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Prospect Season Review: J.J. Matijevic, OF

Former Competitive Balance Round B selection J.J. Matijevic had a significant profile change in 2018. Is he a 2019 breakout candidate, or a tweener whose bat can’t quite cut it at his defensive home in left field?

Things got off to a less than auspicious start for J.J. Matijevic in pro baseball. A second baseman for Arizona in his college days, the 6’0” lefty hitter struck out 69 times in 248 PAs in 2017 between the NYPL and SAL and managed a less than exciting 7 home runs and an ISO in the .150s. Best known for his power and approach, Matijevic was unable to show off those plus traits in his pro debut, and entered 2018 with a lot to prove. Fortunately, he ended up doing just that, improving more or less across the board offensively, starting with a scorching start at Quad Cities that saw him hit .354/.446/.708 in 13 games with three homers and three steals.

That hot streak earned him an early promotion to Buies Creek, where he was able to maintain his improvements over an 88 game stint. His contact rate with BC regressed to its 2017 levels, 27.4% in 376 PAs, but his ISO nearly doubled to .248 and he managed a whopping 19 home runs and 10 stolen bases to give himself 22 and 13 respectively in just 432 PAs, though it should be noted that his caught-stealing rate with Buies Creek was a putrid 56%, suggesting that basestealing is unlikely to be a significant part of his game further up the ladder.

His power numbers, on the other hand, have revitalized his prospect status after a lackluster debut. At 6’0”, 206 lbs., it is surprising that Matijevic once played up the middle. At present he shows an athletic, nearly maxed-out frame with solid bat speed. At the plate, his approach stands out. Though he does strike out at a high clip, Matijevic waits for his pitch effectively, which is necessary for a player with as much swing and miss as he has shown thus far. The Astros drafted him after a 2017 campaign with the Arizona Wildcats’ club that saw him double his home run output from 2016, and it appears their plan for his development is to maximize his power.

There would be little concern about Matijevic’s offense cutting it if he still played at second base, but in left or at first the bar is obviously quite a lot higher. While his plus power will certainly play anywhere, his current contact rates probably wouldn’t sustain regular-type performance in the outfield. Though his strikeout rates aren’t off the charts, he’ll face an uphill battle to continue producing value with similar marks further up the ladder. That said, his K and BB rates both moved in the right direction in 2018 vs. 2017, and a similar step forward in the upcoming campaign, especially if it comes with Corpus Christi, would make him a contender for a top-10 spot in the system rankings.

I think the most likely role for Matijevic in the big leagues is either that of a second-division regular or first-bat-off-the-bench type. While his offensive profile would be very exciting for a potential up-the-middle player in the mold of Franklin Barreto, it’s more a workable profile at a corner without further improvement. He’s a bit of an off-the-wall prospect, and if I had to compare him to a current MLB player, it would be Chris Taylor- a player with below average contact rates, impressive power for his size, a bit of positive value on the bases and middling defensive ability at a non-premium position. He projects as the starting left fielder in Corpus Christi in 2019, and is at a critical point in his development. With a significant reduction in strikeouts, we could see him move up lists quickly, but if his contact rates backslide he could find himself on the outskirts of the prospect radar. I see a major league future for Matijevic but it will require a step forward, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he ends up being a late bloomer type who needs extended time in the upper minors to achieve his potential.

Addendum from Astros Future

Matijevic was a high pick for the Astros but he struggled down the stretch following the draft in 2017. He started the season with Quad Cities this year and dominated hitting .354 in 13 games. He was promoted to Buies Creek and had a .859 OPS with 20 2B, 19 HR in 88 games.

He showed some good power with a .248 ISO in Buies Creek but strikeouts were a bit of an issue with a 27.4 K%. Overall he had a good season though with a 147 wRC+ and should build on this in 2019. He is an intriguing prospect with his power from the left side.