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December 14, 2011
Prospects Will Break Your Heart
What Could Go Wrong in 2012: My Own Prognostications (Part 1)
Who: Christian Bethancourt (Braves)
At the plate, the Panamanian catcher has crazy pop, using his raw strength and fast hands to spray balls to all fields. While his batting-practice displays can slick your hair up Teddy-boy style, the translation to game action has been slow. While he’s immature with the total skill package, the promise is overwhelming. I absolutely love Bethancourt, and I think he is going to be a star.
What Could Go Wrong with my Documented Observations and Prognostications: Bethancourt is only 20 years old, and off-field growth is as important as on-field growth. The toolsy catcher has some growing up to do, and that can lead to bumps in the developmental process. (This is true of most underdeveloped talent.) Specific to Bethancourt, my prognostications could fail me because I tend to fall in love with arm strength and power potential, even in the face of obstacles in the skill set that could limit the tools’ utility in game action. Watching Bethancourt’s feet maneuver into position, transfer ball from glove to hand, and coil and release to second are such beautiful sights that I conveniently ignore the fact that his receiving skills could use some work, which is the fundamental foundation of his position.
At the plate, I drool over his easy swing and easy raw power to all fields, but I tend to ignore the approach itself and how it limits him in game action. His swing has some length, and when he fails to properly identify sequence or location, he struggles to adjust, which results in weaker contact and puts him in bad hitting situations. This can doom a young player; the ability to make adjustments against quality competition is paramount to success. I’m on record that Bethancourt has the necessary athleticism, game intelligence, and work ethic to make these adjustments. This is where I can go wrong. In Bethancourt, I see a future star; a well above-average defensive player who can hit in the middle of a major-league lineup at the top of his developmental arc. That’s a huge projection, and there is a wide gap between the present and the future. This could be boom or bust.
Who: Matt Szczur (Cubs)
Convincing Szczur to forgo his NFL plans to focus on baseball might end up being the club’s most important move of the year. Szczur has off-the-charts athleticism, routinely showing 80-grade speed in game action. His hit tool was present during his brief 101 at-bats in ’10, hitting .347 with enough patience and pop to give him multiple dimensions at the plate. He projects to hit for average and power, with the latter holding a plus projection thanks to his raw strength and easy swing. Szczur profiles as an everyday center fielder that will eventually convert his 80 straight-line speed into 70 range, and his arm and glove both look to be solid-average tools. With people already lining up to champion his makeup and work ethic, and a collection of tools that could make him a top-tier prospect in the minors, it’s now clear that the Cubs might have stolen one of the best talents in the 2010 draft.
Reports change as players change, both physically and emotionally, and I do have a revised opinion on Szczur. His game speed hasn’t translated like some expected; he looks more like a plus runner than an elite runner. Despite his athleticism, he isn’t an overly athletic player in the field; he sometimes struggles with route/read adjustments in center. Do I still think he has first-division potential? I’m not sure that’s realistic. But I still believe that Szczur is learning how to utilize his physical tools on the baseball field, and it’s not always going to be pretty. I’m standing strong on the 22-year-old, projecting a major-league future, but not a star.
What Could Go Wrong with my DOP: Within the industry, the Szczur bus seems to be losing passengers daily, mostly because the super-athletic outfielder isn’t as super athletic as some expected, the speed isn’t all that speedy, the hit tool isn’t all that sexy, and the power looks great at 5 o’clock but doesn’t seem to show up when it counts. If these doubts persist, I’m going to be standing alone with Szczur in the cold reality of failure. I just see something in this kid that makes me think he can find a way to adjust and maneuver his way to the majors. He might be a late bloomer, taking longer than expected to reach an acceptable developmental level for the highest level. I’m still on board, but I stand a good chance to end up lonely.
Who: Billy Hamilton (Reds)
In the short-term, Hamilton is going to be successful; he is going to make enough contact to allow his legs to scratch out hits, and his defense is going to improve with repetition. Hamilton’s long-term issue, the one that could end up making him a utility infielder rather than a star, is his lack of strength and a slasher's approach to hitting.
Thanks to developmental improvements in the second half of the season and swiping a remarkable 103 bags in 135 games, Hamilton’s 2011 has to be seen as a success. But the same questions I had prior to the season remain. I have legit doubts about his bat, even though I like his hands and his approach isn’t terrible. Despite the plus athleticism, I question his ability to stick at shortstop; I don’t think his bat would have enough bullets to play second base. I think more advanced competition will be able to exploit the general weakness of his swing, which will Hamilton more of a slapper than a slugger. His speed is insane and would play at the major-league level right now, while his contact ability should help carry him. However, if the package doesn’t play at short (thanks to good but not great leather and good but not great arm), Hamilton will either be a light-hitting second baseman or an electric utility player who might have a few years where his production warrants a starter’s workload.
What Could Go Wrong with my DOP: Hamilton has a very good chance to prove me wrong, and within the industry, he has a long line of people who believe that his bat and glove will develop to major-league standards. Assuming that happens, he’s a first-division talent with a 1980s skill set and an extremely valuable player. Hamilton will move to High-A in 2012, and his offensive production should see a spike. If he takes developmental steps in the field, he will no doubt climb prospect lists and make me look foolish. But in the long run I’m sticking to my doubts about his bat and his ability to stick up the middle. Don’t get me wrong: I love the speed, and there are parts of his approach to hitting that I really like. I just don’t see a first-division shortstop, and I struggle to see a second baseman with enough stick to stick.
Who: Jason Adam (Royals)
He has a combination of stuff, size, and youth. Adam’s fastball can already sit in the low-to-mid-90s and touch 98. The pitch has good late arm-side run, which allows the ball to creep in on the hands of right-handers and run away from lefties. He flashes a plus curveball at 80 mph with excellent depth that generates plenty of swings and misses. He showed a changeup at one time, but it was a little too firm and lacked movement. As a feel pitch, the changeup will take time develop, but based on the arm speed and the repeatable mechanics, the pitch should have promise and grade out to at least average.
Adam was good but not great in 2011, with inconsistent fastball velocity, a curveball that he struggled to stay over, and a changeup that still has a long way to go. His control was good, but his results were far from dominant, and he certainly didn’t become a household name in the prospect world. I’m still a huge fan. I know that arm has velocity, and coming from that plane with that feel for throwing strikes, it is going to be a weapon. I still like the curve and still project it to be a plus pitch down the line, as it plays well off the fastball, and I’ve seen him locate it to either side of the plate against both lefties and righties. The delivery and arm work well, and I can see the changeup becoming a playable pitch. He’s not a top-of-the-rotation starter, but with two pitches with plus potential, a big, durable body, and overall pitchability, I think Adam can become a major-league workhorse number-three starter.
What Could Go Wrong with my DOP: Even though velocity dips are common with high school arms starting in full-season ball, the mechanical approach at the professional level can sometimes permanently hinder the velocity to enhance the control. If the short-burst Adam (that is, the Jason Adam who can throw 92-94 and touch 97 in two-inning stints) can’t hold velocity deeper into games and becomes an 88-91 pitcher, his secondary stuff and command will need to take major steps forward to play against better competition. If his velocity doesn’t return or can’t be held, Adam isn’t going to be the guy I project him to be. But as I said, I think his arm strength is legit and his delivery is sound. I see a pitcher who will have a plus fastball that works in the low 90s, with some arm-side run and the ability to spot the pitch. The curve needs to get sharper, but it has the potential to be a hammer and a plus pitch. The changeup is a feel pitch and it takes time, but if the arm action and slot consistency are there, it has a good environment to mature in. This one could burn me, but I’m not backing away just yet.