A .310/.373/.512 line in the Midwest League at age 19 is a great performance. A .386/.444/.584 in the Midwest League at age 19 is great enough to lead the entirety of single A baseball in offensive performance as measured by wOBA (min 200 PA).
The first line, Colby Rasmus’ performance in 2006, cemented his position as the Cardinals’ #1 prospect, which he wouldn’t relinquish until graduating to the majors. The latter performance put Oscar Taveras at #4 on the Future Redbirds top 20 and generally in the #3 or #4 spot on industry lists. Is it possible that Oscar Taveras is underrated?
Stats don’t tell the whole story of a player in A-ball but Oscar Taveras put together some impressive statistics nonetheless. He showed plate coverage that without an obvious weakness that opposition pitchers could consistently exploit leading to a modest 15% strikeout rate. He showed excellent power with an isolated slugging of .198 (on par with Rasmus’ .201 2006 ISO). If there’s a place to be concerned about Taveras it’s the unsustainable .440 BABIP. While his walk rate was still good (9%), the luck on balls in play may obscure the fact that Taveras was still quite excellent.
If you aggressively normalize Taveras’ numbers by assuming 1) that balls in play are converted to outs in A-ball nearly the same percentage of time that they are in the majors and 2) that Taveras true talent level on balls in play is no better than an average major league hitter. In that case, Taveras should have recorded approximately 30 fewer hits in 2011: 23 fewer singles, 4 fewer doubles and 1 fewer triples. (Home runs are not balls in play and thus unaffected by this.) That puts his batting line at .327/.383/.506. A .889 OPS would have tied him with 12th place in the league (not adjusting anyone else’s statistics). All this while still being one of the youngest players in the league.
What makes Taveras more compelling as a prospect is that he’s well regarded by scouts as well. With Taveras spending more time in the US this season, the reports have been better informed and more consistently positive. Some equivocate on his long term home run potential but acknowledge that he compensates by hitting the ball hard even when it is inside the park. Taveras isn’t a true centerfielder in the same mold as Colby Rasmus when Rasmus was in the minors but he’s not a lead-footed corner outfielder as well.
Taveras is up against a different set of prospects as well. There was no equivalent to Shelby Miller when Colby Rasmus sat atop the rankings. The farm system has come a long way since 2005 and is flush with blue chip, high upside prospects. But this isn’t necessarily an argument about Taveras’ position within the fiefdom of Cardinal prospects so much as it is about the general disposition towards Taveras.
It’s difficult to make the case that Taveras is a true five tool player — he’s not. His speed is average and his defense is good but not necessarily tremendous. What Taveras has displayed in 2011, however, should be a cautionary tale to doubters. Taveras hit better than any scouting report from the previous year would have suggested displaying great power, if not great home run power. Given his young age, one has to wonder — is Oscar Taveras underrated?