Saturday, December 30, 2006

Works in Progress: Justin Christian

Age: 26
Height: 6'1"
Weight: 190 lbs
Drafted: Signed in 2004 out of Independent League River City
Position: 2b/CF
Bats: Right
Throws: Right

Tools: Justin Christian is fast. Very fast. Faster than a speeding bullet. Christian uses his speed to get on base, steal bases, and play excellent defense. The good news? He has a lot more than just speed! Most 80 speed guys would make Luis Castillo look like a slugger. Christian? Nope! He actually has an average amount of power. He has a short and compact swing that allows him to drive balls to all fields and put the ball in play. He projects to strike out only 70-75 times per season, which gives him plenty of opportunities to leg out ground balls. He used to play 2nd base, but a weak arm got him a ticket for centerfield, where his 80 speed was put to use. He is a plus defender at the position.

Performance: Christian was one of a half dozen signings that the Yankees found in independent leagues a few years ago. They did their scouting well, finding that Christian had overcome his college-day woes to become a lethal threat at the plate and on the basepaths. Christian hit .450/.518/.700 in 30 games for River City, which could get a lot of people's attention. He stole 26 games while only being caught twice. The Yankees sent Christian to Staten Island, where he put up an indifferent .274/.336/.438 line, with 14 stolen bases and 4 CS in 50 games. Christian would come in to his own in 2005, hitting .303/.366/.466 with 55 stolen bases, only 5 CS, and 11 home runs in 125 games between Tampa and Charleston. He was sent to Trenton this season, where he would meet his first stumbling block in his professional career, hitting .276/.341/.394 in 129 games. He started the season off very slow, hitting .253/.316/.330 in his first three months. However, Christian adjusted, hitting .287/.354/.379 in July and .321/.392/.554 in August. He stole 68 bases while being caught only 13 times.

Health: Christian had major rotator cuff problems in college, but he has since overcome his injury woes. In the prime of his life, Justin Christian is completely healthy.

2007 Outlook: Christian will be sent to Scranton, where he will be high on the Yankee's outfield depth charts. Christian will try to prove that his late-season adjustment to more advanced pitchers was for real. A good deal of his future will be determined by how much power is able to hit for in Scranton. If he can maintain a slugging percentage of about .400, he could very well be a valueable major league starting centerfielder. If it dips back down to the .350 or lower range, he may not be more than a 25th man.

Comparison: Scott Podsednik. I think that Christian's career path could very well mirror Podsednik's. When Podsednik is hitting well, taking his walks, and driving a few balls to the outfield, he is a very good player. When he's off by just a little, he is a glorified pinch runner who is a liability with the bat. We'll have a better idea about which version Justin will be by the middle of 2007.

My Take: I probably should have included Christian on my top-30 prospect list. I have never been a big fan of stolen bases as the primary weapon of a prospect, but I think that Christian brings something special to the table. There are two different kinds of stolen base threats in my mind. The first are 95% of speedsters out there; guys like Derek Jeter, Luis Castillo, Bobby Abreu, or Alfonso Soriano. These are very fast players who are good at picking up on a pitcher's move. They can steal 25-45 bases per year, but most of their stolen bases are stolen off the pitcher. If the pitcher isn't paying attention to them, they go. They are opportunistic. Then there are the 5% of speedsters who have the instincts and legs to steal a base when everybody knows that they are going. I'd say that Carl Crawford, Jose Reyes, Dave Roberts, Corey Patterson, and Ichiro Suzuki are probably the only MLB players who meet this standard. Scott Podsednik did a few years ago, but not since he injured his hamstring in 2005. These are the guys who can really throw a team and a pitcher off every time that they are on the basepaths. I think that Christian has that kind of ability. He is part of an elite group of prospects. However, he also has the ability to get on base at an above average rate and drive enough balls to the outfield to leg out some doubles and triples. On top of it all, he plays plus defense. He probably won't ever get a chance to start without some sort of catastrophic injury, but he'll be a valueable bench player until age slows him down.