Thursday, December 11, 2014

Top Prospects: Five Who Just Missed

   When you follow prospects, you're used to them having a series of ups and downs over the course of several weeks and months.  Sometimes the peaks and valleys even out, and the prospect continues on an upward trajectory of development. For some prospects, it's not that smooth a process.
   For those that don't ride the wave and are stuck in a trough that lasts a whole season, it's tough to include them on a top prospects list, no matter how good their tools may be.  Other prospects are difficult to include because their small sample sizes make projections hard to determine.  Even other prospects make for tough decisions because they were a bit old for the level they were playing at.  And sometimes we just overvalued them, ignoring some flaws that were not necessarily obvious ones, but were there just the same.
  Here are five prospects who just missed the cut for our top 20 prospects list.  We're still high on all of them, but felt there wasn't enough there to justify their inclusion this year.

  We've been waiting a while for DJ Davis to fulfill the expectations the Blue Jays had for him when they made him the 17th pick in the 2012 draft.  One of the youngest players in the draft, and raw because of his Mississippi HS background,  the toolsy Davis  made Baseball America's GCL Top Prospects List at #3 that year, and was their 2nd-ranked Appy League Prospect last year. Here's what BA's Clint Longenecker had to say about him after that season:

      He was one of the league’s most exciting players, offering quick-twitch athleticism, a center-field profile and game-changing speed—though he’s learning how to take full advantage of it.
Davis has quick hands, above-average bat speed and surprised many with his power, as 41 percent of his hits went for extra bases. Although peak power of 10-15 home runs is most likely, the most optimistic evaluators believed Davis has the power to hit 20.

   What a difference a year makes.  Davis had monumental struggles at the plate this year in his first go at full season ball in the Midwest League.  Davis hit .213/.268/.316, and his 167 strikeouts (in 542 PAs) were 2nd in the loop.  The left-handed hitting Davis hit only .161 against lefthanders, and indications are that a lot of his swing and misses were not necessarily at pitches out of the zone (although pitch recognition is also an area of concern, too), indicating some issues with his swing plane.  One of the fastest  players in all of minor league baseball, Davis has yet to learn to take advantage of that tool, getting thrown out 20 times in 39 stolen base attempts.

   One of the youngest players in the league, Davis did play some highlight-reel defence, And he finished the season on a high note, hitting .265/.375/.441 over his last 10 games (there were 16 Ks over that span), which included 3 straight successful steals in a game against Dayton.  We've made the comparison between Davis and Dalton Pompey before, and while maybe it's not a completely fair or accurate one, we think there are many parallels between the two, the latest being that Pompey caught fire in his last few weeks at Lansing last year as well.  Given his draft status, Davis has more ground to catch up on. At 20 years of age, we're not ready to give up on him, but we couldn't justify including him in our Top 20 this year.  He will likely need to at least start the season again in Lansing. Graph

   Alberto Tirado was labelled a "beast" by Jason Parks of Baseball Prospectus after a breakout 2013 season.  BA labelled him the prospect with the most upside on a very deep Bluefield pitching staff that he helped lead to the Appy League playoffs:

  The athletic Tirado is an unrefined pitcher whom scouts can dream on because he has some of the most electric stuff in the lower minors. He has a thin, wiry build, long limbs and a loose arm that is lightning quick, and the ball explodes out his hand. His fastball sat 92-96 mph with late life and touched 98, and he is working a sinker into game action. 

    BA also observed that Tirado had a tendency to overthrow, and could get off line with his delivery, resulting in command issues.  The club opted to skip him over Vancouver this season, and made him one of the youngest players in the Midwest League, where he struggled mightily.  Tirado had a scintillating debut with Lansing in April, striking out 7 in 4 innings.  We watched an early May start Tirado made against Dayton, and other than one inning, he really wasn't in trouble, allowing 1 run and one hit, with three walks and four strikeouts over 5.  He demonstrated reasonably good command on a cool spring Ohio night, and we didn't see the delivery issues that must have plagued him in other outings. It turns out that that outing was likely his high water mark for the season, as his control slipped after that, and he was sent back to Florida for Extended a month later.  His totals for a truncated season at Low A included 40Ks in 39 innings, but along with 40 walks.

  A week after leaving Lansing, Tirado headed northwest to join Vancouver when short season play started.  He continued to struggle with his command, and was shut down for a few weeks in late June, likely for emotional as well as physical reasons.  When he came back, Tirado pitched out of the C's pen, and except for getting roughed up in one outing, was mostly effective.  When he was on, he was sitting between 93-95 and creating a lot of weak contact.

   You can't give up on an arm like Tirado's, and he would be far from the first Dominican prospect to struggle in his first year of full season ball, learning to adjust to a new culture, new language, and new climate.  At the same time, he may have been over-rated off of last year's performance.  At 6' 180 lbs, he doesn't have a typical pitcher's build, and his command issues may limit him in the future to bullpen duties.  Those two red flags, combined with the step backward his development took this year meant that we considered him, but ultimately decided against his inclusion in our Top 20. Graph

 Sometimes, a prospect has shown enough in limited action to warrant closer scrutiny, but the sample size just isn't big enough.  We like what we have seen, but they just haven't played enough at a higher level to make a firm prediction about their ceiling.  Such is the case with Dan Jansen, another player from a non-traditional baseball state (Wisconsin) that the Jays took with their 16th round pick in 2013.
   Jansen has shown effectiveness on both sides of the ball in his first two pro seasons, but a knee injury limited his 2014 season to 36 games with Bluefield.  He was named the Appy League's 16th best prospect this year after positing a .282/.390/.484 line.  At 6'2, 215 lbs, he has a great build for a catcher, and shows excellent bat speed.  Behind the plate, he projects to be at least an average defender.  The advancement of his receiving skills are something of a surprise, given his relatively limited high school playing time. He's a good blocker of balls in the dirt, but his arm is graded as average.  He has drawn raves for his maturity and ability to handle a pitching staff.
   The problem, of course, is that Jansen has played only parts to two years in short season ball.  He was in consideration for a spot in the back end of our Top 20, but we don't have a big enough body of work to go on.  Jansen is still far away.  With the acquisition of free agent catcher Russell Martin, the need to accelerate Jansen isn't pressing, but given what we've read about his leadership abilities, the Blue Jays may likely skip him over Vancouver to Lansing this year, giving him a chance to handle a potentially deep, young pitching staff (with possibly Borucki, Smoral, and Tinoco on board), and to play every day.  We will be following him closely next year.
   Jansen contemplated a college football career.  He talks about his decision to sign with the Blue Jays here:

    Sometimes, a player puts up amazing numbers in a league, but upon closer inspection,  it turns out that the player was several years older than the average player in the league.  And that opens up some suspicion about what the player's true ceiling is.
   Such is the case with Roemon Fields.  Fields was the true good news story of the year in the organization.  Undrafted after graduating from a tiny Kansas NAIA school (after transferring from a Washington State college), Fields was working for the US Postal Service in his hometown of Seattle, when he was asked to join an American entry in an International amateur tournament in Prince George, BC.  He caught the eye there of  Matt Bishoff, who made Fields his first sign as a Toronto scout.
   Fields made his pro debut with Vancouver in 2014, and obliterated the Northwest League's stolen base record with 48 in 57 attempts, and hit .269/.338/.350 for the C's.  BA ranked him as the NWL's 20th prospect.
   At 23, Fields was playing in a league populated mostly be 2014 college grads, but he still was a bit old for that level.  He does hit to all fields, but not for much power, and he needs to make more consistent contact and get on base more frequently to take advantage of his speed.  He is a maker of highlight reel catches in centrefield.  At his age, there isn't much room (if any) left for projection:  he is what he is, and what he's going to be.
   So, we have to take Fields' first pro season with a grain of salt.  In all likelihood, he will move up to Lansing this year (or even Dunedin, if Davis repeats at Lansing), so we will watch with interest to see how he measures up in full season ball - where he still will be one of the oldest players.

    A rough month can do a lot to derail a prospect's progress, not to mention his batting average.  For a young pro ball player, their first prolonged slump can be a devastating thing.  For many, it's their first real experience with failure on an extended basis.  For those that survive, they quickly learn to put failure behind them, and at the same time not to become overly elated with success.  Elite athletes all share that quality of being able to quickly put failure behind them.
   For Shortstop Dawel Lugo, August of 2014 was a month to forget.  Not only did his average drop over 30 points, his presence on our Top 20 list dropped as well.  Coming off a hot July in which he hit .298/.324/.423, Lugo hit a paltry .147/.180/.189 in August, the grind of his first year of full season ball no doubt having taken its toll on his young frame and psyche.
   Lugo still needs to walk more (18 in 492 PAs this year), but he puts the ball in play (only 74 Ks).  It's not a matter of pitch recognition as much as it is a need to become more selective, and work pitchers into deeper counts in order to get a more favourable pitch.  Laying off pitches outside of the strike zone would help, too. There's nothing like a good spray chart to illustrate how many balls Lugo puts in play: graph

   Lugo is not projected to stay at Short, but in the games we observed him in he showed good lateral movement, soft hands, a fairly quick release, and a strong, accurate arm.  His range likely will be an issue as he continues to grow (he's only 20), so a move to a corner infield spot may be in his future. Baseball Prospectus labelled him a potential impact bat after 2013, and BA named him the Appalachian League's #5 prospect.  If his season had ended about July 20th, Lugo would have likely been a solid mid-teens member of our Top 20 list.  He can easily put himself back on our radar with a good start next year.
 There you have it:  5 prospects who have not turned into suspects, but 5 for whom 2015 will be an important season in determining their future.

   By the way, we wrote about how the Blue Jays acquired 1987 AL MVP George Bell in the 1980 edition of the Rule 5 draft, despite the Phillies' best attempts to hide him.

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