Great players comes in all shapes, with all kinds of skills, and so do great prospects. Yet there’s some great players or even good players that were great prospects that projected to hold totally different skills than the ones they ultimately ended up with. What happens when you successfully project how good a prospect will become as a major-league player, but totally miss on what kind of player he will become?
I’ve thought about this a lot watching baseball’s great, young infielders in the World Baseball Classic. Francisco Lindor is exactly the player we, as a prospect community, thought he would be if things worked out—the most aesthetically pleasing player in the game, the best defender on the planet with an excellent, well-rounded offensive game to boot, the very model of a modern role 8. Manny Machado, same thing, the best defensive third baseman you’ve ever seen because he’s really a very good shortstop and very good defenders at short don’t play third, and also one of the major’s best power-hitters. Carlos Correa, Third-Year MLBer is about the 75th percentile outcome of what we thought Carlos Correa, Elite Prospect could be, in precisely the ways we thought he could be it.
And then there’s Javier Baez. At his peak, he was a prospect every bit as good as those guys, peaking at fourth on our 101 three years ago. We marveled at his extreme hand-eye coordination, his power potential, his great arm. We wondered if he’d be defensively reliable enough for the middle infield, whether he’d control his swing enough to hit for any kind of average, but we took for granted that he’d hit a lot of homers. Through his first MLB stint in 2014, that profile remained, but the Javy Baez that reemerged in 2016 isn’t anything like Javier Baez the prospect. Now he’s a stellar defender anywhere on the diamond and has reined it in enough to hit for a fine average, but with only moderate game power.
What did we get right about Javy Baez? He still uses those jaw-dropping physical tools to be really good at baseball. What we got wrong was how he would use them. Essentially, we had no idea how his remarkable hand-eye coordination and baseball instincts would apply to the baseball field to make him an incredible, uniquely-talented infield defender, but without actualizing his raw power into game power. Is that a miss?
I might suggest Javy Baez is just a unicorn, as Rian Watt once put it. But this kind of player development path isn’t especially unique to him. Nolan Arenado was projected to be a sluggardly slugger that might have to move to first base, and he did develop that kind of bat—but he’s also now one of the best defensive third basemen in the game. Carson Kelly was projected much the same, a right-spectrum player that would live or die on his bat development, and instead he recently made our top 101 as a defensively-minded catcher. Juan Lagares became a defensive specialist in center after projecting as a hit-tool-first corner outfielder. Even Baez’s frequent double play partner, Addison Russell, had questions about whether he could stick at short, and he initially played second on his recall. Heretofore, Russell has settled in as a defense-first shortstop, but without the kind of hitting production initially hoped for.
Even the other way, Baez has something of a mirror image in Mookie Betts. Betts projected as an athletic, defensively-minded second baseman poised to hit for a decent average. If Prospect Mookie Betts had developed into Major Leaguer Javier Baez and hit something like Baez’s 2016 line of .273/.314/.423 while playing a fine second, nobody would’ve batted an eye. That was probably pretty close to Prospect Mookie’s outcome. Instead, Actual Mookie Betts has had substantial power spikes every year running, while simultaneously moving down the defensive spectrum, ultimately landing in right. Betts hit .318/.363/.534 in 2016, showing the kind of easy power that Mookie Betts never projected for, but Baez did. If Baez had become the corner outfielder slugging .534, we wouldn’t have blinked an eye as evaluators, but Mookie Betts?
Are we too quick to pigeonhole players into roles? Sometimes we nail it and Lindor becomes Lindor in exactly the Lindorian way we all hoped for, but sometimes Baez becomes Betts and Betts becomes Baez instead. I would note that all of these kinds of development cases involve athletic players vastly exceeding their projections in some way, even if they miss wildly low on other parts of the projection. Baez, for example, developed much more than we projected on defense because his hands are so good, making him a perfectly good player even though he’s not presently the 30-homer guy we thought he’d need to be. He still could yet develop that high-end game power—he’s only entering his age-24 season, and one needn’t look further than teammate Anthony Rizzo to see an example of raw power converting to game power around that age after significant time in the bigs. Hinting at that latent raw power, Baez does hit some majestic, beautiful home runs when they do go out. Or, as my podcast amigo Jeffrey Paternostro likes to point out, he could just be a flashier version of Wilmer Flores with better defense.
If Baez does add that power and become a superstar, it’s probably going to look a lot more like Adrian Beltre than the name that always got mentioned with him as a prospect, Gary Sheffield. Then again, if you looked in the future window of baseball outcomes hoping to see Gary Sheffield and instead saw Adrian Beltre, wouldn’t you take it?