Sighs of relief can be heard all the way from his minor league complex in Northwest Arkansas (Springdale) to Kansas City, Missouri. Mike Moustakas is having an outstanding year in the Double-A Texas League after struggling last season at High-A Wilmington in the Carolina League. Doubt is being replaced by hope. Criticism is changing to optimism. For me, the jury remains sequestered with a verdict due soon. Show me more. Do it for a complete season. But basically, I like the potential of Mike Moustakas.
Moustakas was a high school phenom in Chatsworth, California when the Royals tapped him with the 2nd overall pick in the 2007 first year player draft. It really wasn’t a reach, as Moustakas had set a high school record for home runs in one season by hitting 24 homers in his senior year. That’s not all. He hit .577 on 56-for-97, had 59 runs batted in and struck out only twice. Those are outstanding statistics leading to the draft. He primarily played shortstop in high school, but there were occasions when he closed games, throwing a fastball that touched 97 at times.
Moustakas signed for $4 million dollars. For any team, that’s a major investment. For the Royals, that’s a true commitment. In case you’re wondering, David Price was the first player selected in 2007. Jason Heyward went 19th in that draft, but that’s hindsight. The Royals got their man and they are beginning to reap the benefits.
Moustakas looks like he should be a catcher, not a third baseman. He has the big, burly chest and physical presence of a catcher. But he has played third for the Royals after starting his pro career. More about his defense later. He is 5-foot-11 with a weight that some say is around 230 pounds. For this scout, his physical condition is a major concern. He simply has to take better care of his body and lose some of the bulk around the middle. His flexibility and mobility suffer from the extra weight he is carrying with average height. If he isn’t careful, Moose can put on additional weight that will further limit his range and ability to play defense.
I saw Moustakas play a number of games in this past Arizona Fall League. He had a better than average season at the plate. Granted, pitching in the AFL is not quite the same quality as he will see as he advances in the game, but it gives one an indication of hitting ability.
Moustakas flashed decent power, but the most promising aspect of his game was his ability to get the barrel of the bat on the ball with good hitting mechanics. A left-handed hitter, Moustakas can take pitches to the entire field. He showed quick hands with strong wrists and forearms that project to the generation of power, probably Moustakas’ greatest tool. There is no question that Moose prefers the fastball and has his best results against that pitch, but that isn’t uncommon in most hitters. Mustakas is predominantly a line drive, fly ball hitter. That bodes well for potential gap hits and home runs. His lack of speed negates any ability for leg hits on grounders to the infield.
Moustakas had a mediocre 2009 season at a High-A Wilmington in the Carolina League. He hit .250 over 492 at-bats with 16 home runs and 86 RBI. However, when his “difficult hitter’s park” home field is considered, one might be inclined to soften the criticism a bit. Regardless, the Royals were hearing negative comments about Moose after the season. Critics were wondering aloud if the Royals had made a mistake with their No. 2 overall pick in 2007. It was his Fall League production that began the glimmer of hope. In 75 plate appearances in the fall, he had 11 extra-base hits and really put the ball in play, but he looked in very poor physical condition. Well, why beat around the bush— he looked fat and out of shape.
Moustakas won’t be 22 years old until September. He has time to develop and work on his weaknesses. Several questions linger regarding his future. For example, the biggest issue is his position on defense. At the time of the draft, Moustakas was a shortstop. The team moved him to third base. Some say the disappointing career to date of Alex Gordon means Moustakas has his best shot for the major leagues playing there. Others feel he would fit best at first base. But with the presence of Billy Butler and Butler’s lack of defensive options, first base may not be available for quite some time. What about a corner outfield position for Moose? I have my doubts about that.
Perhaps the biggest weakness Moustakas brings is his lack of speed and agility. For this scout, those limitations do not translate to a position in the outfield. In today’s game, a team can get a way with a slower corner outfielder, but the trend is for athletic ability and quick, agile bodies as well as power. That leaves third base as the best option for Moustakas.
If Moustakas is going to have a big league career, it will be his bat that will carry him to the Royals. His defense, especially his range if he stays as a third baseman will have to improve. He has a very strong and accurate arm. He can generally make the play on balls he reaches. It is moving to both sides and coming in on short grounders in front of him that will require constant work. He can do it if he gets in shape and stays in shape.
I project Moustakas to move up in classification this season and spend 2011 in Triple-A with a shot at coming to the big club at some point during the year. However, I believe that he’ll certainly be in the Royals' lineup by 2012 if he continues to hit for average, shows that the raw power can be translated to real power on the field and if he gets in shape. He is a good contact hitter, he knows the strike zone and he can spray the ball around with authority.
Now we have to find out if Mike Moustakas can continue his success in 2010 beyond the first two months of the season. We have to find out if the 2009 mediocre Moustakas was what the Royals will be getting or is the Fall League and 2010 model more typical of who Moose will be going forward? I believe he’s more this year’s edition than last. Now he has to keep in top notch playing condition to allow the Royals the opportunity to cash in on their investment. Watch his progress through the Royals' system closely. Soon, the Moose will be set loose.