Prospect Retro: Chris Shelton
Chris Shelton played college ball at the University of Utah. He hit .374/.453/.753 during his junior year in 2001, but scouts were skeptical. He was a shaky defensive catcher, and he looks bad in uniform, lacking athleticism and looking more like a softball player than a baseball guy. Plus his ears stick out too much.
Still, he did enough to get drafted, being selected by the Pirates in the 33rd round. His pro debut went well: he hit .305/.415/.402 in 50 games for Williamsport in the NY-P League, drawing 33 walks. He hit just two homers and questions were raised about how much power he was going to show with wood. But his strike zone judgment was strong, and his career was obviously off to a good start. I rated him as a Grade C prospect heading into 2002.
Shelton answered doubts about his power by slamming 17 homers and 27 doubles (.587 SLG) in 93 games for Hickory in the Sally League in 2003. He also showed good strike zone judgment, and hit .340. His OPS+ was a stunning 48 percent better than league. All that was great, but he was a bit old for the level, and his position was still unclear, as he struggled defensively at both catcher and first base. I gave him a Grade C+ in the 2003 book, noting the glove and age questions but also stating that his grade could rise quickly and substantially if he continued to hit like this at higher levels.
2003 was even better: Shelton hit .359/.478/.641 in 95 games for Lynchburg in the Carolina League, drawing 68 walks against 67 strikeouts in 315 at-bats. He held his own after a promotion to Double-A Altoona, hitting .279 but seeing his power drop off to .377 SLG in 35 games. Still, his overall line was excellent. I gave him a Grade B-. I didn't rate him higher because of his drop in production in Double-A, but he was certainly intriguing. Bizarrely, the Pirates did not protect him on the 40-man roster at the end of the season, gambling that the questions about his glove would prevent someone from picking him in Rule 5.
The Tigers proved the Pirates wrong, selecting Shelton and holding him on the roster all season, though injuries limited him to just 27 games in the majors. He didn't hit well in those 27 games, at just .196 though he did post a .321 OBP because he drew some walks. He hit .339 in a 18-game rehab assignment at Triple-A Toledo, and he battered Arizona Fall League pitching.
Shelton finally got to play in 2005 and did very well (.299/.360/.510). He pushed aside the disappointing Carlos Pena this spring, hit two homers on Opening Day, and is well on his way to making the Pirates look like morons for letting him go.
How could they make such a mistake? The knock on Shelton was that he was just a minor league slugger, probably a Quadruple-A hitter without a position. Some scouts believed that he wouldn't do well against breaking balls at higher levels, although that hasn't proved to be a problem at all; he seems to crush everything. He is a dumpy-looking guy. . .he certainly doesn't scout as well physically as the young Carlos Pena did.
Statistically, Shelton's minor league record was marked by a solid BB/K/AB ratio. . .he drew some walks and didn't strike out much for a guy with power, always a good sign.
Shelton turns 26 this year, and he may not be the kind of player who ages particularly well. But for the next few years at least, I expect him to be a very productive hitter. What he has done so far is no fluke, and he could end up really surprising people. . .it would not surprise me at all to see him do something like hit 40 homers, or threaten to win a batting title.
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