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March 5, 2012

Ten Prospects on the Bubble, Part One

American League

by Bradley Ankrom

Following the development of baseball prospects can be a heart-wrenching addiction. The can’t-miss wunderkinds miss, the overlooked organizational soldiers earn major-league roles out of nowhere, and players you’ve grown fond of slowly fade out of the top 10s, top 20s, and top 100s as the years pass.

The five players highlighted below were all, at one time or another, considered potential major-league stars. Ineffectiveness, failure to make adjustments, and injuries have contributed to their collective fall from grace, and all five now face a make-or-break summer that will either re-establish them as prospects or push them into non-prospect territory.

Lars Anderson, 1B, Boston Red Sox (24)
After reaching Double-A as a 20-year-old, Anderson entered 2009 as arguably the top first base prospect in the game. Advanced plate discipline had led to a .404 career on-base percentage, and loads of doubles made it easy to envision him producing plus power as his approach matured. He returned to Double-A to begin the year, but early-season back trouble and a second-half collapse resulted in a disappointing .233/.328/.345 line. Anderson rebounded the following year and earned his first big-league call-up but has spent the majority of the past two seasons posting solid-if-unspectacular numbers (.263/.356/.424 in 1039 PA) at Triple-A Pawtucket.

Much of Anderson’s struggles in the upper minors can be attributed to his vulnerability against left-handers, which has led some to believe his future is as the righty-punishing half of a platoon. Anderson quieted those critics by improving his OPS against southpaws from 560 to 740 in 2011.

Anderson was usurped as Boston’s first baseman of the future by Anthony Rizzo before Rizzo was dealt to San Diego as part of the package for first baseman of the present and future, Adrian Gonzalez. With David Ortiz annually proving he still has something left in the tank, it appears Anderson’s best shot at a major-league role will come with another organization. He was tentatively dealt to Oakland for Rich Harden at last summer’s trade deadline, but Harden’s failed physical put the kibosh on plans for Anderson to join Billy Beane’s island of misfit first basemen.

Engel Beltre, OF, Texas Rangers (22)
Kason Gabbard and David Murphy were the familiar names acquired by Texas when they shipped Eric Gagne to Boston in 2007, but the real centerpiece of the Rangers’ return was the 17-year-old Beltre, the prototypical five-tool lottery ticket. Texas challenged Beltre with a full-season assignment in 2008, and he held his own (.283/.308/.403) as the youngest everyday player in the Midwest League.

Things fell apart the following year, when Beltre’s lack of plate discipline made him an easy target for pitchers in the California League. In a league known for inflating offensive statistics, Beltre posted an offensive 598 OPS while striking out in nearly 20 percent of his plate appearances. He showed significant improvement in his return to the Cal League in 2010, batting .331/.376/.460 and cutting his strikeouts by 40 percent, earning him a second-half promotion to Double-A Frisco.

Beltre’s improved discipline took a step backward last year, leading to a 21 percent strikeout rate at Frisco, his worst showing since the Rangers plucked him out of the Gulf Coast League four years earlier. However, the 28 walks Beltre drew represented a career high, a glimmer of progress in an otherwise discouraging .231/.285/.300 season.

Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of Beltre’s non-development is that his huge raw power has yet to manifest itself outside of batting practice. His unwillingness to work counts in his favor, forcing the pitcher to throw something he can drive, has led to a .371 career slugging average. After collecting 43 extra-base hits as an 18-year-old in the Midwest League, he’s managed only 24, 29, and 22, respectively, in the three seasons since. The strikeout totals are tolerable, even respectable, if they are accompanied by the kind of power Beltre has the potential to deliver. However, to this point, that potential has largely gone unrealized.

Though he has spent the last season and a half in Double-A, Beltre is likely to return for a third tour of the Texas League to begin 2012. The center field picture ahead of him is crowded with Leonys Martin, Julio Borbon, and Craig Gentry queued and waiting for Josh Hamilton’s next injury. Beltre must make progress in his pitch selection to avoid being written off as the latest in a long line of toolsy players who couldn’t learn to turn those tools into game skills.

Aaron Hicks, OF, Minnesota Twins (22)
If you took Hicks and threw him into a blender with Engel Beltre, the liquified result would be one of the most impressive prospects in the game. As aggressive as Beltre is, Hicks is situated equally far along the opposite end of the approach spectrum. While Beltre can’t sit still long enough to wait for a pitch to drive, Hicks’ chief weakness is that he too often watches as driveable pitches pass him by.

The 14th pick of the 2008 draft, Hicks impressed most clubs in high school as a hard-throwing right-handed pitcher. The Twins opted to let him play every day as a center fielder and were rewarded when Baseball America named him the Gulf Coast League’s top prospect that summer, where Hicks drew praise from manager Jake Mauer for “starting to realize which pitches to drive and which to lay off.”

Over the next three seasons, all spent at Class-A, Hicks made little progress in identifying the right pitches at which to take cuts. Once considered one of his greatest attributes, Hicks’ plate discipline became his greatest obstacle when it was rebranded as passivity.

Hicks possesses one of the strongest arms in the minors, and there has been speculation that if his bat doesn’t come around, Minnesota could eventually try him on the mound, where he was clocked as high as 97 miles per hour as an amateur.  Hicks is still only 22, so it’s unlikely that the Twins are ready to give up on an up-the-middle player with his upside.

If history is any indication, however, Hicks’ chances at having things click are slim. Since 1983, 18 players have collected 1,500 plate appearances while maintaining a 15 percent walk rate and a strikeout-to-walk ratio of at least 1.30 prior to reaching Double-A. Of those, only four have reached the big leagues. Lee Tinsley (-0.1 career WARP) is the only one to sustain a career of any significance.

Major-League Statistics for Players with at Least 1,500 PA, 15% walk rate, and 1.30 SO/BB in Class A

Player

Years

G

PA

WARP

Kerwin Moore

1

22

18

-0.2

Ben Shelton

1

15

27

0.1

Lee Tinsley

5

361

979

-0.1

Ty Vanburkleo

2

14

44

-0.2

What separated those four from the rest? Or, in other words, what adjustments in Hicks should evaluators and fans be looking for?

 

Class A

Class AA/AAA

Change

Player

BB%

SLG

BB%

SLG

BB%

SLG

Aaron Hicks

15.4%

.407

--

--

--

--

Ben Shelton

17.3%

.385

15.8%

.384

-1.5%

-.001

Brian Deak

18.5%

.459

17.3%

.418

-1.2%

-.041

Danny Payne

17.9%

.372

5.9%

.312

-12.0%

-.060

Daryl Clark

15.1%

.501

15.8%

.316

+0.7%

-.185

Don Denbow

17.1%

.446

15.9%

.333

-1.2%

-.113

Jay Schroeder

15.5%

.343

DNP

DNP

--

--

Jim Orsag

15.5%

.436

13.3%

.351

-2.2%

-.085

Jon Topolski

15.2%

.420

13.6%

.328

-1.6%

-.092

Kerwin Moore

16.4%

.310

16.8%

.328

+0.4%

+.018

Lamont Matthews

16.7%

.486

17.0%

.317

+0.3%

-.169

Lee Tinsley

16.2%

.328

10.9%

.385

-5.3%

+.057

Mauricio Ching

15.6%

.438

15.0%

.348

-0.6%

-.090

Omar Rosario

15.8%

.351

9.5%

.337

-6.3%

-.014

Sloan Smith

15.2%

.350

13.2%

.317

-2.0%

-.033

Stanton Cameron

15.8%

.470

12.9%

.464

-2.9%

-.006

Ty Vanburkleo

15.2%

.441

13.5%

.493

-1.7%

+.052

Vashon Walker

15.2%

.405

DNP

DNP

--

--

All four of the players who reached the majors saw their slugging averages improve or stay roughly the same when they reached the upper minors. In all but one case (Kerwin Moore), this power boost was accompanied by a drop in the rate at which the player reached base via the walk. Not all players who decreased their walk percentage reached the major leagues. However, three-fourths of the players who did make the Show maintained or improved their slugging average by drawing fewer walks.

Jared Mitchell, OF, Chicago White Sox (23)
After splitting time between baseball and football at Louisiana State, Mitchell came into the 2009 draft as the rare toolsy collegian, lacking polish but possessing more upside than the typical four-year player. Despite his divided attention, Mitchell displayed an ability to work the count, though it often resulted in his falling behind and striking out.

The White Sox grabbed Mitchell with the 23rd pick, signed him quickly, and dispatched him to Class-A Kannapolis, where he spent the season’s final month earning rave reviews for his athleticism, approach, and playable tools while hitting .296/.417/.435. His full-season debut was delayed, however, when Mitchell tore a tendon in his left ankle, causing him to miss the entire 2010 campaign.

He returned to the field last year but struggled to make consistent contact in the Class-A Carolina League, pacing the minors in strikeouts with 183 and registering a .222/.304/.377 batting line at Winston-Salem.

For a player whose improvement was thought to be tied to gaining repetitions against quality pitching, Mitchell showed little progress as his first full season wore on. He hit .298 in 121 July plate appearances, but just .201 in more than 400 non-July trips to the plate. The ankle injury may have limited his ability to wreak havoc when he did reach base, though he was successful in 14 of his 20 stolen base attempts.

History is littered with players who have struck out 180 or more times in Class A, but few have managed to couple their whiffs with a respectable walk rate. Ten players since 1981 have amassed 180 or more strikeouts while also drawing walks in nine percent or more of their plate appearances.

Player

Age

Year

SO

BB%

Jared Mitchell

22

2011

183

9.6%

Kyle Russell

23

2009

180

12.8%

Danny Trumble

22

2002

185

9.5%

Jorge Soto

24

2002

195

12.1%

Jeremy Owens

23

2000

183

9.9%

Robert Stratton

22

2000

180

13.4%

Al Shirley

20

1994

208

10.0%

Jermaine Swinton

19

1992

182

10.8%

^Glenallen Hill

20

1985

211

10.8%

^Brian Greer

22

1981

183

18.5%

^ reached major leagues

Greer made it to the majors for all of four plate appearances, but Hill played his way to a 13-year big-league career with seven organizations. The player whose combination of statistics and skills is most similar to Mitchell’s, however, is Jeremy Owens, another tools-laden college player taken in the eighth round of the 1998 draft by San Diego. He reached Triple-A with the Padres before spending two years apiece with Boston and Tampa Bay and finally finding a home in the Atlantic League, where he’s spent the last three years (still unable to bring his batting average above .240).

Carlos Triunfel, SS, Seattle Mariners (22)
Fewer things are more exciting than seeing a player hold his own or even dominate in a league where his competitors are significantly older and more experienced. Often, that success serves as a precursor to major-league stardom, such as when Cal Ripken Jr. posted a .303/.351/.417 line as an 18-year-old in the Florida State League in 1979, or when Gary Sheffield led the California League in RBI and finished 15th with an 836 OPS in 1987, a year after he was drafted out of a Tampa high school.

In other cases, things go wrong: skills fail to develop, body types change, or injuries disrupt the player’s development. For every Ripken and Sheffield there are several Marc Newfields, Karim Garcias, and Alex Fernandezes.

Players Who Have Accumulated >= 400 PA in Advanced Class A at Age 18 Or Younger

Group

Count

Notables

>= 50 Career WARP

5

Gary Sheffield, Cal Ripken Jr., Tim Raines, Ivan Rodriguez, Roberto Alomar

10-49 Career WARP

11

Adrian Beltre, Edgar Renteria, Gregg Jefferies, Derrek Lee, Danny Tartabull

0-9 Career WARP

16

Jose Lopez, Elvis Andrus, Jose Oquendo, Desi Relaford, Ruben Tejada

< 0 Career WARP

10

Karim Garcia, Marc Newfield, Luis Rivas, Gil Reyes, Drungo Hazewood

DNP Major Leagues

2

Alex Fernandez, Bernie Torres

The Mariners sent Carlos Triunfel, recipient of a $1.3 million bonus out of the Dominican Republic, to the Midwest League as a 17-year old, where he surprised by hitting .308 (albeit an empty .308) as the league’s youngest player by three years. A broken right thumb sidelined him in late May, but upon healing he was further pushed by a second-half promotion to the California League, where he once again held his own by hitting .288/.333/.356 in 213 plate appearances.

As impressive as his debut was, scouts and analysts noted that, even as a 17-year-old, Triunfel had a body that looked likely to push him to a corner. In his ranking of Mariners prospects after the 2007 season, in which Triunfel placed third, Kevin Goldstein noted that Triunfel was “already a little thick in the lower half, and [would] likely have to slide over to third or second base in the next few years.”

Triunfel got off to a slow start in his return to the Cal League in 2008, carrying a .195 batting average into May before eight multi-hit games in a three-week span lifted his average to .304. He slumped again in June before turning a corner in the second half, hitting .335/.382/.491 after the break.

A broken leg cost Triunfel all but 11 games in 2009, and the majority of the following two years were spent spinning his wheels at Double-A (.265/.290/.355) before an August promotion gave him his first taste of Triple-A last year.

The most exciting part of Triunfel’s package has always been his age relative to his competition, and that will continue to hold true as he gains experience in Triple-A and possibly the majors over the next couple of years. Prior to his leg injury, he also had a knack for making consistent contact, a skill that eluded him in his 2010 return. He improved across the board in his second crack at Double-A—increasing his OPS more than 100 points from 618 to 732—but still fell out of favor as players like Dustin Ackley, Kyle Seager, and Nick Franklin passed him by.

If the on-base and slugging gains Triunfel made last summer are real, he stands a reasonable chance of re-establishing himself with a solid season in the Pacific Coast League this year. He may not spend the entire summer at shortstop, however, if Seattle decides it prefers Franklin there long term, forcing Triunfel to either second or third base.

With Ackley already established at the keystone in Seattle, Triunfel’s clearest path to major-league playing time is at the hot corner, where his stiffest competition could come from Seager, a product of the Jack Zduriencik administration (unlike Triunfel, who was signed while Bill Bavasi was at the helm). Zduriencik has no incentive to promote Triunfel gratuitously, so he must continue to hit his way to the major leagues.

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