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May 9, 2012

Future Shock

Pop-up Guys

by Kevin Goldstein

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The scouting term “pop-up guy” is used often in reference to the draft, when players go from just a name to somebody in line for an early pick and big money. But there are pop-up guys in the professional ranks as well. These aren't players bouncing back to a previously held reputation. These aren't even players finally living up to expectations. These are players who were lucky to sniff their own team's prospect list heading into the season who have not only put up numbers this year, but also have scouts coming around on their talent. In other words, they're some new names you should know.

Tyler Austin, OF, Yankees
A 13th-round pick in 2010, Austin got some attention last year for a good showing in the New York-Penn League, but it's his full-season debut that's started to generate real buzz. On a Low-A Charleston roster packed with some of the best prospects in the Sally League, Austin has slumped a bit and is still hitting .314/.365/.752 in his first 27 games while leading the circuit with 10 home runs. The 20-year-old right-handed hitter is broad-shouldered and employs an upright stance, and while there is a significant amount of load in his swing, he makes up for it with excellent bat speed; profiles to hit for both average and power, although he can be a bit of a free swinger. A catcher and third baseman in high school, he struggled on the infield corners last year but has found a home in the outfield. His bat is by far his best tool, as he's an average runner and defender, but scouts see the bat as enough for a demanding position.

Tony Cingrani, LHP, Reds
Cingrani was a third-round pick last year, but that was as a budget-minded senior sign. Because of his age and experience level, a 1.75 ERA in the Pioneer League last year with 80 strikeouts and just six walks in 51 1/3 innings was only enough to generate minimum attention, as scouts saw a future reliever who lacked a consistent breaking ball. Things are starting to change this year, as while pitching in the tough environment of High-A Bakersfield in the Cal League, the 22-year-old has a 0.53 ERA after six starts with 45 strikeouts in 34 innings; he's also limiting the league to a .158 batting average. Cingrani is a unique pitcher, as his three-quarters delivery features an extremely long arm action that almost resembles a trebuchet, but the leverage in his delivery gives him above-average velocity. His fastball sits in the low 90s, touches 95, and he misses just as many bats with a plus changeup that features plenty of deception with the same delivery. His hybrid breaking ball has shown some progress this year, and if it improves to merely average, he's suddenly a very real starting prospect. Either way, because of his age, he should be in Double-A soon.

Evan Gattis, OF, Braves
No prospect in the game is more difficult to evaluate that Gattis. He's reached Double-A in his second full season while slugging .821 with 13 home runs in 106 at-bats, and he's been moved from catcher to primarily left field to assist in his ascension, much of it because he turns 26 in August. Gattis walked away from the game as an amateur, came back and got selected in the 23rd round of the 2010 draft. That meant he turned 24 just months after beginning his professional career, so he's trying to make up for lost time. He's a big man with not only plus-plus raw power, but a surprising ability to make contact as well, which leaves scouts believing that the Braves should keep moving him up to get as much of his prime in the big leagues as possible. He could be at Triple-A Gwinnett soon, and a September audition is not out of the question.

Alen Hanson, SS, Pirates
Signed out of the Dominican Republic in 2009, Hanson hit .263/.352/.429 in the Gulf Coast League last year, which is hardly enough to create hype out of a complex league setting, but scouts saw a plus runner with a simple line drive swing and an idea at the plate. Expected to begin his 2012 season this June in the short-season leagues, Hanson impressed Pirates brass this spring to earn a full-season job, and he's been among the best hitters in the South Atlantic League, batting .376/.408/.632 in 31 games with 12 stolen bases. The most shocking part of that line isn't the batting average, it's the power: 22 of his 50 base hits have gone for extra bases, including four home runs for a player only slightly larger than his listed weight of 152 pounds. He lacks the arm or consistency to be a shortstop long-term, but scouts are seeing a potential dynamo at second.

Jimmy Nelson, RHP, Brewers
A second-round pick in 2010, Nelson was seen as a wide body who could throw strikes and keep the ball on the ground, and despite a 4.38 ERA during his full-season debut at Low-A Wisconsin last year, scouts noted increased velocity towards the end of the season, and with it, more strikeouts. That trend has continued into 2012, as the 6-foot-6, 250 pound Nelson has been touching 98 mph with High-A Brevard County while putting up a 2.45 ERA with 45 strikeouts in 40 1/3 innings. With a plus slider and fringe-average change, he not only looks like a future No. 3 starter, he's out-pitched his two much more hyped rotation mates, 2011 first-round picks Taylor Jungmann and Jed Bradley.

Dan Straily, RHP, Athletics
It's taken scouts a long time to warm up to Straily. As a 24th round pick in 2009 out of Marshall, Straily began his career as an org player, but he's struck out right around a batter an inning at every level. He's also upped the ante in his first taste of the upper levels with 52 strikeouts over his first 40 1/3 innings, and scouts are impressed with the stuff he's missing bats with. With a 91-93 mph fastball that can touch 94, Straily throws strikes to set up two quality secondary pitches: a plus changeup that neutralizes left-handed hitters, and a slider that gives righties fits. With a big frame and simple mechanics, he's looking more and more like the rare late pick who can start in the big leagues.

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

12 comments have been left for this article.

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