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March 20, 2012

Prospects Will Break Your Heart

Spring Training Diary, Day 22

by Jason Parks

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Day 22, 7:00 AM
My dearest Patricia, I am a machine. I’ve been in Arizona for three weeks, and I can subsist solely on intense sunshine and teenaged athletic promise. I have the stare, a Polaroid exposure with every blink. I can stand on my feet for eight straight hours without complaint, with tape recorders attached to my orbital bones in order to capture the day’s achievement. I’ve never felt more prepared for anything in my life. So much baseball floating around in my head, and I can’t wait to open my mouth and let it flow forth. Minor league games have begun and the world is again on a solid spin. I miss you immensely. You were in my dreams last night. You were throwing live batting practice to a group consisting of Eric Hosmer, Jorge Alfaro, and Cheslor Cuthbert, who was wearing an expensive George Washington mask. I was standing behind the cage crying from happiness. Be right back.

Day 22, 7:55 AM
About to leave for the fields, Patricia, but I thought I’d drop you a quick note. Roommate Jason is wearing a Cutter and Buck DryTec polo shirt, scientifically designed to wick perspiration while maintaining its form and fundamental aesthetic. He pairs this with a pair of non-descript denim blue jeans that I can’t properly analyze because they are nondescript. The pant is left long in the leg to cover the standard-issue leather cowboy boots, which give off the appearance of a broken-in work boot, one with hours punched out on a Texas ranch; I suspect the distressed material was manufactured for this particular appearance and effect, and the boots have yet to negotiate the rugged life of ranch work, which includes dealing with cantankerous animals of impressive tonnage and fields of equally impressive manure.

Roommate Jason is a clean individual, from haircut to facial hair, and his personal aroma suggests he takes his personal aroma seriously. Earlier this morning, Roommate Jason triggered no fewer than five pumps of what I assumed was Cool Water spray cologne, a ritual that is not uncommon to his morning routine. Cool Water (or whatever it was) is a pure heterosexual mist, designed specifically for heterosexual males who want to impress heterosexual females who are hopefully physically attracted to males who smell like heterosexuals. I have delicate rose petals picked, packaged, and flown in from regions in France. I use the diaphanous petals to gently pat every inch of my tender areas each morning. It’s a delightful experience, one that heterosexual females often find quite the opposite of heterosexual. It keeps me sharp.

Day 22, 8:30 AM
Patricia, I’m walking on the backfields and my scouting notebook is heavy in my heart. The first few weeks of camp were a bit boring, which isn’t to say I was bored; rather, the minor league action was mostly limited to workouts, while the major league games were heavy-handed with 12th-man positional battles and rust. I eagerly watched the talent on the major league field, but my soul desired the romance of immature Low-A action on the backfields, and as of the 15th of March, it was Valentine’s Day in the prospect world. I wanted to send you a thoughtful card and a bouquet of flowers to properly recognize the significance of the day. I mistakenly sent the arrangement to Bubba Starling instead. Speaking of….

Bubba Starling wears a baseball uniform like Jay Jaffe wears a mustache. It just makes perfect sense. I’ve seen the gifted athlete in drills, having watched him throw, and run, and hit in the cages, coming away from such workouts with a decent sketch of the player. On the 15th, I was able to see Starling face live pitching in game action, which was a treat. In his first ever spring training at-bat, Starling hit one the most impressive foul balls I’ve seen this season, taking a middle-out fastball traveling at 88 mph (with fading action away from the hitter) and pulling it just left of the foul pole in left-field. The previous pitch had seen the teenaged dream track a breaking ball from the hand as it traveled out of the zone, with Starling keeping his bat behind his shoulder. Ahead in the count, Starling was looking fastball but didn’t cheat into the zone, triggering at an appropriate time by firing his hips and sending his hands through the hitting path, creating Usain Bolt bat speed in the process. Everything was beautiful in this moment.

The pitch wasn’t perfect, as it was over the plate towards the outer-half, but it wasn’t an easy pitch to pull with any authority, and that’s exactly what Starling did. The ball left the meatiest area of the bat with the type of exit velocity normally reserved for the likes of Eric Hosmer or Josh Hamilton or Cheslor Cuthbert wearing a George Washington mask. It was a shotgun blast, and those standing at the adjacent field saw their eyes widen and their heart rates increase. I wanted to take to the bullhorn to announce it, but the event took place in seconds rather than minutes, and before I could prepare the world the ball disappeared foul beyond the left-field fence. It was the best foul of the spring from a player with the highest ceiling in the minor leagues, and yes, I realize Bryce Harper is still in the minors. You might ask, Patricia, is Starling really that talented, and aren’t you basing this report on a foul ball that you are clearly struggling to stay sane over? For me, it’s about the physical promise, which dwarfs the majority of his fellow minor league soldiers. Having seen the former first-round pick in drills and now in game action (more than just the foul), I feel comfortable with the thought that Starling has near-elite athleticism and star potential, a future 7+ player if the tools mature.

Will the tools mature? That’s the big question, right? Starling is still very raw, with his resume boasting more experience as an athlete than experience as a focused baseball player. The speed isn’t quite an 80 like some have suggested, although he is still quite fast for a man his size, as he stands 6’4’’ and weighs over 180 lbs. He’s graceful in the outfield, using his fast-twitch athleticism and natural instincts to cover wide patches of earth. Unless his body betrays him, I see no reason why he can’t develop into a well above-average defensive force in center, especially with an arm that is very strong, with good carry and shades of accuracy. The batting practice power is legit, and given the bat speed and strength, game power shouldn’t be a problem as long as he maintains an approach.

The hit tool is the only question I have, and that’s just a debate on whether he’s more of a .265 hitter or a .300 hitter, the latter of which would probably propel Starling into superstardom. A lot can go wrong here, but the physical gifts are enormous. Taking these raw tools and turning them into on-the-field skills will take time, and, more importantly, intense focus and dedication from Starling. He’s not going to fail because he lacks the necessary athleticism to play at the highest level. If Starling wants to be the best player in the game, and he approaches his development with this goal in mind, he has the tools to do it.

Just a quick side note, Patricia, as I think it has relevance to my Bubba Starling dissertation, and I wanted to mention it before it escaped my brain. Josh Hamilton is a dream to watch, both on the field and during his off-the-field preparation. I’m privileged enough to have access to the team complex, and I often arrive very early in the morning to watch the various workouts. In the five years that I’ve had such access, I’ve never seen a player in the cages as often as I’ve seen Josh Hamilton. When I arrive in the morning, Hamilton is usually in the indoor cages, putting in high reps with his swing, either off a machine or from a coach’s hand. After Hamilton hits the backfield for more swings and more drills, he usually returns to the indoor cage for more swings before hitting the main field for the day’s game. After the game, it’s not out of the ordinary to see Hamilton once again return to the cage for more swings, a pattern he has no doubt maintained since his re-birth into baseball. Say what you will about Hamilton the man, but Hamilton the baseball player is everything a prospect like Bubba Starling should want to emulate. Hamilton’s past has proved that elite tools aren’t enough, especially when those tools are asked to exist in isolation, free for the focus and drive (#want) necessary to push those gifts to their limit. The physical gifts might be able to get you to the next level, but the wrench work will not only keep you at that level but also allow you to reach your full-potential. When I watched Bubba Starling, I saw a player with Hamiltonian potential, and I don’t mean Alexander. If he is willing to bust his ass, Starling could be the best player in baseball. How many people are actually willing to do that, though?

Keeping with this same theme, I watched Donovan Tate again last week, the Bubba Starling of 2009. I’ve been watching Tate since he arrived in professional baseball, and each time I’ve seen the athletic monster in action I’ve come away thinking he’s an athletic monster. With Tate, the physical hasn’t been the roadblock in his way; sure, he’s struggled to stay healthy, but his off-the-field behavior has created more problems for his game than anything else. After being handed $6.7M and anointed the future of the franchise, Tate has played a total of 64 minor league games in two years, only six of which have come above the short-season level. In a backfield game against the Low-A Texas Rangers, Tate once again showed off his enormous potential, playing the full nine innings, making hard contact, drawing walks, and playing quality defense in right-field. The biggest improvement, in my opinion, was with Tate’s swing itself, as his hands seems easier and looser than in the past, when his swing could get a bit mechanical. The raw strength is obvious just by looking at him, but the strength in the swing wasn’t always present, with quiet contact and very little in-game power. In the backfield game, Tate squared up plus velocity on two occasions, showing bat speed and loud contact, finding the gaps in the outfield and allowing his speed on the bases to influence the game. Every time Tate stepped into the box, the pitcher on the mound adjusted to him, and not the other way around.

I’d like to see Tate step in against better pitching at a higher level, and perhaps I’ll get to see that this week. His ceiling is still crazy high, with a center field profile (I know he was playing in right field, but it was a backfield game and players are often moved around), excellent speed, power potential, and contact ability. I’m not sure what 2012 will bring for him, but if he can take a step forward off-the-field, I bet we will see him take a big step forward on it. Funny how that works, isn’t it Patricia? I miss you so. If Donovan Tate develops to his potential, I’ll ask for your hand. I might not mean that. I’m a machine right now. Machines don’t have time for feelings. 

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

Related Content:  Bubba Starling,  Josh Hamilton,  Donovan Tate

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