Iffy First-Round Bats Often Don't Develop

If scouts question the bat, there's reason to worry

CHICAGO—Aaron Hicks' five-tool ability is obvious. The Wilson High (Long Beach) star has plus speed, a top-of-the-line arm and impressive bat speed from both sides of the plate. If scouts could draw up a blueprint of what they'd want a center fielder to look like it would be Hicks.

In a 2008 draft short on outfielders, his potential stands out even more.

However, Hicks comes with a caveat. He's still raw at the plate, as he lacks an advanced approach. He has performed inconsistently at showcases, often showing more in batting practice than he does in game action.

Further clouding the picture is what Hicks brings to the mound. All things equal, teams prefer to get the most out of a two-way talent by using him as an everyday player. But Hicks was throwing 94-97 mph a month before the draft, and more clubs are beginning to wonder if he might be more effective as a pitcher.

They may be right. When scouts have questioned the hitting ability of a first-round pick this decade, they usually have been correct.

Marlins Wisely Shift Course

With the No. 1 overall pick in 2000, the Marlins strongly considered Scott Heard and David Espinosa. An outstanding defensive catcher, Heard looked uncomfortable at the plate all spring, chasing pitches and failing to bat even .300 against California high school competition. Espinosa, a Florida prep shortstop, performed well as a switch-hitting leadoff man but still engendered concerns about how much he'd hit with wood bats.

Florida ultimately passed on both in favor of Adrian Gonzalez. Heard (who went to the Rangers at No. 25) batted .245 and topped out in high Class A before retiring, while Espinosa (Reds, No. 23) is now in independent ball.

Texas gambled on another iffy bat two years later, passing on Scott Kazmir to select South Carolina shortstop Drew Meyer. Meyer's two-part swing bothered scouts, as did his .214 and .192 batting averages in the wood-bat Cape Cod League. He never has gotten his offensive game going in pro ball, though he did make it to the majors for 14 at-bats in 2006.

When the Padres decided to scale back their budget for the No. 1 overall choice in 2004, they panicked and went for local high school product Matt Bush. Teams oohed and ahhed over Bush's arm strength at shortstop, but many pegged him as a bottom-of-the-order hitter without a plus offensive tool. They were right, as he batted just .221 in three seasons before moving to the mound last year.

The list goes on and on. Dave Krynzel and Sergio Santos' senior slumps were bad omens. Miguel Negron and Denard Span were very raw and never have added enough polish. Greg Golson, C.J. Henry, Tyler Greene, Cody Johnson and Jason Place haven't been able to make the necessary adjustments to suspect strokes and approaches.

Johnson did lead the Rookie-level Appalachian League in homers last summer, but he has fanned 62 times in 38 low Class A games this spring.

Francoeur Overcame Doubts

Georgia prep outfielder Jeff Francoeur was the best two-sport athlete in the 2002 draft, a star defensive back with a Clemson football scholarship. Though he was loaded with raw tools, scouts weren't as sold on his stance, his tendency to spin off pitches or his ability to hit breaking pitches. After committing to baseball full-time, Francoeur shored up his offensive game and has topped 100 RBIs in each of his two full big league seasons with the Braves.

Cameron Maybin, one of the game's best prospects, is close to joining Francoeur as a success story. Teams loved Maybin's upside when he came out of a North Carolina high school in 2005, but wondered if he would take a long time to adjust to pro-caliber pitching. He has yet to establish himself in the majors, but he got there at age 20 last summer before the Tigers included him in the Miguel Cabrera/Dontrelle Willis blockbuster with the Marlins.

John Mayberry Jr. still has a long swing and is vulnerable inside, and Drew Stubbs still swings and misses too much, but they both can become big league regulars who just won't hit for a high average. Mayberry has the power and arm strength to push for a corner-outfield job with the Rangers, while Stubbs could give the Reds a 20-20 man with Gold Glove defense in center field.

It's too early to make a definitive judgment on the 2007 first-round crop, which included Marlins third baseman Matt Dominguez (inconsistent approach, lackluster hitting mechanics), Blue Jays catcher J.P. Arencibia (long, uppercut stroke) and Giants outfielder Wendell Fairley (limited pitch recognition and baseball experience). Arencibia is performing solidly in high Class A, while Dominguez and Fairley opened the season in extended spring training.

Either as a center fielder or as a righthander, Hicks will go somewhere in the middle of the first round. Betting on his bat is tempting because of his across-the-board tools, but recent history suggests the odds are against a big payoff.