June 14, 2012
Prospects Will Break Your Heart
Searching for a Prototype
It started innocently enough with a series of questions thrown my way on Twitter, questions that I wanted to answer but stumbled when I tried to arrive at an answer. It was the first evening of the amateur draft, and the Texas Rangers had just selected an absolute toolshed, a player that national pundits were quick to point out had one of the highest tool-based ceilings in the entire class. The player’s name was Lewis Brinson, a high school outfielder from Florida; to quote Kevin Goldstein, “monster athlete; sashimi raw.”
As the scouting reports rolled in, fans started to put the Brinson puzzle together, a gifted athlete with well above-average defensive tools at a premium position, plus speed, impressive power potential, a questionable hit tool, and a lot of game/tool immaturity. It was said that Brinson had the type of talent to be taken at the top of the draft, but his lack of refinement almost caused him to slide out of the first round. On the surface, it appeared that the fans offering comments and questions on my timeline were excited enough about the ceiling to be patient with the sashimi. I put my electronic pen down on the electronic page and suggested that a player of Brinson’s physical talent will be well worth the wait, even if he requires several years in the low minors to start showing signs of life. I praised the Rangers for going the high risk/high reward route, taking a raw athlete with tools over a more refined product with a higher floor at the expense of a lower ceiling. I praised myself for praising the pick. I put on a Peter Cetera record, American flag swimming trunks, and I praised myself to sleep.
As I slept in my cocoon of praise and self-righteousness, I thought back to the questions I was unable to answer the night before. I felt empty inside and cold outside, despite wearing a thick blanket of security and warmth provided to me by the soothing tones of Cetera. “Is Brinson raw like Jordan Akins was raw?” “Do you expect their struggles to be similar?” Can Jordan Akins still be a star?” “Can you name some other toolshed prospects that struggled early in the minors but eventually developed into stars?” The last question was Light Cycle in my head, a linear race of thought that provided no maneuverability or escape. I was trapped in my head. I could hear the outside world in its full existence, but I couldn’t participate. My mind populated itself with every toolshed prospect in recent memory, their backgrounds, their minor league records, and their developmental failures consumed all my mental energy. “Can you name some other toolshed prospects that struggled early in the minors but eventually developed into stars?” “Can you name some other toolshed prospects that struggled early in the minors but eventually developed into stars?” ……..
I finally awoke from my psychosis, and my focus had sustained its edge throughout the evening hours. I activated my standard article process, pulling up my industry contact file and selecting fifteen names to probe for opinion. The list included several scouts, several scouting directors, a few front office types, and even a former player, all of whom have an appreciation for toolshed prospects and a history of providing exceptional information when asked. The topic was nagging me, first because the answer didn’t slide off my tongue, but then because I realized the weight of the subject was more substantial than I had initially recognized. A pleasant evening and an innocent question had grown in size and spirit.
The subject is heavy because baseball is locked in a fierce competition with other sports for the top athletes in the country, and in case you haven’t paid attention to the landscape of the game, baseball isn’t exactly winning the fight. The laundry list of reasons for this dilemma is the subject for another article, but at its most reductive core, talent acquisition is paramount to the survival of the game, therefore the quality of that talent itself is of the utmost importance. The better the individual athlete, the better the sport as a whole, right? Well, this rant was on repeat in my head as I continued to seek enlightenment, hoping to stumble upon the “right” answer so that I could drop a clever comparison or establish the prototype for the described toolshed prospect, an example of success whose triumphs might eventually encourage and influence a new generation of athlete to pick baseball over basketball or football.
If you follow me on Twitter or listen to the Up and In podcast or read my articles on this site, you know that I have a huge prospect crush on Rangers outfielder Jordan Akins. I’ve been watching him since he entered professional ball, and his raw tools are as impressive as any player in game. I’ve actually drooled in his presence. I apologized for it immediately. He asked the coaches why I was on the field. They didn’t have a good answer. A few months ago, I wrote this scouting report about Akins, which is further evidence that I want to have a figurative (and perhaps literal) love affair with his skillset:
Near-elite athlete with excellent size, excellent strength, and excellent speed; projects as an above-average center field; shows a plus arm; aggressive approach at the plate with some contact ability; power could be plus-plus; low floor/high ceiling; profiles as a 7 player if tools reach potential.
Akins remains a dream, but the ceiling on this player is higher than any player in the Rangers system. This is a superstar if everything clicks, and it needs to be said that everything rarely clicks. I don’t get to see many players with this profile, and I consider it a privilege when I get that opportunity. It’s easy to fall in love with this particular skillset, mainly because it’s the type that can change the game itself. He’s a long way away and the road to his future will no doubt feature setbacks, but the potential is so extreme that it’s not a futile act to allow your mind to dream big.
Jordan Akins could end up being one of the most important players in baseball, and not just for the reasons you might think. Yes, five-tool talents are rare, and that would no doubt enhance the quality of the game, but Akins has a chance to emerge as the prototype for the modern super athlete in baseball; an American-born player of color that turned away from the allure of other sports to play baseball; a player that entered the professional game with top-shelf athleticism but minimal feel or instinct for the game; a player that struggled mightily on the field, spending several years in the lower levels of the minors; a player that eventually put it all together, transitioning from raw athlete to skilled baseball player, narrowing the gap between present and future grades until the projection became a reality.
As of this writing, Akins is still flashing Kempian tools in Low-A, but his feel for the game is very much a work in progress, and the road to being the prototype for the modern super athlete isn’t even on the map. Once again, this brings me back to the question that was asked on draft night: “Can you name some other toolshed prospects that struggled early in the minors but eventually developed into stars?” It’s a question that is more specific than the surface might suggest, and it sparked the curiosity of the majority of the industry sources I polled. Akins obviously fits the model we’ve constructed for this particular essay, but he is still in the early stages of his journey, and since he can’t attach his name to the most important aspect of the prototype, he falls short of the mark.
Matt Kemp might appear to be an easy choice given his background, his impressive tools, and his major league production, but the Dodgers’ center fielder showed impressive feel and instincts for the game early on, crushing in the minors after his “disappointing” debut season in the GCL, where he still hit .270 as an 18-year-old. Kemp is perhaps the finest example in the game of a high-ceiling tools-horse who actually lived up to his immense projection, but he falls just short of the prototype I’m chasing for the question that was asked.
Jimmy Rollins is another quality candidate, fitting the criteria like Dwight Yoakam fits into pants, but something about his early minor league statistical failures seemed peculiar. While it’s true that Rollins struggled at the plate, hitting .238 in rookie ball, he did managed to walk more than he struck out, an impressive achievement for a 17-year-old in the Appalachian league. He followed it up with a move to full-season ball the following year, and even though the slash line might not scream superstar, he walked 50+ times and had 151 hits in 139 games. Based on the scouting reports at the time—and as the numbers can back up—Rollins showed a mature approach at the plate and good overall feel for the game at a very early age. In contrast, Jordan Akins has stepped to the plate over 500 times so far in his minor league career, and as of this writing, has walked a grand total of 18 times spanning three minor league seasons. There is young and unrefined, which is to be expected in some form at the lowest levels, and then there is raw and overwhelmed, which is a distinction that needs to be made here.
It’s pedantic and specifically tailored, but my hunt for answers only created more questions. Every source brought a few candidates to the table, but as they would freely admit, they were all flawed in some regard, and that the prototype I was seeking might not exist to under the parameters I’ve set. Some in the game believe that acquiring multi-sport athletes out of high school with unrefined baseball skills is a market inefficiency, one that could produce superstars at bargain prices. This is a high risk/high reward plan of attack, and it places an almost unrealistic responsibility on the player development side, giving them the finest material in the world to work with, but asking them to encourage intrinsic qualities that might not be present in the athlete. When I asked a member of a player development team why players fail, the answer was direct and to the point: “Players fail because of bad makeup and they fail because they lack the instincts for the game. You can teach athletes the fundamentals, but you can’t teach an athlete the feel for the game.”
It remains to be seen if Lewis Brinson requires an Akins-like tour through the lower minors, or if his feel for hitting is really as unremarkable as some sources have suggested. Like any team, the Rangers do their homework and target players that are likely to survive and thrive in the developmental process. It’s been mentioned that Brinson has a natural feel for defense in center field, owning instincts for the game that can’t be taught. The makeup, tool potential, and present instincts (at least on defense) are what made Brinson a first round talent, despite some questions about the quality of the hit tool. It’s too early in the process to put him in a developmental category, as he could take the path of an Akins, or an Abercrombie, or a Span, or a Starling, or a Golson, or a Maybin, or even a Kemp, or any other high-ceiling athlete that entered the pro game with questions about their level of refinement or feel for certain aspects of the game.
I wasn’t satisfied with the candidates in my prototype search, but it inspired even deeper questions that I received great intellectual joy in discussing with my friends in the field. I like looking forward, and I’m fascinated by a future game that has a chance to fill its rosters with the best athletes in the world. The drawback to a boom or bust approach is failure and frustration, a necessary price when the reward has the potential to be so extreme. Finding a way to get the multi-sport athlete into the professional game is the first step, just as patience in the process—even in the face of developmental stagnation—is a necessary step in the same journey. If the modern game is to feature modern athletes, modern prognostication will require a modern approach, one that can stand firmly behind a projection even without a prototype to prove it's possible. “Can you name some other toolshed prospects that struggled early in the minors but eventually developed into stars?” Not yet.
Jason Parks is an author of Baseball Prospectus.
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