While blue chip prospects get the most national attention, good farm systems are most usually typified by their depth. Having a large number of high-variance prospects is an objectively good thing, even if they’re not the most widely publicized. Obviously, most wash out, but some do eventually become stars. Award-winning players like Jacob deGrom, Jose Altuve, and Albert Pujols were unheralded as prospects but have gone on to highly successful careers.
Outfielder Jake Robson is an excellent example of that kind of depth in the Tigers’ system. He was a high-risk pick coming out of college, but he’s already well surpassed his developmental floor and is rocketing towards his ceiling. While it’s still up in the air whether he’ll one day be an MLB regular, he’s already a success story for Detroit’s developmental program and looks like he could contribute in the bigs as soon as next season.
Drafted only two years ago, Robson moved very quickly through Detroit’s minor league system. A very successful college career saw him post batting averages north of .320 in two of his three full seasons along with a stout walk rate. He caught the Tigers’ eye — they popped him in the 8th round of the 2016 draft. He has outperformed any expectations that were laid upon him at the time.
Robson has cleaned up at every level of the minors he’s played in, including lengthy stints in Double- and Triple-A in 2018. Opening with Erie, he slashed .286/.382/.450 with seven home runs and drew walks 12.5 percent of the time. That’s a mighty fine performance; according to wRC+, it was 33% above league average. He followed that up with an equally towering run in Toledo. He put up a .305/.369/.427 line, worth a wRC+ 27 percent above average.
The attribute that brought Robson some attention when he was drafted was his speed, and that’s still his calling card. He’s a plus runner both on the bases and in the field. He’s still refining his instincts on the bases, as borne out by a 17-for-27 stolen base ratio in 2018, but the tools are there for him to be trouble for pitchers when he gets on base. It also contributes to his fielding: he’s easily got the skills to run down balls hit into the expansive area of Comerica’s outfield.
His skill in the grass extend beyond sheer range, though. Reports don’t say much about his instincts, but all that means is that he’s not a preternatural freak with the glove a la Kevin Kiermaier or Byron Buxon. He should be enough of a defenseman to play up the middle, which obviously increases his value as a prospect.
It looks like Robson may have more to offer on the offensive side of the game than first expected, though. Here’s what Emily Waldon of The Athletic had to say in her preseason Tigers Top 30 Prospects list:
With his defensive instincts already common knowledge, the more refreshing aspect to Robson’s season was his deceptive push of raw power. At 5-foot-10, you wouldn’t predict that, but his natural eye at the plate complemented the added power on contact.
As the numbers referenced earlier would indicate, Robson utilized a newfound power stroke in 2018. If this new facet of his game is for real, that would obviously boost his value immensely. There will always be a place in the game for players with both power and speed. Even if he only makes minimal contact, that combination of attributes makes for a decent bench piece.
It also can’t be neglected that Robson has what may be the best nickname in the entire organization. The standard of shortening names to a one-syllable grunt doesn’t apply in this case. Robson was born in London, Ontario, and his Canadian heritage has earned him the name “The Maple Hammer.” If that doesn’t qualify as delightful, I don’t know what would.
Although the offensive outburst that fueled his ascent to Triple-A is a nice addition to his profile, there’s not a ton of reasons to believe that the power Robson showed was necessarily permanent.
First of all, he still hits a ton of ground balls. Power is difficult to showcase if a player is constantly drilling balls into the infield dirt, but over half of Robson’s batted balls ended up on the ground. His Triple-A rate of 57.4 percent would have been among the highest of qualified MLB batters. It’s not an impossible trick to pull off — the Astros’ slugging right fielder George Springer hits nearly half of his balls on the ground — but it makes success at the major league level very difficult.
Furthermore, a look at his batting average on balls in play would indicate that, to a certain extent, Robson was getting lucky in 2018. An normal batting average on balls in play would hover around .300. Speedsters generally are able to pad that number thanks to their ability to beat out throws. Robson’s figures, though, were very high. He put up rates of .382 and .406 in 2018. Frankly, those are inflated and unsustainable. As they normalize, the rest of his stats will obviously suffer. To what extent, though, will determine his role.
Finally, while his speed makes him an asset on defense, his arm limits his defensive flexibility to center and left. It’s far from a death knell as a prospect, and he doesn’t profile well in right field offensively anyway, but it does limit his versatility.
In the end, Robson has several quality tools, but while he got to more power in-game this year, projections still don’t expect him to have quite enough punch to stick in the majors. At least not as a regular. However, hitting his ceiling as a fourth outfielder does seem a much more realistic expectation than it did a year ago.
Projected Team: Triple-A Toledo Mud Hens
Despite his marked progressions during the 2018 season, it’s still unclear when Robson will be ready for time in the big leagues. He has no track record of hitting for power outside of last season. As we’ve often said before, there is no greater jump than the one from Triple-A to the majors. There’s no equivalent of Justin Verlander, Adam Ottavino, or Corey Kluber in the minors. Anyone who is that much better than the competition would be serving as a backend starter or seventh-inning arm for the parent club. In other words, there is still a lot of work to be done to prove the leap he made in 2018 was sustainable.
What’s more, the Tigers have little motivation to start the outfielder’s service time clock before they absolutely need to. He’s not a major part of their plans for the future, but he may supplant Mikie Mahtook as a fourth outfielder at some point in the near future. It’s also possible that a Nick Castellanos trade could open up more playing time, and get Robson up to the show more quickly than expected. Barring that, it will probably take ongoing, major struggles from centerfielder JaCoby Jones to spur the Tigers to give Robson a call. Stuck between Jones, and a high-end centerfield prospect in Daz Cameron at Toledo, Robson is going to have to make his opportunities count this season to avoid getting lost in the shuffle.