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Could Joe Mahoney Be the Future At First Base?

Joe Mahoney hit two home runs last night for Bowie in their 10-5 win over Binghamton.  At 6'7" and 255 pounds, Mahoney is literally the Orioles' biggest prospect, and his .823 OPS with Frederick and his .378/.410/.757 slash line in his first ten games at Bowie have raised a few eyebrows.  Might the gigantic Mahoney finally provide some power at first base for a power-starved Orioles team?

Mahoney grew up in Troy, NY, and went undrafted as a high school player and chose to attend the University of Richmond.  Mahoney started every game of the season at first base for the Spiders, and led the Atlantic 10 conference in doubles and home runs by a freshman with nine of each.  As a sophomore, his batting average improved by nearly .100 to .356 but he hit only five home runs, a disappointing season.  But in his junior year, the power came back in a big way, and Mahoney hit 17 home runs in sixty games.  The Orioles decided on Mahoney with their sixth round pick, 198th overall, in the 2007 draft, the highest draft position of a Richmond product since Tim Stauffer was selected in the first round by the Padres in 2003.

Mahoney signed quickly, getting into 65 games with Aberdeen in 2007, and started off slowly, struggling with wooden bats, hitting only two home runs over his first two months.  But he got hot in August, and hit seven home runs over his final 133 at bats, resulting in a cumulative .768 OPS.  In their 2008 Prospect Handbook, Baseball America named Mahoney as their sleeper pick among Orioles prospects, suggesting that he could offer "well above-average power if he can clean up his swing."

That didn't happen.  Mahoney had a terrible 2008 season with Delmarva, batting.222/.275/.349 over 387 plate appearances with only seven home runs.  That kind of performance from a first baseman just won't do, and Mahoney was largely forgotten.  In 2009, Mahoney repeated the Sally League, and his performance improved, although in unexpected ways.  He hit .278/.331/.408 for the Shorebirds, and did not improve his home run total, launching only seven.  But he showed surprising athleticism for a player of his size, with seven triples and stealing 29 bases in 30 attempts.  This was enough to get him out of the offense-suppressing environment of Delmarva and into the Carolina League.

In 72 games this season in Frederick, Mahoney finally began to show some of the power potential that made him a sixth round pick, hitting .299/.358/.465 in 299 plate appearances, with 18 doubles and nine home runs.  Those numbers are good but not extraordinary, leading Kevin Goldstein to scoff: "23-year-old guy putting up good, not great numbers in High-A? Pass."

Goldstein is probably correct to not be particularly impressed by Mahoney's performance for Frederick, and while his numbers to date with Bowie are a lot more impressive, two weeks isn't anything close to a respectable sample size.  Mahoney still has a lot to prove before he can live up to the sleeper potential that BA tagged him with before his first full pro season.  Mahoney doesn't walk a lot, and his 7.4% walk rate with Frederick was a career best.  He also doesn't make particularly clean contact, and has never hit more than 15% of batted balls for line drives.

But there is still reason to keep an eye on Mahoney.  His size offers premium power, and when he does make solid contact he often crushes the ball - his career OPS on fly balls is 1.019 and on line drives it is 1.673.  He continues to be very athletic for a big man.  And most interestingly for a large power hitter, he's made huge strides over the last two seasons in reducing his strikeout rate - his K% fell to 21.5% last season and was a mere 18.5% this season with Frederick.  Larger hitters are known to struggle with commanding the strike zone and with their swing mechanics, so Mahoney is showing signs common to hitters of his type that he may be mastering these skills.  Mahoney might be a very different hitter than he was in the low minors if he is able to combine a consistent swing and command of the zone with his athleticism and raw power.  The Orioles can't count on Mahoney ever making it to the big leagues.  But he's shown them as well that it is way too soon to write him off.