Mitch Maier is starting to erase doubts
The full-season minor league clubs have reached the halfway point of their respective seasons, and with that, RC has crunched the numbers and identified the top 10 performances turned in by Royals prospects thus far. This isn’t a top prospect list, but rather a means to recognize the players who have put together the most impressive 2006 campaigns through the first three months of the season.
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We continue our list today with the ninth-best performance, turned in by Wichita’s Mitch Maier. Perhaps more so than any other prospect in the Royals’ organization, 2006 promised to be a defining year for Maier. Labeled a potential “tweener” by most prospect mavens, Maier entered this season with much to prove. Maier’s minor league career has been a mixed bag, and he hasn’t advanced offensively as quickly as we had hoped. Nevertheless, an encouraging pattern in his development has begun to emerge, as it’s becoming increasingly clear that Maier’s improvement, while slow, is quite consistent.
Maier was selected by the Royals out of the University of Toledo with the 30th overall selection in the 2003 draft. A catcher at Toledo, Maier established himself as one of the best collegiate hitting prospects in the nation, culminating with a ridiculous .448/.525/.691 line (along with nine home runs and 29 stolen bases) during his junior season. His inefficient throwing mechanics behind the plate made a position switch in the pros inevitable, but the Royals liked his bat and figured he was athletic enough to learn a new position.
After signing for $900,000, Maier opened his professional career in the Arizona Summer League. The Royals at the time had no advanced rookie ball affiliate, so Maier spent the summer beating up on younger pitchers – most of whom were fresh out of high school -- to the tune of .350/.403/.507. The Royals switched him to third base in the 2003 instructional league, and he opened the 2004 season with the full-season Burlington Bees (low Class-A). Maier did well in Burlington, batting .300/.354/.432 while swiping 34 bases in 44 attempts. The stolen bases came as a bit of a surprise, but his lack of power (only four home runs in 317 at bats) became something of a concern. Nevertheless, he earned a mid-season promotion to advanced Class-A Wilmington, and the Royals moved him from third base to the outfield shortly thereafter.
RC got an opportunity to see Maier play frequently in the Carolina League, but for the first time in his career, he was overmatched. He rarely hit the ball hard, and he struggled his way through 50 games in Wilmington to a line of .259/.323/.388. At the time, we harbored serious doubts about Maier’s future, and the Royals decided to have him repeat advanced A-ball at High Desert the following season.
It was in the thin air of the California League that Maier began to resurrect his prospect status. Through 50 games with High Desert, Maier assaulted the league to the tune of .336/.370/.583, averaging an extra base hit once every six at bats. In fact, his 26 doubles continued to lead the league for weeks after he was promoted to Double-A Wichita, and even though the hitter-friendliness of the Cal League has be taken into account, he appeared to have turned a corner. Once in Wichita, Maier’s batting average slumped to .255 as he struggled to adjust to the more advanced pitching, but he continued to collect extra base hits. Between the two levels in 2005, Maier set career highs with 47 doubles and 15 home runs, and he earned high praise from the Royals for his stellar defense in the outfield. In fact, then-GM Allard Baird even labeled Maier as the best defensive outfielder in the entire system, and he entered 2006 with high expectations.
When RC watched Maier in Spring Training earlier this year, we were shocked at how much he had physically changed since we last saw him in 2004. He appeared much stronger, and he was driving the ball with authority in both batting practice and games. We looked forward to seeing how the 23-year-old would handle Double-A his second time through, and thus far, he hasn’t disappointed.
Through 71 games this season, Maier has hit at a .288/.346/.454 clip with eight home runs and 15 doubles in 271 at bats. His .799 OPS in Double-A represents a jump of nearly 100 points over last season, and while the offensive numbers aren’t exactly stellar, it’s the continued improvement that has us excited. Throughout his four-year minor league career, he’s shown the type of steady improvement and ability to make adjustments that leads us to believe that Maier has a legitimate shot at one day becoming a productive major leaguer. The reports on his center field defense remain outstanding, so if he can continue his offensive improvement, Maier could put himself in KC’s outfield mix within the next couple of seasons.
It will be interesting to see how the Dayton Moore-led Royals handle him. The acquisition of Joey Gathright and the long-term deal with David DeJesus have bought them some time, and both Billy Butler and Justin Huber appear likely to get a shot in the KC outfield before Maier. We anticipate the Royals will probably let Maier have a full season in Wichita this year, but a September call-up might be possible, assuming they place him on the 40-man roster (which will have to be done this off-season anyway to protect him from the Rule 5 draft). If he continues to play well throughout the rest of the season, expect Maier to open 2007 in Omaha.
Be sure to stay tuned, as we plan to continue our countdown with the eighth-best first half performance on Wednesday.