GREENSBORO, N.C.—In his first at-bat of one of the final games of his first full pro season, Joey Gallo hit a ball that few hitters anywhere could match.
Facing Greensboro starter Matt Milroy, Gallo stung a line drive to the opposite field power alley that screamed over the left-center-field fence on a line. The ball hit, bounced and kept on rolling down a hill, ending up nearly 470 feet from home plate, even though he was hitting the ball the other way. It was a violent, freakishly powerful swing that showed why scouts can dream of Gallo hitting 40 home runs in the big leagues.
In his final three at-bats of the game, Gallo struck out three times. Each time he chased fastballs up and out of the strike zone. It's Gallo's inability to make consistent contact and his long swing that leaves those same scouts wondering how they can project as a big leaguer a player who strikes out in 43 percent of his at-bats.
In other words, Joey Gallo is the perfect Hickory Crawdad. There is no more talented team in minor league baseball this year. But there is also no team whose talent comes with so much trepidation and risk.
A decade from now, the 2013 Crawdads could be a team that compares to the 2005 Jacksonville Suns (Chad Billingsley, Jonathan Broxton, Edwin Jackson, James Loney, Russ Martin, Justin Ruggiano and 11 other big leaguers) for future big league impact talent.
"I would say (Hickory) has as many prospects as any team I've seen since I've been involved with (baseball)," said one scout with a National League club who has spent several decades in the game.
"They all have the potential to be big, strong, fast game-changers in the big leagues," Hickory manager Corey Ragsdale said. "That's what when you close your eyes, that's what you dream about—so many of these guys impacting the big league club. These guys, if it all comes together, they can be the upper echelon of major league players."
But it's also possible this team will be a cautionary tale that loud tools don't always pan out. There are scouts who turned in all eight Hickory regulars as potential big leaguers. But there isn't one of those eight who doesn't carry significant risk.
Worth Price Of Admission
For pure entertainment value, there's been no better minor league team to follow than the Crawdads. They aren't the best team in the minors—they aren't even going to the playoffs. But night after night, a Hickory game is never boring.
In any inning, on any pitch, something amazing might happen.
Gallo might hit a home run in Greensboro that will leave everyone in attendance debating whether it's the farthest home run ever hit there. Center fielder Lewis Brinson may run down a ball in center field that would appear to be uncatchable, or catcher Jorge Alfaro will show the kind of athleticism that seems out of place behind the plate.
And most every night, you're likely to see a home run or two or three. With 167 home runs (and a week left in the season), Hickory led all other South Atlantic League clubs by a chasm of 65 homers. Nine of the other 13 clubs in the South Atlantic League hadn't even hit 65 home runs this year. Only two other clubs in all of baseball, high Class A Stockton and the Baltimore Orioles, had more home runs.
Six Crawdads had 10 or more home runs. Brinson became the first Crawdad in team history to go 20-20, with 21 home runs to go with his 23 steals. Before he was promoted to Double-A, second baseman Ryan Rua was matching Gallo home run for home run as the two traded off the minor league home run lead through most of June.
"There's not a team I would rather have than the guys we have," Ragsdale said. "Some days are tougher than others because of the age and the maturity part of it. But that's why they are 18, 19 years old."
The good comes with the bad. Catch the Crawdads on a night when the opposing pitcher can locate his secondary pitches and the home runs will often be replaced with swings and misses. Hickory strikes out at a rate that would make Mark Reynolds cringe. The Crawdads' 1,351 strikeouts led all of Organized Baseball.
As a team, Hickory strikes out in 31 percent of its at-bats. Around the minors, the average is a 23 percent strikeout rate.
That's not by design, but it is a side effect of the team the Rangers put in Hickory. Texas has drafted and signed internationally a large number of athletic, toolsy hitters with less-developed batting approaches. They are big (five of the Crawdads' regulars are 6-foot-3 or taller), they are strong and they are fast.
"It's pretty neat running the guys we get to run out every night—the big, athletic, strong, a little bit gangly guys," Ragsdale said. "You can tell they have great bodies they are going to grow into. They are going to be big, athletic, strong kids."
But they are kids. With an average age of 20, Hickory is the youngest team in the South Atlantic League. On many nights, Hickory had six teenagers in the starting lineup. They are still relatively inexperienced. Alfaro was the only Hickory regular who had full-season experience before this year.
The youth and inexperience show up regularly in a variety of ways. Some nights, Hickory's lineup will grind out professional at-bats. At other times, concentration wanders and the hitters are an easy mark for pitches off the plate.
With that youth in mind, the Rangers haven't made strikeout prevention a priority for most of the Hickory lineup, yet.
"Our philosophy is get a fastball early that you can hit hard. We don't always do that, we don't always stick to that plan, as you can tell," Ragsdale said.
The Rangers want to see their young hitters learn the strike zone and how their swing works first. Once they've done that, they'll start talking about two-strike approaches, times for a contact-oriented approach and other details.
"Learning your swing might take years," farm director Tim Purpura said. "We do pay attention to counts. We do talk to being selective but also aggressive. We talk about walks, hitters' counts, advantage counts. You have to learn your swing. With any young player you have to keep hammering home strike-zone knowledge and recognition."
But a hitter can only work on so many things at one time. For hitters like Gallo, he can refine his two-strike swing later.
"(Gallo's) not at the stage where we want to introduce that," Purpura said. "That's the kind of thing you may talk about in instructional league. The biggest thing is getting them ready to hit. We continue to harp on and emphasize getting ready to hit. From the time you get the bat out of the rack, when you're on deck, be ready to hit."
Brinson is going through similar growing pains. He has moved right up on the plate, setting up in an exaggerated crouch that diminishes his 6-foot-3 frame and seems to beg for a fastball up and in—which may be just what a hitter with Brinson's fast hands wants to see happen. It's just the latest, likely temporary, adjustment for a hitter who has plenty of highlights to remember from this season, but also way too many strikeouts.
Scouts view Brinson as less risky than Gallo. Although they both swing and miss too frequently, Brinson's outstanding defense in center field, his plus arm for the position and his speed on the bases give him more cushion than Gallo, who profiles as a strong-armed but limited-range third baseman as he matures and continues to fill out.
Two different scouts cited Dexter Fowler as a potential comparison for Brinson, although as one scout noted, Brinson has significantly more power. After all, Fowler hit 23 home runs in four minor league seasons before reaching the big leagues. Brinson has hit 21 homers this year.
Can't Give Up On Power
Gallo draws comparisons to Russ Branyan, another athletic minor league third baseman with massive power and massive strikeout totals. Because he missed more than a month with a groin injury, Gallo won't lead the minors in strikeouts; Brinson will wear that crown instead. But Gallo will finish the year in the top five in the minors in home runs, one year after he broke the Rookie-level Arizona League record for home runs in a season.
Unofficially, he also holds the record for most jaw-dropping home runs in 2013. When the club is at home, the front office has learned to station a worker beyond the outfield fence to retrieve balls Gallo and his teammates hit out in batting practice.
Ask a Hickory player, coach or fan what was Gallo's most impressive home run and you'll likely get a list of them. There's the Gallo shot that landed on a car in the parking lot well beyond right field in Asheville. There's the blast to center field that hit high up on the batter's eye in center field in Rome.
But the consensus maintains that the opposite-field home run Gallo hit at West Virginia is the one that will be remembered. Gallo hit a line drive shot that struck the clock above the Power's video scoreboard in left-center field.
As Hickory hitting coach Justin Mashore pointed out, it's one thing to see a hitter pull a ball for a long home run. But few could hit such a jaw dropping shot to the opposite field.
Gallo can provide highlights like that every night.
In the end, Gallo's power, and that of his teammates, leave scouts bullish on their outlook. As written in the Aug. 20-Sept. 3 edition of Baseball America, teams just can't give up on young power like this.
As the Rangers watch former farmhand Chris Davis hitting home runs for Baltimore, they are inclined to be patient. They see progress. They see the potential and they see this group as the future core of the big league club.
"We knew going into this that this would be a real challenge," Purpura said. "You never really know what to expect. We've seen a lot of highs and a few lows. But overall if you look at the trend line, it's a positive trend line as far as physical and mental growth and development."