2014 Has Been a Disastrous Year for Elite Prospects
We had a bumper crop of elite prospects to play with this Spring. We had visions of new players joining our rosters and playing like the next Mike Trout and Yasiel Puig. The consensus Top 12 prospects this year were as good as we have ever seen. The excitement was at a fever pitch for prospect hounds like us, but the season ended up being a tremendous letdown. Some of it was due to injuries, while most of it was due to flat out poor performance. It just goes to show that patience is key when it comes to prospects — even the elite “can’t miss” prospects often struggle when they reach the majors.
For this discussion let’s focus on what I consider to be the consensus top 12. These are the guys that were ranked at the top of nearly every major list that was published last offseason. We will go down the list and review each prospect. The theme of the day is disappointment. Every guy on this list except for one or two had a disappointing season for one reason or another…
1. Byron Buxton, OF Twins
Buxton has been touted as the next Mike Trout, an all around superstar 5 tool talent. His season has been absolutely destroyed by injuries. He sprained his wrist early in Spring Training and was forced to sit out until May, then he played 5 games and re-injured the wrist again. He had to sit out another two months. He played 30 games at High A Fort Myers but didn’t perform as well as he did last year. His .718 OPS wasn’t too impressive but you could still see the talent and tools in action and see a future superstar. On August 13th he got promoted to AA and what happens? He got hurt in his very first game. He suffered a bad concussion during a diving collision in the outfield. Buxton is still an elite talent and a future star but this season was a total bust.
2. Xander Bogaerts, SS/3B Red Sox
I predicted before the season that Bogaerts would struggle early in the year and get sent back to the minors for a spell, but I didn’t think he would be this bad. He didn’t get sent to the minors but he certainly deserved a demotion. He has put up a dismal slash line of .224/.293/.334 for an ugly .627 OPS and a 73 wRC+. He has been bad defensively too. He is still only 21 years old and most players his age are in High A or AA ball, not the big leagues. He has gotten his feet wet in the majors and he will steadily improve from here on out. I still believe Bogaerts will be a good player in the long run but there is no sugar-coating his 2014 season — he has been awful.
3. Oscar Taveras, OF Cardinals
Taveras has been even worse than Bogaerts. Oscar’s .224/.263/.298 slash line and .561 OPS has yielded a pathetic 58 wRC+ for the season. He has been one of the absolute worst players in the major leagues this year. He may still be suffering some lingering effects from the high ankle sprain that cost him most of last season, but he simply hasn’t shown any of the power and wicked bat to ball skill he displayed in 2011 and 2012. This is his 2nd down year in a row. I am not at all confident that Taveras is still destined for stardom. I think he will have a good major league career but it has been a long time since he has done anything that screams potential star. His stock is way down in my book. He still has the talent and the tools but until he starts showing some results on the field I would stay far away from him as a fantasy owner. Don’t buy low.
4. Javier Baez, SS/2B Cubs
Baez had a tremendous Spring Training that nearly won him a spot on the Cubs Opening Day roster. Sent to AAA to start the season he proceeded to fall flat on his face. He played very poorly in April and May, largely because he was striking out like a fiend: 63 whiffs in 166 ABs with only 12 walks. But then he turned it on in June and July, putting up a .900+ OPS. It was good enough to get his season wRC+ up to 109 and the Cubs called him up to the big leagues in early August. He has held his own in the majors at the age of 21. His OPS is .714 or just under league average. But the downside is he is striking out more than ever. His whiff rate is a whopping 40% and his K:BB ratio is 8:1, which is twice as bad as Mark Reynolds. Baez is a free swinger with tons of power. He still projects as a very good hitter, especially for a middle infielder. He is likely to have some serious hot and cold streaks until he makes the adjustments needed to be a professional hitter.
5. Carlos Correa, SS Astros
Correa was having a magnificent season in the High A California League at the young age of 19. He put up a slash line of .325/.416/.520 with 6 HRs and 20 Steals in 62 games before breaking his ankle sliding into 3rd base and ending his season prematurely. It is a tough way to end a season but ultimately it won’t set him back too much in terms of his ETA to the major leagues. It was disappointing that we didn’t get to watch him in the second half of the season but he is still an uber-elite prospect moving forward.
6. Archie Bradley, SP Diamondbacks
Bradley’s season has been hurt both by injury and poor performance. He has been limited to 82 innings this year due to recurrent bouts of elbow soreness, never a good sign for a power pitcher (or any pitcher for that matter), especially for the top rated pitching prospect in baseball. When healthy enough to pitch his results have paled in comparison to last year. In 2013, mostly in AA, he put up an ERA of 1.84 with 162 strikeouts and 69 walks in 152 innings. This year he has delivered a 3.92 ERA with 75 whiffs and 44 bases on balls in those 82 innings spread across Rookie, AA and AAA. Last winter we all expected Bradley would be a mainstay in the Diamondbacks rotation early in 2014, but he has yet to throw an inning in the majors and right now it is looking doubtful that he will be ready for the majors next Spring.
7. Addison Russell, SS Cubs (Athletics on the preseason lists)
Russell missed most of the 1st half of the season with a torn hamstring injury that has delayed his development and caused him to miss out on a chance to reach the major leagues this year. Almost imediately after returning to action he was traded to the Cubs in a deadline deal for Jeff Samardzija. Russell only had 64 at-bats on the season at the time of the trade. Since joining the Cubs’ AA affiliate he has looked really good at the plate and in the field. Still very young at age 20, Russell’s glove is plenty good enough for him to stick at shortstop, while his bat should deliver a .280+ AVG with 20 home runs per season in the major leagues. He hasn’t run much this year due to the torn hamstring injury, but when fully healthy he could swipe 20 bags annually as well. If he reaches these predictions he will be a top 5 fantasy shortstop for a long time. Compare him to Jimmy Rollins in his prime.
8. Miguel Sano, 3B Twins
Sano’s season ended before it even began due to an elbow injury that required Tommy John Surgery. He has missed the entire season and that will certainly delay his development and his major league ETA. It remains to be seen if the injury will fully heal and allow him to continue playing at the hot corner. If not he may need to move to the outfield or even first base, which would reduce his fantasy value and possibly delay his arrival in the majors due to a logjam with the likes of Joe Mauer and Kennys Vargas. Sano is known for his elite power and still projects as an impact fantasy hitter despite the lost season.
9. Taijuan Walker, SP Mariners
Much like Bradley, Walker’s season has been marked by injury and subpar performance. The Mariners have been very cautions with his shoulder soreness. He has only managed to get 76 minor league innings and his results have been mixed. He is still striking out more than a batter per inning and his K:BB ratio is better than 3:1, but his ERA is 4.13 — a far cry from the 2.93 that he put up last year at the same levels. The good news is that Walker has also started three games in the majors and has held his own quite nicely, although his 3.60 ERA hides the fact that he has walked 13 batters in 15 innings. Walker just turned 22 last week and is still an elite pitching prospect, but you should expect plenty of ups and downs as he learns to fine tune his arsenal in the major leagues moving forward.
10. Francisco Lindor, SS Indians
Lindor has always been recognized as an elite defender at shortstop and is likely to win multiple Gold Glove Awards for the Indians. The question with Lindor is his bat. Will he hit enough to make himself a good option for fantasy teams? Some people have been optimistic that Lindor’s bat still has the potential to improve, but this season has not seen him take that step forward we have been hoping for. I believe he will not ever be an upper crust fantasy shortstop. I put him in the mold of an Andrelton Simmons or Alcides Escobar– a guy who is usually rostered and sometimes started but his fantasy owners are always searching for an upgrade. Lindor’s upside is Elvis Andrus, who doesn’t hit much but steals enough bases to make himself an asset. Lindor is a legitimate real life top 10 prospect, but as a fantasy prospect I would rank him in the 20-30 range.
11. Kris Bryant, 3B Cubs
Bryant is the one guy on this list who has exceeded expectations. He has been a monster all year long and is now considered by many people to be the number 1 prospect in baseball. He is the perfect fantasy profile: a guy who will hit for average and power. Lots of power. The type of power that can lead the league in home runs. Bryant not only leads the minor leagues in home runs with 41, but he has been clearly the best player in all of minor league baseball this year. His combined slash across AA and AAA is a mammoth .332/.439/.675 for a herculean 1.114 OPS! He is ready for the majors. The only question is what position will he end up at for the loaded Cubs. He has the talent to remain at third base but I think he will end up in the outfield. It hurts his fantasy value a little bit but I don’t think anybody is going to be complaining about Kris Bryant’s position any time soon. A bat like his will play just fine anywhere in your lineup. He is 6’5″ 215 LBs of whoopass.
12. Gregory Polanco, OF Pirates
Polanco chewed up the minors and spit them out the first two months of the season. He hit .347 with a .945 OPS in AAA before getting the call to the majors. His fantasy value skyrocketed. But since reaching Pittsburgh his performance has been rather underwhelming: .244/.311/.354 for an unimpressive .665 OPS in 246 at-bats. After all the excitement for his promotion you don’t hear his name much these days. But be patient, Polanco will turn 23 next month. Polanco has put up some impressive stolen base totals in the minors, swiping 40 in 2012 and 38 in 2013. He has stolen a combined 27 across the minors and majors this year. He is listed at 220 pounds (bigger than Bryant), so I would expect his SB numbers to tail off as he ages and his body fills out further. His home run totals in the minors have been fairly sparse with totals in the 10-15 range. I expect his power to build up to the point where he hits around 20 blasts each year. Polanco won’t be the kind of hitter that dominates any fantasy category but he will contribute nicely in all the stats. I don’t think he will be a superstar but he will be a stealthy fantasy contributor like a Hunter Pence who somehow ends up as a top 40 hitter every year.
So the final count is 6 guys who got hurt and missed significant time (Buxton, Correa, Bradley, Russell, Sano, Walker) , 7 guys whose performance failed to meet our hopes and expectations (Bogaerts, Taveras, Baez, Bradley, Walker, Lindor, Polanco), 2 guys who did both of those things (Bradley, Walker), and only 1 guy who met or beat expectations (Bryant). So it has clearly been a very disappointing year for what we thought was going to be a stellar group of prospects to watch this season, especially the ones in the major leagues. All of these guys, except for Lindor, are still really good fantasy assets but maybe not as much as we believed 6 months ago.
Moral of the Story:
When it comes to realistic expectations we should avoid any sort of reliance on prospects. Don’t build your team in such a way that your season depends on a prospect or any young player to play well. It is too risky to rely on players in their low twenties. We love to draft and hold these young prospects and dream of the day they reach the majors and take our team to the promised land, but 90% of the time it doesn’t work that way. Prospects are rarely worthy of putting into your starting lineup as soon as they reach the majors. The vast majority of young players need a one or two year adjustment period to the big leagues before they are ready to roll in fantasy leagues. So when you are rebuilding your roster with elite prospects I recommend adding another couple of years to the time your estimated window of competitiveness begins. It takes longer for these guys to develop into fantasy stars than we want to believe it does. Look at the careers of most Hall of Famers, even those guys were not stars right from the beginning of their careers in most cases. For every Ken Griffey Jr there are 10 Mike Schmidts.
What to read next:
If you didn’t see it last week I evaluated some Trade Targets: Strasburg, Leake and Odorizzi. The previous column was Unexpected Aces: Porcello, Duffy, Keuchel and Simon and prior to that I suggested these Unexpected Aces: Arrieta, Roark, Ross and Richards and prior to that another group of Trade Targets: 4 Starting Pitchers to Target and 1 to Avoid. Check those out for more advice on how to boost your pitching staff to championship caliber.
Are there any other pitchers or hitters or prospects you want to know about? Shoot me a comment below and I will give you my opinion.