Welcome to what will be a regular Thursday article from me (Jason will be writing a similar one on Tuesdays), where I will preview an up and coming prospect at the Double-A level or higher, who have their path to the majors blocked by an incumbent. Much like an understudy waiting in the wings for their chance...get it? Jokes are always better when you explain them, right you guys? On to the revue! (Alas..no chorus girls)
Zack Cox - 3B - Cardinals - As a draft eligible sophomore in 2010, Cox was able to secure a $3.2 million signing bonus when he was taken with the 25th pick in the first round. Despite going late in the first round, Cox was regarded as the best pure hitter in the draft, and fell due to signability concerns. Cox didn't let his reputation go to waste, starting his professional career (save 15 at-bats) at Hi-A Palm Beach with a .335/.380/.439 slash line in 164 at-bats. He was promoted to Double-A in short order where, after a slow start, he recovered to post a .293/.355/.432 slash line. Not bad for his first full season, played at age 21.
Though Cox struggled initially in both Hi-A and Double-A, his recovery showed an ability to make adjustments quickly, which bodes well for his future. His ability to hit is not a question as he does a good job of keeping his head down and turning on inside pitches, at least after the adjustments he made upon his promotion to Double-A. He makes contact as well as you'd expect of someone labeled as a "pure hitter," striking out in only 16.7% (Hi-A) and 17.1% (Double-A), and posting respectable if not illustrious walk rates (6.1%, 7.5% respectively).
Analyzing Cox made me feel a bit like a Jewish grandmother and if that confused you, imagine how it made me feel. Allow me to clarify; though I've had numerous accomplishments in my lifetime, some big and some small and several worthy of praise, my grandmother has always had the ability to focus more on what I haven't done. And it is in that vein that I view Zack Cox. His strengths are obvious and worthy of praise, and yet it seems that there is a lot of focus and attention paid to the more questionable aspects of his game. Like my grandmother would my own, I'll detail his weaknesses here, though I'll spare you the backhanded nature of it all.
It seems like scouts are unable to decide the bigger question on Cox; his power or whether he can stick at third base. If he can stick at third base, the power is less of an issue, but he might not be an above average player if the power comes and he can't stay at the hot corner. As it stands now, Cox shows above-average raw power in batting practice, but can't seem to find it in game. He had 29 XBH in 352 at-bats at Double-A leading to a .139 ISO, which he will need to improve as he progresses up the ladder. Some explain away his in-game power outage to his focus on spraying the ball all over the field instead of selling out for power, and think that as he matures he will be able to know which pitches he can sell out for as well as use the whole field to hit for average. There's logic to that thought process, though the power concerns are legitimate, and we're going to need to see it at some point before we end up with a third base version of The Good James Loney (that's a thing, right?). In the field, Cox shows a plus arm, but that's as far as the praise goes. He worked hard on his footwork and it was paying off by season's end, though he'll have to continue those efforts to expand his range and avoid miscues. Speed is not a part of his game, as he attempted three steals all year (two successful) and his lack of quickness plays a part in his defensive woes.
David Freese is a potential road block for Cox, and some scouts have thought his bat profiled better at the keystone anyway, though his lack of quickness makes that seem more like wishful thinking than anything. Cox has the ceiling of an all-star if he can access his power to complement his knack for hitting. Even if he doesn't, you're looking at a likely 3rd baseman with above-average hitting ability and average power. He's not a lottery ticket, but he's a safe play as far as prospects go, and could see time as a September call up this year. So why talk about Cox as a guy who is knocking on the door of the majors? Well Freese has never been the picture of health, and Cox is good enough to make the Cardinals find a place to play him.