6. Clay Fuller, CF.
Born - 06/87 Bats: Switch Height: 6’2” Weight: 190
A- 438 AB’s . 260/.379/.425 (.244/.373/.425 vs. right, .301/.393/.423 vs. left)
Minor Leagues guru John Sickles stole some of my thunder when he pushed Clay Fuller into the spotlight by ranking him #10 on his Angels prospect list. I’m even more bullish about the 21-year-old center fielder because I’m convinced that Fuller is just beginning to realize his significant potential.
First, the narrative: the Halos drafted Clay in the fourth round of the 2006 draft, and he performed decently for a 19-year-old that summer by posting an OBP-heavy .733 OPS in the Arizona Rookie League. But instead of advancing him on the standard track to Orem, the Halos decided to hold him back in Arizona and teach him to switch-hit. In 2007, he repeated the league and posted a much better .878 OPS, despite undergoing growing pains with his left-handed swing and a bothersome lower back injury. His OBP remained solid while his power numbers jumped substantially.
In 2008, Fuller skipped Orem to play centerfield for low-A Cedar Rapids in the Midwest League. At 21, he was no spring chicken for low A, but he posted an .804 OPS with 9 homeruns through 438 AB’s in notoriously pitching-friendly ballparks. To put that in context, only seven other Halos prospects have topped that OPS in Cedar Rapids over the past four seasons. Just three were 21 or younger when they did, and all were more prototypical sluggers. For a top of the order guy capable of playing a plus center field, Fuller’s performance was more than acceptable.
What really elevates Clay in my mind is his potential to make substantial gains over his already solid offensive performance. As a right-handed batter last year, Clay struck out about 20% of the time, making enough contact to hit .301. It was with his new left-handed swing that he struggled to put the bat on the ball, striking out in more than a quarter of his plate appearances. Despite the resulting .244 BA, he flashed enough secondary skills from the left side to post an .799 OPS against right-handed pitching, which was almost exactly in line with his overall numbers. As Clay’s left-handed swing gets more professional reps, he could/should see his contact rate increase and his average rise even as he’s playing against better competition. Between that, his patience, and a little more pop, I see potential for a big-time 2009 breakout in the hitting-friendly California League.
On the defensive side, Clay is already a fleet center fielder with an average arm, comparable though not quite so highly rated as Peter Bourjos. His speed also translates well on base paths, where he accumulated 28 swipes at a solid 78% success rate.
The knock against Clay’s ’08 performance was his inconsistency, especially in batting average, which vacillated wildly from .325 in one month to .225 in another. While certainly streaky, he posted at least a .350 OBP every month except for April, so he was meeting his primary responsibilities as leadoff guy even when the hits weren’t falling. His power increased dramatically in the second half: he ramped up with two homeruns in June, and then finished the year with three dingers each in July and August. His cumulative slugging percentage for the season was .425. In comparison, Mark Trumbo posted a slugging percentage of .427 in the Midwest League before this year’s breakout campaign. I’m not saying Fuller is going to hit 32 homeruns in 2009, but I do think he’s going to surprise some people with his pop.
In the near term, Fuller will head to high A Rancho Cucamonga, where he could score a 100 runs with Matt Sweeney and Gabriel Jacobo mashing behind him. Down the road, I suspect that Clay’s mature approach at the plate will have him playing Mike Napoli to Peter Bourjos’ Jeff Mathis, where command of the strike zone ultimately triumphs over the flashier package of tools. If Clay continues to progress, I think he’s capable of breaking into the bigs as a Shane Victorino type, posting .275/.350/450 numbers, flashing double digit homerun power, and making game-changing plays with his legs in the field and on the base paths. That is a very, very valuable ball player. If the power develops further - and I believe it might, given his tall, thickening frame - think a switch hitting, pre-Angels version of Steve Finley. That is an even more valuable contributor.