Mandatory Credit: Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports
While he’s not in the picture to win a staring spot in the Padres outfield, 25-year-old Rico Noel will have an opportunity to show what he can do this spring training. The speedster earned an invite to big league camp and got off to a nice start in the first Cactus League game of the year, knocking a double, stealing a base and scoring a run.
Noel’s style of play would be an asset to the club in 2014. Noel could provide some excitement to a San Diego outfield that includes a trio of 31 year olds in Will Venable, Seth Smith and Chris Denorfia, in addition to Cameron Maybin, who struggled with injuries all last season.
The Padres have very little power to speak of and must manufacture runs. Noel’s speed is a game changer. He can bunt, take the extra base and is a threat to steal in any situation. While his steal success rate dropped to 73.8% in 2013, Noel did swipe 59 bases in 131 games.
Rest assured, Noel is not simply a one-tool wonder. He is a fantastic defensive player who covers a ton of ground in the outfield and shows a decent arm. After all, he was officially named the organization’s Defensive Player of the year in 2012 and Baseball America considered him the best defensive outfielder in the system for three straight seasons, from 2010-2012.
At 5-foot-9 and only 175 pounds, Noel has never been highly touted as a prospect. While he was drafted in the fifth round in 2010, his game is built on speed and defense rather than power and projectability. Looking at the numbers, he got off to a slow start but some of the reason lies in the adjustments he has had to make. Noel spent a good deal of time as an infielder in college before fully committing to center full in his final season. He was also solely a right-handed hitter. In fact, he did not begin switch-hitting until 2012, his third professional season.
Noel sets the table well enough; leading off an inning, he hit .302/.362/.358 in 2013. He still strikes out too much, but Noel has shown improvement offensively over the years. Two positive signs were his decrease in K%, from 25.5% in 2012 to 20.7% last year and his increase in LD% from 13.4% to 16.3%. He may finally be ready to break out.
I believe that Rico Noel is a poor man’s Billy Hamilton. In fact, Noel would likely have received more attention to this point if not for Hamilton. In nearly any other year, his 90 stolen bases in 2012 would have been big news. Instead, he ranked second in the California League.
The players are similar in a lot of ways. Each has a background as a middle infielder and both have learned to switch-hit as professionals. More so, they are similar because of the pressure they put to opponents’ defenses. Look for Noel to begin 2014 in El Paso. Should he get hot and the Padres need a spark, he could find himself in San Diego around mid-season.