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February 2, 2012

Prospects Will Break Your Heart

What Could Go Wrong in 2012: Kansas City Royals

by Jason Parks

Prospect #1: OF Wil Myers
Background with Player: My eyes; industry sources.
Who: Myers was considered a top-ten prospect before the 2011 season by many national publications. He failed to live up to those lofty expectations in 2011, causing many to forget about the developmental aspects of the process and jump off the bandwagon when his prospect perfume wasn’t as sweet. Ah, people can be so quick to misinterpret failure. Myers has all the tools necessary to become a first-division right fielder, and the statistical setbacks that occurred in the Texas League weren’t the result of one tyrannical culprit; rather, Myers faced a series of developmental hurdles and failed to clear them on his first jump. At the plate, he has the kind of bat speed you can’t teach but can’t wait to preach, starting with fast hands, excellent hip rotation, and a clean path to the ball. He projects to hit for both average and power down the line, with the type of advanced approach that will allow for on-base ability.

What Could Go Wrong in 2012: I can’t speak to the specific developmental plan the Royals have scripted for Myers, but you have to figure the 21-year-old outfielder will reach the Triple-A level at some point in 2012. It’s then that I’d like to see Myers up his intensity at the plate, taking advantage of pitches he can drive before the pitchers take advantage of him. Being patient has it’s advantages, especially against quality pitching: it can put you in favorable hitting situations, it can lead to walks, and it can force a pitcher to throw a lot of pitches while also disrupting the deception of sequence. But it can also make a hitter second-guess opportunities, especially if they come early in the count. Hitters like Myers are the opposite of complex league hitters, those that are taught to read and react, looking to drive fastballs early and often in counts. Myers has good pitch-recognition skills and can track a ball from release to glove better than a lot of major leaguers, but the best hitters also know when to attack; Myers can be a bit passive in that regard. At the higher levels, you either drive or you get driven, and without a little more intensity when the situation calls for it, Myers will remain a backseat hitter, waiting on the perfect opportunity to take the wheel. That type of approach, while applauded in certain situations, can get a young hitter run over.

Prospect #2: OF Bubba Starling
Background with Player: My eyes (workouts only); industry sources.
Who: Viewed by many as the top athlete available in the 2011 draft, Starling was persuaded away from a football scholarship to Nebraska with a $7.5M bonus (spread over three years) and a detailed promise that scouts and front office personnel would fawn over his tools like giddy schoolchildren for years to come. Speaking of tools, you aren’t going to find many players in the game with his combination of physical gifts, the majority of which have a long way to go before they even approach maturity. In the field, Starling uses his plus-plus speed and fast-twitch athleticism to cover vast patches of earth in center field, with a near-elite arm that one scout sourced labeled a “warning track weapon,” meaning it’s strong enough to reach the plate from the deepest parts of the outfield. Starling already shows off light-tower power in batting practice, sending ropes over the fence to all fields and causing many to proclaim that the potential of the tool might eventually approach 80-grade. The hit tool is still underdeveloped but has a lot of room to grow, with plus projections that could make him a legit five-tool monster with several plus-plus attributes from an up-the-middle defensive position with middle-of-the-order potential with the bat. If he reaches his potential, the ceiling is somewhere near upstate New York.

What Could Go Wrong in 2012: There is a slim chance that Starling’s athletic prowess will mask some of the deficiencies in his skill-set, but the likely outcome in 2012 won’t be all that appealing for most fans, at least on a statistical front. The toolsy freak has a wide gap between his present and his future, and it’s going to take several years before the 19-year-old is able to put those physical gifts into a baseball context. I would guess that the Royals want to keep the training wheels on for his first season, focusing on the fundamentals of the game in extended spring training before a short-season assignment. If pushed too aggressively, the immaturity of the hit tool could lead to substantial exploitation at the plate, and taking a BBQ approach with such a gifted player (slow and low) could pay big dividends in the end.

Prospect #3: Cheslor Cuthbert
From my article on prospect prognostications on 12/23/11

Who: Cheslor Cuthbert (Royals)
Background with Player:
 My eyes.
Documented Observations and Prognostications: I remember the first time I saw Cuthbert: He was standing at the hot corner on a hot afternoon in March 2010, his long, flowing hair intertwined with the shadows on the field, smiling as he used the leather attached to his left hand to fan his greatness toward all eyes cast upon him. Okay, I just made that up, but I did enjoy Cuthbert when I first saw him take grounders, even though his hair wasn’t long and flowing, I didn’t see any shadows on the field, and I’m not sure Cuthbert was smiling.

Heading into the 2011 season, Cuthbert so impressed me that I took to Baseball Prospectus and professed my love for his present and future:

He has excellent offensive promise and a good glove. Cuthbert lacks elite-level tools and therefore an elite-level ceiling, but the young third baseman has really turned heads so far in camp, particularly with the bat. At the plate, Cuthbert is balanced, with a quiet load and smooth weight transfer. He hands and hips work very well, and his bat speed is impressive. He is able to keep his hands inside and fire through the ball with good hip rotation and secondary extension. From the look of the swing and the strength of the body, Cuthbert projects to have plus power down the line. With a present line drive stroke (natural loft and ability to barrel) and a comfortable approach, the hit tool should allow the power to live beyond batting practice. Cuthbert lacks straight-line speed, with clocks in the 4.4-4.5 range to first base. Thanks to his stocky lower half, Cuthbert is only going to slow as he continues to physically mature, so the legs won’t assist much in the hit department.

On defense, Cuthbert was better than I was lead to believe, with quick reflexes (despite having fringy speed) and good clean actions, especially the backhand pickup. The hands are soft and he is fundamentally sound, but although his throws were accurate, the arm didn’t wow me with its strength. Depending on how well he acclimates to full-season ball, the 18-year-old native of Big Corn Island (sounds like the DeKalb, IL of Nicaragua) could launch himself onto a higher prospect tier, especially if the present polish he is showing in Arizona finds its way to Kane County.

Cuthbert backed up my beliefs with a very strong full-season campaign. He faded down the stretch, but he more than held his own as an 18-year-old in a pitcher-friendly league. I’ve revised my scouting report on the Nicaraguan third baseman, but only slightly. I’m not sold that he’s likely to develop plus power at the highest level; despite his strength, Cuthbert’s profile is more gap-to-gap, and it’s hard for me to see him knocking 20-plus bombs against elite pitching.

I’m still a very big believer in his defensive profile, even if I’m not in love with his athleticism. His lateral quickness is sufficient, and his instincts put him in good position to make plays. His hands at the plate are still his best physical attribute; he can square inside velocity and control the bat in the zone. With a mature approach at the plate and good pop, Cuthbert looks to be a hitter capable of batting average, 10-15 home runs per season, and a ton of doubles. He’s moving to High-A in 2012, and I fully expect to see him once again hold his own against players two or more years his senior. Cuthbert is a total gamer with tools, and he profiles as a 6 (on the 2-8 scale) player at the highest level.

What Could Go Wrong with My Documented Observations and Prognostications: I’ve already revised my power projection on Cuthbert, feeling more comfortable throwing a 5 on his power than a 6. Since he’s physically mature for his age, I don’t see Cuthbert experiencing the kind of hyper growth that can affect coordination, but I do see his overall athletic profile diminishing somewhat as he ages. Cuthbert isn’t a burner at present—the fastest I’ve ever clocked him to first base is 4.45—and that isn’t what I would classify as quick. The better the level, the better the pitching arsenals Cuthbert will face, and even though his approach and hit tool should allow for success in High-A, the quality of breaking stuff he will face in Double-A should present a considerable challenge. I’ve seen him square major league-quality velocity and stay back on low-level off-speed stuff, but I’ve yet to see him negotiate a pitch sequence that featured an above-average major-league breaking ball. I feel confident that he can handle sharp stuff, but I’ve also seen better hitters than Cuthbert fall victim to the challenge, so it’s certainly possible that plus secondary stuff eats his lunch in 2012. 

Prospect #4: RHP Jake Odorizzi
Background with Player: My eyes.
Who: Athletic right-hander that has made a slow and steady climb up the prospect food chain, reaching the Double-A level last season as a 21-year-old. Armed with a deep arsenal and good command, Odorizzi pitches well off his fastball, a lively low 90s offering that spikes into the mid-90s with some arm-side wiggle. The curve is another plus offering, thrown with good velocity and featuring a tight vertical break with lots of depth. Just when I thought his curve was his best secondary offering, Odorizzi would rip off a few cut/sliders, a mid-upper 80s pitch with serious slice and lots of deception off the fastball. I thought both breaking balls were superior to his changeup, a pitch with some fading action but one that is often too firm.

What Could Go Wrong in 2012: Odorizzi has the stuff and athleticism to log innings at the major league level, but I’ve seen him pitch shorter than his height, often losing good angle to the plate. This is especially detrimental when he can’t locate down in the zone, which provides hitters a flat-plane view of the ball when Odorizzi elevates. Putting the ball on a tee isn’t a good recipe for success against better hitters in more exploitable situations. In 2012 and beyond, Odorizzi will need to focus on maintaining good height and angle on his release and keeping the ball down in the lower quadrants of the zone, helping to establish plane. With his stuff and his feel, adding sharp command and angle to the equation could eventual push the young arm to the middle of a major league rotation. If not, Odorizzi will become more hittable as he climbs, missing fewer bats and giving up more bombs.

Prospect #5: LHP Mike Montgomery
Background with Player: My eyes; industry sources.
Who: Before a disappointing 2011 season, Montgomery was considered one of the best left-handed pitchers in the minors, mixing a plus fastball, a very promising changeup, and an improving curve to go along with the ability to locate his pitches and limit potential damage. His national prospect shine might have lost its luster, but if you view his “disappointing” 2011 campaign as a necessary step in the developmental process, Montgomery is right on schedule to taste the major leagues in 2012 and find a permanent home in the rotation by 2013.

What Could Go Wrong in 2012: Along the same lines of what went wrong in 2011, finding secondary arsenal consistent is paramount to his success. Montgomery has the stuff; the fastball has both velocity and movement, catching too much of the plate at times but looking like a legit plus offerings, especially when the lively pitch is located down in the zone with good arm-side action in the low 90s. The changeup has always been my preferred cup of Montgomery Secondary Tea, a plus potential offering thrown well off the fastball with good arm speed and some arm-side drifting action and weight away from right-handers. The curveball is hit or miss, with tight rotation and depth when he can stay over it, but the pitch can go flat and he can struggle to command it. When all pitches are firing, Montgomery is one of the best lefties in the minors, a pitcher capable of developing into a quality number two/three starter at the highest level. When the secondary arsenal is off track, Montgomery becomes one-dimensional and his overall approach falls apart. This season could bring more of the same until those secondary pitches can take pressure off the fastball and give the 22-year-old southpaw more weapons to choose from.

Jason Parks is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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