Prospect Retro: Jorge Cantu
Jorge Cantu was signed by the Devil Rays as a free agent out of Mexico in 1998. Assigned to Hudson Valley in the New York-Penn League as a 17-year-old in 1999, he hit .260/.314/.345 in 72 games, with just one homer. However, he was just 17, and this was credible performance considering his age and experience level. His glovework was particularly impressive. I gave him a Grade C- in the '00 book, which was a notch too low by my current standards.
Cantu split 2000 between Class A Charleston in the Sally League and Class A St. Petersburg in the Florida State League, playing well at both levels, combining for a .297 average. He didn't hit for much power and his walk rate was very low, but he'd made progress offensively, was still fielding well, and was starting to draw comparisons to a young Nomar Garciaparra. I moved him up to Grade C in the '01 book, noting that he should not be rushed to Double-A.
The Devil Rays didn't listen to me, of course, moving him up to Orlando in the Southern League in '01. He was overmatched, hitting just .256/.287/.342, with a 17/93/512 BB/K/AB ratio. No walks and a lot of strikeouts for a guy with no power. Nevertheless, at age 19 he was the youngest regular player in the Southern League. I kept him at Grade C, impressed with his defense and youth, but worried that he would not hit.
Cantu repeated Orlando in '02, hitting .242/.278/.324, even weaker numbers than the previous season. He did reduce his strikeout rate and improve his walk rate, but it wasn't enough to boost his production. I did not put him in the 2003 book; he would rate as a Grade C or C- prospect due to his lack of skill growth.
'03 was a mixed season. He was awful in 43 games for Orlando, hitting .215/.259/.335. But he started to hit better after moving up to Triple-A Durham, knocking .295/.319/.445 in 60 games after promotion. His plate discipline remained poor, and if I remember correctly, I wrote off the Durham numbers as a fluke. Another Grade C, and not in the book due to space reasons. I remember at that point telling a fan through email that Cantu would be lucky to be a utility guy.
Cantu suddenly exploded in '04, building on his good half-season at Durham, hitting .302/.335/.576 with 22 homers in 95 games for the Bulls. He continued to hit well at Tampa Bay (.301/.341/.462), and has held his own this season, although his inability to draw walks inhibits his OBP.
Cantu's minor league career was marked by mediocre or poor performance until he reached Triple-A. His walk rate was always very low, and there was little power production until he arrived at Durham. In retrospect, his strikeout rates weren't bad, and many scouts felt that his quick wrists and athleticism would lead to Nomar-like development. But this was not a consensus view: other scouts agreed with the statheads that he wouldn't hit.
Looking back, Cantu's best attribute was always age-relative-to-league.