The best left-handed pitching prospect in Minor League Baseball, Madison Bumgarner, or the best catching prospect in the game, Buster Posey, will nab the team’s No. 1 spot.

I know this because, well, it really doesn’t take a brain surgeon to figure it out and because my Dad and Step Mom are awesome and surprised me with a little pre-Christmas love. Now I can read all the B.A. analysts gushing about prospects in real-time:

Thank you!

But anyway, back to the San Francisco Giants. In recent years, the team has exponentially fortified its minor league system by uncharacteristically handing out large bonuses. As a result, General Manager Brian Sabean has had tremendous success securing above-average pitching prospects and impact bats at premier positions. Prior to the 2009 season, the organization was ranked fifth in Baseball America‘s talent rankings, the club’s highest mark in the publication’s history.

The organization won’t rank as highly this year, but its still got all the trappings of an impact system.

Behind Bumgarner and Posey, the team’s No. 3 prospect will be Zack Wheeler.

Wheeler, a 6’4″, 170 pound, right-handed power pitcher out of Georgia’s East Paulding High School was considered one of the few elite pitchers in the 2009 draft class. Scouts lauded Wheeler’s prototypical pitcher’s body, potential plus stuff, and poise.

And all the marks were earned: during his senior year at East Paulding High, Wheeler went 9-0 with an ERA of 0.54. During the first round of the Georgia state playoffs, he added a no-hitter and a two-hit complete game to his already impressive resume. He was named the 2009 Gatorade Player of the Year for the state of Georgia.

A consensus first round pick, analysts believed Wheeler would go somewhere between fourth and sixth in the draft; Baltimore, San Francisco, and Atlanta seemed to be the most logical suitors for pitching talent once the few impact bats were taken off the boards.

Would Baltimore pass on premier left-hander Tyler Matzek because of his lofty asking price and pursue Wheeler instead? Or would Wheeler fall to San Francisco? Or his home club in Atlanta?

Well, the Orioles (and a slew of other teams) passed on the pricey Matzek and instead opted for up-’til-then unheralded high school product Matthew Hobgood.

In the Giant’s tradition of going after right-handers in the first round (Cain, 2002; Aardsma, 2003; Lincecum, 2006; Alderson, 2007), Wheeler became the team’s natural pick. He was chosen by the San Francisco Giants sixth overall in the 2009 draft.

And this is where things get interesting.

Zack Wheeler has yet to thrown a professional pitch, yet his stock is still incredibly high.

On August 17, 2009, the Giants signed Wheeler just minutes before the deadline for a record-breaking $3.3 million, the sixth highest bonus ever handed out to a high school draftee. The contract stipulated that he would be under control starting in 2010, a move that ensured another year of his service, but also meant he wouldn’t pitch in 2009.

Still, professional scouts aren’t letting the right-hander’s inexperience get in the way of their judgments.

Throwing from a low three-quarters arm slot, Wheeler’s fastball is easily his best pitch. It routinely sits 90-93 miles-per-hour, but he can rear back and touch 95. In a Giant’s audition in early 2009, it was reported that he actually reached 97, though that seems slightly high. It has tremendous sinking movement and bores in on the hands of righties, making it especially lethal.

Wheeler also possesses an above-average, 78-80 mile-per-hour curveball. It’s too hard to deem it a plus pitch right now because he so much trouble controlling it, but it should play well in the higher levels. Working on his other offspeed offering, a sub-par changeup, will be the main focus of his initial rookie campaign.

Coaches will also work with Wheeler on his inconsistent control, which is more a product of his delivery than of his stuff. Wheeler’s motion is far from unconventional, but he is still prone to bringing his hands too far back and as a result his elbow flies open, wreaking havoc on his offspeed pitches. When his hands remain stable, he’s at his best.

But Wheeler should be coachable enough for those problems to iron themselves out; scouts praise him for his terrific makeup and concentration and he’s also been called a “baseball rat.” Wheeler is listed a just 170 pounds, but once his thin, wiry frame fills out, its highly likely that he will add a few more miles-per-hour to his fastball.

It’s risky to label a 19-year-old who hasn’t even pitched a professional game a future ace, but Wheeler certainly appears to have that upside.

For Giant’s fans, a fully developed Wheeler is part of a tantalizing vision. To go along with a dynamic offense, a starting five of Lincecum, Cain, Barry Zito, Bumgarner, and Wheeler could add up to the team’s first postseason appearance since 2003.

Zack Wheeler: the enigma that hasn’t pitched professionally, but could be the Giant’s third best prospect.