Prospect #1: SS Francisco Lindor
Background with Player: My eyes; industry sources.
Who: Selected eighth overall in the 2011 draft, Lindor had enough heat on his name after pre-draft workouts that some in the industry thought Seattle would pop the young Puerto Rican with the second-overall pick. I’ve seen a lot of quality up-the-middle talent since I started down this prospect evaluation road, and rarely will a 17-year-old (now 18) shortstop showcase the type of skills to make you feel confident in their future major-league success. After watching Lindor in the Fall Instructional League, I have very little doubt that he will develop into a very good major leaguer, one that can play a premium defensive position while providing above-average offensive production. At the plate, Lindor can track balls from release point to target like a ten-year veteran, showing advanced recognition skills and an approach that should put him in favorable hitting environments. His hands and hips work very well, showing fluidity when they fire, and bringing his bat head into the zone quickly and efficiently. He shows contact ability and he drives through the ball with excellent extension; it’s easy to project a plus hit tool and at least solid-average power at maturity. In the field, Lindor is as precocious and instinctual as positional prince Jurickson Profar, showing easy actions, a very strong arm, and a preternatural feel for his craft. I’m slobbering all over Lindor without apology. I put a note in his locker after class. I hope he checks the box marked “yes.”
What Could Go Wrong in 2012: Lindor was a young high school draftee, turning 18-years-old after the 2011 season had already ended, so that youth will ride sidesaddle in the developmental process, both as a positive and negative. The downside to youth is inexperience, and all the praise that Lindor receives for this tools and his polish can’t change the reality of his limited existence. It’s likely that Lindor moves to full-season ball at some point in 2012, and the jump will represent the biggest challenge so far in Lindor’s brief career. Development is about failure and adjustment, and given the level of competition Lindor is likely to face, I think he could initially struggle, at least until he makes the necessary adjustments. This is a player that needs to see sharp breaking balls, that needs to see above-average velocity, that needs to face sequences and situations that you just can’t simulate with the same intensity on a practice field. Failure can be a good thing for young players, even if the exposure to failure is short-lived, as it most likely will be in the case of Lindor. I think he has a chance to be a star, and to be honest, I think he makes the necessary adjustments very quickly and emerges as a top tier prospect in the game before the year is out.
Prospect #2: OF Luigi Rodriguez
Background with Player: My eyes.
Who: An under-the-radar type of player from the beginning, Rodriguez took a huge step forward in 2011, flashing all sorts of tools in the complex league before taking his talents to Lake County for full-season ball. The 19-year-old Dominican has all the necessary skills not only to stick around in center field, but develop into an above-average player at the position, with plus-plus athleticism, a strong arm, and good feel for the game. At the plate, Rodriguez uses his excellent hand-eye coordination to make consistent contact, and his approach forces pitchers to work into deep counts. The end result could be a major leaguer that can hit at the top of a lineup, with plus defensive skills at a premium defensive position.
What Could Go Wrong in 2012: While not a player I would call slappy at the plate, Rodriguez doesn’t pack a big punch; his swing gets into the zone quickly and efficiently, but despite a path that keeps the stick in the zone for a long time and promotes contact, the plane is flat and the contact isn’t always loud. As he climbs the professional ladder, pitchers will look to take advantage of this particular weakness, expanding their zone and challenging the young hitter with stuff in the upper quadrant. As a contact hitter, Rodriguez will need to add a little more thunder to his game to keep pitchers honest and prevent his contact from being empty. I’m not a big fan of comps, but Rodriguez’s game is similar to Yankees prospect Mason Williams. Both share speed and athleticism up the middle, slight frames, and make a lot of contact at the plate. I think Rodriguez takes another step forward in 2012, but exploitation of the weaknesses in his game is always a possibility.
Prospect #3: RHP Dillon Howard
Background with Player: Industry sources.
Who: Drafted in the second-round and given an above-slot bonus of $1.85M, the Arkansas native has all the characteristics of a future power arm, with size, a big fastball with velocity and movement, and good secondary potential.
What Could Go Wrong in 2012: The 6’4’’ righty will be making his professional debut in 2012, and like any young arm with immature pitches, the developmental process can lead to unattractive statistical production. With Howard’s present fastball already considered by many to be a plus offering—with both velocity and movement—he should be able to miss bats and flash dominance on the back of that pitch alone. The setbacks are likely to arrive during the developmental process of the secondary pitches, especially the curve, a pitch many observers were never impressed with as an amateur. High school arms making the transition to pro ball face many obstacles in their first few seasons, as the arsenals aren’t the only aspect of their game that are inching towards maturity. In 2012, Howard will encounter some of these obstacles, and when the fastball is holstered for developmental purposes, it’s likely that the young right-hander with the ceiling of a very good rotational horse, will get to play meet-and-greet with his first on-field struggles.
Prospect #4: 3B Robel Garcia
Background with Player: My eyes.
Who: 18-year-old Dominican infielder with an impressive combo of polish and projection. Garcia first caught my eye back in July when I spent a week sweating in his presence during the short-season Arizona League. I was first drawn to his defensive skills at the hot corner, where his footwork, fielding actions, and strong arm stood out amongst his underdeveloped contemporaries. I took note of his name, number, and defensive chops, and went about the business of fighting dehydration and sunstroke. A few days later, Garcia showed off his impressive bat speed and power potential, staying inside a fastball and barreling the pitch with authority. With each subsequent at-bat, the teenager continued to put wood to ball, using all fields and showing a sober approach in an environment where being aggressive and casual with the swing is the norm.
What Could Go Wrong in 2012: It depends on the assignment. Full-season pitching could present a few problems for the young hitter, especially quality stuff on the inner half of the plate and more advanced sequencing. As impressed as I was with Garcia’s bat speed in the complex league, let’s not pretend that he was facing a lot of plus stuff, and given the developmental nature of the league itself, it’s difficult to accurately recognize bat speed from hitters who are looking to get the jump on fastballs and are prone to cheat into the zone. In a professional environment where more off-speed stuff is on the menu, hitters who trigger early will be exposed. Not to suggest that Garcia’s complex league success was predicated on the early trigger; rather, it’s just difficult to evaluate that particular characteristic at the lowest level, and the challenges presented by a more advanced league can only help in the evaluation process. Ultimately, I think Garcia has the tools to develop into a very legit hot-corner prospect, but he’s very young and his bat did have some swing and miss at the complex level, so it’s not all wine and roses. The leveraged swing will be tested against pitchers that can come inside, and setbacks are likely to occur if Garcia doesn’t shorten it up a bit.
Prospect #5: IF Tony Wolters
Background with Player: My eyes; industry sources.
Who: The club’s third-round selection in the 2010 draft, Wolters was impressive in the short-season New York-Penn League in 2011, showing contact ability, a mature approach, and the type of gamer mentality that is as infectious on the field as it is endearing in the stands; when watching Wolters, you find yourself rooting for him. Of course I’m a jerk, so I’m not Wolters’ biggest fan; I don’t think he can stick on the left-side of the infield, and he doesn’t have the type of physical projection to stimulate my dreams of the future. He is fun to watch, though, as his max-effort style and ability to make the play despite not looking like he can make the play forces you to pay attention. Unfortunately, the more you pay attention, the more you question his long-term future, as the tools don’t look (or project) to be above-average and the ceiling isn’t exactly high enough for a quality mural bearing his resemblance.
What Could Go Wrong in 2012: Wolters should keep making good contact, even though I’ve never been particularly enamored with his setup or swing mechanics; he doesn’t have the shortest path to the ball and it never looks easy. Wolters is also going to continue putting himself in good hitting situations and reaching base at a high-clip; he has pitch recognition skills and isn’t likely to provide pitchers with a roadmap for easy outs. My concern for 2012 (and beyond) is what else can Wolters bring to the table, especially against more advanced pitching? He isn’t going to hit for power, having some gap-to-gap ability but nothing that will force pitchers to be overly cautious with their approach. He isn’t a burner, so it’s not like his legs are going to change the game despite the fact that the speed plays up a bit on the field. Add to the mix a positional change that I believe is likely occur given the organizational depth at shortstop, and Wolters looks like a hit-tool second baseman with a combination of grit and good face. I think that makes him a legit prospect and a player that belongs on this list, but his long-term future isn’t on the same cloud as some of his contemporaries at the position. For Wolters, what could go wrong in 2012 is that this prognostication proves to be realistic.