Peter Gammons: The struggles of top prospects in MLB

bogaerts red sox

Baseball America’s Pre-season Top Ten Position Player Prospects and 2014 Numbers

BA’s Preseason Top 10 Position Players, 2014
AVG OBP SLUG HR RBI
1. Xander Bogaerts, BOS. 21 .225 .294 .336 8 30
2. Oscar Taveras, STL. 22 .224 .263 .298 2 14
3. Javier Baez, CHC. 21 .231 .265 .492 5 9
4. Gregory Polanco, PIT. 22 .244 .311 .354 6 30
5. George Springer, HOU. 24 .231 .336 .468 20 51
6. Nick Castellanos, DET. 22 .259 .306 .414 10 50
7. Travis d’Arnaud, NYM. 25 .224 .292 .390 11 31
8. Billy Hamilton, CIN. 23 .269 .300 .390 6 43
9. Jackie Bradley Jr., BOS. 24 .216 .288 .290 1 30
10. Kolten Wong, STL. 23 .243 .285 .387 9 33

The Red Sox are in last place, and there is open questioning of the second youngest player in the league, Xander Bogaerts. Before the season, he was the second highest-rated position player prospect on Baseball America’s prospect list. The highest, Minnesota’s Byron Buxton, has suffered two serious injuries and reached double-A, so Bogaerts was the highest rated major league rookie player.

Forward to Oscar Taveras in St. Louis, who is reaching base 26.3% of the time, and Pittsburgh’s Gregory Polanco, who recently went 1-for-27. George Springer has hit 20 homers in Houston but had growing pains, as has Nick Castellanos in Detroit, and Jackie Bradley in Boston fell so hard he landed in Pawtucket.

Jose Abreu, who is 27 and defected from the major leagues in Cuba, is the only rookie in all of baseball with more than 10 HR and 60 RBI. Brock Holt has the second highest OPS of any qualified rookie in either league. Neal Huntington in Pittsburgh knows that Polanco has all the makings of a future star, but because of injuries, Polanco had to be rushed to Pittsburgh after 64 games in triple-A, a far cry from the 204 AAA games Andrew McCutchen was allowed to experience before he took his place in center field. When Polanco was in the minors, the Pirates were often charged with holding Polanco back because of service time, when, in fact, they wanted him to be better prepared for the major leagues.

Bogaerts has 60 games of triple-A experience. Taveras 108. George Springer 75. Travis d’Arnaud 101. Jackie Bradley 83.

“Ideally, no matter how many tools a kid has, he should be broken in at the bottom third of a batting order,” says one manager. “We see shows in BP, we hear stories, and people want to throw them into the middle of the order before they’re ready.”

“The gap between triple-A and the majors may be wider than it’s ever been,” says Boston manager John Farrell, whose experience includes being the Indians farm director. “There’s so much hype on some of these young players, being exposed to major league pitching at such young ages can be discouraging.” Coaches on two different teams added that not immediately fulfilling the buildup can sometimes be embarrassing because of the expectations players, fans, teams, media and the individuals themselves put on 21 and 22 year old players. “It’s also more difficult for kids who are on teams that have high team expectations,” says one club official. “It’s a lot different breaking in on a team that is in a small market and is not in contention. If you’re trying to make the jump to a team like the Red Sox or Yankees, the scrutiny from opposing teams as well as the media can be very stifling.”

Yes, Mike Trout, Albert Pujols and Miguel Cabrera were instant impact hitters, who came up over three decades. Hey, Mike Schmidt’s rookie year was at the age of 23, and he batted .196, and that was 41 years ago. “I think the rule of thumb is that it takes at least three years for a young player to become a legitimate major league hitter,” says Kansas City’s Dayton Moore, who has watched some very talented young position players struggle with their hitting development.”

“There is so much hype on a lot of these talented young players that teams feel they have to blow guys through fast,” says one club official. “They hear, ‘this guy can play in the big leagues right now.’ It’s tempting, but they get here very fast, and even faster their holes are exploited.”

Travis d’Arnaud is a good example. He tried living up to expectations, daily tinkered with his swing and had to go back to the minors to get back to what he was…and get back to the big leagues at the age of 25.

Talking to more than a dozen managers, coaches and general managers, the overwhelming feeling is that it is a lot harder to adjust to hitting on the major league level than any recent period in memory. One oft-cited reason is the incredible scouting preparation. One GM says that where a decade ago teams relied on written advance reports and a little video, now young players are given no time to go unnoticed because of the enormous volume of coordinated video and preparation.  “No one is a surprise longer than a three game series,” says one GM. Back in the 1990s, Bobby Cox would meet with his advance scout teams and ask for two pieces of information on opposing hitters: where to position Andruw Jones, and how to attack the other team’s hottest hitter. Going into the 1993 NLCS, the Phillies’ hottest hitter was Mickey Morandini. Now besides advance scouts, clubs employ teams of video coordinators and employees to break down every opposing hitter.

Then there are all the shifts a Bogaerts or Taveras has never faced. Or the bullpens; face the Royals, and you get on time around against Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis and Greg Holland throwing 100, 98 and 99, respectively. “What you get is two at-bats against a starter who is probably better than anyone you’ve faced in the minors,” says one hitting coach. “Then you get one or two looks at some reliever throwing 96 to 100. Six or eight years ago, it seemed like each team had maybe one guy who threw 95. Now teams have three to five guys throwing 96 to 100. One look gas.”

Some even cite the smaller, thinner bats of today’s games. “It’s all about batspeed and showtime,” says one pro scouting director. “That leads to a ton of swing and misses. It goes back to the showcase circuits, which is carnival baseball, where it’s all about batting practice, not winning baseball games and execution.”

Several managers and general managers say we get too far ahead of ourselves on prospects, their tools and their futures. Look at who is leading the American League Central and go back two years to when the Royals traded Wil Myers to the Rays for James Shields and Wade Davis, a trade that was universally killed by analytics and rotisserie players.

When the Red Sox declined to trade Jon Lester for Myers, this was Dayton Moore’s best deal. The Royals had invested a lot of money in talented youngsters like Eric Hosmer and Salvador Perez, but in 2013 they needed to start winning. They had one winning season in 18, hadn’t made the post-season since five years before Wil Myers was born, they had the All-star Game, most of their sponsorship deals were up, so were many luxury suite deals. And here they are, with Shields a legitimate number one starter and Davis one of the five best relievers in the game. Myers is coming off a wrist injury and is only 23 years old, but he still has 18 homers and a 1.2 WAR. Moore still maintains Myers will be a star level player, but that most young players today take three or four years to become accomplished major league hitters. The Royals are on their way to their second straight winning season and possibly their first post-season since the Reagan Administration. And these two seasons may have convinced the Glass Family to continue to pour capital into the scouting department and save the jobs of a lot of very competent people.

The people who do the top prospects lists—John Manuel, Jim Callis, Jonathan Mayo, Keith Law, et al—do terrific jobs at this. We love looking at the new, new things, and projecting what might be five years down the line.

But prospects are just that, futures in a game played in the present, and sometimes there is no shortcut from the future to the present. Check back in 2016, and we’ll have a pretty good idea who Bogaerts, Taveras, Baez and Polanco really are in the real baseball universe.

  • http://www.northamptonseed.com H. Douglas Walker

    Could it be possible that these players are not stars at all but serviceable major league ball players and nothing more? Do not forget the talent going into the major leagues is smaller than it ever has been. The NFL and the NBA are drawing better players into their sport than Major League Baseball is. Look how few African American players are on major league rosters today.

    • paulwt

      Um, so what are you saying? That because the best athletes are playing in other leagues, no baseball players will be good?

      Pssst… there would still be stars. Somebody’s always got to be the best in the league, genius.

    • John Finn Jr

      Look at how few Latinos play basketball and since basketball earns less revenue than baseball then we could blame them, right ? Wake up, it has nothing to do with race !

    • Danarius Compopolous

      Retarded. Michael Jordan’s attempt at baseball should be all you needed to see to know that race doesn’t matter and that the greatest athletes in one sport can’t necessarily even be competitive in other sports. He played baseball his whole life before committing to basketball too. The phrase ‘best athlete’ is meaningless

  • frogbogg

    Can’t mention the Myers-Shields trade without mentioning Odorizzi. Sub 4 Era pitching in the AL east.

  • VtBob

    Go watch a AAA game & then a major league game. The pitching IS that much better and the umps do call strikes closer on rookies as its always been. But, the jump from AAA to the majors is a huge jump & unless you have a real stud, they’re going to need a year & maybe even two to catch up. What we don’t do today is give these guys any time at all. They’ve been hyped to such a degree that we expect miracles. That has to change! Maybe then these kids can settle into their roll without the pressure to produce now or worry about being sent down immediately.

  • Nate Dawg

    What a bunch of garbage this is. If you have to explain why young hitters struggle then we stopped reading past the line “No hardcore porn will be featured in today’s baseball article.” What people wanna know is why small market teams are name-dropped when their existence relies on performance from within. The Braves had 3 straight of the worst in recent memory with Betemit-Marte-Schafer producing no immediate HOF status. Is this a vote for strengthening through proven players? The Braves tried that, also. only BJ Upton, Chris Johnson and Dan Uggla didn’t just cost one option and an opportunity to make a guy a major leaguer. And we’ll never stop feeling its affect.