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August 9, 2012

Prospects Will Break Your Heart

Too High/Too Low

by Jason Parks

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Second-guessing national prospect rankings is as American as apple pie, grossly overweight consumers, D-list celebrity obsession, and convenient nationalism during infrequent sporting competitions. But because of my personal connection to those who produce those national prospect rankings, I tend to avoid commenting on them; regardless of the innocent intent, comments can often come across as critical. I know what goes into the process of the rankings, and I respect the people who do it, so rather than take them to task for having a different opinion or process than my own, I’d much rather just appreciate their work while standing behind my own evaluations.

But people seem to enjoy articles about contrast, and I seem to enjoy writing articles that people seem to enjoy, so this article will highlight some of the more extreme differences of opinion found in prospect rankings. I’ll pick six prospects that I think receive too much love—or not enough love—on the national scene, breaking down why my opinions on the player differ from the highly respected voices who either sing their praises or are hesitant to champion their status. This is a subjective exercise, one that will present opinions that could change in two months, not to mention look absolutely foolish in two years. Rankings are snapshots of the moment, and some players flourish and grow long prospect legs when their moment happens to be in the sun. Other prospects live in the shadows, where the deficiencies in their statistical output dwarf the realities of their promising skill set. It’s a delicate balance to contextualize and categorize prospects while they are still in the developmental process, a system that encourages setbacks in order to find success. Because of the nature of the developmental beast, answers are always just opinions, not facts universally accepted by all those with eyes on the prospect prize. We all view the game through a different lens. So here are a few prospects currently in my viewfinder.

Others Are Too High On:

Prospect: OF Mason Williams (Yankees)
Background with Player: My eyes; industry sources
National Profile (Mid-Season Top 50 Status): Keith Law #21; Kevin Goldstein #36; Baseball America #28
My Range: 50-75
Why He’s Too High: To be completely honest, I’m not sure why Mason Williams doesn’t do it for me. Dating back to my first exposure to him, I was never smitten. I appreciated the quality of some of the tools, but I wasn’t double-fisting his future like I normally would. I should love Williams. He is a plus-plus athlete that plays a premium position at a high level. That’s exactly the type of player I tend to overrate. The speed is impressive, it can grade anywhere from 7 to 8, the arm is solid, the glove is solid, and the overall defensive profile should play at the position in the majors. Despite his promising offensive production so far in his career, I’ve never been in love with his swing, and I’ve never been convinced that he will have the upper-level strength to make hard contact against upper-level pitching. I see Williams as a role 5 major leaguer, a quality center fielder with well above average speed and contact ability at the plate. I don’t see a first-division talent when I watch Williams, and this is definitely a prospect that could make that prognostication look foolish down the line. Sometimes a player just doesn’t make sense to you even though he’s supposed to make sense to you. I get the fact that Williams is a very good prospect. I just don’t have him graded out in the same stratosphere as some others in the industry.

Prospect: RHP Cody Buckel (Rangers)
Background with Player: My eyes; industry sources
National Profile (Mid-Season Top 50 Status): Keith Law (Mentioned as a prospect that just missed inclusion in the top 50); Kevin Goldstein (not in top 50); Baseball America #41
My Range: ~100
Why He’s Too High: I know it might shock some of you to learn that I don’t always overhype Rangers prospects on this site, but I try to call it as I see it, and with Buckel, I just don’t see a top 50 prospect in baseball. His first-half explosion in High-A certainly aided in his rise up the prospect ranks, but the numbers suggest an eventuality that the scouting doesn’t sign off on. With advanced pitchability and a deep arsenal of solid-average offerings, Buckel was able to overwhelm Carolina League hitters and, despite a few stumbles in Double-A, he should be able to ascend to the majors at an accelerated rate. The problem is that Buckel lacks plus size and strength, and his fastball is only average, working mostly in the 90-93 range, touching both higher and lower. Without much projection, Buckel is a slave to his current stuff, and even though his secondary arsenal can flash plus and miss bats at the minor league level, their quality won't keep big league hitters up at night. Any organization in baseball would be happy to have Buckel in their system and on a trajectory to the majors, but this isn’t an arm that is going to pitch anywhere near the top of a major league rotation. I see a back-end starter, with the type of feel for pitching that might allow that projection to play up a bit in a best case scenario.

Prospect: RHP Zach Lee (Dodgers)
Background with Player: My eyes; industry sources
National Profile (Mid-Season Top 50 Status): Keith Law #49; Kevin Goldstein #47; Baseball America #49
My Range: 75-100
Why He’s Too High: I like Zach Lee. He’s a Texan, he’s athletic, he has size, he has a good feel for command, and the stuff is solid-average. But his once lofty projection—no doubt influenced by his $5.25M bonus coming out of high school and the hype surrounding that—painted the picture of a future ace, an arm that had the stuff to pitch at the top of a major league rotation. Unfortunately, the raw stuff isn’t of that quality, which isn’t to say that it lacks quality in general; rather, his arsenal is more solid-average than plus (or plus-plus), and his profile looks more like a number four starter than anything else. He still has tremendous value, and if the slider can find a consistent bite and become a plus outpitch, and the fastball can put more meat on the bone, a higher ceiling is possible. There is something to be said of a pitcher with a high floor, and I would put Zach Lee in that category and give him due credit accordingly. I just don’t value the floor enough to put him in my top 50.

Others Are Too Low On:

Prospect: 3B Kaleb Cowart (Angels)
Background with Player: My eyes; industry sources
National Profile (Mid-Season Top 50 Status): Keith Law (not in top 50); Kevin Goldstein #34; Baseball America (not in top 50)
My Range: 35-50
Why He’s Too Low: Cowart has all the physical tools to project as a first-division third baseman at the major league level, with a 7 arm, a glove that should eventually be at least solid-average, and a stick that has the potential to produce 20+ home runs at maturity. This type of player doesn’t just grow on trees. Despite being only 20 years old, Cowart has a plan at the plate and looks at a lot of pitches, which leads to strikeouts but also allows for favorable hitting environments and an on-base dimension to his offensive game. He flashes plus power potential from both sides of the plate, and I really like his swing from the right side; it looks easy and fluid, and he can produce bat speed while maintaining bat control. He’s not a special hitter, nor is he an elite defender, but the total package points to a very nice player, one that might not produce the big numbers that encourage the big love, but a player that will eventually have a lot of value at the major league level.

Prospect: RHP Taylor Guerrieri (Rays)
Background with Player: My eyes; industry sources
National Profile (Mid-Season Top 50 Status): N/A
My Range: ~50
Why He’s Too Low: Guerrieri was a first round pick in the 2011 draft, viewed by many as one of the top high school arms available. The Rays like to go slow and low with their arms, and simmering on the back burner can help disguise his prospecty value. His stuff as a professional isn’t as electric or intimidating as it was as an amateur, where he once sat in the 93-97 range with his fastball and used a hard, hammer curve to break the heart of many a high school hitter. The new Guerrieri might not have the same dominating presence he once had, but the pitchability has improved and the overall package remains very promising. Working mostly with a heavy low-90s fastball and a 79-83 curve that is major league quality, Guerrieri is hitting his spots, missing bats and limiting hard contact in short-season ball. He might not have the same elite projection as he had only a short time ago, but the total package could make him a solid number three starter at the major league level; he has the size and the strength to log innings and hold velocity, at least a solid-average fastball that features heavy sinking action, good command, a plus secondary pitch that can miss bats, and a competitive approach to pitching. That’s a profile that belongs in the top 50.

Prospect: C Austin Hedges (Padres)
Background with Player: My eyes; industry sources
National Profile (Mid-Season Top 50 Status): Keith Law (not in top 50); Kevin Goldstein #31; Baseball America (not in top 50)
My Range: 30-50
Why He’s Too Low: You can make the case that Hedges has the highest defensive ceiling in the minors, a catcher with the physical and mental skills behind the plate to project as an elite defender. That ain’t no sippin’ tea. Given his defensive prowess, which includes a plus-plus arm, well above-average receiving skills, and advanced game calling and leadership qualities, any positive offensive output would be seen as gravy. The reports on the bat have been more promising than I originally anticipated, and you have to be impressed with the 19-year-old’s production in the Midwest League. Hedges has a good swing and, even though he doesn’t project as a plus hitter, he shows the ability to make hard contact and to make adjustments during an at-bat. If he can develop into a fringe-average hitter, with some secondary skills and enough pop to keep pitchers honest, he has a chance to be an All-Star at the major league level. His defense is held in the highest possible regard by scouts I spoke with, and the majority of them aren’t sour on the bat, which makes Hedges a very promising prospect to keep an eye on. Given his skill set, I think he belongs in the top 50, and if you believe the bat has a chance to play at the highest level, putting him in the 30 range isn’t a stretch.

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:  Prospects,  Scouting,  Minor Leagues

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