Saturday, December 1, 2007

By J. Northrop ("Angelsjunky")

Amidst all the obsession over the Two Miguels and other trade possibilities, it seems that many have forgotten that the Angels have a collection of promising young hitters, some of whom--such as Howie Kendrick and Casey Kotchman--have gone beyond the level of "potential" into "actual." To provide an alternative for those that tire of the endless cycling of the same old trade rumors, here is a discussion of our first baseman of the next decade, Casey Kotchman.

Promising Beginnings: Excellence and Injury

It wasn’t that long ago that Casey Kotchman was one of the most exciting prospects in Angels history. I remember the excitement among fans when he slipped to the Angels in the 13th pick of the 2001 draft; it was as if the baseball gods had smiled upon us, granting us our most fervent wish. And the 18-year old Kotchman rewarded us immediately, with 20 hits in his first 37 at-bats in Rookie ball.

The following year Kotchman hit .281/.390/.444 in 81 games at low-A Cedar Rapids: a strong performance but nothing awe-inspiring. Yet in 2003 he really came alive, hitting .350/.441/.524 in 57 games at high-A Rancho Cucamonga: excellent numbers, especially for a 20-year old. In 2004 he was even more dominant, but this time in AA and AAA, where he hit .368/.438/.544 in 28 games and .372/.423/.558 in 49 games—numbers that, from a 21-year old in the high minors, promised future stardom.

Yet a nagging worry never left us, for Kotchman seemed to be prone to various injuries. However, it was hard not to be optimistic about a player that hit .372 in AAA at 21 years old (even if in only a third of a season). Kotchman’s 2004 call-up seemed pre-mature, as he struggled to the tune of .224/.289/.276 in 38 games. But he was only 21! So we looked forward to next year, when he would (supposedly) begin a long career as our starting first baseman, a new and improved version of once-beloved Wally Joyner.

But it wasn’t to be—the job was handed to Darin Erstad, who while of Gold Glove defense—at 1B or CF—simply was not worthy to man first with his mediocre bat. Many fans were disappointed because Kotchman was undoubtedly the future at first base. Kotchman’s performance in AAA was, while decent, rather disappointing: he hit .289/.372/.441 in 94 games. However, hopes were still high—it was not uncommon for a young player to get a taste of the big leagues and, upon being sent back to the minors, to languish, as if they were merely biding their time, awaiting the opportunity that was a guarantee.

Casey Arrives (Sort of)

Kotchman was called up in the second half of 2005 and was a factor in the Angels stretch drive, hitting .278/.352/.484 in 47 games, finally displaying some major league power with 7 HR. Going into spring training of 2006 he was—finally (and perhaps a year too late)—a lock for the job. He tore the cover off the ball that spring, hitting .421/.450/.702 in 21 exhibition games. Finally Casey had arrived.

But, once again, it wasn’t to be. For about a month Kotchman was terrible, hitting .152/.221/.215 in 29 games, until it was determined that he had mononucleosis and was shelved for the year. Fans were distraught; it was the final straw (or almost). At the beginning of 2007, despite still being only 24, Kotchman’s stock had dropped drastically. Trade rumors swirled, yet thankfully avoided, especially given that his perceived value was lower than it had ever been. He was deemed “injury-prone” in the fine tradition of another talented young first baseman, Nick Johnson, who also experienced great success in the minors at a very young age—with a .525 OBP (!) in AA at age 20. Like Kotchman, Johnson was terrible in his first call-up (at age 22); since he made the majors for good in 2002, Johnson has played in 129, 96, 73, 131, 147, and 0, missing all of last year. Let us hope that Kotchman does not follow a similar pattern.

2007: Casey Arrives (Again)

Anyways, 2007 was a make-or-break year for Kotchman, at least in the minds of the more quick-fix-minded, bloodthirsty fans. Again, despite his performance in the minors and his relative young age, most people did not expect Kotchman to amount to much, at best another Sean Casey (life-time .301/.366/.450—solid, but nothing special for a first baseman). The most many hoped for was for Kotchman to remain healthy.

Through April, Kotchman hit .265/.337/.446, nothing special but at least he was playing. We crossed our fingers, hoping that he was just rusty—he had missed almost all of 2006 with a debilitating illness, and his spring numbers had been very good. Then in May he came alive, hitting .363/.435/.575, a line straight out of his minor league career. Finally, it seemed, Casey had arrived (again!). He continued to hit well through June, hitting .290/.371/.516. Yet then he got injuried—not for long, but after returning he slumped. But in July and August he put up at least decent numbers, hitting .270/.317/.392 and .286/.345/.403 respectively. The main concern was that his power had vanished—at one point between July and September he went two months without a home run. But in September he came alive again, hitting .299/.424/.478, finally blasting two home runs in the final week of the season.

Casey finished the year with a .296/.372/.467 line in 137 games, a season that should be considered a success. He seemed to follow a distinct pattern: He would slowly warm up and then hit very well until getting injuried. When he came back, he had trouble re-adjusting and would take time to warm up. Hopefully this pattern will be rectified—or at least shortened—with experience.

There is a lot to like about Kotchman’s first full season. When he was healthy and warm, he was a terrific hitter. During about a month stretch in May and June he had 37 hits in 24 games, including 12 multi-hit games, when his season numbers stood at .333/.411/.556 through June 16th. But then he got injuried and missed a week, after which he went 0-18 in his first five games back. The issue, in other words, is not talent—for Kotchman can hit. What he needs to learn is consistency and to quicken his return to timing, things that good hitters learn over time.

Kotchman also stayed healthy for most of the season, only missing a couple weeks worth of games scattered throughout the season. It also seemed that Scioscia protected him, giving him more days off than normal.

Some quibble with the fact that he hit only 11 HR. But he also hit 37 doubles—which is more impressive when you consider that he had only 131 hits, a number that projects to over 50 given 180 hits. Furthermore, some doubles eventually become home runs, so that Casey might be expected to hit 40 doubles and 20 HR, even if his average doesn’t increase that much.

The Future: Quality Regular or Star?

So what can we expect from Kotchman going forward? Despite his good performance in 2007, many fans still don’t see him as a future star—and some major publications seem to project him to even take a step back from 2007, which makes little sense given his age and the fact that he missed a key developmental year to illness. There is absolutely no reason to expect Kotchman to do anything but improve; the “injury-prone” label is largely misplaced, especially considering that Kotchman’s injuries have been different. In other words, he wasn’t had one nagging injury that has returned, perhaps requiring future surgery.

I think the least that we should expect from Kotchman is a perennial .300 hitter with 60 extra base hits, good plate discipline and excellent defense. But I am still optimistic that he can fulfill his earlier promise, even approach a line similar to his June 16th totals (.333/.411/.556), which would place him among the better hitters in baseball.

In 2008 I predict a small step forward, but with greater consistency. In 2009 or 2010, I predict a leap forward to a plateau of excellent for the next five years, making Kotchman the best Angels first baseman ever. Something like this:

  • 2008: .300/.380/.490 with 45 doubles, 18 HR, and 70 walks.
  • 2009: .320/.400/.520 with 45 doubles, 20 HR, and 80 walks.
  • 2010: .330/.420/.550 with 40 doubles, 25 HR, and 90 walks.

Of course nothing is guaranteed. As I mentioned in Part 2 of my series, even if Kotchman doesn’t improve he’s still an above average player and among the second tier of first basemen. But we have reason to be optimistic, so why not be? The Angels have been looking for a second elite hitter to complement Vladimir Guerrero. While Torii Hunter is a very good all-around player, he isn’t quite an elite hitter. And the Angels may not have to trade away the farm to get a guaranteed star in Miguel Cabrera; they may have him already, standing quietly over at first base. Our very own forgotten future star, Casey Kotchman.

Love to hear what you think!

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