September 18, 2012
Prospects Will Break Your Heart
Whoops, I Was Wrong
Eric Hosmer: I wasn’t the only one on the Eric Hosmer bandwagon coming into the 2012 season, but I might have been the only one who affixed his body to the under-carriage of the bandwagon in order to follow Hosmer to his lake house retreat. After a stellar rookie campaign, I thought Hosmer the Horse was ready to explode as a player, inching towards the prophecy that All-Star games and MVP considerations were in his near future. The common sophomore afflictions were in the shadows of my evaluation, and with a mature approach at the plate and a balanced swing that allowed for power, avoiding the second season slump didn’t seem like an insuperable task. Obviously, I was wrong.
Hosmer has been poor at the plate, but his setbacks are influenced by more than one villain. At times, Hosmer has been the victim of bad luck, turning solid swings into solid contact only to find gloves in the field. But good hitters find a way to shift the luck in their favor, and Hosmer’s issues are deeper than this relational bad fortune. From a mechanical standpoint, Hosmer isn’t driving the ball with the same authority and consistency as he did in 2011, with a flatter, softer swing that produces contact lacking audible intensity. His approach is still sound and he has a good understanding of his own strike zone, but quality breaking balls are tripping him up more than I expected, and lefties with stuff are all but guaranteed to force weak contact from the bat. He’s not lifting the ball with the same force, and I’m not seeing the same bat speed as last season. I’d like to say it’s an injury; that could explain some of the soft contact and depressed bat speed. But the reality is that major league pitching is very, very good, and even the best young hitters in the game need to make secondary and tertiary adjustments to stay ahead of the curve. Hosmer has all the physical characteristics to be successful, and I think he regains his punching power in year number three, but I thought the 22-year-old was ready for the next step in 2012. Whoops.
The 2012 Oakland Athletics: I thought you would lose 90-100 games. Whoops.
Robel Garcia: After watching Garcia during backfield spring training games, the Arizona Complex League, and the fall instructional league, I assumed I had a pretty good handle on the young infielder. In 2011, the 18-year-old Dominican really impressed me at the plate, showing fast hands and the bat speed to square quality velocity. The swing had some leverage and therefore some length, so it’s not like I saw a future batting champion; however, I saw a precocious hitter who could work counts, sting balls to all fields, and show more game power than most players at his age and level. With the glove, he wasn’t all that memorable, but he showed some leather and reaction time at third base, and had enough athleticism and range to handle an assignment to the keystone. I had him listed as a 5 role player at his peak, meaning I thought he had enough potential to develop into a major leaguer, and I rewarded that projection by suggesting Garcia belonged in the Indians Top 10 to begin 2012. Obviously, I was wrong.
2012 was a disaster for the young prospect, first bombing in his full-season debut and then bombing after getting demoted to the short-season New York-Penn League. His bat was just very weak, both in the ability to make contact and in the ability to make hard contact. He still showed a plan at the plate, which is a positive we can take away from his season, but it’s hard to find many positives outside of the basic developmental steps that can occur in the face of poor production. Based on what I’ve seen, I’m still a fan of the hands and the juice in the bat, but I was clearly too quick on the prospect gun, and Garcia’s disappointing campaign left my prognostication exposed. Was I wrong? I’m not sure. But I wasn’t right about his immediate progression. Whoops.
Chris Sale: After getting selected with the 13th overall pick in the 2010 draft, Sale was fast-tracked to the majors, where his short-burst arsenal played well in the back of a major league bullpen. He eased into a frontline setup role in 2011, where his electric fastball/slider combination showed bat-missing ability; the fastball could touch elite velocity levels, and the slider was a razor sharp offering, coming from a low slot and torturing lefties and righties alike. But Sale saw himself as a starter, and with a complete arsenal and the confidence to match, the White Sox acquiesced and in 2012, Sale was no longer the future shutdown closer, he was the future ace of the staff. I said he would never be able to make the transition. Obviously, I was wrong.
Sale is a very tall man, standing 6’6’’, but he weighs as much as one of Bartolo Colon’s thighs, so physical durability was the first of many red flags I was flying prior to the 2012 season. When I see a tall, lanky lefty with a low three-quarter arm slot, a hyper fastball/slider arsenal, and a frame that doesn’t look like it could support a heavy jacket much less 200 innings a season, it’s easy to pigeonhole his talents into one, easy to define box. But Sale has proved his doubters wrong, bringing his high quality changeup into the spotlight and decreasing the frequency of sliders thrown, alleviating some of the concern about the elbow possibly blowing off and flying into the cheap seats. His frame is still slight, and his arm slot is still very low—which can help create angle but negate some of the plane advantages that exist when you are 6’6’’, not to mention create issues with staying over the baseball—but everything else in his profile suggests he can maintain his role in a rotation. His fastball isn’t the same velocity monster as it was in the ‘pen, but he can change speeds and get ahead in counts. His slider is still a quality pitch, both as a chase and a strike zone offering, and his changeup—a pitch once considered his best—gives him a powerful weapon against right-handers. I never thought he would survive a season in a major league rotation, mostly because of his frame, but his whippy arm action and low-slot arsenal didn’t exactly build confidence in his new role. It’s an important lesson that you can’t immediately put players in a box because they share similar qualities and characteristics with those that are in the box. Whoops.
Cheslor Cuthbert: I’ve been enamored with the Nicaraguan third baseman from jump street, starting with his first games at the complex level in 2010 and extending to his High-A Carolina League campaign in 2012. At times, the 19-year-old can flash the type of plus offensive tools that separate the boys of the minors from the men of the majors. From a balanced setup, Cuthbert shows a quick and easy swing, with bat speed and torque-generated power. His hands are fast, his hips are fluid and powerful, and the ball just explodes off his bat, both to the pull-side and to the right-center gap. I saw 6 future power, and enough hit tool utility to show some batting average. His defense wasn’t special, but he made all the necessary plays, and his strong arm helped make up for some of the stiff actions and clumsy collections. After another good look at Cuthbert this spring, I thought his jump to advanced A-ball would be successful, and the promising young prospect would emerge as a promising young prospect on the national scene. Obviously, I was wrong.
Cuthbert seems to pull a Jekyll and Hide with his approach to the game, showing advanced instincts and game intensity at times, immediately followed by periods of torpidity and baseball malaise. It’s difficult for the disconnected observer to accurately diagnose makeup, especially based on limited on-the-field encounters and situations, but when you see enough of the routine to determine the extremes of said routine, it becomes easier to stand behind your makeup concerns. When he looks good, Cuthbert can look very good; his quick, powerful bat shines with a major league light, and the feel-for-craft is obvious to the onlooker. When he looks bad, his body looks sluggish, he doesn’t have the same electricity in his hands, he doesn’t possess the same intelligence in his approach, and his feel-for-craft looks disconnected. I’m not sure what you call it—be it makeup or weight control or immaturity or work ethic—but a focused, in-shape Cuthbert has a chance to step up in the prospect world, and the casual, out-of-shape Cuthbert has a chance to disappear off the prospect map. In 2012, I assumed we would see the former. Whoops.