Who: Christian Bethancourt (Braves)
Background with Player: My own eyes; information from industry sources
Documented Observations and Prognostications: For nearly two years, I’ve been waxing hyperbolic on Bethancourt’s skill set, at times saying he might be the best catching prospect in the minors. On a raw tool front, I have put Bethancourt’s arm strength and release from behind the plate as 80-grade attributes, as I’ve clocked pop times under 1.8 and others (sources) have clocked him even faster (1.65). In fact, 80-grade might not do his raw arm strength justice; if you can’t tell, his arm is insanely strong.

At the plate, the Panamanian catcher has crazy pop, using his raw strength and fast hands to spray balls to all fields. While his batting-practice displays can slick your hair up Teddy-boy style, the translation to game action has been slow. While he’s immature with the total skill package, the promise is overwhelming. I absolutely love Bethancourt, and I think he is going to be a star.

What Could Go Wrong with my Documented Observations and Prognostications: Bethancourt is only 20 years old, and off-field growth is as important as on-field growth. The toolsy catcher has some growing up to do, and that can lead to bumps in the developmental process. (This is true of most underdeveloped talent.) Specific to Bethancourt, my prognostications could fail me because I tend to fall in love with arm strength and power potential, even in the face of obstacles in the skill set that could limit the tools’ utility in game action. Watching Bethancourt’s feet maneuver into position, transfer ball from glove to hand, and coil and release to second are such beautiful sights that I conveniently ignore the fact that his receiving skills could use some work, which is the fundamental foundation of his position.

At the plate, I drool over his easy swing and easy raw power to all fields, but I tend to ignore the approach itself and how it limits him in game action. His swing has some length, and when he fails to properly identify sequence or location, he struggles to adjust, which results in weaker contact and puts him in bad hitting situations. This can doom a young player; the ability to make adjustments against quality competition is paramount to success. I’m on record that Bethancourt has the necessary athleticism, game intelligence, and work ethic to make these adjustments. This is where I can go wrong. In Bethancourt, I see a future star; a well above-average defensive player who can hit in the middle of a major-league lineup at the top of his developmental arc. That’s a huge projection, and there is a wide gap between the present and the future. This could be boom or bust.

Who: Matt Szczur (Cubs)
Background with Player: My own eyes; information from industry sources
DOP: In spring 2011, I wrote the following on BP:

Convincing Szczur to forgo his NFL plans to focus on baseball might end up being the club’s most important move of the year. Szczur has off-the-charts athleticism, routinely showing 80-grade speed in game action. His hit tool was present during his brief 101 at-bats in ’10, hitting .347 with enough patience and pop to give him multiple dimensions at the plate. He projects to hit for average and power, with the latter holding a plus projection thanks to his raw strength and easy swing. Szczur profiles as an everyday center fielder that will eventually convert his 80 straight-line speed into 70 range, and his arm and glove both look to be solid-average tools. With people already lining up to champion his makeup and work ethic, and a collection of tools that could make him a top-tier prospect in the minors, it’s now clear that the Cubs might have stolen one of the best talents in the 2010 draft.

Reports change as players change, both physically and emotionally, and I do have a revised opinion on Szczur. His game speed hasn’t translated like some expected; he looks more like a plus runner than an elite runner. Despite his athleticism, he isn’t an overly athletic player in the field; he sometimes struggles with route/read adjustments in center. Do I still think he has first-division potential? I’m not sure that’s realistic. But I still believe that Szczur is learning how to utilize his physical tools on the baseball field, and it’s not always going to be pretty. I’m standing strong on the 22-year-old, projecting a major-league future, but not a star.

What Could Go Wrong with my DOP: Within the industry, the Szczur bus seems to be losing passengers daily, mostly because the super-athletic outfielder isn’t as super athletic as some expected, the speed isn’t all that speedy, the hit tool isn’t all that sexy, and the power looks great at 5 o’clock but doesn’t seem to show up when it counts. If these doubts persist, I’m going to be standing alone with Szczur in the cold reality of failure. I just see something in this kid that makes me think he can find a way to adjust and maneuver his way to the majors. He might be a late bloomer, taking longer than expected to reach an acceptable developmental level for the highest level. I’m still on board, but I stand a good chance to end up lonely.

Who: Billy Hamilton (Reds)
Background with Player: My own eyes; information with industry sources
DOP: I haven’t been the biggest Hamilton booster; I just don’t see his bat projecting enough to make him a first-division talent. In the 2011 series, I had this to say up Hamilton’s upcoming campaign:

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.

Thanks to developmental improvements in the second half of the season and swiping a remarkable 103 bags in 135 games, Hamilton’s 2011 has to be seen as a success. But the same questions I had prior to the season remain. I have legit doubts about his bat, even though I like his hands and his approach isn’t terrible. Despite the plus athleticism, I question his ability to stick at shortstop; I don’t think his bat would have enough bullets to play second base. I think more advanced competition will be able to exploit the general weakness of his swing, which will Hamilton more of a slapper than a slugger. His speed is insane and would play at the major-league level right now, while his contact ability should help carry him. However, if the package doesn’t play at short (thanks to good but not great leather and good but not great arm), Hamilton will either be a light-hitting second baseman or an electric utility player who might have a few years where his production warrants a starter’s workload.

What Could Go Wrong with my DOP: Hamilton has a very good chance to prove me wrong, and within the industry, he has a long line of people who believe that his bat and glove will develop to major-league standards. Assuming that happens, he’s a first-division talent with a 1980s skill set and an extremely valuable player. Hamilton will move to High-A in 2012, and his offensive production should see a spike. If he takes developmental steps in the field, he will no doubt climb prospect lists and make me look foolish. But in the long run I’m sticking to my doubts about his bat and his ability to stick up the middle. Don’t get me wrong: I love the speed, and there are parts of his approach to hitting that I really like. I just don’t see a first-division shortstop, and I struggle to see a second baseman with enough stick to stick.

Who: Jason Adam (Royals)
Background with Player: My eyes; information from industry sources
DOP: I love Jason Adam. To be honest, I wasn’t that familiar with him until I watched a few innings of his play in spring training. After that, I signed away all dignity and openly admitted my love for his future. After watching more outings and speaking to his coaches and a member of his family, my gut matched my eyes and I took to the net to pontificate accordingly.  From BP, 3/31/2011:

He has a combination of stuff, size, and youth. Adam’s fastball can already sit in the low-to-mid-90s and touch 98. The pitch has good late arm-side run, which allows the ball to creep in on the hands of right-handers and run away from lefties. He flashes a plus curveball at 80 mph with excellent depth that generates plenty of swings and misses. He showed a changeup at one time, but it was a little too firm and lacked movement. As a feel pitch, the changeup will take time develop, but based on the arm speed and the repeatable mechanics, the pitch should have promise and grade out to at least average.

The arm itself is crazy fast and the delivery is relatively smooth, although he opens a bit, which causes him to throw across his body and spin off to first base in the follow-through. Despite the lower slot (3/4), Adam is able to generate good angle on the fastball (he uses his height very well) and stays on top of the curve. He can repeat his mechanics and throws strikes; with more repetition and refinement, above-average command projection is possible. It’s a little to early to offer something definitive, but based on what I’ve seen so far from Adam, it’s very possible that he will develop two plus pitches (with one of them already showing 70 velocity), a solid-average third pitch, at least 50 command, and size that can’t be taught. Add to the equation a natural feel for the mound and youth (he will pitch most of the ’11 season at 19 years old), and you start to see why Adam could become a household name before the season is over. I expect him to start in extended spring training before heading to full-season ball after the Midwest chill releases her icy grip. (Releases her icy grip? This is a low moment. Apologies.)”

Adam was good but not great in 2011, with inconsistent fastball velocity, a curveball that he struggled to stay over, and a changeup that still has a long way to go. His control was good, but his results were far from dominant, and he certainly didn’t become a household name in the prospect world. I’m still a huge fan. I know that arm has velocity, and coming from that plane with that feel for throwing strikes, it is going to be a weapon. I still like the curve and still project it to be a plus pitch down the line, as it plays well off the fastball, and I’ve seen him locate it to either side of the plate against both lefties and righties. The delivery and arm work well, and I can see the changeup becoming a playable pitch. He’s not a top-of-the-rotation starter, but with two pitches with plus potential, a big, durable body, and overall pitchability, I think Adam can become a major-league workhorse number-three starter.

What Could Go Wrong with my DOP: Even though velocity dips are common with high school arms starting in full-season ball, the mechanical approach at the professional level can sometimes permanently hinder the velocity to enhance the control. If the short-burst Adam (that is, the Jason Adam who can throw 92-94 and touch 97 in two-inning stints) can’t hold velocity deeper into games and becomes an 88-91 pitcher, his secondary stuff and command will need to take major steps forward to play against better competition. If his velocity doesn’t return or can’t be held, Adam isn’t going to be the guy I project him to be. But as I said, I think his arm strength is legit and his delivery is sound. I see a pitcher who will have a plus fastball that works in the low 90s, with some arm-side run and the ability to spot the pitch. The curve needs to get sharper, but it has the potential to be a hammer and a plus pitch. The changeup is a feel pitch and it takes time, but if the arm action and slot consistency are there, it has a good environment to mature in. This one could burn me, but I’m not backing away just yet.    

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Professor, how does Hamilton's crazy good range factor in to his ability to stick at SS? Even if he doesn't have the greatest hands or arm, it seems like his range should serve to keep him there.
Not to put words into Mr. Parks' mouth but what usually causes minor league shortstops to morph into second basemen is a lack of arm strength. It doesn't really help to get to ground balls in the hole if you cannot make that long throw to first base. Some players can make up for a lack of arm strength with a quick release, especially if they can get to the ball quickly (Ozzie Smith would be a good example of this), but ideally you want your SS to have the cannon arm (vintage Rafael Furcal).
I've received mixed reports on Hamilton's defense; although, when I've seen him at the position he wasn't bad. His arm isn't crazy strong and his mechanics aren't the prettiest, so some have questioned his ability to make all the necessary throws. I've never seen him attempt a throw from across his body in the hole, so I can't speak to his ability on that particular play. I will say that the reports on the arm (grade) have been varied. Hamilton is obviously a fast-twitch athlete capable of quick lateral movements, so range shouldn't be an issue with him. Some have questioned his actions at the position, but he looked okay to me; not special, but capable at the present. The total defensive package doesn't suggest an above-average future at the position, and as I've mentioned, the reports have been mixed as to whether or not he will be good fit for the position at the highest level. This is where some can really miss the mark, because if Hamilton can stick at SS, that changes everything about his future. A catalytic shortstop that can slap some hits and use his legs to reach base and create chaos when he does has more value than a second baseman with a similar MO.
Jason - Is there any consensus that Hamilton may add some strength, either as he matures physically or through off-season workouts? Are the Reds trying to address this? I realize that every body type is different and adding some muscle may reduce some of his speed, but I would think they would sacrifice some of the 80 speed, for say 65-70, if it meant that he'd make more hard contact and hit for a better average, or would that be a poor decision?
Rarely is there consensus on anything in this business. Hamilton isn't a weakling, but his body is very lean and his frame isn't built to hold bulk. I think he can add some weight and strength as he matures, but I can't say for sure. Some players struggle to add mass, regardless of the efforts by the organization. Just look at Dee Gordon. The Dodgers have been trying to get weight on him from jump without much success. It just depends on the player. Hamilton will probably have 60/65 speed when he's 80 years-old. He is obnoxiously fast. Assuming he does add some mass, I doubt it slows him down much. He's a burner.
An excellent article. I hope there are more of these--it gives a very well-rounded picture of each prospect.
Jason, when the AFL ended some prospect assessments ranked Bethancourt higher than Wil Myers, which surprised me. This was based on a combination of performance and projection. Your thoughts on that? Would you agree?
Ultimately, yes. Right now? Myers is the more advanced bat and I would rank him higher on a prospect list. In the end, Bethancourt has the tools to be the superior player; impact defensive talent from a premium position with power potential.
Awesome article Jason. Really find Bethancourt intriguing. Is there a comp you can apply to him, i.e. a player who at the same age was close to what he is now?
Sweater-sporter, Reading about Bethancourt with that cannon of an arm and long swing with pop makes me conjure up images of a young Benito Santiago. Is that a fair comp?
I've seen Bethancourt many many times.... how much do you question the want?
I'm not sure if I question the #want, but there is some immaturity present (or was present) and sometimes that can derail or depress developmental progress.
Outstanding...I'm ready for part two