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April 25, 2012

Future Shock

Five Slow Starts

by Kevin Goldstein

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We’re three weeks into the minor league season, and so far there are a few prospects that entered the year with high expectations, yet are falling well below them. It's easy to just say small sample size, and chances are that plays a huge role, but the question remains: are there reasons to be concerned? Here's a look at a quintet of players having slow starts, and why you should be concerned. Or not.

Dellin Betances, RHP, Yankees
Entering 2012: One of the top pitching prospects in the Yankee system, Betances' career took off after Tommy John surgery, with him making his big league debut in 2011 and beginning the 2012 season with a career rate of 10.2 strikeouts per nine innings.
The Situation: Control has never been Bentances' strong suit, and after a strong debut, he's reeled off three straight bad starts, giving him an 8.83 ERA in 17.1 innings with more walks (17) than strikeouts. The International League is also hitting .296 against him after a .208 mark last year. Because of his struggles to keep the ball in the strike zone, he's averaging nearly 21 pitches per inning.
Why It's Not A Big Deal: Betances remains a physical beast at six-foot-eight and 260 pounds, and he still has two plus power pitches in a low-to-mid-90s fastball and power curve, while his changeup projects as at least average.
Why You Should Be Concerned: While Betances had impressive numbers this spring, scouts noticed him struggling to finish a delivery that was already anything but athletic. Because of his injury history and inefficiency, many see a move to the bullpen in his future, but even then, a high walk rate would keep him out of late-inning situations.

Gary Brown, OF, Giants
Entering 2012:
The 24th-overall selection in the 2011 draft, Brown had an incredible full-season debut in 2011, batting .336/.407/.519 for High-A San Jose with 14 home runs and 53 stolen bases. Many were surprised that he did not move up to Double-A during the season, and with him starting there this year, the general assumption was that he could be pushing for a big league job by next spring.
The Situation: Thanks to a two-hit game on Tuesday, Brown is finally comfortably over the Mendoza line, batting a paltry .219/.333/.266 in 17 games.
Why You Should Be Concerned: Prospect history is littered with the names of those who put up huge numbers in the Cal League, only to never come close to matching them again.
Why It's Not A Big Deal: Brown is a bit of a streaky hitter, and despite those impressive 2011 totals, he hit just .196 during a 25-game stretch in June, and this could just be his June. His top-of-the-scale speed should help him leg out some singles eventually, and there has been no atrophy in his walk and strikeout rates.

Travis D'Arnaud, C, Blue Jays
Entering 2012: With Jesus Montero beginning the year in the big leagues, many saw D'Arnaud as the top catching prospect in the minors. Acquired from Philadelphia in the Roy Halladay deal, D'Arnaud's athleticism always offered plenty of promise, and it looked like it was paying off after he won Eastern League MVP honors with a .311/.371/.542 year at Double-A New Hampshire.
The Situation: Playing at Triple-A Las Vegas—one of the best places to hit in all of baseball—D'Arnaud has managed just one home run in 15 games, and needed a five-game hitting streak to get his averages to .222/.306/.333.
Why You Should Be Concerned: D'Arnaud's 2011 season created tremendous hype, but there are scouts out there who, while impressed, saw him as playing above his head, projecting him to be more of a good future everyday catcher than a future All-Star. Others saw him as a mistake hitter, and while the veteran arms that fill up Triple-A often lack stuff, they do make far fewer mistakes than the young guns at Double-A.
Why It's Not A Big Deal: There are good signs in D'Arnaud's line if one looks hard enough, as he's walking more than ever to go with an extremely low BABIP that suggests that some of this might just be bad luck. He had off-season surgery to repair torn ligaments in his thumb, and might still be feeling the effects in his swing mechanics.

Robbie Grossman, OF, Pirates
Entering 2012: Grossman became a statistical darling in 2011 when he hit .294/.418/.451 in 134 games at High-A Bradenton, all while leading the minor leagues with 104 walks.  He followed that up with a big showing in the Arizona Fall League during his first exposure to upper-level pitching.
The Situation: Currently mired in a 1-for-17 slump, Grossman is now batting just .194/.296/.290 at Double-A Altoona with one home run in 16 games.
Why You Should Be Concerned: Grossman's 2011 breakout came while repeating a level, which is always a bit of a red flag. There has always been a bit too much swing-and-miss in his game for some scouts, and he's whiffed in more than one fourth of his at-bats.
Why It's Not A Big Deal: Grossman's showing in Arizona was ended in November when he required surgery for a fractured hamate bone. While the procedure allows for a quick return to action, it often takes months for a player to be fully comfortable in letting the bat fly, and power can take up to a full season to return. He's still walking, so the approach is still there.

Bryce Harper, OF, Nationals
Entering 2012: Arguably the best prospect and certainly the most hyped. Nationals manager Davey Johnson lobbied to break camp with Harper in the big leagues, but it was ultimately agreed that the outfielder would begin the year at Triple-A with the expectation of hitting the big leagues before his 20th birthday.
The Situation: It took 16 games for Harper to finally connect on his first home run of the season, and after 17 games, he's hitting just .234/.300/.375.
Why You Should Be Concerned: Harper has struggled against Triple-A veterans who can hit their spots while delivering him a steady diet of off-speed stuff, especially left-handers, who he's hitting just .190 against. Some of his struggles have come from pressing and over-swinging, as at times he seems to be trying to hit three home runs per at-bat.
Why It's Not A Big Deal: He's 19, folks. Nineteen. There are plenty of players older than him, all off to good starts that have fans excited, and they are playing three levels below where Harper is. The fact that he's merely holding his own at the level is a tribute to his remarkable talent, and he's a player with a history of initial struggles at new levels.

A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider Insider.

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

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