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Kaleb Cowart; Top Angels Prospect #7

7) Kaleb Cowart, 6/2/92 -- 3B, Advanced Rookie Ball

.283/.345/.420 with 7 HR and 11 SB

I'm surprised at how much slack folks are cutting Cowart for his underwhelming season in the Pioneer League. Other sites have ranked him second, third/fourth, and fifth in the Angels system based on his all-star caliber tool package. Folks just don't seem especially alarmed at his problems with offspeed stuff and the consequent 25%+ strikeout rate he posted in rookie ball. They accept how raw our 2010 first round, $2.3 million bonus baby has remained through a full season of pro development, yet still project him to be a middle of the order hitter.

I went back through the decade's advanced rookie ball rosters to see how teenagers with similar rookie ball performances have fared, specifically those with K-rates above 20%. Here's the list: Mark Trumbo (20.7% K-rate), Ryan Mount (21.0%), Sean Rodriguez (21.2%), Peter Bourjos (24.0%), PJ Phillips (26.1%), Brandon Wood (26.5%, though he was a year younger than Cowart), and Angel Castillo (29.6%). There are some obvious busts there, but also some pretty good players. For me, the salient point is that none of them have ever really resolved their strikeout issues, even if they've found ways to succeed despite that flaw in their game. Cowart's K's aren't likely to just go away, and that's going to be prohibitive unless the secondary skills come along quickly.

Additional points of reference include Alberto Callaspo, our current switch-hitting, defensively-gifted third baseman, who K'd in exactly 4.3% (not a typo!) of his Pioneer League PA's at the same age as Cowart; Luis Jimenz, who fanned just 14.1% of the time, though he was a year older; and, at the other extreme, Josh Bell, the former Dodgers prospect and aspiring Orioles third baseman who often comes up as a comp for Cowart, and who also struck out in 26% of his PA's as a nineteen year-old in the Pioneer League. So far in the majors, 35% of Bell's PA's have ended with a K.

On the other hand, Cowart did a lot of things right in Orem: he improved his left-handed cut, ending up with a .303/.359/.466 slash line with seven homeruns from that side (including the playoffs), and showing flashes of power up the middle and to the opposite field. He had the bat speed to turn around good fastballs, shooting linedrives from line to line. His defense was spectacular at times, despite the disconcerting error totals, and his glove now projects as average to above average. That's a pretty good collection of skills to have, and there's still a chance that he takes a huge step forward next year.

Cowart's swing is similar from both sides of the plate. He uses a big leg kick to load, which probably compromises his ability to adjust to offspeed stuff. Even when he doesn't whiff, he often gets too far out in front and rolls over on a pitch, tapping far too many weak grounders to his pull side from both sides of the plate. We're likely to see his timing come and go as he develops, leading to wild swings in his numbers from month to month. Despite the big kick, Cowart's stride forward his modest, so he stands tall on a surprisingly narrow base throughout his cut, which is unusual for a power hitter. That keeps him upright at the point of contact, and helps him to stay on top of the ball. It seems to me that his cut is geared more for linedrives than for distance power, and my sense is the Angels want it that way for now.

Weirdly, his hitting mechanics seemed simpler in high school. He set up on a wider base then and loaded with a toe tap instead of his present high leg kick. It's unusual for a young player to move away from those kind of mechanics and add a big, potentially extraneous motion like the leg kick. Strange.

Cowart is a risky project. However, unlike most guys, he also has a workable exit strategy: just a year and a half ago, consensus had it that he could be a frontline starter. If he bombs as a hitter with Cedar Rapids, then it should be clear to him and to the organization that his future is on the mound, which in any case may be his best possible outcome. My fear is that he hits .250/.290/.370 with a 25% K-rate, which wouldn't be horrible for the Midwest League, but it wouldn't reflect any improvement either. Those numbers would likely be enough to keep him on the hitting development track, but at that point he'd be a year older and, in my mind, much further from projecting as an everyday MLB player.

To hell with mediocrity. Here's to boom or bust in 2012.