Because George Springer played half the season in Corpus Christi, the RedHawks center fielder isn't eligible for The Oklahoman's all-time, top 10 Triple-A players in Oklahoma City list. But Springer probably would rank near the top if he had played at Chickasaw Bricktown Ballpark all summer.
One of the top candidates for Baseball America's Minor League Player of the Year, Springer has compiled gaudy stats heading into the RedHawks final five games of the regular season.
Splitting time between Double-A and Triple-A, Springer was hitting .303 with 37 home runs, 106 RBIs, 104 runs, 43 stolen bases and a .414 on-base percentage heading into Thursday night's game.
“I've coached some great players and coached against some great players,” said Connecticut coach Jim Penders. “He's a guy who has star written all over him. I don't know what ‘it' is but he has it. He lights up a room. He lights up a box score. The sky is the limit for him.”
Selected 11th overall in 2011 out of UConn, Springer arguably is the top prospect among a growing list of talented players that figure to eventually turn around the downtrodden Houston Astros.
Often compared to Angels star Mike Trout, Springer is the classic five-tool player (hitting for average, hitting for power, speed, defense and arm).
“It's his sixth tool that makes anything possible for George,” Penders said. “Because he has those five tools, the sixth tool is what will take him really far. The sixth tool is his absolute love for the game. It oozes out of him. He loves baseball so much.
“When you're with him on a bus or around him in a clubhouse you notice his love for people. Combine that quality with all five tools and he's a player everyone notices. His surname fits him. He's got a spring in his step.”
Penders compares Springer to the cartoon character, “Tigger” from Winnie the Pooh.
“George is always bouncing all over the place,” Penders said. “And like Tigger, he has so much fun. He has a super energy about him that rubs off on others. He's very good at making people smile.”
Player of the Year candidate
Springer is a finalist for USA Today's Minor League Player of the Year where fans will determine the winner. The prestigious award is the player Baseball America selects.
Springer's stats stack up against other hitters on the short list: Twins center field prospect Byron Buxton (. 336, 12 homers, 106 runs, 53 stolen bases); Cubs shortstop prospect Javier Baez (. 285, 35 homers, 105 RBIs, 20 SBs); and Twins third base prospect Miguel Sano (. 285, 33 homers, 99 RBIs).
A viable candidate is Broken Arrow's Archie Bradley. The right-hander in the Diamondbacks system has been impressive (13-5, 1.84 ERA, 160 strikeouts, .216 batting average against).
“I don't pay attention to any of that,” Springer said. “It's been a good season, but there are still some things I wish I would have done better, including hitting for a higher average. But I don't get caught up in stats. I just go out and play.”
RedHawks manager Tony DeFrancesco points out Springer's Triple-A stats are nearly identical to his Double-A stats. Springer actually has a higher average (. 312) in Triple-A than Double-A (. 297).
“To be able to do what he's done in Triple-A, and play the defense he plays, he's having an awesome season,” DeFrancesco said. “I say it over and over, but you just don't see many players like him who has power, speed and plays tremendous defense.”
Exceptional speed has helped Springer make several highlight reel catches at The Brick, including two in the current series with Nashville.
The Sounds leadoff hitter in the series opener Monday night roped a pitch into right-center. It appeared to be a certain double or triple. Springer ran an estimated 100 feet to turn it into an out.
“He has what we call makeup speed,” DeFrancesco said. “If he can get a great jump, his speed will catch up with the baseball. He reads the ball well off the bat and instinctively knows how to go get it. That's something you can't teach.”
Springer's mother, Laura, is a gymnastics coach who competed at a high level back. During his formative years, Springer's mother signed George up for gymnastics. He never entered competitions. But from age 2 to around age 11 he was actively involved in the sport.
“The biggest thing I learned was how to control my body,” said Springer who occasionally does a back flip near the cage during pregame batting practice. “You understand everything your body can and can't do. It's all about slowing yourself down to control your body.”
Springer was a late bloomer. Penders recalled seeing Springer at UConn's baseball camp. The sophomore from Old Farms High School in Avon, Conn., a Hartford suburb near the Vermont border, was short but extremely athletic.
“He really didn't stand out,” Penders said. “You definitely noticed his athleticism, but he was really small. His body started to mature between his junior and senior year. By then you could tell he had a chance to be special.”
When Springer left UConn, that small Old Farms kid had developed into a 6-foot-3, 205-pound All-American, a slam-dunk first round pick.
UConn was playing Clemson in a regional final the night of the draft. Midway through a game the Huskies won 12-1 to advance to a Super Regional for the first time in school history, Springer was informed he was selected in the first round by the Astros.
“As he's coming off the field, he knew he would probably be getting around a $2 million signing bonus,” Penders said. “He walked over and hugged his mom and said, ‘Can you believe it? ... We won.' He didn't even mention the draft. That's the kind of teammate he is. It's all about the team.”
Top prospects often are promoted to the majors when rosters expand in September. Houston general manager Jeff Luhnow has indicated Springer might remain in Oklahoma City until the RedHawks season ends. Even if he stays in OKC, the Astros might call him up the final two or three weeks.
“I'm not concerned about it,” Springer said. “That's not in my control. The only thing I can control is how I play. Whenever it's time I'll be ready to go. Right now, I'm trying to help this team win.”
Perennial American League All-Star?
Most scouts and analysts believe Springer has the tools to develop into a perennial American League All-Star. His few critics point to 316 strikeouts in 257 minor league games as a potential red flag.
The flip side is Springer has drawn 146 walks for a .395 on-base percentage his first two seasons. And when Springer draws a walk it's essentially a double. Springer has swiped 75 bases the past two seasons, complemented by 62 homers.
“His speed should help him even if he gets in a few slumps at the next level,” said an AL East scout. “Every organization would take him right now. In a heartbeat. He strikes out a little too much. But he does so many things to help you win games, defense, steal a base, crush a homer.”
Time is running out, but Springer is only three homers shy of posting the first 40-40 season in the minors in 57 years. Springer already is on a short list.
A couple of weeks ago, Springer joined Darryl Strawberry and Ruben Rivera as the only minor leaguers the past 40 years to compile a 30-homer, 40-steal season. That's something Trout didn't accomplish in the minors, although their skill sets are remarkably similar.
“It's a great comparison. They're both great players,” DeFrancesco said. “Trout already has done it in the major leagues. Hopefully, Spring can translate success at this level to prime time.”
During his three years in college, Springer hit .346 with 46 homers, 196 RBIs, 220 runs and 76 stolen bases, stats that rank among UConn legends Jeff Bagwell and Mo Vaughn.
Springer has averaged 31 homers, 38 stolen bases, 97 RBIs and 107 runs scored his first two pro seasons. And he still has five more games that count toward the overall total before the RedHawks open the playoffs next week.
“Did I see this coming?” Penders said. “I'm not going to pretend to say you could see a 40-40 season coming at any level of baseball. But I could see star potential in George back to when he played here.”
Springer's pro career essentially started last season. He played in only eight games the year he was drafted. He most likely will be the Astros' opening day center fielder next season.
Playing college ball, Springer is older than most prospects. He will turn 24 in mid-September, about the time he might be called up. The advantage is Springer is mature. He's sharp. He studies the game. He talks team more than individual accomplishments.
“Nothing he ever does on a baseball field will surprise me,” Penders said. “I don't want to put any extra pressure on him, but with his skill set, his heart and his work ethic, I'll be surprised if he's not a perennial All-Star.”