On WTR this week, I implore you to read some excellent analyses about former prospects. Prospects are fleeting. Players that populate top prospect lists tend to do so as long as or longer than they are everyday major leaguers with various shades of dulled prospect shine. The briefest moment is the transition from prospect to major-leaguer. These tend to be paradoxical times. These instances are when observers are often most excited to watch and learn about a player, but they are also moments when the player’s major league skills, or lack of them, are just beginning to take shape. Do yourself a favor and read the following about some recently graduated touted prospects, as well as one fringe prospect who chose to leave the game behind.
The Rockies and Rockies fans were eyewitness to one of these former prospects. Javier Baez made his major league debut against the Rockies last week, and in the three game series he hit three home runs. Jeff Sullivan at FanGraphs dissects the homer that tells us most about Baez’s ability to hit baseballs a long, long way. It was the third of his home runs, and it came off of Juan Nicasio. The telling aspects of the home run are, first, the speed off of the bat, which was 105 miles per hour. This indicates that the home runs “true distance,” adjusted for altitude, was 402 feet. Second, the location of the pitch is notable. Juan Nicasio didn’t toss Baez a meatball. The pitch was a slider low and away. Sure, it could have been lower and more away, but then it might have lost some of its attempted deceptiveness. Low and away sliders don’t tend to be hit 400 feet the opposite way. The home run provides a glimpse into what Baez can do, and now we have to watch to see how often he can do it. Make sure to watch the other “anomalous dingers” in the linked article.
Like Baez, Oscar Taveras has been hanging around as one of the games top prospects for a couple of years now. At Baseball Prospectus, R.J. Anderson examines the ups and downs of Oscar Taveras over the course of a week (subscription required for this one). Anderson’s analysis of video evidence captures the unevenness of Taveras’s play on offense and defense. On the whole, however, he has played well since he earned more playing time in the Cardinals’ lineup. Still, Anderson notes that “whether this is the beginning of his ascent or simply a well-timed hot streak is anyone’s guess.” This sentiment sums up prospects at this sort of moment in their careers. What I think is most interesting about the piece is the possibility that Taveras’s major league play just might demolish his minor league scouting reports. This does not diminish the value of such reports; it simply points to the ability of recently graduated prospects to perform against expectations. Specifically, Taveras has the reputation of being a free-swinger especially prone to miss breaking balls. Anderson analyzes an at bat in which Taveras was patient before hitting a home run off of Odrisamer Despaigne, and he offers three explanations for apparently anomalous at bat: “1) Taveras focused on a different sample when scouting Despaigne (i.e. aggressive batters); 2) Taveras guessed and got lucky; 3) Taveras knew his own scouting report well enough to believe a pitcher would alter his usual pitch selection in order to throw something slower.” Time will help us answer these questions.
On the pitching side of former prospects, Dan Weigel at Beyond the Box Score examines Kevin Gausman’s emergence as, perhaps, the Orioles best starting pitcher this year. Most notably, he has performed at a high level this year without really any notable progress with his slider, the pitch that was the focus of his minor league development. The title of Weigel’s analysis is telling: “Gausman, Orioles sacrifice development for immediate contribution.” Your take on what’s happening with Gausman in Baltimore depends on which part of the title you want to focus on. Sacrificing the current development of his slider doesn’t necessarily mean discarding it altogether, and immediate contribution doesn’t necessarily mean that he will stay at this level into the future. Indeed, the lack of an effective third pitch might even militate against his future success. Weigel’s article teaches us that there is not one way to develop a pitcher for big league play. In an alternate season, Rockies fans would be debating whether or not the team should sacrifice the development of Jon Gray’s changeup so that he can be an immediate contributor to a pennant race by relying on his high-velocity fastball and wipeout slider. But in the season we’re experiencing, Jon Gray is developing a changeup and ostensibly fine-tuning his two highly graded pitches in the midst of a disappointing season at Double-A Tulsa, while the big league club is contending for the number one overall draft pick. Nevertheless, this is a good article to keep in the back of your mind as the Rockies handle pitchers such as Gray, Eddie Butler, and Kyle Freeland.
The final article about a former prospect that you really must read is by Ben Straus of the New York Times, and the prospect is Adrian Cardenas. You can be forgiven if you don’t know who that is. Cardenas was never a highly touted prospect like Baez, Taveras, or Gausman, but he was a first-rounder—barely. The Philadelphia Phillies drafted Cardenas out of high school with the 37th pick of the 2006 amateur draft. He was the Phillies number three prospect after 2006 and number two prospect after 2007. In 2007, he was also on Baseball America’s top 100 prospect list at number 76, and he made the list again the following year at 74. Then his shine began to dull. In 2008, he was traded to the Oakland A’s along with Matthew Spencer and Josh Outman for Joe Blanton. From 2008-2011 he was also among the A’s top prospects, although he fell off of Baseball America’s list. Cardenas ranked fifth, ninth, fifteenth, and twelfth in the A’s organization. He never played for the Phillies or the A’s; however, during the offseason in between the 2011 and 2012 seasons, the Chicago Cubs selected Cardenas off of waivers. He played 45 games for the Cubs in 2012, but his .552 OPS didn’t make a compelling argument for the Cubs to keep him. The Cubs designated Cardenas for assignment in November of 2012. He cleared waivers, but rather than accepting a minor league contract with the team, he informed Theo Epstein that he was finished with baseball. He’s currently studying Philosophy and Creative Writing at NYU. I am loathe to say that Cardenas “quit” baseball, as is Straus. Rather, Cardenas made a choice. It was as much of a choice for him to leave baseball as it was for him to pursue it. Straus’s excellent article reminds us to keep this in mind. Baseball players are not fulfilling a destiny, but are navigating the highs and lows of a chosen profession that is difficult, complex, and less glamorous than fans often want to imagine.