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April 17, 2014

Fantasy Freestyle

Recovering Prospects

by Craig Goldstein

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This is the time of year when every article begins with the caveat that stats aren’t worth much right now, but, hey, here are some stats. Well, this is like that except it’s fully acknowledging that the stats aren’t worth anything. All they’re here for is to key in on some players who were highly thought of at one point who struggled through a rough 2013 and have come out of the gates quickly. This isn’t to impart meaning to those good starts, but just identify them as prospects to monitor as the season progresses:

Trevor Story - SS - Colorado Rockies

  • 2013 line: .233/.305/.394 (130 games at High-A)
  • 2014 line: .360/.418/.580 (12 games at High-A)

One of the bigger duds of the prospect world in 2013, Story was returned to High-A after logging 183 strikeouts in 130 games. It wasn’t just the whiffs, nor the statistics that ruined 2013 for Story, though; the scouting reports were equally as ugly, noting issues with his swing, balance, timing, and pitch recognition, among other things.

Despite all those struggles, an offseason to clear the slate seems to have done Story a world of good, as he’s started off 2014 like a house on fire. The scouting reports aren’t as kind as they point out the same potential timing/rhythm issues, though they were positive in detailing his bat speed and approach. The timing issues are unlikely to be done haunting Story, but they don’t seem to be a problem at the moment, at least from a production standpoint.

A couple of things to keep in mind before declaring Story “fixed,” though. First, 12 games don’t mean much if they’re not accompanied by mechanical adjustments, and even then, it’s no sure things those adjustments remain in place. Second, Story is repeating the league, and while he’s not old for it at 21, he does have a leg up in some respects. Lastly, it’s the California League, where any positive offensive output needs to be taken with a grain of salt to begin with, much less a 12-game sample from a player repeating the league.

While the paragraph above might seem to invalidate all the positives from Story’s brief season, I think the mechanical adjustments are key here. If he can hold on to those while continuing to iron out his timing, we could be looking at something close to the prospect who ranked no. 1 in the system entering the 2013 season.

Gabriel Guerrero - OF - Seattle Mariners

  • 2013 line: .271/.303/.358 (125 games at Low-A)
  • 2014 line: .396/.423/.667 (12 games at High-A)

While Guerrero got some preseason love last spring, he got off to a slow start in Low-A (.193/.225/.253 in April) and didn’t really recover until the weather warmed up along with his average in June. Even then, though, the toolsy outfielder struggled to hit for power, with only four home runs on the season, all coming in August/September. While it was by no means a disaster of a season given his youth (19 years old, in full season ball), his year-ending .271/.303/.358 slash line was underwhelming given some of the preseason hype.

Thus far, 2014 has been another story entirely, as Guerrero’s bat seems to appreciate both the friendly confines of the California League as well as the warmer weather. He’s currently slashing .396/.423/.667 through twelve games, and yes, all small sample size warnings apply. They might apply even more than usual thanks to the hitter friendly stadiums that make up the Cal League, but it’s still nice to see a promising prospect produce early in the year after struggling to do so in the season prior. He’s already up to three home runs in just 53 plate appearances, despite notching only four in 499 PA in 2013.

Guerrero features good bat speed and hand/eye coordination reminiscent of his uncle, combining to allow for big raw power that had previously played down in in-game situations. It’s still likely to play down due to the functionality of his hit tool, however, that he’s faced adversity and adjusted is a positive sign for the future. Guerrero’s recent success might just be variance, starting the season with a string of hits before facing some bad luck down the road, but that he’s producing in such fashion, while taking a step up the organizational ladder is something worth noting, and keeping an eye on.

Tanner Rahier - 3B - Cincinnati Reds

  • 2013 line: .222/.252/.320 (106 games at Low-A)
  • 2014 line: .293/.333/.415 (11 games at Low-A)

Rahier isn’t exactly a hot name in the prospect world, but draftniks will recall him being touted as a possible late-first-round pick in 2012 (though admittedly others saw him as less than that). Selected by Cincinnati in the second round, he’s gotten off to a slow start, with a career .217/.261/.323 slash line, not to mention a move down the defensive spectrum to third base.

The good news is that his defense at third base is a real positive, as he’s got good range and an above-average arm for the position. His lack of speed is hidden at third compared to shortstop, allowing his positive attributes to shine. While defense isn’t a part of most fantasy genres, his positive defensive contributions could help him move up the chain and earn him big league time, which does have a fantasy effect. While Rahier is repeating Low-A, his (apparent) improvement is something to keep an eye on. Rahier is aggressive in all phases of the game, something pitchers take advantage of at the plate as they can exploit his pull-heavy approach with soft, spinning stuff away.

Rahier is less of a prospect to acquire right now than he is a guy fighting to stay on the prospect map, but I know there are deep, deep leaguers out there who are looking for names, and this is a reclamation project that may one day result in a second division third baseman. If that’s not deep leaguer’s wet dream, I don’t know what is.

Austin Wilson - OF - Seattle Mariners

  • 2013 line: .241/.319/.414 (56 games at short-season)
  • 2014 line: .333/.404/.476 (11 games at Low-A)

Another secon- round pick with a weak debut, Wilson struggled in 56 games at short-season Everett despite coming from an advanced college program. To Wilson’s credit though, it seems to take many a Stanford hitter a little time to adjust upon entering pro-ball. Stanford likes to preach an opposite field approach, and while using the whole field is to a batter’s advantage, someone like Wilson rarely got to showcase his pull-side power.

Still, Wilson is 22 already and only in Low-A, so productivity is to be expected on some level. The good news is that there are skills behind this small sample production: Wilson has power to all fields, and while he’ll always have some swing and miss, the approach is still solid. He’s got enough speed to swipe double digit bases, at least early on, as well. Another factor to consider with his debut woes is that he had missed a healthy portion of the college season with an injury, and might have still been in the process of working back from that.

There’s plenty of risk here, as the ceiling isn’t all that high, but if Wilson can continue to produce well in Low-A, a promotion might not be far behind given his relatively advanced age. Some teams like to challenge college products, and putting someone with Wilson’s power in the California League might serve to inflate his value among box score scouts.

Kaleb Cowart - 3B - Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim

  • 2013 line: .221/.279/.301 (132 games at Double-A)
  • 2014 line: .353/.439/.500 (10 games at Double-A)

Would you look at that, another former top prospect repeating a level and off to a hot start. Cowart once ranked atop the Angels barren system and now can’t even claim that “honor.” Similar to other prospects who struggled though, Cowart was well below the standard age level for a league, playing the entirety of the 2013 season at age 21. The Angels system was bad enough that Cowart still ranked second, but it’s worth noting that what was once a potential impact player is now someone who’s upside is more straddling the line between first and second division third baseman.

There are a lot of similarities to Story here, in that timing was a huge issue for Cowart throughout all of 2013. He never seemed able to put the previous at-bat behind him and was at time visibly frustrated with his performance. It seems that the offseason has helped him reset both his mechanics and his mind, as he’s off to a great start. It should be noted though that five of his 12 hits on the young season came in the first game, and are surely wreaking havoc on his overall stat line (but in a good way). On the plus side, Cowart has walked as often as he’s struck out, something that was not the case in 2013 (124/38 K/BB ratio).

As with those above him - and really anyone 10-12 games into a seasom—the statistics are not conclusive, or even really signs of anything. They could easily just be variance, and in most cases those identifying hot starts as breakouts will only suffer from confirmation bias going forward instead of looking at the whys and hows of what has changed for a player/prospect. This is not about predicting success for these five players, or others off to nice starts (Taylor Jungmann comes to mind), but instead just a reminder that struggles are part of a prospect’s developmental journey, and how they respond is important. These nice starts could be nothing, or they could be due to a change made by the player that results in more consistent success, and it’s worth monitoring their progress and trying to divine which is happening as the season rolls on.

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

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