The Houston Astros aren't celebrating much at the MLB level right now. Their fortunes are going to get better very soon thanks to a vastly improved system, highlighted by the talents of 2011 first-round pick George Springer.
Springer has been one of the breakout stars in the minors this season with a .303/.411/.600 slash line in 135 games across Double- and Triple-A. He has 149 hits, 68 extra-base hits (37 home runs), 45 stolen bases and 295 total bases.
There are still some flaws in his game, like 161 strikeouts in 492 at-bats, but just looking at the physical package and tool set, it is hard to look at George Springer and not think about former Cleveland Indians superstar Grady Sizemore.
In the latest edition of our prospect series, here is a closer look at the talents of Springer and how they compare to what was being said and written about Sizemore on his way up through the minors before putting up MVP-caliber seasons with the Indians from 2006-08.
The Physical Comparison
Doing comparisons just based on physical attributes is dangerous because it is so easy. Just taking the height and weight of one player, transferring it to another requires little thought.
I say that before telling you that Springer and Sizemore could easily be mistaken for each other physically. Springer is officially listed at 6'3", 200 pounds. Sizemore, in peak playing shape, was 6'2", 200 pounds.
Springer came into professional baseball out of the University of Connecticut and was fully mature. Sizemore was drafted out of a high school in Washington and had to grow into his frame.
As Keith Law of ESPN.com (Insider subscription required) noted in his preseason top-100 rankings, just based on the physical attributes, Springer is what a prospect "is supposed to look like,"
Athleticism and physical maturity are two very distinct properties that every elite-level prospect needs to have. Springer definitely falls into that category, and you could easily walk away from a game where he goes 0-for-4 saying that guy was the best player on the field.
Sizemore was born to be an athlete. He was a two-sport star in high school, even turning down a scholarship to play baseball and quarterback the football team at the University of Washington when Montreal drafted him in the third round with an offer of $2 million to play professional baseball.
Both players entered professional baseball with insanely high ceilings because of their natural athletic gifts. Sizemore was able to realize that ability for a few years when he was the best center fielder in baseball.
Springer is on his way to realizing that athletic ability, though there are some on-field things he must work on to get there.
The most important part of any player's career is their time spent in the minors and the development years.
For a player like Sizemore, who was drafted as a teenager and needed time to mature both physically and mentally, it was particularly crucial. Of course, some players are just so naturally gifted at everything they do that even the hardest things click right away.
That was largely the case with Sizemore. He came into rookie ball as a 17-year-old in 2000, played 55 games and hit .293/.380/.376 with 24 strikeouts, 23 walks and 12 extra-base hits.
As time passed and he gained experience, you could see the wheels in motion for Sizemore's development. He played 123 games in Low-A during the 2001 season putting up a .268/.381/.335 slash line with 32 stolen bases, 81 walks and 92 strikeouts.
It was during the 2002 season, as part of the infamous Bartolo Colon trade that sent him, Cliff Lee and Brandon Phillips to Cleveland, where Sizemore's full potential started to actualize because he grew into more pop with a .292/.392/.402 line with 34 extra-base hits.
Surprisingly, it wasn't until after the 2003 season in Double-A when Sizemore would catapult onto the national scene. He hit .304/.373/.480 with 50 extra-base hits, 73 strikeouts and 46 walks for Akron.
The following year he was ranked as the No. 9 prospect in the minors by Baseball America and No. 1 in Cleveland's system. Here was the write-up on Sizemore heading into that season:
Sizemore has the full package, the potential to be a marquee player, and is as close to being an untouchable as the Indians have in their minor league system. He uses the entire field and controls the strike zone well, projecting as a .300 hitter in the majors. His power is coming quicker than expected, as he stroked 13 homers last year after totaling six in his first three seasons...Sizemore's speed and center-field range are well-above-average. He's quick out of the batter's box and has tremendous baserunning instincts. He's still learning the art of basestealing but should become at least a 20-20 player as he matures.
Here is where some of the tools start to separate Sizemore from Springer. Where Sizemore had to develop his pop in the minors, Springer came into professional baseball with plus power having honed his craft in college.
There is also the matter of what kind of hitter both players projected to be. Sizemore was a more natural contact hitter than Springer, striking out a total of 327 times (excluding rehab stints) in 1,970 at-bats.
Springer has nearly matched that total with 319 in 1,026 at-bats. There are flaws in his swing that could hinder his ability to hit for average, which could also limit some of the prodigious power he's shown in the last two years.
The main issue is that Springer tends to drift out front too quickly, preventing him from using his lower half and letting his natural bat speed carry him to the ball. That also makes him more vulnerable to off-speed stuff.
The UConn product has blasted 61 home runs since the start of the 2012 season, and his approach at the plate continues to improve. Even with the high strikeout totals, Springer has walked 83 times, an increase of 21 from last year in 14 fewer at-bats.
Because of those adjustments, Springer has seen his stock soar. He went from No. 37 in Baseball America's preseason top 100 to No. 20 on the midseason update, with the consensus being that you can live with some strikeouts because of the power and speed.
My fellow B/R prospect guru Mike Rosenbaum actually didn't have Springer ranked in the preseason top 100 but saw enough from him during the first half of 2013 to bump him all the way up to No. 22 for the midseason top 50.
While high strikeout totals will always be part of his game, the toolsy outfielder’s adjustments at the plate has led to an improved contact and walk rates, and he’s now batting .314/.416/.623 with 21 doubles, 25 home runs, 28 stolen bases and 109/49 K/BB in 86 games this season across both levels. The Astros have no need to rush Springer to the major leagues, but it will be difficult to contain him in the minors for much longer at his current pace.
Just like Sizemore, you can see the adjustments being made with Springer year to year. He isn't as refined with the bat as Sizemore, but boasts more power, a better feel for base running and a better throwing arm from center field.
The Astros are taking things slowly with Springer because given their current state, they have no need to put him in the big leagues for the final month of the season. It also doesn't hurt that their Triple-A affiliate in Oklahoma City made the playoffs.
We have the benefit of hindsight with Sizemore to see what he became. At his peak, from 2006-08, he was a 7-WAR player. That is elite-level performance. It did fall apart quickly after that, as injuries and his all-out style left him with knees that required multiple surgeries and an ailing shoulder that sapped his power.
Now, at the age of 31, Sizemore hasn't played in a major league game since 2011. Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports wrote last month that the former All-Star plans to return next year.
With Springer, we are still projecting what he can be in the big leagues. While he will likely end up hitting lower than the .280 Sizemore averaged during those peak years, there is enough bat speed and pop to expect a .260 hitter.
Also, given the improved approach at the plate this year, Springer could turn into a hitter who walks 75-80 times. If he does that with a .260 average, you are looking at a .340-.350 on-base percentage.
We also know he's capable of hitting around 25 home runs with 25-30 stolen bases and plus defense in center field.
If Springer winds up reaching that ceiling, the Astros will have a star center fielder on the roster for the next decade on par with what the Indians had in Sizemore.
Even if the walks and OBP don't translate exactly to the next level, if the 24-year-old can figure out a way to hit .240 with a .320 OBP and a .450 slugging percentage with 20-plus steals and plus defense, he's still a 3-4 WAR player.