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February 2, 2011

Prospects Will Break Your Heart

What Could Go Wrong with the Royals' Top Five?

by Jason Parks

Falling in love with prospects is like dating someone because of their physical beauty. At first, you are blinded by the fact that you are involved with someone who is attractive, because, let’s face it, ours is a superficial society, and waking up next to David Beckham or Megan Fox is more appealing than waking up next to Clint Howard or Roseanne Barr. It's a little like having a system headlined by Eric Hosmer and Mike Montgomery being obviously more appealing than a system headlined by Mark Rogers and Cody Scarpetta.

But as the relationship advances, you might get to witness the weaknesses of your new dream partner consume their strengths. In the end you could still be left with a good-looking uniform, but it's draped on a prospect who ultimately failed to live up to the ceiling their initial attractiveness suggested was possible. Once you see the light, you promise yourself that you will no longer fall for a face... except that then you once again start looking for pretty faces, and the cycle repeats itself. Eventually, the aesthetic beauty that tickles your fancy actualizes into the complete package, and the world rejoices at your good fortune.

Unfortunately, the majority of the players in this process fail to live up to the lofty expectations we place on them, and soon enough the disappointments propel us to internet dating sites and Rule 5 drafts. In short, and more to the point, instead of over-focusing on the beauty and dreaming of the future, let’s take a slightly pessimistic look at what might go wrong with prospects in 2011, and prepare ourselves for the inevitability of being single.

Up first, let's take a look at the Kansas City Royals, who have the best system in recent memory. Talking about them is a lot like entering the dating world with excellent bone structure and a mountain of personal wealth—a lot can go wrong, but even in the event of outrageous misfortune, the likelihood of success is still greater than most. Alright, I know, I should stop now, let’s get to the prospects:

Prospect #1: Eric Hosmer
Who:
The third overall selection in the 2008 draft, Hosmer has well above-average power potential, what scouts refer to as a very good hit tool, and a plus arm. His tool-based grades project him to be an all-star first baseman at the major-league level, and he should ascend to the 25-man active roster by the start of the 2012 season at the latest.
What could go wrong in ’11: Hosmer is going to be a major leaguer, but he might fall short of being a heroic force in the middle of the order, which might be the only way he disappoints his admirers. I try to keep the hyperbole in check (well, not really) when waxing on about prospects, but it’s very hard to find many holes in Hosmer’s game. I’ve seen his swing get a little long at times, with a tendency to drop his back shoulder a bit and power up his stroke for a moon shot. This could make him susceptible to quality stuff on the inner half of the plate, but given that this is just a minor nitpick and not a weakness he displays on a regular basis, pitchers that attempt to use the inner half as a means of exploiting Hosmer will probably be in for a rude awakening.

Because of his age and experience, there is enough conceptual air between the present and the future for some imperfections to develop. That said, unless he gets power-happy and starts trying to pull everything, or suffers an extreme mechanical breakdown, or becomes afraid of game situations, or leaves baseball to pursue the priesthood, I don’t see Hosmer breaking many hearts. I think he is the best prospect in the best system in baseball, and to jump back on the relationship analogy, Hosmer looks like a keeper.

Prospect #2: Mike Moustakas
Who:
When you think the name, you may as well think it is Greek for “bat speed.” The second overall pick in the 2007 draft, Moustakas has an excellent combination of plus-plus power potential, off-the-charts bat speed, and a howitzer for an arm. After a disappointing ’09 campaign, Moustakas tapped into his potential in ’10, thrashing Double-A pitching, and then slugging .564 in 52 Triple-A games.
What could go wrong in ’11: Because of his impressive attributes with the bat (quick hands, strong wrists, quick trigger, excellent overall bat control, balance, etc.), Moustakas has been able to make consistent contact despite being overly aggressive. This could present a problem against pitchers who can force Moustakas into contact with bad balls, suffocating his game power and preventing him from barreling the ball with authority. Although based on a small sample size, Moustakas struggled against left-handed pitching in Triple-A, hitting an anemic .218 and slugging .346. He has had some issues diagnosing the pitch out of the hand that, given his aggressive nature, will put his ability to make split-second adjustments to the test.

These platoon splits weren’t present in Double-A, but it’s something that could prove problematic if Moustakas fails to make the necessary adjustments. Long-term, I think Moustakas will develop into a first-division starter at the major-league level, with the tools to produce a few peak seasons at an all-star level. However, in the short term it might take another regression in order to take a step forward, so he is a good candidate to break some hearts in ’11, especially if you already think he is ready for superstardom.

Prospect #3: Mike Montgomery
Who:
The 36th overall selection in the 2008 draft, Montgomery entered the ’10 season as the Royals' top prospect. He saw his stock slip because of some injury issues, specifically, left-elbow tendinitis and a left-forearm strain that put him on the shelf for a total of 67 days. When at full-strength, Montgomery has a jumpy fastball that will sit in the low 90s and touch higher, a plus changeup that plays Joanie to his fastball’s Chachi, and the makings of a solid average-to-plus curve.
What could go wrong in ’11:
While his injury issues in 2010 raise some concerns about his durability, the lack of red flags in his mechanical profile help stave off the gloom-and-doom injury prognostications for 2011. If Montgomery takes a step back in 2011, the culprits will be his come-and-go fastball command and his secondary offerings—both will flash as above-average pitches at times, but he has yet to find consistency. At the present, his changeup is ahead of his curve, but he has a good feel for the pitch, so it’s only a matter of refinement through repetition.

With assumed health, Montgomery will find success with any combination of two plus pitches, but his ultimate ceiling is attainable if the curve rounds into shape and his fastball command can find its edge. Until it all comes together, Montgomery could offer up uneven performances, and might even break a heart or two, depending on your expectations coming in.

Prospect #4: Wil Myers
Who:
The third-round selection in the 2009 draft, Myers has well-above average offensive potential, and if I thought he had a future behind the plate, I would rank him higher in the Royals' system. In two stops in ’10 he showed both a mature approach and the ability to hit for average. He also delivered in-game power by slugging 54 extra-base-hits in 126 combined games, including 10 home runs in the pitcher-friendly Midwest League.
What could go wrong in ’11:
Despite being the owner of many plus offensive attributes, most notably his hands/wrists and raw strength, Myers has some minor exploitable holes in his swing, showing some vulnerability on the outer half of the plate. I’m not in love with Myers’ hitting mechanics, as he starts open and has a noisy transition into hitting position; despite a quick trigger that allows him to get into the zone quickly, the overall balance and fluidity isn’t always there. So far, Myers has been able to use his excellent hand-eye coordination and above-average pitch recognition skills to minimize the exploitation, but more advanced pitchers will force the issue until Myers adjusts, which could lead to some statistical setbacks, especially if the adjustments require a more complex restructuring of his swing mechanics.

Prospect #5: John Lamb
Who:
Lamb was a fifth-round pick in 2008 who exploded in 2010 by pitching at three levels, and dominating at two of them. The 6-foot-3, 195-pound southpaw brings a plus fastball and solid average-to-plus secondary offerings to the table, with the ability to throw quality strikes thanks to clean, repeatable mechanics.
What could go wrong in ’11:
Despite being labeled as one of the best lefties in the minors, Lamb still requires more development, and setbacks are hard-wired in that process. While his fastball can miss bats and coerce weak contact, the curveball and changeup aren’t quite ready for the bright lights of the big leagues, even though the curve looks to be plus-pitch in the making, and the changeup projects as a solid-to-average pitch, with room for an even higher ceiling if everything comes together. It’s the full development of the secondary offerings that could spoil the party in ’11, but as I mentioned, having setbacks is a part of the developmental process, and if the failures lead to improvement, then the heartaches of one season will be worth it.

As long as he continues to locate his fastball and stay on top of the curve, Lamb can avoid disaster, even if the changeup is slow to come around. Because of his approach and his current arsenal, it’s hard to envision a true heartbreak situation, but Lamb could certainly fall out of favor if he struggles with his off-speed stuff, or if those struggles affect his overall approach, a common corollary when one pitch is more underdeveloped than the rest.

---

Starting in late February, I’ll be spending five weeks on the backfields of spring training facilities in Arizona, watching talent and writing scouting reports. Because of their combination of prospects and proximity, I’ll spend a lot of time watching players in the Royals' system. As a result, you will not only be subjected to numerous articles about the rapture-inducing system they have developed, but also revisionist looks at some of the opinions stated in articles like this one. Player evaluation requires more than just intelligent eyes and opportunity; being open to the idea of revising previous evaluations of a prospect is paramount in the process, and without a willingness to update an evaluation, you will forever be stuck in the snapshots of a moment, where Player A is who he is, and development of any variety is ignored. I’ll be the first to challenge myself on this front, and I hope the readers of Baseball Prospectus demand it as well.

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

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