May 21, 2009
You Could Look It Up
While many prospects, especially hitters, can be accurately projected via their draft standing (being taken high in the draft corresponds to a scouts' estimation of their physical tools) and minor league performances (which, with adjustments for league, level, and park, accurately mirror major league performance, giving the statistical proof of the scouting estimate), every now and again the dreaded human element rears its ugly head and makes what could almost be a science frustratingly inexact.
Outfielder Brad Komminsk, the fourth overall pick in the 1979 amateur draft, hit .322 with 33 home runs as a 20-year-old in A-Ball. Two years later, he hit .334 and slugged .596 at Triple-A. Even a modest projection for Komminsk would have been hard-pressed not to rate him at the very least a future All-Star. Instead, he hit .218/.301/.336 in 376 very disappointing major league games. Consider pitcher Scott Ruffcorn, the White Sox' first pick in the 1991 draft: in his first four minor league seasons, which were understandably interrupted by call-ups to the majors, Ruffcorn threw 560
Komminsk and Ruffcorn were given plenty of chances, but they never could figure out how to utilize their obvious talents in the majors. It is far more heartening to consider players who missed on their first or even second try at the brass ring but eventually did get their career started. For example, there's Orioles center fielder Adam Jones of the Orioles, the last player taken in the supplemental portion of the first round of the 2003 amateur draft (the 37th player taken overall). Initially a shortstop, he was pushed to the outfield in 2006 because the Mariners wanted to lock Yuniesky Betancourt as their shortstop of the future. In such small ways do franchises throw away their possibilities. As the M's tinkered with Jones' position, he was evolving into a promising hitter, ultimately hitting .291/.353/.476 in 489 minor league games, including .314/.382/.586 in 101 games as a 21-year-old at Triple-A Tacoma.
The Mariners, overly concerned with giving playing time to Willie Bloomquist, Jose Vidro, and Jeremy Reed, among others, never did give Jones a fair shake-after a short, tentative try in 2006, they called him up in August, 2007 and assigned him to the bench, starting him in just 16 of 56 games. To that point, the 21-year-old Jones had batted just .230/.267/.353 in 73 major league games and 147 plate appearances. That February, the Mariners sent Jones to the Orioles as part of the package for pitcher Erick Bedard. After the abortive Mariners experience, his hitting .270/.311/.400 with nine home runs in 132 games for Baltimore wasn't exactly a complete return to former promise, although there were mitigating factors: batting .279/.320/.405 when knocked out by a foot injury in early August (and .310/.348/.460 in the preceding 30 games), Jones returned after a month and hit only .228/.262/.380 in 24 games to finish the season.
Even allowing for the injury, there were other reasons to suspect Jones. His strike-zone judgment left a lot to be desired, and coming into this season Baseball Prospectus, though conceding "a lot of promise," suggested that the strike-zone problem, if left unaddressed, "could render Jones more the next Corey Patterson than Grady Sizemore." So far this season, that's become much less of a concern, as Jones has cut his strikeout rate, increased his walk rate, and added enough power to dramatically increase his rate of homers per fly ball from 5.3 percent in 2008 to 16.3 percent. On Wednesday night he hit his ninth home run of the season, tying last season's total, and is presently batting .370/.423/.674.
Another touted player finally getting his career off the ground is doing so in the thick of the American League East race. Designated hitter and occasional left fielder Adam Lind of the Blue Jays was a third-round pick in the 2004 draft, a 20-year-old out of the University of South Alabama. He quickly established himself as an up-and-coming hitter, particularly when he hit .330/.394/.556 and 24 home runs in 125 games split between Double- and Triple-A in 2006, which Lind followed up with a major league cup of coffee in which he hit .367/.415/.600 with eight doubles and two homers in 65 plate appearances. The Jays had been in desperate need of a slugger since the days of Carlos Delgado came to a close in 2004, but they seemed to finally have their man.
It was not to be, at least, not yet. Lind didn't win a job in spring training in 2007. He waited for an injury to open space, but this came soon enough, when Reed Johnson went down for more than 10 weeks in early April. Johnson would have been better, and that's saying something-Lind hit .238/.278/.400 in 89 games. He was 7.3 runs below replacement on offense-the main problem was an almost Francoeur-like over-eagerness at the plate-and he also played the kind of defense that would later inspire the Jays to take away his glove. The Jays sent Lind down again to open 2008, but when he finally got a chance to play in June he seemed to have taken a decisive step forward, batting .355/.377/.626 over the next month's-worth of games-and then fell apart again, hitting only .265/.304/.375 over the rest of the season. Fortunately for the Jays, the third time seems to be the charm. A 25-year-old .271/.309/.436 hitter coming into the season, Lind has hit .311/.383/.528 in 41 games this season. He has had good luck on balls in play (.359), and has also increased his strikeout rate. Paradoxically, this is evidence of greater selectivity-he's seeing 4.4 pitches per plate appearance this year, vs. 3.7 last year.
Other formerly hyped prospects making the most of second and third chances this year include Erick Aybar of the Angels, batting .299/.314/.443 after putting together .262/.298/.348 rates over his previous 211 games; Alberto Callaspo who, having passed through two other organizations and a series of off-field problems while hitting .220/.272/.280 as a Diamondback, has continued his 2008 emergence in Kansas City and now has hit .318/.372/.426 in 110 games in the City of Fountains; center fielder Michael Bourn of the Astros, who is hitting .304/.373/.422 a year after batting an astounding .229/.288/.300 in 138 games; Shin-Soo Choo of the Indians, another refugee from Seattle's land of confusion who has followed up years of injury and only mild respect as a prospect to finally establish himself as a regular last season (.293/.420/.471); Angels first baseman Kendry Morales, the Cuban import who, failing to catch on over the last three years, but who has hit an impressive eight home runs (three in his last six games), to go with .282/.333/.542 rates; and Yankees center fielder Melky Cabrera, who has snatched his job back from his manager's preferred choice, Brett Gardner, by trading weak flies for line drives on the way to a .321/.374/.500 line and five home runs.
Honorable mention must be given to Cubs outfielder Kosuke Fukudome. Though at 32 he's far removed from his days as a prospect, by major league standards he's only a sophomore. After batting .296/.404/.430 through the end of June last season, Fukudome threatened to foreshorten his American career by shutting down early, hitting just .207/.297/.313 the rest of the way. Having been threatened with professional extinction by Lou Piniella, Fukudome seems to have rediscovered his stroke, hitting .319/.446/.513 to date and ranking among the National League leaders in on-base percentage and walks drawn.
Of course, Fukudome hit well last year, and Cabrera did too. Both looked like they would be fixtures before slumping and falling out of favor. For all of the players listed herein, they could truly have broken through, or we could simply be looking at a small, deceptive chunk of the season, and a great unraveling is yet to come. In baseball, the only numbers of any permanency are those printed on the back of your baseball card after the season ends. Until then, regression is always a threat, no matter how encouraging current trends appear to be.
A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider .