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Is Jason Pridie an Option in Center?

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The Pioneer Press printed the obvious:  that he'll have an opportunity to compete for the job.  Beyond that standard lip service, is he good enough?

Jason Pridie is coming off what to this point has been a career year.  In AA Montgomery and AAA Durham for the Rays in 2007, he tallied 32 doubles, 11 triples and 14 home runs in 576 plate appearances.  A .303/.352/.487 batting average between the two minor league levels just tells the beginning of the story, as Pridie flashed the most power he's shown since A-ball, and was a solid all-around player.  He's on the verge of breaking into the major leagues.

There's some question as to whether or not Jason can build on the momentum of last summer's campaign.  A knee injury truncated his 2005, and his poor statistical showing in the summer of '06 can at least partially be attributed to the knee's rehabilitation.  In spite of those two years, offset by his stellar-by-comparison '07, Pridie's minor league line isn't that of a budding superstar.  It isn't bad, but it doesn't profile him as a starter.

  AB    H   2B  3B  HR   BB   SO   Avg   Obp   Slg
2442  682  115  48  54  164  482  .279  .327  .432

We'll get into his extended offensive statistics in a moment, but just by looking here you can see he doesn't draw many walks.  He did strike out less in 2007, but the body of work says he strikes out far too often for how often he earns a free pass.  For a player with a history of little power, this is a bad sign.

Plate Discipline

Let's take a brief glance at Pridie's extended minor league statistics from the last handful of seasons.  It becomes easier to see how he managed a better year at the plate in '07.

Age  Year   BB%   SO%   ISO  BABIP
 21  2005   7.7  27.9  .181   .274
 22  2006   6.2  18.5  .074   .279
 23  2007   5.0  15.0  .151   .335
 23  2007   8.7  17.1  .221   .362

In his injury-shortened 2005 and his poor 2006, compared to his successful 2007, there are two trends in the four categories I chose:  higher strikeout rates and a lower batting average on balls in play.  BABIP has a lot to do with luck, in addition to defensive positioning, capabilities of the defender, but he was able to sustain those numbers throghout the year.

For his career, Pridie has never been one to work a base on balls.  This is unfortunate because he could be a far more valuable offensive player if he were to get those numbers up.  So walk rates remain pretty low, although his stint in AAA (8.7 BB% versus 17.1 SO%) really isn't awful and, optimistically, could be a hint at a new trend.  His sustained power last summer is something new as well.

Power

Pridie is quick, which means that when he hits a ball down the line or into the gap it isn't a problem for him to leg out a double.  But his power numbers from last summer (.221 ISO, .539 SLG in AAA) are surprising.  Not since his first season in Tampa's system has he shown the ability to command the dish with the type of strength he displayed in '07.

Higher line drive percentages (22% and 17%) helped; hitting the ball harder over the course of an entire year is a positive sign.  While there could certainly be some luck involved here as well, when it's done repeatedly luck's margin for error decreases and eventually you are left with some measure of ability.  Essentially I believe that while Pridie isn't as good as his 2007 numbers, he's probably improved at the plate, and his knee is definitely healthy.

In the Field

With plus speed, Pridie has the tools to make his range adequate in center field.  But like Tyner, there's still the matter of how he plays center in the Dome; speed can make up for bad positioning or bad jumps, but it's not going to be easy filling 48's shoes.  How comfortable he looks in center could go a long way in how much time he gets with the Twins, if an outside option isn't brought in.

Arm strength isn't too much of a concern either.  It's another tool that's considered average to above-average, although it's not clear which outfield position this statement was in regards to.  Most reports say Pridie's arm can handle any outfield position, but I'm curious to know if he's only a "plus arm" in certain fields.  I believe that Pridie's playing time will be leveraged against his defense, so unless he tears the cover off the ball in spring training, he'll probably ride the bench if he doesn't show off some outstanding talent in the field.  At least, he'll ride the bench until Craig Monroe reminds Twins management that he's not a center fielder.

Conclusions

After the 2004 minor league season, when Jason Pridie hit .276/.327/.470 with 27 doubles, 11 triples and 17 home runs, an old Rays blog stated "He's a talented hitter with no earthly idea of what the strikezone is and why drawing walks is a good thing. He now has 92 career walks in 1,362 at bats...Double that walk rate, and he's a premium run producer."  Ignoring the fact that if you double everyone's walk rates they'll improve dramatically in how effective they are at the plate, at that point in time it was true.  Pridie had a stroke and was only 20-years old, he just had the same problem he still has:  plate discipline.

Right now it's easy to peg Jason Pridie as a long-term reserve outfielder, a fourth man who can play all three positions and does nothing poorly and nothing exceptionally.  This is what is most likely, based on how Pridie profiles.  But he didn't look too bad coming out of '04, so what if the injury of '05 was just a derailment and the '07 version of our new outfield prospect is closer to the real thing than the total of his minor league line of .279/.327/.432?  There's a huge hole in his strike zone judgement, but that's always been there.  Is it possible that Pridie could be better than a replacement level center fielder?

It is possible.  While I believe it to be well within the realm of reality, there is still the fact that his weakness is still what it's always been.  In spite of this weakness, I believe it's Jason's defense that will win or lose him his spot with the Twins when they break camp this spring.  If he impresses with his defensive ability, he'll make the trip north.  If not, flip a coin.

I'll leave you with a quote from John Manuel, in a 2004 chat for Baseball America:

"Pridie is more well-rounded and a guy I like better; scouts have compared him to Steve Finley to me for his swing, fly-catching ability in CF and developing power. Pridie's five-tool ability (and he's really average or above in all five tools) will only play at the big league level, though, if he gets more disciplined at the plate."