Oakland Athletics rookie infielder Tyler Ladendorf had an impressive major league debut yesterday, going 1-for-3 with an two-RBI triple and a walk.
Okay, so who exactly is Tyler Ladendorf?
He is a 27-year-old infielder/outfielder who has been an Oakland farmhand since 2009. His minor league track record was not massively impressive and before last year most fans had never heard of him. He got some unpleasant notoriety last summer after being suspended for using a recreational drug. This may have caused some people to overlook the fact that he was having a good year in Triple-A, hitting .297/.376/.407 for Sacramento.
Ladendorf is an unusual case for another reason: when he was drafted in 2008, he was very highly-regarded and was not obscure at all. A college superstar at Howard Junior College, Ladendorf was considered one of the best infielders available in the 2008 draft. His JC numbers as a sophomore were ridiculous: he hit .542 with 16 homers and 32 steals that spring. He also showed the physical tools to stick at shortstop and was selected in the second round by the Minnesota Twins.
As you can see, he was not obscure at all, at the time.
Then things got rough. He hit just .203/.308/.293 in rookie ball. He opened cold and ineffective in Low-A in 2009 and was soon traded to the Oakland Athletics for Orlando Cabrera. The strike zone got away from him, he struck out too much and didn't draw many walks, and the power he showed in college was nowhere to be found. He recovered some in 2010 and hit .274/.326/.385 but that was in the California League and he wasn't able to bring this success forward to Double-A: he hit just .225/.308/.319 for Midland in 2011. He wasn't much better in 2012.
The Athletics didn't give up on him but by the time he got to Triple-A in 2014 he was 26-year-old roster filler. However, despite the drug suspension 2014 was the best year of his minor league career. Some adjustments to his swing and tighter strike zone judgment boosted his production. He was devastating against left-handed pitching in particular (.403/.466/.584) which is a long-standing attribute for him. He also played well defensively in both the middle infield and the outfield.
And with a good spring training he made the team. Can he stick?
He's not Troy Tulowitzki but that's okay. Ladendorf has always had the physical tools to succeed and his approach has improved enough for those tools to matter. He's excellent at second base, pretty solid at shortstop, and has experience (with good results) at all three outfield positions. The defensive versatility is big plus in this day and age.
Offense is still the ultimate question here. He kills lefties. If he can maintain his swing and strike zone judgment and perform just adequately against right-handers, he could have a long career as a versatile role player. He's not going to hit .330 or slug 20 homers, but it seems plausible he could hit .260 with a workable OBP. Add that to the defense and you have a useful player.