Prospect of the Day: Tim Wheeler, OF, Colorado Rockies
A year ago, Colorado Rockies outfielder Tim Wheeler was finishing up a disappointing season in the California League. Fast forward to 2011, we find him having a strong year for Double-A Tulsa, reinvigorating his career and getting himself back on the top prospect map.
A 6-4, 205 pound left-handed hitter, Tim Wheeler was a three-year starter at Sacramento State University, hitting .310/.370/.475 with 13 steals as a freshman, .330/.377/.436 with 10 steals as a sophomore, and .385/.500/.765 with 18 homers and 15 steals as a junior. His tools were rated as solid, with above-average speed his best attribute, and scouts were pleased to see his power production spike in '09. Drafted in the first round, 32nd overall, he was sent to Tri-City in the Northwest League and did not thrive, hitting .256/.332/.381 with 10 steals, 29 walks, and 60 strikeouts in 273 at-bats.
Wheeler was moved up to High-A Modesto in 2010 but had a mediocre season, hitting .249/.341/.384 with 12 homers, 60 walks, and 114 strikeouts. On the positive side, he boosted his walk rate, stole 22 bases, and demonstrated enough range for center field, but overall it was a less-than-exciting season in many ways. He had serious issues against left-handed pitching (hitting .206 against them), and he needed a good season in '11 to avoid getting stuck with a fourth-outfielder label.
Wheeler is having that season this year, hitting .293/.374/.555 with 29 homers, 51 walks, and 122 strikeouts in 474 at-bats for Double-A Tulsa, with 18 steals in 28 attempts.
The big change this year is greater home run output. He is pulling the ball more frequently for distance power. The tradeoff is an increased strikeout rate, more than once per game this year, and that could cause some adjustment issues at higher levels. He'll take a walk, which increases the value of his speed on the bases, although his stolen base success ratio leaves something to be desired. On defense, he's played mostly center field in the minors, and he has acceptable range for the position. His arm is strong and accurate, and many scouts believe he will fit best in right field at the major league level.
My take is that Wheeler's power outburst this year is mostly for real, but there are some flaws he still needs to address. He still has a sharp platoon split (.318/.396/.616 against right-handers but just .244/.330/.429 against lefties), and I'm not sold on the idea that his batting average is going to hold up at higher levels without some adjustments in his approach. Nevertheless, Wheeler has done enough this year to push himself back up towards the top of Colorado's prospect list.