March 29, 2017
Guarding The Lines
The Pompey Zone
As prospect writers, once a player gets 130 at-bats, 50 innings, or 45 pre-September active roster days, he more or less ceases to exist to us. Those numbers are completely arbitrary and capricious. They’re the standards for Rookie of the Year eligibility, and they sort of make sense for that award. For simplicity and ease, we use them too, and most of the time they work.
There are always outliers. Andrew Benintendi and Dansby Swanson are outliers this year on one side, essentially established as key major-league players, but still yet eligible through weird quirks. Swanson batted low in the Atlanta order down the stretch, which definitely wasn’t to preserve his eligibility for the rookie awards in the new park. Benintendi would have exceeded those limits as well, were it not for a knee injury that sidelined him for three weeks. Both prospects are over 45 days of service time, but the arbitrariness of not including September time keeps them eligible.
On the other side of this coin is Toronto Blue Jays outfielder Dalton Pompey. With only about a month-and-a-half’s experience above A-ball, Pompey got 39 at-bats as a 21-year-old September call-up in 2014, and 83 at-bats early in the 2015 season before being displaced by Kevin Pillar. He would’ve still remained eligible for our lists, but the Jays called him up as a speed-and-defense bench player for September 2015, and the eleven at-bats he got there pushed him from 122 to 133 for his career, making Pompey permanently ineligible for prospect lists. Yet Pompey’s high variability of outcomes and lack of establishment as a major leaguer fits far more into the overall tone of prospect discussion than Benintendi does for me, even if Benintendi is the one who quirkily retained eligibility under our weird rules. Thus became born in my head the Pompey Zone: players who have slightly exceeded rookie eligibility while maintaining most other characteristics of prospectdom.
Pompey has resided in this no-man’s land/personal fiefdom for an unusually long period of time. He was initially called up with little experience in the high-minors, and his future has been clouded by a player blocking him and some injury issues; typically within a year or so the player either establishes himself as a major leaguer or falls off a cliff. He’ll remain in his namesake zone at least some of the way into 2017, as a potential WBC breakout was marred by another in a series of concussions.
I’ve compiled a list of ten more players I think are currently residing in or near the Pompey Zone. Most made their organization’s 25-and-under talent list and would’ve been in consideration for our top 101 if eligible. Many have had their careers sidelined by injury problems and, in retrospect, most were probably called up too early. Some have won jobs this spring, and some are back in the minors. The majority of these players would be less highly regarded than at the peak of their prospectdom, but there’s even a few exceptions there...
Joey Gallo, 4C, Texas Rangers: Still just 23, Gallo inched over the rookie at-bat threshold last year playing third in parts of the final two games of the 2016 season for Adrian Beltre after the Rangers clinched. Thus avoiding what would’ve surely been spirited debate over whether Gallo is mid-bust or just taking his sweet time to figure out the majors like he has previously. Beltre remains an immovable object at third, but the injury-prone group manning left, first, and DH is far from an irresistible force. Spring hamstring troubles and a desire to get Jurickson Profar consistent at-bats will probably send Gallo back to Triple-A initially, but he’ll get a shot soon enough. I still believe.
Austin Hedges, C, San Diego Padres: We’ve ranked Hedges as a top-25 prospect in baseball three times, yet he still might be at the peak of his value right now. For years, Hedges profiled as the best defensive catching prospect of his generation, but with a complete wet-noodle bat. The defense was verified by excellent FRAA numbers in both the high-minors and majors, but the offense was also seemingly verified by 137 at-bats of a .463 OPS in 2015. In 2016, however, Hedges finally hit, torching the Pacific Coast League for a .326/.353/.597 slash line, far exceeding his production in any previous season. Yes, it’s the PCL and yes, both the power and hit were completely out of line with anything Hedges projected to do. But when you consider that even just league-average offense combined with Hedges’s defense would be a borderline-star package, the situation bears very close monitoring into 2017. The Padres have cleared the deck for him moving forward.
Greg Bird, 1B, New York Yankees: The other player whose stock is at its apex missed all of 2016’s regular season with injury. Greg Bird came up like a house on fire in a 157 at-bat cup of coffee in 2015, throwing his name into the conversation for first baseman of the near-future in the Bronx. The future might’ve come in 2016 with the fade and retirements of Mark Teixeira and Alex Rodriguez, but Bird tore his labrum shortly before spring training. After rehabbing in the Arizona Fall League, he’s looked like his 2015 self again this spring. Recently named the Yankees’ everyday first baseman, Bird has a shot to establish himself as a cornerstone player moving forward.
Raul Mondesi, 2B/SS, Kansas City Royals: Like Gallo, Mondesi exceeded rookie eligibility in the season’s final few games; unlike Gallo, he got there in about two months of straight run as a semi-regular at second. The 21-year-old has always been more projection and youth than performance, and he was overmatched in the majors, ceding playing time back in September. Despite that, he won the second base job for the Royals in camp this year, and he’ll get another shot to try and hit enough for his defense and speed profile to play.
Blake Swihart, C?, Boston Red Sox: With 350 at-bats in The Show, Swihart is at the very far end of this list. Under most circumstances I wouldn’t even think of him in this way, but his situation remains extremely unsettled and he’s headed back to the minors. The Red Sox have vacillated like a weathervane about whether they see him as a long-term catcher, let alone their long-term catcher, converting him to left in 2016 before a season-ending ankle injury. For now, he’ll catch at Triple-A Pawtucket and wait for a shot behind one of 2016’s biggest surprises, Sandy Leon.
Jose Berrios, RHP, Minnesota Twins: The undersized righty had about as bad a fourteen-start stretch as one can have to open their MLB career, without being Jered Weaver, fighting his command and being forced to use an underdeveloped change. Selected for the 2017 WBC, Berrios looked like the excellent short reliever many always thought he might be against the United States, working his fastball off his excellent slurvy breaking ball and ditching the change entirely. The Twins are still fighting that future, having sent Berrios down to be stretched out as a starter. I suppose he can’t actually be worse.
A.J. Reed, 1B, Houston Astros: Reed is a cautionary tale against the hard manipulation of service time. He probably should’ve made the team out of camp in 2016, but was held back until late-June so the ever-cost-conscious Astros could push not only his free agency but his arbitration back a year. He was absolutely miserable from then on, staying on the roster but losing his job at first to Yulieski Gurriel. With no path to near-term playing time, he was an early cut this spring out of camp, making all of that pretty service time gaming a complete waste, and costing Houston a better chance to see whether they had a real player. What are the Astros going to do this time when he’s mashing the ball in Triple-A again for too long?
Jake Thompson, RHP, Philadelphia Phillies: Thompson’s rookie eligibility expired in his last start of the season, a 17-0 Mets win which provided a strong compare/contrast with Robert Gsellman. Thompson flashed potential 70 grades on the slider and fastball earlier in his career, but it was Gsellman who exited the season with those projected grades. Thompson was still able to dominate Triple-A batters even with his stuff down, but he was unable to put MLB hitters away in a ten-start trial. A wrist injury delayed his spring debut by about a month, putting him well behind the crowd and guaranteeing another April in Triple-A.
Wilmer Difo, 2B/SS, Washington Nationals: I believe Difo is the only player on this list who has greatly exceeded rookie eligibility in service time without doing so in at-bats (Reed did the same, but only slightly); as you might suspect, the Nationals have often called him up for pure utility duty. The final victim of Clayton Kershaw’s second professional save just hasn’t hit enough in the minors or majors to force the issue. Trea Turner’s move back to shortstop might be the death knell for Difo’s chances to be a regular in Washington, but he could be a valuable utility player for Washington starting as soon as this year.
Dilson Herrera, 2B, Cincinnati Reds: This list could’ve just as easily been named the Dilson Zone, especially given my Mets tilt, but “Pompey Zone” just sounds so much cooler. Herrera was called up late in 2014 because he was going on the 40-man and the Mets basically ran out of warm infield bodies. We ranked him as the 82nd-best prospect coming out of that season. In 2015, he picked up just enough scattered at-bats in the majors in between dominating Triple-A to graduate out of prospect eligibility. At that point, his stock probably would’ve been up in the industry, but the Mets strangely soured on him, trading for Neil Walker to play second and consigning him to repeat Triple-A. He underwhelmed in a return engagement before being dealt as the centerpiece of the Jay Bruce trade; and his attempt to win the Reds’ second base job this spring was thwarted by an injured shoulder.