Our next player in the Prospect Debate series is Texas Rangers outfielder Lewis Brinson, the no. 9 rated prospect in the Baseball Prospectus system this winter. Brinson was taken with the 29th pick of the 2012 draft, and while he’s posted decent numbers in his three-plus years in the system, he has frustrated scouts along the way, and has received as many mixed reviews as any outfield prospect I’ve discussed with talent evaluators.
To help understand why he’s such a frustrating prospect, I enlisted the help of Prospect Team members Craig Goldstein and Mauricio Rubio to discuss what makes him one of the most talented members of the deep Rangers system, but also why there’s still an uphill battle for him to become a big-league contributor.
Christopher Crawford: When I've talked to scouts about Brinson—all the way back to when he was a senior at Coral Springs High School in Florida—the word risk seemed to pop up in the conversation a considerable amount of the time. Is it fair to say that Brinson is one of the more volatile outfield prospects in baseball? Why or why not?
Craig Goldstein: I think volatile is the perfect word. Perhaps more perfect than risk. There is a yawning chasm between Brinson's ceiling and floor, and the question mark about him is the one tool (hit) that has the biggest effect on where he lands as a player between those two endpoints. Brinson isn't on any prospect lists, last landing on BP's 2013 list as the no. 99 prospect. Since then, he's actually shown marked improvement, but how his swing is going to play as he moves up the minor-league chain is an open question.
If he ultimately ends up with an above-average hit tool (unlikely), we're talking about one of the better players in the game—possibly a superstar—thanks to his ability to defend in center field, along with plus speed and (raw) power. If we're in this hypothetical world where he's an above-average hitter, that power is going to play and he's going to be extremely valuable as an asset.
If he has a fringe-average hit tool (I think this is likely), he's still a useful asset thanks to the above-mentioned traits, but his year-to-year value could fluctuate wildly depending on if the fringe-average tool plays true or swings lucky/unlucky. In the cases where he is unlucky, even his defense, speed, and power may not make him a worthwhile contributor. Some years he could be an all-star performer, others a below-average player.
If his hit tool is below average (or well below average), he's a toolsy guy teams keep taking chances on in the event he actually puts something together. Perhaps a la Justin Maxwell. Useful as a reserve outfielder/minor-league deal type. Even in this case, variance will probably grant him a fun season or two, but mostly he'll be a cautionary tale we tell about the next toolsy athlete who might or might not hit.
I should add that volatile fits more than risk to me because the combination of defense, power, and speed is enough to make him a major leaguer, and so even the floor has value there, in my opinion, which mitigates risk a bit. The range of outcomes is extremely varied, and that's why the opinions can be so different.
Mauricio Rubio: I certainly think volatile is an apt descriptor when it comes to Brinson. Another is ‘polarizing,’ as opinions on the most controversial part of the entire package, the hit tool, vary from evaluator to evaluator. Look, the raw tools on the hit are plus. He has quick hands and strong wrists, plus bat speed, and when he looks right he barrels up the ball and allows you to dream on the in game utility of the hit tool. Other times he can be in an 0-1 count and you know it's going to end in a strikeout or weak contact because he's just going up there with the intent to chase in order to make contact.
This is a naturally gifted player with loud raw tools and an incredibly immature approach, that type of profile—one that is more dream than substance—will always lend itself to both volatility and polarity when it comes to evaluators. I personally believe the hit tool can get to average and really bring the entire package together enough to play at the major-league level. It's a profile I can't quit because the other tools are so loud, but I completely understand how divisive Brinson can be.
CG: The only thing that stands out to me here as a surprise is to see "plus tools" in regards to Brinson's hit. Obviously the bat speed, hands, and wrists are great, and if it's only in reference to those aspects I get it. But the guy struck out more than Joey Gallo did in Low-A in 2013. He has never struck out below a 24.7 percent rate, and while I know we're talking tools and scouting, contact isn't his forte in terms of hit tool. He doesn't control the barrel very well, and his swing (at times) features a lot of torque that's going to result in hard contact, but also a lot of misses on in-zone pitches.
I stress "at times" because over four different viewings in two years, I'm not sure I've ever seen Brinson with the same swing. He's always tinkering—and that's great that he works so hard to get better, but concerning that he can't find something that he's comfortable with. On the whole, the trend has been good in terms of adjustments made, as I think he's not gearing up for power as often, and letting that come naturally at this point, but there's never going to be a point where he's making enough contact that'd I'd be comfortable with "plus" and "hit" in the context with Brinson. I know you were speaking of the individual components, and not the entire package, but it did stand out to me, in that sense.
CC: So you both agree that there's a lot of risk and a lot of reward here offensively. What about defensively? Is Brinson a lock to end up in center field, or is there a chance that he is "forced" to move to a corner?
MR: While the profile on the offensive end is abstract and skews heavy towards projection, the defensive skill set has come together a lot quicker. The glove is real obvious with Brinson, Craig already mentioned that the reads in center are improving. That's a big deal when it comes to a guy with plus speed like Brinson. It's difficult for me to see him moving off of center.
CG: I'd be surprised if he was forced out of center by anything but an established starter who makes a stink about moving. He's high-waisted with long graceful strides in the field and impressive closing speed. He reads balls well, and while I've seen him take the odd route or two—or hesitate before taking off—those kinks seem to be fewer and further between upon each sighting. He works the gaps really well, and it'd be a shame to lose the ability to cover both gaps the way Brinson can. I'm not sure I buy that a team would do that without someone at least his equal standing in the way.
CC: Okay, so we agree on the hit tool, and we agree on the defense. What about the power tool? I saw Brinson hit tape shots in the 2012 Under-Armour All-American game, and the power numbers have been pretty solid in his two-plus years in the system. Can it translate at the big-league level even with that much swing and miss?
CG: To its fullest abilities? No. To a point that it functions as a positive for both Brinson and the team? Yeah. I think part of the power is that he sometimes swings from his heels, so while he will whiff a lot, when he connects, it's hard contact. When we were in Spring Training, we overheard a scout saying Brinson hit a ball so hard he didn't even see it off contact. He's done well to adjust his swing, as mentioned before, and that gives me hope that he can keep making adjustments that will allow him to make more contact and let his power come from his hands and bat speed, rather than a torqued-up swing.
He'll never lack for swing and miss, but I think the more he can reduce it—even at the expense of some power—the more useful a player he is going forward, because there should still be enough natural power to play. Ideally, he adjusts his approach to the point where he can work himself into advantageous counts, which would allow him to gear up for a specific pitch without giving away the at-bat, but that type of approach can be hard to develop, much less maintain.
MR: I think the power is capped because of the contact issues. It’s plus-plus raw, but he won’t be able to tap into the full potential in game. However, it can certainly play to plus in game for me. I know the contact issues are still present with him, but I think he has the talent to make the necessary adjustments to get the hit tool to a level that allows for plus power.
Ceiling/Floor for Goldstein: If literally everything hits its 100th percentile outcome, Brinson is a role-7 player for me with plus defense, plus power, average hit, and plus speed. This is supremely unlikely given the risk involved, so a more probable outcome is something like a role-5 player with significant contact issues, causing the hit tool to play fringe average and the power to play down to an average level. The defense should still be there, though, and at center field that's a solid overall package. The floor is a role-3 player for me, and while I don't think this outcome is particularly likely either thanks to the defense up the middle, the minors are full of players who can defend and can't hit. If the hit tool doesn't play to my expectations, I have to allow for the possibility that the overall package just won't be playable outside of an emergency defensive call-up.
Ceiling/Floor for Rubio: If he hits the ceiling you’re talking about a tooled up player. This is a guy with 5 hit, 7 power, and 6 speed while playing 6 defense in center field. That’s a role 7 player and an elite level talent. That won’t happen though; realistically he can be a solid-average regular, if the hit plays down to below average he still has enough power and speed to make the package interesting and the defense will still be a premium. For me the floor is a 4, up-and-down guy who gets looks for his speed, power, and defense. Even if he struggles, someone will always give him looks in the hopes he figures the hit tool out.
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