The face of the Reds’ system is half-man, half-radar gun. That paints an interesting mental image of Aroldis Chapman, but it's an accurate description: the Cuban southpaw with the slingshot for an arm routinely hits triple digits on the gun, often running his heat north of 104 mph, which is just stupid velocity. The sex appeal of his fastball aside, I don’t want to spend too much time focusing on Aroldis Chapman, at least as far as this exercise goes; while technically still a rookie, instructions to keep a spot on the 25-man roster set aside for Chapman are already tattooed on the collective forehead of the front office. Unless his arm detaches from his body and lands in the dugout during a pitch, Chapman is going to be the most feared reliever in baseball at worst, and a top-of-the-rotation starter at best. For this particular article, let’s just move away from the sure thing, and give the next four prospects in the Reds' system a piece of the sidewalk, and detail what could go wrong in the upcoming season.
Prospect #1: Devin Mesoraco
Who: He's a former first-round pick who finally started to turn his raw tools into game production, hitting a combined .302/.377/.587 over three levels. Armed with above-average raw power, Mesoraco projects to hit 15-20 home runs at the major-league level, with enough behind the plate to stick at the position.
What Could Go Wrong in ’11: His swing might prove problematic against advanced pitching. You thought I was going to opine that Mesoraco’s explosion in ’10 was more a product of luck, level repetition, and smoke, right? Wrong. Let’s just get this out of the way: Mesoraco’s 2010 performance was legit. Yes, repeating High-A to start the season no doubt helped spring him forward, but the outburst was a product of his hard work and his impressive offensive tools, and not a flash of brilliance from a fringy player. Mesoraco finally learned to stop fighting against himself at the plate, staying more balanced and letting his plus raw strength find a home in his swing. The slight mechanical adjustments and confidence that resulted from the on-the-field success propelled him all the way to Triple-A, putting him on the doorstep of the big leagues, with a likely call-up at some point in 2011 in the offing.
But just because 2010 was legit, and his estimated time of arrival in Cincinnati is in the immediate future, that doesn’t mean he is going to thrive in 2011 the way he did for most of the previous season. In fact, I think it’s more likely that he takes a step back than takes another step forward, and the culprit will be his swing. While certainly not an all-or-nothing power threat, Mesoraco does tend to load up his stroke for the big thrill, dropping his back half and sending an exaggerated swing plane through the zone. There's nothing wrong with having a slightly-upper-cut swing, in fact, you will find the majority of good hitters possess one. But hitting for power can be a drug with negative effect, and the more you crave the long ball, the more likely that your overall approach and hit tool suffer as a result.
Mesoraco doesn’t own a plus hit tool, but it is good enough to allow the power to play, so this isn’t a major long-term concern. However, as he continues facing advanced pitching, he is going to offer those polished hurlers more avenues of exploitation, and if he continues to take a power approach to the plate at the expense of his hitting fundamentals, he is going to struggle until he makes the necessary adjustments. As a determined player who continued moving forward in the face of a possible “bust” outcome, it is only a matter of time before Mesoraco finds a balance between his power potential and the need to utilize that power via hit tool consistency. Until that occurs, 2011 might see Cincinnati’s catcher of the future take a step back (or to the side) before he can take a step forward. I’m a believer in his long-term offensive outlook, which means he should offer above-average value at the position, but his bat isn’t special enough to change the world, so control the enthusiasm surrounding his future stardom.
Prospect #2: Yorman Rodriguez
Who: In 2008, the Reds landed one of the most coveted talents in Latin America by giving Rodriguez, a 16-year-old Venezuelan, a $2.5 million signing bonus. While not quite a tools overlord, Rodriguez is a high-ceiling talent, showing a promising hit tool, plus power potential, above-average speed, and plus-plus raw arm strength in right-field.
What Could Go Wrong in ’11: His approach. Rodriguez didn’t sign for $2.5 million because he liked to work the count; he was signed because of his tools and the promise those tools bring to the table. At present, Yorman (I’m not on a first-name basis with the young prospect, but who doesn’t like referring to someone as Yorman when the opportunity arises?) loves to swing the bat, and rightfully so, especially against short-season pitching. But full-season ball will bring him up against pitchers who like to mix in more refined secondary offerings, and his aggressive approach could turn the 2011 season into a developmental year. [Read: his stats might suck, but we can find positives in the process.]
As an aggressive hitter who is programmed to swing, recognizing and laying off pitches that he can’t barrel will present a major challenge in the coming year. He simply hasn’t been challenged enough by quality stuff, and when he has faced pitchers that present him with quality secondary offerings, he has struggled. There's lots to like about this player, as is evident by my aggressive ranking, but the package is still raw, and the jump from short-season to full-season can overwhelm even the best prospects. If you go into the season looking for development you will no doubt survive the pitfalls of the process. If you go in looking for $2.5 million worth of full-on tools actualization right now this instant, you are setting yourself up for disappointment, because Yorman Rodriguez is an investment that isn’t close to maturity.
Prospect #3: Billy Hamilton
Who: A second-round pick in the 2009 draft, Hamilton has “set yourself on fire and run to the nearest water source” speed, routinely clocking sub-3.8 times going down the line to first base. A contact hitter with good bat control, Hamilton projects to hit for average, steal bases at a ridiculously high-clip, and has more than enough athleticism to handle the middle of the diamond defensively.
What Could Go Wrong in ’11: In the short-term, Hamilton is going to be successful; he is going to make enough contact to allow his legs to scratch out hits, and his defense is going to improve with repetition. Hamilton’s long-term issue, the one that could end up making him a utility infielder rather than a star, is his lack of strength and a slasher's approach to hitting.
From both sides of the plate, Hamilton is a jailbreak hitter, using his hands to punch the ball while his body already has its sights set on the first-base line. As a player without any power projection, and a body not designed for much mass, Hamilton’s success will be married to his ability to make enough contact to keep his legs in the game. Against more advanced pitching, his slasher approach will open up windows of opportunity for pitchers to exploit; without fear of punishment, pitchers will feel comfortable challenging Hamilton with good fastballs, and that will shift the onus onto him, to either find a way to get some strength in his swing (enough to make hard contact), or become the only hitter in baseball to achieve star status by bunting in every at-bat. In short, Hamilton is going to put up a good average and massive stolen base totals in 2011, and that will probably keep him high on prospect lists. But without the strength to add a dimension to his offensive game, his production will slip as he advances, and could ultimately prevent him from becoming the player his athleticism suggests he could become.
Prospect #4: Yasmani Grandal
Who: The 12th overall pick in the 2010 draft, Grandal, a native of Cuba, only has eight games' worth of complex-league action under his belt, but already ranks among the top catching prospects in baseball. Loaded with defensive tools, Grandal also has a quality bat, especially from the left side of the plate, where he offers a combination of contact and power potential that could make him an above-average starter at the major-league level.
What Could Go Wrong in ’11: Aggressive promotion and the developmental complications that arise as a result. It’s looking more likely that the Reds are going to jump the advanced backstop to Double-A Carolina to start the season, which is simultaneously warranted based on the skill set, yet aggressive based on the level of competition on his resumé. While certainly an advanced player; Grandal has very mature actions behind the plate, and his bat (especially from the left-side) offers solid contact ability and some pop, thanks in part to his strong wrists and smooth, fluid swing. But the jump to Double-A is one of the biggest in baseball, and the 22-year-old prospect is basically making that leap straight from college, save the eight games of complex league action he saw after he signed.
As a better defensive version of Devin Mesoraco with less offensive prowess and projection, Grandal isn’t a likely candidate to hit the ground of Double-A at a full sprint. I think its more likely that he struggles out of the gate, especially from the right-side of the plate (that experiment might not be long for the world), but makes the necessary adjustments as the year rolls on and sets himself up for his major-league debut at some point in the 2012 season. Because Grandal was the recipient of a major-league deal, his development (at least in the minors) will need to be on an accelerated pace, and even if the Reds scale back the aggressive deployment plan, the Cuban catcher will no doubt see the level at some point in the summer. If the bat drags behind the glove and is slow to adjust to the level of competition, the results on the field, at least statistically, won’t be very appetizing, and that could retard some of the momentum he is currently carrying into his first full season of professional baseball.