Saturday, June 23, 2012

Mr. Brightside: Levi Michael

A little over 12 months ago, the Twins drafted Levi Michael out of the University of North Carolina. Much of the blogosphere was quick to anoint him as the next Twins' shortstop. The heir apparent had a strong three years as a Tarheel, playing a significant role for two College World Series teams.

Levi was hailed as a gritty gamer. The kind of players managers would trade their first-born son for. The kid could hit, showed solid approach and could pick it anywhere in the infield. Michael was as sure-fire a top pick as there was in the draft.

I should mention that although he was considered very talented and a very safe pick, there were legitimate concerns. For one, his ultimate potential wasn't (and isn't) awe-inspiring: a solid-average hitter playing an average shortstop or second base. Another was his performance as a junior, which didn't quite live up to his sophomore campaign and led to the questions about his offensive ceiling.

All that said, most Twins' fans who care about prospect-related happenings were quite excited about having Levi in the system. Baseball America and Baseball Prospectus ranked him as the 6th best prospect in the Twins' organization: giving praise to his approach, line-drive swing and speed. To top off all the excitement, the Twins gave him a very aggressive assignment; letting him break into the pros in Hi-A Fort Myers. For reference, that's the same league #1 overall pick Gerrit Cole was assigned to this season.

To say it as nicely as possible, the first half of his inaugural season did not go well. In 199 at-bats, he was hitting .216/.306/.291. Downright awful. Even as an optimist, the only positive I could see was a decent walk rate. He wasn't hitting. He wasn't showing power. He was striking out. He only stole ONE base. And he wasn't even the full-time shortstop, playing equal time at second base. By the end of May, expectations had surely been lowered. Reactionary as it is to make any judgements off a two month stint in the minors, this was about as bad as it can get.

Now, here come the positives. The first has been his June. It seems he has found his stroke, hitting .311/.400/.422. In 45 at-bats, Levi 14 hits, 4 for extra bases. On top of that, his walk rate hasn't dipped at all, staying at a very good rate. I'll be the first to tell you that one good month (or one good 3-week span) doesn't say much about a player. However, I think this June's Levi Michael, is the one we'll see in the future.

I say this for a couple reasons, the first of which is his age. Levi decided to forgo his 2009 high-school senior season, in order to enroll early at UNC and play third base for their baseball team. The fact that he had a great season is besides the point. However, as a result of this, Levi was a very young draft-eligible junior last year. 12 months doesn't seem like a ton, but in baseball development, it's huge. As a 21 year old in the Florida State League this year, he's been about two years younger than the average player he's faced. Combine that with his lack of professional experience, and his struggles should have been expected.

The struggles should have been expected to a degree (maybe not this much), but his response has been spectacular. Always getting high-marks for being a baseball rat (Baseball Prospectus), his ability to make adjustments was supposed to be very good. And now he's showing it, with his impressive June.

To me, the improvement Levi has shown is more impressive than sustained solid production. The best prospects in baseball often stall out before they make it to the majors, because they can't (or won't) adjust to better competition. The jury is still out, to be sure, but the adjustments Levi has made in Hi-A bode well for his chances of continued improvement and, eventually, making an impact for the major league team.

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