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August 25, 2011

Future Shock

Second-Half Surges

by Kevin Goldstein

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Prospect stock can have wild variance, and while it is wrong to react too much to one bad start or one hot streak at the plate, a good or bad month or two—along with corresponding scouting reports—can impact how the industry views a player's future. Every year, there are hundreds of players who fail to live up to expectations. Here's an all-star team of players who hurt themselves early, but have regained their prospect status.

Catcher: Jesus Montero, Yankees
Montero slugged .517 in Triple-A as a 20-year-old in 2010, but he failed to repeat those numbers this year, with scouts noticing some effort issues both at and behind the plate. Montero’s frustration is somewhat understandable considering there is no obvious opening for him in the Bronx, but the backstop has bounced back since the All-Star break by slugging .515 in the second half, including eight home runs in 130 at-bats. He has stopped tinkering with his swing and returned to last year's form. The bad news is that Montero still isn’t seen as a big-league catcher, so an off-season trade might be his best bet for a shot at the majors.

First Base: Neftali Soto, Reds
Despite hitting a career-high 21 homers, Soto took a big prospect hit in 2010 because he also became a full-time first baseman, a position at which one must profile as a middle-of-the-order hitter in the big leagues to even be considered as a prospect. Soto had hit just five homers by mid-June, but now he leads all minor leaguers in home runs since that date; he has 22 in his last 58 games, lifting his season averages to .265/.321/.560. Scouts don't question his power, but his impatient approach leaves them wondering how much he'll be able to unleash it as he moves up the Cincinnati ladder.

Second Base: Scooter Gennett, Brewers
Gennett charmed Midwest League scouts in 2010 while hitting .309/.354/.463 for Low-A Wisconsin. With a 5-foot-9, 164-pound frame, there is no player with a more apt nickname; one talent evaluator said Gennett would have been a first-round pick had he been taller. When Gennett hit just .267 during the first half of the season, the bloom seemed to be off the rose, but in the second half he’s batting .346/.360/.487 in one of the worst hitter's parks in one of the worst hitter's leagues. Gennett is an impatient hitter with few tools past the bat, but he's left few questions about his ability to hit for average.

Third Base: Zack Cox, Cardinals
Entering the year, the only debate about Cox, the Cardinals’ first-round pick from 2010, revolved around his power. As 27 of his first 29 hits in full-season ball were singles, he did little to answer the question. Cox didn't hit his first home run until his 31stgame of the year. Moved to Double-A in late May, the third baseman hit just two home runs in his first 43 games for Springfield in the Texas League, but he recently unlocked his home-run swing with seven jacks in the last two months while bashing to the tune of .351/.434/.560 since the break. If he can stay at third base, where he's proven to be error-prone, Cox just might be worth the big-league contract he signed.

Shortstop: Billy Hamilton, Reds
There is no faster player in organized baseball, but Hamilton was on the end of all sorts of “can't steal first” jokes when his average was hovering around the Mendoza line throughout the first two months of the season. While his season OPS of 680 still fails to impress, Hamilton’s .307/.376/.365 line in the second half has scouts projecting him as an impact player at the top of the order. With 92 stolen bases and 12 games to go, his quest for 100 is one to watch, and with 11 swipes in his last six contests, he's picking up the pace.

Outfield: Michael Choice, Athletics
Choice, Oakland's first-round pick in 2010, was given a challenging assignment to begin the year, starting the season in High-A despite coming from a smaller school and having plenty of concerns about his strikeout rate. Despite hitting just .248, his power and patience led to good overall numbers in the first half. Choice has exploded, with a .333/.415/.605 line in the second half, while his strikeout rate has fallen 15 percent during that time, providing evidence that this is more than just a fluke. He could provide the power hitter the A's have been in search of for years by 2013.

Outfield: Brett Jackson, Cubs
Jackson, like Choice, is one of the better outfield prospects in the game, but the amount of swing-and-miss in his game has always kept him from elite status. After hitting just .256 at Double-A, a mid-July move to Triple-A has ignited a fire; he’s hitting .315/.391/.577 in 38 games for Iowa and is lining himself up for a September callup and a long look this spring. While 55 strikeouts in 149 at-bats leave the high average unsustainable, Jackson projects as a 20/20 center fielder with plus defense and one of the Cubs’ few upper-level prospects who projects as an important part of the team's future.

Outfield: Donavan Tate, Padres
Yes, Tate can't stay healthy (and his season is over due to a wrist problem), and yes he's done some stupid stuff off the field (resulting in a 25-game suspension for a positive drug test), but when this former first-round pick played this year, he looked good. With a strikeout rate nearly halved from last year and a healthy walk rate, Tate hit .288/.410/.411 between Low-A and short-season, so the only issue is that he's now behind the curve age-wise. He'll be 21 next month, and might be forced to High-A to begin 2012.

Pitcher: Chad Betts, Rockies
Betts, a second-round pick last year, had an excellent pro debut, but it was clear that his secondary pitches would need more development as his 2011 season began at High-A Modesto. While his fastball has always been plus and has hit the mid-90s this year, it's both Betts’ slider and changeup that have refined into average-or-better offerings. After his ERA sat at 5.14 at the end of May, Betts has had a 2.14 ERA in 14 starts since while striking out 97 over 96 2/3 innings. He's arguably the best starter in the Colorado system, and almost assuredly the one who offers the most assurance of a big-league career.

Pitcher: Tyler Matzek, Rockies
Matzek was the most-hyped prospect in Colorado’s system entering the 2010 season, and while he put up a 2.92 ERA at Low-A Asheville, his stuff came and went throughout the year; his velocity was often average at best, as opposed to the mid-90s range he showed in high school. The wheels came off completely to begin the 2011 season, as Matzek put up a 9.82 ERA with 46 walks in 33 innings in 10 starts for High-A Modesto. The Rockies took an almost unprecedented step in allowing him to leave the team to work with his high school pitching coach in an attempt to find a return to form. While he's still overcoming his wildness, with 29 walks over 41 innings since his return, Matzek has also whiffed 49 while showing a fastball that, for the first time in his career, is consistently in the low- to mid-90s range. He's still in the tall weeds, but there just might be some light at the end of the tunnel.

Pitcher: Trevor May, Phillies
The rotation at Clearwater started the year among the best in the minors, but Brody Colvin has suffered through injuries, Jarred Cosart is now an Astro, and May has become perhaps the best prospect in the system. It didn't seem that way early on, as his ERA was 5.54 after five starts, but he’s been getting more dominant by the start; he has struck out 109 batters over just 72 1/3 innings since the All-Star break while limiting batters to a .211 batting average. With a pro body (6-foot-5, 215 pounds) and pure power stuff, May’s ability to miss bats could land him in Philadelphia by the end of 2012.  

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

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