Not a Rookie: Martin Prado
Martin Prado of the Atlanta Braves has been one of the better second basemen in the National League the last two seasons, and is off to another good start this year. He wasn't an exceptionally well-known prospect in the minor leagues, but has outperformed many more-heralded players. Let's take a look at his background and development.
Martin Prado was signed by the Atlanta Braves in 2001, as a free agent out of Venezuela. He made his North American debut in 2003 with the GCL Braves, hitting .286/.358/.350 in 59 games. He showed good plate discipline (24 walks, 30 strikeouts in 220 at-bats) and a good glove at second base, but lacked power and used his speed poorly on the bases, swiping nine but being caught nine as well. At this point, he was your basic rookie ball infielder with nothing standing out in particular about him. I didn't put him in the '04 book, and he wasn't on Baseball America's radar either.
Prado had an impressive spring in 2004 and earned a spot with the full-season Rome Braves in the South Atlantic League. He had a very good year, hitting .315/.363/.422 with 14 steals, 30 walks, and just 47 strikeouts in 429 at-bats, while playing very well defensively and drawing positive reviews for his "intangibles" and polish. I gave him a Grade C+ in the 2005 book, noting his skills and writing that he had a chance for a major breakthrough in '05.
He was assigned to Myrtle Beach in the Carolina League to begin '05, hitting .306/.353/.411 in 75 games, earning a promotion to Double-A Mississippi in August, where he hit .280/.354/.364 in 39 games. He continued to show strong defensive skills, decent strike zone judgment, and nice contact hitting ability, but indeed what power he possessed sapped off after his promotion to Double-A. I gave him another Grade C+ in the 2006 book, praising the glovework and polish but wondering if he would hit enough against better pitching.
Prado began '06 with Mississippi, hitting .278/.330/.352 in 43 games, then .282/.314/.365 in 60 games for Triple-A Richmond. He got a cup-of-coffee in Atlanta, hitting .262/.340/.405 in 24 games. His weak power numbers in Double-A and Triple-A lowered his rating for me to a Grade C, and I cut him from the 2007 book for space reasons. My thinking was that he could be a useful utility guy, but at this point I didn't see much remaining breakout potential. Baseball America felt the same way and didn't put him in their Braves Top 30 prospects list.
2007 was split between Richmond (.316/.374/.420) and Atlanta (.288/.323/.339 in 28 games). He played well enough in Triple-A and was still 23 years old; I should have put him in the 2008 book, but again I saw him as just a Grade C, marginal type and cut him for space reasons. Likewise, Baseball America didn't put him in their book again either.
In retrospect, Prado deserved more attention than that. He hit .320/.377/.461 for the Braves in 2008, then .307/.358/.464 in 2009, with a surprising 38 doubles and 11 homers last year. He has maintained his production with a .312/.359/.426 mark so far this year. In 292 career major league games, Prado is a .308/.360/.447 hitter, with a 113 OPS+. Add to that solid glovework at multiple positions, and you have a valuable player.
Looking for comparable players:
A very wide variety of players there, with first baseman Cliff Lee and All-time hit king Pete Rose showing up as the most notable comparables. Most of these guys were very good, if in different ways. Obviously Lee isn't an actual good comparison to Prado, but many of the others are.
Scouts always liked Prado's glove and intangibles, but I don't think anyone expected this kind of performance from him. Past research that I've done indicates that "sleeper middle infielders" who come out of nowhere and become more valuable than expected often have minor league profiles similar to Prado's: not much power when young, not a huge number of walks, but with a low strikeout rate, good overall BB/K ratios, and positive reports about their defense and makeup.