Redemption part II: Matt Fox and Joe Benson

Two Twins high draft choices seem ready for the next step.

Two weeks ago I wrote about Matt Moses and Deolis Guerra, two once highly touted prospects who had a fall from grace. Both seem to have turned something of a corner and are now at least holding their own at their respective levels. Moses is hitting .270/.345./.419 as the primary left fielder for the New Britain Rock Cats. Guerra has recently had a couple of rough starts to send his ERA to 5.4. But a closer look at the numbers show a FIP at 4.11 with a GB% at 59%. That still pretty good for a guy who's three years younger than the average for his level. Both are worth a weekly look to see how their attempts at redemption are going this year.

This time I want to continue to the theme of redemption with a pair of high draft choices who have been huge disappointments for the Twins to date--Joe Benson and Matt Fox. Both are showing signs in the early going that perhaps their struggles are behind them and they're ready to fulfill the promise warranted by their draft order.

 

Matt Fox

Fox was drafted in the first supplemental round (39th overall) in the 2004 draft out of the University of Central Florida, where he was named the Atlantic Sun Conference pitcher of the Year and Baseball American First-Team All American his junior (draft) year .  He might have gone higher, but scouts were concerned about the wear and tear on his arm caused by an over-aggressive college coach at Central Florida.

It turns out the other teams' scouts were right. The Twins didn't let him pitch much his rookie year at Elizabethton--just 26 innings--but it was too much for his likely already injured shoulder. He had labrum surgery that offseason and didn't pitch at all in 2005. By the time he resumed pitching, he was old for a prospect (23) and has flown under the radar ever since.

Since his return from labrum surgery, however, Fox has done nothing but good things. In 2006 in Elizabethton, he had a FIP of 2.72 with 46 Ks in just 40 relief innings. The low inning total reflects his ongoing rehab from the surgery at this point.

In 2007, the Twins continued to treat his tender shoulder with caution, giving him 13 starts and 20 appearances overall in Beloit. There he had a FIP of 3.82 with a WHIP of 1.19 and 66 Ks in 82 innings. While this didn't get him ranked on any lists (because of his age for that level), it did show that he appeared to have recovered from his shoulder injury and was ready for more work.

The Twins gave him more work in 2008, letting him throw 117 innings over 32 appearances and 14 starts at Fort Myers. The additional work didn't adversely affect his numbers, which were about the same, factoring the extreme pitchers league that is the FSL. He put up a FIP of 3.41 with 99Ks and a WHIP of 1.30. None of that spells dominance, especially for a 25 year old at High A ball. But it was encouraging.

This year in New Britain, Fox has been fighting with Cole Devries for staff ace. In six starts, he has 25 Ks against 15 walks in 28 innings with a WHIP of 1.39. Again, he hasn't dominated, especially for a 26 year old. But he's not just a first round roster filler either. I'll be rooting for him, if nothing else because he has stuck with it through a tough injury at the worst time in his career. At one time, I compared him to Joe Nathan, who had a shoulder injury derail his ealry pitching career. At this point, he projects less as a closer and more as a competent middle reliever in the mold of Matt Guerrier, especially if he can learn to sink and cut the ball a little bit. I wouldn't be surprised to see him in a major league uniform in 2010, either for the Twins or a team that selects him in the Rule 5 draft.

Joe Benson

Benson was drafted in the second round in the 2006 draft out of Hillsdale  High School (IL). He was a two-sport star in high school, with the kind of raw tools that usually go in the first round--speed, power and arm. But he was a better football player than a baseball player in high school, so he was considered  a project in the rough mold of Torii Hunter when he was drafted.

I don't think anybody in the organization thought the project would take so long to become a legitimate prospect at that time, especially after he hit .260/.332/.444 with 21 XBH in 220 plate appearances in the GCL right out of high school at age 18. He played so well in the GCL, he got called up to Beloit to help the Snappers in the playoffs that year, where he mainly pinch ran and observed from the bench.

After his first year, however, things went south. In 2007--his first full season at Beloit-- he hit .255/.344/.368 which wasn't horrible for a 19-year old in A ball. But he struck out 124 times in 432 at bats to go along with 49 walks. At this point, I was willing to cut him some slack for the Ks because he was young for his level and his baseball instincts hadn't really clicked yet. Plus, the walks mitigated the strikeouts in my mind because it seemed like he took a lot of pitches, some third strikes, some fourth balls. Patience is a tool, not a skill. Patient hitters can learn pitch recognition and develop good strike-zone judgment as a result. Impatient hitters never develop good strike-zone judgment.

However encouraging his first full season at Beloit might be to some, he did not earn a promotion, returning to Beloit for his 20-year old campaign in 2008. I had hoped that his second season at Low A ball would allow him to dominate and earn a midseason promotion to High A Fort Myers. Quite the opposite. Perhaps he was frustrated at career stagnation. Perhaps he had injury issues. For whatever reason, his 2008 campaign was worse than his 2007 season. He hit .247/.323/.380 with 74Ks and 24 walks in just 291 plate appearances before a back injury shelved him for the season. His K rate actually went up in his second season at that level, while his other numbers went down. Not good. This sent him to near the bottom of my top 40 ranking list. He was no longer young for that level and there was a chance his raw tools would never translate into baseball skills.

Fortunately, the Twins promoted him anyway, and he has responded in the FSL, hitting .275/.402/.440 with eight XBH in 112 PAs in the extreme pitcher's league. He still has the high strikeout rate (25%), but his walk rate has jumped four percentage points. It's early, but if he can keep this up, the Twins can count on yet another center field prospect to go along with Ben Revere, Angel Morales and Aaron Hicks. Though his speed allows him to play center, his power also translates into a good corner outfield prospect. I will keep an eye on him as he continues to develop. But it looks like he's turned the corner and is starting to show fans why Twins scouts thought highly enough of him to draft him in the second round. I could see him in a Twins uniform in 2012.

 

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