March 7, 2012
Ten Prospects on the Bubble, Part Two
Christian Friedrich, LHP, Colorado Rockies (24)
Friedrich began 2009 back in the Sally League, but a 2.18 ERA and 4.40 strikeout-to-walk ratio through eight starts earned him a promotion to advanced Class-A, where he was named the top pitching prospect in the California League by Baseball America after going 3-2 with a 2.54 ERA and striking out 11.3 batters per nine innings.
Various injuries limited Friedrich to 18 starts at Double-A the following year, and a couple of bad starts marred his overall stat line (his 5.05 ERA would have been 3.76 had it not been for two starts in which he allowed 16 earned runs in eight-plus innings). A return to Tulsa last year didn’t turn out any better, though Friedrich was healthy enough to take the ball 25 times.
Friedrich is the latest in a string of collegiate arms Colorado has drafted early but been unable to develop. Since 2000, the Rockies have taken 24 college pitchers in the top five rounds, but only six have made the big leagues. Left-hander Jeff Francis reached the majors in two years and gave the Rockies 130 starts and 11.2 WARP before a torn labrum cost him all of 2009.
The Rockies’ biggest miss came in 2006, when they opted for Stanford right-hander Greg Reynolds with the second-overall pick, rather than Long Beach third baseman Evan Longoria. Reynolds was traded to Texas for Chad Tracy in January after going a 5-8 with a 7.47 ERA and 1.11 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 94 innings with the Rockies.
After making 43 starts in Double-A over the last two seasons, Friedrich appears likely to move up to Triple-A Colorado Springs this year. Though he has the velocity to survive at altitude, Friedrich has shown little since returning from surgery to suggest he’s capable of succeeding at sea level, much less in the thin air of Colorado Springs or Denver.
Brad Holt, RHP, New York Mets (25)
If the pool is limited to pitchers selected among the top 100 picks—presumably those with the most aptitude or best stuff—things improve slightly:
A supplemental first-round pick of the Mets in 2008 out of UNC Wilmington, Holt became a member of both groups when he struck out 96 batters in 72 New York-Penn League innings that summer. The knocks on Holt entering the draft were his shaky command and lack of reliable secondary offerings. The command issues were on full display in his debut when he tied for the league lead with 33 walks and placed fifth among starting pitchers with 4.1 walks per nine innings.
The two most successful pitchers from the subset of top 100 picks above, Langston and Harnisch, posted two of the three worst strikeout-to-walk ratios in the group, both barely coming in under 2.50. Holt, by comparison, outperformed both at 2.91.
Since that summer in Brooklyn, however, Holt’s strikeout rate has dropped to under one per inning while his walk rate has risen precipitously, leading to an unsightly 1.62 strikeout-to-walk in 197 innings.
After he had walked more batters than he had struck out through 13 starts, the Mets moved Holt to the Double-A Binghamton bullpen last June, where his command improved considerably and his strikeout rate rebounded.
Jio Mier, SS, Houston Astros (21)
Since being named the top prospect in the Appalachian League by Baseball America in 2009, Mier has struggled to establish himself at the plate, suffering through prolonged slumps that cause his batting average to fluctuate wildly. He got off to a slow start in 2010, carrying a sub-.200 batting average through mid-June, but recovered somewhat with an 18-for-51 streak that pushed his average up to .229. A few weeks later, however, it had fallen back to .214. A strong August, in which Mier hit .304, brought his average up to .241—its highest point since the second week of the season—but a frigid September (2-for-19) stopped Mier’s end-of-season momentum in its tracks.
Mier begain last year back in the Sally League before receiving a second-half promotion to advanced Class-A Lancaster. With two weeks left in the regular season, Mier was hitting .195/.308/.247, but another strong finish bumped his season line up to .233/.335/.306.
After handling pitchers of either hand somewhat evenly in his first two seasons, Mier had much more trouble against left-handers in 2011.
He’ll return to the Cal League this summer, and a reversal of the split he displayed in 2011 would go a long way toward projecting him as a potential major-league regular. As it stands, however, Mier has clearly fallen behind Jonathan Villar, acquired from Philadelphia in 2010, who is a year younger but also a level ahead of him in the organization.
Throughout his career, Mier has shown an ability to get on base, even as his batting average has endured its ups and downs. This suggests that he has some understanding of the difference between a ball and a strike. Because of that and the park he’ll call home, it shouldn’t come as a surprise if Mier re-establishes himself in 2012.
Kyle Skipworth, C, Miami Marlins (22)
High School Catchers Drafted/Signed Among Top 10 Picks
Of the 25 prep catchers taken among the first 10 picks, 15 (60 percent) have reached the major leagues, but only 10 (40 percent) have earned more than 342 plate appearances.
Based solely on history, it would appear that young Skipworth has a reasonable chance to have some kind of major-league career. But what about his actual performance? This is where things become discouraging.
Skipworth’s full-season debut was an unmitigated disaster. His .208 batting average ranked among the South Atlantic League’s eight worst, and he collected just three hits in 45 plate appearances against left-handed pitchers (oddly, two of his three hits were home runs).
The Marlins wisely returned Skipworth to Greensboro in 2010, and his numbers improved across the board: his 17 home runs placed eighth in the league and Skipworth raised his OPS by 126 points to a respectable 738.
Even though he had repeated a level the previous year, Skipworth was still expected to be among the younger everyday players in the Florida State League (where the average player age is 23) as a 21-year-old in 2011.
Instead, he drew an assignment to Double-A Jacksonville, where he was one of only four players under the age of 22 to make 400 plate appearances. Predictably, he struggled. Among Southern Leaguers to meet or exceed the 400 plate appearance threshold, Skipworth’s .207 batting average and .272 on-base percentage both ranked dead last. His 603 OPS placed second-to-last, better than only Greg Paiml’s 570 showing, and boosted by the league’s sixth-worst slugging average (.331).
After it appeared Skipworth had made progress while repeating the South Atlantic League in 2010, why did the Marlins ask him to skip a level?
There are a few examples of players who have spent a full season repeating Class A and then skipped over advanced Class A the following year as 21-year olds.
Seven of the 16 players above registered an OPS in Double-A that was equal to or lower than their OPS in their first year of Class A. Of those, only two accrued positive WARP in the major leagues. It is worth noting, however, that none of those seven players started off as poorly as Skipworth, whose 611 OPS in year one is the second-lowest in the study.
In 2011, Skipworth became the ninth Double-A catcher since 1981 to receive at least 400 plate appearances and post a sub-700 OPS while also striking out at least three times as often as he walked.
Skinner and Santos both had exactly one major-league season in which they earned at least 300 plate appearances, and Santos leads the bunch with 0.7 career WARP. Six more received cups of coffee, but only former Cincinnati first-rounder Sardinha has seen action in three or more seasons.
While Skipworth was stalling at Double-A, Jacob Realmuto was thriving in his debut at Class-A Greensboro. The Marlins’ third-round pick in 2010, Realmuto quickly embraced catching after being drafted as a shortstop out of high school, earning praise for his coachability and handling of pitchers. Realmuto has clearly surpassed Skipworth as Miami’s catcher of the future but is still at least three years away from the big leagues. Skipworth is likely to return to the Southern League to begin the year, with Realmuto moving up to advanced Class-A Jupiter.
Donavan Tate, OF, San Diego Padres (21)
Tate appeared in just 25 games in 2010, beginning the year in extended spring training and fighting a stomach virus throughout his stay in the Arizona League that summer. He broke camp last spring with the Padres’ Midwest League affiliate in Fort Myers but lasted less than a week before landing on the disabled list with a hyperextended knee. A roster crunch prompted the Padres to send Tate to the short-season Northwest League in mid-June, but shortly after his assignment it was revealed that he had drawn a 50-game suspension for a second violation of baseball’s substance of abuse policy.
Coming out of high school, Tate’s hit tool was considered his rawest. After hitting just .222 in his 2010 debut, Tate posted a combined .283/.410/.411 line between injuries and suspensions last year.
Since 1980, there have been 61 high school outfielders drafted and signed out of the first round (including supplemental picks). Two years later, all but a handful had played at least half a season above short-season leagues.
High School Outfielders Drafted in the First Round with <= 200 Full Season PA After Two Seasons (Since 1980)
The track record for high school outfielders getting off to slow starts is discouraging but not hopeless. After a high-profile detour, Hamilton has righted his ship and established himself as one of the American League’s most dangerous hitters. A post-high school Mormon mission delayed the start of Christensen’s career by two years, while Clark lost a full year to injury. Excepting the 2009 draftees, 73 percent of the slow starters above failed to reach the major leagues, with only Stratton establishing himself as high as Triple-A.
Should Tate suffer more setbacks this year, his odds of reaching the big leagues will all but disappear. Only Tony Clark reached the majors after accumulating fewer than 500 full-season plate appearances in the first three years of his career.
High School Outfielders Drafted in the First Round with <= 500 Full Season PA After Three Seasons (Since 1980)