Ryan Wheeler is a bit of the forgotten prospect of late considering what Matt Davidson is doing a level below and what Paul Goldschmidt is doing a level above. The concern is there's no room at the inn for another corner infielder at the major league level. But Wheeler shouldn't be forgotten as a possible contributor to the Dbacks in the very near future. We'll look at a few comps and digest some of the scouting reports, but what we do know without digging too deep into anything is that Ryan Wheeler can hit. The question as always is how much and how soon, and will he be in the Diamondbacks plan this year or next. The answer should be an emphatic yes. Find out why after the jump.
Ryan Wheeler was drafted in the 5th round of the 2009 draft out of Loyola Marymount University. He started his professional career in Yakima and tore the rookie league up to the tune of a .999 OPS and was promoted to South Bend to finish the year and did more of the same. In 2010 he was jumped up to Visalia where he had a solid but not spectacular year hitting .284 with 9 homers and 57 RBI. That was still good enough to earn himself a promotion to Mobile where he played mostly 3B (because Paul Goldschmidt was occupying 1B) and really started to break out offensively and showed signs he may have major league talent.
In the pitching-rich Southern League Wheeler improved both his power and his contact to the tune of 16 home runs, an .832 OPS and 89 RBI. His K rate was a very acceptable 19.2% and his line drive rate was even more impressive at 19.2%, much better than the league average of 17.5%. Wheeler was regularly running a year ahead of fellow 3B prospect Matt Davidson who was tearing up the California League at the time.
So while Goldschmidt was sent to Phoenix, Wheeler moved up to Reno and Davidson took his spot in Mobile. And Wheeler just continues to hit. Through 72 games his triple slash is .365/.402/.976 and he leads the league with 72 RBI, a pace that will put him over 150 for the year. It must have been a disappointment when the Diamondbacks traded for third baseman Josh Bell and gave him the first opportunity to try and solve the team's lack of production at the position through the first month of the season. Apparently it hasn't bothered him much because he's hitting an astounding .462 for the month of June.
Defensive and Left-handed Questions
The general consensus among scouts is that Wheeler's defense is keeping him from being promoted. I'm not entirely sure where that prognosis comes from as Wheeler was named "Best Defensive 3B" for the Southern League in 2011 and "Best Defensive 3B" for the California League in 2010. They don't don't usually give those awards to people who can't play defense. John Sickels gave him an "adequate" grade for his defense a year ago. He played mostly 1B in college and in his first year in the minors, but since has played more 3B. He's played 122 games at third in 2010, 109 in 2011 and 41 of 71 so far in 2012. He's posted a 2.59 RF/G (Range Factor Per Game) so far in Reno this year. The National League average RF/G to date in 2012 is 2.41, and by comparison Ryan Roberts is carrying a RF/G of 2.66. He has 5 errors in those 41 games at third. So Wheeler should be capable of playing a competent 3B.
He's more than capable of playing a competent 1B with relatively high RF/G ratios in his games there. He's even capable of playing a little corner outfield in a pinch. With such versatility, Wheeler should NOT be looked on as some kind of defensive liability, especially since his bat has real value.
A proper question mark about Wheeler is his ability to hit lefties. His numbers differ dramatically in this area. He doesn't have a single home run against lefties this year and is hitting just .265 compared to .396 against righties. Over the last two years his OPS versus left-handers is just .683 compared to .947 against right-handers. This alone might keep Wheeler from earning an everyday job as a Major League third baseman. If he can only manage .683 in the minors it would only get much worse in the majors.
Minor League Comps
In order to produce a group of comps for Wheeler I isolated minor league seasons similar to Wheeler's AA and AAA performances. This produced a different list of names for the AA comps versus the AAA comps. I started by only analyzing third basemen between the ages of 21 and 23 for AA, and 22 to 24 for AAA with a minimum of 300 plate appearances. Wheeler had a K% of 18.7% in Mobile in 2011 so I restricted the list to seasons less than 20% in AA. Wheeler had an OPS of .823 in Mobile so I further restricted the list to OPS greater than .800. Then, to eliminate the Evan Longoria's of the world (who he is not) I restricted the sample to wRC+ of 110-130. Wheeler's wRC+ was 117 in 2011. I made similar restrictions for the AAA comps with the exception of limiting the OPS floor to .850 (Wheeler has a .976 OPS to date in Reno) and not using the wRC+ restriction at all since he currently leads the PCL in that category.
Here's the list of comps I came up with and the organizations they came up through the minors with.
As you can see there's a few comps worth looking forward to if Wheeler can duplicate those efforts, but there's a few more fringe players who haven't made a significant impact at the next level than positive comps. The names that stand out as the most positive comps include Allen Craig, Neil Walker and Ian Stewart. We would all love if Wheeler was the next Allen Craig, the emerging slugger for the St. Louis Cardinals, but it's important to note that Craig's AA season compared to Wheeler's was better across the board--not ridiculously better, but better. Following is a short synopsis of each of these relative comps.
Allen Craig - Like Wheeler Craig has hit at every level only with more power and better contact than Wheeler. It would be hard to suggest that Wheeler will become anything like Craig. Not a good comp--he's a step above Wheeler, but not a huge step.
Matt Brown - Didn't make it, out of baseball. Had one big AA season. None of his other minor league stats compare to Wheeler's. Not a good comp.
Adrian Cardenas - Bench player for the Cubs. Lacks any significant power. Not a good comp.
Neil Walker - Starting second baseman for the Pirates since 2010. Put up an excellent rookie season with an .801 OPS and 2.5 oWAR campaign. Finished 5th in ROY voting. Solid 2011 season and still starting at second for the Pirates though his performance is starting to tail off from his rookie season. 12 homers in both 2010 and 2011. Walker is a pretty good comp for Wheeler though Wheeler exceeded most of Walker's minor league numbers suggesting he could do better. Walker's move to 2B increases his value as a hitter. Not a perfect comp but a reasonable one.
Wes Hodges - Did not make it to the majors. Overall minor league production much less than Wheeler. Not a good comp.
Luis Jimenez - AA season in 2011 was very similar to Wheeler's but this year's AAA is not even close. Wheeler is progressing, Jimenez is regressing. Both are 24. Not a good comp.
Juan Francisco - Has become a backup infielder for the Reds. His MiL numbers are very similar to Wheeler's throughout. He's a pretty good comp for Wheeler and while he hasn't done anything to breakout at the ML level he has stuck for 3 seasons and shows a little bit of pop off the bench.
Ian Stewart - Stewart had 3 pretty good seasons for Colorado before tailing off badly in 2011. Now playing for the Cubs and lost his regular playing time. Stewart's minor league progression is eerily similar to Wheeler's. This is an excellent comp for Wheeler and nobody would be too upset if Wheeler was the next Ian Stewart.
Lonnie Chisenhall - Backup infielder for the Indians. Called up in 2011 and played regularly with only fair results posting a .699 OPS. Good minor leaguer but not quite at Wheeler's level of production. A decent comp for Wheeler but not perfect.
Taylor Green - Backup infielder for the Brewers. Similar minor league numbers as Wheeler but didn't have same success at AA. Not a bad comp for Wheeler but Wheeler has done more on the way up.
Andy LaRoche - Made his way to the majors in 2007 with the Dodgers. Best season was in 2009 as the starting 3B for Pirates. Now languishing in AAA after 5 years in the majors. A decent comp for Wheeler with more power and less contact.
Brandon Wood - Spent parts of 5 seasons with the Angels bouncing back and forth in AAA. Always a backup, never getting more than 250 AB in a season. Had some monster power seasons in the minors that he could not duplicate in the majors. Not the perfect comp for Wheeler as he is more of a pure power hitter. Much higher K rates and lower LD rates than Wheeler. Not a good comp.
Pete Ciofrone - Not the same level of overall minor league production as Wheeler. Never made it to the majors and is out of baseball. Not a good comp.
Matt Gamel - Backup infielder for the Brewers. Very similar minor league numbers as Wheeler. Got 125 major league at bats in 2009 and posted a .760 OPS. Has never really been given a full-time opportunity. Below average fielder. Very good comp for Wheeler who hasn't gotten a real opportunity. Wheeler might have the same problem.
Brad Emaus - Got a cup of coffee from the Mets in 2011. Similar minor league progression as Wheeler. Not quite his level of production but close. A pretty good comp for Wheeler.
In summary, the best comps for Wheeler include Neil Walker, Juan Francisco, Ian Stewart, Matt Gamel and Brad Emaus. On the upside, Wheeler could very easily be another Ian Stewart, which wouldn't be half bad as he posted WAR seasons of 1.3, 0.5 and 2.0. That's nothing spectacular but solid for a defensive position. All the relevant comps for Wheeler suggest he will make it to the show and demonstrate some ability to contribute as all these players have. It likely comes down to his opportunities and if he can upgrade his power contributions and prove his value on defense. The comps suggest at worst a decent backup corner infielder and at best an everyday third baseman who might give you 2.0 WAR from 3B.
Where Does He Fit In
The real challenge for Wheeler is just getting an opportunity. As we said earlier, he was probably disappointed that Josh Bell got his chance ahead of him. Everyone keeps saying it's his defense that's holding him back, but I'm more inclined to think it's his inability to hit lefties. Josh Bell being a switch-hitter is what probably gave him the edge. But Bell is no great shakes on defense and he hasn't done enough to stick around so he'll be moving on as soon as Drew comes back this week.
That still doesn't leave any room for Wheeler to make an impact this year. Roberts has bounced back from his slow start and plays better defense than Wheeler so he's probably solidified the spot for the balance of the season most likely. If he hits another slump then Bloomquist will probably steal those at bats with Drew coming back. Only an injury or a total collapse from Roberts will give Wheeler a chance this year.
The lefties problem might mean Wheeler projects as a platoon option at first and third. But that might allow him to build a decent career doing so. Quality left -handed hitters who can play multiple positions can man very valuable roster spots. I expect him to get a September call-up to help down the stretch with an eye towards making the roster out of Spring Training in 2013.
What his role will be in 2013 might depend on how Davidson continues to progress. If Davidson finishes 2012 in solid fashion and has a good enough Spring next year, he may become the team's starting 3B with Wheeler slated for some part-time platoon duty behind him and Goldschmidt and as a pinch-hitter. He could still earn somewhere around 200-300 at bats in that role. If Davidson doesn't make the team and they go with Roberts for another year, Wheeler might play an even bigger role as the LH half of a platoon that gets 300-350 at bats. The only thing Wheeler won't want to hear about next year is the team bringing Overbay back. That would really make it tough for him to earn a roster spot unless Roberts is shipped out and Davidson is deemed not ready.