By the Numbers: Better late than never?
We've been let down by Travis Snider, Phil Hughes and others in the past, so why should they get the benefit of the doubt now? Al Melchior spotlights a few potential late bloomers.
We Fantasy owners are an excitable bunch, and nothing gets us more revved up than the major league debut of a highly-touted prospect, as Wednesday's callup of George Springer reminds us.
Some players, like Jose Fernandez, Mike Trout and Bryce Harper, start producing at a high level right away, or at least within a year of their arrival. Others take longer or suffer from inconsistency in their early years (e.g., Justin Upton, Jason Heyward, Yovani Gallardo). And then there are those who get stuck in neutral for so long, we forget they were ever prospects.
Not every great young talent flourishes in the big leagues, but especially for those who may have been rushed through the minors, it can take several seasons to realize their potential. I was probably not alone in writing off Carlos Gomez, Adam Jones, Homer Bailey and Chris Tillman after a few years of struggles, but eventually each one has shown why their arrival was so highly anticipated in the first place. Gomez is probably the most dramatic example of a player who was all but forgotten by Fantasy owners by the time he was 24. That's the age Gomez was when he was dealt by the Twins as a three-year veteran to the Brewers. Then Gomez flailed for two more seasons before breaking out in the latter part of 2012.
So to review, it took Gomez roughly five full seasons before he became a reliable and relevant Fantasy option. He logged a mere 36 games at Triple-A before debuting at age 21, so much of Gomez's development took place at the major league level. The same could be said for Rick Porcello, who was a 20-year-old rookie with the Tigers in 2009, but his breakout didn't come until four years later, when he started to show some potential as a strikeout pitcher just last season.
Gomez's and Porcello's stagnation is old news, but there are plenty of present-day players in a similar situation. This column will focus on six of them -- all players who have debuted since 2007 at the age of 21 or younger, and all have yet to reach the potential suggested by their prospect status. Each also made Baseball America's Top 100 Prospect list at some point during his minor league career. Even so, given the protracted difficulties that each player has faced, none is a high-percentage play, but each is still young enough to be a potential breakout candidate.
Travis Snider, OF, Pirates: Though Snider is off to a good start, he has yet to draw much attention in CBSSports.com leagues, and his long history of disappointing performances likely has something to do with that. His major league career has not been entirely without the power he showed as a prospect; he did hit 14 home runs in 82 games with the Blue Jays in 2010. That's a distant memory, though, and Snider has never produced home run power at a rate close to that since. He also has yet to play more than 111 games in a season.
The potential for a power breakout is still there. In three of the previous five seasons, Snider has posted a home run-to-flyball ratio of at least 12 percent, which is higher than that of Todd Frazier the last two seasons. Snider just needs to hit fewer ground balls, and though his rate has been above 50 percent the last two seasons, it was just 42 percent in 2010 and is currently also 42 percent. While Snider still has to fend off the imminent arrival of prospect Gregory Polanco, he has enough time to establish some value for owners in deeper mixed leagues.
Dayan Viciedo, OF, White Sox: Viciedo turned heads as a 21-year-old in 2010, batting .308 with five home runs in only 106 plate appearances with the White Sox, but he didn't come close to approaching that level of production in his next three seasons. He did spend the bulk of 2011 at Triple-A Charlotte, but the extra time in the minors didn't seem to help him expedite a big league breakout. Viciedo did crank 25 homers in 2012, but he hit just .255, and in 2013, he was not much of a threat in any category.
Viciedo doesn't have the contact skills, the line drive proclivities or speed to be counted on as a .300 hitter, but a .275 average wouldn't be out of the question. He has already proven himself to be capable of hitting 25 home runs, so his appeal isn't all that different from that of Khris Davis, now that Avisail Garcia's shoulder injury has opened the door to regular playing time. Viciedo probably won't walk as often as Davis, but his breakout potential is just as great, as he is actually a year younger.
Daric Barton, 1B, Athletics: It's been three years since Barton was an everyday player, so it's hard to remember why he was once considered a top prospect. You have to go back to 2010 to see the promise that Barton held, as he finished with a .393 on-base percentage and 10 home runs in 159 games. That's obviously not much power, but he was just 24 for most of that season, so he had room to develop more power, at least in theory.
Now at 28, Barton is getting another chance as the A's primary first baseman. He still draws walks, though not so many that he's been able to exceed a .350 OBP in any of the last three seasons. Barton has also failed to hit for power, and that includes during his numerous stays in the Pacific Coast League. Power isn't as important as it once was, but even a 15-homer season looks like a stretch for Barton, and he doesn't provide a high enough batting average or OBP to come close to making up for that. Odds are long on Barton being this season's version of Garrett Jones, who broke out in his age-28 season with 21 home runs in 82 games and a .293/.372/.567 slash line. His absolute ceiling is that of a first base version of Daniel Nava.
Nate Eovaldi, SP, Marlins: Fantasy owners haven't exactly been waiting forever for Eovaldi to break out, but given his mid-90s heat, it seems like he should have started getting strikeouts at some point during his first three seasons. With 19 Ks in his first 19 1/3 innings this season, maybe we are seeing the first signs of a new and improved Eovaldi. Given that the last time we saw Eovaldi come close to a strikeout per inning was in Double-A, some skepticism may be warranted.
Eovaldi's owners probably won't welcome the news that he has actually been getting swinging strikes at the lowest rate (7.4 percent) of his major league career, but they can take comfort in knowing that this percentage was skewed by last Saturday's start at the Phillies, when he induced a mere three whiffs. That's the fun of drawing conclusions from early-season stats, but we don't have to limit ourselves to such a small sample. Eovaldi actually started to get swinging strikes (7.9 percent) and strikeouts (7.7 K/9) at a higher rate over his last nine starts in 2013, and that corresponded with an increase in the horizontal movement in his fastball. If you think you've seen Eovaldi pitch to contact for too long to ever buy into him as a strikeout pitcher, you just may be missing out on a breakout in his age-24 season.
Phil Hughes, SP, Twins: As Hughes progressed through the Yankees' farm system, he made his mark with high strikeout-to-walk ratios. The lofty home run rates that have been the hallmark of his major league career were nowhere to be found. In his seven years with the Yankees, Hughes was a better and less homer-prone pitcher away from the Bronx, so even though we've been waiting seven long years for him to break out, maybe the move to spacious Target Field is just what he needs to shore up his biggest weakness.
Hughes hasn't been effective in his first two home starts as a Twin, allowing eight earned runs and 13 hits in 10 innings, but he has been victimized by a .419 BABIP and a 53 percent strand rate in those games (per FanGraphs.com). He has not allowed a home run in either of those starts, and despite all of the hits on balls in play, few have been for extra bases, as he has allowed a .122 Isolated Power to opposing hitters (as compared to a .147 mark across the majors this season). Hughes is still a dangerous play in hitters' parks, but with his change of scenery, just maybe he can be closer to the pitcher we thought he'd be when he was a prospect.
Tyler Chatwood, Rockies: In three seasons, Chatwood has established himself as a ground ball specialist who offers little to Fantasy owners than the potential for a low ERA -- a potential he finally realized last season. Chatwood allowed only five home runs in 111 1/3 innings, posting a 3.15 ERA. While Chatwood's control isn't all that good, he did make some strides last season, putting up a respectable 3.3 BB/9.
According to FanGraphs.com, Chatwood has averaged at least 93 mph on his fastball in each of his first three seasons, so it seems like there should be some potential for more strikeouts. He wasn't much of a strikeout pitcher in the minors, but the Angels rushed him through their system, so it's hard to use that as an indication of his major league potential. So far this season, as in past years, Chatwood has thrown his fastball with a very low rate of spin, and that's something that correlates with a lower strikeout rate. It's also a trait that is typical of extreme ground ball pitchers, like Chatwood. Unlike with Eovaldi, it's not realistic to expect higher strikeout rates from Chatwood, even though his velocity suggests otherwise.
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