Rays First Baseman of the Future is a Four-Horse Race

The Rays have never been an organization that has developed first basemen well. The only quality big league first baseman the Rays have had a part in developing has been Aubrey Huff, but Huff was more of a power-hitting bat that the Rays played at third base and in the outfield than a first baseman. But now the Rays are hoping they change that. They have four legitimate first base prospects in their system now, each of which is vying to be the “first baseman of the future.” Let’s look at these four players and see what the future could have in store.

Phil Wunderlich, a 6’0″, 225 lefty swinging first baseman drafted by the Rays in the 12th round in 2010, is the kind of pick that we’ve seen the Rays rarely make. Signed out of the University of Louisville, Wunderlich was expected to come into the Rays organization and be a prototypical first base prospect. Some of the guys below in this post have more upside than Wunderlich, but Wunderlich is the consistent first base prospect, not quite a sure thing but a solid bet to be a nice big league contributor, that the Rays have basically never had.

In his pro debut in 2010, Wunderlich put up some flashy numbers, posting a .330/.372/.478 line with 19 doubles, 4 homers, and 36 RBI in 52 games for Short Season-A Hudson Valley. He showed nice bat speed and flashes of power, but a problem was a lack of plate discipline. It was going to be interesting how those factors were going to play out in 2011 as Wunderlich headed to Low-A Bowling Green. As it turned out, the results were pretty good.

In 2011 in his age 22 season, Wunderlich battled a few nagging injuries all season but played through them, playing in 132 of 140 games for the Hot Rods, and he managed to put up a .263/.326/.432 line with 34 doubles, 17 homers, and 86 RBI while posting a good .993 Fld% at first base. The 86 RBI were tied for third-most in the Midwest League while his 17 homers were tied for 10th. The big cause for alarm among Wunderlich’s stats was his low OBP, .326, just above the league average of .323. Wunderlich walked in just 6.1% of his plate appearances compared to the league average of 8.6%. His OBP was only above average because he was hit by an incredible 17 pitches, third-most in the entire Midwest League. The good news was that Wunderlich struck out just 83 times, 14.7% of his plate appearances compared to the 20.7% league average, and Minor League Central gives us some more reasons to praise Wunderlich. He made contact at a well above average rate, 67.6% of his swings compared to the league average of 58.6%. He also made a nice amount of hard contact in the form of line drives, with 16.4% of his batted balls being line drives compared to the 14.7% league average. What was interesting is that despite’s Wunderlich’s nice power, he didn’t hit very many flyballs to the outfield. 30.7% of his batted balls were flyballs to the outfield, just above the league average of 29.3%, but when he did he made them count, hitting 13.0% of his flyballs to the outfield for home runs compared to the 8.0% league average. But based on just the information above, it would seem that Wunderlich would have hit for at least a relatively high average since he didn’t strike out very often, posted a nice line drive rate, and made his flyballs to the outfield count. But he hit just .263 because he popped up way too many balls, 11.5% of his batted balls compared to the 7.3% league average, effectively canceling out his above-average line drive rate.

Wunderlich made a lot of contact in 2011, finishing 71.7% of his plate appearances with a ball in play compared to the 66.2% league average. But as we saw, not all the content was good contact. The solution to that could be very simple. Wunderlich was a little overanxious on pitches within the zone, swinging at 91.2% of pitches thrown against him in the strike zone compared to the 88.3% league average. He was swinging and connecting, but he was allowing himself to get jammed on pitches in on his hands and popped the ball up often. Wunderlich just has to relax and take a few more pitches. He showed a nice ability to hit the ball hard and hit for power even though he wasn’t being as selective on strikes as he could have been. If he can be a little more patient, he will improve every part of his game at the plate. He’ll hit more line drives, allowing him to hit for a higher average, more flyballs to the outfield, making his plus power come out even more, and he’ll be more content to take walks, giving him a higher OBP. Wunderlich has shown the skills to be a good first baseman. He just needs to make an adjustment at the plate and be a tad more selective, and everything could come together for him in 2012. Phil Wunderlich has the ability to be a .280/.360/.485 hitter in the big leagues with 40 doubles and 25 to 30 homers annually and I don’t think that’s a stretch at all- as long as he can make this critical adjustment. Phil Wunderlich is a prototypical first base prospect, and he’ll look to make this adjustment at the plate and begin blossoming into the nice big league first baseman he has the potential to be.

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If Phil Wunderlich is a good bet to be a good big league first baseman, Jeff Malm is the wild card. Malm looks like a potential superstar first baseman at 6’3″, 225 and was drafted by the Rays in the 5th round in 2009, signing for a well over-slot $680,000 bonus. Thus far as a pro, Malm has shown flashes of greatness and flashes of ineptitude. Malm made his pro debut with 7 games with the Rookie-level GCL Rays in 2009, hitting .240 as an 18 year old, before starting his first pro season in 2010 at Advanced Rookie Princeton. That’s where we saw the bad.

In 2010, Malm appeared in 68 games for Princeton, accumulating 223 plate appearances, a solid sample size. The results were disastrous. He posted a .220/.296/.310 line with 9 doubles, 3 homers, and 25 RBI, striking out 46 times (20.6% of his PA’s) while walking just 17 times (7.6%). He also took his frustration to the field, posting just a .984 Fld% at first base. The Rays were undoubtedly worried and had no idea what to expect from Malm in 2011 as he was brought up to Short Season-A Hudson Valley (replacing Wunderlich).

In 2011 for the Renegades, Malm started off pretty slowly, posting a .244/.367/488 line with 4 doubles, 2 homers, and 5 RBI in 12 June games. He was showing power, matching two-thirds of his 2010 home run total in just 12 games, but he wasn’t hitting for average at all and he was hitting way too many groundballs, 48.4% of his batted balls compared to the 44.6% league average (according to MLC). Anxiety remained in the air. But then suddenly, Malm caught fire. In July, Malm improved astronomically, posting an insane .314/.435/.608 line with just 3 doubles, 9 homers and 27 RBI in 28 games. He was hitting everything hard and in the air as his groundball percentage dropped to just 34.6%, and 33.3% of his batted balls were flyballs to the outfield, and a nice 23.1% were line drives compared to the league averages of 16.2% and 27.3% respectively. Everyone following Malm got excited. He was finally harnessing his potential. But then poof, it was gone. In the final 33 games of the year, Malm posted just a .208/.336/.311  line with 8 doubles, 1 homer, and 15 RBI. His ISO dropped from .294 in July to just .103 in August and September. Instead of hitting line drives and flyballs to the outfield (he posted a 15.8% LD% and a 27.6% OFB%), Malm was hitting the ball on the ground once again, with groundballs accounting for 40.8% of his batted balls, and to compound his problems, he was popping everything up as 14.5% of his batted balls were pop-ups compared to the league average of just over half that, 7.3%. Malm’s strikeout rate also jumped from 19.4% in July to 24.2% the rest of the season. Malm’s roller coaster of a season ended on a sour note.

Overall in 2011, Malm’s number were solid because of his incredible July as he posted a .257/.382/.462 line with 15 doubles, 12 homers, and 47 RBI in 73 games. Malm led the New York Penn League in homers and ranked 5th in ISO at .205. He also posted a .993 Fld% at first base. But nobody is any more sure about Malm as a prospect. After his power surge in July, Malm was coming to the plate every at-bat swinging for the fences even when it was ill-advised, and his numbers suffered the rest of the season. Between his power, his plate discipline (12.6% walk rate), and his line drive rate (18.4% of his batted balls), Malm showed transient glimpses of his outstanding potential. But he has to put together more consistent performance before we can trust him at all as a prospect. Malm will head to Low-A Bowling Green as a 21 year old in 2012 and look to do just that.

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Cameron Seitzer is not your average first base prospect. He may be 6’5″, 220, but the 11th round pick by the Rays in 2011 hit just 4 home runs in his junior season in 2011 at Oklahoma University. After Seitzer signed quickly, the Rays elected to send Seitzer to Advanced Rookie Princeton rather than Short Season-A Staten Island, partially in deference to Malm and partly because that didn’t think he was good enough. Whatever the reason he was there, the 21 year old turned in a nice stint at Princeton to start his pro career.

In 63 games for the P-Rays, Seitzer posted a .285/.407/.498 line with 14 doubles, 11 homers, 42 RBI, and 6 stolen bases. Seitzer’s 11 blasts were tied for 5th in the Appalachian League and his .213 ISO was 12th in the league minimum 200 PA’s. He struck out 46 times on the season, a decent margin better than the league average at 17.2% of his PA’s, but much more impressive was that he was 43 times, 16.0% of his plate appearances, the best ratio in the Appy League minimum 200 PA’s. Seitzer played the entire season at age 21 just above the league average of 20.5, and he played very well. But it may have all been a fluke.

In June and July, Seitzer got off to a staggering start, posting a .336/.447/.624 line with 11 doubles, 8 homers, and 31 RBI in 35 games. But then he dropped off in August and September as his line dropped to .219/.356/.344 with 3 doubles, 3 homers, and 11 RBI. The league adjusted to Seitzer, and we’re talking about Rookie ball here, not the major leagues. The most worrying part was Seitzer’s batted ball tendencies. The league average was a 14.1% line drive percentage, a 44.1% groundball percentage, a 30.0% outfield flyball percentage, and a 6.8% pop-up percentage. In June and July, Seitzer posted a 14.1% line drive percentage, a 50.5% groundball percentage, and a 32.3% outfield flyball percentage, not hitting a single pop-up. Those tends aren’t too bad at all- we would have liked to see more flyballs to the outfield, but completely eliminating pop-ups and trading them for groundballs, which turn into hits a quarter of the time out of pure luck. But in August and September, Seitzer stopped getting as much hard contact. He posted just a 10.4% line drive percentage and his outfield flyball percentage fell to 27.3% and he finally hit some pop-ups, accounting for 5.8% of his batted balls. But the big red flag was his groundball percentage, which ballooned to 57.1% of his batted balls. On the season, his line drive percentage was 12.5%, his groundball percentage was an unsightly 53.4%, his outfield flyball percentage was just a hair above average at 30.1%, and his pop-up percentage was 2.3%. Seitzer’s numbers, especially his power and plate discipline, were superb. But these ancillary stats like his batted ball rates indicate that Sietzer really isn’t as good as the surface numbers seem to indicate.

Cameron Seitzer’s dad, Kevin Seitzer carved out a nice major league career despite little power, appearing in two All-Star Games in his 12-year career. He peaked as a rookie with the Kansas City Royals in 1987, hitting .323 with 15 homers and 83 RBI and leading the American League with 207 hits. The elder Seitzer was a 5’11, 180 third baseman. Cameron Seitzer will have to hit and hit for power to have any hope of at least matching his father’s career. The odds are against him. His power has been fleeting and in 2011 he struggled in the latter part of the season versus younger competition. Seitzer looks like a longshot, but let him prove us wrong.

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Back in June, I did an article talking about all 60 Rays draft picks in the 2011 MLB Draft. That post has kindly been deleted by my former employer. Anyway, here’s what I said on John Alexander back then.

Whoa. Alexander is a first baseman out of Glendora High School in California. He’s 6’6″, 200. I don’t know about you, but this sounds like an upside pick to me. Alexander certainly isn’t filled out yet, but he has big-time power already. He was among the California state leaders with 9 home runs. He also hit .386, but that means pretty much nothing. Alexander will be a project, but with his frame, he could be a big time player. Especially in the 8th round, how is this kid not worth a shot?

Alexander is really 6’5″, but everything else is true. And he put some of his tremendous upside on display on his 12-game pro debut as an 18 year old for the Rookie level Gulf Coast League Rays. He hit .314 with 4 doubles, 2 homers, 11 RBI, and a .549 SLG. We’ll have to see how he does in his first pro season. He’s a player to watch moving forward as we see just how good he really is.

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For the first time basically ever, the Rays have some significant talent, upside, and even depth at the first base position in their minor league system. None of these players is a sure thing and they have varying levels of risk involved. But in a few years we could see another example of the fruits of the Rays’ farm system with the Rays’ first real homegrown star first baseman.

Topics: Aubrey Huff, Cameron Seitzer, Jeff Malm, John Alexander, Phil Wunderlich

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