Not a Rookie: Franklin Gutierrez
It seems to prospect watchers like Mariners outfielder Franklin Gutierrez has been around forever, but he's still just 27 and now entering his prime years. He was one of the toolsiest outfield prospects in the game for several years, but took time to develop. Let's look at his background and what the future may hold.
Gutierrez is a Venezuelan, signed by the Dodgers in 2000 by scout Camilo Pascual (who, by the way, was a pretty damn good pitcher back in the 1960s). Gutierrez made his North American debut with the Gulf Coast League Dodgers in 2001, hitting .269/.324/.389 with nine steals, drawing notice for his tools but needing polish. I did not have the space to write about most short-season players back then, but nowadays I would give a similar player a Grade C or C+, pending higher level data.
Moved up to South Georgia in the South Atlantic League for 2002, Gutierrez hit .283/.344/.454 with 12 homers, 13 steals, 31 walks, and 88 strikeouts in 361 at-bats. He also showed good defensive skills, while posting a +16 percent OPS. I gave him a conservative Grade C in the 2003 book, noting the tools and youth, and writing "for some reason I think he might develop."
Promoted to Vero Beach for '03, Gutierrez had a breakout season with a .282/.345/.513 mark, 20 homers, 17 steals, 39 walks, and 111 strikeouts in 425 at-bats. He hit .313/.387/.597 in an 18-game trial for Double-A Jacksonville late in the season. His production shot way up (+27 percent OPS), and while his strike zone judgment still needed some work, he had made substantial progress with pitch recognition according to scouts, while refining his swing to develop more power. I gave him a strong Grade B in the 2004 book, worried enough about the strike zone issue to keep him from a B+.
The Dodgers traded him to the Indians for Milton Bradley before the '04 season. An elbow injury limited him to 70 games for Double-A Akron, but he hit .302/.372/.466 in those 70 games. By now he was also drawing praise for excellent defense in the outfield. I decided that the previous grade was a notch too low and boosted him up to a Grade B+ in the 2005 book despite the injury.
Gutierrez returned to Akron in '05 and hit .261/.322/.423 with 11 homers and 14 steals in 95 games. Moved up to Triple-A Buffalo, he hit .254/.320/.403 in 19 contests, then went 0-for-1 in a seven-game major league exposure. His production just wasn't the same in '05, resulting in a +3 percent OPS despite repeating the league, and scouting reports began to focus on flaws at the plate, especially against breaking stuff. He was plagued with nagging injuries all season which didn't help.
I overreacted to this and dropped his rating to a Grade C in the 2006 book. In retrospect, a grade reduction was inevitable, but moving him down to a B- would have been more appropriate: a straight C was too negative, especially considering that he was playing in pain most of the year.
Gutierrez split '06 between Triple-A Buffalo (.278/.373/.433 in 90 games) and Cleveland (.272/.288/.360 in 43 games), moving past rookie eligibility. Speed, power potential, and defense remained his calling cards, but it was clear that strike zone issues were holding him back. He made some adjustments and was more effective in '07, resulting in a .266/.318/.472 mark, but slumped again in '08 (.248/.307/.383).
With Seattle in '09 he stayed fully healthy and played 153 games, hitting .283/.339/.425 with 18 homers and 16 steals. While his hitting improved, what really stands out about him is stellar defense: his glove is truly excellent. In great part due to his defense, he picked up a 5.9 WAR last year, compared to 2.4 in '08 and 1.8 in '07.
Even if Gutierrez remains exactly as he is with the bat, his overall package is very valuable. Can he improve offensively?
Here are some comparable players. Note that this is focused on his hitting.
SIM SCORES through age 26: Todd Hollandsworth, Jackie Brandt, Jackie Jensen, Mike Davis, Matt Lawton, Milton Bradley, Roy Sievers, Chris James, George Foster, and Joe Marty.
PECOTA comps: Ben Francisco, Mike Devereaux, Rusty Tillman, Jermaine Allensworth, Marty Cordova, Mitch Maier, Felipe Alou, Jacque Jones, Gus Bell, and Juan Encarnacion.
Very different lists, with the Sim Score list pointing out some comps of guys who ended up developing a lot more power than Gutierrez has currently shown. I don't expect him to develop into George Foster or even Roy Sievers, but if he can improve his plate discipline a bit more, he could certainly hit 20-25 in his peak seasons.
Overall, Gutierrez is a great tools guy who has developed his skills enough to end up being a very valuable player, especially on defense. He is off to an excellent start in 2010; could he take his hitting skills to another level and become a genuine All-Star? He's 27 this year...now would be the time for it.