Toolshed: Texas' Thompson ready to go big

With knee issues cleared up, first-rounder taking off for Hickory

Bubba Thompson has hit four home runs and collected 63 total bases over 36 career games in the Minor Leagues. (Tracy Proffitt)

By Sam Dykstra / MiLB.com | May 16, 2018 10:00 AM

It wasn't exactly how Bubba Thompson envisioned his first taste of pro ball.

The Rangers had taken the slugging outfielder out of McGill-Toolen Catholic High School in Mobile, Alabama, with the 26th overall pick in the 2017 Draft on June 12, and four days later they officially signed him for $2.1 million. By June 25, he was playing in the Rookie-level Arizona League, stealing two bases in his pro debut. But it'd be an inconsistent run the rest of the way. Thompson missed the first two weeks of July and rarely played more than two games in a row after that, suffering from what Texas later called tendinitis in both knees. 

After participating in the organization's instructional league camp last fall, Thompson got a platelet-rich plasma (PRP) injection in his knees and was told to take it easy over the months leading up to his first Spring Training.

"It was kind of hard," Thompson said of his 2017 season. "I'd get one game and then I'd be off for a few. It was tough to adjust to pitching like that. But I learned a lot of stuff just by being around, stuff that's helping me now. Now's my time to take it and run with it."

After opening the 2018 campaign in extended spring camp, Texas' No. 6 prospect is fully healthy and has moved to Class A Hickory, where he's already looking like a first-round talent again.

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Take his game on Tuesday. Thompson went 2-for-3 with a double, a walk, an RBI, a run scored and a stolen base in the Crawdads' 4-3 loss to the Rome Braves. It's the type of toolsy performance the Rangers were hoping the 19-year-old would put together consistently last season. Instead, held back by the injuries, he hit .257/.317/.434 with three homers and five steals in 10 attempts over 30 games in the AZL. Without any lingering worries, Thompson has gone 8-for-25 (.320) with a homer, three doubles and two steals over his first six Class A games. He has reached base in all but one of those games, leading off in all six starts. 

"It really comes down to trusting my hands and my eyes," Thompson said. "My coaches really keep telling me to trust those. I just need to find my pitch and find out how they're pitching me and go from there. Like this game [Tuesday], they kept staying away, away, away. I saw that and looked away. I got a few curveballs in counts I'm not used to. In extended, they weren't throwing the curveball in an important count. But here, they'll do it. It's all a learning process."

There's a possibility that Thompson could have been doing this all the way back in April. The outfielder insists he was healthy enough for full-time duty on Minor League Opening Day. After the injection, he went home to Alabama for a little more than two months, with orders to work exclusively on his swing with limited involvement for his still-healing lower half. In February, he arrived early to his first Rangers Spring Training camp in Surprise, Arizona, and started gearing up for a full season. But rather than pushing their most recent first-rounder into the deep end when camp broke, the Rangers held him back to get him acclimated to playing every day, as well as to work on other aspects of his game.

"I know I need help on defense," Thompson said. "That's what we worked on the most, getting my reads down and things like that. At extended, I wasn't worried. It was a process, but it was mostly working on defense, because I was swinging pretty good."

The right-handed slugger has continued that trend early in his Hickory days, providing some idea of what a dangerous hitter a healthy Thompson could be over the course of a full season.

Also a star quarterback at McGill-Toolen, he had accepted a scholarship to play baseball at the University of Alabama, but his Draft stock soared when he started to show in-game power as a senior. After not going deep at all as a junior, he hit .429 with 11 homers and 18 steals in his final season. The speed had always been there -- MLB.com grades it as a 65 on the 20-80 scouting scale -- but some added power filled out his profile. It didn't take long for Thompson to show that he carried the tool with him to the South Atlantic League, as he homered off Columbia right-hander and 2017 fourth-rounder Tony Dibrell in his second game with Hickory. 

While some players may not speak openly about what numbers they'd like to put up in a given year, Thompson is forthcoming about his hopes for this summer.

"I just want to drive the ball," he said. "Maybe something like .270, .280 and up. Around 10-15 home runs. Thirty-five steals. Nine or 10 triples. That'd be a good season. But that's just my goal. I'll work my butt off to get there. But even if I don't, I'm happy if my team is winning. That's what I really want."

The power he's shown so far could just be the start. Listed at 6-foot-2, 180 pounds, Thompson still has room to fill out -- a fact he'll happily acknowledge, given what it could mean for his game.

"I don't think I have my full man strength yet," he said. "I've got the swing down, so that's a start. But the power is going to come. As long as I can drive balls that are in the zone, I think I'll be fine. Power is definitely the goal."

As tooled up as Thompson can be, it's important not to get too far out ahead of things. After all, his game Thursday at Kannapolis will be his first one on the road this season, meaning it'll also be his first game outside of either Hickory's L.P. Frans Stadium or a Minor League complex in Arizona. He'll be tested in new ways the deeper he gets into the Sally League schedule, perhaps most importantly when it comes to the health of his knees. But Thompson has a green light now, and after some initial bumps in the road, that's all he wants.

"Before I got to Arizona, I didn't have a knee issue," he said. "I guess, it might have been the workload. I don't really know. But I just consider it a little setback. That's all. I'm ready to go now."

Sam Dykstra is a reporter for MiLB.com. Follow and interact with him on Twitter, @SamDykstraMiLB. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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