Montgomery Biscuits infielder Cole Figueroa is April's Player of the Month and has been a bright spot for the Biscuits during their 10-15 start to the 2012 season.
Figueroa, whose father, Bien Figueroa, played 11 seasons in the St. Louis Cardinals organization and was a coach in the Baltimore Orioles and San Francisco Giants systems, is currently in the midst of a 27 game on-base streak dating back to last season. The 24-year-old has reached based in all 25 games of the 2012 campaign and currently boasts an on base percentage of .419.
Figueroa has always posted excellent walk numbers during his minor league career. In 2010 with Class A-Advanced Lake Elsinore in the Padres system, he had 81 walks and just 54 strike outs in 578 plate appearances. Last year at Montgomery, he again walked more than he struck out, with 55 free passes and 41 punch-outs.
The ex-Florida Gator has also seen a power spike so far this campaign. To date he has a .512 slugging percentage, which is third on the Montgomery roster to only Henry Wrigley and Kyeong Kang. Figueroa's best slugging percentage of his five year minor league career was as a first-year pro in 2008 while in Low-A ball at .474.
Biscuits hitting coach Ozzie Timmons attributes Figueroa's improved power to an excellent two-strike approach.
"He's not a home run hitter but lately, he's been hitting them and getting extra-base hits too," Timmons told Rays Digest Montgomery beat writer Will Sammon last week. "It's a trust thing especially with two strikes. His mindset just says, ‘I don’t want to strike out.’ It may not look good but the more he can battle, the better it becomes. He's a hard worker. He comes every day and gets his work in. I never have to look for him."
Figueroa revealed to Sammon earlier this month in a Q & A, that the return of a pre-swing toe-tap that he had previously used with the Padres, was in part responsible for his increased power numbers.
"It’s like guys doing a leg-kick, said Figueroa. "It’s something that helps me get ready to see the pitch. In the short time that I’ve been doing it, it’s definitely contributed. I’ve hit a lot more extra-base hits at this point then I did in the first month or two months last year."
With news today that the Rays may be without third baseman Evan Longoria for an extended period time, all eyes are on the Rays system looking for potential short-term replacements.
Figueroa has played mostly as a middle infielder in his career, logging 218 games at second and 98 at short. However, he has played very well on the hot corner for the Biscuits thus far while serving as their primary third baseman, and to date has made only two miscues.
While it is unlikely that Figueroa would make the jump to the majors, he may be in line for a promotion to Triple-A if the needs of the parent club yield a trickle-down effect in the farm system.
His hot start has once again put his name on the map as an intriguing option as a future major league utility infielder and his offensive game reminds one of a current Rays player - Jeff Keppinger.
Although Figueroa swings from the left side, like Keppinger, he has an innate ability to make consistent contact and rarely strikes out.
This ability is obviously something that the Rays were willing to actively seek and pay for on the free agent market, so if Figueroa can continue to develop his power some, while keeping his current approach at the plate, he may one day get the call from the big club. His ability to play multiple positions will certainly help his cause too.
"He'll give you great ABs, he's a career .300 hitter, he's got surprising pop for a little guy, and is solid in the field at 2B, SS, and 3B," said Biscuits broadcaster Joe Davis about Figueroa in an off-season Q & A with Rays Digest. "No tools will pop out at you, but Cole does just about everything well."
All of the cliche's about baseball being a grind apply here and Figueroa must continue to prove that his great start is not just a prolonged hot streak, but a sign of a young player taking the next step forward in his development.
"Last year I started off bad; I think I hit about .230 for the first two months and then I caught fire at the end of the season," Figueroa told Sammon. "I’ve had different situations and different years so it all just varies. But it definitely feels good that I started on the right foot."
John Gregg is Publisher and Senior Editor of Rays Digest. You can follow him on Twitter at @RaysDigest. He can also be reached via e-mail at email@example.com.
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