September 8, 2016
The View From Behind The Backstop
The Next _____
J.P. Crawford is boring.
Also, as you might have read, J.P. Crawford is the best prospect in baseball.
He was thoroughly deserving of the title, but that accolade came in part due to inertia. The Phillies shortstop was a great prospect as soon as he stepped onto the dirt in their Clearwater complex. He’s advanced, improved, refined, but we have been writing about him for years at this point. Crawford’s development has been steady, but never noteworthy. Players behind him on our midseason list, Alex Bregman, Andrew Benintendi, David Dahl, all had more meteoric rises to the majors this year. Those are the names that now draw your eyes and pad our word counts.
Chef Thomas Keller wrote about this phenomenon in The French Laundry Cookbook under the heading “The Law of Diminishing Returns.”
“Most chefs try to satisfy a customer’s hunger in a short time with one or two dishes. They begin with something great. The initial bite is fabulous. The second bite is great. But by the third bite⸺with many more to come⸺the flavors begin to deaden, and the diner loses interest[i]. It’s like getting into a hot bath or jumping into a cold pool. At first, the temperature is shocking, but after a few minutes, you get so used to it you don’t even notice it. Your mouth reacts the same way to flavors and sensations.”
Every time I’ve logged into a chat this year at Baseball Prospectus, awaiting me in the queue is a question about who the next breakout prospect in the minors will be. I am evidently not the only one this happens to. Sometimes it's phrased as “Who’s the next Anderson Espinoza?” or “Who’s the next Victor Robles?” Most recently it was: “NEXT BIG prospect nobody is talking about?” If you want to be subtle about it, there’s “Who are you higher on than the rest of the industry?” If you are in human resources for Google, maybe your tact is “Number one prospect in baseball in 2020?”
I imagine the actual question here is “My weird 30-team dynasty league that rosters 25 prospects has a supplemental draft coming up, who should I pick?[ii]”
And maybe I am getting sentimental as another minor league season comes to a close, but I have decided to forego my usual Brechtian contempt for the audience and actually give you potential answers to this question, something to shock the senses again.
You tend to find more Espinozas than Robleses. It isn’t that uncommon for a mid-round prep pick to find some extra velocity in extended Spring Training, or for a low-six-figure IFA arm to pop up in the complex league three inches taller and 20 pounds heavier than his Ben Badler report from two years ago. If you had asked me about Szapucki, the Mets 2015 fifth-round pick out of a Florida high school, before the season, I would have pegged him as a sleeper, sure. But he would have ranked behind their third-round pick from that draft, Max Wottell, and I would not have proclaimed him a slam dunk better bet than the rest of the gaggle of prep arms the Mets popped in the Rule 4[iv] last Summer.
It took roughly one start in Kingsport to raise some eyebrows around the prospect-ranking industrial complex. Next came the “touching 98” reports, and then I found myself stuck behind an accident in a downpour on I-81 with very little wiggle room to make his start in Greeneville a day after Adonis Medina got pulled after 13 pitches.
I am a jaded short-season evaluator at this point. The reports on his stuff were promising, but a low-arm slot lefty in the Appalachian League doesn’t need much to carve up that level. Szapucki, however, made a twenty-three course, three-Michelin-star meal out of rookie-ball lineups. That earned him a mid-short-season promotion to Brooklyn, unusual given the Mets conservative player development tracks. He “only” touched 97 for me there, but sat 93-95 with cut and run, and flashed two potential major-league offspeed offerings. I can only echo my colleague, Jarrett Seidler: “Yep, I get it now.” A back injury cost him a handful of starts in August and September, and given the odd upper-body effort in his delivery, especially out of the stretch, could be a red flag. It also could just be precautionary and won’t prevent me from stumping for him at the backend of our 2017 Top 101. He's also a pitching prospect in the Mets system with the arm slot for a slider. Do with that information what you will.
If you want to take the “next Anderson Espinoza” thing a bit more literally, Sanchez is a better traditional comp than the taller, older, Szapucki. He’s listed at 5-foot-10, 160 pounds, which in baseball terms could mean he is anything from 5-foot-8, 140 pounds to 5-foot-10, 180 pounds. The Phillies have had a pipeline of pop-up arms in their complex recently. Franklyn Kilome two years ago, Adonis Medina last year. One could argue Sanchez combines the best traits of the two, The former's potential 70 fastball with the latter's precocious feel for pitching. Sanchez doesn’t even have Medina’s frame though, and will no doubt be assailed with bullpen projections throughout his minor-league career. But he’s had a dominant year in the GCL, and touched 98 as a 17-year-old. That does sound familiar. Even in a very deep Phillies system, Sanchez will be an easy top-ten prospect, and like Szapucki, may find himself nationally ranked.
Hitters are trickier than pitchers. We are looking for an arbitrary sweet spot here, not too well-known, but also not “a year too early.” The Rays Adrian Rondon fits our breakout criterion, but he was already stateside in 2015, got three million dollars as the top guy in his J2 class, and was on Tampa’s preseason top 10.
Ronald Acuna of the Braves has the same issues, plus he was already discussed for our midseason top 50 after a strong South Atlantic League debut as an 18-year-old. Not enough novelty here to keep your palate interested.
How about Anderson Tejada? The Rangers shortstop prospect signed for only $100,000, offers the kind of projection that makes evaluators salivate, and mashed in Northwest League this Summer as an 18-year-old. He’s perhaps a little too unrefined, the kind of player you want to push to the moon, but the kind that can make you look foolish when he is hitting. 220/.250/.300 in the Carolina League in two years. If you are a Philip-Baker-Hall-type, steely-eyed and world-weary, laying a big bet on the hard eight, he may be your guy. And the Rangers do seem to do well with this class of prospect. To me, Tejada’s more likely to end up right at #101. It’s a hedge, and one too-clever-by-half at that.
Recently, my eye has drifted to another name, one from the same organization at Victor Robles.
Now you might say, “Jeffrey, if you are disqualifying Rondon for being a bonus baby, the same should apply to Soto.”
Yes, he got $1,500,000 from the Nats last Summer. And yes, Baseball America ranked him as the thirteenth-best prospect in that class.
But what exactly is the comp we are searching for here? It’s the jaded diner in Napa Valley, having Keller’s “cornets” for the first time. It’s “that jolt” the chef describes, seeing 97 on your Stalker from Szapucki. A subtle smirk, quickly spreading into an irrepressible grin. Soto offers me this, and just based on a report[v].
He doesn’t have the safety of Robles, as crazy as that is to say about a 19-year-old in the Carolina League. The athletic tools in center field aren’t the same, probably because he’s not a center fielder. It’s a right field profile all the way, though the arm and run are assets there. But the bat is potentially special, and you want a player to run up the flagpole come 101 time, he’d be my standard. It’s a potential plus hit/power combination, there’s a bit of projection left in the frame, and he elicits comps to recent elite prospects.
There’s your three bites.
[ii]Before my first BP chat I considered answering all fantasy baseball questions with cocktail recipes. I chickened out for two reasons: (1) Like it or not, fantasy baseball is a big reason I (or any of us) have a gig writing about prospects, and (2) I was going to get “second-rate Parks” comps anyway, no reason to encourage them further.