MLB Prospects Who Are Taking Biggest Steps Forward, Backward This Year
Because the baseball season is so long, it's often unwise to put too much stock in early-season performances before teams and players have a chance to find themselves. This is particularly true for prospects, who can be even more volatile while needing even more time to figure things out.
The other angle, however, is that these young players have provided less to go on in their still-nascent careers—they are prospects for a reason—making any noticeable change in production that much more stark.
On the pages to follow, there are 10 prospects whose early 2015 performances stand out—for better or for worse—and could indicate a new path.
Keep in mind that these players are still eligible as prospects—meaning, they have not exceeded 130 at-bats or 50 innings pitched in the majors—and also are currently in the minors. That rules out, say, Preston Tucker, the Houston Astros outfielder who was leading the minors in home runs and RBI at the time of his call-up this week to help cover while George Springer is out.
Here's another key, not-to-be-glossed-over aspect to all of this: In finding prospects who are taking big steps forward so far, the choices were limited only to those who either struggled or were hurt last year; conversely, in picking youngsters who are taking big steps backward to date, the criteria considers only those highly regarded players who were good and healthy in 2014.
In other words, there's no Carlos Correa or Corey Seager here. Both are off to fantastic starts that could be called steps forward, but they already were great in the first place. Same goes for others such as, say, Alex Reyes, Steven Matz and Raimel Tapia, who were good in 2014 and look even better in 2015; or Robert Stephenson, Lucas Sims and Chris Stratton, who were shaky last year and haven't done much about it yet this season.
Step Forward: Blake Snell, LHP, Tampa Bay Rays
Hey, let's kick this off by highlighting a pitcher who—get this—hasn't given up a run yet!
The No. 52 overall pick in 2011 by the Tampa Bay Rays, Blake Snell threw his sixth consecutive scoreless outing to open the season Thursday, his second such after being promoted to Double-A Montgomery. The 22-year-old lefty also has a sparkling 0.85 WHIP and 43 whiffs in 33 innings.
Snell always has had stuff, but his control was the question (4.9 BB/9 prior to this year) that he's now starting to answer. While his 14 free passes are still a high number, it's at least getting better. And c'mon, the guy has a 0.00 ERA still.
Step Backward: Jon Gray, RHP, Colorado Rockies
After coming this close to making the Colorado Rockies out of camp following a solid spring, Jon Gray has had just a brutal beginning to his 2015.
Granted, the 23-year-old is making his first pass through the offense-heavy Pacific Coast League and pitching at launching pads such as Reno, Las Vegas and his home park in Albuquerque. But man, a 9.13 ERA and 2.03 WHIP in his first 22.2 innings?
Here's a take from Patrick Saunders of The Denver Post: "Gray pitched very well during spring training. His fastball was lively and his breaking stuff very sharp. What he lacks right now is consistency and confidence. Are the Rockies concerned? Sure they are, but they aren't panicked. It's not unusual for a top prospect to struggle."
Still, even factoring in a ridiculous .443 BABIP against that's sure to calm down, Gray's numbers are just hard to look at, let alone type, especially for a consensus top-25 prospect.
Step Forward: Phil Ervin, OF, Cincinnati Reds
A 2013 first-rounder, Phil Ervin was great as a pro right out of the gate that summer, but he followed up with an awful 2014. The 22-year-old hit .237/.305/.376 while spending all year in A-ball in the Midwest League, which shouldn't have been such a challenge for a college product.
The good news for the Cincinnati Reds is Ervin again looks like the highly regarded youngster they thought they were getting two years ago. The athletic outfielder is slashing .292/.377/.547 with a much better strikeout-to-walk ratio and seven home runs already—or one fewer than he hit all of last year.
Step Backward: Teoscar Hernandez, OF, Houston Astros
Teoscar Hernandez is one of the toolsiest prospects around, with plus speed, good power and loads of athleticism. Alas, the one tool he sometimes forgets to take out of the work bench and with him to the field is the hit one, which has happened all too often so far in 2015.
The 22-year-old Houston Astros outfielder did bat .292 with 37 doubles, 21 homers and 33 stolen bases in 2014, but much of that damage was done in the hitter-friendly California League and at Lancaster, one of the environments most conducive to offense in all of the minor leagues. Hernandez also whiffed 153 times, so there was reason to be wary.
Well, the follow-up hasn't started out well at all—and that's being nice. Hernandez is at .125/.181/.193, and he's striking out 31.6 percent of the time with just six walks so far at Double-A Corpus Christi. The plate discipline isn't abysmal—it's more or less nonexistent.
Step Forward: Carlos Tocci, OF, Philadelphia Phillies
On one hand, Carlos Tocci is repeating the South Atlantic League for a third time, which isn't something that happens often.
On the other, the Venezuela-born Tocci is still only 19 years old and is showing some very promising gain the third trip through. After never slugging more than the .324 he managed last year, the lithe, sinewy outfielder is up to a .480 mark through 26 games. Yes, he has only one homer, but Tocci also has nine doubles—and both of those numbers are exactly half of what he achieved in 125 games in 2014.
Tocci is starting to make good on what Baseball America wrote about him in placing him fifth in the Philadelphia Phillies farm system: "[Tocci] grew into a touch more strength, and it showed up in his performance. He was more patient and drove the ball more frequently, hitting his first two home runs and eight triples. He still needs more strength behind his swing, which could come if he continues to mature physically."
Even more impressive? Tocci currently has more walks (11) than whiffs (10), which is a huge improvement for a kid who owned a 191-to-53 strikeout-to-walk ratio coming into the season.
Step Backward: Hunter Renfroe, OF, San Diego Padres
It must be at least a little discouraging for the San Diego Padres that Hunter Renfroe—one of the few prospects the club actually held on to this year—is off to such a sluggish start.
Following up on his 33-double, 21-homer first full pro season, the should-be slugger has hit just .212 with a .303 slugging percentage and but one home run through 25 games for Double-A San Antonio. That also comes with 30 strikeouts against just seven walks.
Given that left fielder Justin Upton is a free agent at year's end, general manager A.J. Preller surely would like to see Renfroe start hitting soon to see if the 23-year-old 2013 first-rounder can take over the job come 2016—or perhaps build up his value for the trade-happy GM.
Step Forward: Eduardo Rodriguez, LHP, Boston Red Sox
In reality, Eduardo Rodriguez's step forward dates back to the end of last year, but just go with it.
At the time he was traded from the Baltimore Orioles to the Boston Red Sox for Andrew Miller last July, the 22-year-old left-hander was brandishing a 4.79 ERA and 1.44 WHIP at Double-A. Immediately upon joining the Portland Sea Dogs, however, Rodriguez went on a tear, posting five straight quality starts to close out the year and not allowing more than a single run in any of his six turns for the team.
As Keith Law of ESPN writes in ranking Rodriguez the No. 29 overall prospect prior to this season: "Rodriguez is up to 97 mph with his fastball and will sit between 93 and 95, with a plus changeup, quick arm and athletic delivery. He seemed to gain confidence after the trade, throwing harder with better strikes once he went to Boston."
Now in his first taste of Triple-A, Rodriguez has picked up where he left off, sporting a 1.82 ERA and 0.85 WHIP in four outings for the Pawtucket Red Sox. If he keeps it up, he'll soon be starting for the actual Red Sox, who could use all the pitching help they can get.
Step Backward: Alex Meyer, RHP, Minnesota Twins
Alex Meyer was on the verge of the majors last September when a shoulder problem popped up and prevented him from what very likely would have been his debut with the Minnesota Twins. Talk about bad timing.
Especially when things didn't go well for the 6'9" right-hander during a rough spring training when he came to camp with an outside shot at cracking the 25-man roster. And now Meyer, with a 5.61 ERA and 1.79 WHIP, looks like he has a ways to go before he's ready for Minnesota.
Command and control have been constant problem areas for Meyer throughout his four years as a pro, but his walk rate has been going backward—it was a career-worst 4.4 per nine in 2014 and is now (gasp) 6.3 per nine. The strikeout stuff is still there with 28 in 25.2 frames, but at age 25, Meyer needs to get himself right sooner than later.
Step Forward: Trevor Story, SS, Colorado Rockies
Trevor Story wasn't bad last year, per se, hitting .263 with 26 doubles and 14 homers, but he did miss a few weeks in May and June with a broken finger after getting hit by a pitch. He also fared much worse upon a midseason promotion to Double-A for the first time (.683 OPS) and continued to battle contact problems with a 31.1 percent strikeout rate after whiffing 33.0 percent of the time in 2013.
While Story always will feature swing and miss in his game, he seems to be tightening things up with a 23.9 percent strikeout rate out as he retries the level. The 22-year-old shortstop also has shown improved patience with 18 walks, leading to a robust .504 OBP and 1.208 OPS so far.
After he endured a couple of disappointing seasons, the Colorado Rockies should be relieved to see that Story appears to once again be on track to become a big leaguer.
Step Backward: D.J. Peterson, 3B, Seattle Mariners
For as disappointing as the playoff hopeful Seattle Mariners have been to this point at 11-17 and dead-last in the AL West, arguably their top hitting prospect D.J. Peterson has been equally so in the minors.
The 12th overall take in 2013, Peterson hit .297 and smashed 31 doubles and home runs apiece last year, his first full season as a pro. This year? He's at .217/.283/.301 with only five extra-base knocks—including one homer—through his first 22 games.
"Who knows where he's going to end up [defensively] in the long run," GM Jack Zduriencik said this spring, per Greg Johns of MLB.com. "But we all think he's going to hit. He's got a gift to hit the baseball, and that will play for us at some point."
While many projected Peterson, who was drafted as a third baseman, ultimately would wind up at first, could that transition—he has played 15 of 19 games in the field at first—be impacting his offense?