Not a Rookie Redux: Felix Pie
On the heels of his impressive .355/.429/.667 spring training performance, the Orioles have named Felix Pie as their starting left fielder to begin 2010.
This seems like a good time to revisit his development as a prospect, and his status going forward.
I did a Not a Rookie for Pie back in February of 2008, which lays out his history as a prospect. Quoting the history part of that report:
Felix Pie was signed by the Cubs out of the Dominican Republic in 2001. An excellent all-around athlete with strength and speed, he was rather raw when signed, though he hit well in his pro debut (.321/.385/.565) in the Arizona Rookie League in 2002, even hitting 13 triples. I gave him a Grade B- in the 2003 book, a high grade for a rookie ball player, noting his rawness but also praising his tools and writing that I was inclined to be optimistic.
The Cubs assigned Pie to the Midwest League in 2003. He played 124 games for Lansing, hitting .285/.346/.388, which came out to a +7 OPS. He stole 19 bases but was caught 13 times. Scouts continued to praise his athleticism and upside, and his strike zone judgment wasn't horrible. I gave him another Grade B- rating, though maintaining optimism about the future.
Pie moved up to Daytona in the Florida State League in '04, hitting .301/.364/.448 (+15 OPS) with 32 steals in 48 attempts. His power was increasing, as he whacked 10 triples and doubled his homer output from four to eight. However, his strikeout rate shot up, 113 whiffs in 106 games. I raised him to Grade B, impressed by his performance as a 19 year old in the Florida State League, noting the progress refining his tools into skills.
2005 was a good-news/bad-news season. The good: moving up to Double-A, he hit .304/.349/.554. He cut his strikeout rate back below one per game, while boosting his power output and setting a career high in homers. The bad: the career high in homers was 11 bombs in 59 games, as his playing time was limited by a severe ankle bruise. Nevertheless, there was enough progress that I was comfortable raising his grade to B+ in the 2006 book. I wrote "Pie is a high-risk, high-reward investment. He could be spectacular, or he could also be mediocre if he doesn't refine his game."
Pie was healthy in 2006, hitting .283/.341/.451 in 141 games for Triple-A Iowa. He hit 15 homers and 33 doubles, and stole 17 bases. Scouts reported that he improved his defense (which has previously been rather rough). He also played very well in July and August, hitting over .300 with 20 doubles in those two months alone. While his BB/K/AB ratio still wasn't ideal at 46/126/559, he did reduce his strikeout rate compared to past seasons. I gave him another Grade B+.
You know what happened in 2007. He was a monster in Triple-A (hitting .362/.410/.563 in 55 games for Iowa), but was pretty horrible in the majors, hitting .215/.271/.33 in 87 games for the Cubs. Plate discipline was a big problem, as I expected it would be. However he did flash some pop, he was much more effective stealing bases in the majors (eight in nine attempts) than he was in the minors, and his glove (which was a weakness at times in the minors) was just fine.
He ended up spending most of 2008 in Triple-A, hitting .287/.336/.466 in 85 games, but just .241/.312/.325 in 43 games (83 at-bats) for the Cubs. It was evident, to me at least, that the Cubs had rushed him and that his inability to control the strike zone held him back. Traded to Baltimore in January '09 for pitcher Garrett Olson, he spent all of last year with the Orioles, hitting .266/.326/.437 in 101 games, picking up 252 at-bats in a part-time role. His career line is now .244/.305/.383 in 512 at-bats, with 12 homers and a 45/130 BB/K ratio. UZR likes his defense, giving him a 12.2 UZR/150 last year, rating as above average in both left and center fields.
Does he have a chance to improve on his hitting performance? Definitely. He's still just 25 years old, another year or two from his prime. He showed improvement with his strikeout rate and plate discipline last year, increasing his walk rate and cutting his strikeouts. More consistent playing time will likely help him; I don't think he was well-served by bench work in Chicago in '08.
The various projection systems call for either improvement or stagnation:
PECOTA: .284/.345/.471, .816 OPS
Bill James .272/.325/.443, .768 OPS
CHONE: .273/.332/.435, .767 OPS
Marcel: .262/.328/.412, .740 OPS
ZIPS: .259/.313/.408, .721 OPS
PECOTA is the most optimistic, ZIPS the least, with an almost 100-point swing in projected OPS. My own estimate is optimistic but not quite to PECOTA levels: I'm looking for something on the order of .275/.330/.450, .780 OPS.
For historical comparisons, Sim Scores identifies Steve Whitaker, Todd Dunwoody, Mack Jones, George Foster (!), Mickey Stanley, Leon Roberts, Omar Moreno, Jose Cruz, Daryl Boston, and Deion Sanders as comparable through age 24. PECOTA brings up Jay Johnstone, Angel Pagan, Carlos Beltran, Larry Whisenton, Keith Miller, Scott Lusader, Elijah Bonaparte, Terrence Long, Junior Felix, and Duane Walker. I find both lists very interesting: both have failures, mediocre players, solid players, but with a star or two (Foster, Cruz, Beltran) mixed in.
The sabermetric comparables tell us the same thing about Pie that scouts do: he still has a slight chance to be a great player, has a good chance to be at least a decent contributor, and still has a chance to fail completely.
With such a wide range of possible outcomes, Pie will be fascinating to watch over the next couple of years. I lean towards optimism.