Baby Steps for a Potential Franchise Player

About 300 young men get a very special call every year. That call is a call-up to the major leagues and participation in their first major league baseball game. Some emerge from the thicket of minor league players almost in anonymity, usually to fill in for an injured regular. For others, it is as if destiny has called them to begin the long journey from hungry rookie to grizzled veteran and perhaps a place in the living memory of baseball fans for decades to come.

In the history of the Toronto Blue Jays, few major league debuts have been as anticipated as Alex Rios‘s this past Thursday. Almost a year ago, Rios started hitting AA pitching with authority after struggling in the low minors in years past. Rios was written off by many as a “signability” pick in the cost-cutting Gord Ash period, but others pointed to his impressive athletic gifts and his long, lean frame. Rios was the Eastern League’s MVP and batting champion in 2003. His superb performance in Puerto Rico over the winter (appoximately AA caliber baseball) cemented his status as Toronto’s #1 prospect.

Looking back at Rios’s minor league record, several interesting facets emerge. One is the consistency of his walk and strikeout rates at levels which are characteristic of a contact hitter. Another is the generally good (and sometimes exceptional) ball in play averages ($BIP) he’s posted at each minor league stop. An upward trend in power is evident in his first three professional seasons, though somewhat masked by the pitcher-friendly Florida State League where Rios spent 2002. The 6-foot, 5-inch Rios is rail-thin and therefore can be expected to hit with significantly more power as he fills out. Here are Alex Rios’s component batting stats for his minor league career:

Alex Rios
Born Feb 18,1981; Drafted 1st Round (19th)/1999
Year Level PA OBP SLG GPA $k $w $bip power age
1999-00 short 476 .318 .334 .227 .112 .055 .303 .059 18.8
2000-01 A 604 .291 .347 .218 .121 .043 .294 .075 20.2
2002 A+ 492 .344 .408 .257 .112 .055 .342 .089 21.4
2003 AA 563 .402 .521 .311 .152 .063 .407 .150 22.4
2003-04 Winter 166 .392 .684 .347 .159 .055 .359 .279  
2004 AAA 195 .292 .373 .225 .154 .046 .296 .109 23.4
The $ indicates a rate (i.e. walks per opportunity); Age is as of July 1st of the year in question; Power is (2B+3B+2*HR)/(AB-K+SF)

Although he struggled in AAA this season, a rash of injuries has convinced management that now is the time for Alex Rios to play major league baseball. General manager J.P. Ricciardi announced it during Wednesday’s post-game show on the Fan 590 in Toronto, indicating that Rios was here to stay (barring the unforeseen) even when regular leftfielder Frank Catalanotto returns.

The announcement sent Batter’s Box into a tizzy. But was it too soon? There was talk of service time, of whether the Jays are risking making Rios a super-2 arbitration-eligible player after 2006.

Others pointed out that Rios was not hitting up to expectations in Syracuse and still hadn’t made much progress in the walk department.

A Future-Star is Born?

A keen interest in minor league prospects is one of the points where the baseball fanatic differs from the casual follower. The fanatic comes to know almost everything about his favorite team’s farm system. Each promotion creates a feeling of anticipation – the prospect is one step closer to the major leagues and potential stardom. Each new arrival is at the very least a curiosity, and at most a vessel of hope. The holy grail of the baseball fanatic is the franchise player.

Seeing as the debut of a potential franchise player was imminent, the game played on Thursday, May 27th was a must-see affair. The high-flying Anaheim Angels were looking to stave off a sweep. For the homeside, reigning American League Cy Young Award winner Roy Halladay was on the mound. I dug out my digital camera and headed off to the ballpark.

   Alex Rios prepares for his second major league at-bat before the start of the bottom of the 5th inning

Rios looked fairly comfortable at the plate and more patient than I had expected. He lined a single over short in his third at-bat and eventually scored the first run of the ballgame. He went one-for-three against lefthander Jarrod Washburn (reaching on a error in his second at-bat) and finished the day by fouling out against righthander Ramon Ortiz. He had no official chances in the outfield, though he did handle a couple of base hits.

In the three games versus Texas over the weekend, Rios added two more singles and a walk without striking out, but also had several bad reads on balls that went over his head in right field. Perhaps it is merely a question of getting used to the backdrop and lighting conditions of Skydome and the other big league parks. He has the tools to be one of the better defensive rightfielders around, but there’s a learning curve for these sorts of things, and he’s still on it. With the bat, Rios currently profiles as a contact hitter, and I wouldn’t at all be surprised to see him hit .275 this season, albeit without many walks and not a whole lot of power.

Rios will have a chance to work side by side with fellow Puerto Rican Carlos Delgado, and there are already signs that Delgado’s patient approach is influencing the youngster. He’s a work in progress, and Blue Jays fans will now have a chance to watch him learn on the job. I can’t wait to see what happens.

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