Not a Rookie: Pablo Sandoval
Pablo Sandoval was signed by the Giants out of Venezuela in 2002. He made his North American debut in 2004, hitting .266/.287/.373 for the Arizona Rookie League Giants. His bat was rated as questionable, but scouts praised his defensive skills, highly ironic considering what was to come. Despite the weak bat, the scouting reports on his defense were strong enough that I put him in the 2005 book, rated as a Grade C. I noted his very low walk rate (five in 177 at-bats), but also pointed out that he fanned just 17 times.
Sandoval moved up to the Northwest League in 2005, hitting .330/.383/.425. He took a big step forward with the bat, continuing to show a strong knack for contact, but improving his strike zone judgment and showing more power. Despite the good defensive reports in '04, the Giants moved him to third base in '05. His arm strength and hands were rated positively, but scouts wondered about his range. They also panned his 5-10, 220 pound body. I gave him a Grade B-, writing that I wanted to see how his power developed, but that the bat looked good.
Such was not the case in 2006: Sandoval hit just .265/.309/.322 in 117 games for Class A Augusta, with just one homer. He hit into 18 double plays, showed no power, and didn't control the strike zone particularly well. He also split the season between first base and third base; a corner hitter with a .631 OPS in A-ball and a 5-10, 220 pound body doesn't show up on many prospect lists. I left him out of the '07 book, and Baseball America didn't list him among the Giants Top 30 prospects.
Moved up to San Jose in the Cal League in '07, Sandoval hit .287/.312/.476 with 11 homers, certainly much better production. His walk rate remained very low, with just 16 walks, but he kept his strikeouts under control and showed more power. He also moved back behind the plate, splitting his playing time between catcher and first base. Baseball America still didn't rank him in their Top 30 Giants list, but I put him in the '08 book, rated as a Grade C. I wrote that I was intrigued with his bat and felt he had some upside, but that I had no idea where he would fit defensively.
As you know, Sandoval had a remarkable '08 season, hitting .359/.412/.597 in 68 games for San Jose, then .337/.364/.549 in 44 games for Double-A Connecticut, followed by a .345/.357/.490 mark in 41 games for the Giants, just edging past the rookie eligibility limit. The defense issue is still kind of strange; he'll likely end up fantasy-qualifying at third base, first base, and catcher this year. Is the bat for real? Although I don't think he's going to hit .345 over a full season, yes I think his bat is legitimate. He will never be a walk machine, but he seems like a .real 280-.300 hitter to me. He's one of those players who makes "hard contact" even on pitches most hitters shouldn't swing at. Such hitters can win batting titles when things go well, and Sandoval does have that kind of potential. He really snuck up on both statheads and scouts last year.
PECOTA comps are all over the map and show how odd of a player Sandoval is: Arquimidez Pozo, Benito Santiago, Ruben Sierra, Leo Hernandez, Pedro Munoz, Jose Desa, Jose Guillen, Ron Jones, Ivan Rodriguez, Victor Diaz, Darryl Motley, Rafael Palmeiro, Carlos Baerga, and Richard Hidalgo all show up. Talk about a huge range of possible outcomes.
For 2009, projections
All seem like possible outcomes, with James the optimistic outlier.
Some questions to consider that I don't know the answer to.
**How much home run power will he eventually show?
**Is he going to age along normal curve? At age 22 he should have plenty of growth potential, but given his body type, perhaps he is at his peak now.
**Where would YOU put him defensively? As he gets older, will he lose the mobility for third base and/or catcher, ending up confined to DH/1B?
I am putting Sandoval on my Crystal Ball list and will have that for you soon.