Prospect Retro: Jonny Gomes
Jonny Gomes was drafted by the Devil Rays in the 18th round in 2001, out of Santa Rosa Junior College in California. His power was respected, but questions about his defense and reported lack of running speed hurt his draft stock. His pro debut was very successful: he hit .291/.442/.597 in 62 games for Princeton in the Appalachian League. He hit 16 homers, stole 15 bases, and drew 33 walks, but he also struck out 73 times. Scouts praised his bat speed, but worried that he wouldn't make enough contact. I gave him a Grade C+ in the '02 book, rating him as a sleeper but noting that he "may not be fully challenged until he reaches Double-A."
Gomes moved up to Bakersfield in the California League in 2002, hitting .278 with 30 homers, 91 walks, and 15 steals. He also struck out 173 times in 134 games, which is high enough to make even me paranoid. I moved his grade to B- in the 2003 book, noting that his transition to Double-A would be very interesting. I predicted that he would maintain his power production and walks, but he'd lose "about 20" points off his batting average.
He actually lost 27, his average dropping to .249 in 2003. He did hit 17 homers, steal 23 bases, and draw 53 walks against 148 strikeouts. I dropped his grade back to C+, concerned about his production slippage and his continued high strikeout rate. Scouts said that Gomes was swinging for the fences too often and trying to pull everything, leaving holes in his swing.
Gomes hit .256/.368/.531 with 26 homers for Triple-A Durham in '04, his numbers moving up a tad although his strikeout rate remained high. At this point, I was losing faith that he'd ever be anything more than a platoon player, writing that he had enough power to be useful, and could hit 20 homers in a full season in the majors, but that his batting average "will struggle to clear .250" and that his strikeout rate would annoy his managers too much. Down to Grade C he went, and looking back on it I don't see any reason to doubt the analysis. It made perfect sense at the time.
But everything changed in '05. Gomes hit .321/.446/.660 in 45 games in Triple-A, earning a promotion to the majors where he hit .282/.372/.534. And he's off to a fine start this year as well. Although his strikeout rate has remained high, his walk rate is good, and he has shown more of a willingness to go to the opposite field than he did earlier in his career, not just trying to pull everything.
One thing about Gomes: although he doesn't have great running speed, he stole a ton of bases in the low minors, at a good success percentage. I believe that players who do that (steal bases at a good percentage in the minors even though they don't have great speed) often show unusual spikes in development. It's a sign of "baseball instinct" if you will. Note that with such players the steals themselves often don't carry forward. It is the fact that they exist at all at the lower levels that's the positive marker. In theory.
Anyway, Gomes has now played 149 major league games. He has a .273/.374/.536 mark, with 33 homers, 67 walks, and 170 strikeouts. This is virtually identical to his minor league career mark of .271/.395/.539. In fact, his major league performance is a bit better than you'd expect from projecting his minor league numbers with a standard MLE method.
Can he keep this up? I don't see why not. He's only 25, and while I think we will see his batting average move up and down at times, he should continue to produce power for some time. His list of comparable players is solid:
I want you to think about something: If Delmon Young doesn't get his head out of his rear, there is a not-zero chance that 18th round pick Jonny Gomes could end up having a better career than Mr. First Round Pick.