From the Minor League Ball mailbag:
"I see you didn't mention Brett Eibner in your article about the Royals Top 20 prospect review. I think you should have mentioned him. He's having a great year in Omaha. Is this an illusion or has he made real progress?"---Mike the Royals fan, Lee's Summit, Missouri
Well, Mike, you're right, I should have mentioned him when I reviewed the Kansas City Royals system in late July. The main focus of the article was reviewing the pre-season list, but I did mentioned the development of other prospects and Eibner absolutely merits more than a mention. Let's correct that oversight right now.
As you likely recall, Eibner was Kansas City's second round pick in 2010 from the University of Arkansas on the basis of excellent right-handed power, a strong throwing arm, and quality center field defense. He's shown the power and the glove but has also had massive problems with contact, fanning 165 times in 120 games in 2012, 149 times in 114 games in 2013, and 94 times in 87 games in 2014. Entering 2015, he'd never hit higher than .243 at any level and it was generally projected that big league pitchers would carve him up often enough to relegate him to a bench role, at best.
This year is much different: he's hitting .307/.369/.532 for Triple-A Omaha with 28 walks and 59 strikeouts in 75 games, 280 at-bats. That's a massive improvement in contact, his current 19% strikeout rate being the best in his career by far. As a result his production is up across the board: 15 homers already, 137 wRC+. Pacific Coast League observers trace the improvement to an adjustment in his swing mechanics: he's closed up his batting stance and is not as vulnerable to chasing breaking stuff outside the strike zone as he was in the past. In general his pitch recognition looks better than it was two or three years ago, with positive benefits for his on-base ability.
There are caveats of course: Eibner is now 26, getting old for a prospect, and the PCL environment is very favorable for hitting. PCL "breakthroughs" have often proved illusionary in the past and we can't assume that Eibner will continue hitting like this.
That said, he has certainly done enough to get himself back on the prospect radar, and this IS a guy with good physical tools, not some schlub that scouts downplay. The power has always been there, he runs well, he throws well, and can play all three outfield spots in a quality way.
The .300+ average isn't likely to stick once he comes to the majors and his OBP isn't likely to be a big asset, but Eibner's broad tool and skill base is enough to make him a viable fourth outfielder even if he can't replicate the PCL average and OBP. Eibner could be something like Paulo Orlando with less speed but more power.