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Rays prospect Mikie Mahtook homers in first major league at-bat

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Dan Hamilton, USA Today

Yesterday was a frustrating day for the Tampa Bay Rays, losing to the Toronto Blue Jays 12-7. However, one bright spot was provided by rookie outfielder Mikie Mahtook, who hit a two-run home run off of Jays starter Mark Buehrle for his first major league hit. (Click here for the MLB.com video).

Mahtook should be familiar to college baseball fans: he was a star for three seasons at Louisiana State University. In 2009 as a freshman he hit .316/.382/.495 in 196 at-bats. He improved as a sophomore, ringing up .335/.436/.623 with 14 homers and 22 steals in 239 at-bats. That set the stage for an even better junior campaign in 2011: he hit .383/.496/.709 with 14 homers, 29 steals, and 41 walks in 196 at-bats.

That last season was after the NCAA adopted the less-potent metal bats. That cut back the productivity of many college hitters but it made no difference in Mahtook's case. He just kept getting better.

Heading into the 2011 draft season he was viewed as a certain early pick, although not everyone agreed he should go in the first round. Although his college numbers were excellent and he thrived against top competition, there were mixed opinions about his physical tools. Some evaluators doubted that his power would translate to higher levels. Some felt that he didn't run quite well enough to play center field but didn't show enough pure power for a corner. Some said that these concerns were overblown and that he was actually a very good athlete with under-rated physical tools to go with his obvious baseball skills,

He did end up in the first round, going at the end of it to the Rays with the 31st overall slot.

As a professional Mahtook has provided uneven results. On the positive side, his outfield defense has turned out to be quite good; he has no problems managing center field and has also played well in both left and right fields. His instincts are sound and his arm is accurate, if average in strength. His running speed is a tick above average but he's developed into a solid base-stealer with a 75% success rate in his career thus far. Again, that is a matter of instincts and polish and he has those.

The questions focus on his offense. His plate discipline is inconsistent and he's had trouble making contact at times, although part of that could be deliberate in relation to attempts to hit for more power. He whiffed more than once a game in Triple-A last year although it was also his most productive season as a pro: .292/.368/.458, wRC+125 in the pitching-oriented International League. The MLBfarm.com spray chart from last year shows that he can hit to all fields.

Mahtook spray chart

As Mark Buehrle found out yesterday, Mahtook is devastating against left-handed pitching, hitting .387/.448/.597 against them last year. Right-handers are much more troublesome; he managed just .260/.332/.411 vs. normal folk.

Mahtook's makeup and work ethic are considered excellent; if anything, observers say he sometimes tries too hard and gets down on himself if things don't go well. Time will tell if that is a real problem or not, but trying too hard is certainly better than not trying hard enough.

Mahtook will need to improve that platoon split to last as a regular. If not, his other skills (defense, baserunning, occasional power) will still make him a viable fourth outfielder.