July 6, 2011
Beckham and the Comeback Kids
Quick question: At the beginning of the season, who had Tim Beckham pegged to play in this weekend's Futures Game? The answer is nobody, and his selection for the contest is proof of a very important point when it comes to player development: Sometimes, things simply take a while. We can easily get excited about 18-year-old Bryce Harper in Double-A, or 19-year-old Mike Trout tearing up the Texas League, but those are the exceptions. The journey from draft day to the big leagues is, more often than not, one filled with detours and on-the-fly adjustments, even for the top pick in the draft.
Beckham, the first overall pick in 2008, saw his stock plummet with a pair of downright boring seasons at Low- and High-A, leaving some to throw the “bust” label on him far too early. There has been real progress for Beckham in both his scouting reports and statistics this season, despite a late June slump that has brought his numbers at Double-A Montgomery down to a more pedestrian .279/.342/.393. Players usually see a downturn in their first exposure to upper-level pitching, but Beckham needed just 64 games to match his career-high of five home runs, and it's come at no cost to his approach: His strikeout rate has dipped, as has his fielding error rate.
Two scouts who have evaluated Beckham in the past two months each noted significant improvement in Beckham's defense. A potential move from shortstop was forecasted early in his career, but Beckham is not only leaner than he was as a teen—he's cleaned up his actions, and his arm has always been a plus tool. Offensively, the scouts did not see a future star, but combined with his ability to play baseball's toughest position, the offense should be enough to make him an everyday player, and possibly an above-average one at a position where there are arguably less than 30 players who fit that bill.
“I don't think he will be a superstar, and he's not a true No. 1 pick in that respect,” said one National League talent evaluator. “But people forget he's 21 years old, in Double-A, and the Southern League isn't a cake walk. I would take him in a deal.”
Even the first selections of a draft can take time to develop, and any decision made on a prospect at any point in his development has to have a caveat that allows for change. Coming into the season, I would have talked about the likelihood Beckham needed to move off an up-the-middle position while lacking the bat for his new location. Instead, he's in the Futures Game. It's fine to make proclamations on a prospect at any point in his career, but keep an open mind for the changes young talent can make as part of the development process.
Here are five more minor-leaguers who have been judged too quickly.
Phillippe Aumount, RHP, Phillies
Aumont was the biggest prize received from Seattle when the Phillies traded away Cliff Lee in December of 2009, but after looking like he was on the fast track to the majors as a potential late-inning reliever, the Phillies decided to return the former first-round pick to starting, which led to a disastrous 7.43 ERA at Double-A. Barely considered for most Phillies prospect lists entering the year, Aumont is back in the pen, back to missing plenty of bats with a mid-90s sinker and nasty slider, and both pitches are gaining effectiveness from the angles produced by Aumont's 6-foot-7 frame. Promoted to Triple-A last week, Aumont's 54 strikeouts over 38 2/3 innings could get him in the big leagues by September, and he's back in the discussion as a future big-league closer.
Bryce Brentz, OF, Red Sox
It took just 69 games for some to write off Brentz, the 36thoverall pick in 2010 draft. After signing quickly and being assigned to the New York-Penn League, the 22-year-old outfielder hit just .198 with 76 strikeouts, leading many to talk about an all-or-nothing swing and inability to adjust to wood bats. The bigger story was Brentz's eyes; he struggled to adjust to new contact lenses. Now that he's seeing well, Brentz has exploded and become one of the top power prospects in the system, blasting 19 home runs in just 241 at-bats between Low- and High-A as part of a .660 slugging percentage.
Juan Duran, OF, Reds
One of the best talents on the 2008 international market and the recipient of a $2 million bonus as a 16-year-old, Duran's struggles had everything to do with him growing four inches into a towering 6-foot-7 outfielder, as his coordination never caught up with his new length. He entered the year with career averages of .214/.290/.332, but the tools he displayed to earn that big check are starting to come back to him; while he retains a disturbingly high strikeout rate at Low-A Dayton, he's also hitting .263/.352/.478 in 57 games with occasional light-tower power displays. Not bad for a kid who is still just 19.
Devin Mesaraco, C, Reds
Beckham's teammate on the U.S. team at this weekend's Futures Game, Mesoraco was a first-round pick in 2007 who, like Beckham, didn't get going until his third full season. A career .240/.311/.368 hitter entering the 2010 season, Mesoraco transformed himself from a pudgy catcher to one that looks more suited to play linebacker in the NFL. The results have followed; in 188 games since, he's hit .305 with 35 home runs in 188 games. Now slugging .308/.385/.527 for Triple-A Louisville, he's ready now to begin his big-league career as the Reds catcher, but might need a trade for that opportunity to present itself before 2012.
Tim Wheeler, OF, Rockies
Wheeler was the last first-round pick of the 2009 draft, and with average-to-above tools across the board, he was expected to put up big numbers in his Northwest League pro debut. He didn't. That's fine; pro debuts can be filled with plenty of off-the-field adjustments, so surely he'd break out with an assignment to the high-octane California League, right? A full season at Modesto and a .249/.341/.384 line left many to wonder if it would ever come. It certainly has in the Texas League, as Wheeler leads the league in home runs (20) and total bases (190) as part of a .318/.402/.592 line in 80 games for Tulsa. Dexter Fowler's downturn could lead to an opening for Wheeler at some point next year.
A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider .
Kevin Goldstein is an author of Baseball Prospectus.
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