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January 5, 2012

Prospects Will Break Your Heart

What Could Go Wrong in 2012: Texas Rangers

by Jason Parks

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Prospect #1: SS Jurickson Profar
Background with Player: My eyes
Who: This highly-touted prospect comes from Curacao. Many saw the former Little League World Series star as a pitcher because of his already promising fastball and ability to spin what projected to be a quality breaking ball. Signed as a position player for a bonus of $1.55 million in 2009, Profar exploded in his full-season debut in 2011, showing an advanced feel for all aspects of the game and emerging as a premier prospect in all of baseball.

What Could Go Wrong in 2012: Not that Profar is all polish and no projection, but unlike most teenaged prospects, the gap between his representational present and his abstract future isn’t as wide. As such, Profar isn’t going to continue his physical tool-based ascent at the same accelerated pace. That isn’t to say his status isn’t legit; in fact, it’s quite the opposite. Profar is a rare breed of prospect, one that combines all the physical characteristics of a future first-division major-league starter, with the intense desire to not only reach those heights, but to ultimately eclipse them. This might seem like an odd thing to criticize, but the intense desire to be the best might end up being a hindrance in the short term, even if the #want makes him a better player in the long term.

I’ll explain: I’ve watched Profar since his first Arizona practice, and I’ve never seen a young player take such responsibility for the actions taking place on the field, so much so that his vocal style of leadership and high standards have a tendency to rub some the wrong way. Like his idol in the organization, Elvis Andrus, older players don’t always welcome eager leadership from the youngest player on the team, especially if those players have engaged in leadership roles in the past. Profar doesn’t let his age or lack of professional experience deter his style of play or approach, but for the 2012 season, his determination to succeed as a player and reach the majors at an Elvis-like age could lead to a few setbacks, both on and off the field.

As a prospect who will no doubt advance to High-A (with a chance of playing in Double-A before the summer is over), Profar will be facing more advanced competition and will be forced to adjust accordingly. In the past, Profar has shown an almost preternatural ability to play up to the level of competition he is facing. But failure isn’t something that Profar takes lightly, and with a more advanced challenge comes the possibility of more advanced failure. What could go wrong is that Profar could press, feeling like he is letting himself down and falling behind the timetable he has defined. Nobody loves Profar more than Profar, and the response to any substantial setback (injury, poor performance, professional assignment) will be very telling.

Again, I’m not really worried about his physical gifts; Profar has the skills to play shortstop at the highest level, with a very strong arm, a slick glove, and instincts that suggest his midichlorian count is higher than that of his contemporaries. Profar possesses a mature approach, can barrel the ball from both sides of the plate with contact ability, and has enough pop for at least average power projections. He lacks elite tools, but the total package is very advanced, and as I mentioned, the desire to be the best shortstop in baseball is tattooed on his heart. However, such precocious abilities and standards can create an environment where success isn’t always attainable on his schedule, and in 2012, Profar just might be his own worst enemy, allowing his own #want to impede the natural course of the developmental process.

Prospect #2: LHP Martin Perez
Background with Player: My eyes
Who: Once considered one of the top lefties in the minors, Perez has seen his stock drop a bit in the past few seasons since he has failed to dominate the upper levels of the minors when his skill set suggests domination is possible. Signed out of Venezuela in 2007, Perez is on the cusp of reaching the majors, which should occur at some point in the 2012 season.

What Could Go Wrong in 2012: It takes a strong person to move to a foreign country at the age of 16, work in a professional capacity, and attempt to live up to the hype that your on-field abilities and accomplishments create. Perez is a strong person for making it this far, but some have openly questioned his fortitude when faced with on-field difficulties, and I’m not sure I like the way that type of comment gets perceived and recycled, even if there might be some truth to the allegation (albeit buried in a slightly altered definition).

It’s hard to question a pitcher’s fortitude based on personal observation unless that player is a recidivist in his penchant for visible mental collapse on the mound. Perez struggled at times in 2011; he seemed to lose focus when his parts weren’t in sync or his performance not up to par. But questioning his fortitude is rather harsh, and oftentimes I think it is either misguided or speaks to a larger issue with the person suggesting it in the first place. It’s quite common for 20-year-old pitchers struggling at the Triple-A level to experience periods of immaturity or diminished focus, and that’s assuming you can honestly declare that his lack of focus was actually a lack of focus, and not just a perceived lack of focus by the observer. Again, could there be a lack of focus? Sure. I actually assume there has been some. I’ve had a lack of focus so far in this article. It happens. Has a lack of focus been the reason for his struggles in recent years? I’m not sure.

With that said, 2012 could be a mirror of 2011. As Perez’s arsenal continues to inch toward developmental maturity, the search for consistency could continue to lead to periods of brilliance followed by periods of frustration. Perez has an arsenal that features three offerings with plus projection, and a delivery that has all the necessary characteristics for command projection, all of which give Perez a future high atop a major-league rotation. The problem has often been that the fastball command isn’t present when the curve is showing its worth, or the curve is flat when the changeup looks like a future 65-70 grade pitch, or the entire arsenal flashes its true promise, and then as quickly as it flashes its promise, it fades. Arsenal consistency has been his biggest hurdle, and given his age, those hurdles aren’t easy to eclipse in the short term. In 2012, Perez could very well continue to slide down the prospect queue, with the inability to bring all of his positive attributes to the table for the same meal. One might assume that focus plays a role in this observed inability, and I’m not going to argue that it’s not in the equation. But I think the development of the person is as important as the development of the arsenal, and it’s easy to forget that Perez is still quite young and learning how to handle failure. I say this with almost every prospect, and I’ll continue to say it until I stop writing about prospects: Learning how to negotiate and overcome failure is what separates prospects from players. Right now, Perez is a prospect. If he learns to overcome the adversity he faces both on the field and off of it, he has a bright future as a player.

Prospect #3: 3B Mike Olt
Background with Player: My eyes
Who: A supplemental first-round selection in the 2010 draft, Olt blossomed into a top-100 prospect during his full-season debut, showing both patience and pop at the plate and a slick glove in the field. A broken collarbone stopped his momentum during the summer, but he returned to form by the fall and crushed in the Arizona Fall League.

What Could Go Wrong in 2012: Olt is set to advance to Double-A to start the 2012 season, and if he remains at the hot corner, he has a very good chance of becoming one of the more valuable prospects in the minors. His bat isn’t without question marks, as his load can be a bit noisy; his timing kick can throw off his balance and his hands can dip before going back, making his trigger a tick slow and creating some exploitable lanes for pitchers to explore on the inner half of the zone. Against more advanced pitching, the weaknesses in his swing will become more visible, and that could lead to higher strikeout totals and less overall contact.  If the book gets written on Olt, it could lead to a month or two of less-than-stellar offensive numbers until he makes the secondary adjustment.

In the end, I think Olt makes that adjustment and shows the game power that the pitcher-friendly Carolina league helped to keep (somewhat) in check. His value is as a third baseman, as his shortstop actions, instincts, and arm will make him a 60 defender at the highest level. With a sound approach and legit plus pop, Olt looks like a second-division starter at worst, with a higher ceiling if the hit tool can grade out above average.

Prospect #4: RHP Neil Ramirez
Background with Player: My eyes
Who: A former supplemental first-round selection in the 2007 draft, Ramirez had washed away into the distance of the prospect landscape, but re-emerged after a strong second half in 2010 that gave way to an explosion in 2011. Armed with a lively plus fastball, a plus curve that at times can look like a 70-grade pitch, and a changeup that went from yuck! to yep! in the span of 18 months, Ramirez rode his brilliant spring training all the way to Triple-A, where he missed 86 bats in only 74 innings.

What Could Go Wrong in 2012: Ramirez isn’t known for having the sharpest command, and when he fails to set up his fastball early, his wipeout curve has nothing to wipe out. As a prospect I’ve labeled as the hardest worker in the Rangers’ system, Ramirez will no doubt push himself to the brink of his physical abilities, but an above-average command profile just might not be there for the 22-year-old righty. The delivery itself isn’t bad; his arm action is clean and quick, and he shows the ability to stay in slot, which helps the secondary arsenal play off the fastball. But he can lose the release point on the fastball, and at times fail to finish the delivery, which either keeps him loose in the zone or out of it completely.

Ramirez is at his best when he spots his fastball down in the zone, where the combination of velocity and life make it difficult to square. The curve is a very good pitch when he can stop on top of it, and the changeup has become a weapon against lefties looking fastball, with good fading action to the arm side. Ramirez could struggle if the command doesn’t improve or the changeup regresses. There are still some that see Ramirez as a two-pitch reliever, one capable of near-elite fastball velocity and a hammer curve that could make grown men cry. But I’m a believer in Ramirez the starter, and with a little more refinement, the former first-round pick has a chance to develop into a quality number-three at the major-league level.

Prospect #5: 1B Ronald Guzman
Background with Player: My eyes
Who: The lanky Dominican that was viewed by many industry sources as the top overall bat in the 2011 Latin American market signed for a healthy $3.5 million bonus after the July 2 window opened. At this point, the 17-year-old is all projection, and outside of scouts and front-office personnel who saw the teenager on the showcase circuit and/or during the Instructional League, his game is still a mystery to much of the prospect world.

 What Could Go Wrong in 2012: Actually, a more appropriate question would be: What could go right in 2012? As a 17-year-old who will start his career at the team complex, Guzman can disappoint in a number of ways, all of which can be rightfully contextualized and excused based on his level of experience and age. But I was so impressed when I saw Guzman that I think he just might push those expectations a bit higher, and become a legit prospect without suffering through the often-disfiguring growing pains that can accompany teenaged development. That’s not to say that I don’t think he will struggle; Guzman is 17 years old and very raw, and he is going to struggle accordingly. But I think he also has a chance to shine, with a smooth swing capable of moonshots and a path to the ball that suggests the hit tool has a future as well. This kid is going to need several years to grow into his 6-foot-5 frame, and I’m not going to pretend he’s the most athletic teenager I’ve ever seen on a field. This ranking might be a tad premature, but when you hear the sound of the ball off the bat, when you see the trigger of the swing and the path it takes to contact, and when you allow yourself to dream just for a moment, it’s not hard to envision Guzman as a potential superstar. But I know… this specific series is about what could go wrong, not the ease in which the dream of a 17-year-old prospect can be sold. Okay. This is what could go wrong for Ronald Guzman in 2012: Absolutely everything you could possibly imagine.   

Jason Parks is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Jason's other articles. You can contact Jason by clicking here

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