One of the truisms of baseball is that everybody loves a good sleeper prospect, a player standing in the shadows of an organization’s top 10 just waiting to take a step forward into a brighter light. Whether or not we accept participation in one of the basic tenets of our social construct—that coolness is best served before the taint of ubiquity expands and dilutes the original item or action originally classified as cool—jumping on the bandwagon before that bandwagon becomes a city bus is the class signifier of sports fandom.
Going into the 2013 season, each individual team list featured an “On the Rise” section where these under-the-radar types were profiled and projected. Scouting introspection is an important part of the evaluation process, and looking back on the hits and misses of the 2013 sleeper class could encourage more debate and discussion about our process and methods of evaluation. I stress that it’s not about the pompous desire to be right, or the sententious stance against being wrong; rather, it’s about the [individual] player finding production on the field in the midst of a schizophrenic developmental process, and about our investigative approach to finding the prospects that are ready for those positive developmental steps. Anybody can pick three young names out of a system and sell the dreams of their sunny tomorrow. But dart throwing isn’t a process, it’s a parlor trick, one made more remarkable through the magic of alcohol and casual lighting. When the goal is depth, it’s important to understand where to dig and why to dig rather than just using Google searches and stat lines to unearth the dirt.
The Player: RHP Zach Davies (Orioles)
On the Rise Comment: "A 26th-round draft pick in 2011, Davies might not look the part, but he is most certainly a pitcher to keep an eye on. The stuff isn’t crazy, but his feel for pitching and deep arsenal should allow him to keep minor-league hitters off balance and off the pedestrian fastball.”
What Happened: The 20-year-old put together a very solid season at an advanced level, making 26 starts and logging 149 innings in the Carolina League. Davies’ ability to change speeds and hit his spots allowed him to induce weak contact and limit damage, but he also improved his bat-missing ability; the diminutive righty had 74 strikeouts in his final 74 innings of work. The ceiling is limited because the stuff is average at best–and the most likely landing spot is at the back of a rotation or the middle of a ‘pen –but his prospect status has improved and will most likely land him in the top 10 of the Orioles system this season despite the ultimate projection.
The Player: RHP Dylan Baker (Indians)
On the Rise Comment: “A fifth-round pick in the 2012 draft, Baker has excellent arm strength, and can show three pitches that flash above-average potential. His command needs refinement, and his changeup is currently behind the low-mid 90s fastball and breaking ball, but the profile is very promising, either as a strong-bodied innings chewer, or a max-effort, two-pitch reliever if he fails to refine along the way.”
What Happened: Baker made the jump to full-season ball, and was solid but not spectacular, which is still a step in the right direction. The fastball was meaty in the low 90s and touching a little higher, with a solid breaking ball and changeup combo on the secondary side. The command needs work, and the stuff is more solid-average than plus, but it was a positive developmental season and his prospect stock is improving.
The Player: RHP Vince Velazquez (Astros)
On the Rise Comment: “Prototypical size; a very loose and fluid arm; works in the low 90s with the fastball, but several sources think he has more velocity ready to come on; improving secondary mix; could jump up list if velo spikes and command holds.”
What Happened: Velazquez’s velocity was consistent in the plus range (showing the ability to go get more without sacrificing control), and the changeup continued to show plus potential. The breaking ball would come and go and needs refinement before it projects to average, but the fastball/changeup combo and the ability to throw strikes allowed for on-the-field results, and Velazquez will move up into the top 10 prospects in the Astros system.
The Player: OF Gabriel Guerrero (Mariners)
On the Rise Comment: “Prototypical right field profile, with plus power potential and a strong arm. The nephew of Vlad Guerrero, Gabriel signed out of the Dominican Republic in 2011, and absolutely crushed at the complex level in 2012. Look for the 19-year-old to continue crushing in short-season ball in 2013.”
What Happened: Guerrero the Nephew jumped straight to the pitcher-friendly Midwest League, and after a slow start in the colder months, the 19-year-old hit over .300 in the second half of the season. Guerrero has the impressive hand-eye coordination and raw pop in his stick, but pitch recognition and an aggressive approach could take his elevated stock and send it plummeting next season against more advanced pitching.
The Player: RHP Edwin Diaz (Mariners)
On the Rise Comment: “Ultra-projectable, with long limbs and a fast, easy arm, Diaz can already work in the low-mid-90s with his heater, and already shows a promising breaking ball. The native of Puerto Rico will pitch the entire 2013 season as a 19-year-old, and could be on the verge of a breakout.
What Happened: Diaz really exploded in 2013, mixing his potent fastball and plus potential breaking ball with improved command, which allowed him to overwhelm short-season bats in the rookie Appalachian league. Scouts love the arm speed and ease of delivery, and one source thinks he could end up with three above-average pitches down the line. It’s not the most intimidating physical package in the system, but the stuff is legit and he’s a no-doubt top 10 talent in the system going forward.
The Player: 2B Rougned Odor (Rangers)
On the Rise Comment: “With an advanced hit tool, solid-average to plus defensive tools at second, and enough #swagger to supply an entire team, Odor is a prospect that should be in the top 10 discussion for years to come. He doesn’t have a crazy ceiling, but not many 19-years-old have his floor, and it’s entirely possibly that he reaches the Double-A level at some point in 2013.”
What Happened: Odor hit his way to Double-A, and the hit tool is staring to look like a future high 6 or 7 at the highest level. The #swagger is very intense, and Odor is the last player you want to question on the field, and the first player who will remind you of the consequences if you happen to cross that boundary, but the combination of intensity and baseball skill will make him a major leaguer for a very long time. You can make an easy case for Odor in the top five in the Rangers’ system, and if you really believe in the bat, he could be ranked even higher.
The Player: Nick Williams (Rangers)
On the Rise Comment: “2nd-round pick in the 2012 draft, Williams can flat-out rake, showing the ability to square up velocity and make loud contact to all fields. While he doesn’t have the same defensive qualities as complex teammate and fellow 2012 draftee Lewis Brinson, his offensive projections are high enough to play in left field and propel him up prospect lists in 2013.
What Happened: On a team absolutely jacked with offensive talent, Williams emerged as one of the best pure sticks, flashing his high-end hit tool despite a generally unrefined approach to the rest of his game. Williams is raw, but his natural bat-to-ball ability is the carrying skill that separated him from his contemporaries on Team Whiff and pushed him up the prospect tier. Williams might not have the raw power of Gallo or Mazara or the defensive feel of Brinson, but his stroke from the left side is going to play and his stock could continue to rise.
The Player: IF/OF Franklin Barreto (Blue Jays)
On the Rise Comment: “Viewed by many as the top international target available in 2012, Barreto might be small in stature, but his tools can pack a loud punch. While his ultimate role is unclear, his athleticism and overall feel for the game open up numerous possibilities, and his ability to sting a baseball could be his ticket up the prospect lists regardless of his position on the diamond.”
What Happened: Barreto’s ultimate defensive home is far from determined, as he is highly unlikely to stick at shortstop yet has the athleticism and arm strength to eventually transition to the outfield. But the bat is very good, with a quick trigger and fast hands, allowing him to sting baseballs despite being undersized and extremely young for stateside ball. Barreto is one of the higher ceiling players in the Jays system, and a likely candidate to not only crack the top 10 but push for a spot in the top five.
The Player: 3B Hector Veloz (Orioles)
On the Rise Comment: “A 19-year-old Dominican that showed legit pop in his stateside debut, Veloz could jump up the prospect queue in 2013 with a strong short-season campaign in the New York-Penn League. He’s not likely to make a name for himself defensively, but if the hit/power develop to projections, Veloz’s bat will play anywhere. In a system thin on power bats, Veloz could emerge as the most intriguing.”
What Happened: I really liked Veloz’s batting practice displays this season, but the game action was soft, with pitch-recognition issues and a long swing against live pitching. He’s still very young and the bat has too much juice to give up on, but I was expecting a better offensive force, even if the overall package was raw. Veloz is a good candidate to repeat the short-season level, and perhaps after another year of development he will be ready to take a step forward as a prospect.
The Player: SS Jose Vinicio (Red Sox)
On the Rise Comment: “Latin American bonus baby from the 2009 class, Vinicio spent two years at the complex level before making the jump to full-season ball in 2012. The 19-year-old has legit shortstop skills and projects to stay up the middle as he develops. The bat is immature at present, but as Vinicio adds strength and refines his approach, he has the type of bat speed to make hard contact and become a solid all-around talent.”
What Happened: The defensive chops at a premium position continue to carry the profile, but the immature bat proved to be more underdeveloped than expected. Without much physical strength and with an ugly swing, Vinicio was overwhelmed by Sally League arms, hitting an anemic .192 and rarely finding hard contact. It was just a very weak swing, especially from the right side, where the 20-year-old produced an OPS of .332. Despite some skill with the leather, the bat turned off so many sources that it would take an incredible turnaround at the plate to convince people that he has a major-league future.
The Player: C Cameron Gallagher
On the Rise Comment: “Catchers with sustainable defensive profiles behind the plate and power potential in the bat are always in high demand, and Gallagher could end up with that description. A second-round pick in 2011, the 6’3’’ 210-lb. catcher is still very much a raw product behind the dish, but he has the necessary tools to shape at the position, and the bat has already turned heads at the short-season level.”
What Happened: Gallagher’s bat didn’t turn many heads at the full-season level, as the 20-year-old struggled to clear the Mendoza line, hitting a gentle .193 in the second half of the season. With dual-threat potential, a slower developmental plan will be worth the wait, as both the bat and the glove have a long way to go before the production matches the projections. Based on conversations with a few scouts, it’s entirely possible that Gallagher once again finds himself as an On the Rise prospect in 2014.
The Player: OF Romy Jimenez (Twins)
On the Rise Comment: “Because of injury, Jimenez had only eight games of stateside baseball under his belt heading into the 2012 season, but the 21-year-old Dominican got right to work, hitting .347/.439/.669 in 35 games of action at Elizabethton. With an easy swing and a natural feel for contact, Jimenez will be yet another quality prospect to watch as he moves up to the Midwest League.”
What Happened: Jimenez has hit at every level in his brief professional career, so after a strong Appalachian campaign in 2012, Jimenez looked ready to pop in 2013 at the full-season level. Unfortunately, Jimenez fell on his seat in a small Midwest League sample, hitting under .100 in 74 at-bats. The bat showed a little more life after a demotion back to Elizabethton, but the final line was still quite sour, and the prospect that was set to explode barely made a whimper.
The Player: 3B Dante Bichette, Jr. (Yankees)
On the Rise Comment: “Baseball bloodlines and a lot of industry love for Bichette, the Yankees’ supplemental first-round pick in 2011. Bichette really struggled in his full-season debut in 2012, but the bat has some juice and through repetition he has a chance to stick around at third going forward. For a guy that slugged .331, Bichette has plenty of backers, and if he rebounds in a return trip to the Sally League, he could be right back in the prospect discussion.”
What Happened: Unfortunately for Baseball Prospectus, several of my sources were the aforementioned Bichette backers, and the On the Rise distinction turned out to be a big fail. Bichette the Younger was just plain bad at the plate, making poor contact and proving to be a streaky hitter, ranging from casually tepid to ice cold. I can’t find a single source that actually believes in the bat after his Sally League performance, and I’d be shocked if the player makes an appearance on any prospect list in the near future.
The Player: SS Jake Hager (Rays)
On the Rise Comment: “A candidate for the top 10 this year, Hager just missed the list because of questions about his long-term profile at shortstop. A balanced, skill-oriented player, Hager can do a little of everything and has a very good chance of developing into a major-league player, with a utility future as a floor.”
What Happened: Hager played 113 games at the High-A level at the age of 20, so let’s give him plenty of credit for staying above water in the Florida State League, especially in the first half of the season. But the bat held a mighty chill in the second half, as the contact ability diminished and the pop was barely audible, with six extra-base hits in his final 228 at-bats. Because of the defensive profile, the bat needs to play at a high level if he has any dream of being a major-league regular, and several sources that were high on Hager coming into the season decided to put down the pipe after his late-summer shortfalls. Again, this is still a legit prospect, but as an On the Rise player in 2013, it was expected that Hager would take a step forward and move into the top 10 in the Rays’ system. Despite having developmental room to grow, the prospect status has taken a hit entering the 2014 campaign.