Name: Marland Williams
Before the 2005 season it appeared that the Diamondbacks acquired Jose Cruz Jr. to hold a spot. Marland Williams was ranked #9 on the FutureBacks Fifty last year, and the center field job was his for the taking. There was speculation that he might supplant Cruz as soon as May, and the Diamondbacks were just fine with that.
After all, Williams is one of the three fastest players in the Diamondbacks organization. A true burner, with plus defense in center field and 50 stolen base potential in the Majors. But this season was a large step back for the outfielder. Playing in a four man outfield rotation in Double-A Tennessee, Williams started slowly, but turned it on in the middle of April, and finished the month hitting .324. He was taking pitches, stealing bases, and playing a spectacular center field.
"He looked like he had gone into the offseason, improved exactly what the Diamondbacks asked him to improve, and come into '05 with a plan," one scout said of Williams' April, "I really thought he was going to get called up in May, especially when Cruz couldn't stay healthy."
Unfortunately for Williams, the rest of the season turned into a nightmare. In 2004 the biggest knock on the speedster was his lack of plate discipline, which resulted in 116 Ks in 487 at bats. In April of '05 he struck out 13 times in just under 70 at bats, but things spiraled in May, where he whiffed 30 times in just under 100 ABs. He would lose considerable playing time after hitting below .200 in both June and July, and finish with 108 strikeouts in 381 trips to the plate for the season.
"We haven't given up on Marland," Diamondbacks Director of Scouting Mike Rizzo says, "he's still very much in our plans. He's the fastest guy in the organization, if not in baseball, and he was a football player coming out of high school. He had two super years early, then a great Arizona Fall League in 2004, and if he's had a hiccup in Double-A, we think it's just that, a hiccup."
Batting and Power: As far as the Diamondbacks are concerned, they would just as soon see Williams leave it at 'batting.' After hitting a career high 10 home runs in Double-A El Paso in 2004, Williams showed up in Tennessee with an extra 10 pounds of muscle, and a tendency to pull off breaking pitches. Like many young players, he was trying to hit home runs, and ended up hitting a lot of lazy fly balls.
The Diamondbacks sent him to the AFL in '04 to keep the ball on the ground. He did, and was one of the most surprising stories of that year's Fall League, but in '05 many of the bad habits returned, and as Southern League pitchers learned they didn't have to throw him a breaking ball for a strike, his lack of plate discipline became magnified.
"You'd see him at the plate, and he just didn't trust his hands," our scout says, "by the middle of the season, he was starting his swing so early, there was no way to tell if the ball would be anywhere near the plate. He's got tools, and he's got potential, but he's got to work on some of the fundamentals at the plate. For a guy with his speed, he really should be able to bunt for a base hit twice a game, and he just can't."
Baserunning and Speed: While Williams had trouble getting on base, once he was there he was money. He stole 38 bases in 45 attempts, and has shown himself to be not just fast, but smart, on the bases.
"He reads pitchers really well, even lefties," a pitcher who faced him in the Southern League this past season says, "and there really isn't any point in pitching out when he's on base, because if he gets any kind of jump, you're still not going to throw him out."
The pressure he puts on outfielders was awesome as well. Unofficially one teammate says he saw "at least" nine errors this season on outfielders who rushed throws trying to get Williams at third or home, and he doesn't let his speed get the best of him, challenging outfielders when the time is right, but rarely trying for the extra base when it isn't there.
Defense: Many outfielders with the speed of Williams aren't really that great defensively, because their speed allows them to make up for bad jumps and poor routes. But Williams is an exception. Though he played some left field this year, he profiles as a center fielder, and is most comfortable there. His routes are rarely poor, and often perfect, and he makes all his fellow outfielders better, because they can play significantly closer to the lines, because Williams will make all the plays in the gaps.
His arm is above average for a center fielder, though he occasionally will still air mail throws. The arm allows him to play all three positions, though it would be slightly below average for a right fielder, and when asked to search for a weakness in Williams' defense, our scout finally came up with this.
"It's not really a weakness, but with his speed, he could probably play a little more shallow, and take away a bloop single or two. But he gets to so many balls, coming in, going out, that it hardly seems like a weakness, just more a coaching decision."
Projection: Though he took a major step backwards this season, he still profiles as a guy who will reach the Majors as a fifth outfielder, simply because he would be successful as a late game base stealer/defensive replacement. If he can come into 2006 with the approach he showcased in the '04 AFL he could still move up, but he's been passed by at least one center fielder in the system already, and could be passed by both Justin Upton and Steve Garrabrants next year if he doesn't improve. He might be a prime candidate for other teams looking to add speed to their system, and rumors have speculated about his name coming up in trade negotiations this offseason.
"You can't really teach plus defense and you definitely can't teach plus plus speed," Rizzo says, "He's going to have to learn to conform his game to his tools, cut down on his strikeouts, but he's really very young in 'baseball age' because he really didn't start playing until we got him."
ETA: He will almost certainly repeat Double-A in 2006, for the third time. That's not a good sign, but if he figures out where the strike zone is, and that he's not going to be a slugger, his fortunes could change in the time it takes him to go from first to second. If he doesn't make the adjustment, he might be looking at an outright release by the middle of the 2007 campaign.
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